The CRITshow event was the culmination of the Creative Whispers group project, in which each collaborator began by producing an item intended to represent their practice. These were brought along to each meeting (beginning December 2013) and passed on to a new artist. The task was to respond to each piece and bring it back the following month. The pattern repeated for 5 responses, with the intention being to discuss and review the outcomes in order to research the characteristics of practice and the effect of labelling work as the product of a particular discipline, though we also knew we would have some interesting pieces in their own right. The final responses were shared at our last meeting and some of those can be seen here. Creative Whispers was the first time we have either collaborated or shown work in what I am now coming to think of as more than just a networking group but actually something beginning to approach an arts collective. I normally try and keep my blog posts as neutral as possible out of respect for the fact that my views are not shared by everyone who attends our meetings. As the CRITshow day was much longer than our usual 2 hour slot however; I couldn’t possibly record enough notes to give everyone’s views an equal airing so in this instance I feel at liberty to make this a more personal reflection.
We had the morning set aside for a group curatorial activity, which is actually a very grand and ‘arty’ way of saying we all put our work up. I was very surprised how smoothly this went. My experience of hanging shows is that this can be quite a stressful experience and I have witnessed many a bitter falling out over something as apparently trivial as a 1 cm difference in hanging height on a wall. I think this was largely a result of the fact that the work we were showing had itself been collaborative and any sense of ownership was subsequently diluted. That the project had been by nature experimental also reduced the tendency for people to become precious about little things like how straight pictures might be or whether there were fingerprints on the walls! We did not take a structured approach to how the work was hung, despite having discussed some possible groupings in the meeting last Wednesday. In fact it turned into a very fluid and organic process and watching it all get hung put me in mind of a busy public square. People moved at various speeds and directions all with separate tasks and concerns yet rarely (!) collided and despite this apparent separation of purpose, still came together under the umbrella of one place, one moment and of course in our case one ultimate goal. I found it a real treat to sit back for a while and watch it all come together. Though the concept of CRITgroup was initially ‘mine’ and I have been facilitating the organisation of meetings, write-ups and project collation for the past 18 months, I do not usually find it appropriate to reflect on it as any kind of personal achievement as I feel this would undermine the intention of it being a truly equal, shared experience. During the hanging however, I did come to realise that these artists would not all now be coming together in such an harmonious fashion, nor indeed would any of the work exist, had I not undertaken these administrational efforts.
Once the work had been displayed we set about realising our planned method of demonstrating the links between each response. During discussion of how to illustrate the progression of the pieces, the word ‘thread’ kept being used to describe this and it wasn’t a huge leap to see how thread might be physically utilised. As we had not placed the work in any sequence beyond aesthetic or practical considerations, this naturally became very chaotic as we used coloured wool to trace a line in space from each starting point to the subsequent response. Personally, I feel this was especially effective as it not only illustrated the sequence but also reflected an unintended networking of responses which evolved as each outcome was received and responded to in the context of those that had come before it. Some also felt (including myself, though I know not everyone did) that it became increasingly difficult not to be at least a little influenced by all the other outcomes, as well as the one on which you were supposed to be focussing and that the pieces all became somehow linked, even tangled, in one another seemed to me rather an appropriate representation of this.
We had agreed that after lunch we would produce further responses to the work in direct collaboration (as opposed to the rest of the responses that might really be viewed as only conceptual collaborations; shared and discussed but taken away and physically worked on individually), however it actually became a very much more reflective session with everyone content to simply spend some time digesting the fruits of our labours and enjoying the opportunity to engage in conversation about things outside of art, getting to know one another a little more deeply. This time also allowed us freedom to engage with members of the public who came in to see the work and I really don’t think this would have happened so productively if we had all been hooked into making. Having said this, we did eventually break into three smaller groups. Interestingly, these seemed to be formed by natural homologies in either our practices or our ideas, which seems to cement the importance of discipline or concept as a source of commonality. Irena and Kevin for example (see Irena’s video below) , took random photographs from fixed points of passers-by in what they described as a visual Flâneur (a stroll or meander). Not only did the photographers default to taking photographs, their recent contributions to Creative Whispers have both included elements of voyeurism in response to public spaces. Equally, that Christine, Renate and I decided to embark upon a ‘walk-shop’, which we christened ‘Urban Forage’; a scavenger hunt about the Northern Quarter in search of wild (actually in many cases not so wild) food plants, was a clear continuation of elements of each of our recent contributions as well as our wider practices. Shirley and David went on an exploratory mission into the city and their work too has many similarities in representing urban aesthetics through the appreciation of light and reflection. These groupings formed very naturally, and it was both productive and enjoyable for them to have done so, however I do wonder if we might have derived more in terms of research from a deliberate attempt to ‘mix up’ our disciplines a little more. Maybe that will come out of our future work.
