Create, Destroy: Performance Art and the Photograph as Both Document and Artform

I spent the weekend in London, where I went to see the Performing for the Camera exhibition at the Tate Modern. I don’t normally post extensively about exhibitions that I’ve seen, but this one really left an impression. In part, because the topic is close to themes which I have worked with and written about in the past, and in part because it triggered the realisation that my lull in visual creativity during recent months has been at least partially caused by a failure to immerse myself in outside influence. Visiting galleries, spending time with other artists, discussing inspiration and ideas, and paying attention to things that are going on in the visual arts world.

It hasn’t been intentional, simply that since late in 2015, I developed an interest in a completely new area, and when that happens, my mind tends to become obsessive about learning in that single area for a while, before levelling out to re-include my other interests. There’s benefits to this, and drawbacks. The major benefit, of course, being that I learn the basics of something very rapidly, meaning that I can find out whether or not something is likely to become a long term interest rather than a passing fancy, without dedicating an overlong amount of time to it first. The drawbacks, as already mentioned, include complete lack of activity or progress in other areas of interest, for a while.

Amongst the artists exhibited, and what originally caught my attention, are Francesca Woodman, Erin Wurm, and the mention of progression into the ultra-modern, with use of social media as a platform for performance exhibition.

The exhibition deals with the relationship between performance art and the photograph as both document and art form in and of itself, and links in with an interest I have had since my university days related to the creation of something with the sole intent to photograph it. My own dissertation dealt with work such as Thomas Demand‘s paper (re)constructions of spaces and scenes, and  James Casebere‘s Blue Hallway. Essentially, the concept of creating something which by itself is temporary, fleeting, or intended to be destroyed, and utilising photography to effect a permanent form of the work.

Amalia Ulman‘s work using Instagram as a platform for performance exhibition links in to topics I wrote about a short while back, discussing the relationship (or not) of historical self portraiture, and the modern ‘selfie’, and the emergence of DIY curation and non-traditional formats for exhibition. Her work is displayed within the exhibition as the Instagram feeds themselves, on iPads which viewers can scroll through – and this itself has potential to require further debate regarding the idea of art within the gallery environment. This is art which does not require a traditional exhibition format in order to exist and succeed in reaching viewers. And it succeeds in this, in fact, to such an extent that it eventually finds a place within one of the most well known galleries in the world. It’s a circle back on itself, in some ways, that is equally bizarre and fascinating.

Performing for the Camera will examine the relationship between photography and performance, from the invention of photography in the 19th century to the selfie culture of today. Bringing together over 500 images spanning 150 years, the exhibition will engage with the serious business of art and performance, as well as the humour and improvisation of posing for the camera.
Identity and self-image were also important for artists like Jeff Koons and Andy Warhol in their own marketing and promotional photographs, and in more playful works like Mike Mandel’s Baseball Photographer Trading Cards 1974 in which photographers pose as ‘collectable’ baseball players. The world of social media will be addressed in a key recent work staged on Instagram by Amalia Ulman. The exhibition will show not only that photography has always been performative, but that much performance art is inherently photographic.

Further links and resources can be found on a Pinterest board which I am continuing to add to, containing various exhibition information, reviews and artists, plus any related material relevant to the overall topic.

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.

Learning to Imagine: Academic Creativity and the Therapy of Art

Art classes never really worked well for me. At school, with one teacher, they felt like home for a while, because we were given some degree of freedom. I’ve always liked to draw, even as a small child, and those first GCSE art classes gave me some sort of release in the general boredom that were my schooldays. Then, the next year, we had a different teacher, and she was fresh out of training and full of her own ideas. To me, that’s no good for art. I don’t want to listen to someone else ideas, I want to work on my own. I came out of that course with a B over the A I might have attained in other circumstances.

I’ve never liked being told what I can and can’t do.

