Thursday, 30 May 2013

Ends and Beginnings

It’s nearly the end of yet another year and the third years are putting up their work ready for assessment. Once that is done its time for the final shows. End of year rights of passage are things that art courses do really well, I forget that other courses don’t have this celebration of the best work done, simply exams and a long period of waiting for the results.
Besides the occasional help with holding something in place while someone tightens a screw, I’m mainly wondering the studios and giving advice; simply operating as an extra pair of eyes. Sometimes you are so on top of the work that you can’t see things. It’s good to be able to just talk on a casual basis with students that you have watched grow and change over three years. Hopefully they are still hungry for more, ready for that next step out in the real world. As I go round there are so many possibilities being opened out, ways into making that if just pushed that bit further could be really great. The hard bit is though yet to come. How do you get enough money together to rent a studio, how do you get access to the right level of technical support and equipment? I really think it’s time Leeds had a proper sculpture workshop, a place for fabrication on an ambitious scale. There is so much empty property about at the moment, surely a group could be formed with the skills and interest to put something like Glasgow sculpture studios together.
Perhaps this could be something the three Leeds degree institutions could help put together. In Glasgow the sculpture workshop benefits the city as a whole and also services the School of Art helping to take pressure off their workshops in busy periods and at the same time of course, giving students an experience of what it is like to work out in a professional workshop.
Beginnings are also very important, for years I used to help think through and set up the opening large drawing set-ups for Foundation. Every summer we would re-think what could be constructed for the beginning of the year. Grids and geometric solids were always important, but just as vital was the decision as to what would work against these constructions. Some years it would be students being asked to create giant tools out of cardboard, other years objects chosen for their personal histories or stories, whatever it was these situations had to be immersive and capable of being measured, composed and selected from. There were a whole range of different approaches to this though and a different approach at Foundation level as opposed to degree level; I shall try and unpick what these approaches and issues were in the next post.

Wednesday, 29 May 2013

The Art College's Vernon Street Building

Thinking back on my time teaching Foundation studies down in the Vernon Street building, perhaps one of the most important things was the shape and format of the building itself.
Leeds College of Art, Vernon Street, Leeds

Built in 1903 and designed by Bedford and Kitson, it was one of the first iron frame buildings to be put up in the city of Leeds, contrasting powerfully with the Cuthbert Brodrick Mechanics Institute building (now, 2013, Leeds Museum, then, 1970s, the Civic Theatre) which it abuts.  The red brick exterior broken by a wall of glass, (which it must have felt like at the time), sits perfectly into the rear of the yellow grey Yorkshire millstone grit of the Mechanics Institute with its thick walls and solid spreading footprint. Each building is clearly the product of different times and different philosophies, yet  Bedford and Kitson’s building was built only about forty years after Brodrick’s. Their contrasting forms were something I thought I was part of, the art college’s embracement of light and warmth signifying what was different about an art college education. The building seemed new and old at the same time, which was a concept that helped you get a grasp on what good quality was. A quality based on old fashioned values, make it as well as it can be made, make it according to what is known now at this time and it will be long lasting and always feel right. In this case however the two buildings now read as one, they have been there so long that they feel as if they belong together, but they are really two stories; solid Victorian values start to dissolve under the light of Modernism.
You used to enter the building by climbing steps (there is now a ramp for disabled access) these steps in turn taking you up to a platform outside the polished wood and glass entry doors. This entrance the scene of many a year’s end photograph, the platform a stage upon which you could perform the moment of becoming an artist or designer and celebrate entering the profession. As a building it somehow understands that it will be part of ‘rights-of-passage’ ceremonies.  Above which the College of Art mosaic mural by Gerald Moira depicts an almost timeless image of the muses of painting and sculpture looking down on everyone as they enter, a reminder of history and the weightiness of one’s responsibilities to carry on an ancient tradition. On entering the building you step across a black and white mosaic floor and a large space opens up revealing a wide staircase to the right and a ground floor entrance space with classical columns. From this space you can either descend into the workshops below, ascend towards the studios above or enter the library. This was a space to shape the pedagogy of art and design but not perhaps in the way that it was designed to do.
Moira's mural

