Director Nick Slater's weekly feature reflecting on creativity at the University and further afield.
While we are physically dislocated there is an opportunity to create a virtual community through an engagement with the arts.
Weekly Digest - 25 March 2020
LU Arts plays an important role in supporting our University community, whether this be staff or students. It offers opportunities for individuals to come together over a shared interest, it supports the student experience and it provides a space for staff and/or students to meet. It is good for the wellbeing of our Loughborough family. At the present time these benefits are more important than ever. While we are physically dislocated there is an opportunity to create a virtual community through an engagement with the arts. Over the coming period we intend to embrace technology to offer a new arts programme that we hope will inspire you, amuse you, stimulate you, calm you and entertain you.
How will we do this? We will continue to provide a platform for students to present their work through online exhibitions, performances and writing. We will run online workshops that offer staff and students opportunities to learn new creative skills. We will celebrate creativity at Loughborough by running features on individual students, societies, and our sculpture collection. We will organise competitions and engage professional artists to add to our offer. We are already embracing new ways of working. On Monday, the University choir used Zoom to meet and sing together and next week the Book Club will have its first virtual meeting. We have also set up a Creative Distancing Facebook Group, which provides lots of creative ideas and links to imaginative content. We hope that although we are physically separated, the programme will be much more personal, one in which you will have a direct input through content, communication and ideas. The arts should never be regarded as something for just a few people who are particularly talented; while it might sound cliched it is very much about the taking part and the various benefits that an engagement with the arts can bring. There really is no better time to do it, to challenge yourself to do something new and explore what type of art might be of interest. It could lead to a lifetime of enjoyment!
We are currently pulling together an interactive online magazine, which will have interviews, filmed content, features and articles, workshops, games and competitions. It will embrace technology so that we can include live streams of our student musicians, podcasts and photography from our talented students working in media, features and creative writing and interviews with academics and artists. We will also be writing a weekly feature reflecting on creativity at the University and further afield. We hope that in this way we can support the arts and ensure it continues to play a vital part in our lives.
Weekly Digest - 1st April 2020
I have been really impressed with how the arts sector has responded to their venues being closed, quickly shifting from a live programme to embrace technology so they can engage with the millions of people now at home. It is not only organisations who are delivering new activity but individual musicians, artists and actors who are generously sharing their skills and knowledge. I wanted to use this week’s digest as an opportunity to highlight some of these and maybe encourage you to experience some of the arts on offer.
In some ways the content that is coming out is not new. In the office we have been recently enjoying the delights of Bob Ross’s Joy of Painting all of which can be viewed on YouTube. Bob had a television programme that aired from 1984- 92 but seems to have gained a new cult following amongst students, who recently requested that I run a Bob Ross painting workshop.
We already offer a painting and drawing class but I think that is where the comparisons with Bob Ross probably end. LU Arts classes and workshops are probably the most popular aspects of what we do, whether that be one off taster workshops or a ten week course. The most popular artform is most definitely pottery, with the evening classes selling out in hours. However, there is no reason why you can’t do some pottery at home by ordering clay online: company called Kana Clay Club is selling a kit and will shortly be running regular virtual workshops that you can then follow online. We are currently pulling together a programme of online creative workshops, that will be delivered by our talented students and hopefully some will involve clay! Our choir and book group have both met via Zoom this week and we hope more of our activities will be able to continue in this way.
Some of the world’s leading arts organisations have been releasing previously unavailable content of their major productions. The National Theatre Live has launched National Theatre At Home, releasing one of their previous screenings each week via their YouTube channel and The Globe Theatre have a dedicated channel to show the Bard’s outputs. Musically, if you have never seen any operas this is probably the time to do it with so many of the big opera houses making their productions available online. For dance fans the place to go is Sadler’s Wells who are streaming productions on their ‘digital stage’ platform. All the major art galleries are doing virtual tours around their exhibitions and musically there are live streams of concerts as part of Digital Stage. Many of the large orchestras are streaming concerts or if you want to see how the Nottingham’s talented Kanneh-Mason family are getting on in lockdown you tune in via cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason’s facebook page every Wednesday and Friday at 5.30pm (BST).
