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In Conversation with Christiane Monarchi

Fabrica Gallery, January 2018

 

 
During the Making Space Residency at Fabrica Gallery in 2018, Lisa Creagh and Christiane Monarchi held a conversation about the ideas behind the Holding Time project.

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Transcript

 



LC: I am very pleased to welcome Christiane Monarchi, founder and editor of Photomonitor, who publish very progressive, interesting and academic publications online. Over the last few years it has helped change the shape of the photography and art world, so it is a great honour to have her here today. I should also mention Christiane is a mother of three!

CM: Thank you very much. I am delighted to be here, because I often get involved with photography events and it’s usually a lot more about the image as an expression of art. Whereas, this is one of the first opportunities where I really feel the topic is about something universal, distilled through photography, which will then go back into the world in a very activist way. So, I am fascinated to come at it from this angle and how we are in a space which is more than an art exhibition of things that might go up in an art fair, or in a frame or art collection, because there are so many different ramifications of this. First of all, welcome to the men in the audience, I am delighted to see that there are men here tonight and I think that deserves a big call out because it’s something I wasn’t really expecting! Lisa, I have a list of questions to ask you, so to start of, I want to take you back the beginnings of this work and how you came about wanting to do it? Back to the spark, the moment or the multiple moments…

LC: Well, I think like most women, I didn’t really think about breastfeeding until the moment I put the baby on my breast and I had that deluded idea that it was just going to be really easy. And it wasn’t, it was very, very hard and I had literally only ever seen one woman breastfeed before. She’s actually here tonight, Ruth, my breastfeeding mentor and mentor in many ways. Ruth had her child 10 months before mine and so that was the first time I had seen anyone put a child to their breast and I just couldn’t stop looking and thinking, wow! I had absolutely no reference before that and I think that is extraordinarily common. I think doing the interviews with the mothers (participating mothers), it’s an issue that has come up time and time again. If you have seen one woman breastfeed before, you’ve got a much better chance of being able to breastfeed yourself. So, you only need one friend or one mentor, but if you don’t have any, it is a lot harder and I think many women are in a situation where they don’t actually have anyone. CM: So, up until you had your child you didn’t really feel like you had been exposed to it?

LC: Yeah, I hadn’t seen it at all, even through Brighton is ostensibly a breastfeeding friendly city. I suppose if I had seen it I would have looked away because I don’t want to seem like I’m staring. So, I had never really had the opportunity to study a woman breastfeeding and that is part of this, offering the audience the opportunity to study something which is not normally seen. Inviting them to look and inviting them to watch, making an environment where they feel comfortable, in order to become much more familiar with what breastfeeding looks like. But, to answer your question about the inception of the project, because I had such a difficult time breastfeeding, I ended up bottle feeding my daughter who has tongue tied and I had the very unusual experience of going from bottle feeding to breastfeeding, which is rare. The background for me also, is that I suffered 9 years of infertility before I even got pregnant, so I didn’t expect to get pregnant and I wasn’t someone who was on a certain track - getting pregnant, then breastfeeding, a baby wearing Boden and going for walks in the woods (laughs). I was just thinking, okay it’s not happening, so I’m going to move back to London and be in my 50’s and go clubbing… you know, I just wasn’t in that mindset. Pregnancy was an exciting accident or miracle, depending on how you look at it, and I did do all the anti-natal stuff but breastfeeding just didn’t really come up much.

CM: At the same time, when you’re waiting for your daughter and you’re being photographed at work and you’re thinking about your life as an artist, did you look around at other artists to see what was happening in the arts community? Did you also find that other artists weren’t talking about breastfeeding either?

LC: Yeah, I think that the last time breastfeeding was widely visualised in art was during the Renaissance. It seemed to me, when I was a new mother, the last time I saw women breastfeeding in art was pre-Renaissance Madonna’s at the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, which I had visited many times. I absolutely love Pre-Renaissance Madonna’s and I can remember seeing one with milk squirting out. I also find it really interesting that when I did come to breastfeed and I caught an image of myself in the mirror I thought, ‘oh I do look like a Madonna’. It’s a truism that if you sit a woman down in a chair, any chair and anywhere, they look like a Madonna. The same can be said if you put someone in a robe and they look like Mary, it’s just a very iconic image of a mother and child. It’s such a powerful icon and yet it hasn’t had much revival, it’s just there as an ancient image. I felt a bit betrayed by modern culture that there was nothing for me as a mother. In fact I felt, all of a sudden, that I was very aware that there was an absence of female voices everywhere. I would turn on the radio and I could only hear men talking and then I would turn on the TV and it was very male dominated. I never really noticed it before because I was very much a part of it. I was the director of a company and I was on commuter trains, I was wearing nice clothes and I was earning money - this has all changed since motherhood!

