In the last half hour of International Women’s Day, I thought I’d try to articulate something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. This is definitely part of a larger web of issues and there is so much to be said about gender and scrutiny but for the sake of my own wellbeing and some kind of focus for this blog I’m keen to keep this mainly on track - to do with photography, making art, being an artist. That’s my disclaimer for why this is brief (although let’s be honest this is my website I can write what I like) and I should also say this based on conversations I’ve had over a series of years with my particular peer group.
One of the ways in which gender inhibits women is in a total disparity in levels of scrutiny, even before the work is on the wall. I over-think everything before I share it with the world, often to the point of abandoning a picture or a piece of writing altogether because I manage to imagine it seen from a certain perspective where the meat of it is contorted to mean something hateful, cruel or unfair. Sometimes so much energy simply goes into predicting ways in which I could be vilified for something that I run out of steam in pursuing that something altogether. Perhaps men also go through this, but choose to ignore it? Or are men just not cautious about visibility in the same way, as something which invites a level of personal, professional and ethical scrutiny, with the power to ruin their reputation or career?
Speaking to other female artists, I don’t think I’m alone. If you were particularly resistant to the possibility that perhaps experiences for men and women are different you might argue that I’m just part of a particularly self-conscious cluster of female makers - but let’s be honest, isn’t it more likely that for women criticism is more commonplace, the repercussions more severe? If you think about the many ways in which women are policed in society - wear this, don’t wear that, don’t go out after dark, don’t drink too much, don’t show too much, be coy, be clever, be charming, be skinny, be curvy, stick up for yourself, don’t cause a fuss; is it difficult to imagine that this might translate, somewhere in the subconscious, into a similar sort of rigorous self-criticism, even before the thing is thrown out into the world? We tend to celebrate ‘art’ as the freedom of self expression, a blank canvas, a way of revealing ourselves - but for women, there seems to exist a cycle of wringing your creative impulses through an elaborate series of tests: potential receptions, imagined challenges, accusations of being false, accusations of generalisation, the never-ending curtain of condescension, an effort always to put yourself in others’ shoes first to imagine how one could disagree or disapprove. We prepare to justify every single coherent decision that has gone into the making and presentation of an idea because we’re very familiar with being criticised and because a lot is done to make women unsure of themselves.
The need to justify yourself is a peculiar space to begin a piece of art. Sometimes though I think these processes can do great good. Doubt can cause you to push yourself, to reconsider, to be aware of problems, to be empathetic, to work harder than a lot of men do. But something I’m coming to realise is that is hard work isn’t necessarily the same as ‘good art’. This is a peculiar industry where visions of ‘creative genius’ and effortlessness are rewarded just as often as hard graft. The other thing is that all this self-regulation takes time, the initial spark of an idea often compromised for something less disruptive. Often I wonder how many seeds of insight have been quashed at any one of these various interventions. How many women have stepped back to reconfigure, to regulate their initial idea, and not stepped back forward? How many women have spent an afternoon meticulously justifying their reasoning to an imagined jury, and decided just not to comment the next time? It requires so much energy. It takes time to be rigorous and when that’s teamed with the rest of life’s compromises it can mean nothing left for making or sharing. The urge to assert your perfectly natural right to say something about anything battles with an acute sense of being an imposter.
I’m yet to meet a man who encounters this same series of hoops, and it’s not for lack of trying. Even when men say they’re unsure about something or not 100% happy it’s usually when brandishing a completed body of work, a thing buoyed by enough self-believe and peer or familial support for it at least to exist. I’m aware also that as much as I tell my peers that there is worth in their perspective and that inviting someone else to share that is in itself a generous thing, I don’t often extend this support to myself. Why is that? Why am I so enthusiastic to support the men I see making work and less ready to encourage my own desire to say something? Very often - and perhaps it’s just in art - men are excited to share their opinion, ready to be heard, they do things just because they want to, play devil’s advocate, platform real problems as artistic ‘provocations’ and see what they can get away with. Because they can. And it bothers me to admit that I’m jealous of blind self belief - because I so wish that I had that - and at the same time I don’t think that it’s clever at all.
If you’re interested in this topic, I talk about some of these ideas (kind of) with Erin Semple in this episode of Finding Focus.
Perhaps during lockdown, with galleries and museums closed to us, we look instead to the city for our art.
