How to create an artwork with indifference

I’ve been thinking today about what makes something a work of art and what makes something effective as a work of art (as opposed to ineffective).

Assume the following scenario: a viewer has a negative response to a piece of art. He or she sees something and expresses dislike or disgust. In that case, I would argue that as the viewer had an emotional response, even though it was negative, that artwork was successful, even if the artist had hoped for a positive response. In other words, any response is a result. Even ‘My two year old could do that’ is a response. Some might argue differently about this issue but that’s another debate. This is not what I am talking about here.

Is this art? My seven year old could have done this.

So assuming that a negative response validates a piece as art, the next question is: what would it mean if the viewer felt no response at all to a piece of art? In that case, he or she would look at a piece of art and feel neither a positive emotional response or a negative emotional response. Does that mean the artwork isn’t valid as art? In other words, what does it mean if they see an artwork and feel nothing whatsoever about it, they feel complete and utter indifference, no emotion, nothing, zilch? Does that mean that the artwork that caused indifference cannot be regarded as worthy as art?

However, I am curious as to whether it is actually humanly possibly to be completely indifferent to a visual or sensory stimulus (in this case a piece of art)? I would argue that it is impossible to be completely indifferent to art (or a sensory stimulus designed to cause a response whether that be art, music or otherwise). In fact, I would challenge any viewer of art to be indifferent to a sensory stimulus designed to be ‘art’.

Therefore, can we conclude that anything and everything is art? That seems to be nonsense. Surely that can’t possibly be true? But if we take logic as our guiding light, what can the conclusion to this be? Can we even use logic here or will we just get so tangled up in circular arguments that we descend into madness?

Is this pancake art? Do you respond to it?

Leaving madness aside, this debate leads me to want to take up the challenge of creating a piece of artwork that causes an indifferent reaction. Is that possible? It seems not if we take the above to be true.

However, I think there is a loop hole in the argument. I think I know how to do it and in fact I think I may have done it today without realising it. The idea came from a combination of thinking about Schrödinger’s infamous cat and the notion of the impossibility of non-existence which physicians and philosophers have been discussing since man first opened his mouth with a query.

Cat in a Box

The background to my idea comes from the thought that if the viewer is unaware of the existence of ‘nothing’, nothing becomes something, it can be described, it has a topology and it has a shape. Therefore, it is an object of sorts. Nothing is a hard concept to grasp though and scientists and philosophers have long battled over it. The Ancient Greeks didn’t even have a a concept of nothing. 

If we perceive something to be nothing, we can be indifferent to it. Or can we? That is the one of the many questions that is rolling around my head at the moment. I suspect that there is a way we can be indifferent to nothing. That is, if we are unaware of the existence of that particular nothing, we can be indifferent to it.

My idea is for an artwork that is nothing and something. It is nothing yet it is something the viewer isn’t aware of, so their unawareness is translated as indifference. Ergo, indifference to art is possible.

Watch this Space.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

The place where time is stilled

There were two parts of Northycote Farmhouse that really affected me when I took part in a drawing symposium run by the University of Wolverhampton recently. The first was the sittingroom in the farmhouse itself, the second was an area of Medieval pasture land just beyond the grounds of the farmhouse which, as participants of the symposium, we were lucky enough to have access to even though it isn’t normally open to the public.

The Medieval field

On Day Two of the symposium, one of the other participants went into the field with a couple of others and returned seemingly enlightened, describing her experience as ‘Alice-in-Wonderland like’. She felt compelled to write a poem about how she had felt. This intrigued me. I wanted to feel the Alice-in-Wonderland effect also. I felt that I had to visit the field myself.

The following day, Day Three, I did get to visit the field. The Alice-in-Wonderland friend of mine came with me, and another friend came too. Shortly after we crawled through barbed wire into the field we felt an odd, profound, deeply moving sense of peace in that field. It is very hard to convey what that felt like. I wouldn’t generally describe myself as a deeply spiritual person. My life is too busy for such pausing for thought and hippy dippy reflection.

However, standing in the middle of that field I felt so moved by something that I still think about it quite a lot two weeks later. The best way to describe it would be to say that I felt as if I were actually, physically stepping back in time. Once beyond the initial boundary of the field, the atmosphere became calm, oddly quiet, still and steeped in something I can’t articulate. Was it history? It was the weight of something. It wasn’t unpleasant. It was extremely pleasant.

