Eric Cruikshank - Simple Complexity
What attracts you to a piece a of art? Do you like a painting because it offers you something that is different to your experience of life, or because it demonstrates another way of seeing the world? Do people in cities prefer pastoral scenes to concrete sculptures?
Abstract paintings are enjoyable because of their simplicity. We can like them for their colours and shapes and patterns without embarking on an in depth analysis. There may be symbolism with a painting that we can also enjoy, of course, but its immediate impression on us is almost always going to be, entirely visual. This is perhaps the main reason why people who live complicated busy lives like abstract art. If you live in a big city and are constantly negotiating yourself through traffic and people and lights and noise, having art on the walls with clean lines and bold colours can reflect a level of simplicity and peace that you are unable to get outside.
Eric Cruikshank's paintings have a huge amount of thought and process behind them. The process Eric uses to produce the finished pieces with their perfect colour gradients, is quite zen like. His painting technique is like an active meditation, concentrating on the look and feel of the medium, taking hours and hours of careful mixing and layering to achieve the flawless result. We really enjoyed learning more about him.
You grew up in the Inverness area, can you tell us a bit about what this was like and how much of an influence this had on you becoming an artist, for example, do you come from a creative family?
My family has a farm about 30 miles from Inverness, in the Spey-valley region of the Highlands.
My childhood memories are very positive, where there was always encouragement for fostering an active imagination; either inside creatively, or exploring the freedom the farm offered outside.
My dad painted when he was young, and my mum was very musical, so they were such a big help in forming early self-belief in terms of pursuing art, supporting me through college and immediately after.
Working on the farm, both then and now, is incredibly challenging, as your day begins and ends being so directly affected by the weather. This brought an acute awareness of the shifting of the seasons, and also the beauty that surrounded me in the Highlands, which has been the primary influence on my own work, and in turn, how I have tried to channel this influence in pushing for a unique position within the field of art I am trying to find my place in.
Who are your top 5 creative influences and what was it that led you to becoming a painter as opposed to exploring other artistic mediums?
Top 5, in alphabetical order - Anne Appleby, Rudolf de Crignis, Callum Innes, Brice Marden, and Agnes Martin.
It has always been painting for me, as very early on I fell in love with the process, even down to the smell of the oil, and the finished result, when it goes right, struck a chord that I couldn’t match with any other medium.
You’ve described your colour palette as being ‘tied to the Scottish landscape’ but your paintings rely on the interpretation of the viewer and their perceptions of colour and place. Tell us a bit more about this and how different colours have different meanings to you.
The Scottish landscape is used as an initial starting point with my work, but my paintings are not about the literal presentation of this landscape, instead colour alone acts as the means to reveal the pictures underlying point of reference.
The works are deeply personnel interpretations of a time and place, so I am aware they reflect how I have responded to this landscape, my memories of a time and a place.
But with the base design and colour harmony being grounded in the everyday, the works are in turn left open to interpretation, where the viewer is encouraged to readdress notions of their surroundings.
I am very interested in the effects colour can have on the viewer, and how it can be reinterpreted and re-appropriated; where the panels have the potential to resonate with, and relate to, each viewer. The memories and emotions I convey, over time looking at my work, can shift and be replaced to become the viewers own memories and emotions, as the colour becomes their own point of reference. I see my paintings as time based works, as they require prolonged viewing, to allow the surface to truly reveal itself, so hopefully the work can then touch each person on a personnel level.
In terms of the meaning each individual colour has on me, they do hold different meanings, but this is constantly changing. When I am starting a piece, my main objective is to find a balance and energy in the tone, so my choice comes down to what works for the pictures design or the relationship I can build from a specific colour combination.
I am constantly trying to vary my methods of mixing and applying the paints, pushing myself to be able to use different colours, as each colour holds unique properties that lend themselves to the layering process. This has fed into a recent focus on the underlying colours of paint, varying the initial layers by building up fields of different hues, and how these can vary the final effect on the picture plane.
When it comes to ideas of perceptions of colour a couple of things spring to mind: synaesthesia, a condition some people have where colours are mingled with other senses such as sounds or tastes. Also; the ultraviolet sensitive cone cells that some birds have in their eyes, allowing them to see different colours to us. Are there any paints (such as UV paint) or filters you would like to experiment with in your work? How much do you want to experiment with perception of colour and place in terms of painting?
This is something that friends have spoken to me about before, and they have brought up cone cells; the different levels within the eyes of males and females in humans, and the effects it can potentially have on the senses, and the extreme sensitivity within some animals eyes, but this has not filtered back to or had a bearing on my art so far.
There are some artists I greatly admire, and their art has a big influence on what I do, whose work primarily deals with these sensations, or who experiment with the different results they can achieve using different kinds of paint, pushing the sensory effects they can then stimulate in a viewer, but again it has not affected my paint box as yet, as I like the flat matt nature of the finish with standard oils.
Creating a perfect colour gradient is exceptionally challenging and requires not just a high degree of skill but also patience. Can you talk a bit about the technique you use and your preferred tools? Are you tempted to use airbrushing or is the long process of building colour with brushes just as important as the result?
My painting process is a long one, and defined as much by the removal as it is by the addition of paint.
Firstly I measure and mix enough colour required for one complete layer, then marking out the shapes on the panel where the different tones will be applied, quickly block them in. This initial application of paint is fast and quite rough, and I work like this until the surface has a complete uniform layer. Then scraping and wiping as much of the paint out of the brush as possible, removing the paint, I methodically and systematically work the surface in alternating horizontal then vertical sweeps with the now almost dry brush. The paint begins to lift off the surface, blending the tonal blocks at the same time.
After each directional sweep, the brush is wiped, and the process begins again.
This can take many hours of continually working the surface and then wiping the brush, until the plane has a delicate thin skim of paint remaining, a veil of paint, that allows light to penetrate, hinting at something underneath.
I stop when the tonal shifts are just on the edge of disappearing into one another, where the surface holds the gentlest luminosity and movement, as the colour vibrates with a sense of inner light and rhythm.
The panel is then left for two weeks so the oil has time to dry, then the entire process is repeated, building up a uniform surface of many layers of ultra-thin paint. This needs to be done anywhere between 6-10 times, meaning the paintings can take anywhere between 4-7 months to complete, factoring in all the different stages.
Despite the time involved, and actually pushing to remove any evidence of my hand or imprint of technique, the possibility of using a machine instead of a brush has never really crossed my mind, as I really enjoy producing the work and seeing the surface evolve. Registering the colour shifts, and the effects the layers can have, is very rewarding, and I like challenging and pushing myself using standard painting tools to see the different effects and levels of control I can achieve.
There is a lot of control and restraint in your work, do you ever feel the impulse, while you’re painting, to lose that control and restraint and just let the paint fly?
All the time.
Your layering aesthetic is particularly effective in your pencil drawings, which are quite different to your paintings in so much that it feels as though the textures produced from these drawings are more important than the colours. Can you tell us a bit about your drawings and how rewarding they are to make in contrast to painting?
The works on paper are such an important part of my practise, not only the works in their own right, but also the freedom they offer. With the control you asked about previously, these pieces allow a release from this, as they are immediate. Due to the speed of completion I can achieve (hours or days compared with months), when things go well, I can instantly react and push the process, or alternatively, any mistake or misdirection can be quickly changed and altered.
As the paper hasn’t gone through the initial priming and sanding stages compared with the panels, the drawing process affects the physical nature of the paper as a support, as the pressure over time of drawing and then erasing can mean the pigment (of the pencil for example) begins to almost bind with the fibre of the paper.
The process relates strongly to the panels, with the layering you mentioned, and then removal. But with the paper works it is in the removal that sets them apart, as the paper holds and keeps a more direct mark, as regardless of how hard I work back from the initial stroke, something still remains, making it easier to explore shape and form within a set design before moving to the panels. The panels look to capture a moment in time from the landscape, but the paper works try to capture a moment in time in their completion, an immediate direct energy.
You have exhibited your artwork all over the world. Can you share with us one of the most challenging experiences you have had travelling with your artwork?
Aside from budget restraints, my painted plane is so delicate, that packaging the work is a real challenge, and the worries between waving the paintings off here to unpacking them in a Gallery abroad are large and constant.
Do you feel there is a noticeable difference between how your work is received in the different places?
The biggest difference is the shift in the conversation, as the audience that I have experienced abroad seem more comfortable around work like mine - but it really does make a difference that in so many European countries there is a large network of established galleries and collections that specialise is minimal abstract art, so work of this nature is well promoted and understood.
The response here still surprises me at times though, as Britain has such a strong history of abstraction - but it is understandable as well - as work that asks questions of the viewer can mean you won’t always like the answers.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on now and next? Your solo exhibition in Shibukawa, Japan in 2016, for example, sounds like quite an exciting prospect!
I have two solo shows planned for 2016; Japan in May, then Germany towards the end of the year.
The former will be an exhibition of a new series of coloured pencil on paper works, the latter will be an exhibition of new painted diptychs.
Both are artist run spaces, and both are run by really talented, enthusiastic, generous, encouraging artists; making the planning easy, and the prospect very exciting.
For it being such a solitary pursuit, you meet a lot of people being an artist, and a lot of times, these people share your biggest passion in life - art - making it easy to start a conversation, and so inspiring with where that conversation can go and the new things you can learn.
Bonus Question: If you could choose any other profession and instantly be brilliant at it, what would you choose and why?
I have played, on and off, since I was 9 years old. Just love the game, and watching the matches now, with the level that the players have pushed each other to, I find it such an exciting sport regardless of my own level, so I wish I could be so much better at it.
