Monday, 29 December 2014

Searching for The Grit

The post-Christmas sunshine gave the rare opportunity for a morning walk around the 'green block' - a two mile circular walk from my front door across the border into Hampshire and back into Berkshire.  

Walking creates space to think - and for me, 'thinking' means worrying about making art. I am trying to process all the stuff I have been grappling with during my first semester of the Fine Art MA. My thinking owes a huge debt to course leader Nick Stewart, who has been meditating on this stuff since the seventies and whose ideas have got under my skin.

A flock of Fieldfare flies over, and in the distance a Buzzard is circling.

If making art is about exploring what excites you, what you experience - your authentic voice. Then what is it that I want to say through my art that people don't already know, or don't know how to know, or don't want to know? I'm thinking about this in relation to an interview with Marina Abramovic I read in Third Way magazine over the Christmas break: 

"For me, the purpose of doing anything is to lift the human spirit. It's so easy to put the human spirit down - you can do it in three seconds - and I'm fed up with art that shows how shitty reality is, because we already know how shitty it is. I want to know what I can do change it. Even if it is the smallest contribution, It's still a contribution. And if everybody had this kind of idea, the world would be a different place."

A Dunnock sings from a hedge-top. A Great Spotted Woodpecker flies towards Admiral's Copse; a silent undulating flight.

I try making a mental list of the things I care about, that excite me and that I want my work to be about:

  • uses of power and control that perpetuate inequality
  • ambiguity, interpretation, hermeneutics - fundamentalist belief systems within a complex, nuanced, unstable and diversified society
  • The idea of embracing 'the other'
  • The non-material aspects of existence, of consciousness - the sense of there being 'something more'
  • kindness, generosity, gift, optimism
  • the simple pleasure of enjoying birds in nature
Some or all of those things have been referenced in my recent work but how have people experienced it - and how do I move my work forward? Working mainly with woodcut prints, I find that there is a tension in the stuff I make between art and craft, or between art and design. Concept and representation. 

A Jay flies over - that's the fifth crow species I've seen this morning.

Art needs to break the rules of craft and design - there is power lurking in the spaces at the edge where there is an absence, a lack or a brokenness. Moving forward, I want my art to break the rules. To create 'feedback' like Hendrix playing the Star-Spangled Banner. 

A female Chaffinch hops quietly in a hedge. Blue Tit and House Sparrow flit around a feeder outside a cottage.

Woodcut is such a slow, laborious process - but I love it. Can I make it more raw, immediate, energetic, free and instantaneous? Kiefer's recent show at the RA included messy, energetic woodcuts that were sloppily made but brimmed with vitality. I need to push to find the edges of the woodcut medium within my own practice. 

And I want to push my drawings too - towards a place where I feel they are doing something real.

It's about finding the grit that creates the restless irritation that forms the pearl. 

Watch this space for progress.

Monday, 17 November 2014

What is Art To You?

I spotted a little notice this morning with a question - 'What is art to you?' and an email address:

Here's how I replied:

"Art is about shared experience. It is a way of being in the world, a way of expressing something to other people about the experience of being human, hoping to connect soul to soul.
So for me:
If there is no audience, it isn't art. (The audience may be oneself, or God, if the artist believes in her.)
If it isn't true to the artist's experience, it isn't art.
If it is made as product or commodity, it isn't art.
If it isn't straining to attain the best possible expression of the artist's idea, using all the necessary skills and energy they possess, it isn't art."

I didn't know this was what I thought until I wrote it down. There may be better ideas, which are still incubating. 

Perhaps you would like to email 'ed2g13' to say what 'art' means to

Friday, 5 September 2014

Still Under Construction: Degree Show and beyond

It has been over nine months since my previous blog post - mostly because I have been busy getting a fine art degree and all the things that has led to. But it has also been a time for reflection - so this post will be a marathon update-cum-essay (it even has a bibliography at the end). Feel free to skip, or just look at the photos.
Peter Driver, degree show installation (detail) June 2014

In my final year as an undergraduate at Winchester School of Art, I began to think about why I make art and to grapple with the realisation that my work is politically motivated. When challenged to define my political position, I came up with this work:
One of the 'infinite' edition of woodcut prints 'I'm glad you're alive!'
So far 1,555 prints have been produced and 1,383 have been distributed to people on five continents.

