motions: the creative process and research

by Hazel Smith

My first two blogs will focus on issues to do with motions, a collaborative, multimedia project I undertook with video artist Will Luers and musician Roger Dean. The first blog looks at the research I undertook for motions and some aspects of the writing. The second blog explores the collaborative, technological and multimedia aspects of the project, and the way these impacted on the textual element.

Like many writers I am obsessively interested in the writing process, and how creative works arise. The process of writing seems to me to be an indispensible part of understanding a literary work, and can speak to, and widen, the perspective of the literary critic. But examining the creative process holds different dividends for literary critics and writers, though in the case of writer critics (of which there are an increasing number) those dividends will be combined. As literary critics, we focus on what writers have achieved, but as writers we are also very concerned with what has not been done. We are always teasing out the gaps within the literary field in terms of literary forms and themes, and thinking about how we might make a new contribution.

Over the years my approach to creative writing has developed and diversified considerably. When I first started to write, I rarely decided on a topic, and mainly found my ideas through playing with language and allowing ideas to evolve out of the process. I still work this way sometimes, but currently when I am embarking on a major project I often decide on a topic and research the topic extensively: reading round it, and using that reading as a basis for writing, both directly and indirectly. This interest in research has grown partly though working in higher education, and my involvement in the university environment. As well as being a creative writer, I am also engaged in research in the areas of literary studies and writing. Particularly important to me is making a rapprochement between creative work and research, so that the two activities speak to each other. There are of course, many different types of research. My research as a literary critic centres on examining primary materials, devising a methodology, compiling an argument and reading all the critical literature on a particular topic. The research I undertake for my creative work tends to be looser, less comprehensive, and more directed towards triggering ideas. Sometimes the research I do for my creative work overlaps with my work as a critic, or one triggers the other. So this is a very complicated and symbiotic relationship, about which I have written quite extensively in the past.[i]

Last year, I completed a research-based collaborative multimedia project, motions, that was based on the subject of human trafficking and contemporary slavery.[ii] The project was created in collaboration with Will Luers, an American video artist who was responsible for the images and coding, and my long-time collaborator, musician Roger Dean, who constructed and coded the sound. It was our second collaboration as a trio: the first collaboration was the video piece Film of Sound. [iii] Human trafficking is the forcible removal of people from one environment to another, usually for the purpose of exploiting them as slave labour. It is one of the great scourges of our modern globalized society, where the breakdown of national boundaries makes transnational crime easier. Victims often have no opportunity to escape; even if they do, they are frightened to leave and go to the police because they are illegal immigrants.

Screenshot from the front page of motions

For a writer, human trafficking seemed an urgent topic to address, and one with a lot of political and psychological implications; it was also a subject that did not seem to have been explored much in mainstream literary works. However, it is also a confronting, sensitive and horrific topic that presents many difficulties.

To research human trafficking I read many articles and books on the subject, most of them listed on the front page of the motions website. A lot of them were quite recent, because human trafficking is currently developing as a research area. But I also perused web sites with stories from victims who had eventually escaped their kidnappers. Although I was concerned with human trafficking internationally — it is ubiquitous and can be found on every continent —  there was plenty of local relevance. I read, for example, about the Wei Tang case in Australia: this was the first conviction in Australia for contemporary slavery, and is a landmark case because it honed what the definition of slavery should be.

As I read I started to write fragments, drawing both on the books and articles I had read about human trafficking, and also other sociological material I had perused on cosmopolitanism and globalisation. I adopted a large array of different genres and sub-genres of writing from documentary, theoretical discourse, drama, narrative and poetry: this piece, like so much of my work, would be mixed genre. This approach enabled me to enter the subject of trafficking from different directions: for example, to include narrative elements but at the same time to deconstruct and disperse them. I also tried to ensure different degrees of distance from the reading material. I wanted to give some intellectual and sociological context to the writing, but I did not want it to become overly polemical. As the project progressed, I also needed to address the fact that trafficking victims were usually non-English speaking. I added phrases from other languages, and also sections of constructed languages (that is languages I made up) to evoke the social, linguistic and psychological displacement that trafficking brings.

A screenshot from motions
A screenshot from motions

motions was a collaborative multimedia project, where the writing was influenced at every point by my collaborators, by the different media   (images, sound, text) and also by the technologies that were employed. An Australia Council Literature Board Digital and New Media Writing Grant, financed the project, and with the funding we were able to bring Will over from the USA for a short period in the initial stages of the project. Will, Roger and I had many discussions about the project together, which led to changes of perspective, challenges and feedback. Will and I talked specifically about the writing aspect of the project, since, as well as being a visual artist, he has experience as a scriptwriter. Central to these discussions was how to evoke the subjective experience of being captured, removed and exploited.

In my next blog I will talk more about the collaborative, technological and multimedia aspects of motions, the contributions made by Will and Roger, and the effect of those contributions on the writing.

Roger Dean (left) and Will Luers (right) with me at the Electronic Literature Organisation Conference and Media Arts Show, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA, June 2014.  Photo: Kathi Inman Berens, who also curated the show.
Roger Dean (left) and Will Luers (right) with me at the Electronic Literature Organisation Conference and Media Arts Show, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA, June 2014. Photo: Kathi Inman Berens, who also curated the show.

[i] See the edited volume Hazel Smith and Roger T. Dean, Practice-led Research, Research-led Practice, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009.

[ii] Hazel Smith, Will Luers, Roger Dean, motions
motions has been exhibited and performed several times, including at the Electronic Literature Organisation Media Arts Show, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, USA, June 2014; The Other Room poetry reading series; The Castle Hotel, Manchester, UK, July 2014; and the Conservatorium of Music, Sydney 2013. The piece is scheduled to appear in a special new media writing issue of Drunken Boat in December 2014.

[iii] Will Luers, Roger Dean, Hazel Smith, Film of Sound, Cordite Poetry Review