Eric will be exhibiting his work in Bonn, Germany and Shibukawa, Japan next next year. You can read more about Eric's work on his website here: http://www.ericcruikshank.com/
Two.5 - Collaboration Adventure Postcards
"Cultural exchange is a radical act. It can create paradigms for the reverential sharing and preservation of the earth's water, soil, forests, plants and animals. The ethereal networker aesthetic calls for guiding that dream through action. Cooperation and participation, and the celebration of art as a birthing of life, vision, and spirit are first steps. The artists who meet each other in the Eternal Network have taken these steps. Their shared enterprise is a contribution to our common future."
Chuck Welch, Mail Artist
The mail artists of the 1970’s and 80’s were a collaborative group of artists, albeit working separately, corresponding back and forth by sending artwork through the postal service. The movement lasted in this form until the internet supplanted the postal service as a means for creative exchange. The internet is much more cost effective than paying for postage. It allows for faster participation and a broader audience. Artists can showcase their work without the need for a gallery, musicians can compose, record and stream it all online, and the internet provides innumerable ways for a writer to present their work. If you are looking to collaborate with another artist from another discipline, there are hundreds and thousands of eager creatives to choose from.
But, a lot of artists live in their own head, their own vision of the world rarely blends seamlessly with that of another artist’s. So, for many, the idea of collaboration is highly unappealing because it’s associated with compromise and conflict. As an artist it is important to be sociable, to be able to bounce ideas around with other creative people. We learn from each other and can pick up different angles to explore ideas this way. But, after much creative mingling, we might then retreat to develop an idea into an artwork alone.
What helps to make digital collaborations successful is the same thing that made the mail art movement successful; the artists are working with each other but at a distance. Retaining their personal space to develop their individual ideas, coming together online to share them when they are ready.
Two.5 is one such digital collaboration. Viccy is a writer based in the UK and Samantha is a photographer based in the USA. They have combined their talents to produce two digital books about their travelling experiences together, such as their residency in China. Their collaboration is not just limited to the web and not just a collaboration between themselves. On their travels they have interviewed and worked with a broad spectrum of people and used other collaborative, idea exploring techniques such as workshops, to shape their creations. Two.5 have chosen a path of collaboration, which many of us would fear to tread and we got a chance to follow them on it, for just a little while.
There are a few similarities between your work the Mail Art movement, particularly in terms of inclusiveness, collaboration and correspondence, not to mention the main formats used of writing and photography. Do you see your work as being a type of mail art and are there any artists from this movement that have acted as inspiration for you?
Samantha: The processes underpinning Dirty Laundry, our first digital art book, or our newest project Snap, which is in the work-shopping phase certainly have a mail art aspect to them. Due to our great distance geographically Viccy and I had to find a way to develop projects, build up ideas and create content while living our lives totally separately. The internet has allowed us to work in tandem, and using platforms like Cargo Collective, WordPress, and Tumblr we have something that equates to a shared sketch book online. Ultimately though, I feel that we work hard to bring all our different sketches together into a highly organized form. For Dirty Laundry, and the recently released Recollections we labored over not just the content but the experience of interacting with the digital book. I think we both are naturally interested in the form and function and one of the most satisfying elements of our creative partnership is delving into all the levels of a piece so that the final product reflects all our interests- intellectual, artistic, abstract and concrete.
Viccy: Our first major project together, Dirty Laundry, could definitely fall into that category as it had a time-lapse exchange structure that both held Samantha and my work apart and brought it together in a similar way. Samantha would post a selection of three images (from a staged photo-shoot) and I’d have a couple of weeks to respond with a story based on those images. One of the rules that grew up around it was that we couldn’t discuss the work with each other until we’d not only posted both sides of the work, but also written a blog post about the process behind creating it. Reading back over those posts is odd; I don’t remember writing most of them. It’s quite special to have that side of the work preserved, especially as it was the first year of our collaboration together so we were testing out and learning so many different things. I do remember the vivid excitement of when I’d finally get to ask Samantha questions about the photos, making the rules a kind of positive frustration.
However, our latest project, Recollections, has been very different as the main work was done when we were in the same physical space, first on the residency in China and then editing and work-shopping our pieces during Samantha’s visit to the UK earlier this year. Because we’re normally living in different time zones, on different continents, our communication with each other (usually through a variety of different digital correspondences) is a really intrinsic element of our joint process. We don’t usually have the luxury of sharing time in person, so we have to work hard to find ways to connect with each other. There’s still a lot of correspondence around the project but it’s mainly hidden and certainly not collected: administrative stuff rather than creative sharing.
One of the best things about being a creative right now, is that, with the benefit of digital media and computers, it is much easier for artists and writers to produce their own work online. The problem with this is, that often people don’t know where to go to look for good artwork, or even where to begin to look for it online. Having good work noticed is still a challenge. How do you tackle this?
Samantha: We are often discussing this very conundrum. Personally I spend a lot of time trying to let go of the anxiety around finding an audience for my art. If I find myself getting too caught up in worrying about who will see my work it diminishes my overall happiness and motivation. With that said, Viccy and I made a very conscious decision to self-publish a digital art book. Digital precludes us from many typical book fairs or book awards but it has made our work very portable which allows us to use our social networks to promote and share our digital art book. As with all business ventures I suppose artists must take calculated risks, utilize their networks and strive to capitalize on their strengths.
In my own practice, when looking for inspiration I find it very useful to aimlessly click around the art communities I’ve become a part of. Virtually wandering around the artist pages on Cargo Collective or Saatchi is very satisfying. I also dip into popular art websites BOOOOOOOM! and Juxtapose to see what trends are circulating. It’s not so much the quality of the art that matters as the excitement that comes from discovering something that catches your eye or imagination.
Viccy: We have a mailing list so people can sign up to be kept informed of our work, and interviews like this help spread the word. Two.5 has a Facebook Page and a Twitter account, but as with all these things they tend only to reach people who already know about us. I have a much larger following on my personal Twitter account and blog, so there’s some cross-pollination there. And because we work from separate countries and in different art forms, we’re introducing each others work to new audiences by sharing those networks.
In terms of how I find out about things myself, I read a bunch of different online literary magazines, and I try to support local real-life events. Most of those I’ve come to via Twitter. Earlier this year I did a live broadcast of a literary tour of Edinburgh via Google Hangouts for the Digital Writer’s Festival in Melbourne, which was fun: all their events were broadcast, I believe, which means they were accessible for people who couldn’t get there in person and I liked that idea. I also dip in and out of the new work that goes up on The Space, and I’m on what feels like a million e-newsletters that conglomerate things, like Arts Admin, Mslexia’s Little Ms, British Council, Arts Council, Creative Scotland, Scottish Book Trust, New Writing North, Unthank Books. If it comes into my inbox and I have a spare five minutes I read it, if I don’t then I delete it without reading it.
The best way I know of to get noticed is perseverance: if you’re still doing your thing – whatever it is – five years down the line, then you’re starting to gain the kind of experience (and hard shell) that means more opportunities will come up for you. That and being nice to other people; share opportunities, share knowledge and be generous if anyone asks for advice or help. That kind of attitude pays itself back with other people being generous in return. Stay in the game and stay grateful. That’s true both on and offline.
Tell us a bit about your experiences workshopping each of your digital books and if there were any real noticeable differences in responses you had from people in different cities. What was the most unexpected / surprising thing that you learned from these?
Samantha: I'd like to highlight how different our two books are. The first one Dirty Laundry is a collection of short fiction inspired by carefully composed narrative photographs while our second book Recollections is documentary style portraiture and landscape photography accompanied by a collection of creative non fiction vignettes. Generally people seem to take Dirty Laundry at face value while for Recollections we encountered a lot more questions about the methodology. Dirty Laundry evolved over a period of years during which time we were finding our direction as a collaboration and hammering out the concept for our digital art book platform. Recollections, on the other hand, was our response to a month long residency in rural South West China. I think that when people encounter the book they themselves are faced with the challenge of understanding a strange world full of unfamiliar characters, and thus are filled with questions about how we experienced the place and time we are reflecting on. For Recollections, the specifics of the questions may vary, but at the heart of it people are curious about our experience and how that translated into the book.
Viccy: We workshopped very different material in each of the three cities, so it’s hard to do a fair comparison. From the perspective of the writing, at our first workshop, in Edinburgh, I got given direct inspiration to go on to write the piece from the camel’s perspective (thanks Alison)! In Newcastle we had a really good discussion on brevity and that led to several of the pieces being strongly cut and I think I got the necessary sense of ‘permission’ to let pieces be very short, which I already knew was easier to read on a screen but was struggling to cut back on my natural tendency to over-analyse and over explain. By the time we hit London, for our final workshop, we had a full draft of all twelve sections so a lot of the workshop was taken up by people reading the whole thing (printed out and spread round the basement space of the Canvas Café) and the feedback was more about the concept of the book and how we would introduce and describe it rather than an in-depth critique of works-in-progress.
Something that was unexpected for me was how much people loved our anecdotes about the residency. I don’t know if it was the content or the delivery (Samantha and I have been friends for over a decade so we make a good team for storytelling), but we got strong feedback to put ourselves in the work more. While that wasn’t what we wanted for Recollections – we didn’t want it to be a travelogue – it did lead me to write a greatly extended version that is going to be distributed as an e-book by Cargo Press in late August.
I also found it interesting that if a piece didn’t quite work, it was universally hated: people have different connections with different sections based on personal taste, but the weaker written pieces were instantly picked out by the people at the first two workshops. Which was great, because that showed me why the other ones were working and we had a really open space to try different approaches and techniques to bring the collection together.
