Lisa Creagh / Holding Time
Interviewed by Christiane Monarchi, founding editor of online magazine Photomonitor
This month Lisa Creagh will present her newest project ‘Holding Time’ at Fabrica, Brighton, as a multi-screen installation featuring animation, stills and video. Using material created over the past three years of breastfeeding mothers, this installation will test a working method of showing stop motion portraits alongside an abstract ‘time map’ based on Cosmatesque designs.
Creagh’s work sets out to remove the barriers to breastfeeding, whilst positively promoting this role in society by providing positive images of mother and child relationships, seeking to re-contextualise motherhood in general and breastfeeding in particular as an active, rather than passive activity, aligning mother and child with an older, more universal time system. Below, Christiane Monarchi asked Creagh more about the genesis of the ideas behind this project.
Christiane Monarchi: I’m interested in the idea that your multimedia exhibition ‘Holding Time’ involving many participants, contributors and institutions may have evolved from your personal experience with your own baby daughter, finding your own rhythm to feeding and caring for her. Could you tell us a little bit more about how your ideas have arisen from your highly personal yet also universal experience of breastfeeding?
Lisa Creagh: Motherhood was an extreme shock. Having worked my whole life and benefited from the facilities and opportunities of work, I was appalled at the lack of provision for me as a mother. Everything was difficult. The desperate struggle I went through to breastfeed was just one of several; the struggle to manage my career, to maintain friendships, to find advice. Our post-industrial societies have families broken apart, living miles from each other. My story is typical: I had no one but my partner to call on for help and he was working all hours to support us. So I was alone.
I realise that it could be worse and certainly I feel lucky that I had the support I had but I saw nothing of my experience in culture. ‘Woman’s Hour’ was the only place I could hope to hear stories like my own. I had never really noticed how few female voices were on the radio, on television. I became aware of how male culture was and how this enormous experience – literally turning your body inside out to create another human being – was just dismissed as ‘women’s stuff’.
Breastfeeding – this other, epic journey that I had undertaken – was just invisible. If a character appeared on TV with a baby, it was always with a bottle. I realised that even my own idea of motherhood was based around bottles. I had no pointers, no clues. My body started producing milk and I didn’t know what to do. I was completely unprepared – I hadn’t even thought about breastfeeding before giving birth. I had only ever seen one person do it. I had no idea how to hold a baby, no idea how often they needed feeding. Literally hours after birthing my daughter I was handed a photocopied sheet with some pointers and sent on my way.
That night my daughter fed every two hours. And it was like that every night. I felt like I had run a marathon and been hit by a car and now, when all I needed was sleep, what I had to do was stay awake. I found it tremendously difficult to keep going. Things started going wrong quite quickly and my daughter started losing weight. I began to realise that most midwives have never breastfed, being from the generation of women who were sold formula. Learning to breastfeed from someone who has never done it is like being taught how to skydive from someone standing on the ground. I felt totally unsupported and I was attempting to protect one of the most vulnerable humans on the planet. It was genuinely hard.
When I looked around for inspiration, ideas, conversation, all I found were medical diagrams or close ups that looked weird and gross to me. I wanted desperately to sit with another mother who was feeding her child and talk to her. I wanted to feel normal, to understand what was happening to me. It was like going through puberty in a day. But to even see another breastfeeding woman I had to drag my stitched up, exhausted body and screaming baby to a one hour ‘breastfeeding group’ in a community centre miles from my house. I started to really understand why the statistics are so low.
I expressed milk for three months. I managed through a combination of schedules and rigorous book keeping, storing milk in my fridge and monitoring my production. The expressing was really arduous and any woman who manages to do it deserves a medal, frankly. In order to keep myself going I read a lot about the benefits of breastfeeding and became very interested in the statistics. The UK is really behind on breastfeeding and there are many reasons for this, probably best summarized by a the early adoption of formula, as presented to our mothers as a ‘liberation’ from the ‘problem’ of breastfeeding combined with a highly competitive work environment and little provision for maternity leave beyond one year.
