Tangible Autoethnography
I share Federico Fellini’s belief that “all art is autobiographical.” Working with Bird on the Wire reinforced this belief with an added dimension of creating ties with others. These ties also reach across time and space, including the realms imagined realities. My artistic process and the emerging product dissolved the boundaries of my self, allowing the possibility of merging with others. I can no longer separate Bochner’s story from mine, and the artwork itself reveals this new construct of undivided, integrated selves; undivided integrated stories. Creating a mixed media glass collage also expands the horizon of writing and communication through language.
Autoethnography as an expressive, communicative medium mainly operates within the realms of text or written language. Autoethnographers place an emphasis on evocative research and the value of aesthetics (Ellis, 1995, 2005; Pelias, 2000), however, the aesthetic dimensions of research is often limited to text and the author’s use of language and storytelling. There are autoethnographers, like Marilyn Metta whose embodied, feminist autoethnography incorporates both poetic texts and paintings to add new layers to the story. In Putting the Body on the Line (2013) she shares five paintings as part of her autoethnography. The relatively small scale, black and white reproductions of the original, colorful works reveal an underlying struggle to purposefully merge images and text. Her evocative images do communicate feelings and emotions in ways writing cannot. However, their potentials as communicative forces and pictorial stories are diminished through editorial and design choices. The written language seems to overshadow the art, and readers are not explicitly guided or called to meaningfully interact and reflect on the images.
I believe the only existing genre, where images (artworks) and text (stories) are interdependent with an almost symbiotic unity are picturebooks. In picturebooks, as aesthetic objects the text is reinforcing the visuals, while the visuals reinforcing the text, thus neither the text, nor the images are subservient or inferior (Bader, 1976; Nikolajeva & Scott, 2006; Sipe, 1998a; Wolfenager, 2007). In my work as an artist and aspiring autoethnographer, I seek a purposeful integration of visual art and autoethnographic writing, inspired by picturebooks. I realize that neither my writing nor my visual art can fully communicate my stories. I do acknowledge the limitations of both language and art, but I strive for a purposeful integration of these aesthetic media to achieve a more meaningful, coherent, or sacred connection with my readers/audiences.
I acknowledge that both Bochner’s Bird on the Wire and my corresponding artwork can stand on their own as aesthetic objects. I never intended to write about the process of making the art, however, I realize that without writing about the process, I render multiple stories invisible and inaccessible. Writing about the making is my attempt to show what it means to fully engage, to mindfully tend, to transform and translate another human’s storied offering, and to give it a new form. However, there is still a crisis of representation, as I struggle to find a way to share my writing and art within an integrated, accessible ecology, where both words and images are accessible as equal catalysts of the aesthetic experience.
Autoethnography is an invitation to respond. It encourages “responsiveness to the other and a responsibility for the other” (Bochner, 2012, p. 209). I believe good autoethnography ignites communal engagements by calling readers to respond. My medium of response was a mixed media collage, however, I am already exploring new ways and more ways to continue responding. Response is not a singular event. It is not momentary act. It is a vibration, an exchange that can continue across time and space. My artistic response to Bird on the Wire is only the first exchange within the rhythm of sounds bouncing back and forth, between myself and the author’s story. I also realize that writing on the page is not static, and the more I return to the written page, the more I notice. The incompleteness of language and the incompleteness of the story is not a failure or deficiency. It is a calling to nurture incompleteness, to make incompleteness familiar and not frightening.
Bochner’s story with his father is not necessarily a parallel story, mirroring my own life, offering comfort or possibilities to lessen the existential pain, endemic to all our lives. It is rather a landscape in formation, where a single reading only provides a still image. Making the art, based on Bird on the Wire, dispelled the notion of a single story and made me see and discover such meanings that not even the author could see or find within his own story. This is why Bochner (2014) calls researchers to orient toward meanings, to be guided “under not only the rule of rigor but also the inspiration of the imagination; to achieve not only better predictions and more control but also peace of mind and social justice; from not only the position of neutrality and distance but also the standpoint of caring and vulnerability; toward not only the production of conventional research texts but also the performance of creative, artistic, and dialogic modes of representation and lived experience (p. 245). I believe that good autoethnography can fulfill these goals, but autoethnography must also expand its own boundaries to allow and encourage new form of representations as legitimate and valuable forms of knowledge.
My work with collage and fragmented glass allows me to envision a ‘tangible autoethnography,’ as a new genre and method. Qualitative researchers have already embraced the role and metaphor of the bricolage and the bricoleur both as identity and methods. Bricolage as Jacobs (2008) notes, “is oriented to miltidisciplinarity, grounded on an epistemology of complexity, with a liberatory agenda” (p. 119). Autoethnographers, like Stacy Holman Jones and Jane Speedy use and combine story fragments, images, poetry, multiple storylines to embrace the potential benefits of messy texts (Denzin, 1997). During the making of my on collage version of Bird on the Wire, messiness or chaos was a necessary component of the process. During the grouting, for example, when I had to cover the entire artwork with a layer of muddy, cement mixture; the work of art became momentarily inaccessible, losing all aesthetic qualities. However, the continued engagement of removing the messy, dried cement through meticulous, time-consuming work not only restored the piece’s aesthetic quality, but it enhanced the overall experience.
