Alana Brown, City Drifts
'Leave the beaten track behind occasionally and dive into the woods. Every time you do, you will be certain to find something you have never seen before.' - Alexander Graham Bell.
There's a lot to be said for a good walk. There are many stories about famous writers and artists who relied on walking as a means of assisting them in their creative process. For example, Charles Dickens's diaries record how he would develop the plots for his novels during 20 mile walks and Mozart is said to have taken pencil and paper with him on his regular, after lunch constitutionals. Baudelaire called it flaneur, walking through urban spaces, being inspired by the people and the architecture around you, but also remaining a detached observer, alone in a busy environment, free to develop your thoughts.
The Situationalists of the 1950's believed that through exploring urban areas on our terms, we could unite the two different factors of hard physical surroundings with the human ideals and expression of the individual. The term psychogeograhy was defined by Situationalist, Guy Debord but, it's arguable that it's truest roots are sunk deep into our unconscious, in the primeval part of our brain. We need to wander and explore, it is part of what makes us human. Allowing yourself to drift through a city, choosing your route by how a space makes you feel, or the curiosity inspired by your surroundings can be creatively liberating.
One contemporary artist who is applying these principles of psychogeography to her paintings is photorealist, Alana Brown. Alana works in oil, on pieces of cardboard found from the areas she explores psychogeographically. The lighting and colours used in her paintings, helps to provide a strong sense of atmosphere. That they are painted on rough edged pieces of waste cardboard affirms to the viewer, that what you are looking at is a fragment of urban living, a piece of human experience torn out of a bigger story.
We talked to Alana about her work and the art of leaving the beaten track.
Tell us a bit about where you come from. Your dad is an airbrush artist, was he keen for you to become an artist too?
I was born in Scotland and grew up in Blairgowrie, a country town 16 miles north of Perth. It’s quiet and there is a sense of community, but I moved to Dundee during my 2nd year at Duncan of Jordanstone so that I was closer to the college. My parents still live in Blair, and after moving back I’m finding that I oddly missed the place! My dad has been custom painting motorbikes for over 20 years, and comes from a large family of artists and musicians. He always encouraged me to choose my own path, so was very proud that I wanted to follow in his footsteps and pursue art as a career.
Does he freely offer you advice on your work and have you experimented much with airbrushing?
Oh, all the time! Ever since I was small he always encouraged me to draw and paint, and was always there to offer constructive criticism on whatever I was working on. Although I did have very little confidence in myself, so he’d very rarely get to see anything I’d drawn or made. Even now he always suggests ways which I can improve my work and develop my ideas, but I still have that lack of faith in myself and my work. I have to admit I occasionally get grumpy at him but I know he’s just trying to help. Its clichéd but my dad is probably my biggest inspiration, especially in regards to my interest in art. We’re so similar that it sickens my mum a little bit!
Sadly I haven’t experimented properly with airbrushing yet, to my dad’s disapproval. He’s always tried to get me to start working with him but, with uni and work commitments, I’ve never had a lot of time to immerse myself in it properly. I first tried it when I was in my 2nd year of art school, but I wasn’t happy with the results so I was a little disheartened about trying again.
Your recent work was influenced by your studies of the Situationists and psychogeography in particular. Can you tell us a bit about your explorations in the cities of the UK?
Psychogeography is a term which emphasises the act of wandering through an urban environment without fully knowing where you are going. This act, known as the dérive, allows the drifter to be lured by aspects of their topography, which in turn leads the wanderer to adopt a new awareness of their surroundings. My most recent project has involved me carrying out my own psychogeographical drifts around not only the four major cities in Scotland but also on a solo excursion to London. I recorded my journeys primarily through taking photographs, however also used sketches and sound recordings to map my trips.
The paintings that came out of these drifts through the cities are primarily focused on the city at night and it’s interesting that you explored all of these cities in the UK at night, including London. Did you go alone on these journeys? Can you tell us about any unexpected discoveries you had?
All my ‘drifts’ were executed at night, as I like to explore the atmospheric nature of the city after dark. It is much quieter then, even in the city, so the lack of external distractions such as traffic and pedestrians really allowed me to immerse myself in my surroundings. It can be quite dangerous at night, especially since 90% of the time I was completely unfamiliar with where I was heading, so I had to be careful too. Maybe part of the attraction was the element of danger!
I was alone on all the journeys bar one, as I have a friend from Aberdeen who I was staying with who accompanied me on that particular walk. Although it was fun, I did get a different picture of the city purely because I wasn’t on my own. I felt I was only directing the walk to an extent, as she would suggest a way and she knew where we were most of the time, so fully losing myself proved difficult.
I wouldn’t say I had any unexpected discoveries as such, but in London I was approached by a guy who was interested in what I was taking photographs of. Turned out he was an economics student in one of the nearby universities, but had a secret passion for photography! To cut a long story short, he ended up taking me on a wee jaunt around the Barbican area, to show me all this amazing architecture and a place where he dreamed of exhibiting some of his own work. That 20 minutes with him was probably the most excitement I had on that whole trip! I gave him my email, but I haven't heard from him yet. I still have hope!
The Situationists were also interested in ideas of alienation, and the separation of our psyche from our physical place. Everyone’s relationship with place is different, whether we view a place as having personality, for example, or as having an influence on our internal state. Could you describe how you relate to place?
My experiences wandering the cities (mostly) alone at night really did allow me to adopt my own understanding and relationship with my surroundings. It was strange, but I found each city to emit a different atmosphere, or personality as you so rightly describe it, which proved very important for my art practice. As a painter I want a little bit of variety in my work, so I was able to portray the different relationships obtained from my walks through colour. Each group of paintings has its own sort of aura or hue, for example, I found Glasgow to be quite homely. In turn I used a lot of orange and red, so the paintings all became very warm.
Is there a place that is of particular importance to you and is one you can still explore?
As I lived in Dundee for a few years, I guess I have more of a connection to it. Even though I know a lot of the area now, so it is harder to become lost, so to speak, there are still areas I’ve never seen, never ventured to, or have never heard of. I hope in the future I can explore these places even though I have moved back home.
There are a number of photorealist painters among your creative influences. What is it about this form of painting that you find most compelling and the most satisfying to create?
A lot of my inspiration has come from film noir and various different street artists, but a large chunk of it has also derived from American hyper-realism. I’m a bit of a perfectionist, and even though I enjoy painting realistically, I can vouch for it being a curse! I tend to try and exploit my representational skills a bit, and I thrive on the viewer’s reaction. It is that moment of perplexity that I strive for, when they abandon themselves to the painting. This in turn only further enhances what realistic painting can do that no other form of visual art can.
How long do you spend on a painting and when do you know to stop, to not overcook it?
I think it depends! Some of my paintings can be done really quickly, others can take days and days. It really depends on the size and the complexity of the paintings. I find brickwork takes a long time for me, but things like reflections or smooth surfaces don’t. Another thing to consider is with using oils, you tend to need to wait for layers to dry before adding the next, so sometimes you need to leave the work alone for a few days. I also have to watch with the ‘canvas’ being cardboard, the paint sometimes sinks into it while its wet, but the primer helps avoid that.
What are your favourite materials and brushes?
I only really started using oil paints just over two years ago, and as I feel I’m still getting to grips with the medium, haven't tried many of the brands available! At the moment I mostly use Daler-Rowney’s Georgian oil colours, which have served me well so far! Main reason being that they were probably the most easy to acquire at the time. For the brushes, the same goes really. I haven't got any particular favourites as such, but I love using tiny brushes and doing really intricate details, whether its to add highlights or alter minor technicalities in the paintings. As well as painting I like to do a lot of drawings, and I use a lot of different types and sizes of fine liner pens. I also love using spray paint, and have a soft spot for Copic marker pens.
How would you like to further develop your work, do you know what the next area you want to explore artistically is?
My paintings on cardboard have all been fairly small in size, so I plan to challenge myself by working on a larger scale. I want to continue my research into psychogeography, so I’m hoping to maybe go even further afield and travel abroad to do some walks. Paris played a huge role in the setup of the Situationists, so I want to go back to where it all began and create my own drifts around the city.
I also really want to experiment properly with the airbrush, and hope to work alongside my dad, whether it be helping him or concentrating on my own projects. He has an unusual talent and it is a less common medium to use, so I would love him to teach me so I can try grasp it myself.