There are two ways of looking at how the space operated. The first is instrumental the second poetic but I’m not sure if in my mind I can properly separate these. By the time I arrived in the mid 1970s Foundation studies occupied the top floor three studios as well as joint use of a rooftop suite with contextual studies and a mezzanine space on the half floor below, fashion had the whole of the middle floor, the library occupied the ground floor and in the basement there were workshops for wood and jewellery, hosting courses including musical instrument making and furniture making. Over the next ten years foundation would grow to fill the building and the other courses would move either into other buildings or to other colleges.  (The college in those days occupied as it were the two legs of a horseshoe shape, the Mechanics Institute building was at this time hosting the Music College and was the front of the horseshoe; graphics and surface pattern were in the other leg in the old school building)
The large studios on the top floor Vernon Street were purpose built high ceilinged rooms with tall windows facing North and East. Floors of solid thick wooden floorboards with a patina consisting of years of paint and charcoal droppings were walled in by white painted plaster walls, the bottom eight feet of which were usually lined with fibreboard or chipboard. The windows were tall and reached the full height of the studios, with two triangular windows inset into the roof. These studios looked the part and felt like proper art studios. One of the three had however been converted into a wood workshop, thus saving Foundation students having to mix with furniture students below. This hierarchy was quite important at the time and reflected recent historical change. It was important to separate these ‘degree’ students from the ‘trades’ students below who were usually apprentices from local companies. It was as if two worlds existed, and I was one of the few outside of the complementary studies department who moved between both these worlds. (See 20th Nov post) Because I taught printmaking it was thought that engraving should come into my remit, so I used to take Eddy O’Donnell’s engraving students and teach them the print related aspects of the trade alongside foundation students who I was teaching etching.  These ‘trade’ classes were held in the Jacob Kramer College as it was now called because they came under the heading of Further Education, as were lots of other courses including the Foundation Diploma, which although initially the first year of a four year degree experience, was now at risk, cut adrift from the rest and having to survive amongst the ‘riff-raff’.  It did feel like that at times, only the complementary studies staff who worked across all courses really tried to address this issue. A deep seated ‘trade’/’working class’ academic divide still existed in education at this time, (and arguably still does) reflecting social patterns that go to the core of the British psyche and as someone who was an apprentice in a steelworks before going to art college I still feel its reverberations. 
The building had by then (1970s) been carved up and not very sympathetically; the art college as it had been, no longer existing and many of its courses now being taught in the new Polytechnic H block building on Woodhouse Lane. However as foundation expanded to fill the old Vernon Street building ghosts of its former uses started to emerge; for instance the workshops all went back down into the basement and the Fine Art strand of foundation, growing to be almost as large as the whole course was when I arrived, often taking over one of the top floor studios.
The main fine art activity when I arrived was painting, the standing joke was that sculpture was the stuff you fell over when you stepped back to look at the paintings. The light was very good and the aesthetic nature of thinking once students had been through the diagnostic phase and had decided on fine art was dominated by Patrick Oliver, who as a painter thought like a painter, even if he himself believed he could cover all aspects of the fine art discipline. In his thoughts he was of course including his own special territory the welding shed. This was a construction that had been put up between the two legs of the college, in the courtyard behind the Music College and the Civic Theatre. At the back of this one story construction was a forge and the rest of the space consisted of a jumble of metal pieces, oxygen and  acetylene gas cylinders, bits of half welded cars and assorted junk, all perceived in half light, because there were no windows , just a couple of 60 watt bulbs hanging from the ceiling. It was really an environmental piece, like some set from the Brothers’ Quay and it operated as a mythical workshop, a place for Patrick to tell stories in while he smoked endless Park Drives and managed to get himself even dirtier than normal, the grease from metal and sump oil blending beautifully with the nicotine stains. It was in reality a painterly image of what a sculptural workshop should be. It was definitely not fit for purpose in terms of making sculpture, there was no room, every time someone came in to do something you had to move the junk around to find a place to work. Mythically it worked, but practically it didn’t. Which leads me to that other more poetic sense of how the space operated.