 My work is primarily about making space for dialogue with an inclusive audience.  The “I’m glad you’re alive!” print, for example, is an on-going work of production and distribution.  I am giving the prints away free of charge to anyone who wants one, as a performative act; a love-letter to all humanity.  So far I have given away 1,383 prints and plan to keep producing and distributing prints until the woodblock wears out (or I do).  In this way, the work continues to grow and expand, geographically, temporally, and through social connections.

Making 'I'm Glad You're Alive!'
on the Alexandra Press at WSA

The optimism and generosity of my project attracted my colleague, WSA graduate Lydia Heath to propose a joint exhibition where we would seek to create a dialogue between our two bodies of work.  Lydia’s work uses found objects and

            “…assemblages that explore ideas of dystopia. I am interested in the role art plays in imagining alternative futures, and the various social action groups discussing the possible end of capitalism and what will replace it.” (Heath: 2014, p3)

Heath’s work creates an interesting contrast  to my printed multiples. Our vision of a joint exhibition was realised at OpenHand OpenSpace in Reading in January 2014 and, judging by the feedback from visitors, we were successful in staging a thought-provoking show.

John Newling’s work has been an influence on my ideas. He explores many of the aspects of human experience that I am looking at.  Davey (2013) describes Newling’s interest in

            “…transactions, the nature of faith and belief, the natural world, community and love, trust, mementoes, the sacred, the body, theatre, prayer and uncertainty.” (Davey: p13)

John Newling, Preston Market Mystery Project, 2007 (source

A typical example of Newling’s work is ‘Insurance Stall’ at Preston Market Mystery Project (2007), where in a covered market in Preston, Lancashire,

            “…for three days he ‘sold’ insurance against loss of [a sense of] mystery, giving a decorated certificate to 280 members of the public who provided him with their own examples of mystery…” (Davey: p15)

There are parallels here with my ‘I’m glad you’re alive!’ project, although mine does not involve a direct exchange with people but rather seeks to question the idea of transaction and looks towards older systems of gift economy.  Lewis Hyde (2006) has written about The Gift and how it operates within various aboriginal societies as a circular convention, where the receiver of a gift gives an equivalent gift to another; the expectation being that eventually things come full-circle - a bit like the British pub culture of ‘standing your round’.
Giving away 'I'm glad you're alive!' prints on London's Southbank, 10-12 July 2014
(photo: Guy Blundall)

In a letter to Elizabeth Presa (University of Melbourne), about the terms he uses to describe his work, Thomas Hirschhorn states that a “work of art is always an assertion, and as an assertion, it is a gift” (Lee & Foster: p92).  The idea of art as gift has a long tradition and it is one that I am interested in.  There is a tension between treating art as a currency within the gift economy and as a commodity within a capitalist financial system, where art objects can be treated as an investment, or store of value. 

Installation view from Heath and Driver's 'I'm Glad You're Alive!' exhibition, OHOS, Reading 2014

Drying-rack full of 'I'm Glad You're Alive!' prints
When I began promoting and distributing ‘I’m glad you’re alive!’ it was very soon met with the inevitable comment on social media asking if I would have given one to Hitler. After pointing out that Hitler is no longer alive and therefore it was a hypothetical position, I asserted that every human life has the potential to develop and to change and therefore my statement applies equally to every person. I accept that this is an outrageously optimistic view of human beings but I find this position more exciting and fruitful as a thought experiment, than any of the alternatives. In taking it, I want to provoke people to think about themselves in relation to others.
Peter Driver, We Are All In this Together, reduction woodcut, 2013
My work has explored the territory of optimism from the standpoint of an interest in individual variances in interpretation. The study of hermeneutics, or the ways in which people interpret texts, and particularly sacred texts, seems to me to be a valuable subject in a world where people, despite several centuries of enlightened thought and scholarship, still kill each other over differences of interpretation.  For example, with my ‘We are all in this together’ woodcut print, I have met with a range of responses. Some assume that the work is an ironic comment about the hypocrisy of the post-2010 UK cabinet of millionaires, inflicting unprecedented reductions in service and benefits cuts upon people with no other means of support. Others have taken a more generous reading – that the text relates to the interrelatedness of all humankind and our need to accept and cooperate with each other if we are to survive for much longer on our finite planet, i.e. that we really are all in this together.  These are quite different readings of a text and that interests me.

