2016 January: Art Writing, Interim and Art Vacuum

My first article to be published made its way into Curating the Contemporary by the end of last month. It is great to look back at the evolution of the whole piece. A year prior I was visiting a friend in Oslo, not at all expecting to stumble across some art that would really stick with me, when I walked into the Europe Europe exhibition at Astrup Fearnley Museum. The exhibition itself was okay, but I was captivated by Hedwig Houben’s performance video. Maybe it’s just me – the bored invigilator stood nearby nudged me and remarked that I was the only visitor so far to watch the whole thing from start to finish – but I find any talk about art making as a relatable experience instantly interesting. In this case it was more than that though, she had a great manner and presence, and made countless wonderful remarks about making. Her predicament in making was laid so bare and made so utterly the object of scrutiny. It just so happened that I had just started making Talking Drawings at the time, and her work and these struck me as so similar, yet in an interesting dialogue.

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And although I was delighted by her, I did not expect to write about her work. The images of her performance lectures remained with me and simmered over some six months. When I finally had to put together a second-year essay, I had the feeling that I wanted to write about “empathy” and “jealousy”, two to my mind incredibly active aspects of many an art practice. It was here that I remembered Houben’s attempt to breakdown and charter out that distance between herself and her practice. How it was all about getting inside of the plasticine that was at her fingertips, so close and yet – how to go about it? Where to start? She needs in all her reflective works, some kind of agent of diplomacy to smuggle her into the future of the work. She needs to slip into something else and blur into the givens of the medium; she must practice empathy.

A discussion of her practice formed a decent proportion of the entirety of this short essay, and it was pleasant to attempt to articulate what it was about these works that struck a chord with me. It is certainly worthwhile I think, to devote some time to thinking about the practice, habits and repertoire of an artist one admires. I would similarly like to make a reading of the work of Lucas Blalock, another unexpected artist to captivate my attention in recent times.

Side Note: Finding Opportunities to a Show Work

This year I have developed what I think is a really good strategy for responding to calls and applying for artist opportunities; a system that does not demand too much time and admin work from me, yet allows me to send a good deal of work out there. There is nothing particularly clever about it, but it works for me, so I detail it here in case anyone finds it useful. Please skip this section describing my professional organisation if it is not of interest.

  1. I subscribe to all listings (Arts Jobs/News, Artsadmin, Artquest, wooloo.org, plus all galleries/funding bodies/art institutions that interest me particularly). As a result I get tonnes of emails, yes, and many of them I will end up not looking at, but at least I am channeling information my way. The emails are directed to a specific folder to prevent them from cluttering my main inbox.
  2. When I have a bored moment (waking up half-conscious in the morning sipping coffee, waiting for a doctor appointment, etc) I browse through the listings without looking too closely at details – just skimming. When something for some reason piques my interest or seems to have relevance to my practice, I open it into a tab and start forming a whole bunch of tabs with possible opportunities.
  3. I go to the tabs and discard the ones I see don’t apply to me at a closer (but still casual and cursory) glance. The ones that still might apply I don’t bother to inspect yet: I just register the deadline and save it as a bookmark like so: “deadline”,”name of opportunity”. This sorts the browser Bookmarks into a long list with possibly relevant opportunities in order of date (see photo above).
  4. At the end of each week I check this list to see what dates are pending for me to respond to and take note of them. Usually it is about 3 open calls a week. I put aside time on only one day per week to respond to the opportunities, when I read through them more carefully, discard some, and write applications for the interesting ones.
  5. It is then important to record these outreach attempts as well as keep track of their success/failure. In an “Opportunities” notebook on Evernote, I list proposal attempts and once I hear back, mark each with either “***” (success), “#” (rejection) or “~” (unsuccessful on this occasion, but possibility for future collaboration). In each entry I note what I submitted and when I can expect an answer.

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I know, this looks freakin’ ORGANISED. Perhaps slightly manically so, when laid out in numbered points. Yet the point with this system is that I spend as least time as possible on searching for opportunities and making applications, because a person can go crazy with all that bureaucracy, especially when that person would rather be making art. Yet it is incredibly important to just throw the work out there for people to see. I have sent out a lot more work in the past six months than ever before. Most have resulted in rejections, but I am beginning to learn to choose what I’d like to compete for more wisely, as well as giving myself a chance to meet the occasional success buried in all the misses. I also learned that even outreach resulting in rejection can be fruitful – people still see your work by having to review it, and some have replied to me saying that the work would not be featured on a particular occasion, but that they’d be interested in involving me in the future. Also, while I occasionally have to get involved in the writing of a proposal, very often I am merely tailoring previously written material to new applications, meaning that in all, I actually spend very little time on submitting proposals compared to the number of applications I end up sending out. Hopefully with a few initial positive responses under my belt, it should be possible to access opportunities with increasing frequency and ease (i.e. make a career out of art).

End of Side Note! Back to the Story about my Article on Hedwig Houben

One of the positive responses resulted from a call-out by Curating the Contemporary; they accepted my Houben article. I was utterly astonished, as this was one of the opportunities I thought I was less likely to succeed with.

