Thursday, 20 March 2008

Addendum to the premier of 14 History Lessons

I premiered my work 14 History Lessons, 18, Visions, 21 Beatification in January, then on 14th March I re-screened it with the modifications in place suggested by the audience reaction from the first screening. After the discussion last friday, a friend who is also an artist within digital media suggested that although I'd spent 18 years trying to integrate various elements into a linear timeline (actually 20 if you go back to when the original inspiration came for the work) perhaps the problem of the work lay in this attempt at integration and that perhaps all the elements would work together more easily or sympathetically to each other and to the audiences experience, if I separated them !

That's my exclamation mark. 20 years work is not a light undertaking. But I am now committed to finding out how a piece of work functions for an audience regardless of the cost to myself. Last year I worked with Robert Cahen. I sat with him operating an edit suite so that he might make a piece of work entitled Blind Song which he was making for the Blink project (links on the side). Robert had previously made a piece which only I and Sandra Lischi, a professor of Digital Art at Pisa University had liked - more than liked, were excited by. However, the majority of viewers had not liked the piece as it re-evoked a use of classical music juxtaposed with its antithesis in terms of image - this technique being prevalent 40 years ago and exemplified by Stanley Kubrik in 2001 a Space Odyssey. Robert understood that Sandra and I were ahead of the wave in accepting this juxtaposition but that it was important for an artist to know where his or her audience were at.

So my 70 minute piece will be broken up into several sound and image streams and become not only a linear work but also an installation. Unlike In Other People's SKins which is simple and pure, 14 History Lessons is mightily complex. It was begun after all, when I was 20 years younger, before I had learned my lessons (spoken about in the previous blog) made at a time when I had a tendency towards the portentous. So given what I know I'm in the position of having to nurse a less that ideal work into the level that I now understand to be important to work at. It might be argued that I should leave this alone and let history judge it but the motives I had to finish this work are still with me so as an experiment I shall continue on in the hope of re-engineering the work to my current level. We'll see.

Trying to write my own name

In Other People’s Skins has now been put up at Gloucester Cathedral. I’m amazed at the visitor comments for this piece because I’ve never seen such glowing comments about an artwork before (mine or others). My initial fears that the work would simply function on the smoke and mirrors level (that people would simply enjoy the ‘functionality’ of the work) has proved unfounded. It seems that people are actually ‘getting it’.

So this tells me something that I also regard as amazing: In Other People’s Skins is a signature work. What this means is that I have learnt a certain level of ‘craft’ in my art, enough to make a work that people can relate to strongly. The danger of the signature work is that it becomes what you are known for and which you can never better.

Earlier today I was thinking of other artists that I know whose engagement with their chosen medium (primarily digital) is still hampered by its technical elements. I’ve been working in video, both analogue and digital for a long time now; I’ve made a lot of work, both linear and latterly installation in form – I regard the definition ‘signature work’ as being a piece of work that somehow is imbued with the answer to the basic enquiry the artist is making. That doesn’t mean to say that I the artist, understand that answer, but rather that the glimmerings of an understanding are lighting the dark.

My use of the word craft, above, is about knowing enough of the technicalities of the medium, enough about the potential audience response from the use of those technicalities and enough about the mystery of art to create works which fulfil certain requirements of a ‘work of art’. The mystery is of course that an artwork should have space within it for the audience to import personal meaning and significance whilst at the same time carrying the resonance of what the artist was originally inspired by.

Subject matter can only really be one thing: that which makes us self-consciously aware or what we truly are. What we truly are, is ever changing, yet ever the same.

Anyway, my understanding has grown through making and exhibiting In Other People’s Skins (IOPS) and I hope that that understanding grows the more it is exhibited. On that point I’ve had a few enquiries asking for it to be shown at other cathedrals and maybe some in the US.

What this does is arms me when I make my next installation – on that note I have six to make, exhibit and report on, by the end of September. This gets really interesting for me because all six will absolutely not use any ‘engaging tactic’. For instance, in IOPS people get to place their hands in the image of others hands, or maybe move a plate when they feel it’s miss-aligned with the virtual image of the plate. Somehow I have to make artworks that use whatever fascinates the individual as a means of bringing them in to the essence of the work.

We know that everyone is different and has different meaning structures inside them so therefore the only thing to do is use whatever lies beneath and is the motive power of meaning structure and its corollary, significance. We might argue about that sentence: it could be that actually significance precedes meaning structure – I don’t know at this point – it might even be that one accompanies the other. But, what lies beneath either or both these ideas is the species base, the bit that got us out of the trees and standing upright. So as an artist I’m realising that I have to allow that to flow through me as it’s pretty clear to me that I as a thinker am limited by my own thought process. Here we go, we’re unavoidably into ‘the mystery’.

In a recent work I had some fun having found some old footage of me trying to phone someone with the phone set up to record the other end of the conversation. I remembered being on a documentary and flying Noam Chomsky over to our office in Great Russell street. I was introduced to the great man and said, ‘hello Noam’, with a degree of ignorance of his intellectual weight and reputation, I didn’t say anything else to him except the odd quip from behind the camera as my friend Renny interviewed him. In the recent work I put some text over the footage from 1977 which ended with me giving up and not getting through to the person I was ringing. The text said: ‘Trying to talk to Noam Chomsky’, a little joke to myself about a missed opportunity. As the piece went on I rang other people who I also didn’t get through to. Quite quickly I introduced people that were no longer alive, Bertolt Brecht, Plotinus and Hildegard of Bingen was one of them. I ended up trying to ring ‘the first person who stood upright’. These interstitial elements lightened what was quite a portentous piece.

