State of the Pete: Art

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.

Key words:

  • Seeing / looking
  • ExperienceExperience
  • Consciousness
  • 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.

Next, Rabbits.

State of the Pete: Shop

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 first bunch of words. Next.


Last September I got involved with Stirchley Stores, a volunteer run cooperative shop in Stirchley, where I live, run at the front of Loaf’s bakery selling their bread. I had a few reasons for helping out. At the most prosaic I was working a lot from home and needed reasons to leave the house and talk to other people. I also liked what Tom Baker, the baker who runs Loaf, was trying to achieve and wanted to help him if I could. If I got nothing from Waterstone’s other than a recalibration on the inherent value of The Book (there is no inherent value) it was some fundamental retail skills which I could bring to the mix, no to mention the lessons learned from the Created in Birmingham pop-up shop. And underlying all of this was a hefty sludge of guilt over how I’d stood by and let the We Are Birmingham shop collapse into failure and bitter recriminations after I put my name and reputation to it. I don’t know what if anything I could have done to stop that adventure being such a clusterfuck but it’s haunted me ever since. Maybe helping Stirchley Stores avoid a similar fate would kill that demon.

So, the months went by and despite my personal rule of not getting more involved that I needed to (I deliberately avoided any meetings where people were given specific jobs, knowing my tendency to put myself forward for such things) I found myself doing a fair amount of work for the shop. I carved a role as a problem solver, wiring up the computer to the internet, deciphering the till manual into English, devising a simple online sign-up sheet for shifts and so on. I deliberately didn’t get involved with the stock or the broader mission of the co-op, partly because I’m ironically not very interested in food, but did my bit for the practical day-to-day stuff.

Something else I’ve been getting interested in this last year is the profession of Volunteer Co-ordinator. Many organisations, particularly in the funded sector, rely on volunteers and if you’ve ever worked with volunteers you’ll know they’re often harder to manage than paid employees. With an employee the relationship is clear – you are paid an agreed sum of money to do a prescribed job. Everyone involved understands what is required and expected. But when people volunteer their time and energies for free the dynamic is never clear. Everyone has their own reasons and motivations for volunteering and their own judgement of the value and importance of their contribution. Regardless of the pros and cons of this (on the one hand I’ve taken a liking to the term “undirected enthusiasm” for when a volunteer uses their initiative without understanding the bigger picture, while on the other I’m constantly amazed that a volunteer-run shop actually works) the simple fact is managing a group of volunteer workers is completely different, and often harder work, to managing paid staff. And this dynamic fascinates me.

In the Spring I volunteered to work at the Flatpack Festival but I specifically asked for something a bit more senior that I could get my teeth into. I wound up being front of house manager for one of their pop-up venues, responsible for a team of up to 10 volunteers each night running the door and bar. It was an exhausting few days of firefighting and personality wrangling but I loved it. Meanwhile, back at the shop I’d been helping Emma, the volunteer co-ordinator (and only salaried person there), with training new members and the like and getting a taste for how that all worked.

And then Emma decided to go travelling and her job was advertised. And after joking about it I applied. And then I got it. So I’m now officially a Volunteer Co-ordinator.

Of course, having taken the job expecting to simply build on the work Emma had done over the first 9 months of the shop, something major happened soon after I accepted. As detailed in this post, Loaf have decided to extend their bakery into the space currently used by the shop and Stirchley Stores needs to be out early next year. So no only do I have to keep the shop staffed with volunteers five days a week, I have to do so while helping the membership figure out the future and stay positive.

Oh, and I’m employed for 10 hours a week.

It’s going to be a lot of fun and I should come out the other side with a shitload of experience of managing volunteers, not to mention members-run organisations (I’ve been looking into Workers Cooperatives as a business model recently).

So, that’s happening.

Next, Art.

The Yellow Pages QR Code Ultimate Putdown

If you see this on the Interwebs, it came from my camera, like that matters.

If you see this on the Interwebs, it came from my camera, like that matters.

This afternoon the new Yellow Pages came though the door.

He’s right. Every year this increasingly redundant and dramatically shrinking book comes through the door and I post something about how increasingly redundant and dramatically shrinking it is. Acting superior to dying media platforms comforts me.

Recently I’ve taken to posting a photo of their QR code instructions too. Last year it generated a few titters and quickly fell into the soup of forgotten tweets. This year it went mildly viral with 279 retweets and 79 faves at time of writing (not to mention another 100+ quote-tweets, or whatever we’re calling them now).

This doesn’t happen to me very often but when it does I’m always struck by how it has nothing to do with me. In order for something to “go viral” it has to be divorced utterly from the original context. The meaning is folded into the narrative of the sharer. The source, even when credited, is irrelevant. It’s part of the hive-mind, an object around which relationships, prejudices and opinions are shaped and enforced. That I took the photo is beyond irrelevant.

