Sunday, 27 December 2009

Who Knowes Raymond Moore?

Raes Knowes, 1980

When I was an art foundation student at Trent Polytechnic I lodged in the house of an art teacher working at a nearby school. Ivan shared my interest in photography, and one evening he invited me to watch a television programme about the work of a British photographer called Raymond Moore. As with many of the artists I saw at this time, I tried to emulate Moore’s work as a method of understanding his approach and ideas and as a way to develop my own.

Untitled, 1987

The following year Raymond Moore visited the course (which I had subsequently joined) as a visiting lecturer. There were a total of 18 students on the course at the time and Ray was only employed for a single day, so I was lucky to have a tutorial with him. I can remember very little of what he said about the work I showed him. I had been making a lot of colour landscape images with a Diana camera at the time. I imagine he was rather unimpressed with the distortion and vignetting caused by the camera and I’m sure he felt that this was an unnecessary distraction.

Maryport, 1980

At this time Ray and Mary Moore Cooper used to run occasional photography workshops at their home in the Scottish borders, which were attended by serious amateurs and students. Quite soon after the events described above, my course was offered a free place on one of these workshops and it came down to the toss of a coin between myself and a rival student. Luckily for me I won the toss, but my good fortune was short-lived since, for reasons which I fail to remember, the workshop was called off. As compensation, I was offered a free place for the following year but before the year was out, Ray had died at the age of 67 from a heart attack.

Forrest Town, 1978

A year later, and in a completely different phase of my work, influenced, for the most part, by long discussions about Marxist aesthetics and the emancipation of the proletariat, I was asked by an exchange student what I thought of the work of Ray Moore. I replied cynically "Genteel nonsense!" or something to that effect. I remember the response very well, which was far more than my ungenerous reply deserved. The exchange student asked me whether I thought that such work might become meaningful to me later in life. I don't remember my response but since my tendency at the time was always to replace lack of opinion with dismissive cynicism I assume that it must have been in the negative.

Galloway, 1977

Three years later, while still studying (and my Marxist tendencies having been subtly mollified) I was offered the opportunity of work assisting Mary Moore Cooper with the Raymond Moore Archive in Dumfries. I spent several weeks camping in a nearby campsite and cycling into Gracefield Arts Centre to make contact prints of several thousand rolls of film which Ray had never contact-printed, believing as he did, that 35mm contact sheets were next-to-useless in determining the most successful image to be printed. Once I had served this initiation in the dim confines of a darkroom and the similarly cramped gloom of a tent, I was allowed to assist Mary more closely with the preparation of the archive. The following year I was invited back to Dumfriesshire to assist Mary with her own work. Throughout these times I was uniquely privileged with an opportunity to experience first-hand the images, paraphernalia and library which Ray and Mary had amassed and to hear many fascinating accounts of their life together from Mary and friends and visitors to the archive.
Maryport, 1982

The extraordinary thing about these priceless experiences was that I was actually being paid - I couldn't have afforded to do otherwise. The impact was therefore twofold - I was able to save money to enable my final studies and I was being exposed to the work and rich remnants of one of the most gifted British photographers of the 20th Century. You may feel that such a claim is overstating the point - for instance, how come Raymond Moore isn't a household name? Or why, at least, don't photography students know his work? Unfortunately the answer to this question is the most lamentable aspect of the whole Raymond Moore story and one which continues to shroud a body of work which represents such a profoundly important part of the legacy of British photographic history.

Dumfriesshire, 1985

Galloway, 1981

Ray was fascinated by the commonplace, by the quotidian and by the landscape of border towns and domesticated borderlands. Nobody has taught me more about the variety, depth and nuances of boundaries and boundedness than Raymond Moore. Whether through fields or walls; fences or frames; windows or verges or darkness and light, Moore was a visionary of the boundary.

Allonby, 1981

Unfortunately, too few people are interested in such subtleties in the UK, even though (and perhaps in spite of the fact that) Moore’s vision is archetypically British: its modesty, its reserve and its gentility – yes, I still believe it’s genteel, but it speaks with such a charm and quiet wit and such a sophisticated precision of form that, understated as it is, it vehemently questions why so many people, who should know better, are seduced by the mind-numbing superficiality of a Crewdson or La Chappelle.