Part of a tree

The grass has grown completely fallow and long, and bouncy. I think unless you feel it for yourself, it is hard to understand what walking on that grass was like. It was as if the ground was undulating (the ‘Alice-in-Wonderland’ experience). The trees in that field feel old and ‘wise’. They loomed sedately and heavy with observation and knowledge. I felt aware that there was animal life in the field, yet I couldn’t see it. There were tracks left by furry animals of some variety. Yet I know not what they are and I could not see them. I could not hear them.

One of the trees

I will remember the experience of walking around that field for a long time. It was like nothing else I have felt before. I didn’t want to leave it. The grass wasn’t really ancient, even the trees have evolved a great deal since Medieval times, yet I felt as if I was there, back in time.

The philosopher’s brush, or the Ship of Theseus, strikes again.

 

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Northycote House and the philosopher’s paintbrush

A couple of weeks ago I attended a drawing symposium at Northycote House, near Wolverhampton as part of my studies at the University of Wolverhampton. The aim of this symposium was to respond to the location and draw. That was what I did. I decided at the time that I wasn’t going to relate what I did on the symposium to my studio practice.  I wanted a break from all that intellectual thinking. I wanted to just draw for drawing’s sake.

Until now, I believed that that is exactly what I did. But now I have spent some time reflecting on the three days and what I learnt and what I drew, and I realise that the experience of the three days was in fact quite closely related to my current practice. 

Northycote Farmhouse Image Credit © City of Wolverhampton Council http://www.wolverhampton.gov.uk/parks

 

Northycote Farmhouse is a Tudor farmhouse which was built around 1600. It has had an interesting history, including being a place for keeping ‘war’ horses during the First World War before they got sent to the Western Front. It is a magnificent building: old, higgledy piggledy, solid and spooky. The surrounding countryside feels just as old and eerie. It was an amazing location to spend time in and respond to. The area is seeped in history.

Oddly, by the end of the three days I felt more emotionally charged and inspired by the physical objects themselves (the building, the grounds, the fields, the trees) than any drawings I made or any ‘progress’ I might have made in my drawing. In fact, I felt as if I hadn’t really made much in the way of progress. All I had to show for the time as a few sketches. I had taken some photos, gone for walks, wandered around the place, drank coffee, talked to people and made a few, mostly pen, drawings.

My sketch of the well

However, today, on reflection of the three days, I realise that there is more to the effect the symposium had on me than a chance to relax and draw for drawing’s sake.

The main farmhouse is a fascinating building. It is in quite good condition and many of the rooms have been mocked up to appear as if a lived-in working farmhouse from the past. However, the atmosphere that this creates is one of odd, uncanny ‘absense as presence’. There are forced ‘signs’ of human existence yet no actual signs of habitation. It is obvious that nobody lives there, yet there are ‘things’ carefully placed to suggest otherwise. The things do not work. The place feels off kilter. It is unsettling. The pretend habitation gives the place a ghostly feel. In fact, many of us that attended the symposium felt that the building was perhaps haunted, or at least felt so, should haunted be a real thing.

I’m not going to ponder here on the reality of ghosts. But I do know that certain buildings and locations give me a ‘feeling’ of unease for whatever reason. And this building was most certainly one of them. The room that gave me the most unease was the sittingroom. This room was dark, dingy, painfully quiet, freezing cold and void of life except by purposely placed objects. It reminded me of a soundproof room I visited once at the BBC in Manchester. That particular room was so eerie, being totally devoid of any sound, that it made me feel very anxious and eager to escape. I lasted less than a minute in that particular room. This sittingroom in Northycote Farm gave me a similar, albeit less extreme, feeling.

So on Day One of the symposium I decided to sit alone in that room and draw. I dared myself to see how long I would last. This is the room in question.

Does that look spooky to you?

I lasted about an hour before it got too tense. This is what I drew.

My drawings

The others attending the symposium agreed that I’d been brave to last that long on my own in there. We all, or the majority of us at least, seemed to have felt the same eerie sensation in that room.

