The Movement of Objects by Chris Townsend

The history of cities is the history of exchange. As much as it is an arrangement of architecture the city is a series of networks by which people are moved from one location to another, via which commodities, real or merely conceptual, are transported. It is a place in which languages, ideas, identities are moved from one to another. These are the grounds for the formation of communities; where the familiar, the same, ‘I’ or ‘we’ meets the other and finds something that allows the boundary to slip, that includes ‘you’ in ‘us’ and ‘us’ in ‘you’. We make lives out of our narratives, out of narrative intersections with others. But these narratives are not the easy linear tales of fiction and the movies, with beginnings, middles and (happy) endings. The city is a spider-web of haphazard and willed encounters, a place of connections and dead-ends, and so are its narratives.

Marysa Dowling’s photographs, conceived on the simple basis of passing an object as radiantly banal as a bright blue plastic bag from one person to the next, maps a community. This is not ‘a community’ that can say ‘we’ on the basis of shared identity or common culture. By the time the bag reaches the third or fourth pair of hands in the series, a stranger to the first recipient has taken hold of it. The bag traverses and establishes a community in which it is the only necessary, common element. Never passed on by hand, but ‘bounced back’ via the photographer with a set of instructions, it shows up in the images like a radar dot on a screen, moving around London, mapping its network. The bag is an object of communication and the object of communication, proliferating a surrounding correspondence of texts and emails between artist and others.

I’m struck by how many members of this ‘community’ insist on secrecy, using the bag as mask. They belong, yet they are unrecognisable. They become members of a community with a common interest – the simple task of moving and photographing the bag may stand in for other, more complex, goals – who remain strangers to each other and the wider public. It is, of course, one of the myths of urban society since the inception of industrial modernity that rather than being the chanced, chaotic movement of people, ideas and goods, that the city – and modernity – is governed by cabals or secret societies. We need, it seems, to believe that there is, somewhere, an ordering presence to the whole that can explain what is, beyond the limited intervention of public institutions, otherwise pure disorder. The master of this mythology is the French novelist Balzac, in history of the Thirteen (1845). Looking at Dowling’s photographs, however, I’m reminded of a modern updating of the tale, by Jacques Rivette in his extraordinary film Out One, that in its meandering assumes the temporal and spatial dimensions of the city. There two paranoid innocents independently stumble across what they believe to be compelling evidence of conspiracy, and begin unravelling a network of strangers and friends that may, or may not, exist, that may, or may not have any compelling force in the world.

Here we have our own ‘thirteen’, a mystery society of the bag, of concealed identities amidst friendships; a network that, by chance ends with an acquaintance of this writer, unknown to the artist. What is its power in the world: against, say, the cabals of global capitalism, the hidden motivations of the secretariat? However small, even if they seem constrained within the institutionally approved registers of culture, the community is where such resistances, the narratives of ‘we others’, begin.

© Chris Townsend, 2007.

Beyond the Logo | Art at Barnardo's by Helen James

Many people are familiar with some type of image that is associated with Barnardo’s. Perhaps, in particular, harsh but smooth-talking advertisements whose visuals speak of neglect and worry and urge us to take some of the responsibility for children that are abandoned, neglected or abused in these unfair British Isles. Such advertisements pepper UK billboards every now and again to try and tease our attention and our cash.

The visual language in these advertisements is right in being harsh. They use the reality of photography without apology and capitalise on the full gory gloss of photographic communication to make some of us listen and some of us give. These images feast on our fear and worry for the children we can’t personally help or protect and encourage us to join a collective effort to make some things better, we hope. The images are crammed full with the dirt and detritus of poverty and appeal to us to prevent more of the same happening, or some unspeakable horror coming true for a child somewhere in contemporary Britain. As viewers of these images we must, we fear, look and if possible help.

But behind these loud images there are other pictures being made at Barnardo’s that intimately and artistically describe the experience that the adverts shout so loud about. They are made by some of the children and families who exist in difficult circumstances and in poverty.

Marysa Dowling and Diane Church have been working together to encourage some of the children and adults that use the services of Barnardo’s to create pictures and words that interpret their lives. They have asked them to look at the visual details of their lives and share some of them with us - a viewing public.

Using the photographic image and the written word Dowling and Church have used their skills as photographer and writer, respectively, to create a creative situation for the production of collaborative art works. The images that have been created are special images that describe and interpret what a life of poverty really looks and feels like from the inside.

Before we consider some of the images in this artistic project let’s conjure up some of the visual ingredients that an image of poverty might evoke. Cold fingers, empty plates, tight clothes, cheap food, bleached colours or sleeping bags. What did we expect? Poverty isn’t a very positive word – it’s a sad word that reflects a sad circumstance of life, a seemingly non-negotiable one in most societies. It’s frightening to think how poverty’s photographic album may look. We don’t really want to turn the cover and leaf through page after page of mournful images that show too much spare time and too meagre a share of life’s luxuries. But if we think about the type of image that might be made by people on the inside of this experience … would they be different? Are these the sort of visual ingredients we would see in their pictures too?