Galloway, 1980

I have a Raymond Moore print on my wall at home (which Mary kindly gave me as a gift) and every time I look at it I'm filled with both admiration at it's achievement and sadness at the intractability and lack of vision of people more intent upon their own sense of something’s monetary value rather than its more ineffable and therefore difficult to quantify value as a product of human ingenuity and love – for certainly Ray loved what he did and wished to share this love through his work and his teaching. I can’t help thinking that the history of British photography is so much the worse off for the neglect of the deeply significant contribution of Raymond Moore. And I don’t mean history in the sense of something dead and gone but rather in the sense of something which still has the potential to change people’s lives - that is an experience which no pricetag can ever put a value on. It's depressing to know that this potential continues to be withheld at a time when the work's ability to resonate with people can still be felt in its immediate effect.

Or, as John Berger has written:

“ is not timeless and eternal. Great works survive their period, but that is not to say that they do not die. After that period they live again by virtue of a sort of resurrection. This after-life, however, is never the same intense, committed thing as their original life... If this is true, one can better understand the horrific absurdity of artists consciously working for the future - ‘ I shall only be properly appreciated in 100 years’ time.’... We must recognise that there is such a thing as the natural death of a work of art. Nor is it morbidity that makes me say this is a recognition we should celebrate. Only if we recognise the mortality of art shall we cease to stand in such superstitious awe of it – only then shall we consider art expendable and so have the courage to risk using it for our own immediate, urgent, only important purposes.

For more infomation about Raymond Moore visit here

Friday, 18 December 2009

Cardinal Points

Just after I took these images a man walked over and brushed the snow aside with his forearm, saying "There you go - now you can see it much more clearly!"

Saturday, 5 December 2009

Moving with the Times

On the subject of HD and artist friends - last week a friend and part-time colleague, Anne Bjerge Hansen, gave a presentation about her work to students and staff of the Fine Art the Photography department.

For more than a decade Anne's primary medium has been video - from Hi8, VHS and SVHS to digital. Throughout these changes Anne has been quietly capturing a diverse and extensive world of objects in motion: the materials, dynamics and consequences of movement. This movement comes in myriad scales and forms, from human and animal locomotion, to mechanical and fluid dynamics; from clockwork mechanisms to a brief puff of mist momentarily refracting a spectrum of sunlight.

On the occasions where energy is not directly propelling or transforming something, the image presented is invariably of an object which strongly suggests motion: which is in some way designed or intended to transport its physical form from one location to another. Cars, bicycles, planes, boats, trains, animals and toys therefore figure prominently. Humans on the other hand, whilst ever present, are only ever partially glimpsed participants – anonymous instigators in this panoply of motion.

The work is born of a photographer’s vision and the remnants of this approach persist through careful framing and the almost unvarying use of a fixed viewpoint. This lends a quality to the work which is strongly reminiscent of the early Lumiere brothers’ films. Like the Lumiere’s, Anne’s camera also transports a fine band of electromagnetically sensitive polymer through a carefully engineered clockwork mechanism in order to capture the fugitive images we call movies, and like the Lumiere’s, Anna’s camera records the world in the squat rectangle we more commonly associate with conventional TV images.

High-definition TV (HDTV) has come to replace the conventional 4:3 aspect ratio and with it have come a range of technologies which are casting digital magnetic tape to the editors bin of history along with the analogue tapes and celluloid films which preceded it. I asked Anne about this shift to HD and what this means for the future of her work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was quick to point out that she’s not really interested in technology. I understood what she meant, but surely in another sense, one very important sense, all of Anne’s work is actually about technology: it’s about the many ways we exploit, harness, utilise and invent objects and processes to articulate and motivate our position in the world – our dynamic being and moving through physical space and therefore time.

