Saturday, 23 November 2013

Q Arts and The Crit

I was reminded of my concerns about the crit this week.  The Q Arts book Art Crits: 20 Questions – A Pocket Guide has come out and my copy popped through the door on Monday. I was interviewed a few months back as to my thoughts and a transcript has been written up and cut into several of the book’s sections. I’m also very briefly a talking head on an accompanying video. I’m never happy to see myself on video, I just squirm thinking why did I make that face, or how did that inanity ever escape my lips, but such is the nature of contemporary media, we either have to accept it or hide away from it, I have decided to accept it. The book and video can be found at:

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Fine Art Year 1 Week 7

I mentioned last week that I would be doing more workshop based contextual studies sessions and these have started. Monday's session was about unpicking a given text. I set out 4 tables, each one with 5 chairs and on each table placed  5 copies of one of the texts that students can chose to give a PowerPoint presentation on. Each group of 5 had to decide who was going to read the text and annotate it, one student had to conduct a very close reading and underline and annotate one particular section of text, another had to skim read and try to sum up the text by skipping through it and highlighting what seemed to stand out. Three were sent off to the library to make initial searches about the text, one to research the time period and general history (all the texts were from the 1950s or 60s), one to research art of the time and one to research responses to the text. The three library researchers had to return within an hour to report back to the two readers. The whole group then had to form some sort of conclusion as to what each text meant. This was to force them to get to know at least one text and it demonstrated 5 different activities that could go towards the development of their individual PowerPoint presentations. At the end of the session, I asked them to compile all the information and working collaboratively put a presentation together for me next week. This will give each group a chance to practice their delivery skills and should highlight flaws in presentations, flaws which can be avoided when they present the PowerPoints for real.
All the students were given a basic PowerPoint structure to work to. This is it.

The texts were taken from:Harold Rosenberg: Action PaintersClement Greenberg: Modernist PaintersLucy Lippard: The Dematerialization of the Art ObjectSusan Sontag: Against Interpretation

Tuesday was again catching up with students that hadn't been seen and I was working my way round both studios seeing students one to one and asking similar questions to last week. There is some very interesting work being done and students seem fired up by the idea of entering strands, hopefully they wont be disappointed when they are allowed to specialise. Some are clearly painters/sculptors etc but quite a few have too little previous experience to decide and therefore can tend to opt for painting as it is the one area they have already experienced. We shall see.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Material Thinking

Over and over again the issue of material thinking comes up when I’m working on the studio floor. This is a complex issue and needs to be broken down into different aspects.

One: Materials carry concepts associated with their histories and where they come from. For instance oil paint is not only a particular sort of paint that operates in a particular way, it also comes with a heavy cultural baggage. It is seen as a type of ‘honorific’ material. You can’t use it without acknowledging it history and how as a medium it is culturally significant. However similar issues occur with other materials, if I make something out of chocolate, our past cultural associations with this material will effect how any object made from it is read. All materials can be looked at in this way, paper, metals, wood etc etc. It is important to fish for the actual issues already identified as well as other potential ‘readings’. For instance a student may have identified a particular sort of mahogany to make something from because of its associations with the making of certain musical instruments or furniture. However it is of course also an endangered tree species and as soon as this work is exposed to an audience it is likely that the later reading might predominate. Not just the materials themselves carry concepts but the ‘finish’ applied to them does the same. High levels of ‘finish’ such as polishing suggest either long term investment of human labour or machine ‘finish’; both of course carry certain connotations. The crafting might be vital, or might be incidental, but again is important to the read. Some materials are gendered, for instance metal work can be seen as ‘macho’ or some textile crafts ‘feminine’, again these issues need to be unpicked. Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘Ur’ history can be useful when unpicking several of these issues.

Two: Material specificity. The way a material can be shaped is to do with the specific make-up of its elemental structure. Clay can be molded, wood can be cut, but it can also be molded if cut into thin enough sections and dampened for long enough. Metal can be forged and welded. These ‘basic’ or ‘raw’ materials also of course have culturally specific readings often to do with how we expect these materials to be worked. However sawn clay or molded wood are also materially specific. What is often an issue is how far these materials can be pushed? Can they be worked in new ways, or do traditional ways of working them have specific readings that the maker wishes to imply? As well as the ghost of Greenberg, there are other ghosts too, one important one being the issue of mimicry. Materials are often used to mimic other things, oil paint to mimic the look of fur or a marble carving to mimic sugar cubes. Wanting one material to stand for something else of course leads us into metaphor and likeness. Non art materials, such as tin cans, building materials, recycling from skips also have material specific issues as well as of course carrying with them their various histories and previous uses. However will all materials there will be a basic set of things you can do with them, cutting, folding, tearing etc the list as developed by Richard Serra is still a classical one to introduce to students. Serra’s Verb List Compilation: Actions to Relate to Oneself from 1967–68, starts: to roll, to crease, to fold, but also includes to repair, to discard and of location, of time etc. At some point in every year of teaching I must have referred to it.

