Ideas? Technical issues?
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By: Trevor Smith
Fine Art BA
Media, where anything goes.
# 8 [1 February 2012]
Anagrams in MDF on the CNC router
For the past two years I have made a lot of text-based work, all of which has been presented in vinyl on the studio wall. Finally, at the beginning of year three, I have branched out into three dimensions.
As happens so rarely (for me) this idea has its roots in its visual effect. I mentioned to a tutor that I had been thinking about how text might look on a large piece of MDF board (painted or coated in something nice and glossy), or even cut out of it. He suggested I take a quick class in Adobe Illustrator and design something to be cut out with the CNC router they have in woodwork.
I had been considering the effect that an anagram might have - cutting a word out of a piece of wood, forming an anagram out of its letters, and presenting it alongside the cut MDF. I struggled to come up with an anagram that meant anything, then I remembered that early on in the year I had realised that I was thinking myself OUT of making work, and that this time I had to just MAKE SOMETHING in order to get the ball rolling; to see whether my instincts about the visual aspect were right.
I needed something short and snappy, with an easy anagram that might at least raise a smile, if not an eyebrow. I went with ELVIS LIVES. At this stage it's only a trial piece, and I have since come up with a few decent anagrams, which I think I will probably make, as I really like the look of ELVIS LIVES.
# 7 [1 February 2012]
Two steps back, two and a half steps forward
In two days I have learned that a bit of negative feedback can act as a soul-crushing setback or it can spur you on to do better next time, and that my own frustratingly amateur workshop knowledge can do exactly the same.
On Monday I met my tutor to discuss the mid-year self-evaluation I had recently given him. It went well, with the exception of one section, in which I had expressed my scepticism about entering the art-world (although I'm sure I really have no idea about what the 'artworld' really is).
I doubt that such scepticism is peculiar to me; as artists we are trained to question everything, in fact, we may even be artists as a result of our inquisitive nature. It just happens that, the day I completed my form was the very worst day of a bad cold that had already rendered me house-bound for two or three days. Suffice to say, my morale was not exactly soaring. I ended up writing that the debates around my work were of no concern to me, because I was going to make the things I wanted to make, regardless of context. My tutor pointed out to me that these claims I made are not even true - his write-up says I have a 'firm grasp' of the context and debates surrounding my work. I would argue that my grasp was a little looser than firm, but I digress; His report pointed out that writing such statements will always come across as naïve, and perhaps even arrogant, until such a time as I have established myself as an artist who is fully grounded in theory and context. In order to critique the establishment, one must first enter into that establishment.
Almost three whole years of studying art, and I choose my final self-evaluation to have my little moment of sticking two fingers up at the institution. Silly me, I think I just about got away with it.
Today I was all set to make a huge text piece out of sheet metal - the kind that rusts. Not really knowing what does and doesn't rust (iron aside, of course) I asked the metalwork technician for a sheet metal that would rust. I was handed a square metre of very shiny sheet metal, which I cut into my large-scale letters. Two hours later I had my text piece ready to go. In conversation I mentioned that all I had to do now was wait for it to rust, to which the technician replied, 'Oh, that won't rust.'
'It's aluminium, it might tarnish eventually, but it won't rust.'
Great. There was a slightly too long silence, during which my body language clearly illustrated how I was feeling. He cut it short, adding 'Oh dear...there's a palpable sense of disappointment in the room!'
So, not only had I spent £18 on a square metre of Aluminium that was now unusable because I had chopped it up into letters specifically for a piece that would rust, but also, it was Wednesday, and our university has recently implemented the 'Wednesday afternoon is for sports only' rule, meaning all workshops now close at half twelve on Wednesdays. I retired to the studio for lunch, and eventually managed to crack a smile about it - I know I'll find some use for my aluminium text, and if not, then I guess I learned to make double-sure that I fully explain all of my requirements to the technicians before I go spending money on the materials they offer up to me.
On the plus side, tomorrow's to-do list has just written itself - I shall remake the piece with sheet steel. I hear it's a lot less forgiving that aluminium when it comes to delicately clipping the edges off to make giant lettering, so that should be fun!
