2016 July: Research Matter(s) // Birmingham City University

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Unborn Lovers: Scripting for Agency performance lecture at Research Matter(s), BCU, 2016

It seemed appropriate, being thrown into a new season, a new employment status and a new home, to read Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. I have always been fascinated by regimens, and understanding my habits and working predilections seems to me to be my only lever in governing my artistic practice.

Since I was young I enjoyed dreaming up a kind of life for myself which I knew I would enjoy. As a child I used to draw isolated cabins in forests by a river, and imagine a whole system of self sufficiency which would allow me to burrow into my cozy designs. In these designs, there was invariably a trapdoor leading to a basement containing precious possessions, a modest stove in a stonewalled kitchen, but my favourite part was the study. It would be lined with bookcases stuffed with the literary acquisitions of the character I hoped I would become, through growing wisdom. The hushed voices contained in these books would spell out the heritage of my mind as I sat working in my study. Here I imported also great mahogany furniture from those refined, masculine offices I’d seen in 19th century period dramas. In drawing maps of these hidden interiors, I was really thinking through my ideals of living. I guess retreat, a certain degree of comfort and isolation, became romantic to me, as well as those quaint rituals of the homestead that took up time and introduced a very different type of work to the kind I imagined getting stuck into in the study.

At the same time, futuristic ideas formed an uncompromising fascination, and artificial intelligence, the internet and new technological devices would share the same spot in this vision of my future self as sowing seeds in my garden, brewing tea over a wood fire, and watching the sun rise from the enormous armchair I had drawn into my sitting room as a spot for recreational reading.

As a child I was convinced that nothing stopped me from setting myself up for the ideal situation of a life of work, as soon as I came of age, and I greatly anticipated this moment of liberation. Thanks to lenient parentage, I was in fact able to experiment with various lifestyles well before I left the family home.

Now it has been three years since I have been in complete control of my own life. I did not go build a hut in the woods, but instead moved to London. My childhood plans were not entirely neglected however, and in fact as I sit here tapping away at midnight in my present, modest “study”, I am in fact surprised to find that I have come relatively close to that vision. Actually, the success of attaining that freedom is rather startling, I am almost afraid to make use of it.

Having moved out of student halls one month ago, at present I occupy a large bedroom (originally the living room) in an old, somewhat crumbling shared house in Morden. Throughout my life I have learned, moving regularly from flat to flat with my family, to adapt to various spaces, but now I realise how important certain criteria are for me in building a space that works. First of all, I’m revelling in the amount of space. I can actually pace in my room, I can sit and meditate on a rug in one corner, or recline on my bed in another. I can keep budding plants on the large bay window letting in the light and the air. I can deck the walls with my drawings-in-progress. I feel like my soul can breathe in here. There is a front garden, and an enormous back garden, which I thoroughly tidied and washed with my roommate, so that it is now a large, useable space. It is so good to be able to alternate with working inside and outside. It’s old, things are constantly breaking and the roommates occasionally unpleasant, but for my private purposes it works out as a dream, particularly now in summertime. I feel so lucky to be here, and I suppose the short-lived nature of my stay here makes it all the more dreamy. I will have to move closer north to attend my course in Archway by Autumn, as I have chosen to continue my studies at Central Saint Martins.

Although I did not go to live secluded in some forest or countryside, I found myself capable of urban self-sufficiency, which was fortunate because, there was no one to support me besides myself. Secretly I’ve become tremendously proud of this ability. I’ve become thrifty, literate in seeking funding, and have even begun to make teeny tiny profits from art or services sort-of related to my work: theatre performances, requested recordings of myself reading aloud some text, or small drawing licenses/publications. My new job working effectively full-time as a theatre usher has also given me a strange release. It cuts my day into manageable pieces, surrounds me with characters that are a joy to examine, and simply covers my survival anxieties so that I don’t worry day to day when my savings are going to run out. I can forget about all that, soak in my free time, and turn my time on duty into an opportunity to make observations and in this way still somehow be artistically engaged. Actively participating in a structure so hierarchical and streamlined with a great deal of experience flowing through its history, has taught me many things about a portion of society I perhaps was not so well acquainted with. So it takes 32 of my weekly hours, and I have been left strategizing over the use of my remaining time, but overall I feel by no means drained or depressed by the job. I feel spurred to craft a schedule that gets me excited over my projects.

Then again, work is going slowly. I produce small drawings at painstaking rates. I have been trying to develop my Railway Rocket Dog story for upcoming publication, and have found myself potter through old lines at a sluggish pace intercepted by many acts of procrastination. I think the greatest comfort of this book I am reading, full of brief, effectively anecdotal accounts of various artists’ and writers’ habits, has been that I am by no means alone here, and that it seems really not a matter to beat oneself over. In fact, a lot of really great artists seem to have been more idle than me.

