“Leave off looking to men to find out what you are not —–seek within yourselves to find out what you are”[i]
The beauty of repositioning art’s awe through rigorous research is what the author encountered within the exhibition Camoufleurs, by Kathleen Ritter, displayed at G Gallery in Toronto, September 2014 (figure 1). This paper will be an exercise of objectivist and alethic hermeneutics, an exposition on today’s feminist re-articulations, an affirmation of the idea of the furtive in art practice, and how the deployment of each of these methods describes the probable paths Ritter has chosen to materialize her research within an art exhibition. By referencing contemporary theories in research, this article will hope to position Ritter’s own practice of research as method within theoretical artistic practice. Using research as material within the finalized objects of Camoufleurs, allowing the enhancement of the exhibition in its entirety to have the illusion as one large and singular artistic work. The second sentence in the press release for Camoufleurs states: “The project weaves together research into intersecting histories of war, avant-garde movements in art and poetry, the advent of photography and cinema alongside women’s suffrage and feminism in the early half of the twentieth century.”[ii] (Ritter, 2014) Quoted, as an entry point into this paper, Ritter advances the necessary methodology to conduct research within contemporary art. Understandably, contemporary art has a difficulty to stand alone as something new, innovative and independent. Research enables a new consideration in how an artist should approach art in general, especially considering the common thought of ‘everything has already been done.’
Research in art allows for an opening up of the history of art, of theoretical advancements, and other outside influences. It offers an innovative platform to create something new, away from everything already done. Accordingly, research as method, was described by Marquard Smith, in the collection of essays, What is Research in The Visual Arts, from 2008. In which Smith claims the recognition of research as method was incorporated into theoretical practice from as early as 1992. Utilizing research within the arts is an “act of searching for the not-yet-known.”[iii](Smith, 2009) Ritter’s exhibition employs a multitude of art processes to illustrate research as art practice while documenting the role of women in art, in history and their subsequent issues of feminist theory as practice. These processes include a translation of text, of media and historical analysis materialized through print, digital manipulations of historical ephemera, and large-scale mural painting. The role of research in the context of Ritter’s exhibition used as a form of communication, of code. This codifying practice, suggests to the exhibition visitors that they too have the opportunity to engage with the research and to conduct their own. Accordingly, Smith considers research as method as a powerful tool of “research being used to understand research.”[iv] (Smith, 2009) The exhibition works well when the visitors comprehend their role of connecting the dots of information that intersects the three primary works that make up Camoufleurs.
One can further comprehend the role of research in the visual arts by considering the reading of public engagement through the principles incorporated in the text Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research,[v] written by Mats Alvesson and Kaj Skoldberg. In the term reflexivity alone, we understand a malleable relationship with knowledge and its making. In the text, Mats Alvesson and Kaj Skoldberg describe the reflexive method through an in depth analysis of the functions of research. Their reading of reflexivity is the researcher’s “ability to break free from a frame of reference and to look at what it is not capable of saying, a break away from consistency…. in order to not allow the focus to become too narrow.”[vi] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) With the application of reflexive methodology onto Ritter’s exhibition, my opportunity to conduct my own research while discussing Ritter’s research and joining them together in a way to realize a more thorough and immersive method hopefully suggests to the reader they too can and should continue the investigative process. My first entry into Camoufleurs was one that considered all of the parts of the whole as one large installation, one solidified work. The collection joined seamlessly within an immersive environment. I have later found this particular reading to be not what Ritter herself intended. In the past, Ritter has worked as a curator, arts writer and an artist. Submerging myself into the space of Camoufleurs immediately brought to mind the experiencing of something more along the lines of a curator as artist practice. However, after communicating with Ritter, I have come to realize that the lens of Ritter as artist approaches the body of this particular work. Her curatorial practice had little to do with the artistic method. On the contrary, I read the space differently from Ritter’s intention; it had a definite and strong curatorial touch. Therefore, I will touch upon the show in its entirety, but later will extend my focus on the individual works. In doing so, my intention, is to conduct a correspondence between three points of view, Ritter’s, my own and outside trends in cultural dialogue. For Alvesson and Skoldberg suggest an objectivist focus should be incorporated into a reflexive research methodology in that “there ought to be a correspondence between the conceptions of an interpreting subject – the researcher – and an interpretation of something objective, occurring outside of the researcher.”[vii] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) My motive is also to relate each piece in Camoufleurs to the primary intention of the show. That being to engage with the publics in a way that supports further research into the issues of feminism today. Supporting this I quote Alvesson and Skoldberg, “Every world is a ‘horizon’ of meanings, which signifies that it is determined by its outlook at any given occasion, the ultimate limit for the view and the area in between.”[viii] Hermeneutics is a practice of investigating parts of reality, or patterns of metaphor in which we construct meaning within realistic frameworks, framed through overarching systems of language and thought. Each part can also be distinguished between who it is doing the research, for everyone comes to information from their own pre-understood positions and how the research is understood from the position of the researcher.