# 6 [26 January 2012]
Wall Piece (Studio Exercise)
When we moved into the third-year studios, our first job was to repair and re-paint the walls - the degree show had taken place there a few months earlier, and most of the graduates appeared to have cut and run as soon as it was all over. Some had even left their work behind!
As it turned out, my studio wall didn't need much work, so I sort of just sat around for a day, removing the odd screw for someone, or sanding down people's hardened poly-filler.
I thought that before I changed the wall's appearance forever, I should document it, and perhaps get a piece of work out of it. Anyway, I hired a camera and started photographing it, square on, up its entire height.
One of my interests is the cross-over, or layering, of representation over reality. I've been looking for two years for a piece of work that touches on the subject. I realised that I could stick these images together, in photoshop, and print it life-size, then drape the composite image over the wall so that I would, in effect, have a representation of the wall layered over the top of the wall, acting in place of the wall.
I even thought of a clever name - 'Wall and Piece' - but I soon remembered that pun had already been made by Banksy, so I shortened it to 'Wall Piece'.
I knew I wanted the representation to be seen as clearly a representation, rather than something that was attempting to be the wall. This piece is not intended to fool you into thinking it is the wall, rather that it reveals itself as a copy - by virtue of it being a composite of different-sized images, surrounded by a white border. Also; there was also no way I was going to recreate the white of the studio wall in photoshop.
An extension of this self-revealing fakery is that I also photographed the floor, so that the image now rolls out across the studio floor, curling up as an effect of it being rolled around a tube while in storage.
I like the end result, and have had several positive tutorials around it, but now that it's done - and it is something that I had to do, regardless of whether it makes it out of the studio - I'm kind of wondering which, if any, direction I can take it in now.
# 5 [24 January 2012]
'I don't know much about art, but I know what I like' is the backup of someone that doesn't know much about art. As students, educated in the mysterious craft of objectivity, we do (or should) know much about art, so we must wave goodbye to such reactionary terms as 'I don't like installations'. We are taught to take a step back from our instincts in order to facilitate an unbiased criticism of the work. Then, once a year, we are expected to turn this new weapon on ourselves, and unpick our own practice, considering our own successes and shortcomings.
I finished my breakfast (egg on toast, scrambled with cream instead of milk - oh the hedonism) and while my laptop whirred into action, I brewed a coffee and started reading through my studio journal, trying to discern any sort of improvement in my methods since last year. Before long I had put that down and was lost in online social media, clearly seeking diversionary activities, but I did eventually open the document that has sat in the centre of my desktop for three weeks: SELF EVALUATION.doc
Self evaluation is not as simple as just talking about your work; I cannot say, for example, 'I take the kind of stuff I wrote down in notepads when I worked in supermarkets and call centres, and stick it on the studio wall and call it art' despite the amount of visiting artists that have described their practice as pretty much exactly that. Until such a time as you are the visiting artist, or at least until you are no longer an art student, you will have to answer questions about your work's 'conceptual and formal elements', and 'the development of appropriate methods and skills in the realisation of your work'.
Too often I have arrived at this stage and become dispirited, closed the document, slurped up the last of my coffee and headed for the studio, but not this time. I plunged another coffee and began.
One section asks about my 'critical and evaluative skills'. Well, I know how to conduct myself in a crit (see earlier post, 'crit-etiquette'), but how do I fare when tasked with locating that much vaunted objectivity when evaluating my own work? The short answer is, terribly. It is not uncommon for me to have to wait until the work is made and shown before I can understand what it really is, and how it functions as art/a thing in the world. Here's a thought: does the fact that I have acknowledged this failing via my self-evaluation report mean I will be commended for such self-criticism of my ability to self-criticise? Does it even matter?
