Outside the Gallery: DIY Aesthetics and The Artist as Curator

A recently published study on artists working outside the gallery system reminded me of an article I once read which offered the opinion that the time of the formal exhibition was nearing a close. That, in terms of the art world, the gallery was no longer the only, or major, endgame for many artists, and that in this world of technology and instant access information, the physical exhibition is simply another event for people not to bother leaving the house for. My own paraphrasing, of course.

I can’t recall now where the article in question was published, but it certainly left a lingering thought in my mind.

Throughout college and university, the aim was always the exhibition. Every piece of research, every final product, was a move towards the same endgame. Frames, mirror plates, rules and guidelines. There was one project in three years which touched on the idea that there could be an alternative, which involved students planning and creating a professionally finished, bound book of work. But this was never elaborated upon, nor returned to at any later points. In fact, it was years after finishing my formal education that I began to find out about the possibilities of avenues like self publishing, and the potential for DIY projects. Of course, the advancement and affordability of home technology between 2002 and 2007 certainly helped, but during the 1970s and 80s, there were plenty of people involved in the self publishing scene. Fanzines – hand-compiled, photocopied booklets often themed around music, politics, or both – were small works of art in and of themselves, and the zine scene has evolved now to encompass everything from true-to-the-roots, grainy photocopies, lovingly stapled by hand, to polished booklets of art work rendered in full colour on heavy stock. The overarching message being: if you want something out there, put it out there yourself.

The main issue with the formal exhibition is, and has always been, accessibility. It’s reliant on somebody else, either one individual or a very small group, appreciating or understanding what you do. A tiny fraction of viewers, non-representative of the potential audience, making selection based on their own personal opinions, interests and tastes – no matter how subjective a person tries to be, they will always, to some extent, be swayed by their own bias and agenda.

One could argue that this is the point. That the exhibition filters through the elite, the best at what they do. That only the hardest workers and the most talented earn their space on those white walls. That may hold some element of accuracy, but it is far from the whole truth. And whilst a handful of those talented artists might well slip through, so do many more go completely unseen, unrecognised. And that’s a shame. Like many things, there are other factors at play. What is likely to sell comes high on the priorities of many venues, because as crass a sentiment as it might be, the fact is that for many galleries, sales mean revenue and revenue means continued business. Even in cases where sales are a lesser concern, the work still needs to draw an audience, and curators will look for artists who can fulfil that requirement. There’s no sense in exhibiting to an empty room.

On top of that, there’s location to consider, not to mention the ever-present ‘who you know’. For artists based outside of London and major southern cities, access to both opportunity and network has always been a problem. The crop of northern galleries in recent years has certainly helped, but it has a lot of catching up to do.

So, enter the DIY aesthetic, and this is nothing new, but it has certainly been gaining popularity over the past few years. From self-staged exhibitions in non-traditional venues such as coffee shops, warehouses and bars, to self-published art zines and books. Guerilla art, from the more permanent graffiti to projected displays on the side of buildings. Even online galleries, blogs, Tumblr and Instagram. These are reactions to the exclusivity and formality traditionally present within the art world. These are artists taking a step further in their own creativity, and getting their work out there. Pushing their individual messages, whatever they might be, rather than waiting for someone to deliver them.

Returning to the topic of technology, and its affect on creative lifestyles, one major possibility that has been drawn out of this is the potential for collaborative projects. For the art world, this means everything from easily organising small, local collectives – such as the group I participate in, which I would never have become aware of had it not been for social media – to international projects like Brooklyn Art Library’s Sketchbook Project, which I’ve participated in on a number of occasions. Knowing that there is work I have created sitting in a venue thousands of miles away, being handled and viewed by people I will never meet, it feels like a small victory. Something that you have made is affecting a strangers life, even in the smallest way. For me, that’s the real endgame involved in publicising my work, however I choose to do that. It’s the reason I’m so open with my work, publishing it any way I can.

Many of these artists will never be famous, and they will never be rich. This self-staged output is unlikely to draw large crowds, nor pay the rent. But I think that anybody who wonders what, then, the point of it all is, is perhaps missing it entirely.

