13 / 05 / 2015

The Threat of Art

Writing / Posted by Rich

My text for The Survivalist Series publication produced to accompany The Survivalist Series, a series of commissions by artists invited by CAAPO to explore what the term ‘survival’ might mean. My text was written in response to my experiences creating Dead Reckoning for the Series.

I had made a small number of works on the theme of Survival before I was commissioned for The Survivalist Series. On those occasions I chose a more conceptual approach, with works exploring the survival of a building and the survival of artists during the age of austerity. For the Survivalist Series I decided to approach the idea literally (at first). That is not to say the work didn’t express certain ideas about the survival of art and artists, it just wasn’t where I began.

I began by researching actual survival techniques with a view to using one of them as a method for generating a sculpture. I looked at map reading, trap building, shelter building, fire making, sourcing food and water, and also at the more extreme end of survivalist culture, with bunkers and stockpiling weapons and food. This yielded a number of interesting possibilities, but the one that particularly stood out was Dead Reckoning: an outdated method of estimating your position on a map based on how long, what speed, and what direction you have travelled. This method has the inbuilt potential for compounding errors; you may not travel in an exactly straight line and your speed may not be constant. Each time you calculate your position you may be drifting further and further away from where you think you are.

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19 / 09 / 2012

Artists and Athletes

Writing / Posted by Rich

I’ll be honest from the start here and state that I’m not really a sports fan. However, when it was announced that the Olympics were to be held in London I was quite pleased. I thought it really exciting that they would be held in the country - and city - in which I lived. As it got closer things started to change; stories surfaced about suggestions that those that live in London should consider moving away for the duration. Seriously? I’ve lived here for over ten years - the Games are happening in my town and you want me to go away? Terribly patronising adverts appeared at stations suggesting that you should work from home or travel to work a different way because of all the expected travel chaos caused by the massive influx of Games-goers. There was also an odd feeling of ‘London won’t cope’ permeating through the media.

As it turned out it coped fine. My partner, who has to travel across the city to London Bridge Station to get to work, saw no real change in the quantity of people, merely in the type; more confused, lost people.

This all put a downer on the build-up to the Olympics, and before it had even started I was getting a little tired of it. And I’ve realised why this was; because it wasn’t the Games themselves. I was tired of seeing all the guff that surrounded the Games: the Orbit, I feel, is a shockingly bad piece of public art. McDonalds was the Official Restaurant? Carling the Official Beer? (We have so much great brewing in this country and you choose Carling?) The big-business tax dodge furore (that was campaigned against and thankfully beaten mostly into submission). I was suffering from severe corporate fatigue and it seemed to be eclipsing the Games.

But then they began, with Danny Boyle’s excellent, surprising, cheeky opening ceremony, and it seemed to kick things back into shape. It was the events and the athletes that were important, and this seemed to have got lost in the build-up. I actually started to enjoy the Olympics, feel quite proud of how well Team GB were doing, and also really get into the great performances from all the nations. There was, of course, the inevitable hyperbole that riles me - commentators describing people as gods and waxing lyrical about how unworthy we are to gaze upon this being and we should fall to our knees in his/her presence etc. but that’s only a small complaint amongst what appeared to me to be the entire country getting behind and supporting this small group of dedicated, skilled and talented people.

And that’s when I started to think about the parallels between artists and athletes. A small group of dedicated, skilled and talented people? Sounds familiar. Sounds like artists. When you really think about it athletes contribute as much to society as artists do. The end results of our endeavours amount to ‘achievements’ - you have run faster than everyone else, you have painted a more beautiful picture than everyone else. These things are subject to various contexts and standards but what we have is a person doing something to the very best of their ability. And this thing is useless in itself other than for the sake of the achievement and the emotion which it can elicit from those watching. Great joy was had watching Mo Farah win the 10,000m - it was exciting, tense, suspenseful and beautiful. It could be great art? Usain Bolt is an event in himself and people want to watch he does. Similarly in the Paralympics Oscar Pistorius and Ellie Simmonds, among many others, provided thrilling and joyous moments.

Now don’t come back at me with the argument about how much money it brings in because that is a ridiculous and demeaning concept. The worth of sport and art is not in how much money it generates: Jessica Ennis’s heptathlon gold is not worth however many Big Macs and Carlings were consumed during her events. In the same way, an experimental piece of theatre is not worth any less than a Shaftsbury Avenue musical - even if all the people that go to that musical buy lots of snacks and novelty souvenirs from the surrounding shops.