Bonus Question: Would you rather discover a new civilisation, or a new wilderness and why?
I have always loved ancient Egyptian history and mythology, so before going to university I was torn between studying art or archaeology. So because of that I think I would love to find a new civilisation, or at least find one that has been under the ground for thousands and thousands of years!
To find out more about Alana's psychogeographical paintings, or to purchase one while you still have the chance, visit her website: http://www.alanajanebrown.com/
Chemical Reaction, Hilary Grist and Change is Everything, Son Lux
We came across these videos while researching a spectacular artist who use everyday materials in their work. Our interview with this mystery artist is coming soon, but in the meantime, enjoy these two animated music videos, which use chalk, blackboards and pins to achieve a wonderful effect.
Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller - Alter Bahnof excerpt
Excited about our forthcoming interview with artist Alana Brown, Redbird has been doing a lot of research on psychogeography, which, if you hadn't heard about before, is all about exploring spaces differently.
It's about letting yourself wander through spaces, particularly, urban spaces like cities. Technology is such that is it is hard to find yourself lost in a city. Quite often we will stick to the same commuter route we know, forgetting that there is always an opportunity to off-road and explore. Psychogeography is about seizing that opportunity.
So, while we're waiting to talk to Alana about how this impacts on her artwork, please put on your headphones and explore an urban space, in this extract of a beautiful piece by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller.
Kaela Hogg - The Material of Belonging
Kaela Hogg is a very talented jewellery designer and a recent graduate from Duncan of Jordanstone Art College in Dundee. Her artist's statement, featured on her website, describes her collection, Sirirag (see-ri-ruk), as exploring '...a sense of belonging in her identity culture where she creates movement within her jewellery to represent the transitioning of cultures.'
The pieces Kaela makes are beautiful, part metallic snowflake, part pixel art, the complex shapes sit alongside one another like a skyline of Thai temple rooftops.
Redbird is delighted to feature our conversation with this brilliant young artist.
Your graduate pieces were inspired by the Thai side of your cultural heritage and also Thai architecture. Can you tell us a bit about growing up with a mixture of different cultures and how it’s influenced you as an artist? Are your family creatives too?
I was born in Scotland but lived in Thailand until the age of four, before making the permanent move back to Scotland again for school. Ever since then, we would go back to visit once a year and I would always come back with stories to tell. Having grown up with dual heritage, I have been exposed to two very contrasting, yet exciting, cultures. However, there was always a sense of belonging that was always missing, whilst, at the same time, I also felt at home in both places.
Initially, I wanted the project to explore the cultural differences between both sides but as my final year progressed, I wanted to concentrate on the Thai side; the most unknown to the people that surround me. Interestingly though, all of the creatives are on the Scottish side of the family, with my Dad as a keen painter and my sister who studies Interior & Environmental design, alongside both my aunty and Granddad as creatives too.
Jewellery is an interesting medium for exploring ones identity, especially culturally. Can you tell us a bit about how you design a piece, do you start with drawings or do you work more sculpturally, directly with the material?
I take inspiration from my direct surroundings so I'll use drawings and photography as a visual starting point. Then I'll progress onto creating quite vivid paintings in my sketchbook and it can become quite abstract. However, for this project, as I was predominantly inspired by Thai architecture, I was looking at different features and patterns that I was attracted to. I would then draw up linear shapes which would then be translated onto Illustrator.
This is when the technological side gets involved, as I would take these shapes to create new ones by repeating and reflecting, and then going onto create my own patterns, which feature in my work also. Even though I have introduced technology into my work, my pieces are still very much hands on, as I like to spend time in the workshop experimenting with different compositions and structures. I feel I have a good balance of incorporating modern technology alongside traditional techniques.
Can you tell us a bit about why you choose to work with acrylic and aluminium? What are they like to work with as opposed to silver or gold?
These materials were initially introduced into my work as a way of injecting some colour into my pieces. This was done through creating a pattern on Illustrator and then sublimation printing it onto the said materials. Although my work isn't bright and bold with colour, I have subtle features of it in my pieces. With the acrylic, I have experimented laser cutting different shapes, alongside laser engraving which works most effectively on clear acrylic. After the surface design is applied to aluminium, I will treat it the same way as silver, where I will saw-pierce intricate shapes. By working with these materials, I've been experimental with how different materials are to be put together both technically and compositionally.
These materials are also considerably more lightweight, which allows me the flexibility of creating larger pieces without the worry of it being too heavy for the wearer. For example, my brooches can be seen as quite large but they do not tug on your clothes and are convenient for everyday wear.
Are there other materials or techniques you are interested in exploring through your work?
Yes, I have explored a technique called Keum Boo, this is an ancient Korean technique where you basically guild thin sheets of gold to the surface of fine silver. I have used 24kt gold in a few selected pieces where it subtly features in my work. In the future however, I would like to be able to brush up on CAD skills to create 3D models, which is definitely the way forward!
Partly because of your use of colours, geometry and architecture, your work is reminiscent of Giovanni Corvaja and Vicki Amberly-Smith. What contemporary jewellery designers have been your biggest creative influences?
Thank you! Giovanni Corvaja's work is simply stunning and I love the intricacy behind Vicki Amberly-Smith's architectural designs. I first came across the work of Lily Kamper when I was 17 years old at the Chelsea College degree show back in 2010. I was instantly amazed by her graduate collection and have been following her work every since. Her work to date uses strong, bold colour alongside creating geometric forms.
I also love the material combinations she uses and the different processes and techniques behind her work. The work of Anna Talbot also amazes me with the intricate shapes, layering and colours in her pieces. Talbot predominantly works in anodised aluminium, which is a lightweight material that allows her to create rather large pieces. Her work also has a narrative, in that, she is creating a story with each piece.
Although both of these designers are totally different, there are different aspects and qualities that I appreciate and can really relate to. Jewellery has to be instantly visually appealing to get me interested and that is certainly what they do!
Your work is going to be featured at New Designers in London from 24th – 27th June, which is a great opportunity to showcase your work to larger audience of collectors and buyers. How are your preparations going in the run up to the show?
Preparations are going well! I'm trying to keep myself organised and on top of various tasks that we need to complete before going down but so far so good. I'm also making some pieces for myself to wear during the exhibition, I think its always good for people to see how my jewellery looks on! I am really excited to feature my collection at New Designer's alongside the work of many other graduates in the UK. This is a really exciting event to see what the newest emerging designers are offering to industry.
There are various ways of selling jewellery, online stores have changed the way a lot of people show and sell their work. How important do you feel it is to have your work seen in the physical, in a gallery or boutique for example?
I feel it is immensely important to have my work seen in a physical space. My jewellery features a lot of movement and intricate detail and this may not always translate well into photography. Being able to interact with the jewellery physically is important to be able to appreciate the work that goes into creating every design. Being able to see my pieces also allows for the wearer to understand how each piece works. Photographs can go a long way but it is definitely more beneficial for my work to be seen in the flesh!
When you’re creating a piece do you think about who might wear it, or who you would want to wear it? Who do you make your jewellery for?
When creating my pieces I don't have a specific type of wearer in mind. I like to think my pieces can appeal to a wide variety of people. My collection is mainly aimed at women however, I can see a specific type of male wearing my pieces too. I'd love to see one of my brooches on a really cool, hip and elderly lady with bright blue hair! However, during my degree show there was a lot of interest from a younger audience too.
When I was a wee girl I loved to look through my mum’s jewellery box and hear her tell me about the history or story behind each piece, which looked to me like treasure. What is your first memory of handling jewellery and what was the first piece you ever owned that felt special, like real treasure?
When we were born, my sister and I were given gold Buddha necklaces from my Mum along with gold bracelets to match. For her, this represented things such as: health; protection; and good luck. Although I am not Buddhist myself, I definitely appreciate and respect my Mum's way of life and I am amazed by the practices that they follow. I loved wearing this gold jewellery when we were younger as we would often only wear them on special occasion. To this day I still regard them as treasure. I still own these amazingly detailed silver ankle bracelets my Dad brought back for my sister and I from his trip to India. I loved them because they would jingle and they also came in a beautiful wooden carved jewellery box.
