Sunday, 16 November 2014

The Whitechapel Gallery talk (added value re-write)

Stairwell Weave-In, Dovecot Studios, Edinburgh

Remaking means added value. It's something I addressed at the talk I delivered last Thursday at the Whitechapel Gallery, part of the Real World series of talks curated by Orlagh Woods for Artquest. In the light of this I’ve decided to re-write my notes and publish them here. This partly for myself, but also for those who couldn’t attend the event which did sell out. I’m doing this in the form on a Q+A, asking myself questions and answering them. The topic of the talk was how do artist manage the boundaries of art and craft and how are these practices shifting and evolving.
Shane, how do you negotiate the boundaries between art and craft?
Badly. My work is often perceived in a fine art context as being too crafty and in a craft context as being too messy. Meanwhile Crafts magazine in a recent review referred to me as a performance artist. So, I’m either terrible at negotiating these boundaries or an expert at it. You can be the arbiters of this.

Are these boundaries useful anyway?
Yes, at least to know when and where to step over them. Glenn Adamson in his book Thinking Through Craft puts a solid argument for these to be clearly defined so we're able to use them as a filter to understand what we are looking at. 
How do you define these then?
How much time do we have? An answer to this can only lead to endless debating, but here goes… My feeling is that craft objects have to refer in some way to the process of their own making, while art objects don’t. Art prompts you to look at it from another point of view than how the object is made. My interest in process over product is probably why my work is perceived as craft. The boundaries are porous of course, and it is always worthwhile looking outside your own practice to reinvent it and push your work forward. Someone told me recently that this question of boundaries will only be of real concern to crafts people and not fine artists. A perceptive comment I think. Rather than think about how to define art vs. craft, better to think of how to identify with either. Key to this is context and presentation, which qualifies what we are looking at and how we experience it.

Tell us more?
Objects are not revealed to us by looking only but through interaction. The value of objects all too often gets in the way of this interaction. What do you know of a pot unless you hold it in your hands after all? Art ought not simply to be about communicating ideas but also to convey experiences. We’re not just brains on sticks; we need to relate bodily to objects. The preciousness of objects starts working against them, requiring them to be displayed on plinths, vitrines, cords to separate them from their audience. One of Richard Tuttle's pieces in the current exhibition apparently required two first class seats (one for the artwork, one for the courier) to be shipped from the States to London. Getting up close and interacting with this object in this case is of course impossible and probably why the artist himself prefers his work to be shown in a domestic rather than a gallery or museum context.

Making by Instruction workshop at The Poly, Falmouth

What are the answers then?
Adopting participatory approaches when making and showing work, engaging audiences with processes and materials of making rather than presenting them for the sole purpose of being looked at. Daniel Miller writes ‘objects don’t matter, it’s what you do with them that matters’. Pioneers of participatory work talk about how ‘the object has lost it’s significance unless it is a mediator for participation’ (Lygia Clark). Helio Oiticica states ‘a work should range from the givens (things already produced), to the livings (the route to be traced by audience) and the transformable givens (the objects that demands inventive participation from the creator)'. There are many reasons why I have chosen to do participatory works over the past 10 years and one of them is to enrich the connection between object and audience. 
Another strategy might be to do away with objects altogether. Objects don’t last forever (taking a larger historical perspective on this) and can always be remade. I’m very interested in the process of making by instruction and the process of interpretation that goes on as work is reproduced. Value can be added to an original work as it is remade and therefore reinterpreted. So why not keep instructions and scores rather than the objects themselves and involve artists and audiences in the remaking of these? This is after all is common practice in dance, theatre, music. Why not art?

Knitting Piece #11, Prague Biennial

Isn’t the answer obvious? Not everyone can paint Monet’s Waterlilies.
True. There is of course a case for safeguarding artworks, but the use of plinths and vitrines, despite being an issue for half a century or more, still needs addressing I think. Thinking about this I’ve been looking again at the work of Phyllida Barlow, and reading her ‘Hatred of the Object’ essay, where she denounces the use of vitrines – they deaden work, make it safe, clean, polite. Her work embraces fully the sculptural over the pictorial. It celebrates making and materials in all its mess, awkwardness but also subtleties. Barlow never looses sight of the temporality of sculpture, celebrating how things fall apart, rot, melt and disintegrate. The making of her sculptures and installations, or elements of these, are often rehearsed and then performed in situ to create the work. After being displayed they are dismantled and parts reused for making other work. I love the ecology of this. I also love how these monumental works carefully calibrate the relationship between space, body and object, carefully considering what materials can do for a space as well as the people in it.

rehearsing Garland #21 with
Cheryl McChesney Jones at Siobhan Davies Dance Studios

Is there then an ideal model for displaying craft?
I’m not sure about a model but a guideline could be to think about what AndrĂ© Lepecki describes as the constitutive qualities of dance: ephemerality, precariousness, corporeality and scoring.
Thank you very much Shane. Let’s hand it over now to the audience now. Are there any questions?

Lacetell performance at Yan Tan Tethera, Cecil Sharp House

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