A couple of weeks ago I was talking to Ross Hogg about the BAFTAs which Monkey Love Experiments had just lost. The conversation steered towards what is in essence the same discussion that architects and furniture designers often debate: whether form should religiously follow function or material attributes. Talking about a film the discussion becomes whether the technique chosen should complement the narrative (or the narrative influence the technique), or whether – as an animator – you just use your technique to tell any given story.
Ross’ work is very textural, and his approach is to start with a story, and then find the textures and techniques which will work to help the story to thrive. This allows his work to have a very intimate feel to it, even if the story is not personal. The thing that was amusing in our conversation was that he saw this as being the best approach, whereas I don’t see any problem with adapting a story to fit a technique. Problems arise when technique and product don’t have any logical link and – in fact – it would be more practical to make the product in a different way altogether. I think that Monkey Love Experiments is a good example of how techniques can be mixed to tell a story in a hyperreal manner. We were able to manipulate physical space through photography and editing, use live-action to tie the space and narrative down to known reality, and insert stop-motion animation into this setting, making Gandhi very alive.
In design, a good example of the marriage between form and function is what happened in the Bauhaus era with an example like Breuer’s B34 chair, a structure that could not have been made before the development of tubular steel and which expresses the material without any embellishment. Conversely unconnected designs are represented by most of what surrounds us today, as most products are decorative boxes styled by zeitgeist-trends to sell technology which an accountant and marketing manager have decided is what we are to be rationed, rather than what industry is capable of. Often what we think of as ‘good design’ today is something that is aesthetically neutral. Though Jonathan Ive’s Apple products look at home in Tadao Ando’s architecture, there is something infinitely more honest about making a statement with materials as the fabric of the design of a building. The design of electronic devices is ethically no different no steampunk styling.
I do get excited by hybrid workflows when they do add to what you are able to achieve. Around a year ago I commissioned Jared to make Lauren’s engagement ring: I knew he was the right person to take on the job because of his background working both with fine jewellery and with the machine-shop end of piercing jewellery. This was pertinent because the ring in question is a palladium cast of a cable-tie (or zip-tie) set with a diamond. It so happened that we were visiting his workshop when he was starting to experiment with an interesting workflow. He’d been commissioned to make a rather large ring, and had started building it in silver using traditional techniques, chasing, piercing and brazing from sheet material. But he was also experimenting with the jewellery package in Rhino 3d, and subsequently he had the ring ‘printed’ from wax: he was able to optimise the material thickness much more delicately than he had been able to in the traditionally made ring, which was exquisite when investment-cast: a technique that is more than 5000 years old. I think this is the first time that I have seen stereolithography (3d printing) used effectively as part of a process, rather than being used for the sake of its existence.
I have been asked if I had ever used stereolithography in any of my work, and I haven’t mainly because I have not seen a need for it, or a need that exceeded the tedium of creating a 3d model and getting the print made. Joseph and I had looked into it back in 2005 when we were working on Solo Duets, but found it to be more efficient to sculpt a portrait. Basically we wanted the puppet to be a portrait of Joseph, but at 1:6 scale. We’d even had a 3d mesh made of his face using what we were able to access, but I ended up just spending a couple of evenings sculpting a bit of clay, as computers of the era didn’t seem capable of handling the 6 million floating point mesh that we had of Joseph’s face, and we’d already wasted weeks on this approach. Materialise had been available as a stereolithographic facility for years, but for what we needed oldschool techniques were faster and probably offered finer detail. I didn’t understand at the time, however, why figurines from games (or films) like Final Fantasy and Toy Story weren’t printed directly from the models used to make the films, but rather seemed to be interpreted by sculptors and rarely looked like the film characters.
I seem to have ended up on a tangent involving animation and stereolithography. I would be curious to see the process used within filmmaking, but it would have to become a completely inherent part of the process. Most of the time you start with hand drawings or sculptures to develop a 3d model anyway, and this is why I don’t often see a point in making a 3d model in order to create a sculpture unless there were another reason to have the 3d model in its own right. For example it might be an interesting addition to the workflow of making a film to use Machinima as a storyboarding technique, with the intent of then printing puppets and using stop-motion to produce the final product. The occasionally arbitrary aspects of Machinima could add an interesting layer, either helping to homogenise conflict of opinion, or even helping work out the timing of movement, since the gaming engines all have physics of movement already built into them.
In conclusion, there never is an absolute right or wrong, but as I wrote yesterday it is often worth thinking about why you might chose to do something one or another way, and be ready to explain it. Most often it is good practice to chose to do something in a logical and complementing manner – and often the simplest approach will be the most rewarding. Occasionally it is worth looking at an approach that is a bit awkward but that will add an interesting quality to that which you are doing. Unless you are at the forefront of something completely outrageous like Memphis, it is rarely worth spending time on something which is destined to become outdated at short notice, unless you are comfortable adapting ahead of the trends you might be contributing to.
