Report on Nostalgia and Renewal

Dr Jessica Hemmings is Associate Director of the Centre for Visual and Cultural Studies at Edinburgh School of Art. Here she reports on a day symposium she organised on the theme of nostalgia and renewal. The various contributions seem to reveal nostalgia as a particularly productive field of critical reflection. 

Nostalgia proved ripe for debate on June 26, when the University of Southampton Library and the Edinburgh College of Art organised a one-day symposium to explore the theme. Throughout the daylong conversation, focus veered back and forth along two axis. Nostalgia as a positive experience sat at one end of a line of thinking. Nostalgia as a negative mindset perched at the other extreme. A further contrast was the experience of nostalgia as an individual and intimate response to personal memory, versus the same sentiment considered on a national and even global scale distanced from first hand experience.

Slide carousels were definitively moved to the past with the first speaker of the day, Kevin Murray, speaking via skype about authenticity and craft. Murray’s thought provoking contribution explored “craft through the nostalgic lens” and introduced the British audience to Australian exhibitions and practitioners engaging with the theme. Whistling, milk bottles and the typewriter all found their way into the conversation. Murray spoke of a today’s “hypercapitalist world filled with material redundancy” and concluded that nostalgia acts as “both a retreat and a recovery”. Our testing of remote technology set the intended experimental tone for the day. Regrettably, one lesson to be gleaned from the experience was our inability as an audience to fully communicate to the speaker our engagement and enthusiasm – elements that are palpable when standing at the podium.

Linda Newington, Head of Faculty Services held an informal conversation with Tim Wildschut of the School of Psychology, both at the University of Southampton. Newington’s interest in nostalgia and knitting provided an accessible link to Wildschut’s research. In basic terms, Wildschut revealed that negative moods can trigger a nostalgic state of mind, but the result can leave an individual with “an increased sense of social support” which acts as “private self comforting”. Armed with this evidence that nostalgia is not indulgent whimsy after all, many speakers and participants expressed relief at the science Wildschut’s research illuminated. Curiously this point was returned to again and again throughout the day, suggesting the alleviation of much unspoken anxiety around the theme.

Carol Tulloch, a Reader in Dress History at Chelsea College of Art and Design, concluded the morning with a talk on her use of photographic archives to research dress history in Jamaica. Tulloch contrasted this experience with her more recent use of photographic collections inherited from her mother-in-law, drawing on Homi Bhahba’s notion of “fragments of history” to acknowledge that research “cannot gain all of the story”. But she also acknowledged that the “physical act of trolling through the photographic archives” she first used in Jamaica is an entirely different experience to the database dependent archival work many undertake today. “Unexpected finds” if nothing else, are often omitted when research is screened first through the tool of the digital database. So too is the slower pace with which the archival material comes to be known.

From Tullouch’s exploration of the recent past, conversation wound its way even further back in time to the Neolithic. Angela McClanahan, Lecturer in Visual & Material Culture at the Edinburgh College of Art introduced us to the Stones of Stenness, “a spectacular Neolithic henge monument located in the Orkney Islands, and the roles it has played in various forms of cultural production surrounding identity, ‘belonging’ and the construction of community over the last two centuries.” Recounting the “purposeful acts of curation, particularly romantic interpretations of the site as a Norse-Pagan ‘sacrificial’ ruin when it was taken into state care and interpreted for public consumption in 1906”, McClanahan tackled the question of nostalgia from the wide lens of the tourism economy and the identity as World Heritage Site. More recent controversy over the potential of a wind farm to be built visible to the site revealed yet another interpretation of nostalgia: a memory to remain static and unchanging despite of a local thirst for modernisation.

To conclude the day, I spoke with Textile Artist Clio Padovani about the role material and memory play in her current practice. Trained in tapestry, Padovani now works with video to create works that are in many ways ‘constructed’ as a tapestry would be assembled. The central role time plays in both weaving and new media were foregrounded in Padovani’s discussion of her practice. Here the spectrum of nostalgia was apparent in references to the artist’s Italian childhood, as well as a cultural nostalgia for the paintings of the great Italian masters, now reconfigured in digital works as ephemeral as the emotions they explore.

This event was modest in size, a detail that Linda and I felt, as organisers, to be crucial to both the audience and speakers ability to explore alternative and informal modes of presentation. We were lucky to enjoy the contribution of an engaged and questioning audience, who fed a lively and ongoing conversation throughout the day. But I wonder too, if the theme of nostalgia lends itself to this? Without feeling the need to be a subject expert, I sensed that everyone felt they had valid questions and comments to bring to the conversation, often based on personal anecdotes. Throughout the day, these contributions shed light on larger and more formal research topics introduced by the invited speakers. This event is one of two linked research days; the second will take place at the Edinburgh College of Art on July 24 and considers the theme of renewal. I wonder if the future will hold as much pause for thought as the past provided us with last week.