Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Fine Art Year 1 week 4

There was no contextual studies this week because we were introducing the collaboration brief. This has been an interesting two days, in particular because we didn’t actually show the students the brief. This will be done on Thursday.

We had decided that this year due to the large numbers we would need to keep everyone on board by providing lots of short sharp events to open out issues and provide platforms for certain types of realization. There are four staff and approx. 75 students.

A list of things to do had been prepared and was posted up; this was an important device as we were gradually going to bring through the importance of instructions and rules of engagement for many collaborative teams. At the start and end of each activity we banged a cymbal to reinforce the idea of this being a sort of extended musical chairs game.

On 9.30 am arrival on Monday morning, students were handed a 4 cm square photograph of a tool, (post-it size) and were asked to put their name on the back. They then had to find their tool which had been attached to one of the studio walls and bluetack next to it their ‘post-it’ with their name showing. This gave us 10 teams and due to the way we had handed the ‘post-its’ out, had ensured that students were re-mixed and put into new groupings thus making fresh connections. It’s interesting to watch how quickly small sub-groups tend to get formed when you have an intake of this size and it is very important to ensure constant re-engagement with others to prevent the isolation of quieter students or the familiar clustering of people from the same previous institutions.

Research. The first task was for each group to conduct research into an art team that worked collaboratively.  They chose names blindly from an envelope and were given 20 minutes to find something out about the artists/art groups and prepare a 2 minute presentation. We went with them to the library and we tried to get each group to split down between computer surfers and book/journal researchers. I worked with students doing Google searches, trying to get them to make better and better searches and getting them to look for key points and to skip through unessential information. This was useful and we were able to point out how easily a Google search can turn into a time consuming labyrinth of endless searches unless you are ruthless and totally focused. The short presentations were on the whole good and most importantly introduced the idea that they could work together as a collaborative team.

Maps and territories. A large roll of white paper was unrolled through both studios, the connecting doors being kept open for this. 10 different sets of materials were placed along the roll in separate clusters. Yellow ink and brushes, charcoal, blue ink and brushes, pencils, red ink, felt tips, black ink, coloured crayons, fine liners etc. each group was then given their indicator materials. (Group hammer had pencils, group pliers had green ink etc.) Once clustered around their given section of the roll they were asked to use the materials to develop a language for a growing map of their individual territory which was to become the group’s country, the concept of SimCity seemed to be understood by everyone present. Very quickly individuals defined territories and countries were constructed. It was easy to see how in some groups certain individuals had ‘dominated’ this process.
They were then told as countries to become expansionist (the new model was the game ‘Risk’) and devise ways to overcome and erect barriers, achieve allegiances with others, conduct spying incursions etc etc. What they obviously found was that this was very different to their previous development of territory. This time the group next to you either had a more powerful mark making tool or you had the powerful tool. Lots of invention then started as people with pencils started to realise they had to use pencils in a very different way if they were to stop being taken over by ink neighbours. Pencils were used to tear boundary strips out, holes were being bored into others territories as undermining started etc. This lesson was quickly learnt by the fine liners who started to fight back after being overwhelmed by blue ink. Charcoals started drawing on the back of the paper as it was becoming ripped and were therefore able to secretly invade others territories.  Eventually the clashing of cymbals brought this to a close. Previously quiet students had become fiercely active in fighting for their territory, some were orchestrating allegiances, while others just got lost in mark making totally oblivious to anything else. The maps had become obliterated by ‘warfare’ all earlier carefully erected boundaries lost underneath the confusion of mark battles. There were many lessons to be learnt here.

Chinese Whispers. The students were lined up going from the centres of both studios out into the corridor and meeting to form one line of 75. A ‘first’ student in studio one was given a short text to read at the same time as a student at the other end of the line in studio two was given a text. Both were short definitions of art. These definitions were whispered to the next person and then the next in classic Chinese whispers style. The person at each end then wrote down onto an A1 sheet what came through and we compared them. A good humorous point was made. Both definitions of course being totally lost and new sentences had somehow arrived that still in some way made sense but which had nothing to do at all with the original starting points.

Talk. Before lunch we brought out the key points that had come through. The main one for me was that human nature shone through all these activities and the map drawing in particular was a perfect metaphor for how actual wars develop and how invention is born of necessity and that misunderstanding can be as creative as it can be destructive.

Lunch. We let everyone know that ‘lunch’ was as much an instruction as any of the others and that how and why they did this had to be considered carefully.

Talk. Dan had put a talk together about various aspects of collaborative practice, several bits of which were collaged from my lecture from last year. He than called us out as staff to speak to any given slide that came up, banging a gong to make us stop and move on. A sort of chaotic mess of fast talk emerged from this as you couldn’t see the slides if you turned to speak to the audience. A game ensued as to who could speak fastest on anything that came up. Again it was about fun and gave the students a chance to see us making a hash of things. The full lecture/slide set is going on EStudio so students will have access to the information later.

Wearing the story. By now the Map drawing was about dry and students were asked to revisit this and pull their section apart in order to design a costume and dress one of the group to make a statement about their individual territory’s values/history/culture etc. They had to then communicate these on Twitter. Again certain key things emerged. As students were dressed in the costumes they changed their behavior, some becoming ‘king’ like as their costume crowned them as rulers and conquerors, despots seemingly easier to design costumes for than democracies. One country tied up in a carpet like roll, expressive of its perhaps history of submission to another. Again the point being that they had to work together to achieve this, but also pointing out that with new communications technology they could engage with a much wider audience. The process of change is also something we highlighted. What was seen initially as paper for drawing on became the site for a battle enactment, but was now material to make garments with.

