Nostalgias (exhibition) and Nostalgias: Visual Longing (conference)

by Rebecca J Gerken

First job: coffee for the team as they get on with the hang. We look at each other. We see how it is. No problem, doing what I’m told is what I do best; a result of trying to be the ‘good’ child at home and a fear of getting a telling off either by my parents or teachers. With a little time to spare as Sam and Monica needed to personally perform the condition checks on the artworks waiting to adorn the walls of the Pie Factory, three of us went for breakfast (myself, dear Gemma and Legoman Lewis – if you haven’t seen his work, it is simply brilliant, you need to take a look: We spoke about futures, food, Thanet and, of course, the conference. And so it began…

The day was wet and windy. A shop around the corner was allowing us to borrow some tables and stools in order to show a particular piece of work (the beautifully embossed map boxes of Chu YinHua). We got wet. I was very interested to meet sensory map artist Kate MacLean after seeing her work in The Collected at the Sidney Cooper. Such fun. It went quickly and we were home again before we knew it.

Eight days later, we parked at the Winter Gardens and walked along the seafront amongst spraying rain to the station. On the way, Gemma’s shoe started to flap. Yes, flap. The sole of her right shoe was coming away quite badly; indeed it was worse than she had anticipated. I couldn’t help but laugh and I couldn’t help but laugh even harder when she proceeded to take out the tape she had been using to keep a bandage in place on her right hand (where it had collided with a glass vase a few days before) and wrapped it around the nose of her shoe. Her hand and foot matched; I found that highly amusing.

We were to meet weary travellers and show them to the minibus waiting outside which would take them to their hotel. Wearing t-shirts over our coats and jumpers so the correct people could spot us, we looked slightly as if we were from a charity (we each had a list of names too, and pens at the ready), so we noticed wary looks from some passengers whereas others avoided us altogether. Shortly after arrival, Gemma had to disappear to the ladies in order to clean herself up. We don’t know how it happened…well, we do…or when but the pigeon stuck inside the ticket hall had meticulous aim…

To pass the time, we had a go with a new app Gemma had acquired. A game similar to HedBanz and Articulate, you put the phone up to your forehead and depending on the category, the onlookers have to describe the film, imitate the accent, act like an animal and so on. Some of these categories we deemed unsuitable for public spaces. Three hours, eight trains and twelve delegates later, we got on the minibus ourselves and jumped out near the Turner in order to go to the Private View at the Pie Factory.

Scared of my clumsiness, I was proud of myself for not knocking any wine over the table or worse, on someone. Recognising some from the station, it was interesting to see the mix of people we would be spending the next two days around, listening and talking to. Welcome speeches by Brigitte Lardinois, followed by Monica Takvam and Sam Vale (the exhibition curators and conference organisers) were well received and most people moved onto the Greedy Cow around the corner for ‘the best burger around’.

Saturday 9th, we awoke to no hot water. The money on the gas meter had run out again; need I say #studentlife? With no time to quickly run to the shop to top up, we grumbled, I splashed cold water in my face and Gemma sought out her favourite hat to wear for the whole day…

Upon arrival, a very kind gentleman ushered us into the pleasing warmth of the Winter Gardens (having no gas also meant we had no heating and with my bedroom in the basement, and a crack in Gemma’s window, our bedrooms insist on being the coldest rooms in the house), showing us where the conference was to take place. Familiar faces greeted us there; the two Jenni’s, Jade and Sam and Monica. Picking up our name stickers, pastries and tea and coffee, we chose our seats and were raring to go.

The amount of notes I made this first day at the conference was, I think, impressive. It happened to be five minutes before the start that I thought I would write about the talks and papers for my blog post. At the end of the day, however, I knew this would be too much of a challenge and thought it would be a little different if I purely documented my experience with Nosalgias 2013. Hence…this.

Worried that I was going to be far too stupid to understand a word anyone said and also that I hadn’t had the best night’s sleep, I am proud to say that I listened to every talk and took almost everything in. The talks that appealed to me most and didn’t disappoint were those of Tim Wildschut (Saturday’s keynote), Menke and Müller, Hui Ying Kerr and Alison Gazzard. I also had a special interest in Meg Jackson’s talk on the discovered photographs of Manfred Beier’s Germany, East and West, since I studied German before coming to University, with post-war Germany being a major topic.

