Category Archives: odds and ends

“Experimental Art” is a Tautology

In the process of putting together a grant application on behalf of the Big Fag Press, I’ve been thinking a little about the notion of experimentation in art. This has been prompted by a new category of funding, called “Experimental Art Grants“:

These grants support artists, groups and organisations investigating experimental arts.

It is an open grant category for any stage of your experimental arts activity that meets the selection criteria.

Some examples of what you might apply for include investigating new emerging and experimental arts processes in a creative arts lab or through workshops; initiating innovative creative collaborations and partnerships; or creating and/or presenting new and experimental art work.

To keep this program as open as possible, Inter-Arts will consider any proposal from artists proposing to explore emerging or experimental arts.

Two questions:

  1. what the hell is “experimental art”?
  2. are there any examples of art which are not experimental?

…if the answer to question 2 is NO, then what is the need for this grant category?
If all art is inherently experimental, then surely the existing categories of art funding would already adequately support the experimental.

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Adelaide Traffic Island Garbage Map, now in a book!

From Here to There by Hand Drawn Map Association:unnatural

How exciting! Kris Harzinski, of Philadelphia, has just put together a book called From Here to There: A Curious Collection from the Hand Drawn Map Association, published by Princeton Architectural Press.

It contains my Adelaide Traffic Island Garbage Map, entitled simply MAP, 2007, which was printed on the Big Fag Press.

(The above photo is borrowed from Michael Surtee’s Flickr page, and his blog. I hope he doesn’t mind, as I have yet to receive a copy of the book myself.)

Here’s another blog which mentions the book (and my print!)

Oh, and! There’s an accompanying exhibition too! At Arcadia University, in Philly, from September 23 – November 7, 2010. What fun.

HDMA book
[The cover of the book…]

Brook’s way with kinds, categories and memes

The following is a book review I wrote for Artlink Magazine, Vol 29, No.1, 2009. It’s about Donald Brook’s new book, “The Awful Truth About What Art Is”.

Artlink has published Brook’s book — it’s a print-on-demand number, you can find out more about it, and order it if you wish, here.

And if you every get the chance to meet Donald, as I did a few months ago, do take the opportunity: he’s a national treasure. He writes regularly here. In one of his blog posts, he tries out some of the ideas in his book, to much discussion, consternation and silliness.

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Alphabet Soup!

This is a little animation I made a few years back for my sister’s self-published children’s literature magazine Alphabet Soup. It’s a great mag, targeting kids between 5 and 12 years old. Alphabet Soup is based on the philosophy that kids will write better by reading more – and the mag has space for children’s own stories, poems, and drawings too – a virtuous feedback loop…

When we were young, we subscribed to Cricket magazine (from USA) and Puffinalia, a local childrens’ creative writing magazine. These no longer exist, and there are are no equivalents available any more, so in true Ihlein tradition, my sis decided to D.I.Y. She has 3 kids of her own now, so I suppose they are her primary audience – but you can subscribe too!

Coming back to the above animation – we’ve never really done anything particular with it except watch it and chuckle. This little bit of moving image experimentation was the basis for my design of the Alphabet Soup logo, which you can see in flattened, coloured form over on the Soup website (I think it was processed after it left my hands, by my cousin Chris).

More kids lit stuff can be found on Soup Blog too…

Three (failed) Escape Attempts / One (successful) Drift Away – from the Artworld…

A few scribbled notes…

Last night we went to a lecture by Lucy Lippard at Sydney Uni. It was a rare treat to see this legend, who beautifully chronicled “dematerialization” practices in the late 1960s and 70s, and who has done some terrific work more recently on art and place and the local.

Her lecture had a really interesting title – “Three Escape Attempts” – see lecture publicity below:

In her illustrated lecture, Three Escape Attempts, Lucy Lippard will discuss her curatorial practice with a focus on Three Escape Attempts – three moments in which artists tried to escape or at least bypass the art world: Conceptualism, Feminism, and what she calls the “collaborative” moment in the early 1980s.

