Wednesday, 10 October 2012

The Critique

BA Fine Art Studio Sessions Week 3 October 2012
Monday and Tuesday were two days of crits.
The studio crit will be central to the students’ art education experience. We are now into the third week and enough work has been done for us to see a range of potential directions opening out.  Several inductions into technical areas have also been completed so that students are becoming aware of possibilities for the extension of their work by using different workshop facilities.
The introduction to the ground rules for crits is essential and this centres on how to be supportive and not destructive. Above all the rule is to focus on possibilities inherent in the work and not to engage in criticising individuals in terms of their working process or the products they have so far produced. This therefore involves examining the word ‘critique’ itself and where it came from and why we focus on supportive and constructive debate as opposed to a negative unpicking of peoples’ work.
These are the guidelines for staff operating crits that I wrote two years ago and which should be referred to by all staff before setting up any crit situation.
Guidelines on the Conduct of Critiques
The critique is a key pedagogic tool in art and design and has been regarded by external reviewers as an area of good practice in the college, the following is intended as generic guidance independent of discipline or level of study and consistent with the strengths noted during observations of teaching.
Main aim of Critiques
To develop student autonomy in the ability to make clear and informed decisions as to how their own work should progress, by fostering focused evaluation development that is appropriate to the student area of study.
Secondary aim
To develop peer group structures that can facilitate the above and provide a supportive climate for peer review and self assessment.
In organising and conducting student critiques staff need to consider a range of issues.
Group size has a considerable affect on the contributions made by individuals, resources may be better devoted to managing smaller groups for shorter periods where student numbers are large.
Sessions should be clearly time delimited. Critiques place pressure on attention span and (at least some) participants lose interest and become frustrated if discussion extends well beyond a scheduled finish time.
Consideration as to the purpose of the critique within the module cycle is critical; holding critiques too early within a module could create a situation where there is not enough material to comment effectively upon and students can get disheartened by ideas generated by others in response to work that they have yet to ‘own’. Too late in the module cycle and there is not enough time to respond to evaluations and ideas for progression before end of module submission deadlines.
Students should be clear about any part the critique may play in assessment, unless there are specific means of gathering the evidence for assessment purposes as detailed within individual course specifications, it should be assumed that the purpose is for formative feedback only.
Staff must make sure that the range of work to be considered can be presented appropriately, it should be possible to properly view time based or screen-based work as well as wall/studio or workshop based work. Adequate time should be set aside before the critique to ensure that the work can be properly considered by participants. For example in the event of screen-based work it may be possible for work to be available on-line some days beforehand.
Creating a structure that assists students prepare for an examination of others work prior to the critique helps build confidence and avoids over- personalisation. For example this may be through asking students to respond to a pre-prepared list of criteria or pairing students up into review teams.
Determining criteria before consideration of the work is an important means of ensuring focussed feedback but it is also important that these remain consistent during the critique. For example it would be inappropriate and discouraging to comment on the quality of finish within an early critique intended to consider ideas generation or research methods. The number of criteria should also be limited to help manage the amount of time and input involved.
To achieve the secondary aim described above considerations should be given to leadership. The ideal is that over time students become self-sustaining in their development as practitioners, therefore if the main purpose of the critique is actually for staff to provide input this should be clearly understood by students. Good practice would normally involve each student at some point being able to take a lead role in presentation and critique.
To achieve the primary aim above students will need to carefully reflect on the feedback received in order that they might purposefully progress. Staff should consider what guidance they will give as a structured means of doing so. Dependent upon the discipline, nature and level of the module, this may range from an electronic note through to a structured action plan.
In some cases it may be that as student autonomy increases the critique is entirely conducted by students without the presence of staff. In this event consider how the peer group concerned and individual students could record the purpose, criteria and structuring of the event as well as recording the actions determined.
Critiques may be conducted on-line and it would be expected that if so they would also be subject to the principles above.
So bearing the above in mind, the students are given information to help them focus and think about what issues they might bring to the crit. This is a typical example of material given.
The critique
As a Fine Art student the Art-work you are engaged upon can become the equivalent of a visual text. An understanding of which can be reached through a variety of interpretations and dialogues, some of which are transparent to all concerned and others are perhaps tacitly understood, but not fleshed out. The critiques are moments where this type of reflection is linked to how and why work might move forward. The important issue is that good listening and looking skills are required so that both the intention of the art maker and the possible audience communication is considered. Many of us have intentions to do something, but they are not communicated, so one aspect of the crit is to let the maker know what you are getting from the work. Not to negate the work by saying it doesn’t communicate anything, but to challenge the art maker by perhaps opening out possibilities for what could be communicated. Remember an artist may not want to control what is getting across to an audience, so you may need to assess whether this is the case at the beginning of the crit process. Understanding may not be as important though as possibilities for progression, therefore the shaping on an individual critique may change or shift focus from understanding of what is going on towards possibilities for action. There is no right way, except for feeling your way in and being sensitive to whether or not the situation is helping someone or not. If it’s not helping, either stop the crit or take a different tack.
