Insider and Child Agent
Insider – Mediation
Author: Susanne Stitch
Duration: 7’ 38”
Insider – The Brainstorm
Author: Susanne Stitch
Duration: 1’ 39”
Author: Susanne Stitch
Duration: 9’ 27”
Insider and Child Agent represent part of the PhD with Practice “Visibilities of Childhood in Moving Image Emphasizing Children’s Agency and Child-Adult Connectedness”(2010). The topic was inspired by discourse proposing that childhood cannot be presumed, but has to be “brought into being” (Wyness 185). D.W. Winnicott’s statement that “no human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality” (13) was another starting point, suggesting a perspective on child-adult connectedness. Devising an innovative research context, 3 themes were introduced to explore the concepts of children’s agency and child-adult connectedness through theory, practice and their intersection: “The Everyday”, “Being and Becoming”, and “Repetition and Recollection”.
Crucially, in this project “regression is not an aim rather, politically, [as an artist filmmaker I] address the power relations which have existed between adults & children” (Wilson 331), inviting adults to engage with childhood from a perspective of their “separability” from children, providing opportunities for genuine relationship, i.e. connectedness to children, as opposed to an unbridgeable “separateness” (Lee 71) that denies childhood’s “transgressive capacities, [which] offer important counterpoints to the striations of adult society” (Jones, “’True geography…” 202).
Because the project was adult-generated, the examination of how adults reconnect with childhood and its “otherness” was crucial. Considering its (potential) limitations, cultural geographer Owain Jones’ call for creative approaches that engage with “the dynamics of [the] unbridgeability” between childhood, children and adults, while honouring the fact that “some things cannot be (fully) known about children’s worlds” (“Before the Dark of Reason” 175) was significant.
Insider (2010) features my childhood dolls’ house, rediscovering a space of real and imagined (childhood) everyday. Motivated by the principles of memory work (compare Kuhn), the footage was recorded over a 3-year period. This process involved both repetitions, e.g. the setting up of the house on each visit at my childhood home, and my recollections of playing with it. Over time, I reconnected with some of the complexities my child self had found inside as much as brought to the house. Repeating aspects of the past, enabled ever more intricate recollections, and I (re-)appreciated how inside the dolls’ house, as a child I had acted out narratives of my (child) “otherness”, agency and connectedness to adults. With the intention of feeding these observations into the film, The Meditation (Part 1) features a breathing sound as part of its multi-layered soundtrack, which is combined with footage of a childlike doll. The same spaces and poses re-feature from different angles. Most scenes are filmed like stills, as if to suggest individual memories. Only occasionally movement happens, hinting at the fluidity of repetitions and recollections in the face of time. Paced differently, and including evidence of my adult involvement, The Brainstorm (Part 2) highlights Insider’s conceptual background and its making.
Child Agent (2010) follows a boy whom I know personally in his everyday world over a 3-year period, featuring him from ages four to seven. The work can be understood as an exercise in child-adult connectedness: I accompanied the child with the camera, but let him be in charge of what he wanted to do and how he wanted to show himself. The footage was recorded spontaneously and non-rehearsed, while the process of recording and being together created a context of heightened awareness, providing me with evidence of how the child cannot be assumed as simply “other” or “the same” in relation to the adult. I introduced the split screen to create a discursive context, marking the possibility of “playing” with these ideas. The final film does not operate chronologically. This enables an evocation of consistency, i.e. being or having been, in the face of change, but also an evocation of change, i.e. becoming or having become, in the face of consistency.
The films were shaped by selected perspectives from sociology, psychoanalysis, cultural geography and film studies. In parallel, the thesis includes case studies of works by artist filmmakers Eija-Liisa Ahtila (Today; If 6 were 9), Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) and Jane Campion (Peel; Passionless Moments; An Angel at My Table; The Piano), which also explore child-adult connectedness and children’s agency, albeit through more linear narratives.
In my own practice, – while the child and images/symbols of childhood dominate the visual foreground -, the intention was to reveal parallels where they have not previously been drawn, i.e. enable a viewing experience where children and adults mingle as if they were peers, and where children’s agency – as it is explored for its everyday detail – becomes a platform for the viewer to repeat and recollect their own childhood from different perspectives.
