Writing art and life
Tamarin Norwood discusses how blogs on Artists talking can paint a better picture of artistic practice than just painting a picture.
Artists talking shows the workings of artistic practice, and behind the scenes of art you get life. So it comes as no surprise that our everyday lives are in continuous evidence on these pages.
We make choices about what to include and what to exclude in our blogs, and these choices reflect what each of us feels it takes to make the work we make. Artistic practice does not stop at the studio door: we continually carry around with us the intellectual, affective and practical demands of our work, and to accommodate this, our blogs become extensions of our studios. They offer a frame that marks out the boundaries of a practice containing not only the finished works, but the work it takes to get them finished. The blogs acknowledge that a painting isn't only painted with brush and canvas, it's painted with cups of tea, funding applications, the children settled with their homework, the boiler needing attention. One of my favourite posts on Jacqueline Berridge's blog1 reads:
- Updated HMS website
- Phoned the court about procedures - recommend emailing the judgedirectly.
- Emailed the court - followed up with phonecall to see if received. Positive.
- Phoned HFC company secretary re letting. We have someone keen to rent the ground floor and checked to see if all relevant documents have arrived. Positive.
- Made a list of food for buffet for HMS open studios and list of artists. Circulated on googlegroups - already positive response.
- Responded to request for rent receipt for tax purposes (for artist).
- Sorted email for HMS Open Studios invite and send.
- Sorted listings on free websites for HMS Open Studios
- And today was supposed to be a painting day...
- oh and nearly forgot- paid business rates installment
... and from David Minton's blog:2
I found this hen pheasant by the side of the road, relatively undamaged. Due to the recent spell of coldish weather, I have been able to spend some time drawing it. It tested my capacity to see what I was looking at. The mere fact of looking and turning away, moving slightly, was enough to lose my point of focus. Added to this, the shape of the bird changed subtly from day to day, feathers shifting slightly, body shape relaxing.
These excerpts indicate how, across a spectrum of practices, the blogs attest to the real-world pressures that can support, contain and constrain our practices. Berridge's 'painting day' is determined by the demands of studio management; Minton's drawing by the demands of the cadaver's decomposition. We include on our blogs whatever it might be that makes a difference to our working lives, building first-hand pictures of these lives as we go along. What makes browsing these pages so compelling is that no two contributors concur over what 'counts' as relevant to the practice of an artist. In every case what we write is what it takes to make the work we make.
But as we construct the pictures of our lives online, something else happens too. Our decisions about what 'counts' reflect not just what it takes to get our work done, but what we choose to include in the narratives we tell. Having a cup of tea is one thing; having a cup of tea and then posting the fact on my blog is something quite different. It makes the tea part of the story I'm telling about myself and, given that Artists Talking is where artists talk, it makes the tea part of the story I'm telling about myself as an artist.
And as the tea creeps into the writing, the writing creeps into the tea. Keep a blog and suddenly everything you do is taking place in advance of a possible write-up. We can be sure that one way or another, writing about a thing changes it. Continually available to become the subject of writing, daily life acquires an attentiveness that can edge it almost towards performance. We live, and we watch ourselves living. We write it up. We write our stories into existence. We write ourselves into existence? What is at stake as we choose to do this?
The Happenings of Allan Kaprow were designed as ephemeral and unrepeatable moments in the lives of their participants. He sought in these works to create scenarios that were, structurally at least, almost indistinguishable from everyday life. Materially documenting these immaterial 'lifelike' events would compromise their impermanence and Kaprow was quite aware of this. Nevertheless, he chose to write and publish scores for his Happenings, to take and collect photographs of them and to describe them in crafted prose for the purpose of securing their place in artistic discourse, "even if this meant throwing into question his commitment to the living immediacy of the passing moment"3. He did this with difficulty - rethinking his documentation over and over again - but in the end he found it a compromise worth making if it gave his works the audience they needed. And find their audience they did, but not without a shift in what had made them unique. Happenings reach today us not as singular, fleeting and unique events but as the renowned original indexes of the numerous traces they leave within the art establishment. Happenings now have cult status. Retrospectively saturated with the knowledge of their historical place, their one-time ephemerality has acquired the weight of commodity.
Towards the end of his career Kaprow chose to abandon his public and often very visible Happenings in favour of more private and introspective events for only one or two participants. That records of these events have found their way into the public domain by Kaprow's own hand is symptomatic of the paradox we face as we write up our working lives online. The private events are a vital part of Kaprow's wider project, so if we are to understand his work we need to know about them. But now they are public, these once private events have lost their force. They are themselves in quotation marks.
Adding quotation marks to the living immediacy of our everyday lives lends our passing moments the weight of permanence - or at least stasis - and under that weight don't they stagger a little? We capture these fleeting things at a price: once written down, they are captive. But as these captive moments take material form in the writing on our blogs, the compromise seems worthwhile after all.
The writing of our daily lives accumulates around our artwork even though the words leave no visible mark on its surface. To continue the painting metaphor: the blogs register not the brushstrokes themselves (which, in any case, register on the canvas plane) but the movements of the brush, the hands, the eyelids, the dabs of paint we retract before they quite touch the surface, the pausing, the staring, the going away and having a break, the walk home, the day job, the walk back. By collecting up these movements, the blogs invite our artworks to refer outwards to the events that produced them, so that like Jackson Pollock's action paintings the works outlive the events that made them, only to exist as present and static accretions of layer after layer of past activity. Pollock wrote that he prefers to tack his unstretched canvasses across his studio floor so that he can "literally be in the painting" as he works4. Collecting together the fragments of our artworks and our daily lives as one, these blogs offer us a precarious platform upon which to balance ourselves as artists: as we write, we are neither quite in our artwork or outside.
* * *
Now and again I discover among these pages an occasional blog created and long abandoned without a single post. A space has been cleared for a story that is never written. It occurs to me that these empty blogs might be in full use just as they stand: that for these wordless artists, nominating a platform for silent reflection might be all the writing they choose to accumulate.
Tamarin Norwood, 'The Writing of Performance' in (W)reading Performance Writing: A Guide (2010: pp.7-8), ed. Rachel Lois Clapham www.thisisliveart.co.uk/resources/Study_Room/guides/rachel_lois_clapham_guide.html
Christopher Thomas' Artists Talking article, which considers abandoned blogs www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/article/536689
Theron Schmidt, Book review: Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh www.a-n.co.uk/interface/reviews/single/511726
1 Jacqueline Berridge's blog, Setting up 18 studios, Long Eaton, Nottingham # 118 www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/single/372162
2 David Minton's blog, Dead and dying flowers #58 www.a-n.co.uk/artists_talking/projects/single/484092
3 E. Meyer-Hermann et al (Eds.) Allan Kaprow: Art as Life. Thames & Hudson, London (2008: 27)
4 “The Wild Ones”, in Time Magazine 20/02/1956 www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,808194-2,00.html
First published: a-n.co.uk January 2011
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