Another section, titled 'Your understanding of your working context and the concerns and debates that inform it', is probably the most important one. By 'working context', I guess they mean 'which other artists work like you, and how does your work relate to theirs' - I mentioned Keith Arnatt, a conceptual artist whose great talent was identifying the narrative or philosophical potential of an inanimate object. For the 'debates surrounding it', I turned again to paraphrase many a visiting artist and speaker; 'I never read about my work, I only make it'. I didn't actually write this, but it seems fair comment, although it doesn't hurt to have an idea of who else is covering similar ground. Is it acceptable to resort to cliché? 'I must make what I make, regardless of the thoughts of whoever may encounter it.'
I considered writing a 'how to wing-it through self-evaluation' kind of piece, which I am certain a lot of students would appreciate, but as I filled in each section I realised that I was taking self-evaluation quite seriously, and learning things about myself and my practice in the process. I know that one of the details of my first year 'manifesto' - not making art for art's sake - is an ideal to which I now adhere without a thought. I realised that, despite my early-year revelation of following more projects through to completion, I have made only one of my half-dozen ideas in the first term. The other five are currently bundled under that handy catchall term 'work in progress', which, translated into honesty, means anything from almost ready to almost begun to almost forgotten about.
I'm off to submit it before I change my mind.
Good luck, self-evaluators!
# 4 [19 January 2012]
Great idea, shame it's been done.
A few weeks ago I finally got started on an idea for a photo-series I'd had about five years Before Art School. I had been (kind-of) already doing it for the past three or four years anyway; using my phone-camera to take pictures of abandoned items of clothing - sunglasses, gloves, shoes and the like - that had been spotted by passers-by and placed on a wall, slotted over the pointed metal spike of an old railing, or perched on top of a bollard. The hope of the picker-upper being that, on realising their loss, the item's owner would retrace their steps, ending at the location in which the dropping and picking-up and placing had taken place. All of this must surely happen without the owner ever knowing the identity of the item's saviour; the charitable passer-by that rescued it from being trodden into the dirt, and set it aside for later retrieval.
I wonder about the narrative that such objects contain or, more accurately, with which they become imbued, once I see them there, on their fence-post or, if I happen to be on top of a big hill, at the foot of a cairn. Who dropped it? Was it deliberately discarded because the other one was already lost?Which kind-hearted soul picked it up? And how far behind the dropper was the picker-upper? The item may spend longer on its perch than it ever did on the pavement. Eventually, in the beginning of year three of university, I decided this was a goer, so I hired out a camera from Tall Rob (Short Rob was away for the day), and took a walk into town to begin my long-anticipated project.
A week or so later, meeting with my tutor - one of the ones that doesn't allow you to discuss what you're going to do, and is only interested in what you've done - I was eager to tell him of my new (old) project, and pulled out the cheap prints of my first half a dozen images (half a dozen in just over a week!). I talked at length (there may have been some babbling) about the stories we attach to these inanimate objects, before, during and after our contact with them. How much the content of this work work related to my previous projects, like the one about the Christmas trees on pavements in January, or the twenty-four stones I returned to Lulworth Cove, in an attempt to assuage my pent-up guilt, four years after taking them.
'This is great,' he said, 'but I'm guessing you're not familiar with the work of Richard Wentworth?'
My heart sank, as it had often done so in situations such as this, when I realised that my latest great idea was over before I had even conceived it. My tutor went on to describe a number of Wentworth's works, all of which are great, and I urge everyone to look him up. By the end of our session I had realised that, although my end product was similar to Wentworth's, and that doubtless someone, in an artschool somewhere in the world, or even someone not interested in art at all, but who feels the same connection with these abandoned bits and pieces and has a camera in their pocket, captures these same images, I still had to go through with my project.
'But Trevor, it's been done.'
I know, but the documentation of my encounters with these things, regardless of whatever purpose they serve to anyone else, artist or not, form a crucial part of what it is for me to express myself as an artist.
I was reminded of the words of my first-year tutor, in a similar situation with another 'been done' project of mine; 'It doesn't matter that it's been done, what matters is that it hasn't yet been done by you.'
So my photo-series of abandoned and rescued bits and bobs continues, with a nod to Richard Wentworth, and a wry smile to my tutor.