And I mean ‘art’ in the sense of something transcendental: to catapult our imaginations from the everyday. Instead of peering into glass on the walls of old, hushed buildings we look to the bricks and trees immediately before us, into our neighbours’ windows as a different kind of frame. We summon fictions; reflect back our own meaning. In this way, the interiority of our present existence leads to the outside world - the flesh and bone of the city. Here in Edinburgh it’s perhaps not dissimilar - the same grandeur of grey stone, outside not in, the ability of this place to move us; affect the soul somehow. I find myself being surprised often - as if I’d forgotten all this beauty was here the whole time, before lockdown, simultaneously as electric as the bits framed and catalogued as ‘art’. And this special reverence usually sought in galleries and churches, before a small rope barrier and down-lit bulbs, reserved primarily for art museums and prestige and the stiffness of history - can be found on your doorstep, perhaps! A beam of sunlight on a bus stop becomes a masterstroke, one-of-a-kind; a glimmer of foil in the bushes somehow causes your throat to catch. The same hushed wonder exists in most everything I see, as I walk, earphones in and blinking the screen from my eyes, the smells and the brightness and the othering brilliance of it all almost too much to bear.
From my notebook (January 25th - scribbled when I got in from a walk)
Images are: scribbling, moments outside at a similar time
Hello word document (which might one day be website blog).
This is a bid to try and cleanse some of the weirdness in my head, writing helps me think about stuff, so here goes. I know I haven’t posted personal writing in a while but it’s been a busy time (always a busy time) trying to navigate a new career and establish myself as a freelancer. Obviously, due to current circumstances, my focus on employment has been derailed somewhat and now just seems a bit pointless. It’s weird when you’ve been so fixated on something for a long time to have it all vanish; all of the work I had organised for the coming months has ceased to exist and it happened dramatically quickly, so I’ve had to reevaluate my time pretty fast. Anyone who knows me will acknowledge I’m pretty often super stressed because I’ve given myself too many commitments: it’s one of my flaws, I’ll admit it. Hands held up. I need to chill out, I need to acknowledge my own limitations, blah blah blah. I go at 200mph for months and then all of a sudden realise I’m knackered, I realise this and have had this realisation many times over but no matter how many times I come to this conclusion I seem intent on splicing myself into so many different shards of purpose – jobs, voluntary, creative, academic, social – that I struggle to hold it all in my head. Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment but I feel like I’m being the most successful when I’ve got a lot on. I think it’s come from a history of balancing acts: since working part-time through A-Levels I’ve always had to adapt my time and my capacity to service multiple functions at once. Deciding to study art probably sealed the deal because any kind of transition into a world/industry, especially one so class-based and ‘cultured’ (relying on a knowledge of a whole subtext of philosophers and artists and politics and social structures that I definitely wasn’t taught about growing up), is going to require morphing bits of yourself whilst clinging on to others you still need and value and desire. All of a sudden my obsessive need to order my time weeks ahead is kinda redundant. Once you take away all my scheduled stuff and planning it turns out I’m not very good at being spontaneous and motivated or making things. This time in lockdown has finally forced me to experience time without purpose, without multi-tasking, without being pulled in ten different directions by a variety of commitments. No commitments left, nada, except to stay indoors and deal with it.
At first this was dreadful. I would wake up and find it impossible to get out of bed until 1pm, 2pm, because I felt I had no purpose and today, this happened again. No reason to move, to motivate, to make things, to pay attention. Nothing useful to do, nothing to help anyone with, nothing to plan for or aspire to. It took me time to accept I had lost my work, my volunteer work, my plans, my mad dance of keeping all the plates spinning, my regimented Filofax, my financial projections and securities. Why bother getting up and doing stuff, when I can lay and read the news about the world falling apart from my bed? Smaller energy bill. Less washing up. Less laundry. Less bother. But after a wee stint of wallowing where I really wasn’t much fun at all, things started to shift. Yes, I was jobless. Yes, this made it feel like the last 15 months of sacrifices and compromises and grafting to try and cement a career within the creative industries (where I still so often feel like an imposter) had come to an abrupt ellipsis. But I tried to keep these troughs of self-pity as contained as possible, because I was simultaneously very aware that thousands of people are currently very unwell and my situation, in comparison, is fine. That doesn’t mean I can’t feel the loss of these things, but it’s about perspective - plus it’s actually quite funny when you think about it, that I would pretty much be better off in any job I have ever had before this, which I have worked so hard to try and ‘transcend’. God, what a phrase, what a load of wank. It makes my fixation with securing a career in the creative industries seem bizarre, even stupid. But I think there comes a point in every wallower’s cycle where you start to get tired of hearing your own whining, even if it’s only in your head. Sure you might dip a toe in the self-pity puddle every now and then, that’s only natural, but you’ve got to eventually start re-growing some energy, some motivation and some perspective. Put a bit of time and patience into feeling like absolute horse shite (just accept it for a few days) and you can fester long enough to cultivate a wee seed of OK-ness. Keep moping around drinking wine and randomly crying on your way to the shop and eventually you’ll think ‘oh yay I’ve got mash for dinner’. It comes and goes. And it will probably keep coming and going over the next weeks.