The works presented in Camoufleurs, strategically placed, with their relevant defined meanings nuanced within the subtleties of material decisions, created a strong environment to look at the nature of feminism anew.
Returning to Reflexive Methodology, Alvesson and Skoldberg consider one aspect of the use of alethic hermeneutics (of which I will discuss in more detail further on in the paper) is the possibility of corroborating the reading with current trends in similar studies.[ix] “Through a corroboration of the text – text to mean the interpretation of social acts given as a materialization of particularities whether in print, sculptural, artistic etc… -- checking it against other texts from the same culture or epoch, whereby the frequency of corroborating texts increases the validity of the interpretation at hand.”[x] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) Concurrently to Camoufleurs, we see the conception of new feminism taken up in other cities around North America. Particularly, this fall in New York City, The Hole Gallery displayed an exhibition entitled Future Feminism.[xi] Future Feminism was constructed by commissioning feminist artists to research and reimagine the future of feminism by re-examining past doctrines of previous feminist theories and practices. Artists, Antony, Kembra Pfahler, Johanna Constantine, Bianca Casady, and Sierra Casady, established a manifesto containing 13 Tenets of which suggest the new paths towards feminism in today`s age.[xii] The fifth tenet is relatable to Ritter’s work with Camoufleurs “Patriarchy works very hard to erase and dismiss the struggles of women to belittle, malign, and disregard their contributions to political movements and social change.”[xiii] (Clements, 2014) A criticism of new feminist art practices, put forth by Alexis Clements, writing for the online arts magazine Hyperallergic, is that it does very little to acknowledge the accomplishments of earlier feminists. She states, “willful erasure of feminist contributions, combined with the tendency of oppressed people to dismiss/downplay their own achievements, strikes me as among the top reasons why feminism is particularly prone to “reinventing” itself…. without that legacy, and an understanding of its evolution, you risk positioning yourself as the new savior of the movement.”[xiv] (Clements, 2014) Feminism today has created a term that irritates a wide variety of people. Shockingly, on November 12, 2014, five days before I am to submit this paper, Time magazine created an online poll (figure 2) asking for their readers to vote on the one word that should be dropped from our collective speech, as we move into 2015. Included in a list of non-words, is the word feminist. This act showcases the rocky terrain feminism is stumbling along right now. So much so, that the entire term, its sign to signify its meaning, is being questioned and positioned in a way to completely erase it altogether.
Validating the strength of the argument through corroborating interpretation. My position is that, Ritter, in Camoufleurs, speaks to this frequent erasure found in feminist theoretical practice, and re-examines it through the first conception of feminism during the suffrage movement, the players that were instrumental in its realization, and the embodiments the feminist wave of the 1960s/70s to today undertake in order to retain past dignities. Considering Camoufleurs as a re-examination and as a meditation upon what feminism today has forgotten or shadowed. Through the subtleties of repositioning past works into a new framework, Ritter bypasses the need to be considered as ‘saviour,’ of feminism. Instead, by utilizing research and allowing for the publics to take from the researched material what they will, literally and figuratively, Ritter asks for everyone to be cognizant of past accomplishments, and to work together in strengthening the erased or obscured history of feminism projecting it into the future. In doing so, illuminating the knowledge that patriarchy does work hard to erase or belittle the struggles women have fought.
