This article discusses a practice-based research project: an artist’s book installation, with the Mooi River in the Potchefstroom environment as a theme. The discussion is a retrospective reflection on the work Mooirivier: weerspieëling en weerklank (“Mooi River: reflection and echo”) from the perspective of the artist-researcher on the basis of the place concepts sense of place, emplacement and bioregionality. Literature and art are closely linked with the experience of and relationship with place. The premise of the author is that an artist’s book, as a layered and multimedia art form, can embody place in a unique way, and can create an opportunity to portray and explore the layering of place experience and relationships. Furthermore, the artist’s reflection on her own artist’s book project on the basis of these place concepts can contribute to the understanding of people’s relationship with place and with site-specific art and literature. The article consists of the following sections: 1) Introduction; 2) The research space and intermediate zone of practice; 3) Theoretical framework: place, sense of place, emplacement, bioregionality; 4) Exploration and discovery – the artist’s sense of place; 5) Concretisation – the embodiment ofsense of place in content and form; 6) Dynamic interaction in the intermediate zone of practice; 7) Viewer-participant’s experience of sense of place; 8) Summary and conclusions; 9) Afterword.
Practice may in itself be regarded as a place or area. Schon (2001:6) refers in this regard to theintermediate zone of practice. The artist-researcher, art practice and art works are situated and embedded in artistic and academic contexts; artistic research involves the articulation of the aesthetic experience, practice and art works (Borgdorff 2011:47). The artwork concerned originated in an overarching space (organisationally, conceptually and thematically) of an interdisciplinary creative research and project, Reflective conversations: typography, topography, and typology. The artist’s book installation Mooirivier: weerspieëling en weerklank consists of two 8-metre-long concertina books displayed on two parallel exhibition panels, each 6 metres in length. The content of the books is compiled of photographs taken along the course of the Mooi River and text presenting 170 years of history (impressions and interventions). Material was gathered from literature like travel journals, fiction, poems, lyrics, essays, oral narratives, press reports, advertising material and research reports. Readings of portions of the text were recorded, and mixed as part of an impressionistic soundtrack along with music composed especially for the project. While viewing the work, the reader-participant could listen to the soundtrack through an MP3 player. Visitors virtually walked in and along the river to view the entire exhibition – the work thus offered the reader-participant a multi-sensory experience. In addition, visitors were invited to participate in the Mooi River Conversation – a table with feedback cards for this purpose formed part of the exhibition.
The concept sense of place essentially indicates that places are associated with meaning and feeling (Buell 2005:63; Relph 1976:49). The idea of being inside a place and experiencing it in various ways is described through terms like embeddedness, emplacement, embodiment andimmersion. In the theoretical framework the focus is particularly on a better understanding of the concept of emplacement, and the perspectives of place theorists such as Buell, Basso, Relph, Casey, Smiley and Smith are used. Smith (2012:902) associates emplacement with the three dimensions which Buell (2005:63) assigns to place, namely the physical materiality of the environment, socio-cultural perception and linguistic construction of place, and the individual’s personal relationship with place. These dimensions are interdependent and interacting with one another: physically and materially the individual is part of a space and responds to it socially, culturally, emotionally, affectively and intellectually (Smith 2012:891). A bioregion (Dasmann 1977) is defined as a unique region with natural boundaries and distinctive geography, ecosystems, recognisable landscapes and unique human culture. Bioregional thinking involves a perspective shift to the local environment and the organic relationship of systems (McGinnes 2005:189). Literature and art reflect the unique bioregional character of specific communities and can help people to reimagine the places where they live and their relationship with these places (Lynch et al. 2012:3). With the Mooi River playing an integral part in Potchefstroom and the environment, it can be expected that the river would be strongly associated with an individual and collective sense of place. This implies that people also express this sense of place through their actions.
The creative part of the project involved three main aspects, namely photography along the course of the Mooi River, gathering information/texts about the river, and form-giving. In the section “Exploration and discovery – the artist’s sense of place” the discovery process of the artist regarding the bioregion and the literature in which the bioregionality is embodied, is discussed. The artist’s idea was that the different voices regarding the river over the course of time should virtually be audible through the collected literature, and that an image of the river should thus be created. The author (artist-researcher) shows that the process of discovery was an enriching and emplaced experience where the artist’s knowledge and experience of the Mooi River and its environment were expanded, deepening an own sense of place. The changing perspective of the artist in the intermediate zone of practice (Schon 1983) also influenced the form and content of the artwork. Next, the concretisation (the manifestation of sense of place in content and form) is discussed, the different parts of the book and its form-giving are detailed, and the dynamic interaction in the intermediate space of practice is reflected on. Engaging with and being occupied with the material, methods, tools and ideas of the practice is inherent to the material, practice and thinking that are characteristic of artistic creation (cf. Bolt 2006; Greyling 2009:109). This experience can be regarded as an emplaced experience, where the artist finds herself conceptually, materially and creatively within the project. Some examples are discussed of how the different parts of the artist’s book installation were combined and how it influenced aesthetic decisions in the intermediate space of practice. This is followed by a discussion of the exhibition and the reader-participant’s experience of the project in the gallery space. From the feedback it seems that the reader-participants responded to the work in a sensory, emotional, affective and intellectual way – responses which are also associated with the experience of place. Some of the responses indicate that the artist’s book installation in itself was also experienced as a “place” and also gave rise to certain forms of emplacement.
The conclusion is that the installation described can be regarded as a bioregional site-specific work. The activities related to the work can be interpreted as an emplaced creative action and an emplaced research action, and the experience of the viewer-participant as an emplaced experience. Smith’s definition of emplacement writing and reading is therefore extended.
Keywords: artist’s book; artist’s book installation; bioregionality; emplacement; Mooi River;Mooirivier: weerspieëling en weerklank; “Mooi River: reflection and echo”; practice-based research; practice-led research; sense of place; site-specific art