I also wanted to signpost you to the work of two artists who have been part of our programme. Firstly, Emmanuel Almborg is a film maker who spoke at last year’s symposium around alternative art education. His original films have recently been made available and I would particularly recommend the one about Summerhill School. My second choice, which I am sure you will enjoy, is a stop motion animation made by Japanese artist Yukihiro Taguchi while he was artist in residence here at Loughborough University.
Of course, you could just forget about online content and read a good book or some poetry. We have been asking staff and students what their ‘lockdown literature’ is and we will shortly be sharing this via our social media channels. For now, I will leave you with a poem that was written by an Irish poet Kathleen O’Meara in 1869 after the plague had devastated Ireland but is equally appropriate for the current situation
And people stayed home
and read books and listened
and rested and exercised
and made art and played
and learned new ways of being
and stopped and listened deeper
someone met their shadow
and people began to think differently
and people healed
and in the absence of people who lived in ignorant ways,
dangerous, meaningless and heartless,
even the earth began to heal
and when the danger ended
and people found each other
grieved for the dead people
and they made new choices
and dreamed of new visions
and created new ways of life
and healed the earth completely
just as they were healed themselves.
Weekly Digest - 8th April 2020
"Honestly, there is a lot to be said for tooling about all day, looking up recipes and not making them, not bothering to paint the living room and failing to write a novel. In the middle of the messy non-event called your mid-afternoon, you might get something – a thought to jot down, a good paragraph, a piece of gossip to text a pal. Boredom is a productive state so long as you don’t let it go sour on you. Try not to confuse the urge to get something done with the idea that you are useless. Try not to confuse the urge to contact someone with the thought that you are unloved. Do the thing or don’t do it. Either is fine."
The above was one of my favorite posts on Twitter this week, both for the quality of the writing and the sentiment. It was written by Anne Enright, whose Booker Prize-winning novel was given to students earlier this year as part of the University’s partnership with the Booker Prize Foundation, with a view to encouraging social reading amongst our students.
It also chimes with an excellent article that has been written by final year English and Sports Science student Hannah Bradfield, soon to be published in our online magazine. Entitled ‘The Subjectivity of Productivity’ she questions our understanding of what is productive, arguing that we should not constantly value tangible outputs as being productive but that we should see doing very little or spending time with people we love as being equally productive.
I found this particularly refreshing as my observation of many students is that even leisure activity is selected for its tangible values rather than simply the pleasure of the participation. While the arts offers many underlying benefits, it should be a space free from material considerations.
A certain fetishism about the value of keeping up a schedule of activities, maintaining checklists and prioritising how time is spent has spilled over from our working life to our free time. The current period has seen a proliferation of online ways to maintain our schedules and outputs to the extent where there is a pressure to be seen to be productive. However, I would argue that the next week, when we are not at work or on holiday but at home, offers time for creative contemplation. Psychologists have found that periods of unconscious thought actually improve decision making and engender creative thinking; and that technological breakthroughs, key philosophical texts and works of music or literature or art have originated in times when the head was clear of tasks and technology. I would echo
the views of Anne Enright and our student Hannah Bradfield: productivity in our leisure time or lockdown time does not need to be task-based and the week ahead would be equally beneficially spent by unplugging ourselves from our work mentalities in order to think, to walk and to be creative.
“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention. Invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness – to save oneself trouble.” – Agatha Christie
‘I think that there is far too much work done in the world, that immense harm is caused by the belief that work is virtuous, and that what needs to be preached in modern industrial countries is quite different from what always has been preached.’ - Bertrand Russell, In Praise of Idleness
Weekly Digest - 22nd April 2020
Music plays a vital role in all our lives, whether through shaping our identity, connecting us to friendship groups or being central to our social lives. It also offers proven benefits to our wellbeing, a role that is keenly felt at the present time.
Music is probably the art form that our student population engages with the most. Each year it is gratifying to see the range of musical interests that exist and the commitment of the student committees and passion of the participants who are involved. The ever-expanding number of groups and societies offers students the opportunity to connect with others who share a passion for music and provide an important escape from their studies. Every evening in term-time the Cope Auditorium is alive with the sounds of different music, from jazz to rock to classical to choral; and the music practice rooms are filled with students practicing a wide array of instruments.
