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Thursday, June 8 • 5:00pm - Saturday, June 10 • 7:00pm
To Have & To Hold

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To Have & To Hold is a body of socially engaged practice, commissioned in 2019 by the Arts Council England and Chester Council. The work is informed by three almost-forgotten regionally specific pieces of folklore that offer perspectives on gender and power. This work was initially conceptualised as a public art project to engage a diverse local audience in a non-conventional public setting. Within this body of work the concept of marriage is used as a multifaceted device: to marry the past with the present, as a plot anchor in the original folklore and more allegorically in the practice itself where virtual, augmented reality (AR) and internet interactions are intentionally married with the materiality of analogue artworks.

The COVID-19 pandemic meant that the planned opportunities for Chester based situated activities became increasingly limited, creating an interesting tension as more broadly our connections became progressively virtual whilst social conditions became more precarious. This resulted in a dynamic rethinking as the practice needed to negotiate what forms of social participation would be safe, inclusive, meaningful and stimulating. As a result, the work took a more participatory turn, in which I worked with local community groups during 2020 - 2022 to deliver different micro related projects. The lifespan of the work has now been extended with a post-pandemic final programme of community workshops and public exhibition, these will conclude late 2023.

The primary aim of this work was to create conditions for new social participation with three increasingly overlooked historical narratives, both for a local and wider audience. Folklore gives us the ability to consider past realities and re-experience and potentially learn from past practices, problematic representations, and expressions of community knowledge. As a collection, the folklore that is Impossible Stairs, Hobby’s Well and Charlotte Lucy bring together fascinating rituals, strange tales of hope, self-sacrifice, and demonstrate embodied female power and as such deserve to be explored and examined as cultural heritage.

In terms of methods, I used critical design practice, as a way to open up space for participants to more experientially access the broader themes of gender and power. A key approach was to elicit visual motifs as a way to bring forth and agitate the issues normalised in the original narratives. Lungs (and breath) are used to connect the tales of Charlotte Lucy’s drowning and again in Impossible Stairs. The image of disembodied body parts is used in Impossible Stairs as a comment on the abstraction of personas of the past, whereas the image of an isolated female ankle talks to charged sensuality and the riskiness contained in the Hobby’s Well ritual. The associated participatory workshops re-use the AR and visual motifs along with procedural creative techniques such as printmaking and frottage. These processes create a group space and discursive condition to actively reflect on these past practices and unpack any perceived issues. Some of the project workshops specifically promote the creation of new ideas, associations and fictioning with the source texts. These motifs as critical prompts intentionally function at multiple levels. In the eye of the beholder these have potential to become either provocative or defamilarised carriers of new meaning. A surface read will offer up a fragment from the narratives. Whereas time spent with the motifs or exploring the expanded materials, offer the potential of a more analogical function. Analogical metaphors are known to function within a social space – in as much as they need to be contextually relevant, and furthermore like folklore itself metaphors are often passed down, inculcated as we move through life and experience. This critical approach is used to reveal our personal understanding and feelings in response to these motifs. For example the image of a naked female ankle would be understood differently through the intersections of gender, age and socio-cultural experience. Furthermore, this personal meaning will be changed and contrasted when re-considered in the context of the supplied source narratives, bringing forth our own associations to entangle with the historical context of the folklore. These are not only stories from the past but stories that allow us to consider past realities where gender inequality and injustices were more manifest. The aim of the practice is to support and challenge the viewer to become more socially engaged with these themes and narratives, not only to consider how far we have been able to (or failed to) journey from the conditions of the past but to engage in discourse around what is gained and by whom by the existence of these tales, as cultural heritage and beyond.

This installation presents selected outcomes from the project, including a sample of the visual motifs, QR codes are available to launch the AR animations.

1. To Have & To Hold (2019 - ongoing) available: www.6amhoover.com
2. Hobby’s Well - this piece of folklore claims that if a ‘love struck’ girl stood with one leg in the wishing well and one leg outside then their wish for a husband would come true. Impossible Stairs - formulated on the Wishing Steps, built into Chester’s Roman city defence walls in 1785. Folklore claims that if an unmarried girl can run up these steps three times without drawing a new breath, then the man of her dreams would propose to her within the year. Lastly, Charlotte Lucy was purportedly drowned in Rostherne Mere on the eve of her wedding in 1845. However official records cite she died in her sleep as a consequence of bronchial disease.
3. Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative everything: design, fiction, and social dreaming. Cambridge, Massachusetts, The MIT Press.
4. Thompson S, (1955) Motif-index of folk-literature. Indiana University Press.
5. Buwert, P. (2016) Defamilarisation, Brect and Criticality in Graphic Design. https://modesofcriticism.org/defamiliarisation-and-criticality/

avatar for Donna Leishman

Donna Leishman

Associate Professor, Northumbria University
Donna is an Associate Professor in Communication Design at Northumbria University. Prior to this she was Head of Communication Design at The Glasgow School of Art and at Dundee University. She is a digital media practitioner and interdisciplinary researcher. In her career she has... Read More →

Thursday June 8, 2023 5:00pm - Saturday June 10, 2023 7:00pm EDT
Steuben Gallery