Movement, of course, is inherently time-bound and the movie camera is our time-machine par excellence. But the newer this time-machine and the more unfamiliar its mechanisms, the more indistinct its history and the more vague its character. To know something is to have spent time with it, to recognize its quirks and to become familiar with its unique presence in the world. This is why people often refer to tools as old friends. The notion of choice is also important here. In a recent interview for DCA, artist Thomas Hirschhorn described his attitude to materials which he works with thus:
    “I think as an artist it’s important to love the material you are working with. But to love does not mean to be in love with one’s material or to lose oneself in it. Rather, to love one’s material means to place it above everything else, to work with it in an awareness, and it means to be insistent with it. I love the material because I decided in favour of it – therefore I do not want to replace it. Since I decided in favour of it – and love it – I cannot and do not want to change it.”
I’m certain this is why Anna is attached to the tools and processes she employs: she has chosen them, and this choice has acquired significance through use and familiarity.

Objects and processes also gain value when their existence is rare or threatened - this is why many people cling to faithful old tools, materials and techniques and it is also why many people continually seek the new and expensive; such rarity confers value and offers the promise of advantage over previous versions and iterations. These are the choices that artists face – most particularly artists who work with processes which are constantly evolving: whether to “move with the times” or stand by their faithful and familiar friends. In truth we need both. We need the pioneers who seek the new and unfamiliar, who tinker and tamper with technology and uncover it’s foibles and deeper characteristics and we need the stalwarts, like Anne, who understand their tools intimately and have the perseverance and vision to create poetry from the motion and interaction of moving experiences.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

John Clark

I was just idly browsing today and happened upon a site on the subject of High Definition aesthetics. I noticed a name which struck me as familiar, clicked on it and was pleasantly surprised to see a good friend who, due to geographic distance, I see far too little of.

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Questions and Children - it's all in the way they're raised.

I went to see Michael Haneke’s film "The White Ribbon" last night.

The film paints a bleak and brutal portrait of an early 20th century German village and asks us to consider a number of savage acts and to speculate on the motives and identity of the perpetrator/s. At the end of the film we are presented with the shocking but compelling suggestion that the village's children are in fact responsible - as a direct consequence of their parents widely abusive and irresponsible treatment, which we have variously witnessed throughout the film.

Michael Haneke has been quoted as saying:

"Films that are entertainments give simple answers but I think that's ultimately more cynical, as it denies the viewer room to think. If there are more questions at the end, then surely it is a richer experience."

I certainly came away from seeing The White Ribbon asking myself one overriding question: whodunit? - and the more I thought about this, the more convinced I became that it was indeed the children. However, I think Haneke has missed a subtle point here, because there's a significant difference between questions which simply require a solution (and the more Occam's razor-like the answer, the more resolved - and therefore put to rest - the initial question) and questions which lead to considerations of complex and challenging issues eg: the corruption of innocence which is such a profound and haunting underlying theme of this excellent film.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

A Poetics of the Digital

What I would like to read is a poetics of the digital - a phenomenology of the electronic - reflections upon copper and silicon, aluminium and lithium - a treatise on the caress of digits and luminescent phosphors, rippling codes and fluctuating voltages. Something in the order of Gaston Bachelard’s book The Poetics of Space.

The Mexican poet and writer Octavio Paz has written similarly about how objects gain meaning and significance through use and familiarity.

“The pitcher of water or wine in the middle of the table is a point of convergence, a little sun that invites everyone present. But my wife can transform into a flower vase that pitcher pouring forth our drink at the table. Personal sensibility and imagination divert the object from its ordinary function and create a break in its meaning: it is no longer a recipient to contain liquid but one in which to display a carnation. This diversion and brake link the object to another realm of sensibility: imagination.”

Later, when comparing this relationship with our use of technology Paz is scathing:

"Technology is international; its constructions, methods, and products are the same everywhere. By suppressing national and regional particularities, it impoverishes the world. By spreading all over the globe, technology has become the most powerful agent yet of historical entropy. The negative character of its action may be summed up in a phrase: it makes things uniform but does not unify. It levels the differences between cultures and national styles, but it does not do away with the rivalries and hatreds between peoples and states. After transforming rivals into identical twins, it arms both of them with the same weapons. The danger of technology does not lie solely in the death-dealing nature of many of its inventions, but in the fact that it threatens the very essence of the historical process.”

These are damning words indeed. And in the shadow of their and multiple other critical opinions it's very difficult to seriously consider a poetics of the digital when technology is universally either despised or wantonly and obsessively pursued. But surely someone is able to look into Medusa's eyes and capture a glimpse of something more nuanced and revealing than a petrifying enraging danger or menace? Surely a mirror can be held up that can reflect something other than a phobia or philia of this Gorgon we call the digital?

