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.


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  2. Woooooooossssshhhh! The sound of a great post, Cheers Garry