Unfortunately, none of us at Redbird have an iPad so we haven’t been able to check out your digital books as fully as we'd like. Did you have a reason for choosing iPad only and are you planning on making them available on other systems / formats?
Samantha: When we received our first grant we discussed making a traditional printed and bound art book, but we jettisoned this idea fearing that our moms would be the only people to buy them. One of the advantages of the ipad is that we are able to make our books available all over the world for free. We were also driven by curatorial motivations- as a collaboration, we were working entirely digitally and once we decided to stay in the digital format we realized that much like a traditional book, the ipad allowed us to curate the experience of the viewer. Content on the internet is subject to all sorts of distortions, a screen can dramatically alter the colors, size and shape of a picture, compress the images to the wrong aspect ratio, and break the text up in a way which was never intended. With the ipad we can be sure that the viewer is seeing the piece as we intended. In the long term, we would love to make the app available on other tablets.
Viccy: We spent a lot of time debating it. In fact, our original intention was to produce Dirty Laundry as a limited-run artist’s book in print. Which led to a lot of debate over the relationship between the images and the stories and how they needed to be together, so that you couldn’t turn a page and not have the images anymore. We made loads of mock-ups and then ended up back at digital again: at the time, it existed as a draft version on Cargo. We chose digital because that’s how the creative work was produced and shared, so it was authentic for the pieces. It also made it easier to share from different countries, which better reflected our situation.
But it was important for us that it had the same kind of curated experience that you get with, for example, a physical exhibition. Which is how we came to design the template both Dirty Laundry and Recollections are published in – On The Same Page. It publishes the creative work in a curated environment – a free to download web app optimised for iPad. We raised funds to cover the production costs via Indiegogo, and our excellent technical collaborators Mel Ashby and Asier de Quadra built it for us. We were limited in our formats because neither of us has the coding skills to do the build ourselves, which meant we needed to buy technical help. And as neither of us is independently wealthy that meant raising money, so we set ourselves an achievable goal by making a web app rather than a native app and by limiting it to iPad. There was also a creative control element there too: we felt the size of the iPad screen was better for displaying the images rather than, for example, an iPhone.
We’d love to make them available in different formats, so if anyone is interested in funding that or publishing a different version then please do get in touch. We actually have an exhibition of some of the pieces from Recollections in New York soon – as part of a group show by artists who have been in residency at Lijiang studio in China. So you can buy prints of some of the photos with a shaped text-extract overlay at that.
Can you tell us a bit about your residency in China, the struggles you had with language and with getting around the country?
Samantha: We talk a lot about the struggles we had with translation in the introduction to our book. Ultimately we faced a multilevel translation issue. We were trying to translate a foreign culture into an understandable framework. We interviewed many people trying to understand what life was like through the eyes of the people around us. However, interviews posed their own problems since we relied on an interpreter as an intermediary. This was further complicated by the fact that the locals primarily spoke Naxi while our interpreter spoke only Han Chinese. We traversed the countryside around our farm, took shuttle buses into the nearby city, and spent a week in the mountains all looking for people to talk to and yet everywhere we went we found ourselves trying to pick apart the levels of translation so that we could figure out what everything meant. Maintaining authenticity while knowing all our information was filtered through the lens of 3 sometimes 4 levels of language and culture translation became the greatest challenge. Throughout the project we contemplated the best way to convey what we were encountering in a way that would feel meaningful not just to our viewers in the US or the UK but to the people we were getting to know. We have always wanted to send our work back to Lijiang so authenticity in translation was of utmost importance and our greatest struggle.
Viccy: Samantha had studied Mandarin for a year a long time ago and had visited China once before but I’d never been and didn’t know a single character of the language, written or spoken. It wasn’t something we’d discussed in depth before going out to the residency, but I suppose I’d assumed the majority of our work would be observational and descriptive, and that Frog would be able to help answer some of our questions and be available to help us with logistical translation. Then when we arrived she was really enthusiastic about the work and offered to introduce us to people in the community and translate interviews with them. Which was an amazing chance to delve further into working with the community but raised different issues of fidelity as her Mandarin was, as she described it, at about the level of a 12yr old. And most of the older members of the community only spoke Naxi, and even those who did speak Mandarin did so with a thick Naxi accent. So sometimes parts of the conversation were incomprehensible to our translator, plus we were all working at speed- I was hand transcribing rather than audio-recording. And there was the level of cultural translation: certain concepts translate with pre-conceptions. Kind of amusingly, Samantha also acted as a translator between Frog and I to keep us clear on American and British vocabulary issues, which also extends into cultural assumptions.
As a writer, I was surprised how hard I found it not to be ‘in control’ of the language: the exact words people were using were important to me, and I worried about only capturing Frog’s voice and not those of the people we were talking to. However when I started transcribing my notebooks back in the UK I was really amazed at how much of the spirit and character of the people we’d talked to and the situations we’d been in came through in my notes. I usually work with fiction, so working with creative non-fiction meant Samantha and I had some long talks when we were editing the work on what level of truth we were able to represent, and chose the wording of our introduction carefully so that it’s clear it is a creative piece of work: we haven’t made anything up, but the way we’ve put together some incidents or images creates certain connections for our audiences that aren’t explained with, for example, captions on the photographs. It was important for us that the work was given the chance to stand by itself and that some aspects were left unexplained, so the audience has to work to find their own explanation.
Can you tell us about the worst and best part of your time spent in China and if there is one moment in that whole experience, which still resonates with you as individuals or, as a shared experience?
Viccy: Rice. As soon as I got back to the UK I bought a rice cooker, which I adore like a pet. I really enjoyed eating rice for lunch and dinner every day. That’s up there in the good resonant memories. The rubbish spilling out of the ditches and the plastics being burnt was a negative experience – the countryside round where we were was breathtakingly gorgeous, and the influx of modern packaging is starting to literally choke areas of the countryside. The characters of the people we met will stay with me too – working with Frog meant we got to have conversations and connections with individuals that simply wouldn’t have been possible if we’d gone with Plan A of observing and describing rather than interviewing.
Samantha: One of my favorite things about the residency was early morning in the kitchen with Grandma. Grandma was the matriarch of the Hé family and she was a tough old woman who had seen many hard times but was always quick to smile or make a joke. Grandma was typically the first person up in the morning. She would feed the pigs and the chickens and often she'd make the baba- a steamed bun that was served every day for breakfast. When I first arrived at the studio I was adjusting to a 12 hour time difference and serious jet lag. As a result I was frequently up with the sun. I would put on warm clothes and head to the kitchen, a room with one side open to the courtyard. There was a small hearth in a metal dish in which grandpa would light a corncob fire first thing in the morning. Grandpa would fill a giant kettle which perched on a three legged riser in the tiny hearth and heat the water for the tea flasks while grandma got to work preparing the pig feed, cleaning the woks and lighting the fire in the stove. Once the water boiled Grandpa would make a giant cup of tea and wander off. Alone in the kitchen, Grandma and I would talk to each other in a combination of terrible Chinese- our two accents skewing our words- and extensive hand gestures. Most mornings we went through this ridiculous routine together, flailing our arms, pointing aggressively, sounding our words out endlessly and laughing at each other and ourselves. Despite our lack of language we were able to share a lot and fundamentally there was a clear understanding that we shared a gregarious nature and a mutual fondness.
The hardest part of the residency was the lack of indoors as we know it at home. The lake valley sits in a mountain range high above sea level. The sun was very strong and air was very dry. The temperatures would swing dramatically, raising to near sweltering at midday and comparatively freezing at night. The kitchen was room with three walls, our living quarters lacked any insulating, and rarely did we encounter rooms with heat. The lifestyle of the people we stayed with existed mostly outside, and while they seemed unfazed by the weather, I found myself constantly battling back sunburn, dust, burrs, and cold. At one point I bought a woolly hat and started sleeping in it to keep myself warm at night. The lack of walls also meant a serious lack of privacy. It was only when we left China all together that could Viccy and I talk to each other about our personal challenges while working in such a foreign environment.
Was there anything you didn’t manage to capture in your 4,000 photographs and 40,000 words?
Samantha: We only scratched the surface. Even with a year at Lijiang Studio I suspect we would feel as if we were still only scratching the surface.
Viccy: It was my first time being in China and also my first time working in non-fiction and working through a translator so there was loads going on that was very new to me. I think we captured an essence of our time there in our mad data-gathering rush, and I’m really proud of how we’ve distilled that down into Recollections. We had some really poignant experiences that I didn’t even try to write down, because I was only writing down things I thought would go into the artwork: if people told me a story they wouldn’t want shared, then I respected that. And sometimes you need to spend time looking at the world around you rather than down at the page in front of you.
You based your compilation style in Reflections on the common place book, which was a popular way of recording material in early modern Europe around the 1600s. The most interesting thing about these kind of books is what they tell you about the creators of them. When you were creating Reflections together, what did you discover about yourselves and how you view the world?
Samantha: I was amazed at how differently Viccy and I could interpret the same situation and yet in the next moment we would have exactly the same take on something. I also found being in a third space – home to neither of us – really highlighted the British qualities of Viccy against my American habits.
Viccy: I was fascinated with how different I found attitudes towards family, duty and individual choice while we were in China. It made me more aware of how I take contemporary Western attitudes for granted and apply those ways of thinking when reading historical accounts or accounts of other cultures. Seeing other forms of family structure taken for granted, and the assumption that you will put family before self – through every aspect of life – was really interesting. It also made me more interested in the assumptions we bring to what other people want from their lives and how that affects how we interact with them.
