Saturday, 27 September 2014

On returning to life drawing

I’ve been asked to put on a series of life drawing sessions for drawing strand students. This has of course raised several contentious issues, not least of which has been that often posed question, “What place has life drawing in the modern art school curriculum?” The problem is that as an activity it carries a hell of a lot of baggage. The study of fine art is associated with a particular set of behaviours and attitudes that have evolved over the years. These attitudes come with a complicated history, a history that directly impacts on the idea of the life class. For instance the history of Modernism begins with a direct refusal (the Salon de Refus├ęs: 1863) of and rejection of the modes and practices of the academy and academy trained artists. The life room was an integral part of a classical art training and it presupposed that an artist needed a certain skill-set in order to develop a recognised practice. Modernism swept these ideas away and the focus was now on the development of a ‘signature’ or personal practice that did not rely on a set of agreed conventions. The position of the human figure as the dominant subject was questioned and as artists opened out new territories to explore, the figure became just one of many possible subjects. During the 1970s the practice was further questioned, this time due to much wider sociological issues. Most of the unclothed images of human beings within Western Art history dealt with the naked female figure. Women started to question what this was about, and several feminist writers pointed out that artists (mainly male of course) still making images of naked women were often doing so without any real understanding that as a practice it was loaded with complex aesthetic, moral and most of all voyeuristic connotations. The concept of the male gaze was introduced into what was then current theoretical debate and it became hard to justify life drawing as an objective practice. The politics of the life room were unpicked and often seen to be unsavoury, the boundaries between serious art and smut were hotly debated and for many artists the life room started to represent not only an out of date pre-Modernist practice, but also a particularly suspicious arena within which slightly dubious patriarchal conventions still held sway.
However here I am about to re-introduce life-drawing into the curriculum. Why? The conventional argument would be that drawing from the figure helps students to develop observational skills, skills that can then be applied to the drawing of anything. Why the human figure? Because it is so subtle and complex in its organisation and because as humans ourselves we are hyper aware of subtle distinctions in relation to the bodily form of others and to the distribution of its parts and how these effect our awareness of emotional resonance and non-verbal communication.  I.e. that we can approach the figure like a doctor, and objectively study its proportions and muscle structure, that we can build up a catalogue of poses that can help us think about how the body effects communication and how a stance or pose can signify perhaps unease or anger.
All perhaps true, but why not work from a clothed figure every week? Clothing is a key form of human communication and is inseparable from how we develop our individual body language. (We will in fact sometimes be working from the clothed figure, but not all the time) The situation is very artificial; a group of 15 to 20 clothed people surround one naked figure (this will be sometimes male and sometimes female) and stare at them for up to 2 hours at a time. In normal life if anyone stares at you for more than 2 minutes you might think there is something wrong. The models will ‘allow’ a whole group of people to stare at them, they are paid to do what is asked, whilst of course bearing in mind the ‘decorum’ of the life-room.
Is it actually possible to eliminate the emotive frission that the situation engenders? I don’t think so. So I am proposing to spend several evenings walking and talking and pointing things out about measurement, creating a language of form, finding mark equivalents for the texture of skin, the way muscle wraps around bone, finding a dynamic composition that can reflect the way balance is maintained while the figure holds a contrapposto position etc. etc. And yet at the same time trying to make everyone aware of that strange condition called the life-room and what it represents. Trying to make students aware of their own emotional engagement with the situation and how this too can be built into their image making.
This series of sessions will be balanced upon a dangerous pedagogic tightrope. Not the least problem being the skill issue. It takes approximately 10,000 hours of practice to master a skill. If a student attends every session they will have done 16 hours drawing. Therefore expectations as to the raising of personal skill levels might not be met. This is probably the most potent art school ‘myth’ that surrounds the life room, the one of skill. Skill in drawing in particular and my most serious question in relation to the life room is perhaps this, what skills are we really developing here?
There are the motor skills of hand/eye control. The skills associated with getting to understand your drawing medium, how ink flows or how tone can be gradually built using a controlled pencil hatching. There are the skills associated with expression, recognizing when a particular mark quality has the potential to carry a certain emotional significance etc. However the skills associated with self-awareness and reflection may be even more important. A growing awareness of how posture carries meaning or how gesture is used as body language. These observations coupled with an understanding of the artificial environment of the life-room and what this itself signifies may have a longer lasting effect on an individual than the actual practice of drawing. Whatever approach is seen to be of value, there is a rich and still vital arena for exploration here and this is why I have agreed to host these sessions. As long as everyone is open minded and engaged as to the possibilities of the situation they will I hope gain a heightened awareness of how the human body is used as a vehicle for communication. Yes it is a physical object, an object that has an internal structure of fluids and bone and muscles, an object with a particularly fascinating surface of skin and hair and cartilage. But this is also about a particular confrontation with a human being, someone making a living, enacting out their part in a drama that has a long history and whoever takes part in this engagement is also acting out their part, whether it is myself as the life tutor or a student hiding behind their drawing board because they are slightly nervous about their drawing skills. This is as I pointed out at the beginning of this post a charged and contentious arena, but that is not an argument I believe to therefore avoid it, only another argument to re-enter the arena and create another and perhaps all the more richer response.  

