Sunday, 30 September 2012

Presentation at 3rd International Conference on the Image, Poznan, Poland

By Ruth Skilbeck

My paper, ‘Last Things: Reflections on a Photographic Series’, was accepted for presentation at the Third International Conference on the Image, held at the Higher School of Humanities and Journalism, Poznan, Poland, 14-16 September 2012. This annual conference is organized by Common Ground, in collaboration this year with the Polish Mediations Biennale 'The Unknown- Nieznane'. Plenary speakers included: Jasia Reichardt, and Dragan Zivadivia. Virtual presenters included: Professor Michael Friedman. The special theme of the conference was "The Thread to the Unknown."

"Is the Unknown a construct? Can we hold the pretense that human hands and minds organize the realm of the Unknown? Are our constructions replicas of known things that hide the unknown from us?" 

The conference aimed to explore: "the boundaries of language, culture, scientific research, artistic production, and visual communication in relation to the Unknown – Are there structural limits in science and human society that necessarily hide what is unknown from us? Or is the Unknown the complex and enormous form of existence that includes our knowledge and consciousness as one very small element?"

I gave a “virtual presentation” at this conference.

Giving virtual presentations would seem to be a happy medium to enable academic researchers unable to travel, for whatever reasons, to nonetheless participate in international research dialogue, so long as researchers are able to also participate in some conferences in ‘full bodied’ capacity, it allows them to disseminate their research more widely, and reach a larger, global audience.

What it may also mean is a chance to submit one’s paper to a peer-reviewed journal. Linked to the Image conference is a new journal: The International Journal on the Image, whose editors are based at the New School for Social Research, New York City, New York.

Last Things: Reflection on a Photographic Series

Author: Ruth Skilbeck

This reflective practice paper discusses the psychology of perception and the proposition of processing trauma and loss through digital photography focusing on 'Last Things' and 'In the Sky' series of photographic images by the author. The paper reflexively explores the proposition of Art making as means of processing Traumatic experience, of loss, and shock of the unknown, in this case literally as well as symbolically, in images that go beyond words. The room was “empty” but needed to be cleared of the last things. She entered the room with digital camera held to her face as shield and lens and took photographs of objects that she found there. The author learned from her own response, that she turned to the visual, to images, before words; she used her digital SLR camera. This experience shifted her focus, as arts journalist, to reflectively writing of her own experience, and the images made in those moments. Here, she also refers to further published and exhibited photographic works that she has come across by artists and writers as primary image-based responses in the grieving/healing process following bereavement, specifically loss of a mother. She discusses works by Barthes, in his Camera Lucida and Mourning Diary, as well as by contemporary women artists. This is part of her ongoing research into conceptual art, subjectivity, affect, women artists, and the Mother in contemporary arts writing.

Keywords: Theme: The Form of the Image, Digital Photography, Reflective Practice
Stream: The Thread to the Unknown
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English 

Dr. Ruth Skilbeck

Lecturer, Journalism and Media Research Centre
Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of New South Wales

Sydney, NSW, Australia 

Ruth Skilbeck, PhD, is an arts journalism specialist, media producer, and arts journalism scholar. She is a Lecturer in Journalism and Communication on MA programs at the Journalism and Media Research Centre at the University of New South Wales. Her professional background includes living and working as an arts writer and freelance journalist in Sydney, Dublin, and London, and starting up a Sydney-based media organisation, Arts Features International, specialising in writing on Australian and international contemporary art and culture. Recent awards for her research projects include an Australia Council Visual Arts grant (to write on contemporary Australian women artists); and a grant from the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism (to write on exiled writers, journalism and trauma). Her work is published in anthologies and journals including Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies, The International Journal of the Arts in Society, Pacific Journalism Review. Current research focuses on new forms of digital media production and arts writing. She holds a PhD on The Writer’s Fugue: Musicalization, Trauma and Subjectivity in the Literature of Modernity (University of Technology, Sydney), an MA in creative writing (UTS), and BA Hons in Philosophy (University of London).

© Copyright  Ruth Skilbeck 2012
Conference website:

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Conference Report: MIRCI International Conference on Mothers and History: Histories of Motherhood, Toronto, May 10-12, 2012

By Ruth Skilbeck

Here, as promised, is my report on the MIRCI  International Conference on Mothers and History: Histories of Motherhood  in the growing transnational field of matricentric feminism and motherhood studies. 
Monday 14 May 2012

Today I returned from a very inspiring and stimulating conference in Canada, the international conference on Mothers and History: Histories of Motherhood, hosted by the world leading research centre Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement (MIRCI) founded and directed by Professor Andrea O'Reilly and based at York University in Toronto. I gave a paper and presentation on my current and ongoing creative writing and cultural studies research into impacts of adoption and its aftermath on families in Australia, based on my own family history and experiences that I have been researching since before my mother passed away, in 2008.

