In the early twentieth century Marcel Duchamp developed the concept of the Ready Made, an object designated the privileged status of art through the choice of the artist. It was primarily through the choices an artist made, Duchamp argued, that art was created. The artist no longer had to make a thing for it to be considered art. In the latter half of the same century the Found Object (where the sculptor does not have to make the sculpture) was joined by the Found Image (the photographer does not have to take the photograph), and the Found Sound (the musician does not have to create the sound), continuing this conceptual movement away from artist as one-who-makes to artist as one-who-discovers, or one-who-draws-attention-to.
To this I would like to add the Found Narrative. For much of this period avant-garde, modernist and post-modernist writers had been searching for alternatives to the limitations imposed by linear narrative structures, what William S. Burroughs referred to as the Beginning-Middle-End narrative. Alongside this, many theorists were questioning the text, the author and the structures of narrative, producing seminal essays such as Roland Barthes’ “The Death of the Author?” and Michel Foucault’s “What is an Author?” Much of my work has been inspired by these writers, artists and theorists, and has been a continuation of this programme to generate new, and novel, narrative forms. The Found Narrative could be seen as a logical extension to this process.
A Found Narrative is an object, series of objects, text, or series of texts, which contain within them the weight of a narrative. It could be as simple as a postcard (Found Narrative No’s 1, 2 and 3), or as complex as a complete card index system within an old wooden filing cabinet discovered in a cottage next to a church (Found Narrative No. 6). A writer may look at these objects as starting points, the inspiration for a story. But I am not interested in writing stories, I am interested in the process of discovering and bringing to attention the stories already contained within the objects I find. I don’t want stories where the author tells the reader everything. A good story (and, indeed, good art) contains gaps which must be filled by the reader (or viewer). A good story requires active participation from the reader, it asks for input from the reader’s imagination. The Found Narratives each contain clues, snippets of information, which invite the reader to construct the links between them, in order that it be the reader who generates the narrative. Again, it was Duchamp who first highlighted this triangular relationship between the artist, the work, and the viewer. The artist needs the viewer to complete the work. Without the participation of the viewer there is no art. This participation is, I believe, a large part of the joy of art.
The first three Found Narratives are postcards, found left as bookmarks in volumes bought from second-hand bookshops. They read like succinct short stories, leaving the reader with unanswered questions, and placing vivid images into the reader’s mind. But as a reader, I don’t want to be given the answers to these questions, I don’t want the gaps to be filled by a writer. It is the gaps that provide me as a reader with the most pleasure. It is the gaps which also provide a link to other areas of my work, such as the Grid and Tile collages and the book works. How much information can be removed, or indeed how little information do we need, in order to make sense of something? After all, only four per cent of the Universe is made up of visible matter, and yet we are continuously increasing our understanding of it’s overall structure. This sense of discovery, this revealing of layers, becomes more pronounced the further through the series of Found Narratives we progress.
The ongoing Found Narrative Series shows human beings to be natural archivers and recorders, creators and organisers of data, from which, I assume, we must at some point in our development have gained a Darwinian advantage over our competitors. Did the Neanderthals create archives? At what point in our history did Homo sapiens begin generating and storing data? The variety of means through which this compulsion manifests, as a collector, as well as creator, of narratives, and as highlighted by this series, is a continuing source of fascination to me. As I hope it will be to you, the reader.
Found Narrative No.1, Postcard, 2013
Things are going o.k. here. Weather very mixed but I have worn my bikini, so a bit of sunshine has been
seen! Experiment going well but have had a fair few problems as the lab is very hot. Brucie is enjoying
himself & Chip is loving running around.
Take care + see you soon
This text, the first of the Found Narrative series, invites the reader to raise a number of questions. What is the ‘experiment’? Things have been ‘going well’, but there have been ‘a few problems’ (what problems?), so the experiment obviously could be going better. Who is Brucie? Is he a person? Is he a friend of Pep? Or partner to Andrea? We assume that Chip is a dog (or could he be the young child of Andrea and Brucie?) and that both Chip and Brucie have nothing to do with the experiment. These are the assumptions we make, but, as a reader, I am asked to fill in a lot of gaps. Already with this first Found Narrative, and similarly with the following two postcards, the rules and territory of the series are being clearly laid out.
Found Narrative No. 2, Postcard, 2013
Dear Mr Todd – we are very grateful to you for submitting your poem to us for publication in Humber Packet
– it is a fine poem and certainly depicts the story of Lincoln Castle. I trust you will enjoy reading the rest of
Esther Mary Beadle
In this instance I imagine Mr. Todd to be a man in his sixties, living a lonely life as a widower, perhaps a retired sailor, who now spends his days reading and writing bad poems about the ships he used to sail in as a young man.
Found Narrative No. 3, Postcard, 2013
Found Narrative No. 3 depicts an artwork called “Bubblegum Babies” and contains the following text:
I know it’s necessary to re-write history – but who do you think you are kidding? I presume Annie is the
student-in-distress I met at xmas – imaginative!
