Mark, several years ago, asked me to write paragraphs describing art I had seen. This becomes a very interesting exercise in a world so used to the visual. To take the time to describe the angle of rock, the colour, the pressure of the stylus, the depth of language embedded across the many-panelled skirt.There is the physical description of what I see, with my particular eyes, and the interpretation of what I see, with my particular history and culture. I would add a third, which would be what I see with my hands or my body or my ears, seeing not requiring eyes, in my world.
I never did send him these descriptions, but I would take polaroids and try to formulate the phrases that would describe the square image in my hand. I can imagine a visual game of telephone, can you draw what I have described? Could you pick it out from a line-up? Would we be as poor at this as we are picking out a person from a police line-up? Is describing in this way a skill lost to the visual era we live in?
My PhD program is ‘practice-based’ if I wish it. Instead of producing only the massive word based document that is a dissertation, one can produce as well art of whatever form is warranted. The written words and the practice must weave together, these are not two parallel lines, but one narrative which is ideally greater than the sum of its parts. In my program, now and before, there have been artists who have a practice and come to do their PhD. There are emerging artists come to combine their philosophy with their practice. And there is me. What am I?
One of the post-docs, an artists who did her PhD here as well, made a comment that if you aren’t practicing, it is not a practice. Interesting to ponder. What makes an artist, then, is a question. As a writer, this is also an interesting question. “I write.” Yes, ok. But are you a writer? Hard to say. I would never say I am an artist, but why is an interesting question.
In 2017 I had my first ‘visiting artists and scholars’ residency at the American Academy in Rome. At the time I was living in New York City. Two interesting things happened in Rome. First, no one questioned whether or not I was an artist. I talked about what I was working on and what I was interested in, and the accepted at face value that I was who I said I was. This had never happened to me before and it was a strange experience. Second, I was there as a visiting artist though I would have said visiting scholar was more applicable. At the time I was working on The Adelphi Project, and even though it did have a visual output — enormous chalkboard walls created and photographed, as well as collage and other visual artifacts of knowledge, it felt philosophical and scholarly to me. I remember sitting at dinner one night with the classicist Mary Beard and the intellectual historian Hussein Fancy (is work is fantastic, I recommend reading him). I was explaining that I could not appear at the Academy as a scholar because I did not have a PhD, and the concept of ‘independent scholar’ was not acceptable, to which they were both agog and kept saying, but clearly you are a scholar, to which I shrugged. Yet here again, was no doubt that I was a thing, yes, I said thing, something, someone who could be classified as artist or scholar or both, without doubt in the minds of the people I was speaking with.
Words, research, theory, these bits are not hard for me, after a life time of training, the ritual of them is part of who I am. As Flora noted in her comment about practice, and as I pondered it, I did realise that unless I am engaged in something definable as art, as loose as that may be, that aspect of my program will atrophy and it will not be an option for me. My answer to this was to engage in the practice of practice. I decided that for the remainder of 2022 I would dedicate Thursday to this, in whatever form was suitable. Reading about, viewing, experiencing, writing, creating. One day a week, dedicated to being present, physically, in the world of art.
I spoke to Mark about this and his response was that I already had a practice, and an art. That the walls that I create, full of ideas and connections, the way in which I see the world, created in space, the photos that come from them, is a practice, and one that is so very compelling. I thought about this. When I was working on Adelphi and would take a photo a day, sometimes I would post them, so people could wander around inside my head with me. I’ve never thought of them as more than the way in which I map the four or five dimensions of space and thought and language. Of how I restructure the world, visually, so that I can experience and live it — mostly inside my head, in a way that it is not currently formed.
My studio in Long Island City had a Vera Wang black gown in it. Sometimes in the mornings I would get to the studio, put on the dress leaving the back unzipped as there was something about the precarity and the flow that was pleasing, something slightly broken that made it better. It had a long train, and undertrain, and I would put on my ballet slippers and put on assorted Malian guitar musicians, and dance. The first hour of working through what would be done that day was often explored through the physicality of a half worn gown, the metal strings of a guitar, and the sun slowly rising.
In Los Angeles, shortly before moving to London, I pulled out a different gown one day, on a day when work wasn’t flowing well. I hung it on the wall and photographed it, then put it on, and flowed around. It was gunmetal silk with woven leather straps, toga style in design, always precarious, and lacked the glory of the weighted Wang, but it’s light simplicity still held some promise of otherworldliness. It was late, that night, and this isn’t a dress to dance wildly in, so as an experiment, not particularly successful, except in the reminder that part of the way in which my walls get created is with physical abandon, motion, fluidity and grace.
Art days, London. Dispatches and discursions. Intent. As I grow wiser, I begin to think that intent is the most important aspect of anything I do, without intention, I don’t do. Even if the intention is curiosity, if the intention is failure, finding it shifts the ways I work and the ways I find. This is not my Thursday art day output today, merely a preamble to what I hope will be more output of what this brings, more discussion, more missing the point or not seeing what others see or not understanding. More weight, I suppose, is what I am trying to say. Something I can hold in my hand, metaphorical or not, to feel what it is, the rub my fingers along the textures, to see with my hands not my eyes, to speak with my body not my mouth.