Explaining is hard

One aspect of being an artist that I have always found quite hard is explaining myself. I seem to have to do it a lot. I don’t like explaining myself to artists, art students, tutors, my mum, my brother, friends or strangers. It doesn’t matter who asks me the dreaded questions, I am always gripped with fear: ‘What is it that you do?’, ‘What are you working on at the moment?’ or (much worse) ‘What is your thesis about?’ 

My friend Steve just doesn’t get my art

I think there are two issues at play which explain my paralysis. The first is impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome haunts my daily life. I walk around life feeling as if I am a fraud. It doesn’t matter how well I do with my art, how many reasonable marks I get, how much praise I might receive, how many exhibitions I take part in or how many projects I am involved in, I feel as if I am gate crashing the art world and someone is just waiting around the next corner to shout ‘aha, gotcha!’. In my head, I’m not a real artist. All those others are real artists, I’m not. I’m pretending. I feel as if I actually spend more time working, hula hooping, looking after children, driving children around and day dreaming than I do ‘arting’. A real artist lives, eats, breathes art, surely? I don’t. I can’t. I haven’t actually arted for a month now. So when I get asked ‘What are you working on at the moment?’ my in-my-head answer is ‘nothing at all’ and my external answer comes out as ‘well, erm, I’m kind of doing some sort of research into, well you see, my art practice is all about things, you know, objects…’. By this point I’m lost, they look lost, they frown, I see the frown, my belly flips with disappointment and I find I am trying desperately to think of a change of subject to, err, what to eat for lunch, where to go for coffee or whether they have just had a hair cut or not.

The second issue is that I have always felt there is a missing link connecting my brain to my voice. I know in my head what I am interesting in, researching, thinking about, writing about, drawing (sometimes) but I can’t articulate it in any intellectual way vocally. I can write about it. I love writing. I can wax lyrical for pages and pages about art. I love blogging, I love writing my thesis, I love thinking about art, but I can’t speak it. The words just tumble out in a different order to which they were formed in my head. And once I start to try to explain myself, the spectre of impostor syndrome jumps back up again and takes over and the situation is far worse. I find myself completely lost in the forest of doubt and meaningless words (as you can see I’m still fascinated with metaphors, even really bad ones).

I end up feeling a bit sad and disappointed in myself. Why can’t I just talk about my artistic interests with confidence and enthusiasm? I feel enthusiastic about it but it comes across as extreme doubt. If I look as if I doubt myself, then the ‘other’ people will doubt my integrity. There is also a fear biting away at me that what interests me is extremely dull to others. I worry that they just won’t like it, or worse, won’t get it and they will form a negative judgement on my intelligence, or perhaps even my sanity.

So I need to learn to care less. If I care less, the words may flow easier. In the words of Alan Bennett: ‘You don’t have to like everything’. I should remember this. For years, my mum told me to ‘paint pretty things’. She didn’t used to get my art (the good news is that she does get it more now). My brother, also, has questioned what I do. My goal should be to get him to get it. But, now I think so what if people don’t understand what I am doing. It adds to the challenge (i.e. getting my brother to go ‘ohhhh now I see it’) and, ironically, the more confusion I am met with, the more I want to do it to beat the confusion. Who wants to produce art that everybody gets straight away anyway? I’ve written about this before: if everyone gets it, then you fail. If there is doubt and questioning, then you pass.

I love what I do, even if I feel like the biggest gate crasher at the wedding (yes, I have actually done that, once). ‘Who is that person?’ they might cry. But sometimes it is the gate crasher who proves to be the life and soul of the party. Perhaps I need to just aspire to be that gate crasher.


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Whose balls are these?

Objects fascinate me. In particular, the idea of who has owned objects and what trace they leave on those objects once they pass on or are lost. This idea has been a constant in my art practice from objects owned by my children to World War I objects to abandoned burst balloons.

Last week I went to Wimbledon (for the first time ever!). Yes, I was exploding with excitement. But that’s not the focus of this blog.

My view at Wimbles last week

Yes, it really was very ace. I will never forget the day.

But while I was there, I acquired some used tennis balls for my children. This wasn’t an easy acquisition but that is a long story involving the kindness of a stranger. I’m not going to tell that story here. But I am grateful to that lovely stranger.

Don’t worry, all was not lost after I saw this depressing sign

When I got home and presented the used Wimbledon balls to my children, they were rather excited. In fact, they were more excited by the used balls than they were by the expensive Wimbledon souvenir tat that I had also returned home with. The used balls have been a bigger hit, pardon the pun, than the keyring, towel, magnet or lanyard. 

Who has touched these balls?

