Category Archives: education

Haiku and Socially Engaged Art

This week I was invited to participate in a one day public forum entitled “Live Art, Social & Community Engagement: Methodologies of Practice” at UNSW, convened by Stephanie Springger and Lenine Bourke.

Here’s how it worked:

In the morning, 5 artists gave brief presentations addressing key questions about the ethics and aesthetics of socially engaged art, community art, etc (the naming of these practices was also in question).

These artists were Leuli Eshragi, Latai Taumoepeau, Rosie Dennis, Cigdem Aydemir, and Lauren Booker, and their presentations were moderated by Francis Maravillas.

After lunch, each of the speakers was teamed up with a “live writer”. The live writers included Jennifer Hamilton, Rebecca Conroy, Keg de Souza, Astrid Lorange, and Lucas Ihlein. About 40 people were in attendance – from what I could gather, mainly artists, students, and curators. Around each pairing of speaker + live writer there was a breakout group to flesh out some of the salient points from the morning’s discussion.

The speaker led the small workshop discussion and the live writer used whatever method s/he felt most useful to map, transcribe, document etc what went on in the discussion. I was teamed up with Latai Taumoepeau, and our allocated theme was “class, negotiation and power”.

Many times in these kinds of events, I’ve used diagrams and mindmaps as a tool to make sense of the complexity of the discussion. However, this time I decided to try something different, proposing to use the Haiku form as a way to engage in live writing.

My previous experience with Haiku is minimal. I’m a fan of the great Japanese Haiku-ist Basho, and his “Oku no Hosomichi” aka “Narrow Road to the Deep North“. And I enjoyed John Cage’s translation of Basho’s Mushroom Haiku.

On the train up to the forum, I listened to a podcast I found by googling “socially engaged art” and “haiku”. It was by John Paul Lederach, and it was called “The Art of Haiku and the Soul of Peacebuilding”. Lederach is a “peacebuilder” who sometimes travels to places of deep conflict, and sits down with people to assist with the reconciliation process. In his talk, he says that he sometimes finds the Haiku form useful in crystallising complex ideas without requiring closure.

I found Lederach’s ideas inspiring, particularly his thoughts on the relationship between complexity and simplicity. He quotes a poem from Oliver Wendal Holmes Jnr:

I would not give a fig for the simplicity on this side of complexity
But I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity.

I found this interesting – often in my mindmaps and diagrams, I create an image of complexity. The graphic squiggles and vector lines are sometimes useful in explaining the intractable stuckness of a complex multi-stakeholder situation. But the Haiku has the potential to travel through this complexity “to the other side”.

What, Lederach asks, is simplicity on the other side of complexity? It’s a way of “finding the essence, while holding the complexity, and living into places that we don’t fully understand”. For Lederach, the Haiku can be a way of doing this. If the diagram breaks things down, the Haiku is about putting things together. He describes how sometimes he is able to practice a form of deep attentive listening at multi-party negotiations, where different positions are at odds with one another. At some point in the proceedings, somebody will say something which seems to rise with clarity from all the words. The Haiku at this moment writes itself. Then Lederach, when the time is right, reads the Haiku back to the group – and this is sometimes able to catalyse a deeper understanding within the group of the current dynamics of the relationship.

Back to the present. In our group discussion there were five of us: Latai, Pedro, Stella, Pippa and I. Francis and Stephanie also popped in briefly at different points. We didn’t even try to stick to the assigned subject of “class, negotiation and power”. If these issues were addressed it was part of an organic evolving conversation which was warm, probably assisted by the fact that there were only 5 of us.

Latai began by talking about some performances she has been doing – with fake spray-tan (at Gallery 4A in Sydney) and with white zinc cream (at the Hong Kong Basel Art Fair). She spoke about her choices of these darkening and lightening agents and their culturally specific meanings. While she spoke, I wrote my first haiku. A bit overwrought, but you’ve got to start somewhere:

What is light on one
Background can become very
dark on another.

While working on her spray-tan project, Latai had struck up a friendship with the proprietor of one particular company, “Black Magic”, who was so intrigued he decided to become a sponsor of the project:

Black Magic Spray Tan
Application by machine:
Darker and Darker.

Continuing her exploration of cultural identity and skin coloration, Latai told us how back in Tonga where she is “from”, her family members criticised her for being “too dark”. Perhaps it was the residue from her Spray Tan performance that made her darker, I can’t remember. Whatever the reason, her darker skin was regarded as being at odds with her privileged social status in the local community. Dark skin is associated with labourers and agricultural workers:

Skin colour darkens.
Relatives chastise me for
shellfishing all day.

