Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Unfailing Digital Art

Below is an extract from an email I received the other day from a friend followed by my reply.
“I recently went to an event which was organised by the DACS. The theme of the debate was "Artist Futures and the Digital Domain." It turned out to be quite an interesting debate with Paul Hobson and Sonia Boyce representing the Luddite side (as they described themselves) and Simon Faithful, Paul Bennun and Klaus Thymann being quite liberally pro-internet. Basically this discussion circled mainly around possibilities of how artists can use the digital medium (primarily the internet) for their own financial benefits, which I must admit, was only moderately interesting. What became interesting though, was the resulting discussion I had (after the event)… I do agree, that the digital domain is a difficult one, as it takes away from depth: anything consumed via the internet is digested only shortly and then the next "click" comes. There is little room for contemplation. Even I notice (to my disgust), that my concentration span often is the length of a bbc iPlayer documentation. Although I acknowledge these severe downsides with the internet, I do believe that it is crucial for artists to engage with this new medium. I feel that as a society we still have little knowledge of how to use it properly and to our best interests. That way, very much of digital art (dare I say most) is doomed to failure. But isn't it this failure that leads us to a greater understanding of where the digital can take us and of which cliffs to steer clear? Don't the artists' experiments help us understand the boundaries more adequately? Besides that, isn't it most interesting to find out ways how to communicate something deep, something profound? The fact that it is difficult to achieve should be all the more reason for artists to engage with the medium, or not? I am not sure that I am up for the challenge, but I am interested in the debate nevertheless..”

…One thing that struck me recently was something John Dewey wrote in Education and Experience: “The effect of an experience is not borne upon its face”. In other words, we can’t know exactly how our experiences will affect us. You’re absolutely right though, that there’s little room for contemplation (especially online) these days and even this becomes a measure or interval of our attention. But, on the other hand, perhaps it’s not only about commandeering passages of time for contemplation. Have you ever noticed yourself in a museum, like I do, passing by famous old masters in the knowledge that you simply don’t have time to give (or take)?

Perhaps there’s also the possibility of an art that is experienced through brief portions of time but which builds its significance through repeated encounter – like acquaintances becoming friends. Perhaps the idea that the ‘event’ of art as something that is consumed all at once is a delusion and always has been. When did an artwork ever offer up all its ‘secrets’ in one viewing anyway? If this is the case, then the briefness of online experience is not the issue so much as the necessity of return. Each repeat taking us deeper into the work. Idealistic? Probably. I just don’t think we’ve worked out what online art means just yet. Perhaps the contemplation thing is a door that’s forever closed to online art but perhaps we just need more time for things to establish themselves. I have to say though that it’s not so much an issue of contemplation for me as a lack of tangibility that leaves me un-awed by much online art – whilst the challenge of the digital is its demand for depth, in the world of tangible things we have raw obdurate processes and materials to fashion into form – and that’s bloody hard, full of pit falls and failures but is equally exciting. In some ways it seems to have a lot to do with the very fact (nature) of failure and the way digital methods banish as much of this as possible from the scene of working: Cmd-Z and we’re back where we were, with a neat comprehensible iteration of the process. No rough edges, no need to revaluate, no need to convince ourselves that a compromise is a better outcome and no need to reconfigure our perspective (to learn). Someone once said “there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback” - perhaps this is a clue to the problem: what possibility of feedback is there when failure has become so managed, so regulated, so constrained?

Friday, 18 February 2011

Polishing Turds

Is it not the case that a performer, of whatever kind, who pays more attention to their audience’s expectations than their own performance, is likely to find it significantly more difficult – perhaps impossible - to give a convincing performance? Isn’t self consciousness the very enemy of good acting? The more a performer becomes disentangled from this feeling of being under scrutiny, the more they are likely to be able to be fully immersed in their role. Therefore anything that emphasizes the presence of the audience should be minimized and anything that encourages the performer to inhabit their role should be enabled. Perhaps this might explain why so many of the most interesting artists are not in the least interested in fishing for recognition but are simply getting on with what they love for its own sake. It’s that intrinsic motivation thing again.

In a response to a previous post, Sean writes: “in most professions, performance is everything.” Probably, but is this a good thing? - cars perform, stocks and shares perform, chemical compounds perform, trained elephants perform, actors perform, musicians perform. I’m mixing the two senses of the word “perform” here deliberately to make a point about how easy it is to confuse them. Certainly Sean means perform in the sense of “to carry out an action”, but the two senses of the word are so conflated in so many areas of contemporary life that something vital seems to be getting lost in the process. ‘Being’ is gradually becoming eclipsed. As society becomes ever more fascinated with celebrity over substance there appears to be an increasing valuing of performance over being; of ‘acting’ over doing and this preoccupation is spilling over into so many aspects of life that “performance is everything” or at least is seen as everything, which amounts to the same thing, which is to say appearance is everything.

One of my employers has recently changed the name of the annual staff Career Reviews. Previously these were called OSCRs (Objective Setting Career Reviews), whereas now they’re called EPRs (Employee Performance Reviews). We can all benefit from a little clear headed critical reflection sometimes, but the more emphasis is given over to appearances as opposed to actualities, the more we are likely to be tempted to cut corners, to embellish and even to deceive ourselves. As Sean himself has pointed out, it is indeed possible to polish a turd.

