Sunday, July 29, 2012

Back in the Studio again

The last time I was here, before I went to England for a few weeks, I did some preparatory work with acrylic pours and underpainting. I took some of those dried acrylic shapes and collaged them to printmaking paper, marked with the coal-circle shapes:



The next stage with them is to draw into them with India ink and airbrush pigment, as I did with these two:


The one on the right in that picture is the newest one (I've posted pictures of the one on the left before). It's 18" x 16", and it also has collaged bits of printmaking paper in addition to the collaged acrylic skins, because I wanted to cover up some stuff that went wrong, but I didn't want to throw away the entire picture.

I'm starting to let go of the anxiety about these images not relating with absolute directness to the narrative-based work that I am also working on (and which I am exhibiting in a couple of weeks). I am  heartened, actually, by the Rashid Johnson show I saw at Chicago's MCA. There were several very different kinds of work in that show, yet they were all related to the 'family memory and philosphy' themes of his art as a whole.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Text of my presentation in the UK last week

Below is the text of the paper I read at MIX: Transmedia Writing & Digital Creativity, a conference Patty and I attended in Corsham Court (part of Bath Spa University) in the UK. The slideshow has all the images that I projected as I spoke.


The Lucerne Project: Re-Imagining Narrative Art in the Digital Realm

Translation


As a writer who became a visual artist who incorporates writing into exhibitions of his work, I have thought a lot in recent years about the idea of translation. When we talk about translation, the most common association of the word is with languages, of recreating the meaning of something written in Russian, say, into English, as the translators Pevear and Volokhonsky have done with the novels of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. For my purposes, I think of the word translation in a literal way, as an act of moving something from one place to another place. And it’s a concept that has cropped up much more since I started working with imagery derived from digital sources. The more traditional forms of art-making that informed my art education involved a different model of execution and exhibition. Materials such as paint or clay were transformed into other shapes and forms, embodiments of something seen or something felt, but which occupied a space in the real world, the world occupied by our own bodies and what we call our own selves—that convenient psychological fiction. If these pieces were exhibited, they were translated from one place to another place, but the spaces were of the same kind: occupying a space in the real world, bounded by the walls, floors and ceilings of a room. I was, and to a certain extent still am, plagued by the idea of the aura of the work of art, as Walter Benjamin described it in his 1935 essay “TheWork of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The aura being that irreducible thing in a work of art, its presence, perhaps, that makes it unique, and the supercession of which Benjamin noticed and indeed celebrated in that essay. As soon as I started working with digital material, the equation changed, and my work began to conform quite closely to the pattern that Benjamin described: the potential of infinite reproducibility erases the notion of an original; and the space in which that non-original can be transmitted, equally infinite, implies a completely different kind of spectator to the audience for a painting or a sculpture in a gallery.

These are concepts that I will come back to later in this presentation. First, let me describe the project that embodied these ideas the most in my career so far.

The project


My work usually starts with a moment of recall, a detail from a childhood memory, the original scene of the crime: a voice, a phrase, details of a place, a series of actions. From these I make images, and things, that symbolize those moments in some way, supplemented by short scenes of written or spoken words that provide a more direct narrative element. These twin elements of my work always seem to be there, and always exist in some creative tension: the urge to present something mysterious and suggestive, and the urge to clarify and to tell the moment of story more fully.

Narrative is a word that was used pejoratively when I was at art college. If someone told you that your work had narrative content, they meant that it was too close to illustration, too direct, not involved enough with process, not serious enough. To a large extent I agreed, at least back then, insofar as I don’t think that the work of art, emphasis here on the word WORK, should arrive at an end point too quickly, but should allow its meanings to unfold gradually. But after I graduated, I came in time to see that the kind of art that I wanted to make – art that said something about my own significant childhood experiences – needed to incorporate some kind of storytelling, some kind of narrative. By narrative, I mean a set of actions told in sequence, from a particular point of view. I know enough about contemporary literary theory to be aware that even when one uses first person, and one talks about one’s own experience, the teller is not necessarily reliable, and that even the notion of the truth of a narrative sequence based on memory must in fact be a semi-fictional recreation, once it becomes channeled through the narrator’s voice. It was that very idea of the unreliability of memory, and the possibilities that that leaves for imaginative narrative telling, that led me to undertake The Lucerne Project.

