Monday, 29 April 2013

Site Specific Module

 We have finally concluded the site specific module, all the work has now been installed and we are assessing. Once assessment is over the work will be tweaked to make sure it is audience ready and it is then open to the public.  Some useful lessons have been learnt by a good percentage of the people involved, not least the importance of good planning and the testing of pieces on site. However it’s the more subtle issues that perhaps lead to deep learning. It sometimes appears that the whole process is linear. You start the module with walking the site and getting a feel for its history from the people that work there. Because it’s so easy now to take photographs, people usually have very good documentary evidence of the site to take away with them and it is very easy to research about any historical or other aspect related to the site because of the Internet. Therefore it’s easy to think that ideas will germinate out of this mix and that once they start surfacing it’s simply a matter of manufacture and installation. However time and time again, it is the people who spend a lot of time on site that make the more interesting and powerful work. Often these are students who had an initial idea and through trial and error have scrapped it and evolved a new idea through a poetic engagement with the experience. This ‘poetic’ engagement often taps into areas of thinking outside of logic. “I don’t know what this means” or “It just seemed to come out that way” are typical responses to the process that might not fit the structure of the rationale, but are honest appraisals of something that is about just getting to know the subject and finding a feel for the place. I suppose this is the difference between art and illustration, the one discovers something new and unexpected about a situation, the other clarifies what we already know. Somehow when someone gets lost in the process of responding and making on site something else starts to emerge, something intangible yet meaningful, something you cant quite put your finger on but which opens out new meanings, meanings more to do with a feeling tone or intuitive grasp of possibility that a logical analysis and this is a territory where poetry starts and education ends. As an educator it is a privilege to watch this happen and I’m not sure how to facilitate it because I have to on the one hand get students to evidence their experience so that we can record it as learning outcomes, and on the other try to edge them towards something that is indefinable and so easily lost, that something that allows you to keep playing whilst being alive to the moment that is magic or that ‘works’. Perhaps that re-creation, re-making, re-imagining or revealing is in fact easy, but logic makes it hard, only experience and trust in yourself can tell you when to just let it happen. Today I saw some staged photographs of two people having a good time recreating proposed comedic moments that could have happened if workers had had time on their hands to play about. Something happened and the images transcended their makers. Rough texts written on walls engaging with these images in such a way that you just knew this was good, this was in the game and was worthy. I hope to see more tomorrow.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Back from the Easter break

