Who gets to Dissent anyway?

Bubble Version 2, Susan Merrick, Laboratory of Dissent 2019

We have been having a really interesting chat on our group messages. Talking about Dissent of course, but how we each relate to it, personally and within our practice (if we do relate to it at all in our practice).

We have been talking about privilege too. The privilege to choose to dissent perhaps, the privilege to even be artists. I am interested in this because I haven’t used the term dissent in talking about my practice before. But it is definitely a part of what I do, how I respond, or what actions I make, perform, photograph or film. I often respond to injustice, or where I get uncomfortable. When something doesn’t feel right. In my Art practice i have been given a method, a language, a tool for responding to this. Having this language is a privilege I have gained since getting older.

As a child I did not have such language, I remember our class when I was 10 lying down on the playground as a strike. We had just been told in assembly that we would not be able to join the rest of the year group on the annual end of junior school trip because our teacher had other commitments that week. It was the early 80s, and we were in a small struggling coastal town in East Yorkshire, near Hull. We didn’t know about art and artists. We didnt know about philosophy or how to talk about social norms and dissent. But we had seen the news about coal miners and strikes, we knew that if something seemed unfair we could perhaps say so. So we lay down in the playground and refused to go back to class.

We still didn’t get to go on the trip. But we had practiced our first action of dissent – without really having much language for it.

Throughout my teenage years I had moments of speaking out, but many more of trying to fit in. I perhaps rebelled against the teachers who told me I wouldn’t amount to anything (when I had spent most of my GCSE years going to raves and suffering with undiagnosed depression) and the boyfriend and friends who wanted me to get pregnant and get a flat…. by finding a subject I loved, and that gave me the voice to understand my social situation, our norms, values and how these are constructed. Sociology. By gaining this language I gained a voice and went to university – the first in my family.

So when over a decade later I began to explore my voice through art, it is unsurprising that I found it through wanting to face or voice challenges, injustice and other voices.

So for me, is dissent my practice? I think it probably is. Or at least a large part of it. And that is because I often naturally want to question why? As James Aldridge pointed out, this is a privilege. I agree. Not that dissenting is a privilege in itself, but having the language to talk about dissent perhaps.

”Dissent – the holding or expression of opinions at variance with those commonly or officially held.”there was no dissent from this view”

I often think about dissent in the form of actions. Which for me express a challenge to the opinions commonly held……

but if it can also be the ‘holding of’ opinions…. we can surely then be silent dissenters? If our opinions are at odds to the majority even if we do not express them…. we are dissenting?

I also (after a visit to HMP Winchester last week) considered how much we are actually dissenting compared for example with those who live their lives at odds to the law. Surely we then witness people who are truly dissenters I wondered…..James Aldridge considered this too, asking if you have no choice to live your life outside of social norms… is this still dissent? Do people have to ‘choose’ to dissent? Or can it be dissent if it is simply seen as other?

Is that then the majority ‘labeling’ those living ‘other’ as dissenters?

Maybe again it is about choice? But to what extent. What if someone has limited choices, and through these limited choices they MUST dissent.

So dissent is only constructive/useful/empowering perhaps when it is a choice, an act/opinion or expression against something that is seen as the majority or norm. When it is a label provided by others or a situation you are placed in via discrimination…. that doesn’t feel like dissent, it feels like something else.

Excuse the meandering thoughts but I am enjoying feeling in a safe enough space to have differing and perhaps usefully fluid opinions on this (linking back to Laurence’s sharings on hydro-feminism) and be able to express them and work through them. I don’t feel this is dissent in itself, as there isn’t necessarily a majority view about all of this. We are all openly considering the theme, the methodology and our responses.


Inside/Outside… in the gallery

Gallery spaces often feel strange to me. I didn’t grow up going to galleries, I did go to museums, but they definitely felt ‘other’ to me. Art didn’t feel other to me though, but Art as a practice, as a way of considering life, possibilities, change….. that was not something I was aware of. And having any kind of life around Art just didn’t feel like an option to me. Partially this was growing up in the 80s near Hull on the East Yorshire coast. Partly it was a lack of exposure, it certainly wasn’t something my parents were in to!

Shoot forward to now and I am a practicing Artist….. meaning to me that I am an artist, I make work, and I have consistent themes that I work with, that interest me or that I am passionate about. But there are elements of my younger self that remain. My suspicion of ‘other’ spaces. My suspicion of ‘other’ language. It made entering gallery spaces initially a few years ago (as an artist) pretty overwhelming. This overwhelm quickly turned to an aversion, but then to an opportunity. I generally want to use my understanding of this fear, this aversion, this sense of ‘not belonging’ to ensure that I invite audiences in. That audiences feel invited. That they feel they can come in and understand, or not understand, and talk or look or listen, and not feel shame or total displacement…… unless that’s the point!