Why is that? It is because of the mystery of these used balls. It is because there is a teeny, tiny possibility that someone ‘famous’ has ‘touched’ our used balls. This idea fascinated my children. I think what interested them the most was that they just have no way of knowing. We will never know. We cannot even try to find out. It is impossible. This sensation reminds me of the mystery of Schrödinger’s cat. You know he is either dead or alive (the balls were either touched by a famous tennis star, or they weren’t) but you just have to be content with not knowing. There is excitement in not knowing because of the ‘might’ element. So the thrill of the chance is the ‘might’ (the cat is either dead or alive). This is enough to make the object much more precious than a random other tennis ball that has only been touched by mere mortals.

Live kitty or dead kitty, you decide.

I found myself getting caught up in the romance of this ‘what if’ idea. I told my children that they could play tennis with the balls but they must not under any circumstances lose them. In fact, the thought crossed my mind that by playing with them, they might somehow ‘rub off’ the trace left by a possible Jack Draper, Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams or Julia Görges (the one with the shoes). Logically, that is a rather strange worry to have. Firstly, the balls we own may not have been touched by anyone of note. Secondly, even if they had, the amount of DNA or sweat they may have left on the balls is going to be minute. Thirdly, even if they had left some trace of themselves on the balls, this is fairly meaningless – what does a bit of ‘me’ mean? It is nothing really, it is just material. It isn’t emotional. Having said that, I like to believe that we do leave a trace of our emotional lives on objects. But this isn’t a scientific fact. It’s purely a romantic notion. This doesn’t make the balls special in any way. They are, after all, just tennis balls that have seen a tiny bit of action on a court.

Still, my children and I are very fond of our used balls. We feel the magic even if it isn’t real. And why not? Perhaps there is a trace of Nadal sweat on one of them, and with that, some tennis luck. Next time I play tennis I might take along our used balls and see what happens. Given that I haven’t played tennis for years that might be a long time from now.

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Swimming with the metaphors

I’ve recently found myself magnetically drawn towards metaphors. Previously, they occasionally floated past my consciousness, barely registering in my busy tumble-dryer of a mind. Now, they seem to be everywhere. They loom in everyday speech, in books, in poetry, on TV, in my mind and in my dreams. They aren’t literally in all of these places of course. Point well made, I hope. Do you want to hear the story of the metaphoric transition from hardly-there to everywhere? If so, read on.

It all started one evening last week when I was fed up of being annoyed by all the references to Love Island on social media. I wanted to understand the appeal rather than just continue to live with my inner grumbling. So I decided to watch said programme to see what it seemed to be offering my Dunbar’s Number in the way of intellectual stimulation and / or entertainment. To make the experience more pleasurable, anticipating a certain amount of confusion and / or pain given the low-brow reputation of the programme, I decided to make a list of all the metaphors used by the participants. As a device to increase the joy felt in my pleasure centres, it worked. Instead of boredom, I experienced an hour of rosy, pink, unicorn-tinted happiness, which is rare for me when it comes to viewing television (I am a restless soul). As for the quality of the programme, I wasn’t bowled over. However, as for metaphor gathering potential, Love Island is in the top ten at least.

In the interests of art research, I now present my Love Island metaphors in all their cliched glory.

Love Island Metaphors

Since that evening, I’ve been consuming metaphors during all my waking hours and I have grown to love them deeply. They touch my soul in new ways.

I’ve even started inventing a few of my own. My own crazy creations are a little ridiculous, hopefully humorous, I admit. In fact, they aren’t so much as metaphors, but mixed metaphors. For me, language is a minefield of intellectual playthings. I could toy with words all day long, that is, if I didn’t have to clock in on the treadmill of work.

This is my second favourite.

I think that one reason I love metaphors so much is that they start with ‘meta’, which is one of my favourite prefixes (and, yes, I do have a list of favourite prefixes at home – who doesn’t?). Meta is an abstract concept and I am partial to a bit of abstract. I am especially partial to things that are half real and half abstract – meta-abstract?

The prefix ‘meta’ makes me think clouds, air, depth, floating and other worldly.  My current favourite parallel universe is cyberspace. Cyberspace exists in the metaverse. My thoughts exist in the metaverse. These are not the same metaverses, but they overlap. This cat exists in the metaverse of someone’s thoughts and in the metaverse of cyberspace.

Cute kitty or sad penguin?

I digress. We should travel back to the land of metaphors, metaphors in this universe at least.

I’ve just realised I am assuming that everyone reading this knows what a metaphor is. Perhaps I should offer a definition to soothe their troubled brows. A metaphor compares two concepts that might at first seem unrelated, such as ‘cat’ and ‘penguin’ to borrow from the image above. One of the concepts might be an abstract idea (so actually neither cat nor penguin) and the other is likely to be a tangible object. For example: ‘love is a battlefield’. We may feel that we know what love is (especially if we feel it) yet we can’t see it and we would struggle to describe it to someone who has no experience of love. Put the concept of ‘love’ next to a ‘battlefield’, which we can see, touch and describe, and then we end up with a new entity, a new way to view love. Of course, whether love actually is a battlefield is a matter of debate. It can be, I guess – fighting, gore, lost limbs, noise, sweat? My point is that ordinary language cannot describe love. Yet the use of a meta-device (taking a word out of context and putting it with a new context) gives language the tool needed to create a better image of love (the abstract concept). 

