Dirty Practice Day One – is cleanliness really next to godliness?

This week I am taking part in the annual University of Wolverhampton Dirty Practice Symposium. This is a week-long art practice, thinking, talking, discussing event which is open to students, artists and thinkers alike. This is the first time I have taken part in the whole week of the event. 

This year’s title is ‘Don’t Wash Your Hands! Cross Contamination of the Arts and the Institution’. Contamination here is not necessarily a negative, although we tend to see it thus. At least, I certainly did before today. I’ve been thinking a lot today about the word ‘contamination’. There’s nothing I love more than having my thoughts provoked and that is what a good symposium does.

The main theme of the symposium is the ‘contamination’ of the outside on the inside. This could mean ‘contamination’ of society and culture on the artist, or contamination of other artists on the self as an artist in the same space, or contamination of other disciplines on the arts such as science, maths, engineering, philosophy or whatever. It is about crossing the boundaries. It is about contamination in art education and how that can be a positive.

There are a number of secondary themes related to the main concept, which we discussed in the introductory session. One is about the nature of ‘hygienic’ and ‘dirty’ and how they relate metaphorically to other areas of life. We see ‘dirty’ as a negative and ‘clean’ as a positive. Dirty is black and clean is white. Dirty is depraved and clean is angelic. Why is this so? Dirty is also creative and clean is sterile. Dirty is illogical and clean is logical. Sterile and logical aren’t always positives. Illogical can result in new ideas. Does logical ever do that? Other secondary themes relate to the purity of the image, and contamination of the image.

I like to think on my wall.

At first, I wasn’t sure how the themes related to my own art practice. I was taking the word ‘contamination’ too literary and I was a bit wary of the word ‘clean’. Also, what is it about the ‘purity of the image’ that connects to the sort of paintings I do? However, as the day wore on I had a bit of a light bulb moment. 

My practice is about things and contamination is actually a very strong theme in the world of things. We effect the lives of things, and this is a type of contamination. We contaminate all things we come across, with both positive and negative forces. We give them good memories and bad. We leave a patina on them, which is ‘dirty’. In that context, to me, contamination and dirt are good.

But I am also interested in the idea that everything is either something or the opposite and this notion of clean vs dirty fits into that. We see so much of our lives in binary terms: positive negative, dirty clean, black white, zero one, nothing something, I have always fort against this way of seeing. However, recently, ironically, I’ve started to doubt myself. Last week I started looking at ways to portray objects through a universal language and I came across the notion of using binary code. In binary code things, numbers, colours, properties, images can be described using just two digits repeated in set sequences. These digits are on both sides of everything in between. They are 0 and 1. These digits are used in computing technology in sets of eight and they are used to describe anything. They describe this text, they describe the colour of this text, they describe photos I upload on social media, they can describe anything and everything. In fact, there is nothing that can’t be reduced to 0s and 1s. The two digits, in terms of electronic processes, represent ‘off’ and ‘on’. They are indeed opposites. So, I reasoned last week, surely this means that the world really is binary? 

I have yet to resolve this in my mind. Seeing the world as two sides, or as describable from two sides, goes against everything I have previously believed. I have been a firm advocate of the grey areas since I can remember. But if grey can be described in terms of black and white, just as anything can, then there is no grey. I’m not sure I like that. Yet, there is beauty and purity here.

How does this relate to a dirty practice? Dirty is black, clean is white. Dirty is messy, clean is tidy. Dirty is bad, clean is good. Again, we see the binary nature of our thinking coming into play. But dirty is below the clean. Dirty contaminates clean and clean contaminates dirty. This might actually imply that grey exists. Now I am confused.

Even the concept of the purity of the image relates to my recent paintings. I have come to believe that my abstracting of them, from original, to photograph, to virtual reality, to painting, to line is away of trying to find a purity in the object.

In terms of what I am doing for the symposium, I haven’t yet related the themes to my plans. I need to think some more. So initially, I’ve asked people to bring objects to me so I can create a 21st-century still life. I’m not sure yet how I am going to paint this still life. I need to adapt it to this idea of opposites and binary, black and white, dirty and clean and purity of image.

Please give me objects.

I guess I will just have to be predictable at this point and say watch this space. In order to get clean, and pure, I must first get dirty.

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