So after week one (which to be honest, was one of the worst weeks I’ve had in a long time) I started taking some action. I cannot thank the folk who did something to give me a wee pick-me-up during this week enough. I am incredibly fortunate to know such sweethearts, and be so loved, and everyone that bought a print from me online, sent me something in the post, called me at random just to check in, and generally kept my mind occupied and uplifted should know how much that meant to me. I didn’t realise so many people knew how much this whole freelance thing had been meaning to me the last 6 months, I’m not very good at admitting when I’m struggling and this meant a lot. Anyway, once I started moving a bit and considering my options the obvious became apparent quite quickly – I had to apply for grants, apply for Universal Credit, apply for bursaries, I even got off my high horse and asked my landlady if she would consider reducing my rent for the next month. It turns out she would consider this, and that’s bought me a lot of time. People maybe aren’t as shitty as I thought and I can’t stress enough that’s it’s worth reaching out to test the water. Of course this is egotistically painful: a cycle of waking up every day to be reminded of your newfound dependency on other people, and asking them for help - but there are more important things than ego I’m afraid and being able to pay the rent is one of them. This is not my idea of a fun time - I hate relying on anyone for anything, preferring to cut off my nose to spite my face and make things stupidly difficult for no reason. I once gradually moved flats via about 7 bus day-tickets instead of just asking someone with a car for a hand, and I’ll always say ‘it’s fine I’ll do it’ in a group scenario even if I’m already working 45 hours that week - I’m weird I know. I think deep down I’m just a massive control freak. All of these applications are done online, for obvious reasons, although many are refreshingly simple to fill out. It’s more straight forward applying for help and supplying your bank statements than to pitch a creative project for example, or appeal for funding for a period of ‘artistic research’. I was lucky enough to receive a grant from the The Elizabeth Finn Fund, and was swamped with relief that I’d be able to pay the bills, then a weird joy that I’d achieved funding for the first time in my life. Kinda messed up hey, but I’ve never had a successful application for anything before. I really can’t imagine how those without internet connections or computers will weather this period. I can see the benefits of reducing physical contact by moving things online, sure, but this isn’t some king of ever-present entity it’s a product that people pay for and because of this it’s dangerous and outright discriminatory to make essential services and support only accessible to a portion of the population. Without libraries being open how are people in need expected to access essential online support? I worry. And I would say that if anyone needs help accessing these services I can be a web outlet for you – but what’s the point, the only people reading this will be those with wifi and some spare time on their hands. Even if i put a sign in the window how are people going to get in touch? I barely even get signal in the basement. Still - I’ll list a wee chunk of links at the bottom for application stuff that you can feel to peruse if you need a hand with support, but if you’re reading this from a similar position to myself (relative stability, but with all this enormous free time looming and panic-driven googling aplenty) you’ve probably already seen them, and applied yourself. Sending you luck.
So - then came week three and by this point all prospect of time had gone out of the window. My Filofax continued (with increasing emptiness) to become a list of things with red lines through them. I kept going on night walks to get out of the house without the added stress of bumping into people coughing everywhere and footballs flying about, shopping a maximum of once a week (also at night), and learning that a lot of the things I liked doing before all this were incredibly banal. Things like ‘popping into Tesco on the way home to look at the reduced fridge’ are no longer a responsible action, and also were maybe always a questionable idea of a good time. I started making promises to myself to be more social at the end of all this but know I’ll probably immediately bog myself down with work stuff again. Seeing pals is obviously vastly limited but thankfully still there, we did have one great skype call where we were laughing so loud at Jack’s rotating middle finger music box at half-past-midnight that his mum gave him a row and told him to go to bed. It feels weirdly like being a teenager again. In one group chat we try and send a daily selfie, to feel together (apart). I don’t know if some of these re-connections would have happened without all this and it has been nice in its way to talk together, whether in Glasgow or Poland or Menorca we’re all suddenly locked down and inherently kinda accessible. These things are fun despite the circumstances and I’m consistently reminding myself to not feel bad for having pockets of contentment or humour. Weirdly, I’ve not had a single inclination during this time to use a film camera or to practice drums - some vague sense of guilt for not doing so sure, but no real desire. Up until very recently these were the main things keeping me happy in my tumble of work/life commitments, it’s weird. I started really wanting to bake in week three but didn’t really have any ingredients, and I have this notion that all the flours in the world are being horded by desperate mums and dads determined to think of ways to entertain their kids – fair play. I’m definitely not the neediest of home-bakers right now so I need to sit tight, I’m still pretty elated drinking a cuppa soup so I’ll let the desperate parents have the flour for fairy cakes or whatever, easy. I do have a vat of oats which I’ve been experimenting with – oat biscuits, oat crackers, oat risotto is on the cards for next week. It’s the small things. Those oat crackers are probably the best thing I’ve ever made though, legitimately, if you take one thing from anything I ever say ever again give those delicious seedy bastards a go.
