In Conversation: Emmer Winder / Elizabeth Challinor

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Emmer Winder is an artist from St Helens now working in Manchester from the Rogue Artist Studios. With 20 years background in conceptual art, photography and teaching, she has recently begun to produce screen prints using sustainable chemical free processes. The common connection throughout all of her work is the involvement of language. This is used to hold attention, start an internal conversation and ultimately leave an impression. St Helens Social Pharmacy is a project which invites everyone to share their personal mantra/ words/ phrases that help them through the continuing Covid19 pandemic. Everyone is invited to share their therapeutic advice in order to support as many as possible. Find out more here.

You can check out her ongoing IB21 project here:

https://independentsbiennial.com/artists/emmer-winder/

Contact details:

@socialprescriptiontracker (Instagram), @numbersixprints (Instagram),  https://www.emmerwinder.co.uk, contactnumbersix@hotmail.co.uk

When did you first start your work for the Biennial? How did you get involved with IB21?

I have somehow hit the art jackpot with the IB, it has been a total bolt from the blue that I feel completely unqualified for! It all started through a commission with Arts In Libraries in St Helens. This was awarded last May, the obvious hold in being able to get into public spaces delayed the start of these workshops to the point where we had to consider if they would work online. This was daunting for me and seemed impossible in many ways. I teach photography in a secondary school, and those lessons went online in January this year. The change was massive but because I was luckily at the point where students were editing, I could make tutorials on how to use photoshop. When it comes to screen printing though, virtual use of a squeegee and ink is not the same! Anyways, after a few weeks I realised I would have to adapt to the times and focus on the talking/ communication side of the work rather than the activity. This is when Arts in Libraries contacted me to say IB were interested in linking their artists with this year’s events. Art in Liverpool and IB for me are a huge deal, they are the kind of organisations that I would dream of being involved with. I still can barely believe this has all happened at all. It really felt like I was in the right place at the right time.

What are you working towards during this time/what are you looking to achieve with your experience here?

Currently I am working on the completion of a Social Pharmacy which houses a collection of medication created by the public. This supplies a metaphorical wealth of prescriptive, trusted advice, all created in response to enduring the events of 2020/21. This process will, I hope, build a visual source of help, support and comfort for those who connect with the medication, its only role is to make the reader feel better with the knowledge that someone else has felt the same. All ages are welcome to take part and submit advice that will become a form of medication. I love the idea that an adult can take the advice of a 6 year old, really connect with their positive, healing words without knowing where they came from. It subtly removes the barriers and judgements we build about who’s advice we are willing to listen to and who deserves our attention. I hope to bring the work to a wider audience with IBs help.

What is your practise about generally & what processes/methods do you typically use? How has your work that you’re doing for the Independent Biennial evolved from this? Is there a big difference between this specific body of work & the work that you usually do?   

Since leaving uni 20 years ago (yes I’m old) I have usually always worked with words. I absolutely love the power and meaning that some words carry, and how they are read differently in other’s eyes. I think I struggle at times to create work without text in it, I feel it lacks purpose or connection, but that is my issue to beat! I don’t really have a process that I commonly use. I have worked with a huge range of materials from plants to neon, but I suppose the link between them all is the concept, the meaning and the message they carry. I am happy to change methods on a whim and often have! Last year I bought a digital screen-printing kit with my life savings, so I have been trying to produce ‘Earworm’ prints for the last few months. I really love the combination of a retro visual with a lyric that will stick with you, or hopefully resonate in some way… whilst completely doing your head in as it constantly replays over and over. The work or the IB has developed from a project I did over a decade ago, but I suppose without realising it until now, it includes a range of outcomes that I reflect my main passions… words, objects and prints.

Did you have plans for your work (& to present it physically) before the festival was moved online? Has the change in platform, affected your outcomes in any way? 

