Friday, September 23, 2011

Who Are We Writing For? recap*

Maybe it’s ironic that a writing symposium has left me hardly able to write a word, to literally render my writing invisible, as I attempt to make myself as the writer visible.  What I mean is that this inability to profusely write has been the best thing to happen to me in my nine year span as a freelance writer.  Endlessly producing words and tailored copy for everyone and anyone, my value as a writer varied drastically depending on whom my labour was for. I can churn out words as if my words fell off of some assembly line, with little thought or control to where they would end up and how this mass manufacturing of words has become detrimental to the craft of my writing as practice.

Image: Roman Signer (left) and symposium guests, Vera Tollmann, Claire Barliant, Matthew Stock, Ross Sinclair, Moira Jeffrey, Charlotte Young, Jennifer Melville

Who Are We Writing For? is a symposium I conceived and then co-produced during my time as Deveron Art’s inaugural arts writer in residence, a residency that began as a very murky writing and curating fellowship. Bringing together twenty writers, artists, curators, educators, and consultants from across the UK , Western Europe, and North America into the town of Huntly for a 24 hour programme of viewings, discussions, presentations, and writing, WAWWF approaches the practice and process of writing from an understanding that this will be a perpetual question.

The aim of designing a symposium by invite only, that was not open to the public, and not recorded, was done so with the intention to not perform, posture, or proliferate a certain style of discourse. All too often conferences and symposiums bring together an electric group of minds with shared values, but performative lectures and show boating are exchanged rather than any genuine expressions. The primary aim of this invite-only format was to engage in directed writing exercises and peer-led group discussions about the state of contemporary art discourse, and I am still shocked and overwhelmed by the generosity of each participant in sharing their vulnerabilities.

What I learned from the writing exercises was that the joy of writing has been constrained by formulas and word count, and I am not alone in enabling this downward spiral of writing as supplementary descriptions, because I haven’t been able to stop treading in this precarious position as a hustler.

But if we look at writing as a creative practice, have I not completely sold out already? And at the same time, be completely disrespected and misunderstood? Writing copy for ads and editing funding proposals for me is on par with asking an artist to paint your house, and of course artists do paint houses, but there is less of a differentiation between their paid labour and their creative practice.  Writing, and I am referring to really good writing, exists in and of itself as a creative form, loaded with historical and social significance in meaning and in its very production, but it is also the singular voice of the writer that carries forward the essence and construction of writing, a voice that is often expected to be as invisible as the labour of writing itself.

And if we really can never get out of language, then we will need to reposition ourselves to not be at the mercy of it. Rather than perpetuate a closed circuit of references that has become the dominant discourse of any specialized topic, including contemporary art, not to mention engineering and molecular biology, where writing is little more than technical writing, my work as a writer is to write with and through language, rather than always bend to its will for professionalized purposes and other forms of systematized frameworks of understanding.

.   .   .

Last week’s by invite symposium brought the obvious question to the forefront, and for me, personally, this question of who are we writing for is stronger than ever intertwined with WHO is paying me to write?
WHO pays me is no less simple than whom I write for, as those who issue me a payment for my precarity are doing so on behalf of an even more amorphous shade than the mythical broad public audience. In this nexus of shape shifters in the form of funders, publishers, and readers, I have had to discover who I am again as the writer: the labourer who remains an integral link in this chain of supply and demand. In terms of arts writing, the writer is always in the supporting role, with the catalogue to be the first on the chopping block if funds are low while reviews are solicited, with little care of the actual words expressed, as it is only preferable that an image accompanies. The idea of a primary text to accompany art exhibitions is neither new nor outrageous, but when stuck on how such a change can ever come about in the state of contemporary art discourse, my response is: set some standards!

And this is why I am paralyzed, as without hustling, I am left to write only for myself, who remains my biggest fan and critic. Disgusted and tired from the regurgitation of language that satisfies box checking and professional affirmations, I will no longer write what people expect me to write, which namely, is name dropping with adjectives. These are the people who pay me, and by a process of negation, I will sort out who I am no longer writing for.

*First published on The Huntly Review

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Real Life in Huntly, Interview with Ross Sinclair*

Image credit: Ross Sinclair, Real Life Huntly (surveyed from the Clashmach), 2011 (courtesy of the artist and Deveron arts; photograph: Anna Vermehren)

Glasgow-based Ross Sinclair has been the Artist in Residence at Deveron Arts for the summer of 2011 researching the history of The Gordon Clan of Huntly and its relationship to present day Real Life in Huntly. From writing songs encapsulating the history of The Gordon Family to marching up and down The Clashmach carrying painted portraits of past dukes and Robert the Bruce, Sinclair has been negotiating the boundaries between being a research-driven studio artist to working in a socially engaged practice through Deveron Art’s “the town is the venue” methodology.