“The Lucerne Project” came about in early 2010, when I started thinking about personal narratives, and place, in relation to my experience of moving countries often, most recently from England to Chicago in the United States. I’ve made art about my own memories, in places that I haven’t visited for decades, but I wanted to know how would that work if I tried to imagine the Lives of Others? So I asked myself the question: how would I make a narrative for people I’ve never met, in a place I’ve never been? I went to the first place that we all start from nowadays – Google – and did an image search using the search terms “holiday photos”, “people”, and “creative commons.” The first images that appeared on that search were of smiling people posing in front of what looked like an ancient wooden bridge, with snow capped mountains visible in the background. A little investigation revealed that this was Lucerne, Switzerland, which coincidentally happened to be one of Chicago’s twin cities. If the first set of images that emerged had been of Berlin, say, or Beijing, then maybe this would have been called The Beijing Project. But the pictures of people in Switzerland seemed evocative enough in some way, so The Lucerne Project it was.

I trawled the web for pictures of Lucerne, looking for a variety of images that balanced pictures of people with pictures of buildings, streets, monuments, the landscape surrounding Lucerne. Already, then, I was making choices concerning a particular kind of story. I downloaded a few dozen photos, trying to make sure that they came from photos that had been uploaded into public arenas and not private or copyrighted folders. I converted every image from colour to black and white and heightened the contrast between dark and light tones. The first act of translation, of moving the images from one place to another place, came when I printed them all out very small, in the form of a contact sheet. This is so that I could transform them dramatically by photocopying them, and playing around with the magnification setting on the photocopy machine. By enlarging them up to 1000%, interesting details and shapes emerge, more or less randomly, or at least with a lot of trial and error. Technical note: the machines in the high-street copyshop that I used work best for the printmaking technique I employ, because they use a carbon-based toner, rather than water-based inks.

From the Xeroxes, I made paper-litho transfers (similar to lithography, where the Xerox takes the places of the lithographic stone) onto printmaking paper, precut in order to collate as a book. I chose to make a book because it is the narrative form par excellence, but I used the accordion book format for two reasons: it unfolds in an implied narrative sequence, but its shape calls attention to itself as a hand-made object, so that it is both book and work of art. Two further moments of translation occurred here: shuffling the images around to make visually interesting sequences based on balance and contrast of forms; and printing and overprinting images in different colours. I made drawings from the source photos, too, and subjected my own drawings to the same process of Xeroxing, enlarging, and over magnification, so that they become one more visual element among many in the final piece. I stopped when I had reached 100 pages, each page comprising up to five handprinted layers and up to five colours. When folded up, the book is six inches wide, four inches high, and makes a stack about six inches high. When unfolded, the book extends to about eighty feet. It is housed in a hand-made clamshell box, with an interior containing a reproduction of a Renaissance map of Lucerne.

The book took about eight months to make, and I began to document the process on a project blog. At some point, I noticed that certain sequences of images began suggesting moments of story. They wer not fully formed, but implied: what is this person doing here? What is their relation to that place? Do they look like something has just happened, or like something is about to happen? Does it seem that they were interrupted in the middle of doing something? I had the blog, which is basically an internet form of the daily diary. I began to feel the possibility of writing either to or around the images I was creating, and the form that came to me, prompted by the blog, was the travel diary. I wrote a few short pieces, each about 300 words, based on some of the images that I had assembled in the accordion book, in the first person voice of a stranger arriving in Lucerne and recording what he saw. After adding these to the blog, I began writing new moments directly in the blog editor, and quite soon they took on a life of their own, independent of the images that I was making for the book. The blog became the daily journal, an imaginary travel diary of a somewhat hapless foreigner at sea in this different culture. The only research I did was to look occasionally at a street map of Lucerne to get some of the names right. Apart from that, I just let my imagination loose in the streets, so to speak, and tried to see what I could see as fully as possible, and to try to tell it with equal fullness on the page – or the blog page. The tone of the written pieces, in which things tended to go wrong pretty quickly, was probably influenced by the dark tones I had chosen for the prints. The prints and the blog developed in parallel, related but not directly illustrating each other. The end point, as such, was an artificial one: I had chosen to print 100 pages, in time for a physical exhibition of the work, but once the blog started, it could have gone on, and still might, for much longer.

