Thursday, 21 March 2013

New Art of Making Books

The New Art of Making Books Conference organised by Danny Aldred, was a day spent exploring the dialogue between digital and print-based media in making 'books'. I am interested in how the web and digital media have transformed our experience of books and publishing but also created a new interest in the bespoke qualities of the artist's book, whether in digital or tactile edition format.

Sarah Bodman and Tom Sowden
from the Centre for Fine Print Research at UWE
An exciting eight-hour programme involved a wide range of speakers and contributors from art institutions and the specialist print sector. 

The whole day gave me many new avenues to explore in my own work, which I have always been aware is motivated by a desire to communicate.

An interesting fine-art contribution to the day involved the Ladies of the Press, complete with day-glo pink wigs and shimmering silver mini-skirts. Their performative take on publishing as a theatrical experience left me rather nonplussed to begin with - but when I saw their set-piece zine made on site during the course of the conference, capturing images and text to document the day's highlights and mayhem, I had to acknowledge that they are a class act. 

The Ladies of the Press in action capturing the day's content
for a site-published zine, a copy of which I am a proud owner
Rather embarrassingly, I had begun the day by mistaking the Ladies of the Press for glamorous waitresses at the coffee table! 

Another fascinating talk came from artist and archivist at the Book Works, Karen di Franco. She spoke about the thoughtful work she is doing to devise methods of digitally cataloguing artists' books and the ephemera related to their creation and showed us the marvellous resource that is the Book Works website.

I am particularly interested in the digital/print relationship because I have just launched an eBook version of my book 'thirteen days in spring: walking in relation to the kindness of strangers', on the iBooks platform. (take a look here)

Several people looked at the paper copy during the course of the day and we discussed the various decisions I had made when compiling it. I have always been embarrassed by the cost of the paper copy at £25 plus postage, or £30 for a hardback, with at least 80% of the price going to as the publishers - so a £0.99 eBook version seemed a good compromise. I now wonder if I could do something more bespoke and less glossy with the physical drawings (perhaps a limited edition handmade print version, using photopolymer or silkscreen editions). 
Conference visitors enjoying the 6X6 collection and
Danny Aldred's 'backs of books'  as part of the exhibition

With fellow WSA colleagues, I had organised a stall selling prints and artists' books. People were interested in the work but only bought 11 pieces during the course of a long day (including one of my linocuts, which went for a bargain £10).

Other stallholders included the Monster Emporium Press, award-winning graphic book artist and printer Otto Dettmer; and interdisciplinary artist and zinester Tom Mortimer. 

All in all a very good day.

Dr Adam Stock and Dr Dan Smith, performing a SF narrative
with visual and improvised aural accompaniment

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Showing work, sales and essays

I had the privilege of showing some work at the Winchester Discovery Centre over the last week. It was only a small display cabinet so I chose to show two woodcut prints and the woodcut blocks from which they were printed. 
Peter Driver: Woodcuts,
display at Winchester Discovery Centre 5-13 March 2013
I am sharing this cabinet, a week each with a group of fellow printmaking students in exchange for running some children's workshops during the Easter holidays. It looks like being a great experience.

The opportunity to show work in public highlights that familiar dilemma for contemporary artists - do I put prices on my work and try to sell it? Perhaps this is less of an issue for printmakers, as surely the intention behind making an edition of 22 prints (or 5, or 250) is that almost all of them will end up in the possession of others, either as gifts, 'swapsies' or sales. There is an underlying assumption in some quarters however that commercial selling is 'problematic' and contrary to the purpose of art, which might be about participating in contemporary culture; exhibiting interesting and perhaps challenging work for people to experience. It is a dilemma I struggle with. The hunger for recognition of my work as artistically relevant seems to be in some way counter to the hunger to pay the bills. (Recognition from? fellow artists, tutors, collectors...) Many practicing artists, in fact almost all of them, have to earn their living from other means to enable them to carry on making the art they want to make, rather than making the kind of art that people want to buy. So they teach art, pull pints, clean toilets, run workshops - anything as long as it allows them to subsist and have time for their art projects. They are artists not interior decorators. This is why artists are poor (but possibly fulfilled).

Yesterday was spent helping set-up for a Conference on the 'New Art of Making Books' at Winchester School of Art. This will involve a series of talks about developing ideas in the world of the 'artist's book', an exhibition of work by students and teaching staff from art schools across the country and delegates from art schools and the publishing industry. 
Setting up the exhibition for the New Art of Making Books conference

WSA printmakers will have a sale table at the conference to try and sell some multiples. I am selling some woodcuts and linocuts, including this new version of my 'Skylark' woodcut. 

'Skylark' woodcut, edition of 12
I plan to sell these cheaply at £5 each - to cover the cost of the somerset paper and my time spent carving the wood-block and printing them. My other prints will go for £10 and £20 each. These are not prices that would generate a living wage but at the moment I am more interested in spreading the work to a wider audience. I want people to have them and enjoy them. In the last few months I have swapped several prints and drawings in exchange for other artists work and given some away as gifts, while negotiating the problematic territory of value, price and intention. 