Above, a couple of Tweeted images from the session.

Exquisite Corpse. The groups played the old Surrealist ‘exquisite corpse’ game. Each person having at least an A2 size sheet to do their bit of the drawing on. As long as these drawings had a top and a bottom we suggested the components could be anything (animal, vegetable or mineral), they just had to be capable of being joined up. We then erected the resulting personages in the corridor, they were going to be needed tomorrow.

Stringing the studio. The final session of the day was to string the studio. Each group had a big ball of string and they had to engage with the studio in such as way that new connections were made between things by linking them with a continuous string. As objects in one plane were linked they were reminded of perhaps the ceiling light fittings or the fact that no living things had been included etc etc. Gradually dense spiders webs of connections were constructed some with and some without students being tied into the network.

The end of day summery then went through all the activities and picked out issues about how meaning was being made and how this would not have been possible without the group interaction. Finally the string pieces were compared to the old Norse term of the ‘wyrd’ and a story told of the unfolding of a life that when born begins to weave its trailing life string into and around life’s encounters, this life taking itself on a complex journey involving many others but occasionally having to re-weave it self as sections get broken or cut, and finally itself being snipped on death. This seemed a good point to end the day.


Rules and instructions. Students were asked to revisit their ‘exquisite corpse’ drawings. These drawings were on average about 10 feet high and all recognizable as human types, with heads of some sort at the top and some sort of ‘closure’ at the bottom, even if there were not always feet. We asked the groups to devise a personality and needs list from these characters. Physically the ‘exquisite corpse’ personages might have problems because they were too tall or only made of paper. The various ‘voices’ they were made of might not jell.  What was the story behind these characters? Once they had a backstory they were given a list of things that could be used to help their character in some way and to chose three of these things. (There were lots of things ranging from maps, furniture and poems to lunch). The next stage was to define and write out sets of instructions that could be followed by others in order to realise the ideas each group had. These were to be written out on A1 sheets and lined up across both studios so that all students could read them.
Students then opted to work on any of the set instructions by placing their ‘post-it’ on the set of instructions they wanted to work to. At the end of this process some groups were very large (up to 12) and some small. Some people elected to work on instructions they had devised themselves others didn’t.

The rest of the day was then spent developing whatever were the implications of the instructions. Much more time was now spend ‘norming and forming’ the larger groups, ideas were now being shifted and shaped by new interpretations as people coming into new groups differed in their reading of the instructions from those who wrote them. What started to emerge was ‘the larger the team the larger the ambition’. By the end of the day each team presented their work. This was also to be the starting point for a day’s work on their own on Wednesday, staff picking things up again on Thursday.

Two of us hold the final crit in studio one, the other two staff do the same in studio two. The first group presenting had developed a large 3D map, which included a road system, animals, sea, two towns etc. The map was made of newspapers, card, wood off-cuts and other found objects, (sheep made from old bits of polystyrene etc) Their ambition is to develop a whole eco system, rules, ethics, culture etc etc. The map is already taking over a large area of the studio and they are having to sub-divide tasks and elect overseers. Managing this will be difficult and project management might become an issue during the next phase, but some very interesting ideas as to possibilities were presented.
The second group was much smaller and had been following directional instructions and taking photographs of the journey. However one of their directions had taken them outside and they had come across a piece of furniture that had ‘suggested’ a new direction and they were now off to explore where they might find old ‘throw-away’ furniture items, the instructions now becoming instructions for the bringing together of other elements. A small mobile phone image of the first item of furniture’s ‘encounter’ was intriguing and raised possibilities for further actions.
A third group had started using plinths to identify spaces, sometimes spreading them out as boundary indicators and at other times clustering them. Their instructions being more like Sol Lewitt ‘art’ making instructions. At one point they had decided to clean areas demarcated by their decision making process; removal now being as important as placement. These were old plinths and it was suggested that they might repaint and re-finish them that evening making them ready for the following day’s series of documentary photographs. A point made to all at the time being the importance of photographing everything.
A forth group had become frustrated with their instructions and had ended up making lots of things with apples (these had been at the centre of the initial instruction set) which they had cut up and distributed amongst themselves. They had in effect made a very smart choice, the apple fragments linking together a diverse range of approaches as to what to do. We got the plinth group to use their plinths to put on a small exhibition of these ‘apple objects’ and everyone was impressed, it actually looked like a ‘show’ and we were able to point to another collaboration - artists and curators.
The fifth group had looked at ways of devising rules for poetry and were discovering principles but as yet had not made anything but we talked about the poetic object as a Surrealist idea and how perhaps sound art could be an answer to their various investigations.
The final act was to clear and clean the studios out so that all rubbish and things not directly to do with what people were making was gone. Hopefully this will give rise to some fresh thinking tomorrow. The final task thrown at them was that they had one day on their own to develop a body of work that was of exhibition standard. I wont be there to see it but the feeling was that students would go for it. Energy levels had risen again and there was a sense of excitement in the air. Perhaps this also coincides to me coming through my chest infection and therefore feeling more positive. I think it’s to do with having a clear purpose. Students were actively listening and engaging these last two days and you could tell that even though they were worried about co-operation as a module, it had been presented in such a way that the ‘reality’ of co-operation was seen as positive and life affirming. 

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