The project now existed in two spaces: the physical one of the book, with its finite number of pages, and the digital one of the blog, where it is infinitely reproducible and infinitely extendible. Exhibiting the project in a gallery produced specific, traditional demands: how to display the book, which I did by placing it on a glass shelf that lined two walls of the gallery (and which produced dramatic shadows on the wall that enhanced the mystery of the printed images). Because not all of the pages of the accordion book could be seen at once, I set up a small video screen that showed every page in sequence. To bring the imaginary travel diary and the accordion book together, I created a print-on-demand catalogue that paired images from the accordion book with some of the texts from the imaginary travel diary. And to retain the connection between the gallery space and the digital world, I placed QR codes on the gallery walls, each of which linked to an audio file stored on YouTube of me reading instances from the imaginary travel diary.

There was one more element: I had postcards made showing a cheesy touristy image of Chicago on the front, and the phrase Greetings from Chicago in English, French, German, and Italian – the last three being the languages spoken in Lucerne. Visitors to the gallery were invited to write a message to someone in Lucerne on the back of a card, and then to affix the address of a real person in Lucerne to it, the names taken from a publicly-available directory of Lucerne residents. Visitors then ‘mailed’ their card to the person that they had never met, in a place most of them had never been, via this beautiful Swiss mailbox. Every postcard was mailed for real once the exhibition ended.

It was interesting that the responses on the blog, the responses from visitors to the gallery, and even responses from a couple of reviewers, were all fairly similar: the images printed in the accordion book, seen on their own, suggested a definite place, and the presence of people who were caught in moments that were filled with narrative suggestion, even if the action remained obscure. The addition of the written text, or spoken text if people followed the links to the audio files, led people to consider the project as more integrated than I had imagined, though more as a set of atmospheric moments rather than a fully joined-up narrative. In other words, the presence of the text provided more information about Lucerne the place, while the episodic nature of the writing still meant that the project could not be made to add up to a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end.

Conclusions



To sum up. The Lucerne Project consisted of the following translations of the source material:
  1.  The unwitting vacationer uploading his or her photos to the web;
  2.  Me grabbing those photos to my laptop;
  3.  Printing out those images;
  4.  Manipulating them via a Xerox machine;
  5.  Printing and overprinting them onto printmaking paper;
  6.  Moving them from digital images, zeroes and ones stored in the cloud, into the physica space of the book;
  7.  Moving the possible meaning of the images from the static visual image back into narrative writing;
  8.  Placing the writing immediately in the digital realm in the form of a blog (real/unreal diary);
  9.  Printing those texts again in the physical form of a catalogue, paired with the images from the accordion book;
  10. Recording some of the text to become available as something listened to, rather than something read.

The idea of a narrative – of a sequence of events – was suggested after the manipulation of the images was well underway. But it really got going once I placed it on the blog. I think that the way the writing occurred was significantly influenced by the online blog format: some of the texts became quite long, up to about 2000 words, but in imagining them as a diary, and in saving them instantly online, they each remained as single episodes, with no single line or thread. I noticed, in fact, that they could be read in any order and they would still make sense. This too is reinforced by the blog form, where links to all posts are available in the sidebar, to be clicked on and read in any sequence.

I thought that translating the written text into audio files would create a different way of responding to the narrative content, but in fact I think that it still remains a one-to-one relationship. I live in a city where there are live readings all the time, and where no author is allowed to leave the building without reading at least a couple of pages from their work, and that one-to-many experience of reading as performance is something that doesn’t occur when there are individuals downloading and listening to a file, each in their own private space. Let me emphasise that I think this was a feature just of this project, not of the digital world as a whole. If anything, my final thought is that this project only opened up to me the possibilities that working within the digital realm has of creating, in the words of Walter Benjamin, a “simultaneous collective experience,” and a ”deepening of apperception – the state of the mind in being conscious of its own consciousness.”