There is an expectation that informed art audiences will actively question the prima facie meanings of an artwork; and the signification of a text. Things are not always what they appear to be and do not necessarily mean what they appear to say.  This is not a new idea. A century ago, Kester reminds us, avant garde art was engrossed with ‘formalist linguistic theories’ and ‘the characteristic call to make art difficult: to thicken and complicate its formal appearance in order to focus the viewers’ attention on the materiality of language itself”. Shklovesky, for example, believed this was necessary “because our dependence on existing linguistic conventions encourages a ‘habitual’ form of perception that prevents us from knowing the world in its full complexity” (Kester: 2004, p82-83).

Peter Driver, Loving The Alien, reduction woodcut, 2013

In other recent works I have tried to open up the layers of meaning and association within simple phrases about social relations.  My woodcuts ‘Loving the Alien’ (not referring to the Bowie song but to an injunction in the Hebrew Law regarding treatment of foreigners); and ‘You Are Welcome Here’ were both inspired by the atmosphere of xenophobia that pervaded the British public discourse around the extension of economic movement rights to EU citizens of Bulgaria and Romania in 2014.  The texts obviously have far wider application than the situation that inspired them and I am interested in what responses they provoke within people.
Peter Driver, You Are Welcome Here, reduction woodcut, 2014

One fact underlying these works is the ‘fear of the other’: a fear inherent in most people, if not all.  I intend to trigger an internal dialogue in the viewer: Which aliens? What about those I don’t like, or who hate my culture, or are dangerous, violent, fundamentalist, paedophile? Who is welcome? Who would I not welcome?

I found it helpful to exhibit this group of works together, as multiples arranged at random, so that the phrases began to have an internal conversation with each other.  

Installation view: WSA Print Salon 2014 (photo, Katie Evans)
It was suggested to me that it might be helpful to consider the ‘darker side’ of the issues my work addresses, and to make something that contrasts with these apparently optimistic statements. I was not convinced about this. I think we all know the darker side of our own fears and the prejudices that these statements unearth within us. But in the end I did make a companion work expressing my own misgivings and despair about the impossibility of the statements I present in these prints. I called the work 'Greek Chorus'.
Cutting the wood for 'Greek Chorus'

So far, I have discussed the content of some of my woodcut works, but not the form.  I am using a peculiarly personal version of woodcut printing, based on a reduction process where the same block is cut-away further between each successive layer of ink.  Many other media options are open to me so why do I stick with an out-moded process, which is slow, labour-intensive, and difficult?  There is something of the romanticism of William Morris’ revival of traditional craft in the way I have chosen to adhere to the hand-crafted art object.
Making a woodcut print on the Littlejohn press at WSA
I have looked at other artists who have found their own ways of incorporating text.  British artist Mark Titchner (b. 1973) makes large-scale works with texts that bear a resemblance to the ones I am using. He often gives them intricate and fantastical backgrounds, using high-quality graphics and machine-like components. Clark (2006: p93) observes that in his background patterns, Titchner is quoting William Morris and the banners used in Trade Union parades. They look spectacular and won him a Turner Prize nomination in 2006.  In the work “I WE IT” (2004), he derived texts from “the top ten global brands. I wanted to contrast this new form of economics with utopian socialist ideas from the early 20th century” (Clark: p93).
Mark Titchner (source

Tom Trevor, in his foreword to a Titchner monograph (Clark: 2006), considers the content of the work: “…the purpose is unclear. All we are left with is the formal means of exhortation, and our own unrelenting desire for meaning. It is this fundamental human need that Titchner’s work exposes so succinctly.”  This creates a strong link with my work, where I am seeking to explore meaning and individual interpretation.  In a way I am highlighting the emptiness of such utopian statements, while at the same time dealing with my own ambivalence and the residues of an eroded belief in a systematic ‘truth’.
Mark Titchner art on the underground ( source
Titchner also carves wooden objects/texts for some of his installations.  He says there ‘is an idea that obsessing over an object by crafting it, labouring over it, it becomes invested with some kind of power, even if that is only in the mind of the person making it” (Clark: p90). 
Peter Driver, Woodblocks on display, OHOS 2014
I found similar responses to my woodblocks when I decided to include them as exhibits in my show at OHOS in January 2014.  They received a lot of interest there and I  decided to incorporate them into my degree show exhibit in June. 
Peter Driver, degree show installation view, June 2014
A recent work, the ‘Complete Equality’ woodcut series, attempts to combine many of these influences and ideas. It shows a developing visual language, incorporating representational and abstract elements.  The text is partly a homage to Hirschhorn’s political stance and partly an expression of my own interest in the utopian goal of ‘equality’.
Peter Driver, over-printed reduction woodcut, Complete Equality, 2014

Having read around the issue of social inequality, including Wilkinson & Pickett (2010), and Dorling (2010), I am convinced that it has a corrosive effect in society and I was interested to make a work that leads people to think about it. 