Like my writing there was a feeling of a rambling space that was organising itself around different needs and requirements, but not in a very organised way. It sort of happened. Gaston Bachelard’s ‘The Poetics of Space’ is probably the best guide to what was going on. Derek used to conduct a drawing session with the students whereby they had to explore the building, starting at the bottom and working their way up the small spiral staircase which served as an alternative escape route to the main stairway, finally emerging out into the top studio. Derek was a ceramicist and caver and introduced the students to an idea of the building as a network of small caves that opened out into a great cavern as you made your way up towards the surface of the earth. After this experience they would try and visualise the building as if they were tunnelling into a block of stone or clay, many later going on to make objects of their drawing ideas, the negative spaces of their drawings now becoming solids. The spiral staircase could be seen as a backbone, the main stairway as ribs, the small rooms above the main studios as a brain or in my case a sea pilot’s cabin. I had at one time moved the print studio up there and I could sometimes be found steering the building through the night using the etching press star-wheel, guiding it over the roofs of the city. At another time during the first Gulf war students made scud missiles on that roof, filling them with old ink soaked rags from the print room and setting them to burn. (From what I remember Thomas Houseago was one of those students, so we must have drifted in time to the end of the 80s, beginning of the 90s) Those were the last days of an old ethos, a time before health and safety standards and learning outcomes.  Ted Winter was the technician who controlled the workshop on the top floor, in the corner of which was an old lift shaft that had a wooden platform that had to be hauled up by rope. This was really dangerous, the sudden drop as you opened the doors in front of the lift-shaft was awesome and threatened to suck you in. Every-time those doors opened I would fantasise about swinging out on the rope that was used to haul the goods up the shaft. The point is that both the glass clad print-room that led onto the roof and the dark well of the lift-shaft, both seemed to be silent elements in the building’s story, elements that would underpin what it was to work there and elements that would silently shape the things that were and are still made there.
At the top of the main staircase, just before you entered the studios was the principal’s office. This was the heart of the building and had its own toilet. (This eventually became the staff room when the college expanded and the principalship moved to Blenheim Walk) I still have the wooden handle and chain from the toilet, I saved this item from the rubble when the toilet was knocked through to make a larger room, which is I do believe, now hosting student services. But like all rooms in the present day college it will soon be used for something else. I gather the new Ravensbourne College is totally open-plan, you can get spaces converted into a seminar room for one afternoon and to a drawing space the next day. I wonder how memory works in buildings like that? The white noise of now is surely much harder to fix in the head than the quiet sound of today resting on yesterday.
I need to leave to go to an opening soon, an opening that interestingly for me, includes work from ‘Art and Language’, a group that were heavy influences during my time as a DipAD student. Keith Arnatt at one time brought Terry Atkinson over from Coventry to Newport to host a seminar down in Bolt Street. This would have been perhaps 1970/71. At that time I was just getting my head around what it was to be a conceptualist. I found it hard going at the time and an intellectual challenge, so am interested in how I will feel about their stuff now.
So a final image. The old principal’s office had been the staff-room for the foundation staff for several years, but one year it was announced that it was going to be knocked through during the summer and converted, foundation offices would then be on the floor below. This coincided with Steve Carrick’s leaving, he had a job over in Wrexham. I was sorry to see him go as we had known each other ever since he came to my classes at the Swarthmore when he was working as a bus driver. He moved on from those classes to the part-time Fine Art and Craft Course and from there to teaching at the college. He is a very good artist and impish to boot; everyday he used to bring with him an old plastic children’s lunchbox, if I remember rightly it may even have been a ‘My Little Pony’ branded one. In it he would usually have the remains of the previous night’s pasta or similar. As a last gesture before leaving, he decided to superglue said lunchbox to the shelf that had always been its temporary resting place while he was on studio duty. This last gesture was something he wanted to give to the college as a reminder of his time there. This was also one of my last visits to that staffroom, as I was moving into yet another post in the college’s new building. The image for some reason sits there quite powerfully in my memory. In some ways it was a totally stupid thing to do and yet in others it sums up how and why art education is so unpredictable and at its best unsettling. A totally random gesture becomes more than that, because of a few chance other ingredients elevated into something else, into a moment of now that keeps repeating every time I think about it. A gesture that is simply done because it can be done, but perhaps would only be done in that way and remembered in this way, in an old art college building.

