We left Part One of The Shady Series asking our young artists if there were any issues in society that they were angry about and if so, how these inform their art practise. In this second part of the series, our artists consider the concept of hierarchy in the art industry through discussions of chat roulettes, audience participation and ‘seaside art’.
AS: Alex Schady, Programme Director of the Fine Arts Programme
GD: Gabrielle De La Puente, from 2D Fine Art
MG: Molly Eliza Gough, from 2D Fine Art
ZM: Zarina Muhammad, from 2D Fine Art
SM: Seema Mattu, from 2D Fine Art
AS: Something that seems to be emerging is that there are a lot of students who aren’t worried if what they are making is art or art not. There used to be a sense that 'art was fragile', being an artist was 'really fragile' and if you were making something you would hold on to it really closely. Now, there is a sense that those students are emerging from a course that we call BA Fine Art, yet whether what they are making is or isn't 'fine art' does not seem to matter to them in the same way anymore. Would you agree with this hypothesis?
EA: I think a lot has to do with this precious space of an art object. Personally, I choose to work a lot in public spaces and re-purpose objects for different uses; So, the question of function of this ‘object’ is questioned throughout that process. At the degree show I presented stools. My objects effectively were stools that I designed for an exhibition at Peckham Square in London. These were then re-upholstered with pixelated images of public furniture. They became these cushioned stools which later interacted with the space in a very different way. There were four arrangements set around The Street here at Central Saint Martins.
AS: You invited the audience to sit on your artwork didn't you?
EA: Yes, I spend a lot of time thinking about inviting people to participate. With such a wealth of participatory works nowadays, I am more interested in that period of choice; as to whether someone sits on it or not. You know, it’s a very simplified way to ask for participation - which I think was meant for this degree show, where there's thousands of people walking through - you want something as simple as possible. In many ways, this could become boring but it also positions the artist in the position of looking - I become an observer. There are difficult ethical questions surrounding this.
AS: Because you are looking at people sitting on your chair... so you are turning them into your art object?
EA: Effectively! I do not see it that way but I could see people making that argument and it becomes a complicated discussion.
AS: You are using your audience as part of your artwork without letting them know.
EA: Well, yeah - that's what someone could say!
AS: Speaking of 'using people', I am going to turn over to Molly now.
MG: If you say that way, it sounds really mean (laughs).
AS: I think your work is really intriguing, the way in which people experienced your work in the context of the degree show, they would view it as 'art'. However, if they came upon your work in another context, they might not. Can you describe those two context for us and what is it that you did?
MG: It was a Chat Roulette performance, I got people on Chat Roulette to make sculptures for me, so they directed me and I showed them various objects.
AS: Describe those objects, they weren't innocent objects!
MG: They obviously are! I just got them from the pound shop basically. There were 'art objects' like brushes, paint rollers - things we would see every day in the studio - and things I found at B&Q, very random domestic objects. Perhaps by the way that they were assembled, they become perverse. Individually, if you strip them down, they are very innocent. Also, the titles I gave them like 'Cable Tight' or 'Air Doughnut', they sound very innocent. But of course, they don't look innocent.
AS: Perhaps it's true, Zarina told me that it’s my fault, that I am perverse. I do accept that I am a bit perverse. Yet, the objects they looked a bit fetishistic; maybe because of the way you displayed them or engaged with them through somebody else?
MG: Yes, I think that's because they are materials and they are each very tactile, so they are easily manipulated into being perverse. I found in the couple of last years as I was making sculptures that there are some objects that just hold connotations. If you use latex, there is always going to be a sexual connotation. And even a furry cloth has some perverse element to it, so it's very easily manipulated.
AS: For those who don't know, Chat Roulette, as I understand it, is an interactive webcam platform - I spin the wheel and I’m randomly given someone to talk to. Suppose I have randomly hit upon you Molly; would you tell me that I’m engaging in an art process or not?