This erasure of previous advances in women’s work is the underlining thematic Ritter portrays in Camoufleurs. The act of uncovering past histories can be reflected as a process of reflexive methodology, primarily using the framework of, previously stated, alethic hermeneutics. Camoufleurs is then a reflexive practice to extend into an exploration of hermeneutics, as Ritter herself claims of her own work, “to explore the sensory residue of history, bringing forward material from a distant past as potential ciphers for the present.”[xv](Ritter, 2014)
Accordingly, Alvesson and Skoldberg, frame alethic hermeneutics as one possibility in refiguring “the transcendence of established ideas.”[xvi] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) Ritter incorporated past imagery, text, sound and unspoken collaborations within her work to illuminate what came before in feminist action. The term Camoufleurs represents all of these aspects as one overarching theory. Through her initial research, Ritter came upon the meaning for this word. She explains in her press release that Camoufleurs was the term used for people who painted camouflage onto ships during the First World War.[xvii] Dazzle, is a particular style of camouflage attempted by the British navy, was invented by an artist/zoologist, Norman Wilkinson.[xviii] Invented by a man, however, the artists who undertook the painting project were women.
Ritter presented her exhibition at the outset as one that embraces past feminists, doing so by the painting of the exterior gallery walls in the zebra-like pattern reminiscent of this dazzle camouflage; evocative of the women who created the original works, and also the relationship between systems of private communication used by the navy in war. The British navy was key in incorporating Morse code into their tactics during the First World War. Literally, by enveloping all of the invisible and visible research, and their related codified artistic works under one coherent roof. Using the formula of alethic hermeneutics to describe the embedding of this secret code silently within all aspects of Camoufleurs, as research taken to investigate the role of women within large acts of demonstration.
Somewhat how I envision a spy to have conducted herself during the most crucial and critical moments of war, is how I have come to discover Camoufleurs. Slowly positioning my understanding and Ritter’s pre-understanding in a spherical unison to one another. This act of unity, used to reinterpret applications of objectivist hermeneutics; additionally how, through the revelation of the unknown or dismissed, the reinterpretation can gradually shift towards the alethic. Alethic is translated to “uncoverdness,’ as the revelation of something hidden.”[xix] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) This translation can be applied to Ritter’s work Siren, (figure 3) Siren, is the reattribution of a trio of artistic and inventive practices conducted by two artists, an actress and a musician. Ritter appropriated a scene from the 1933 film, Extase, starring Hetty Lamarr. The scene is a non-pornographic representation of female orgasm. Along with the imagery, Ritter also inserted a musical composition from the avant-garde movement of 1924 by George Antheil’s Ballet méchanique, acting as the soundtrack for Siren. This dual approach to tailoring two separate artistic endeavours into one coherent and new form allows for an entry point into the research methods Ritter herself undertook, and asks the audience to uncover meaning through their own research. It is an action of reminiscence, as we find out in the description of the piece, “with the climax of the footage timed to coincide with the sound of a whirling hand-crank siren, looped endlessly and played back on a streaming wireless network, the installation is affectual response to Lamarr and Antheil’s landmark invention of a “Secret Communication System,” widely known today as frequency hopping, the basis of wireless communication technology.”[xx] (Ritter, 2014) The use of interpreting Lamarr and Antheil’s fundamental work and relating it back to our day with the world co-dependent on wireless technology encourages to constructively rethink historical work conducted by women and how each manifested itself into the fabric of our lives. An equalising reminder that women and men have worked collaboratively on many of our most important societal structures. Feminism asks to acknowledge and shift our fundamental understanding of women in the world, from being submissive and accommodating to men and their particular place in society to being of equal worth and competence to men. Siren is a beautiful and poignant disclosure of the distinct, intense and substantial influence work by women has had on our society for over one hundred years. By referencing Alvesson and Skoldberg, Siren presents what reflexive methodology would consider as a dialectic solution to the discussion of feminism. Alethic hermeneutics is a practice of shifting between understanding and pre-understanding, and represents the moment between the two emphasized by the use of intuition.[xxi] Siren is a manifestation of a unity of truth, as prescribed by the alethic; it is “a focus on truth as an act of disclosure, in which the polarity between subject and object, as well as between understanding and explanation is disclosed in the radical light of a more original unity.”[xxii] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) My reading of Siren reveals a request for this original unity to become one of solidarity. Ritter is encouraging the audience to recognize historical achievements made by women and to work in solidarity to ensure the rewriting of past erasures.
