Friday, 15 September 2017

A continuing tradition

I had thought of shelving this blog and then returning to it when I had finally left teaching. However I thought it worth recording that this year's new intake of degree students will be the first year to enter what is now Leeds Arts University. Leeds College of Art is no more. The college was awarded taught degree powers, (TDAP) last year and the senior management decided to therefore change the college's name to signify the fact that the college now had university status. My personal feeling is that the brand Leeds College of Art was a strong one; the Royal College of Art has never had a problem with the college of art moniker. However I'm sure the re-naming has more to do with market research than sentiment. Many people felt that the old Jacob Kramer name was a good one and resented the college re-appropriating its old name. From what I remember the college went from Leeds College of Art to Jacob Kramer College in 1968 and then round about 1990, to Leeds College of Art and Design and after a few years the word 'design' was dropped, and we were back to Leeds College of Art. Every change involved people arguing that the old name was the better one. I well remember a long and bitter debate surrounding the dropping of the word design and of course we still continued getting students applying for our design courses after 'design' was dropped from the title.
Numbers continue to go up. This year's new intake will be 130 and I shall be teaching 3 days a week on the new first year. This coming Monday is the beginning of freshers week and I shall be taking a group of students out to take photographs, make videos and collect detritus so that they have something to work from.
The biggest difference for myself will be that on Tuesday and Wednesday I shall be off to Loughborough to attend a drawing conference. Giving conferences papers and writing for journals and or books is now expected as part and parcel of a lecturer's job. The gaining of university status means that we all have to consider research as part of our role. Therefore there is far more pressure to exhibit, and not just get work shown but to have exhibitions reviewed or written about. This change has also affected the academic make-up of the staff profile. Many of the current staff now having PhDs or working towards one.
Going to conferences is therefore a prerequisite of the job. Conferences allow you to network and most importantly seek out opportunities for publishing or other ventures that can be seen as research outputs. One of the reasons I stopped writing this blog was that I have had to do a lot more writing this last couple of years, and not just for the drawing blog, which I have managed to sustain.
I do feel a little sad that the College of Art name is now a thing of the past, and perhaps that is because so many years of my life have been devoted to service in its name. I shall see if the Leeds Arts University name catches on and in the meantime shall continue to work part-time and follow the shifts and changes in fine art pedagogy from a position close to the coal face.
The dropping of learning outcomes and the introduction of expectancies is the latest news in relation to pedagogy, news that for once I welcome. I remember the introduction of learning outcomes in the 1980s, we argued at the time that they were bad for the pedagogic discipline and that they were reductive, simplistic and could not measure the reality of a learning experience that was unpredictable and designed to embrace the unknown. It will now take the profession of art and design education years to get over learning outcomes, they eventually crept in and during the 1990s took over, until every session was being driven by them. In a few years we might be able to get rid of the brief as well, and then we will have gone full circle. I'm not sure I will last that long in post, but you never know. When I started at the college what they looked for in a new member of staff was first of all an interesting personal art practice. Having a teaching qualification was frowned upon and there seemed little need for any qualifications beyond your portfolio. Patrick Oliver always used to tell students that his only qualification was a swimming certificate. The idea that you would trust your eyes still held water 40 years ago, but in the days of post-truth, it would appear that no one trusts anything any more and the higher the qualification needed to enter the profession the more it seems to me people distrust the value of said qualifications. Patrick Oliver had worked alongside Peter Lanyon in his studio in St Ives, he had then worked alongside Harry Thubron in Lancaster, these formative experiences alongside the fact that he had a painting practice, had shaped Oliver as a teacher and he is still one of the best art teachers I have ever come across. I am now preparing for next year's students and I hope to keep carrying the baton for a few years more, but will have to pass it on at some point. This is my 44th year of teaching and my bones are getting creaky. I am still keeping up my weekly blog on drawing and how it relates to being a student on the fine art course at Leeds, follow the blog from here. 

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Anne Baxter and the art college life models

