Chris Fite-Wassilak joined the Cornwall Workshop to lead a two-day writing workshop.
We are more familiar with endings: when to let things go; when to regard something as complete, finished or just plain done. But where things start is trickier. When asked recently how I might know when something begins, I could only think of defining it as the feeling of having forgotten something and knowing that you have to return to it. How do you, or I, even recognise it as the beginning of something in the first place, to let it then develop into something we might call an idea, before we ignore it, quash it or just move on? This is a question that hangs on the contingencies of attention, memory, circumstance.
But in this case I can rely on the exigencies of time and place to provide some indication of parameters: taking a morning train southwest to Redruth in October 2017, hopping into a car heading south to the Lizard peninsula, to the small clutch of buildings of a converted farm. I had been asked to run a day’s writing workshop for participants on a week-long residency at the Cornwall Workshop; a chance, perhaps, to let some begin to see words as a material to manipulate, or to let others find their own way around a sentence, or to just throw some letters around a page. The week, as a set of discussions, excursions and exchanges led by artist Christina Mackie, started with this idea of beginnings: of attempting to seize on the dawning and opening of things and to unthinkingly, willingly but seriously, run with it. Christina had asked those coming to bring something, anything that acted as just such a starting point for them. She had accompanied her request with links to two videos: one showing a serene, fog-shrouded island in Canada, the other a gang of rocks in New South Wales. I had come with several texts: Robert Smithson’s 1966 Artforum essay on the artists who would later be called minimalists, ‘Entropy and the New Monuments’; a text that has become a toolbox that I’ve returned to over several years; as well as a few bits around the academic, poet and writer Anne Carson: her recent frank and hilarious interview in The White Review, as well as the introduction to her Autobiography of Red (1998).
A passage in Carson’s introduction had stuck with me:
‘What is an adjective? Nouns name the world. Verbs activate the names. Adjectives come from somewhere else. The word adjective (epitheton in Greek) is itself an adjective meaning ‘placed on top’, ‘added’, ‘appended’, ‘imported’, ‘foreign’. Adjectives seem fairly innocent additions but look again. These small imported mechanisms are in charge of attaching everything in the world to its place in particularity. They are the latches of being.’
Perhaps this was a passage with which to begin.
Open earthed arrived-on, flat-watered
I’d arrived several days into the Workshop, to a group that, huddled together, had begun disclosing and discussing and dissecting the ‘beginning things’ they had brought with them. Here was a group of artists who worked with wildly different stuff, who were already remarkably at ease in sharing and merging their ideas, and highly focused on simply being together in this place. The writing workshop was, I hoped, a chance to re-direct this fervent energy, to distil it towards something new.
We began the following day, using the sitting room to keep a more informal tone. We began with the ‘starting things’ that each participant had brought, lining them up on the coffee table – things like a trilobite, a small ship’s wheel, a roll of yarn – asking everyone to think of two verbs and two adjectives for each. Part of the day’s effort was to think through the notion of ‘accuracy’ – how we might know we’d found the ‘right’ word for something – but also to recognise how we might change that thing with a simple shift in how it is contextualised by new words – as when a stone is picked up and placed somewhere else. Each of these objects had already been narrated in one way to the group over the previous few days, while this exercise (ideally) reframed, and set out different lives for those things. The next exercise tried to take this further, asking everyone to write a few sentences re-narrating their object; imagining a fiction for it, an alternative life, or developing one facet they might have imagined in their interactions with it. This seemed to yield the most surprising results: fictional vignettes, concrete lists, or simply a question that, through repetition, became a touching portrait of the passing of time.
We closed the day with the group taking turns in reading sentences from Carson and then from Smithson: sometimes the awkward and mispronounced moments of reading out loud together can yield just as much as the solitary, supposedly focused attention of the silent reader.
Christina had been guiding the week’s activities with a gentle encouragement: leading questions here and there, and nudges to explain something more thoroughly. The workings of her own practice, though, had remained relatively hidden until midway through the week, when she gave a lecture spanning the past four years’ activity: from the rocks of New South Wales with eroded markings that suggest faces, that led her to explore pareidolia using clay, through to her work with fabrics and dyes, which was the starting point for her installation at Tate Britain. A sense of lightness, humour and ideas flying back and forth emerged; a sense of a practice concerned primarily with the manipulation and transformation of material, shedding new light on lines that she had written earlier in the writing workshop, as a semi-fictionalised account of her work: ‘They entered the fog to confound to placate and to still the unwanted agents. Music could be heard coming from the mountains beyond. As they drew closer language froze, its descriptions and translations fell away.’
Our next day was shaped by a comment from an audience member at Christina’s talk, who noted the similarities between her Australian rocks and the rock formations found on Carn Brea. At this point what shaped the Workshop was simply an openness – the group seemed to recognise that sometimes beginnings were chance mentions or passing words that needed to be followed up – so, putting the idea of chance beginnings into practice, we agreed to spend the afternoon visiting the hill. An oversized stone monument dedicated to a wealthy mine owner dominates Carn Brea, but we were there to see the circular depressions and odd angles made in the eroded granite boulders stacked along the ridge. It was here, nestled in the hollows of the ‘cup and saucer’ rock, that there was, perhaps, a starting point for some new, as yet unformed idea.
Apple tree head-rattled
A quiet morning provided an opportunity to try and further some of the writing workshop’s aims, including the idea that people would start to write about their practice, rather than just an object. (My own attempt included a list of new adjectives shaped by the previous days’ experiences, some examples of which punctuate sections in this report, as sub-titles.) But it seemed that this was more a process to continue beyond the Workshop itself, as the group was directed towards discussing how to continue working together after the end of the week. This is what defined the Cornwall Workshop: more than the bucolic surroundings in which we found ourselves, it was the re-pacing of our thoughts into a shared moment, the proximity that emerged, that was an unaccustomed boost – energising and highly productive. What came out of the week was a charged potential, for future ideas and as yet unknown collaborations, and perhaps a few words with which to return to it.
Text © Chris Fite-Wassilak and CAST (Cornubian Arts & Science Trust), 2018.
Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic. He is a regular contributor to art publications and the author of other writings on dry cleaning, speech bubbles and abandoned sculpture parks, and the co-organiser, with artist Anne Tallentire, of the quarterly event hmn.
Robert Smithson, Entropy And The New Monuments, published in Artforum, June 1966