My guess here is that this has been written by an old friend to a middle-aged art teacher having an affair with a young, pretty student, sent as a clear declaration of the writer’s disapproval of his friend’s indecorous behaviour.
These are the images invoked in my head. Another reader may have others. The text maybe says as much about the reader as the writer. Maybe I am the middle-aged art teacher, with an inappropriate infatuation, fantasising about a sexy scientist performing a strange experiment, or maybe I am the lonely retired sailor nostalgic for his lost youth.
Found Narrative No.4, Askern Colliery No.2 Winder Shaft Log Book 27-4-92, 2013
The Log Book from Askern Colliery is a record of the night shift at a coal mine, documenting the number of men in and out, times, and work done, up to it’s last night before closure. It mostly takes the form of lists and numbers in differing handwriting, formal and functional, a working document, but as the final shift approaches a little more individuality and humanity creeps in, opinion and emotion is ever-so-slightly expressed, the functionality slipping as the job comes to an end.
Found Narrative No.5, Parkside Address Book, 2013
This slow revealing of layers mentioned above is perhaps most pronounced in Found Narrative No.5. Initially someone flicking through will see it as an A4 address book. Upon further investigation it will be noticed that a number of those recorded therein are deceased, and that the dates of their deaths have been documented. A proportion of entries also have the date of their funeral and the name of the priest who presided over it. These revelations lead to the first stirrings of curiosity, accompanied perhaps by a building apprehension: why record the dates of so many people’s deaths? Closer inspection leads to the realisation that all these people lived in the same town, and that the dates span a period of a few short years. Is this book documentary evidence of a serial killer? It is only when one notices the ages at death of these people and that they all lived on the same street that one finally registers the true purpose of this address book. (If you have not guessed yet, I will not further spoil your enjoyment of the reveal.)
Found Narrative No.6, Card Index Drawers, 2016
Hidden away in the fire place of Dove Cottage, a community venue owned by the church next door, in Debenham, Suffolk, Found Narrative No. 6 is a set of index card drawers containing the hand written record of every birth, baptism, marriage, death, and burial managed by that church, dating back to the sixteenth century. Contained within it’s drawers lies unseen the story of five hundred years of village life.
Found Narrative No.7, Paperback Book With Handwritten Notes, 2016
Found Narrative No.7 was discovered at a private book sale held at the house of a friend’s friend. The house owner’s husband had died a few months earlier leaving a library of over 10,000 books and the house owner was in the process of organising the house’s contents in order that she could move forward with her own life, and eventually sell the house. The book sale was a part of this process. The man who had accumulated this library, a retired journalist, had spent the last two decades of his life researching a book, which will now never be written. Many of the books in the sale contained strips of paper with handwritten notes relating to elements of his epic work in progress, giving tantalising hints as to the subject of his unwritten magnum opus. Found Narrative No.7 is one of these books. The notes suggest that the author was looking into that blurred area where science and faith meet, often uncomfortably. The many other books in his library strengthen this suggestion, covering, as they do, subjects such as: physics; cosmology; philosophy; linguistics; astronomy; astrology; ufo’s; mythology; spiritualism; magic; the Western Esoteric tradition; angels; comparative religion; alternative history; and more. When I asked my friend, who has been close to the family for many years, what the curator of the library’s book was to be about, she replied, after a considered pause: “Everything!”
Found Narrative No.8, Bird Hide and Log Book, 2017
Hidden in a small private woodland, off a public footpath, several miles from any town, overlooking an artificial lake, itself a product of the Derbyshire Dales industrial past, stands a lone wooden shack, barely large enough for four people to stand in. The shack is a bird hide, from which twitchers can monitor the avian comings and goings on the lake. Set into a narrow wooden shelf, beneath the hide’s long, thin windows, is a compass showing the cardinal points. Contained within the hide are two A4 notebooks, in which a log has been kept, a diligent record of the species and numbers of birds frequenting the lake, dating back to 2004. Also contained within the hide and the notebooks is evidence of behaviour for which the hide was not designed. Sketches and scribblings amongst the sober recordings suggest it is not only bird-watchers who visit the hide. A doodle of a duck smoking a joint hints at other, more illicit, uses.
Found Narrative No.9, Two Torn-Up Photographs, 2018
Found Narrative No.9 is a pair of torn up photographs found on a train. The photographs shows two teenage girls smiling together. The story is one as archetypal as they come. Two adolescent best friends take selfies together, their love for one another so strong that they perform the unusual act, for Millennials, of printing the photograph out, expressing the strength of their feelings for one another by the creation of a physical object. Then, some time later, like all best friends, they have an argument, and that force of unconditional love is transformed into it’s opposite. The photograph is torn up in another act of heavy symbolism and abandoned on a train, stuffed down the side of a seat. Whether they ever make up is unknown, but somehow doesn’t matter for our narrative. The story they tell is an expression of the confusion and strength of emotion which comes with growing up and entering the world in your own right outside the protection of parents and school. In one simple act a whole coming of age narrative is told.