Now I think it’s week four but I’m starting to lose track, and I’ve been offered a couple of bits of work - amazing. Something to think about, something to cling on to. Some trickle of money coming in. It’s still the highlight of my day (/night) to go on a walk on my own in the dark, and I really look forward to posting the photos to Instagram. Sounds ludicrous I know but that’s pretty much all I’ve got going right now that I feel on top of, capable of, all over. It’s a way to feel connected and productive somehow, plus a nice bit of routine and necessary waiting. Jocelyn Allen has recently been posting a portrait series about pregnancy titled Waiting For Things In A Time When You Rarely Wait For Things and whilst this was not intended to be about quarantine in any way it’s true of this too; this whole lock down is an international exercise in patience and restraint. Both things haven’t been particularly necessary for many of us recently, as digital technologies and the pace of life seem to demand instantaneous gratification, satisfaction and response. For a while now I’ve been so intent on keeping ‘things’ going (‘things’ plural, all the ‘things’, there isn’t really a hierarchy of what I exactly care about the most) that I’ve not been very focused on any one thing at all. I’m not saying that lockdown is a ‘blessing in disguise’ (that would be absurd) and whilst I might be lucky enough to view this subjectively as some kind of personal exercise in ‘living in the moment’ this is still a pandemic. This is an extraordinary situation, a global crisis that is catastrophic for many hundreds of thousands of people and will prove to still be catastrophic for many more. Therefore, not only is is important to not romanticise it too much but it’s also not really like I can achieve a new ‘normal’ under this very not-normal conditions. I’m not saying ‘voila, this has achieved a zen I never knew I had’ – far from it. Even in my bubble of privilege and newfound free time I’m feeling bombarded by stuff: the necessity to socialise, to be applying for funds, looking for jobs, to be keeping on top of updates, to stay creative, to read the news, to keep active indoors, to be worrying enough to not feel guilty but not worrying so much I can’t move. It’s a funny thing, the self consciousness of concern.
For now it still seems impossible still to really look ahead, foggy at best, but if anything I hope that this period forces a new kind of accessibility for those who have been struggling to be involved their whole lives. For many people being unable to visit the shops or unable to go to a show or unable to see friends isn’t a temporary inconvenience brought about by a pandemic but the reality of every single day, and I’m finding myself thinking a lot about how I can help, now and afterward. I can only imagine that this current situation of crisis has made these particular struggles even more difficult. The internet and our virtual capacity for connection has so much to offer how we come together as a community and make accessibility adaptations - this pause will at the very least force exploration of that. I’m a great believer in the internet’s ability to innovate new ways of being together, of being inclusive. We can only hope that this experience will bring about positive change – even in the smallest of ways – once we begin to rebuild our communities, economies and relationships. I’ve come to accept that it’s ok to try and think about this on a small scale right now, even when you’ve got the whole world in your pocket. I don’t know how much I can offer the big questions at the minute (or ever), but I’m ready to listen. I’m hoping and hopeful that I can be of some greater use once it’s safe to throw myself out there. In the meantime, if anybody is still reading this (wow, hello you, I can’t believe you’re still here) knows of any volunteer groups in Edinburgh North that need a (washed) hand, or any way my digital skillset can be useful (including the miracle of any paid online gigs out there) that I can fill my time with, please be in touch. I’m fairly ok at copy-writing and transcribing and promoting things - although I understand there isn’t a lot to promote at the minute. I’m not used to having nothing to do and it’s making me a little bit weird. I have registered as a kindness caller with Chest, Heart & Stroke Scotland (so will be ringing those who may be feeling isolated soon to have a blether, probably about biscuits or birds or my cat or a crossword) and I’m giving blood this weekend so those are some ideas I’ve had at least for anyone else feeling useless. I’m open to suggestions, and being pointed in a direction of being useful. So now to close - and it’s impossible to really summarise this post isn’t it, I’ve zigzagged between the intensely personal and the bigger concerns, but I think if anything that’s illustrative of how we’re all probably navigating the days at the moment. Be gentle with yourself. Don’t feel guilty for feeling terrible. Don’t feel guilty for feeling OK. I’ll list the resources I mentioned above, below. And finally (sweet jesus I can ramble can’t I) I just wanted to send some kind of virtual love: an e-high-five maybe? No that’s too triumphant – an e-arm-squeeze? Kinda weird. Whatever you want - an e-touch to everyone, and anyone, who could do with it. XO