Our conversation shifted to the Hong Kong Art Fair version of the work, where she used white zinc cream instead of spray tan – partly because of health and safety issues (the spray machine was not considered acceptable for the atmosphere of the indoor art fair environment). Latai didn’t know how to prepare for interacting with people in this strange setting:

Art fair audience:
How do they read all this stuff
Out of its context?

The audience for her work, Latai said, often shapes the kinds of performances she does. Sometimes, as a Pacific Islander, she receives invitations to perform in public under what she feels is an “anthropological gaze”. In these situations, she responds by performing unexpectedly – not merely doing a “nice ethnic dance”, but rolling herself up in long sheets of ceremonial cloth, writhing around, unravelling herself and

Fucking with my own
Material Culture. Fuck

At this point in the workshop, the other members of our group introduced ourselves. Stella, an artist and a recent masters graduate, is originally from Taiwan. In Taiwan, she told us, children are given English names. They do not get to choose. She was allocated “Betty”:

Taiwanese Betty.
Names distributed by force:
Betty for three years.

After three years, “Betty” decided to take the power back:

My own name. I choose Stella:
New identity.

Stella goes on:

Shared language shapes our
Collective memory. We
Can decolonise!

In her discussion of Taiwan, Stella mentions its other name: Formosa. I asked her about where that name came from, and what it means:

“Beautiful Island”.
Portuguese passing by shout
Out “Formosa Ho!”

Pippa, who works with the company Performing Lines, told us how she’d been in the UK for 14 years. She loves the context of “community art”, despite the fact that as a category of practice, it has been marginalised by the mainstream contemporary art world (this had been one of the contentious issues to come up in the plenary session of the morning):

Community Art.
Proudly looked down upon by
Snobbish Avant-Garde.

Pippa also made a strong case for consistency of language. She urged us to align the words we use in funding applications with the words we might use “on the ground” while doing community engaged projects. Too often, she said,

Funding proposals
Become marketing copy:
Bewildered people.

Pippa also argued that thousands of useful dollars get swallowed up when organisations have to pay large rents, and proposed that government funding should not be able to be spent on real estate:

Money should go to
People and Artists and not
To Bricks and Mortar.

This led to a discussion about how so many arts workers are chronically underpaid: clearly not a good thing. On the other hand, working beyond remuneration can sometimes generate more joy, because the time spent is not associated with a “job” and its demands for measurable outcomes. Questions arise:

Pleasure or exploitation?
And sub-contracting?

Pedro, who words for 4A Centre for Contemporary Art, had a lot to say about all of this. One of his main questions to me was about how as an artist I deal with the power and influence of the institution (in my case, embodied by my job at a university). It’s not an easy problem to negotiate – because when I’m embedded within an institution, potential projects tend to rise to the top of the pile only when they attract funding (whereas in my pre-institutionalised past I would have just done them “for free”). My response:

isation is a virus:
How to immunise?

Word and Image

The following are some notes for guest lecture for UOW subject “Word and Image”, September 16 2015.

Well-known works of experimental film and sound art:

  • Michael Snow, So is This – film consisting entirely of words on screen, one word at a time. Temporal spacing of words creates drama and “characterisation”.
  • Hollis Frampton, Zorn’s Lemma – “found typography” alphabet progressively replaced by moving image substitutions. Duration more than an hour! A form of brain training?
  • Paul Sharits, Word Movie – simultaneous heard-words, and seen-words. How do we process this information?
  • Alvin Lucier, I am sitting in a room – words begin as information, progressively decay to reveal the resonant frequency of the room (music?).
  • John Smith, The Girl Chewing Gum – “In The Girl Chewing Gum a commanding voice over appears to direct the action in a busy London street. As the instructions become more absurd and fantasised, we realise that the supposed director (not the shot) is fictional; he only describes – not prescribes – the events that take place before him. (quote from A.L. Rees, A Directory of British Film & Video Artists, 1995)

Text-dependent artworks:

Book on text and art:

Some of my own projects which use words:

  • Bilateral Petersham – blog which embodies the experiences of 2 months of being “artist in residence in my own suburb” – approx 80,000 words. Presented in gallery exhibition as long bench with pages printed out, visitors assemble own book.
  • Yeomans Project – project investigating agriculture in Australia. Blog stories from experiences 2011-13 edited and published as a newspaper. Prints in gallery contain text as mneumonic/didactic devices.
  • SHELVE – made out of wood, hand cut with jigsaw.
  • Environmental Audit – words in conversations with museum staff and visitors become content for blog storytelling. Complex relationships mapped out in diagrammatic form, as prints and on blackboards.
  • Event for Touristic Sites – national stereotypes stencilled onto white t-shirts. Interactions with tourists in touristic sites. Tourists choose a shirt and pose for a photo. Discussions with participants about ‘veracity’ of the various stereotypes.
  • Various one-off prints using text:
    Bundanon Print (The Feral Amongst Us); The Underground; Adelaide Garbage Map.