Insider and Child Agent are part of a bigger body of work, which also includes the Northern Ireland Screen funded short film Lily’s Image (2008), which I wrote, directed and produced. Despite telling a linear story, similar to Child Agent and Insider, the action is set in an everyday world, emphasising patterns of child-adult connectedness, child agency, being/becoming and repetition/recollection. For a viewing copy, I can be contacted through my Vimeo site, which also features a trailer.
With regards to future research, it is my intention to continue working at the intersection of practice and theory. I recently started work on a new project, exploring the “Visibilities of Kindness”, which emerged out of the PhD.
Despite involving an element of running the gauntlet between interdisciplinary theory and (experimental/ documentary film) practice, it was the coexistence and combination of these fields, which enabled the making of Insider and Child Agent. The overall project is best described as a “bricolage” of heterogeneous methodologies. Traditional methods for reading “texts” (including visuals), as applied in film studies, sociology etc. were employed alongside my own “observant participation” (Thrift cited in Dewsbury 327) as an adult artist/researcher in all processes involved: e.g. reading, writing, connecting, repeating, recollecting, producing, filming, editing, presenting etc.
Given the importance of the visual, Shaun McNiff’s use of the word “relationships” hints at its dynamic function, which underpinned all methods: “Art-based research grows from a trust in the intelligence of the creative process and a desire for relationships with the images that emerge from it” (37).
Jones’ assessment of artistic work as research not only illustrates the position I deliberately placed myself in, it also suggests how new knowledge was arrived at:
Artists … are often commenting upon, witnessing, ‘analysing’ the world and their and/or other people’s place in it, but through affective/creative narratives rather than rational/representational registers. They do this by generating new accounts of/in the world, which might witness eloquently. They add new accounts to the world (e.g. images, movements, sounds, artefacts) which at the same time help us re-evaluate the apparently existing state of things (“True geography…” 206)
In my own attempt to “add new accounts to the world” and “witness eloquently”, non-representational theory’s engagement with creative practice as research provided further validation for my methodological approach. I would therefore like to propose Child Agent and Insider as components of one such “portfolio of … ‘exposures’” as described here:
The idea is to get embroiled in the site and allow ourselves to be infected by the effort, investment, and craze of the particular practice or experience being investigated. Some might call this participation, but it is a mode of participation that is more artistic and, as with most artistic practices, it comes with the side effect of making us more vulnerable and self-reflexive. It is not however an argument for losing ourselves in the activity … nor does it mean sitting on the sidelines and judging. Rather, the move, in immersing ourselves in the space, is to gather a portfolio of ethnographic ‘exposures’ that can act as lightening rods for thought. (Dewsbury 326)
With my work, I hope to illustrate the value of practice-based research as a complex interface between theory and visual practice. I believe that Insider and Child Agent offer two distinct perspectives onto the visual and conceptual dimensions of child-adult connectedness and children’s agency.
Child Agent and Insider were made as part of a DEL-funded PhD with Practice. There was no other funding for these works.
To date, these two works have been discussed and shown in the following contexts:
2012 Solo Show at Artlink, Ireland, which will include a gallery installation of Insider
2011 Conference Presentation:“Agents & Insiders: Children’s Agency & Child-Adult Connectedness Explored Through Digital Video”, Journal of Media Practice Symposium, Bristol
2010 Screening: Insider, Child Agent and Lily’s Image, Ulster Festival of Art and Design
2009 Screening of extracts: from Insider & Child Agent: “Art in the Cinema”, Panel Discussion with Screenings, Foyle Film Festival, VOID Gallery, Derry
2008 Conference Presentation & Screenings: “Child Agents: Digital Video Research with Children in their Everyday Surroundings” and “Repetition and Recollection: Digital Video Practice inside my Dolls’ House” (As works in Progress). Liberating the Ethnological Imagination. 9th SIEF Congress (Societé International d’Ethnologie et Folklore), Nerve Centre, Derry.
Online presence: http://www.vimeo.com/user3405274
Dewsbury, J.D (2009). “Performative, Non-representational, and Affect-based Research: Seven Injunctions.” The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Research in Human Geography. Eds. Dydia DeLyser, Linda McDowell, Stuart Aitken et al. London: Sage Publications.
Jones, Owain (2001). “‘Before the Dark of Reason’: Some Ethical and Epistemological Considerations on the Otherness of Children.” Ethics, Place and Environment. 4; 2: 173-178.
—(May 2008). “‘True geography  quickly forgotten, giving away to an adult-imagined universe’. Approaching the otherness of childhood.” Children’s Geographies. 6; 2: 195-212.