At art college, I very nearly failed fine art entirely. I remember the first class we had, we were working with oil pastels. I had used oil pastels before, and so I was working into the piece, creating something. She came by, and told me that I was doing it all wrong. That the way I was using them was the incorrect way to work with oil pastels. My response was not entirely polite, as you might expect from an over-opinionated 18 year old. We largely left one another alone after that, but she put the idea into my head for years afterwards that there was such a thing as a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to make art.

I think that’s why I initially gravitated towards photography, choosing to specialise in it in the second half of that course. At beginner level, when you’re just learning what the different chemicals are for, and how to manipulate light, there’s a simplistic beauty about photography. It’s science but it’s art. It’s something that, to an extent, you can learn via a step by step process.(That’s certainly not to say that photography is not art, or does not require an eye for detail and a creative touch, because I do not believe that for a moment, and I was defensive enough over the subject to write my dissertation about it. However, that is a lengthy and highly charged topic for another day entirely.) There are numbers involved, times, recipes and specific technique which can be easily replicated time and time again. I found sanctuary and calm in those classes. There are a great many people who get plenty out of a formal art education, but I am not one of them. Nevertheless, I pressed on with a photography degree, scraping through graduation just barely. With hindsight, I think that I might have done a lot better academically if I had chosen a course in something science based. It would probably have been more use, too.

It used to be the case that I would have an idea, and then I would go off to research it before I even considered beginning. Had it been done before? How had it been done before? I imagined that I was searching for inspiration, but actually, I was searching for validation, some sort of guarantee that I was on the right track, that I was doing something correctly, that I wasn’t going to be laughed at for trying it. I was so afraid of failure that I had trouble even trying. I rarely shared my work with anybody, and only then if I was certain of a positive response.

What a ridiculous way to think.

Mistakes are lessons which you can not learn from anybody other than yourself.

I know now that for me, personally, the very act of sharing my creative output is an integral aspect of its completion. Not only do I like to hear feedback, but the sharing of something which I have created feels like there’s a point to its existence. I paint for myself, I write for myself, but once those things are done, once I feel that whatever therapeutic benefit I’ve gained from painting a picture is complete, why keep it? Why not just gesso over it and paint another picture on the same canvas? I could do that. But it’s not the right thing for my personal process. That’s not to say that the same is true for everybody, or that art should only be created to be seen. I do have some pieces which were created for me and me alone; things which I can go back to, look at, remember the lessons I learned when I made them. But arguably, even in those cases, I’m still sharing them. I am not the person I was when I made them. My role in the process has shifted from artist to viewer.

I am a lot more comfortable with myself and my own thoughts these days because of this openness with my work. I am at peace with the fact that anything I show might elicit any response from the wonderful to the cruel, and I am perfectly prepared for that to happen. Nobody is ever going to do something which appeals to every person on this earth. The only reason I need to do something now is that it makes me happy. Any validation I need comes from the fact that I am emotionally and mentally healthier that I ever was throughout the years of worrying what other people thought.

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Art and Life, Permanency and the Value of Moving On

Should art be transient? Can it? Does the very nature of the piece in question mean that, when it no longer exists, it is no longer art, and that therefore the answer is, no, art cannot be transient because once it has gone, there is no longer any art.

There’s certainly an overarching idea, I think, that permanency adds value to an object. Of course, this is completely true of a broad variety of the things that we might buy, nobody wants to spend money on an object which is going to require replacement too often. A person would almost certainly prefer to pay double the price for an item which will last then five years, than purchase the cheaper item which will only survive for one. That’s simply common sense.

Art, creativity, they don’t always go hand in hand with common sense. I have been at my most creative when I have been at my least logical. When my emotions have raged roughshod through my mind, overtaking any sense of what is best for me versus what I really want, those are the times I have screamed my anger, pain, unhappiness out onto canvas. Metaphorically speaking. From the perspective of a buyer, of course, art is an investment. As a creator, a maker, (and if you remove the obvious necessity to balance creative freedom with the need to pay bills), what you create can be whatever the hell you want it to be.