In order to help you to think about how to talk about and evaluate what you have done as well as prepare for contributing to critiques there are some issues that you might initially consider.
  • Content and Form
There are two main dialogues around the relationship between these two.
            How is form shaped by content?
            How is content indicated by form?
Often a brief will be constructed in a way that makes it appear that form is shaped by content. You are asked to research the work and this often leads students to believe that this means researching an outside source. This information is then seen to be used to drive the work forward.
However the type of dialogue that arises from an initial critique of the work done is often at odds with this basic presumption.  What is ‘actually’ going on physically and what is ‘really’ being communicated by the work done, is sometimes more interesting and leads to wider possibilities than the initial research. If you can let go the original impetus to research a particular subject and just respond to what has happened, the potential for interesting new approaches is often enhanced. Your dialogue with the work may turn to the form and how this can transmit meaning. Dialogues often sway between the two poles, ‘form follows function’ versus ‘the meaning is the use’, ‘the medium is the message’ versus ‘the text is all’ or to put it simply, is my original message coming through or have I discovered something more interesting?
What is going on here?
  1. A recognition that the work is open to interpretation and an acceptance that no matter how much you wants to control what the work is about, it will be read according to interests and proclivities of the various audiences that will receive it.
  2. A growing recognition that the initial body of research behind a piece of work does not necessarily have to continue to drive the work forward. The implications of what is made sometimes overriding what someone thought they wanted to say. The issue here is often that written or verbal information is chronological, (one bit of information follows another), whilst visual information is simultaneous, (everything is received by the viewer at once).
  3. Research can be as much about working with the materials of making as it is collecting information. Sometimes the way information itself is collected is itself a physical product that is then entered into the arena of debate in its own right.
  • Process
Process is the key to how to progress. Without a process it is very hard to continue making over a long period of time. The problem however is that the maker is sometimes not aware of the process/s that underlie the work being done. A crit will often focus on this, trying to unpick the strategy used, so that the user can achieve success more often and with more understanding. Sometimes you may want to think about how an alternative process could be used as a way forward and this may lead to questions about how a process itself creates meaning. You will need to develop a well understood strategy that can be applied to the work. This does not mean there should be a clear answer, just a way forward. It is a “what happens if?”, type of question.
  • Context
You need to question the context of the work. Typical questions are; ‘within what critical framework are we meant to view this piece?’ or ‘what would happen if this piece was in a different place or situation?’
The shift in context has been vital to art practice ever since Duchamp took a urinal into the gallery. It is however an area fraught with difficulty and misunderstandings. The maker of an art-work feels that they own its content. When faced with a debate that perhaps suggests that the work could be more interesting when placed within a different context, you need to be proactive about how to respond. Sometimes you need to ask other people’s opinions, because your own view of the context may be too narrow. Within certain areas of critical debate the nature of audience becomes critical and the decision to site the work within certain traditions or areas of practice, is as much a part of a work’s content/form as the fact that it’s painted blue. It is important to remember that your own conceptual frameworks are not the only contexts for understanding the work and that there is no such thing as a private language.
  • Resolution
Resolution is an issue that can come up at various times within any project.
First resolutions. The debate here is often how far you need to take things in order to be able to work out if they are going to be worthwhile pursuing. Too much work and you waste time and you can become attached to something that you have invested a lot of time in.
Second resolutions. Once the work is heading in a fruitful direction you often need to work up individual pieces, place things in a range of contexts or make enough things to check out what level of finish, type of environment or scale the idea demands.
Final resolutions. At this stage the work needs to have the ‘right’ degree of ‘finish’. By this we don’t mean ‘nicely’ crafted, it’s more to do with whether or not the concept and physical object hold a proper tension between each other. The debate may at this point also bring in issues of coherence.
  • Positioning
What position are you taking in relation to the work? For instance it may be moral or political. Positioning theory states that “Role" is a relatively static concept to describe the way that relationships (like mother-son) are actually experienced and acted out. The ‘position’ taken may therefore be a more dynamic one that reflects the reality of individual lives. This area is often a difficult one to deal with objectively but it is useful as it can be where an individual defines a territory of practice centred upon their own experiences. Post feminist discourse is useful here and the dialogue will often centre on how personal experiences can be codified and turned into ‘readable’ languages.