Which is the more terrifying, the Gorgon or the dazzling shield and sharpened sword which severs the monster's head? Digital technologies are in many ways a conflation of the two; the mirror which mediates fearsome imagery whilst being simultaneously fed by a slithering tangle of cables, each with a different head and its own potent but indecipherable venom.

In some versions of the Greek myth, Medusa's severed head is mounted upon the polished shield whereupon it continues to petrify all foes. This is a more telling vision of technology: an image of terror and captivating attraction, of wild nature harnessed and encapsulated in seamless, reflective, impermeable and understated alloy. It's an image that either fascinates or repels, but little in between. But if we are to truly understand digital technologies we need to step aside from these opposing positions. An entirely different approach is needed: one that brings together an understanding of materiality and myth, phenomenology and history into a scholarly but poetic dialogue which is as formidable and potent as the subject under discussion.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

There's more to Teaching than Teaching

Louis Menand, of The New Yorker, recently reviewed “The Program Era” by Mark McGurl: a book which traces the ways creative writing has been taught in American universities. The overarching question raised by the Menand is whether creative writing can actually be taught at all. Of course, it is taught, in a literal sense, but to what extent is that teaching fruitful? As fuel for his claims Menand quotes The University of Iowa Writers Workshop website which states:

If one can “learn” to play the violin or to paint, one can “learn” to write, though no processes of externally induced training can ensure that one will do it well. Accordingly, the fact that the Workshop can claim as alumni nationally and internationally prominent poets, novelists, and short story writers is, we believe, more the result of what they brought here than of what they gained from us. We continue to look for the most promising talent in the country, in our conviction that writing cannot be taught but that writers can be encouraged.

I was given a copy of this review by a colleague at one of the art schools where I regularly teach. At the top of the page was scribbled “It strikes me that the links to FA [Fine Art] are clear here – don’t you think?

What concerns me is that the above mentioned article exemplifies an increasingly prevalent attitude even amongst the very teachers who you might imagine would have a more justified - not to mention justifiable - evaluation of their own professional role. For my own part, I think we need to adopt and champion a much more robust, expansive and inclusive understanding of what it means to teach - not just creative subjects but all subjects. It’s vital that we recognise that good teaching cannot simply be reduced to instruction nor should it be seen as merely a case of moderation or hosted learning. Good teaching is a fundamental part of the fabric of society and contributes a great deal more than drones in the hive of fiscal growth.

It’s not that I have some kind of idealistic romantic conception of how wonderful and inspiring teachers are, far from it, but as A.C. Grayling has observed, there’s a lot more to education - “liberal education” in particular - than simply turning people into “instruments in the economic process”. Sadly, the real rewards of education are very difficult to quantify, not least in a context where economic imperatives and results quotas are coming to dominate the field. Creative disciplines fare very badly in this lopsided comparison, especially when measured against other more obviously pragmatic areas of education. Any subject which involves concrete information and rules, or better still, laws of process and procedure is easily defended (assuming it’s application is not obsolete) because its results are easily demonstrated and quantified. Art on the other hand, has few such rules and even many of its processes and procedures are contested and reconfigured on a regular basis. In this uncertain context it’s hardly surprising that some people feel that art teachers function as little more than moderators or hosts. In some cases I’m sure they do act as hosts, but as ever, its vitally important that we don’t allow the actions (or inaction for that matter) of a minority to jaundice our view or lead us to measures which might restrict the potential of genuinely committed and talented contributors to society.

Fortunately, there are still many people who, like Grayling, believe deeply in the value of teachers and by this I mean teachers in the broadest sense: people who have helped us learn, not just professional teachers but everyone who has had a truly positive influence on our development. These positive role models and important developmental experiences predispose us to the value of learning from others. So, despite all the cynicism and scepticism, despite all the really poor teaching and impoverished curricula, despite the lazy lacklustre teachers, despite the bullies, the authoritarians and the shocking tabloid tales, many of us still remember those rare but invaluable teachers who have helped us become who we are. To forget these people or deny their influence would be to deny our very selves.

