Practitioner

Final Major Project: Nights Out

Last week I attended a talk at the Museum of London, an event accompanying the current London Nights exhibition there. The evening involved a panel of practitioners discussing how the night time feeds into their creativity. 

Obviously, this topic was right up my street and I was glad to be able to attend. The panel consisted of Vanessa Loera, a Central St Martins graduate and cross-genre practitioner, Damien Frost a photographer and Inua Ellams, a writer and founder of The Midnight Run, an arts-filled night time cultural journey. The evening was chaired by Amy Lamé, who is London’s ‘night Czar’ and a significant and renowned figure in her own right.

The panel comprised of Amy Lamé, Vanessa Loera, Damien Frost and Inua Ellams

The panel comprised of Amy Lamé, Vanessa Loera, Damien Frost and Inua Ellams

After an introduction by Lamé, each practitioner delivered a talk about their own practice relating how their work is influenced by the night. It was notable that despite having widely varying approaches to their work, or even how they go about navigating and utilising the opportunities the night time creates, they were each able to articulate specific and tangible benefits that accrued to their work from practicing at night, which they are not able to garner during the day time.

Loera, in particular, made a profound comment about how her practice of wandering the streets alone at night as a young woman was not only a cultural comment about the role and agency that women have traditionally been afforded in art history, but also directly linked to her own sense of self-worth, that to walk alone was an expression of her own personality that allowed her to know herself better, to be more connected to herself. This really resonated with me at the time, and continues to do so, connected as it is to the idea of solitude as a necessary part of self-knowledge and self-development. This is something I feel to be true personally, and as my research continues, seems to be a very important strand to represent in this project. 

The work will benefit from an equality of voices representing both the positive and negative aspects of solitary living. This is certainly an evolution from the original concept which would have been that of quite a bleak tale of isolation and loneliness with little positive to say. 

I’m aiming to produce work that suggests narrative without being explicit either way. I hope there’ll be enough space in the work for the viewer to see a range of possible experiences arising from being alone. The idea is to achieve this using combinations of images that suggest multiple interpretations and allow me to introduce people into the work. We’ll see how this actually works once I have a selection of images that I’m happy enough with to start playing about with some combinations. More to come on this shortly.

Informing Contexts: Week 10 Reflection

This week’s work was inevitably overshadowed by looming deadlines and other work stresses. The topic however was an interesting one, trying to answer the question of ‘what is art’ and ‘who decides what is good art’? Clearly, they’d decided to leave the easy topics to the end of the module!! 

The work of Rirkrit Tiravanija was introduced, in particular his work ‘Untitled (Free)’, which was originally created in 1992. This work essentially consisted of Tiravanija turning a gallery into a kitchen from which he served free food to visitors. Watching this, my first reactions were ‘Can this be considered art? Why is it art? What’s the idea?’. As I pondered these questions, the video went on to show clips of interviews with patrons who had visited this exhibition and partaken of the food on offer. To my surprise, the reactions from visitors were universally positive, with smiles on faces and people feeling happy and challenged by the new experience they had just had. They had clearly found it memorable. My takeaway from that was that it’s not right to dismiss artistic activity just because one doesn’t understand it, or think it has particular merit. The stance of Marcel Duchamp then, that things were art simply because he declared them to be so, suddenly felt less like a pretentious indulgence and more like the statement of an artist’s manifesto that deserved respect. 

Sam Abell was introduced as the photographer who took the original cowboy photographs that were subsequently ‘appropriated’ by Richard Prince. He discussed his reaction to seeing what amounted to a direct copy of his work being put forward by another practitioner, who attracted both commercial and critical success with an image that Abell had originally created. Most gallingly of all, Prince achieved a level of success that had not been available to Abell in the first place. 

He was amazingly sanguine about it all (much more so than I would have been!), but he raised some really interesting questions about the nature of the art world and how they assign value to certain works over others. He made the point that his original photograph, which had been shot for an advertisement, would never have been welcome in an art context, nor been eligible to be sold at high value, as it was considered ‘only’ an ad image and thus of no real creative or artistic merit. On the other hand, Prince’s facsimile was hailed as a great work of art and sold for millions. Abell calmly questioned the rationale for this. 