I shall be working with first year Fine Art students for the duration of the site specific module out at Thwaites Mill. This is the last year we will be doing this, the increase in numbers next year will mean looking for something else to replace the experience. This video made by a student from 2009 gives an idea of what the place is like. We try to make sure there are always two members of staff out on site, yesterday I was with Kelly and on Thursday I will be with Richard.
Students were introduced to the site before Easter and did drawings, undertook research into its history, as well as took as many photographic images as possible. A week after this they had one session back on site with us and the permanent staff here before leaving for the break where they introduced their ideas and we let them know whether or not the ideas were practical and acceptable by the people who ran the site. Yesterday was the students' first chance to show us what they were thinking about in more detail. A couple of students had spent some time over the holiday actually on site building things and so they had a head start over the rest, most of the others had taken the opportunity to go home and have a break, as it has been quite an intensive year for them.
Most of the issues we dealt with were about the actual site specificity of the work they were doing. Typical issues and solutions: Student (a) had been doing small paintings of views around the area. She was interested in the way we romanticize places like Thwaites and that many of our historical views of places like this are coloured by certain traditions of landscape painting. In response to this she had been pitching the colour of the images much higher or choosing certain views that were ‘pretty’. However she was stumped as to how to present these. Eventually we went to each place she had worked from and realised that she could engage an audience much more directly my making iron frames for her painting that either came directly out of the ground or that could be attached to nearby railings or similar fittings. The technical focus of the work now moving from painting to welding and metal construction, the site-specific aspects now responding to audience interaction and the specific location of pieces; the bringing together painting with metalwork, was also as way of reconfiguring the role of materials history (metals and manufacturing/oil paints and art/leisure). Although we are working on site, the workshops remain open back at college and many students make their work there and then bring things back out to test them in situ. 
Student (b) had spent the Easter making paper sheets, (A1 size, using white pulp) cast directly from brick walls. She wanted to hang these against a particular orange red brick wall, but something wasn’t right. However another building in the vicinity had whitewashed walls, so we tested the images against these walls, which by chance had the same dimensions of brick and mortar. The white against white was much more subtle and would offer a very different type of audience engagement. We spent time looking for more of these whitewashed brick spaces and started to consider scale and positioning, including the possibility of using invisible thread to hang these thin white paper walls in such a way that air passing over them would make them slightly vibrate.
Student (c) had bought a large dark red gym ball. He had found an equally large wooden mold (formally used for metal casting) that he had set the ball into and was making circles of putty around the ball. (Thwaites watermill used to manufacture putty). Each circle of putty was about 2 inches wide, and this left two inch wide circles of dark red plastic glowing through the neutral tones of the putty. In effect you had a large striped sphere that had considerable presence. The putty was well handled and the student had investigated how to make both matt and gloss finishes. (Putty is essentially like oil paint, a linseed oil carrier with chalk as the pigment) He had started to mix some dust into the putty to vary the circles but it was decided this was too fiddly and that he should concentrate on making more versions of these spheres and looking carefully at where and how they were located. The fact that he was working with the wooden mold supported by two wooden pallets meant that the stripes on the sphere were picked up by the slats of the pallets, and this itself it was pointed out could be a formal issue that eventually became important.
Student (d) was making a 10 foot high spider out of cut branches and other tree offcuts. He had already tied together bundles of branches with string and these would eventually become the legs of the sculpture. The mill is located within ‘edgelands’ that all cities develop outside of their congested centres.  Overgrown bushes and spindly trees surround the area and there is plenty of material available for this sort of work. By bringing these materials into the shed in which he is working, the student is further confusing the boundary between nature and the decaying old manufacturing site. One big issue is going to be health and safety and the need for physical help. The legs are already seriously heavy things, the projected body of this object will be a very large cumbersome object and it will need to be fitted safely and securely to the legs. One student last year had managed to build an even bigger sculpture out of similar materials and the site warden had made him put up a sign warning people not to climb, touch etc. Health and safety is now something we all have to work with and although I don’t like it I am persuaded of the necessity and of course having to deal with these things are vital learning curves for the students. He will also have to find other students prepared to help him, there is no way he will be able to put this together on his own. Skills in working with others will come into this and how he engages and project manages this will all have to be recorded. Students (e, f) are working together taking black and white photographs of themselves performing responses to the mill. When I was talking to them one of them had obviously been covering himself with white chalk dust as part of some performance, but as they were using an old film camera they couldn’t show me what had been done. They propose to develop this film (and others) then print up large black and white images (using old technology to make statements about old technology) allowing for chemical problems and other ‘mistakes’ that come from using an old process. The resulting images would be placed around a particular stairway that leads up into the mill. In some ways they are trying to re-inhabit the mill with human actions, some of which of course would have been funny as well as tragic. The issues surrounding the demise of all technologies and how capitalist industry moves on seem quite appropriate for a recession.
All day was spent looking at similar issues and I shall be out there again tomorrow doing the same. What always interests me is how some students really blossom in these situations, whilst other find the situation a threat to their own ‘integrity’ and find that their ideas don’t fit. These first year projects are all designed to push people beyond their comfort zones and those that still want to do the same thing they came with at the beginning of the year are perhaps holding on to something that is so powerful that it will just have to be accepted as their direction for year two. I’d rather see this as being the case than the other reading, which is that some people are just so limited that they cant cope with anything except the one narrow focus that they have always had.