joanne lee


seer in residence

On Thursday 17 January 2013 I participated as one of the four ‘Seers in Residence’ invited to interact with Traci Kelly’s monoprint installation Feeling It For You (Perspective) exhibited through January in Nottingham Trent University’s Bonington Gallery. Traci’s work forms one half of From Where I Am I Can See You, alongside that of Rita Marhaug. The Seers in Residence programme engages four researchers from NTU: Emma Cocker, Ben Judd, Simon Cross and myself to respond according our own research and practice. Some documentation of my process appears here thanks to Julian Hughes.

Working with photography and text I developed ideas begun in issue 2 of the independent serial publication Pam Flett Press and in a recent residency at the former Spode factory in Stoke-on-Trent where I considered Yukio Mishima’s articulation (in Sun and Steel) of ‘the profundity of the surface itself’ and historian Joseph Amato's assertion that, in order to understand modernity and our present, we ought ‘to concentrate on surfaces’.

Emma Cocker (Fine Art) performed a close reading/live writing - the results of which you can see on her blog. She has also written an introductory text 'Stepping Towards Stepping Away', which forms part of an NTU publication. It begins: 'Within a research culture that often privileges the distinction of one’s research from others, what place is there for the building of bridges? Beyond the realm of institutional collaboration and network bids, what does it really mean to construct spaces for speculation, for sharing ideas, for thinking together?'

Images and texts from Traci Kelly and the four Seers appear in Feeling It For You (Perspective) with Seers in Residence, published by Bonington Gallery / Nottingham Trent University.

I have developed a series of images and short essay which begins to explore some of the ideas emerging for me from the project.

Exploring the metaphorical terrain.

I circle for a time, finding my bearings. The trestle tables – a landing strip of sorts – draw me nearer and certain features are revealed: dark blots or shimmering planes snag my gaze, and an archipelago of smudgy islands come into view before the surface empties once more into space mapped only by vacant grid squares. The horizontality, so different to the usual wall-based presentation of prints, pulls me down: I soon forget the bigger picture, and instead I’m captivated by the topographical detail of a strange landscape. I know that I ought really to be looking at the subject matter of the images Traci Kelly has laid out before me – a female body sustaining various performed postures – but I keep on getting sucked in to the minutiae of their particular surfaces: the thickly inked blacks, the wrinkled skin of gold leaf, glittery explosions, the cold blue-ish gleam of a mirror.

The lighting is difficult here, directional. As I move around the prints, the spotlights repeatedly cause my shadow to blot out the very things I’m trying to see. It’s necessary to rotate my position, to look at everything upside down, so that I do not eclipse the illumination falling upon surfaces I want to scrutinize. I seem to be orbiting the work like a satellite. It’s dizzying. I’ve a slight sense of vertigo as I lose track of what’s near and what’s far away, which way up things really are and what their scale might be.

Taking up the tools Kelly has provided – the mirrors, lenses and loupes that can further magnify what lies before me – the lighting continues to determine what and how I see: I note how prismatic rainbows come momentarily into being as light is split and bent, and how certain devices reflect little patches of brilliance, or cause a host of elliptical flares and flashes. I tilt the camera as if it was a telescope gazing out into astronomical space in order to capture in its viewfinder the light refracted from various lenticular forms. Even when I focus back upon the inky paper itself these metaphors remain: as I inch slowly and painstakingly over this small terrain I find myself thinking about the mechanical rover crawling its way across a distant Martian surface. I begin to imagine my own progress as a sort of stumbling into craters, skirting around impact sites or gazing at the vast deserts that stretch away to the horizon…


Invited to the project as a researcher, the usual expectation might have been to think hard about getting to the bottom of something, but instead I had decided to take a determinedly superficial approach, that is, to concentrate upon the material surfaces laid out around me. I would pay close and careful attention to carbon-black dabs of ink, scrutinize the ragged smears of gold and follow the tracks of irregularly printed lines. I wanted to take explicitly the invitation to be a ‘seer’ and therefore simply to look very hard at what was before me.

