What DOES Pete do?

If I had to state, under threat of physical harm, what has been the unifying thread through my adult life, or at least the last decade since I severed ties with bookselling, it would be figuring out what I do for a living. I know I do things and I know I manage to earn a living, but pinpointing exactly what it is, and what it might be in the future, has never been simple. It’s one of the reasons I reluctantly went with the “consultant” badge, despite the connotations (while I do have respect for what useful consultants do, like “social media” the brand is tainted) and am now enthusiastically embracing my shiny new “artist” badge. They allow me to do a broad range of things without having to change the business cards too often. (Not that I have business cards these days – I just hand out Photo School stickers.)

Sidebar: It occurs to me now that this was the same reason I chose to study Philosophy at University, beyond a genuine interest in the subject. All the other courses felt a bit restrictive, in that they’d lead me into a particular vocation or career. Philosophy was, by definition, about how we understand everything and therefore would leave my options open as much as possible. I might not have completed the degree (my aversion to academic study is on record and makes for very amusing talks to school kids when I reveal I have no qualifications of any real value) but I suspect doing so wouldn’t have made that much difference to my outlook. Keep it vague, keep it open.

So whenever someone asks, with genuine curiosity, whether the thing I just did with them is what I do for a living or if I do something else or just how the hell do you even exist in modern society don’t you know there’s a ideologically induced recession on for heavens sake, I tend to bluster around giving ten answers when one will probably do, ultimately admitting that I don’t know but the bills seem to get paid eventually. And Fiona’s agreed to marry me so I must be doing something right because she’s well careful about money.

It happened today at the end of my Beginners Photography class. As I was packing up one of the student innocently asked if this was my full time job. As I went through the usual bluster it occurred to me that, slowly but with a strange inevitability, this is becoming my full time job, in that everything I do can be connected in some way to this class.

A few weeks back, when I was in the middle of the ideas-soup of my Arts Council funded thingy (documented at length on Art-Pete if you only check this site and have been wondering where I’ve been), I broke out the whiteboard and looked at the things I did for cash, now that I’ve stopped doing website building and had stood down from the volunteer co-ordinator job at Stirchley Stores.

Sidebar: I stood down from the volunteer co-ordinator job at Stirchley Stores which I took on in July. It was a shame but I genuinely didn’t have time to do it alongside the other stuff in my life and I realised it was the one thing that didn’t fit. Back when I took the job it looked like I was heading towards events and people management, which there’s always a good demand for in the volunteer-supported culture sector. Then I got the Arts Council grant and my life, once again, changed direction. So you see why I bluster when asked what I do. It so often changes with the wind.

I drew up four columns. Making, Thinking, Teaching and Other.

Making is when I create stuff, mostly as an artist. It’s the things that are a product of my own hands and ideas or as part of a collaboration. I’m working on a project with Jenny Duffin at the moment (to be revealed either next month or in January, depending on things) which very much comes under the Making banner. Making also included my own photography. In short, it’s when the conduit to the creation of a thing is myself.

Thinking is when I marshall stuff that isn’t made by me. I initially called this Curating but that felt too constrained, though it is part of it. This could be something as simple as my Tumblr or it could be the Bring Your Own Beamer group show I’m co-curating with Antonio Roberts this month. This is things that I maybe can’t do myself but am interested in and want to make sense of. New developments in cameras and image capture would come under this. It fascinates me but I’m not at MIT.

Teaching needs less explanation. It holds Photo School and related photography workshops but also leaves me open to earn from my digital skills knowledge bank. For example, Fiona and I are currently pitching a Digital Skills for Writers and Editors course which builds on the course I helped her run last year. I might not be taking the Social Media coin (that money-tree has fully sailed into marketing and PR land now, to mix a metaphor) but I still enjoy explaining how all this stuff works on a fundamental level, and that kind of literacy about the digital tools that inform our work is more essential than ever.

Other is all the stuff that takes up my time but which doesn’t earn me money, or support the earning of money (the art, for example, might not bring in the bucks but it leads to workshops and keeps me fresh for teaching). Currently the list holds Rabbits, Wedding, House Stuff and Admin. I guess Admin does support my earnings, but whatever, it’s the bucket at the end of the conveyor belt. The main thing is I don’t forget about these things and their importance.

I then added a fifth column, Development. This Arts Council funded period has been a fantastic piece of personal development and I need to keep that going. How I do this is something I’ll work out in December during the evaluation but it will involve going to more conferences and festivals (I’ve booked a ticket for Resonate in Belgrade next Spring) and learning new skills (I’ve had a Arduino sitting in my desk drawer since the summer).

So, Pete does all of these things and, I hope they all relate to each other, in the sense that they all support each other. Even the rabbits who genuinely bring me well being. I never knew animal husbandry was such a mentally beneficial thing. It’s all good.

Fi is in Belgium with a friend this weekend and messaged me to say she’d had the “do what does Pete do” conversation with said friend and had actually managed to answer it this time. I asked her what she’d said, as the view from outside my head is always welcome. She wrote:

Brings clarity and engages interest and participation through creative experimentation with digital and other tools. Plays around with stuff the rest of us don’t have the time, interest or inclination to explore, thereby building a bridge to follow.

It’s still a bit wordy but there’s a coherence there.

What do you think I do? Comments are on.

If Wet… photo fundraiser

If Wet - April 01

As you may know I’ve been most taken with a monthly event called If Wet…. I went initially to support my chum Sam Underwood and his parter in audio crime David Morton and have a day out in the countryside. But I returned each month because it’s become an essential part of my artistic development. Also it’s one of the few chances I give myself to actually take photos for the sake of taking photos. (For whatever reason I don’t take good photos when I’m teaching photography or leading a photo walk. Different headspace I guess.)