The question I am asking is that athletes seem to have a pretty good level of acceptance among the general public yet artists seem to be less well-liked. Why? Both groups have devoured public funding, with the Arts Council only spending a fraction per year of what it took to put on the Olympics, yet people can’t wait to line the streets and scream with joy as a bus rolls past containing Team GB. I’m not saying I want that level of hysteria for artists - that would be silly - but I am intrigued as to what it is that sets us apart? Why is one activity seen as good by a vast majority, and worth all of this time, effort and money purely for the sake of it, and another less so? Perhaps it is about the contest; beating the other competitors and the other countries? The only parallel I can think of would be the various biennials that occur around world, or Documenta and Skulptur Projekte Münster, and although prizes are awarded at some of these events it doesn’t really grab the international interest like the Olympics.

What is it about athletes that captures the imagination, and can we, as artists, harness this somehow and bend public opinion in our favour?

22 / 02 / 2012

(Belated) OpenAIR Response

Art crimeDiaryPoliticsWriting / Posted by Rich

I came away from OpenAIR with mixed feelings. On one hand it was great to see a whole load of AIR members all eager to find out how we can help one-another and how we can affect change for artists for the better. On the other hand, it was confusing and seemed to lack a clear direction.

The speakers were excellent - it was a really good idea to get non-artists who specialised in engineering change to give us ideas about how to motivate ourselves and other people. However, it would’ve been good to hear from the AIR council about what they were planning. Admittedly part of the day was about trying to find out what we wanted them to help us with, but even that seemed a little rudderless: our break-out session apparently had a theme (or themes) but these were never really made clear, and some of us felt confused as to what it was we were meant to be discussing. When mentioning this we still didn’t really get a clear answer and it felt like we were talking around a subject as opposed to about it.

What were we trying to affect change for? Artists face so many problems - many of which aren’t purely artist’s problems but problems faced by many in the current financial climate. Points were raised about whether we were focussing on being artists solving problems for artists or artists working more generally for the greater good (a notion I think genuinely worth pursuing).

As usual I didn’t really think of what I wanted to say until afterwards - I had so many half-formed questions buzzing around my head that never really amounted to actual responses at the time. I left feeling like I hadn’t really taken full advantage of the event - I could’ve asked more things, I could’ve suggested more ideas. I do have a view on the situation but I feel that I haven’t worked it out yet. Perhaps I should’ve taken Carrie Bishop’s advice and not wait until it is all resolved, polished and packaged, but share it now because you think it’s a good idea and you’re excited by it - and then through sharing you can resolve any problems or stumbling blocks.

So what’s my idea?: I’m interested in how we can change people’s perception of art through the art itself; make a case for the importance of art by making art itself more important. This would involve (I think) a significant, but slow, alteration of how art is presented and perceived. I get the feeling today that there is a general slump in the quality of culture - at a later date I’m planning a large rant about the dangers of nostalgia, the proliferation of ‘photographers’ and the problems with the term ‘artist’, but that’s a whole other thing. To cut it short: I don’t think art does itself many favours at the moment. There are a lot people calling themselves ‘artists’ that produce work which creates ammunition for the ‘art is a waste of money’ brigade. I’m not saying that this work is not necessary or important - I don’t believe in censorship of the arts, I don’t believe in telling people what they should or shouldn’t make and how they should or shouldn’t work - but sometimes you are shooting yourself in the foot by making work that, rather than challenging people, physically puts them off art.

One of the delegates said ‘Artists think differently’ - I disagree with this and I think this is also a dangerous route for artists. Everyone thinks differently. The danger lies in perpetuating the idea that artists are ‘different’ and ‘special’. If we continue this I don’t think that we can overcome the particular prejudices that cause people to be negative about art: that it is not for them, that they won’t understand it, that it is a waste of money. Artists are just people who, like many other people, can be very dedicated to what they do. By setting ourselves apart to such a degree we risk appearing like we want special treatment, which in these straitened times is also going to make people wary of our value.

Can 17000 artists work together to create work which makes a case for art? We don’t really have to change what we do that much - just bear in mind how our work is perceived and work cleverly to instill something within it that adds another weight to the scales to tip the balance in our favour.

As I mentioned earlier this idea is not fully formed, but I think it’s got legs.

14 / 06 / 2011

Art Is A Lie

DiaryNewsPoliticsTalkWriting / Posted by Rich

Text from my talk at AIR Salon at Core Gallery on 13.06.11.
Download the PDF.
Some of the text has already appeared in Modes Of Practice.
It was a very good night with lots of stimulating conversation.

13 / 03 / 2011

Modes of Practice Text

NewsTalkWriting / Posted by Rich

My text for ‘Modes of Practice in an Age of Austerity’. A talk and workshop looking at what artists can do to survive the cuts.
PDF version.

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