pt.1 - The Fine Arts Club

Interviewee: Shireen Liane
Interviewer: Marta Santambrogio


Shireen Liane: My experience at CSM was not necessarily an easy linear path. I felt like I spent two years trying to learn how to speak this very coded fine art language, it becomes some kind of sign language that the people in the very narrow educational bandwidth can send each other signals and it doesn’t necessarily translate outside the fine art practice.


Marta Santambrogio: Is that a feature of it or a limitation of it?


SL: For me it’s a limitation, but I will freely admit.... I come from a rock 'n 'roll background and I was a musician before I decided to move into visual arts. I always understood my role as trying to communicate, to change somebody's body chemistry for those three minutes that a song goes by; give them goosebumps. For me as a songwriter in the past my goal was never to impress other songwriters - if I heard my friend the waitress humming the song, that's where I was like YES! Score! A bunch of songwriters sitting there stroking their chins going, "Oh, I really like the way you have transposed that bridge…" Who cares?

I think it’s very much the same for fine arts. I shouldn’t slag off the people that have very intellectual and theoretical practices but, sometimes I see certain pieces of art where I think "Gosh, I think I need a PhD for that to speak to me" – and I am enough of an old-school pleb [laughs] that I just think, “That's nice; that’s for the PhD crowd... but I am not sure that moves me.” You know, when you go to art school you suddenly spend a lot of time going through galleries and walking into things and thinking, "I am not entirely sure I understand this, but I am going to keep a straight face", because that 'Emperor’s New Clothes’ thing starts to take over and there’s an insecurity that’s built into class; all sorts of things make you sit very carefully and look the people that are looking with you, “Do they understand it? Am I the only person sitting here [who feels] this isn’t doing it for me?! [Laughs]"


MS: You nailed something that I have personally experienced through Degree Show 1. I am a designer, so I come with the inevitable mind-set that I need to make sense of things. As a designer you are trained to start with an intention and you do not carry on with a project without that intention. But, I like to think that I am sensible to art, I enjoy it and it moves me quite often. Also, these days, the design industry and the art industry are overlapping to an extent...

SL: I agree!

MS: So I thought: is it me who lacks the means to understand but also to approach this? If I could approach it, then I could say, "Ok I get it. I do not understand it, but it's fine". I really felt like I had a problem. But perhaps that is part of the plan?


SL: I agree! Maybe it's because I am entering my grumpy old woman phase – I intend to rock that shit! I am at the same time very suspicious of the dumbing down of culture across the board, especially when we get into the political realm; it’s not being used well. But there is definitely something there when you think, "I have no idea how I should be approaching this stuff that is so coded." Before I came into art school, I used to look at this supposed wall between fine art, graphic design, design and just think... that’s bollocks!  You know, I understand the difference between doing things for your own motivation and doing things for a client but I kinda reject a lot of that separation of arts and craft - in fact that was something that really disappointed me - the way that craft was almost seen like a dirty word in fine art. And I thought that’s a shame because you could be actually teaching people something useful.


MS: That is an even bigger conversation, but you tapped into a very interesting point. As a designer, I was trained that the difference between art and design is that art is about self-expression. So you would have an individual, or a group that observes society and makes a comment through their work. That is quite cool and when you go to blockbuster places like the Tate Modern, even the recent stuff... I get it! Calder, it is just wire... but I get it! And it is not an intellectual understanding, but there is something that happens on another level.


SL: I had a real moment of clarity when I went to the Tate Modern for the exhibition The World Goes Pop. I walked through it with my partner in crime. I understood what that was referencing, I have enough of an history vocabulary to understand what strings that it’s pulling etc... So we walked away thinking, "Yeah, I get it" but we were also – not disappointed but – not exactly inspired, [so we] hit the Calder and that was just like a punch! There! Here it is! We were pushed back by the force of the originality and the way he uses the poetics of space - look I have got goosebumps talking about it now.


MS: See? There, even if I do not have that vocabulary to translate that art coding. I didn’t see those puzzled faces. I feel the crowd was getting it, there was a kind of energy. Is this because this is the ‘blockbuster’ Tate Modern so it is a type of 'lower level'? Almost as if contemporary art is not for the public but for the arts? What is your opinion?


SL: I wonder and worry about that question. I wish I had an answer. The way I look at it is again in terms of music. There was a time in popular music (sadly not now) when there were some really interesting risky experimental stuff going on, that still made the top 10 and sold shitloads of records. The Beatles' White Album is not an easy album to digest the first time around but that sold zillions of records. Both the industry that gave them the money to make that and the buying public were willing to support that kind of risky experimental stuff. Now in music we don't have an industry that supports it... and I am not sure we have a public that supports it. You could discuss all day about what happened to both music industry and music consumption and with fine arts it’s kind of similar - it's a difficult one.


MS: Why do you do art then? What drives you?


SL: Because we have to do something with our lives before someone throw us in a hole! [Laughs] This is one of the reasons why I have real difficulties calling fine artists this rarefied bandwidth of human beings that speak funny codes. Cause some of us when we were five were the kids that were making things, and then when we were 10 we were still the kids that were making things, drawing, making noise, whatever - we were just the people that were investigating. Maybe it's because we were socially uncomfortable. For me I was a lonely child with a very rich inner life and didn’t know how to deal with people. So, dealing with pens and paper, or writing or music was just my way to live really, to be in the world. You look at cave paintings and see that there's certain human beings, certain members of this species who always have that way of coping with the world. Maybe somebody else is a really good cook. And who is more valuable?


MS: So then perhaps this is the answer to the initial question: there is a group of artists who might as well be geniuses - but because it's about their own way of 'being in the world,' they don't necessarily acknowledge or take into account how that reflects or how far that reaches when it goes 'outside of them'. Maybe that is the way of looking at it - but then it opens up a new range of complicated questions: how do you evaluate that particular piece of art, ...its price and all?


SL: Yeah. That is a whole other story. I do not understand the fine art market. I look through big art magazines and I think, "Wow, this is again that kind of speaking in code.” Is it supposed to be purchased by me as an artist or to speak to people in that very high income brackets that throw shapes at each other that signify - "Look I understand, I made enough money that I can understand this very obscure thing and buy this now"? I do not know who's that for! I am not going to say it's worthless but I don't yet understand what it's supposed to do. Whereas, you walk into the Calder set and I saw kids that were blown away by it. Now, of course we shouldn’t be judging fine arts only by its ability to communicate to three-year-olds... but the three-year-olds kinda have good bullshit detectors!

That was one thing that I started thinking during my degree. That if a theory could not be understood by a very intelligent 15-year-old - because you know supposedly that's when our brains are at our best - perhaps we should look at why that is. But then again I would admit that there is a part of me that is probably really defensive, because I feel there is this constant attempt to say "you don't understand this" and if feels on a gut level [it is communicating] “you are not worth this.” It's like an axis, the fine art tipping point, where does it just tip over into exclusion?

Yet I am sure we have all seen something like ...’not-sure-I-get-it-but-that’s-kinda-cool’. And maybe the point is just, "wow that's kinda cool!"