When lunch was served (I had sausage and mash), we sat with Menke, Müller and Christian Hviid Mortensen, discussing school uniforms and playing dominoes. At the end of the day, after it was Christian Hviid Mortensen’s turn to step onto the stage, and after Chris Pallant gave a wonderful response (I don’t know how he did it, so relevant and quickly understood, not to mention how he kept everyone interested and amused) a sparky debate escalated so rapidly, I began to wonder who would throw the first punch…

Mortensen had shown a film depicting scenes from the mourning of Kim Jong-il and his funeral, the speed of the clips increased, and put to the Benny Hill theme. He had shown it, as I understood it, as a comment on juxtapositioning and how sound and footage can jar and remove nostalgia. Some people, unsurprisingly, found this hard to watch and offensive, so when it came to questions, his motive behind showing the clip was questioned. With one person in the audience defending the showing of the clip and another struggling to see why it had to have been included, interrupting each other all the while, it was difficult to see how they were going to get along for the rest of the weekend…

However, upon going to the Walpole Bay Hotel for the conference dinner that night and standing in the bar area before we were seated, these two delegates walked in together, having an (as far as I could tell) amicable conversation, most graciously.

The dinner was lovely, the owner of the hotel personally seeing to our every need and the quiz a little bit of fun after an intellectually stimulating day.  Our team happened to win, nothing to do with one of the quiz masters being on our table, I’m sure. During the main course, our end of the table struck up a conversation about the familiar ‘photography as art’ debate; whether photography is or certainly cannot be perceived as an art. I couldn’t help but smile. This was the exact kind of thing I had imagined would happen and I relished the academic notions bouncing off the wine glasses. I was more or less in total agreement with Dr Shawn Sobers when he said it is of course subjective, but also depends on the discipline. For instance, although there is a little bit of art in all forms of photography, Fine Art is so completely different to Commercial photography that the art in Commercial could be hidden and unrecognisable. I loved to listen to them discuss this (Nancy Martha West, Sunday’s keynote, also contributed) and even proffered a point of my own; before there were cameras, there was the camera obscura, an aid to art, and consider how Henry Fox Talbot worked to invent his calotype process as he could not draw or paint satisfactorily. For him, at least, photography was art.

After a delicious raspberry cheesecake, we all waddled upstairs (I heard many comments about how much we had all just eaten), to share in more energetic conversations, fuelled by the thought-provoking day and the access to the bar. We also, as top quiz team, won a couple of bottles of champagne. It is times like these I wish I liked it when others are glad I don’t (‘I’ll have to have yours’ and ‘more for me’ are familiar phrases). This part of the evening was also highly enjoyable; catching up properly with graduate of my course Jenni, talking to our lecturers Rob and Karen, before getting up to leave only to get into a full-blown conversation with Manuel Menke, Philipp Müller and Hui Ying Kerr about her talk and her research. She also kept trying to leave, but the German gentlemen were skilled in delaying tactics, making jokes and discussing classic Englishness as seen in Germany (Dinner for One in particular), Hui Ying’s outfits and Benedict Cumberbatch (and after she finally escaped to bed, we stayed longer still discussing I don’t know what before moving outside, so close to leaving, and having a conversation about Game of Thrones).

We weren’t home too late, but considering my bed time is usually 10pm and I am not really an early morning person, I was very tired and needed to refuel for the next day.

Unfortunately, I didn’t refuel quite as deeply as I needed, meaning I had to really pinch myself in order to concentrate throughout the remaining talks. On the Sunday, I was helping out rather than just listening; handing out name stickers and conference packs, trying to answer any queries people had and letting people know the staff were trying to make the room warmer (for me it felt warm enough, but our house is like an ice cave sometimes so  suppose I am used to it).

Nancy Martha West’s keynote talk started the day off brilliantly, if not a little uneasily. The theme of the day was undoubtedly death and West’s talk was focusing on post-mortem photography. Her writing was luxurious, her delivery sympathetic and poignant and I gobbled up every word with an unusual yearning for her to go on and on, past the allotted forty minutes. Afterwards, people were discussing feelings of discomfort and tears threatening to fall, the photographs shown hard to look at and a sense of uncertainty as to how to react to them. Through all this, however, I imagine many people there would say that this was the most gripping, enticing talk of the weekend.

JP Kelly’s analysis of AMC’s Mad Men was intriguing and amusing, and both Jacqueline Butler and Sonya Robinson and the final speaker, Carol Mavor touched upon Lewis Carroll, with a delectable proficiently. Over lunch, Rosy Martin’s three films were screened as her talk was immediately afterwards. I couldn’t help but think how relevant it would have been for one of my peers and I must remember to send the link to Rosy’s website to her.

As quickly as it had begun, the weekend was over. I have not mentioned every speaker, but every single one was unique and interesting. Grateful to the bones for being able to be a part of it and knowing that as a team we took a little stress away from Sam and Monica, this is a weekend I don’t think I shall ever forget; from dominoes, to debates, to dinners and delegates. I cannot wait for a week’s time when everything has had a chance to sink in and embed itself and I envisage I will be thinking about nostalgia for a while to come.

N.B. Pub quizzers: The word nostalgia comes from nostos, meaning homecoming, and algos, meaning pain or ache and was a coined by a man called Johannes Hofer.

N.B. Those who wish to know more about nostalgia: you should’ve been there…