This method of coping worked until I got a breast abscess and I was told to stop expressing immediately. I decided to just try twenty four hours without bottles and I never looked back.
Had I not had that conversion to breastfeeding after three months of bottle feeding I would possibly never had made this work. It gave me a revelatory insight into the benefits of feeding on the breast. I watched my daughter transformed by the process. She was a different child and I became a different mother. I realised that much of my issue with breastfeeding was to do with how much time it required of me. I had to sit still. I had to do ‘nothing’. What I learnt is that ‘Doing nothing’ is still doing. It just depends on how you see the ‘nothing’. Actually my daughter was happily growing. I wasn’t ‘wasting time’ as I had thought. I was growing a child. This internal paradigm shift lead to a permanent change in how I think about my life.
CM: Could you tell me more about combining images of breastfeeding women with a ‘Time Map’ and indeed with the glass objects created by Mike Barrett? The way time has been discussed in ancient societies is fascinating to consider in our modern world.
LC: When I was breastfeeding I was amazed at how creative it was. The time I spent feeding was a brilliant opportunity for thought. It didn’t feel like time wasted, it felt like I was gaining something grand and transformative during this time with just her and me. I felt like I was surrounded by a new space, with ideas just flying around me. It was a kind of high, a deeply relaxing, calm sort of meditation.
In my previous work, I used the mathematical structures from Celtic and Islamic art to create large floral ‘carpets’ from photographs. This work came out of my experiences of medicalised fertility so perhaps it’s fitting that within a day or so of falling pregnant, I discovered a Cosmatesque tiled floor in the Sistine Chapel. Counting the numbers, I discovered a pattern that spoke to me of time. Looking into it, I found the meaning is unknown but does indeed have an elaborate mathematical structure.
Shortly after having my daughter I began to sketch geometrical patterns based upon this Cosmatesque scheme and it was when I was watching her play with wooden blocks that I started to think of it in 3D. She was sitting on the floor on a white mat and the coloured blocks were all around her. I took a quick snapshot by standing on a coffee table and looking down from above. When I photographed Lucila some time later I combined the two and that became the basis of my project.
I wanted to be able to work with 3D shapes and I knew that I wanted them to be transparent, so I searched for a glassmaker I could commission to create a simple cylinder, cube and tetrahedron. I’ve worked with glass before and I love the luminosity of its surface, the way it responds to light. Mike came into the project quite early on and he brought a sensibility that really added to the work. By allowing bubbles to form in the cooling glass, he gave me the texture of thought bubbles that I hadn’t imagined in my drawings. Photographing glass is quite a challenge and I can add it to the list of new things I’ve tried with this work.
The designing of the Time Piece, (the animation) was one of the biggest challenges of the work. I wanted to make a time code that could be used for each mother. Each portrait was to show the amount of time each mother had spent, up to that moment, breastfeeding. That meant I needed a timecode that could work from one second, up to several years. Representing things visually that would ordinarily be represented in (abstract) numbers, is something that really appeals to me for reasons that I can’t really fathom. In the end I managed it: the Time Piece can count from one second to a year, perfectly.
I spent a month moving between Photoshop and Excel, creating a timekey for the animation that could be translated into a still TimeMap. I’m still working on the TimeMaps, but the Time Piece is finished and will be on show at Fabrica. It counts using scale and shape, so the intervals get longer and the size of the pattern increases. This has a certain effect on the mother portraits which are in a sort of stripped out ‘realtime’. I’m fascinated by how the animation of still frames creates the illusion of time. I think what I’m trying to do with this work is disrupt and interfere with our perception of time; to show more of a feeling of time, as I experienced it when I was breastfeeding. The Fabrica residency is a great opportunity to show this finished stage of the work.
CM: How have you developed involving other breastfeeding mothers into your project, and how have they responded to the experience?
LC: In the beginning, when my daughter was about 18 months, I took a photo of Lucila with her son, breastfeeding in my spare bedroom. It was chaotic and quick but I caught something that I felt could grow into a project. I applied to the AA2A scheme and got a residency for a year at a local college. When I started I wasn’t totally sure what I wanted. I had envisioned filming the mothers but I also wanted stills and so I started with two different cameras and two lighting set ups.