MG: No. I do say on my bio though, “I am an art student, I am in my studio making work. Can you help me make a sculpture?” I don't tell them it's being watched; I turn my microphone off.
AS: So, the last two people who have spoken are perhaps engaged in something that is typically quite complicated but very intriguing. It is questioning whether or not to use the viewer as an element of the work; in Eliot's case because they become part of the work, in Molly's case because they make your work. Who else is using their audience?
SL: I create tools that reconfigure a task or a movement. I then invite the audience to engage with them through a particular task - like 'framing a picture'. During the degree show, I replicated these old English primary school desks. There were nine of them arranged in a very rigid classroom formation. Each of the desks had pieces of thick graphite protruding from the surface. You had to take a piece of card and follow an assignment I designed and complete it by moving the card on top of the graphite to draw, instead of the other way around. I wanted to see whether people would decide to engage with the work or not.
You don't want to explicitly present your work as 'participatory', you want the audience to make that decision. And so when you invite someone to interact with your piece, you also invite them to break your piece or to destroy your piece - which is something that I have encountered a lot! At first I thought, "Oh, that's a bit disrespectful", but you have to accept it. You just absolutely have to. Especially for me, because I do not actually explain the message that I am proposing through this tool, they have to figure it out. So some people they break the graphite off of the table and they start drawing, or they'd use the exams sheets and punch holes in them.
But also, I enjoy observing how people use alternative methods. There was some work similar to mine where the artist had coloured crayons out for people to draw on one of her walls. And some people took one of her crayons to do my piece. Or some people would be like, “Oh, I don't have a pen” so they leave and just give up.
AS: But I think this is really interesting and links all of you at a certain level. You are all in a way critiquing the art world, particularly that set of unwritten rules; how as viewers we are meant to go into a gallery, look at work, engage with work. All of you seem to be wanting to push that. And you are describing the risks that come as a result of that.
SL: Well you don't have to see it as a risk. It's just a part of it.
EA: But it's almost played out like that, it becomes intrinsic to the work. There is this tiered word - 'contingency' - that runs so much through this kind of practise. This idea of an action or a curve that’s unplanned. It's quite a nice way to describe how that sort of work seems to develop, it’s actually about trying to embrace those things and it's very hard because there are so many variables. It just goes on forever, so you are constantly trying to find these systems to communicate it. But it is about embracing the unplanned. So in terms of the art world, it's a retaliation to more channelled, relational projects that happened throughout the 1990s.
SZ: I agree and I wonder if there is a question of accessibility as well.
AS: Because the art world isn't accessible you mean?
SZ: It might not be in general. I do not specifically think about that when I produce my work, but it always ends up being something that is accessible. For the show, I have built a grid-like, three-dimensional structure made of plywood cut in very thin strips. It was see-through and it was approximately three storeys high, the size of an average London house. I used cable ties to build it into a three-dimensional grid. You do question who the audience is and you do use them, but you try to make it subtle and effortless. I guess you’re trying to make your audience think about it, at some point.
The Cross+ng: Sorry to jump in here, that's something we felt at times. During the show sometimes we would walk around sense that it's not about whether we like it or not and/ or understand it or not. At times, we were unable to have any sort of reaction and therefore, started to feel the problem lay with us.
GD: I hate that. I think it's a form of guilt and it definitely is a part of not ‘getting it’. Maybe you would not have had that reaction if you had studied exactly what the maker had studied. And I think I also used to feel guilty, but I don't anymore.
AS: But it's like almost every gallery needs a warning on it, "If you don’t like something, it’s alright for you to ignore it and walk away!" But you are right, it's difficult to do that.
GD: Yes, that disclaimer should be there... but it isn't.
AS: So, is that what you were involved in - in sort of writing your version of that disclaimer in terms of the work you make?
SM: But why should there be a disclaimer?