Being in an environment that was so completely different from everything I knew and having my normal ways of interpreting the world taken away from me – words, spoken and written – gave me a much higher level of sympathy with, for example, Chinese students studying in the UK. I also laughed a lot when some of our sign language turned out to be really different, for example Grandma Moon’s sign language for knitting was one-handed, more like crocheting.
Viccy, you read a lot of young adult speculative fiction, can you tell us a bit more about what it is that you gain from these books and if you’ve found that you prefer certain stories and archetypes as opposed to others within this genre? Are there similarities between what you like to read and what you like to write?
Viccy: A series I read as a pre-teen – the Lioness Quartet by Tamora Pierce – has stuck with me my whole life: a strong female protagonist who is working out what it means to succeed in a man’s world when you’re a woman. And it included growing boobs and getting your first period and having crushes so it was an amazing instruction manual for those aspects of life as well as on how to improve swordsmanship and battle wizards in the desert. I’m in love with metaphor, and as a genre speculative fiction allows us to address real issues from a different angle. YA fiction has to be very heavy on plot, something which adult literary fiction doesn’t always master. One thing that irks me though is the prevalence of the idea that a girl has to chose between two men, must find love young and be pure, must doubt herself continually, and must be appreciated for her beauty and melt when men compliment her. A lot of the series which follow the same plot lines as high profile, commercially successful series fail to appreciate how damaging the stereotypes they’re putting out there are. I love writers like Ursula Le Guin, Tamora Pierce, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett who can world-build without reducing characters to nothing more than their identifying traits.
I think my writing sits somewhere between those kind of books and my other readings joys, which are books by people such as Ali Smith, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro, David Mitchell. I’m a short story fan too – mainly by contemporary writers, and I think that’s a big influence on my work (pun intended), almost a counterbalance to the heavy plotting of a YA series.
Samantha, you studied Social Anthropology, which is really interesting given you’re a photographer. We've met with a number of artists recently who studied philosophy and there is definitely a link between making art and indulging in philosophical, sociological problem solving. What is it that fascinates you most about the people you photograph? What makes you push the button on your camera?
Samantha: Behind most of my work – documentary and narrative – is the exploration of awareness and consciousness. I've always been interested in these subjects and anthropology gave me the tools to think about the human experience critically. Art gives me the chance to approach existential questions on an abstract plane. Instead of working toward an explanation the goal becomes a feeling, and instead of focusing on the answer the emphasis shifts to the experience. Found or created, a portrait is a powerful tool for connecting us to the matrix of human experience. Often the urge to take the picture is reflexive, and the most exciting part is going back and looking at the pictures to see if that spark you saw in the moment is translated through the picture itself.
Some creative projects take a seriously long time to finish. How do you keep going on a project, what helps you to stay focussed and driven?
Samantha: Working with Viccy as a collaborative unit means that I'm expected to show up. The commitment to the work as part of our partnership helps keep things going when life becomes complicated or motivation wanes.
Viccy: Working with someone I don’t want to let down is a great motivator. Even if I don’t feel like doing something, I know I have an obligation to Samantha and fulfilling that is a way of paying respect. Having said that, Dirty Laundry took a lot longer than we expected, then we realised we needed to edit and share it in a different way and so what started out as a bit of focussed creative fun turned into a four year leviathan that saw us through the progress of getting grants from ACE and the British Council, designing a new digital platform, and raising £3K on Indiegogo. And we were both working full time on (paying) jobs throughout that. I think we’ve done really well at staying focussed and driven, in fact I’d say what we need to work on – and what we’re trying to do with our new project, Snap, is take a step back from our intimidating focus and allow space for creativity to breath and develop without the stress that builds up through the admin associated with getting grants and sharing work outside of the collaboration.
Can you tell us a bit about your latest project?
Viccy: We’re doing a (more or less) daily creative exchange on Tumblr called ‘Snap’: it’s snapshots from our daily life that we’re going to accumulate and then see where we want to go from there. The last couple of years have been exceptionally busy with crowdfunding and publishing two digital books so we wanted to take a different approach for a while.
Viccy, what are your preferred writing tools and what does your working desk look like?
Viccy: Moleskine notebook, pens stolen from hotels. My Macbook Air (bought with my first professional commission, so it’s very dear to me). I prefer a thin lined A5 page, nothing too heavy to carry around. I hate using my phone to make notes- it has to be handwritten or full-sized keyboard typing even if I’m on the go.
My working desk has a fringe of decorative junk – maybe it’s better to call them totems—but I’ll end up making camp in different zones around my flat depending on when I start writing a piece. I now share my study with my partner as I was using all the surfaces available in our flat and he had nowhere to work (he’s also a writer). I also love working in coffee shops: the background buzz helps me switch off and getting out of a domestic sphere helps kick writer’s block away.
Samantha, what are your photographic tools of choice and do you have a digital editing suite you prefer to work in?
Samantha: I have a Canon 5d mark II digital SLR that I use with a variety of lenses. Canon cameras and lenses are very sharp and most of the time I prefer the quality and color of the old Nikon and Nikkor lenses I’ve had since I was a teenager. When I moved to digital I bought adaptors that allowed me to combine the two different eras of technology. For color correction, cropping, re-sizing and those sorts of things I might use Lightroom or Photoshop. However, I work very hard to get what I want when I'm shooting. In most cases there is little to no cropping, or color correction.
Bonus Question: If you could travel back in time and visit anywhere as a tourist (photography is permitted) where and when in time would you go?
Viccy: Ancient Greece, when the oracle at Delphi was at its height.
Samantha: After all this art talk I would have to say Paris amongst the pioneers of Surrealism. Man Ray was my first great photographer hero, and the philosophical, and psychological underpinnings of the movement appeal to own worldview. I think artists often pine for a movement to be a part of and it would be amazing to see artists of various disciplines coming together with such gusto and verve.
You can find out more about Two.5 and download their art books from their website and peripatetic studio.
Vera’s Wilde West Web
Traveling, especially traveling alone, gives us an opportunity to be an undefined version of ourselves. Job titles, family connections, personal problems or Facebook updates are meaningless to the stranger in town. While you are traveling, you can step outside of your own expectations of yourself. You’re not the person who is afraid of heights, you’re the person who climbs to the top of the Eiffel Tower and takes a picture of the view. Traveling allows you to own your anonymity.
Home should be the place where we are truly ourselves, but it's also where who we are is in the context of; the relationships we have, the objects we own and the things we enjoy. It’s what we escape from, or miss, while we travel, that context, being known to the people you care about. Home is being known, being understood without having to explain.
We are still building our home on the internet. We use terms like 'communities' alongside 'anonymity', creating a battleground between traveling and being at home. A struggle between being recognized and understood; and remaining anonymous, being free.
The Dark Web is part of the Deep Web, which are parts of the internet not indexed by search engines and contain everything from porn and drugs to whistle-blowing and political discussions. The Dark Web is just one network where there is no struggle between ideas of anonymity and home. Everyone there wants to be the stranger in town.
Alabama born writer, artist, traveler and academic, Vera K Wilde, has just published a book of her poetry, Push Coasts, which explores themes of home, traveling and expression. Vera also recently completed a residency at Hack42 in Arnham, Netherlands. Her project there was to re-brand the so called Dark Web. We had a chance to talk to Vera about her work and her views on home, traveling and cyber freedom and it was a really interesting talk.
Tell us a bit about your book Push Coasts and, as a traveler, how your sense of place has influenced your artwork, where do you feel is home?
The book is about redefining the concept of home and feeling at home. It presents a cycle of journey poems in four sections: Home Shore, New Coasts, Back and Gone, and Home in the World. So the progression is the universal one from a place of origin and conflict, to a place of experimentation, back to the place of origin, changed, and then away again in an orthogonal way. A launch rather than a leaving, a creative departure.
What that launch in the fourth section requires that’s similar to the experimentation effort in the second is a spirit of “show up and play.” Scientists talk about this in terms of decentralized information systems, like democracies in politics and markets in economics. Artists talk about it in terms of improv, just saying yes, being present, synchronicity, serendipity.
What’s different about that section and the orthogonal response it expresses is the freedom within it finds and grows from a seed of trust. Philosophers from Epictetus to Sartre have talked about how important it is to have freedom in your own mind without regard to external conditions. One of the things modern empirical insights from network analysis adds to how we can understand freedom, in this potentially atomistic way, is the idea that information and emotion bloom along social networks like viruses.
Trust is at that intersection between information and emotion. We intuitively make decisions about trustworthiness all the time based on information cues from lots of sources, and we feel trusting (or distrusting) at that automatic, or gut, cognitive process level. We’re constantly learning more about how trust is a deeply historically rooted network phenomenon. That matters for all sorts of outcomes, from individual well-being to country-level economic development.
So all it takes is that seed of trust, and freedom within can spread in a way that actually creates security in reality. Trust, like mistrust, spirals at lots of levels. People need trust to feel safe to flourish, to find home in the world that is our house.
Do you come from a creative family, what do your parents do?
My father and mother are good people who have done a lot to help others. I haven’t seen my dad in over 20 years, but he’s saved some lives as a surgeon. My mum uses her counseling and teaching skills in a range of volunteer work with good folks like the Make A Wish Foundation. As a single mum, she lost a few jobs when I was growing up for whistle-blowing, so I’m very interested in how communities can improve helping people who get hurt doing the right thing. For example, we have needed better national security whistle-blower protections in the U.S. for quite some time.
You have a very varied, impressive academic track record, what is it that compels you to make art and music and how do you balance the academic work with the creative work?
Thank you. I just keep doing what’s next. It is not an analytical choice, but in analytical terms, it’s Adorno versus Orwell. Adorno said “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric” (“Cultural Criticism and Society,” Prisms, 34, 1949). He was talking about how reproducing culture when that culture has been deeply destructive of humanity is an inhumane act.