Canada-based Amy Fung is Deveron Art’s Visiting Arts Writer in Residence for 2011.

This is an excerpt from an interview, which took place on September 6, 2011, Huntly, Aberdeenshire.

Amy Fung: Let’s go back to the beginning: what have you been doing in the town of Huntly?

Ross Sinclair: Thinking about it now, it’s turned out like a 3 months research residency where I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on the subject of the Gordons of Huntly, while at the same time constantly questioning myself, thinking about the process and context … a lot of the ideas have woven in quite well into a whole strain of my work, ideas about living in a small damp northern European nation sometimes known as Scotland that touches upon notions of identity, location, history, geography, and what we’re all made up of. Part of that is just where I am myself at the moment, as a lot of that has been a reflection of what does it mean to come to a place like Deveron Arts to be an artist in residence working in a socially engaged method with a maxim of the town is the venue. I think it’s very challenging for all concerned.

For me, to explore the situation where there’s still quite a big constituency is really interesting. We did this event down by Huntly Castle where we called up all the Gordons in the phone book and we invited them to have lunch together. I set up this carnival style tableau facade with a doorway at the bottom and we invited them to all bring mementos of their Gordon heritage. It was a really lovely day where everyone met each other as they didn’t all know another, and I did this performance of songs that charts 12,000 count ‘em - muthafuckin years of history and we did a photo of all the present day Gordon’s in Huntly with their illustrious forebears in the background and the castle as the backdrop.

It was this very simple way to present the Gordon Family here in 2011 and the castle bearing their family name and here’s me as the artist in residence bringing it all together and Deveron arts hosting; looking back it’s interesting to articulate as it was just a really human moment of a really simple exchange and sitting down across the table like this and talking. It really only lives in the memory, but it was quite a rich and dynamic moment. Though at the same time I’m thinking about a meta view of the event where I’m considering whether the Gordons are part of the work, or participants, or viewers as the piece is documented as an artwork.

AF: Do you think that’s the focus of these residencies, that if the town is the people as you say, can you imprint something on people as one could with a venue?

RS: Well this thing in the Mart last weekend where Huntly hosted its farmers’ market on Saturday and then the livestock mart on Sunday hosted all of Huntly life from the bouncy castle to the tractor show to the rare breeds, sheep shearing and rabbit skinning amongst the Guides and Brownies and people selling landscape photos and all sorts of other things, and then in the middle of the livestock mart, there’s this artist in residence too. I brought all the stuff I had been working from the “studio” into the pen, and I was sitting there in the back painting and making music with my back to the audience and for me I really did feel like I was just one of the other exotic zoo animals. But the question after all is whether this idea of culture and art is just another aspect that goes on in the town? I did a project a few years ago called “Studio Real Life” at de Appel in Amsterdam and that was riffing on similar ideas. I had set up this symbolic studio where I was there every day being an artist for 3 months in the public gaze, but as much as anything it was for me - trying to answer: What the fuck goes on in there? What’s my job? What’s my role?

For the full interview, please download the pdf here

*First published on The Huntly Review

Monday, September 12, 2011

Roman Signer, Now and Then*

I first remembering seeing this photo back in the fall of 2007. I had just given notice to the last office job I thought I could ever hold (still true to date) as unforeseen events made me realize I needed to give freelance writing another full-time go. Naturally, I was going to run away first to Berlin for a bit of fun and inspiration, and doing a bit of homework first, this image popped out at me from a Canadian art magazine previewing Roman Signer’s solo exhibition at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. I was completely unfamiliar with his work, but something about this photograph, its inherent dynamism, the glean of this uncanny cherry red, the double take it made me do, led me to least circle the preview for later inspection.


I would be in Berlin by December, and the friends I was staying with recommended the Signer show too, and their opinions held more weight than any 20 word preview ever could. Wandering through the Bahnhof should take a full day, but I needed two to watch all of Signer’s videos and documentations.