SL: I have friends who came and told me, “I really liked your piece! I don't know anything about art, but I really liked your piece.” They don't feel allowed to provide an opinion because they are so isolated - or, we are so isolated actually - from everything else. My work is about education and education is packaged. You need exclusive access to these packages of commodified knowledge - which is what we pay for here. And people think that unless you pay for these packages, you cannot access this information. And therefore, you are not entitled to think anything about it!
AS: That is so important! It almost answers the question as to why we need disclaimers. I think if there is one thing that art can do (and it might be that the gallery is not actually the place to do it) is to give people back their judgement. To say, “You can have an opinion, a voice about this, irrespective of whether you consider yourself an expert.” Every single person that approaches me about art but does not come from the art world, begin their sentences with, "I don't know anything about art, but...” We don't need that. It does not matter. We have had a response and that's valuable!
SZ: Doesn't it raise the question as to the point in which you would make the judgement? Isn't it easy to say, “Oh I don't like it” - what was it judged on, just the visual aspect? You didn't even engage with it; you haven't involved yourself in the context of it. At which point it’s dismissed as 'I-don’t-like-it'. For me, art needs to be accessible. Not to become a playground but it needs to lure you in somehow.
GD: It doesn't need to do anything! “I don't like it” is also very different from, “Oh that's not very good.” It depends on who you accept critique from. You accept critique from your peers who have subscribed to art theory and they come with an informed opinion.
AS: This is not about my personal voice but I'll just say this: I think it is alright for art to be difficult, to be boring or not understood by people. I wouldn't expect to go to a physics degree and understand the papers that are being presented. But what I think is important is for the person viewing to be able to say, “I don't want to engage with that because that isn't engaging me - and it does not make me a bad person or a stupid person or an uncultured person. It just means that this piece is discussing things that don't currently reflect my interest or my area of expertise.” But in a gallery, I would expect to see such range of work that you could engage with one thing or another. When you take children to galleries it's really clear. When they are under a certain age, they engage really, really readily. Then something happens - I think it's a learnt behaviour that 'fear of not-knowing' that makes us feel excluded.
GD: Me and Zarina have discussed this debate of the art world and class system - and how there might be these two levels. Fine Art resembles Research Science, whereas World Art is like 10p paracetamol. They are both valid, fine and they should be side by side... but one of them is on top of the other. And that is the problem. And the fall-out of that is how people interact with those two things.
AS: Hierarchies. Even things like… when people talk about 'Seaside Art' with great dismissiveness. There is no problem with someone who creates paintings of the sea and sells them at the seaside; there is not issue with that. They are just two different versions of the art world that should be seen totally horizontally but they are not. They are seen hierarchically. What can you do as a group of emerging artists to challenge those hierarchies?
GD: We (The White Pube) did a podcast exactly on this. We discussed Camden Market art and seaside art.
ZM: It starts off with me going, “No, no way. That's not art Gab!” But then, she slowly convinces me and describes it as a class system.
GD: It is a class system and it even might be the most interesting type of art because those artists have very functional practises. They are the artists that are selling on a weekly basis. It might be for less money, but it's kind of an actual job. They are getting paid and we aren't. The way to address this in our activism, was to do an exhibition of that exact art.
AS: I was contacted by the BBC last week to discuss being a judge on a programme. But, I was troubled by the email; it said that they were going to ask, “[…] a group of amateur artists to have intensive tuition by professionals” at ‘the top of their game’ type of thing and through that, something magical would happen. My issue is with that word 'amateur'. I asked them what it meant, their response, “Oh we mean that they are not earning their living, their primary source of money is not from selling their art.” I had to say that then makes me an amateur! You are asking an amateur to teach another amateur - that doesn't make any sense! I was quite worried. There is terminology like 'professional' or 'amateur' that creep into the art world to present hierarchies that are quite problematic.
JT: In terms of percentage of the art world, how much do you think fine art takes up? If you think of all the art that is being created.
EA: I think it's like... the 1%. You know, it's the same analogy that we apply to society. At the end of the day, it's substantiated by institution stamps.
ZM: Does the percentage matter?
