By Dr Lucy Wright
“I used to be an ethnomusicologist but I drifted.” That’s how I introduce myself at parties (sometimes). What I mean to say is that, despite an academic background in ethnomusicology—the social science concerned with the relationships between people, performance and place—much of my work no longer looks straightforwardly like scholarly research. I’m both an artist and a researcher, and I’m interested in finding new ways to combine these practices, especially when dealing with aspects of the human experience which are not readily expressed using text alone. However, it’s not just about using art to ‘illustrate’ knowledge gained using other, more conventional methods. It’s about valuing art practice as a form of knowledge-making in its own right, and working with others to develop modes of representation in which they can be engaged and complicit.
I completed my PhD, ‘Making Traditions,’ at Manchester School of Art in 2014. Its premise was simple. ‘Folk’ is a practice—and often a material one. Not so much a vernacular or style, nor a particular set of songs or dances or other rustic artefact, once gathered by Victorian collectors on bicycles and then promptly preserved in aspic. Instead I came to perceive it as a kind of scenario—it is what can happen when people come together, regardless of anything else, to share in a cultural practice which they create for themselves. It is songs sung by those who might not primarily call themselves singers, dances danced by those who may not have formalised dance training, art created by people who probably have some other day job. It’s entertaining and dynamic and evolving and it contributes to a vital and lived sense of community and place. My (ongoing) project was to create the conditions to foster, explore and subvert that process, as a way of researching with others.
In the context of my research with the girls’ morris dancing community, my role as an artist has been integral and highly (in)formative. I spent 18 months apprenticed to a girls’ morris dressmaker, learning how the continual processes of change and renewal in the girls’ morris costume mirrors a generative approach to tradition, adapting and evolving to the tastes of its participants. I also brought girls’ morris dancers to the Lower Withington Rose Day for the first time since the 1960s, wearing dresses inspired by conversations with former members of the 1956 Lower Withington Senior Morris troupe. I’ve choreographed performances in a disused warehouse and Stoke-on-Trent to explore Tess Buckland’s suggestion that the footwork of troupe dancers mimics the sound and rhythms of industry, and I’ve re-imagined an historical ‘Rose Queen’ celebration with Girl Guides in South Manchester. My aim is to make my research as collaborative as possible, and to involve others in exploring and representing our shared histories and experience.
Photography is a relatively new aspect of my practice, developed almost by accident while sitting on the sidelines at girls’ morris dancing competitions and events. Perhaps because they are so easily shared online, photographs represent an important social currency and despite broader issues around consent and child protection, I’ve found that taking photographs enables me to offer something in return for the excellent hospitality of my hosts. I also write journal articles, and am in the process of writing a book, but for me, having a dual role as an artist and researcher helps me to think differently about my work, and allows me get inside a performance, becoming a (small) part of the community.
For more information about girls’ morris dancing and my current projects please visit www.artistic-researcher.co.uk.
‘Apprenticeship’ with Samantha Hamer from Orcadia Morris Dancers (2013)
Members of Irlam Royalettes from Salford meet former members of the 1956 Lower Withington Senior Morris Dancers at Lower Withington Rose Day (2013)
‘Rose Queen Re-imagined’ with 2nd Alexandra Park Guides, South Manchester (2013)
Lightwood Crystals perform as part of KULES residency at Olympus Engineering Works, Stoke-on-Trent (2015)