I’ve been banging on about how my Master’s ruined my career as a designer ever since I finished the degree (it left me over-qualified, too old and with no experience to get jobs in agencies), but rarely discuss the things that I did learn. And by learn, I am not talking about books read, nor theories learned. Not taught subjects, no. I mean the ability to adapt, to take on board, and to explain myself when misunderstood. Qualities which are transferrable.
In 1999 I moved to Edinburgh for my BA. I had already worked as a photographic and printmaking technician at Civitella Ranieri, and was reasonably adept at drawing, painting and sculpture. It was part of the way I had grown up, and I was generally very confident in what I did, as I had no reason not to be. The internet didn’t really exist, so my only pool of comparison and competition were my immediate friends or successful thises and thats who were published in books.
My painting tutor in first year was the first person to challenge my bubble. He basically forced me to unlearn and re-learn, punching a hole in my comfort zone. Initially this was damaging – of course – but it was also a necessary step for me to break from a linear approach to painting (starting with a fine line, moving from one side to the other, and then building up to darker hues) and allow me to loosen up, which then in turn let me learn to adapt and understand techniques or artists who I previously discounted as poppycock. One day I remember blocking in a large sheet of double-sided card with a big brush and runny acrylics, simplifying the geometry of the room we were in as a background for the still-life, when I abruptly came to the realisation that I understood Mondrian – an artist who’s work previously had been little more than wallpaper to my understanding, but which suddenly had opened out into vast cityscapes, simplified both in form and colour. Sadly I do still seem to need to understand to appreciate – life would be easier if this were not the case.
In 2nd year I was studying design, and most of my course was structured around developing briefs. We would be given a scenario, and a toolset, from which we would need to form a solution that we could then describe and justify. Had we been studying law, our solution would have been the defendant and evidence the toolset; the tutors were the prosecution and the rest of the class a jury. We would usually have an interim and final group critique for each brief, and a few of us rapidly adopted a routine that involved going to the pub after a crit to discuss who had “won” the crit, and continue discussing our various approaches. By winning, what we meant was who had given the best overall presentation, leaving the least number of holes that could be questioned or – if questioned – were answered promptly and eloquently. This process involves a lot of lateral thinking, simplifying your presentation, understanding why you make a series of decisions and – above all – feeling comfortable with the fact that being questioned or challenged is both a learning tool and part of the process of growing up. This is constructive criticism.
So what does this mean now? I instinctively circumnavigate a debate, without making it an argument. I comfortably explain why I continue to use analogue photographic equipment without really leaving anything to criticise… Last year I was working on the Ooglies (a stop-motion animated series for BBC kid’s TV), and as a head of department I had the director and producers above me, and a team below me. I had to be able to express how I wanted things to progress to my team, without explicitly forcing them to follow a blueprint as we had to move forward without having finalised a lot of details of the production. I also had to be able to receive instruction from above, work on things and be able to adapt to the changes they would ask me to make. Often you will find that clients, producers and directors are not visually eloquent. For example they would tell me A, I would bring them drawings of A, and they would then say “no, B”, to which I would have to adapt without feeling assaulted. In this kind of a situation everyone thinks they have the most stressful and important job of the team, and the way that I was able to keep things moving smoothly was to be able to adapt rapidly. To then adapt B to C without as much as rolling my eyes, after B had been built and was, I had thought, ready to go.
No, of course I’m not perfect, I’d be insane to even hazard the thought. Of course I still have opinions and feelings that get hurt and can make me angry, but without that initial experience of having to develop briefs and take peer and academic criticism on board, adapt and try again cyclically, I would not be suited to working in any aspect of the creative industries today.
Last week Sophie and I went to visit the newly reopened Scottish National Portrait Gallery. The new layout is accessible – more so than before – and reminds me of the McManus in Dundee, being of a similar period: a glorious building indeed, with one of the most spectacular foyers I know of.
The museum does, of course, have many of the usual suspects – many of the kinds of paintings that one would expect from a portrait gallery including one of the most striking paintings of Mary Queen of Scots, which you can get up close and intimate with. Some of my favourite pieces in the collection, however, are the early photographs: The John Muir-Wood salt-prints, Paul Strand’s photogravure and Archibald Burns‘ views of Edinburgh in the 1850s, counterposed with the humour of Catriona Grant’s Cows, and the imaginative use of photography in Calum Colvin‘s work (though I am not impressed with the inkjet-on-canvas that is on display, and cheekily described as a ‘Giclée’).