Turning my focus towards the Ritter’s final work in the exhibition, a reattribution of the poet Mina Roy’s Feminist Manifesto, 1914 into shorthand. Emphasizes that the act of creating something entirely new from previous manifestations of spirit, can describe this sense of solidarity. Manifesto, 2014 (figure 4) is a repositioning of alphabetic text into a language most commonly used by women in secretarial positions, during the pre/post war periods. Ritter translates the manifesto, delivers it on large sheets of newspaper and suggests to the public to take copies and paste them around the city. However, asserting this instruction was not seen as a priority during my visit to the gallery. It sat quietly within the artist statement, and was not specified to the publics. We were encouraged to take a copy of Manifesto, but for our own enjoyment not to distribute around the neighbourhood. Personally, had I been made aware of the specifics of the project I would have taken a few copies and followed through on the instruction. For this demonstrative action would have been the perfect amount of delicate rupture needed into the social framing of the west side of Toronto. The work would have sat quietly beside advertisements, and other flyers, enticing the urban publics to take a second and try to decipher its meaning. A ‘new’ language, inserted into the street culture of music and event posters. The pieces distributed throughout the neighbourhood would have encouraged interest and discussion relating to how Ritter describes as, “Sleights of hand, elaborate diversions, hiding in plain sight … An urgent message is distributed en masse—in an all but obsolete language.”[xxiii] (Ritter, 2014)
Each piece in the exhibition tacitly sits revealing themselves to be known and to be understood as entry points into further reflexive practices of larger dialogues. Each working to support dialogues concerning the materialization of research into art objects, art practices and relational aesthetics. Implied as, “tactics to lend the works in Camoufleurs a sly humour and mordant wit.”[xxiv]
The tactic in implying that there is more to know than what meets the eye can be illustrated through the vision of relational art as a furtive art practice proposed by Patrice Loubier in his article To Take Place, To Disappear: On Certain Shifts Between Art and Reality, 2001/2. I hope to classify Loubier’s definition of art under the scope of alethic hermeneutics, art as a site for the materialization of pre-understanding with understanding. He states, “there is a development of a greater indetermination in the form of the art object, projects tend to exist concretely in an enlarged reality, beyond the mere mode of representation.”[xxv] (Loubier, 2000/1) This description can be recognized under a reflexive framework through the use of the terms indetermination, existence, enlarged reality, and modes. Acknowledging that there is a definite frame of reference when creating art, and of which artists need to be cognizant. In that, using the terms to emphasize the illustration of arts ability to move forward, and project itself outside of a determined frame of reference. In doing so, to allow their attention to shift between modes, to prevent the domination of either mode. This prevention allows for a more nuanced artistic practice, and allows for the advancement of discussions into arts’ political abilities. Furthermore, to highlight this attribution, reflexivity is articulated “as an ability to break free from a frame of reference and to look at what it is not capable of saying, to break away from consistency.”[xxvi] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) The furtive, in its definition alone, describes the calculating act of secret making, unveiling and revealing. It does not distinguish between concrete and abstract realities, it allows for all of the ways into meaning be shifted amongst one another in the hope to reveal a more elaborate, or nuanced truth. Ritter, in 2005, discusses this concept at length in an article on one particular relational art practice. “furtive practice neither claims to be new, nor revolutionary. It, in many cases, is not intended to mobilize a public to collective political action. It is not confrontational and does not have the ambition to reach the greatest number of people in the spirit of activism. Perhaps then, it operates both in the real and on the level of representation; it offers up a likeness or a model of the world, while at the same it is actually takes place in it.”[xxvii] (Ritter, 2005)