The lockdown came into force just as many music groups or societies were about to hold their annual showcase event and I was very sorry that many of them were cancelled. However, we are currently working with students to try to support them in other ways during the current time. We are developing an online performance with LSU Sing, who are recording individual parts at home and then compiling them into one performance. LU Arts also provides students with subsidised music tuition, some of which has continued online; and we support particularly talented and dedicated students through the provision of annual music scholarships. One of the cancelled concerts was the Music Scholars’ Recital, which always showcases the rich musical talent that exists at Loughborough. However, Isobel Lawson, a geography student has kindly sent in a recording of the pieces she would have performed at that concert. Isobel has a Grade 8 in classical singing and as well as performing in numerous choral groups is an active member of Stage Society and Shakespeare Society. I am sure you will agree from listening to her perform that she was a worthy winner of the award.
The interest in how music can influence or shape our identity or that of a physical place has been researched by Dr Allan Watson from the Department of Geography and Environment. Radar, our commissioning programme that invites artists to engage with academic research, has worked with Allan developing projects that articulate aspects of his research. In 2017, artist and designer Can Altay was invited to develop a project for our Market Town programme and became interested in how towns are shaped by particular genres of music that originate from them. He came up with the idea of creating a space or platform to bring together musicians from across the University and town, designing a pop-up recording studio and offering free recording sessions for a month. This piece of social sculpture was booked solid and led to participants performing in the town centre and creating an album of ‘Loughborough Sounds’. The project also had a distinctive graphic identity, which helped unite a disparate range of music. Allan wrote about the project: his essay can be found here, along with some images and recordings of the music. Can then took this idea to Istanbul where he installed a new recording studio. These projects highlight the importance of music in a similar way to the ever popular and expanding placing of pianos in station concourses. This was again something that originated as an artwork by Luke Jerram and has since become a worldwide phenomenon. Finally, to anyone connected with Loughborough, if you have never seen the 1992 documentary In Bed with Chris Needham, I would highly recommend it as a bit of lockdown watching. It captures teenage passion for music (in this case heavy metal) via the charismatic figure of Chris Needham.
Weekly Digest - 29th April 2020
Even prior to lockdown there has been a renewed interest in craft-based activity that can be viewed as a reaction to an increasingly technological age and to a focus on the conceptual within art practice. This has led to a revival of interest in working with our hands, keeping alive skills and traditions and having more of a direct contact with materials. The tangible benefits of making is also something that has been central to certain educational philosophies that believe participation in crafts and art offers wider benefits to learning.
One of the guiding principles of Rudolph Steiner (1861–1925), whose Steiner schools still exist across the UK, is a belief that artistic activity and the development of the imagination is integral to learning. Steiner believed that the artistic process combines both cognitive and creative activities simultaneously in the creative act Equally, Otto Salomon (1849–1907) developed something called ‘educational sloyd’ which argued that there were some key educational benefits to be gained from participating in handicrafts and in particular woodworking. Salomon identified the following;
1. To instil a taste for and an appreciation of work in general.
2. To create a respect for hard, honest, physical labour.
3. To develop independence and self-reliance.
4. To provide training in the habits of order, accuracy, cleanliness and neatness.
5. To train the eye to see accurately and to appreciate the sense of beauty in form.
6. To develop the sense of touch and to give general dexterity to the hands.
7. To inculcate the habits of attention, industry, perseverance and patience.
8. To promote the development of the body’s physical powers.
9. To acquire dexterity in the use of tools.
10. To execute precise work and to produce useful products
The above principles were, in part, the impetus for a previous Radar project developed by artist Maria Pask . She was asked to develop a new work in response to research around labour and value being carried out by the Politicized Practice research group. Maria visited the university archive and became interested in the unique and interesting history in which Loughborough University employed leading arts and crafts makers to train students in a range of handicrafts which required them to make functional and decorative objects for use within the fabric of the university, echoing some of the principles of sloyd. Between the 1930s and 1950s the University employed two key craftsmen of their day, firstly in Peter Waals and then in Edward Barnsley, to train students in making furniture, some of which can still be seen around the campus today. Maria was also interested in other examples of students contributing to their environment such as the development of a new cricket pavilion, an open-air swimming pool, or a radio station. The history of students physically making items for the campus environment alongside the educational methodologies led Maria to develop a project that trained today’s students in craft-based skills, making items for the campus environment. Current students were trained in woodworking and ceramics and produced a range of items including a tea set and public seating. She then developed a website that documents her project activity alongside some wonderful images from the University archive. I would highly recommend you also look on the information section which has a fantastic resource of sloyd and links to other aspects of the University’s history.