Can we conclude from this that art can aid in the description of intangible things such as love, hate, happiness, better than language alone can? Yes! Of course I believe that. I’m an artist.

I also like the idea that metaphors exist in the metaverse of our minds (we create them, they didn’t exist before we came along with our words and ways to juxtapose words in an artistic way) and the metaverse of cyberspace (someone put that cat penguin online for me to find today). There is no such thing as a battlefield of love, a thing that we can touch. Yet, can you imagine it in your head? Could I, as the artist, create this image and put it out into cyberspace? I’d like to think that were possible. I’m not sure I want to do it with ‘love is a battlefield’ but I might like to do it with other, more interesting, less cliched metaphors.

The world is a bizarre and lovely place, it has many levels which I don’t think we appreciate enough yet: the real level (the level I see now sat here in my studio looking out at Wolverhampton in all its urbanised glory), the level of our minds (the thoughts circling my head right now) and the level of the virtual (the cat penguins on the Internet). They blend and they exist, they overlap. There is so much more to discover, and next I would like to travel by my mind’s magic carpet to the land of cyber-metaphors.

As an appendix to this blog entry, I have a question: how many metaphors can I get away with using yet still retain credibility in one blog post? If anyone gets the correct number, they will win the ice-cream cone of intellectual superiority. Well done! As for credibility? I think I have lost it. It has been quite good fun writing badly on purpose. I hope you, dear reader, have enjoyed the ride as much as I have.

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Is this compulsory? Reflections from the 2018 Fine Art Degree Show

It is degree show time in the UK art education world. Last Friday, marked the opening of the University of Wolverhampton 2018 Fine Art Degree Show. It was my fourth in a row. The first I attended as a future Wolverhampton fine art student, the second I took part in even though I wasn’t quite graduating yet, the third was for my graduation, and this one, I participated in as an interloper, as an MA student ‘one year on’.

The title of the catalogue this year is: ‘Is This Compulsory?’ I’m not sure where the title came from or what it means to the students graduating with their BAs but it resonates quite strongly with me, a one-year-on graduate in fine art.

To me the question ‘Is This Compulsory?’ reflects a more direct, less friendly question I have been asked a lot since I took up art 6 years ago after a hiatus of 20 years. That question is: ‘Why are you doing this?’

The question is bold, yet I have been asked it a lot in many guises (and it is often accompanied by a look of bemusement). The sentiment behind the question has many elements: Why are you spending your time engaging in something that probably won’t bring you fame and certainly won’t bring you fortune, costs you money, definitely doesn’t pay the bills, and isn’t academically or physically difficult (of course, this is a naive, and erroneous view)? Why are you being so selfish? Why aren’t you putting your family first? It isn’t compulsory, they say, so why do it, why? It doesn’t lead to a ‘better job’ they cry. It doesn’t feed your family, they add. Art isn’t necessary, it is the lesson you doss about in at school. It is a luxury, a self-indulgence or it is a sign that the real world is too much for you to take. In summary, it is just a frivolous waste of your time. 

The big question

My answer to these questions within the question is: I don’t know why I am doing this, I just am, and it is compulsory, to me, I cannot stop and I won’t stop. In fact, I refuse to stop. It is intellectually challenging. It is supporting my family (in their creative education and development) and it is physically demanding.

Looking around the exhibits at the degree show this year I see that there are many other people who share this view. They also feel the compulsion to create. They share my need to view the world through a visual lens. They are unable to resist the impulse to make, paint, draw, construct, speak, act, live, breathe and be art. They want to communicate with the outside world, with you, with me, through colour, shapes, images, words, sounds, effects, emotions and objects. They are art. Art is compulsory.

From Caitlin Doherty’s massive, temporary nudes which pulse with emotion and essence to Colin Marshall’s thought-provoking visual reflections on the image in the digital age and to Kirsty Adams’ quirky, hyperreal cyber shop of social media delights (which my children loved) I could feel this compulsion coming through very strongly. I felt it elsewhere too of course – in the colours, textures, shapes, words and painterly skills I saw. I particularly felt it during the opening night with the buzz, the heat, the noise and the excitement. The annual show is  a celebration of compulsion and obsession, and I felt this even more so this year. Even today, three days later, when the show is still open to the public, yet without the buzz and bustle, I still feel it. The work on the walls is whispering, a bit like the boys in the black-and-white photographs in the scene in Dead Poet’s Society who whisper to the current students: ‘Carpe Diem, Carpe Diem’. The artworks are whispering to the doubters out there: ‘Art is compulsory, art is compulsory’.

