Uniformagazine: Condensations

September 19th, 2016

The following text is an excerpt from an article about my forthcoming book Condensations (from Uniform Books) and reflections on my residency at the Armitt Museum, Ambleside, in the latest issue of Uniformagazine (Issue 7).

This project began with a single letter: ‘W’.

Due to a typo in Thomas Donald’s 1774 Historic Map of Cumberland the highest mountain in England lost a letter. Scaw Fell and Scaw Fell Pike were renamed ’Sca’. The mis-spelling was subsequently perpetuated by Ordnance Survey place-namers in 1867 and continues on maps of the area to this day. The misplaced ‘W’ results in a mispronounced place and contributes to the cleansing of the Cumbrian dialect from Cumbria. Tourists say ‘Sca’; locals say ‘Scaw’. The ‘Scaw’ remains on local guides and some postcards but is slowly disappearing and with it the sound of the place it indexes. My interest in the sound of words and language, specifically in relation to their visual appearance brought me back to my home-county of Cumbria and, in turn, to the Armitt Museum, to Kurt Schwitters and to Cumbrian dialect.

Condensations is a project that brings together the writings of artists, poets, historians and Lakeland folk that are archived at the Armitt Museum and Library, Ambleside, Cumbria. In June and July 2016 I was fortunate enough to be writer in residence at the Armitt library. Founded by Mary Louisa Armitt the library incorporated the Ambleside Book Society (1828) and the Ambleside Ruskin Library (1890s) and officially opened in 1912. This small and beautiful library contains a wealth of rare books and manuscripts including extensive collections related to Beatrix Potter, Harriet Martineau and John Ruskin. It includes the bequeathed manuscripts of Wordsworth’s Hawkshead author T.W. Thompson, rare Lakeland photography from former Armitt librarian Herbert Bell and collections from the Lakeland Dialect Society. It also currently houses the library of the Fell and Rock Climbing Club of the English Lake District. Nowadays the Armitt Museum includes the UK’s largest permanent exhibit of works by exiled German artist Kurt Schwitters, who spent the last three years of his life in Ambleside.

My residency explored three seemingly unrelated topics of particular interest to my creative practice: the collage and sound poetry practice of Kurt Schwitters; the history of rock-climbing in the Lake District; and the written dialect and place-names of the county of Cumbria. These three areas of interest relate when considered through an expanded idea of language and writing.

The writing conducted during and proceeding the residency uses the works contained in the library. I have collected together texts, pages from books, play scripts in dialect, hand-written correspondence and notes. I have mined these found texts through procedural ’treatments’ of their pages, producing erased pages that take the appearance of visual and concrete poetry. These new texts treat the page spatially as a landscape. The landscapes are then processed further through a series of superimpositions, where words, letters, and grammatical marks are placed over one another, like in the collages of Schwitters. These textual collages create clusters of overprinted texts, constellations of illegible and almost legible writing that I am calling ‘condensations’. They are visual texts for performance; condensed texts that blur, obscure and reveal fragments of language from the collections of the Armitt library.

Like the Armitt library, my ‘condensations’ bring together figures from Lakeland history. The meeting of these figures within the text assemble new relationships and new ways of reading their works. For example Schwitters’ late collages, created in the English Lake District, are considered as maps; landscapes and superimposed trajectories to navigate. Cumbrian dialect is sound poetry. Aleister Crowley’s rock climbing routes are spells, his ascent of the Napes of Great Gable (arguably the birth-place of British Rock Climbing) are incantations, scores for performance awaiting activation by the breath and voice of the reader. Maps and place-names of the Lake District are collages, cut-up word sounds from Norse and Celt tongues; they highlight the Border region not only of England and Scotland but the borders of visual and aural languages, the seams between relationships and meaning...