Peter Driver, reduction woodcut, Complete Equality, 2014

Kester (2004) comments on the movement of artists towards new forms of dialogical, collaborative art from the 1960s onwards. He quotes British artist Stephen Willats (b.1943), whose work with social housing tenants over protracted periods is aimed at:

representing the potential self-organising richness of people within a reductive culture of objects and possessions. In a society which reduces people, I’m working to celebrate their richness and complexity. I see this as a kind of cultural struggle” (Kester: p91).

I spent the first 21 years of my life living on a council estate and am aware of the cultural rifts within our society that Willats was struggling with.  They have been documented eloquently by Hanley (2007) and Jones (2012).  In part, that ‘cultural struggle’ is what I am interested in: challenging conventional readings of our culture and the status quo. 

Public reading of George Thom's poetry, Winchester 2014
Willats proposed a “socially interactive model of art practice” (Kester: p92) where the artist and audience interact, with each other and with the artwork, all in relation to their context.  Through working interactively with audiences, the artist is able to:

“transform their consciousness of the world through a dialogical encounter that is mediated by the production on image/text pieces” (Kester: p93).

For Willats, then, the artist, as well as the audience, is transformed by the artwork.  This is somewhat similar to Hirschhorn’s interest in ‘the Other’:

            To me, the Other is my next, my neighbour. The Other is what is unfamiliar to me, what is strange to me, what I cannot understand and what I am afraid of… I think Art – because it is Art – can create the conditions for confrontation or direct dialogue with the Other, from one to one. In this sense Art has political meaning”. (Hirschhorn: 2007)

Kester discusses the emergence of artists in recent years who base their practice:

“…around the facilitation of dialogue amongst diverse communities. Parting from the traditions of object making, these artists have adopted a performative, process-based approach” (Kester: p1)

I am seeking to promote such dialogue and reflection and to stimulate wider conversations about the meanings of my work.  Through the ‘March for Optimism’ referred to below, and the on-going production and distribution of my ‘infinite edition’, I am providing a context to facilitate that conversation.  But at the same time, my practice involves making multiples of aesthetic objects, using laborious means and traditional techniques, which are centuries old.  
Woodcut in progress

The major development of my work in preparing for my degree show was the realisation that I wanted to engage a wider audience and provide a context for considering this material.  The debate rages within me when faced with totalitarian statements such as ‘Complete Equality’ and ‘You are Welcome Here’.  It provokes an inner dialogue about fear of the other and the realisation that the goals of justice and equality are unattainable on a macro scale.  But I still want to put these phrases out into the world for people to consider and respond to and so I devised ‘The March for Optimism’.
Peter Driver: March for Optimism, 6 May 2014, Winchester High Street (photo Katie Doyle)
The ‘March’ was a public art event.  It was in the long tradition embracing Guy Dubord’s Situationist actions, Fluxus street works, and knowingly followed the more recent example of Jeremy Deller’s ‘Procession’ for Manchester International Festival (2009).  However there were unique elements in its form and content.  I promoted it as:

a colourful procession with banners, placards and balloons - along Winchester High Street, on Tuesday 6th May, commencing at 4:15pm.  The procession will be bearing texts, which appear to celebrate optimism, acceptance and embrace of all mankind.  Asked to explain the idea, Peter said: “This is not a protest but an art project involving the most diverse crowd I can muster, in a procession to acknowledge (and maybe celebrate) the existence of optimism, despite all the reasons for pessimism.” (Driver 2014)

The main banner for the march featured a quote from Dr Martin Luther King Jnr: ‘the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice’.  I decided to present this text in textiles and colours reminiscent of trade union banners or gay pride marches.  I was not necessarily standing behind this statement.  My position is more ambivalent than that, but I wanted to present it for people to consider.