So what makes a good teacher? That’s a very difficult question to answer, but one thing you can be absolutely sure of, is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the straightforward presentation of information or knowledge. In the early 1990’s Rosenthal and Jacobsen conducted a series of video experiments where students were asked to predict the effectiveness of a range of teachers from seeing just a short clip of silent footage of each. In as little as 10 seconds the students were able to successfully predict the ratings of those teachers. Even more surprising was that they were also able to do so with sound alone, even if the voice spoke a foreign language. In other words, a teacher’s effectiveness has a lot less to do with content than we might expect and a lot more to do with the quality of delivery. This tells us something about a student’s need to be able to form some kind of bond of respect and trust in their teachers. They need to believe that their teachers have something to offer before they are likely to be fully predisposed to learning. What is especially interesting is that they do not distinguish between different forms of content (maths, biology art etc.) – a good teacher is a good teacher regardless of their subject.

Let’s be clear though - some so called teachers would certainly be better termed moderators or monitors because they simply know too little about the subject they are teaching to actually teach it. Worse by far are the self-professed teachers who regard certain subjects as so straightforward or superficial that anyone can teach them – hence all those dire dreary arts and crafts workshops that succeed only in wasting paint and paper and creating an unholy mess in the process. Lastly, but equally deluded, are the teachers who are so arrogant as to think that it’s ok to be just a couple of steps step ahead of their students. They’d do well to realise that their students have an intuitive measure of them in somewhere short of 10 seconds. The important point here is that if a teacher is to maintain the respect and trust a student invests in them, then they also need to have something to actually teach – nobody is going to spend much time listening to a voice without a message, no matter how compelling its rhythm and intonation. This leads us back to the equally slippery issue of whether it’s possible to teach creativity.

The argument about creativity seems to hinge on whether you are of the opinion that creativity is innate or not. A similar problem can be traced back to Plato’s Meno in which Socrates demonstrates to Meno that knowledge is innate and that when we learn we are, in fact, recollecting knowledge from a previous life. In modern times we “know” this to be a false argument, but the issues of innate knowledge - of nature verses nurture - continue to simmer, especially through the work of such people as Noam Chomsky and Jerry Fodor.

Another contemporary thinker who has had a profound influence on the understanding (and commercialisation) of creativity is Edward De Bono. De Bono has argued on many occasions that it is indeed possible to teach creativity and he has developed various conceptual tools which have provided widespread demonstrable results. De Bono is by no means alone - many other cognitive and developmental scientists have deepened and expanded the study of creativity in the last 50 years such that it’s very difficult not to see creativity, or at least certain kinds of creativity, as eminently teachable.

In my view, and at this point in time, I think the view that creativity cannot be learned is no longer tenable.

It may not be possible to train genius – but there is an awful lot of useful creativity that takes place without genius.”

Edward de Bono, 1992.

So here we have the two diametrically opposed poles of the argument: on the one side we have the University of Iowa Writers Workshop and their “conviction that writing cannot be taught” (ie: creativity is innate) and on the other side we have people like De Bono who claim the reverse.

There’s one further thing that can be said about the claims of the University of Iowa Writers Workshop: they are working with “the most promising talent”. If you’re working with the most promising talent, then presumably you also need to have the very best teachers, otherwise you’re likely to find yourself back in the “one step ahead of the students” situation as I’ve already described. No doubt, wherever students reach the top of the tree of education, the gap between teacher and student becomes ever smaller, sometimes to the point where “peer learning” would be a more accurate description. In effect this is what the UIWW are promoting: a course where the best talent teach one another and the “teachers” take notes and keep the coffee hot. This is an untypical situation though, and like many untypical situations it’s particularly unhelpful in the consideration of the finer points of teaching and creativity.

Creativity is a fundamental part of what makes us human. Many of the issues raised about creativity inevitably recourse to the stellar galaxy of exceptional humans: Mozart, Joyce, Duchamp etc. Sometimes, in fact quite often, you'll also find Einstein added to the list. Presumably somewhere in people's consciousness is the realization that Einstein must have been inordinately creative to come up with the ideas and solutions he envisioned. Using such luminaries is often instructive and sometimes allows one to establish firm foundations from which to develop new theories. However, just as often, these exemplars can skew our understanding or draw it into such heady heights that we find it impossible to maintain a grip on the more quotidian aspects of the argument. Such exemplars are exceptions to the very rule we're trying to interrogate and by the sheer mass of their presence they distort the space-time continuum under scrutiny. So let's leave them aside for once and try instead to look down the more familiar end of the telescope.