Each mother was a friend and they all were very patient. It was exhausting setting up for two different shoots and in the beginning I was trying to do the interviews for the Parlour at the same time and this put an extra dimension of pressure on the shoot. I didn’t always get what I wanted and some had to come back three times until I was happy.
Sometimes I was so tired and stressed out that I made mistakes and sometimes I struggled with getting all the kit to work as the students had perhaps changed setting or broken bits and so on. It turned me into a master trouble-shooter! I managed half a dozen shoots like this and then another half a dozen when my daughter turned three and started nursery. The first twelve were basically a lot of work but once I had these, I was able to get funding.
I rarely shot more than one mother per day in the beginning. I would joke that I was beginning to understand why there were so few images of breastfeeding mothers in circulation: it was like trying to catch the snow leopard. That’s an exaggeration but there were many cancellations and delays. Mothers were invariably exhausted and harassed when they arrived in the studio. They were always apologizing. This fact began to upset me. I realised that this is just the norm: to feel that you are in the wrong because it is hard for you to get somewhere on time when you are caring for a child.
I learned to begin each shoot with conversation openers that helped them understand that this was a space where they didn’t need to apologise. For some women it was such a relief to just be allowed to sit somewhere comfortable and feed their child. It was so interesting to stand back and look at these mothers: when you place something infront of a lens repeatedly you see patterns and differences. Their body language, the way they held their child, the way they sat and looked away or engaged. It was all so very revealing.
I realised quite quickly that simply trying to ‘shoot’ the portrait was too invasive. So instead I stood aside from the camera and simple timed a shot every four seconds. This left me free to talk or be silent, but to really ‘be’ with the mother as she fed. In this way, each shoot was a small act of solidarity. I wanted each mother to feel she had been seen. It was amazing how empowering this seemed to be for each mother. They came in harried and upset and usually left on a high. It was a great feeling: quite addictive. I felt I was giving each participant something that they were missing. When I ran the results I realised that through this process the work had evolved into animation and this was just a bonus.
Once the project was funded I scheduled two weeks in the studio and held two shoots per day. These women were from a wider group – some had been referred to me by other participants, one came from Royal Brompton Hospital (you can read about her here), some I had approached in cafes or baby groups. I was conscious of creating a demographically broad range of mothers so that any women who looked at the project would see someone like herself. I didn’t quite manage it but I think it is still quite broad.
CM: I’m interested in moving breastfeeding from a personal into a collective experience, could you tell me a bit more about the communal support and in initiatives in this area? At present the press seem to continually point to problems with societal values of breastfeeding, while the medical community actively champions it.
LC: As I mentioned above, I had many individual conversations with breastfeeding mothers and in the middle of these I came to realise that it is only possible to understand the situation with breastfeeding in this country and in general, by pulling back and seeing the bigger picture.
Breastfeeding is really one arm of a much greater social issue of mothers being unsupported after giving birth. Women are encouraged to work, to be economically active and this is something we all celebrate. But there is almost a received wisdom that supporting women in work precludes supporting motherhood, as though the two are mutually exclusive and not (as I would see it) crucially intertwined. As a result, when women leave work to give birth they become invisible. The time they spend with their child is described as being ‘lost’ or ‘a gap’ (in their CV), something they must cover up or erase in order to continue to experience their own value in ‘public’ life.
We can see this playing out in very visible ways: new mothers don’t fit: they have a baby they need to feed but the cafes and restaurants, the gym, their workplace – the various spaces they inhabited before childbirth are no longer accommodating to them. They can no longer move freely as the requirements they now have are not being met.
As a result, there is a huge unspoken social issue around motherhood and social isolation. In order to gain access to ‘baby friendly’ places where it might be acceptable for them to behave naturally with their baby (i.e. to feed and change it) they must make specially created ‘baby groups’ which take place only in specific locations at specific times throughout the city. Or they must pay for someone to take their baby so that they can ‘rejoin’ society and ‘get their life back’. They are running from one space to another – always having to hide the baby, put the baby somewhere else so that they can be accepted back into the public sphere.
