2018: Turning corners & Tipping point(s)…

The end of a year always brings a sense of “taking stock” of past, present and near future or in the case of social media your top nine from Instagram as per below. Sigh to another format and statistic to “measure” a life where an image of animal shaped baozi (steamed buns) gets more likes than human questioning, self-reflection or achievement (although I’m glad William Kentridge is in there!). In recent years, I’ve written a message on New Year’s Eve. However, in 2016 and 2017 – swept away in another chapter of my life, this time in Melbourne, Australia – I didn’t blog a great deal. In part, overwhelmed with processing all new experiences, starting a new job, completion of my PhD, managing my health and so much more…in part, questioning the purpose and value of my published thoughts and words – why and for whom(?) – and my time spent staring at screens and on digital devices. Therefore, this blog post seems pertinent – if a little vulnerable and confronting – as I reflect on a year that has brought more personal and professional commitment, focus, change and achievement than any other year in my entire adult life (well, 2008 and 2013 were pretty big ones for personal reasons and for discussion another time).

Rachel Marsden - Top 9 - 2018
Top 9 posts on Instagram in 2018 – @rachel_marsden

Before welcoming in 2019 (manaXi and I will be in Liverpool to skank the night away until 4am at a sound system warehouse party), let me start at the the beginning of 2018…are you ready? [By the way, these thematic paragraphs are by no means in a hierarchy of importance.]

Graduations – finally time to officially celebrate becoming Dr. Rachel Marsden and the 7-year PhD journey (part-time with a 6-month interlude) in 3 countries, writing 75,124 words and curating 2 exhibitions with an associated publication. Note to self and any doctoral students/candidates out there, never move country (more so to the other side of the world) and start a new job whilst in the final months of your PhD – in fact, never move internationally twice as I did during my PhD. [I’ll write a more in-depth blog post on all of this soon.] At the ceremony, I had the pleasure of graduating with a small group of peers with whom I’d started, receiving my award from the British comedic legend that is Lenny Henry, now Chancellor of Birmingham City University. It was a surreal day where I genuinely didn’t think I get to that moment (for many reasons) – strangely euphoric and clarifying – and I didn’t want to take off my floppy hat and cape. The day was finished with dinner and fizz (thanks Pippa) with friends and family at Birmingham’s vegetarian restaurant 1847. As if being awarded a PhD wasn’t enough this year, I returned to the UK in June to study the final module ‘Leading Transformation in Higher Education’ of an MEd in Academic Practice in Higher Education, which I completed in September and awarded in December. So, call me Dr Rachel Marsden, BA (Hons), MA, MEd, PhD, AFHEA. Definitely more than enough post-nominal names for one Wordgirl although, I am already thinking about my next step in terms of professional development. Of course I am!

Rachel Marsden - Graduation
PhD Graduation at Town Hall & Symphony Hall, Birmingham – 9 January 2018

“Dr” and “Mrs” – yes, I have two new titles as manaXi and I are now married – already for 3 months! In late September, we celebrated with a whirlwind wedding weekend(er) by Llyn Gwynant lake in the Nant Gwynant valley, part of Snowdonia National Park in Wales. Unforgettable and overwhelmed, we are in awe of the support, generosity and love of friends and family who helped make it happen and so very special. Our wedding photographs only arrived a couple of weeks ago from the very talented Lee Allen and Lisa Jane – thank you! – where one of my favourite pictures is in the banner image above of my bouquet (South African “Protea” centre (apparently meaning diversity and change – love this!) with surrounding succulents) and below, of me drinking coffee on the morning of my wedding day. I have so many people to thank for their role, contribution and creativity, so again another blog post will follow. [Sideline question to the married academics out there – did you change you surname and or/title? I’m still trying to work this out!] ManaXi and I have walked and climbed a lot of physical and metaphorical hills and mountains in the last year during our time together and apart whilst I was living and working in Australia. Never underestimate the power and experience of an LDR (long distance relationship), where it’s given us greater understanding of, and patience for, each other, and strength and belief in our future together.

