Air and Grace Notes’: new work and Beaconsfield Residency
During late August and early September, 2022, I have been artist and residence in the Arch Gallery at Beaconsfield Contemporary Art, in Vauxhall, London, responding to their exhibition: Monica Sjöö The time is NOW and it is overdue! (1) Many thanks indeed to Minna Haukka of the the Feminist library and to Naomi Siderfin and David Crawforth at Beaconsfield as well as Middlesex University Research Funds which supported a research trip to Scotland.
My explorations in in the arch space are the beginnings of a piece with the working title: Air and Grace Notes. I have been working with filmed material, drawing, vocals and sound – building on recent researches into the Scottish witch trials of the 17th century (2), and their relevance for understanding patriarchy/capital now. This work is emerging from The Hurrier (2021) an expanded film and sci-fi folk ballad about class and sexuality. The ‘witches’ all too often, stood accused of being ‘disorderly, refractory, idle, drunken and bold’ (3) and engaged in sexual relations that were not sanctioned by the Kirk. I have also been very affected by Silvia Federici’s writings and how she draws out connections between the early development of capital, the ‘enclosure’ (theft) of the land, women becoming ‘vagabonds’ and the collision of poverty/sex/ witchcraft accusations in the 16th and 17th centuries. (4).
Research for ‘The Hurrier’ began with generations of my matrilineal ancestors in Ayrshire, in trouble with the Kirk Sessions, mainly for the ‘sin and scandal of fornication’. The only records they left behind concerned sexuality and debt. My researches led me further back to the trials themselves as I realised that the accused were often working class and poor women and that ‘sins’ committed were pretty much the same: sex outside marriage, idleness, drunkenness, being too independent, too loud, the difference being that two centuries earlier, the punishments could be much more serious than humiliation.
I had always known of the witch trials in my home town of Ayr: the notorious Maggie Osborne, and the site of the burnings at the Malt Cross, across many centuries but especially during the time of the Witchcraft Act (1563 -1737). Accused ‘witches’ were often tortured, with the death penalty for those ‘proven’ guilty and throughout this, women and anyone deemed ‘outsider’ living with prejudice and misogyny that becomes blame, hatred, persecution and eventually for some, imprisonment, banishment, torture, and execution. (6)
The accused were too much for the repressive kirk fathers, including the first minister of the Auld Kirk where I long ago attended Sunday School, and whose effigy remains in the kirkyard. He was an interrogator and persecutor of ‘witches’. On my research trip, I was drawn back there to film and this is part of the material in the arch work in progress. I am inspired to work with what I think of as ‘queer archaeology’ drawing on a past which is here, now: art as time travel. This extends to the sound mix I developed in the space.
I began to focus on the stories (often small fragments) of ten women – including Isobel Gray, a vagabond, executed 1629 and Elspeth Cunningham, whose initial misdemeanour was to destroy the alehouse when she was refused a drink, executed 1659. My drawings in the arch are a vision of what these ten women may have looked like. They became for me ‘imaginary women’ (7) accused of ‘imaginary crimes’.
At present, I am moving on with this work through speculative fictioning, and the writing of a time-travelling folk ballad based on what may have happened to a small group of ‘accused’ who got away. In 1658, in Ayrshire, when the authorities went to find a group of seven accused witches, they were declared ‘gone away’, not there..
In May, 1993, Monica Sjöö entered Bristol Cathedral with a group of women, intending to disrupt the service and declare ‘the glad tidings of the End of Patriarchy’. She later commemorated this event in a painting and described it as: ‘incredibly powerful and magical..’ (5) A powerful element in the intervention was the singing of a song, accompanied by drumbeats. This intervention and artwork has been an inspiration for my work in the Beaconsfield residency.
As part of my residency, I also ran a workshop exploring the possibilities of ‘Vocal Resistance’, in which participants joined voices and shared practice, drawing on activist vocal legacies, ways of listening to the past, the spirit of ‘keening’ (gaelic lament) and resistance to patriarchy.
1. You can read more about the Monica Sjöö exhibition here:
https://beaconsfield.ltd.uk and about the exhibition of her posters at The Feminist Library here: https://feministlibrary.co.uk/feminist-library-monica-sjoo-and-the-poster-1-july-10-september/
2. Further reading on thew witch trials: Levack, Brian P. (2007) Witch Hunting in Scotland: Law, Politics and Religion, NY: Routledge.
3. Robinson, Anne (2021) The Hurrier’, broadside ballad composed for film work of the same name, London: APT.
4. Federici, Silvia (2017) Caliban And The Witch: Women, The Body, and Primitive Accumulation, NY: Autonomedia.
5. Helle, U. H. and Hughes, M. eds. (2022) Monica Sjöö – zine – UK: Legion Projects.
6. In April, 2022, the Scottish parliament became the first in the world to ‘pardon’ the witches – 4,000 tried and 2,500 executed at a likely conservative estimate.
7. From investigating the grim histories of the trials, I was prompted to seek other voices from the 17th century, and in reading about some of the visionaries of the time, including Jane Lead, I encountered the words of an angry patriarchal cleric who described such people as ‘imaginary women’ !
Artist website is at: annerobinsonartwork.org