Weekly Digest - 7th May 2020
One of the more visible aspects of lockdown has been the rise in popularity of the social media app TikTok. Whilst students will no doubt have already been very familiar with this, its popularity has increased in lockdown with a plethora of short dance moves being released, and widely shared, often involving family members. The popularity of the app (it has now surpassed 2 billion downloads) shows both the need to connect with each other and the popularity of learning dance moves and lip-syncing! If you are new to Tik Tok dance routines, Peter Keefe, Chair of Rawkus Street Dance society, has kindly submitted a ‘tutting’ routine to our new online magazine, The Limit, that anyone can have a go at.
Dance Societies are more popular than ever at Loughborough. In recent years there has been a rise in social dance societies (rather than the more competitive Athletics Union affiliated ones) with Irish Dance Society and Urban Formation being new additions to add to the diversity of dance societies that also includes Rawkus, Bhangra, Bellydancing and Salsa. The quality, commitment and professionalism of all these societies is really great to see. Dance often combines athleticism and artistry and in many ways is the perfect artform for Loughborough.
Our first dance scholar, Aidan Kilby recognised that Loughborough had so many athletes and was very keen to try and convince male students, who might focus on sport, to give dance a go. Aidan made it his mission during his year as scholar to try and get more boys dancing. He thought the best way to achieve this was to engage them in a more ‘physical theatre’ type of dance and invited the fantastic Alexander Whitely Dance Company to come and do a workshop at the University. Aidan also did another workshop with the equally good Frantic Assembly company. Both companies tour regularly, often stopping at the Curve in Leicester, and I would highly recommend both to you. For now, you could take a look at some of the digital content on their websites.
This year’s dance scholar is Yaprak Cakin who is studying for am MA in Integrated Industrial Design. She has been dancing professionally and has taught contemporary, modern and hip hop courses in her native Turkey as well as appearing in many dance shows. Unfortunately, one of the many events that we have had to cancel this term was a workshop with James Wilton company, who was identified by Yaprak as one that she would like to learn from. We very much see LU Arts role as supporting the ambition of the many dance societies, enabling them to engage with professional dance companies, as well as supporting individual students with a passion for dance.
I wanted to finish this danced themed digest, with a project that we worked on a few years ago with artist Serena Korda. She became interested in some images from the University archive which showed students involved in ‘mass movement’, something that had been developed in the 1930s in Germany by Rudolf Laban. The invented folk dance at the heart of the work was developed with the help of its participants, a mix of students and local amateur dance enthusiasts, who all contributed ideas from their own daily rituals to the final choreographed work. The processional performance moved from campus to town culminating in a dance outside the carillon in Queens Park.
Weekly Digest - 13th May 2020
As many of us are choosing to walk regularly as part of our daily lockdown exercise I thought I would touch upon the important role walking has played in artists thinking and practice, and how they have considered its meanings and concepts. Many philosophers have regarded walking as an essential tool for thinking. Friedrich Nietzsche asserted that: “All truly great thoughts are conceived by walking”, while Jean-Jacques Rousseau declared about himself that: “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think; my mind works only with my legs”. This intimate relationship between thinking and walking is also underlined by contemporary theorist Rebecca Solnit, who wrote “Walking, ideally, is a state in which the mind, the body, and the world are aligned’.
The meditative aspects of walking and its relationship to environment have led to artists and writers developing specific terms and practices in response. The idea of the ‘flâneur’ arose in 19th century France and originally meant ‘to wander with no purpose’. It was taken up in the poetry of Charles Baudelaire and then later in the writings of Walter Benjamin where the flaneur became an observer of modern urban life. This interest in the relationship to the urban environment through walking was again taken up by the Situationists who termed the idea of walking in landscape as a dérive "drift" which was put forward as a revolutionary strategy. This involved a study of the terrain of the city (psychogeography) and emotional disorientation, both of which lead to the potential creation of situations.