People who haven’t had this experience can get all excited on your behalf when something like this happens, thinking it’s going to have dramatic knock-on effects. Yesterday at least 2,252 people saw the photo on Twitter and I got 25 new followers. The day before, with nothing special going on, I got 14 new followers. Given most will be spam or ghost corporate accounts (the sorts where no-one actually reads the stream) let’s be generous and say 10 actual people followed me because of this picture. That’s a conversion rate of 0.44%.


I’m not complaining. I’m happy my funny resonated and I’m glad to have provided a weapon in the war against QR codes which are as stupid and ugly and useless as they ever were and need to die. But, as with the Amazon Rape T-shirt whirlwind, I’m under no illusions that this was about me.

Harkiving my listening with photography

Harkive is a curious little project aiming to understand how people listen to music these days, the assumption being it’s a little more complicated than simply putting a record on, by keeping a record of when music comes into their lives. The official day of Harkiving (get it?) is July 9th and since this is the first one they’ve asked a few people to test drive it. As a camera-jockey I was asked to do this through the medium of photographs, uploading them to Flickr with the tag “harkive” so they can be found. Here, then, is my day of music for June 11th 2013:

Computer Game Music
The soundtrack to Apoc Wars, a passable iOS clone of Starcraft, is by Disasterpeace whose bandcamp email alerted me to its presence.
Harkive Music Listening record 01

TV Show Theme Music
I’m currently mainlining The West Wing so the patriotic strains of Snuffy Walden are part of my life. There’s also incidental music, often from the pop stable.
Harkive Music Listening record 02

iTunes In The Office
When I’m working, and Fiona either isn’t there or doesn’t need to focus hard, I slap iTunes on shuffle. It works through 13,300 mp3s that I’ve rated as not-shit meaning I don’t tend to hear the same stuff over and over. It’s plugged into the stereo and is probably the closest I get to HiFi listening.
Harkive Music Listening record 03

Washing Up
I very rarely put music on for a task but washing up and cooking seem to require it. I used to listen to the radio but don’t have a radio in the kitchen. This is a five-star rated playlist of a hundred-ish tracks on shuffle. When I sync it removes anything that’s been played or skipped in the last few weeks and replaces it with stuff that hasn’t.
Harkive Music Listening record 04

Previewing on Bandcamp
Speaking of Disasterpeace (above), Bandcamp informed me he/she had a new album out which I bought for a few dollars. I previewed it on the Bandcamp site for a bit first though. I probably won’t listen to it in full for a while.
Harkive Music Listening record 05

iPod In The Car
I don’t listen to music radio in the car as the talky bits (chat, news, adverts) irritate the crap out of me, so I’ve rigged up my old 80gb iPod to the stereo with cables and velcro. This is the same 13,300 track selection as on the desktop. Since my journeys are never more than 20 minutes it’s usually shuffle though I sometimes put albums on.
Harkive Music Listening record 06

Movie Night
Friends invited me over to see a movie with pizza. The film, No Country For Old Men, was actually pretty music free though there was some over the credits.
Harkive Music Listening record 07

Pub DJ
My friend Seb DJing at 8bit Lounge, a nostalgia-fetishising computer games night at the Hare and Hounds pub. I sometimes do this myself but I forgot a critical cable tonight. Seb’s playing chiptune mp3s through Traktor with a USB controller deck thingy. All the legacy DJ crap in the background isn’t being used.
Harkive Music Listening record 08

(Photos in the house taken with Nikon DSLR, photos away from home taken with iPad.)

The most interesting thing about this exercise was how often I don’t listen to any music at all. I can go for hours without deliberately putting music on, despite having it loaded on all of my devices from phone to computer to telly. And when I do listen it’s not to anything specific – music is background, wallpaper.

Anyhoo, if you’d like to join in with Harkive on July 9th you can do so in all manner of ways. Please do.

Manbag Techbag

Like I’m sure many of you, I need to cary a small but significant amount of peripheral tech around with me. I don’t mean the phone/computer/camera/etc – I mean the little things, the cables, adaptors and plugs that support those things. And like I’m sure many of you I’ve often found myself in a situation where the right cable is not in my bag. It’s at home, on my desk, or in a different bag. And so, because this sort of thing is often related to my work and therefore mildly mission critical, I’ve bought a bag (effectively a pencil case) which neatly fits next to the iPad and the Nikon in my shoulder bag (aka my “manbag” according to Fiona) and put together my essential kit. Here it is:


And here’s what’s in it.