One piece, however, stole all of my attention. This giant photographic image – over a metre square – stood out and dominated. Initially I was simply excited by its scale and colours, so I got close, only to find that its detail was infinite, and it had a familiar metallic shimmer. The label said that it was by Richard Learoyd, and that it is a direct positive made on Cibacrhome (or Ilfocrhome) in a purpose built camera, and on loan from the artist.
It is such an alien experience to walk up to a print (as I often do), and not find any defects nor artefacts in the print itself: I am so used to seeing decay in a strand of hair, where a digital input or output device has been unable to describe a sharp diagonal. Or indeed noise in a gradient, as 8bit files are not particularly suited to describing the tonal range of such common graduated qualities of light.
Around the fingers of her right hand the depth of field is around 2cm, and within this area one strand of black hair stands out (though less distracting than that one pube in Weston’s Nude 1936) which is impeccable. Sharp as a scalpel. At this moment the image opened up to me, expanded and became infinite. Despite the fact that some digitophiles might argue that soon they will be able to reach this kind of detail as well (since an average print 1m square is a mere 139megapixels), I feel that Learoyd has created something that we may loose. What he has done, is build a camera that is more akin to a house than to a disposable camera. According to what I have read, he works from within the camera, standing inside it rather than looking through it. The image is exposed directly onto the Cibachrome, which makes a positive image without the disruption nor need of anything as intermediate as a negative. It represents a raw reality more purely than our eyes could possibly do on their own.
The only picture of his camera that I have found is here, which shows little more than its size and a hint of the size of the light-bank needed to expose such a mammoth of an image. Of course making images like this is not particularly practical, and hence why Learoy appears to be the only person making pictures of this kind.
I don’t think I have ever had such a gobsmacking experience with a photograph that I did not already know and love. The beauty of reality created by Learoyd is one-off and one of a kind. Nothing artificial has interpreted nor interfered with it. The relationship between scale of the the subject and lens, the chemistry and artistry in his process is one that no digital arrangement will ever truly mimic. And yet mimicry is seemingly one of the most important omissions in his process.
I highly recommend that, if you have the chance, you visit one of Learoyd’s images. I say visit, as I think it is a little more than just going to see a photograph: it is more like visiting a classic painting that you have known for years, but never seen in its physical state. And yet at the same time, it is more intimate, as you are entering a real world that you have never seen before.
My girlfriend sent me a link to the Telegraph with an article on Michael Landy’s ‘new’ ‘art’ project titled “Break Down”. I have liberally used commas as, honestly, I struggle to see this as neither a new process nor art.
I feel that the whole premise of the performance is clarified in the opening paragraph, where it states that the ’14-day artist’s “performance” [is] commissioned by Artangel’. It is my opinion that this kind of “performance” could only be made by a person with no personal effects (and I have met some artists of this nature), or with the promise of a large sum of money.
I do, generally, have great difficulty with conceptual (and) performance art, as I feel that they are often devoid of those aspects which give art its purpose: nominally those that give something to the spectator, and those which leave something to posterity. The kind of performance that Michael Landy has created leaves nothing, as everything is destroyed in the process, and gives nothing more than a voyeuristic sense of gratification that shall be short-lived. It is highly unlikely that someone would visit his ‘performance’ and then talk to friend in the pub later on about how sensational it was to see this man in a boiler suit placing his DVDs and art collection on a conveyor belt in a dusty room. The whole effort feels less grounded than dedicating an hour a day to religiously watching Big Brother on TV.
So what is the artist hoping to obtain from this inane destruction of personal property? It is not going to be documented in art-history as being a piece ‘destroyed by the artist’: we all know Umberto Boccioni’s futurist sculptures of which there are few in existence, however photographs remain of other delightful forms that the artist destroyed. No, we will not have an entry with a snapshot of a man’s flat, dated 2011, with ‘destroyed by the artist’ underneath, as it would not be of any interest.
I have a problem with destruction as it is: I struggle to throw away a blank piece of paper, as it has potential; I struggle to throw away a doodled piece of paper as it might be important. Though destroying things that can be replaced, like DVDs, is less problematic, their destruction still creates an inane hole in society: a waste of resources. Destroying other people’s art seems purely disrespectful of their time and effort, especially when the purpose of the act is purely that of destruction, even if the aim of this is for personal gain.
I often have opinions about other people’s work. I rarely can be objective with my own, however. And my opinions often jar with friends and family, though I always pride myself in having enough of a rational grounding to be able to argue my point. I plan to use this space to write my thoughts on art, and sometimes on terminology that decribes art, as I am a fan of etymology and nomenclature.