Art is in the blood of many. It is in the heart of many. Yet why do so many regard it as a fuzzy, frivolous, superficial superfluous extra of human endeavour, including those in charge of education and budgets? This is a tragedy and completely wrong and ultimately very, very worrying for the future of my children and their children. Art needs to be celebrated, championed, and encouraged for all. It is a philosophy, it is a way of problem solving, thinking up ideas, communicating, translating, reflecting, narrating. It is a way of life. It is human nature. It just is.

Art is compulsory. And that is also why I am wearing this t-shirt today: Save Wolverhampton Arts!

My t-shirt


At least that is how art is for me. I cannot yet see the end to my art. And why should I?


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Duckie vs Fortnight – what would you give up?

In my research for my Masters I am looking at our relationship with real, tangible objects – things we can have a haptic experience with – compared with our relationship with virtual intangible objects (hyperobjects) such as Facebook, Twitter, digital photographs, text online, the Internet, games – things we cannot have a haptic experience with in the traditional sense. (Here I see another question – can the haptic exist in the virtual? That’s another blog for another day. My brain is working overtime today.)

I believe that most of us living in the contemporary world feel as strong a pull towards virtual possessions, a pull as strong as the one we have with real ones. I don’t ascribe to the fear of the digital and the argument for the addictive nature of social media and the Internet. Rather, I acknowledge that they are equal in our lives to the reality of physical things. This is based on my own experience. However, I think it is unpopular to regard digital possessions as as equally valid as non-digital ones. Why is that? Is that just a prejudice against the modern? A fear of the addictive quality of the digital (or the supposed addictive quality of the digital)? It reminds me of the 1970s fear of watching too much television leads to square-shaped eyes. I’m sure Walter Benjamin would have something to say about the pernicious digital age (at least in relation to art).

Today over lunch I asked my two youngest children to make a choice between keeping the Internet or keeping their non-essential physical possessions. My middle son currently spends a lot of time playing Minecraft and Fortnite on his computer. He uses the Internet via his phone to keep in touch with friends. My youngest son doesn’t have a phone but he uses the Internet like a set of 1970s encyclopedias he can carry around in iPad form. I cannot imagine him being happy without google at his fingertips. In fact, when his iPad needs charging, he struggles when he has a burning question on his mind (particularly if I don’t know the answer to it).

That game that people are talking about

They asked a few questions such as ‘Can I keep my clothes?’, ‘Are you really going to take something away?’ and ‘Am I in trouble?’ But once I reassured them, surprisingly, they both chose to give up the Internet. They didn’t hesitate in their answers. Even when asked ‘Are you sure?’ 

Is that because the Internet is intangible and they cannot ‘imagine’ a life without it in the same way they can imagine a life without real things? They can ‘feel’ their things more easily in their mind (as well as their hands) when pondering the question compared to ‘feeling’ a loss for Fortnite, google and minecraft. If I could conduct the experiment in real terms and ask them to spend a week without their things except their iPad, iPhone and computer and then a week without the iPad etc, would their answers differ from before? 

I’m currently asking this question on social media (ironic, I know). I will be interested to see the response from adults compared to younger people and children. My sample is quite small so far – about six adults have replied, with no doubt, to say they’d give up their digital possessions including the Internet.

As for myself, I’m struggling. There is so much in my digital sphere, such as access to friends and family, messages, photographs that are just stored digitally, my blog, emails and access to a wealth of information and entertainment that I would struggle to live without and that feel quite attached to. Yet, if I had to give up old letters and photographs from the pre-Internet age, my books, my jewellery and gifts from people which I treasure, that would break me too.

This leads me to conclude that for myself at least, the digital, non-tangible possessions I have are just as important to me as the ones I can see and touch as I type this, such as my pebble people. I bought one of these a couple of years ago. I saw this in a seaside shop and immediately a memory flooded my head – I had had this ornament as a child. As a consequence, I had to buy one and I now treasure this mere thing.

Rock concert – get it?

Would I be happy with just this picture of it, in my blog? I’m not sure. What would the pebbles say?

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Do you want to live in cyberspace?

I have been rather consumed with the idea of a parallel place to this place which we all know and love on earth called cyberspace, where things are a little warped, a little strange, a little out of the ordinary. 

What do we know about cyberspace? Not a huge amount, it seems. I’ve done some research. 

Firstly, I wanted to find out where the prefix cyber- came from. Cyber as a prefix first appeared as part of what was called cybernetics, a scientific field of study that was developed in the 1940s. This word ‘cybernetics’ derived from a Greek word kubernētēs (κυβερνᾶν), ‘steersman’, which comes from kubernan which means to steer. Cybernetics, as a term, associated with the blending of man and machine, soon became synonymous with the notion of ‘the future’, specifically, a future where man and machine are both equally thinking sentients. It wasn’t quite real.

