Inspired by the scrapbooks of Audrey Amiss, artist and dancer Benjamin Skinner reflects upon the processes through which we (dis)engage with waste objects in everyday life.
This article is part of a two-week takeover (1-14 June) of The Polyphony by Thinking Through Things, an ECR-led collaborative project designed to stimulate interdisciplinary dialogue around the holdings of Wellcome Collection. Thinking Through Things is supported by the Northern Network for Medical Humanities Research and is funded by a Wellcome Trust Discretionary Award. Following a training day co-hosted by Thinking Through Things and Wellcome Collection in February 2020, delegates were invited to submit a short text or creative response exploring one or more objects held by Wellcome Collection.
My PhD research investigates the importance of touch, be it with another sentient organism or any of the countless materials that surround us in everyday life. I am interested in how our perceptive field can underpin a more considered relationship to environmental stewardship by interrogating the value of physical contact and mapping the information it affords our sensory system. My methodology recognises the physical body as a living archive of sensation cultivated over a lifetime of being in proximity to countless other surfaces. From our time in the womb we are constantly exploring the matter that meets our edges, pushing outwards in order to test the perceived boundary at our cellular periphery. As children we are curious, tactile creatures, yet in adulthood we seemingly become withdrawn, hyper-vigilant to physical contact with others. This deterioration of felt sense constricts our ability to make sense of the multifaceted world we experience and affects our interpersonal understanding of one another. In our current Covid-19 climate of isolation and anxiety we have been challenged even further to maintain a specified distance from what could be hazardous – both in terms of other people and potentially contaminated surfaces.
Suddenly every haptic occurrence is a risk.
Responding to the coronavirus crisis, Leeds City Council’s waste management policy has been to cover every refuse bin with ‘Environmental Crime’ tape in an effort to stop people disposing of their litter in the very receptacles designed for such a purpose. People have, maybe unsurprisingly, resorted to dropping their rubbish wherever they please. This accumulation of trash has made me curious about peoples’ habits during times of uncertainty. It feels that environmental care and consideration are easily dismissed in favour of one’s own self-care. Why act responsibly when there is a perceived danger to the sensed-self? Whilst out running I found myself examining rubbish lying in the road. This new-found attention to the objects that people have deemed unimportant reminded me of the composition and descriptive commentary of Audrey Amiss’ scrapbooks and triggered a creative practice response.
Over the course of a week and in homage to Amiss I catalogued the items I picked up (with rubber gloves), and then recycled as much of the waste as possible. I documented how and in what ways items caught my attention; what their surfaces felt like to touch and the nutritional value both hidden and prominently displayed on food packaging. I created my own annotated and digital archive of experience and used it as a conduit to reflect upon the habitual ways in which we (dis)engage with materials/ objects in everyday life.
More than anything else I collated scratch cards, cigarette packets and energy drink cans, but I also hauled ironing boards, washing machine parts and a cabinet from the hedgerows. These larger artefacts became landmarks, places to gather items together, creating temporary roadside sculptures. On returning home, these transient test-sites helped me to construct maps that charted my running route, clarifying memories of the terrain through liminal compositions of the unwanted. They occupied a transitional space neither fulfilling their original purpose nor being made use of through a recycling process.
Audrey Amiss used packaging as a window into the world of human containment, creating a vibrant archive of manufactured products. Since the archive was acquired by Wellcome Collection, immense care has been given to cataloguing and contextualising it, yet in reflecting on Amiss’ work I found myself considering alternative messages held within the physical scrapbooks themselves. For me the scrapbooks spoke of movement, and my mind was immediately cast to the London she experienced, a cityscape mapped through purchases and packaging. I wanted to traverse the artist’s city; investigating a transitional and multifaceted dialogue between locality, body and product. Within my own practice, litter-picking sharpened an awareness of locality; the physical activity itself drew the immediacy of my environment closer to me, prompting me to perceive space differently.
In Amiss’ critique of the everyday she built a catalogue that illuminates our problematic attitude to waste and its accumulation in every aspect of our lives. If art is about challenging habitual perceptions, what value can there be in sealing her work within an archive? I find it curious that archivists are taking the utmost care to preserve the plastics and other materials that make up the artists’ scrapbooks, their decomposition slowed in order to stretch out an artistic lifespan. I can understand the desire to preserve the artists’ legacy but should it be fixed in place? Here is an artist that magnifies our relationship to the ‘stuff’ of the Anthropocene, an age in which plastics are visible within the Earth’s strata. The quantity and visibility of our non-biodegradable legacy stands testament to the responsibility we all share through our consumptive habits.
This time of diminished physical contact has the power to magnify the importance of touch, and the potential to cultivate a proactive response to environmental degradation by challenging the ways we, as multi-sensory organism, interact with the materiality of the world.
Ben Skinner works as a dancer whilst also undertaking a practice research PhD at the University of Leeds. His research explores touch and the skin’s ability to cultivate perception through movement.
 Audrey Amiss was an artist and mental health survivor. Her archive is held at the library at Wellcome Collection. It is currently in the process of being catalogued so that it can be made available to researchers. Further information about the archive can be found by searching the reference PP/AMI on the library catalogue.