This week we are all installing/creating work in the gallery at Winchester. It is an incredible space. Big, light, airy, in a wonderful central position within the campus but also with the public thorough way running right past it. But the ever old problem remains, how do we get the OUTSIDE IN? Or the INSIDE OUT? OR anything inbetween!?

I have brought my clothing exchange into the space, the clothing, the outers that I have been given. I will exchange these for the audiences outers, the pieces of themselves they are willing to share.

I also brought along my tin can telephone. Tins and string, allowing for simple communication between two people or things. I tested this out through the window of the space, to see if anyone wanted to talk to me…. they did not.

Tina Sanchez and I tested this out with her own work. Her large scavenged sculpture that bends and groans, rings, dings and crashes around you, it invited you to scrape, bang, hit and play with it, it invites you in. We attached the tin cans and spoke to each other through the work, through the wires and the sticks.

Can anyone hear me? Sarah Misselbrook asked from her mountain at the start of this project. I join this question with…

Can anyone hear us? Can anyone see us? Is anyone there?

Lilo in a puddle.

After being by the pond for a while I wanted to get in some water.

I had a discussion with two other Artists about what this could be, and we created a verbal risk assessment/critique in order to explore this.

What did I want to achieve? How deep was the pond? What are the risks of getting in the pond? What can we do to limit these risks? How do we mitigate the risk of being denied permission?

The pond was deep. My stick (measuring stick from the near by grassy area!) couldn’t reach the bottom and most of the depth was a sticky weedy muddy mess that would suck my legs in…. it was also freezing. Getting on and off the lilo was undoubtedly going to lead to me falling in. Was this in any way the point? No.

So. I had spotted a very large puddle in the car park when I had arrived. I took my lilo and one of the older lily pads that had come loose, and instead got in the puddle. It became another extension to my bubble. The water acted as another layer of safety or confinement (as it did with the Lady of Shallot – see previous post). It protected me from others, but alongside that the act of being on the puddle, the act of playfulness, of ridiculousness, invited conversation, from the men working in the grounds, and then the canteen staff who saw me doing it.

I had accidentally happened upon a way of connecting, between people, between artists and other staff at the uni. Between those involved and those not. Inside. Outside. Inbetween.

Lilo in the pond…..

Last week after I had started to talk about clothing and our exteriors as part of our bubbles.

Everyday when I get up and get dressed I see a print I have in my room of The Lady of Shallot. The painting by William Waterhouse (Tate Britain) based on the poem of the same name by Tennison.

A woman dissenting.

A woman shut INSIDE a tower, and due to a curse only ever able to look at the OUTSIDE (Camelot) by watching through a mirror. She falls in love, with Lancelot (his reflection and voice), and her dissent is in turning to look directly, ignoring the curse, wanting to get a look at something real!

The mirror breaks and she head down to the river to sail in a boat to Camelot, but dies along the way……

Soooooooo much in this, and lots of sticky stuff to comment on with regard to feminism, but I wanted to simply think about this in relation to our themes. Inside/outside and dissent.

So. I chose some clothing (my outer) that replicated her dress. I became (outwardly and perhaps inwardly) a Lady of Shallot for the day as I headed to Winchester. I went straight to the Rotunda, the round building on campus that we have been using, which is surrounded by a moat, full of reeds and lily pads. I took out my bubble, and unravelled it, I blew more air into it, to become a lilo again. I lay it on the pond……. and then I became outer again. It was cold. I couldn’t tell how deep it was, and I didn’t want to get the whole group of artists kicked out of the uni by my climbing into the pond. I decided to sit OUTSIDE the pond. With the lilo below me. I considered what MIRRORS we use now to see the world, and how the lady of shallot may dissent today. Instagram perhaps? Social media? And when we want something real do we leave our phones and devices? Can we? How many post likes did we get? How do we show our inner world and connect to the outer world?

Bubble version 3…. extending ourselves past the literal

Today I began my session in the foyer with Bubble version 2 again. The inflatable lilo taped and wrapped around me. The words from the previous session smudged and blurry within in for me to re-read. 

This week I have begun to consider how I extend my ‘bubble’, my echo-chamber, when i don’t place myself within the literal inflatable bubble. What mechanisms are in place for us to exist within our bubbles? How do we feel safe? Protected? Have a voice? 

