Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Site Specific Module

 I have been back with the first year fine art students and working out at Thwaites Mill. This is the beginning of the site specific module and students have to get proposals checked off for health and safety and to ensure they don’t clash with each other/understand the nature of working in shared spaces.
This part of the year is very bitty. Last week I was working with third year students and starting to get a feel for where some of them were. Two days is though not enough to really get to grips with their needs. In my last post I made some remarks about the need for more supportive or collaborative working, but the reality is that most artists work on their own and this is the case for most of the people I was talking to. However I still feel conversation helps. Talking things through helps an idea settle, but it doesn’t have to be in the formal spaces of a crit.
A typical encounter that illustrates the reality of art education.
I was on my way home after a day of second marking dissertations. As I walked away from the office one of our second year students stopped me to ask about how he could embed a clock into a painting. We started to talk and I started to draw. I introduced the student to Billy Klüver, now dead of course but in his time vital to both Robert Rauchenberg and Jasper Johns. Billy was the technician behind many of their pieces and he was brought in to solve problems such as “how do you wire this up so it does this…etc”. I pointed out that Klüver helped artists to think through what they were doing. I drew some technical isometrics of how the back of some of Rauchenberg’s combines would have looked; detailed how thick the support must be to house a set of things that needed to be behind the canvas, and the need for precise planning and good woodwork skills. I ended up with drawings that looked like shallow shelving units, each element the student wanting to include, (the clock was just the first of several), being planned for, measured up and the support designed to fit. Then he could stretch his canvas over the now much deeper ‘frame’, knowing exactly where the spindle for the clock hands would go, as well as all the other bits and pieces he wanted to bring into the picture.
This accidental encounter was one of those ‘conversations’ all practical people have but they are vital to the learning experience. Perhaps all I need to do is to be let loose to have a chat. Doesn’t seem very pedagogically powerful does it? Hey ho, so it goes.
So back to the first years. It was very cold out there and I froze right down to the bone. This is a problem because I don’t think too clearly when I get cold. It slows my mind as well as my body. Working with Kelly, we had 25 students each and walked with them individually to where they had proposed to develop work. Each person was then questioned as to how they would project manage the work and why they had developed the proposals they had. (They had made a site visit a week earlier, taken photographs and developed ideas).
There are two main issues to consider, the context/history of the site and the phenomenological impact of actually being there. My own responses tend to be focused more on the “what would happen if?” side of things. I tend to be slightly suspicious of too much historical research if what it means is that students start to illustrate rather than respond. For instance the mill is very dark; something inserted into it that is light can therefore be fascinating. One student last year, working in the mill, simply covered half an old hanging rusty chain with aluminium foil. The visual impact was startling and the afterimage reverberations as to meaning, opened out into several different areas. If the work is to succeed I really feel you need to dance lightly, making several trials and testing how materials work. The other issue is time management; too many students have convoluted ideas that will take a long time to make up away from the site. The problem being that once you transport them out of the studio they often just look too small or totally ‘wrong’ because you have been unconsciously making the work to the studio and the studio is smaller and lighter and has different spatial characteristics. We shall see. We are off on an Easter break now and hopefully the weather will change, it’s much harder to make art in inclement conditions. I have also finished second marking my pile of dissertations, so am up to speed with the assessment processes. Too many of the students are writing these dissertations without an awareness of how the research they have done could support practice. I proposed 4 areas around which dissertations could be written some time ago, but as with so many things I have proposed over the years, it was ignored. Just for the record these were; Research into a context for practice; research into practice itself; research into subject matter to be used in practice and research into audiences for practice. The point being that ‘practice’ was always at the forefront of the students’ reason for writing, therefore they might find the activity useful.

Monday, 18 March 2013

Third year critiques

More critiques this last week with third years. Most of the feedback was based on the pragmatic awareness that people have to get on with things if they are to get their final show up to the type of standard you expect. I was doing the crits with Sheila and David Steans, who came in for a day. It’s always interesting to work with someone fresh, David in particular is part of the young Leeds art scene, (if you can call it that), he is working as a curator as much as an artist, or perhaps in a merged field that covers both. This is a way of working that would have been unthinkable 30 years ago, curators were a breed apart and smelled of stuffy museum back rooms and hours spent pouring over old dusty art history books. How times change. I thought some good advice was given, but was left pondering the whole issue of the artist and being alone. What was great about those two days was everyone contributing to possibilities, people were giving openly of their experiences and skills and you could see work developing as ideas were clarified and tested out by the group. We are a social animal and ideas and art-work are so much easier to develop if we work together. The final product goes through a group edit and comes out much better for it. Making decisions on your own is very hard, working on your own is hard too, it’s always easier to keep going if you know a team of people are involved, as you don’t want to let others down. But our entire system is designed to promote individualism. The college marking system doesn’t work very well if students work as teams, academic measurement starts going astray and no one trusts a group mentality. I wonder how St Martins marked Gilbert and George in their final year? The group mind is far more powerful, this is why films are so great, so many contributions, people with an enormous range of overlapping skills coming together to make something that can at its best be wonderful. More art needs to be made like that. 

Monday, 11 March 2013

Critiques year three

Finally getting back to teaching today. I’ve been doing nothing but day after day of interviews. We had over 500 applicants and we see everyone. This meant looking through portfolios and giving each person approx. 15 minutes to convince us that they should be a degree student. In order to cut the time down, we choose one piece of work from the portfolio and take it to the interview room, this is what people have to then talk about, whether they like the work or not, the days of students going through the portfolio from front to back are now long gone. Sometimes potential students find the process one of opening up and being creative, at others I get the feeling they find it autocratic and impersonal.
As soon as interviews finished it was assessment time again and we were marking collaborative work done by the first year. This week though I’m doing critiques with year three. This group of students is one I haven’t worked with since I did a drawing week with them in the second year, so it’s interesting for me to get a feel of where they are. The morning session picked up some fundamental problems, the chief of which was pragmatic testing. I was worried that students were letting ideas drag on. The reality of professional practice is that you have to keep making things that can be exhibited. This means being pragmatic about what you hold on to and being prepared to let go. I think this group of students are over-working and over-thinking their production. They are not testing out the reality of how to get the idea out there and it feels as if everything is too comfortable. I realise they have just been writing their dissertations but again the reality is all of us have to manage multi-tasking if we are to get anything done. I’m also aware of students working out of other institutions and I would expect to see far more resolved pieces by now. Perhaps the critiques have not been aggressive enough or previous successes have been replayed too many times, whatever it is a wake-up call is needed. Above all the key issue is work. Work creates more work and work is often all there is. Then, when you have  a pile of stuff you can go in with that critical eye and pick stuff out, but fiddling about gets you nowhere, as I can clearly remember when I think back to some students I was at college with, including at times myself.
Thinking of long gone days, this is another of those foundation ‘Morning Drawing’ exercises.
‘Looking down at the body and drawing what you can see’.
Students are asked to draw landscapes of the body. Standing at an easel, they are to simply look down at themselves and draw what they see. Gradually the drawings would move from having to deal with extremely foreshortened perspective, to issues such as in and out of focus. In particular drawings would have to deal with disappearing noses, shapes that were shadows of their former selves, coming into and out of focus. How the eye works its way across surfaces previously understood from views in the mirror, now having to be re-invented as landscapes of personal ownership. The point about these drawings being of course that the familiar can become strange again, simply by taking a new perspective on it.
The students I spoke to this morning need to be able to grasp this point. They all had interesting subjects, but they needed to refresh their ideas by taking on new and different perspectives. Always of course easier said than done.