Jenni Steele

drawing in the landscape

Video still My Place (October 2008)

Women’s Arts Association, Cardiff, October/November 2010

Masterclass Artist: Jenni Steele - Written by Lucy Wright

Can you please give us a brief overview of the concepts and themes that your artistic practice consists of?

Washing Lines – collecting media images, own photos and those supplied by others. Making films that feature washing lines, inspired by memories and washing line scenes from movies. All this work is about the search to understand why I like washing lines so much.

Beautiful Isolation – inspired by the work of Margaret Tait, Dalziel & Scullion and Lisa O’Brien, I celebrate and observe the beautiful surroundings of North Wales.

Film and Media PhD – theoretical studies support and inform my practice. I am interested in how the meanings and traditions of dress and drapery in painting translate into film e.g. Girl With A Pearl Earring (dir. Peter Webber 2003) refers to the 17th Century Dutch genre of Curtain Painting; The Governess (dir. Sandra Goldbacher 1998) refers to the veils and exotic costumes of Biblical females such as Esther and Bathsheba.

Could you talk us through the relevance and meaning in the symbolism, if such a term is appropriate, of the washing line as depicted in omnipresent digital media such as film and television? Was it these digital references or more direct, closer-to-home observations that developed your interest in the subject matter?

A washing line in the newspaper or on the TV news is more than likely illustrating poverty (hard times in the inner city) or a disaster area (post-earthquake/flood, etc.) In a TV drama it may show a nostalgic view of times past (Lark Rise to Candleford) or an invasion of privacy by e.g. the Police (Life On Mars). Washing lines are often used in movies to add tension/highlight a threat (Halloween; It; Girl With A Pearl Earring), to show men out of their comfort zone (The Full Monty; Normal; When Brendan Met Trudy), as a scenic moving backdrop in musicals (The Commitments; Mama Mia!; Hairspray; Billy Elliot) and as a comedy image in many cartoons, animations and adverts from vintage Mickey Mouse to Postman Pat and The Simpsons. Literary references in e.g. Margaret Attwood’s Alias Grace, Peter Ho-Davies The Welsh Girl, Pat Barker Union Street evoke the emotional and erotic elements of the line of washing, as do lyrics in e.g. Kate Bush’s Mrs Bartolozzi; Pink Floyd’s Arnold Layne Bob Dylan’s Clothes Line Saga. Man Ray’s photos of sheets on a line; Christo and Jean Claude’s installations; Eva Hesse’s latex drapes – all of these moved me (and again I am trying to understand why) before I ‘found’ Janis Kounellis, Alison Watt, Caroline Broadhead, etc.

It is a combination of all of the above representations across different media and creative areas, plus my personal love of lines of washing (and the fact that I am involved in the domestic process daily) that sustains and informs my interest in the subject.

To many, washing lines may appear to be rather obscure objects to research. Are there any particular methods of research that you have found particularly fruitful in relation to the subject?

Film specialist librarians at The Library of Congress, Washington, have been fantastically helpful in suggesting a huge range of film titles to research; and H-NET, an online academic film ‘discussion board’, is another useful way of networking ideas and information.

The 2002 exhibitions “Drapery: Classicism and Barbarism in Visual Culture”, inspired by Gen Doy’s book (2002, Leicester City Gallery) and “Fabric of Vision”, with accompanying book by Anne Hollander (2002, The National Gallery) and Hollander’s book “Seeing Through Clothes” have been very informative and inspirational towards finding other texts.

I have had email and phone discussions with some Directors and other staff from shows/dramas like Coronation Street, Life on Mars, Occupation and Single Handed. A detailed and very helpful phone interview with Anthony Byrne who directed one of the Single Handed episodes called “The Stolen Child” gave many very interesting leads and insights.

Research into the U.S. “Right To Dry” movement (did you know that only 3 states have legislation that grant the right to hang washing out to dry?) came out of a throwaway comment by David Hockney’s mother visiting L.A. “all this lovely weather and yet you never see any washing out.

Your videos seem to express various polarities: inside/outside; natural/domestic; public/private, all of which in turn represent ‘the unseen and the unspoken’. How do you feel that these juxtaposing depictions of the natural environment, women’s clothes and bodies, and the specific sentiments associated with washing are necessary for instigating a dialogue regarding contemporary, gender-specific topics?

I think that the line of washing is a thing of beauty – sculptural, animated and painterly, with the items on the line carrying many tacit, poetic, literary and historical meanings. A line of washing can be equally spectacular on the beach or on the balcony of a high-rise – what it shows is who we really are. There are some challenging issues to do with the line of washing e.g. theft, being ‘judged’ by our neighbours, and voyeurism, and I am aware of being cautious of filming my own or my daughter’s more personal items of clothing. My task now is to find ways of presenting those images with the kind of control exerted by a knowledge of e.g. Laura Mulvey’s “shifting the emphasis of the look.” Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema (1975)

Generally speaking, I think that women love to see a line of washing hung out to dry. It is a sign of shared work and experience and women can quickly “read the signs” that various articles imply. More deeply, lines of washing can represent life’s experiences from birth to death, and what it takes to love and care for a family or an individual. Wherever there are restrictions placed on washing (day or place), or there are standards imposed to get the wash whiter (spiritually or actually) I suggest that they are instigated by the church, by committee, by power or detergent companies, by ad agencies – mostly patriarchal domains – who would prefer “all that stuff” (including the woman whose work it probably is) to be tidied away inside the house (to improve real estate values) and done by costly “labour saving” devices (that show the status of the owner).

Alongside the strong visual imagery in your videos, the audio you use is also a narrative tool that contributes to the meaning and interpretation of the artworks. How are you intending to expand upon the digital techniques used in your practice, both in terms of the visual depictions of your subjects as well as the audio? How will these developments enrich the concepts that fuel your work?

I am very keen to improve on the sound quality in my film work. I really like to use good surrounding sounds picked up whilst filming, but even on the beach there is often the sound of traffic and wind baffle is a big problem. I would be very interested in learning how to use specialist microphones e.g. underwater, or for recording musical instruments. I would also be interested in using “triggers” that activate short sequences of sound for e.g. stills projections. I am due to work with Jackie Chettur on 9th September to have a day experimenting with different sized/angled film projections , which is really exciting. What I’m aiming for is not just a good film and sound projection, but being able to take control of the whole environment – different screens, different sounds, all working in co-ordination, and in this way I hope the physical presentation will facilitate a better connection with the ideas.

As an artist whose practice is predominantly based in digital filmmaking, why do you consider video to be the means of best expressing the intentions behind works such as *Clearing*, *My Place* and *Encroachment*?

I like how the dv camera transforms reality – the lens being so less sophisticated than the eye, the ear being more discerning than the microphone, etc., and thus it is more of a series of selected fragments, which are then fragmented, sifted further and then layered up in the editing process (I use Final Cut which I find as creative as the filming.) Before I started making film, I worked in art textiles and I think there are many connections in the way things have to be planned and carried out. I have been trying to think how else I could have described the sound of the lighthouse foghorn in Clearing, or illustrated the moisture of the cloud cover caught on stalks of grass – maybe in prose or poetry – my hero Margaret Tait was a filmmaker and poet. I do have some ideas that may work just as sound pieces, or silent films, or still photos with sound, so I guess this question is a good reminder that there is not just one format and to keep asking myself how best to express the intentions.