Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Failure of Success

I was interviewed yesterday by a colleague about the Co-Creativity of Hand and Mind research group that has recently formed at Gray’s School of Art. One of the questions was “Tell me about a failed work - Why was it a failure?”. If you follow this blog you’ll have noticed that I've written about failure quite a lot - I guess it’s because failure seems to be such a commonly encountered concept, and issue, in art and art education (and not just a concept: for some students it's a genuine threat). But when I began to think of my own failures I realised that these are relatively few and far between. I'm not saying I've never made mistakes, broken things or made things in the studio that didn't work or that I'm not proud of. On the contrary, I've made more than my fair share of such 'failures', but I realise that I don't actually consider these failures - they're just sketches, rejects, breakages or experiments. The only true failures I feel I've produced are the works that have been exhibited in public but that have broken down in some way or that didn’t function as intended. And even the works that haven’t failed technically, but which I’m not proud of, are not so much failures as simply not my best works.

But it's not really as simple as a few inferior or malfunctioning artworks, but rather the damage to my reputation that emerges as the real failure. Artworks can be repaired or replaced by better ones but reputation damage is much harder to salvage. You might well ask why I bother then to complicate the issue by making the kind of art that can break down or “fail” in this way - why not just stick with inanimate work? When I think back over my practice as an artist, it’s evident that I've tended to take fewer such risks in recent years. This might be thought of as an admission that I've become somewhat more risk averse in my middle age. Perhaps, but then again there is an alternative interpretation that one can take, and inevitably it’s the one that I will claim. In my youth the use of materials and processes that could recognisably fail - in the obvious sense of the word - meant that I had a clear yardstick by which my achievements could be gauged: if the work worked then it worked and whilst it might be conceptually or aesthetically flawed, at least I could feel that it did what it was supposed to do. The parameters of success and failure were therefore fairly transparent. And in a context where concepts and aesthetics are about as fixed and predictable as the British weather, a certain amount of control seemed to count for a great deal.

But 20 years down the line, I'm not so much in need of the reassurance of fixed parameters, so the potential for genuine failure (especially in terms of reputation harm) has become far less of a threat. I'm quite content with the ambiguity and contestability of conceptual and aesthetic success and failure; in fact it’s a liberation. I don’t see myself as risk averse - I just don't measure my artistic achievements by other people's yardsticks to the same degree any more. Now, I realise that this is no doubt partly due to the relative security of my position as a teacher, but on the other hand, I'd argue that I’m simply no longer concerned about failure because I'm no longer bent on success. As I've said here before, success is a false aspiration in my view - we'd be far better off aiming at fulfillment in life.

This brings me back to education - that set of institutions tasked with the responsibility of providing support, resources and guidance for learning but that also take it upon themselves to enshrine peoples’ future reputations in those impoverished forms of feedback known as grades and which, despite legions of highly educated employees, still chime in with the mainstream misconception that success is the pinnacle of achievement.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Original Failure

Fantasy and imagination are all well and good, but without a healthy dose of mistakes we can lose our grasp of reality. Failure keeps our imagination in check by demonstrating what is not possible, nonetheless it is vital to think beyond the threshold of the possible and to toy with the tolerances of the real. Only by doing so are we likely to discover the true boundaries of reality, but this takes repeated careful testing whilst the closer we approach these boundaries the more we are likely to encounter failures.

It is only by committing ourselves to a thoroughgoing familiarity with near constant failure that we might feel our way beyond the contingencies of circumstance and encounter a finer and more discriminating understanding of what is possible and what is definitely not. Failure is therefore the unwavering companion of the true explorer, but only failure accompanied by an equal measure of persistent reconsideration, testing and accumulated understanding.

However, anyone who has experienced this will recognise that it can be a wasteful, time-consuming and demoralizing process. This is why imagination is such an important faculty, because it allows us to conduct tests and envision failures in the minds eye, thus pre-empting the more costly failures that necessarily occur in reality. It is therefore in this constant to-ing and fro-ing between imagination and reality - hypothesis and experiment - that creativity resides and discovery is likely. It also explains why other forms of preliminary testing (mock ups, maquettes, sketches etc) are often such vital tools in the creative process.