JT: Well, that's what I am saying. Don't forget that, as contemporary art students, we shouldn't forget about the vast number of people that form the art world and come as totally legitimate artists.
AS: Because in an art school, on a BA Fine Art course, you can imagine that this [CSM] is your world and that's a danger isn't it? Because it's such a well described bubble, you can imagine that this is it. Those are the edges of the art world but they aren't.
GD: But I think that's where Central Saint Martins is really good; giving us the weapons to pop that bubble. Once we are out of this Truman Show, we’ll look back and see how all weird it is. Art is bizarre, art education is even weirder. For us to carry the ‘role of the artist’, is such a weird privilege. It's no wonder that you think of Van Gogh as a mad genius because it comes with that kind of craziness.
SL: But these bubbles are created by professionals who told us when we were five, that subjects should be studied in isolation – but, they actually only have power and meaning when they interact with multiple fields. So, I don't like talking about what art is and define it as an isolated thing because then it doesn't exist and it's not relevant for anyone else. So no wonder no one else is interested. This framework for success is instilled from childhood and it sticks with us; it gives us security, we feel the need to be better than other people and it’s reflected in the mode we use to establish where we are positioned in a hierarchy.
GD: Yeah, it's not realistic that an artist is just going to be an artist. It’s a fact that we are going to get ‘survival jobs’ like everyone.
SZ: I wonder if that's it then. I mean, is this creative education? Perhaps schools like this are at the avant garde of what education should be. I mean, if you look at statistics, how many of those who graduated from here still identifies themselves as artists? And this school certainly does not teach art, it gives an approach to something, then you decide what to do. Actually, any university could do that. Maybe that's what places like Oxford do too; they just give you tuition time and you can talk shit with your tutor for hours. This is the privilege that you get. And you understand - you develop an ability to create ideas and work with them. It's almost like an artist is just a creative approach to life. And I think that is where the understanding of art blurs. 'What is it that you do?'. You can be an artist working at a publishing house even without producing artworks that are sold like 'art'.
EA: I feel this brings us back to the initial question about viewers. I get the impression that a lot of artists are trying to gain insight from the perspective of the viewer. So, it's not a message about what the art is or trying to say - but it's about it being, as you say, a tool that can insight that kind of perspective when confronted with art.
AS: But I think as artists we have one responsibility. When an artist meets another artist at an opening, you become like two dogs sniffing each other’s' bums, “What are you up to? What show have you done? Who is exhibiting you?” We do this in order to figure out where you are in that packing order in relation to that artist. And we can talk all we want about disrupting those hierarchies, yet this is the first one we need to be able to disrupt.
GD: Be happy for each other and praise each other’s' work.
ZM: Go on art-dates! That's a format we created and it turned out to be the best thing ever. We would just meet for a coffee with someone whose work you are incidentally interested in. But then you might make friends and those are the people you end up working with. And you produce work together genuinely for the sake of it.
SZ: Maybe the answer could be to work as a collective, so that you put less time into your own work; otherwise, you end up creating your own safe environment where you don't measure yourself. And another thing could be how diverse your practise is, so that it becomes difficult to pinpoint who you should be compared with.
AS: This might be the best moment to wrap it up, I feel there is a sense of optimism and solidarity. But also a sense of agency as to what we as artists can do. But, I would like to thank The Cross+ng for inciting these sessions. I feel these discussions are very important and we should have more. They are quite rare even within our course; we are often very concerned with assessment and that kind of stuff. But it would be nice to reproduce this model and have alumni to perhaps chair the sessions.
SZ: I feel they are essential. I realise that I can only form an opinion when I talk about a topic. If I sit on my own and try to figure out what my position is about a topic... I don't know. It only emerges in this fertile ground for discussion. I am actually just getting the taste for it now. Let's talk more!
SL: But also if we could get mixed groups. Conversations that exist only within the art world might be received only by the art world and that is a shame.
With thanks to all our artists who participated and Alex Schady for his role as facilitator.