It’s Workshop Day at the Project Space, time to fling open the doors to the local burghers of Sneinton and beyond. Surface is positively awash with artists and there is a hum of activity. EM14er names have been daubed on the very fabric of the building, adhering, as is their wont, to the conventions of being artists, leaving their mark, if only for a further 16 days. Julia, Ali and Tina form a chat in the corner mulling over Tina’s performance workshop. Participants are invited to dress in traditional Chadors, worn in the 1800 and 1900s in Iran, and to communicate their feelings to the camera. They are then asked to record their responses on a piece of paper with the aid of some pre-selected suggestions. Julia offers to trial it and I notice, even though it is my intention to observe Julia donned, I lose her from my mind and from the room, only to connect some time later when she re-emerges from the black cloak in her western garb, albeit combat fatigues and bright yellow rubber gloves with grubby ends as if she’s been burrowing back into my consciousness from some elsewhere time. Did I glimpse a white rabbit with a stopwatch scuttling down a hole in the floorboard? I reflect later, that perhaps all artists are performance artists; it’s just a matter of when the audience is invited.
There is something about Julia’s corner of the room that makes me want to keep my distance but in the interest of fairness I approach and in a matter of minutes we find ourselves under the table at my instigation. The instinct to take cover in this underground world of trenches and mines is immediate. We’re both comfortable with staying below for the duration of our conversation. Julia, a roofer by trade, says she finds ease in either heights or burrows. The middle ground fills her with the need to climb or submerge. She is drawn to materials that have lined, traditionally, male spaces; coal bunkers, sheds, pits. Julia fashions paper and not metal, wood or stone as it is easier to manipulate by hands weakened by age and industry. She whispers stories of soldiers being trodden underfoot and pulped into the earth in a human mash of despair. She talks of her grandfather’s return from the war, the post-trauma that cut a scar across her family and continues to ghost write the work we sit amidst. What bodies, dying and dead did he have to stand on to get out? Whatever the number art still needs to process war’s stories. The horror, the horror, the horror. What happens when what makes us human is discarded to survive? We agree that all art is biography and I notice how unremittingly bleak our surrounds are, body bags slumped against the wall, uprooted posts, collapsed fencing, crumpled paper that falls to the floor refusing sculptural intervention. This is fifty shades of grey without an ounce of libido, read in a scraped carcass of man’s making where art has little purchase and women know not. We look at assembled materials and Julia wonders how she will display them come the end of residency exhibition. Her work is in pieces and I’m not far behind. When I get to my feet it is not only the dust that I brush from my body. No wonder Julia is wearing camouflage.
I find Tina and offer to go under (the knife/ general anesthetic?) the experience of the veil. I sit as I’m covered and for a few seconds I only see shadows through linen and wonder how the women stopped themselves from tripping or banging into others, then the crocheted viewing panel was repositioned and I could see as if through a delicate grate. Associations of gutters and cells were immediate closely followed by the Catholic confessional. Was I rat, prisoner or guilty? As I sat I noticed no-one was looking in my direction and I am gone. But I can see, feel my breath and find a place of safety and control. It is the camera that is troubling, staring, capturing responses, feelings, and I want them for myself for under this widow cloth a power struggle begins. I am camera under a cloak of invisibility and I’m not giving anything away.
I gather myself and go and seek out one of the two Nottingham University graduate representatives, Tony. We talk about the recent Malevich at the Tate and wonder how the source of the definitive black square can also produce the peasant portraits of his latter years. When you have so eloquently brought something to an end how do you begin again? Tony blames ‘the regime’ and we talk of whether he has considered using his experience as a Nottingham social worker to fuel his art. He concludes that the two have yet to collide in any meaningful way. Would we consider EM14 art as being produced under the Conservative Lib Dem regime? What has this political marriage yielded in terms of destructive and creative output thus far? Certainly the recipients of its statutory ‘largesse’ are feeling its authoritarian clout now. Tony is modest in what he feels his art can lay claim to but talks glowingly of his painterly counterpart, Sarah.