Upon returning to MadLab we ended the day with a reflective and analytical discussion, to which we also welcomed two new faces who have not been involved in the project. I found it useful and informative to have input from people who had not been ‘embroiled’ in the project.
The first key point covered was primarily that everyone felt participation in collaborating had been very much a positive experience, even described as an ‘antidote’ to working as a solitary artist. It was identified that the continuous changes every month kept work and individuals developing, and also moved it outside of the usual creative experience. Most of us felt that not producing the work with the intention of it being viewed by an audience outside of our circle was a good thing as it freed us up to make mistakes, allowed risk taking and encouraged individuals to step out of their comfort zone. It was also noted that the ‘peer pressure’ or obligation to complete work for each meeting in order to not let each other down helped to not only motivate but also facilitate new ideas. On the flip side, the social tendency towards ‘politeness’ resulted in many people (though not everyone) making choices to avoid potentially upsetting each other (especially when it came to ‘destroying’ work) so it might be that this is an area of risk taking that was under-explored. The reluctance to deconstruct another’s work was an interesting instinct and there was a debate around whether this came from moral or political reservations in relation to the destruction or preservation of art which has often been used as a vehicle for expression in more oppressive situations.
Reflections on the difference between ‘art’ and ‘craft’, along with their perceived hierarchies then became the dominant topic. One suggestion was that ‘craft’ is very much more defined from the outset with a prescribed outcome that will be either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ on a technical level, while ‘art’ tends to allow the outcome to be very much more formed or influenced by serendipitous changes that occur during making. It was discussed that if this can be accepted as a distinction then the ‘art’ approach tended to embody a more modern perspective, while the ‘craft’ was more closely linked to traditional values. We also discussed situations where the ‘artist’ passes an idea on to a ‘crafter’ to be physically realised and I personally think this is also an important distinction where ‘art’ tends to be more concerned with ideas and concepts to be communicated where ‘craft’ idealises physical outcomes that can be identified as having a specific purpose. We questioned how valuable these semantics are to us under the even broader categorisation of ‘creatives’. It was generally felt that these questions underpin important current debates in the wider financial climate with regards to applications for arts funding as well as proposed changes to arts education. If work can be sold, it is commoditised; however it is also self-justifying, where publically funded art is often seen as a ‘past time’. Though arguments that the arts satisfy a deeper, emotional or social human need may themselves be justifiable, they will always take a back seat to physical needs, especially in times of for example, rising food and energy bills. As a teacher, this definitely put me in mind of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs! We discussed the perception that many modern art forms have had the requirement for practical skill removed, especially in areas where it is either more conceptually driven or specifically intended to demonstrate that ‘anyone can be an artist’. This led us back to discuss recent discomfort with the notion that an artist does not always physically make their own work, though we also recognised a long tradition of this. We discussed how important the process is to the outcome, and while we accepted that this is not a black and white distinction but something that depends on the work, some comments comparing visual arts to performance based disciplines suggested that in fact it was the outcome more often than not that embodied a majority of the value ascribed to it by the audience. This developed into a discussion of artists’ statements and while many felt them to be an unnecessary intrusion into the relationship between the work and the viewer, some equally noted that being informed about a piece of work could actually allow an audience to get more out of it. It was generally agreed however, that ‘lazy’ or poorly written statements, especially those that were self-aggrandising or that use unnecessarily inaccessible language did more harm than good.
I am very happy to report that he day finally concluded with a discussion of plans for the next stage of collaborative working. Titled ‘Crafting by Committee’, the project will run over the three sessions at the end of the year, starting in October. Participating artists will submit proposals for projects which will be discussed by others forming representative ‘panels’. The panels will then feed back to the submitting artist with clear instructions for how their proposal should be realised. There will be one further meeting (November) for review of project development in a similar format before submission of final products or outcomes in December. We will then look into the differences between the initial proposal and the realisation of the project at completion stage, analysing how any contrasts between disciplinary approaches might have impacted upon this and how it affects our investigations into practice and discipline.
To summarise; it was a long but relaxed and very enjoyable day and I feel we all benefited from the opportunity to spend more time together than usual. Seeing the work we have produced all in one space was an important conclusion to a project that we each drew different creative sustenance from and the variety of outcomes, ranging from those that were unapologetically self-indulgent to those attempting to flush out opportunities for debate, from the purely aesthetic to the entirely conceptual, were all drawn together under the common seizure of a chance to push personal boundaries. That the work became a catalyst for discussion of the wider state of arts from a socio-political perspective as well as a creative one, validated the project in a contemporary and research based context, and that each participant is demonstrably keen to be involved in the next phase must be the clearest indication of all that we have not only facilitated a meaningful discussion between different practitioners but also motivated productivity. I am therefore very satisfied at the end of this important development that CRITgroup can be seen as continuing to healthily achieve its two primary aims.
Written by Annabeth