A few major things have happened to me over the last few months and I feel the need to put them into words and make those words public in order to make sense of them. This is the second bunch of words. Previously.
A few years ago I decided to call myself An Artist. This was done mostly to see what would happen, if anything. Like most people, I’d subconsciously assumed that Capital A Artists, the sort who get retrospectives in galleries and commissions from noted bodies, were assigned that title, as a monarch might bestow a knighthood. Or that in order to be an Artist you needed to go to Art School. A cursory bit of thinking make it pretty clear that you didn’t need permission to call yourself an Artist. You just needed to be a good Artist to get away with it.
Of course that then unleashes the pool of turgid shit that is the “What is Art” debate but I found a ladder out of that with the following statement. “An Artist is a philosopher who understands the world through the making of things.” Things being anything from a painting to a play to a simple statement. This is distinct from the artist-as-craftsman (aka illustrator, cartoonist, painter, etc) who may or may not practice “Art” and does not denigrate their work.
Then one has to reconcile one’s practical skill in the making of things – in my case the act of photography – with the making of things in the pursuit of Art. It took me a while to understand the difference, the overlaps and the relative unimportance of worrying about it too much. Definitions both power creativity though imposing useful constraints and kill it through endless navel-gazing.
In the end it seemed to me Artistic Practice is akin in some ways to Religious Practice – the imposition of ritual in thought and action towards a noble, often unattainable, higher goal, where the journey is more important than the destination. The point is to do it.
Last year, as Photo School was finding its feet and getting noticed, Matt and I were approached by Karen Newman, a photography curator who was moving to Birmingham and wanted to set up a “space” of some sort to help the photography community in the West Midlands. We’d heard far too many plans like this, most of which were ill-conceived and overly optimistic, but we met up anyway. It turned out Karen had good ideas and a willingness to really understand this strange city before putting anything into practice. We left hopeful and impressed and invited Karen to sit in on one of our classes. In the pub after she addressed the elephant in the room – the fact that neither of us had taken any photos of any worth for ourselves in the last year – our creative energies being ploughed into teaching. Karen made the valid point than in order to be good teachers we needed to maintain our practice, since that was what made us good teachers in the first place. So I took that to heart.
A few weeks later I was photographing Antonio Robert’s Dirty New Media event, partly for the modest fee but mostly to make sure I attended all of it. As a successor to GLI.TC/H Birmingham which Ant curated in 2011 I knew it was going to be interesting and probably relevant to my interests. Throughout the day I my reactions ranged from “that’s good” to “that’s shit” to “that’s really missing the point” to “that connects a whole bunch of things I didn’t think could be connected” and by the end I knew what I had to do – follow the advice Helga Henry gave me waaay back in 2008. I asked Karen, who happened to be there for the last hours, if she’d be my mentor in whatever capacity suited. She agreed.
(It later turned out she’s mentor to a number of people and it’s kinda her job, so full points to me for recognising that.)
So we met up in the back room of the Big Bull’s Head, one of Digbeth’s many hidden gems, and I talked at her for two hours about all the things I’d done, from the “yes, that’s probably art” stuff like the Library exhibition with EC Arts to the silly itches I needed to scratch like finding the secret river in my local park.
Karen then went away and digested my ramblings into Curator Speak:
Pete Ashton’s work explores the collapse of time and space in the digital age. He uses a range of media, including photography, animation, the Internet, performance and low-fi materials, creating interventions in real and virtual spaces that challenge us to look closer, calling to question the very experience of seeing in today’s media saturated world.
Performative gestures underly Ashton’s investigations of time and space. He sets rules and parameters that shape his work, such as locating every video other than his own that has been uploaded to the Internet with the file name IMG_4228; attempting to photograph the planet Jupiter; photographing every other bus stop on the number 11 outer circle bus route in Birmingham; or making a journey to find the source of a river. This performative ethos follows through to the physical artworks, which often require the participation of the audience to complete the experience.
For an installation at Birmingham’s Central Library, for instance, Ashton invited passers by to peer through cardboard constructions to view animations on obsolete CRT computer screens. Ashton created the animations from photographs made through the difficult process of TtV, using a different viewfinder to his camera’s to photograph passers by against the backdrop of familiar architecture. Provocatively installed inside the window of the Birmingham Central Library, an iconic building of brutalist architecture on the brink of being destroyed, Ashton’s intervention into public space dealt, first and foremost, with the problem of getting local people to stop and look, and secondly, getting people to see beyond an aesthetic facade and find intrigue and delight at what lies beneath.