Inevitably there are times when other people stumble upon discoveries or solutions without investing a great deal in the process. This is often a cause of frustration for those who have worked hard to arrive at their achievements but it also exposes another important factor in these thoughts on failure and discovery: some areas of enquiry and experiment are simply more fertile than others. So whilst something might be learnt from attempting to reinvent the wheel, it's all the more important to be able to accurately determine when a particular field has been exhausted and to move on. Failure simply for the sake of it is a relatively pointless exercise. There has to be a possibility of success if our efforts are not to be in vain. The ability to perceive such potential (or lack of) is one of the most elusive skills – if indeed it is a skill - and probably has as much to do with luck as anything. This might also explain why so many people tend to be disproportionately interested in the 'new' and unexplored as opposed to the familiar and well trodden. At least the first failures in a new field are somehow unique and therefore original to their first discoverers.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

The Co-Creativity of Hand and Mind

The following is the text portion of a presentation I made at a staff research meeting (a “pecha kucha” in fact) held a few days ago at Gray’s School of Art. The theme of the meeting was “The Co-Creativity of Hand and Mind”:

“Nothing ever conceived of, was made by thought alone.”

I found myself saying this during a tutorial recently in an attempt to encourage a student to take more risks and learn from the process of making rather than simply thinking about making. There are forms of thinking, one might argue, that are only possible when we work with certain materials in certain ways. We literally think differently when physically engaging with materials and processes such that when we cease to use those materials and processes we become divorced from their associated forms of imagination.

But with the rising costs of materials and the increasing financial pressures upon students, is it any wonder that they seem ever more unwilling to learn from the messy and uncertain arena of experiment, failure and discovery? And is this process of making, of testing, of production - and by association - of acquisition, consumption and disposal as benign and impartial as we might ideally wish it to be?

It strikes me that whilst our thoughts and imaginings - these ephemeral products of consciousness - are an undoubted gift, in this culture of objectification and quantification we’re often unsatisfied with - and even distrustful of - the intangibility of imagination. We seek externalizations and evidence: measurable, concrete, palpable realities. We’re unconvinced by ideas without form, by words without effect, and this sets up a challenge for all of us who consider ourselves dreamers as well as makers: what manner of impact do we desire upon the world and what price are we prepared to pay for it, or rather; what price are we prepared for the world to pay?

When we speak of the co creativity of the hand and mind, of course the hand is simply a metaphor for describing our interactions with the world and our manipulations of it. We touch on things and we are, in turn, touched by them: by the impress of the world. We feel our way through a sensory and somatic landscape that subtly and profoundly registers our presence and invites our contemplation. Our minds are formed and informed by nothing but sensory impressions and our manifold meanderings through memories, dreams and imaginings. Embodied Knowledge is the only knowledge we will ever truly know, for our bodies are the only interface we possess.

Much of what we create can be divided in two ways: as an extension of our senses or as an extension of our capacities. These two impulses are by no means the same. We extend our senses in order to gather data and to locate ourselves in the world more precisely. The extension of our capacities takes the form of toolmaking and our manipulations of the environment, to bend it to our will and to locate ourselves in the world more comfortably. Our senses reach out into the world in order to perceive it for what it is despite our presence. Our capacities, on the other hand, reach out into the world to make our presence felt. Our senses gather what comes to them unimpeded, whereas our capacities reach out to grasp, to manipulate, to possess and to consume. What our senses take makes no impression save on our minds. What our capacities make is nothing but impression, influence and impact. The impress of the world upon our senses is as intangible as emptiness, whereas the impress of our mind upon the world can be seen and felt in the entire constellation of existences that live and die by the hand of man.

But there is, perhaps, another less sinister and therefore more hopeful aspect to our capacities: we have the ability to give, to share, to transform and probably most importantly of all, to protect, to defend, to heal and to nurture.

And these thoughts raise another more encompassing question: in a context where learning emerges in large part through the consumption of materials, energy and resources, where should creativity and pedagogy reside within this fragile ecology of hand and mind?

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Creative for whom?

