»Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.«Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose
Author Clare Wigfall and designer Ricardo Portilho both came to Solitude with their families. Inspired by the question of how spending a part of your childhood in a castle and being surrounded with international artists and researchers might change your life, they decided to do a writing and book-binding workshop on the topic of childhood. The exploration of fellows’ and staff members’ pasts resulted in a collage-like publication.
Schlosspost: Solitude seems to be a place that is more inhabited by adults than by children, although I remember somebody wrote in the feedback sheet that fellows fill out at the end of their stay: »I loved Solitude because I was treated like a grown-up while I was acting like a child.« You, together, did a writing/book-making workshop on the subject of childhood with a bunch of fellows. How did the topic occur?
Clare Wigfall: I suppose, for me, Solitude was a place where children were still very much in focus. Quite literally, I arrived with two children and went home with three – my third daughter was born midway through my fellowship. Ricardo also has a son, and together the children formed a small gang who would roam through Solitude’s corridors and terrorize the fellows and staff. It took me a while upon my arrival to feel like I could define my identity at Solitude as not just a mother but also a writer. Naturally, the children were often a topic of conversation, and with many of the other fellows we would wonder just how this experience of being a child at Solitude might have an impact upon them. Who knows how it might change their perceptions of the world, what would they remember of the experience, would it mark the course of their future in any way? Certainly, not many people can say they spent eight months of their childhood living in a castle on top of a hill with a bunch of artists, musicians, dancers, researchers, robot makers etc., running amok at their exhibition openings and dinners, and dancing wildly under the disco ball at the many parties! This made me start thinking about the ways in which our childhood can shape us.
»I suppose, for me, Solitude was a place where children were still very much in focus. Quite literally, I arrived with two children and went home with three – my third daughter was born midway through my fellowship.«Clare Wigfall
In conversation, many of the other fellows mentioned details about their own childhood experiences that intrigued me – a Pakistani fellow with an absent father who talked about her experience of being raised in a house of strong-minded women in Pakistan and how it made her grow up feeling she could do anything, another who spent so much of her childhood in the Polish countryside she’d grown up feeling as if nature was as important to her as her friends or family, the fellow whose father was a Black Panther, another who talked about the contrast of his city childhood in busy Bombay and the holidays he spent exploring his grandmother’s enormous tranquil garden in Hyderabad. It was interesting to think about all these varied childhoods in such different locations and how somehow our lives had led us on a trajectory that had taken all of us to Solitude. As different as we all were, childhood was one element that united us.
I was interested in exploring this further, but wasn’t at first sure how to do it. I considered interviews with the other fellows, or asking them to write something for me, but then I met Ricardo and he told me about some of the book-making workshops he’d run previously. I liked the idea that if we held a workshop, as a group we could in a very short space of time explore the subject of childhood together and come up with the content of a small book. We proposed the idea to Monsieur Joly who gave us hearty encouragement to proceed!
Ricardo Portilho: I would agree with Clare that children were very much in focus, especially for us at the time we arrived in Solitude. In the first five or six weeks, our son was together with us all the time. At that point we still didn’t have a kindergarten for him, so it felt in the beginning like a holiday, and also a period of mutual discoveries for the three of us. And there were Clare’s kids, as she said, roaming around and teaming up with João to become a sort of political group being active in the territory of the Schloss corridors. I had this feeling that besides Clare and me, and our partners, all the other fellows were also relating to this sometimes overwhelming presence of the kids going all around the Schloss. So I think the topic of childhood started surfacing as also a kind of »zeitgeist« in those months. The workshop, in practical terms, has itself this big potential of producing stuff: a lot of people together, for a limited time, being able to produce an outcome – a booklet, in this case. This is a concept that really inspires me and actually keeps driving me back each time to try to do something in the workshop format.
Schlosspost: The connection between writing and book-making seems quite natural, but how did you bring the different layers together as the result was not a »classic« collection of short stories but more a collage of different material. What were the aims of the workshop?
RP: I have had some experiences in Brazil connected to producing experimental publications in workshops. This is one of my areas of research and one of the things that I enjoy doing most. And Clare had also been running creative writing and book-making workshops. So, when we started, I think that the basic aim was »to make a booklet about childhood.« Luckily, we discovered quite quickly that our views on workshops and the creative process had a lot in common, and from the very beginning we decided to leave things just organized enough to have a basic structure and to get people in the mood of exploring the theme and doing stuff. So, from this basic aim, we also managed to move to other pathways, for instance, how to see childhood in a not-so-idealized way, how to relate to memory and to leave space open for fiction and fantasy, how to think about text in combination with images – all these were questions that started to arise and to be part of our workshop group discussions.