Rachel Marsden - The Church, Capel Curig
Getting ready on my wedding day – 28 September 2018. Photograph courtesy of Lee Allen & Lisa Jane.

Work – ever busy and ever-changing. As some of you know, I have been working as part-time Lecturer in Art Curatorship at the University of Melbourne (although it’s been pretty much full-time!). From day one, it has been a non-stop, high-energy, balancing act of teaching, supervisions, projects, research, writing, evaluation, conference and symposium papers and presentations, travel, meetings and most importantly, getting to know Melbourne and Australia – impossible to reduce into one paragraph here! At the end of last year, I was successful in being awarded an internal grant for $250,000 over three years (2018-2020) for ACP PROJECTS (Art Curatorship Partnership Projects) from Chancellery and International to enable MA Art Curatorship and Arts and Cultural Management students to engage in external engagement and professional development opportunities by taking ownership of projects, exhibitions and events with arts and cultural organisations in Australia and internationally. [Note, I completely underestimated the administrative and financial labour, including required formal and legal protocol, a grant of this scale would encompass – now a growing responsibility as part of any academic role as professional support within HEI’s diminish. Let’s just say Excel is now a very good friend!] In 2018, I managed and facilitated 10 projects in Australia and New Zealand, with incredible students and staff from across the university, alumni, and organisations including George Paton Gallery, VCA Artspace, VCA Access, Auckland Art Fair 2018, Melbourne Art Fair 2018, The Other Art Fair 2018, The Foundling Archive/The Good Room, Testing Grounds, Bundoora Homestead Art Centre and Linden New Art. Alongside projects, in April, I co-convened and organised an associated public symposium and student workshop entitled ‘CHANGEMAKERS #1: Mapping Sustainability in the Visual Arts’ whilst establishing an on-going, student-led, public programme series called ‘Talk, The Talk’. In July, I finally had the opportunity to co-curate my first exhibition post-PhD with Art Curatorship graduate Kat Kohler – ‘RIFTS: Particulate Matter’ at Testing Grounds, Melbourne (more info on my website soon). Even writing this is a realisation of how much I did in such a short space of time there. TODAY, my two-year lectureship at the University of Melbourne (two fixed term contracts running back-to-back) comes to an end or in reality, has already ended due to timezones! I greatly miss my peers and colleagues, alumni, students and of course, friends where I am glad we live in such a accessible and networked world to keep in touch. Hopefully I’ll be back there in 2020. I am still in the process of processing (can I say that?) my time in Australia – every day an education and revelation (mostly when with my students – you know who you are).

RIFTS - Youjia Lu
‘Time Experiment No. 2’ by Youjia Lu, installed at Testing Grounds, Melbourne. As part of ‘RIFTS: Particulate Matter’ (4-14 July 2018) curated by Dr. Rachel Marsden and Kat Kohler. Photograph courtesy of the artist/*mimesis.

Travels – passport-ready as always, I started and ended 2018 in the UK, in-between travelling to and from Melbourne, Australia 4 times (ugh – too much long-haul in one year); from Melbourne I visited Brisbane and Sydney, in May heading to Auckland (New Zealand) road-tripping solo via Hamilton and New Plymouth to Wellington; finally, in October in Shanghai (China). [This builds on 2017 in Australia, UK, Netherlands, Italy, Singapore and Chile. I haven’t been back to Shanghai since 2014, so there is so much to report, again to come in future blog posts.]