Liz Driver making the banner
Just as Jeremy Deller relies upon the services of Ed Hall, banner maker to the trade union movement, to realise his ideas in fabric, I relied on Liz, my wife, to make this banner to my design.  Preparing for the march, in liaison with the Police, City Council, County Council and local media, was a positive learning experience.
Peter Driver: March for Optimism, Winchester High Street, 6 May 2014 (photo Wong Miao Hui)


‘What’s the Point of it?’ The title of Martin Creed’s recent retrospective at Hayward Gallery is pertinent to my reflection on my own practice. In Creed’s case I think his point is that there is nothing beyond the arbitrary choices we make in life.  One of his harshest critics suggests that:

“For all the whimsical humour, this is serious stuff, reductivist, nihilistic, the grinning mask of the culture of death.” (Halliday: 2014).

I have to accept that audiences will draw their own conclusions about my work and its meanings.  Nihilism and the cynical use of irony are almost accepted as the orthodoxy of our post-modern culture and many will bring this with them to their interpretation of my texts.  But if my interest in optimism as a phenomenon is in some way an attempt to redress the balance and present another reading of reality, it is a problematic position to defend.  When Sean Cubitt (2014) can deliver an eloquent and principled address to the audience of Transmediale Festival, Berlin, about the relentless destruction of  our global environment by shameless ‘cyborg’ energy corporations with 'human chips', where is the ground for optimism?  When other speakers at the same conference can talk, with some enthusiasm, about a future when all that will remain of the ‘anthropocean epoch’ will be a thin line of plastic waste in the geological strata - why keep getting up in the mornings?  Faced with our unrelenting capacity for war, genocide, exploitation, slavery and oppression, why should anyone imagine we humans could do anything to improve our plight?

My personal history as an artist began in the late 1970s and early 1980s, in the sub-culture of evangelical Christianity – an insular sub-culture where Rookmaaker (1970) and Seerveld (1980) were the main serious thinkers writing about the (potentially redemptive) role of art in society.  I began separating myself from that sub-culture some years ago, because of my aversion to dogma and its lust for certainty in matters that are unknowable.  However, I still recognise some of those foundational myths as the source of my high view of human beings.  And so, for me, it remains imperative to act in the world, as far as possible, in a way that does no harm, that honours every person; that does not deliberately alienate, mock or exclude anybody.  In my best moments, my politics and art are based on this foundation – and in others, I distance myself, presenting them as extant ideas to be considered.  That’s the point of it.
Peter Driver: March for Optimism, Winchester High Street, 6 May 2014 (photo Wong Miao Hui)

In the extremely helpful book ‘Situation’ edited by Claire Doherty, Mark Hutchinson considers how different forms of public art deal with the relationship between the artwork, the artist and potential audiences.  There are clearly limitations on what art is able to be and do in a shared public space but locating it there can make visible an artist’s assumptions and commitments in a way that gallery-based art might not. Hutchinson also warns (Doherty: 2009, p102) that if the complexities of the work’s reception are not considered along with the making of the work, it risks being patronising or authoritarian.  I tried to consider this in devising the ‘March for Optimism’ and to be aware that there are different potential audiences for the work.  The easiest audience, or low-hanging fruit, were my fellow students and colleagues at WSA.  I was confident in their support and willingness to turn out for this event. Other audiences - the non-exclusive audiences I claim to seek - were harder to reach but half a dozen or so came along in response to the local press coverage and radio interview I organised, or the social media promotion of the event, or the listing in the City Council’s ‘what’s on’ guide. 

As to the motivation for the ‘March’: at worst, it could be seen as a vanity project; a photo-opportunity created to provide a set of impressive images for a degree show.  At best, it was an authentic action in the world that allowed audiences to become participants and gave them reason to reflect on why optimism exists, despite all the reasons in the world for pessimism.

This project was dependent on the participation of potential audiences.  Without them the work would not have come into being.  There was risk of failure here - and hopefully commensurate rewards for success: but what does success look like?  Doherty suggests key tests for a public work: ‘

“Does it move you? Does it shake up your perceptions of the world around you, or your backyard? Do you want to tell someone else about it? Does it make you curious to see more?” (Doherty: 2013, p16)

I was pleased that people turned out and had an enjoyable experience.  If they took time to consider their own responses to the apparently optimistic texts, I was even more pleased.    
Peter Driver, degree show installation view

March for Optimism Video in WSA degree show 2014

I was thrilled that my degree show work was selected for the 2014 Graduate Platform programme, leading in the first stage to a group exhibition at Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth. I feel this could be the beginning of something and I will keep you posted.  Meanwhile … I’m glad you’re alive!

Print stack installed for WSA degree show, 2014


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