Fixed: fastened, secure, fast, firm, stable; rooted, riveted, moored, anchored, permanent
Variable: changeable, changing, varying, shifting, fluctuating, irregular, wavering, vacillating, inconstant, inconsistent, fluid, floating, unsteady, uneven, unstable, unsettled, movable, mutable, protean, chameleonic, unfixed, fitful, capricious, temperamental, fickle, kaleidoscopic, volatile, unpredictable, undependable, unreliable.
Within the spectrum of artists commissions there are held within the brief a range of fixed and variable conditions. Fixed conditions can include non negotiable items like budget and timescale, engagement requirements and details prohibiting the creation of works which may be likely to offend. The more fixed conditions or guidelines there are, the more anchored the project with be to the ideals and ideas of the commissioner. Commissions funded by public money or trusts may also have requirements attached that shape the way the commission is written, managed and delivered.
Establishing a clear understanding of the fixed and variable points within a commission brief can be an important process for artists. Commissions with many fixed points offer the artist the opportunity to learn how to manoeuvre within a defined boundary or boundaries. This can be a safer, more stable way of working, and useful when seeking to develop experience and practice based knowledge (for both artist and commissioner). Too many fixed points and the creative process is stifled, and the artist has a limited opportunity to bring themselves into the project which in turn may limit the project itself.
In seeking to understand a commission is it useful to ask who has written the brief; how much experience have they of working with artists; what types of activities have they undertaken which involve risk? If the commissioner is risk averse, or the guiding principles of the funder are very specific, this can render the artist a person who implements or delivers, undervaluing and underutilising the contribution they have to offer as professionals and specialists in their own field.
There are also commissions which are by their very nature more variable at the outset; these include working within a specific context or with a particular group of people with the resulting artwork expected to be a response to these stimulus. The artist has the opportunity to bring in ideas and working processes the commissioner may be unaware of, and practise with a greater sense of autonomy. With this more ‘open brief’ approach the artist may also need to contend with and manage a range of unpredictable elements in a pro-active manner and feel confident in doing so.
When the Artist Placement Group (APG) negotiated placements for artists within companies, institutions and government departments they did so with the clear ambition that the artist would have the opportunity to work with an open brief. This situated the artist as an autonomous person within the host setting, and able to respond to the context in any way they should so choose. This open brief requirement was a corner stone of APG which, together with their guiding principle that Context is Half the Work, led to the creation of works which were received in a variety of ways.
Context is Half the Work guides my approach to working with non artists and non visual arts organisations through self initiated projects and commissions. My starting point is based on a specific interest, a connection with something that can be found within that context. Ultimately I work from a place of not knowing or being inexpert and through dialogue, exchange, technical demonstrations, asking questions and listening I seek to find out, to connect with the experts specialist knowledge which I then use to establish common ground. These projects work best when there is an regular dialogue, which helps to build a mutual interest and respect alongside the visual art aims.
The model I prefer for both self initiated projects and commissions contains a combination of fixed and variable conditions, but essentially the artist is placed or places themselves on a level playing field with the commissioner or host organisation. There is a positive regard for both the artist’s voice and for the organisation’s ability to host a placement or facilitate a new commission.
As professional ambitions and priorities change, taking time to regularly ask questions about what kind of artist we are, how do we like to work and what aspects are intrinsic to our practice can be a very valuable process. If we further know where the areas of compromise may be, and know what we need in order to do / make / facilitate our best work and be our best professional selves, the easier it is to communicate this to the people we will be working with.
*These reflections are informed by discussions, workshops and presentations that took place on the the #Clore14 residential in Sept / Oct 2017.