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Reflections 2006-8 (illustrated talk)

by on January 1, 2009

Presentation on current practice: January 2009

 1.      SLIDE Happy new Year

 On 1 January 2006 I went to the South Bank, and wished people a Happy New Year. Conceived as piece of performance art, I was surprised at how every time I put out my hand and asked “May I wish you a Happy New Year?” I had a really emotional response myself.

 Then one of my tutors suggested I read Relational Aesthetics, by Nicolas Bourriaud. He defines this type of work as “A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space”.

 I felt that as an artist I had come home! I continued to make the occasional conceptual piece, but most were “socially-engaged” and I thought I was in a groove, and had found my niche.

 My artist’s statement boldly proclaimed “My practice aims to show the extra-ordinariness of ordinary people”. I will return to this later.

 2.      SLIDE Eddie in Go and Open the Door

 My next piece was “Go and open the door”, asking mental health service users, and their volunteer and paid project workers to read the inspirational poem “Go and Open the Door” by Miroslav Holub, which I then collaged into a short film. My aim was twofold: to flatten the hierarchical structures that existed between them during the process of the performances, and also to challenge the viewer: to first try to sort out the ill from the well, and then to transcend those labels and see an equity, unity and commonality between them all, which by implication, I mean US all.

 Unfortunately in reality, whenever I showed this film, people started crying or “ah”-ing when Eddie, the only obviously disabled person speaks, which was the opposite of my aim. Where was I going wrong?

 3.      SLIDE person to person; People to people

I researched artists such as Stephen Willats, (who is not the guy in this image!) working with here, residents of a crumbling 70s towerblock, and to me this seemed like “political” socially-engaged practice. Here I also saw an ideal mix of conceptual art with relational practice, and moreover the identifiable stamp of the artist was in the finished (gallery) works.

I was also reading books such as Grant Kester’s Conversation Pieces, which also stressed process/relational practice over the production or aesthetic of any final output.

During the 90s, the direction that most relational practice took was to consider that it was possible to ameliorate social disunity through the shared activity of relational art practices, and the role of art seemed to be continuing to move away from the traditional value of the aesthetic object to one of social-inclusion. My need to give back some of what art had given me lead me to continue to follow this path fairly unquestioningly.

4.      SLIDE Retrospective

 So for the next two years: stage 1 at CSM, I made 18 pieces, including 15 films, almost all of which worked directly with people. I chose to show my work on a TV monitor, stressing and underlining the domestic, or “ordinary” setting, although some films were also shown projected in a gallery or filmic environment.

In an attempt to get out of media of film, which I was increasingly resorting to, and which was not typical of my earlier practice – as in the performance piece here – I took on the persona of “technician”: a person knowledgeable about, but separate from the artist: a role I would return to in later work. 

 5. SLIDE Go and Open the Door II

 Returning to “Go and Open the Door”, as one of unit 6 pieces I invited people from the same three projects and others within Southwark and beyond to write and record their responses to this inspirational poem, collaborating with a creative writer.

 show half of Go and Open the Door II

 This film runs for less than 3 minutes, and I estimate that the project took around 100 hours to realise and administer. This was a useful foray and a great experience, but does not represent where I see my practice going.

 6. SLIDE Tony’s wish

I met Tony in 2007, as part of Elefest, a local annual Arts festival, when I filmed local people’s wishes. As part of Elefest 2008 we made a performance piece, over 3 days, where Tony handed out copies of his wish, and invited people to come and have their photograph taken with him handing over his wish – that “the people of this area, the Elephant and Castle, find peace, love and happiness”.

On my direction, the wish was handed over whether or not the participants chose to be photographed. On the first day, before the start of the festival, we worked with a professional photographer to collect 9 images. These were then blown up and used to make a screen which formed the backdrop for the two performances during the festival.

 change slide

 I’ve chosen this image to show you, because this guy came up to us and said “yep, I saw you in the elefest brochure and I’ve come for my wish”.