So should we be encouraging students to ‘perform’ as artists, doctors, engineers etc. or should we rather encourage them to fully inhabit what they choose to become? I don’t doubt that there’s a competitive, materialistic world out there with a few more egotistical posturing charlatans than we’d ideally like. In many ways that’s my whole point. But if this means encouraging students to become a bunch of narcissistic, competitive, selfish, careerist posers just to compete, you can count me out.

“It is better to make a piece of music than to perform one, better to perform one than to listen to one, better to listen to one than to misuse it as a means of distraction, entertainment, or acquisition of "culture." -John Cage

Friday, 11 February 2011

Failure is an event, not a person.

Interesting isn’t it, how we confuse what people do for what they are? I mean by this the way we describe someone as being, for example, original: an original thinker, an original artist or an original writer rather than simply describing what they actually do as being original. Clearly this is completely inaccurate. No one is more original than anyone else.

This kind of subtle misattribution might be ok when we’re dealing with job titles: secretary, waiter, artist etc. but the real problems start when we begin to internalize negatively weighted attributions: “I’m unoriginal”, “I’m a failure”, “I’m no good at that.” Such self-perceptions are only ever something we resign ourselves to: they’re a declaration that we’ve given up trying and that we’ve come to the conclusion that further effort is futile. Indeed, further effort would simply reinforce the negative perception. It’s not surprising therefore that people avoid putting themselves in such circumstances and consequently avoid the kinds of risks that might lead, not just to disappointment, but to growth.

The problem, of course, is thinking that a failed thing, of our own making, is representative of who we are and – crucially - who we might become: that creations define not just internal states but potentialities. We can see this same deception in education, in which students are constantly under the critical eye of evaluation and assessment. What better way to encourage self-criticism and crippling self-consciousness?

In education there’s a widely held assumption that we assess learning. In fact we don’t assess learning at all. What we asses are the products of study, which we take as proof of learning. Assessment, and grades in particular, perpetuate the notion that what defines people is that which is created by them but which is external to them. Whilst this may necessarily be true within the view of others, it also, arguably, has the side effect of turning individuals into observers of their own performance when what education should be trying to foster is unselfconscious critical engagement with the objects of study at the very deepest level.

Saturday, 5 February 2011

Pointless Presentations and Inert Information

Pulpit Rock, near Ardlui (on the banks of Loch Lomond)

During an Art and Design conference I attended recently I had the feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of data that was being transmitted and I began to question the point of trying to commit any of it to memory. Perhaps the event should simply have been reduced in range and scale, but it seems to me that there's another perspective one could take on the situation. Imagine that instead of focusing on the dissemination of volumes of information, greater emphasis had been placed upon the feeling generated by each presentation and that, in addition, a few vital questions had been raised. Information is only ever valuable if we can use it, otherwise it’s simply an accretion which serves little purpose other than to obstruct or overcomplicate understanding.

The common flaw shared by many of these presentations was an insufficient consideration of the underlying question/s or issues which the information was intended to address or respond to. Most of it was simply descriptive rather than propositional or discursive and, as such, could be disregarded. It was pointless, inert.

“…my custom whenever I am invited to speak in some place, to develop some consequences of my views which I expect to be unacceptable to the particular audience. For I believe that there is only one excuse for a lecture: to challenge.” –Karl Popper

Many of the presentations involved a narrative of some kind, and narratives, as we know, have the power to draw us in on an emotional level. Unfortunately however, the emotional tenor of these presentations had been almost entirely extricated. It was as if the presenters distrusted this and were denying it in preference for chronology or other forms of superficial flow.

Has passion become so intrinsically suspect that people would rather ignore or repress it than risk the accusation of emotional embellishment or manipulation? Certainly, an emotional tone or delivery can be used to persuade or deceive and we should be vigilant about such things but does this mean that presenters have to surgically remove it from their presentations? And do we therefore face a future of conferences and academic presentations full of monotone facts and figures?

I’m more than willing to accept that we don’t need a wave of emotionally laden presentations – I couldn’t think of anything worse. Far better would be surprising, challenging or provocative information because it’s surprising, challenging and provocative stuff that demands an effort of consideration on the audience’s part. Surprise, in this sense, is the foundation of learning: when we are surprised there’s an opportunity for something new to be understood.

So if we want people to engage, then a little challenging information allied to some genuine conviction wouldn’t go amiss. After all, if we care about what we’re presenting, then it makes sense not to conceal our passion too thoroughly, otherwise our audience is likely to suspect that we’re either bored, or simply wish to string them along for the ride. Meanwhile they’ll either be happily daydreaming or wondering why we couldn’t make our presentation a little more stimulating.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

The Ideal Project Brief

What makes an ideal Project Brief? We were asked this question at a staff Learning and Teaching event yesterday and as the list of Aims, Objectives, Learning Outcomes, Resources, Examples, Schedules, Clear Language, Recommended Typeface, etc, etc, came spewing out of us all, like so much regurgitated orthodoxy, it occurred to me that there’s only one fundamental thing that every project brief should ever aim to do: Inspire.