CM: Do you think we live in a world which rewards people who get back onto the carousel of work?

LC: You know, people would ask me when I was pregnant, ‘are you going to come back to work?’ and I thought ‘Yeah!’. I wasn’t in any way prepared in that sense, I didn’t realise motherhood was such an enormous and transformative experience. I can remember 2-3 days after bringing my daughter home, standing on my doorstep and although it was the same doorstep, same street, same house I felt like I was in a totally different universe. I felt like I had switched completely and now all my perceptive was adjusted to this new life ahead. Everything just looked different to me and I realised there was this absence, culturally of something that reflected back to me what I was going through.

CM: I can see the interest in wanting to create something which is empowering for women, who are in that alternative universe, and also taps into people’s solitary existence in this way. I am interested in thinking about you as an artist, not necessarily making work about yourself and your own personal experience, but then inviting others and photographing others. Can you tell me a little more about this because it’s very collaborative in nature?

LC: Well, I mean I can photograph myself and I did that when I was really young. I think it’s a phase which a lot of artists go through and then you either get bored of it or find it really interesting. But, in a way, photographing the mothers was very similar to the last work I made which was very influenced by Dutch flower painting. Dutch flower paintings are an illusion: you have a beautiful vase of flowers, but they are actually all from different, times, seasons and stages, studied botanically and then brought together as a visual construct. Looking at this now, I realise I have done something similar, which is to study, quite intensely, each mother in a dark studio space, like a specimen and then bring them together. My idea for the finished piece is that there are 24 mothers, creating something which doesn’t actually exist but I would like to exist: a circle of women from different backgrounds and stages all sharing one space.

CM: You have also picked on 24 and I’m fascinated by your timepiece and interest in cosmatesque floors. So, I’d love to ask how you came about the numerical and musical geometric measure of time in this piece?

LC: One of the aspects of the work that I wanted to go back to is the moment when I was first breastfeeding. I felt like I was in an incredibly creative space and I was in a different mindset to normal. The type of mindset you would go to if you were lost in a piece of music or utterly in flow, completely blissfully engaged. This seemed to happen every time I was breastfeeding and the thoughts that went through my mind were intensey creative. The head of breastfeeding support services in Brighton was here earlier and I was trying to explain the timepiece to her and she said ‘so it’s basically a right brained clock?’. I thought that was a really great way of describing it. In terms of cosmatesque and why I wanted to use it, it’s similar to my last work in that it’s a type of floor, a decorative pattern which people stand on and overlook. More specifically, these patterns were taken from the Sistine Chapel, which is definitely a floor that isn’t looked at in great detail because it is usually so populated. I was in the habit of counting the numbers in Persian carpets from my last work, so when I visited the Sistine Chapel for the first time, I was mesmerised by the relationships of the shapes to each other and their quantities and numbers. It seemed to have a certain order that spoke to me of time because it was in measurements of 1, 2, 12 up to 60. Having looked at all this Persian geometry I felt it was really significant but when I researched it I found that the meaning had been lost. I then decided to reinvent it as a time system that could count the duration of these mothers feeding in this piece and that could also illustrate a kind of map that would chart their journey of breastfeeding. I’m interested in photography being able to show us everything and nothing, the composition being able to encompass many things simultaneously but also just being an instant, a moment….I wanted to extend that moment indefinitely.

CM: Looking at physical glass object created by Mike Barrett, to signify the duration, I want to know how did you decide on glass? Because the shapes are magical and even just the process to make that object is intensive.

LC: That’s something that Mike (Barrett) brought to the project. Originally, I wanted to make them three dimensional because I had this idea of creating a cinematic space, where you could have far away and near using scale. Because I could see scale being used in the pattern over and over again. I researched glass makers in Brighton and found Mike, who is the only one that could do this work which is cast, poured glass. Mike brought to it this wonderful, textured approach with all the tiny bubbles caught in the glass. Giving it an amazing pattern, almost like thought bubbles. It’s interesting because I look at those designs and I really didn’t know what they would be, but that’s the sort of journey you go on as an artist. You set out with an intention but you don’t know where to are going to end up.

CM: So, what we are seeing is an assignment of a time unit for each rendering of the glass crystal?

