Labels and the Spaces Between

By Lynne Cameron

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Artist-in-Residence at Cinepoetics, Freie Universität, Berlin

I arrived in Berlin to work with a new label, as “artist-in-residence”. It is a beautifully vague label that finds many different instantiations in the cross-over between art and organisations. Its core meaning is only that an artist is resident for a period of time in a particular place and makes art. The art may happen in situ or in the months and years afterwards. The art may relate directly to the place and what happens there, or it may be more loosely connected to it and influenced by it. The art project is sometimes pre-determined but more often, as with my post in the Cinepoetics centre at the Freie Universität in Berlin, is left open as a space to be filled. In my work as a professor of applied linguistics, I gained a reputation for rigorous and precise analytic work, all categories carefully defined and labelled. In my work as an artist, I love the looseness, the spaces between, and the reluctance to label. To date, the art coming out of my Cinepoetics residency is sometimes unexpectedly collaborative, intermingling words and images in new ways, and has generated a particular process of abstract painting that took six months to find its (probably temporary) label as “dynamic painting”.

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A project, like Noah. Acrylic on paper, 41 x 60 cm. Lynne Cameron, 2016.

The Space Between (and Beyond)

As an artist I am fascinated by the spaces created on canvas or paper. It’s easiest to see in a still life (the space between objects) or a portrait (the space around a head).

Still Life of Vases on a Table. Etching. Giorgio Morandi, 1931.

Still Life of Vases on a Table. Etching. Giorgio Morandi, 1931.

Child and large bird. Oil on canvas. Emil Nolde, 1912.

Child and large bird. Oil on canvas. Emil Nolde, 1912.

In abstract painting, spaces emerge between strokes and gestures.

Artists talk about these spaces between objects or shapes as ‘negative spaces’. In the physical and social world, we label objects, shapes, and people, mostly ignoring the spaces between. Labelling accompanies categorizing, the sorting of the multiplicity of the world into sets and groups, into ‘this’ and ‘that’, into ‘them’ and ‘us’. Social labels and categories change with time – looking back now from current ideas about intersectionality, it seems odd to remember how difficult it was to convince a group of teachers in the 1980s that we might think of gender as having more than two categories labelled ‘male’ and ‘female’. Back then, it was difficult to conceive of a space between those two labels. Now we find a multiplicity of spaces between and beyond, some of them labelled.

A few years ago, I painted a series of artworks which explored the idea of “the space between” and how that space encircles, outlines, creates a shape that we may label ‘a flower’.

Live near. Acrylic on paper. 25 x 35 cm. Lynne Cameron, 2014.

Live near. Acrylic on paper. 25 x 35 cm. Lynne Cameron, 2014.

Each painting began with a layer of colour that was spread across the paper, mixing and crossing somewhat randomly. A grey layer was painted on top of the colour, with some spaces left and turned into flower-like shapes, with ‘stems’ scratched through the grey layer. More layers of different greys and colour, using both wet and dry paint, produced tonal surfaces. The paintings played with the shapes that might, or might not, be flowers or leaves, that blurred or dripped or spread into neighbouring shapes. As I worked on the first few paintings, they also became about memory and dialogue, relating to my father’s dementia and the experience of losing him into the grey of his illness, about sitting with him, talking and reaching into our shared histories to find some piece of memory that might still be vivid for him. Words, and the labels that organized our shared world were gradually losing their power.

Labelling the Negative Space

Before coming to Berlin, I spent four years researching and theorizing how people do empathy in situations of violence and conflict.  A breakthrough moment occurred in the research when I took the negative space of empathy and gave it the label “dyspathy”. A label for the forces that stop people empathizing with others helped me to think in new ways and ask new questions. I could describe dyspathy, showing from my data how it takes three key forms: mental barriers that we place between ourselves and others; the tendency we have of lumping other people into groups (and often negatively labelling them); and the various ways we use to distance ourselves from others. The labelling of dyspathy enabled further thinking about how it might be dissolved and replaced with empathy.

Disrupting the Space Between

My current artwork centres around a theme I have labelled, “Undoing the Arrangement”. It began with more flowers and more disruption of labels. Travelling in New Zealand, I found a book published in the 1990s by “Woman and Home” (sic) which offered female readers ways to make “practical and easy flower arrangements”. The illustrations showed gorgeous, beautifully coloured flowers organised into containers, arranged into formal shapes, photographed in a single moment of glory. I was struck by the unacknowledged work for women that was required in the growing, gathering and arranging of the flowers. I soon realized that this was working for me as metonymically and metaphorically reflecting the broader assumptions and expectations conventionalized into  women’s social and familial roles. I ripped out the photographs, cut the flowers out of their tight arrangements, let them loose on the pages of my sketchbook, and let them lead into paintings.

A bold collection of irises and anemones will never fail to please. Collage, monoprinting, acrylic paint on canvas, 40 x 40 cm. Lynne Cameron, 2015.

A bold collection of irises and anemones will never fail to please. Collage, monoprinting, acrylic paint on canvas, 40 x 40 cm. Lynne Cameron, 2015.

Undoing the Arrangement uses space on the canvas to explore social space, the restrictions placed by conventional arrangements and what can happen if these are released and labels are loosened.

The Positive Power of a Label

I had thought that the label “Undoing the Arrangement” applied to the series of six or eight small paintings I produced before leaving the UK for Berlin. However, during my residency, as I’ve been developing my dynamic painting process, I have come to understand that it usefully points to the concerns of my work more broadly.

Now that I have this label, I notice and attend to the world in terms of arrangements, often relating to gender roles, that need questioning, disrupting, and undoing. I find these acted out or implied in the films and news reports that we watch together or analyse in Cinepoetics, and sometimes in our own modes of interaction in workshops and colloquia. The label of “Undoing the Arrangement” helps extend my work as an artist. The label of “artist-in-residence” enables me to use my art to draw attention to such arrangements, and my studio becomes a space between the academic and the visual image in which to make the work.

The temperature of commitment. Acrylic on paper. 41 x 60cm. Lynne Cameron, 2016.

The temperature of commitment. Acrylic on paper. 41 x 60cm. Lynne Cameron, 2016.

To see my paintings and read my blog about the Berlin artist residency, go to: http://lynnecameron.com

To read more about empathy and dyspathy, go to: http://empathyblog.wordpress.com


Notes on Contributor

Lynne Cameron is currently Professor Emerita at the Open University, UK, and artist-in-residence at Cinepoetics, the Center for Advanced Film Studies at Freie Universität, Berlin. She was founding Chair of the international association Researching and Applying Metaphor (RAAM) and founding co-editor of the journal Metaphor in the Social World. As an applied linguist, she has worked for many years on metaphor in spoken discourse, most recently applying this to empathy and post-conflict reconciliation.