Unworded Letters

Spring 2012

UNWORDED LETTERS: THE VEILS AND STONES PROJECT

A project based in community and in symbols, in mystery and mutuality.

Street Exhibition of Unworded Letters: Veils and Stones Project

The aims of this project;

  • To enhance peoples self-understanding and expression by leading them away from the linear, language based narratives they are used to in order to explore symbolic and non-linear perspective and new modes of visual expression.
  • To encourage people to have a sense of curiosity and awe about one another, to oppose the culture of exposition by shining a light on peoples mysteries. Here lies the letters likeness to veils.
  • To inspire people to be creative in viewing not only their own, but other people’s stories too. By engaging with the project each person invests in it personally and having taken part, relates more fully, to the growing exhibition of letters.    

Theory

De-familiarisation and re-familiarisation. I choose not to use shock-culture to affect people as I believe that many people have developed a natural defence system to deal with that tactic; this takes the form of momentary numbness and then forgetfulness. The familiar, and the relatable, are where all things that really touch us begin. So, to create change in anything so basic and full of habit as peoples’ personal expression and attitudes to one another, there needs to be a gentle modulation along the line of the familiar and the unfamiliar, rocking over the line to where new views are possible and become attractive without falling into the category of novelty.

So I begin with the relatable – words, linear narrative, letters, and then progress gradually away from this towards symbols, narrative maps and simultaneity. By sharing this experience with various members of a community I make it a common experience. It becomes accessible; first as a curiosity, then an interest, a personal experience and finally a mutual experience.

Further notes on Theory and Process: The Notebook, The Invitation, The Painted Veils, The Stones

The Method

  • To invite individuals within a community to write a letter to whomever they would like to; to themselves in the past or future, to friends, far or close or someone they have never met but would like to. To present those individuals with backgrounds, abstract colliograph prints I had made in various colours and intensities, so that they could choose one that they felt was appropriate to their communication.
  • Having decided who they’d like to write to, I then began to edge participants out of their comfort zone by asking them to write without words – using symbols and marks for events, people, ideas and feelings.
  • After having written the letter they chose a smaller colliograph print background and I began The Map. I asked them to pick five important marks or symbols from their letter, these I inscribed on the paper in a compass formation, North, South, East, West and Centre.
  • I then asked the author of the letter to describe how these marks would be visually linked. Where there are strong connections, broken lines, straight or curved lines or none at all – these lines I also inscribed on the map.

The Exhibition

–          Display of all the letters sewed into a line, each letter with its map underneath, hanging in the street near where they were written. The repeated material and loose ink markings seeming at first like all one language, on closer observation, reveal in each letter a distinct style. Like a pile of stones or a stack of leaves their unity is at first striking, but their individual markings and subtly are undeniable. Like fifty pairs of hands, held palm up… a single gesture shows the individual expression that is irresistibly human.

–          Being an exhibition of individual narrative mystery, rather than exposure, the letters appear as a line of painted veils whose beauty is their implication and invitation to imagination. They are what cannot be seen in clothing or on facebook. The mysteries of feeling and expression, the depth of which we share in our common humanity.

–          Wanting the exhibition, like the process, to be tactile (for, despite the digital age, we are physical creatures and understand, and feel connected to the world around us accordingly) I created clay ‘stones’ and inscribed symbols from the letters onto them so that, though the letters were out of reach the symbols could be studied by both eyes and fingers. These stones were placed in the street. Embedded in life outside of galleries.

Standing with the stones at his feet looking up at the letters overhead.

Discoveries

–          When writing a letter people often addressed personal subject matter and, even initial sceptics became very involved during the process, feeling their way towards an unworded visual expression.

–          The fact that the letter was unreadable to others meant some people delved deeper into personal expression than they might in recognizable language. Some wished to talk about what arose for them in the letters, others said they had found realizations or relief in expression but did not wish to share their experience, to relinquish the freedom they found outside of words.

–          Like the symbol writing process people had to think very hard about the map-links. Many said this second process had revealed further aspects of their own thought and understanding about a subject. Others found difficult subjects clarified by the ‘birds-eye-view’ of the mapping process.

–          When the project is approached as a ‘letter’ people who initially baulk at the notion of being involved in ‘art’ because they feel they are unable to or that it is not for them can more easily engage in visual expression and find it an expanding and fulfilling experience.

–          Participants were more engaged in each other’s letters after writing their own and said they had an impulse to write, and send, more letters.

–          I found that the duration was important to how participants felt. The ritual-like process of the project, where symbols were not only invented and drawn, but selected, re-inscribed by a second hand and then linked together into a balanced picture, created a sense of ceremony and gave weight to each expression and individual language that emerged.

–              In the exhibition many people assumed the presence of language without prompting and tried to ‘read’ the letters before they even knew what they were. This is exactly the desired outcome as they were inspired to create stories from the visual promptings that arose from those around them. Some people felt particular connections with certain letters.

–              Physicality was another important factor. Being a part of the physical creation of the project made people more invested in it. Some people took their ‘symbol stone’ away with them from the exhibition both as a memento, an item for reflection, and as a physical manifestation of their own expression.

The duration of this project was about two months. Ideally this project would extend over a longer period of time in a community of any size, and be repeated year after year with the letters on durable material or fabric so that they can hang in a communal space to aid communal reflection and, as they fade, be replenished, leaving echoes of past expressions and a sense of connection over time between all those who share their expression and join their narratives into a communal picture.      The stones would be picked up, taken home, used as paper-weights, decorations and mementos or used for storytelling or playing games. They would inhabit daily life as physical reminders of our experiences and expressions that cannot, and need not, be put into words.

 

[THIS PROJECT HAS ALSO BEEN RUN AS WORKSHOPS IN SCHOOLS]

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Since this project I have found the stones to be a wonderful aid in storytelling workshops. The beauty of symbols is their simplicity – they can be read in many ways.

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Ideals of the Veils and Stones project:
To forge an accessible way to create personal and communal narratives, because people live by narrative, and the global culture is accelerating towards an alienating and fragmenting barrage of information. To find a way to involve people, not only ‘artists’, in the process of creation, and by this, also encouraging them to become active, not passive receivers of ‘art’, and to respect their own and others expression in small, intimate enactments of ‘art’. To create moments that are meaningful in their intimacy and individuality and to tie them into a wider context that doesn’t deny, but respects and celebrates their originality. This ‘wider’ context could be universal in its perceivable humanism, but more also, within a community, however small – as a reflection of its own depth and beauty. To encourage confidence within peoples expressive language, personally and communally, and awareness of the freedom of creative space within it.

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