Archive for Other things of interest

the pasts and the presents: a small-scale public art activity

The challenge was to create a simple object to be placed in a public setting in a way that could interact with an existing sense of place, and potentially prompt new perspectives for users of that space.

The place chosen was a major public square in central Birmingham (UK). This acts as a place for occasional protests and demonstrations, as well as being used for events and festivals. Generally, though, is simply a place to move through on the way to somewhere else. Conceptually, it is an enclosure and a container of things whilst, at the same time, being a void, a gap between buildings, an emptiness needing bodies to bring it to life.

More importantly, it is a point at which three overlapping versions of the city meet each other as three sweeping clover-leaf segments.

One broad view takes in the School of Art, the city’s Education Department; some art galleries and the city museum; a major convention centre; the theatre; the library; the Council House and other impressive buildings from the Civic Pride era of the city’s history. This is the city as art and learning.

Turn through an arc and the view is of shopping centres; major streets of city-centre stores; the city’s developing metro tramway line; and some railway stations. This is the city as retail and transport.

Turn again and the third view from the square is the district of banks, insurance offices and corporate headquarters; and the historical Jewellery Quarter. It is the city as finance and trade.

Each aspect has its own set of histories, its own ever-changing present and its own possibilities for the future. There is a point in the Square where these three segments come together. Pasts, presents and futures collide at that point.

So, it is a layered, contemporary place which can be understood in various ways. People often have little sense of the square’s intricate history and give even less thought to its potential futures. For many, it is a place that simply exists; that is simply there – where a version of the present is constantly being constructed and reconstructed.

It is a square that houses a number of different works of public art. These are monuments or large-scale pieces by commissioned artists. Putting a work of art of my own alongside these would change the location very slightly, might influence how people use the space, and could be a prompt for conversation or reflection.

Finally, the Square was often a place at which people take bearings, consult maps, admit to being a bit lost, and ask for directions. It was decided to build on this and to install a signpost at some significant spots in the Square. Rather than direct people to physical locations, this signpost would have arms pointed to ‘the pasts’ and ‘the presents’.

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Aspects of the contemporary – a context for thinking about art

In another piece of writing, it was suggested that elements of thinking about art would need to be viewed within some understandings of the contemporary context. What is it about society today that shapes how art is produced, exchanged and consumed? What is unique today about the conditions within which artists work and audiences approach the art made?

What follows are some facets of the contemporary that have been proposed as defining our age (eg the period from the past few decades up to the present). Some of these might also have been put forward as descriptors of earlier periods (eg 1900-1940, or 1960-1980), but what is different now is the scale and pace associated with those elements. Other things are clearly new to the contemporary, with its electronically-driven processes.

These observations have been grouped into three broad groupings that have a high degree of interaction across each other.

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Art Theorising: a process of open exploration

Art theory, like art history, is often presented in terms of sequences, schools of thought, or key individual thinkers– looking both for unique perspectives and for linkages between these.

Art theory has also tended to be Art Theory ie a bundle of expert knowledge, to be taught and written about; usually treated as a summary. It is less seen as art theorising ie a process, open to many, with ‘maybe’ and ‘good enough for now’ tentative aspects to it. From this second perspective art theory is less a canon of ideas to be applied to art; and more of an emerging, loose, adaptable framework within which art can be considered and within which things might be thought through.

What is suggested here is that art theorising is a process of reinvestigation, of reconstruction, of regeneration – using elements of previous ways of theorising. The kind of thinking imagined is along the lines of hinging fragmentary understandings together in ways that make personal sense – a kind of ‘build our own theorisation’ process.

Setting these thinkings within considerations of the nature of contemporary society, may allow people to follow their own theorisations about art in the current context: what art is; why it is; where it is shifting; and what this means for society in general.