also – Gysin and Burroughs’ cut ups; Lauren Brown’s listening lists; Adrien Piper’s text-cards for social events; Carolee Schneeman’s Interior Scroll; FLUXUS artists’ use of the “event-score”…

Productive Anonymity

The ability to experiment without much at stake except your own process of discovery… time to think and to not think; to look at art; to waste on dead-end art projects that no one will ever see again and that your best friends may remember better than you will … the ability to do things with just enough attention to make you feel like you are part of a world and can go forward, but not so much that your gesture becomes a trademark and a creative prison.

Artist Mira Schor, from an article on The Brooklyn Rail, Feb 2013.
Quoted in the book The Art of Critical Making, in conversation by Patricia C. Phillips, with Silvia Acosta, Daniel Lefcourt, Andrew Raftery, Kevin Zucker, Cas Holman (all staff at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)).

Workplace Relations: The Allan Kaprow Papers

kaprow compositions book from the 1940s

Allan Kaprow – University lecture notebook from the 1940s (Getty Archive)

I’m in Vancouver right now. Recently Lizzie, Albie and I visited L.A., San Diego, San Francisco, and Portland. I’m pursuing the intersections between socially engaged art practice (and its pre-histories) and environmental management situations, as I try to work out how best to press on with Sugar vs the Reef.

In L.A., the Getty squeezed me in for a preview of some of Allan Kaprow’s archives which are housed there. I wasn’t able to spend days and days rummaging through Kaprows’ stuff, so it was more of a “triage”, to work out whether it’s worth coming back for a longer visit.

And it would be worth it for sure. Here’s a brief excerpt from the spiel about the Kaprow Papers:

The Allan Kaprow Papers offer comprehensive documentation of an artistic career that spanned the latter half of the 20th century and continues into the 21st. Arranged chronologically so as to demonstrate the artist’s passage from student of art and art history to practicing artist, art theorist and art educator, the collection contains drawings, term papers and notebooks from Kaprow’s student days, followed by ca. 250 Project Files, comprising the complete extant documentation of Kaprow’s Environments, Happenings, and Activities.

There’s loads of stuff in there that hasn’t seen the public light of day, not to my knowledge at least – including many video tapes documenting Happenings, and unedited audio tapes from Kaprow’s public talks and lectures.
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Does postgraduate study make for better art?

At the ACUADS conference a few weeks back, the final panel discussion tackled this question:

“What impact are higher degree research programs having on emerging trends and themes in contemporary art?”

There were some interesting responses from the panel which included Tony Bond, Rebecca Coates, Chris McAuliffe, and Kate Daw. But nobody seemed to answer the question in the very literal way I wanted it answered. So I threw a more specific and perhaps reductive question to the panel:

“Do artists who complete PhDs produce better art than they did before?”

(M’colleague Maria Miranda has gone on an interesting excursion with this question at her blog, over here.)

After much humming and harring, the panel produced no real consensus – but if anything, the answer did seem to be tending towards the negative: “No – PhDs in creative practice do not lead to discernably better artists, nor the production of better artworks”. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but really I was a bit shocked (I feel naive even writing that here). So, at the risk of cementing my position as a naive utopianist, here’s my opening gambit:

Surely one of the fundamental reasons for the existence of creative practice based PhDs should be that they result in better artworks. Surely? If not, then what’s the point?
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Lucas Ihlein – Philosophy of Teaching

The following text was written up for two reasons. First, I was invited to be an external “Artist-Teacher” for Carrie Ramig, an MFA student from Vermont College of Art in USA. The college required me to submit a “philosophy of teaching” statement. (A what?)

And second, I’ve been enrolled in a “University Learning and Teaching” (ULT) subject at University of Wollongong – theory and activities to help improve my teaching practices at tertiary level. This ULT subject also required me to write up a rudimentary “Statement of my Conception of Teaching”.

I’ve tried to put it as clearly as possible – and it doesn’t have much in the way of contemporary educational theory. You could look at this as “where I was at before I read a whole lot about tertiary classroom education and spoiled my innocence” …
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The Pet Sounds Project

I wrote the following post during 2012, on my class blog for MEDIA ARTS 301. I’m transposing it here as it may have broader appeal… It details a collaborative project, involving pigeons, which I am keen to get off the ground, working with media arts students. So far I’ve not found the right class or assignment to slot it into. It could even be carried out with a small group of students who have already graduated, as a pathway project to working collaboratively outside the university context.

dubstep pigeons

Ok, so I want to begin by saying, I have no idea what the term “Dubstep Pigeons” could even mean.