You can see more of Kaela's stunning jewellery pieces online through her website: http://www.kaelahogg.com
Or, please do go and see her work in the flesh, at Part 1 of the New Designers show in London from 24th - 27th July. You can find out more about New Designers and buy a ticket via this website: http://www.newdesigners.com
The Defining Shape and Form of Patricia Volk
The human brain is amazing. It allows us to see the world in so many different ways and have numerous experiences. Experiences of colour, of form, of shape, of touch, of feelings and of sound. These experiences help us understand, help us connect, genuinely connect, to the world around us.
Patricia Volk's sculptures are beautiful, colourful, explorations of shape and form. The curves, colours and line weights guide our eyes around each piece, draw us in and hold our gaze. Our conversation with Patricia showed her to be a lady who is just as strong, colourful and engaging, as any one of her pieces.
You were born in Belfast and you studied three dimensional design in Bath, graduating in 1989. Belfast must have been a very interesting place to be at the time just before you moved. Can you tell us a bit about your personal journey from growing up in Ireland to deciding to leave and go to art school?
I left before the start of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, and then there was no going back. At school I always dreamt of going to Art College, but the possibility was totally remote for people like me. I had and still have, extreme dyslexia, so all the way through school I had a horror and dread of words, which didn’t help. Also, anyone interested in studying art would have been laughed at where I came from. So, I came over to England with the idea getting in somewhere to train in art, fashion interested me most at that time, but then everyone wanted to do it back then. Bearing in mind I was a one parent family, my main preoccupation was getting enough money to live on.
I got a job in an advertising agency and there I started meeting people who had gone to art school and they encouraged me to go for it. One night after not touching painting or drawing for fifteen years I lifted up a pencil and started to draw. I took year off to go to adult education classes, and from that built up a portfolio and applied to Art College, and got in as a mature student in my thirties. Which was the beginning of the most exciting time of my life. It was wonderful. Every day was a new discovery and it was fantastically exciting.
Some of your work demonstrates stability through partnership, with one weaker piece supported by a stronger one. Can you tell us about what it is that interests you about this relationship and the piece you have made, which you feel, best demonstrates this.
For the series where I had the strong and the weaker, I was definitely thinking about that during the making process, the idea of “leaning on” or one person being supported by another, the fragility of the tipping point where an object or person might fall… But it’s mainly about pure form. It’s the abstraction I’m interested in, rather than making a piece that illustrates a rigid idea you have beforehand.
That’s not to say the parallels with human emotions aren’t in my mind all the time. As a particular example, I have made a big piece resting on a smaller piece, like a prop, which gives it drama but also delicacy. I like the visual contradiction. To an extent, working in clay is like play and, being dyslexic I have trouble expressing ideas in words so I chose a medium where words aren’t really necessary. Or, you could say, it chose me.
There is an element of synesthesia with some of your work, in so much as colours seem to have their own textures and shapes their own feelings. Do you ever think about your objects as having any kind of displaced element of personality?
No, it’s purely about seeing a balance of colour, like a Mondrian, you just put one thing against the other to get a balance. If there is a rhythm it’s purely visual and, often, if there is a deeper meaning I like to think that is brought by the viewer: I don’t like to limit the viewer’s experience by giving a sculpture of mine a pat explanation or theme, if I can help it – or if I do - I try to keep it as loose as possible. Sometimes I know what is going on in my head, but more often I let my hands do the thinking. That doesn’t mean it is easy, because I do take a long time to consider the exact colours and balance, and it isn’t scientific, it is purely instinctive.
Tell us about how you decide to shape your pieces and how you want your audience’s eyes to explore your work through colour and pattern.
There are so many influences, sometimes imagining a beautiful line, or using as a start point a curve I’ve used in the past. I like the thought that the pieces look light and float – a contradiction to the obvious physical weight of clay.
I like the idea of uplift. They should be viewed at eye level, by walking around, looking from different angles. The surface texture can work to make the flatness of colour more nuanced and less machine-manufactured looking, adding a natural edginess on a vivid unnatural blue for instance. I work on a series of pieces, but the finished product is defined by the time it is modelled which can be affected by weather, temperature, my mood, and so on.
I would like the combination of non-figurative form and colour combination to set off a series of ideas in the viewer’s mind: tranquility; elegance; power; sadness; rest; action; conflict; a sense of movement… all these things triggering human emotions of some kind.
What is craft as opposed to art, aren’t we, as artists, all makers, all creative? Do you think it’s time we stopped defining these things by materials used, after all, the last thing fine art needs is another elitist category. What are your thoughts on this as a sculptor?
I think a sculptor can have craft and imagination and be creative but there’s also craftspeople who are superb at what they do, but do not have the creative level of input. There are artists who are highly creative who do not have craft skills – they can literally phone somebody to make what they want, and that’s fine. In the last case the craftsman is at the service of an artist. It’s about understanding your individual role and not being arrogant, not having a pretense to intellectuality if it isn’t there. It’s no good called a piece “Baudelaire” just so that it sounds super important. That is nonsense! It’s the finished artwork that defines itself.
There is an influence of Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth in your work. Who are the top 3 biggest influences on your artistic work and why?
Modigliani and Giacometti influenced me a lot when I was doing heads, as did the sculptors of the Renaissance. I think now there are an awful lot of abstract painters who are having a huge impact on me simply because of the pared down nature of their work and sometimes it takes my breath away. I have just been to the Agnes Martin exhibition at Tate Modern and the stillness and rigour of her work was incredibly inspiring. I love Jun Kaneko. Enormous big things with spots on them. So exuberant.
What do you like to listen to while you work?
Radio 4. Talking, plays.
Tell us about the biggest piece of sculpture you would like to make, if time, space and money were no object.
A lot of pieces I have been making recently from components are quite small, table scale really, but I think of them all as maquettes for potentially huge pieces. I imagine that they could be twenty or thirty feet tall if money were no object, or if I win the lottery.
As a little girl I was constantly drawing but I do remember, distinctly, the first drawing I ever did that genuinely felt like a piece of art to seven year old me. Can you tell me a bit about your first experience of feeling like you had made something which felt like a real sculpture to you?
I remember the first drawing I did when I was in junior school, and a teacher calling another teacher to show her what I’d done and I felt very proud. It was a picture of a wedding, a bride and groom, but I was so delighted that it caused such a lot of interest in the teachers. I suppose I’d always been told I was good at drawing and working with my hands and it was only on my Foundation Course that I discovered clay. I was encouraged by one of the tutors who told me I was making something beautiful and I shouldn’t be so self-critical – that was a real turning point for me.
There are a lot of artists who really struggle with self-criticism, which can be a big problem creatively if you let it. How do you deal with your own self critic now?
I don’t think you can ever completely overcome criticism, and perhaps that’s a good thing, unless you let self-doubt completely defeat any pleasure in doing what you do. I know I’m very critical after I make a piece.
There is the passing moment of satisfaction, but in time I only see the imperfections, which nobody else would see. But, in a way that spurs you on to create more pieces. Not to make the "one perfect sculpture", that would be silly, but to attempt something new that, this time, might get closer to what you are trying to achieve. You have to push yourself in terms of ideas and technique all the time, but equally importantly you have to allow yourself to like your own work. I think it was Brancusi who said “If you don’t like what you do, how do you expect somebody else to like it?”
Absolutely. Tell us what you're working on now?
I think they are almost like slides, slab built and very simple. They are curves, arcs in fact, purely abstract but lying almost like the timbers of a boat’s hull or the ribs of an animal, and they would roll away except for a kind of prop under them. My dream is to do a series of these so that you would have them in a line in a room, and you could look through them, and each one would curve this way then that way until you see to a big wall piece at the end. But I haven’t quite worked that out yet.
You can keep up to date with Patricia Volk's work by checking out her website: http://www.patriciavolk.co.uk or follow her on Twiiter: @patriciavolk
Coming Soon in July...
A digital traveling two-some; Two.5. Fresh off the plane, all the way from Boston, expressive painter: Vera K Wilde. Contemporary Urban artist: Deirdre MacLeod.
Michele Marcoux – Nostalgic Identities
Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It used to be thought of as a sickness but social psychologists now believe it has a positive impact on us, that it makes us happier and even makes us feel warmer. Is it an emotion? Hundreds of products are sold to us with ‘vintage’ style packaging, appealing to our feelings of nostalgia, a nostalgia for eras we sometimes have absolutely no experience of. For example, how many Steam Punk fans were around during the industrial revolution?