Since then, I have even been able to engage in light, friendly correspondence with the artist herself, who read my article and seemed pleased with my interpretation.

I have been somewhat disappointed, since beginning my studies in 2013, in how rarely I come across artists I really admire, perhaps particularly in the media I most enjoy using myself. I have understood this to be my own failing, in that I am no good at searching. Since publishing my article, I have come to think that maybe writing about art, something I like to do in my free time anyway, may be another avenue for connecting with and coming across thinkers and artists that I admire. I’d like to make writing about art, as an artist, part of my work.

My BA dissertation, which I have just completed, is far more developed than the previous article because it has had so much longer time to simmer with me. The writing was more incremental and fuelled by a careful, gradual consideration of topics I had a little more opportunity to read about now. I am happy to hand it in as it is, but think I might return to it and expand some sections without having to think about word limits, and then attempt to publish Becoming a Line somewhere too. This time I’d like to be even more careful about where however, to make sure it is exposed to a readership I’d particularly like to engage with. This means looking more into the journals that are out there and finding my starting place amongst the vast world of art writing.

Art Vacuum

Now that the dissertation is complete, the sweetness of accomplishment settling over myself and my relieved fellow students, I find myself wary of an impending vacuum. What to do with myself? I feel somewhat spent, somewhat removed from my own practice; empty.

I have these past two months been scrambling to put together MA applications and writing this essay, these endeavours have occupied all my attention and required a surprising amount of work. I found myself working countless hours on putting together a 10 minute showreel of all my video work to distribute to universities as my portfolio. I cringed throughout the whole process, in memory of the uneasy experience of applying for my BA. My BA portfolio was terrible. My own dearest father told me it was a disaster at the time. I was in hormonal anguish, utterly clueless about the art world and how to enter it, and further discouraged by the fact that no institution, not even the art college in my hometown of Bergen, were willing to call me in for an interview. All, that is, save for Wimbledon College of Arts! I flew over from Norway, had my 15 minute interview, trudged hopelessly back to the station in the rain, and flew back home all in the same day without a smidgen of optimism about the outcome. Miraculously I received an offer, and have been very gratefully absorbing my education ever since, quietly aware that all of this could very easily not have happened.

It would not be a disaster if I were not to be undertaking an MA next year. I know just about enough to start pushing myself into art professionalism I think, whatever that means, and acquiring the valuable experience of simply living in London and finding my way to exposure in increments. At the same time, besides an extended designated time period for art making, the academic institution provides me with the debates, literature and theoretical challenges I feel so organically inform my practice. I don’t believe art necessarily belongs in academia, but I do think my own practice is really poised to benefit from this environment. I feel I would best thrive just remaining forever in university somehow. Student years pass in a blink, too fast to contribute to the development of the university structure as well as soak up its resources. If I could stick around, I could see myself mobilising things, setting up groups and organising conferences, as well as benefiting from access to updated archives.

That’s all done now. MA applications are out in the ether, and I have so far received one interview invitation (Kingston University). I will set aside my academic ambitions for a while and attempt to return to my estranged practice, but I do intend to send out some PhD applications later this year against the advice of my personal tutor. I simply feel that the proposals I have already written for the MA would not need much modification to figure as PhD proposals, and knowing that there is a lot more funding available for doctoral research than taught MA degrees, I don’t see whyever not. A PhD is by no means a summative stage in one’s research/art career; it is the beginning, and should I be so wildly lucky so as to receive an offer to undergo one, I would see it as, yes, an intensely difficult and concentrated period, but also a inauguration. In my MA applications I found myself ending statements with a vision of my future career, and gazing beyond a future PhD questioned myself what kind of artist I would like to be. I found myself envisaging a ‘career in an art that tells stories about its own science’. To me this sounds ideal. I should be thoroughly fulfilled with such an occupation. Of course, it is highly unlikely that I will get a PhD project at this stage, but with all the effort I have already invested in my MA applications, I am going to go right ahead and apply.

Later. I am now facing a vacuum. There is really nothing I need to do until degree show, other than precisely what the title ‘artist’ straightforwardly suggests. The vastness of the space between now and the end of my studies is both invigorating and ominous. In my localised frame of mind, I have absolutely no clue what to do with myself on a day to day basis.

Only, by now this is not the first time this is happening to me. I have learned to be more forgiving and welcoming of emptiness. It is hard to believe sometimes in the fertility of vacuous stretches of non-production and ill-defined periods of random contemplation and activity. Yet in thinking back to the conditions in which I have come across any of the ideas I previously committed to and which developed into works, they tended always to have been conceived in empty moments. Often the idea would arrive in the latest empty moment after a succession of many despairing moments of emptiness. The best thing I can do in such cases, experience would advise me, is to soak up the world instead of being so anxious to impress myself upon it. I must spiritually recede and disappear. I am not in the frame of mind to produce something, but I am in the perfect frame of mind to read, see and listen. I want to read lots of books, play games and sports, see lots of dance and hear lots of music, have lots of conversations and see lots of places, be tugged hither thither along various cultural avenues. In so doing, I create a situation in which not responding somehow would just eventually be irresistible. It is silly to beat oneself up about emptiness I think, I would rather train myself to view art practice seasonally, and accept that the season of emptiness as one no less crucial to the harvest (forgive this escalated analogy).