I presented my paper in a session on  the conference theme Empowering Mothers.

Remembering Australia's Forgotten Mothers- Identity and Colonial History.

My paper began to tell my personal story written as grief and as healing, of how I began to find a secret hidden grandmother in my family, starting by briefly outlining the historical context of the ‘Stolen Generations’ in Australia in the 20th century- an era when possibly 100 000s of children mainly but not only of Aboriginal and Torres Strait descent were forcibly removed from their families and brought up as wards of state or adopted. In my paper I tell the story of how I began to find out about my hidden grandmother, and how in the process I switched roles as an art writer and journalist to writing about myself and my own family experiences of hidden history. At the time of writing the paper I had not discovered my mother’s family.
The paper interweaves creative writing, blog entries (from this blog), extract from a novel-in-progress I am writing, and my digital photographs (on this blog).

“I share my story as grief and as healing. This is my personal story and the views I express about the history and culture in twentieth century Australia, and the events I recount in relation to my mother’s life, are seen-and-felt through the prism of grieving and in the process of healing through recovery of family memory and identity, my mother’s family; ‘lost’ in colonial history.  These are not “easy” views to express in the open space of the public sphere (and such views are probably more usually repressed or kept to oneself or within a family) yet I am taking this communicative action in the conscious hope that through expression of grief in the public sphere of a knowledge community, in the creative process of writing and sharing this story healing may come; that it will be a process of personal and cultural catharsis, the kind of emotional release, and expression, that comes from playing or listening to music, and dancing… this time to a mourning song.  More deeply, I am driven to write of this journey from an “unspeakable” place (Kristeva 1981), where words are rhythms, of a psychic chain, a primal memory of a heart beat, and where the interplay of word and hand and mind and screen, the writing machine, replaces that originary matrixical machine; it is something I am compelled to do, I cannot not write this story. Winnicott theorized the “transitional object” that a child uses to replace “the absent mother”.  (Winnicott 1974). Can self made art objects and works of writing fulfill this function, in the process of the creation and play of writing art? For some, I reflect, self-based writing becomes or re-creates its own transitional object.”….
“Why I chose to tell my story is as part of the process of grief and healing, bearing witness. On reflection, it is using emotionalism as a strategy of communicative action in the public sphere (Habermass 1984):
To not be forgotten    to not forget
To speak out against the night         of silence and   sadness”    (Skilbeck 2012).
The paper was well received. In the audience were several delegates from Australian universities, and my research met with strong words of support. “I am saddened but thrilled that you are doing this [pursuing this research]”, was one comment of support from a delegate who works for Queensland Health.

My paper was part of a panel entitled Empowering Mothers, chaired by Dr Fiona Joy Green, Chair of the Women's and Gender Studies Department, University of Winnipeg.
The other panelists were Wanda Thomas Bernard and Claudine Bonner, Dalhousie University presenting on "An Ethic of Protection and Care: African Nova Scotian Mothers". 
They discussed their research project exploring the “lived experiences of African Nova Scotian women from three long-standing communities” through their stories, and oral histories their story-tellers “spoke of their mothers in community roles…  mothering not just their own children, but their communities... In these roles they also serve as role models as well”. The picture that emerges in their talk is of close knit and caring communities kept together, so that despite relatives and friends sometimes having to leave the community and country, the community is kept together by those who take on the role of ‘mothers’.

This closely knit community of survival juxtaposed  the history in my own paper of the ‘stolen generations’ in 20th century Australia, when at least 100 000  babies and children were taken from mothers under a white Australia policy of assimilation, yet there are threads of shared strength and these come from the mothers in the community again, in my paper I quoted Aunty Shirley, Australian Aboriginal activist, speaking at a rally in 2007, where she speaks out for the mothers who had the pain of having their babies taken from them, but who still endure, as the backbone of the country (Skilbeck 2007).  