Saturday, 18 May 2013

Basic Design at Tate Britain

The Tate Gallery have decided to dedicate one of their rooms to the history of the basic design tradition within British Art schools. They hold scholars' mornings every now and again to bring together people with a particular interest and knowledge in a subject together to see if insights can be shared. So yesterday I was at the Tate bright and early, 8.20am and spent a morning with other ‘experts’ on the basic design curriculum.
The first person I met there was Roy Ascott. He used to be at Newcastle with Victor Pasmore and Richard Hamilton and is still very active teaching and working in the telematics/cybernetics field. He is a global figure, as his Wikipedia entry states, he is “President of the Planetary Collegium an international research platform that promotes the integration of art, science, technology, and consciousness research”. He had a piece of work in the exhibition ‘Change Painting’ from 1960 and gave a presentation on its gestation. All the other attendees appeared to be scholars. Roy was to present last of four which was useful for me, as once I’d realised he was there I was sort of in awe and if he had been on first I think I would have said nothing. He is one of that generation of artists that lived the full blast of what was going on in art education at the time. It was as if someone working alongside Harry Thubron at Leeds had worked into the room (like Patrick Oliver for instance) and mentally I was quaking in my boots.
However as the scholars presented I realised I had a lot to contribute. They had not worked on the studio floor with the concepts and practices that in particular Thrubron had introduced and Ascott seemed to often agree with what I was bringing in. Newcastle was sufficiently different in approach for there to be confirmation without overlap.
As the session went on we ended up in a general discussion and we were asked what was missing from the show. My main feeling was that the student work, now framed behind glass and carefully exhibited gave a false impression of what happened. A key image in the exhibition was of a photograph of work put up for a crit at a Scarborough Summer School at some point in the 1960s. A whole wall of images was being discussed, work very similar to what was being done when I first arrived in Leeds at the Jacob Kramer College in the academic year 1974/5. (LCA had been renamed JK at this time). The hustle and bustle of the studio, the sounds in particular of staff talking and shouting and singing now however all silenced behind the exhibition glass.  When Roy Ascott had started talking about his work he made sounds. A swish like noise that followed the gesture of his hand as he remembered making the brush marks on glass that were essential to the ‘in the momentness’ of the 1960s piece. No one commented on this, so I did. I pointed out how sounds like this were constantly being made at the time and that the understanding of what was going on was totally embodied. Roy thankfully agreed.
Next to where we were standing was a Terry Frost, one of those pieces where half circle images gently tilt and rock like rocking horse bases and mirror each other. The centre of the image had been vacated and the half sun shapes were collected mainly at the top and bottom. I pointed to the spaces between two mirrored sun/boat forms and made the noise that filled the space. The squeak emitted as the two lines squashed the space was slightly higher than the one made by an almost the same conjunction to the right, however the space at the left was slightly wider therefore the space less constricted. The large open space below could then be sounded as a much lower bass noise. As I went through this standing in front of a big group of serious looking theoreticians and scholars part of me was deeply worried that this would be a moment when all would come apart, but thankfully with Roy Ascott being there as well I think there was enough conviction to make everyone realise how important these things were and that they were never really captured in the literature. I then carried on with the essential next stage, setting up the rhythm of read; sounding the squeak, squeak, boom; the tick, tock of boat-rock, and then asking for these to be rhythms that should then be picked up by the body itself. I pointed out that for tutors at that time a good solid pair of brogues were essential.  The sound of staff approaching not only quieting the expectant throng, but setting out a rhythm for the session. 
This embodied understanding of basic design was something I lived with for 10 years. Both Patrick and Gavin had been close to Thubron in those days and both still held on to the principles inspired by him when I first began teaching; both of course also telling me that that the other never really understood what it was all about. This is perhaps because the one thing that was always key was that things should never be really understood because then they would be predictable.  Art and life were things that had to be entwined. So starting with how you walk into the studio was a key thing. Like your heartbeat, everyone has a rhythm of walking, its sound unique. This is no different to the rhythm of your drawing, the speed of mark making and the size and weight of the marks being something that comes from a synthesis between your body size and physique, and your metabolic and heart rate. A mental state may slow you down or speed you up, percepts will change you and you will change them. What you need to do is make yourself responsive and by setting up situations that you don’t know how to deal with, your responses are more likely to be ‘true’ or at least ‘fresh’ and original. However keeping things fresh is hard. In the exhibition was a video of Thubron working with moving models. This situation was something I was very familiar with. Ann, Mavis and Rosie were the models who worked at the JK when I arrived and they knew this situation really well. Ann in particular knew exactly at what pace to move and how to step amongst the students, making slow poses just long enough for student images to start to arrive but not long enough for them to think about trying to ‘draw the model’. This meant that to some extent an element of prediction had crept in. However it was still fresh for all the students, just not for the models or the staff. This need for constant invention was really thrilling for me. Many a morning we would get together and decide what should happen next, I’d work out lots of possibilities during a previous night’s restless sleep and be thrilled if an idea was accepted as something to throw in. These sessions eventually became what we called ‘morning drawings’ but at the core was Thubron’s adage that nothing should be known, everything discovered. In this way students would learn how to create life within the inanimate. (As for myself, the fact that at the time I had a class of my own at the Swarthmore Centre meant that I could try out all my ideas on the students who attended those sessions, some worked and some didn't but what was clear was that if I was excited and fascinated in the possibilities students would be too. But I now teach far too many sessions where I'm simply presenting a module as a series of outcomes that everyone will achieve, what a long way from sessions where at their best no one knew what the outcomes would be). 
At the end of the Tate session I was really tired, but had realised that what I knew was really special. My intellectual and embodied knowledge of what was taught then was still strong enough to get through to a group of mainly academics, who were very concerned to encase the basic design moment in aspic. The moment of teaching in art and design is just that, making the moment real, making it sensitive to life and art at the same time and getting students to feel how special that is.
Even though I’m now in phased retirement I feel I can still offer something and Roy Ascott is a fantastic example of how you can still develop a cutting edge practice at any age. In some ways I felt Roy was somewhat like a pixy, full of life and insight and that he had kept himself lively by his many interests. One thing that he said really struck me. I had pointed out how Cezanne was still very important to people at this time. He went on to elaborate. He pointed out that it was the late Cezanne watercolours that in particular were vital to an understanding of what was happening. In order to grasp one of these images you as the viewer have to engage with the perceptual process, to re-experience the process of looking, it is a process only resolved in this joint action. Roy pointed out that this for him was the key thing that fostered a lifelong interest in process and the way that people could come together to ‘realise’ an idea. Roy further pointed out that ideas where others have to come to the situation in order to advance the process are more alive and vital. Perhaps all closed ideas need to have aspects to them that are open.  
I have been somewhat remiss in adding posts to this blog lately and must return to the task with a bit more energy, but meeting Roy Ascott (who interestingly also taught at Newport, so we had a chat about who was there when he was etc.) has helped me realise that the venture is a worthwhile one and that you need to keep going on all fronts, retirement is not an option.