Lucy Lippard is an internationally reknowned feminist art critic, author, and theorist. She has curated more than fifty exhibitions and is author of twenty books on contemporary art and cultural criticism including:

Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object (1973); From the Center: Feminist Essays on Women’s Art (1976); Get the Message: A Decade of Art for Social Change (1984); A Different War: Vietnam in Art (1990), The Pink Glass Swan: Selected Essays on Feminist Art (1995); and On the Beaten Track: Tourism, Art and Place (1999).

She lives in Galisteo, New Mexico, and in 2010 will publish a book on the history of the area she lives in from 1290-1790. In the 1970s she gave the Power Lecture and in the 1980s she taught at the University of Queensland.

This is a free event, no booking required. All welcome.

I’m very interested in the idea in the title of this lecture – escape attempts. Art trying to work outside the artworld, escape from its boundaries.

In the lecture Lippard went through three periods. The first was conceptualism (late 1960s, early 1970s) – a period she describes as a kind of “adolescence” – when a series of “tools” was developed for institutional critique (the beginnings of the process of trying to escape the artworld?)…

She made no mention of Allan Kaprow (from memory, he is hardly mentioned in her book Six Years either) although he had a long engagement with a very similar project of trying to escape art’s framing, and find a way to avoid the sapping of life’s essence by art.

Her second period was feminism (early-mid 1970s). She emphasised feminist art’s use of tools borrowed from conceptualism and their application to urgent real world situations: “finding uses for conceptual art strategies”…

Her third period (the third “escape attempt”) was a collaborative period of socially engaged art / art as activism / art as community work by collectives in public spaces (early 1980s). Collaborative art as an antidote to social alienation.

Most examples in the lecture came from things she had been involved in herself – she has always been a very engaged art writer… not “disinterested” at all.

Her general prescription (it seems to me) is that art should be a kind of activism for social change. Art should not be quarantined within the “artworld”. The artworld is a zone set apart and kept safe from the actual engagements of real politics.

Her talk was like an illustrated artist’s lecture – big on anecdotes and examples, not much analysis of the idea of escape attempts as a concept in itself.

It occurs to me that the “three escape attempts” she outlined always failed because they were trying, precisely, to escape something which could always incorporate these very attempts to escape…

The paradox is that the artworld can gobble up anything, and so any escape attempt ends up being recuperated within the artworld’s scope. Thus it is impossible to escape, if one is attempting to do so as an artist. Escape attempts only secure the knot more tightly to the artworld (Lippard herself used the analogy of a bungee cord).

In question time, Lippard inadvertantly mentioned her own gradual “loss of interest in the mainstream artworld” several times.

Now this was something! Lippard’s own “drift away” from the artworld has perhaps achieved what could never be achieved through the “escape attempts” described in the lecture. A “loss of interest”. She simply stopped paying attention to what was going on, and did other things instead.

It occurs to me that losing interest in something is a good way of depriving it of value (and thus power). “Losing interest” and “paying attention” are both terms related to value and capital. (Although, the art world never lost interest in Lippard. Through her published writings, she still exerts a strong influence on generations of artists and theorists).

But the deeper question is – why “escape” the artworld?

Escaping? Escaping what? (Is this a Freudian thing?) Could this be connected to her notion of conceptual art as a kind of “adolescence” – a necessary rebellion in order to forge one’s own identity before reintegrating into society? I don’t know. Resistance is futile – the artworld is an entity whose value always increases as a result of subaltern practices carried out in opposition to it.

What about ideas of tradition and community? Like it or not, the artworld is our community (at least, one amongst the many different overlapping communities we belong to, and create, and constitute).

We are our communities – we are the artworld. How could we (and why would we want to) escape from ourselves?