As a comprehensive exhibition of performance documentations, most of the work existed on screens and monitors, but several of the works after-motion had been left or placed in the gallery halls. I can only recall a sensation that made me realize why keeping fireworks under your bed was about as exciting as lighting them later. The dormant motion of objects against gravity, the visual and aural residue of explosions, and the generalcapsulation of propulsion was all readily palpable in each work, with something inherently human as the trigger. One work that continues to stand out in my memory is a hand held video work following the path of wayward balloon, leading to a chase as the wind picks up, and the inevitable inability to continue the chase as we, through the seemingly dejected camera, watches the balloon drift far and away. It was as devastating a work as I ever saw, and it is only now looking back that the description of Signer’s works as “time sculptures” finally begins to make sense. His interest in working with the uncontrollable elements of water and fire, earth and air, yet in his attempts to control some element against them, are absurdist in humour, humanist in conceit,and ultimately a gesture of self-destruction.

Next week, Signer arrives in Huntly to make a new work along the River Bogie called Transmissions from the River (Übertragungen aus dem Fluss). I have no clue as to what to expect, as the river is constantly changing and transmitting as is, but inspired by the attempts to discuss his work again, I am organizing this event which will also wrap up my time here in Huntly, which it turns out, has been the first time in these past four years I have not had to hustle for work as a full time freelance writer. I wouldn’t say it’s serendipitous in the least that Signer should bookend this moment in my memory, but I can’t deny it’s a nice way to remember the unpredictable and inconceivable changing of the tides again and again.

*First published on The Huntly Review

Convergence at Timespan, Helmsdale, Scotland*

Helmsdale is an even smaller and more remote community than Huntly. Nestled way up in the North of Scotland with a population in the high hundreds and a history dating back to the early AD years, Helmsdale has a heritage focus on genealogy and geology, and the past is undeniable in this region of the Sutherland.

As it goes, a museum and art gallery was built in the mid 80s and in 2009, Timespan began shifting towards bridging the past with the present. Commissioning GSA’s Jenny Brownrigg along with Deveron Art’s Claudia Zieske to write a research report for the 2010 - 2013 period, the first set of artists in residence commissioned included Julia Douglas and Jo Roberts, working in contemporary modes of knitting and commentariographing, respectively.

Currently under guest curator Kirsteen Macdonald’s stewardship, the artists from this past weekend of events included artists in residence Graham Fagen and Corin Sworn, along with screenings and performances by Luke Fowler and Wounded Knee (Drew Wright). Notably more high profile in terms of art world credibility, the programme certainly brought in members of Scotland’s art community up for a packed weekend, with many visiting Helmsdale for the first time.

Still from Graham Fagen’s Baile An Or, 2011

The main exhibition was Fagen’s new work, Baile An Or, and the short film certainly captured his first impressions of the place by its focus on time spanning (excuse the pun) through a series of still shots capturing the fall and rise of the tides along the bonnie river. Moving from morning light to moon light while offering meditations on the legacies of war, the film is controlled by its mood editing, which received a short reprieve from its subdued pace for an almost spirited focus on the motions of gold panning. The HD work was crisp and clean, showing no betrayal of a trained eye, but it also exists very much on the surface of Helmsdale’s purported identity that left nothing complicated to unravel. In comparison to The Summer Walkers (1977) ( a documentary about the life and culture of travellers by Hamish Henderson and Timothy Neat which was also shown as part of the arts weekend), Baile An Or clearly balked at going any deeper or closer to the subject of human history as any sense of personality was stripped from the land. While The Summer Walkers was complicated by various ethical and formal issues in its anthropological narrative of the travellers, that work as a whole left a far greater impression of a story being spun and told about a people and the places they inhabited, while Baile An Or read more as a postcard snapshot.

Not surprisingly, while the weekend audience roamed the town like a pack, the number of locals in attendance were few and far between. The void of local engagement in this particular exhibition drags up the persistent question of whether showing contemporary art in remote locations is actually for those living there or if these exercises are simply a field trip for the art hounds?

I visited Helmsdale during my first week in Scotland, and I was appalled by the Ed Ruscha exhibition that was touring through as there was not an iota of connection to the place it was being shown. The Fagen exhibition and accompanying short works by community members was of course far better by comparison, and I don’t know if these type of issues ever get resolved or even reach a consensus, but it’s refreshing to see Timespan juggling these conundrums through an ongoing experiment of trying out different strategies and formulas in connecting contemporary art everywhere and anywhere.