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Preparing for a module and using eStudio

As part of the preparation for the Collaborative module I'm looking at how students might access the introductory PowerPoint on line.

Click here

One option is using SlideShare, which you can check out using the click here link above. I'm still wrestling with the new eStudio technology and have not yet solved the issues surrounding embedding web-links. However the first step has been taken and I'm now familiarising myself with this type of file sharing.

I also had a meeting this morning with another tutor who will be sharing the delivery of the module. This was very interesting pedagogically as we began to unpick all the elements I had initially designed as studio workshop sessions. In particular if collaborative practice is to be embedded deeply into the module, it has to start with the staff team. We decided that my initial workshops were perhaps too ‘directed’ and that they didn’t allow for enough ‘learning’ and were not clear enough as to which aspects of collaborative practice we were trying to highlight. We have therefore decided to start again and to rewrite the workshops, each one giving the students more responsibility and also making them take on board particular roles; for instance artist and audience, artist and technician, artist instructor and instruction interpreter, artist as group orchestrator etc. The good thing is that we have time to get these workshops re-written as the module does not start until October.

One task we will still use though is the artist and curator session. Below is the current rough draft and will be finalised within the next couple of weeks.

Curation as a collaborative practice

The miniature gallery


Working in teams of 4 to 5 (Please keep to your designated  C, M, Y or K group for this workshop) you will curate the work of 4 or 5 other students who will also be operating as a curatorial team using your work.

You will develop a unifying concept for an exhibition that will be sited within the studio using a miniature gallery and will be designed to change an audience’s understanding or reception of the works displayed.

Curatorial decisions can be driven by aesthetics, logic, theme, interaction or any other unifying factor decided upon by the group.


Exhibitors must relinquish any direct control over the artwork that they are providing for curation. All that is expected of you as an exhibitor is to learn from what the curatorial team have done with your work. You are allowed to ask questions as to why work has been presented in the way it has, but not allowed to criticise the curatorial team.

All students are required to donate at least one miniature piece of work to a curatorial team.

C & M You will install in the morning and the exhibition will open at 11.15am. Viewing, 11.15 to 11.35am. Group C will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 11. 40 to 11.50, group M will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 11.50 to 12.00 noon.

Y & K You will install in the afternoon and the exhibition will open at 3.15pm. Viewing, 3.15 to 3. 35pm. Group Y will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 3. 40 to 3.50, group K will answer questions as to their curatorial decisions from 3.50 to 4.00pm.

Preparation and research suggestions:

You need to have made a basic miniature gallery. This can be as simple as a cardboard box or carefully made in the machine shop. Make a careful decision as to the colour of the walls/floors. You will need a good camera/mobile phone capable of taking images of small objects and keeping them in focus.

Fixings and fittings are vital to exhibition curation. If this was a ‘real-size’ exhibition you would need to consult with Richard Baker, who has plinths and certain tools and equipment that would be needed, however you cannot drill into the floors as they include under-floor heating elements and any changes you might make to the wall surfaces would have to be easily and quickly removed, so that the next group of curators/users of the space were not inconvenienced. Therefore by using a miniature gallery you don’t have to worry about those issues, however, you don’t want work falling off the walls of your miniature gallery, so do think carefully about how to attach work to walls or how to present floor based or video work.