On Day Three of the symposium we were given a tour by the ‘Friends’ of Northycote Farm who are responsible for the upkeep of it, the mock living scenes and the tiny museum in one of the rooms. As we entered the sitting room, the person giving us the tour told us that the part of the house where the sitting room currently is was actually destroyed in the 1980s (I can’t remember whether it was a fire or something else) and rebuilt. This knowledge made me look at the room anew. Why, then, I asked myself, was it so spooky? Was this ‘eerie’ feeling just my imagination based on the fact that I had been under the impression that the whole house was built in 1600, or at least any additions to it were still very old? Or, if the eerie feeling was genuine, does that mean that an eerie feeling, whatever the cause, is not attached to objects (i.e. walls) and can exist irrespective of objects (walls)? This would explain why a ghost hunter I once met told me about all the ghosts that live in Cineworld in Shrewsbury which is obviously a newish building.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, eerie feelings as something tangible or not, this is an interesting question. It brings to mind the dilemma of the philosopher’s paintbrush, or the Ship of Theseus to give it its proper name, or even Trigger’s Broom to give it it’s popular culture name. The question of the philosopher’s paintbrush is that if you own a most-favoured paintbrush, and you change the bristles one year, the metal band the next, the wooden handle the following year, and then the bristles need changing again, the metal again and so on, is that brush after so many years still the same brush as it was at the start? The obvious answer is ‘no’ as it is composed of parts that weren’t there originally. Some might say ‘yes’ basing their argument on that fact that only one part was changed at a time so the development of the brush was an organic process, each new part touching the old part, and it is in fact the same brush. I would argue that that doesn’t matter. The brush is the same brush whether you changed the parts one by one or not. It is the same brush because it feels the same. The ‘brushness’ of the brush transcends the physicality of it. The object isn’t just the object, it is the relationship the owner has to the object, that is important to the value of it. There may be infinite variations of the brush (it could be changed, built upon, developed an infinite number of times) yet it remains the same brush. The differences between each physical manifestation of the brush are what makes it the same object. I sense Giles Deleuze is smiling at me.

Douglas Adams faced the same conundrum when he visited the Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Japan (which I have also been to – lucky me), which has been rebuilt and repaired many times. He was told that of course it is the same building. This is his response:

“I had to admit to myself that this was in fact a perfectly rational point of view, it merely started from an unexpected premise. The idea of the building, the intention of it, its design, are all immutable and are the essence of the building. The intention of the original builders is what survives. The wood of which the design is constructed decays and is replaced when necessary. To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself.”

—Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See, p. 149

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto, Japan

So back to the room. I think this is the same as that spooky sitting room. That spooky sitting room will always be spooky, however many times the walls are rebuilt. It might be a ghost, it might be something about the atmosphere created by the colours, light, the objects themselves. That doesn’t matter here. The replica of the room is just as valid as the original. And another replica if it were to be created would be equally as valid again. And again. And again. The room remains spooky. The ghost is smiling.

 

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Oh to be an artist with a real art studio

This is what I thought on visiting a communal art studio space in Digbeth, Birmingham. Today, a fellow University of Wolverhampton student and I went to visit an artist-in-residence student in her studio there.

Having been an art student for nearly 5 years now, I take for granted that I have a little space, firstly in Shrewsbury and then in Wolverhampton, where I can work and put things on the wall. I don’t actually use my space much as I have always been the sort of artist who  carries their studio around with them: in the car, on trains, in cafes and at home. But it is the one stable element that I can use as a base. When I graduate in June, unless I decide to embark on an MA, I will lose that precious space.

The stairs in Digbeth

The stairs in Digbeth

One option, post graduation, is to take up residence (aka rent) a space in a studio such as the one in Digbeth (others I know of include Temple Street in Wolverhampton and Participate Contemporary Artspace in Shrewsbury). Doing this means you get a space to work and be based. You can meet regularly with other artists who also have spaces, and generally mix and live in a community of fellow arty types.

The Digbeth studios

The Digbeth studios

The downside, however, is the cold. The studio I visited in Digbeth today was cold. It was bitterly cold.

However, once I had got used to the cold, I became aware of how much interesting and amazing ‘stuff’ was around me: wood, ceramics, sculpture, coffee cups, amps from the 1960s, lamp shades, bits of found object, paint splatters, crafted objects, laptops, words, drawings and paintings. It was like an Aladdin’s Cave of art stuff. I could quite imagine it being a very creative and fun place to work.

The coffee and tea cupboard

The coffee and tea cupboard

So I aspire one day (perhaps after an MA) to, perhaps part time at least, hang out in an artist studio in an abandoned warehouse / supermarket. I would, however, need a cat (or dog) for company. And a bean bag. And a sofa. And lots of velvet cushions. It was good enough for Andy, so it is good enough for me.