  • Potential
You need to think about your levers for change. The important issue is to decide on directions to move forward, not easy ways of coming up with a final product. Indicators can come from the making or from the concepts used. This is not about answers but should be seen as developing ways to help you move forward coherently without repeating what you have done before, unless of course repetition is part of the concept. Every module leaves you aware that the work could have been taken in several other directions. Use your notebook to record the possibilities because you may want to return to these at a later date. However it can also be useful to remind others that you are aware of the potential of the work, and you may want to flag up how time constraints or monetary considerations have perhaps come into play.
  • Coherence
The debate here is one of how can others learn the visual or other language that you have evolved? What are the impelling factors that direct the different components of a work? How do they fit together? Are there aspects to this piece that do not fit in? Is it an elegant solution? Does the work have a sense of closure? Does it make sense for it to be left open? How is sense made in this piece? Sometimes the maker has to direct the others towards the various issues and how they fit a concept. Things are not always transparent and one person’s logic can be seen by another as a fantasy, so you must allow for other interpretations.  How the work is read and received by others will become central to the debate and editing and extrapolating components are often looked at as ways to help coherence. Quite often a piece of work is criticised as having too many ideas within it. You might feel that a criticism like this is unfair, why should your fecundity be criticised? Is there a good reason for the work to be about a complex mass of ideas? It is important to recognise that the ideas themselves are probably still good, but perhaps they need to be resolved as separate pieces. Coherence is also about clarity. Editing is the key.
  • Ambition
How far have the implications of the work been pushed? Have you gone beyond the previous boundaries that you have worked within? This can sometimes be an issue about nerve. Perhaps the scale needs to be considered or the quantity. There is a tendency for us to play safe. Increasing the risk factor can play real dividends, but this has to sit with the ability of the maker to take the implications on board. This is about self-knowledge. It is also about work rate, are you working hard enough? Perhaps if you could make three times as much, the work itself would be so much more interesting. Be honest as you reflect on this, we can sometimes fool our selves into thinking we are working to our potential.
  • Craft
Crafting relates to meaning. Therefore good crafting can be shoddy building if the concept is about shoddiness. Suitable for purpose should be at the core of the debate here. Why is the object crafted in the way it is? What does this make us think of? Crafting is often about detail. Why is the string tied in that way? Why are the joints made like that? Why is the mark made in pencil? Craft itself carries a connotation. It is often associated with working class attitudes towards art. There is a debate within certain aspects of art theory that unpicks the historical division of craft from art. Sometimes this area can be discussed in relation to the changing nature of taste. How an object is made is a mixture of the practical, (how do I edit this film, cast this form etc.) and the conceptual, (because this is made like a model aircraft it carries connotations of the hobbyist or by making this out of thousands of nails it changes the feeling tone).
Good craft can carry conviction. By making every joint, knot, etc. with conviction, you can then convince the observer that the ideas behind the artwork are coherent and deeply meant.
  • Intuition
Sometimes we don’t know about what we are doing. Sometimes something just feels right or feels wrong. This is fine, but is difficult to articulate. You are allowed to state that you had a feeling about something that you can’t put into words. But perhaps you can give your reader a few indicators as to where they might get a sense if this. The more novels and poems you read the better you can get at describing the indescribable. Metaphor and similes can be very useful or references to other people’s work. Creative writing can help unlock this area and you may want to write poems or short stories about what you are trying to do.
  • Materials
There are two major debates.
‘Form follows function’
This will revolve around how the piece is constructed. Is it an honest response to the material? Does its structure reflect the possibilities inherent in the materials used? Can you describe the essential properties of the materials you are using? Are you enhancing these or working against them?
‘Material as language’
Materials also have metaphorical and discursive uses. Perhaps the materials suggest something else? The use of cloth may suggest bandages or the drape of a woman’s skirt. A wood carving may evoke a history of certain folk traditions. Perhaps your materials are usually used in another context, what is this and is your work supposed to reflect an awareness of this other context?
You need to ‘own’ your materials not just use them. Most artworks take on a material form and it is this form that will carry your message, so find words to articulate how your work’s materials are shaped, constructed, manipulated, treated and presented.