In a curtained room off the courtyard where Hidden Door Arts Festival set up this year, Michele Marcoux’s installation of work, Fan of Memory seeks to explore some of the intriguing aspects of nostalgia.
You seem to be a fiercely determined lady, with such a strong work ethic, which is something really admirable about you as a person and an artist.
Thanks for your kind words! I guess it was something I was brought up with - the work ethic. I have always believed that if you work hard enough you can accomplish what you set out to do. Both my parents worked incredibly hard so I am sure I learned it from them!
Tell us a bit about your experience working with an artistic collective like Hidden Door.
I really enjoyed being part of Hidden Door and saw it as an opportunity to meet other artists in Edinburgh and further afield and get to know them while working on the Festival itself - not in the usual setting say at an opening or whatever. Working together with people brings you together in a different way. I spent hours shovelling dirt and picking the moss from between cobblestones with a crew of fantastic people!
Did pulling together to get the venue exhibition / festival ready add to your experience, did you find it brought out your determination or would you prefer the ready set up gallery situation?
Often as an artist you have to pull together all aspects of an exhibition by yourself; marketing, press, installation, organisation of food/wine etc., which can be isolating and a bit dispiriting, not to mention exhausting! I was attracted to Hidden Door by the fact that we were all going to support each other and also that Hidden Door was going to support us with marketing and equipment and also with a small production budget.
To be represented by a gallery would be fantastic and is my ultimate goal however this doesn’t happen easily and if artists wait for galleries to show their work well they won’t be shown very much will they? A huge part of my work is engaging with people; finding out what they think and getting feedback. For this reason I think the DIY ethos has to be taken up by artists themselves. Like musicians have done I think artists more and more need to take control and create opportunities for our work to be seen. Hidden Door was a fantastic way to do this.
Your last exhibition, Hag-ridden, touched on the theme of Nostalgia, more specifically to do with feelings of being haunted. Can you tell us a bit about your progression from Hag-ridden to Fan of Memory and how the theme of Nostalgia has grown ‘ever mightier’ for you?
Nostalgia is a powerful emotion for most people and as someone with a sentimental bent I am particularly susceptible to it! However I also think it is important to deconstruct Nostalgia as well. There are hidden dangers in succumbing to the rose-tinted view of the past. Hag-ridden was for me an exploration of the imagery from my past and from the films and literature that I grew up with, to tease out the themes that were important to me then and are still important now.
In a way I don’t really think I got to the end of the exploration with Hag-ridden, I felt that there was still a lot to cover. Fan of Memory similarly is an exploration of personal imagery but I wanted to be more focussed both in the imagery I chose and also the structure of the work.
I was reading a fantastic epic poem by Alice Notley called The Descent of Alette which is a kind of feminist Dante's Inferno. The entire world exists below ground on an endless series of subway cars. Only the Tyrant and his close advisors live above ground. It becomes the task of Alette to somehow get above ground and kill the tyrant. The imagery is astounding as it explores all aspects of humanity, animal life, the natural and supernatural energy that exists on the train cars - the entire universe is there. I loved the way each car was a kind of stage in Alette's progression toward her ultimate goal. And Notley's brilliant use of quotation marks throughout the poem to frame the poetic phrases creates a feeling of immediacy as if you are being directly spoken to while at the same time existing in the formal structure of an epic poem. I loved the idea of referencing a classical structure and at the same time breaking it up, breaking through it.
I thought a lot about how I could do this in Fan of Memory and decided to explore the use of windows as a medium - something I had done a bit with Hag-ridden. The use of the window frame (an obvious nod to different kinds of framing) also allowed the possibility of seeing things from different sides and playing with that. From a technical point of view there was a lot I could explore in terms of hiding and revealing and it also became a kind of metaphor for how the past is mutable, how there is no definitive version of it.
Yes, because it no longer exists, it’s lost. It’s really interesting that the images of the ladies on your work for Fan of Memory have been cut out, lost. There is a theory that our lives are a constant struggle against loss, pain and difficulties and that nostalgia, or having feelings of nostalgia allows us to indulge in these feelings of loss, etc., without becoming ill. Like a vaccine for a virus, a broken down version of a memory becomes a cure, a way of coping because we get to keep something. What do you think about this? How did you decide what to keep and what to cut out in your images?
Ahhh the Ladies! I have a studio filled with cut-out naked women - like hard-core paper dolls! I guess early on when I was thinking about looking at Nostalgia again I got pretty judgemental of myself and realised that my own nostalgia verged on a kind of personal pornography. The details you latch on to and retain! I wanted to make this connection as a way to talk about Nostalgia but also the way that we all use and are attached to imagery. I considered using the full graphic images of the naked women but realised pretty soon that they would become the main focus, so I decided to cut the Ladies out of their context and just refer to them by their outline. I let the backgrounds; the bad furniture, old fashioned telephones, harsh lighting of the original porn photo-shoot, give the context.
Also I felt that the graphic images of the naked women were really only part of a monetary exchange (the money shot, as it were) and very far from the woman that were actually in the pictures. I kept thinking what was it like for them and where are they now?
In terms of nostalgia being a comfort - yes it is! I think sometimes that time spent in my studio is like being in a mental health clinic (smiles). But I also feel it is incredibly important to question these tendencies toward high emotion as somehow the only catharsis. I feel a definite emotional connection to my work and making it is often quite emotional, however it is important to side-line this in favour of focussing on the physical act of making which has its own mysterious process that is hidden - almost primal. I feel this is a very important energy to tap into as well and that it is somehow more powerful.
Human beings are incredibly good at constructing meaning out of something that we’ve experienced, do you think we do this as another way of comforting ourselves?
I think as human beings we do search for meaning as a means to comfort ourselves but also as a way to connect with the present and hopefully give resonance to our actions. The older I get the more I think that it is what you do that is important not what you feel or think. However obviously these things are interlinked!
The film in your installation features a lady who isn’t cut out, but her dancing is repeated on a loop and out of context from what the rest of the film might be. Like a peep show we are given a blinkered, edited view of something. Have you thought about this fragmentation and repetition in connection with identity?
Yes, very much so. I think one of the key themes for me is the exploration of identity. Like the past I don’t think there is a definitive version of ourselves - we are all of us fragmentary and subject to our surroundings. Growing up an identical twin I was constantly confused with someone else! Now as an expat I am often presented with versions of myself by others that I don’t recognise. It is an odd thing where you feel you know yourself when others can’t possibly, but also that perhaps there is no self at all unless others recognise it. A sort of ‘if the tree falls in the forest and no one hears it’ sort of thing... Perhaps that is why I make art. An attempt to get people into the woods to have a listen...
Can you tell us a bit about the role profanity / pornography has to play in this?
The obsessive use of images to conjure up emotion is really the definition of pornography! However there is the larger idea of the perception of women within society and the mixed messages presented especially to girls about what their role in society should be and the impact this has on both women and men. I am also interested exploring more the sex industry itself - I did a bit of research on the Peep Show industry - there are trade shows for them believe it or not! Perhaps a subject for future work?
Definitely! I think you could do a lot with that idea as there are a lot of angles to explore it from, particularly in terms of being perceived by others and existing in this perception. Getting back to you, is there anything you feel especially nostalgic for?
I am very nostalgic for my family. Having lived in the UK for almost half of my adult life I find it gets no easier to be away from them.
Would you care to guess at what your strongest memory of the Hidden Door experience might be?
Hidden Door isn’t over yet so have high hopes of good memories to come this weekend! Opening night was absolutely fab! Popping down from a great chat with people in my exhibition space to see Lonelady in the concert space below was a real high point. Overall though, it has been feeling part of the incredible space that we have brought to life for only a brief time - a place that had lain empty and unused for years. The life in the courtyard will be fleeting but potent like a really good memory.
You can keep track of Michele’s work by checking out her website: www.michelemarcoux.com following her on Twitter @Michelemarcoux and joining her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MicheleMarcouxArtist
Jo Taylor - Passion and Form
Jo Taylor is a highly regarded ceramics artist / sculptor, who, around 15 years ago, gave up her career as a police officer to pursue her art. This is important to mention only because; to make a major successful career change like that requires, not just talent, but also a real passion and drive to create. This energy and passion is just as apparent in her work as it was in her interview with Redbird and it was a joy to speak with her.