Techbag Inside

From top left to bottom right:

  • iPad to VGA adaptor
  • iPad SD card reader
  • USB SD card reader
  • 4GB USB drive
  • 1GB USB drive
  • Micro USB adaptor
  • A different Micro USB adaptor
  • Clip-on microphone
  • Headphones
  • Headphone/microphone dual-socket splitter
  • 1/8″ to 1/4″ audio plug adaptor
  • 1/4″ to 1/8″ audio plug adaptor
  • HDMI to Mini HDMI adaptor
  • 1/8″ audio cable
  • Analogue video cable
  • USB cable
  • Old-style iOS cable
  • Mini-DVI to VGA adaptor
  • USB mains plug

I’m sure there’s something missing and I’m sure the contents will change over time, but for now there it is.

Inspired, in part, by this.

This post has been an exercise is displacement procrastination. I shall now return to what I was supposed to be doing.

The Alpha Rabbit

So in January we accidentally got rabbits. It was only supposed to be a temporary thing while relatives moved but they were so happy and they made us so happy that the relatives in question said we could keep them, so we did. And now we have rabbits.

For some reason I haven’t had cause to write about them, other than the occasional tweet, and even photos and videos have been scarce. Maybe that reason is I’ve been spending that part of my attentions building their home. Here’s the video of the first iteration of Bunminster Towers:

It’s now completed (at least until I start on the next iteration) so maybe it’s time to start documenting them a little more. The problem is having gone through the first few months I’m not sure where to start. Maybe it’s best to just dive in.

Bunminster, the male rabbit, is at least a year older than Mrs B, the female rabbit we still haven’t found a name for (latest candidate: “Brenda”). When she was introduced to him she was just a wee kitten (baby rabbits are called kittens) and so he was able to establish himself as the dominant rabbit.

Rabbits are herd/pack animals, like dogs, so it’s important that they know their place in the group. Even a bonded pair like our bunnies have to have a pecking order and originally it was him over her. But then she grew up. Mr and Mrs B are mongrel rabbits, mixes of various domestic breeds with, I suspect, a dash of wild in there. He’s quite small and svelt with a thin lizard-like head. She’s a big fat-faced bruiser, twice his size and not afraid to use it.

It reminds me a bit of when I was on the farm a decade ago (by the christ was it really a decade ago?) and one of the chickens was tricked into hatching a clutch of duck eggs. At first she was happy – the ducklings were kinda the same size and temperament as the chicks she was expecting – but soon they grew, and grew, and eventually she was trapped in a pen with 10 manic quacking lunatics. Bunminster doesn’t have it that bad but I do feel a little sorry for him at times. His young bride hasn’t turned out quite the way he expected.

But he hasn’t given up. Sometimes he fights back against her physical advantages with a sharp nip on the nose. She’ll squeal and run off and he’ll have the look of a lion, relaxed in the knowledge that he’s leader of the pack. It never lasts, of course, and within a few hours she’s climbing over him and stealing his food. But for that short period he’s the boss.

Today he was feeling particularly kingly. The morning started with them fighting over banana chips as my mother (who is visiting) tried to coax them back in the hutch. She thought she’d trapped Mrs B’s in the door given the noise she’d made and was feeling guilty, but it turned out he’d nipped her. She was cowering in the tunnel while he dozed in the sun.

Later, once were back to their loved-up bonded-pair coupleness, the neighbour’s cat came to visit. Battle Cat (hey, blame Neil (hi Neil!)) is the fluffy one in my current blog header and, despite appearances, is actually a testosterone-fuled tom cat. While he finds the rabbits endlessly fascinating in recent weeks they’ve all started mellowing out a bit. But today either BC or Bunminster pushed that detente to the limit. The rabbit nudged at the cat, the cat patted the rabbit on the head, the rabbit didn’t budge, the cat swiped a bit harder, and eventually the rabbit barrelled into the cat, chasing him out of the garden.

Battle Cat was probably just playing with these weird furry blobs that have been in his territory since January – he’s a cheeky little sod and never learns his lesson (see this fantastic video Fi shot). But Bunmister was doing something else. The cats have been hanging around for long enough now that he sees them as part of the pack, and so he needs to know where they stand. Is he in charge or should he yield? After today I think he knows who the boss is. It’s him. (See also the story of Daphne and Felix – yes, I’ve been reading far too many things about rabbits written in this style…)

For Bunminster Bobbin, today was a good day.

An Engagement

So on Saturday morning I asked Fiona to marry me and she said yes and then we were engaged which is like a whole thing where everyone congratulates you and it’s lovely but kinda weird at the same time because nothing has really changed but everything has sort of changed and I feel nice but kinda odd at the same time, like I’m grown up but the world is new like it is for a child and anyway, we’re getting married.

No idea when. No idea how. To be honest the idea of “getting” married fills us with a bit of dread. We’re more interested in “being” married. Maybe we’re too old for all that nonsense.

Anyway, it occurred to me the news only existed on a few tweets on Saturday and a Facebook thread, and that won’t do, so here the blog post.

And here’s a photo of us on Friday night, at a birthday meal for Fi’s sister when I decided, yes, I’d like to have this ridiculous family around me for the rest of my life.