Creativity comes in many forms and has many manifestations. It’s association with the visual arts is frequently cited in argument and debate, but perhaps, once again, we're dealing with something too dense, too abstract and too indefinite to really help us. As I've already said, creativity is part of what makes us human. Without the ability to imagine, to visualize, to improvise and to invent something from nothing we would literally be unable to communicate. We are all creative in such a myriad of ways that it’s absurd to even consider compiling a list. Certainly many of these acts of creativity are extremely straightforward and minor to the point of insignificance. But perhaps it is this apparent insignificance, this commonplace, overlooked or disregarded matter-of-factness which is at the very heart of the problem. For the most part, we don't notice creativity and we don't value it unless it distinguishes itself in exceptional circumstances as something out of the ordinary and even then it is often seen as being quirky, idiosyncratic, weird, obsessive, eccentric, etc. in fact it’s interesting just how many such words give a negative complexion to creativity, and how few a positive one. This tells us something very revealing about our society’s attitude towards creativity: it’s obviously seen as being something verging on madness or certainly something to be ignored, kept in abeyance or best avoided. I’ll come back to this in a moment, but first I’d like to elaborate a little on my remarks about teachers, or rather good teachers.

Good teachers know their subject intimately and are passionate about it. This isn’t always immediately obvious to the uninitiated but it’s impossible to conceive of a good teacher who is indifferent to their subject. Good teachers are fascinated by the detail, by the nuances, by the variety, by problems and by solutions. They are very often obsessive and invariably eager to welcome anyone genuinely interested in their field to share in its rewards. Imagine then the idiosyncratic student who has identified an interest and a nascent talent but who recognises, perhaps only intuitively, the subtle disapproving attitude of the society around them. What better place for such an individual than under the tutelage of someone who understands their motivations and needs because they’ve literally been in the same situation themselves? Good teachers care, and in caring they provide the space for students to indulge their obsessive, eccentric predilections without fear of recrimination or ridicule. But this isn’t some passive magnanimous guardianship, but an active, critically supportive, challenging education which encourages students to flourish, perhaps never to the extent of Joyce, Mozart or Einstein but nevertheless to rise above the mediocre and in turn to create space for others to aspire for a better and more creative world.

Jim Hamlyn


I wrote the above text a few weeks ago in response to several articles by Dyske Suematsu, in particular this one: ( Since then I’ve been reading some recent educational theory and it would appear that a number of my remarks are somewhat outmoded in terms of their conception of the role of the good teacher. Such notions which put the teacher centre-stage are typical of what has been termed “Behaviourism” ie: the notion that learning is a process of modification of behaviour through experience best conducted by “instructing” students in such a way that they passively soak up knowledge. Current theories however - “cognitive constructivism” in particular - are more inclined to emphasize the role of the teacher as a facilitator of learning in a context where learning is understood as an active participatory process:

" the cognitive constructivist perspective, the role of the teacher is to create experiences in which the students will participate that will lead to appropriate processing and knowledge acquisition. Consequently, cognitive constructivism supports the teacher as a guide or facilitator to the extent that the teacher is guiding or facilitating relevant processing. Contrarily, since social and radical constructivism eschew any direct knowledge of reality, there is no factual knowledge to transmit and the only role for the teacher is to guide students to an awareness of their experiences and socially agreed-upon meanings. This teacher as guide metaphor indicates that the teacher is to motivate, provide examples, discuss, facilitate, support, and challenge, but not to attempt to act as a knowledge conduit.

Doolittle & Camp, 1999

This would appear to put my claims in real jeopardy but I’d like to argue once again that this conceptualisation of the role of the teacher is overly reductive (although, in this case I find it both reassuring and useful that no distinction is made between different disciplines). I’d especially like to pick up on the idea that “there is no factual knowledge to transmit”.

