Ignite: The Great Bed of Ware
Ignite is a collaborative project with the RCA’s Research department. It offers opportunities to MPhil and PhD students to extend and disseminate their research practice through participatory projects and relationships with other institutions such as galleries and museums. Catrin Morgan’s workshop took an object in the V&A’s collection as its starting point. She invited students from Grey Coat Hospital to build up a textual version of the Great Bed of Ware. Each of their descriptions corresponded to a layer of the bedding, from frame to coverlet, in terms of both the stylistic and visual constraints used to produce it.
The day began with a visit to the bed, a giant
four-poster built in 1580 and rumoured to sleep 15 people at once. There the
students wrote short descriptions of what they could see. When the group
returned to the workroom, their sentences were gathered up and then given out
again at random.
‘The curtains are like a patterned waterfall streaming down around the side of the bed, engulfing the secrets hidden inside.’
‘Castles carved into the headboard vandalised by misshapen initials.’
Catrin asked the students to swap the words in their sentences for words that meant the opposite. She encouraged them to avoid obvious opposites and to be creative in the way they generated new words. The students then wrote up what they had produced on papers with a criss-cross structure, reflecting the structure of the bed mat. This resulted in some startling, beautiful sentences and in interesting responses to the texture of the paper.
‘A window is nothing like the simple ocean. Stuttering up through the front of a floorboard, leaving a public speech open inside.’
The next exercises were responses to the bed’s three mattresses. The students returned to their original sentences and undertook a three-stage process of verbal muffling (as the mattresses muffle the hardness of the bed mat and the frame). The muffling process was one of making the sentences increasingly vague. Step one involved adding ums and ahs to the sentence, step two was adding qualifications, maybes and doubts, and step three involved replacing any precise information left with whatnots, doodahs and thingies. The students then wrote these sentences on soft, almost transparent papers and were encouraged to experiment with the legibility of their writing.
‘The ummm like bed oh... has a well... man...ummmm on the I’m not sure...well post and I think he has like maybe oh.... umm... a like... that thingy... a thingy... like a tail thingy...’
Throughout the day the students could use any spare moments to write down secrets about the bed on plain pieces of paper representing the bed sheets. The rule about these secrets was that they should be impossible to read. This was one of the day’s most successful exercises with the students coming up with some ingenious ways of disguising, hiding or encrypting their secrets and really enjoying the idea of creating writing with the intention that it should be illegible.
In the afternoon the students returned to the original sentences; they rewrote them in such a way that they became more friendly and comfortable sounding to mirror the bed’s blankets.
‘The warmest, most wonderfully detailed sunny structure cosily patterned with snug initials and fuzzy stamps signify the bed’s toasty history and its unwavering fame.’
The final exercise invited the students to embroider on their initial sentences to represent the coverlet, imagining that they were a person in Ware responsible for attracting tourists to come and sleep in the bed. The students were asked to transform their statements into grand and overblown claims. They wrote on richly patterned pieces of paper using highly decorative letterforms.
‘The look of magnificence bewilders, cosy beyond imagination with royalty begging to swan into it.’
After the final exercise the group considered the layered text they had built up and Catrin asked them to choose one sentence each from any of the layers to take back into the gallery. This sentence did not need to be one of their own, just one that they particularly liked.
When they returned to the gallery they each read out the sentence. The group considered if the sentences described the bed well, what relationship the texts had with the bed, and how they would feel about the bed if the V&A’s descriptive text had been replaced by one of their own pieces of writing. After the workshop Catrin bound together all of the writing from the day into a book that reflects, both formally and linguistically, the layers of the Great Bed of Ware.