Andy and his cat

Andy and his cat

 

 

 

 

Posted in Blog | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Today, yesterday, the day before

Kierkegaard writes, ‘Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward, whereas genuine repetition is recollected forward.’

I have a very repetitious life. I am a little obsessed with repetition right now. For example (and this is just one of many), when I go to Wolverhampton, I park the car in the same carpark. I pay for the ticket from the same machine. I walk across the road to the main building of the university. I head straight for Starbucks. I order a medium Americano with room for milk, to take out. I give them my name (Becky – I never make it up). I pay £2.05p. I wait for my coffee. I take a photograph of my coffee and / or Starbucks and post it to Facebook with a comment along the lines of ‘COFFEE – I need this’ or ‘What a nightmare parking, I need coffee’. I grab the coffee. I add milk and one sachet of brown sugar. I pick up my bags, and walk out of the building. I cross the ring road (carefully and only when the lights are green) with coffee in right hand. I enter the art building. I go up to the 7th floor in the lift. I check my phone on the way. I sip my coffee. I find my desk. I dump my bags. I drink my coffee.

Today's Wolverhampton coffee

Today’s Wolverhampton coffee

There is very little variation in that routine. If that routine is upset (if the carpark is full and I have to park somewhere else), then my whole day is disrupted and potentially ruined. I feel anxious. In addition, the timings are all out, the coffee is further away from the car, the stress levels are inevitably higher and the queue is likely longer.

Why do I love this repetition so much, when it all falls into place? Why does it upset me so, when it doesn’t? It has become such a routine for me, that the repetitious act itself seems to have agency without reference to an original thought or act which sparked it off. I don’t remember the first time I carried out this act of coffee grabbing. If I try to imagine arriving in Wolverhampton and not asking for a medium Americano with room for milk from Starbucks I feel quite odd. I couldn’t do it. If I was asked to do it for a challenge. I’d decline. No, thanks.

If I picture this scene now, it reminds me, oddly, of a Edward Hopper painting: my favourite Hopper painting.

Nighthawks, 1942

Nighthawks, 1942

I love this painting. It speaks of repetition to me. It looks like a scene that happens with regularity. It shows people drinking coffee in a diner. It shows people looking content, happy in their evening routine. This is me, in Starbucks, in Wolverhampton at 9.42am.

To return to Kierkegaard, this repetitious act is of the backwards kind rather than the forwards kind. It may feel as if I am repeating an act every future day, but in fact I am re-enacting an act from the previous day. It is as if I am recreating something comforting, something I don’t remember clearly enough to articulate, i.e. the first time I did this. It isn’t a genuine ‘forward’ repetition. It is a nostalgic act, Proustian.

Repetition comes in many guises. This is just one of many. This could be an example of what is called ‘radical’ repetition. This is repetition for imitation’s sake. Or, repetition which highlights at some point (today) the absence of an original.

Tomorrow is another Wolverhampton day. I have no doubt that I will be grabbing my usual medium Americano with room for milk again.

To quote Shakespeare’s Macbeth now ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’. Here Macbeth is stating that life is full of events and action, however, absurd and short and completely meaningless at the end. However, my coffee routine might seem meaningless and devoid of interest to many, oddly, t o me it is something of great substance.

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Why I like the word ‘rhizome’

The great Gilles Deleuze introduced me recently, not personally, to the concept of the rhizome. A rhizome has two different meanings: a biological one and a philosophical one.

Gilles Deleuze and his cat

Gilles Deleuze and his cat

The biological rhizome interests me because it is so beautiful. See the image below. Do you see what I mean?

The beauty of the rhizome

The beauty of the rhizome

However, the philosophical concept has more far-reaching consequences.

Deleuze and his friend, Felix Guattari, borrowed the terms “rhizome” and “rhizomatic” from biology to describe something that allows for multiple, non-hierarchical entry and exit points in data representation and interpretation. In more basic terms, the structure of a rhizome in society or politics mirrors that of the structure of a rhizome in biology. There is no top, no bottom, no centre, no branches from a top or centre. The structure is multiple. It resembles this image below.

Can you find the centre?

Can you find the centre?

The traditional, Western structure of operation looks more like a tree.

A Tree - most things you know operate like a tree

A Tree – most things you know operate like a tree

This structure has been in existence since time began. Deleuze and Guattari were groundbreaking (I am loathe to use that term but I can’t think of another) for suggesting for a different way to operate. Rather than a narrative view of history and culture, the rhizome presents as a mass of points and highlights with no specific origin or genesis.