Orwell said, in “Politics and the English Language” that culture is always going to be heterogeneous and fluid and it’s up to you as a person, artist, scientist, voter, to say what you mean and narrate reality, the human experience, in a way that tells the truth while holding yourself responsible for the fact that the narrative shapes the reality.
Orwell’s point was that this is actually very hard, it’s revolutionary in times of trouble, and it’s core political work that we do as artists and intellectuals. Expression is how we get perspective on the cultural ocean we’re swimming in, shape it and learn.
Tell us a bit about your artist residency in Arnhem, Netherlands, and as you travel, have you noticed any differences in the art scene in Europe as opposed to the UK or the USA?
Now I’m in Lisbon! I’m having a great time and learning a lot exploring the arts scenes in different countries. When I was busking in Mexico City in April, people were incredibly warm, the street performing culture was totally surreal and vibrant, and the police were super professional and nice enough to let me experiment.
In London, it was immediately obvious that the Anglo cultural norms about personal and emotional space change the norms that influence what artists feel ok doing. There is still a really vibrant and beautiful arts scene there, London was the first place that felt like coming home, but it’s a bit more subdued and expensive!
Versus Arnhem, coming to the Continent led me to Amsterdam and Berlin, which feel safer to me because there’s less barbed wire and weapons, more bicyclists and overall a slower pace. Amsterdam is really a place of peace. Berlin is like London but for people on an artist’s budget. I think Berlin probably is now again what it was for Western artists in the late 80s; cheap enough to show up and play, fast enough to network with other up-and-coming artists.
The residency you did at Hack42, re-branding the Dark Web, sounds really interesting. Can you tell us a bit about your experience of exploring the Dark Web, what form did your research take and what was your most surprising discovery?
My artist residency at Hack42 was incredibly inspiring. It gave me a chance to talk with leading hacktivists about Internet freedom, what it means, and how we can help the world feel safe to flourish by giving people access to and a better understanding of freedom on the web. I never would have written a lightning talk for the upcoming Chaos Computing Camp in Berlin on re-branding the so-called Dark Web, which we should be calling the EDTR web, without awesome Friday night conversations and way too much Flora Power in the hackerspace.
The residency was also a great opportunity for you to combine your academic work with some many of your creative talents, including song writing. Can you tell us a bit about how you re-interpreted the EDTR web through creative means? How did you feel about the artwork born of this project and did you find one art form to be stronger or better in defining / describing the EDTR?
I need a soundproof room under the ocean for songwriting. I have a really good ear, which is sometimes an asset but also a problem when I can’t stand to hear myself making the necessary mistakes - and God forbid anybody else should. So one of my next projects is to learn Protools and work on translating my poetry into song forms that are good enough to put out on the web and perform, but I have to do a lot of work to get the 30ish songs or song drafts I have honed to the best 10-13, rewritten with tighter structure, accompanied as simply as possible. I have no music production experience beyond crawling into my shower with an M-Track, so this is a big project. But I keep randomly meeting music producers and learning how to go about it better.
The EDTR net has a song structured around a refrain that comes from the acronym—Express (feel what you feel), Dissent (say what you think), Teach (share what you know), Resist (fight to the brink). It will take music to re-brand the Dark Web in a way that makes it safer and more sustainable as the crucial resource it is for people who do important work like resisting oppressive governments, helping people out of abusive relationships or gangs, or simply expressing their sexuality in places where it’s still illegal to be who you are.
And it’s fine if EDTR net never catches on, you know? The Dark Web can be a good thing too. I love Ursula K. LeGuin’s description of darkness in “A Left-Handed Commencement Address”, “darkness is your country... where the future is... live there not as prisoners... but as natives... Do your work there... in the earth we have looked down upon... in the dark that nourishes, where human beings grow human souls. ”
It’s a very timely project you worked on, in so much that there are huge questions about how big data and personal information is handled / will be handled in the future. Every Google search is logged and recorded and more people are concerned about their private information being used for things they did not intend. Anonymity online is becoming more desirable and the use of VPNs (virtual private networks) is on a steady rise. How do you think big data should be handled, especially in light of the work being done to develop artificial intelligence?
On big data, I’m a big fan of evidence-based work, but more data doesn’t always mean more evidence. So on one hand, studying big data right now is like studying football as a recently arrived Martian. We have to watch and learn as we go rather than making rigid rules too early on in the process, or we’ll never figure out how this thing works. But on the other hand, it would always be good to see more field experiments where, for example, researchers help local and state law enforcement agencies try different ways of engaging with communities online to combat hate group recruitment and build community trust, rather than approaching big data and the privacy problems it creates as an adversarial process.
In this vein, some of my research, writing, and painting has explored the forgotten Constitutional history of privacy as a Fifth Amendment right. I think it’s important for America and the world to remember and reaffirm that we don’t cross the sacred line of bodily space in interrogations, that’s what the Fifth Amendment was really about, was recognizing that you owe your confessions to God and not the state, and that no Star Chamber or homegrown analogue could compel such confessions by physically or otherwise invading your sacred internal sanctuary, this place inside you Maya Angelou has talked about. A sacred space that you keep absolutely pristine and where you can meet God, and a space that lets you say no when it’s no.
On artificial intelligence—machine computing lets us automate forms of analysis and calculation people are generally not that good at, like Bayesian updating. Doing that right in medical diagnosis and security decisions can help save lives. Doing it wrong can institutionalize bias in invisible ways. So there are huge positive potentials here, but like with any tool, we want to be thoughtful and keep growing our understanding of how best to use AI, especially in institutional settings like hospitals and governments.
More broadly, Herbert Simon has written on how satisficing works better for human decision-making in general than optimizing, and Hubert Dreyfus has written on how it’s really hard to model high-level human intelligence that comes from unconscious or automatic cognitive processes, intuition, Gestalt insights, and the like. Both of their work might bear on the limited use value of AI in situations where having good people make discretionary rather than rule-bound decisions works better than making people act like automatons. It’s a really simple example, but police in Nevada gave out more traffic tickets when they were required to document more about their stops in an effort to combat perceived bias. Police who were free to exercise discretion did so kindly on average, and the increase in paper work made them more likely to ticket. Sometimes bureaucracy and technology protect civilization, and sometimes they need to get out of the way so people can have tea.
There are a few questions about power when it comes to data, especially given that data sharing tends to be a one way street, where the general public are encouraged to share all information while those in power share very little, some even choosing to pay private companies to remove information on them from the internet. As an artist, collectors are just as interested in the person behind the art as they are in the artworks they buy, so knowing how much of yourself to share online can be tricky. Can you tell us some of your thoughts on this?
You put your finger on a difficult tension here. The creative process can be intensely private and deeply social, and the market side of an artist’s job is even tougher in that regard. You have to be on message and have good boundaries, but your role is to tell the truth. So this is something that I think I’ll be working on as an artist for a long time.
More broadly, knowledge is power. That’s why it’s so important for citizens to take care of our political societies by advancing transparency through legal means like FOIA (the Freedom of Information Act) in the U.S., translating information for a broad audience through art and otherwise promoting truth and justice for all.
Sometimes it might seem like governments and organizations disagree about the importance of that core mission, but we all basically share that common vision.
I think one of the hardest problems about democratizing power through knowledge is choosing what to focus on. Because attention is a limited cognitive resource, and we the people have a political obligation to use it in a way that promotes freedom and peace. When prejudice and violence infringe, we must recognize and denounce them, but we must do so without losing faith in the human goodness that makes mutual recognition possible, that makes hope credible, and that makes us who we are. We must seek justice not as opponents of authority or victims of power, but justice in the form of lifeblood for our positive potentials, justice as forgiveness.
There are some interesting developments happening in America right now, in terms of surveillance, the signing of the USA Freedom Act and the purging of phone records. Can you tell us a bit about how you view what’s happening in America from an ‘outside the country’ perspective?
I’ve been busy with other things, but am glad to hear about some sensible reforms. The system is supposed to work like a market, with different organizations lobbying for prioritization of different interests, security agencies for security first, civil liberty groups for liberty, Congress juggling their demands. Looks like it’s probably working. When we decentralize counter-terrorism and re-conceptualize it as community trust-building that is when we’ll really know the process is working, because that’s what it would mean to apply procedural justice research, showing that trust makes security and everything we know about chaotic systems - Lorenz, or butterfly, systems in game theory - like messy human societies. Trust, in this information system context, is like a pattern you want the brain to hone in on and have confirmation bias in favour of so that people will be more likely to recognize and act on evidence of trust, creating a spiral of positive interactions.
I’m so on the outside of all this though.
Very humbly and very cautiously, I would want to suggest that we are still at the beginning of a new arms race that will go on for a long time. It’s a surveillance arms race. It’s analogous to the Cold War because it’s a soft power game with hard power implications. Connecting with other activists online to work for freedom was essential for Egyptians at the beginning of the Arab Spring, until the government figured out how to use surveillance to track down those online networks. The same thing happened in Syria, where supposedly the Assad regime was slowing down the Internet in the early days of the uprising to keep activists from networking effectively. And then they figured out they could put out malware and hunt down networks of opponents that way, so they sped it up.
The heart of freedom is too big to surveil, and that is what anonymous spaces for decentralized networks to communicate protect. You do not get to decide what people do with freedom. That is why liberal democracies are hard to protect and serve, but that one of the challenges law enforcement have to grapple with, within the bounds we give them under the law. What opponents of Internet freedom sometimes fail to understand is that people are basically good, and we will do good work, innovate in art and science, help people in need, share what we learn, when we feel safe to flourish. What proponents of Internet freedom sometimes fail to understand is that the web itself, and contemporary telecommunications as a whole, are already too big to survey, and that’s what can conceivably justify bulk metadata collection and retention programs.