That’s a circuitous way of getting to a woman who wrote music, poetry, painted and had sexual union with Christ – regularly. Hildegard not only knew the mystery, she was a part of it.

And it came to pass ... when I was 42 years and 7 months old, that the heavens were opened and a blinding light of exceptional brilliance flowed through my entire brain. And so it kindled my whole heart and breast like a flame, not burning but warming... and suddenly I understood of the meaning of expositions of the books...

Hildegard then did what committed artists do in some way, shape, or form:

But although I heard and saw these things, because of doubt and low opinion of myself and because of diverse sayings of men, I refused for a long time a call to write, not out of stubbornness but out of humility, until weighed down by a scourge of god, I fell onto a bed of sickness.

Today artists aren’t required to have the ‘modesty’ gene that Hildegard had, and a lot of stuff that is presented as ‘art’ is neurotic as opposed to enlightened. ‘Mystery’ is one of the things that art is about and I find of course, that this cannot be described except by circumlocution. From the artists point of view the act of making art is to try to realize truth in some way, to convert oneself from the vessel governed by ego, to one governed by a more enlightened state. The use of the word ‘work’ in the phrase ‘work of art’ is not only a noun but also a verb. As the artist works, so they work on themselves trying to release the form that is hidden within themselves – they sculpt themselves. The urge comes to create, the inspiration comes for the work and then the artist through the truth of their practice places the inspiration in the work and through the exhibiting of the work the audience receives the ‘transmission’ of the inspiration – that is the artwork. If the artwork is fashioned with craft garnered from both talent and developed through experience then that transmission has the suitable space within it for the audience to create it’s own meaning as well as absorbing what the artist has to say.

So: I recognize that I’ve made a signature piece which is a marker along my route as a developing artist, for which I’m very thankful. Now, as I turn my attention to other works which I have to raise up to this level, I find myself having to become clearer about what I’m doing as an artist, more impervious to my own tendency to obfuscate through my own clouding mechanisms, I have to eliminate sentimentality towards my ego self so that my artist self is unencumbered by the neurotic elements of human existence.

Curiously, the thought of leaving my ego behind makes me feel free.

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

HD in the 12th Century BC

Whilst crawling across the floor in the void that lay above a 15th century ceiling, disturbing dust that had lain dormant for many a long year, that might possibly have lime in it and being conscious of not wearing a mask, I found myself reflecting on the nature of being an artist in this digital age.

What I was looking for was a one and a half inch hole through which I might suspend a projector over the floor below. Whilst in the chapel I’d noticed that above us there were many curves in the ceiling. Initially I’d been looking for points to attach holding points to. I’d already been told that I wasn’t allowed to either place my light proof tent in the space, nor attach anything to anywhere in the cathedral. This is the usual conundrum that confronts us: ‘you may not place your work here, no, not anywhere, not anything doing’ apart from that, all else is possible. But then of course we have to get creative and solve the problem. This is a factor shared with all technicians and their practice too. It’s what keeps them going and interested – the solving of problems.

But as a 21st century artist who’s had an idea for an artwork I find myself joking with friends that the idea is a minor part of the exercise, the accomplishing of the exhibition of that idea is what takes up 90 per cent of one’s attention after the fact of making the piece.

So, in the now dusty atmosphere I peered through the hole in the ceiling and saw the person I had left below standing peering up at me. I dangled a cable through the hole and miraculously it was large enough to allow the big connector on the end to go through. Before, on dangling a tape measure through the hole we established that the floor below lay 22 feet beneath and that the ceiling lay 2 feet beneath where I was standing, being two feet thick. Three of us eventually stood on that spot, therefore establishing that the ceiling could take probably twice that weight – or even more, after all, it didn’t collapse, so a projector’s weight should be ok.

I started to think about how I might suspend a projector through this hole. A tropid maybe, dangling two cables so that the projector neither spin around nor took on a swinging pendulum movement ? But then that would not spread the load. It was suggested then that we make a metal square made of thick rod about 30 inches in width to be the base, then simply put a winch over that about 12 inches higher up but attached to the square – one of the biggest problems with the tent was the weight of lifting the projector and cage – so a winch would allow us to load up the projector, speakers, mains, connectors etc on the ground and on a signal to those above, simply have it winched it up into position.

On being at home I realised that I needed to commission the making of the base plate and winch. Who to ring? Perhaps a company in a nearby city that would charge according to the perceived complexity of the solution might be the answer – Then I started thinking: who would have the appropriate technology ? Perhaps the nearby blacksmith’s forge?

I drove down to the forge and talked to the men there, men that could have been doing what they were now doing, since quite soon after the invention of the manipulation of iron. They looked at the drawings, suggested some improvements and they’re now working on the unit.

When I first came to the part of Somerset I now live in, I happened to be in a café with my five year old, Phoebe. She went up to an old man who sat drinking a cup of and asked him his name. He replied that he was called Nathaniel. He asked her what her name might be and where she lived, she told him. He then told her that his great-great grandfather had visited the forge in my village and that the blacksmith had told him of his great-great grandfathers involvement in the Monmouth rebellion in 1685.

In our combined living memory we had established a link from 300 or more years ago. The forge in my village will now solve my current digital problems - So there in that void I had found myself within the echo of the 15th century, imagining a 21st century work with a problem that had a solution from the 12th century BC.