There’s something terribly attractive about this idea. However, as Deleauze and Guattari came up with this concept in the late 1980s, it is now not a new idea by any means (it is just new to me). Rhizomic structures can be found in all sorts of places and aspects of 21st-century life. Think about the whole notion of globalization and how that has exploded over the last couple of decades, the Internet, data, social media, relational aesthetics and crowd-funding to name just a few. The rhizome is everywhere (literally and metaphorically). It is, more importantly to me at the moment, very much present in art practice.

Not many artists these days pigeon hole themselves into the roles of ‘painter’, ‘video maker’, ‘sculptor’, or ‘photographer’, or even ‘performance artist’. Most contemporary artists dip in and out of many different media and many different roles. Taking myself as an example. I started off my art education considering myself a painter, then a video maker, I dabbled in animation, I returned to painting, I’ve also dipped my toe in anthropological art, and now pop art and drawing. I haven’t been able to stick to one media since I returned to art in 2012. But, why should I? It is far more entertaining to move around and play with anything that comes to mind. As I’ve said in the past, the concept is more important than the media. I decided recently that rather than a ‘painter’ or a ‘video-maker’, I was a process artist. I’m not the only one who acts in this way. There is now no single way to be an artist, which is a Good Thing in my opinion.

It isn’t only the media used that has turned art into a rhizomic activity, it is the subjects covered. Today’s artist can examine anything they like: politics, culture, society, archiving, flowers, cat selfies, space, stars, the Stock Exchange, cheese burgers, man’s existentialist dilemma, tables, sleep, and so on and so on.

But this has given artists, and anyone else who engages in creative activity or who wants to make a statement or influence people, a valuable freedom.

Go forth, and create, I say, no matter which way how or what!

 

Posted in Blog | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

What drawing means to me

Drawing means everything to me. I can’t understand why other people don’t feel the same way as I do about it. I could not live without drawing. At least, life would be a real struggle without drawing.

Close up of the plinth

Drawing – my favourite thing

I have been drawing, allegedly, since I was two years old. I haven’t drawn every day since then, I’ve had breaks, but even during times of relative non-creative output such as when I was working or busy looking after very small children I have found time to doodle.

A doodle from my temping days in Oxford

A couple of doodles from my temping days in Oxford

Looks like the view from my desk at Blackwell Science

The view from my desk at Blackwell Science

It is unfashionable in academic art circles to say that drawing makes you feel good. They don’t like you to admit that drawing is easy and, heaven forbid, enjoyable. They want you to take it seriously as a discipline and to use it as a media with an aim in mind other than to make you feel better. They want it to be hard. However, I can’t deny the fact that I draw to escape and I draw to calm me and to have a clearer perspective on challenges that are troubling me. The fact that it an activity is pleasurable and therapeutic doesn’t necessarily take away from the seriousness of it as a fine art discipline. In fact, one of my aims as an artist is to encourage drawing to be taken more seriously than it sometimes is. Drawing deserves as much validity as oil paints, sculpture and performance art (and indeed any other artistic expression). This is happening I think, evidenced by annual drawing prizes and exhibitions, such as the Jerwood Drawing Prize. But more work needs to be done.

To encourage a love of drawing, over Christmas my family took up a drawing challenge: draw a wine bottle using just a pencil and white paper. Some of the participants hadn’t drawn since school. It was a very interesting exercise. Most found the exercise quite hard work. I’m not sure they found it therapeutic. Perhaps I am a little unusual, after all.

The Collins / Chapman wine bottle challenge

The Collins / Chapman wine bottle challenge

Since looking at the topic of repetition I have been drawing more than ever before. I have been having quite a stressful time in my real life as well and I don’t think that the two are unrelated. Drawing repetitiously in itself is therapeutic. There is less skill involved, less thinking and it is easier to let the thoughts flow when drawing a simple object or idea. I have found it addictive. Drawing has become my drug of choice.

A drawing of me drawing on the plinth on the plinth

A drawing of me drawing on the plinth on the plinth

If I could I’d draw all the time, I would. Sadly, that is impossible. There are other things that need to be achieved in the day such as paid work and day-to-day living. If only someone would pay me to draw. Or is that akin asking someone to pay me to be a drug addict?

My plinth

My plinth

 

 

Posted in Blog | Tagged | Leave a comment