As the workshops were moved online, the interaction/process had to change, rather than the outcome. Originally the library space would have hosted the work, with in part a lovely edge that the room was surrounded by wise words in book form. The participants would have created their own screen printed product to keep, along with a postcard to share with another. I would have simply taken the advice that was offered to turn into a physical and displayable medication bottle. Ideally, I would have, and still want to, create an installation and performance of a doctors surgery with the medication on show to select and prescribe to participants after a short discussion. The exhibition of this pharmacy has now had to move online, which in many ways is more accessible to others, and has infinitely more possibilities to send and share the advice around to those who may benefit. The help offered through the IB have completely emphasised the need to make the project more interactive and approachable. I am even now looking for funding to create a book of the most poignant social pharmacy advice, I don’t think that would have happened pre-lockdown.

Have you been working as part of your residency prior to the launch, or have you only just started your working? 

The project started on the same week the IB launched, I thought it would be an issue that it wasn’t more underway beforehand, but actually I now really like that it all began at the same time and naturally developed as it has.

What’s it like (or been like so far) working with the Independents Biennial? Do you get much support from both of the organisations? 

I think from what I have already written you can tell what I am going to say! I honestly feel like I have had the best, most enriching creative time of my life this year. I am totally overwhelmed by the support I have received from Patrick since first meeting him. I feel I don’t deserve the time and exposure I have been given, and have a massive sense of imposter syndrome because so many others have work much better than mine. I have been part of meetings and events I may never have even heard of if it were not for this connection. But probably more importantly, I have met some wonderful people that make awesome and interesting art, and been able to network again like I did pre teaching days, and that is priceless. I feel so incredibly lucky to have been given a chance to work with IB through my initial Arts in Libraries commission. I cant bring myself to think about what I will do when this is all over!

Where did the inspiration for social pharmacy come from? Have you ever made work with this amount of public interaction/involvement before? 

The Social Pharmacy evolved from an idea I had at university. I did a lot of work around the word ‘hungry’, what it symbolised as a source of consumer ‘want’ when really it should be about ‘need’ Originally, I asked participants ‘what are you hungry for?’ and the resulting comments were turned into medication. This was a naive attempt to cure societies desires, by collecting the answers to everyone’s daily problems I started the first version of the pharmacy. Back in the day around 2000 (pre social media!) I had a mobile way of spreading these cures. I would take a bottle everywhere I went, leaving it in situ when visiting different locations or cities in the hope someone would see and interact with it. I took them on holiday (yes, a suitcase full of rattling bottles was not suspicious back then) and left them around Germany, France and the Netherlands, documenting the easing of our social hunger as I went. In 2008, the idea re-emerged when I worked with hundreds of school students in a continuation of the project. This time we looked at wisdom and the power of words, influenced by the song ‘Sunscreen’ by Baz Lurhman. I asked each student to give me a piece of information that reflected them and the experiences they have lived. What they created was a stockpile of medicinal advice covering everything from teenage angst to personal vulnerabilities. It was a really emotional outcome, they poured their hearts out in order to create a space that could house the advice to help each other. When the pandemic hit, it seemed the perfect, and most relevant time to bring back the idea that we can heal and strengthen each other with words. I have been really lucky to be able to work with large groups in the past. I would often try and include as many as possible in projects, I think that made me feel it would be more successful??

How do people get involved with social pharmacy? What happens during the appointments, and how does this manage to like build up the content for your work? 

There are a few ways to take part in the project… Anyone can send me advice through the Instagram page (@socialprescriptiontracker) where I can create labels to go onto a physical bottle. There are also blank printed bottles in the IB newspaper that can be filled in and posted straight to my page by tagging me. Similar to this, IB have put posters put up around Liverpool, again with blank labels ready to fill and tag me in. I am both excited and concerned in equal measure about what these will produce! The final way to participate is through one to one workshops. These are done via zoom so are perfect for those still isolating or vulnerable. During the session we discuss how lockdown has been, whether it has been positive or negative on a personal level, and specifically, what was done to get through the experience. This culminates in a statement that reflects what words or actions helped this period be manageable. It is important that the participants feel they have created that piece of advice, it is very much about them and the therapy of talking. To reinforce the idea of sharing this advice as a form of medication, we create a series of items. Each participant chooses one thing linked to lockdown actions that I will screen print onto, these are: a t-shirt to symbolise the uptake in exercise, a tote bag to use when shopping, a tea towel to convey the rise of cooking (or for me, eating) or a pillowcase to express our ‘extended’ periods of sleep. The statement of advice created in the session is added to the item by hand, giving it a more personal feel.