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Distance, Death and the Loss of Physical Possibility

Six years ago today, I lost a friend. 

That phrase seems so innocuous, so vague. Like I misplaced a glove on the way home. It took me a long time to say it to myself, that he died. Longer to really grasp that he had not only died, but that he had chosen to die. He had attempted repeatedly to end his life, and in the end, he succeeded. I can’t pretend to understand what that is like, because despite my own thoughts at times, and despite some mercifully half arsed efforts, I have never been in the place which would influence me to not only try, but try again and again, until one stuck. 

I never will. Not necessarily because I am certain that I will never feel like that – although I hope against hope that I do not – but because I have watched how it shatters the lives of the people nearby. It took me a long time to come to terms with my conflicting emotions; the guilt I felt at not having been there, the blame I felt towards the people who were there, the sorrow at knowing I would never see my friend again, and worst of all, the rage I felt that he had done it. Anger at someone you can’t speak to about it is unpleasant enough, but anger at someone who had been so low, so unhappy, so deeply finished that he considered suicide his only remaining option, that’s fucking unbearable. I withdrew from the group of friends I associated with him, I mourned him silently and at my own pace. In short, I pushed away anything which could link me to those feelings, but I couldn’t escape my own guilt, anger and shame. 

I can’t say when that went away, but it did. Other than knowing it was around this time, I didn’t even remember the date until a mutual friend mentioned it. It’s not etched into my conscious mind like it was the first couple of years. I’m not angry anymore. I don’t feel guilty anymore, either. I will never understand, but I have had to accept it, because my life has gone on, and the world keeps turning. I will always regret not saying goodbye, but I have never been great at goodbyes. I do remember the last thing I said to him: ‘laters’. Just a throwaway remark, a casual attempt at goodbye from a person who is uncomfortable with farewell. Later. I had meant it, in my own way. I had never imagined that it would be the last word I ever spoke to him. 

I read something yesterday which hit me pretty hard in the thought department, perhaps because all this was already on my mind. An excerpt from a social media post, quoting an author:
“I miss you”
“That’s stupid” she said. “I saw you this morning.”
“It’s not the time,” Levi said, and she could hear that he was smiling. “It’s the distance.”
       – Rainbow Rowell

In some ways, it put me in mind of a song I heard as a teenager. The last track on an album, it ended with a sampled recording of the error message you heard when a phone number was no longer in service. I remember it bringing a lump to my throat because of the insinuation. You can no longer connect with this person. This person is unavailable. The idea at the time was, to me, amongst the worst I could imagine, and even now in the age of constant connectivity, being able to find nearly anybody with just a few keystrokes, it still stings. 

It’s not the time spent away from someone but the distance placed between us, the physical impossibility of contact. Touching, talking, an exchange between two people. The response, the interaction, or at least the possibility of it. That’s what we miss. That’s what we mourn. 

Rest in peace, mate. 

   
   

Contemplating Mortality and the Prospects of Age

At what age did you realise you were not immortal? How did you react to that discovery?

I’m not completely sure it’s sunk in even now.

I mean, in the abstract of course I understand that I will one day die. Even at 32 I am beginning to notice the first small signs that I am not as young as I was, and that age is undoubtedly beginning to have its way with me. In the most logical, on paper way, I understand that my day might come and that day might be tomorrow, it might be in another fifty or so years, it might be anywhere in-between. But who on earth is capable of imagining what that will be like? Even the most creative human mind needs some frame of reference for the imagination, and there isn’t a soul on this planet who can provide a frame of reference for death. Death is the last great taboo. Nobody wants to talk about it because nobody wants to think about it. It’s the ultimate unknown, the only thing that cannot become a lesson in itself, not for the individual, anyway. Nobody but the living can learn from death. 