# 3 [18 January 2012]
My practice and the importance of trying new things
I spent the first year of my studio practice making a few different types of work: I made short films of my actions, like Shouting Hello to France; I used photography to document The Repatriation of the Stones; I even made a minor Intervention in the work of a major artist (looking back, I'm not quite so comfortable with that one as I was at the time). Each of these pieces included a textual element: Repatriation of the Stones was supplemented by a quote from Jean Baudrillard; Shouting Hello to France was accompanied by a screenplay-style script (artist approaches shoreline, shouts 'Hello'). The very first piece I made, 144 Horse Chestnuts, was half text, half image. The most common formal element running through my early degree work was text, and by assessment time in May I had developed the confidence to produce works that consisted entirely of text; usually a single line - a sentence - taken from a conversation or overheard, such as 'I shall continue to sail this rudderless ship' and 'I only fantasize about things I've already done'
By the end of year two my so-called practice had stagnated for a whole year and I was using nothing but text to express my thoughts, philosophies and what not. So much so that, on reflection, year two in the studio feels more like a gap year than anything remotely academic. This may be partly down to my university's insistence on placing second-years across the city, off campus and with barely any facilities (our new Head of Art has already made great leaps in changing this for the better - not least installing a decent wifi connection and regular technical assistance).
Having staked my claim as an 'ideas' artist, I had the freedom to create anything I wanted, but such freedom became restricting, as I would come up with a number of ideas for work, only to talk myself out of making them, for fear of them not being worthy of Art. I had always been averse to making objects, which is why I ended up in media in the first place, but now I found myself incapable of even filming simple actions. I had thought, and subsequently written, myself into an ideological corner; from which position all I could do was create lines of text, either in the form of grand ideas, reduced to words, or quoted from conversations and songs. My work became repetitive and boring.
I still feel that text is the right direction for many of my ideas, but now understand that it need not always be a straight line of black vinyl Garamond, and so at the beginning of year three I promised myself that I would explore the presentational possibilities of text-based work. In the first three months I have taken letterpress and embossing workshops, I have ordered a large-scale piece of MDF board to be cut by the cnc router (images to follow), I have chopped up my old dartboard to make Artboard, and I am, this very day, being inducted into metalwork so that I can create a great big (top secret) word that will eventually rust, and maybe form part of my degree show piece.
Finally, after two and a half years, including that second year 'gap' year, I feel like I am beginning to develop some studio habits worthy of being described as a practice, and all because I got over my fear of the complication of objects, and allowed myself to try new things.
# 2 [9 January 2012]
The group critique offers an opportunity to show completed work in a friendly environment, mediated by a tutor who's main objective is to steer the discussion away from unfair criticism. The crit provides essential rehearsal at that performance which all artists must eventually face up to: WE MUST TALK ABOUT OUR WORK!
Why then, does the group critique seem to strike fear and self-loathing into the hearts of even the most committed of art-students? You know the ones: always busy; exhibiting SINCE FIRST YEAR; done a bit of curating on the side, 'just to keep their hand in'. Even those guys, the super-students, are a little intimidated by the thought of standing up in front of the group and justifying their work. They, like the rest of us, understand that when we make a thing and call it art, it represents the maker of the thing; the artist. Even if you bodged it together last night, after you got that text from your pal, asking if you were looking forward to the crit in the morning, you're going to have to really think about why you did it, or you're going to have to make something up on the spot, and not have it look like you made it up on the spot.
Preparation, the topic of my first post, may be the key. All crits at BathSpa ask students to present a piece of work as if it were in a gallery. So dig out the old pot of studio paint, chip off the skin from where the last person to use it forgot how to put lids on things, and give your studio space a lick of the white stuff. Remove all superfluous materials - even if it means piling them up in someone else's space for a couple of hours. Don't show your new film on your laptop; hire a projector, book the dark-space.
To avoid misleading the viewer you must pay attention to detail. I once presented three vinyl text-pieces for a crit, the fact I'd used different fonts and stuck them on different walls was rendered meaningless by my placing them all at the same height, which encouraged my fellow students to read them as one piece. The first fifteen minutes of the session was wasted discussing the narrative that ran through the 'entire piece'. Not wasted though, as I learned from my mistake.