Law enforcement who are risking their lives to uphold the law deserve every tool we can give them to do that, without subverting the very liberty they protect.
In your opinion, what is the best contribution artists can make to an increasingly digital future?
People like Amanda Palmer and Tim Ferriss, vibrant artist-entrepreneurs, do a great service to other artists and entrepreneurs by doing what they do and telling other people about it.
Bonus question: If you could star in any remake of any movie, which one would it be and why?
Casablanca. Something about beautiful beginnings.
You can find out more about Vera and her work by visiting her website, where you can read her thoughts on the forgotten Constitutional history of privacy. Vera’s book of poetry is available here: Push Coasts.
And her lightning talk for the upcoming Chaos Computing Camp in Berlin can be found here.
If you'd like to know more about Hack42, take some time to explore their website.
Have a look and a read of these two artists work and what they are doing in the midst of our digital revolution: Amanda Palmer and Tim Ferriss
Charlotte Duffy, the Art of Storytelling
and the Magic of Cardboard
‘If history were told in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten’,
Tell me a story. One of the greatest requests anyone can ever make of another human being.
Tell me a story.
The storyteller opens their mouth, starts talking, starts weaving a new reality around you, a parallel universe to explore through someone else’s eyes. Stories connect us with someone or something, we didn’t know before.
How many friendships have been founded on a shared love of the same books, or the same plays, or the same characters in a TV series? Whether it’s a TV series or a book trilogy, when we meet other people who have heard the same stories as us, we feel like we have shared something, an experience, a moral dilemma, a history.
Narratives are important to the visual arts. You can create a piece of art which is technically brilliant, but if it doesn’t have a narrative, it might as well be wallpaper. A piece of art should speak to you, ignite a something inside you, share something with you. It should tell you a story.
Charlotte Duffy is not just an artist, she is a storyteller. Perhaps it’s because Charlotte uses discarded cardboard to create pieces that just by looking at them you can tell they have a history, a story to tell. She describes her aesthetic as rough, naïve, honest and handmade, but it is also beautiful and engaging. Charlotte’s creations are full of character and it was great to learn more about them and about her.
Tell us a bit about growing up in Fife, do you come from a creative family, where would you go to for inspiration in your home town?
My mother was a ballerina, my father was an actor / puppeteer and my brother is a filmmaker and photographer. To me that’s just what work looked like, especially with my Dad. I saw him, working as a freelance artist from a very young age and I just thought that’s what everyone’s parents did. Then I realized that’s not what everyone’s parent’s did, not everyone’s Dad made puppets with them at the weekend, or not everyone’s Mums were choreographing community dance pieces. That was the way they chose to interact with the world, to put stories into it, to create things.
There aren’t many places to go in Auchtermuchty (where I grew up), so it was quiet and it was easy to get lost in worlds of imaginative things, stories and making. The house used to be an abattoir so there are a few outhouses in the garden that were set up as workshops for my Dad to make puppets in. There were tools and materials, I could always make things if I wanted to.
Do you have a studio or do you work from home? What does your work space look like?
I have a little studio in my home where I spend most of my time but when working on bigger pieces I tend to share my partners studio space. Everything is covered in glue and there is always a layer of scraps of cardboard on the floor. I’m not a very tidy worker.
What do you listen to while you work?
I listen to podcasts a lot; the Moth, Mystery Show, This American life. With music, it has to match the pace of what I’m doing. Instrumental stuff like soundtracks to films, or Ryuchi Sakamoto if I’m working at an average pace, but if I’m up against a deadline it’s either Amanda Palmer or terrible metal. Most of the time I have bad television on in the background, so I don’t over analyse what I’m doing as I’m doing it. It has to be crap though, not something I want to watch. It’s just background noise, background visuals.
Your philosophy studies in aesthetics led you to question the value of art and in challenging these concepts you started working with cardboard. Where the true value of art does lie, as you see it, what value does creating art have for you?
I can’t remember which philosopher it was but I remember really vividly studying this piece that argued that the value of art is rendered somewhat by artistic figureheads in society. If a gallery owner or collector decides that a final piece is of worth then that is what makes it valuable to the masses. I just thought that this was such a horrible argument, but actually there was quite a lot of evidence to suggest that this was a trope that existed in the art world, historically and also currently.
I sort of decided that even if that system of belief was in play I didn’t want pander to it. If the value is added once a piece is finished and sold, or exhibited, then I think that can have really negative effects on two things. Firstly, it can really inhibit the production process, the physical act of making is where the value lies. Purely because that process is why I do it in the first place. It’s cathartic, it’s my way of connecting to everything that surrounds me. I feel like you can tell when an artist is really engaged in the productions process. It is really sad when where a work is going in the end overshadows the initial point of creation, focusing on something being more valuable because it is going in a respected gallery.
Secondly, I think that if we look at value as being something that only comes with widely regarded and conventional success then the next generations of artists will be effected. Just by stressing making and creativity and by opening up conversations around the topic, young people will feel as though they can be artists without it being dependant on someone else gracing them with that title.
Everyone connects with the world around them in different ways, they process that information differently and what they choose to do with it is really important. If someone finds it natural to go about life by making things in response to their environment then they should feel empowered to do so and, most importantly, valued for doing so.
We have spoken to a few other artists recently who studied philosophy rather than art. Perhaps part of the attraction to this subject is getting to explore ideas and the downside is, it doesn’t culminate in you making a piece of artwork. What was it about philosophy that pulled you in?
I had an image in my head of being at art school, sitting in front of a blank canvas and realising that, at the age of 18 I didn’t have enough to say about the world. I hadn’t seen enough, or done enough. I didn’t want to make things that didn’t speak true of anything. I don’t think I entirely understood what philosophy entailed either. They never tell you that there are no answers, only questions. And then more questions. I wasn’t really very suited to it.
It is undeniable I got a huge amount out of it, and even just from being in St Andrews, but I underestimated how word based and academic it was going to be. I could only connect to arguments when they were referencing visual images, which is what led me to aesthetics. I could hold onto visual representations of the concepts and I think then I realised that maybe that’s all art is, taking concepts and exploring and expressing them visually, viscerally, audibly, tangibly. I know that sounds like a really rudimentary thing to have realised, but it took me struggling through really interesting but dense concepts in a really, personally, difficult medium to realise it fully.
There is so much life and character in your work, reminiscent of Doug Tennappel’s comic Cardboard, about a young boy making living things from enchanted cardboard. One of the many pieces of yours that demonstrates your ability to breathe life into your work, is the portrait you did of a cat. Was this fun to make? How much has your work in theatre and particularly puppetry, influenced your work?
It was such a lovely project to work on. I was at the fringe selling my work out of a little shack in the West End and Mark (who it was for) approached me to discuss the commission. I got to first hand be told the stories of his cat and his career as a photographer and how he’d documented the cat from being a kitten. That’s why it was so lovely, I didn’t just have to replicate his pet I was trying to translate everything he’d relayed to me. Telling the story of his stories.
Theatre and puppetry has influenced me a huge amount. It’s always been about trying to tell an original story. When I first started making theatre at university, it was because I was so frustrated with seeing things that were rehashings or retellings of stories that already existed. My work might not have been polished at the time, but there was an undeniable originality in it and in it’s making.
It was a platform to experiment with the most effective, or satisfying way for me to communicate stories. It also helped me form an aesthetic, one that I have stuck to; the handmade, rough, naïve, honest. It was unavoidable, I guess, you couldn’t see these pieces and props and not almost visualize the hands that made it. So I don’t know if I would have come to that aesthetic, and been confident in it, if I hadn’t had the chance to establish it within the framing of theatre production.
The thing about puppetry that fascinates me to this day, is the concept of an object being brought to life and artists asking a room full of people to believe that it is not object but in fact something that is alive. But that belief can be suspended further if you tell that story in the realest way you can, not literally but figuratively. My adult piece of puppetry involved a puppet being rather violently murdered and disemboweled on stage, everything was very obviously made entirely from recycled materials, I didn’t try to hide that, but people who saw the show said that it was all the more disturbing and upsetting than if it had been an actor playing the part with fancy stage effects and blood and make up. Because they had bought in to the story, bought into these objects being alive that were being killed in front of them. That sort of confirmed for me that I would never need to hide the fact that I was making things from cardboard as long as I made sure that the stories I was telling with it were things that could people could believe in.
The biggest effect though, was quite early on I knew I wanted to work with children, or make art for children. Making art that wasn’t patronizing and helped them to form an idea of what an artist is. Theatre gave me the chance to work with children, but also to get feedback from them. Children are to the point, they tell you what wasn’t understandable. They know what they like, and they know why they like it. I wanted to always be doing workshops in my own practice, which I still do. I’ve always got a child critic in the back of my head. They just don’t tolerate bullshit like adults do.
This time last year you won the Sculptural Storytelling, Maker of the Month. This idea of sculptural storytelling is very fitting for your work as there is so much character and life in the things you make. They are like sculptural illustrations. Do you find yourself thinking about the narrative of piece when you’re working on it? Can you tell us about a time when finding a narrative or a way of approaching a piece was particularly challenging?
Sometimes I do think about the narrative while making, especially with commissioned pieces or work that fits into a pre-existing collection. But there is certain amount of just switching off, and allowing my hands make a thing. The narrative must be there. I’m always constructing narratives in my head, whether it’s somebody at a bus stop, or walking down the street. It’s more about subconsciously accessing that, at times, mindless reaction. I think I only find it challenging when it is forced.