Friday, July 20, 2012

Note from Bath Spa: The Conference

Me delivering my paper on Tuesday morning
What a busy few days, not even enough time to do a quick blog post. Patty and I were staying in Bath Spa in western England, and attending a conference at Corsham Court, a fifteenth century manor house about 15 miles north of the city. The conference was called MIX: Transmedia Writing and Digital Creativity, and it brought together all sorts of artists, writers, and academics who are working with writing and narrative, but within the digital realm.

I gave a half hour presentation about The Lucerne Project, which was accepted into the line-up on the strength of the blog part of the project, the QR codes linking to YouTube audio files, and the use of images culled from the internet in order to provide the source for the 100 page accordion book. I threw in a bit of Walter Benjamin for the 9 page paper that I wrote, but mainly I was describing the process of making the book, and so forth. I was I the first time-slot for presentations on Tuesday morning. On Tuesday afternoon, Patty and I did a 90 minute Journal and Sketchbook workshop, which had no multimedia elements at all, unless you count crayons and paper as two media: the excuse was that we were giving people “back to basics” tools that they could use for generating material for the digital arts.
As far as the rest of the presentations and workshops are concerned, the best one I saw was the one that came immediately after mine. It was by Kevin Henry, who works in Product Design at Columbia College Chicago and who has a fine art background, and his wife Doro, who works at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. They are developing a program for the iPad which presents a multi-media interpretation of a journal Doro kept during an illness last year. It used sound, maps, social media and other features of current online activity in a really beautiful and inventive way. There was also a decent talk on the second and last day by a writer who had created a series of radio plays with lots of interaction from listeners.

The least interesting parts of the conference were the presentations by the invited guests, or keynote speakers. Most of them were badly presented and ran well over their allotted time. They were also, as I feared they might be, very weighed down by theory, and very little concerned with having an effect on an audience that might involve things like pleasure or even comprehensibility. Quite the opposite: it seemed like a badge of honour if the visual aspect of their digital poetry was to create a completely new (and therefore unreadable) language, in the name of avant garde invention (I suppose). Anyway, Patty and I were very much the old school people there, and it was nice to be invited. I tried to keep an open mind (no, really), and there were some things I heard that made me think I should discover more, such as:

Immersive storytelling, where for example each character has their own Facebook acct/blog/way of interacting with the reader.

GPS based material, which is adapted to the location of the reader’s tablet/smartphone.

The way video games use narrative.

The conference was only two days, plus an introductory dinner on Monday evening, but it was as exhausting as if it had lasted a week. We were also having dinner nearly every night with friends in Bath, too, so by the time we crashed into bed at or after midnight, we were both too tired to do anything more than check email. We were staying in Bath, but only got to walk around a little, mainly when exercising in the early morning before the conference started. It’s a beautiful part of England, though, and Corsham was a classic little market town with the aristocrat’s mansion looming over it (complete with peacocks, that roamed the lush grounds of Corsham Court and emitted their piercing, elongated, almost feline cries throughout the day.)

Monday, July 16, 2012

Notes from Bath Spa, UK

Now we're in Bath Spa, the elegant Georgian city on the banks of the River Avon and the Avon canal. We're here for a conference about writing and mixed media art in the digital realm, at which I am presenting about The Lucerne Project, and at which Patty and I are running a joint workshop (together, not one where people smoke joints).

But even in this museum-like city, the old and the new jostle against each other. In the hallway of the hotel, outside our room, is this Blue Plaque:


And then in the main shopping street, we saw two young people doing some street-hip-hop-jazz, and very good they were at it, too:


Ladies and gentlemen, once again I give you: MODERN BRITAIN!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Notes from Bristol, UK

We arrived in Bristol in the UK on Friday. Evidence of its nautical past are everywhere around the hotel: docks, canals, quays, the old maritime warehouses now converted into pricey apartments, the SS Great Britain (Brunel's ship) moored nearby, the seagulls that you can hear squabbling in the air all through the night and which land on the cafe tables very now and then, nearly tipping them over with their weight.