Anne Baxter checking the time 

When I arrived at the art college in Leeds in 1974, there were three full-time life models; Anne, Mavis and Rosie. The principle Frank Lisle had decided that because life drawing was so central to the curriculum life models should not be treated as casual labour, but seen as professionals in their own right. This was of course a right and proper thing to do and respected them as people.
This meant that the Jacob Kramer College and Leeds College of Art and Design as it was to become, over a period from about the mid to late 60s through to the Millennium had a stable group of three women who would appear over and over again in ever changing years of students’ portfolios. They themselves would of course gradually get older, Terry Hammill the ex head of Art and Design, who was a student at Batley School of Art, remembers drawing Mavis Kielty when he was 17 in the early 60s and of course still drawing her when as a member of staff on the Foundation course we used to hold staff life drawing sessions.
How times have changed, the idea that the college could employ permanent life models would be unthinkable now, and so would the idea that staff would take a day off teaching to collect together in the life room and draw.
Life drawing was seen for all courses as essential, Laimonis Mierins, was in charge of the drawing for graphic design students when I arrived, and his focus on the body as a linear design element held sway over much of the college, except of course for the Foundation programme where the range of staff ensured that no one approach was accepted as right.
Frank Lisle used to check out new members of staff, but when I started teaching during the academic year of 1974/5 Frank was off on a sabbatical, so I didn’t meet him until the year after. I was asked to take a life drawing class and not long after I had started the class Frank arrived at the back and motioned me to carry on. He stayed for what it seemed to me an interminable time and then just disappeared. In those days there was a bar in the music college that adjoined the art college by an internal walkway, both institutions being under the same Leeds City Council umbrella. The seats were covered in a reddish pink velvety type of fabric, we used to call it the ‘pink plush bar’ and Frank used to preside in there over dinner time. If you wanted to talk to him it was polite to offer him a half pint for his time and he would give you the benefit of his vast experience and knowledge. I found him rather frightening at first and was really worried about what he would have to say to me about my drawing class. So after the class I went to the bar and there was Frank who motioned me over to sit with him. He gave me a detailed breakdown of what I had done wrong and what had seemed to him to be positives about my approach. He was very technical and his advice has stayed with me to this day. As principal he believed in the fundamental importance of drawing in the Art College and took it upon himself to check that his staff could teach it. As a sign of changing times, this was the one and only time a principal has ever sat in any of my sessions.  However I wear his inspection with pride, Frank taught David Hockney when he was at Bradford, and to be given the OK from Frank was for me a sign that I was all right at my job.
Each of the models had a powerful personality, they occupied their space with a certain gravitas that came with being in the same job for years. They had heard it all from young art teachers with new crazy ideas of how to refresh the situation, via the introduction of feminist deconstructions introduced after Griselda Pollock’s influence came through, to grizzled old men who taught in the same way that they had been taught and who were desperate to cling on to this last bastion of academic tradition.  However of the three, the one I had the most to do with was Anne Baxter. Anne was a constant smoker, never without a fag and she operated as a life model provider. If you needed a model you just went to see Anne and she always knew of someone who would be available. This was particularly useful for me because I was teaching adult education classes at the Swarthmore Centre and of course in those days drawing was central to what was taught and life drawing sessions were an integral part of what you did then.
Anne would always be prepared to step into the situation, from advising on poses, to the formal crit at the end of the session.  She would determine lengths of pose, advise on what markings to make before she had to move and generally ensure that the session went smoothly.
Anne never took off her glasses and in some ways their appearance in a drawing became a source of pride for her. She would criticise a student for leaving them off and engaged with the various debates on how to draw them. Terry reminded me of one time when all the staff were having a life drawing day and at the end of the session he was being critiqued by myself and Patrick Oliver, I cant remember the ‘fault’ we found in his drawing, but he clearly remembered the fact that Anne joined in and accused him of making too much of her glasses as a symbol rather than as a way to see the head in space. Terry’s tale is a timely reminder of how critiques can hurt if not done properly, we always remember the harsh things people say about us and not the positives.  Anne knew her opinion counted and was a good teacher, she would make sure you picked out everyone’s drawing, saying “You haven’t said anything about so and so’s drawing yet Garry”, just when you thought you had managed to avoid a tricky encounter with a particularly difficult student’s work.
All these memories have resurfaced because the new college exhibition officer has decided to collect together old drawings of Anne and see if it is possible to host a memorial exhibition. I have lost all of my drawings of her except one, but luckily it contains some important clues to what it was like to draw her. It’s a drawing that tries to capture the way a situation is perceived rather than render the look of something, but even so it reveals a lot about Anne as a person.

This must be from the late 70s early 80s

Perhaps a few details will help, as the photograph of the full drawing is pretty poor. Anne as I have pointed out never took her glasses off and so how you drew them became a particular conundrum to be solved. 

In this case as I was trying to establish that 'flicker of looking' I tried to make her glasses using the same nervous marks as the rest of the drawing, and I think Anne approved of this.
If you look closely you can just spot the rising smoke coming off Anne's cigarette. The marks are slightly darker as I was trying to build in areas of focus so that the drawing reflected my own moments of interest. Anne would prefer a pose where she could smoke, if not she would make sure a cigarette and accompanying ashtray were close enough to lean over and have a quick drag before the ash fell off the fag. Something we would watch for was how long the ash would get before she had to tip it off into the ash tray, it's interesting to remember how cigarette smoking was so engrained into daily life then.  Anne also liked a cup of tea.