I think it is most important to retain open time in which something can happen, and if it doesn’t, it is not the end of the world. This is easier said than done, but reading account after account in Currey’s book on my daily commute to work has softened my intuitions about artistic yield vs. struggle. I’ll try to reserve about 2 hours a day in which I allow for the possibility for something to happen between me and the objects on my desk. Meanwhile, I’ll just keep my eyes and ears open to the world around me.

Once I’m happy with a new version of The Railway Rocket Dog, I’d very much like to return to the novel. This will be very difficult, I’ve already tried rereading some chapters and realised I’m very much out of touch with the story. But I am going to make a huge effort to work myself back into the world of the novel, and then once I am integrated, not repeat the mistake of taking a break until I’ve written the whole thing.

I’ve set myself up for a particularly writerly couple of months ahead, and then I’ll revise from there, once I start again at university. The illuminations I produced on my scripts for Degree Show were exciting, and I think I can bring something of that method to my Railway Rocket Dog piece.

Generally though, I find it rather difficult to do multiple things at once, or work on multiple projects at once. Therefore, I can’t get stuck in the novel before I’ve resolved the Railway Rocket Dog. I have plenty of books I want to read, but similarly, I cannot start a book until I have finished the one I am reading. I devote myself to singular tasks, they define a period for me, a week or a handful of months that feel charged by the theme of that particular project.

A Performance Lecture at BCU

The first weeks after our Degree Show private view were suffocated with plans that totally exhausted my days. Working at the theatre, invigilating the show, taking the show down, moving house, using free days to work as an Art Handler for the Jerwood Drawing Prize, and preparing a performance lecture for a conference I applied to present at at Birmingham City University, at the Research Matter(s) conference.

I spent every free moment writing that lecture until I left the house at 4am on a Friday to go to Birmingham with my Rosa and Lawrence scripts. I managed my nervousness tolerably well, and felt pacified as our train carriage rolled into a city I had not previously visited. The novelty was exhilarating, of finding myself one early morning in a new city, and of speaking for the first time at “a proper conference”… The performance started with an, as ever, awkward and tense reading of the script by a pair of highly reluctant volunteers. Then I did my best to convince the audience, with the half theatrical, half scientific talk that followed, that they ought to think my project to script for artificial intelligence is immensely interesting, and that they should probably participate in it.

I frankly had no idea how it was going, until question time, when I was relieved to hear some great questions and to have the opportunity to dispel misunderstandings. In fact, my talk was really well received, and I found myself a little starstruck afterwards, from receiving many congratulations and prompts for further contact. I had been gruelling over my presentation for a while, and felt constantly bothered by it, as if I hadn’t made a good enough effort in adapting it for this occasion. I felt suspicious that I was regurgitating ideas in a religious missionary style. But I suppose that’s the point of presenting things. The ideas are old news to you, but if you haven’t shared them with anyone, you ought to relive them with an audience, if you want those ideas to continue living and developing themselves. So I guess attending conferences and delivering presentations is a little missionary-like. But the novelty occurs for me in people’s reactions. I learned that people found it interesting, fresh and unusual, yet quite easily understood. By coincidence I even met the organiser of InDialogue, a conference I am scheduled to speak at in December, and which I used almost the same proposal to apply for. Finally the organiser of Research Matter(s) at BCU similarly congratulated me and even mentioned that my proposal was so strong that as organisers they had scheduled me first in the day with the faith that my session would function as a keynote presentation, and kick the day off with questions about instruction vs creativity found within the determinative language of the script. Pretty amazing, compared to how I felt at the time of presenting.

I only caught a few other presentations/happenings/workshops, before I had to leave to get back to London in time to get back to my job at the theatre. I was beaming with pride, but though I felt appreciated, I couldn’t help having the nagging feeling that I was bothered by other presentations.

What bothers me most in this trend of academic arts and artistic research, is the inordinate anxiety of yielding socially productive results from the outset of research. I attended a basic bookbinding workshop involving collage and early feminist documents, in which the PhD students leading it asked the question “how can we make matter matter again” (i.e, the material products of working with craft and materials to respond to archival data). This sense of justifying an end undermines for me the point of experiment and research, and I’ve begun to feel it crop up everywhere I look in arts research: Maybe it doesn’t matter at all. Don’t make something matter, ever; rather, see whether it does, through probing and observation. Research should be anticipatory, but patient, and open to results that quite possibly don’t make any sense, or do not confirm values presently held. In fact, I think justification can be safely conceptualised as the absolute opposite of research, and I thoroughly dislike seeing it thrive in the arts. It turns the discipline into something far less interesting.

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