A quick google shows that it’s the name of a live music act in northern England. I imagine that band is probably really good (and I love their logo), but apart from the “music” part, they don’t really have anything to do with this project.

It was Stacey [media arts student 2012] who came up with this term “Dubstep Pigeons” to describe the collaborative “pigeon project” which I’ve been thinking about for over a year now, and which I’ve been muttering about to anyone who will listen, and which I’ve been looking for an opportunity to carry out. But as I say, its relationship to the respected Dubstep flavour of dance music may only be coincidental…

In the blog entry which follows, I’ll outline my vision for the project. Maybe some of you want to get involved as part of your Major Project for semester 1.
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“The Artist as…”

social intersections screen shot

In 2012, together with m’colleague Brogan Bunt, I had the pleasure of creating and teaching a new subject at UOW called “Social Intersections“:

This subject examines how creative practice can engage with social forms and processes.
The aim is to encourage conceptually informed, interdisciplinary practice that reflects upon dimensions of social space and history. Students gain a critical understanding of relevant traditions of creative practice and develop individual and collaborative projects that reconsider the relationship between art and society.

The students did some really interesting projects and we had a bunch of excellent discussions in class about this “new” form of art, which engages with social relations as a material. We had good experiences with getting the students to use blogging to track their own progress throughout the semester.

I’m in the process of archiving the class blog, and clearing the decks so that in 2013, our new batch of students can start filling it up with their work.

I figured that some of the lecture notes from the subject might be more widely useful, so I’m cross-posting them on this here blog. Below I have cut and pasted an entry I wrote under the notional title of “Modes of Engagement”, which was intended to provide a cross-section (albeit incomplete) of ways in which artists might engage with the world, by acting “as” practitioners of other (non-art) disciplines…

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The Human Fax Machine

The following is a set of instructions for a workshop activity I ran in Tasmania recently for the Convergence Lab. The original activity was devised by Brogan Bunt, and together with Brogan, I developed it in collaboration with Bettina Frankham at UOW Media Arts.

The instructions below are by now fairly refined… although having carried it out in Hobart with nearly 60 highly trained artists and teachers, I have some ideas how to push it even further.

The Human Fax Machine

Collaboratively invent a sound-based code system to transmit an image through space.

Your group gets one unsophisticated soundmaking device:
eg a spoon+glass, or a bell, or a jar with dried chickpeas.

As a group, develop your transmission/reception system before you play the game.

Your group splits into two sub-teams:
The “ENCODERS”, who transmit the image-message, and the “DECODERS”, who receive it.

You should write down your code, so that both the ENCODERS and the DECODERS have a working copy of it.

Test your system out with a simple graphic image (a line drawing) that you draw yourself.

Discuss how it works, and refine it by answering the following questions.

-is your code appropriate for the soundmaking device you are allocated?
-what if the ENCODERS make a mistake when transmitting part of the image?
-what if the DECODERS make a mistake when receiving part of the image?
-how do you deal with “noise” in your system?
-what if you need to clarify, pause, or start from scratch?

Don’t agonise over making it perfect. Make sure you leave enough time to play the game!

Your team will be allocated an image you have never seen before.
THE ENCODERS will be handed the image, but the DECODERS must not see it.

The ENCODERS sit on one side of a partition and the DECODERS sit on the other side.
The two cannot see each other. Nobody is permitted to speak.

The ENCODERS use their soundmaking device to transmit the encoded image.
On the other side of the partition, the DECODERS listen carefully & decipher the audible sound.
The DECODERS now re-draw the image according to the established code.

Once the transmission is complete, the whole team gets together, discusses what went wrong, improves the code system, and carries out a second transmission.

-what species of code systems you all invented;
-what processes you went through to arrive at them;
-how successful your systems were at approximating the original image
(compare original image to received image);
-what was learned in the process;
-what was frustrating or enjoyable about the process…

Convergence Lab, Hobart

This week, Lizzie and I will be travelling to Hobart to run a workshop for Convergence Lab.

about the lab:

Convergence Lab offers researchers, educators, artists and producers a facilitated environment for collaborative investigation into digital culture and making.

A diverse range of next generation artists will act as catalysts, offering cluster groups a hypothesis to provoke their realm of investigation for each day.

The program has two stages:

Stage 1: Provocation and play – 7, 8, 9 Dec 2011
Stage 2: Curriculum enrichment – 12, 13, 14 Dec 2011

This is a facilitated curriculum design and program development process offered to staff from the Tasmanian School of Art and College teachers undertaking the Graduate Certificate of Fine Arts and Design.

We will be presenting as part of Stage 1.

Looking forward to meeting a bunch of amazing people who are going to be taking part.