Being with data

Have you ever encountered a piece of data that moved you, that pushed, pulled, pinched, refused to let you go?

Louise Phillips from The University of Queensland opened this session by sharing an example of such data with us, archival data that emerged during her search for the story of her great great grandmother, Nancy-Ann, transported to Australia in the 19th century. Surgeons’ records on board the ship recorded Nancy-Ann’s health and physical features, including a series of mysterious letters tattooed on her body.

Moved, puzzled, and mystified by these letters, and what they might represent, Louise responded by embroidering the letters onto an armband, enabling her to engage in a material way with the data, and to hold, be with and honour the story and memories they represented.

The group were then invited to contribute other stories of data that moved us, however we seemed unable to move on from Nancy-Ann and her original story. We discussed the significance of women’s bodies in this story; the marking of the body, and also Nancy-Ann’s role in Australia as a fertile white woman who could help to populate (she went on to have 9 children). Entanglements connected Louise’s body with Nancy’s with the place of the archive and the materiality of the textiles Louise made. One of the powerful things an arts based response allowed in this instance was a way of engaging with and staying with the liminal and the non known. Textile arts, rather than further archival research or writing, offered a way to refuse to fill the gaps in Nancy-Ann’s personal story, and to take time to be with Nancy Ann’s body markings.

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