Friday, 22 May 2009

Why bother with Sketchbooks?

The following is an edited version of an email sent to a student who queried a low mark he’d received for failing to present sketchbook work and evidence of research for assessment. He wrote a lengthy disgruntled email in which he also suggested that in future he could instead submit “fake sudokus and evening puzzles”. I’ve removed all personal references which makes it read a little more awkwardly than the original but I stand by my sentiment:

...Yes, it’s possible to argue that this is embedded in the finished work – after all, art is a process of making physical artefacts and as such it demands that we not only evaluate these artefacts as evidence of skill but also as evidence of thought and intention. However, if this thought seems to lack depth, clarity or articulacy then one has to look elsewhere for further evidence to support (or contest) one’s assumptions about the work. One obvious way to do this is to speak to the maker (if they are available - ie; still alive, living in the same country as you are etc). Another way is to look at their previous work. A third possibility is to examine supplementary materials: sketchbooks, notebooks etc.

In the context of an educational institution (which, for better or poorer, is also an institution of assessment) we try to utilise all of the above methods to examine intentions and thoughts. If one area is lacking then it becomes difficult (sometimes impossible) to accurately evaluate the work.

I’m sure you’ve seen/read many fascinating things which inspire you, but how am I supposed to know what they are? If I could look through your sketchbooks and see such references and how you were contextualising your own practice, I (and other tutors) would be far more able to guide you in appropriate and interesting directions because we’d be able to see, almost at a glance, exactly what you were thinking about and struggling (as all good artists do) to explore.

Other students ARE producing workbooks which DO expose such thought processes and we do have to compare (and asses) this work with work carried out by other students. But more to the point, when the work of these students is called into question by moderators or external examiners we can directly refer them to the physical evidence. If this evidence doesn’t exist the argument is extremely difficult (sometimes impossible) to substantiate.

But ultimately who cares about marks? Low marks should only be seen as an indication (advice) about how we think the work could best be advanced. You seem to be in serious doubt about this advice. That’s ok. Many students decide for strategic reasons to prioritise certain areas and to neglect others. Well rounded students don’t necessarily make great artists anyway.

So the answer is simple. Either ignore the fact that you’re getting low marks for research and continue as you were, or put some energy into recording the “journey” you are making.

I hope that it’s obvious that I think you’d be crazy to ignore THE ADVICE though. Yes your workbooks may start out as “limping, retarded fractions of thought” and maybe it won’t be easy. But forget easy! Who ever said it was supposed to be easy? Easy is fake sudokus and evening puzzles!

Friday, 1 May 2009

Ein Kluges Apfelchen

I saw Werner Herzog’s new film documentary “Encounters at the end of the World” a few days ago and I have to say that once again he’s made something quite extraordinary. This is due in no small part to Herzog’s overriding attitude towards of nature in all its myriad forms. It’s no secret that Herzog has some very strong feelings about nature (listen to him on the set of Fitzgeraldo for a prime example) and these ideas infuse all of his work. In fact, the more I think about it the more I realise the central importance of nature in every Herzog film I have seen, from the veritable catalogue of wildlife in Aguirre Wrath of God including the hundreds of monkeys overrunning the raft at the end of the film to the thousands of imported rats in Nosferratu (itself the story of a super“natural” specimen), from the “feral” foundling Kaspar Hauser to the engulfing jungle in Fitzgeraldo. Even the entire cast (but one) of Heart of Glass whom Herzog famously hypnotised beforehand clearly conform to this dark fascination with nature and natural processes.

There’s a wonderful scene in the Enigma of Kaspar Hauser where the logic of human control over inanimate objects is explained to the adult “primitive” since it’s clear that he mistakenly believes that objects have free will and intelligence. Kaspar’s well-meaning benefactor devises a simple demonstration which involves throwing a small apple along a garden path. The apple bounces off into the grass and Kaspar announces that it has hidden itself. In order to demonstrate the facts more clearly the benefactor asks a friend to stand in the path of a second apple in order to stop it in its course. When this second one is thrown it skips over the feet of the friend and Kaspar pronounces the apple “ein kluges apfelchen” – a clever little apple. In this and other scenes Herzog draws our attention to the awkward and potentially destructive mismatch between our logical empirical view of the world and the naïve but nonetheless charmingly inventive interpretation of Kaspar. It’s quite clear that Herzog sides with Kaspar as do we, whilst for the most part Kaspar’s “masters” are portrayed as supercilious, arrogant, patronising fools.

Encounters at the End of the World is another film entirely, being a documentary set in the wholly different historical and geographical setting of Antarctica. The film is accompanied by a voiceover from Herzog himself, who variously describes his disgust with the brutal frontier town of McMurdo and his determination not to produce another “Disneyfication” of nature by making a film of penguins. There is, in fact, some footage of penguins and particularly a sequence about a disorientated penguin set on a suicidal course towards the interior of Antarctica. Throughout the film Herzog is wholly critical of what he calls “Disneyfication” and its tendency to anthropomorphize and romanticise nature. In the last section Herzog reminds us of some of the major themes of our journey and although he deliberately avoids climate change predictions he nonetheless concludes by making the grim prediction that on the basis of the evidence, everything points the inevitable demise of humankind’s existence. I could have done without this. Not that my view is radically different, but it seems to me that in this small but significant regard Herzog has set himself up as a kind of doomsday prophet when he would have done far better to trust that our own exegesis based on the astonishing material put before us, might compel us to arrive at a similar conclusions. However, if that conclusion is simply to say “oh well we're all fucked then” as he almost suggests, then we may as well be watching Disney films. What I feel has always set Herzog’s work apart from so many other filmmakers is his skill for presenting us with profound and instructive metaphors, of putting us outside ourselves and allowing us to glimpse another version of our reality. At their best these glimpses are never didactic and are all the more powerful for it. So if I see a deluded penguin wandering toward its certain death as a metaphor for the blind self-destructive destiny of humankind or whether I see this as an example of the kind of spirit which leads nature (and thereby us) to very occasionally discover new continents and new ways to survive, then surely I should be allowed to have my own interpretation, clever little apple or not.