Other student's work
I was struck dumb when invited to initiate the crit proceedings just a few months ago. Yet when someone else is asked to begin, I find my mind overflowing with crucial insights into the nature of the work being discussed. The best and easiest way to approach the opening gambit is to go for the tried and trusted formal breakdown of the work; what are its basic elements? Is it situated on the wall or on a plinth, or is it hanging from the ceiling?Why is it framed/not framed? If it's a film, why is it on a portable tv set and not projected? 'That's all very well,' I hear you thinking, 'but what do you analyse if the artist fancies himself as one of them minimalists?' (my own work is quite minimal, and people usually end up talking about what isn't there).
If you're floundering and no-one comes to your rescue, you must avoid the 'it could have been' angle - the artist wants to hear your thoughts on what they did, not what they didn't.
Finally, be honest and tactful. If you find the work unfathomable, admit it. If it looks lazy or pretentious, don't mention it - investigate the process. The old saw, 'if you can't say anything positive, don't say anything at all.' might not be such a bad idea, after all, nobody wants to hear yourant about 'this type of work' (again) do they? Especially not when the artist is standing right beside you. Sobbing. No, brutal criticism is best reserved for those student-only occasions, when you're all agreed that frankness is the order of the day. After all, a comprehensive dressing-down can be a sobering way of telling you just how un-extraordinary your new direction is.
MOST IMPORTANTLY: Never take anything personally, remain objective, and thank people for their comments.
Good luck, Critters!
P.S. Regarding nerves, I am utterly advice-less. I've got butterflies even now, and all I'm doing is thinking about clicking on 'publish post'.
# 1 [8 January 2012]
HOW TO PLAN YOUR PLANNING
I expect there are many students that think the final run-up to the degree show begins in March, or April - around Easter - but the truth is that the sooner you get your head around the idea that time is of the essence here; the more likely you will be to get off your umm-ing and ah-ing behind and do some work. We all have studio days that don't quite go as planned - closed workshops, forgot to bring cash for materials (some campus shops still don't accept cards), waiting on a print/frame/smoke-machine to be delivered - anything and everything can put you off your stride when you're an art student. Not least of which is your fellow students, making you come over to their laptop to see some great piece of work by their favourite artist, asking you read their latest dissertation draft, or - and by far more likely - inviting you over to their space to watch Ultimate Dog Tease on YouTube. AGAIN.
Now I'm not about to suggest that you snub all of these invitations - that Dog Tease clip is, after all, pretty funny/cute/cruel/whatever - but it's best to avoid being drawn into anything that takes too long and adds nothing to your day/week/life.
Ok, in first year we all took lunch breaks that lasted the entire afternoon, into the evening and ended up in accident and emergency two weeks later, but, with what amounts to around fifteen weeks to go (depending on how much work you plan on doing over Easter) until your degree show, the time for such narcissistic navel-gazing has passed.
So PLAN YOUR DAY, plan your week, even. The key to making the most of your day in the studio is GO INTO IT KNOWING WHAT YOU WANT OUT OF IT.
You may be the kind of tunnel-visioned, driven individual that can handle this task effortlessly. Personally, I prefer to compile a to-do list. A good to-do list includes several different types of task, from catching up with a tutor to phoning around for prices on bulldog clips. The point is to ensure that, should one or more of the items on the list fall through, you will always have something else to do;somewhere else to go; someone else to badger. That way you will never fall into the trap of 'going for a wander' (although, including the odd studio wander on your to-do list is essential), or 'going to work from home', which is usually code for 'going to watch television and eat in bed'.
I'm not saying such things are inherently bad, but when you've only got four or five months until the end of your degree, you kind of have to let them go for a while.
So ends my first post, if you've read it and have more to add on the subject of planning, feel free to comment, and share this post with others.
I'm a final year Fine Art BA student, documenting the run up to our degree show, and our part in the Free Range show at the Old Truman Brewery in July.
I also write reviews/press releases of any shows in the Bristol and Bath area.
Contact me at email@example.com
Tweet me @trevors_myth