 In other sessions, it was moving to hear the accounts and analyses of the indigenous women and mothers from Canada and North America who spoke of the pain of the processes of assimilation that paralleled colonial assimilation policies in Australia, and caused much heartbreak and sorrow. Media representation of mothers in North America, was discussed and it seems there is the added trauma and layers of social difficulty of the class system where single mothers and indigenous mothers are pushed down in class, and face great oppression.  On hearing about this I initially thought that it was better in Australia as we do not hear about single mothers, or indigenous mothers described in such a  (class based) way in the media. Then I rethought this, the problem in Australia is that so little is reported in the mainstream media at all about the problems facing single mothers and indigenous mothers- like so much in Australia historically, when these were things that were not talked about. More needs to be said across the media.  One aspect that does seem to be worse and having a harrowing impact on mothers is the US health system which is private, and unaffordable for so many; homelessness and losing houses was also brought up, as a very real and ongoing part of the difficulties mothers face following the mass US home repossession of the global financial crisis.

A very different perspective came from Sweden. 
It was interesting to hear about the different experiences of mothers and parents rights in Sweden where the state grants a maternity or paternity grant of over a year to be taken by either parent, and the positive benefits of this that are appreciated by citizens.

As well as presenting a paper, I chaired an opening session, on the theme of Representing Mothers. 

The conference was a diverse, thought provoking, three days of papers and presentations by a wide range of feminist motherhood studies academics, artists, activists and advocates from around the world, convened by Professor Andrea O’Reilly pioneer of matricentric feminist theory and practice, who has worked in the field for three decades.

Overarching ideas interlacing the  main conference themes of the new 21st century motherhood movement were that: mothers need a feminism of our own (like a room of our own); that motherhood is the unfinished face of feminism; and that racially, culturally, transnationally diverse matricentric feminism is the new face of feminism.

Under this umbrella were a variety of research papers exploring many aspects of motherhood from feminist perspectives: from longitudinal studies of what feminism means to daughters of feminist mothers, to first person artist projects, to cultural and medical histories and media representations of motherhood, childcare and adoption, and histories of indigenous motherhood in colonial contexts. Delegates came from universities around the world.

At least five of the conference delegates were from Australia including Dr Marie Porter (founding president of Motherhood Initiative for Research and Community Involvement- Australia [MIRCI-A, and Honoury Senior  Research Fellow in the School of English, Media Studies and Art History at the University of Queensland ), Dr Jennifer  Jones (Queensland Health) and London-born, Adelaide contemporary artist Simone Kennedy, who is doing a PhD in art and theory on the absent mother,  at the University of South Australia.

As with the best conferences, communication and exchange happens in the margins as well as the mainstream presentations.

I had  interesting and fruitful conversations and exchanges of ideas, information and perceptions in a number of talks, including over dinner with Simone Kennedy; finding that not only were we both born in London, brought up in England, and moved to Australia at the same age, but that we also each for years had worked with a persistent symbolic motif of dissociation- of absence and the absent mother (Simone) and fugue (myself) in art/creative writing and critical research.

“Beginning around 1998, my years of ‘fugue’ research (which in effect ended ten years later when my mother passed away):  was a research into the musical meaning and psychological meanings of fugue in writing as creative art (and began with my writing a fugue novel for my MA), researched in many ways and applications the psychological meaning of fugue as loss of awareness of identity. I wrote novels using this idea, and playing with the musical aspects of fugue, as well as art theory, in interpretations of polyphony and affect.  Now it is impossible not to see the unconscious and unintentional aspects that I wrote about as fugal, were reflexively, performatively, writing my own unconsciousness and family trauma.
The loss of awareness of identity that I wrote of was my own, and of all the other countless thousands of people who, like us, had been “white lied” to or denied knowledge of their families, heritage and relatives.” (Skilbeck, 2012).

The MIRCI research centre hosts an annual conference. It publishes a quarterly journal, the Journal of the Motherhood Initiative (JMI), it is also home to Demeter Press, the world's first feminist motherhood studies press, there was a publisher stand of latest journals, books and the back lists.

The opportunity to attend the conference supported my research, which has benefited from this exposure and public scholarly communication, and provided much food for thought for my ongoing research in this interdisciplinary field.

 © Copyright Ruth Skilbeck, 22/9/2012

My autoenthnographic research article with my digital photographs, based on my conference presentation, ‘Remembering Australia’s Forgotten Mothers: Reclaiming Lost Identity in Colonial History’ is accepted for publication in Journal of the Motherhood Initiative, Issue 3.2 2012 - Motherhood, Activism, Agency.