Part of the human condition has always been the attraction to the concept of immortality. As beings with a limited lifespan, and a comparatively short one in the grand scheme of life on earth, we are intrigued by, and desperate for, a solution which might mean extending those years. But with a caveat, of course. Nobody wants to spend hundreds of years living in an aged body, the skin deep beauty of youth long since lost and the cruel japes of old age pressing on every joint. 

But to stay young, and live forever, well that’s the premise for one of the most popular literary themes of the past few hundred years, isn’t it? 

When you come right down to it, the general idea of the vampire is rather disgusting. Drinking blood and only appearing at night, on the surface just doesn’t sound like an overly appealing way to be. But the idea that this is the trade off for immortality and eternal youth has pushed the vampire myth well towards the opposite end of the spectrum. It is a romanticised idea, upon which tale after tale has been based. If the pull of eternal youth is strong enough to make the less savoury aspects of being a vampire seem perfectly sane, even desirable, then this is evidence that it is a powerful pull indeed.

But back to reality, and the progress of modern medicine not only in the sense of effective immunisation and cures, safer birth methods and advances in the treatment of previously short-term terminal illnesses, but also in the fields of cosmetic surgery. With enough money, (and seemingly a little luck, or at least sound research into the right surgeon), a sixty-plus year old can have the appearance of a 40-something. Whilst this doesn’t address the issue of mortality, of course, it’s yet another way in which a person can put off having to think about the matter. I suspect it’s far easier to brush off the  of your own impending demise when the face staring back at you from the mirror is relatively smooth and wrinkle free. 

Then there’s cryogenics. A concept which has seemingly grown in popularity during recent years, I had already been aware of the general idea when I saw an exhibition a few years ago at the Impressions Gallery in Bradford called ‘The Prospect of Immortality’. The photographer, Murray Ballard, had spent time documenting the “tiny but dedicated international cryogenics industry”, producing a final exhibition of striking, massive format pieces in beautiful colour alongside audio recordings of some of the people involved in the industry, from the doctors taking care of the patients through to the prospective patients themselves. The work provides an absolutely fascinating insight into this extremely niche, and much ridiculed, prospect, and offers further evidence of the lengths that the human race may go to in the name of extending their natural lifespan. 

The entire idea of immortality of course is only attractive as the abstract concept. I wonder if any person could live with the reality of it. Even assuming that many of the difficulties of a long life at the moment reside in the issues which old age presents, and further assuming that those difficulties might be eradicated with the aid of further medical advancements and the halting of the physical ageing process, I can’t imagine living for hundreds of years. But, life expectancy on average has been steadily climbing, and as science presents further advancements, who’s to say that the curve will not continue to rise? Even now, based on my own family history, and assuming that none of the stupid things I’ve put my body through over the years affect my own life expectancy, the possibility of my reaching my nineties is reasonably high. 

On the other hand, that still means that I’ve lived a third of my life already, and if I’m unlucky, maybe half or more. Which is a depressing thought, and going back to my opening statements, one which I’d certainly prefer not to think too hard about.

That way, I suspect, madness lies.


Response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt for October 20th.

The Effect of Technological Advancement on the Historical Record

Recently, I’ve been researching my family history, an endeavour which has so far been facilitated by the fact that my relatives appear to have been reasonably good at both record keeping, and maintaining physical artefacts of their existence.

My family has always been ‘photographic’. In a large drawer, in an antique bureau, downstairs lives a collection of family photographs which I can reliably date back to 1910, and quite probably slightly further than even that. I organised those a couple of years back, although I’ll shortly be going back through them to see if I am able to put any faces to the names on my family tree.

On top of those, I have more recently found letters and postcards from the 1950s, entries recording family members birthdates and marriages between 1860 and 1890, and various original birth, marriage and death certificates. All of this has meant that, in the space of a week, I’ve been able to reliably trace back as far as 1830, with a further generation still undergoing research.

Around the same time, a magazine I read regularly began to publish a series of articles related to genealogical research. In the first, the writer talks about an article she read about the 2013 discovery of artifacts preserved in the Antarctic for 100 years.