The traditional image of cyberspace

Shortly after the birth of cybernetics, in the 1960s and through to the postmodern era in the 1990s, we see a proliferation of adapted words based on the prefix cyber, including cybercubicle, cyberfriend, cyberlover, cybersnob, and even adverbs like cyber-sheepishly. Arguably, the most enduring of these was the word, cyborg (made up of the cyb- of cybernetics and the org- or organism) described a blending of the man-made machine and the organic being studied in cybernetics to create something that had the capability of thinking freely and adapting to new environments. Cyborg has endured time. We still talk of cyborgs.

The term cyberspace itself was another of the ‘cyber-‘ words that proliferated following the 1960s and one which has endured to now. It is widely, but incorrectly, believed to have first appeared in 1982, in William Gibson’s novella ‘Burning Chrome’. In fact, it appeared earlier in a piece of art.

It first appeared in capital letters in the lower right-hand corner of a collage showing human figures placed within a space made up of geometric and organic shapes and forms. The creators of this piece of art were artist Susanne Ussing (1940­–1998) and architect Carsten Hoff (b. 1934). Together they produced many works during the years 1968–1970 under the umbrella name Atelier Cyberspace.

In these terms then, initially, the concept of cyberspace was not particularly philosophical or theoretical. It certainly wasn’t scientific of science fictional. 

The interesting thing about Ussing and Hoff’s cyberspace is the fact that it was a spatial concept. It was all about the organic interconnectedness between human form and the world. They were very much ahead of their time in considering this relationship. This ‘space’ is somewhere, which, perhaps ironically, has disappeared as technology has engulfed our lives. Yet, perhaps, this way of looking at the blending of the real and the virtual in our lives should not be seen as having died. There is a comforting place in cyberspace. This is how I see cyberspace. It is a place where strange things could exist, such as the captured glitches in the google maps landscape and images of two-headed cats on google earth, the objects imagined and described via social media, the bizarre, esoteric poetic text created scanned texts online.

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) entry for cyberspace defines it as: ‘the space of virtual reality; the notional environment within which electronic communication (esp. via the Internet) occurs’.

Cyberspace now is associated with lawlessness, fear, lack of control and an underworld. Why shouldn’t it be a pleasant underworld? A sensual place where things that don’t look like they should be real, are real, where bodies are different and merged with text and objects. It could be a world where two-legged tables exist, gravity works sideways, the ceiling is the floor and the floor is the ceiling. It could be a place of a childhood imagination. Is it a place of pure data? It is a place where potentially, anything could happen.

This cat lives in cyberspace

William Gibson described cyberspace as a ‘nonspace’. This ‘nonspace’ means a space which lacks the physicality that ‘space’ implies. It is, to him, an imaginary location, if location is the right word, where information assumes the properties of matter. Gibson also described cyberspace as ‘collective hallucination’. This implies that it is the place of many minds – my mind as it meets yours online. However, to divorce the real and the virtual in this way, to create this ‘cyberspace’ seems to be missing the point.

The Internet, or, cyberspace, was supposed to be this free, utopian place where there would be no gender, no race, no superiority or inferiority, no rules, no commercialism, no capitalism, no politics at all. It was a place separate from the rest of reality. It was a place of unbridled optimism.

Unreal roads

The real-virtual dualism is fictional. If lived experience is reflected so badly in the notion of cyberspace, the question is: what drove us to imagine cyberspace in the first place, and why does the concept still persist? The myth of cyberspace, that digital information inhabits a world apart from physical matter, is perhaps a reaction to the spread of interactive communications technologies, not all of which are in fact digital. The mythical ‘cyberspace’ is the space between the physical realities – two phones, two computers. Bruce Sterling, in The Hacker Crackdown, argues that cyberspace emerges from a subjective experience of separation. Sterling states that ‘we do not really know how to live in cyberspace yet’ (1992). He notes that cyberspace is a genuine place. I agree with him. It is as real as this current space I sit in. The interesting irony of the concept of cyberspace is that, even though we have thus far embraced it to resolve cognitive dissonance, it has causes more of it. Our offline lives impact our online lives, and visa vesa.

What’s more, I have recently found out also that you can exist in cyberspace after you die. There are ways and means to tweet to Twitter and to update your status in Facebook after you die. You can also request that messages or videos be sent to your loved ones on special occasions such as their birthdays, weddings etc long after you have died. 

A headless selfie – cyberspace is ironic

So this place which I am fascinated with includes two legged cats, strange gravitational forces, wonky roads, and dead people. Does that not sound uber-cool to you? It does to me.