»I think the topic of childhood started surfacing as also a kind of »zeitgeist« in those months in the Schloss.«Ricardo Portilho
It is important to stress that this was not your average group of workshop participants. We had the luck and privilege of having some fellows – and some staff members! – of Akademie Solitude joining the workshop. So, after some time, this selected group started taking our proposals and pushing their boundaries, and I think we just let it go to see how far we could get considering we had at our disposal two afternoons of work. The aspect of a collage came mainly, I think, from the ideas and questions brought in by the participants during the workshop. Somebody wanted to use their own handwriting, another didn’t want to write and preferred to use drawings, a third preferred to have a very precise way to integrate text and image, I would just let it go, and I think Clare also would do the same.
»How to see childhood in a not-so-idealized way, how to relate to memory and to leave space open for fiction and fantasy, how to think about text in combination with images? – all these were questions that started to arise and to be part of our workshop group discussions.«Ricardo Portilho
CW: Absolutely. One of my main maxims when I teach is the assertion that in creative practice (be it writing, art, idea-forming, etc.) there are no rules. I always stress this to my students, because I want them to feel free to follow whatever avenue their inspiration might take them along. I also am keen for them to focus on the process and the discoveries they might make along the way, rather than starting with an end product in mind. It was clear to me that Ricardo felt very similarly. So, we didn’t really know what to expect when we started the workshop and that was quite exciting. Of course, we sold the workshop to the fellows with the idea that it was a writing and book-making workshop, but from the beginning we told them that if things ended up taking a totally different course, that was okay. Maybe we wouldn’t even end up with a book! Really, what we wanted was to provide a forum where the group could think, explore a specific subject together, collaborate creatively, and learn more about each other. In this sense, I think the workshop really succeeded. And, of course, we did also end up with a »book,« which was quite satisfying in itself.
RP: During the workshop, I was very impressed by the social dimension of the dynamics. Besides trying to trigger some creative practices, I noticed that, without prior planning, there was a situation when people were breaking the ice and getting more intimate. And this kind of experience kept resonating in the next days within the group. Did you feel something like that?
CW: Yes, very much so. We all had dinner together that evening, pasta puttanesca cooked by Anita, who is in charge of the Solitude archive, and as the wine flowed the discussion continued. Conversations on the topic were still opening in the following days, even. It really did feel like the workshop had opened something up for people. We’d hardly dared to hope for this, but it was quite special. The thing is, you can’t orchestrate a group dynamic, but when the group really does gel and you witness the energy that is created as people begin sparking ideas and thoughts back and forth, it’s very exciting. As Ricardo will remember, it was important for us to begin by encouraging communication and discussion in order to generate material we could work with. As with my own writing practice, I feel that by first generating thoughts and ideas, the form of the writing/project itself tends to follow quite organically.
That said, we’d planned on beginning with a general conversation about the topic of childhood, and hoped this would be quite lively and exploratory, but strangely, even though we were in a room with a bunch of people who knew each other well and had no trouble conversing at the regular Solitude parties, I was surprised by how reserved everyone was at first. The consequence was that at first it felt, in my view anyway, like we were forced to somewhat steer the conversation, like schoolteachers, which I didn’t really want, although, having said that, what resulted – the lexicon of words on the wall, the dissection of the theme – formed a very interesting frame for what followed.
RP: We had prepared a box where the participants should put a picture of themselves as a child. We kept the box closed and one of our first activities was to distribute these pictures around at random, and people would have to guess who was the child pictured in each photograph. Next step was every participant should talk a bit about the memories evoked by the picture that was brought in. We did this conversation as a group, so everybody could listen to each other’s stories and experiences. This was a moment of coming together and setting up the kind of universe we were about to explore.
CW: And as you note, Ricardo, what happened next was somehow quite lovely. Sharing the childhood photographs from the box really began to loosen things up. Perhaps because it became more personal then, more specific to us, and also because people started to laugh! Laughter is very important, in my view. Using these as a trigger for conversation we paired the participants up randomly and asked them to tell each other about their respective childhoods. Now conversation began to flow very freely. Some people knew their partners very well, others were less familiar with each other, but the subject really allowed them to learn about each other’s histories and backgrounds. People were willing to be very frank with each other and share quite intimate details. It was beautiful. I also think these photographs were somewhat responsible for the »collage« aspect of the book that evolved, people didn’t want to let these visual prompts go.