Tony tells me that it has been pointed out to him that tutors at Loughborough would balk at the paint and pre-prepared canvas he has been using to date. Their counterparts at Nottingham also drew attention to the qualitative differences between brands and the aesthetic superiority of a hand made frame but they were almost exclusively preaching to part-time, ‘mature’ students, long converted to domestic parsimony, used to pitting their expenditure against family budgets and having to justify anything over and above the ‘no frills’ ethos in governance at home. Suspicious of the hard sell, they were a tough audience to persuade of the merits of quality over quantity. Tony was clearly not convinced but perhaps the Surface stipend might support a foray into such experimentation. If money can’t buy you love maybe it can buy you expression?
There are numerous examples of artists through time whose work not only transcended their base materials but benefited from the poverty of them, not least the great Kurt Schwitters. But product snobbery is not the exclusive domain of art. The recent ‘social experiment’ (or marketing strategy – an easy mistake to make these days) of serving Lidl food at a supposed Michelin starred restaurant to effusive customer satisfaction underlines our susceptibility to swanky labeling, the intransigence of social classification and the pervasive dogma of connoisseurship. Of course, art students cannot rely on specialist purchase and material knowledge alone as they would only be a few ponds away from the product sensibilities of those who frequent Hobbycraft or The Works. What kind of mockery would that make of their £27,000 investment if, what’s taken real artists 3 years to acquire in an elite art institution, others could buy at a 2 for 1 discount store in a dreary retail park in Same City? No, even if you know about that little shop in the back lanes of Shoreditch which stocks that particular piquancy of vermillion hue which doesn’t blacken over time it’s not enough. Nor is the I shop (at these specialist shops) therefore I am (a fine artist) and you are what you buy falsisms which not only call the artist into disrepute but would return Duchamp full circle with production line art – minus utility- that is less urinal and more taking the piss. Let us note that it needed the artistry of the Michelin chef to bring out the best in the Lidl produce. Artists, too, have to bring something else to the table so the quality product mantra needs qualifying with the real stuff of art; process, pain, perspiration and patience, not purchase.
It seems Nottingham University ‘ejects’ (for ‘graduates’ doesn’t quite capture what it is to leave an institution that doesn’t want you) easily feel the poorer cousin of the East Midland’s art fraternity abandoned, as they were, by the mother ship midway through their studies, evicted from their Adult Education, city center environs and relegated to squatting in a 1970s ex Dairy at number 6 Triumph Road, underlooking the architectural swagger of the Jubilee campus - it was all going to come to nought as soon as they moved from Shakespeare Street to a celebration of the monarchy - sandwiched between an undertakers, a blank plot and the ‘Star Trek’ building, waiting to hear if their longer term fate was, indeed, written in the wind. And then when the cows did come home, emitting that heady mix of methane gas and pity, it was to inform the BA Fine Art contingent that it was time to beam them up to that milk float in the sky. Even Chagall could not paint this one good. The Dairy, less state of the art and more state, was to honour the remains who had enlisted, in good faith, to undertake their Fine Art degrees in the reputable School of Education at their home university. But the bad faith of the University of Nottingham has been its failure to recognise an inclusion agenda that is not just about the inflated buck of the overseas student, enabled purchase of ‘prestigious’ UK degrees because many benefit from economies rich off the back of different sensibilities to working conditions, child labour, unionisation, minimum wage and democracy more broadly. But there’s still a group of people out there, without bleached and braced teeth, with broken capillaries, sheen less hair, prolapsed of womb and heart, in varying states of mental discord and with several dependents, who are airbrushed from university catalogues, unacknowledged and unaccommodated in recruitment drives, underrepresented in doctoral studentships, and wanting to either extend existing careers, embark on a second or are seeking a higher education for the first time in their lives. This group was amply represented in the Fine Art cohort and it is hard not to see their imminent removal alongside now archived images of Beijing’s cleansing of the nearby shanty residents, too close