At this week’s Landscape Surgery we were lucky enough to hear from Professor Jane Rendell, about her work, practice and current projects. We were also given the exciting opportunity to participate virtually in interactive site-writing activities. Jane Rendell is a Professor in Critical Spatial Practice for The Bartlett School of Architecture at UCL. Jane’s research is transdisciplinary and since 1994 has focused on exploring the relationship between architecture and other disciplines such as feminist theory, architectural history, art and architecture, autobiographical writing, psychoanalysis and criticism – through individual and collaborative international research projects.
Jane began by explaining the concepts of site-writing, as a critical and ethical spatial practice that draws attention to the situatedness of criticality, as a way of performing criticism. It brings together history and theory, as writers reflect on their own subject positions in relation to their particular objects, fields of study and how audiences may engage with their sites of research. Jane first coined the term ‘critical spatial practice’ in 2003, to describe works that bridge both art and architecture and cross disciplinary boundaries to critique embedded power relations in sites. Through writing ‘about’ various art and architectural practices Jane became aware that criticism is itself a form of critical spatial practice, and in response she developed ‘site-writing’ as a form of situated criticism. Since 2001, Jane has used ‘site-writing’ as a pedagogic tool for specific site-writing courses at the Bartlett.
Jane’s recent work is concerned with the practice of ethics and she is developing a mode of critical spatial practice to critically engage with institutional structures which position writing subjects, from places of home to those of work, for example, the university itself. She explores using site-writing to weave together textual materials concerning university strikes and uses it to critically reflect on issues relating to pensions, as well as issues relating to funding from fossil fuel companies to fund university projects on sustainability. In this case, site-writing is being used to practice an institutional critique concerned with ethics, equity, labour, work, care and precarity.
Jane shares with us she is also particularly interested in transitional spaces, as site-writing provides the opportunity to explore these spaces. For example, she has created a series of blossom paintings, created at the start of the pandemic and annotated with the level of Covid-19 deaths at the time. She explains she wishes to explore the idea of the holding space, with the home becoming a transitional space of the holding. It becomes both a space of comfort, security and reassurance and paradoxically a space of restriction and entrapment in the pandemic.
Jane further outlines to us a project she worked on, a 40 book series, called Lost Rocks. The project was commissioned, curated and edited by ‘A Published Event’. Jane’s contribution was SILVER a fictionella which explores publishing as a form of art and the relation of ethics and poetics through her own auto-biographical writing. SILVER was a narrative drawn from visits to multiple sites connected to the Barrier Ranges of South Australia, where large amounts of silver were discovered in the late nineteenth century. In 2017 SILVER was reworked to include a site in West Tasmania, which was a mining town founded on silver. This added new multi-vocal narratives as layers to the fictionella.
Jane then moves on to explain a different project, ‘Confessional Construction’, which consisted of photographic and written documentation of a text installation for the ‘BookArtBookShop’, London, 2002. Bridgid McLeer curated the installation and included 12 responses from different artists, displayed for a period of one month each. Jane’s installation is a physical construction of text, as a page on the wall. The text grappled with what it means to confess and how confessions are constructed, with three voices intermingled and a series of blockages disrupting the autobiographical confession. The footnotes read from bottom to top, to signify the building of a wall. Jane read out the text to us during the session, and the piece sounded beautifully disjointed with the ruptures in the language somehow making sense.
‘Alien Positions’ was the final project Jane shared with us; a text which was written to accompany an exhibition by artist Bik Van Der Pol called ‘Fly me to the Moon’ at the Rijksmuseum in 2006, where a fragment of moon rock was exhibited. The catalogue relates Jean Laplanche’s (1999) Essays on Otherness to the destabilising effects of envisioning the cosmos and the impact on the psyche, along with Freud’s theory of self-centring and the destabilised ego, for exploring the implications of the psyche going astray, and how this links to wandering stars. Jane links Laplanche’s explorations of the unconscious ‘alien inside me’ to the moon rock, to explore how theory can be brought into practice. She explained to us her theory of two alien positions using the moon rock example by asking a series of questions, such as: where did the fragment come and what is its history outside me? How does the fragment see me?
After having been introduced to this array of work, Jane then led us through an interactive writing exercise. As surgeons, we were encouraged to bring along a visual item relating to our site, such as a photo, drawing, audio recording, film, map or artefact, and we explored the possibilities of shifting our approach from ‘writing about’ to ‘writing as’ our sites. Encouraged to not overthink or over theorize. we were given 1 minute each for three exercises that involved 1) writing down your first initial responses to the item, 2) writing from a different angle or position and 3) finding a phrase or word we had repeated and change it, for instance in tense or positionality. For the final part of the session, Jane asked us to change our medium, whether that was a different writing style or the use of drawing, painting or other visual methods.
We would like to thank Jane for such an interesting and inspiring talk and site-writing session. It was really amazing to hear about all these exciting projects and even participate in our own site-writing. It was so great that Jane was able to get us into the creative zone, especially virtually in the pandemic, where sparking creativity is difficult. I think we have all come away with new ideas and possibilities for our own research and feeling a new surge of creative potential!
Written by: Rosie Knowles
Edited by: Will Barnes
Laplanche, J. 1999. Essays on Otherness. London: Routledge.