Your work draws inspiration from plaster cornicing work and architectural features. You must enjoy visiting the Sir John Soane Museum! What is it that inspires you about this work and do have a favourite period of design / a favourite architect?
I love the Sir John Soane museum – the eclectic mix of architectural features all under one roof is unique. I have always lived near Bath and have grown up with the magnificent Georgian architecture, I enjoy the scale and drama of the buildings and the ornate decorative features. In particular I am interested in depth of relief, light & shadow, how features change in the light at different times of day and in different weather.
In terms of design style, I like anything that pushes the boundaries; Gothic revival (Pugin); Gaudi; Baroque & Rococo – as seen in the palaces of Potsdam; the glorious gardens of Villa D'Este in Tivoli; the sinuous lines of Art Nouveau and the angularity of Art Deco. Anything that's clear, bold and ambitious in its intention.
How much preparation drawing do you do before you make a piece?
None! I used to draw a lot and try and make my drawings three dimensional through layers, to try and convey depth and shadow, but always felt unable to communicate accurately my intention, although as drawings they were perfectly acceptable in their own right. I feel that each mark I make in clay can be classed as drawing, and that each piece is made from a collage of marks or small drawings.
You create your work using a combination of wheel thrown and hand sculpted pieces. Can you tell us a bit about what you enjoy about working this way, how you choose to combine these elements?
I have always loved throwing and was previously a functional maker. Repetitive throwing is quite a stressful process for your body and I was unable to throw when I started my MA due to a shoulder injury, so concentrated on hand building, pushing further than I had explored previously. I enjoyed the process and began to develop the technique of joining “fragments” together, so it was easy to incorporate throwing again once my shoulder was back on track.
Working on a piece of art can be quite an organic process and you like to create in quite an organic way. How do you know when a piece is finished, what is your personal checklist for satisfaction with a piece of your work?
That's an interesting question for many artists and can cause a few headaches, it’s quite a tough decision making process. I have to work to the height of the kiln so there are parameters, and I usually start each piece with some intention of structure or form. The forms then continue being added to until the decision is made to stop. Making that decision is helped by looking at the work from different heights, from a distance or sometimes from a photo – trying to use “fresh eyes” as though it’s the first time you have seen it.
Your work was on display at Collect 2015 at the Saatchi Gallery. How do you feel about being featured in Collect, how important to you is being on show at galleries like Saatchi?
It’s hard to describe how it feels, as it’s such an aspirational show, and I've been very lucky to have been shown there as part of the Young Masters, courtesy of the Cynthia Corbett Gallery. Being shortlisted for the Young Masters Maylis Grand ceramics prize has meant that my work has been shown at some outstanding venues in London, COLLECT being the icing on the cake. It’s incredibly important to my career as you need to establish a visible presence to enable people to trust in your work, which takes time and a lot of effort; being with the right gallery can make a world of difference.
You do a large amount of teaching, this May you will be teaching / demonstrating at a workshop in Belgium. What do you enjoy about teaching and how do you find that it informs your own creative practice?
My teaching experience has been really diverse – I started teaching after my BA in 2005, mainly in a prison where I stayed teaching ceramics for 5 years. I now teach occasionally at Bath Spa University, have regular classes at New Brewery Arts and have been involved with socially engaged projects working with groups who have experienced issues such as domestic abuse, homelessness and long term unemployment. This summer I will be working with the Crafts Council to deliver workshops in conjunction with the First Decade Project. In teaching I hope to be able to enthuse participants with my passion for clay, and pass on knowledge & skills to enable people to realise their ideas. Clay is such a versatile material – the possibilities are endless, and it’s so universal it doesn’t matter if the learner can’t read or write, can’t speak English, or has any other issue, it’s pretty much suitable for all ages and abilities. It’s exciting and rewarding to see your group create something new, and it’s a two way thing, I can be inspired by them and hope its mutual! It’s also sociable, and the sharing of ideas, conversation and learning is such a positive experience.
Some of the tools you use to make pieces are re-purposed domestic tools, like a butter curler, or apple corer for example. Do you think of yourself as more of a sculptor than a ceramicist? Are there other materials and tools you would like to experiment with?
It can be hard to describe or define yourself - artist, maker, ceramicist, ceramist, sculptor...all I know is I'm not a potter as I don't make pots!
I am a member of the Royal British Society of Sculptors, and do take a real interest in contemporary sculpture which is a rich source of inspiration. I think the scale and ambition in other materials is aspirational: particular favourites are Richard Deacon and Barbara Hepworth. Whilst in theory I would like to try other materials, my lack of technical knowledge would be a barrier – I have so much knowledge about clay and so little about anything else, I would probably need to do another course to enable me to realise my ideas.
I do like the freedom to be experimental, and using domestic tools, and making my own is part of that; I enjoy the fact that each piece is unique and that I can change any part of my process at any time.
How important do you think is it for artists / makers to experiment with techniques and ideas and how to we train ourselves to loosen up and not worry about making mistakes?
It depends on your style and your goals. For me to have the freedom to try things during my MA without the pressure of a specific goal led to a lot of experimentation with clays, glazes and techniques. Trying new things and evaluating the results took me on quite a journey to really push scale, form and surface, which enabled me to develop my own style and techniques. This investigative way of working suited my curiosity although it’s not for everyone, some people need a brief, limits or more direction. I think mistakes are useful, they help you puzzle it out; much of ceramics is problem solving. I experienced some classic disasters, opening the kiln to a pile of rubble etc., but as long as you can work out why it’s unlikely you'll make the same mistake twice.
I must add that I was very lucky on several counts. During the course I opted to use studio space at Bath Spa's Corsham Court campus, which had less equipment but more space, enabling greater scale in drawing and making. I shared this space with other students and the retired head of sculpture, Prof Michael Pennie, and we had some wonderful discussions combined with an industrious vibe so great progress was made all round. It’s interesting when artists work, not in collaboration but alongside each other. With freedom to experiment and good energy some great work can happen. I am privileged to be showing work with Prof Pennie, and fellow Corsham Court student Sarah Purvey, at Salisbury Arts Centre in September and we will be discussing our time in the shared space during an artist’s Q&A event.
Your installation pieces ‘Submergence’ and the one on show at the National Park in Gloucester have a real animation and character to them. Can you tell us a bit about these? Do you find more freedom in creating installations?
It was such an interesting experience to consider the site before making the work, as I normally work the other way round. The opportunity to make the work for the “Hospitality” show at Bath Abbey was really special, as discussions started during the MA and it took a while to come to fruition. I worked almost in collaboration with the Abbey; there's quite a responsibility in putting work on an altar in a chapel and getting the balance right. Thinking about the light, the other materials used in the immediate area, the audience, the function of the space, and making the work achievable, of enough scale not to get lost and to be true to my intention was quite a process. I was happy with the end result & was privileged to show work in the Abbey. What I enjoyed most was hearing people discuss what it meant. I have my own thoughts and intentions about moving toward the light, fragmentary nature of the group, pulling in different ways, hanging off the edge etc. but the abstract nature of it means people make their own connections: fallen angel; flames; water etc. This context changed entirely when it was shown at Newark Park as part of the Open West 2013, when it was placed outside on the steps of a National Trust house.
Submergence was developed for Fresh Air 2013 at Quenington Sculpture Trust - I'd had an idea about working with water as another layer instead of glaze. Three sculptures were made as a trajectory of submergence, falling off the edge of the diving board, going down the slope underneath and resting at the deepest part of the pool. My husband got the job of installing it as he has diving experience!
I don’t know if you necessarily have more freedom in creating site specific installations as there are immediately physical parameters and aesthetic considerations which inform the work. I do like the challenge of resolving these issues without compromising the work, and it brings another dimension and narrative to what you do.
If time, space and money were no objects and you were offered the opportunity to make something, anything, what would it be and why?
I think the answer many of us working with clay would say is scale! You always work to the size of your kiln which never seems big enough. I would like to make a large scale installation piece, but that could be possible by using multiples which many ceramic artists do. It is something I hope to do at some point, if the right opportunity arises...watch this space!