Kuhn, Annette (1995; 2002). Family Secrets. Acts of Memory and Imagination. New Edition. London, New York: Verso.
Lee, Nick (2005). Childhood and Human Value. Development, Separation and Separability. Open University Press: Berkshire.
McNiff, Shaun (1998). Art-Based Research. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Wilson, Emma (2005). ”Children, emotion and viewing in contemporary European film.” Screen 46; 3: 329-340.
Winnicott, Donald W. (1971; 1997). Playing and Reality. Routledge: London.
Wyness, Michael (2006). Childhood and Society. An Introduction to the Sociology of Childhood. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows.
Review 1: Accept work subject to minor revisions of statement
There are three short films, Brainstorm and Meditation, which make up Insider, and Child Agent, which address themes of memory, childhood and play. Simply executed over a period of time, they offer insights to not only the role of artefacts in memory stimulation, but how memory may be constructed.
While I have reservations about all three being regarded as one submission, I am treating them as one, since this is how the Supporting Research Statement treats them (it may have been better to consider Insider and Child Agent as two separate submissions).
The simplicity of the films belies their depth of meaning. Brainstorm initially seems to seems to be an attempt to re-create childhood play narratives, but this easy interpretation is complicated by the soundtrack, which mixes an original score of atmospheric melodies on acoustic guitar and Jewish harp with a high-pitched child’s voice, sometimes yawning, sometimes laughing, suggesting curiosity and mystery. The images of the interior of a doll’s house vary from extreme close up to mid shot, from classic framing to slanted point of view. The different positions of the doll, who is often central to the ‘story’, hints at a narrative, but this remains elusive.
In the much shorter Meditation, we are presented with the same doll’s house, and an anonymous grown-up who is arranging and rearranging the dolls and the furniture in the house. It is fast paced, with light music and occasional sounds of actuality as a piece is set down or removed. This film seems to address more transparently how we arrange our memories in an attempt to make sense of them.
Child Agent films a young boy at play over a three year period. Edited into two screens that complement and contrast each other, the narrative is non-chronological and the boy’s activities seem random, if predictable (guns, tea party, Egyptian artefacts, etc.), as we observe him in primarily an apparently adultless world (the filmmaker is present, of course). He looks at the camera and the researcher, but rarely speaks. This impression of human development shows how, as we move forward in time and maturity, we also retain physical and emotional patterns from our past.
The combination of films does address the main issue that the research sets out to investigate, namely, how memory is constructed in adult re-imagining of childhood. The lengthy periods of filming allows for development of ideas and behaviour in both the subject and researcher. There is an originality and specificity to the work that should add to current practice and the theorising of memory.
here is a weakness to this aspect of the submission which needs to be addressed. The research questions seem to be considered adequately, but I do not think there is sufficient acknowledgement of other work in the area, either in practice or theory. The researcher seems very aware of the field, but there is no bibliography and the Context, in particular, requires more work to be acceptable. In particular, this section relies too heavily on one long quote, rather than on a range of material, as would be advised. Since there is a PhD to back up the work, I suggest that the researcher takes a little more time to write more fully on the contextualisation of the work and, especially, places it within the wider field of both theory and practice.
Review 2: Accept work but require revision of statement.
This is a very engaging set of short films which explore the sense of child hood very suggestively. The statement needs re-writing and clarifying in relation to the video work, especially since the viewers will not have access, I assume, to the written part of the thesis and the elaboration of the theoretical frameworks which this must contain.
I suggest the following amendments;
- Criteria – the list of words here is not too helpful. Use this section, as the guideline suggests to indicate the research questions rather than list of fields.
- Research statement – indicate more specifically how the video work explores one or more of the concepts mentioned e.g. more specifically how you wish it to evoke Jones’ concept of the unbridgeablity between children and adults. ie how this notion informs some of the aesthetic, structural choices you have made. How do the 3 themes mentioned appear in the work? Also how exactly do your ‘recollections’ of playing figure in the work itself or its process?
How does the work demonstrate, do you feel, the problem of connections between adult and child or the adult’s recollection of their own childhood (since these are not the same thing)?
- Under Methods too many fields are mentioned without detail on any one and conversely the quote by Dewsbury is given a lot of weight but does not very clearly illuminate your method. What does he/you mean by ‘ethnographic exposures’?