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MA in Fine Procrastination

I am now nearly half way through my part-time MA by research in Art and Design. I am sitting here in my studio in Wolverhampton doing what I do best: procrastinating. Even better, I am writing about procrastinating. I should actually say that I am reflecting back on the last 8 months, since I started in October, and that is a useful thing to do. It isn’t procrastinating at all. But no, I really am just procrastinating, by writing about procrastinating. 

As I type, I am sat in my studio sipping coffee and thinking. This is more-or-less what I do every week, twice, sometimes thrice a week. It feels as if this is what I have been doing for the whole 8 months now: sitting, sipping coffee, looking out over the lovely Wolverhampton skyline from my sixth-floor studio window, and thinking. I think a lot.

I’ve read all of these, honest!

There are days when I feel that all I have achieved is ‘faff’, think and daydream. There are days and days when I seem to just sit here, often by myself but not always, sip coffee, leaf through the odd high-brow art book, jot a few notes down in a Word document called ‘MA Thesis draft’, browse the university library catalogue for ideas, post something peculiar on Facebook (such as: thoughts have shape, discuss) and perhaps do the odd painting (not much painting, just the odd one). This routine entertains me for hours. This routine has kept me going for weeks, 8 months in fact. 

However, if I look at all those notes, musings and odd paintings I have gathered around me over the last 8 months or so, I see that I have perhaps done something. It might not be as tangible as I’d like it to be, but there is something there. Perhaps it is more a cloud of thought than a concrete, touchable object.

I feel as if I am at least part of my way to constructing an ‘interesting question’ that might develop into my final MA Thesis. Somewhere along the line, over the last 8 months, I have jotted down around 16,000 random words in relation to my musings and odd paintings, Facebook questions and random thoughts. Somewhere here, there is a possible ‘interesting question’. Of course, the words I have written are completely incoherent and higgledy piggledy. They don’t even make that much sense to me yet. They certainly cannot be read by anyone else. 

I have indeed spent an awful lot of time thinking about my ‘interesting question’ and asking questions that relate to the question, and more questions that relate to those questions, which leads to even more questions and more thoughts and more peculiar Facebook status updates to see what other people think and how they respond to my weird thoughts about art. 

Reflecting back on the past 8 months I realise that being a philosopher / artists / MA student actually suits me quite well. I am the queen of procrastination. I love procrastination. In fact, I should do an MA in procrastination. I might get a distinction for it. Doing this MA, I have been given licence to think, play, question, ask daft questions of others, write, muse and stare out of the window. It is heaven to me.

That is why I love this life. I might not feel the same way 12 months from now when I am having to craft my ‘jottings’ into a 30,000 word thesis worthy of other eyes. I suspect I will be regretting the staring, coffee sipping and magazine reading. Maybe not. Time will tell. What is time, anyway? Oh dear, off I go again.

My life

I just need to hope that the answer to the ‘interesting question’ comes to me. It will. I feel it. It is there. It is in the ether of my mind and online. I can see it yet I can’t touch it (oh the irony).

For now, in the meantime, I need to sip more coffee, stare at the skyline and let my mind explore and my hand will follow.


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Can you feel it? The amazing world of the haptic

As I type this, I can feel the dusty yet smooth keyboard keys at my fingertips; the bouncy, malleable sofa against my back, arms, bottom and legs; the soft, cotton fabric of my skirt on my thighs; my tickly hair against my face; the sleek but sweaty rings on my fingers; the hard, refreshingly cool wooden floor under my feet; the warmth of the sun to my right as it streams through the window; and a troublesome heat radiating from inside my body, stored there from sitting in a hot car. I’ve just got home.

In my explorations of objects, our relationship with objects, our perceptions to the art of objects (particularly still life) and judgements on those objects, I’ve been thinking more recently about where we end and where objects begin. In particular, where we touch objects in cyberspace and how that experience can relate to the real-world haptic experience.

Haptic: comes from the Greek haptikos meaning ‘able to come into contact’. The term was first used in it’s Anglicised form by Isaac Barrow in 1683 in his Lectiones Mathematicae (Lanier, 2017) but it is only more recently when the word has been thrown around scientific and artistic circles.

What does it really mean? I can’t quite describe it to you but I know it when I feel it.

There’s something fascinating to me about the word ‘haptic’. It seems to have a magical, mystical quality. I’m not sure why, except that scientists are still trying to work out what ‘touch’ is all about in terms of the mind-body experience and how to quantify it and measure it. Something that cannot be easily categorised or analysed is always going to have a sense of mysticism about it, at least for me it is.