In these two  projects I have also re-broadened the media in which I’m working, after an intense couple of years working almost exclusively in film, and this feels like a welcome repositioning of my practice.

My worry, however, is that the community context of my practice mean that the works do not stand up in a fine art environment and this is something I am continuing to wrestle with. It has also been suggested that I am retreating behind the cover of “technician”, rather than standing in front of my work as the artist/author. This is also something I am actively thinking about.

Claire Bishop, in her response to Bourriaud: Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics seeks to arrest the trajectory of process over outcome in relational art, by asking,

 8.      SLIDE Bishop quote

  “if relational art produces human relations, then the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”

 She suggests there are fundamental problems with the idea of “microtopian communities” which I and plenty of others a lot more established than me have sought to create, which, she suggests, actually reinforce the group identity (e.g. of mental unwellness or social exclusion) rather than allowing exploration of individual identity, or any sense of a broader social identity and inclusion.

In the same article she says:

9.      SLIDE Sierra

“This relational antagonism would be predicated not on social harmony, but on exposing that which is repressed in sustaining the semblance of this harmony. It would thereby provide a more concrete and polemical grounds for rethinking our relationship to the world and to one other.”

This image is from the Lisson Gallery and Sierra made a similar piece of work in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in the same year, 2002, where homeless women were remunerated for participating in this performance piece for one hour. Sierra paid them the price of a night in a hostel. His 3 “line” pieces (the tattoos) are the subject of a recent essay.

Trying to move on from this need to solely “give back” some of what art has given to me, I am really immersed in this critical theory, borne out in my essays and talks, but my practice has not caught up, and I would suggest that this is partly because of a lack of confidence on my part to move into a less “convivial” arena.

 As you can see, there is no critical element in the film I just showed you, or in Tony’s wish.

SLIDE American frog

I said at the beginning that a major aim of my practice was “to show the extra-ordinariness of ordinary people.” I am trying to have the confidence to show more work about myself in a similar vein…

To be honest with you, I completely freaked out when I went to gunpowder park. I felt an overwhelming sense of death which made it an awful space to be in. I felt alienated, a feeling I was and still am very familiar with in my every day life. I had to be accompanied by a travel buddy (paid for by the disabled students allowance), which reinforced those feelings, and I pretty much shut down as a person and as an artist all the times I was there. This was an outward expression of those feelings.

11. SLIDE Splitting

I made this piece in Art therapy in 2002: the beginning of the personal journey that has lead to me be here today. This piece is about my predisposition to see everyone and everything in black and white terms: all good or all bad, known psychotherapeutically as “Splitting”.

All of the work in my therapy sessions was made and shown in a very safe environment, and to make autobiographical works for public show (by which I mean anything from a college crit to a wider public audience) is very scary.

12.    SLIDE “Who the f*ck do you think you are?”

Sometimes my work is an expression of the alienation I feel, and sometimes it ameliorates those feelings.

 I’d been out of hospital about 2 weeks when I made this piece (I came out of a locked ward the day before I started college). It was an awfully black time for me emotionally – but also a very fruitful time artistically: around the same time I made “dissonance”, a waterfall/sound piece, about moving from the enclosed ward environment, back into literally the outside world, with all it’s discordance, and my inability to filter all those sounds that go with being in London.

 My vulnerability also meant I didn’t have the capacity to censor myself, and that is a place I am trying to stay connected with in my practice now…

 13.    SLIDE In the dark hours

I felt equally exposed titling and contextualising my most recent piece for the exhibition of small things…

But I am very happy that I am, again, exploring and more importantly exposing various aspects of myself … And I feel that this piece provides some balance to the socially-engaged pieces I have made.

It seems that my work either challenges my illness (socially-engaged practice) or explores it (the autobiographical stuff).

Is it possible that my theoretical interests sit in-between and bridge these two elements of my practice, and if so, does this in turn mean that these three elements together can combine to form a more cohesive whole self?

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