We were at Towner in Eastbourne on Saturday, to explore the Twixt Two Worlds exhibition with a group of Drawn To The Page writers. The exhibition, which draws together an amazing variety of photographic, film and video works that span well over a hundred years, explores the moment in time when the single photographic image developed into the moving image, and the effects of double exposure and superimposition across these lens based media. Gaia Tedone, the show’s curator, has also made some interesting thematic links between the works. “‘Twixt Two Worlds’ also attempts to articulate a parallel trajectory, which considers the use of doubling as a suggestive vehicle to signal the apparition of ‘another world’,” she says, “a world ruled by the laws of imagination, illusion and paranormal phenomena. In the space between these two worlds, only separated by the cinematic screen, the tensions between science and magic, vision and insanity, life and death crucially play out.”
As a writer, I found Tedone’s themes extremely exciting, and was convinced that other writers would too. On viewing the exhibition for the first time, I was struck by the presence of doubles and parallels everywhere. The Barnes Twins as collectors; Jane and Louise Wilson, collaborating contemporary artists – twins, raising their arms in eerie unison whilst under hypnosis; the twin screens of Douglas Gordon’s ‘Hysterical’ installation, which uses found footage of a female ‘hysteric’ contorting and writhing in slow motion and in real time; twin worlds – the real and the imagined, the sane and the insane; and the living and the spirit worlds I found in the early Victorian spirit photographs on display. They all contributed to create a strange sense of the uncanny. And so the uncanny, doubles, doppelgangers and twin worlds became our writing theme.
Our notion of the uncanny comes largely from a 1919 essay by Sigmund Freud, in which he outlines the idea of how something can be both familiar yet alien at the same time, resulting in a feeling of it being uncomfortably strange. In fiction and folklore, a doppelganger is a look-alike or double of a living person, often associated with bad luck. For me it was interesting to note, that whilst the doppelganger idea is as old as human history, there did seem to be proliferation of the doppelganger in literature over a period that ran fairly concurrently with the development of photography.
So on Saturday 25th of October I encouraged writers to simply take in the works on display and scribble whatever came into their heads in response – whether notes, personal reactions to specific works, or a more creative stream of consciouness free-write. Afterwards we gathered together to talk about our responses. This initial viewing of the works with notepads and pencils is always useful, encouraging writers to linger with pieces that they might only normally view for a short time. It also helps everyone to clarify their own interpretations of the themes and ideas in the show, before I share my own. We then talked about the idea of the ‘uncanny’ in literature and shared some examples: AE Hoffman’s The Sandman; The Double, by Fydor Dostoyevsky; and Edgar Alan Poe’s, William Wilson in particular.
I then suggested that they go and find examples of ‘doubles’ or doppelgangers in the exhibition, would they like to use Jane and Louise Wilson, or the image of the young Barnes twins, or the woman in the Gordon installation, for example? If they were to write an encounter with a a doppelganger, they could base appearances on what they saw in the show – but they’d also need to think about what the doppelganger represented, what aspect of the “I”, the first person narrator, would the double be expressing? We talked briefly about the idea of the ‘shadow’ self and the unconscious. The resulting short fictions, used doppelgangers to great effect and in a variety of ways; cinematic automatons, mirror selves, hypnotic doubles, and people in photographs that took on a life of their own – all emerged uncannily from the page with incredible life and depth – proving how very rich this exhibition is as a source for writing.
Next, we took some time over a coffee to think about doubling and repetition as a device in poetry. Using the stories they’d just written as a source of text, I asked writers to select phrases, fragments, ideas from their earlier writing that they particularly liked and which they thought might work in a poem. We then experimented with repeating, reversing, reordering and doubling up these phrases, adding more lines, until writers had a two verse prose poem or poem, with each verse in some way acting as a double for the other, the same, but also subtly different. It was great to see now, how the theme of the double was playing out not just in the content of their writing, but also through its structure and form.
Finally, because how could we resist, we returned to the gallery and I invited writers to explore two parallel worlds. There were so many options to choose from it was hard to narrow it down at first, were the two worlds going to be the real and the photographic, the inside and outside of the body, sanity and insanity? But each writer did in the end choose one, and explored how it might feel to be – ‘Twixt Two Worlds’. As always, writers were encouraged to develop these draft stories and poems at home and submit them to the Drawn To The Page blog – and we hope to be posting some of them in the next few weeks; but in the meantime feel free to use the above exercises and ideas, to write your own stories in response to the Towner exhibition in Eastbourne, which will be in the gallery until January 4th.
Here’s some feedback about the workshop from three of the writers who attended. If you’d like to join us for the next Drawn To The Page workshop, it’s at the De La Warr Pavilion on Saturday November 15th. Bookings with New Writing South here.
“The Twixt Two Worlds exhibition proved really inspirational and it was so productive to actually be doing some writing. Workshop fantastic for honing writing ‘muscles’ and Wendy, … well, just the tops and fantastically supportive. Totally F.A.B.U.L.O.U.S.!” Hilary
“Excellent. Can’t believe it went so quickly. Thank you for a very enjoyable workshop. Would definitely like to do this again!” Danielle
“Fabulous workshop with Wendy. Stimulating tasks from an interesting show. I wish more people would benefit from these creative experiences.” Helen