In this vein, I have been reading up on theories of difference and repetition, anti-logocentric linguistic models of “being” pertaining to the likes of Derrida, Deleuze, Butler, Gell, etc; theoretical works that have had relevance to my essay but also seep into my interests in artificial intelligence and using art practice to mobilise the effects of performativity. I have always enjoyed curating the medley of my influences in odd combinations; alongside these I have also been reading graphic novels, most notably Scott Pilgrim (for its artwork’s brilliant vocabulary of emotion), Epileptic by David B and Blankets by Craig Thompson (two fascinating recourses into both autobiography and questions surrounding contemporary faith and spirituality).

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I am also reading Virginia Woolf’s “A Room of One’s Own”, finding myself reconsidering feminist topics that I as a rule shy away from dealing with on a conscious level in the hope that my mere actions and living of the life of the woman I would like to be, would suffice as an overall demonstration of the various subtle views I might hold on the matter. An old text, yet a strangely relatable and refreshing read; Woolf writes a novel about a narrator researching what it takes for a woman to write fiction. In so doing she has conjured a world characterised by the intimate space of the protagonist’s thoughts and private debates that is very difficult for me not to utterly relate to. She goes to the British Museum to scour over dusty books and the history they contain to hunt for evidence of the nature of female minds throughout the ages, finding of course, great difficulty in the task. The woman is scarce in history and on the other hand at once both grotesquely and divinely abundant in fantasy and literature. Woolf really creates for me a sense of estrangement to my own female heritage and – not an immediately pessimistic – wonder at the mysterious figure represented by this eternal woman whom I ought somehow bear resemblance to. Woolf outlines so many oddities relating to what woman is historically, in narrative, to society and in her privacy, that I begin to regard her an unusual animal that I can hardly connect to my own identity. It’s all quite strange but I am really liking it!

I am filling my head with art, writing, films, music and rambling discussion, all the while riding my new bicycle all over London. This is exactly what I ought to be doing, I think!

Despite feeling utterly confronted by the art vacuum, I am aware that I have ongoing projects. They are not on the forefront of my mind at all times, but they live with me. There is Rosa + Lawrence, and the novel to which I have not added a word in a good couple of months or three. In spirit of the inescapable emptiness, I have had no thought as to what I should present for the college Interim exhibition.

I went to the room allocated to me, deciding that I’d sit around there until something came to mind. In the space, I found a folding mirror. It reminded me of a portable music box of a stage I had seen in the movie Chitty Chitty Bang-Bang as a kid. I saw the platform before the mirror as a stage, and thought the multiplicity evoked by the reflected mise-en-abyme might present Rosa and Lawrence in an interesting light. I also couldn’t resist the Lacanian “mirror stage” wordplay.

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My father suggested long ago that I site a participatory version of the performance sometime at college, as a means of exposing the work and also just getting more footage, letting the project live. Participation has always been the point, whether online or offline, and I thought although the Interim show would barely last long enough to accumulate any recordings, that I’d still set up a stage for participatory readings before the mirror, and supply a camera for people to casually record themselves. A rudimentary test proved rather interesting to me. I love the exposed camera on its tripod. Here is a short video test.

It’s the kind of thing that could potentially go wrong in unexpected ways. People fiddling with the camera presents an obvious element of unpredictability. How will participants respond to being mirrored every which way? Will the scripts be returned or will they end up all over the place with the furniture displaced and the composition of the frame disturbed? I figure this makes it a good candidate for testing during the interim. Here are some supplementary factors I plan to introduce:

  • To block off an area that communicates its designation for ‘staging’, I will get some red carpet and cut a wedge to fit into the bottom of the mirror.
  • A screen hanging on the left wall will be playing a split-screen film showing 9 previous enactments. All voices will be synchronised (it’s surprising how intelligible their choir turns out to be despite a complete lack of coordination) and fed through headphones.
  • A small instruction card clipped to a wire on the table like a restaurant menu will provide simple but enigmatic instructions (like those left to Alice in Wonderland) for visitors to record and enact the performance
  • Takeaway cards connecting visitors with the online archive will also be made available.
  • I might even encourage visitors to use a marker and leave lovers’ vandalism on the right wall (I’ll try get pens that can be painted over – and then I might document the painting over process). I might get 15 fellow students or so to leave messages before the exhibition starts, as a prompt (and film them of course)

I don’t know how successful all this will be – could the mirror and the graffiti risk coming across too direct? Again, I think this makes the idea a great candidate for interim, so I think I’ll go ahead and let it happen.

Resulting Interim Show

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