I’ve blogged recently about If Wet on my Art Pete site here and here, so you can get a flavour of what it’s like and how it’s affected me. In short, I enjoy taking the explorations of sound artists and musicians and replacing “sound waves” with “light waves” to see where it takes me. I’ve also enjoyed the open and friendly ambiance they strive to create with artists free to discuss their work with their peers. It’s like nothing else I’m aware of and needs to keep happening.

If Wet 2 - May - 29

Sam and David have been running If Wet for the last 6 months fuelled by love and favours but as anyone knows this isn’t sustainable, so they’re doing a big fundraiser. I’d like to be part of that.

I’m offering prints of my photos from If Wet #1 through #5 as signed and framed prints. There are two sizes available at two prices. After production costs half the price of each sale will go to If Wet. (I’m obviously taking nothing.)

If Wet 5 - August - 27

The sizes are A4 in an IKEA Ribba 30x40cm frame for £20, and A3 in a Ribba 40x50cm frame for £40. The photos are mounted and I’ll sign the mount. I will print the photos to order and deliver them to If Wet on Saturday 30th November.

All my If Wet photos are in this Flickr set. Choose the one you’d like and paste its name in the box below. Select the size and pay by PayPal.

Name of photo

  • Deadline for orders is November 22nd. I’ll be printing them to order so will need a week.
  • Photos will be delivered brought to If Wet in Callow End on Saturday November 30th.
  • If you want something other than the above or want them posting, get in touch though be aware I’ll add a reasonable surcharge. I’m keeping this simple to make sure I can do it in good time.

The title of the photo can be found on Flickr in the indicated places. If you’re unsure copy and paste the web address. I’ll confirm the photo with you before ordering.

If Wet 3 - June - 30 | Flickr - Photo Sharing!

State of the Pete: Social Media Consultant

I’m doing a thing at a thing for money and had to write a bio. It’s off the cuff but it’s a reasonable stab at how I professionally approach Internet stuff at the moment:

Pete Ashton is an artist and photography teacher based in Stirchley, Birmingham. Through combination of being an early adopter of blogging and Twitter and a disbelief that other people didn’t see how useful this stuff was, he gained a reputation as a “Social Media Consultant” in the West Midlands. In recent years he has tried to shake off this label as it has become colonised by snake-oil salesmen and charlatans, preferring the to describe his work in this area as Digital Literacy.

Pete believes the Internet is made of humans and is therefore a lot like the rest of the world: messy, confusing and often scary, but ultimately rewarding if you make the most of it. He uses the online tools that suit him and ignores the ones that don’t. You won’t find him on LinkedIn and he doesn’t check his Facebook messages. But his email inbox is always at zero.

Pete does his Digital Literacy work under the banner ASH-10. In return for money he’ll help you see the wood for the trees and gain some understanding of how and why things online work the way they do.

I’m chairing a panel discussion with Modified Toy Orchestra and Juneau Projects

Modified Toys 05

This one came completely out of the blue. While attending the launch of Square Wave, an exhibition of instruments made by the Modified Toy Orchestra and Juneau Projects at the A3 Project Space last week, curator Trevor Pitt asked me if I’d chair a panel discussion between the artists. I was slightly taken aback but his reasoning was I knew about both of them, being a massive MTO fan (I run a fan blog about them) and a long-time admirer of JP’s insistence of making their art fun (Cardboard Wars for heavens sake).

The event information is on a Facebook page, so to save you the teeth-gnashing, soul destroying experience of clicking that link, here’s all you need to know.

Square Wave Talk
Thursday 25th July 6.30pm
£4 (£2 unwaged)

Brian Duffy, Laurence Hunt, Phil Duckworth, Ben Sadler and Joeseph Weldon talk about their ideas behind making electronic instruments and music – hosted by Pete Ashton.

A3 Project Space, Unit A3, 2 Bowyer Street, Digbeth, Birmingham, B10 OSA
View Map

10 Bowyer St, Birmingham, West Midlands, UK - Google Maps

The £4/2 fee goes straight to the artists. I’m not taking a fee (though I did get given a lovely MTO Japan tour poster!) and the exhibition is not funded and this event serves to raise funds to pay them.

If you can’t make the talk the exhibition is open this Friday and Saturday, 12-5pm. (It’s just a short run.) I highly recommend going, but then I would.

Modified Toys 06



OK Craig, since you asked so nicely

Hit shuffle on iTunes while writing a blog post in the office. Bright Eyes, Camper Van Beethoven, Queen, Aphex Twin.

iPad on shuffle while working at Stirchley Stores in Loaf’s kitchen. Started with The Bad Plus’ cover of Veloria.

iPod on shuffle in the car (Tunng, Joni Mitchell) then generative 90s computer game music in a pub, then back in the car again (Elbow, Dead Can Dance).

Particularly notable birdsong in the garden.

Watched a music video embedded in a blog post.

Five seconds of a live-stream via a phone of someone at a gig I was considering going to.

As before, I became aware there are whole swathes of time when I have no music in my life at all and when I do it tends to be very much in the background. Also, as before, this happened on the same night as 8bit Lounge, which was an odd coincidence.

I recorded this using an iOS note taking app called Write which handily timestamps the title of a note by default. Since it’s on my phone, iPad and Macs it’s going to be everywhere I listen to music.

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.