I feel like a spy. But one in plain sight. I am an adjunct to the process as it unfolds. Watching the workers.
Sian and Gill are in the studio. Gill sits in her minimal space, working on the laptop. All she needs it seems, is a table and a chair. Our first taste of her output will be her workshop where she will show us how to make chapatis and chutney. Her recipes for now remain secret. Meanwhile, Sian is painting in the corner. I speak to her about her work. She crouches before brand new canvasses, fresh and expectant. She talks me through her process of preparation. Priming, sanding, priming, sanding. The layers upon layers of paint to create a smooth surface. This is the ritual before the act of painting can begin, like washing before prayer.
Sian mentions the risk too. Once the painting is begun, it cannot be interrupted. The paint needs to be loaded with thinners, limiting the working time, and so if the end result is not up to standard, the whole canvas is doomed. She tells me that she painted 33 works for her degree show, yet felt only five were good enough to show.
The project space seems huge when it is empty. Not Turbine Hall huge, but big enough. Now all the artists are here, space is at a premium. I had hoped to lodge myself in a corner and be present as much as possible, but now feel like I am an extra burden on the room, taking space from others. I move downstairs to the main gallery to work among the silent swimmers on the wall.
Upstairs is a place of fevered production. The residents are creating: machines, canvasses, heads, fabric shapes, projected images, frames. Ideas? Ideas for workshops, flyer images and catalogues are being worked out, and the residents have brought their ideas with them, carried over from their previous work. We don’t see something radically new as yet, but processes of continuation. What is a new idea anyway?
The artists bring materials too. One has bought wood, another ordered canvasses. One has raided his parents’ house and gathered metal, wood and tyres. Others are collecting images to be manipulated. Most of the materials are everyday things that we find on the street or in our homes. But it is the process of transformation I find interesting. Purposes are being subverted and objects reconfigured. It is tempting to say that ordinary things are being made extraordinary, but that word has connotations. For sure, what is appearing is outside of the ordinary, not how we would usually encounter these objects. But whether what appears is extraordinarily good remains to be seen.
I eavesdrop on conversations, encounters, discoveries. Alison is taking an interest in Craig’s performance. His work eats away at our comfortable memory of friendly childhood stories, making the smooth, animated world melt and spasm. Alison tries on a papier maché head, then dances whilst wearing it backwards. Craig tells her of a previous occupant who gouged holes in the skin through which to see. He then explains his technique of manufacture. The layers of paper and paint, layers upon layers as in Sian’s work. Alison seems attracted by the aesthetic qualities of the heads. She too works with the cephalic, the facial, but in two dimensions. And like Craig, her work deals with remixing and distortion. Perhaps, in his work, she sees her visions come to life and brought into the round.
Alison’s distorted faces show us how the personal map that we recognize can be eroded by illness, dementia removing landmarks to leave us in foreign realms. The familiar becomes terrible. She tells me that she sees the artist as explorer, and is fascinated by signage, the semiotics of our local environment. This overlay onto the world is imposed and dictates to us what is possible and prohibited, providing the language by which the new displaces the old. Old Sneinton is fading, the memories of residents crushed under shiny steel and glass.
A common theme emerging in our conversation is the artist as questioner. This includes the artist questioning themselves. Self-doubt is an essential tool. We ask, is it art, is it good and, what makes them an artist, and they should too. A definite answer though is not required. What we want is a rigorous engagement with the question, a working through of the problem. Art as a problematic field of investigation, not a puzzle to be solved.
When she worked in medicine, Alison says, there were established rules of operation. The practitioner entered a career with methods already designed. The doctors were breastfed their methods. The artist instead enters a room with no floor, no walls and no ceiling. They must build the room afresh. And this makes me wonder if, without the teat to nourish them, artists are abandoned children. Spartan offspring left to die or grow strong.
What intrigues me is, how do the public get to learn of this journey, this questioning and quest? Though I may have been initially doubtful, the more I see the work unfolding, refolding, growing, the more I see the artist pushing themselves and their work, the more intrigued I am. I am in a privileged position. I see the work each day as it emerges. I can talk to the artists. The public only get the end result. A snapshot. If they are lucky, they may get a few moments with the artists on the opening night, but after that they are on their own, and so much could be missed. This is the skill required of the artist, to show that journey somehow in the final show.
When looking at the world of Contemporary Art, do we witness, a solar system of bodies centered upon the artist - the artist as product perhaps, or machine? Gallery, Collector, Critic, Curator, Exhibition, Public, all orbit around and invest in this creative hub. And what of the emerging artist, the one who waits to be accepted? They eye up their validated forebears, mimicking their moves. They are reliant on these satellite institutions to be benevolent gatekeepers, ushering them in to the world of art.
It feels natural to heap praise on these nascent creators, to validate what they are doing. It is what the gallery does as an institution, as part of the network that is Contemporary Art. Put something into a gallery and you are an artist. Get a favourable review from a critic and your position is reinforced. But it is not only the artists that stand to gain from this arrangement. To say that what it contains is not art, or not good art, would be damaging to the gallery’s reputation and position. For the critic to criticise and denounce the artworks as such risks placing them on the outside of a more complementary circle. This is the real risk, that the fear of being the only dissident voice pushes everyone to nod their heads and accept everything without question.
Art often presents an image of individual expression. Be who you want to be. Forge your own path. Create yourself. But is this feasible? Doesn’t the artworld dictate the possible paths? Choosing titles for the show is limited because of what is expected and what has gone before. The constellation of galleries and art institutions have their standards, and their injunctions. To get through the doors, one has to follow the rules. And we, as hosts of this project, facilitate that conformism. Our aim is to channel the artists into an already existing world rather than to create something new.
I walk into the workshop as it is already in full flow. Ben is talking about planned obsolescence, designing into objects their own demise. We go on to discuss the idea of Apple as a cult rather than merely purveyors of machines, that companies sell us a lifestyle and promise us happiness, and that consumerism is driven by a tautology rather than by need: We want an Apple because we want an Apple. Ben knows his subject well, and the people gathered engage enthusiastically.
We talk about the shopping mall as a sealed environment, wholly designed to keep you buying. It’s mirrored walls, lack of daylight and hidden exits, like the casino, disorientate us in a timeless void where only the product has meaning. It seems strange to be talking of these bland places in a room with such character. The wooden floor is scarred by creative journeys, the walls pocked with holes where ideas can take root. We are surrounded by objects unfitting for supermarkets; disembodied heads and unframed bicycle wheels, and others with no clear name.
After the discussion, we move on to making mobiles. We have examined the contents of our bags and pockets, scrutinised what we consider essential. And now we choose one thing that is perhaps a little less necessary and combine it with other ephemera to float in the air. At the end of the session, our efforts hang like totems and magical charms to ward off the evil spirits of commerce. It feels good to make something, to use our hands to transform and change.
The second workshop, led by Hannah and Mike, is an exercise in observation. We choose an object and draw it quickly. Five minutes, two minutes, 10 seconds. We choose other objects and keep on scribbling. We pass round our paper and draw on top of another’s lines. Accretions of colour build up, creating hybrid forms. Shapes merge and make strange associations. Penises and breast emerge. We giggle like children.
And finally we turn these collaborative sketches into sculptures, using cardboard, pipe cleaners and other craft materials. It feels a bit like a nursery activity, and our childish laughter fits right in. We are having fun. But the outcomes are far from primitive. When the end results are laid out, it looks like a maquette for a new exhibition, a miniature group show curated by giants. At the end of the day, it is we who are transformed as much as our materials.