Issues should also be discussed as to availability of materials, skills that need to be learnt to work them, money and other such practical concerns. Many a good idea has foundered due to lack of finance and it could possibly have been done just as successfully in a cheaper material. Sometimes the material is though vital, such as the need to make something in gold because there are issues surrounding value, or the object may need to be made using old clothes worn by workers from a specific factory because a particular historical narrative has to be embedded within the materials or chocolate used as a casting material because the content implies this. 

·         Other issues.

There will always be other issues. Work comes out of the infinite responses that are possible in relation to the world, art and self. Other issues usually means an interesting aspect has been opened up. The challenge is to find structure and give physical form to any concepts fleshed out. This may mean trying to think about things that are very difficult to articulate, but the challenge is that it may lead you into fascinating new territories.

Too much to think about?

You are an art student, not a philosopher and so you are not expected to cover all of these issues when thinking about practice. However you can use any one of the points above to get you started and once started you may get to enjoy the process of critical reflection.

So what actually happened?
There were 9 students in a crit. It worked out at 15 minutes each student. They were given a maximum time of 5 minutes to present their work. We are focusing on Potential. It’s early days and time for resolution and more in-depth understanding will come later.
At the end of each presentation, the key points that were picked out from their presentations were clarified by reflecting back to them as a check that we all understood what the key issues were. Once we had established the issues individual crits started.
A Typical crit:
The student had made a series of heads, some made of tape stuck to the wall, some carved out of plaster and one small plaster head that had been attached to the wall with sheets of paper behind and dropping to the floor, he had then poured black ink over this and the pour ran down onto the paper. He had picked out the fact that he was focused on ways to disintegrate the form of the head, whilst still retaining some aspects of the image.
After questioning the head with poured ink was identified as the image he was most interested in.
The first series of potentials (3 mins) suggested were related to the pouring substance. Suggestions ranged from honey, to blood, to wax, to powders such as pigments, spices etc. to different types of paint, to having it under a tap etc etc then suggestions as to changes in possible meanings that could come from changes in poured materials and how these materials can carry meaning were made. One suggestion was that the process could be filmed and that would mean there was no worry as to how far the destruction went, as the film could be run backwards to rebuild the object.
The student made a list of possibilities as they were suggested.
The next series of potential changes involved how pouring could be done. The first suggestion was to hollow the form and drill out holes so that substances would emerge from the inside of the head rather than simply fall over the form. The focus stayed around this point for a while, then moved to the fact that the head need not be attached to the wall, it could be on the floor or raised above the ground on a pole, plinth, hung etc and considerations as to height etc were thrown in. Each change would mean changes in pouring techniques. Everything from throw a bucket of stuff over it to slow drip-feed was considered. Again the student made a list of possibilities. (5 mins)
Finally the type of head was looked at. The student had carved one head and had then broken back into it. It was suggested that different amounts of working into the head could be used to direct the flow of fluids over the form. Fluid could be made to collect more in some areas than others. Size and scale were considered as well as broadening the materials that the heads were made from. (4 mins) Again lists were made of possibilities and the student asked to write a short action plan detailing a practical task to achieve within a short time period in response to the points raised and a final check with the student that this had helped develop ways to move forward. As it was nobody came back to say it hadn’t helped. If they had thought the crit was no help; time was left at the end of the day to catch-up and re-visit them individually.
Once the 15 minute slot was finished we moved on.
This went on all day for two days, each student presenting and lists of possibilities recorded and actions determined. Different groups of roughly 7 or 8 students were put together for each session.
Its fast and heady stuff, everyone having to throw in suggestions, but the trick is to try and keep the suggestions clearly focused and not letting them drift off into fantasy. We are also not at this stage trying to introduce other artists, we are trying to avoid the “why don’t you look at so and so who did something similar”, scenario. It can be off putting and can lead to a very quick closure. This is a period of time where all we are doing is offering straight forward practical things to do. Underlying this is a belief in hard work and the making of lots of variations and trying to develop a state of mind where there is no prejudice towards one way of working over another or one resolution over another. Evaluation and selection can come later. My own position in this is that I’m looking for that moment when the student starts to surprise themselves with what they have done. They have all developed particular working practices from their previous educational experience and if these are confronted too bluntly it can lead to worry or disagreements, so it’s much better for a student to simply find themselves outside their normal territory by following the step by step implications of doing things.
The hardest part is listening to each student and concentrating on this all day. If not suggestions will be made that are not going to help at this point. I’ll return to the crit again, as it’s a vital part of what we do and it changes focus as the three years move on.

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