Poverty is a difficult word. Often used, sometimes even hijacked, it seems to mean more to people not ‘in it’ than it does to those who experience it. It’s a political word; a loaded word and, I suspect, an uncomfortable term to have someone apply to your life and your reality. Children and families who experience poverty still have birthdays, weddings and Christmases - just tinged with the debilitating aura of debt and worry. People in poverty have problems but they also have the same stuff of life as the rest of the political ‘us’: dreams, hopes, relationships, food etc. They just don’t have enough things of quality - be they opportunities, warmth, support or food.

We are very lucky to be able to listen to the thoughts of people experiencing this poverty and look intimately into their lives through these images. Their images importantly ask us to consider them as individuals and not as just victims of poverty.

As part of the project Marysa photographed many of those involved and created a beautiful body of portraits. With more than their fair share of smiles the subjects of these images respond to Dowling and her camera with a true sense of self-revelation that is so difficult to both project and capture. Unlike so much contemporary photographic portraiture these individuals eagerly offer natural expressions to the photographer. Using their world as studio Dowling uses the landscape of their lives as a backdrop in her shifting studio. Her subjects sit, climb, stand and swing in a photographic space that is sometimes occupied by a lone subject or at other times is shared by two or more subjects in an unusually close huddle. Unusual because we are not used to love, smiles and cuddles in contemporary photography. Sadly.

The garden, home and play scapes that feature as backdrop in many of Marysa’s portraits also feature strongly in the work made by the subjects themselves. Stuff found in the bedroom or the street feature as key props and indicators of what is important and what needs to be shared through the photograph - be it a toy or a skateboard. Sometimes pictures combine with choice words in curt phases to create stories and narratives about private lives, which for us are made public. Other subtle, yet uncomfortable, images of stripped wires and piles of copper piping inform us of what must be done to make ends meet - of what can fill a young life that simply doesn’t have enough of this or any of that.

Familiar branded products sit marooned on sparse shelves or in cupboards with missing doors. Clothes, toys, bedding and towels are tinged with stains and frayed with too many years of shared use. But as we visit more and more of these photographs we find smiles amongst the stories and hope behind the anonymous eyes that belong to people whose names we can’t expect to know but whose personalities are oozing out from their images.

Many of the images are explicit, some even crude in the way that they communicate with us, but they clearly show us the raw details of lives we need to learn more about through the new artistic skills gained by their authors. They don’t need gritty black and white imagery to describe this poverty; their use of colour photography situates these pictures in the present with a gentle subjectivity that doesn’t need irony or parody. These images offer a quiet description of these unseen lives that exist without enough of just about most things.

Let’s hope that these voices that have now found our attention through an art project at Barnardo’s carry on speaking somehow, and that we learn from the individual life stories that have come out from behind the fair green logo, the definitions and the issues.

© Helen James

The Movement of an Object | Blue Bag 2007-2017

The Movement of an Object | Blue Bag is a long term international photographic project based on the simple premise of passing an ordinary, banal object: a bright blue plastic bag from one person to the next with the intention of connecting communities, people and response in a particular place.

 Alongside a set of instructions the bag is used as a collaborative prop and bounced between the project participants and Dowling. It shows up in the images like a radar dot on a screen, moving around the city or town. By the time the bag reaches the third or fourth pair of hands a stranger to the first recipient has taken hold of it. The blue bag both traverses and establishes a community where IT is the only necessary, common element. The group formed by this process is not a collective community that shares an identity or common culture but a new community that transcends political and social boundaries, existing only because of a collective involvement in the project. 

 The Movement of an Object begins in each new city through the identification of an existing connection between an organisation and its known audience. Any communication and discussion about project participation is based upon the privileged relationship between the organisation concerned and possible project collaborators. Any first participant will be sourced on my behalf through these initial dialogues. From that point onwards the project direction is in the hands of the participants in collaboration with Dowling. The first person is asked to select a specific location as a backdrop to their image and to consider how they will use the blue bag in their portrait. Their first meeting will discuss and explore their options in this collaborative process before being rolled out to new participants following the guidance and choices of the last participant. During the meeting at each chosen location a portrait is made collaboratively before the blue bag is then passed on to the next person and moved from person to person in this way. 

 As a photographic artist Dowling is fascinated with each unique gesture and use of the blue plastic bag as a gestural prop. Collectively her work collates and organises these perfomative acts for the camera into a broad body of work to illustrate choice, variation and personal interpretation of the use and manipulation of an object in the context and confinement of a single photograph. This project has continued to engage and excite Dowling for 10 years due to the privilege of working collaboratively with unique individuals who enjoy the process and offer so much to the discussion about contemporary photographic portraiture. Marysa has taken this project to London, Los Angeles, Havana, Cape Town, Beirut, Kochi (India), 7 locations in Mexico and the small town of Ekanas, Finland, making portraits with around 450 people over the last decade.  ©Helen James 2017