Monday, 6 May 2013

The imaginary museum

The people who run the museum site were very happy to host the module. They have kept a few pieces as these can be useful for them, so perhaps it’s time to reflect on one further aspect of these site specific modules, that of preparation for a career in the arts. Like the hospital sector, museums have been regular employers of artists, who have been used to re-engage with collections and to re-energise them for visitors. This fact will hopefully help students see that not everything a fine artist does must be confined to the studio and that there are other very worthwhile opportunities out there. (Or were, we shall have to see where the recession takes us). Thank God it’s not my job to put the PPP1 module together though, professional development is something I’ve always been rubbish at and best left in someone else’s hands. One thing that is useful about it is that it suggests that being an artist is a job. It was a job for Raphael and a job for Turner, I like that; it brings things down to earth.
There is something that makes the job special though and why every year new students come and why they have so many expectations of the discipline.
There was one small piece of work done in response to the museum that sums up why the museum want us back, why museums use artists and why this is such a great discipline. One student was using moss or lichen to work with. (There is a type called lung lichen) She had seen the similarity in structure to human lungs and was aware of how chalk dust had killed many of the workers who had spent their days grinding chalk rocks into a fine enough powder for the putty. After years of exposure chalk accumulates in the lungs and causes respiratory failure. After some materials investigation she discovered you could dip the lichen in white gloss paint and when dry you had a delicate filigree membrane that could be easily controlled to make a shape like a tiny single lung. She then constructed two of them with connecting tubes. This tiny sculpture was then put under a transparent bell dome and a wooden base turned and polished to fit exactly with the existing furniture in the museum. The object was then placed where you would expect something similar to be. For the casual observer passing by they would probably miss it but on second glance there is a moment of poetry that in one object conjoins many of the stories about working conditions in the 19th century, with the Victorian need to collect and categorise and the museum’s own remit to freeze history. The object works both as a type of vanitas and as a Surrealist object. Art can do that and when it does it’s fantastic.
This is a first year module and it occasionally produces moments of real poetry, the friction between what young artists want to do and the reality of the site, sometimes sparking off moments of insight that come from being taken outside of their comfort zones. This is the real learning curve, one we all need to take on board. The world out there is amazing and when you need to invent or move work on into new territories, just push yourself into new and different situations, something will come up, it always does. All you have to do is be open and receptive.