You can just about pick out Anne's mug of tea, sitting on top of a stool close at hand and ready for a quick swig. The models' room was in the corner of the life room itself. There is a bridge that links Vernon Street with Rossington Street now, and it cuts straight through the space where their room was.  It was tiny and had three steps up to the life room, but cosy enough for three and the kettle was always on, so if you wanted to you could drop in for a chat and a cuppa. Anne would always be sitting in her dressing gown, as if ready to step into a life session at a moment's notice. Something that she often did, as students as well as staff could ask her to pose for them as individuals  if she was not timetabled for a particular taught session. It may well have been one of those moments that I took the opportunity of to do this drawing. 
The electric two bar fire was another key aspect of the situation. The rooms did not have the type of controlled heating with adjustable thermostat that they now have. Therefore these little electric heaters were vital. However they did have severe drawbacks, the main one being that they were only adjustable by moving them closer or further away. This often meant that Anne's leg closest to the heater would gradually get redder and redder  as a session progressed. At the end of a life class she would scoop up the heater and take it back into the model's room, she knew the value of a good two bar heater. 
One other memory this drawing brings back is that of Anne's footwear.

Anne always wore slip-ons and rarely took them off. This was because of the state of the floor. The life room floor consisted of old wooden floorboards, the ones that are much wider than today's. There were lots of gaps between boards and the floor was quite rough. The main hazard for any walker though was drawing pins. At the end of the day my shoe's soles were speckled with them and for a model with naked feet they were really dangerous. All the students used drawing pins to fix their paper to boards and during a drawing session these pins could easily spin off somewhere and disappear from general view only to be found again when trodden on. 

Anybody reading this post who has an old drawing of Anne and wants to contribute it to the forthcoming memorial exhibition contact me and I'll sort out a link with the curator. I can't guarantee that she will use your drawing as I suspect she will find herself inundated with them, but whatever the result of this initiative it serves as a reminder of how important life models were to the life of an art college and of how so much has changed over the last 40 years.

Monday, 13 July 2015

I was busy

No posts for months a sure sign that I've been busy. Once again my phased retirement went on hold and I was asked to cover the third year Fine Art. This meant my weeks were again full and my idea of spending time on reflection went out the window. However I shall return to this blog at some point, so won't be closing it and there are significant changes being made within the college. The main one being the move towards degree awarding powers. We have been heavily scrutinised over the past two years, our systems and procedures in particular have been tested for their validity and student numbers have during this period continued to climb. When I started this blog Fine Art BA had an intake of about 25 students, this year we had a group of 44 graduating and the incoming first year will be 100 strong. 
It was wonderful to have the opportunity to see the third year through to graduation this year, and I was asked by them to write the text for their final year catalogue. 
This is the text:


In a time of global warming, unsustainable economies heading into chaos and world-wide instability, why are these Fine Art students doing what they do?  Is it because they have their collective heads in the sand? Is it due to a lack of awareness, a basic dumbness that many people believe artists are somehow ‘blessed’ with? Perhaps; but perhaps not.

The artist Anthony Gormley had this to say recently, “Short termism is the way capitalism works and the way politicians work. We have to find another form of defining value that is not market value. Nobody wants to face the truth anymore.”

The truth is that it’s getting warmer, and the old answers don’t cut it any more. That’s why these art students are out there prospecting for new values, looking for ways to re-vision our world, hoping to find images that will resonate with meaning and asking questions of us all about worth. Our values have for too long been defined by the wealth we create, but an increasing proportion of the wealth produced by ordinary people now swells the pockets of the superrich. We are told to grow the economy, but with what? Are we to use up more and more of the world’s dwindling resources? Or are we to once again find real value in sustainability, co-operative effort, creativity and unselfishness. These are old values, values forged in the dim pre-history of humanity, and the artist, shaman like can tap into these values and find new forms to express their worth.

Some difficult questions need to be asked, one of the most important being how can we break the mould that has shaped us all into believing that there are no other answers to our problems? If we cannot shift our thinking, we are sleepwalking into oblivion. What use is an art student’s blue-sky thinking, what possible value can all this striving for meaning have? Well hopefully it stops some of us in our tracks. For once all the answers are not ready made, they might be unfocused, unshaped and struggling for coherence but at least they are not simply playing the everyday game. One or more of these students may go out into the world and find a vision for us all that works. All it takes is one person to define a new way of measuring value and the rest may follow.

44 degrees Celsius is 111.2 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature unheard of in England over the last 100 years. However 2014 was the warmest year since records began in 1880. 38.5 degrees is the hottest temperature ever recorded in England, but it is predicted that we will experience highs of 44 degrees by the end of the century.

