I firmly believe in the power and purpose of art to inform contemporary life. That being said, occasionally in ones darker moments that nagging doubter of purpose pops up and questions whether what one is doing has any value. This need for personal, internal validation, can be particularly pronounced when working with an industry that seems so ‘worthy’… so ‘necessary’… as I am with the Specials lab at the moment.
Had lunch with my daughter the other day (she has just begun uni this year) and we had a bit of a debate about the merits, or otherwise, of the ‘light bulb going on and off in a room’ as art. I had to admit I was in the ‘pro-light bulb’ camp. After all, for my degree show all those years ago I had made a video installation called ‘light sources/ light sauces’. In this piece the light from a monitor playback in a darkened room lit a nearby bottle of sauce. A camera was trained on the sauce bottle and the resultant live video feed made the bottle appear out of the gloom in another room. It was the use of the video monitor as a light source that interested me, not so much the literal image produced. I guess that puts me firmly in the light bulb camp.
I recount this to describe my position.
You see, in many ways, those heady ‘conceptual art’ days of the 70’s and 80’s were all the more exciting for their obtuse and often minimal approach. To my mind, much of what I see currently trotted out as ‘new art’…or supposedly democratic ‘street aware’ hip and happenin’ stuff is either deliberately superficial (nothing wrong with that says Andy W – but hey that was sooooo last decade)… or dumbed down in order to not cause intellectual offence and to appeal to the new breed of designer label buyers of ‘art’.
In my world though, ‘democratic’ does not have to equate to ‘dumb-o-cratic’.
Anyway – back to the plot. I mention this little chatette with my offspring really to make another point, one related to my current project.
What I see when I visit the world of Specials Lab is often what may be described as a ‘minimal’ landscape. People work to tight time-scales. Jobs are often repetitive. There is often the sound of air con and little else, somewhat like the seashore beckoning in the background. Everything is super clean. And then it gets cleaned again. There are rituals of dress and undress required in order to enter certain sections of the labs. Work is checked and double checked, and then signed off so it can be checked again in another form. Attention to detail in all things. Everything recorded, except wandering thoughts perhaps.
Now, on the surface, this makes for a less than visually stimulating visual scenario. In terms of job satisfaction, one could be forgiven for concluding that some of the work must be mind numbingly boring. Sexy it aint (and don’t get into the ‘not allowed to wear make-up’ debate – that’s another few paragraphs).
Yet I am struck by the commitment of all those involved.
They are, for the most part, a quiet, considered (but playful) lot – and what they are doing is important. If they make a mistake – if they don’t give it their all, then the consequences could be severe. They are only human. They do make mistakes, but the system is there to back them up. It’s not Orwellian, it’s not even Brave New World . It’s quite human actually. Each piece of detail makes the whole. The light goes on, the light goes off. Each one of the Specials team turns in on, turns it off and passes the switch on to the next team member.
Meanwhile – in my role as voyeur, I can imagine myself back in my other room, at my 1977 degree show, with that bottle of sauce, watching the picture form out of phosphors dancing on a cathode ray tube.
Do I see their bigger picture?
I dunno if it’s bigger, but it’s certainly different and multifaceted – and the picture I see is not one that they see themselves I think – and that’s the point.
When asked what I’m doing, and what it will look like, my explanation is both purposely vague and obscure, whilst hopefully being enigmatic and intriguing. I don’t think anyone else could make the work that I am making for them and, if nothing else, it will add another dimension to their perception of their workplace and quite possibly what ‘art’ might be.
Now that feels like art with a purpose to me!
Not so much criminal minimal… as beautiful musical. The beauty of austerity.