More recently the concept of the walking artist came to prominence in the 1960s through the practice of artists such as Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Gilbert and George. They did not see art as the production of objects but rather something that began with a direct physical engagement with the landscape to which they would respond in different ways. Richard Long made a number of significant works involving walking such as A Line Made from Walking. Equally Hamish Fulton has devoted his artistic career to making work as a result of his extensive walks. Historically, the artists who have taken prominence in the history of walking art have been male but artist Alison Lloyd, has recently sought to address this both through her own practice and via recently completing a PHD at Loughborough looking at ‘Walking, Women and Art’.
I had the pleasure of meeting Hamish Fulton in 2007 when he was a guest speaker at a symposium we organised looking at the relationship between walking and ethnography. This was part of a ‘Weekend of Walking’ whereby we invited a mix of artists and poets whose practice involved walking to deliver new walking artworks across Loughborough. It showcased the different ways contemporary artists are engaging with walking from those that use the digital technology as part of their practice, to those that use a choreographed engagement with the environment to those that engage with the history and stories as part of an alternative guided tour. In one of the projects artist Tim Brennan researched Loughborough’s relationship to the Luddites and led one of his ‘manoeuvres' (tactical walks) following the route that the Luddites took through the town just prior to their notorious night of machine wrecking.
The history of ‘art walks’ is about the contemplative aspects and the observational response to the environment. This is not something that needs be exclusive to artists, as an increased awareness of our walks and of our environment is something we can all practice in our daily lives.
Image: Claire Blundell Jones Tumbleweed Loughborough. From the Radar project 'Roam: A weekend of Walking', 2007.
Weekly Digest - 20th May 2020
In Octavia Butler’s 1993 novel Parable of the Sower, set in 2020s California, climate change has resulted in regular droughts, fires and floods; unemployment and homelesness is widespread; and those lucky enough to have a home resort to violence to defend what little they have. In its sequel, Parable of the Talents, society has broken down even further. A new President, Andrew Jarret, is elected. Ignoring the causes of the country’s problems, he blames migrants and sin, uniting his base around a trademark promise: that he will ‘Make America Great Again’.
Although we should not judge speculative fiction by how accurately it predicts the future, it’s difficult not to be chilled by Butler’s vision. But there’s cause for hope too. Both novels follow Lauren Oya Olamina, a black teenager who flees north after her community is destroyed and her parents murdered. Joining thousands of migrants on a dangerous journey, she begins to build a new community around ‘Earthseed’, a philosophy of change and mutual care she has developed.
The Earthseed community faces numerous difficulties and awful violence from Jarret-enabled white supremacists as they struggle to realise their new way of life. But the possibility they develop is never fully extinguished, leaving the reader to realise that our future is not predetermined but can be changed by collective actions.
It’s interesting to reflect on this hope at the moment. It’s often assumed that crises bring out the worst in people: that we will hoard what we have, and use violence to get our hands on what we don’t. History shows that this isn’t necessarily the case, however, and the rise of mutual aid support groups to help those affected by Covid19 is living proof of this.
Mutual aid refers to a system where people contribute what they can and take what they need. It’s organised by the people themselves and those who contribute don’t expect a direct return, but know that the system will be there for them should they ever need it.
We can see glimpses of how such a society might work through Earthseed, but to experience it on a larger scale we could turn to another work of speculative fiction: Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, partly set in a world where mutual aid isn’t just something that emerges during crisis but is the dominant system. It’s not perfect, but it’s hard not to be inspired.
Such utopian visions give us permission to think about what we might be able to do in other forms of society. We’ve all heard stories during this lockdown of people taking the time to learn new skills and interests or develop old ones. But not everyone can do this: for those without space, equipment, time and money it’s simply not possible. The mutual sharing of responsibility could even this out, a possibility explored by the famous designer William Morris in his novel News From Nowhere, in which everyone has ample leisure time to develop their creative interests.