- Seeing / looking
- Catching people’s attention in a world of visual overload
- Performance – yours in the process of making / others in the process of looking or viewing
- Setting rules / Parameters / Instinct & restraint
I found this hilarious, seeing myself translated into Art-Wank. It’s the sort of language that I, and many others I know, find terribly off-putting, full of terms like “interventions” which always makes me think of an alcoholic being confronted by their family. Art-Wank is probably the main reason The Artist has this apparent holy status, bestowed after they have mastered the language and learned the codes.
Of course, this isn’t intentional. All industries and interests have their jargon serving as a valuable shorthand. The problem is when jargon escapes into the real world, as Art-Wank so often does in festival programmes and the like. An Artist Statement might be useful for an Artist to position their Art within the pantheon of other Art but it really shouldn’t be read by anyone who isn’t schooled in it.
I am also inherently resistant to any form of formal language. I very nearly failed my English GCSEs and have never gotten on with academia. What you’re reading now is the fruit of 20 years of self-teaching, writing for myself, building my vocab, discarding the made-up words and figuring out the rules and quirks as I went. The downside is I still find it very hard write prescriptively, and Art-Wank is very prescriptive.
But I digress. Karen’s translation was useful because it helped me look at what I was doing from another perspective. It didn’t change the work, just put it in a new context, as part of a different story, if you like. And that narrative helped me to make connections with the work I’ve done (and things I hadn’t considered work). In short, I started to appreciate the usefulness of Art-Wank as a tool, though I remain, at this stage, very resistant to using it.
The main thing Karen suggested I do was go for a Grant For The Arts (G4A) from the Arts Council to give me some space and time to develop my practice. I was a bit sceptical at first – why should the Government pay me to sit on my arse and think about stuff? – but it turns out artist development is one of the things the G4A is for. Not exclusively, obviously. There are plenty of other boxes that need to be ticked and there needs to be a tangible outcome of some kind. But ultimately, if I satisfied their requirements, I could get a sum of money to develop what I do.
And, to cut a long story short, I did. The confirmation letter came through on Friday and the sum on money will be in my bank account soon. According to the schedule I put in the application I officially become a funded artist on Monday 15th July, deliver my work during September and October and spend November preparing myself for The Future. It’s not full time – I’m giving myself one day a week minimum – so I’m able to do my other things, but the main point is I don’t have to scrabble around for little jobs here and there to pay the rent. I’ve got time and space to really knuckle down and turn my undirected enthusiasm (cf passim!) into something coherent and useful in 2014.
There’s a fair amount of muttering around arts funding, some of it justified. If you know how to play the game and have the right contacts you can carve a nice career out of writing arts bids. And then there’s the ethical side – should Art be funded by the state? Isn’t that intrinsically a bad thing? Shouldn’t I be striving to maintain my independence?
Firstly, yes, there is a lot of bad art produced by people who are skilled at writing bids. This is a problem but it doesn’t mean there can’t be good art from the same process. In fact, if more people felt able to go through the process maybe the career fundees might be squeezed out.
Secondly, the Arts Council isn’t there to give handouts to Artist Elite. Nor is it there to dictate a state programme of aesthetic control. But it does have some quite specific requirements and I find it helps to think of them as a client. In asking for funding what I’m actually doing is selling a service. They have needs within the context of Art and I am offering to fulfil those needs in the pursuit of my Art. Where my needs and theirs coincide is the point where it’s worth applying for funding.
In fact, the Arts Council system is possible the most open and accessible funding system I can think of. Imagine if you’re an independent chemist working from a lab in your shed. You want to investigate some new compound which you think might revolutionise batteries or somesuch. Can you apply to the Royal Society of Chemistry for a grant? I’d imagine you’d need to team up with a university or a large corporation before they’d consider you (if they even give grants – I’ve done no research in writing this analogy).
Sure, I’ve bent to their whims. I’ve used the language where appropriate and positioned myself as an emerging resource for the West Midlands artistic community, but only because I want to be in that position. I want to take what I develop over these next few months and turn it into something the arts organisations in Birmingham can employ me to do for them. Maybe that sounds a little to business-like for an “Artist” but, hey, that’s how you get paid, and as a framework of limitations to work within I did find it quite stimulating, forcing me to consider things I hadn’t previously.
This has turned out to be a bit more self-justifying than I anticipated but maybe, having travelled slowly from cynicism to acceptance to understanding of Arts Council funding, I needed to have this conversation with my younger self.
Of course, one of the big downsides of accepting the Council’s coin is I have to slap their bloody logo on whatever I do. Logo-itis, here I come!
So, what now?
Well, you’ll note I haven’t said exactly what I got the money for. I’m going to be talking about that over on Art-Pete, probably starting on Monday when I begin this whole thing. My plan is to document all of it, of course, and I’ve already started gathering inspiration and research on my newly reinvigorated Tumblr. And, as always, you can drop in on my Twitter for updates. I hope you’ll join me.