Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Steve Reich, rhythm and colour constructions

The internal rhythms of the body and their effect on how we behave were we believed of vital importance to self-awareness. (Foundation staff circa approx. 1978) The way each person was constructed affected the way they walked as well as the way they drew and of course thought. 

A day might start like this:
Students sitting cross-legged are gathered around the edge of the studio, the staff walk in, one by one. (Good brogue shoes, shod in solid leather were essential for this) The students are told to listen; the staff walk back out and then back in, one by one. Patrick (as the consistent wearer of brogues and with the longest legs) would march off on his own again, this time counting off the beats of his footsteps. I might do this next, then we would walk together, the two walking rhythms synchronised but of course slightly different. This everyday event, hearing people walking, was the starting point for a full day’s work. It was very important that this was something everyone experienced and that it was ‘normal’ because what we were looking for was a ‘moment of epiphany’ a moment whereby students might grasp that deep and wonderful revelations sat within every experience, no matter how ordinary. The artist’s job was to discover these.

We pointed out how you can recognise people from the sound of their footsteps and how therefore we used an awareness of these things to help us navigate the world. Once ears were attuned and students started to get what we were turning their attention to, we asked them to become aware of their own individual heartbeats. They had to then start beating out this rhythm in their head as a silent tune.  Then one individual was asked to start tapping out their heartbeat rhythm on the floor with something from their tool kit. Then someone from the other side of the room would be asked to do the same; then another would be asked to tap the rhythm out on the edge of their lunchbox with a pencil, and another to beat out their rhythm with two bits of wood. This would go on until the sound grew into a loud cacophony. We then reversed the process asking people to stop and gradually reducing the numbers until we only had one person left beating out their internal beat.  We might do this several times, each time trying out different responses, such as slowing a rhythm or halving the beat. We would find out who the musicians were and get them to suggest alternative rhythms, or in the case of any good drummers to lead the group in complex rhythm changes.

We would stop and engage the students in a dialogue as to how the experience felt to them. Most of them had been very nervous about doing this initially, but as the whole group joined in they felt the experience uplifting and energising. Rhythm and collective responses to it we pointed out were old things that all humans had in common and that cave paintings would have been done to the sound of collective drumming rhythms, every human being having a heart that beats out an inner tune, an inner tune that everyone else also has beating within themselves and so can tune themselves to you and you can tune yourself to them.  Music as an abstraction was therefore clearly also a mode of communication.

Students would then go for a break and we would set up the record player. Once they returned we would ask them to listen to Steve Reich’s 'Come Out' from 1966.

The voice of 19 year old Harlem Riot participant Daniel Hamm, opens Reich’s sound piece; "I had to, like, open the bruise up, and let some of the bruise blood come out to show them" (Hamm had punctured a bruise on his own body to convince police that he had been beaten). Reich re-recorded the fragment "come out to show them" on two channels, which initially play in unison. They quickly slip out of sync to produce a phase shifting effect. Gradually, the discrepancy widens and becomes a reverberation. The two voices then split into four, loped continuously, then eight, until the actual words are unintelligible. The listener is left with only the rhythmic and tonal patterns of the original spoken words.
Steve Reich had said that by using recorded speech as source material that "by not altering its pitch or timbre, one keeps the original emotional power that speech has while intensifying its melody and meaning through repetition and rhythm."
The piece lasts for thirteen minutes and we ask for total silence while it plays.

Once finished we sit in silence for a couple of minutes and then everyone returns to where they are based so that they can begin a drawing.

We brief the students to develop a drawing that will structure itself by repetition and rhythm. They can also use colour, and the structure and colour will carry the content.

Reich's iconic piece of music was used as a way to help students become aware that they could develop structures that on the one hand could be deeply meaningful in terms of the underlying content and on the other layered and complex in relation to formal qualities of repetition and visual rhythm. It also allowed students to begin thinking about the possible interrelationships between vision and sound. The concept of synesthesia, the simultaneous perception of multiple stimuli in one combined experience, was something often referred to at the time when trying to articulate how abstract forms and shapes might affect us. At that time formalism and abstraction were still very important and there was a strong belief in the idea of a universal language. Reich's use of an actual event and transformation of the reality of that into an abstraction was a way to understand how formalism could carry content. 

I have often found myself making rather odd noises to communicate what a shape sounds like, and hadn’t really cottoned on that other people didn’t see/hear like that. I now realise that I am to some extent naturally attuned to this way of perceiving.  I hadnt thought about this at the time, but looking back on the situation it must have been pretty odd to find your tutor trying to make sounds based on what you had drawn and mouthing the sounds back to you as a check as to whether the rhythm was correct or that tonal quality was controlled or colour pitch right.

Drawings would gradually evolve through the day and the best of them pulsated with energy and colour vibration and developed structural methods to ensure patterns of colour subtly shifted and made new associations. As always many students were however just lost and this was mainly because they had to invent their own structures to work within as well as build complicated rhythmic colour mixes, (too many compications to solve in one day, and therefore a sence of failure could be set up within those who didn’t manage it), so a few years later with new staff we returned to Reich but provided a much tighter set of structures to work within. I’ll no doubt get to that at sometime (circa 1993ish) . However the experience was vital and it used to stay with students as an important moment on that path towards realising how art could transform reality and make it mythic. With some it reaffirmed that music was what they really wanted to do and if so in those days we were fine with that. Diagnostic meant diagnostic.