I remember some time ago being asked to draw the angle of naked pain, a question that would only ever have been asked in an Art College; I have been trying to find that angle for the past 40 years and perhaps I’m beginning to get an idea what the answer is. 5.5 degrees, a very narrow angle, but a huge difference in temperature, a rise that is predicted to happen in the next fifty years if we don’t change our ways.

Art students if they do nothing else seek to change our perceptions. They ask questions that hopefully cause us to stop and think. Let’s hope the sensitivities they foster can be harnessed in a desperate need for change, because if we carry on as usual, the next generation of young people will not have the luxury of going to art school, they will be too preoccupied with basic survival.

Garry Barker 2015

The writing reflects my wider concerns and feedback from students was that they thought I had articulated something that worried them too. 
The other area that has become more important is research. As we head towards degree awarding status we are also heading towards research accountability and this means verifiable research outcomes, i.e. publishing or having exhibitions that are nationally or internationally significant. As a move towards this I will be having an exhibition next year in the college gallery, but no longer will it be simply a case of putting work up, I shall have to get the work written about and make sure that the show has 'impact'. In many ways this is a good thing as I have always strayed away from that aspect of making. No longer will I be able to report on simply making things, I shall have to ensure my practice is both contextualised and disseminated. 
The move into TDAP (taught degree-awarding powers) will change many things, and because of this I have decided to stay on a few more years. I will be able to experience the change and perhaps benefit from it. I have already, because of the need to ensure all staff have a proper level of qualification, had to apply for and become a senior fellow of the HEA. The process was a useful one as you had to reflect on your experience and what you had contributed to the college, and I realised as I wrote the application how much I have put into the college over the years. Most of my blog posts this last year have been for the Drawing Blog as I also work on the Drawing Strand of the Fine Art programme. The concept of strands is also fairly new, starting for the first time last year. This year's incoming first year being the first year to have gone through the system with drawing available as an option from the second semester of the first year. Strands to some extent takes things back to an older format, when I did my DipAD I was in the first year to receive a Diploma in Fine Art and much current practice seems to work between disciplines rather than to be focused on particular specialisms. However there does seem to be a backlash against media and web based experiences, they are not perhaps 'authentic' enough and our course still emphasises 'skill' as a vital component. This is our 'USP' and the steady rise in numbers, it could be argued, is the reward for holding on to a more traditional format. I have my worries about this but it's early days yet and we tell students that the strands are very open and that you can operate in a variety of formats, the areas simply being various foci from which to work. The best students treat it this way and we have had drawing students making films and sculptural environments, but weaker students can I believe, use the strand concept to narrow their thinking. This year was however a very good degree show and the proof of the pudding is always in the quality of the students' final portfolios. 

Friday, 2 January 2015


Glyn Thompson’s exhibition at the Tetley Educating Damien*, continues into January and he is giving a lecture “where Thompson will ask whether Hirst is merely the personification of the bohemian stereotype, since he just happened to be in the right places at the right time, having first encountered the archetype of the post-romantic tortured genius Patrick Oliver at Jacob Kramer College”. I did think about going but hadn’t realised it was ticket only and of course when I eventually went to book the event was full. However Glyn’s thesis is interesting as it raises several questions that relate to this blog and its posts.
In one of the rooms in the exhibition Glyn has had a quote from this blog enlarged and wall mounted. I went to the opening and Glyn pointed it out, he said that he wanted to use it because my words were public and offered a verification of his own position. That was fine by me and I still stand by what I had to say about his lectures at the time. However memories are always selective and we construct narratives to fit our own very self-centered world-view. (A reminder of this situation to myself is therefore needed and to readers of this blog)