The idea that we can’t know reality directly is an argument which was also made by Immanuel Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason as long ago as 1781, so there’s certainly nothing new in this. However, the related conclusion, which radical constructivism draws, that the teacher is therefore simply a guide or facilitator is surely mistaken. If this were the case, a good teacher could facilitate the acquisition of ANY knowledge, even knowledge outside their own sphere and I doubt we could find many people who would seriously endorse or subscribe to such a view (or, at most, only in a very limited sense). As I said above, good teachers create space for students. Perhaps this needs elaboration though – institutions, teachers and indeed other students themselves (think of UIWW) create space for learning together without fear of recrimination or ridicule. This longstanding realisation that individuals acquire knowledge more efficiently and effectively when they learn alongside peers of similar ability has been at the very heart of formal education for as long as we can remember. Good teachers play a major role in this, since they have the experience to understand the problems and ambiguities, the knowledge to contextualise the student's learning and the expertise to create appropriate challenges and pitch them at the appropriate time.

Sunday, 20 September 2009


I forgot to post a link to this:

Actually I didn't so much forget as I was disappointed that the site had misrepresented my work.

Less than a year ago I was invited to be involved in a project of proposals for artworks to be sited on the moon. There were no plans to actually carry out the proposals but it was always intended that there would be a website to present them. I really liked the futility of the idea of working towards something which would never be completed, so I agreed. After indulging a number of ridiculously megalomaniacal thoughts (well why not, it’s the moon after all?!) a better idea began to germinate.

A year previously I had been invited to be a speaker at a conference in Latvia and as an exercise to break the ice, the delegates were asked to find something on their person - an object of some kind - which expressed something about them. We were then asked to place these objects on the table, and one by one we were asked to talk about ourselves with reference to the object we had chosen. I hate these kinds of group activities and I tried quickly to think of some alternative and unconventional thing that I could contribute – the more objectionable or subversive the better. After rummaging in my bag for what felt like too long as other people placed pens, cameras, notebooks and pieces of jewelry on the table I happened to feel the grubby granularity of dirt at the bottom of my bag. Great, a piece of dirt, I thought, perfect! I carefully lifted up the grain of dirt between thumb and forefinger and placed it upon the table amongst the other assorted objects.

One by one each person spoke about themselves and their objects and one by one the items disappeared from the table. As this was going on, I was finding it very difficult to concentrate on what each person was saying, caught up as I was with the thought of my tiny speck of dirt and all the wonderful clever things I could say about it and its inextricable relevance to the context of the conference. Eventually there was an all-but-empty table in front of us and to my simultaneous surprise, disappointment and relief the convener gave some concluding remarks and proceeded to the next item on the agenda.

At that moment the realisation hit me: my grain of dirt was simply too small to be seen. For all intents and purposes the table was empty and there was no one else left to speak. I was saved! No need to show off or embarrass myself and no need to continue with the mental gymnastics necessary to make sense of this insignificant speck of dirt. But my relief was short lived. Inevitably someone had been paying attention to what was going on; someone with a need for fairness, balance and equality; someone who had registered a nagging absence in the numbers. I felt it before they spoke, a faint rising consciousness of having been found out and the realization that my quiet but glorious moment of reprieve was about to end. “Where’s your object?” they asked inquisitively, pointing a finger and interrupting the convener. Suddenly all eyes were on me and everyone was murmuring-

“Oh yes, what about you, where’s your object?”

No matter I thought, I’ve had plenty of time to work out what I’m going to say, it won't be that difficult. Confidently, I reached across the table to the tiny dot I could see waiting for me. With a moistened index finger I touched the speck and lifted it up to inspect it more closely.

“Here’s my object, it’s.. it’s a.. it’s a poppy seed!”

Proposal for 14ºN 32ºW Project:
To exhaustively document a single poppy seed using the most wide-ranging and exacting technologies currently available.
This documentation would take the form of measurements etc, of all dimensions, weight, surface-hardness (Mohs), moisture content, density, chemical composition, spectral properties, calorific value, surface-area, genus, year of production, country and region of origin, DNA etc. As many of these measurements as possible would be taken directly from the seed itself. The more invasive/destructive measurements would necessitate the use of seeds taken from the same batch (preferably the same plant).
The poppy seed would also be thoroughly mapped using 3D mapping, X-ray and conventional photography.
The resulting documentation would then be carefully archived and placed in safe storage on Earth. The poppy-seed itself would then be transported and deposited as near to the centre of location 14ºN 32ºW of the Moon as convenient.
J. Hamlyn, 2009

Friday, 18 September 2009

Can Creativity Be Taught?