“When I saw these remarkable photos for the first time, I wondered what would happen if a smartphone was left in the ice for 100 years. Would someone still be able to retrieve the images? I think not”

This statement echoes something that I have been saying for a few years in response to one of the reasons I still choose to shoot film, despite the rising cost of doing so, and the time consuming process of developing the images and digitizing them for online sharing. That is, that if someone – even the least historically curious person – were to be clearing out, say, an attic, and came across a folder of old negatives, what would they do with them? I’d wager that most people would at least have a flick through, and many would keep the folder, maybe scan them to see the photographs better. A better analogy given the present time period, and the rapid advancement of technology over the past twenty years might be a box of letters and postcards. Wouldn’t you have a look through, read at least some of them, maybe show them to your parents, siblings? Now, apply that same thought to the discovery of a box of old floppy discs. Are you going to go to the effort of locating a system on which to read them? I’m sure that a handful of people would at least consider it, but I’m equally sure the vast majority would simply place them directly into the rubbish sack.

Of those family photographs I spoke about earlier, the bulk were of course taken within the last fifty or so years, and document my grandparents youth and marriage, then my mothers childhood and teenage years, followed by the birth of first myself, and then my sister, and our own lives throughout childhood, and into our teens. Somewhere around 2000, though, they drop off. In part, I expect, that’s because I turned 18, and a year later moved out to dramatically screw up my life for a few years, and so there weren’t a whole lot of occasions when taking pictures will have appealed to anyone. There’s a few family events, weddings and such, but nothing of the ‘snippets of everyday life’ which appear regularly before that.

But in part, too, 2000 was around the time when the digital camera as a potentially affordable consumer gadget began to pick up momentum, and despite the fact that the quality was terrible, this was offset by the sheer convenience. No more buying film, no more paying for it to be developed, and finding that a third of the shots contain thumbs, cut off heads, or absolutely no image at all.  Sure, the memory cards cost a lot compared to the cost of storage media in 2014, but you only needed one or two. Most point and shoot digital cameras back then barely hit 1mpx, and even on a tiny 32mb storage card, that’s around 80-90 photos. The capacity of between 2 and 3 rolls of 35mm film. If you had a few that didn’t work out, you knew right away, and could delete those to make space for more.

In the decade and a half since then, digital photography has developed to the point where we now have mobile phones capable of better image quality than those point and shoots which all but replaced our film cameras. Arguably, the rapid evolution of this technology has completely revolutionised the photographic industry – certainly within the commercial, news and editorial sectors. The quality of even an entry level DSLR produced within the last couple of years is a rival for some of the highest performing film emulsions (at least in terms of the 35mm/APS formats), in many ways (and as a fervent and unrelenting lover of film, it does slightly pain me to type that).

Process and share within minutes (even faster if you’re using a camera phone or a camera with connectivity), no extra costs after the initial purchase, high quality, prices dropping all the time, no bulky photo albums to store, no wasting reams of paper on pictures you’re not too fussed about. What’s not to like?

How about this.  In twenty or thirty years, what will you be able to show to your kids/nieces and nephews/anyone at all? In one hundred years time, what evidence besides the one day in a decade facts within the census will remain that you ever existed? I’m sure that a lot of people assume that in the future, nobody will care about Mr Smith or Mrs Jones from Wherever, who worked as a secretary/shopkeeper. But we surely gain a rounded perspective on history from ordinary people, and not just celebrities of the day, whose lives will not have been representative of the whole. If I’m sitting here in 2014, looking at the earliest discovery of my lineage, and wondering what my great grandmother’s great grandmother, Leah, was like, and what life was like for her and her family in the mid 1800s, then I am certain that in 2170 or so, there will be people wondering the same things about their own ancestors, people in my generation now. Technology, no matter how capable, will never eliminate simple human curiosity.

“If things don’t change, in a hundred years from now, the only information about our lives will be the basic facts recorded in the national census. Recent censuses have included other questions, so you’ll have snapshots of a persons life taken one day every ten years.”