This loss of freedom is one of the key reasons that women switch from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding. Typically the change takes place at 6 weeks when the mother cannot face being housebound any longer and wishes to participate again in public life. We may say that they ‘should’ just breastfeed in public but this is quite a demand: to singlehandedly overturn four hundred years of objectification and sexualization of the breast, alone, daily in public.
Mothering generally and breastfeeding in particular is not seen as an economic activity and is therefore invisible to policy makers and planners. It may be true that women experience relief when they ‘return to work’ but this may simply be due to the fact that they are returning to an acceptable activity that is easily quantified (and paid). Women are constantly having to find work-arounds to negotiate societal norms that simply do not serve their needs. Breastfeeding in public is one. But ‘public space’ also includes workspaces. Where are the workplace nurseries and crèches?
We have gone from women staying at home, to women working without thinking about how to bridge the gap between public and private space.
It’s a complex issue because it’s about moving forward, progressively towards a society that reflects our needs and values as human beings. Commonly when I was taking care of my daughter in public I received encouragement and support from older female pensioners who recognised this work as valid as they themselves would have perhaps stayed at home to raise their children. But if I were to breastfeed in public this support might not be there from the same group. This is because their notion of motherhood did not include full term breastfeeding or public breastfeeding. Also I often found these women to be critical of mothers who worked.
So we need a new vision for the future, for women who work, who leave work to give birth and who want to still access public space with small children whilst breastfeeding. These women don’t want to be at home, as we have gained the benefits of working and don’t want to go backwards in terms of equality. These mothers might be running businesses or having meetings. They need support in maintaining their careers whilst also being allowed time to be a mother.
Working with Lucila Newell (the Sociologist and CoFounder of The Parlour) on these and other issues has really helped me focus on the bigger picture. Together we are running a workshop to discuss public space in relation to breastfeeding during the exhibition at ONCA (aimed at policy makers to try to push this issue forward)
CM: How do you see this project evolving in the future, in the various institutions where it will be resident?
LC: The project moves to ONCA Gallery for a few weeks in February where it will incorporate a ‘Breastfeeding sit-in’. Mothers are encouraged to come along to the space, sit down and take care of their children whilst relaxing and networking. The gallery is quite central and it seemed a great idea to test out this idea of having a shared space for mothers to gather and feed. It’s not a protest ‘sit-in’ but more of a happy collective. By running The Parlour alongside the work I’m able to bring together all these disparate groups: environmentalists, health professionals, activist mothers, mother groups, policy makers and artists.
Having a web-based wing to the project overcomes all the usual geographical and time-based barriers that limit the audience to a piece of work. Also the Parlour is designed to engage primarily with the socio-cultural aspects of the issues surrounding Holding Time. I have printed 5000 postcards to distribute in doctors’ surgeries in the two cities where the work will be shown. The Parlour acts as a sort of bait: bringing mothers from across the world to the site by engaging with specific hashtags and feed in social media. Once they are at the site, they find Holding Time, the art project.
After ONCA the project moves to Royal Brompton Hospital in Chelsea, London where it will be on view 24/7 for three months. Both here and at ONCA I’m hoping to show the interviews from The Parlour alongside the work. Although breastfeeding is seen as a medical issue, really the appeal for me of showing in a hospital is that I can reach the most diverse audience.
In the future, I’d like to create a book of the project, although I’ve never managed this before I see it as crucial this time, to create a marker that holds the ideas behind the work together. I’m also talking to various agencies about creating an app. It would be great if the Time Piece could be made into a piece of public art, available online. We’ll see…! For now it’s a matter of burying my head in After Effects and getting this work finished for Fabrica in a couple of weeks. After that, who knows!
For further viewing:
Lisa Creagh‘s work Holding Time will be shown at Fabrica, Brighton on the 18th January 2018 and she will be discussing her work with Christiane Monarchi from 6.30 - 8pm. More details of this free talk can be found here