LC: The timepiece counts in seconds. It starts out counting in 1 seconds 5 times and then up to 20 seconds and then it starts to count in 4’s and then 16’s, so it’s counting more slowly when the size increases. It counts using scale and also turns and spirals out. Essentially you can measure time any way you like, you don’t have to use existing methods. If it’s not working for us, we can invent a new way.

CM: I like this way, it’s circular, so it goes round and it’s nice when it finishes rather than depressing.

LC: The point is that, at the end of it, you have a whole image and that should give you a sense of the accumulation rather than something intangible and gone. I remember sitting in a restaurant next to this mother with a tiny newborn baby and two guys, and one of them said ‘when are you going back to work?’. I just looked at this poor woman and thought “gosh, she’s just given birth - give her a break!” I feel that time is such an issue with motherhood….

CM: How did you start working with other people, inviting them in and also thinking, “Wow, this experience is so universal”? LC: Well Lucila, (Newell) who I am working with, was very keen on framing the broader social constructs that make breastfeeding so difficult. I suppose I’d also had a lot of conversations with other mothers (you’d be) pushing your baby in a swing or sat in a cafe, and asking eachother, “Why is this so hard?” I noticed that when mothers came into the studio they were always very apologetic, saying things like, “I’m sorry for being late, for being in the way, or for looking a state” etc. and I felt that there is no space for child rearing in the business of modern life. Lucila really helped me to understand the social context of that. (these issues are) a result of town planning, industrialisation and a symptom of a post-capitalist society, where families are very dispersed and we are isolated from each other. I think I really experienced this because I was 40 when I had my daughter, so many of my friends had already had their children and had been through this process. I think the pressures on women to go back to work and put the baby ‘away’ somewhere (tidily) are enormous. I saw of lot of anxiety around this, hence the conversations of when, why and what. Lucila and I decided to set up The Parlour, where we could engage people in some of these conversations. I knew by then that I wanted to make this work and felt that the last work I made wasn’t properly contextualised - I didn’t have the language or way of speaking about it that I would have liked. So, this time I really made sure all the groundwork was there and I had gathered lots and lots of voices. So I have done this digitally through social media and although there is only 50 Instagram followers, I know there is an amazing wider activist movement. Facebook and Twitter are also incredible for getting the word out there and allowing things to go far wider than you can imagine. (We are) trying to support other women who are doing things internationally in this space and using The Parlour as a way of doing that.

CM: Did you meet your photographic subjects through the website also or, how did you meet them?

LC: Not really no, they are really through Brighton networks and random strangers on the bus or cafes. Some women were just given cards by other women who participated and it really spread through word of mouth.

CM: Can you tell me a bit more about the decision to have dark backgrounds in the photographs and The Parlour interviews in their home, on couches and more comfortable?

LC: It’s nice, I think the contrast works well. I started out in the first few shoots trying to photograph, film and interview them all at once but I was just exhausted there were so many things going on in terms of lights and camera.

CM: Where did you work, in your studio?

LC: I was doing a residency at (Brighton MET) at the time, so that meant I had to set the lights up with each shoot and it took quite a bit of work. It was lovely to go to women’s houses and see the tableau of a women changing a baby’s nappy, picking them up or feeding them whilst having an in-depth conversation, which is something I feel (we) never see (in culture). I never see women talking intelligently whilst also mothering, mothering in any way but primarily breastfeeding. It was nice to give voices to the women because obviously, the black background and stillness of this piece doesn’t allow for that. It’s almost like trying to turn the volume up in another way and allowing their voices to be heard. And also creating a different vehicle for people to find this work, including doctors surgeries and birthing centres, so the women who wouldn’t usually be interested in art can also find it, whether by accident or not.

CM: When I look at these images I see something very powerful in the black background against which women sit in very elegant poses with great posture, no props and no breastfeeding covers.

LC: Do you mean for women to think well, maybe I do look beautiful when I’m breastfeeding?

CM: Yes, even when they might think they don’t. Because it’s something women do worry about, when you’re in public and there are people around you, but to have that visual of yourself is powerful.

LC: I think it’s valid, I think lactating is a huge visual change and I think women are expected to just ‘adjust’. It’s not easy, suddenly you have fluid coming out your breast and it feels weird, and then you are expected to go out in public and well, it’s an incredible ask. Even breastfeeding in front of my brother was hard at first, it was embarrassing.

CM: You were embarrassed or he was embarrassed?