Messiness and chaos in autoethnograhy and art are necessary components that require acknowledgement, mindful tending and purposeful interaction from readers and authors alike. However, I see both my art and research as restorative engagements. The aim is to create order out of chaos or at least to demonstrate how the elements of chaos or disorder (like broken, shattered pieces of glass) can be re-made or re-configured into a new object, suggesting the possibility of wholeness and integrity. My artistic object based on Bird on the Wire reveals how broken, insignificant, or even dangerous shards of glass can cover a complex surface, assembled into a new reflective, integrated surface, which functions multiple ways. It protects the underlying layer of printed words. It acts as a reflective surface. It offers various visual effects based on light conditions and the viewers position in space. Also, glass as a rigid medium is far from flexible in room temperature. The only way for me to cover a three-dimensional surface with glass without destroying the foundation and the writing was to use small, broken pieces with a transparent glue. This process taught me that the more fragmented glass is the more possibilities it provides to cover intricate surfaces.
In life, there are events that may shatter our being, shatter our hopes, and shatter our faith. We are familiar with fragmentation and brokenness. But I believe my engagement with the creative process of making Bird on the Wire offers me a tangible metaphor for restoration, if I am or if I will experience brokenness.
Reading Bird on the Wire not only enabled me “to enter the subjective world of the teller - to see the world from…his point of view, even if this world does not match [my] reality" (Plummer, 2001, p. 401). Reading Bochner’s story engendered a new process, a new pursuit to return to my own brokenness and to recognize that leaving them shattered and scattered is not the only option. Bochner taught me how to pick up the shards of past events. I learned that they may cut into my flesh and cause me pain, but simply handling them, picking them up, trying to arrange them into a new shape will offer a sense of restoration, peace, and freedom. Bochner taught me that freedom does not come from detaching, denying, or forgetting our past with its pile of seemingly unworkable shards of storied pains. Freedom comes from recognizing that nothing is unworkable and one can create wholeness out of brokenness and insignificant shards or defective remnants. Moreover, my art demonstrates how I “use the wreckage of the past to make a better future possible” (Bochner, 2012, p. 212). Bochner’s “wreckage” became my medium to create from; to create with. It also supplied a vantage point to locate my own wreckage and to consider using it as materials to an aesthetic object that is made up of our joing wreckages. Our stories should not be destined to decay under the pressure of time and forgetting. Although, decay is a natural process, we have a choice of tending and mindful restoration. Like an old house requiring constant repairs, we learn much more from tending and fixing than from the act of passively letting it decay - to render a home no longer habitable.
For me, that first encounter with Bird on Wire was also an awakening. It woke me up within my own decaying house. It revealed the source of decay, but it also offered tools to fight decay and to restore my home. Both reading and making offered moments of awakenings to reality, to see things as they really are and to embrace the possibilities and freedom within an incomplete reality.
The function of autoethnography and art making is to project images or stories “that resonates, unsettles or connects with the viewer in some way (Barone and Eisner, 2012). And these experiences are essential because they tend to move us, animate us, halting entropy and stagnation. When I first read Bird on the Wire, for example, I had no idea who Art Bochner was, but as soon as I engaged with the work through my whole body, I was moving toward him as a real person, seeking connections beyond the page, embracing the possibility of an authentic, human connection. Indeed, good art (and autoethnography) “has ‘legs’, allowing you to go some place it invites you into an experience that reminds you of people and places,” as it has the power to create a sustainable and diverse community (Bruce, 2013, p. 27). In order to foster connections we must embrace multiple ways of connecting and communicating. Language can homogenize, and sole reliance on language may “short-circuits the perceptual exploration of the individuality of objects and events, it undermines what can be known about them” (Eisner, 1998, p. 14). Thus, I seek to integrate my artistic process/product with autoethnographic writing. With my mixed media glass collage on Bird on the Wire, I share one possibility of artistic engagement with an existing autoethnographic research. My artistic response moves beyond the realms of criticism or review. It is a form of building on, continuing a story. It is a form of offering, or a new starting point for continued reflection. I do consider my collages as autoethnographic art, but I also realize that in order to call this work, autoethnographic art or tangible autethnography it needs a story, a written component. In hindsight, I should have recorded each epiphany I encountered during the long process of making the art. Many of these momentary discoveries and enlightened moments are lost. Thus, I am changing, adjusting my practice as an artist and as a practice as an autoethnographer. Art making informs my autoethnographic writing and autoethnographic writing informs my art making, but I struggle to unify these engagements as systematic practice.
Patricia Leavy (2015) in Method Meets Arts praises the values and importance of autoethnographic research, but like other methods in her book with their corresponding chapters, (e.g., music, poetic inquiry, visual arts) autoethnography remains an isolated practice with an emphasis on evocative writing. Thus, I reach a point of longing and desiring a meaningful integration and synthesis between art making and autoethnographic writing; seeking new paths and opportunities, hoping that “I am [not] alone with my thoughts” (Bochner, 2012, p. 172).

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