To me this example highlights the ridiculous opacity of the ‘art world’ and hints at the idea of a closed and somewhat irrational cabal that holds a disproportionate degree of power over the fortunes of practitioners everywhere. Because the answer to the question ‘who decides what is art, or what is good art’ seems to be a small number of curators/museums/critics whose opinions are not open to challenge or scrutiny and who literally hold the power to bestow success upon someone, or prevent a practitioner from ever rising out of obscurity. This state of affairs is elitist, conspiratorial and self-serving, particularly when you consider the demographics of this group and consider too those who remain perpetually under-represented when these decisions are being made and the prizes handed out. For example, female practitioners and issues relevant to women, people of colour, working class people or their concerns, perspectives from developing nations or cultures with traditions or ideas that do not conform to Western norms, have long been grossly under-represented by the art world.

Lewis Bush recently wrote passionately about the lack of transparency in the circles where these decisions are made, arguing that the opacity surrounding decisions about whose work has merit, who gets to win the prizes and whose careers shall be catapulted forward can hide alarming conflicts of interest that not only threaten the integrity of such awards but also call into question the idea of prize-giving at all in art. 

Lewis Bush's   recent blog   about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

Lewis Bush's recent blog about his concerns surrounding the judging criteria for the Deutsche Börse prize

The art establishment is a conservative place stuck in its way of doing things, it is unresponsive to change and operated by people who are predominantly from a very narrow section of society, and yet who somehow retain the responsibility for all of culture and for all aesthetic concerns in our societies. They decide what we should look at and experience and tell us what’s good and what’s not. They get to bestow the title of art on an item and decide if it has value as a commodity, if it can be worth a lot of money or nothing at all. 

Like with most things, the people with power get to decide.

If you’re not in the club, or lack influence, you don’t get a say. You don’t get to decide if something is art or not, you don’t get to decide if something is museum-worthy or not. Your opinion is unimportant, your aesthetic preferences are irrelevant. It’s easy then to see how closely the ‘art world’ mirrors wider society, with inequality of influence, under-representation of minority groups and preservation of power within a small minority of society, to their benefit and the disadvantage of all others.

Art cannot be separated from society. Its influence and importance has long been understood by powerful people, hence the desire to retain control of decisions around what can be valued or acknowledged as art and the prevention, or at least regulation, of true freedom of artistic expression. It’s interesting to note that the degree of regulation of free creative expression rises directly in proportion to the authoritarian nature of the ruling regime. It’s no coincidence that Hitler sought to control the way his subjects viewed art for example, and the Nazi regime systematically stole and destroyed culturally important works. The more recent persecution of Ai Weiwei in China could also be considered in a similar light. We are of course lucky in the UK that things aren’t quite as extreme but that shouldn’t lull us into believing that there isn’t a subconscious agenda at play that might not be working to our advantage as practitioners. Reluctantly, I can’t escape the impression that the British art establishment is a white middle class preserve, and work that originates from a different perspective begins at a disadvantage, though that is not to state that there’s no room for alternative viewpoints.

Reflecting on how this relates to me and my practice, I am ambivalent. I don’t think anything I’ve stated above is outlandish or particularly controversial. I also don’t believe that the prevailing conditions prevent work that doesn’t fit the mould from necessarily being seen or championed by the establishment. In all things, I’m inclined to return to an old maxim, which is that ultimately the primary objective of all practitioners is to make good work and stay as true to oneself as one can while doing so. Any further good that may come as a result is gravy. 

References:

FRIEDMAN, Martin. 2014. ‘“It’s Art If I Say So”: Martin Friedman on Marcel Duchamp’s 1965 Visit to Minneapolis’.Walker Art Center[online]. Available at:  https://walkerart.org/magazine/martin-friedman-duchamp-minneapolis[accessed 22 April 2018].

ROTH, Michael S. 2017. ‘How Nazis destroyed books in a quest to destroy European culture’. The Washington Post [online]. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-nazis-destroyed-books-in-a-quest-to-destroy-european-culture/2017/02/24/244aee94-cdf3-11e6-a87f-b917067331bb_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.664bdadf95f2[accessed 23 April 2018].

Informing Contexts: Week 4 Reflection

This week we’ve been looking at how viewers interpret images and whether the intent of the photographer can ever result in a ‘dominant’ reading. We were presented with a range of images, many from advertising campaigns, and challenged to consider how a shared understanding of visual and cultural references might influence their interpretation.