We won’t like everything about these utopian worlds. But by engaging with them we can see how we might do things differently. We can be encouraged to desire more, desire differently, and desire better. And when we connect them up with the positive aspects of our present we might be able to think about how we get from here to there. This won’t be easy: William Morris describes his world coming about through violent revolution (not what you’d necessarily expect if you’d only seen his wallpapers!). Octavia Butler, meanwhile, portrays the risks taken by those looking to bring about a new world, and makes it clear that this work is disproportionately undertaken by women and people of colour.
We might not yet know what kind of world we could build together, but the best utopian and dystopian fiction lets us know that we could build one.
Want to think about what kind of world might be possible? Here’s some more utopian, dystopian and speculative fiction worth checking out!
Trouble on Triton is set in a society where you can be whoever you want, whenever you want, with whoever you want. But it’s told through the eyes of a newcomer to the world who just can’t work out what he wants. Delany was heavily inspired by the queer social life of New York in the 1980s, so if you’ve seen Pose and ever wondered what it might be like if an entire planet (well, moon) was like the ballroom scene: this is the book for you.
Inspired by Octavia Butler, this is a brilliant collection of short stories set in all kinds of worlds that draws on today’s social justice struggles. Other excellent short story collections include Accessing the Future, which considers disability in other worlds; Palestine+100, with twelve visions of Palestine in 2048; and Sisters of the Revolution, which explores feminist futures and feminism in the future.
Hossain was a Bengali Muslim feminist and social reformer who wrote this short utopian work in 1905. As much a satire on patriarchy as a serious proposal for what should be, it’s nonetheless set in a fascinating world with solar-powered automated farming and flying cars.
Imagining a utopia is a lot easier if you start from scratch. Robinson avoids doing that in Pacific Edge, which is set in near-future California, meaning the result is a more ‘realistic’ utopia: buildings, infrastructure and many problems persist from our present, but the world is still recognisably preferable to ours. Robinson is one of the most prolific writers of utopias in recent years, but this early work remains one of his most intriguing
Written by David Bell (LU Arts Programme Co-Ordinator)
Weekly Digest - 27th May 2020
Some of you will already be familiar with the Landscaping and Gardening Society (LAGS) at Loughborough University but if not you might have walked past their garden located next to the Estates Yard that is currently full of hardy geraniums, aquilegias, roses and many vegetables. This community garden has been tended by generations of students under the watchful eye of Martha Worsching whose passion and dedication to it has been a key part of its success. This week I had an email from Martha and Agnes Wojtusiak asking if I had some photos of when the land was first cultivated as they were planning to submit a video to Gardener’s World, showing its development since it first came about.
What might be even less well known is that the origins of the garden go back to when it was part of a Radar project in 2010 when we invited artist Amy Franceschini to develop a new work that engaged with issues around land, food production and sustainability. Amy leads up an internationally recognised collective of artists called FutureFarmers whose work often deconstructs existing systems through participatory actions that enable those involved to think about change in the places we live. Amy invited artist and interaction designer Myriel Milicevic to work with her on the project. The project they devised was called Beneath the Pavement: A Garden and Myriel described its aims as being ‘to consider biological forms in relation to political and social systems. It looks at the potential of a small plot of land on the Loughborough University campus to tell social and political stories, deconstructing systems, planting them and watching them grow’.
Images from Radar project Beneath the Pavement: A Garden
It was an ambitious project on a less than ambitious budget. I remember having to convince the University to let us have a plot of land for the activity to take place, to source something between a pavilion and a shed to house information and publications and to recruit a wide cross section of people to take part in the project. These included academics, environmentalists, artists and gardeners who all attended a three-day workshop where they collectively debated and then designed edible landscapes based on political systems. They were informed by contributions from political scientists and historians and the discussions informed how the plot has started to develop.
While the project was an interesting practical exploration of the politics of land, from historical examples to contemporary perspectives, perhaps the most rewarding aspect of the project was its legacy. Following the completion of the project the land was taken over by staff and students who took ownership of it and started to turn it into both a society and an active community garden. Over the years the beds and borders have expanded, a polytunnel has been added, and as well as lots of hard work there are also lots of social events that bring like-minded students together. The society has been particularly popular with PhD and international students, in part because they are still on campus over the summer. The commitment to the garden was recognised when the society won the East Midlands in Bloom ‘Its Neighbourhood Award’ from the Royal Horticultural Society for the fifth consecutive year.