»On the one hand, there was a move toward intimacy and personal stories instead of a general, idealized view on childhood. On the other hand, there was a writing assignment.«Clare Wigfall
RP: Yes, the idea of doubling up was to give people the space to dive a bit more deeply into each other’s stories and perceptions. And at this point, I agree, it’s where the workshop process started to get really interesting. On the one hand, there was a move toward intimacy and personal stories instead of a general, idealized view on childhood. On the other hand, there was a writing assignment. So, from these conversations, we asked people to develop a small »mind map,« or a spider diagram, of the stories or the basic associations of ideas connected to the childhood theme. The map was also used as method to help building associations between ideas.We then proposed that people might want to go off somewhere – to the cafeteria, to the temple, to another place where they could find some space alone for a short while.
Each person should try to create a text from the experience of his/her partner. A game of mirrors to help people to move away from their own experience, and to have freedom to tell a story that does not need to be faithful to what has been told in the first place. We asked them all to return within the hour with a short text for us which we would share the following day.
»I think that none of us actually had fixed expectations about what could emerge, which also helped people to do whatever they felt like.«Ricardo Portilho
CW:We began the second day by laying all the texts out on the tables and letting people move quietly around the room reading them to themselves. All the texts were anonymous, a deliberate choice because again we wanted to disassociate them from both the people who’d written them and the individual stories that had inspired them. They were incredibly varied in approach but we were struck by how strong the writing was across the board. Some had interpreted their partners’ stories quite literally while others had taken these real stories and created fictions, some pieces focused upon small details, some were poetic, some very brief and succinct, some abstract enough to be almost surreal, one fellow responded with a labeled drawing about his partner’s childhood!
RP: The proposal for the day was to try to give shape to a double page that would accommodate text and images. The participants should build a spread using cut outs of printed text, the printed images that we had from the first day, and whatever else they would like. But we would do this by hand using scissors, glue, pencils and pens, working in a very basic and raw way. The main goal was to start moving closer to a publication format – something that already deals with the idea of a page. In general, all the participants got into that quite quickly. I think that none of us actually had fixed expectations about what could emerge, which also helped people to do whatever they felt like.
After every participant had prepared a double-page spread, the next step was to line up the spreads on the wall, so as to suggest a very basic sense of a page flow. Also, with the texts lined up on the wall, we could start to discuss as a group how the stories could come together, and how a narrative could be developed from the rhythm created by the succession of different stories. After some discussion, the group decided on the final order of stories, and at that point we started to talk about whether the design – the way each page looked – should be polished or not.
This was an interesting moment; I had previous experience of a workshop where the group wrote and prepared page spreads, but, following this, the design – the look and feel of the pages – was reworked to strengthen the sense of unity of the whole publication. To my surprise, the group in Solitude would rather have a more eclectic and unrefined outcome rather than something unified and polished, because the feeling was that doing this would lose the sense of immediacy and the urgency of the first drafts. So, we made the decision to leave the pages in their rough versions.
CW: Yes, there was very little manipulation of the final spreads, which I think gave a sort of honesty to the end result. It also somehow captured a childish impulsiveness that felt quite befitting of the group and the way they’d worked, and of course appropriate to the theme. We also had a funny incident when the printer misaligned the pages and the print, leading to these crazy even more abstracted double spreads. There was a certain beauty in them and some of the fellows even fought to have these used as the content of the book, but we felt this would be a step too far as we would lose so much in terms of the texts and images and that seemed a shame.
»There was very little manipulation of the final spreads, which I think gave a sort of honesty to the end result.«Clare Wigfall
So instead we used the best of these abstracted mistaken printings for the cover – there were about six to eight of them so there were multiple covers to the book, adding to the uniqueness of each copy, in combination with the fact that each one was handbound and produced in a numbered edition. The last thing to decide upon – and of course it had to be a group decision again – was the title. We looked through the texts together and extracted about ten potential titles. These were posted on a list in the cafeteria and everyone at Solitude was invited to vote. Little Dirty Fingers was the winning choice. It felt quite apt. And as I know from having kids around me constantly, their little fingers are always grubby!
Little Dirty Fingers was initially printed as a numbered edition of 35 copies, in the printing facilities of Akademie Solitude. The copies were folded and hand-bound by the fellows who took part in the workshop. After this first print run, there 60 more copies were printed, a sort of »second edition« also hand-bound by the fellows; these 60 additional copies were distributed to the members of the Solitude board.
This conversation took place online on Friday the May 4, 2018, on a bright sunny morning when João, Ricardo’s son, was in kindergarten, and Celia, Clare’s nine-month-old Solitude-born daughter was rolling around her apartment in Berlin. Celia intervened a few times during the conversation, forcing Clare to sometimes have to type one-handed. :-)