Rachel Marsden - Mount Taranaki
Driving to Mount Taranaki, North Island, New Zealand – 30 May 2018

When moving back to the UK in September, I was lucky enough to get a free upgrade to Business Class on my Emirates flight from Melbourne to Birmingham – this is movie-fiction and never happens in the real world, right? Already overwhelmed by an emotional departure from a city I very much love and didn’t want to leave (victim to prevailing academic precarity), I nearly cried on the check-in staff when they told me! Fizz on arrival – very much needed – why thank you, please! I actually nearly missed my third connecting flight from Dubai to Birmingham as I was being too complacent in the lounge. The flight crew found this hysterical as I had my second wedding dress (yes second, I had two) with me – what a story it could have been of a bride missing her final flight to get back for her wedding day. With a cabin to myself, I took advantage of the full lie-down bed with mattress, pillows and blankets (this felt almost wrong to miss out on experiencing it all whilst asleep); cheese board on slate; cocktail and wine list, and much more. No long-haul travel will ever be the same again.

Rachel Marsden - Business Class
Business Class Emirates flight – MEL to BHX – 25 August 2018

Health and wellbeing – it’s not a Wordgirl end of year blog post if I don’t talk about this, after all this is real life. In January, I was officially diagnosed under Hypermobility Spectrum Disorders (HSD), specific to my digestive tract (at the moment), including its associated panenteric dysmotility and functional bowel disease. This is a HUGE step for Amoy tiger tummy and I, which although does not provide answers, it helps to understand more of why and what is going on inside me with gene and other testing to come in 2019. It’s a life-long relationship that will never get better with unpredictability and unknowns but I never let it stop me and it’s part of my every day. May 2018 be an example! I have always been very public and honest about this journey, where you may read me use #chronicallymotivated and #hiddenhealthcondition (HHC) from time to time. I’ve connected with a lot of people in recent years to share experiences and would love to hear from others with HSD. Also, at the end of April and early May, I was forced to take an interlude due to a severe autoimmune reaction that consumed my body, energy and being from the inside out. It created what I can only describe as a plaque on my skin, mostly my face and eyes, which cracked into sores as my body got more and more tired. Many vials of blood, a dose of steroids, antihistamines, a magic hat-trick of creams later and excessive amounts of rest, I was back to being myself in a couple of weeks. This actually led me to have contact allergy testing to reveal I have severe reactions to methylisothiazolinone (MI) and methylchloroisothiazolinone (MCI) (apparently a global epidemic allergen!), and also the perfume geraniol (including rose oil, palmarosa oil, and citronella oil, and often broadly listed like “parfum”) and certain suncreams. Over 75% of my hair and skin care products had these ingredients in them so they got passed on to other people very quickly! [Note, these ingredients are pretty much in EVERYTHING and a nightmare to find anything safe to use.] A friend recommended I see the wonderful Dr. Alice Rudd (Skin Depth Dermatology) for a consultation in Melbourne, who helped with this diagnosis, in conjunction with Melbourne’s Skin and Cancer Foundation. During my time in Melbourne, I was lucky enough to be tag-teamed between UK and Australian specialists who studied and worked together many years ago in the UK – I very much thought this was serendipitous and a saving grace for my daily dealings with Amoy tiger tummy. Below is a photograph I took after my final set of routine tests and meetings with my specialist (and team) at Caulfield Hospital. When one of the nurses was hugging me, she said “why don’t you want to let go?”…when you find a good support system, it’s hard to say goodbye, although my NHS equivalent are incredible where I am eternally grateful for free health care (long may it continue post-Brexit! Oh lord, I mentioned the “B” word).

Caulfield Hospital, Melbourne
My last appointment with my “Amoy tiger tummy” team at Caulfield Hospital, Melbourne – 16 August 2018

This New Year’s Eve message is only a snippet and overview of some of the key happenings, high and lows, achievements and revelations from my life over the last 12 months. It misses out a lot of what I value and find most important – the money can’t buy, screen can’t portray, camera can’t see world of embodied personal connection with people, friends and family (IRL – in real life) in the creation of shared networks and communities, conversations over coffee and dinners, when moving and travelling. It’s been a pivotal year both personally and professionally, in large I’ve turned a big corner to mark a tipping point in my life – this is me – where the start of 2019 brings change again. Watch this space, and in the meantime, I send peace and strength, health and happiness for the year to come…

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