Terry has been to see the show with Colin Cain, apparently as they looked at the drawings Colin was laying claim to working with students to produce the very images that Glyn had used in the exhibition to illustrate his point that Damien had been introduced to the museum collections by Glyn’s drawing sessions. Glyn however claimed a special relationship with the museum because of his then friendship with the curator, so who was it did the deed?
My own view has been partly already expressed in my post of Wednesday, 21st November 2012 entitled Still Life
In some ways you could say we all did it, but there were subtle differences in our approaches. 
When drawing from observation many of the staff would follow the “It’s not what it is but where it is” mantra. Choices of objects were for several staff more often than not made on a formal basis and as I pointed out in my earlier post, to quote myself, “On the one hand there were concepts related to the types of things available to make images from and on the other hand it was a controlled situation whereby you could explore how to approach image making itself.”
Glyn’s point is that he was adopting a less formalist approach to the museum objects and was reversing the perceptual focus, recognizing that all vision is socially constructed and that, “It’s what it’s social context is, not how you see it that counts”. I did at the end of that old post mention that in complementary studies these issues were being discussed but that they had yet to really enter the studio floor.
The pedagogic point is that at the centre of all of this was the then primacy of drawing as a ‘training for the eye’. The ‘museum’ object and its cultural significance in levering forward a post-colonial awareness or being a centre around debates associated with the ‘gaze’ and museology or a more technology focused reading of art history, were always secondary to getting students to look. When artists working in this territory started to re-visit the museum they rarely drew, they photographed and re-presented. For many artists drawing took attention away from the cultural significance of objects and moved it into the arena of more subjective art processes. I would suggest that most of the time spent in these sessions when students were drawing from museum objects, that the conversations would revolve mainly around looking and its accuracy. My memory of the module Glyn mentions was that if you were asked to work on this you were asked above all to get the students looking. How you did this was up to you, and each member of staff had a different focus. Kate’s growing awareness of what was going on over at the university was also something to factor in here as she was working through her own growing awareness of Feminism and its reassessment of the ‘male’ bohemian stereotype and the art associated with that. 
Thinking of Patrick and  Glyn’s assertion that Damien has modeled himself on Patrick's persona, well I’m not sure, but I am sure Glyn will have a very well argued thesis for this. Perhaps Damien modeled himself on Glyn, or his old art teacher Mr. Bell from Chapel Allerton School or John Thompson when he went to Goldsmiths, or a black and white picture of Frances Bacon in a bar. My own feeling about this is that you are given rights of practice by some staff you come across and prohibitions by others. Some people affirm your existence and other don’t. When I meet ex art students, some remember the staff that held them back and others remember those that helped them move forward. Sometimes the pedagogy of art education is all to do with damage limitation. 
Art education changes with the years and the focus on 'perception' at the then Jacob Kramer was already behind the times and had already been debunked in several DipAD Fine Art programmes, not least at Newport where Keith Arnett was teaching us the post linguistic turn. The focus on a 'gestalt' of seeing was though powerful and it fostered a less intellectual approach, perception is though at the end of the day a cognitive process and as Goodman put it, "conception without perception is nearly empty, perception without conception is blind". (1987)

*and others

Goodman, N (1987) Of Mind and Other Matters London: Harvard

Monday, 8 December 2014

No posts these last few months

Once again I have been removed from my proposed phased retirement and thrown back into teaching virtually full-time. Hence the lack of posts and the fact that I could give no notice of returning back into the fray.
I did deliver the life class and I feel managed to do this whilst not quite descending into the worst of what these classes offer. Some sessions were challenging and enlightening and the final three sessions which were much more student led, began to hint at possible ways to actually work from the model and not simply repeat what had gone before.
The key sessions were perhaps mid way through, once I had covered measurement, tone etc. I started to look at perceptual problems, one in particular being the problem with eye scan and size constancy. Students were asked to build images of the model, starting by looking at the feet and then moving up and using a new sheet of paper for each field of gaze. These were fitted together, to build large-scale images, which were themselves big enough to stimulate a more ‘phenomenological’ engagement. Each session following took on another aspect of looking, including a session on portraiture and how we gradually become aware of ‘likeness’, using soft focus techniques to gradually shift the face into view.
The collaborative sessions were fine and the mobile phone portraits in particular were fascinating glimpses into how quickly groups of students can work with this technology to make convincing pieces. Tiny videos were synchronised across lines of mobiles, or played off against each other when blue-tacked into geometric shapes on the wall. One piece in particular worked very well, students miming an idea that parts of their bodies were trapped within metal cages, then when run on a stack of mobiles new composite bodies were made, bodies that were banging and bumping into the ‘frames’ of the mobiles. The head bumping and bouncing off the sides of the mobile frame, creating a very physical presence in such a small series of linked frames.
Some of the small-scale joint work made for the miniature galleries was surprising and fresh and the invention levels were high and continued on into the construction of the galleries themselves. So perhaps I needn’t have been too worried about this module. The first mobile phone ‘concert’ was a great success and has already been used as part of an external event ‘icebreaker’. However these were just small drops in an ocean of teaching, once more having to support all first year modules, as well as taking over responsibility for third years on Fridays. The Friday work is however one to one tutorials and small critiques with usually highly engaged students who are well into what they are doing. This is nearly always a rewarding thing to do, just exhausting, because at the end of the day you feel as if you have given out just about every idea that you have. It takes a full day to recover and then another morning before I can start to think up some new stuff that I can use on myself.
This working almost full-time will continue and I have just been asked to carry on doing so until the end of this academic year.  So my idea of a gradual reflection will have to be put off once again. Perhaps next year will be less frenetic.
In the meantime Glynn Thompson has been showing his Damien Hirst inspired show at the Tetley and Terry and Colin went to see it. I’m not sure what they thought, but I presume they enjoyed the story. Terry contacted me to let me know that the experience had reminded him of another couple of stories, and so it goes, one story sparks off another and so on. Frank Lisle had told him a story about Jacob Kramer, Kramer not just giving his name to the art school, but providing a romantic role model of the artist/drunk, a role model, (according to Glynn’s story) apparently one that Patrick Oliver could have been responding to when he was a ‘wild young artist’, one of the ‘Teddy Boys of British Art’ as Patrick liked to remember. Tales of Kramer would have of course circulated around the Oliver house from the time when Patrick’s father W. T. Oliver was art critic for the Yorkshire Post.  Then of course according to Glynn, a young Hirst bumped into Patrick, a man who had refined his wild man artist image to perfection, and who would thus be an inspiration to said young man, and so it goes, and on we go into an eventual art history. I’m not sure, but a good story is a good story, myths are always better than reality, they strip out the dross and boring bits and leave us with what we need.
I am now of course part of the art college story myself. I’m not sure what role I take anymore, perhaps one of the old codger, or the historian or maybe it’s a bit like ‘Goodbye Mister Chipps’, O’Toole’s role in that film cementing another Patrick connection into place. Patrick used to say I was a good translator, working to help students understand all the things that were flying over their heads. Perhaps I was worried about bad teaching. I still want to see the business done well, I still want to see students fired up by excitement, but putting out stuff too far above their heads can mean they look up for a moment and miss it, but of course it can mean that some will look up and keep their eyes posted, these are of course those blessed with good eyesight and they will go far, but others need someone else to get them to look up again, and to help them focus, because if there is nothing there when they first look, they might not do so again.
Patrick’s wife has contacted me and wants to house his old notebooks somewhere, luckily the college has an archive now and they can go there, however I'm pretty sure they will need the services of a translator again if those old notebooks are to make sense to anyone.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

