Earlier this year, Dr Michael Eades, was invited to show selected materials from his AHRC-funded research project, Bloomsbury Festival in a Box: engaging socially isolated people with dementia, at Leeds College of Art. The ‘Festival in a Box: archives’ exhibition, which runs until 30 November, draws together materials assembled during artist-led visits to the homes of people living alone and with dementia in Bloomsbury and Camden.
The process of putting together this small exhibition has allowed me to think about the project, and my research more broadly, in an entirely different way. It has been an incredibly useful exercise – and I have pulled together some thoughts on this below.
Developing the archives
Between November 2013 and May 2014, the Festival in a Box (FIAB) project undertook weekly visits with six people living alone and with dementia in Bloomsbury and Camden. The idea was to take a miniature and mobile version of the festival to the homes of those unable to attend the event itself.
An important part of the early thinking behind the project was that it would create a series of archives – one for each participant. The archives would grow over the course of the project with materials developed during the visits (photographs, pieces of artwork, research materials, even transcripts of the conversations).
From archive to exhibition
Festival in a Box: archives runs across two floors, taking in several alcove wall cabinets and a large glass vitrine, and is part of a new ‘Curator’s Choice’ series curated by Dr Catriona Mcara. The series, in her words, creates a ‘surprising trail of cabinets of curiosity [which] highlight a selection of innovative research-practice, often work-in-progress, from a range of internal and external colleagues.’
This ‘trail of cabinets of curiosity’ gave me the perfect spaces around which to unpack and disperse the contents of my FIAB archives. In an arrangement influenced by a recent visit to an exhibition of Joseph Cornell’s ‘shadowboxes’ at the Royal Academy of Arts, each alcove now contains an archive: a box within a box.
When planning the exhibition, however, I wanted to ensure that each wall cabinet included not only an archive from the box, but also some original photography based on that content. Each shelf therefore also contains an original photograph of a detail or an arrangement from the archives. The point is to show that the content of these archives are not static – but are resources that can be rearranged and curated to create new material, new possibilities.
The vitrine offered an opportunity to show a ‘work in progress’ cross section of materials from the box. The glass shelves in the tall display case allow for a division and distribution of the material. They allow you to look down through the materials gathered – giving a sense of the layering of perspectives and stories involved in the Festival in a Box project itself, and of the different stages of work that went into it. The idea was to capture something of the narrative and the movement of the unfolding research process.
Research as practice/practice as research
One of the unexpected outcomes of the Festival in a Box project for me, as lead researcher, is that it led me to question my own identity as a researcher. Taking the box on visits to the homes of people with dementia while working closely with artists from a range of disciplinary backgrounds, highlighted for me the fluid boundary between research and creative practice. On these visits I often found myself getting involved in the art workshops, even in some instances leading them if an artist failed to turn up for a visit. Weeks of doing this underlined some unexpected common ground.
The Festival in a Box project formed a collaborative community that brought together researchers and creative practitioners. In a sense though it also highlighted the highly malleable boundary between researchers and ‘creatives’. Any research project is also a creative project, and any decent creative project also requires a certain level of research. The boundaries are fluid, and are increasingly recognised as such. I have found that my Festival in a Box project has encouraged me to transgress them in ways that have been productive and which have provided inspiration for the future of the project.
Suddenly the work enters a new context entirely – and one in which I hope will reach an entirely new audience. It has been a rewarding and revealing shift in practice for me. To quote one of my project participants: ‘I didn’t know that I could do anything like that. Gosh, I’m an artist.’
Dr Michael Eades is the School of Advanced Study’s cultural and public engagement research fellow, whose job involves overseeing its public engagement activity, initiating cultural partnerships and projects, and managing and curating programming for the Being Human festival of the humanities, the School’s flagship national forum for public engagement.