Social media… constant access to our phones, laptops, tablets, the internet and the algorithms that ensure we hear what we want to hear and see what we want to see.

But physically. Day to day. How do we extend this part of ourselves? 

Today I decided to consider clothing. What we wear. How we show ourselves. How we change ourselves perhaps (certainly what I do). What ‘role’ do we have today? For me…… am I ‘showing’ a version of myself? Am I Artist? Interpreter? Mum? The Artist Mum? Do i feel I am expressing myself today? What does that mean? Why is it important?

I brought with me a bag of clothes previously donated to another work of mine ‘Clothing Exchange’. I layed with the clothes, lugged the heavy bag across the space and emptied it onto the floor. I dug through it and chose some clothing. Dressed myself. Skirt, belt, fluffy waistcoat and hooded jacket…. Wig, glassed, high heels….. I strutted around, felt the clothing and myself. Felt uncomfortable….. And quickly removed some of the items to exchange them for something more comfortable. More me? 

I hid within the clothes, lay on them, under them, they became my bubble version 3. They protect, they comfort, they express. They dissent some days, dissenting the norms of the environment perhaps or they dissent by not fitting us after having children or an indulgent holiday. Clothing can restrict or liberate us. 

Over the next few sessions I will bring my clothing exchange to the spaces at the uni. I will ask audiences to exchange a piece of their clothing with my own. I will try to use this to explore how others use clothing. What pieces do they feel comfortable sharing with me? What do they want to take away? 

Does this exchange represent something more? 

This exchange can be a dissent against capitalism perhaps, but it also for me is a dissent against feeling a need to express, but acknowledging that we all do it, don’t we? Or we choose items that we feel don’t express anything at all, neutral, I AM NEUTRAL…. Or I am not anything special…… don’t talk to me. Or Here ARE MY VIEWS… you see them, on my clothing, therefore don’t talk to me! You don’t need to ask me these views!

Or is it a challenge? See this? I am different. Ask me why!

Today I left the clothes in tidy piles, along the edge of the foyer space marked with white tape. A clear boundary of the clothing, a space for it to sit a while until its next iteration. Also a nod to the ‘art making’ of things, how we place something, where and how we ‘put’ it, and how that affects what we see. The clothes sit below Andrews maps, his maps are burnt at the edges, boundaries burnt, annihilated, edges blurred, dissent against order and parameters. My clothes sit below, extensions of bodily parameters, our edges, blurring our bodies or shaping them, mapping who we are and what we like/do/listen to…..

Fellow dissenters in the laboratory. I invite you to disrupt the clothing if you wish, I only ask that it not be destroyed, so that it can still become an exchange on later days.

The Bubble: Version 2

Bubble 2, Susan Merrick, Laboratory of Dissent 2.0, 2019

Today (Thursday 7th Nov) I had my first exploratory session at the Uni.

I used the bus (see below), created mono-prints, stuck my bubble comments from Saturday up on a wall to consider them. I engaged with several people, had a tour of the Art School and got to have some short conversations with some of the other Artists.

It was an interesting set-up. I arrived and had planned to use the bus. This is an amazing creature. An ex-library bus that has been taken on by Test Valley and CAS and is used for multiple purposes! It’s name? The Bus of Many Things!! (This makes me happy and I sent the details to my Artist friend Louise Ashcroft, as she will love it!)

I also visited the other Artists in the Rotunda, a different space surrounded by water in which most of the other Artists were quietly thinking or creating. And the foyer, which is a corridor outside a lecture hall. These are all spaces that we will be exploring with our work and where we will be engaging with the staff and students of the Uni.

I used the bus as a mini-workshop space, setting up mono printing and creating my own very mini gallery space for the day. (Photos to follow). I had arrived this morning thinking about dissent and bodies. How do our bodies dissent? When they are ill? injured? suffering from allergies or infections? I have a rash on my face today from some make-up that my skin has reacted to. Is my skin dissenting? And is that dissent useful?

We also dissent against bodies. We shave, wax, pluck them, cover them, plump them, fill them, smooth them, hide them, enhance them. We dissent against the natural. (Or at least this is what the mainstream in western society shows).

We also USE our bodies in acts of dissent. Maybe through action or protest (physically marching, campaigning, protesting or rioting), through higher impact acts of rebellion, like hunger strikes or even suicide bombs, or through small acts of rebellion (growing our bodily hair when that is not the norm, or refusing to adhere to uniforms or costumes, not conforming to what is expected. Perhaps by stepping over the yellow line before the train comes, or crossing before the green man tells us to.

I arrived thinking about all of this.

