Transcript of Discussion at Testing, Testing

Rachel Emily Taylor

Rachel Emily Taylor: So I’m just going to have to check, can all of you hear me OK? If you can’t, just wave, and I will try and speak a bit louder.

I’m Rachel and I’m doing a Ph.D. here, at Sheffield Hallam, and it’s called Heritage as Process: Constructing the Historical Child’s Voice Through Art Practice. This is my work in the corner. What I have been doing as part of the project, is working with the Foundling Museum in London. So I’m not sure if any of you have heard of it — I’m sure some of you have — but it is a museum about children who couldn’t be looked after by their parents. It was a hospital set up in the 1700s.

So, while I was working in the archives, I noticed that the children didn’t have a voice’. Often their voices were covered or masked by adults. In a sense, I felt that they were missing. They didn’t have a presence either in the museum.

So what I have been doing as part of the residency in the museum — and as part of a way of trying to give a voice back to these children — I have been working with contemporary children.

Now the theme of the exhibition is ‘dialogue’. And that’s where a lot of the dialogue has been occurring. It’s been in these workshops when I’ve been working with the children. And as you can see there are these paintings on the wall. There are sixty-four that I have exhibited for this exhibition and each one is painted by a different child aged between five and fourteen. The reason why I picked this age group was … well, that was the age the children were. They were brought from the wet-nurse to the hospital at five and were there until the age of fourteen when they were apprenticed.

So I’ve worked with these children and we have tried to imagine what these other children were like. So there is quite a lot in that relationship that is hidden now, because of ethical restrictions I cannot show what happened in the workshop. I also found that the children were having a lot of fun and there wasn’t much empathy on the surface, but something was starting to happen in the paintings. So I’ve divided the boys and the girls and I’ve tried to work in the gallery space — this isn’t where the work is intended, it is meant for the museum — so there is all of that, kind of, layers there.

All of the images look regimented, they’re all similar, a bit like the foundling hospital. But that occurred through working with the children, each child had a mirror and they invented this ‘character’, but it is a self-portrait as well —

‘William, Sally, James, Robert, Joanna, Emma, John, Mary, Thomas, Alice, Jenny, Edward’.

Rachel Emily Taylor: — So that’s actually happened at a good time! The museum is actually full of clocks. Grandfather clocks. And when I was working in the museum, there was this sense of time. Time being out of joint. And every time the clocks chime, they’re slowly wearing down the mechanism and breaking. They also remind me of classroom, registers, and their names are in lists. This piece chimes on the hour, quarter past, half past and quarter to. It’s the children reciting the names of the first foundlings but also the names of the portraits of their ‘characters’.

Testing, Testing has been really useful because it has given me ideas of how I will display the work. This is a test. I hadn’t displayed the paintings before and a lot of ideas have come from this. For example, the way sound travels: high frequencies travel forward and this is at child height but the low frequencies bounce on the wall and collect in the top.

But what I am going to do now, I’ve given a brief introduction and I’m sure there is lots I’ve missed out. But I wanted to open it up to you as a ‘crit’ format. So any questions that you wanted to ask about the work — and I’m also interested in how you read it or any emotions that you feel. There is a microphone that Joe has at the back, so when you ask a question, if you could speak into the microphone that would be fantastic. Ask anything, harsh questions too —

S.W.: I was just wondering, because you said this work was made for a museum, and when you put your work in a different context, and obviously a gallery is very different to a museum. It was made in the museum, and for the museum. Now you’re seeing it in a different context. I was wondering how that affected your reading.

Rachel Emily Taylor: I found that quite a challenge. I felt almost as if I was up against a wall, it wasn’t made for this space. And it was quite difficult because there are lots of different things — so at the minute, I am working towards an event at the museum where I can’t display them on the wall to start with, they have to be on structures. But then working with the space and in the context, and you’re working alongside other artists and considering what looks good, and you’ve got such high walls here. That changes the way you read and encounter the work. So many things I didn’t think would be an issue until I saw it, for example, the height of the wall has changed the way the way you would read the work and I didn’t expect it to have quite an impact. When you walk towards it, suddenly you’re looking up and they’re looking down and that changes it. It’s not how it’s meant to be viewed, but it has given me so many ideas for the next stage. So it is like a test. Testing, Testing.

A.M.: I am really intrigued, because when I came in, I assumed they were children’s paintings and then I looked and them and thought ‘no, no’ they’re faux-naïve paintings. Because these faces are just so … full of shock, horror, thought. There is an incredible amount of vulnerability within them. I’m reluctant to ask how you worked with them, because I feel like you can get distracted in the ‘how did you do it?’ but I am really genuinely interested in how these pictures emerged.

Rachel Emily Taylor: Now, that is something that shocked me as well. I’ve been working with the children in a role-play environment. We have been performing and a lot of it turned out to be comical, and it was just when they started to paint

— something in the expression — the wide-eyes and closed mouths as well, because I’m looking at ‘voice’ and they don’t have a voice. They’re silent. I actually used a few methods from performance, from Stanislavski in terms of trying to get them to imagine, empathise, and character building exercises. Each workshop is about three hours. So that’s a long time with each child.

A.M.: With each child separately?

Rachel Emily Taylor: It was in groups of five. So me and five children. So even though it doesn’t look like a lot of work on the wall here. It took up a lot of time.

A.M.: Well I think that reads, they’re deeply engaged in their characters.

Rachel Emily Taylor: But also what is quite surprising, but none of them tried to do a different expression. But that is because of the set-up. They worked with a mirror and they’re framed it like the mirror. So there is a sense of structure.

A.M.: So looking in the mirror might be why the eyes have that particular quality.

R.S.: — But as somebody who comes from teaching at a Secondary School, for me, they look very familiar. A lot of this seems to be about our projection. Because you’re working with the students and creating these portraits, which in some respects are quite expected. But they provoke, by putting them in this setting with the background information about the Foundling Museum, it does something to us. There is an interesting dialogue that starts to happen in the way we project ourselves and our understanding on that. And I wanted to ask you, because it fascinates me, did you provide them with a limited colour palette, did it happen naturally, or did they copy each other?

Rachel Emily Taylor: The colour that I limited was the background. They also saw the paintings of the foundlings, so they’ve mixed the colours to match the uniform. So in a sense, it is limited, because they’re copying the uniform that was available.

But what I thought was really interesting was your comment about — I don’t necessarily think it’s a criticism, because I’m looking at ‘heritage’ so heritage is this idea that you’re working with the past in the present. And there is this layering of ‘it’s happening now’ and it’s our interpretation of the past. We can never really access the past. But I thought that was useful, that idea that it is our feelings now. It is very much now. And this is a contemporary reading of these images, and it might not have this way back then. They might not have thought the same thing. Or done the same work.