In very basic terms, haptics are about the sensations of touch and feel. The word defines how the body is able to make sense of space and motion through the meeting of physical entities and the emotional sensation that ensues. It’s not so much about the actual point of physical contact between the body and a surface as about how the mind reacts to that physical contact. In other words, the ‘haptic’ describes the sensations that cause emotions such as pain, pleasure, revulsion or attraction. There is still a lot of mystery associated with the haptic modality. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how it feels to touch a smooth surface. Scientists remain baffled by it. As do philosophers. It is this fact alone that fascinates me. I love things that confuse us and give us wonder. 

It is far easier to describe sensations from objects through the language of shape, colour or sound. It is much more difficult to describe sensations through touch. Visual metaphors translate much more easily to other people than do haptic ones. Haptic metaphors are much more personal, they are based on intuition rather than a pre-defined quality. What I feel when I touch the petal of a flower, the surface of metal, the fur of a dog might not be the same as what you feel. I know that I feel a lot. But do we all? Haptics requires direct contact and an emotional response which is purely individual. The body can only feel in this way by physical touch.

Haptics is relevant to my art practice because I believe that we are connected with our objects in a way that we don’t yet understand. They are not mere things. They are more than things. They are equal to us and a part of us. They guide us, we guide them. The relationship is mutual and balanced.

The philosophy of haptics stretches into so many areas of life, not just in terms of the blending of the real and virtual worlds. There is a lot of haptic thought that has to go into virtual reality technology. It is apparently a really complicated sensation to replicate in the virtual world, using pure data. That makes sense given that we cannot quantify the sensation and we cannot say that it is equal to all. Interestingly, phantom haptic reactions can be induced in the virtual world, such as feeling in phantom limbs, phantom tales and real areas of pain in the real world connected to the virtual world. If that is so, which it appears to be, there is more to touch than meets the eye, ironically.

My non-haptic virtual chair

When I tried virtual reality drawing, the haptic response was totally lacking and my hand had to adjust to this and my mind struggled with the idea of these three-dimensional non-haptic objects. I created an object yet I couldn’t touch it. It might be easy to imagine that but when you are in the ‘world’ of virtual reality your body expects to be able to touch and the lack of touch throws all the mind’s assumptions about the world off kilter. The virtual world is the only place I know of where this contradiction exists. I feel privileged that I have had the chance to confuse my mind in this way.

I believe that every touch we make impacts every object touched. A minuscule amount of the object is shaved off by our touch. That minuscule shaving has an impact on the feelings of the touch. What I want to ask is: Does the sensation of touch stay within that tiny flake of object? What happens to the haptic force that gets absorbed by that piece of thing?

Is there such as thing as the haptic force?

I need to think some more about this. That is part of what being an artist and a philosopher is all about, trying to reason with the unreasonable. Yet, annoyingly, the haptic thing is defying my attempts to understand it. Perhaps I just need to feel it.

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Fuzzy Things

In my obsession with the thingyness of things, or to borrow the term coined by Jane Bennett, the ‘power of things’, and our relationship with objects, all stuffs, whether they be real, virtual, real, hyper-real, tangible, intangible, factual or fictional, I recently decided to conduct a rather fun experiment. This is the lighter side of doing an MA by research: fun art practice research.

I’m still living in an exclusive monochrome world and foresee staying here for a while longer, so I wanted to relate this need for a void of colour in our vibrant reality to my life-long passion for objects. The aim with my MA research so far has been to tease out an essence of an object through the medium of still-life painting by extracting that one element, colour, with a desire to create something new and hopefully interesting. This time, however, I foresaw finding something, somewhere in the ether, not something I can touch.

I knew that I still needed to paint more things in monochrome. I just needed a new direction to go off in. I didn’t want real things, such as the fried egg or the pile of baked beans. I wanted to see if I could take the genre of still life into the cyberworld. I wanted to experiment with being in an abstract, semi-figurative and the fictional world beyond this one.

I needed a way to imagine new objects, objects that don’t exist in exclusively either the data world or in the tangible world. I wanted to create ‘between-the-two-worlds’ objects.

I came up with the idea of painting real objects, that are real somewhere else, but are translated to me via social media and via the medium of language not image.

To this end, I asked people on social media to describe one thing to me. I told them that I didn’t want to know what the thing was. I just needed their description. I would then paint the thing described, literally, based on the words alone. In addition, I would translate any colour language into black and white. I wouldn’t try to guess the identity of the thing, necessarily, but I would paint what they asked for, almost in a mechanical way (although I did inject an element of the visual image of the objects in my head – this image created by words).

I received an overwhelming response. So far, I have had at least 30 replies. All of which were different, but interesting and valid in their own way. They varied from ‘soft and scratchy’ to four paragraphs describing an object in almost scientific detail down the lengths, shades, colour, size, relative proportions and materials. This all fascinated me for a number of reasons. I was amazed at the variety of people’s capacity to describe. I also received some rather humorous responses (‘black and white and red all over’ and ‘olive skinned and handsome’). Generalising a little here but the more artistic, creative friends tended to use very visual words to describe their objects (‘shaped like the female form but without limbs’) whereas the perhaps less creative friends (those who work in non-creative industries such as IT) tended to use a very logical, prescriptive system for ‘recreating’ their objects in linguistic form. I also saw a slight variance in terms of age, gender, and frequency of use of social media. 

