RITUAL ATTENTION versus LEARNING – Leonie Hannan

RESPONSE #2 – Leonie Hannan

On the 24 October 2013 in the Rock Room at UCL, D. Graham Burnett and Sal Randolph led the 100 Hours team through an unusually active process of engagement with objects. But before I describe what happened, I must properly introduce our guests – Graham is Professor of History and History of Science at Princeton University, working on cartography, oceanography, exploration; natural history and environmental science; science, technology, and the Arts. Graham is also an editor of the Cabinet magazine and has for many years engaged with a collaborative and performative art practice focused on giving artworks and artefacts sustained attention. It is through this latter activity that Graham and Sal Randolph came to work together. Sal is an artist and writer whose work explores gift economies, social interactions, public spaces and publishing. As both Graham and Sal are based in the States, we were very fortunate to have their time and attention for that October evening.

To read all the responses to Graham and Sal’s intervention, see the relevant pages under the Responses menu above. These are a real kaleidoscope, which reflects the variety of reactions the session provoked and the different answers that were reached by individuals in relation to their own object research. But before investigating the connections and dissonances present in these personal responses, I will describe the provocative collective experience that Graham and Sal gifted our group.

Here I come to the difficult task of explaining what we experienced without divulging all the secrets of the ‘Order of the Third Bird’ – the name under which Sal and Graham’s practice goes. The name is heraldic, the organisation shady, and the process fascinating.
We were all inducted into the ‘protocol’ of the Order, the process by which we would give our sustained attention to an object was described, and some of our fears were assuaged. But gradually, our familiar academic surroundings were turned into a ritual space and repetitive pronouncements heralded the start of the protocol.

As a group we spent long minutes enacting a series of attentive practices on our chosen object – the ten pound note. Except our tenner had multiplied and there were now many ten pound notes – one per person present at our gathering. Minutes were spent ‘greeting’ the object, more minutes intensely attending to its particulars, then – for a time – we reversed things by ‘negating’ the object’s presence. A final period of time was occupied re-engaging with its form. These minutes might not have seemed so long, but we were under strict instructions to lend our attention to this object without employing any of our learning or judgement. In effect, we were being asked to mutely commune with its material presence – colours, lines and crumples – without employing our critical faculties, our understanding of money, exchange, and the economy; or our recognition of the Queen’s head. This was surprisingly difficult. And after only these few minutes of looking without thinking, the prospect of banishing the form and features of this ‘thing’ were nearly impossible. In the display cases around the room, my eye glanced from rock to fossil and amongst their organic shapes I could only find shades of pale orange and green, the contours of a wrinkled bank note…

This says something about the influence of the process through which we were inducted by Graham and Sal, but by no means all. I personally experienced the protocol as a fundamental break with the ordered analytical practice that we engage in with research. Whilst there was plenty of order in the proceedings of that evening, the process provoked a feeling of rudderlessness – enhanced by the social awkwardness of our movements about the room. There is much more to be said about this experience, but I hope my partial account highlights the way in which the practice forces the participant to ‘look’ differently, to consider a material thing in a different way. I think the Order of the Third Bird brought an incredibly important experience to our project and one that will inform our progress from here. Some will react against the Order’s principles and others will take them on, but something will nonetheless have changed in the way that we each approach our own objects in the future.

So, in brief, the responses:

In the absence of learning

Several researchers emphasised the difficulty of relating to an object without using an analytical framework. Elin Jones felt that this kind of abstract communication with an object was particularly difficult for the historian whose work relied on contextualising material artefacts. Kate Smith also notes that the experience has impressed upon her the need to give an object room to present itself to her before she begins the process of de-constructing it.

Ritual

Sarah Longair drew out the connection between ritual and repetition, saying ‘rituals by their very nature are repeated’. This point seems extremely pertinent to the 100 Hours method – in its demand for a repetition of looking – and makes me wonder if we are creating our own ritual behaviour around museum objects and, more importantly, whether this ritual can help us to answer our research questions? Juliette Kristensen also recognised some of the ritual of the occasion within her existing research practice – noting her own habitual oscillation between focusing entirely on the objects themselves and attending to their context.
Katy Barrett makes the point that the Order not only invoked ritual behaviour, but created a ‘ritual space’. She compares this process to the rituals inherent in other places – in particular museums – where physical interactions with people and things are heavily mediated by social code.

An invitation to touch?

Emily Orr highlights the extremely sensory nature of the practice. In giving the ten pound note all of our attention, we seemed compelled to touch it, turn it over, feel its texture, get its smell on our own hands. Emily has been able to take this experience back to her own object – a ten-legged stool – forcing herself to see what she can learn through touch before taking on any secondary information about the artefact. Tullia Giersberg, on the other hand, questioned the applicability of this tactile approach to the analysis of artwork – the flat, framed, contained quality of her image barring her from such an engagement.

People as well as things

Several participants made reference to the fact that whilst the process seemed at first to demand singular attention on the object in hand, the experience was in fact very social. The dynamic at work in the room involved a hyper-awareness of other people and their movements. As James Paz put it, this shifted the focus from the object alone to the various encounters at work in that space. Likewise, Liz Haines discussed the way in which each of us approached the ten pound note from several physical positions, but we also did so from within a body of people. From this highly interactive environment, Florian Roithmayr asked how it was possible to surrender to the communion with the object alone whilst also occupying a position within the group – how could we pay attention together?

Whilst the answers to these questions are not necessarily clear – the experience has helped us think about what we’re doing – both in terms of the objects themselves and the group collaboration. Tullia usefully raises a problem with this encounter – it took place at a time when all of our experiences with our objects have already been mediated by worldly and intellectual concerns. Nonetheless, as the responses record, it has changed our thinking about our things.

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