Fast forward to 2014, and we can understand how the exhibition Camoufleurs represents to us a practical application of the furtive as art medium. It is here where we can understand Ritter and her action of opening up to the creation of the hidden, what I refer to as her secrets of possibility, inherent in the artistic works. Another conception of the furtive as art is the camouflaging instinct of mimetic action. Loubier defines the ‘mimetic dimension of in situ projects’ as, “activities which are completely ambiguous both for the art world and in the larger social sphere,” blurring “the exact nature of the intervention and its integration into a given context have the effect of camouflaging its status as art.”[xxviii] (Loubier, 2000/1) With the project of painting the gallery itself in the namesake piece Camoufleurs, Ritter emphasizes the mimetic ambiguity of camouflage and how in its inherent nature attempts to shadow the players of hunting and war. Placed onto the structure, leaving it in plain sight, but acknowledging the act of camouflaging the inherent secrets or hidden realities one encounters once they walk into the space. Each piece sits quietly within the very public intervention, and asks for solidarity in feminist research as furtive art practice. Accordingly, Ritter defines the furtive further in the statement, “I would like to adopt the term “furtive” in the hopes that it is more apt in describing the surreptitious and complex ways that art today permeates civic and social spaces and conflates our notions of an ideal or expected public.”[xxix](Ritter, 2005) Camoufleurs does just that, it permeates the social gallery structures of Toronto, encourages the audience to go out onto the stage of the public space and covertly engage with the social fabric of the street.
To conclude, Kathleen Ritter has successfully created an exciting and fresh feminist exhibition. Camoufleurs, reveals a temporal study of place, space and intention and with all of the nuanced secrets, such a study can unveil. Reflexive methodology is an important research method to contemplate when one is studying the coalescence of theory, identity, history and the present. It can be used “to study our place in the world, through the structure of care (built in possibilities ie. Freedoms), the element of possibility, and through a criteria of choice.”[xxx] (Alvesson & Skoldberg, 2009) Ritter has invented a new way at approaching historical art practices, through the scope of utilizing research as an awe-inspiring tool to encourage indirect action. The subtleties of incorporating female sexuality, work and play into one coherent structure allows for further analysis of what it means to be feminist. Camoufleurs is well balanced and reflexive, in that it does not allow the reader or viewer to fall out of its possibilities. It only acts to encourage reflection and discussion surrounding the research, in doing so signifying the need to collectively move forward and rewrite, that which has been erased. Undoing past covert operations in diminishing the strong work women have conducted over a hundred-year span. Mina Loy states in her Manifesto, “As conditions are at present constituted—you have the choice between Parasitism, & Prostitution —-or Negation.”[xxxi] It has been one hundred years of negation. As we have seen by corroborating evidence, Feminist practices have not fully succeeded in coming to terms with this aspect of erasure and renunciation. The research of Camoufleurs can be used as a launching point to reverse this negation, renew it and reveal an innovative need to rewrite a feminist manifesto signalling change. Signalling an opening up of what is and may be.
Alvesson, Mats, and Kaj Sköldberg. "On Reflexive Interpretation: The Play of Interpretive Levels." Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009. 238-57. Print.
Clements, Alexis. "Past, Present, and Future Feminism." Hyperallergic.com. 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <http://hyperallergic.com/149699/past-present-and-future-feminism/>.