I also created the Bubble version 2. Bubble 2 is a deflated lilo. I reinflated it slightly and taped it together to create a tunnel that I could place over my upper body. I took it up to the foyer area and sat under and within in. I used a chalk pen to write down my thoughts while i was under the bubble. I remembered the text sent by Laurence, talking of membranes, of umbilical fluid and of fluid as protection. It is. It is protection. Like my bubble. Womb like, muted sounds and sights, warm and moist (as I got sweaty). The writing on my bubble began to rub off onto my body as it merged with my skin. If we are all fluid anyway, then not only does the fluid protect us when it surrounds us, but it IS US also. If it is US, and you, and me and all of us, then we are connected and this too protects us.

Fluidity. Dissent. All one. Bodies. Water.

The Bubble Version 1

Bubble 1, Susan Merrick, Inside/Outside Symposium Nov 2019

At the symposium on Saturday I let myself begin.

I mean this in the most basic sense. I have been busy with so much else that I haven’t been able to allow myself time to fully ‘begin’ to think about this project yet. That starts now.

I had wanted to try out an idea that came to me during the reading of Laurences suggested text, ‘hydro-feminism’. I wanted to enclose myself in an echo-chamber of my own making, to consider what it is about those spaces that we are drawn to? Do they have uses? What can we do to disrupt them?

I did order a ‘zorb’ football to use as an inflatable bubble but it didn’t arrive (it was actually lost!), so I created version 1 of the bubble using bubble-wrap.

At lunch-time, after the morning session where we had started to look at some of the films and get into the initial discussion of dissent, and acts of rebellion, I encased myself in the bubble. I sat in the canteen with a box of materials next to me and a sign inviting passers by to ‘disrupt’ my echo-chamber. Initially Maija began by scratching the surface of the bubble, blowing on and around it and peering in. I hadn’t expected to feel so anxious initially. There was a sense of the space being invaded, and that I wasn’t enclosed enough.

However, that soon went, I think because I began a conversation on scraps of paper with another audience member. This person engaged with me and I decided to engage back, but slowly and through posting scraps of paper through the small gap at the top of the bubble.

I considered within the bubble the idea of safety, and that perhaps we need to feel safe or confident when we wish to dissent. When we feel this way the actions and conversations we have, regardless of content and points of view feel more possible perhaps?

In the bubble I also thought about rules. Rules of engagement and normal interaction. I felt it necessary to respond to the audience. I had been asking them to disrupt me, to disregard normal social rules. I myself was sat in a bubble, a very visible and literal barrier to normal social rules, but when the audience engaged with me, I felt compelled to respond in the ‘correct’ way. By replying.

Reaction to The Whisperers…

I love your starting points and the soap box. Like speakers corner in Hyde park.

How will you invite people to use the square? Who will feel comfortable doing so? Will it be those who always speak out already? Or will others feel empowered to do so?

A white square, like the white cube space of some galleries…. Will it feel so art world that only those comments felt fitting for the art world will be made? or those theoretical or academic enough? Using art speak? Or lay terms?

Will this invite radical views or smaller irritations? Does it matter? Are my question showing my own pre judgements about what I feel is welcomed in such spaces?

How do we invite those who are NOT present to speak? Where are they? And what would they say? Would they speak at all or simply step over or around the strange white painted square…..

Will I speak? Will it be truthful? Will it be dissenting and dissenting to whom?

Initial thoughts….

My views are sometimes strong but I nearly always have fluidity in my views and opinions. (My partner finds this frustrating as hell). I can be persuaded by some good arguments, maybe not always to change my stance, but definitely to see another side. I feel like I flow very much with other humans…… as a child and younger woman this was very much around wanting to be liked…. Then this moved more to empathy and diplomacy…sometimes avoiding conflict……. Now…. it’s probably a mixture, but maybe it is also about this fluidity between each other. Sharing space….. Sharing water energy…… protecting our own space and water, our bodies…. Our emotional energy…

“Particularly within the French feminist tradition of écriture feminine, the fluid body of woman is invoked as a means of interrupting a philosophical tradition that both valorizes a male (morphological, psychological, symbolic, philosophical) norm, and elides the specificity of “woman.” Astrida Neimanis

There is a ‘fear’ of fluidity/flux… things or bodies that are ‘unstable’ or ‘different. Pregnant bodies…… diseased bodies…… bodies that change or are different, and a power shift with these bodies… children who are growing… have less power. When pregnant, women often feel less control over their own bodies and there is an assumed power given/taken by medical professionals during this time, which also happens for bodies when someone is ill and certainly this definitely happens with relation to disability too doesn’t it?…