This product is to be kept by the participant and used as a reminder that as difficult as the past 12 months have been, they did get through. As they are used in the home or outdoors, they will also act as further exposure of the advice to society. I really love the idea that someone could stir at a bag in a que at the Coop, and that completely random encounter changes their day through some kind of connection or agreement with the visual of that medicinal advice. As well as this item, a postcard is also printed. This time in colour, containing the image of a pill. This is specifically created to share, again the advice is added by hand, but is this time sent to a chosen person who the participant feels may need to hear those caring, supportive words. I don’t know if you have had a random postcard or card land on the doorstep in the last few months, but I can say that when I find something unexpected it really lifts me, I get quite emotional (again maybe just me!) at the notion that someone thought about me enough to take the time to post, rather than text. That kind of communication has a real nostalgic romanticism and strength attached. Anyone that receives a card is more than welcome to tag and share, I think that would be wonderful to see! Finally, I get to create a real physical medication bottle with the personal advice to exhibit, both on Instagram and hopefully one day in a real pharmacy space.

Do you think working with text a lot throughout your work helps to give it a personal connection? Maybe like helps your viewers understand you and your work a bit more in depth? Have you always featured text within your work? Do you see any benefits in it? (In my own work I explore a lot of text/language/communication so I’m always really interested to see how other people use & interact with it)

Hummm, interesting! I have always pretty much used words in work, since I left college anyways, so that would be about 23 years worth, god I’m old. I don’t know if the words reveal much about me, but I’ve never really thought of it in that view? I have used foreign languages, braille and sign language alongside traditional written text, but I think of those all in the same way. I’ve always seen art as a game, so figuring out what’s going is part of the process for the audience. Because I’ve always worked conceptually, I think I see words as clues? There are certain words or phrases that I have based work on in the past, but they are not exclusive. I love finding a line from a lyric, poem or just overhearing a conversation and finding something amazing to use. A lot of my ideas in the past were fuelled by political anger or social values, I did a lot of work on mental health and government inaction. I don’t see that as a personal connection, more a general reaction, almost on behalf of others, to situations that are happening around me. That being said, I feel very uneasy creating work without words! So maybe I have to include them to feel it’s really worthwhile? The benefit of including text is the immediate connection it creates. Everyone understands words, even if they claim not to ‘get’ art, they recognise and bond with what the text symbolises. I think this is a good way to make people feel at ease, bring them in slowly and let them figure out what else is going on in the work. If the word is their only memory, I am more than happy with that! I think there have been times that using text has acted as evidence of a personal connection with others. For instance, I had a life-size nurse illustration printed last Spring as part of a community acts of kindness project. She was displayed on a phone box at the end of my street with a subtle ‘superman’ thank you as a symbol of praise for keyworkers. After a few months, a company I shall not name, stuck their own vinyl advert over the top of her. This was ripped off, revealing her again. Only to be recovered, removed, recovered, removed! It became clear the company should give up, and she was left to smile for a further few months, totally protected by the community that wanted the sign of appreciation to be clear. Brought a tear to my eye!

Oh! You know what, as a follow on thought, I really cant draw or paint so maybe text is my fallback? I reckon I could go on and on about words all night, I feel like I have barely started. Did karma make me dyslexic as a joke?

Did you have to alter the project much when you had to adapt it for digital interaction, or is it running pretty much the same? Being available online it’s definitely helped to promote your work and get people from a wider audience involved with it, but are you still getting the same kind of results as you would have if you were able to host it physically? If you were to run the project in person at some point in the future, is there anything you’d change about it? 