I find ‘happy’ narratives, things that are intentionally ‘joyful’ really difficult. Maybe cardboard has a sombre quality to it, it feels quite jarring any other way. There is so much more depth to tiny moments of sadness, or insecurity, or something in the negative spectrum of emotion. There are so many different things to access and work with and to portray that can help to make a piece’s narrative overall more believable, understandable, relatable.
I find it challenging, in human representation, when people just want to find someone that it looks like, or is meant to be, everything is fabrications and imaginings from my head. True things that are seen, but none of them are based, visually, on someone directly. I find that hard that an audience want a point of reference based in fact, in reality.
On your website you mention the title of your business, Waste of Paint, comes from the Bright Eyes song and you quote a lyric from it. That quote has a resonance with most artists because, creating can be as much about trying to find meaning as it can be avoiding things! Can you share with us any ideologies that you have either taken on or been able to dismiss through the process of making art?
I think I decided quite early on that making art has a huge amount of responsibility involved in it.
I just want to be working towards getting the next generation of artists making. People talk about sustainable art, and I think that’s the only way to make art truly sustainable, keep interacting with people about your work and the processes you use in the hope that it encourages them to feel as though they can do the same.
On my 18th Birthday I got the lyrics ‘ideal ideology’ (misspelt) from Waste of Paint tattooed on my arm. A few years ago I had a cardboard box added next to it. It resonated with me as a teenager but I don’t think I knew why. Maybe I hoped that the future would bring clarity to it.
I think people get very lost in what they are making, and things they are creating, but ultimately, you still need to be outward looking. It is very easy to get caught up in these things, and it is important that you give it a kind of balance. You need to believe in what you’re doing and believe it has worth and importance, but at the same time, be able to keep it in perspective and be able to laugh at yourself. I know that it is a bit ridiculous that I make a living from a material people throw away.
Marcel Duchamp once said that the artist is unaware of the significance of their work and the spectator should always participate in supplementing the creation by interpreting it, which is a comment on how it’s not just making the art that’s important but also, having it seen. Which proffers the question, who do we make art for? Who do you make art for and how much do you think about your audience when you’re making a piece?
Now and again with bigger works, when I’m working for an organisation, and a brief, there is an aim for what they want the piece to do. I enjoy that working to purpose. In those situations, I think a huge amount about the audience, because it is for a group of people, and I want to do that well. Like Saltcoats library for instance.
I’ve tried thinking about audiences a great deal in my own practice and I’ve found it quite stifling. It makes me second-guess myself, and edit myself, so I try not to.
In a way, that can lead you to a vulnerable place. I’ve made a lot of stuff people don’t like, but I enjoyed the process regardless. I don’t think it’s always honest when I’m tailoring those stories to an audience in the hopes that it is more likeable, or palatable, or more accessible to the greatest amount of people. I’d rather speak quietly and truthfully to one person, than loudly and pointlessly to a crowd.
Your work is also reminiscent of Chris Gilmore, for use of cardboard and sculpture, Bill Woodrow, for the cut our aspects as well as re-purposing / recycling waste materials. There is also a similarity to the mysterious book sculptures gifted to various educational establishments in Edinburgh. Can you tell us about an artist that you find particularly inspiring, and what your 3 biggest creative influences have been up to this point?
I think all the artists I find inspiring sometimes are not ‘artists’ in the most often used sense of the word. Their work isn’t in galleries for example.
My dad, because he made things with his hands, and if he didn’t know quite how to make what he wanted to make he would learn. He made his work from what we had leftover, tin cans, bits of wood. But also he introduced me to the concept that objects have capacity to tell story. Everything can tell a story. Any object can translate a history, or a story. If they don’t, then you can make one up for them and that is just as brilliant.
A show called ‘Lilly Through the Dark’ by the River People. It was one of the first times that I saw a very dark story, being told in a beautiful way, but with a tone that was child-like. It was a show for adults, but it recognised that there is a beauty to scaling back, and to naivety. I still think about it now a huge amount. It was a show about a girl killing herself to try and find her father in the afterlife. There was a room full of people applauding a thing that was so dark and it told me it was ok to tell hard stories, or tell that side of life and represent things that are not necessarily ‘nice’ because you can still do it in a way that is beautiful.
Bread and Puppet as well. I visited their premises in northern Vermont. I’ve never seen a performance by them other than videos. It was off season, but I think that had a lovely effect on my work. I saw the theatre objects they use to tell the stories. For the first time I saw the props, and a community of artists that for years have been working to the same mission. They have the same cause and purpose; to tell difficult stories about political injustice, and the atrocities of war. Although those are not things that I want to explore, it’s amazing to see something that though the years has dedicated itself to something, from small recognition, to large recognition, but the recognition isn’t what effects it.
The biggest part of their work that really struck a chord with me though was their ‘cheap art manifesto’. They lay down these rules for themselves, where art is everything, and art is cheap. It doesn’t need to be made from something of value, or something expensive. There is art in making a loaf of bread. Art isn’t a luxury it’s nourishment. I guess that is what I see now, what you have at your disposal should never stop you. If you have something to say, you can. In workshops I kind of try not to teach practical skills, but it’s more about building belief in your imagination. Stories are from everywhere. I keep seeing gaping holes in children’s confidence today, they want to make things in a shiny packaged way and really, they can tell those stories in a much rougher way. In the same way Bread and Puppet showed that to me, I want to pass it on.
Do you have a favourite type of cardboard to work with?
It changes. It changes a lot. My first favourite cardboard to work with was the packaging for beer bottles. Co-op French beer, because it was thin 1 ply. It was good for small objects, but it creased in a way I grew tired of. Now I really love amazon packaging. It is single corrugated with a really fine fluting. But really, I like working with any material as long as I has been thrown away. New cardboard feels wrong. I’m also fascinated by the typography, and the images that are printed onto cardboard. I’m trying to collect pieces from as many countries in the world as possible. Friends bring me back samples from their travels and people have passed the word along and some strangers post me little bits of cardboard. It’s really lovely.
How would you like to develop your work, is there another material you would like to experiment with?
I’d like to make large-scale pieces more often. I’d also love to spend time developing perhaps full-scale cardboard environments. I don’t think I will feel done with cardboard until I have done that. I have kind of always had an image of an immersive installation.
With other materials it would have to be reclaimed, or re-purposed. I’d love to do woodworking. I think that’s the thing, I have to be physically making the thing. I want to be able to use my hands to make things so any change of material will have to facilitate that.
Bonus Question: If you were able to bring to life one of your creations, but it kept all of its cardboard qualities, what would it be and why?
I had tried to capture that social anxiety in pieces before and hadn’t hit it on the head quite like I did with him [Formal events... pictured above]. I’d like to bring him to life, because quite selfishly, I think I would like him in the corner with me at formal events, dry mouthed and sweaty palmed together. But also, he is mid-motion, just tweaking the bow-tie. At times, it also feels mean to have left him in this moment of static, it would be nice to free him of that.
The Powerfully Delicate Structures of Deirdre Macleod
The internet is amazing. The amount of information and knowledge we have easy access to is astounding. For an artist, having access to all this information means that we have so much more scope for researching an idea or developing a concept. Access to different ways of thinking and different disciplines like Science, Electronics, Gardening, Sculpture, Photography, is important to creativity. It is important to explore different ways of understanding the world to allow your artistic work to develop.
Developments in understanding can lead to new art forms and these different art forms and fields of study influence each other. For example, when designing the Munich Stadium Frei Otto looked to biology and the cell structures of plants. Janet Echelman’s colourful moving sculptures were influenced by fishing.
Deirdre Macleod is an artist who has studied a variety of disciplines including; painting, geography and politics. These seemingly differing subjects find their way into the interlaced structures of her work, creating pieces which are delicate and layered, offering the solid industrial look of scaffolding with the delicate crystalline feel of a snowflake.
After seeing her work glowing on the walls of the Hidden Door Art Festival, we had to know more. It was a real pleasure talking to Deirdre, who's work is a reflection of her own complexity and depth of thought.
Tell us a bit about your background, you studied in Edinburgh but is that where you grew up too? Do you come from a creative family?
I was born in Fife and grew up in central Scotland. I came to Edinburgh in 1991 for post-graduate study and, apart from a few years living and working in the West Midlands and Warwickshire, I’ve lived in Edinburgh since then. There aren’t any artists in my family, but I suspect there is unrealised creative ability there!
You didn’t just study painting at Edinburgh, I noticed you also have an MSc in Politics and a BA in Geography, which are quite different subjects from painting. Tell us a bit about what led you to being an artist and how these other subjects have had an influence on your work.
I chose to study Geography because I was, and still am, interested in how humans relate to, and make use of, the space in which they live, particularly urban space. But, I’m sure I was also drawn to Geography because it is such a visual discipline. I love maps, field sketches, geological cross-sections and diagrams and, when I was at secondary school, I think it was as much the chance to make line drawings with Rotring mapping pens that appealed as much as the subject matter! Technical drawing equipment, propelling pencils and diagrammatic imagery are still really important to my approach to drawing.
Part of the reason that I turned to drawing and painting was because it seemed to offer a more personal way of understanding and expressing my relationship to space and place than the more detached approaches of social science – whether Geography or Politics. Drawing, in its different forms, using a range of materials and supports, provides me with a more personal way of observing and investigating my response to the city. Politics, as an academic discipline, is about aspects of relationships of power. I am aware of spatial power relationships within cities, particularly that between humans on the ground and our built environment, over which we often have very little direct control. This is a theme that influences the work that I am currently making.