FUTURE FEMINISM (The Hole NYC). http://theholenyc.com/2014/08/15/future-feminism-2/ September 11-27, 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014
Loubier, Patrice. "“To Take Place, To Disappear: On Certain Shifts Between Art and Reality,”." Ed. Anne-Marie Ninacs and Patrice Loubier. Trans. Janine Hopkinson. Les Commensaux: Quand L'art Se Fait Circonstances/ When Art Becomes Circumstance (2000-2001): 201-06. Issuu. Les Commensaux, 2001. Web. 01 Nov. 2014. <http://issuu.com/benskol/docs/les_commensaux/203?e=1938667/5616710>.
Loy, Mina. Feminist Manifesto, 1914 (Literary Movements Manifesto) web November 9, 2014
Ritter, Kathleen. "How to Recognize a Furtive Practice: A User’s Guide." Articles ». N.p., 2005. Web. 01 Nov. 2014. <http://dianeborsato.net/articles/how-to-recognize-a-furtive-practice-a-users-guide/>.
Ritter, Kathleen. Press Release for Camoufleurs, shared by email to the author October 23, 2014
Smith, Marquard. “Introduction” in What is Research in The Visual Arts. Ed. Michael Ann Holly and Marquard Smith. Yale University Press, Clark Art Institute. 2009
[i] Mina Loy, Feminist Manifesto, 1914 (Literary Movements Manifesto) web November 9, 2014
[ii] Ritter, Kathleen. Press Release for Camoufleurs, shared by email to the author October 23, 2014
[iii] Smith, p.xi
[iv] Ibid p.11
[v] Alvesson, Mats, and Kaj Sköldberg. "On Reflexive Interpretation: The Play of Interpretive Levels." Reflexive Methodology: New Vistas for Qualitative Research. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2009. 238-57. Print.
[vi] Ibid p.247
[vii] Ibid p.56
[viii] Ibid p.84
[ix] Ibid p. 59
[xi] FUTURE FEMINISM (The Hole NYC). http://theholenyc.com/2014/08/15/future-feminism-2/ September 11-27, 2014. Web. 13 Nov. 2014
[xiii] Clements, Alexis. "Past, Present, and Future Feminism." Hyperallergic.com. 19 Sept. 2014. Web. 28 Oct. 2014. <http://hyperallergic.com/149699/past-present-and-future-feminism/>.
[xv] Ritter, Kathleen. 2014
[xvi] Alvesson, Mats, and Kaj Sköldberg. p. 247
[xvii] Ritter, Kathleen. Press release, 2014
[xviii] "How Did an Artist Help Britain Fight the War at Sea?" BBC IWonder. Web. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zty8tfr>.
[xix] Alvesson, Mats, and Kaj Sköldberg. p. 58
[xx] Ritter, Kathleen. Press Release, 2014
[xxi] Alvesson, Skoldberg, p. 55
[xxii] Ibid P. 55/56
[xxiii] Ritter, 2014
[xxv] Loubier, Patrice. "“To Take Place, To Disappear: On Certain Shifts Between Art and Reality,”." Ed. Anne-Marie Ninacs and Patrice Loubier. Trans. Janine Hopkinson. Les Commensaux: Quand L'art Se Fait Circonstances/ When Art Becomes Circumstance (2000-2001): 201-06. Issuu. Les Commensaux, 2001. Web. 01 Nov. 2014. <http://issuu.com/benskol/docs/les_commensaux/203?e=1938667/5616710>.
[xxvi] Alvesson, and Skoldberg, p. 247
[xxvii] Ritter, Kathleen. http://dianeborsato.net/articles/how-to-recognize-a-furtive-practice-a-users-guide/ 2005
[xxviii] Loubier, p. 202
[xxix] Ritter, Kathleen. http://dianeborsato.net/articles/how-to-recognize-a-furtive-practice-a-users-guide/ 2005
[xxx] Alvesson and Skoldberg, p. 81
[xxxi] Mina Loy, Feminist Manifesto, 1914 (Literary Movements Manifesto) web November 9, 2014