You know, I think it is working out better this way? It definitely is a shame that I have to screen print, but that’s the compromise. At best, if the workshops were live in a physical space, I would have seen maybe 5-10 people per day. The plan was to do 3 days of sessions in total so that would have given around 30 responses at best. Being forced to go online has attracted more attention, and allowed the advice to be seen and shared by far more. But the main shock has been how much I loved simply talking to people in the sessions. Because each participant was assigned an hour, I felt at least half of that could be given to real questioning. In reality I found this time was almost always what I had to cap. It was a therapeutic action to openly talk about struggles with strangers, a strange kind of counselling in a way. Giving someone a physical object that expresses their strength, in order to make others feel better is a positive personal consequence of this project. I don’t think I ever thought about me (why would I?) but in fact, I do feel like a metaphorical doctor. The ability to prescribe words to friends in order to lift their day, or to remind them of what they are capable of is pretty amazing. Just as long as they don’t ask me to look at their bunions, I’d be no good there! If I were to continue, I think I would like to do a mixture of group and one to one sessions. The talking and discussion is as important as the outcome for me now.

Do you have any plans for how you’re gonna move on with your work once this project finishes? Has this project benefited your work or helped you learn anything along the way? 

I think I mentioned already that I am looking at the possibility of making a formulary book to go alongside the medication. This is totally new territory so it will take me a while to sort out but I will keep it going at it. In the olden days I would work big, or at least big in planning. I reckon this last year has reminded me that I loved that, I need scale in my life! I think what I have learnt is that I really love being around other artists. It has been a good few years since I felt I could network and join meetings with strangers, but that is what I have been missing. I used to be very confident, I would wing my way into every situation or job and do it regardless, but I have lost that now. I remember about 2 weeks before lockdown, I went to an artist talk at Manchester Art Gallery. I was totally on my own, a bit scared and felt completely out of my depth, but… it was such an amazing night and I vowed to start doing that more often. Well, maybe not right now… but soon.

What’s the general response been to your work?  It just Social Pharmacy, but all of the like interactive projects you’ve worked on? Do you think you’ve got anything out of it yourself? 

Well strangely, this is the first time I feel like anyone has ever been kind of ‘watching’ and waiting for a response! Anything else I have done has usually been just for me, or at least it started that way. I think the reaction has been great with the pharmacy though, personally for me it has been the most exciting project I have ever done. I just feel totally spoilt by everything that has been written about it. I had a participant write about her one to one session for her blog (messylines) which made me feel so privileged, everything she said was so warm, affirming and supported how I felt the workshop had gone. It’s nice to read someone else’s thoughts and think ‘Yes, I totally agree!’

I also had really unexpected support from Instagram ‘friends’. Forgive the quotation marks!! Its hard to describe but some followers are so supportive, they literally have had me in tears with messages and reposts, when strangers go to that kind of trouble it almost means more than what anyone else could do. I have also been incredibly lucky with who I have met in the last few weeks. One chance meeting with an Instagram ‘friend’ has led to a further group workshop, so again, I just feel massively privileged. It feels like the pharmacy in particular is leading to some great unexpected outcomes. So, I suppose if I look at what I have got from it, it is more than I could have ever imagined. I only ever make work because I like it, whether I get funding or not is beside the point. But this year has been an absolute blast of positivity and good luck, if I can get past me feeling like a fake, I will most probably look back and realise that the last 12 months have been the best of my life for being creative. Actually I can tell you something I did get out of it. There were maybe 3 or 4 responses that I got to turn into advice for the pharmacy bottles from young kids, each one under 14. There have been days that I have just cried reading those few sentences. Partly because they are so touching, so beyond their age that they completely resonate with me. But, mainly because I feel like I need to make a point that art is not about drawing, painting or traditional forms. These kids have created something meaningful, personal and helpful to other people through communicating their ideas, and that IS art, those words do make me feel better, and the pharmacy is a stronger place for their input.

