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How Do You Really Feel?

The Space To Come has curated a special programme for the Arnolfini Gallery that invites visitors to explore how they feel. Here curator Gaylene Gould explains why and how.

I grew up in the 1970’s on a tough council estate. I was the only girl in my family amongst a handful of black families on the estate. It didn’t pay to be too soft nor did it seem the time or place to reveal my inner complexities so my exterior and interior life were kept separate.

The times I remember being able to explore my emotional range was when watching movies, reading books and later at the theatre and galleries. My childhood became a cultural playground curated on one theme only - how the things I saw, read or heard made me feel. There were no teachers so I didn’t have to analyse nor was I told what to appreciate. My head was rarely engaged in the choice. I simply rifled through what was on offer and then let my body do the feeling.

Looking back, I now see how culture played a crucial part in my emotional development. Encountering these works allowed me to experience an emotional range that the outside world did not. I could safely travel the full terrain from fear to delight, rage to tenderness. I could take flights of fancy without fear of being mocked. And most importantly, I could better get to know parts of myself that lay beyond the limits of my presenting identity.

When my love relationship with art and culture turned into a career, my approach to the work changed. What was hot and what was not began to turn my head. It became more important to know what concept to allude to rather than to understand how I actually felt.

This adult-me feels very far away from the girl whose toes tingled in the dark whilst watching late night movies, or whose tears fell quietly on to the pages of a book or who found herself so absorbed in a painting that time stretched. I am often now too impatient to sit with whatever these moments reveal about myself.

This emotional dulling is most likely an effect of adulting. Somewhere in the midst of sensory overload, too much talk and not enough experiencing, endless to-do lists and future strategising, I’ve moved away from simply feeling what I feel. I’m too heady. It’s because of this shift, that I’ve begun to nostalgically yearn for that which drew me to art in the first place - those priceless moments of emotional immersion.

I now find myself drawn back to the why rather than the what, how or when of art. Why does art make me feel? What is it about human-made creative forms that can leave such a profound emotional effect? And, even though most of us have, at one time or another, been moved this way, why do we find the experience so hard to articulate? And personally, how can I get that feeling back?

L-R: Gaylene Gould, Raquel Meseguer, Gemma Brace, Keiko Higashi. Photo by Lisa Whiting Photography for Arnolfini

My inquiry began with a Radio 4 documentary Transcendence: How Can I Feel Art Again? where I explored these questions with the help of artist Mark Leckey, curator Zoe Whitley, art historian Chloe Ward, neuroscientist Professor Sarah Garfinkel and my mum.

At one point producer Joby Waldman, of production company Reduced Listening, and I conducted vox pops outside the Tate Modern. We asked people what they felt about the art they’d seen. Almost all the adults told us what they thought about the art. Only an 8-year old girl answered the question we’d posed. She told us she liked the bright colours of Andy Warhol’s art because bright colours “make you feel happy because when you feel happy you want to pop out and your stomach’s not hurting which it might when you’re sad and nervous.”

I felt thrilled and, frankly, jealous of this child’s wholly embodied response. She was able to locate the feelings in her body and then to translate their emotional meaning.

In the documentary I go on to describe a rare moment when a series of paintings brought me close to the experience she had described. Frank Bowling’s retrospective at the Tate blindsided me. Somehow his alchemical skills with paint, colour and texture guided me to a deep and internal place. I had been attending the busy launch with a friend, when I found myself growing quieter and quieter until I stopped speaking altogether. I could feel the slowing of my heart and I became aware of my own breath. Even though it was a busy night, somehow the overall volume seemed turned down and I was left feeling very - there. It was weird and immersive and a bit overwhelming but I was grateful and relieved to feel art again this way.

After the radio documentary aired, a lot of people approached to say how the show had resonated with them, that they too had grown estranged from their feelings when experiencing art. We’d clearly voiced a common concern.

My hope was to continue this research. My practice is based around the live experiment – working collaboratively with the public, artists and practitioners to explore ideas and ourselves so I was thrilled when the Arnolfini gallery invited me to continue the inquiry during their Frank Bowling exhibition Land of Many Waters. I was even more thrilled when curator Gemma Brace and Engagement Producer Keiko Higashi introduced me to their artist-in-residence, dance practitioner Raquel Meseguer whose exploration of rest and stillness made her a perfect partner for this project. Raquel is a dis-abled artist and works with rest and horizontality as creative impulses. She founded Unchartered Collective in 2016 to create theatrical encounters that explore the lived experience of invisible disability. My rich conversations with Rachel deepened my understanding of the connection between presence and vulnerability, how stillness is not only a great leveller but can be the gateway to our more subtle feelings.

Image from A Crash Course in Cloudspotting, Raquel Meseguer's touring performance

How Do You Feel? is the result of this collaboration and brings together my skills as a curator, coach, facilitator, mindfulness practitioner and researcher with Rachel’s own practice in creating inclusive beautiful restful environments. It’s been a team effort and our development space has been wonderfully held by the Arnolfini team particularly Gemma and Keiko.

How Do You Feel? also offers a chance to explore the rather outdated philosophy Phenomenology which is a study of the conscious experience from a first person point of view through perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire, and bodily awareness. Contrary to the popular and hip Post-modernism, which suggests that our experience is mostly shaped by economic and political ideology, Phenomenology suggests that the most important information lies in how our whole selves experience the world.

The invitations that shape the How Do You Feel Day? at the Arnolfini on the 14th August have been inspired by Phenomenological ideas and so seek to connect us through our perception, thought, memory, imagination, emotion, desire and our bodily awareness. As well as connecting us to ourselves, these experiences are also designed to connect us to each other. The Space To Come‘s environments tests the ways we might forge relationships through shared growth and collective wisdom. After what we’ve been through and where we seem to be going, this feels critical.

The Feeling Guide, available in the gallery and for download, invites us to pay close attention to our senses, feelings and memories, as we move through the gallery. Visitors can also leave audio responses to contribute to a special audio guide.

The How Do You Feel? day of events on Saturday August 14th will bring the public, artists and thinkers together for interactive, collective experiences. Three Feeling Tours, led by myself and my colleague Zaynab Bunsie, will use stillness, reflective prompts and conversation to help us explore our responses. Afterwards we will gain further insight through discussions with colour theorist and Director of the Centre for Fine Print Research Dr Carinna Parraman, and a writing workshop with multidisciplinary artist and writer Valda Jackson. Raquel and I will also share our thoughts on the programme and the relationship between rest and emotional awareness.

In the evening Raquel and long-time collaborator, musician Jamie Mccarthy, will lead us into a very special Improvised Rest session where visitors will be invited to sit, lie and rest in the gallery guided by live improvised music inspired by the instinctive way that Bowling works with paint. Jamie McCarthy created new forms of music when he began to suffer with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. As a result, he has an expansive understanding of the impact of music on our rest states.

It’s not only an honour and a privilege to connect with Frank Bowling’s work

this way. This also feels vital. As a society, we have yet to value the critical role art and culture plays in the emotional development of our species which is why art is not viewed as a fundamental human right.

Having the chance to sit with Frank Bowling’s work should be a human right. His deeply instinctive paintings offer us a direct route in to our own instincts and remind us to connect with ourselves as feeling, sensing beings that deserve to be moved.

Tickets for How Do You Feel Day? are £5/£3 conc and are available from the Arnolfini here.

Photo by Lisa Whiting Photography for Arnolfini. All photos taken at launch of Land of Many Waters exhibition 2021


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