Tuesday, 8 November 2011


One of the things I find essential to developing an idea, is physically coming into contact with things and materials. Objects are something that we think with, and it is my experience as an artist that actually handling, hearing and smelling them in 3-D reality is as central to the imaginative process as seeing them (in spite of Art History's obsession with the visual). Luckily for the sake of this project, handling the objects and responding to them is allowed, although gloves must be worn in the study room for conservation purposes.

I have now spent two happy sessions at MoDA shortlisting from their enormous collection of wallpapers to find samples suitable for the Sonic Wallpaper project. This began as a rather intellectual exercise, with me thinking that we should choose wallpapers in different categories - abstract, figurative, floral etc. - but discussing the papers with Maggie and Emma during my visit last week, and also handling a whole new batch of different samples, has shifted the direction just slightly. Rather than presenting interviewees of the Sonic Wallpaper project with a mix of categorised samples, I have devised a series for the interviews which will hopefully take visitors on a journey from fairly recognisable and familiar papers, through to the examples of wallpaper in the MoDA collection which are going to be more fantastical to contemporary eyes and home-making sensibilities.

During my encounter with the MoDA collection last week, I found that papers with recognisable designs on them - papers which I could easily associate with relatives' homes and childhood memories - immediately opened up a remembering/imagining state of mind, whereas papers with extremely fantastical or brightly-coloured imagery on them inspired more fanciful and less domestic thinking processes. I am beginning to find it more and more helpful to relate the stages of this project to the stages of actually decorating a room; to immerse myself in all the contexts which surround the relatively everyday ritual of decorating a room.

In my imagination, this project is like a room, and we are picking the right papers for it, based on the responses I am imagining they may evoke; it's not so different at all from decorating a bedroom or a kitchen; except that the 'room' in question is not a space made for sleeping and cooking in, but an imaginative dimension, in which the wallpaper used must be made accessible and inspiring to the people who are going to consider and look at it.

Emma Shaw - who is the Preventive Conservation Officer at MoDA - also made a helpful suggestion during my visit regarding how the wallpaper samples will eventually be displayed. Up until my visit last week, I had been thinking about the project purely in terms of SOUND, and in terms of voices and field-recordings leading viewers and listeners through an imaginative contemplation of wallpaper. However after talking to Emma about the final exhibition that this project will become, I realise that even for this stage of the project, wallpaper samples should be organised as a journey through ideas rather than in themed groups. This is the kind of discovery that you can only make by physically walking through an idea; in this case, through taking sample after sample out of box after box and looking at each one critically, with the hands, eyes and imagination, and wondering where it fits, what it links to, how it will make people feel, what it means and how - in its physical state - it suggests or describes an environment with attendant sounds.

Obviously I can show you this image of wallpaper - one of the many samples which I consulted last week at MoDA as part of this project - but I will have to work a little harder and grapple with language and memory to try and convey the impact that encountering it as an object had on me and therefore how I imagine it will - as an object - give ideas and associations to the people who have agreed to be interviewed as part of this process:

Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

There are many aged fragments of paper like this one at MoDA, bearing familiar rose and trellis patterns, fragile corners and edges darkened by the passage of time. Some of them seem very small, offering just the merest glimpse into the thoughts somebody once had about a room they were decorating. The ephemeral nature of wallpaper means that older fragments feel particularly fragile, as though one is holding just a tiny remnant left over from somebody's domestic space.

In terms of the sounds this fragment makes me imagine, I found the act of sifting through papers and looking at them at MoDA to be reminiscent of the quiet, focussed discussions we have in rooms together, standing and assessing and imagining what a space might look like after we have transformed it. These particular papers with their roses and warm, pinkish tones are full of memories of girlishness and a kind of self-conscious aspiration to femininity. The associated sounds I imagine while looking at it are very soft and delicate; a pink powder puff I once had in a tin with a rose pattern on the top; the gentle "shhh" as lining-paper is smoothed into a clothes drawer; the sound of heavy drapes being closed across a window at night; the muffled space inside a duvet; the distinctive sound of pearls being replaced or removed from a jewellery box. These for me are very quiet papers connected to the entire idea of The Boudoir, or perhaps - even more personally - to my own former, self-conscious, suburban, teenage-girlhood appropriation of that idea.

Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

I also found myself looking at several designs which were the same pattern, but which utilised different colour schemes. This made me think about colour discussions and how emotional our responses to different colours tend to be, especially regarding how they change the atmosphere in a room.

Several selections where the pattern is the same, but where the design comes in a whole range of different colours have therefore been incorporated into the Sonic Wallpapers shortlist. I am wondering how interviewees will respond to the effects of colour changes on designs like this...

Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

Wallpaper © Museum of Domestic Design & Architecture, Middlesex University – photographed by Felicity Ford

All of the handling of wallpaper and the consideration of the viewers' experience which I am shaping here for the interview days towards the end of the month put me slightly uncomfortably in touch with the fear that I might be choosing very poorly from the collection, or displaying a horrendous ignorance about the history of wallpapers in my selections, but these emotions are entirely appropriate to the process of choosing wallpaper itself, and are in a sense native to the entire context of the wallpapering of space. As Christine Woods writes in her excellent introduction to "Walls are talking, Wallpaper, Art and Culture";
Depending on the rules of the time, the hanging of particular styles of pattern displayed either the consumer's awareness of current fashionable taste or their innate vulgarity. Choosing wallpaper has always been a tricky business, and our feelings towards it have always been ambivalent. From small beginnings as a decorative novelty for the middle and upper classes, through its controversial passage as a carrier of noxious vapours and instigator of mad episodes, wallpaper has become both the silent witness of and active participant in Western culture, acting as an important social and cultural signifier. In regarding paper as nothing more than 'white noise' we allow ourselves to ignore rather than address its power.

I love that in that quote, Woods labels precisely the fears surrounding, and also the ubiquity of, wallpaper in our culture. I obviously also enjoy her sonic simile, in which Wallpaper has historically been considered to be a kind of 'white noise', being both present and also disregarded or easy to filter out.

As the process of exploring wallpaper in my own distinctive, domestic soundscape fashion develops, I am excited to see what happens when we bring that 'white noise' to the fore via the production of clear, distinct sound-works, and in continuing to allow these wonderful materials at MoDA to lead the way.

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