I had delivered two academic papers within a week of each other. A monster that I had created for myself. My first symposium in Falmouth University’s PGR programme, and my first Conference, Crones, Crime and the Gothic (Falmouth University’s Dark Economies research programme). Part-time rules don’t apply at symposium time (apparently!), and unbeknowingly, I had created a mad eight weeks of work. “Don’t let me have any new thoughts or ideas,” I told my cohort.
As soon as the Symposium closed, I had carved out a week away with my husband, Pete, and dog, Bessie. Taking the dog away was my idea, and even before we went I was glad that we weren’t flying off anywhere. Airport chaos you can keep. It would be a week where I wouldn’t take any PhD ‘stuff’ with me. J M W Turner was packed up in my attic office, my writerly garret. The MacBook was in its bag under my desk. It was to be a week of long walks, lovely lunches and reconnecting.
We walked across clifftops, watched the dog leaping in streams and the shallows of north Devon beaches (those that she’s allowed on, Cornwall is much more dog-friendly!). We were lightly sun-kissed and relaxed. Hazel Cottage had barely enough connectivity to raise a WhatsApp, so we hovered off-grid. The cogs of my mind slowly freed itself from theoretical context, arguments, positions and Turner.
We’d had a glorious pub lunch at The Fox & Goose, Parracombe, unexpectedly good. A bulging dish of bouillabaisse-style fish stew that I couldn’t finish. We weren’t ready to head back to the cottage and the coast was out of bounds for the dog. We set our course for Broomhill Sculpture Garden, it’s an art form that I enjoy (aesthetically, mostly) and intrigues me (conceptually, of balance, particularly after an introduction to art history). Pete sent me into the hotel to buy the tickets, and I immediately thought it would be a place I would enjoy staying at. The right side of eccentric, safely bonkers.
We were given a printed map to follow, which quickly became superfluous. The installations didn’t seem to match with the map, so I folded it up and pocketed it. There is something more delicious in wandering anyway. The dog was intent on dragging us towards the pond at the bottom of the garden. More wildebeest at times, she has an uncanny ability to sense water.
The garden isn’t big, but has been cleverly designed so that you zig-zag. Sculptures capture your eye in the distance, and you realise you’ve walked past something smaller, but no less enticing. I felt like it was a kind of Eden. Lush, rich and so utterly interesting. It was a perfect addition to a summery day.
We walked out towards the long drive, circling back up the hill to find a separate installation. I’m not sure if it was partly because of the juxtaposition to the lush Eden, but Welcome to the Third Millennium was like a hard slap. Mike Roles had created a wholly other space. Concrete path, all edges, with harrowing figures. This was a version of modernity that was unsettling. I wasn’t sure that I wanted to go in. My husband had circled it by the time I’d decided to go on – all of 20 seconds. It wasn’t how he wanted to be entertained (and that’s a choice and a power). I stood behind a figure writing graffiti and I was half-afraid to stand before him and look at his face. Why? Did I think he would move? Did I trust the artist not to disfigure him? I don’t know. What struck me, was how radically different this installation was to the collection in the main garden.
In Roles’s installation, I had also fallen through an experience gap. Hello psychogeography, my brain chimed. Hello Affect. I was sinking back into the PhD, querying my experience of this space, this place, and desperately trying not to become so enmeshed in it. But I think that resistance is part of what was so disturbing about it. Of course my mind turned to Turner, and what he wanted to provoke as an artist of the Romantic sublime. You buggers, I thought.
As we drove out of Broomhill Estate I managed to package Turner and Roles up into a part of my mind. They’d stirred me, but I wasn’t ready to ruminate over what they did, still do. Since coming back from our break, the experience has turned over in my mind, and I’m not entirely certain I know what I think about it. Still.
Affect Theory is relatively new (1950s), and is tossed about in academic discourse. I feel like I’m hanging onto its coat tails (is it even a coat?), so it feels odd to think about it in terms of Turner, who died 100 years before it came into the field of ideas. I also find it hard to reconcile with psychogeography, which is where my brain pinged in Roles’s installation. That installation was created, curated, and somehow I think of psychogeography in response to place that hasn’t necessarily been curated, but assembled. Does it matter? I don’t yet know.
At the heart of Affect is a personal (bodily) response, an autonomic response, one that is pre-cognitive. To, arguably, anything. Silvan Tomkins, the ‘founder’ of Affect, thought about it in terms of audience reactions to performance – so perhaps there is a natural bed-fellow in a painting. The difference between ‘affect’ and ‘emotion’ is a thin one, but affect has something ‘unpinnable-down’ about it, hovering on the edge of something. Emotion is an affect that has found its way into words – we can articulate it – and therefore it’s been through a cognitive loop. Affect is extremely slippery, and resistant to processing… and yet, in academic discourse we have to try.
I think a lot about the installation, and my reaction to it, as I try to make the connections between theory of Affect and practice. There’s no point, to me, in having a body of theory that hovers unhelpfully just beyond reach. And with Affect, there is no one neat theory, just a kind of assemblage of interpretations, developed from Tomkins’s ideas. And maybe that’s why it will continue to pop up, in the assemblage of life experiences, popping in like an uninvited guest.
And maybe that’s the rub.