I adore the contrary indulgence in the idea of creating work which will, in time, fade and disappear. I am drawn to the idea of something intriguing and impressive, or painful and beautiful, which can be viewed only for a limited length of time. Ephemeral pieces, delicate and fragile, or in some other way constrained by the passage of minutes, hours, days.

In life, too, all too often we spend so much time on what has been that we miss so much of what is, and what will be. Time passes by, and whilst we still pick apart that one moment, we miss the opportunities held within the next. Holding on too long to the past, and forgetting to appreciate the here and now.

Life itself is fleeting, transient, and we create things in order to fill our lives with meaning, purpose. We buy objects to fill gaps, in our homes and in our lives. We write stories, create pictures, with the purpose of reaching out for longevity, desperately trying to avoid staring into the void, dodging the subject of our own mortality. For art to mimic this transience is to stare mortality in the face, to give it wide eyes and accept that yes, life is fleeting, and to be comfortable in that. It’s a reminder that nothing will last forever, and that holding on too long to one thing can damage your exploration of the rest.

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Trauma, Recollection and The False Memory Archive

I don’t think that art should be comforting to see. When I’ve poured the worst times of my life into a project, I don’t want someone to look at it and think ‘that’s pretty’. I want them to have to look away. I want them to react. I want them to feel fucking uncomfortable.

I want them to feel like they need to walk away from the thing, but be unable to get that feeling out of their memory. I want to make a lasting impression, make them think even a little bit, even if they don’t want to think about it.

Do you remember the first nightmare you had as a kid? I do. I was maybe 4 years old, and I recall it clearly. More clearly than my most recent one, perhaps because it was the first experience of that kind of horror that I had. I don’t remember how I felt about it, other than it scared me to go to sleep for a little while afterwards.

We are shaped by traumatic experiences, horrors and fears. You don’t hear of people suffering from post-joy relaxation disorder do you? That’s ludicrous. We expect happiness, or at least satisfaction, and peace. That’s why anything other is a disturbance.

For a while, I had a semi-formed idea about an art installation piece, comprising of both found and original photography, sound and sensory manipulation. The central premise was to ‘implant’ false memories in the viewer, or at the very least, have them leave feeling unsettled, and unsure about whether what they had seen had truly triggered a memory of their own, or a memory of something they had seen, or heard, about. As I say, the whole idea was quite vague, and I never developed it any further largely because the moral and ethical implications bothered me.

Last year, I read this article about what is essentially a collection of false memories, and as well as being a far better realisation of the ideas which had been dancing through my own thoughts, it brought to mind something from my childhood, a memory which has been clear to me for my whole life, but which I have always wondered about. Now, having read about this project, I wonder even more – although curiously, now I also wonder if this project has had a further impact on my uncertainty.

When I was about 6 or 7 years old, in the car with my family on a camping trip. I remember it being dark, although whether it was actually night time, or whether it was just overcast, I couldn’t say. Sitting in the back of the car, I was on the right, my sister over the other side of my mother. As we approached the scene of an accident, my mother tried to turn my head away from the flashing lights in the central reservation. But when you draw a kids attention to something they shouldn’t see, they get curious. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a flash of the body laid on the road, surrounded by paramedics. I don’t know if it was male or female, alive or dead, but nearly 25 years later, I still have that flash of image in my mind, clearer than some of my more recent memories. I have trouble picturing the face of, say, someone I dated five years ago. I couldn’t describe to you the last person I saw in the street. I have trouble even recalling every single thing I ate yesterday. But I could describe that glimpse in detail.

The thing is, now, I’m not even 100% sure it ever happened. Did I fall asleep in the car? Did I catch just a fleeting glimpse of something, and then my imagination over the years has filled in the rest? Maybe a combination of the above, it’s completely impossible to say now, but the fact remains that in my mind, this event happened, and I can describe it quite well. It’s the clarity which makes me suspicious. Memory is a curious, powerful, and yet oddly unreliable function. It’s hugely interesting, in part because it is so manipulable.

The website for the False Memory Archive is situated here, and the exhibition is touring in the UK during 2014.