Visual culture and ‘points of view’

Dr Neil Cocks writes:

Studying English Literature can lead to work with many different kinds of texts, from the latest scientific papers, to material texts such as gravestones or coins. For example, Dr Neil Cocks’s research on ideas of ‘point of view’ in written texts has resulted in an interest in visual culture. He has now published on photography and feminist art, teaches modules in Film Theory, and has worked with artists and art charities. Here he writes about a recent project:

“I have recently been helping set up Activate Learning’s Przytułku Społeczność Projekt in Banbury. This is a Polish community art and photography project, focused on responses to the history and legacy of the English workhouse. I was invited to contribute because of my research interest in questions of identity and ‘point of view’. I am to speak about the completed art works at the project’s opening.

The approach to photography taken up by Wig Sayell, the central artist involved in this project, puts me in mind of John Cage’s prepared pianos. It is an art that turns upon tensions between chance and design. Cameras are loaded with old, rusty and leaking film, and the developing process does not seek to avoid certain technical hitches. The images were taken by interested members of the Polish community in Banbury, all from very different walks of life, but none of them experienced artists. Results can be seen in the images attached.

Take the first of these. It depicts a building in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire,  originally designed as a workhouse. During the developing process, the roll of film stuck to itself, resulting, unexpectedly, in the strange, curtain like frame to the image. It is a suggestive accident. The workhouse was originally a place of observation and control, where movements were always open to scrutiny, yet also a building whose interior was not seen by many in C19th society. It persists as a part of Chipping Norton’s architecture, but few of the thousands who pass it every day know what it once was. Its history is largely invisible. It is a structure that escapes the gaze in a further sense, as it now forms desirable, private, luxury residences. Is, then, the image here one of exposure? Are we getting a peek inside the curtain? Or has it fallen? Does it obscure, rather than reveal? And if it is a curtain, what might that say about the ‘reality’ of this image, so laboriously and chaotically produced?

The second image depicts what in the present day appears to be something like a quaint bell tower. Originally, this housed the viewing platform that allowed those within the workhouse to be subject to constant surveillance. The old film in the camera that took this picture leaked, resulting in this strange distortion at what once was –  but now, for so many reasons, cannot be –  the point of clear, disciplinary vision.

The Private view for this project is to be held at Activate Learning, Banbury, on the 22nd of June. Please contact me (Dr Neil Cocks) for more details.

About Cindy

Associate Professor in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy.
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