In a far-flung corner of the internet I recently became caught up in a blog debate which started as a discussion about whether it’s possible to teach creativity. You can find the full (and rather lengthy) discussion at the following web address:

My interlocutor (Dyske Suematsu) has another site ( with many essays on a range of subjects including philosophy, art and politics. This one in particular provoked me:

Perhaps I’m simply being over sensitive – you’ll have to make up your own mind.

Saturday, 29 August 2009


The first six editions of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species.
For the 200th anniversary year of Darwin's birth.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Game of Risk

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

Albert Einstein

What do teachers mean when they ask students to take risks and more importantly, what do students themselves understand by such advice?

Risk-taking is a familiar but vital aspect of everyday life. It contributes to our deeper understanding of the world and prepares us to face difficulties and challenges with greater confidence and awareness. It adds vitality, stimulation, and excitement to our experiences and is often a motivating factor that challenges people to pursue more interesting, purposeful, and meaningful lives. By contrast, lives without risk-taking are often boring, routine, predictable, or perhaps worst of all, in the case of artists anyway, unimaginative. In fact it’s almost impossible to conceive of how an artist could function without taking risks.

Frequently I’ve heard colleagues say to students “you need to take more risks” or the more cringe-worthy “you need to move out of your comfort zone” but I’ve rarely heard a student question this advice or ask for more detail. It seems to be almost a given that everyone tends to “play safe” in life, that we’re cautious creatures of habit, tending to stick to familiar paths and rarely to wander off into uncertain terrain. So when someone suggests that we should take more risks, we simply accept the fact on the understanding that they’ve probably recognised something that we’d rather wasn’t the case: a little like when someone points out that we have a grain of rice stuck to our chin. Under no circumstances does anyone want to be seen as being over cautions, especially in the context of the arts, so to suggest that they need to “take more risks” is rarely going to be met with resistance. If you wanted an easy piece of advice that is guaranteed to apply to almost all situations then this is it, because it’s almost always true.

Or, at least that’s the way it seems: the teacher feels they have identified a weakness and provided a simple nugget of advice on how to deal with it and the student nods affirmatively and goes away with something to cogitate over and act upon. They might even return some time later and thank the teacher for the good advice. And so it goes.

What makes this piece of advice so “clever” is what also makes horoscopes popular: you can apply it to almost any situation. This is not to say that such vague statements are bad, damaging or dishonest, in fact in some cases, like horoscopes, they can even serve a positive purpose since they have the potential to frame our consideration of the future and perhaps condition some of the more difficult decisions we face.

But despite the fact that horoscopes and aphoristic statements like “you need to take more risks” can be vaguely helpful (how else could they survive?) they never go into detail about particular situations or specific needs and they rarely, if ever, offer solutions to a specifically identified problem or weakness on the part of the recipient.

On occasion it’s ok to make such vague or general statements and to allow students to extrapolate, develop and discover their own interpretation and understanding of their relevance. If Socrates was right that “an unexamined life is not worth living” then it’s probably a good thing to encourage the habit of examining creative choices on a regular basis.

But who’s doing the examining? My point is that sometimes it’s too easy - too risky even - to expect the student to do all the work. If communication and understanding have any value in education then it’s, at the very least, presumptuous to assume that students will understand what such a vague statements are intended to suggest, if anything at all. This is why the “take some risks” statement, if it goes without qualification, is actually practically irresponsible, because if advice is really to have an effect it needs to be examined not just by the student but by the teacher and this examination itself needs to be offered up for scrutiny.

It‘s not quite true that the greatest risk in life is to take no risks at all. The real risk is to fail to realise that life is already full of them (even attempting to take no risks is fraught with its own dangers), but in order to make the most of risks they must be recognised, examined, exploited and most of all learned from.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Appropriated Artwork

Information sheet displayed next to Sherrie Levine's work at the 2009 Venice Biennale:

You couldn't do much worse if you'd translated direct from the Italian using Google-Translate. It begs the question though - was the Italian text equally impenetrable?