Jo has achieved so much throughout her career so far and in July 2015 she will be featured as a demonstrator at the International Ceramics Festival. You can find out more information about Jo’s work by checking out her website.
Alicia Bruce – The Sim Project and Political Photography
Alicia Bruce is an award winning photographer whose controversial project, Menie: A Community in Conflict helped to tell the residents’ side of the story and bring attention to the environmental impact of the development of the land around Menie in Aberdeenshire, when it was turned into a giant golf course by Donald Trump. Her work was acquired by National Gallery Scotland in Feb 2011. The photo 'Mike and Sheila Forbes: Mill of Menie' has just gone on display.
Alicia’s latest project, supported by the Morton International Photography Award, is called The Sim Project, a global project that looks at the robotic patients used for medical teaching and training. For this series of work, Alicia travelled from her residency at the Scottish Clinical Simulation Centre in Fourth Valley Hospital to centres in New York, North America and Canada.
Alicia is hardworking and always incredibly busy; 35 weeks pregnant, has her work featured as part of RSA’s 189th Annual Exhibition and heaps of attention for her work. Yet somehow we manage to get some time to talk and it was a real pleasure.
You’ve got a lot on at the moment, being pregnant, having a solo show at the RSA, all the media attention, its all great stuff! How are you coping with it all?
I’m really glad it’s happening now! I was a little concerned the show was going to happen in summer, which would’ve been much trickier to fit in. Sim Scenario was shot in March marking the end of this phase of the project. I’m now looking at sponsorship opportunities to continue as well as building contacts.
So where did it all begin, how did you become a photographer?
I was studying social sciences when I was a teenager and my friend had set up a darkroom and asked me if I wanted to have a go of it. Another one of my friends had just had a baby and so my friend taught me how to develop photographs and the ones I developed were of my other friend’s baby. It was magic seeing the image appear out in the developer. I knew immediately that this was what I want to do!
I worked really hard throughout getting my degree. I worked 20 to 30 hours a week at my job in Beyond Words Photographic Bookshop in Edinburgh to fund my studies. I was also doing an internship at the Stills Gallery. I knew there was no way I was going to be able do it after I graduated alongside work and so I had to find a way to fit it in. Looking back it was an incredible amount of work. I can hardly believe that I did it. But it was totally worth it. Doing the internship and the job gave me a wider perspective of what it is to be an artist and an insight into the industry. I also got the chance to work with photographers like Fay Godwin, Albert Watson, Martin Parr and John Blakemore.
The biggest learning curve, though it took a few years after graduating and a few rejection letters for the penny to drop, was all about getting your work out there, having it seen by people. There’s no use having it under your bed and hoping opportunity will knock!
Do you find that social media helps with that now, helps to get peoples work out there, has it helped you?
I didn’t actually get on Twitter until 2011! A friend told me to get on Twitter because the Menie Project was trending! I try to encourage my students to use it because it is a really useful tool. It’s great for connecting to the wider creative community. Being any kind of artist can be really isolating, because you are working on your own for a lot of the time. It’s good to speak to other people who are doing it too and at the same time! I’m using it less these days because I’m not commuting as much.
Personal identities play a big role in your work. With the Menie Project each member of the community was photographed according to the person’s identity, which really helped make them stand out, as opposed to having been lumped in together. Your photographs pulled out their personalities and gave them their dignity back. Catriona McAra’s quote on your website mentions your work in the context of your Scottish identity. Do you think this is accurate, is your work distinctly Scottish?
Thank you! Well, I think when Catriona wrote that it was certainly true at the time, as I had just been working on the Menie project and other Scottish projects. After Menie I worked on a residency commissioned by Ffotogallery in Blaenavon, South Wales. The proposal for this was based a painting by the Scottish artist William Dyce. Purely by coincidence, I had set up some shoots near the end of the residency on the hilltops at Foxhunter to find heather had come out! With the Morton Award I sought to expand my practice working with a global community rather than a geographically rooted one. The Sim Project has connected me to people all over the world with shared values working with medical simulation. I also used the award as an opportunity to develop my skills as a film maker.
With the current developments in robotics it would seem that there is a re-joining of art and science.
Yes I think so, the SimMen are amazing as objects and there is a definite sci-fi kinetic sculptural quality to them.
Using the Sim-men could be a very surreal experience, on one hand you know that it isn’t real and on the other, there needs to be some suspension of disbelief so that you can learn the right way of dealing with things. What was it like for you as an experience to be a part of that? What did you find fascinating about it?
I’m interested in the tension between the hospital theatre and the theatrical performance possibilities of the simulation scenarios. During a Sim scenario doctors are being critiqued by peers who watch the scenario in a nearby classroom so there’s a lot of pressure to perform well. In some cases it’s life or death! The scenarios have all the tension of a medical drama such as ER. The assessors would write a scenario with the Sim Men and set it up in the room accordingly. The doctors entering the room have 15minutes to make a diagnosis and try to save the sim-patient’s life. I was particularly impressed by how calm they were able to remain under pressure.
Were there times when things went wrong? Did you find the doctors had an emotional buy-in with the Sim Men?
Oh definitely! One doctor who was playing a patients partner in a scenario was holding the sim-person’s hand throughout a scenario in which a life could not be saved, he looked visibly upset. Afterwards I said to him, your acting is incredibly convincing, you looked like it was really happening to you! His response? He’d seen the same scenario happen in real life too many times and felt just as helpless.
Did you ever have to help anyone feel more comfortable in front of the camera?
During the initial stages on The Sim Project I observed several Sim scenarios involving medical staff and students. I introduced myself at the start of each session, provided model release forms and information about the project to people involved. This means I can retain their contact information and can let them know if their image is exhibited or published. People are generally generous and willing to participate. It was staff training essentially, so I just stayed at the very edge of the room and stayed quite, tiptoe-ing around with the camera. As it’s such an intense kind of training they often didn’t even notice I was there. At the end of a scenario, they would suddenly see me and say, ‘Oh yeah, you’re here!’
It helped to reinforce to them just how cool their jobs are, because I was approaching the centres from an artistic point of view. Dr Michael Moneypenny, Director of The Scottish Simulation Centre said that’s exactly why they like non-medics to see the centre. Throughout my residency the Sim Centre staff were great and loved to collaborate and participate. Andy, one of the technicians saved weeks worth of SimBlood samples for me (yes, the mannequins give SimBlood and bleed.) They also loaned me a SimHand for the project, which I've displayed on a plinth in the RSA with the photographs and film. The SimHand adds a sculptural element to the exhibition and allows the audience to engage with the mannequin whilst celebrating the artistry of anatomical objects.
What was your big take-away form the experience, what did you learn?
I learned more than I can summarise here about Simulation, medicine, birth, human factors and more. I learned how to operate a SimMan mannequin from behind the scenes too. Whilst shooting my Sim Scenario filmmaker Michael Prince was filming close-ups for me as I was operating the Sim Man's eyes. I made him fall unconscious, so I was making his eyes close more and more and making him slump a little, making him look like he was passing out!
I couldn’t believe how much was involved with the simulation process. It really was like a science fiction film set. The doctors were writing scripts and the technicians were dressing the SimMen. I also learned that the sim community is a passionate, engaged and enthusiastic one. Such a cool job!
What makes a story compelling to you, why do you choose to work on the subjects you do?
I am incredibly curious and having a camera is like having a license to go to places you wouldn’t normally go and ask questions that you wouldn’t normally ask. I think work reflects your own interests and I definitely have an interest in human rights, community, education and environmental stories. In Menie, it was the human rights of the residents – I gave them a different space to represent themselves that counteracted how they had been represented in the press, which was disgusting. Trump had called them peasants and pigs “living in a slum”. Some press had come to talk to the residents and been friendly, but when the people of Menie read the article, their words had been completely distorted so trust was a huge part of the project for me, something you cannot betray.
Its unfortunate that quite often, what is good for the papers is generally terrible for people / the country and it’s a real shame that kind of journalism exists because it’s not about representing the truth or the people. You did that with your portraits though, you represented them using the truth, which is much more powerful.
Thank you. It was wonderful to get these images into news sections as well as showing the work internationally. The portraits are all accompanied by the Menie residents’ testimonials. The portraits where made through a collaborative process with the residents choosing the source paintings, locations and what they would wear. This empowered them to completely represent themselves.