You are making me try and remember really old projects! I just thought of one I did probably 15 years ago called ‘The Hungry Files’. This was a total rip off of Gillian Wearing who I still idolise. It was just a similar format to Wearings ‘signs….’ Where participants were asked to write down what they most desired. Because the owner held the message it allowed you to be judgmental in trying to figure out that person’s character. The strange thing about that project was that a lot of the desires came true! There were hungers for children, engagements, new jobs that I know were fulfilled. It was as if writing it down and stating it to the world made it true. I don’t know if there is some psychology behind this, there are a lot therapists that claim writing or saying aloud gives it strength and focus (I’m still waiting to win the lottery though). In opposition there were also plea’s to stop lying, for time machines to save the day or for more moments of happiness. I don’t know if you have found this when using text/ language, but it brings out some kind of inner voice, I think sometimes people are even surprised by what they reveal. And, those that use comedy are usually the ones trying to cover something up.  Oh my lord I just found it! Dated is not the word, this blog is AWFUL! This is the first time I’ve realised our old online work can come back to haunt us after 15 years

http://thehungryfiles.blogspot.com/

The word “vulnerability” has seemed to pop up a lot in your responses, do you think this is a common/ theme or an important aspect of your work? Or something that’s just happened as a result of your work? 

This is a weird one. I had a conversation a few weeks ago with the guy I share my studio with following an article that Harriot wrote. It was about identity and whether you subliminally put some of yourself in your work. I was in two minds, and often I get angry at the notion that certain people should make art about things specific to them, or at least that it is expected. We should all be free to make work on any subject without fear from judgement that the theme is outside of our lifestyle/culture etc. This may be a reaction to me feeling pretty boring. I would say the majority of my work has reflected socio-political news and events or issues related to mental health. But none of these things have really reflected me, they were happening around me, but not TO me. I think maybe it’s possible that I feel vulnerable in some way because I don’t make work about me as a person. That notion is completely untouched because I feel like I’ve nothing to say. I don’t know if that even makes sense! Anyways, my friend was adamant that all my work completely manifested my opinions and character, which I weirdly fought against?!

BUT! Now you are asking these questions it’s like I’m in counselling or something, its like I have to really think about the truth for the first time! So. I am now remembering work I had forgotten about. One that comes to mind as an absolutely 180 on what I just said is a performance I made in 2008. It was a few weeks after my parents split up, I was 27 so it was pretty horrific watching real pain unfolding and understanding it. I made a banner that said ‘Make It Go Away’ (taken from ‘This Woman’s Work’ by Kate Bush) and had my best friend walk around London holding it. I think that is possibly the most personal work I’ve ever made, that really was about me. But, lots of people, particularly children, completely understood what was going on in those images, even without explanation. All the words in that song are incredible, I still cant listen to it without crying. I had done similar performances previously, but with different phrases that I have used repeatedly over the years, statements I see as being mine… ‘You’re not the only one that feels this way’ and ‘belonging is everything’. When I look at these as a set of 3, I clearly see a vulnerable person. I reckon I would get an awful lot out of someone asking me more questions like this! You have broken me…ha!

Do you think your work has been helpful for the people who’ve got involved with Social Pharmacy? 

I suppose all I can say here is, I bloody hope so.

Ideally I would love to think that someone has used it as intended. Like a shelf in a pharmacy, if the label makes you feel it will help, you take it. Those words are there to speak to as many people as possible. Sending a specific medication directly to a friend, or adding it to a story is a form of dispensing that advice. So I suppose I’m greedy, I hope it has helped anyone who took part from an altruistic point of view, but I also want strangers to the pharmacy to benefit too.

What’s quite interesting for me after these questions, is that it helps me to see what I need to do more of. Almost everything I used to do was linked to consumerism, belonging, desires, values… I feel like I’ve lost that and I miss it.

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