Is it a musical instrument? Is it grinning at me?

To date I have painted 17 objects. These objects range from the recognisable to the bizarre. I feel oddly very attached to my objects. It is as if I have somehow extracted them from a place in cyberspace that isn’t accessible, isn’t visible, isn’t quite real yet it really is real. Or perhaps I have extracted them from a parallel universe inside my head, or even inside the heads of others, a dream-like place where the objects are all known and familiar, where they all meet and mingle. A place where they are normal.

Soft and Scratchy

To me, these objects exist. They are tangible. They even have personalities. They are on my studio wall, and they stare at me all day. They blink when I’m not looking. They grin. They are alive to me. They giggle. Am I going mad? I don’t think so. Not yet. Where are they? Where do they exist? I made them so they exist. I think their lack of colour adds an eerie, uncanny aspect to them. It is almost as if they have travelled from somewhere where colour isn’t a thing. They have travelled from the past yet from a parallel place. 

And, yes, if you are from the object-oriented ontology or new materialist school of thought, colour indeed is a ‘thing’.

The Wall of Fuzzy Things

All of these thoughts are now going around my head, angular, bombarding and all pervasive. Where will I go next? Watch this cyberspace.



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Materials vs Us – review of New Art West Midlands 2018

The New Art West Midlands competition and exhibition is now an annual event. It showcases a selection of up-and-coming pieces from emerging artists in the area. This is the third time I’ve been to at least one of the exhibitions (the works are shown in a number of locations around the area) and each time I find much to inspire me.

The phrase that kept coming to my mind as I walked around the artworks selected for this year’s New Art West Midlands on display at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was ‘human-material interaction’.

There is great variety in the artworks on show in Birmingham this year (and elsewhere, alas I have yet to visit the other venues) encompassing video, digital, painting, sculpture, installation, photography, print and material.

Each piece in Birmingham appeared very different from each other, yet there was a clear commonality and relationship between them. That is that we impact on materials and materials impact on us.

As artists, we have a vast array of material and media available to us in the 21st century. In fact, I’d even say that more-or-less anything goes. We are able to pick a material and mould it into something of our choosing in order to convey an idea or imbue it with a meaning for the viewer to take on board or an ‘essence’ for the viewer to feel. 

I do this with my creative endeavors. My art practice is concept-driven and I pick the material I think best suits the concept, rather than putting myself in a situation where the material brings forth a concept, or something that suits, or is chosen by, that material. I suspect that many artists today operate in the same way. This means that as artists we have to be multi-talented, or, at least very brave in experimentation. 

The artists in this exhibition display both bravery with their use of materials and originality of concept. They embrace with open arms the varied material world of the current age. This is admirable. Not only that, they cross the boarders between the various materials. They blend – sound mixed with sculpture, painting mixed with digital effects, projection and objects. 

There is much to see and feel essence from in this exhibition, but the work that resonated the most for me was Jessica Eburne’s TR project. Her project is inspired by repetitive and ritualistic trends found in our relationship with current technology. T stands for technology and R stands for religion. They may seem vastly different, but they are not. Technology has become a new religion for us. For this project she created an interactive shrine to the social media world. The shrine is combined with a stream of a Alexa- or Siri-style conversation which is in text format and audible format.

The shrine. 

Also looking at social media and how it impinges on our ‘real’ or ‘material’ lives is Bryony Loveridge’s piece ‘A Self Reflection’. This consisted of a wall of mirrors adorned with decorations of various styles and types. The effect is similar to the one you get on screen when looking at Instagram or Pinterest. Looking at the mirrors is like looking at a wall of attractive, beautified selfies at the same time as looking at ‘pretty’ but deliberately chosen decorations or ideas. I felt slightly disembodied, yet curious. I felt like Alice.

Looking at me looking at me.

And of course I have to mention the work of my old tutor, Simon Harris. His paintings evoke a contemporary sublime reaction for me, if that makes sense. I feel the sublime yet I feel I am in a world between the real and unreal. I find the slightly ‘digital’ feel to his paintings, which are clearly not digital, fascinating. Ironically, it is impossible to get that same effect viewing his paintings online. Here is yet another example of a blending of the material with the immaterial, the notions of real and virtual or digital. This painting isn’t digital, yet it appears to have a digital element or effect.

A painting that does not work online

Despite the links with the digital, virtual worlds in all of the artworks on display, or at least, in many of them, overall they appeared to be unexpectedly very tactile, interactive, and visually exciting. I like that irony.


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