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Art and identity

For the purposes of this piece of writing, art will be restricted very largely to painting and performance art of Europe and the US. Some references will be made to art from elsewhere, particularly when considering the broadened art world of contemporary art practices. Identity will follow the lines of modern sociology (in which identity is taken as being created at the meeting place of subjective processes inscribed within the way people live, and the social narratives that position us towards particular ways of being). Within this line of thought, the individual is shaped by genetics, environment, upbringing and life-choices but in conditions that are largely socially prescribed at the time.

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Art and war

This exploration of Art and War will take an overview of the various connections between war and art; then look at the work of some artists who were, officially or incidentally, portrayers of war activity between 1914 and the present day. It is not intended as a comprehensive list of artists who have made works relating to war. Nor is it a history of war art. One theme will be how and why war-related art has been made, and who the audiences may have been.

In and around times of war, art can be made for a number of purposes. The artistic urge to record or comment may be driven by motivations around celebration, memorialisation, propaganda, information, and moral stances that can be pro- or anti-war. The work of the artist throughout various wars has been to describe events. This has, at times, been extended to call into question the purpose of war, the nature of society and to reflect on the human condition.

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Art and abstraction

Abstraction as an approach has had a major impact in developments within art. An exploration into abstraction in art is faced with an almost irresistible urge to collapse back into lists of artists who have used abstraction; schools of abstract art; and well-recognised works of abstract art ie an art history approach to abstraction. Instead, this exploration will attempt to get at some understanding of the nature of abstraction; the thinking behind any approach that can support the use of abstraction, in varying ways; the use that has been made of it by artists over the last two hundred years; and the role or function that abstraction may have in art today, and what future, if any, abstract art may have.

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Art and the city

This short exploration of art and cities will begin with an overview of some thinking on cities as social entities; then look at how certain cities have been key sites for the production and consumption of art; and finally look at how artists have variously responded to the changing natures of cities, finishing with an overview of an exhibition ‘Metropolis’ as an example of how a wide range of international contemporary artists have approached the subject.

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Art, fragments and wholes

Making any artwork involves issues of relationships of various parts to the final object. The finished whole is determined by issues of composition, colour, emphasis, flow, light and shadow, perspective, and so on. These are artist decisions and skills brought variously into play as the work progresses. A number of art works will be considered, via this perspective of fragments and wholes.

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Art, stability and change

Art can be viewed through the lens of change or through a lens of stability, in relation to a number of things:

  • The purpose of art in society: its ability to reflect change or to support stability.
  • The consistencies and variations within the work of a particular artist or a group of artists.
  • The adoption of new techniques, styles and technologies, or the adherence to fixed canons.
  • The extent to which art saw its purpose as celebrating progress and development, or regretting the passing of the established ways.
  • The interplays between art and any wider social changes.
  • The overt use of change and transformation as tools for the making of art works.

In current culture, a key role for art is being able to reflect on change, or to challenge change, or to push changes further, faster and deeper. Without this relationship to change there can, from this perspective, be no art of any consequence. Art simply becomes neutral landscapes, still lives and portraits or, worse, becomes a source of resistance to change, a carrier of nostalgia, an ideological proponent for stability in all things.

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An adaptable framework for self-directed art learning

Moving from traditional to contemporary; and from improving to established

This exploration was partly driven by an interest in art and partly by an interest in learning. The art-interest was a desire to move from doing quite ‘traditional’ art – landscapes, still life, some simple portrait work – at a level that was beyond Beginners Group and still ‘Improving’ … and to get somewhere closer to being able to do more contemporary work at a level that I might consider ‘established/confident in my own activities’. The learning-interest was part of my exploration of ‘pulled-in’ learning ie not taking a structured course, with fixed timetables, over a defined timescale – but moving in whatever ways seem appropriate, along flexible pathways, pulling in resources/learning as and when needed, and speeding up/slowing down as the situations allow. What follows is some attempt to put this down as a set of intentions (rather than a fixed curriculum) that tie in with my existing interests. It starts with some ‘entry point ‘ descriptions of where I am now; and sketches out some possible lines I might follow … just for interest/fun and from a desire to learn rather than a need for a qualification.

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