enLIGHTened with… J L Williams

We snatched 10 minutes to get to know J L Williams a little better. Her piece, ‘The Wisdom of Stone’, responds to the words of James Hutton, and is being projected using Puffersphere technology in Charlotte Square.

If you could project any words on any building in the world, which words would you choose, and which building?

The Blur Building was a cloud building built by Diller & Scofidio for the Swiss National Expo 2002.  I wasn’t able to go, but it was my dream to walk inside of this building made of water and air.  My other favourite building is the Curtain Wall House in Tokyo.

Buildings so often seem to be constrained creatively by the formal needs of the occupiers – buildings must have hard walls, flat roofs, strong beams, thick skins.  I love these buildings that play with ideas of firmness, and that suggest other priorities in their design above and beyond functionality; though I believe each is quite functional in its own way.

One of my most beloved lines of poetry is “A little light, like a rushlight/ to lead back to splendour.” from Ezra Pound’s Canto 116.  For me, that line suggests that even the smallest pinprick of hope can save us from being lost, can lead us to a better and more beautiful world.  It would give me great joy to see this line of poetry projected onto the misty skin of the Blur Building, or onto the flapping wings of the Curtain Wall House.

Has enLIGHTen changed your perception of the Enlightenment?

I’m not quite sure what my impression of the Enlightenment was previous to enLIGHTen – I didn’t know too much about it other than that it was a time when many bright people were busy thinking about the world in new ways.  This project spurred me on to find out more about a particular and important contributor to Enlightenment thinking.  It was wonderful to read about James Hutton.  The quote that was sent to me as the starting point for my piece was, “A succession of worlds… no vestige of a beginning, no prospect of an end.”  Mr Hutton made so many extraordinary discoveries during his life.  He was the sort of person who could think about the world in ways outside of or unhindered by the accepted notions of his day, which seems to me to be one of the traits of great genius.  He was also a careful observer of nature and the world around him, and his thoughts and writing about our sense of time are very poignant, almost poetic or sacred in the scope of their perception.  I love the idea of a succession of worlds cycling eternally, of many worlds existing for each creature, rock, generation, universe.  Another quote that has stuck with me from childhood is from the cartoon movie The Last Unicorn – “There are no happy endings, because nothing ever ends.”  The thought of freeing ourselves from the intellectual constraints of beginning and ending is so exciting.  I can’t wait to explore the other quotations being projected in enLIGHTen, their speakers and the works inspired by them.

How did you tackle your particular commission? What was your starting point?

The quote I was sent was immediately inspiring.  I am really interested in Buddhism.  The idea of cyclical notions of existence is fascinating to me; reincarnation may be hard to get one’s teeth into, but even a cursory glance at human history, a geological history of the earth or an exploration of structures in nature, suggests a marvellous cycling of energies, forms and systems.  I went to an amazing talk last year at the National Galleries of Scotland by the artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, whose work I very much admire, and he ended with a projection of an icy planet (a vision of the earth thousands of years from now?), and spoke of how many people these days think in terms of short periods of time – the next few days, the next few years; whereas artists (and I would imagine geologists) often think of time in a much longer sense, and that this is useful in terms of seeing one’s own life and work in perspective.

In terms of how I approached the task practically, the day I received the City of Literature email inviting me to take part in the project I walked through the Rose Street Lanes on my way home.  It was dark and the cobbles were wet with rain.  I was struck by the sulphurous quality of the dim streetlamps, how everyday objects seemed strange and haunting, and how one stranger meandering past, who in sunlight or on a busier street would have seemed innocent, felt like a threat.  A plastic bag blowing in the branches of a tree was a sad ghost, some people through a steamy pane of glass in a Turkish restaurant were blurred like memories.  When I got home the words of my piece flew out of my fingers, and the sense of repetition, of being able to move freely through time and memory, and of objects and glimpses feeling peculiarly meaningful and potent in a moment of extreme duress all seemed perfect for both the quote and to describe the experience of my evening exploration.

Which Enlightenment figure(s) would you invite to dinner? What would you eat?

Well, Mr Hutton would certainly get an invitation.  I wonder if he would be on time?!  Isaac Newton, John Locke, David Hume, Voltaire.

I would like some women there too, but doing a quick search on Google it seems to be the Enlightenment men who are more readily listed.  Alison Rutherford is one of the other figures quoted as part of the enLIGHTen project, so she could come.  I’d like Mary Wollstonecraft to be there, and as many of the great Enlightenment salon hostesses as possible, as they seem to have been responsible for creating spaces and platforms for the sharing of important new thoughts and discoveries, plus they had serious style.

We would eat pizza and vegetarian tacos, and bagels from New Jersey, and fresh strawberries and cream, as they’re all my favourite foods (selfish me!).

What’s next for you and your writing?

Over Christmas I had a few gorgeous weeks off, and was able to edit one long and one pamphlet-length collection into shape, and to write and edit a second pamphlet-length collection.  So hopefully I’ll find homes for those.  I’m trying to get back into the swing of sending work out to journals more regularly, as I’ve been so busy at the Traverse lately and I haven’t had much time for that.  I’m working to complete a short story project – 30 stories each written in 30 minutes, and I am toying with the idea of writing a poem that goes on and on and on, added to each day for the duration of, say, a year – perhaps that’s been inspired by Mr Hutton, and Sugimoto.  I’ve been asked to read with two wonderful poets at Poetry at the Ivory on the 14th of March and at Alastair Cook’s Filmpoem event at StAnza on the 16th of March .  I’ll be reading at Inky Fingers at The Third Door on the 22nd of May, and the band I’m in with the talented composer and musician James Iremonger, Opul, will be playing on the 4th of May in an exciting VERSECORE gig at The Third Door, featuring bands that consist of poet/musician collaborations.  I’m also really interested in scent and art, and in the way these can inspire one another, so I’ve started a blog about this at www.jusperfume.com, and I’m working on organising a scent art festival with my friend Alison Forbes, that will hopefully take place in Edinburgh in 2013.


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