Researcher Blog by Joanne Lee: Neepsend Lane and the relationship between art practice and place
About the author
Joanne Lee is a senior lecturer in Graphic Design in the Art & Design Research Centre (ADRC). Much of her research develops through a serial publication, the Pam Flett Press, which explores the visual, verbal and temporal possibilities of ‘essaying’ the everyday.
Joanne was recently invited to take part in Practising Place, an event curated by In Certain Places (University of Central Lancashire). Here she discusses her participation in the event and considers its continued resonance in her work.
Practising Place is a programme of public conversations, designed to examine the relationship between art practice and place. The invitation to discuss research with Dr Paul Wilson (Graphic Design, University of Leeds) prompted us both to focus on the way particular city surfaces communicate, and the multiple interpretations of the inscriptions to be found there.
In ‘Forms of Inscription: surfaces, patterns and the typography of place’ I considered how my past practice led me to a current project. The presentation culminated in images from one of Sheffield’s urban lanes, which shifts from major thoroughfare into mere footpath. It’s a complex place where metalworkers, fabricators, mechanics and wholesalers trade, where scrap and waste are gathered and transferred elsewhere, but also where illegal off-roading, fly-tipping and sex work takes place.
Having first walked Neepsend Lane some fifteen years ago, I have come to reflect upon its specificity, but also remarked the way its vague terrain manifests the patterns of industry, leisure, abandonment and reclamation repeated elsewhere in the North. My research through practices of walking, photography and writing recognises the entanglements of nature and culture that exist here, the sanctioned and illicit uses that exist alongside one another, and the determinedly unfashionable economic activities that sustain the place.
In my presentation I described how I have concerns about the ethics of travelling elsewhere to work site-specifically, so choose to deal with what’s immediately around me, encountering what is underfoot or close at hand. The research pays attention to what French writer Georges Perec described as being ‘endotic’, that which is closest at hand, the very opposite of the exotic, and in its consideration of surfaces it has something of Perec’s famous instruction: “Force yourself to see more flatly”.
The conversation with Paul Wilson, whose own research involves the study of noticeboards and vernacular signage in Working Men’s Clubs, brought out a mutual interest in the figure of the ‘amateur’ as designer and investigator. For both of us there is a sense that many things already feel so well explained by experts that they are now curiously overlooked. We remain sceptical at the way investigations of place jump to standard interpretations that too readily restate the already known. By contrast, our visual methods seek to maintain, and even amplify, the complexity of the sites we explore; as we zero in on specific aspects, the possibilities expand, microcosmically, so that, as Nan Shepherd put it, ‘The thing to be known grows with the knowing.’
In the first instance, the Practising Place event provided a public opportunity to discuss this work and to test ideas through engaging in dialogue with an audience made up of those with diverse perspectives. A host of different academic and creative disciplines were present, as well as those who came along simply out of an interest in Sheffield or the North. The presentations are available online here.
In addition to the event’s scheduled discussion, the adjacent SIA Gallery was open late for a viewing of the ‘In return’ exhibition, a collaborative project with researchers from Nottingham Trent University which forms part of ‘Topographies of the Obsolete’, a network investigating post-industrial landscapes initiated by Bergen Academy of Arts, Norway. Here, alongside my photographic essay ‘Neepsend Sequence’, and issue 4 of the Pam Flett Press, ‘Vague terrain, which explored urban edgelands, we were able to continue the conversation more informally. I have found that such situations allow different kinds of things to be said, and often people want to tell stories about their own experiences of such places.
Since then Wilson and I have been talking and writing together about the issues raised. Our reflection will appear in a special e-journal published by arts criticism and cultural commentary site The Double Negative. More extensive work will form a chapter in a Practising Place publication examining human relationships with place, which seeks to contribute to debates about the role of practice within interdisciplinary research.
These ideas still resonate in my research. I am continuing to investigate discarded material and instances of fly-tipping in ‘Littered landscapes, a project with Dr Rosemary Shirley (Art History and Curating, Manchester Metropolitan University). We will be presenting our work-in-progress at Cross Multi Inter Trans: the Biennial Conference of ASLE-UKI with Land2, 6-8 September, 2017.
Please note: Views expressed are those of the Author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of SHU, C3RI or the C3RI Impact Blog.