We went out for dinner with some friends and colleagues, people that Patty worked with at Bath Spa University when she was visiting writer there in 2008. I took the following picture not because we ate at Pizza Express (we ate at a good tapas bar later) but because for me it typifies the collision of the ancient and the new that you see all the time in this country:


We attended an exhibition called Unnatural-Natural History, at the Royal West of England Academy before we had dinner. Among the exhibits was this fascinating grotesque thing: a genuine cow's head which, via a process of demented taxidermy, had been stretched over something like a beach ball:


Ladies and gentlemen, I give you: MODERN BRITAIN!

Thursday, July 12, 2012

From the Studio

I'm about to head across the Atlantic to the UK for various art and writing-related activities, so the last time that I was in my studio, I completed one thing and started something that I could leave to dry until I get back in two weeks.

The thing I completed was one of these:


Acrylic and acrylic collage on printmaking paper.

The collage is created by drawing the shapes onto a plastic sheet from a large dropper. Once they're dry, they can be peeled off the plastic and glued down onto another surface:


Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rashid Johnson, "Message to Our Folks," at the MCA, Chicago


The retrospective of work by Rashid Johnson is the first museum show in the USA devoted to this Chicago-born, NYC-based artist. I haven't talked about it before now, or in any other outlet, because it was heavily covered in the press, and frankly the reviews I read didn't make me that eager to see it. I only happened to walk in and take a look when I was at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago a few weeks ago to review something else for Hyperallergic. What I saw was very different from what I had imagined, so I'm taking the opportunity here to respond to it.




There is a lot of complex symbology involved in the construction of the sculptural pieces, drawn from physics, astronomy, music, and more esoteric branches of knowledge. I'm sure Johnson is sincere in his interest in that stuff, but as is often the case when artists wax philosophical about the content of their work, I think the pieces function on a much more straightforward level than that. With their assimilation of images from black popular culture, daily life, and his own family life, it seems to me that Johnson creates art that is a sort of working out on a grand scale of his own identity.
The materials are drawn from memories of his own family home -- Al Green albums, mirrors, plants and books, brass ornaments, zebra striped fabrics, shea butter, and soap -- and they come together in odd and unexpected ways: sculptural forms that look like strange accumulations of other sculptures, paintings that are massively clogged with thick pigment, and that glow despite their overall darkness. The paintings, in particular, are extraordinarily beautiful, with surfaces so textured that you have to restrain yourself from running your hand over them to see how they feel on your skin.




The title of the show comes from an old record by the Art Ensemble of Chicago, a jazz outfit from the 1960s. Even without knowing all the references, though, Johnson's art draws you in to his dense dialogue with black American history, via the patient rearrangment of the enlarged symbols and memories of his own individual personality.

At the MCA Chicago until August 5th, 2012.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Interlochen Printmaking: Day 5

Last Friday was the final day of the printmaking class that I taught at the adult workshop of the Interlochen College of Creative Arts. The students were a little doubting that we would get a four print edition of a reduction linocut finished by the end of the afternoon, but I drove them like mules and we got it done.

The slideshow below is from all stages of the day: cutting the first marks on the blocks, inking and printing the first colour, cutting the second stage, inking and printing, and so forth; up to the point when they signedf and numbered the two editions they printed this week. With the solarplate prints from the first half of the week, added to the reduction linocut prints, each person made between 18 and 22 prints each -- a very good haul, I think. Congratulations to Ava, Ashley, and Ginny for pulling through, and for occasionally teaching me a few things, too. That is one of the great things about a printmaking studio, by the way: people of all levels of experience are working side by side to share artistic problems and move their individual pieces forward.


Bonus picture: we all celebrated the end of the class by having a drink at the local pub in the woods, Hofbrau. And for Ashley, who only turned 21 recently (the legal drinking age in the USA), it was her very first opportunity to legally have a drink. So she had the Angry Crock -- which came with a free plastic crocodile, seen here launching a vicious attack on Matt Wiliford, director of the ICCA:


See you all in 2013!

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