Of course, looking is never simple, never neutral. As James Elkins puts it: ‘When I say, “Just looking,” I mean I am searching, I have my “eye out” for something. Looking is hoping, desiring, never just taking in light, never merely collecting patterns and data.’ 1 So, I was indeed looking quite selfishly for what might catch my attention, even if initially I found it hard to articulate what exactly it was I sought, or to explain why that might be interesting.

It transpired that what I had my eye out for were those aspects suggesting planetary surfaces or glimmering stars – neither having much to do with the ostensible subject matter of the work exhibited. Despite the seeming irrelevance, this metaphor persisted to such a degree that it surely required reflection. It took me to an article by Linda Pacifici and Jim Garrison, who note that for formal logicians, ‘metaphors are category mistakes’ but for those able to ‘live awhile with the tensions occasioned by poetic tropes’ then metaphor, metonymy, simile and synecdoche have a paradoxical quality that can change what and how one thinks. This is encapsulated in their memorable phrase: ‘Paradoxes break the bowl of ordinary thinking.’ 2

Pacifici and Garrison draw upon the Pragmatist ideas of John Dewey to think about the role of imagination in inquiry and it is this interrelationship that the Seers in Residence project has brought into focus for me. On the face of it, making things up – imagining prints as planetary surfaces, for example – sits uncomfortably with that species of academic research in which specific questions lead to measureable outcomes and where clear goals can be identified at the outset. But, as Gregory Currie points out, ‘in imagining things, one might thereby come to know (possibly other) things,’ so in the current project, for example, imagination has unexpectedly directed my critical attention to the role of metaphor and other poetic tropes within artistic inquiry. 3

Although I certainly hadn’t set out with this intention, I now recognise that the particular metaphor emerging from my time as Seer can be redeployed to describe the interrelationship of knowledge and imagination. I visualise that knowledge and imagination could be said to exist at the poles of a planetary body, sited opposite one another, but everywhere connected by the terrestrial surfaces from which they emerge. It also strikes me now that this bipolar image, replete with its connotations of a powerfully oppositional magnetic charge, can evoke that sense of alternation so often figured by artistic research – the ‘push-me, pull-me’ of a journey involving making and thinking, and the attention to – the staying with – inconsistencies and contradictions.

The research discourse is full of metaphors – paths to be followed, windows opening onto new perspectives, flashes of insight, as well as the project-specific imagery each researcher uses to conjure for others exactly what they’ve tried or discovered – but these are frequently passed over as mere figures of speech, and even, in certain instances, seen as potentially dangerous or distorting factors. ‘The choice to use metaphors should not become a self-serving attempt at creativity that supersedes subject and substance,’ as one study of healthcare research sternly warns its readers. 4 I’m curious then, about what can happen when some type of creativity is itself the disciplinary subject and substance (and indeed the method of the research.) The Seers project has brought me to think about the category error of such poetic tropes and allowed me to wonder what this might bring to considerations of artistic knowledge. Right now there’s much to do in order to develop this thinking, and at present my nose is still pressed a little too close to the topographical surfaces for me to get the perspective I need. In order to work out what can be known here it seems I may have to continue a while longer this orbit around my metaphorical planet with its multitude of radiant stars.

1. James Elkins, The Object Stares Back: On The Nature of Seeing, (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1996), p. 20.

2. Linda Pacifici and Jim Garrison, ‘Imagination, Emotion and Inquiry: The Teachable Moment’ Contemporary Pragmatism Vol. 1, No. 1 (June 2004), pp. 119-132 (p. 120).

3. Gregory Currie, ‘Realism of Character and the Value of Fiction’, in Aesthetics and Ethics: Essays at the Intersection, ed. by Jerrold Levinson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 161–81 (p. 161).

4. Jacque Carpenter, ‘Metaphors in qualitative research: Shedding light or casting shadows?’, Research in Nursing & Health, Vol 31, Issue 3, (June 2008), pp. 274–282 (p. 274). I want to note here that healthcare researchers have shared a concern with artists working in the academy, given that both have sought to justify their use of so-called ‘practice-based research’; community health practitioners wanted to contest the focus upon randomized controlled experiment and evidence-based research so prevalent in the sciences with the knowledge through experience that they had gained through fieldwork.

Click on the image below for a small Quicktime movie of the photographic sequence.