Research Diary Jesse Waugh
University of Brighton MA Fine Art, Semester 1, 2014-2015
I have experienced a genuine unfolding of my creative potential and understanding of my own creative practice since I started on the MA Fine Art course at the University of Brighton last September - thanks in large part to the series of Research and Practice Methodologies seminars on offer every Tuesday evening.
The course of seminars is designed to not only inform us as to the practices of other artists but to stimulate us students to go out on our own and do our own research. It has actually been invaluable to me to find out through the various presentations that research itself is actually a human process, rather than a tortuous pedantic drudgery endured only by bookworm scholars behind cluttered desks in dreary offices.
Rather than summarise every seminar, I'll select a few that had a special impact on me. The first thing that really sparked a lightbulb moment was when Amy Cunningham cited Susan Philipsz' Lowlands outdoor exhibition in Glasgow 2010. After the seminar I researched Susan Philipsz and found a video of her installation on YouTube. It's shows a waterscape under bridges crossing the River Clyde, through which eerie quasi-Gaelic vocal emanations and droning instrumentals penetrate. It is utterly enchanting, soothing and beautiful. Susan Philipsz deserved the Turner Prize she won for it.
I had lived in Glasgow for a while and traversed the waterside walkway under those bridges many times. It is usually a rather tranquil environment, but I can only imagine the gravitas Philipsz' work must have brought to it! I find the way sunlight bounces off of water and reflects on the underside of bridges to be one of the most beautiful things in manmade environments. This phenomenon of reflectivity features strongly in my 1994 film El Angel.
The next thing that really got me thinking was Charlie Hooker's featuring sunshine recorders in his presentation. I had never seen or heard of a sunshine recorder, and given my history developing optical crystal prism products I found the visual similarity between the sunshine recorder and mounted prisms quite striking and beautiful.
The seminar which stood out the most for me was Sean Dower's. His work resonated with me. It had a rawness which I deeply appreciated - especially in his description of his experience with The Curfew Recordings in the 80s. There was a free, raw, experimental and thrilling energy in the 80s and 90s which was somehow curtailed after 9/11, that I miss terribly. His work is teaming with that energy. Everything about Western culture seems so "H&M" (as I call it) now-a-days - so false and smothered in trendy rehash. It could just be that I was just younger in the 90s, but I don't think that explains it all.
Something about the aesthetics and sensibilities of Sean's works - even works which were quite different from anything I might have done in the 90s - reminded me that there was a time before the World Trade Center was demolished when abandoned buildings were left unguarded, and you could imagine yourself taking them over and using them as giant art spaces for projections and installations and gatherings. In the Age of Terror in which we now find ourselves, everything is locked and guarded by jack-booted rifle-carrying thugs dressed in black. Everything is stymied by political correctness. Everything is mortgaged. But there was a freedom to experiment in the 90s that is sorely absent now that we are all working like ants to pay exorbitant rents and now that all space is at a premium. It's killed culture so drastically that we now have a facsimile culture where techie hipsters pretend to be authentic by donning the innovations of the past as if they were new again and not just rehashed. It was so refreshing to see the beautiful authenticity in Sean's work.
If I had a major 'lightbulb moment' during the series of seminars and in my own research, I'd have to say it was during Louisa Buck's seminar on her work with British political cartoons. While I enjoyed the education on the plethora of political caricatures referencing Sisyphus and other Ancient Greek myths, I was somewhat taken aback by the amount of emphasis Louisa Buck appeared to be placing on research instead of on practice. This raised a red flag for me. It made me realise that, although we are conducting research, we are artists first, and we really should emphasise the importance of practice as one form of research for us. That's the beauty of current postgraduate fine art research programmes - especially forward-thinking ones like ours at the University of Brighton - they are still so new - especially at the doctoral level - that there is still so much room to expand on past notions of what constitutes research. Literature is only one form of communication and language. Video, for example, is another equally potent and usable form of communication and language, and is in no way inferior to written words. In fact, video may be superior in some ways.
The old adage that literature is superior to television is biased in favour of those pedants who fetishise written work because it gives them a false but perceived advantage, and job security. The myth is that television (video) thwarts the imagination, whereas literature excites it. But this is faulty pseudo-science designed only to maintain 19th and 20th century scholarly monopolies on knowledge and intelligence. The fact is all forms of visual and audio art and communication will work together in the future as we head towards a multimedia singularity - a gesamtkunstwerk of holographic virtual reality in which writing, video, audio, illustration, music, myth and story-telling all meld into one composite whole. We see it happening around us all the time in the form of languages disappearing into English. It may be sad, but written language will also be absorbed into whatever form of metacommunication develops over the next several centuries.
As artists, it is our job to imagine new ways of being, isn't it? Well, it's time to push the concept of research itself forward into the 21st century and beyond, and I have genuine appreciation for what I perceive to be a real push towards innovation in research being engendered by the faculty at the University of Brighton Grand Parade art department.
I shall conclude with a Neil Gaiman quote which stunned me when it was presented on a slide during Jac Cattaneo's psychogeography seminar. I'm not sure if it has anything to do with research, but if it does then it's the type of research I enjoy the most:
"Have you thought about what it means to be a god?"
"It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people's minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to recreate you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity anymore. Instead, you're a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable'.
I think this is similar to the conundrum of the artist - we are expected to be intermediaries and interpreters of the divine. Our works are given sacred space inside of white cubes. Perhaps white gallery cubes and cinemas replaced churches in the 20th century. Are we the new priests?