LC: Everyone was embarrassed, because it’s not seen so its like - what are you doing?

CM: What about the people who can’t breastfeed and feel guilty? Who have bottle anxiety, you know, there are so many different sides to the conversation.

LC: Yeah, I think you have to be quite careful, it’s a subject which we need to change the debate around so that it is okay to talk about (it) without worrying you are offending people. You know, we can talk about feminism without apologising to all the men. It is an inclusive conversation and I know women (who) struggled terribly to breastfeed, as did I, so I’m more than sympathetic. I see a large number of issues coming from a lack of support post-natally, but there are a small percentage of women who can’t breastfeed and that’s a great pity. I think it’s got to be something we can talk about without being accused of shaming someone, because at the end of the day there are companies making billions out of formula and capitalising on an unhappy situation. If we cannot talk about it or even celebrate it, how will it ever be addressed? We need the freedom to discuss this topic openly. (but) I have been very conscious about not just saying “Breastfeeding is wonderful!” because it’s not and it can be really hard.

CM: Have you edited any of the interviews or left some out?

LC: Well, they are all edited down to five minutes so they are heavily edited but one of the questions I ask them is ‘how does it affect nighttime parenting?’ because one of the criticisms (of breastfeeding) is that you will get less sleep. And I always ask, “How did you feel about breastfeeding in public?” and “How does it affect your relationship?”. I think those can be stumbling blocks and I am conscious of (making an effort to) interview(ing) women who couldn’t breastfeed as well as women who could. I don’t just want to hear from successful breastfeeders, I want to hear from women who couldn’t, in order to better understand the reasons why. This is the type of material myself and Lucila want, this isn’t a marketing campaign for breastfeeding, it’s a discursive opportunity to look at this issue in all of its complexity.

CM: Can you tell me a bit more about how approachable you think the work is in other countries? I was surprised to learn Britain has one of the lowest percentages of breastfeeding mothers, because I would consider British society so open. How do you think the work would transfer to other countries, are you in contact with anyone else regarding this work?

LC: Only via Instagram. There seems to be a very active South American breastfeeding community and also Australian and Northern Europe. I think a lot of Northern European countries are ahead of us and what’s interesting is that Eastern Europe had almost 100% breastfeeding rates before the fall of the wall. There was no formula in places like Latvia and Estonia, so it’s a new thing. It’s an interesting insight into what role formula plays and how it is marketed to the population. I suppose the thing is, I’m not interested in talking about formula because I think it is just a gap in society, which has been filled by a product. We no longer have the same sense of community or support, so I think that has to be the focus. I do see this as a very international project and I was conscious that the (participating) women are very international, there are mothers from Brazil, USA, China and it’s pretty representative, as much as it could be.

CM: I like that you have chosen, with Helen’s input, the international language of music to go with the work and bring it all together because everyone responds in such a strong way to music. I did say I would love to have a bootleg copy, it’s absolutely magical! Could you tell me your plans for this work here and in terms of the breastfeeding sit-ins?

LC: Well, this is just a test, a marker of this stage, which has forced me to finish something and put it out there. Liz Whitehead (Fabrica’s Artistic Director) was saying it’s about exposure, and I guess I do feel quite exposed! If it was up to me I wouldn’t show anything until it was perfect, but this had been a good motivator. This animated video version of the work is an answer to the stills. The still images are very important and they will be shown at ONCA Gallery in one month’s time. I feel really happy about the relationship between the two, I really need both the animation and stills as a photographer. It’s very exciting to work in moving image and make an installation like this. I see this version of the work, working in so many ways that stills cannot. It can be installed, on walls and in different environments, I want it to reach far more people. ONCA will be a completely different setup, where it is a breastfeeding hub. I renamed it ‘breastfeeding hub’ because ‘breastfeeding sit-in’ sounded pretty activist and that’s not what I am trying to achieve. It’s much more of a gathering and the idea is that women will get together and hang out, so I am excited to document that. Then, it will move onto the Brompton Hospital where it will be on display 24/7 on a plasma screen. alongside interviews from The Parlour.

CM: Well I think we’ll have to leave it there. It’s been great talking to you and really interesting to hear in such detail about the project. I’m sure we all agree that it’s work that will continue to grow in importance and I really wish you all the best with it

LC: Thanks so much Christiane, it’s been amazing to talk to you about it and thank you everyone for making the time on a horrible January night, to come out and listen, I really appreciate your support.

ENDS

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© Lisa Creagh 2018