If you are interested in gardening please do have a look at the LAGS LSU page. You will also be pleased to hear that regular volunteers are still managing to tend the garden and hopefully we might shortly hear its story on an upcoming episode of Gardeners World.
Director, LU Arts
Weekly Digest - 4th June 2020
Embracing the Digital
It’s looking increasingly likely that for the foreseeable future arts centres, like universities, are going to have to continue to utilise technology in order to be able to deliver their programmes. Many arts organisations have been quick to adapt, delivering interviews, performances and screenings of past events across a variety of digital platforms. However, this type of content was never going to replace the live experience and it is now time to consider how we can deliver new and unique activity that is not just a substitute for the live but that is unique and engaging in its own right.
The Arts Institute at the University of Plymouth had been working on a digital arts project in advance of lockdown and were fortuitous in their timing that it was launched in the current period. They invited a host of well-known individuals including Hilary Mantel, Alan Bennett, Jeremy Irons and Iggy Pop to read sections from Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Each reading was accompanied by a commissioned image by a range of artists including Cornelia Parker, Marina Abramovic and Gavin Turk and the poem serialised over 40 days. An amazing poem is brought to life by the readings and the project points us to how we can embrace the possibilities of the digital and deliver a rewarding arts experience.
Artists have always utilised the latest technology to try and deliver interesting and original artistic outputs. Since the birth of the internet artists have embraced its possibilities. British artists Thomson and Craighead have been using video and the web since 1998 to create pieces that reflect upon the digital age. They re-work material often found on the internet to create artworks that provoke us to consider our relationship to technology. Their work manifests itself in films, online works and in public art. The use of data or content that is held digitally is a consistent theme within their work. In 2018 they utilised data held within the Admissions Office of University College London to create a constantly changing public artwork called Here Not Here in which two large LED screens simultaneously show passers by the countries represented and not represented by the UCL student body at any given time. Both information streams update in real time in endless rotation, and are presented side by side in identical decorative grids; the left hand screen showing us who is “here” and the right hand screen showing us who is “not here.”
Anti-glacier by James Bridle. Part of the Radar project Nowcasting (2014)
Another artist-cum-writer who investigates the role of technology in our lives both through artworks and his writing is James Bridle. Radar previously commissioned James to make a new digital artwork in 2014. Anti-Glacier was a live web-based visualisation of the rhythms of news, weather, and climate – and of the focus of our attention. He continued his interest in the weather in a commission for the Serpentine in 2016. Cloud Index involved the artist taking in all the available data he could find, from polling intentions to opinion polling to satellite images of weather and put them through a neural network to create a website that illustrates weather based on voting indications surrounding the EU Referendum.
Cécile B Evans was commissioned by Radar in 2014 to produce a new video work that was recently purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art. However, my first encounter with her work was the web based commission AGNES who greets you with a little joke, asks you to click on the one of three videos that represents how you feel. The idea is that AGNES gets to know you based on the images you click and the questions you answer, guiding you towards ‘useful’ content. Cécile is also interested in our relationship to technology but in a different way to the other artists, focusing more on our emotions and vulnerabilities in an ever-changing digital world.
How Happy A Thing Can Be by Cecile B Evans commissioned by Radar
One of the most well-known artists working with ‘net’ art is Jon Rafman . Much of his work focuses on melancholy in modern social interactions, communities and virtual realities (primarily Google Earth, Google Street View and Second Life), while still bringing light to the beauty of them in a manner sometimes inspired by romanticism. Probably his best known project is 9 Eyes, an ongoing project begun in 2008 that considers the meaning of photography in an age of mass automated imaging. Rafman isolated specific images from Google Street View, publishing them on blogs, as PDFs, in books and as large photographs for gallery exhibition. The work is interested in the photographic image as taken by machine without any of the human considerations imposed on the image taking.
All these projects offer inspiration for how we might commission or produce new and interesting projects that don’t just use technology as a platform to present work, but engage with the digital in a more integrated and interesting way. Over the coming months LU Arts will be seeking to re-position our programme and seek to deliver innovative projects that directly engage with technology and embrace the ‘new normal’.