*First published on The Huntly Review

Framework: Maria Fusco writing workshop*

Coming to the end of this inaugural arts writing gig at Deveron Arts, I am more unsure than ever as to what it is I am actually writing. I know I write, but I know little else. I have no idea what it is I am writing, just that I am definitely writing it. Working on the border of cultural commentaries and creative non-fiction, I am tired of looking, if not legitimating what it is I write, rather, I continue to read the writings that have influenced me as a reader and inevitably as a writer. A small handful of these voices appear on my current reading selection for the Art Reader Network including Gertrude Stein, Deleuze and Guattari, and Serge Deney, all of whom were spectres to my experience of Maria Fusco’s writing workshop yesterday.

Reconfiguring the value and limitations of arts writing as a creative practice that runs alongside, across, in and through the works of visual art our words accompany, Fusco’s approach to arts writing meets at the nexus of experimental poetics, post-structuralist theory, and the sculpting of subjectivity. Shifting art objects, and the history of art itself, as bricks, rather than the keystone, in the arch of understanding and rendering, Fusco pushes us into a minefield of subjective interpretations starting from the first person position of (art) objects.

Encouraging us basically to “re-caress the art object” -- to write and read the object simultaneously --Fusco’s series of writing exercises led us further down the constructive path of subjective reimaginings, and hopefully hit home that writing is a practice that employs creative skill. A quiet, but nevertheless startling realization came during the collaborative exercises, when we had to do pronoun hurdles in small groups, and I was reminded for the first time in a very long time that writing and editing are acquired skills that not many people have grasped. As somebody who compulsively writes and edits, I unfortunately forget before eventually remembering that writing remains one of the most undervalued skills in terms of appreciation and labour value.

Concerns disguised as questions were raised early on as to why one writes if nobody is going to read it? This commonly held position reveals the underlying attitude that writing is supposedly a servant to communicate knowledge, and that knowledge is presupposed, rather than created. Would anyone ask if a musician would play and sing if there is no audience to hear it? Or if a thought is going to be explored if nobody is ever going to understand it? Eventually somebody comes across the work in some incarnation or another, but the work must begin somewhere.

Having been given an option between production or discussion, I am thrilled the majority voted on production, as that’s at least a positive sign towards a better direction.

*First written for Framework and published on The Huntly Review

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Akimblog update on Scotland*

Edinburgh Art Festival | British Art Show 7 | Ruth Ewan at Dundee Contemporary Art | Helen Cho at Glenfiddich | Graham Fagen at Timespan | Deveron Arts | Who Are We Writing For?

I was told early on in my six-month arts fellowship in wee, bonnie Scotland that Glasgow is where you make art and Edinburgh is where you see it. Being situated outside of the Central Belt entirely, I have had the privilege of holding no allegiance to either of these truisms. Instead, I’ve been able to discern for myself the scope of Scotland’s radically diverse and undervalued contemporary art scene.

Much like Canadian artists who have to jump ship to “make it”, Scottish artists also look south and beyond for recognition. Like the rest of the art world, the majority has moved to Berlin, but that leaves the homeland as an isolated testing ground. Left alone to wrestle with their own formalist art legacies are new formalist artists such as Glasgow’s own Martin Boyce and Karla Black, two of four Turner Prize 2011 finalists, both of whom have also represented their country independently of Britain at the Venice Biennial in the past five years. A unique sense of Scottish identity has long been alive and strong, but even then, I am still not sure what constitutes Scottish art. 

Martin Creed, Work No. 1059, 2011 (courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth; photograph: Gautier Deblonde)

Edinburgh remains best known for its flurry of festivals each summer, and every gallery lines up to be included in the madness by bringing in big international names like Anish Kapoor (at the University of Edinburgh), Hans Schabus (at Collective Gallery), Robert Rauschenberg (at Inverleith House), etc. The highlights remained outside of the festivals, however, from esteemed private gallery Ingleby Gallery’s consistently impressive group exhibition to Martin Creed’s Work No. 1059. Albeit, Creed’s reimagining of The Scotsman Steps was originally commissioned by Fruitmarket Gallery to open in time for the 2010 festival, but was delayed until early this summer. Coming upon them one day without the festival hype was a fantastic surprise and delight. Consisting of one hundred and four marble slabs, each different in colour and originating from all over the globe, that coat the long dilapidated Scotsman Steps (an important historical thoroughfare for Edinburgh’s markets that remains in constant use,), the work is the best public artwork I have seen anywhere . . . 

*To read the entire entry please visit Akimblog