Three: The relationship between human beings and materials. The way any individual handles a material can develop or lead to a signature ‘style’. When working with any given material there comes a time when the maker and the material become one and this allows for a synergy and new narratives to develop. Some people have a natural affinity for certain materials and if this is the case a whole career can be constructed by developing this focus. This is why it is important to give students time to explore as many different technical areas as possible before specialising. Sometimes you see students come alive when developing a black and white photograph for the first time, or when etching metal, or rewriting a line of code in order to adjust the way some existing software operates. How this engagement can be ‘read’ by others is another issue. For instance particular brush strokes or ways of handling a palette knife can be part of a ‘signature’ style, but so can the traces of handprints in molded clay or the way certain welders use a torch. One aspect to think about is that the maker can leave enough traces of the process of making for the audience to ‘unravel’ the process of an object’s making, another is, what does it mean if the ‘personality’ of the maker works in such a way that it can suffuse the object. The ‘signature’ style perhaps being how we recognise the artist in the work. Does the artist impose a style or should it simply arrive from the process of making? One very important issue is that of how communication with others works. Recognition of how something was done by others starts the process of internal mimicry. As I examine the way a box was made, I can feel in my hand the saw and the screwdriver as I mentally put it back together. You could call this ‘the hand in the mind’. Sometimes this narrative of making has to be totally transparent, at other times it is hidden, finish polishing away all human traces of the making.

Four: People as materials. All humans are themselves simply materials and have particular qualities unique to them alone. We are the size we are because of what we are built of, if we were any bigger gravity would grind us back down as our bones would be too weak to support us. By opening out these issues we can also start to look at related things such as scale. Objects and their handling can reflect hand scale / body scale /finger tip scale / bigger than body scale etc. Materials can also be harder or softer than human skin or bone. Some materials are more ‘like’ the ones that build us and some are less like us. We have emotional relationships with materials. Some are cold, some warm, some repulse us; some are so fascinating we want to possess them.

Reminding students that what they have made is a materialised thought can be very useful as it gets them to realise that it’s not what they thought they were doing but what has actually materialised that is important. Sometimes I also look at how verbal language itself is materialised thought. The shape of the mouth and throat, the relationship between the lungs and the windpipe and how we eat, the structure of the tongue, all combining to create a unique tool that can construct sounds in very complex ways. The mind in the body, or embodied mind thinking again helps with these concepts and most importantly this allows for both the craft focused and the idea focused students to find worth. 

Fine Art Year 1 week 6

I delivered the final part of the first phase of the contextual studies element of the individual and social brief on Monday. This was focused on ideas surrounding identity and how as individuals we ‘realise’ ourselves. The students seemed more responsive to this than the social aspects introduced last week, perhaps in our society they are tuned in far more to the self. Each week I also recommend students watch a particular old TV programme on art. There is a huge amount of material now on YouTube, the suggested viewing this week was “Shock of the New” episode 5. This will be the last of the formal lectures, most of the following sessions will be much more ‘workshop’ orientated. Students have to annotate selected texts and break them down into understandable chunks and this means that they have to be guided through close reading. At the end of the lecture I introduced these texts and pointed out that they are now all available to be downloaded from EStudio. Next week I will be giving students extracts in photocopy form and we will be working on these. I know these future sessions will be hard work, not just for me but for the students. The feedback already is that some students don’t understand why they need to understand what lies behind practice, one student in particular stating that they just want to make art not spend time thinking about it. Part of me does sympathise with this but as I pointed out at the time, if students want a university degree, they also have to prove that they can undertake academic learning. We also had a discussion about the move from artists as craftspeople to artists as intellectuals, which was hopefully much more useful.  

Some slides taken from the PowerPoint.

The area I thought was going to be the hardest, introducing Lacan and 'Mirror Theory' seemed to go OK and I thought that on the whole students could see the relevance to their own developing practice. However as I pointed out, what is really interesting is that I can't see into their heads and they cant see into mine. 

Tuesday I was back in the studios hosting critiques. I had groups of 6 and we spent the time trying to focus on what individuals should be doing, as opposed to what they were doing. By ‘should’ I mean not what the briefs suggests, but what as individuals they ‘feel’ is right. We are already half way through the first term and students will have to opt for a particular strand after Christmas. By trying to identify the ‘feeling tone’ or natural interest that lies behind the work, we can hopefully help individuals gain ownership of their own practice. This is a slow process and works a bit like this.