On returning to life drawing

I’ve been asked to put on a series of life drawing sessions for drawing strand students. This has of course raised several contentious issues, not least of which has been that often posed question, “What place has life drawing in the modern art school curriculum?” The problem is that as an activity it carries a hell of a lot of baggage. The study of fine art is associated with a particular set of behaviours and attitudes that have evolved over the years. These attitudes come with a complicated history, a history that directly impacts on the idea of the life class. For instance the history of Modernism begins with a direct refusal (the Salon de Refus├ęs: 1863) of and rejection of the modes and practices of the academy and academy trained artists. The life room was an integral part of a classical art training and it presupposed that an artist needed a certain skill-set in order to develop a recognised practice. Modernism swept these ideas away and the focus was now on the development of a ‘signature’ or personal practice that did not rely on a set of agreed conventions. The position of the human figure as the dominant subject was questioned and as artists opened out new territories to explore, the figure became just one of many possible subjects. During the 1970s the practice was further questioned, this time due to much wider sociological issues. Most of the unclothed images of human beings within Western Art history dealt with the naked female figure. Women started to question what this was about, and several feminist writers pointed out that artists (mainly male of course) still making images of naked women were often doing so without any real understanding that as a practice it was loaded with complex aesthetic, moral and most of all voyeuristic connotations. The concept of the male gaze was introduced into what was then current theoretical debate and it became hard to justify life drawing as an objective practice. The politics of the life room were unpicked and often seen to be unsavoury, the boundaries between serious art and smut were hotly debated and for many artists the life room started to represent not only an out of date pre-Modernist practice, but also a particularly suspicious arena within which slightly dubious patriarchal conventions still held sway.
However here I am about to re-introduce life-drawing into the curriculum. Why? The conventional argument would be that drawing from the figure helps students to develop observational skills, skills that can then be applied to the drawing of anything. Why the human figure? Because it is so subtle and complex in its organisation and because as humans ourselves we are hyper aware of subtle distinctions in relation to the bodily form of others and to the distribution of its parts and how these effect our awareness of emotional resonance and non-verbal communication.  I.e. that we can approach the figure like a doctor, and objectively study its proportions and muscle structure, that we can build up a catalogue of poses that can help us think about how the body effects communication and how a stance or pose can signify perhaps unease or anger.
All perhaps true, but why not work from a clothed figure every week? Clothing is a key form of human communication and is inseparable from how we develop our individual body language. (We will in fact sometimes be working from the clothed figure, but not all the time) The situation is very artificial; a group of 15 to 20 clothed people surround one naked figure (this will be sometimes male and sometimes female) and stare at them for up to 2 hours at a time. In normal life if anyone stares at you for more than 2 minutes you might think there is something wrong. The models will ‘allow’ a whole group of people to stare at them, they are paid to do what is asked, whilst of course bearing in mind the ‘decorum’ of the life-room.
Is it actually possible to eliminate the emotive frission that the situation engenders? I don’t think so. So I am proposing to spend several evenings walking and talking and pointing things out about measurement, creating a language of form, finding mark equivalents for the texture of skin, the way muscle wraps around bone, finding a dynamic composition that can reflect the way balance is maintained while the figure holds a contrapposto position etc. etc. And yet at the same time trying to make everyone aware of that strange condition called the life-room and what it represents. Trying to make students aware of their own emotional engagement with the situation and how this too can be built into their image making.
This series of sessions will be balanced upon a dangerous pedagogic tightrope. Not the least problem being the skill issue. It takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If a student attends every session they will have done 16 hours drawing. Therefore expectations as to the raising of personal skill levels might not be met. This is probably the most potent art school ‘myth’ that surrounds the life room, the one of skill. Skill in drawing in particular and my most serious question in relation to the life room is perhaps this, what skills are we really developing here?
There are the motor skills of hand/eye control. The skills associated with getting to understand your drawing medium, how ink flows or how tone can be gradually built using a controlled pencil hatching. There are the skills associated with expression, recognizing when a particular mark quality has the potential to carry a certain emotional significance etc. However the skills associated with self-awareness and reflection may be even more important. A growing awareness of how posture carries meaning or how gesture is used as body language. These observations coupled with an understanding of the artificial environment of the life-room and what this itself signifies may have a longer lasting effect on an individual than the actual practice of drawing. Whatever approach is seen to be of value, there is a rich and still vital arena for exploration here and this is why I have agreed to host these sessions. As long as everyone is open minded and engaged as to the possibilities of the situation they will I hope gain a heightened awareness of how the human body is used as a vehicle for communication. Yes it is a physical object, an object that has an internal structure of fluids and bone and muscles, an object with a particularly fascinating surface of skin and hair and cartilage. But this is also about a particular confrontation with a human being, someone making a living, enacting out their part in a drama that has a long history and whoever takes part in this engagement is also acting out their part, whether it is myself as the life tutor or a student hiding behind their drawing board because they are slightly nervous about their drawing skills. This is as I pointed out at the beginning of this post a charged and contentious arena, but that is not an argument I believe to therefore avoid it, only another argument to re-enter the arena and create another and perhaps all the more richer response.  