for comfort to the newly built Olympics Stadium being bulldozered off the landscape as they blighted the image the powers that be wanted to project to the world. The University of Nottingham’s BA in Fine Art was the only part-time Fine Art degree in the country. It was reasonably priced, well taught by professional artists and served those who worked and could free one day a week. Sprung from the tradition of Adult Education there’s a discernable difference between the output of older students who have undertaken the full-time option and those who have eked out their studies along with their day job and it has something to do with brokering the real and the dream. The vernacular at Nottingham, as evidenced by both Ali and Tony’s work, and many more (including Mandy Payne, recently shortlisted for the John Moores – if you didn’t read last week’s blog) is unique because something emerged there that was, and continues to be for two short years more, the meeting point between art establishment purism (brought by the tutors) and everyday pragmatism (brought by working students), practiced within the near vanquished discourse of access for all. This cross fertilisation where the ordinary meets the elite at eye level is art at its best and something to be proud of. So hold on to your cheap paint, Tony, and, Ali, keep on transforming the thrown and found and see if you can do great things.
And what happened to the Dairy’s neighbouring empty plot? A £15m investment in the build of the Carbon Neutral Laboratories for Sustainable Chemistry, now a pyre after the devastating fire last weekend. Nothing sustainable here and a hell of a lot of carbon released in the process. All that is solid melts into air. Nottingham University has used art to adorn its campuses and house it predilection for the sciences but it refuses to invest in it at source. Why are the sciences better bets than the arts? I like these two OED definitions:
The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power:
The intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment:
The first is a definition of ‘art’ and the second is the definition of ‘science’. And whilst art can absorb both definitions with credibility science cannot. Fine Art is an exemplar of intellectual rigour and should be embraced not eschewed in a university of Nottingham’s stature. But the shame of not investing in art is not theirs alone. Someone I know well, who is in his final A level year studying History, Psychology and Art has discovered that it is a disadvantage to have invested in Art when applying for some of the more prestigious International Relations and Politics courses as if it undermines his academic credentials in some way, as if there is no common ground. Art and artists need to take some responsibility for their siloed position in academia and politics and dispense with their autotelic banner of Art for Art’s sake. They sell themselves short and do a disservice to those capable of managing interdisciplinary exchange. Art versus Science is a false binary as is Muslim versus Christian, Good versus Evil. Just as this blog has tried to flag up previously, before the tragic death of Alan Henning, that denigrating, splitting off and disowning a part of our collective psyche is damaging to our global wellbeing, so, on a much, much smaller scale, dislocating fine art produced by the working wounded from the cut and thrust of intellectual life at the University of Nottingham is a regressive step. The move toward maturational modernity has to be inclusion on all levels; a taxi driver from Eccles knew this, Ian Paisley came to understand this, tis a shame David Cameron has yet to catch on.
So, all credit to Surface for selecting a mix of young and older fledgling artists from a spread of institutions that all have their own unique cultures and qualities to bring to bear. But it is saddening to note that two of the people who have made the EM14 happen are both looking for paid work, unable to sustain their commitment to Surface in penury. They will take with them wisdom and experience and Surface will suffer because of it. Whilst the Carbon Neutral Laboratories of Glaxo-Kline (not long surfaced from a £1.9bn drug fraud scandal for promoting off-label marketing of anti-depressants to children and adolescents) will stand again the Dairy will sit defunct in its shadow. So, if we return to the previous definition of Art and accept that it is an artist’s stock trade to be dealing with emotional life then weave this with mounting evidence to support anti-depressants being little more effective than placebo, then add in to the mix missed work days due to depression at an estimated cost to the economy of over £11bn a year why don’t we look to art for solutions rather than science on this one.
Written by EM14 writer-in-residency Shelley MacDonald.