In groups of 6 after a short individual student presentation and a reflection back to see if we all understand what was presented, certain questions are asked. Such as, “This particular piece of work suggests that you take it forward in this way….., however this one over here suggests……. and this suggests……. Which direction feels better for you?  These suggested directions are carefully thought through and include not just differences in approach but differences in uses of materials, scale and ways of using content. Slowly students open out and we get to an area that they reflect back to the group that they are fairly comfortable with. For instance it might be that the student identifies something as straightforward as “I just want to paint”. Well if this is the case, we can focus on some simple basics, such as what happens if you mix and apply different grounds? How and why are you applying the paint in the way you are etc. Sometimes this can be a real relief to a student who is struggling to intellectualise a practice and yet deep down what they really love is moving paint around. Others will identify the fact that it is an approach that they feel comfortable with. One student for instance was coming to terms with the fact that what they wanted to do was “Make art like life”. We then spent some time trying to unpick this, what did he mean? The closest we got to was the “Moment of Epiphany” concept. He wanted to develop a way of sharpening his awareness to the everyday potential of experience. It was thought that he probably therefore needed the right toolkit for this, a still camera, sound recording equipment, video etc. and in what formats? Is this kit one of those new phones that does everything, or do you really need specialist equipment that allows you to ‘capture’ these moments at the best possible resolution? At the end of each ‘crit’ students were asked if the session had helped them become much clearer as to direction, most felt that they were now much more focused and they were asked to come up with a series of clear actions to get them moving on whatever track was identified. (I.e. make notes before they forgot what it was that had been identified)
There are problems to this approach, the main one being that students can move away from what the briefs are suggesting. However, my experience is that all they have to do is present the work at assessment in such a way that outcomes are identified, and there is always a way to do this. The real danger is that students start to feel that the course is offering nothing for them. If they seem to be simply going through a series of hoops, hoops that if documented will enable them to achieve the outcomes, at some point they will become emotionally detached from the work and either stop coming in or just lose interest all-together. The moment a student says, “I really feel excited by doing this” or “Yes that really feels like me”, you know there is a chance of something interesting going to happen. I’m a firm believer that students need to become obsessed with what they are doing, that they need to have total ownership over their work, if not we will lose them, emotionally if not physically. 

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Fine Art Year 1 week 5

I was back teaching contextual studies again on Monday, we were looking at aspects of ‘the social’.  I introduced a range of ways to think about this. Historical, (Courbet), the rise of the city as a key element within modernism, social realism, social sculpture/community art. I started with an introduction to Hegel and Marx and finished with a series of questions as to how students could develop an 'ethics for practice'. I'm also putting far more resources up on EStudio, especially links to YouTube videos, which I think are far more accessible to students who are less academic. 

Some slides taken from the presentation.

On Tuesday I was on my own again with the rest of the first year while Tom was doing his contextual studies sessions. I was working through the studios doing one to ones with students who hadn’t been seen so far that week. Students are now trying to balance three briefs, (The individual and the social, material processes and collaboration) and the hard thing for them is to understand how they can do this. Most of my time is spent trying to unblock creativity dams, which seem to be mainly the result of how we now seem to develop pedagogical structures.
Students worry about the briefs and what they mean, rather than just getting on with making. I go round trying to get them to re-focus on what they are trying to do. Most of them have much more interesting things to say about the world than the briefs imply, so I have to get them to reframe what they are doing and convince them that all they have to do at the end of the module is present the work in such a way that it demonstrates that outcomes are achieved. This is such nonsense.
I have been reading quite a lot recently and in particular some heavy criticisms of behaviourism, Skinner’s work especially. It would appear that most contemporary writers involved with cognitive thinking have realised that when Skinner and others did not include feeling or emotive understanding in their patterns for measuring achievement, it resulted in huge flaws. This has skewed our recognition of meaning. Meaning is not about understanding at all and understanding, in terms of logical process, is actually quite a small part of the reasons for how and why as humans we function. Skinner took no interest in body schemas and how concepts are grounded in the body, (Johnson’s book on the Body is excellent in terms of unpicking this) perpetuating the mind/body divide. No wonder that art students find learning outcomes difficult to grasp, it is because they are fundamentally flawed. Students want to find meaning in what they do, and so do artists. As soon as you are working with an individual and you can get to concentrate on what means something to them, you can feel the interest growing. Feeling tone is far more important than lists of what to do. It is as if the whole system is set up to punish creativity.
The one good thing has been that the open studio has been divided up by some 8 x 4 boards. This gives a variety of spaces some small and some large, allowing those who need a bit of privacy and wall space to get on with work relatively in peace.

The students I spoke to had some really interesting takes on society and the individual, (the importance of dress, the need for Gothic horror, a need to go back and reinvestigate the moment of Cubism) they just need time to find their various directions and space within which to try out various approaches to what they want to do. However sometimes we try and push them too quickly, it takes a while to get into what work is about, sometimes it’s about how its actually made (processes and materials), but at others its about what you want to say and how to say it. The briefs become arbitrary measures and set up artificial responses, so what they actually measure is how well someone answers the brief. Art education is about finding ways to materialise meaning not to develop ways of understanding, that is a job for academics.