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Preparing for a module and using eStudio

As part of the preparation for the Collaborative module I'm looking at how students might access the introductory PowerPoint on line.

Click here

One option is using SlideShare, which you can check out using the click here link above. I'm still wrestling with the new eStudio technology and have not yet solved the issues surrounding embedding web-links. However the first step has been taken and I'm now familiarising myself with this type of file sharing.

I also had a meeting this morning with another tutor who will be sharing the delivery of the module. This was very interesting pedagogically as we began to unpick all the elements I had initially designed as studio workshop sessions. In particular if collaborative practice is to be embedded deeply into the module, it has to start with the staff team. We decided that my initial workshops were perhaps too ‘directed’ and that they didn’t allow for enough ‘learning’ and were not clear enough as to which aspects of collaborative practice we were trying to highlight. We have therefore decided to start again and to rewrite the workshops, each one giving the students more responsibility and also making them take on board particular roles; for instance artist and audience, artist and technician, artist instructor and instruction interpreter, artist as group orchestrator etc. The good thing is that we have time to get these workshops re-written as the module does not start until October.

One task we will still use though is the artist and curator session. Below is the current rough draft and will be finalised within the next couple of weeks.

Curation as a collaborative practice

The miniature gallery


Working in teams of 4 to 5 (Please keep to your designated  C, M, Y or K group for this workshop) you will curate the work of 4 or 5 other students who will also be operating as a curatorial team using your work.

You will develop a unifying concept for an exhibition that will be sited within the studio using a miniature gallery and will be designed to change an audience’s understanding or reception of the works displayed.

Curatorial decisions can be driven by aesthetics, logic, theme, interaction or any other unifying factor decided upon by the group.


Exhibitors must relinquish any direct control over the artwork that they are providing for curation. All that is expected of you as an exhibitor is to learn from what the curatorial team have done with your work. You are allowed to ask questions as to why work has been presented in the way it has, but not allowed to criticise the curatorial team.

All students are required to donate at least one miniature piece of work to a curatorial team.

C & M You will install in the morning and the exhibition will open at 11.15am. Viewing, 11.15 to 11.35am. Group C will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 11. 40 to 11.50, group M will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 11.50 to 12.00 noon.

Y & K You will install in the afternoon and the exhibition will open at 3.15pm. Viewing, 3.15 to 3. 35pm. Group Y will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 3. 40 to 3.50, group K will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 3.50 to 4.00pm.

Preparation and research suggestions:

You need to have made a basic miniature gallery. This can be as simple as a cardboard box or carefully made in the machine shop. Make a careful decision as to the colour of the walls/floors. You will need a good camera/mobile phone capable of taking images of small objects and keeping them in focus.