The local Aberdeen press is so Trump centric, which had to be counteracted. Bringing the work to The Scottish Parliament was also an important part of the project for me. Alex Salmond is MSP for the area yet had never been to the residents’ doorstep. I took the images to his, The Member’s Lobby of The Scottish Parliament, where he had to engage with it.
You should also watch the documentary You’ve Been Trumped by Anthony Baxter, its BBC screening was a milestone which really helped to swing people’s opinion about the people of Menie too.
You can find out more of Alicia’s work by exploring her website: http://www.aliciabruce.co.uk/home/ and you can follow her on Twitter @picturemaking
Alicia’s show, The Sim Project, is on at the RSA in Edinburgh from 25th April – 3rd June 2015. Print sales available at RSA sales desk, or by contacting; Royal Scottish Academy, The Mound, Edinburgh, EH2 2EL, Tel: 0131-225-6671
Rusty Squid - Future Art
Rusty Squid are a small team of artists, designers and engineers. They might be best known for their Heart Robot, a robot which has a soft body and simulated heartbeat, who squeezes the hand it holds. Their project Book Hive, an interactive art installation at Bristol University Library, was a honeycomb of books which opened and closed, fluttering their pages in response to the movements made by people interacting with it.
Their work involves projects which merge robotics, computer programming, design and puppetry, creating something that’s both technically and artistically brilliant. As advancements in technology are being made at an increasing pace, what role will artists have to play in the future?
Who better to answer this question than David McGoran, artist, Co-Director of Rusty Squid and Senior Technical Instructor at The Fabrication Centre, University of West England. Due to the nature of Rusty Squid’s work, David is frequently asked to give interviews so we were delighted when he decided to speak to us.
'Technology is what happens to you after the age of 20' (David McGoran)
You’re a very small team with a really mixed skillset, tell us a bit about yourselves.
We are a very small team. We have Rosie, who is on leave for 6months (which is the beauty of our team, that we can take breaks like that), we have Rob, an engineer who’s been with us for 4 years, Helen an interactive designer; Zac, who is very new and is a software designer. We also take on 2 young people every year to work as interns in the workshop.
It’s an interesting choice of name too, how did you come up with it?
Basically we are a group of artists, engineers and designers who were really excited to work together. When we started working together we needed a name, something all-encompassing to describe what it is we do, I’m fairly sure we were using something really embarrassing for ages. Then one of guys, who was really into cephalopods at the time, came up with the thought of using squid and we thought rust, because its human made but it’s also almost organic.
There’s so many diverse disciplines which feed into what we do, so something with multiple legs makes sense. All those different skills working together in one beast.
You describe yourselves as being artists who explore primal emotions with embodied machines, why the combination of emotions with robotics?
The primal emotions are a response to the contemporary fine art world, it’s a rebuking of the status quo. It’s easy to forget who we are, or what we are. We’re just naked apes, essentially. The current Judaeo-Christian ideals that we follow are not a true account of what we are, they actually go against what we are.
There has been so much emphasis on the frontal cortex of our brain, it’s really celebrated, but that part of us came much later in our development. The focus has been on testing computers to be great at chess, when building computers and testing them out that was always what was important, but it’s just maths, right? Computers are great at that! What they’re not so great at is the physicality and movement and all the emotive stuff.
The Fine art world is so focused on the conceptual. We want to tap into the stuff that came before that, the things at the core of our being, the emotions and sensuality, the things we’re great at. The basic human element.
It’s the attraction / repulsion that we’re interested in, the animal side, we want to create a vocabulary with people who fear technology, get them to engage with it on a human level.
There’s a danger now that technologies, such as robotics, are being developed by people who have great scientific minds but they have social skills which are very poor. There needs to be better integration of the human animal with technology, rather than just the logic, there needs to be a re-prioritising.
Combining art, engineering and design is a really interesting approach to what you do. It’s not a usual approach, but each are, essentially, all problem solvers. Tell me a bit about how this works in your team, specifically.
It’s an integration of art, design and engineering. These things are normally defined by themselves. Engineering is about pattern and trial and error. A good engineer predicts the future, what the likely outcome of a system is. A designer does the reverse, they reverse engineer the problem solving process, they start with the outcome that they want to achieve and work towards that. The thing that they all have in common is their willingness to step outside of ‘what’s done.’ There’s more meaning in that. They’re ready to question something; why is it being done this way; why can’t it be done a different way.
Craft is often criticised for doing that, for just following the normal way of doing something. It’s criticised as being taken up by people who don’t want to try making things in a different way.
When I started teaching programming in the art college, it was an act of poetic terrorism. You’d be surprised at the reactions from the students, ‘I don’t do technology I’m an artist!’
That’s annoying because historically artists who have embraced technology have had more staying power. You only have to look at Leonardo Da Vinci to see that stance of 'artists can’t do technology' as being incorrect. Painters can paint with tubes of paint now because of advancements in technology, we don’t have to mix our paint anymore!
Exactly, and that’s why I say, technology is what happens to you after the age of 20, everything else is just brushed aside as being the norm, but it’s like, how do you think this stuff came about?! Look at the tools you’re using, these were the latest technology once and you’re using them now, so why not try another technology? Those are the basic tools of the future.
Engineers do the other thing where they say, ‘Oh I can’t be creative’ they have a limited idea of their abilities too, but there’s no real reason for that. Our identities are always defined by what we’re not.
Which is unhealthy...
Yes. These paradigms are especially unhealthy for the world we’re moving into. We have to get over these somehow, understand that we can do much more than we let ourselves do. It’s limiting.
But it’s comforting too right? The obstructions we put upon ourselves are due to the fact people like to have their field of view narrowed, they feel safe in restriction, in boundaries.
Yes they do and that’s why it’s important to do training and open up people’s minds to the possibilities of doing things a different way. We recognise that and we provide training and Summer Schools to help people learn.
What do you teach at the Summer Schools?
We do stuff with interactives, we show people how to make and build these things using DC motors and actuators and other things. We’re stuck with time and budget restrictions but we do our best within that. We want to re-design technology by using primal, emotional human elements.
Well, most technology is designed in a very boxy specific way, it’s not the best design. Actuators are fitted into the joints of robotics and this makes the movement really weird, it’s not right. If you look at the walking robots they’re gate is all wrong and that’s because it’s not a calculated thing, walking is a controlled fall, the human brain isn’t really doing anything when we’re walking around, because it doesn’t need to. Actuators have been built mostly to turn, like waterwheels and windmills turn. Imagine if we redesigned technology from an emotional or primal point of view and not a calculating point of view. Something softer.
Like the Heart Robot? Like the simulation men used for medical training? In both these cases the emotional connection to a robot, the suspension of disbelief is important, in order to build that connection.
Exactly. The Heart Robot was really interesting, it has a heartbeat, it squeezes your hand and it breathes a little bit, you can feel a little bit of air being expelled from its nostrils. And it reacts to touch as well, like if it got hit it would stiffen up, so much so that the puppeteer couldn’t manoeuvre it and it became hard to move it around, so the interaction had a resonance because it reacted to the way it was treated.
There is another layer of poetry with that, a man-made infant, the idea of procreation and creation and procreating an infant like robot. The thing is that, technologically, mankind is pregnant now and it’s about to give birth, whether it likes it or not! We’ve not realised that yet and we’re not ready. I’m worried because we’re not ready.
What is it that you’re worried about?
Technology is advancing incredibly fast, the amount of work and money being invested into developing Ai and robotics from big companies is rather astounding. But largely it is under the guise to be helpful to humanity.
The speed at which things are coming is scary. We are not prepared for what’s coming. The world we are creating is being driven by programmers and a lot of these people work in a very isolated way, it’s the nature of the job but it means that there is less of an interest in social interaction. This means there will be a big problem with polarisation.
Which is why, when it comes to developing technologies like robotics, the input of artists is so important, to tilt the balance. Are you worried that we’ll have a technocracy?
Yes, exactly. The neo-luddite movement we’re seeing an increase of now, claims to have human values at its core, they idealise nature, it’s a moralist resurgence but it’s the same problem, it’s a polarity.
The animal world is wrapped up in technology. We are technology making animals and technology formed animals. People are dismissive of technology because it’s very simple, or seems very simple but it’s not.