To use a couple of examples here:

 

The Falling Man   by Richard Drew

The Falling Man by Richard Drew

This photograph immediately evokes my own memories of where I was on September 11th 2001 when these terrible events began to unfold. These events are now so deeply embedded in our collective consciousness that seeing an image like this causes so many thoughts to surge forward - ‘The war on terror’, America, New York, George Bush, Tony Blair, Iraq, Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, missing persons, the sense of a world before and after this moment – to name just the first few that spring to mind. I imagine that most people reading this would understand instantly how this image fits into the wider social, cultural and historical landscape and would need no further explanation of the events that it connotes.

Marilyn Monroe   by Sam Shaw

Marilyn Monroe by Sam Shaw

To me this photograph conjures glamour, sex symbol, JFK, Hollywood, cinema, 1950s. The fame of Monroe, who remains a revered icon many years after her death, allows for a shared understanding of her significance and to be presented with an image of her is likely to result in a number of shared associations. 

So, does the way an image communicates rely entirely on shared references? Must the viewer and the photographer have a shared cultural and visual lexicon for the image to connect? I’m not sure where I stand on this question. Instinctively, I feel like shared references significantly improve the chances of an image being received in the way it was intended. In advertising for example, controlling the likely message your visual information communicates is key. Whether this can ever be controlled absolutely doesn’t remove the imperative of trying to shape the narrative as much as possible.

I also feel like any successful photograph probably succeeds by somehow tapping into a universal sentiment that allows the viewer to relate to the image before them and find something in it to which they can apply a personal relevance, even if only on a subconscious level. Conversely, I also think that it’s possible to make an interesting or ‘good’ photograph without any conscious attention to any of these things. I’m unable to reconcile these two opposing ideas into a coherent conclusion as yet. I think this question relates back to my ongoing struggles with understanding ‘narrative’ and how I might bring this understanding into hopefully improving my own work.

No words are required to understand   what this is

No words are required to understand what this is

Another question raised this week is how text can relate to images and help to mediate meaning. I certainly think it’s possible to communicate with a photograph, without the aid of supporting text. I do however also believe that text can be used to anchor a concept that can then be further explored visually in an image or series of images.

Again using advertising as an example, text can help to establish the narrative of a brand or product, particularly if that product is new to the marketplace. In such cases, it may well be possible to dispense with text once the product and its supposed characteristics have been established and accepted (e.g. Coca Cola) but text may be important in the early stages of a product’s life to guide the customer in the desired direction. 

In all of this it’s important to consider, if not also try to influence, the relationship between images and viewer. This possibly begins with the intent of the work, and aiming to produce work that is considered, well-researched and grounded in a personal truth (whatever that might mean). The relationship between image and viewer strikes me as a mysterious and possibly unknowable one. I don’t suppose we can ever truly know what the viewer will see when they look at our work. There’s a certain arrogance in expecting the viewer to see it in the same way you do, or believing that your interpretation is the only possible reading. There’s no way to account for the viewer’s personal history, their sense of humour, their cultural references, their mood at the time – all factors that might influence the way the viewer receives and interprets the image before them.

There’s also something to be said for creating open-ended narratives, allowing space for the viewer to create their own stories, using your work as the starting point. This potentially offers the work to a broader audience, if in some way you can be all things to all people, simply reflecting the viewers back to themselves in a way that is neither too confronting or banal. So ambiguity of meaning can be a valid approach, and also possibly acknowledges the fact that you can never entirely control the meaning of the work anyway.

The skilled practitioner will be comfortable with this, while being careful to use commonly accepted signifiers as far as possible if the intention is to speak clearly in the work. Whether the use of commonly accepted signifiers results in a limited palette from which to paint and whether that then results in work lacking in expressivity or individuality is something to be considered. These are questions we all must answer for ourselves: what is the intent and how far are we willing to go to try and influence this mystical space between the image and the viewer’s perception?

Increasingly in my own work I’m trying to edge closer to a representation of an internal state that feels uncomfortable, vulnerable, but also somehow mundane and entirely normal. Previously, my strategy has been quite literal, very visual and not very subtle or varied. This approach now seems quite redundant and so I’m scratching around, trying to find a more nuanced way to communicate, a way to do visually what I have not yet managed to do verbally. That’s why it’s so hard I guess. But I’ll keep working at it.