Fixings and fittings are vital to exhibition curation. If this was a ‘real-size’ exhibition you would need to consult with Richard Baker, who has plinths and certain tools and equipment that would be needed, however you cannot drill into the floors as they include under-floor heating elements and any changes you might make to the wall surfaces would have to be easily and quickly removed, so that the next group of curators/users of the space were not inconvenienced. Therefore by using a miniature gallery you don’t have to worry about those issues, however, you don’t want work falling off the walls of your miniature gallery, so do think carefully about how to attach work to walls or how to present floor based or video work.

Take some time out during the week beforehand to develop a group curatorial stance.

Look at how, why and most importantly what contemporary curators have been doing.

The mini art gallery

Stage one:

All individuals to make a gallery space out of a cardboard box. This to be able to be opened out so that photographs can be taken.  See below.

Stage two

All individuals to make a series of miniature artworks based on what they have been doing in the studio.

Stage three

Miniature work done the previous week to be displayed in bays. Curatorial teams organised (teams can’t select work displayed in their own bay, so we will simply move round so that teams curate other bays) to select from the work and organise mini exhibitions in mini galleries that will be documented.

Nb Each team should have 4 or 5 mini galleries to work with. If you want to you can link them together so that it appears as if this is a major exhibition and you would then curate each ‘room’. Alternatively you can decide that one, or two mini galleries are to be used and the others kept for something else. This will depend on  approachs to the work presented.
Nb C, M, Y, K groups will be decided upon at some point during the introductorary sessions.

Another workshop we are thinking about uses mobile phones as an icebreaker.
The mobile phone concert as ice breaker
Two groups are formed from all students available.
The first step is to divide each group up by cell phone brand.
Once divided into phone brands each group has to find a common ring tone that the majority of phones have. The Nokia group perhaps the “Nokia Tune”, Motorola “Hello Moto”, etc. but this is to be agreed by each group. Those without common ring tones can partner up with someone else without a common ring tone.
Groups to work towards constructing order out of chaos. The goal is to be able to construct and send a finished ‘symphony’ to the other group.
The aim is not to create a cacophony of phones going off at once, so you need to have different sections play at different times, like a symphony. Instead of the “string section”, you might have the “Samsung section”.
At some point you will need to get back together to pair off with the other group and trade phone numbers, group A will be the first ‘instrument’ and B will be the caller, roles will then be reversed.
The callers will at some point need to elect a ‘conductor’, so that all callers are clear as to when they send their sound ‘message’, as well as a recorder, (someone who will record the symphony and post it onto a social media platform).
After the ‘instrument’ group is in place and ready, one student rings the ‘caller’ conductor to let him/her know and then the conductor counts off the sender group, or selected sub-groups to ring at counted off intervals, until the symphony is played.
Everyone then as individuals writes up the process and records their thoughts.
Each collaborative workshop session will have to be active, maintain interest throughout, deliver a clear outcome, be designed to get over a particular issue surrounding collaborative practice and work as an realistic introduction to documenting practice. The two staff delivering need to be clear about what is being delivered as we are in two separate studios. 

Probably the biggest issue is that of numbers. I have posted in relation to the collaborative module a couple of times before (you could use labels to collect them together) and each time the numbers to deal with increase. The first post records 50, the second 80 and this year we have 96 students enrolling. I won't be in post next year as this is my last year of phased retirement, but I would presume there will be a planned enrolment of 100. This continuing increase in numbers means that each year some areas of collaborative practice have to be dropped and others refined so that larger groups can be engaged. In particular I find myself having to do more work as an orchestrator and organiser. I am delivering less content and spending more time spinning plates. The larger the group the more chance some students will become disengaged because they don't really understand the use of the sessions, don't understand the instructions, so feel 'stupid' or embarrassed or simply can't hear or see the instructions for the day. (We set the stools out in the studio so that new first years could sit and listen to welcoming talks, the stools filled half the studio when laid out and some students you could predict were going to end up behind a pillar or other obstacle that will obscure their view.) One big issue of course will be what I call the murmuration, that noise made by large groups of people when they communicate internally. Janet Cardiff made great use of that in her '40 Part Motet', a beautiful piece responding to a Thomas Tallis composition. She had separately recorded the 40 individuals who would sing this and assigned to each individual a separate speaker, which was erected as part of a circle of speakers when the piece was staged. As you entered centre of the room it was staged in you were struck by the collective 'murmuration' of individuals but as you walked around the edges of the room each speaker revealed the sounds of the lone human. I must use this example to help open out the collaborative idea with the students and at the same time use it to explain how communication processes are also broken down with attritional 'noise'.