I give talks to engineers which teaches them about interactions with objects, I use a piece of cloth and animate it as a demonstration of passive dynamics and they get really enthusiastic about this. I’ve spoken to them about all the research that’s available on it and they were blown away, asking, can you send us the links, where can we find it? The problem is that so much research that’s being down now is a repeat of the stuff that’s been done already and they don’t know that.
That’s interesting that you picked up on the research element, because that’s speaking to them in their own language. You were connecting with what they understand. Are you, by any chance a Jim Henson fan?
Why do you ask that?
Because Jim Henson used puppets to provoke an emotional connection, because of his work with animatronics and because he was seeking to connect a huge amount of people through one thing. They way his creature shop builds puppets is very organic, they use a skeleton, eyes, it’s a similar thing to what you’re doing.
Yeah, that’s right! I love Jim Henson and Stan Winston and Disney and Pixar, they all manage to do this so well, create a real emotional connection using technology. Which shows that technology needs to be driven by the right values. It took a decade for Pixar to get set up and to make Toy Story and during that time they invented new tools to make animations, they put the time in and came out with something amazing.
Understandably, a lot of your projects are secretive but can you tell us anything about what you’re working on now?
The company attracts a lot of attention and we get a lot of request to talk to magazines and newspapers, which we just can’t do because we don’t have the time and also, we’re in a really delicate spot in terms of what we do. It can be taken in all sorts of strange ways.
Right now we are in the middle of a big researching process. We are working on creating tools which combine story-boarding and flow-codes, which should hopefully make character building interaction more creative, more primal and more human.
Sally Wilford - Urban Lines and Spaces
There you are, walking through a busy city on a bright sunny day, when you pass an alleyway or a gap in the buildings. The sunlight drops down the side of the concrete monoliths and spills over the pavement. Your eyes are drawn back up the height of the building again to the bright slice of blue sky above. It is this moment that Sally Wilford captures in her paintings of buildings, this breathing space, carved between tower blocks.
Sally took some time out from her busy life as an artist and teacher to talk to Redbird about her work.
Your architectural paintings are very striking, with block colours and often painted from the perspective of looking up at them. Have you always lived in cities? What is it about urban architecture especially that you enjoy transforming into paintings?
Living in London is new to me, I grew up in a village in Yorkshire and from practically every view point I could see hills. In fact, a huge part of my childhood was spent watching my dad paint traditional, romantic landscapes. Three years ago I moved to Tottenham and to be honest, in the beginning, I was a stuck, so I started painting my surroundings. I think it’s the light and line that draw me to urban architecture. Ever since I can remember I’ve had a fascination with the way light falls onto a surface. Like most people, I love to stand and gaze at a beautiful sunset but I’m equally moved by the hard light I see falling on concrete. A shadow cast onto tarmac by a lamppost, the midday light trapped in a doorway or the huge, straight edged shadow cast by an industrial unit are all images that are quite startling to me.
As a starting point I work from a photo but the work usually evolves into something very different by the time it’s complete. My work’s quite process led, I work on board, it fits the subject matter and I need a tough surface that will take a sander. I prepare my board by making a layer using paint and a sanding machine. I struggle with a blank space and this layer eases some of the difficulties when beginning new work. I need to feel like the painting has been started before I put down the first accurate pen marks. I enjoy seeing the straight lines or solid blocks of colour cut through the random paint marks left behind in the bottom layer. Many of my paintings are dominated by solid blocks of flat colour and occasionally I try to adopt a more painterly style but usually revert back.
You also create very strong life drawings. These too have an architectural feel to them, with your use of straight angular outlines and block shading. How does your satisfaction with completing a life drawing compare to that of an architectural painting?
I’ve always dipped in and out of life drawing classes but recently it’s been a regular part of my practice. Initially, I picked it up again because I saw it as an essential discipline that I hoped would help me make the paintings but it’s become something separate. I’m more concerned about line, shape and contrast rather than good likeness and I guess that’s why they bear a strong resemblance to the architectural stuff.
As for satisfaction, it’s difficult to say. A drawing I’m happy with might take me anything between one and forty minutes to complete whereas the paintings might see me battling for three or four weeks. There’s a lot of hair pulling with the paintings and it’s great when you finish one but there’s something wonderfully satisfying about making a drawing in fifteen minutes which you know you can develop further in the studio. I’ve started to make mono prints from my drawings.
Can you tell us a bit about what you enjoy about the mediums you use for your work?
In the past I’ve experimented with quite a bit of 3-D work so I’m open to using anything. I’ve combined some collage with paint recently but it’s not working for me right now. I draw with pen and pencil and my paintings are made using pen, acrylic and mostly oil.
For the most part you keep these two subjects, human form and building architecture, very separate. Hale 2 is one of the few paintings which includes both and even then it is kept to outlines, giving the figure a feeling of transparency or camouflage against the buildings behind. Do you feel that we are lost within our urban environment or do you feel we are much more a part of it, that we are shaped by it?
I think the only way I’ve been able to successfully combine the two is not to paint the human form alongside architecture but to leave evidence of human activity. For example: the red balloons or the mattress. I think including the human form takes away the still, snapshot like quality of the paintings which I like.
Are we shaped by our environment? I don’t paint typical scenes from Yorkshire; streams, woodland and so on but I do remember being fascinated by light falling on chimney pots, the gable end of a house or reflected sunshine on a skirting board. So yes, I’m influenced by my current, urban environment, it’s what I paint but I think the real influence comes from much further back.
Your painting of Boathouse 2 is reminiscent of Ben McLaughlin’s work and Inside Out has a touch of Patrick Caulfield. Can you tell us about your influences and artists you admire?
I admire both McLaughlin and Caulfield and both have been an inspiration. McLaughlin’s work puts me in mind of Edward Hopper who I admired enormously as a young girl. I began looking at Caulfield’s work whilst studying and researching Pop artists like Richard Hamilton, Warhol and Lichtenstein. More recently, Emilio Sanchez’s architectural paintings full of light and shadow.
You also work as an artist in residence at a primary school. There are some wonderful pieces in the online gallery for the Cloud 9 project. Can you tell us a bit about the work you create with children and how does this influence your own artistic practise?
I don’t know that what I teach children influences my own work but I get plenty of opportunity to practice my skills. I constantly demonstrate how to draw to the children and make plans for back drops and wall murals.
I have to follow the curriculum so there are all the usual projects; Greek papier mache pots, Egyptian pyramids, African masks and so on but I try, where I can, to really focus on drawing and painting skills. Because children are impatient they make a drawing or a painting in 20 minutes and they’re done. For the past few years I’ve been running projects where they learn to sustain a piece of work over several weeks. They use mixed media to build up layers in their work, they have sketchbooks in which to plan and develop their ideas. It’s very satisfying when that look of enlightenment appears on their faces when they realise they’ve created something wonderful.
Many artists, have other jobs as well as being artists. It’s a real joy when your ‘other job’ is an artistic, creative one, but there is a balance required to allow you to still create your own work. How do you manage this balance?
For me, a huge part of making art is simply thinking about it, planning it out in your head beforehand. Teaching art to children is pretty full on and certainly doesn’t give you much time to think about your own practice.
I try to treat studio time as ‘real job’ time. I set goals, have a ‘to do’ list, break off for lunch etc. However, more often than not, it doesn’t work like that. You can’t just turn on the creative button just because it fits snugly into your Thursday afternoon. There are times when I’m hitting a brick wall and decide to walk away from it for a day or two but I think you have to practice a certain amount of self-discipline or nothing would ever get done.
What are you working on now / next?
I’m still feeling very excited about my life drawings and mono prints. I’ve also made a series of mono prints based on the urban paintings, this is ongoing. I think the next step is to start working with one or two models that I can build a working relationship with. You’re limited to what you can do in class as people have different ideas about what they want.
As for the paintings, I’m having a bit of a love affair with white paint. I’m blocking out sections of work from existing paintings with white paint. It doesn’t feel like I’m painting, it feels more like I’m shaping something, sculpting it. I’m not sure if it’s going to work for me. I don’t think you can decide that until you have a body of work together with the benefit of hindsight. Perhaps it’s the beginning of some new 3-D work.
I’m working towards this year’s Open Studios event at Euroart Studios on the 6th June where all artists, including myself, open their doors to the public for the weekend.