When I first began one of my current teaching jobs I was tasked with the additional responsibility of leading a life drawing class once a week. Back when I was a student of Fine Art Photography we had to attend life drawing classes one day a week, the theory being that such skills were essential to the budding artist of whatever discipline. I actually enjoyed the classes and on a good day I could turn out one or two fairly reasonable drawings. So when the responsibility befell me to lead a weekly life drawing class I felt it was my duty to make the sessions as engaging and creative as possible, in part, I guess, to mask my lack of experience. Perhaps this is the telltale sign of all eager new teachers: an overzealous determination to have an appreciable influence. I remember frequent nights lying awake trying to think up innovative new exercises and ways to reinterpret the conventions of the life room. Each week I’d come armed with yet another alternative take on the subject, a new approach, set of rules or limitations. One week I had the students bring thick charcoal but instead of doing drawings I got them to sculpt the charcoal with scalpel blades. Another week I had the model pose in one room whilst the students walked back and forth to their easels in another room whilst desperately trying to cling to the memory of what they had just seen. Other times I had one student describe the model while another had to draw from the description. I had a whole list of such exercises.

Many of the students clearly enjoyed the classes and found them stimulating and challenging. We’d often get involved in group discussions about the different obstacles and solutions. I always felt that I had plenty of challenges up my sleeve, even for the most accomplished students.

However, despite the generally positive feedback there were nonetheless students who were less engaged and who would comment occasionally that they never felt they had a chance to simply draw in a more conventional fashion. These students almost always tended to be less confident and it was clear that they yearned for an opportunity to consolidate their skills rather than being constantly disrupted in their perceptions. They sought fixed parameters against which they could evaluate their progress. They longed for the feedback of seeing their current drawing working out better than the last one. Rather than creative stimulation they desired the opportunity for practice.

Slowly it dawned on me that the problem lay with my assumption that the classes had to be creative all the time. What I’d managed to do was demonstrate - to show off in fact - how constantly inventive I could be, rather than supporting the students and helping them to become more confident with their own risk taking and uncertainty. Indeed, my creativity wasn’t just intimidating them, it was almost literally tying their hands behind their backs.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Elevated by Rhetoric

I've just got back from a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson today at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama (RSAMD) in Glasgow. Like many people, I'm sympathetic to Robinson's ideas, but like some, I'm also sceptical about his vision for the future and his suggestions based upon it. He's certainly a showman with a very impressive bag of scripts that he deftly collages together to entertain and enthrall his spectators, though at times I felt as though I could easily have edited a few of his YouTube videos together to the same effect. Yes creativity is a uniquely human capacity, yes it's undervalued in education and yes it tends to be relegated to “Art” classes when in fact creativity is fundamental to all forms of human endeavour that involve thought.

Robinson speaks of revolution, but he frequently mixes his reference points. On the one hand, he tells us, we are already witnessing a revolution and on the other hand education needs a revolution to face up to the challenges of the future. So that's a revolution within a revolution then Sir Ken? I might have got my facts mixed up, but the last time I checked, a revolution was something that involves the overthrow of the previous order. In fact, Robinson's idea of revolution is simply a rhetorical trick that plays on people's deep seated suspicions about how terrible education has become and how their children's potential is being squandered. But then again "reform" isn't such an inspiring term is it?

It seems to me that there is one very simple conflict which underlies much of Robinson's work but which is so overburdened with proselytizing and accretions of anecdote that he seems to have missed it. People learn best when they're guided. However, such instruction comes at a cost: when you instruct someone too completely there is a tendency for the effectiveness of this instruction to inhibit creative improvisation on the part of the learner. In a sense then, creativity and effective learning are to some degree mutually exclusive: you can learn something effectively but if you want to innovate you need to have time and space to take risks and to learn through both failure and discovery, in which case effectiveness goes out of the window. This doesn't require a revolution, it requires addressing, and no amount of wholesale overthrowing of old orders is likely to solve it. It's all well and good talking of revolutions and transformation as long as these are achievable and as long as we have a good idea exactly what we're overthrowing and what we're replacing it with. But when the vision soars into the stratosphere, one wonders who is being elevated by the rhetoric.