One problem with this blog is of course that at the moment there are no illustrations. I have no slides from the time and we didn't take any, or vary rarely. There was a worry that if we had examples to show students they would just think that these were how to do it and would therefore not invent anew. In those days of course there were no digital cameras, now everything is recorded. At some point it would be good if someone could contribute images though. Perhaps students have kept their work, or someone did take images that I don't know about and could send me some. 

A morning drawing that also relied on the concept of synesthesia, was drawing the face by touch. A session I will return to in more detail at some other time.

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Fine Art Assessment feedback

This week on Fine Art first year is feedback week. Students have 20 minute one to one tutorials whereby we read out what has been written about their success in achieving leaning outcomes, (or not of course). I’m also supposed to check on accommodation, finance, general settling in issues as this also acts as a pastoral tutorial and is recorded.
It is possible to slip in a small amount of information about the process of becoming an artist but you have to be careful to keep on script.
The learning outcomes are like a straightjacket; put one on a sane person and very quickly they go mad. What was initially designed as a good thing, (to release prisoners from chains) soon becomes even worse.  Gradually straightjackets started being used to restrain political prisoners and other enemies of the state. Working to achievable leaning outcomes and smart targets was originally a way of overcoming the problems surrounding poor teaching. They have brought us down to the lowest common denominator and all good teachers find them restrictive and often harmful, as they take all the invention and discovery out of the process.
I have two solid days of this.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Colour and landscape

Taking students out into the autumn landscape with a kit consisting of lots of different coloured collage material and a variety of paint.

One of the issues that often came up was how to deal with perceptual responses to landscape. The problem was that looking tended to be composed of what Cezanne would have called his petit sensations. The scanning of reality was all very well and drawings and images built up as in the ‘rain drawings’ post, tended to rely on structures standing in space rather than mass. The problem with landscape was that this was also something that had mass, not just any mass, but millions and millions of tons of it. Colour in particular was problematic, most of the responses to perceptual analysis relying on Impressionist influenced exercises, such as when working in coloured oil pastel, trying to keep a single directional stroke going throughout the image, thus unifying the surface and not separating out individual objects. This was a great way of getting students to ‘see’ that light was a unifying factor, but the images were not weighty, they sort of floated in light.
This session was an attempt to work in nature, deal with colour and perception, but this time to also respond to the weight and mass issues.

Students had been asked to collect colour and keep it in separate bags. Yellow, orange, red, violet, blue and green bags of both paper and other materials had been collected for collage, some of which had by now been used in other problems set, but there was plenty left. They had also been asked to find old pots of paint and again categorise them under the same headings.
We headed off with drawing boards, A1 sheets of cartridge paper and bags of collage, bin bags, glue, pallets and oil paint. The two different places we went to were either the old disused quarry at Newley or Meanwood Ridge. Newley was a bus-ride away, the ridge about half an hour’s walk, so it was a bit of a trek.

Once there, the first stage was to use the collage materials to establish broad areas of colour responding to the general shape of the valley or the rock face of the quarry, as well as local colour. As the collage developed it had the added advantage of starting to break up the hard rectangle of the paper and lose the edges. It was in effect making the paper into an object. Once covered, adjustments were made again with collage and then before a dinner break any odd paints, emulsions etc. would be used to further build up the surface, again trying to respond as best as possible to local colour.
After a visit to the pub for dinner, (the images were left on site with bits of stone on them to stop them blowing away), the afternoon was spent mixing oils and working with palette knives over the top of the now hopefully dry surface.
Slabs of colour would be mixed and applied, the direction of each slab echoing the structure of the landscape, small areas of underlying colour helping to establish colour edges, as well as texture. Earlier experiences were referred to, such as the colour mixing and finding shapes referred to earlier, (Discords at 8 o’clock) but this time paint application direction was being used to find the colour shape of the landscape, with size constancy and colour saturation to establish foreground and distance. Gradually issues such as atmospheric perspective had to be responded to, (it was autumn) and colour had to be pushed optically forwards and backwards as each mix was established and located. The was no attempt to re-trim the paper shape back towards a sharp edged rectangle, it just got heavier and more lumpish as each layer was built up. Again as before, paint could be scraped off when it got too muddy, but the underlying collage colours chosen helped maintain vibrancy and colour depth, in particular the thin edges of colours peeping through and around painted oil forms, helped achieve optical flicker and movement across the colour slabs.
At the end of the session work was pinned onto drawing boards and the whole lot put into the bin-bags. This was not an ideal way of bringing them back, but a short session back in the studio was enough to re-establish the surfaces that had been harmed during the journey back.
The final results were solid and weighty and once looked at back in the studio did have a certain presence and visual weight as well as actual weight.