I'm only teaching two days a week at the moment, but they are pretty intense days and can be exhausting as you have to try and get every individual on board with what's happening and that means talking to them face to face as well as performing for the whole group in order to keep the general atmosphere right and to ensure that they are all working with a high level of intensity.
Monday was the students' first real day of work, last week was Freshers and they did visit the Yorkshire Sculpture Park etc. but did no actual practical stuff.
First thing (9.30) they came to the lecture theatre to get an introduction to their first module. I won't get into the paperwork, the learning outcomes and the particularities of this module or any other, as from my experience all these things are simply stuff to make the paper pushers happy and to get boxes ticked, the real stuff is what happens between people who have been practicing for a long time and people who are new to it. This has been going on for ever, in some cultures it's called an apprenticeship in others an initiation but whatever its called it's about passing on experiences to others so that they can function within a particular chosen area of work or profession.
So I get to speak to the students en mass for the first time. It seems to me that my job is first of all to impress them that this is an entry into a wonderful profession that has been operating in its various guises for thousands of years and that they are the inheritors of a tradition that goes back to cave painting and that embraces all cultures and times. The particular module brief does involve an introduction to the idea of transition and drawing, so I weave ideas in and out of changes in cultures and times and materials and concepts in order to create a sense of open possibility and excitement far beyond the perimeters of the set learning outcomes. I want them to get a sense that this is going to be wonderful and that they are going to be important to the way culture will evolve into its next manifestation.
After the lecture we get started in the studio. It's too close to a dinner break to get physically working so I perform. I try and get them to think about drawing starting as soon as you move your body. I stretch and jump and bend to try and get them to see how their own bodies will influence everything they do, how lengths of arms and fingers will influence the marks they make and then I get them to breath and be aware of how the air is brought in and fed back out, invisibly changed but vital to the body's life and to the brain's function. I leave them with two things to do over lunch, to find a scrap of waste material that is capable of being drawn upon and to think about how their own bodies have shaped the way they think.
The first drawing session: Transformation as an overarching issue.
Starting with the scrap of material they found over lunch, students are asked to work from some aspect of a piece of work they have done over the holiday. They are then given a sheet of white A1 cartridge and asked to tear out a similar shape to the one they have found and then tear up the rest of the sheet into pieces. Then they draw a response to their drawing on the waste material onto the first torn out cartridge shape. As soon as the first transfer of information is attempted there are issues. Text running across the scrap of material, a difficult surface to make marks on, an awkward shape etc. Each difficulty causing decisions to be made that force new things to happen. Then these first drawings are responded to. Now their initial art work is turned to the wall and they are asked to look carefully at what is now in front of them and make a new transcription, this time using the materials made available such as charcoal, pencils, masking tape, pens etc in such a way that their materiality is emphasised. I take a sheet of paper out of its packet and talk to the group as I do so. I want them to think about what is important, first of all I get them to think about the noise the paper makes as it moves through the air. It's interacting with the air around us and then as it does this, is producing sound waves. I look at both sides, I stand with the paper in a portrait format and talk portraits, I turn it sideways and talk landscape, I start to fold the paper as I talk, I make sharp creases so that I can tear it in straight lines and then start talking about the quality of paper, the way it is made and why it might be the sort of white it is. As the paper is given out I start working with a piece of charcoal, I tell them the story of how it is made, making them aware of its history, I then drop it onto the ground onto a sheet of cartridge and jump on the charcoal crushing it and starting to draw with my shoes. Always trying to break expectations, always trying to balance intense awareness and the development of a feeling for materials and their histories with an awareness that you can use destruction as an opening to creativity and that you can come at these things from left field as well as directly head on.
Students now draw and as the first drawing is done they are asked to meditate on its qualities and enhance these on a next drawing and so on until all the pieces of paper are used up. At break time they are asked to gather in teams of 4 and look at others work. They can only talk possibilities, no criticism.
At the end of the session they are asked to think of three different ways to present the work. Either to put the pieces they have been working on back together like a jigsaw, or to present the work done in a format that highlights a structural issue they have discovered during the day, or to edit everything out and just put up one image. They have 15 minutes to do this.
Finally at the end of the session, things are pointed out. The most important issue being that the presentation is shaping responses to the work more than the images themselves. Finally a meditation on paper and two questions set for the students. Is the medium the message? and What might I do to further transform the work tomorrow morning, if I am to do this within the rules of the game as evolved during the day?
Second drawing session day 2, Tuesday.
A general reminder of issues that arrived yesterday and a further reminder to students that even though we were setting out the process there was already a very diverse set of responses. 3D/sculptural awareness was coming through, environmental, painterly, etc etc. This time the students are asked to transform the images yet again, but this time to think about previous experience and how this might inform the process. Again they are restricted to paper, drawing materials and wire. The final issue before they set off for the day is craft. The one thing each transformation has to have is a deep consideration of craft. Why must the material be like it is? Why should the paper be folded in one way and not another? How should a tear be torn? How should a mark be made? The process must now include an investigation usually involving trial and error as each element is tested as to its possibilities. Students are asked to keep a notebook to record the process. This time as they get started, we are going round individually and working with each student to try and open out their ideas and suggest possibilities, as well as having a first opportunity to ask them questions as to where they have come from, what their ambitions are and what type of artist they imagine themselves to be. This also reassures them that we are interested in them as individuals and helps when suggesting possibilities. During this stage the work starts to be much more diverse and for the first time some fascinating pieces start emerging. Whole group dialogue with the space they are woking in now becomes important and for the first time we start asking conceptual questions about the work and its possibilities. For instance the process of documentation, how is this itself starting to shape different ideas, how do documentation formats work? As soon as one issue opens it leads to others and dialogues start happening that can relate to other types of approaches to making art. Already certain students will start to prick up their ears, they recognise that this is not about making a pile of drawings its the start of a dialogue as to why and how and what it might be right for them to be eventually doing.
We stop students several times to point out things, first of all to point out how where people are working is influencing what they are doing, then to point out that it is possible to change the conditions by moving. We finally do some moving, shifting tables away from some areas to open out wall spaces, make people more aware of the floor etc.
Finally re-presentation. Before leaving students are asked to edit their wall/floor spaces. Once again presentation comes to the fore. One tiny piece of paper representing one student's work, a solid looking (dusted charcoal on folded paper) sculpture, a trail of tied paper knots, a wall mounted colourful collage and bottle hung from masking tape, a drawing of a face; whatever it is must be at a particular height, placement, angle etc. Students finally once again reflect on the day and make suggestions in their notebooks as to how they might proceed. These notebooks are already becoming a mix between documentation, ideas development and self-reflection, they will need them more and more as the first few days unfold.
I'm not with them again until next Monday, but they will still be in doing inductions and working in the studio, so it will be interesting to see where they get to by next week.