Blogging has taken a back seat for a couple of weeks while I had an essay deadline to meet. The 'Reflective Journal' module of my course involves maintaining a journal of research and development of ideas and influences during the semester. This is then summarised into a 3000 word essay, with academic references. In the end it was really very helpful, I was able to lift a lot of the ideas and text directly from this blog! I listed three key influences as Keith Tyson, Susan Hiller and Alice Oswald. I have no idea how well the essay will go down academically but I enjoyed writing it (even if it did mean sitting up until 2am to meet the deadline).

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Alice Oswald, Woodcut, Susan Hiller

One of my favourite poets, Alice Oswald, talking on Radio 4's new writing programme 'The Echo Chamber' (Sunday 24 February, 2013) talks about her practice and it reminds me so much of my own experience of making art.

'A lot of the writing goes on without writing, certainly. I don't sleep very well so I like to lie in bed thinking of lines. And I also do a lot of walking and that's a really important way of getting the brain moving beyond a fixed point, I find. Once the body's moving the brain sort of follows suit. But I do also love the actual physical act of writing: putting a pen to paper. It only comes for me at the end of quite a long process of mentally working out the poem and hearing it. But once the hand is involved something different and quite practical happens and I really like that moment as well.'

The mix of head and hand, intellectual purpose and manual skill is something I am interested in. The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive but can be integrated into a practice of thoughtful making. 

Here's one of Alice Oswald's poems:

Leaf      for J.O and I.O 

the leaf that now lies being made
in its shell of scale, the hush of things
unseen inside, the heartbeat of dead wood.
the slow through-flow that feeds
a form curled under, hour by hour
the thick reissuing starlike shapes
of cells and pores and water-rods
which builds up, which becomes a pressure,
a gradual fleshing out of a longing for light,
a small hand unfolding, feeling about.
into that hand the entire
object of the self being coldly placed,
the provisional, the inexplicable I
in mid-air, meeting the wind and dancing

(c) Alice Oswald 2005 - copied lovingly from her brilliant second collection 'Woods etc.' published by Faber and Faber (buy it!)

The Winnall Moors woodcut is now finished. It looked too stark on white paper so I made a limited edition of 22 copies on buff coloured Somerset paper. I have been given the opportunity to show this and other woodcut prints at Winchester Discovery Centre, 5-12 March.

Thinking about these woodcuts and their status as fine art objects, I have been reflecting on the physical and manual process of making, which characterises a lot of my work. Creating these documents of my walks is my way of being in the world and engaging with it. It also has something to do with communication to an audience. The use of my handwriting, painstakingly reproduced with a chisel into wood, is a way of recording a few of the bird-sightings on that day. However, while the letters 'W a t e r  R a i l' represent a species of bird, they are unable to convey the exquisite experience of finding these elusive creatures, hearing their constant squealing call and seeing their  flicking white tail, curved red bill and barred flanks against the water's edge... maybe I will end up doing guided bird-walks to share these experiences.

The process of making art is bound up with thinking about what art is for and the intention behind making it. Is it just a complex game that one can learn the rules of; learning how to position oneself on the field, to make the right passes and maybe even score a goal or two? I think it is much more than this. I have found Susan Hiller's work helpful in exploring these ideas.

Susan Hiller currently has an exhibition at Matt's Gallery, Copperfield Street. It presents a wall of about 100 tv sets all running a sequence of colours and flickers - looking like an animated stained glass window, with a soundtrack of many accounts in various languages of people's out-of-body or near-death experiences (NDEs). 

In his write-up about the show, gallery director Robin Klassnik observes that 
"Hiller's interest is neither the advocacy nor the dispute of the anecdotal, traditional or scientific evidence for or against the 'reality' of NDEs, but in considering them as social facts, widely spread in time and space, as appropriate for the subject matter of art as Cezanne's apples of Schwitters' bus tickets."

I first became aware of Hiller when reading the transcript of a wonderful lecture she delivered to the students at The Slade school of fine art in 1989, in which she reflected on the nature of fine art at the end of the twentieth century. A lot of what she said still speaks directly into the current world of art education. Here are some extracts:

“…art is in the making, not the product. The making either is or is not part of the discourse of art, and simply because an object consists of paint and canvas does not make it art. Ruskin saw this and Eliot saw this; in other words it is not a new idea.” 

  “Western art history privileges  values such as abstract design, order, harmony, etc. as universal verities that transcend culture: it fails to see these values more accurately as manifestations of our society’s deep desire for the consolation such ideas of order might offer."   

“The best contemporary art reveals the terms and conditions of our common cultural dilemmas, our embeddedness in the structures of meaning which, no matter how complex, have made us what we are.  Good art provides a sense of a collective secret being shared, a secret brought out to look at together in recognition of our shared plight."  

“Meaning is social. Art activity is fundamental to the production of meaning."

Lucy Lippard* tells us that Hiller was an accomplished academic and anthropologist before 1965 when, 
"Determined to 'find a way to be inside all my activities', to be a full participant in the culture in which she lived, she became an artist. The decision coincided with the death of her mother, which suggests it was also a rite of passage."
Hiller's work and ideas resonate with me in many ways. I was particularly interested in this comment about her mother's death because my decision to return to art practice (and birding) coincided with the death of my father in 2008.

*Lucy Lippard's preface to 'Talking About Art: conversations with Susan Hiller' Manchester University Press, UK, 1996