Is there not some value in art, that it could contribute to the improvement of life? Lippard herself, although she says she has drifted away from the artworld, still seems to think so. At the end of her lecture, she quoted Fluxist Robert Filliou’s wonderful paradoxical statement: “Art is what makes life more interesting than Art”…

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[PS 1: My studio buddy Lisa just pointed out that “Escape Attempts” is the title to the preface of the second edition of Lippard’s Six Years. – She gleaned this from here…]

[PS 2: A related blog entry from Randall Szott at Leisure Arts which goes some way towards answering the question of “why” we might want to escape/avoid enframing our activities as “art”…]

[PS 3: an older related post is here: Giving Up.]

What makes a good blog?

It’s probably impossible to answer this question. It’s a bit like asking, “what makes a good book?”

Blogs are so many things to so many people – they are forms of journalism, pedagogical tools for university courses, personal diaries, social hangout spaces, places for writing fan fiction, locations for software to be released and discussed… The list is as long as the uses to which blogs have been put, which is to say, more diverse than I can mention.

Although “early” blog theories (that is, those from about 5 years ago!) emphasised the keeping of journals and diaries as the main function of blogs (Viviane Serfaty’s book is a good example of this notion), the explosion of different uses for blogs has led some more recent definitions to reduce what-blogging-is to bare technological terms – that is, blogging is a medium. This way of defining blogs reduces them to something like this: “Blogs are an online publishing tool; blogs consist of a series of individual “entries”; these entries are usually displayed in reverse chronological order.” (Wikipedia’s definition is along these lines.)

As Jill Walker Rettberg explains in her great little book called, simply, Blogging, within this bare-bones techno-definition of blogging as a medium, various genres can be sifted out: political blogging, filter blogging, diary-style blogging, and so on. Each of these genres (and its attendant sub and sub-sub genres) comes with its own set of conventions, and within the genre, those conventions make sense – they can be used to determine a “good” from a “bad” blog.

In general, though, Walker Rettberg presents three basic criteria which define – not what a blog is, but how it is (p.21). Those criteria are “frequency, brevity, and personality” (she borrows these terms from Evan Williams, the fella who invented Blogger). She then goes on to explain that the first two of these criteria (frequency and brevity) are formal qualities associated with blogs. The third criteria, however, points to a further feature of blogs which is very important, and pertinant, I think, to the question of what makes a good blog – personality. Blogs, she writes are “generally written in the first person”. They are subjective. They are social.

How does this help us think about what makes a good blog? Well, if Rettberg Walker’s last point is true (and I believe it is, wholeheartedly) then the question becomes something like – “what makes a good friend?”

My friends are people that I trust. I trust them, not because they come with some kind of accreditation or references (as I would require if hiring someone for a job). I trust them because of some action they have performed, in relation to me, which makes me believe they are trustworthy.

Perhaps they helped me solve a problem I had. Maybe they told a story about themselves which made me think differently about my own relationship to the world. Or they made me laugh. Or they listened to me when I had something to get off my chest. Whatever the case, hanging out with them was a rewarding experience, regularly enough, for me to say, “I like him/her”. The effort expended in passing time with them was worth it. So I kept coming back, and a relationship between us – friendship – was formed.

And it’s the same for “good” blogs, I would say.

How can art practice be “Research”?

If in doubt, return to blogging! Since the question posed in the title of this blog entry is unfathomable to me, and I am struggling to sort it out in my academic word documents, here I am, back online, where things don’t have to be “right”, just interesting…

Unfortunately, I fear that this question shouldn’t be unfathomable to me, by this stage. I am due to hand in my thesis on 12 June, my scholarship has run out, I’ve been on this boat for over 3 years now… I should, by rights, know WTF “art practice as research” means!

But I don’t.

I’ve always thought of art as a sort of whimsy. It’s something silly to pursue that makes people realise how silly the whole world is, so we might as well relax and not all take ourselves too seriously.

And then, fool that I am, I go and enrol in a PhD programme which proposes that art practice is not only a very serious business, it is a form of RESEARCH that stands up as an equivalent to the research produced by, say, my ole buddy Chris-o, the pharmacologist, who has done an intensive study of withdrawal symptoms of methamphetamine addicts. He will hand his thesis in about the same time as me. Mine will be about blogging as a form of art. Assuming all goes well, we will both end up with PhD degrees. How the hell can they be equivalent?