Take some time out during the week beforehand to develop a group curatorial stance.

Look at how, why and most importantly what contemporary curators have been doing.

The mini art gallery

Stage one:

All individuals to make a gallery space out of a cardboard box. This to be able to be opened out so that photographs can be taken.  See below.

Stage two

All individuals to make a series of miniature artworks based on what they have been doing in the studio.

Stage three

Miniature work done the previous week to be displayed in bays. Curatorial teams organised (teams can’t select work displayed in their own bay, so we will simply move round so that teams curate other bays) to select from the work and organise mini exhibitions in mini galleries that will be documented.

Nb Each team should have 4 or 5 mini galleries to work with. If you want to you can link them together so that it appears as if this is a major exhibition and you would then curate each ‘room’. Alternatively you can decide that one, or two mini galleries are to be used and the others kept for something else. This will depend on  approachs to the work presented.
Nb C, M, Y, K groups will be decided upon at some point during the introductorary sessions.

Another workshop we are thinking about uses mobile phones as an icebreaker.
The mobile phone concert as ice breaker
Two groups are formed from all students available.
The first step is to divide each group up by cell phone brand.
Once divided into phone brands each group has to find a common ring tone that the majority of phones have. The Nokia group perhaps the “Nokia Tune”, Motorola “Hello Moto”, etc. but this is to be agreed by each group. Those without common ring tones can partner up with someone else without a common ring tone.
Groups to work towards constructing order out of chaos. The goal is to be able to construct and send a finished ‘symphony’ to the other group.
The aim is not to create a cacophony of phones going off at once, so you need to have different sections play at different times, like a symphony. Instead of the “string section”, you might have the “Samsung section”.
At some point you will need to get back together to pair off with the other group and trade phone numbers, group A will be the first ‘instrument’ and B will be the caller, roles will then be reversed.
The callers will at some point need to elect a ‘conductor’, so that all callers are clear as to when they send their sound ‘message’, as well as a recorder, (someone who will record the symphony and post it onto a social media platform).
After the ‘instrument’ group is in place and ready, one student rings the ‘caller’ conductor to let him/her know and then the conductor counts off the sender group, or selected sub-groups to ring at counted off intervals, until the symphony is played.
Everyone then as individuals writes up the process and records their thoughts.
Each collaborative workshop session will have to be active, maintain interest throughout, deliver a clear outcome, be designed to get over a particular issue surrounding collaborative practice and work as an realistic introduction to documenting practice. The two staff delivering need to be clear about what is being delivered as we are in two separate studios. 

Probably the biggest issue is that of numbers. I have posted in relation to the collaborative module a couple of times before (you could use labels to collect them together) and each time the numbers to deal with increase. The first post records 50, the second 80 and this year we have 96 students enrolling. I won't be in post next year as this is my last year of phased retirement, but I would presume there will be a planned enrolment of 100. This continuing increase in numbers means that each year some areas of collaborative practice have to be dropped and others refined so that larger groups can be engaged. In particular I find myself having to do more work as an orchestrator and organiser. I am delivering less content and spending more time spinning plates. The larger the group the more chance some students will become disengaged because they don't really understand the use of the sessions, don't understand the instructions, so feel 'stupid' or embarrassed or simply can't hear or see the instructions for the day. (We set the stools out in the studio so that new first years could sit and listen to welcoming talks, the stools filled half the studio when laid out and some students you could predict were going to end up behind a pillar or other obstacle that will obscure their view.) One big issue of course will be what I call the murmuration, that noise made by large groups of people when they communicate internally. Janet Cardiff made great use of that in her '40 Part Motet', a beautiful piece responding to a Thomas Tallis composition. She had separately recorded the 40 individuals who would sing this and assigned to each individual a separate speaker, which was erected as part of a circle of speakers when the piece was staged. As you entered centre of the room it was staged in you were struck by the collective 'murmuration' of individuals but as you walked around the edges of the room each speaker revealed the sounds of the lone human. I must use this example to help open out the collaborative idea with the students and at the same time use it to explain how communication processes are also broken down with attritional 'noise'.