After working for about 10 years in public policy analysis and development, I came back to drawing and painting via the summer school programme at Edinburgh College of Art. I was encouraged by summer school tutors to think about studying more seriously and took evening and summer school classes over the next few years to build up a portfolio for my application. I studied part-time, while working and having children, through the College’s part-time degree programme, before transferring into full-time honours study. It was a fantastic chance to get an art education and I’m so glad I did it.
You mention one of your influences as Piranesi Carceri d’Invenzione etchings. The influence of these can be seen, particularly in the density of some of your drawings and the perspectives and view points you use. There is also a likeness to the sculptures of Ben Long. Can you tell us a bit about what it is about these industrial structural forms that you find most compelling to explore through your drawings?
That’s a good question! I’ve been thinking about this quite a bit over the past few months. The structures that I’m drawn to are invariably open and delicate, rather than solid. I’m not really interested in completed buildings; I tend to seek out scaffolding towers, steel construction frames and structures that are in the early stages of being built or the final stages of being taken down. These structures have skeletal appearance and are often the bones of a building under construction or deconstruction, or, in the case of scaffolding, a kind of metal exoskeleton for the construction process. What these structures have in common is their openness. With their grid-like and geometric qualities, they seem to draw attention to the urban sky-space, measuring it and enclosing it. As the construction process develops, the open steel frames become solid and the empty space of the air and sky disappears. I find myself re-visiting these sites repeatedly, watching the processes of enclosure and disappearance, almost mourning that loss.
Looking up from the ground into the city is a key part of what interests me. It’s such an everyday, but universal, urban experience to walk and look up at multistory structures and to feel quite small as a result. I use perspective and viewpoint to try to give a sense of how it feels to look up at these large structures which are under construction and out of reach. I use an oblique perspective in my large-scale drawings, and hang the drawings higher than is conventionally expected, to encourage the viewer to look up at them.
The choices you make on materials to draw on, are very interesting. Your use of Perspex for example, offers a transparency and layered effect, different to the drawings you do with pencil. Can you tell us a bit about your preferred mediums, right now, to paint and draw with?
At the moment, I’m using technical drawing propelling pencils, rulers, plastic erasers and smooth, large-scale cartridge paper to create heavily worked graphite surfaces that still retain the definition of individual pencil lines. I’ve also been investigating the possibilities for making smaller drawings on Perspex sheet, both by etching lines and by making graphic line drawings on the Perspex using acrylic paint.
Whilst these sets of materials might seem very different, I find that they have much in common for my work. Both enable me to use a delicate and precise visual language. My drawings are made up of many layers of ruled parallel lines through which I aim to create spatial depth; something that I also seek to achieve through using layers of Perspex in painted 3D constructions.
Importantly, both sets of materials enable me to capture a sense of movement in space and my embodied sense of the city, by which I mean, the way that I experience it through the physical act of walking, climbing, sometimes squeezing past other people, or even occasionally tripping over a step. My drawings aren’t just about what I can see, but what I feel as I encounter the city. With the Perspex pieces as viewers walk around them, the spatial relations between layered component images change; with my pencil drawings, physical movement is expressed in changes in the direction of the ruled lines, which occur as part of the making process as I move around making these large drawings.
We first saw your work at the Hidden Door festival in Edinburgh, given your use of perspex and your interest in structural layering, it was interesting to see you had used light very differently in the Hidden Door space. The Skeletal Drawings were almost light glowing blueprints on the wall. Did you deliberately set out to explore structure and light differently, or was this how you reacted to the space you were allocated? Tell us a bit about your work at Hidden Door.
This year’s Hidden Door Festival in Edinburgh was held in the city’s former street lighting depot, which had lain unused and semi-derelict for a number of years. I love making work that is a response to the site in which the work will be shown, so Hidden Door seemed like an ideal opportunity to experiment with ideas and materials. On the basis of seeing photos and descriptions of the site only, I proposed to make a wall drawing that was pretty much a (very) scaled-up version of the small, Perspex Skeletal Drawings, with the idea that the drawing might be seen from a distance.
However, when I spent time in my allocated space – an atmospheric, but pretty dingy, barrel-vaulted cellar – I decided to make a semi-abstract drawing that I thought would be more sympathetic to the space and more appropriate to its scale and dimensions. The drawing is, as you suggest, a bit like a blueprint for something that might be under construction, which might replace the existing building, or, which might instead be in the process of being demolished. I wanted the drawing to have an orange glow, partly as a nod to the site’s former role as a street lighting depot, but also to acknowledge the growing obsolescence of sodium vapour street lighting. This year, Edinburgh City Council will replace the current street lights with white LED bulbs, so the orange glow that we’re all so familiar with will soon become a thing of the past. I also like the idea of using a non-fine art material. Phosphorescent paint is sometimes treated as a bit of a pariah medium by artists, but I am convinced that it has a place!
It was a fantastic opportunity to make work for Hidden Door and it tested my physical capabilities and technical knowledge to the full. But, that’s the way I prefer things to be - it’s the way I develop and extend my practice.
In 2013 you won the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival prize for your Idiographic Paintings, which were a part of a Neuroscience residency at Edinburgh University and your work can be seen on the walls of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Edinburgh. Can you tell me a bit about your residency and how your Idiographic Paintings came about?
During our penultimate year of study, students were encouraged to work with organisations and individuals outside art college through a series of external projects. I took up the chance to work with the Neuroscience laboratories at Edinburgh University, one of which is within the Department of Psychiatry. I think I thought I might get my hands on some interesting diagrams! Over the course of six weeks, I had the chance to find out about brain imaging which is central to contemporary approaches to understanding psychiatric conditions, to observe research meetings and, with their permission, to observe consultations between patients and their clinicians.
I chose to try to represent the spirit and individuality of some of the patients that I met, through a series of abstract paintings based on overlapping forms that I had been working with in my studio. It was a privilege to work with the patients and I really enjoyed the challenge of working out how best to express something of the patient’s experiences and the Department’s work through my own visual language.
One of the clinicians suggested that I enter the paintings for the brochure artwork competition run by the Scottish Mental Health Arts and Film Festival. To my surprise, they won and were used as the basis for the brochure and the visual identity for the 2013 Festival. The Department of Psychiatry asked to purchase the paintings that I’d made and they are now on permanent exhibition there.
Do you find that the process of creating or making, has any similarities to problem solving, that you’re able to work something out within yourself by the time you finish a piece?
There certainly can be an element of practical problem-solving when I work. My current interest in sanded Perspex came from trying to find a more robust support for pieces of work that had been mounted unsuccessfully on tracing paper, but I think problem-solving might be too closed a term for what happens when I’m working.
Often the pieces that I make just don’t work because the image of the piece that I have in my mind, the plan as it were, just isn’t that interesting when I make it. But, if I let myself stay open to possibility as I work, and let my hands lead, rather than my mind, things can begin to happen. Art is an intellectual pursuit, but it is also a haptic one. Hands can feel and sense things that the eye cannot and I think it’s so important to trust the intelligence embedded in the making process. When I do, often what happens is that I end up somewhere that I didn’t expect, somewhere that is quite surprising, having made something that is often far more visually and intellectually satisfying.
What leads you to starting the next piece of work?
Usually it’s an opportunity to make and exhibit new work. I rarely make work without knowing where it’s going to be shown. Site-responsiveness is very important to me. I like the intellectual challenge of working in this way, thinking about the site, its connection to the themes that I work with and working out how best to respond through materials, scale and installation strategies.
Having said that, I’m trying increasingly to make space to experiment with materials, without the pressure of a particular outcome. The Perspex pieces developed from a ‘what if?’ moment when I tried sanding and painting an off-cut of Perspex that had been lying about in my studio. Making space and time to play matters, but, it’s sometimes quite difficult to find.
What are you working on at the moment, or, what are you planning on working on next?
Next month, I’ll be showing some work as part of a show of a group of Edinburgh and Border’s-based contemporary artists at Traquair House in the Scottish Borders. Traquair House is the oldest inhabited house in Scotland and has long connections with Jacobite History. Each of the artists involved has been asked to respond to an aspect of the House of their choosing. I am working with a small technical drawing of Traquair House made by Polish soldiers stationed in Scotland during the Second World War. I’m using this historical drawing to make some small, contemporary 3D constructions which will be placed in different parts of the House. I’m also working towards a solo show at Gayfield Creative Spaces in Edinburgh which opens on 5 November 2015.
Bonus Question: Name 3 books you wouldn’t be without and why.
My three books are all about cities, and how we imagine and experience them. They’re well-worn studio companions:
Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. This is a wonderful fictional conversation between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo in which Marco Polo describes the cities (or is it simply one city?) that he encounters. The imagery is just so vivid.
Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life. This book encourages me to see the cities as a artistic resource – even the simple choice of one particular walking route over another can be a creative act.
George Perec’s Species of Spaces and other Pieces. I love Perec’s interest in what he calls the ‘infra-ordinary’. He deftly shows that the everyday stuff of urban life is fascinating if we look closely and repeatedly. It’s a very moving book.
You can see more of Deirdre's work, including her Neuroscience paintings on her website: http://www.deirdre-macleod.com/
You can also see her work in person at the Curved Stream exhibition, opening on 6 September and running until 30 October 2015 at Traquair House, Innerleithen, Peebleshire. Information on opening times and directions to Traquair House can be found at http://www.traquair.co.uk/ and https://www.facebook.com/curvedstreamtraquair
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
The narrative photography of Emilia Moisio; a brand new comic collaborative - Jack Sprat; Mariya Ustymenko talks about The Fear Of Disappearance...
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.