But, as I have discovered early on in my research, one day every ten years just isn’t adequate. Cold hard facts are useful, of course, but only as a starting point. Had I not seen the notations made in the family bible, I would not have known that relatives of mine a few generations ago had not one, but two children. The daughter, rather sadly, lived only a month, and whilst it is recorded in the next census that they had parented two live children, and one remained, this is quite literally expressed as a small number in a column. It might even have been missed had I not been half-looking for it as partial confirmation that I was looking at the correct records. I certainly wouldn’t have known that this was a family who cared enough to record themselves in what must have been a family treasure (even given my opposition to organised religion, I treat this huge bible with reverence, not for what it represents religiously, but for it’s historical significance). There, in the mid to late 1800s, somebody carefully recorded their names, and the name of a daughter. Later on (there’s a slight change to the writing style), presumably that daughter recorded the details of her marriage, and her two children. On the deaths page is recorded the name of the original male head, and, heartbreakingly, the newest daughter just a month after the recorded date of birth. No census could give me the wealth of information that these simple few pages have. What that family must have gone through as their child was brought living into the world, only to be taken from it mere weeks later. This kind of personal record tells me that this family cared enough to record these events, and offers some kind of insight into their real, personal lives. Not only does this give me important factual  information and allow me to take my research further, connecting the dots between them, in 1889, and me now in 2014, but it also influences me on a personal level, to find out more about these people, and to tell their story.

History is undoubtedly important and intriguing, but there’s also a significant responsibility to ensure that we are not right now wiping our metaphorical tracks as we go, and leaving a historical blank for future generations.

 

[The full article from which I have quoted sections was published in the March 2014 issue of Writing Magazine, and written by Nicci Fletcher.]

Thoughts on Portraying Parkinsons

The Creative Review Twitter feed brought to my attention the interesting (and varied) debate going on with regards to the latest Parkinsons UK poster campaign.

From the article;“A powerful poster campaign for Parkinsons UK uses 26 imagemakers to portray the many symptoms of this debilitating disease”.

There’s no denying that the posters are both powerful, and in many cases, beautifully executed. The artists involved have done what is, in my personal opinion, an amazing job of accurately portraying some of the lesser known facets of Parkinsons Disease, which is no mean feat when a huge percentage of those symptoms are psychological or otherwise silent.

My first responses to the images, not as an artist, but as a close relative to somebody suffering in the later stages of this illness, were mixed. Several of the posters hit home hard, and brought sharply to my attention the fact that even as someone with a good level of awareness of the facts, there are elements which I, at best, misunderstand, and at worst, push to the back of my mind. I can’t help but feel that this sort of realisation can only be a positive thing in terms of further understanding the many, varied symptoms and side effects of both the illness itself, but also the medication and the social issues surrounding sufferers.

In part, my personal attachment to the issue is more than likely skewing my viewpoint. A lot of those images hit me quite hard, emotionally speaking, and force me to not only rethink everything I’ve seen of what Parkinsons does, but also consider more fully exactly what it must feel like to be affected by the various symptoms and surrounding issues. If there is one positive thing, it is that the posters are certainly attention grabbing, and at the very least, may encourage thought in the mind of the viewer, although I have to wonder whether the average person in the street, someone who is not affected by Parkinsons and has only a general level of awareness about it, would have a response strong enough to then go on and gain more knowledge.

On the other hand, however, and this goes partially into the social side of things, I agree with several of the comments posted on the original article, in that the disease is already horrifying enough, and whilst a campaign like this is never intended to be a soft, cuddly approach, it might end up going too far in the opposite direction and further foster misapprehension and fear in those who do not fully understand the implications of the illness. Some of the work seems entirely too vague, and risks the intended message being overlooked entirely, perhaps not helped by the lack of clear charity branding on many of the posters.

As one reader posted, understanding of Parkinsons needs promoting and addressing without the horror aspect. Whilst nobody wants to feel pitied (the symptoms can be humiliating enough without pity), sufferers do need greater patience and understanding from the people around them, and whilst portraying the illness in this manner certainly grabs attention, I can’t decide if it’s for quite the right reasons.