One of the frustrating things about the job my university requires of me, is that I have to submit an academic research paper. My argument (as best I can muster it) is about how blogging allows knowledge to emerge in a fragmentary, collaborative way. It’s about allowing us to see the process of doing stuff, experiencing life, and turning it over through dialogue, as a thing that is constantly emerging – not a tidy finished product.

And yet, what is the written thesis supposed to be? A watertight product with complete footnotes and all contingencies taken care of. Talk about square peg in round hole, eh?

In various chats with friends who are also trying to shoehorn their unwieldy creative projects into the format for “submission” (think about the meaning underlying that word!), I have mused on other possibilities. How great would it be, I have asked myself, if I could hand in my PhD as a series of blog entries? That way, I could merge means and ends. Method and product would utilise the same system – the thing would actually DO what it said, not just be a way of drily saying something about a process that happens somewhere else.

Here’s how it would work. Each blog entry would have to be relatively concise. Each would pose a question, or state some observations, related to the practice of blogging-as-art (the two projects presented as part of this thesis are Bilateral Kellerberrin and Bilateral Petersham). Just like an academic paper, the entries would refer also to other thinkers and artists, considering ways that others have done this stuff, and suggesting the possible benefits of doing and thinking in the way I have carried out.

But, unlike an academic paper, these entries would then be open to enquiry, suggestion and response from others (and from myself) through the comments form at the end of each blog entry. This would be a strictly ADDITIVE process. Unlike academic writing, blogging creates a sort of knowledge through querying what has been already written, and then responding to the queries, as a dialogical process. (OK, so academic writing does that too, but it’s an interminably long-winded way of doing things, publishing in refereed journals then responding in kind, takes years…).

My point is, the whole process of dialogical exchange (and knowledge production) is laid bare in the blogging format. Furthermore, these blog entries (ie “thesis chapters”) would be published one by one, as they are written. There would thus be the chance that comments and dialogue generated by an early blog entry could affect what happens in the ensuing chapters. The whole process would be emergent – and visibly so – as opposed to the standard academic model of hiding away in the study, burning the midnight oil to get this essay perfect BEFORE making it public. If the academics really required it, I could do a summing-up entry which ran through what I thought I had learned from the process.

All of which is to say, I would like to perform upon academia the same opening-out as I like to perform on the art world. In my way of doing things, art is shown to be a set of emergent processes rather than a magical product that seems to come from some mysterious other planet. Bilateral Kellerberrin and Bilateral Petersham are clear examples of this emergent-process-as-art, where interactions between me and local residents who I bump into, written up on the blog, then lead to further interactions and suggestions for future adventures. My recent goat project Gruffling is this whole method in a nutshell.

Would / could my university accept such a thesis?

Get my goat

[UPDATE: read a brief info about this project, GRUFFLING, here. Read a report from the Great West Brunswick Goat Walk here.]

goat husbandry book

I’ve always wanted to work with a goat. I don’t know why, I just like ’em. 14 years ago, my mate Mick and I bandied about a bunch of ideas about performing with goats (or rather, goats doing the performing for us). These were kinda agricultural demonstrations exploiting the inherent qualities of the goat – eating a perfect circle in the grass, parading about, that kind of thing. (This was not the first time Mickie and I had thought sculpturally about agriculture… We also once proposed growing a crop of wheat at the Gomboc Gallery Sculpture Park in Perth, high enough to totally obscure the view of the rusty sculptures which are so characteristic of that particular locale. Sadly, this idea never got off the ground).

Anyway… I was invited by the lovely Open Spatial Workshop (OSW) folks in Melbourne to participate in the West Brunswick Sculpture Triennial. This is a show which will take place over several weekends from late March 2009, in various backyards and sites around the Melbourne Suburb of West Brunswick.
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