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Unseeing Art

I’m going to do my best to present my thoughts on art, artists and audiences. I may well weave back and forth a bit and that comes from having a brain that fires off in all different directions at the same time. As always my blog comes with a disclaimer that there will, in all likelihood be errors. I’m sure I am not alone in always, always finding mistakes no matter how many times I’ve proof read something. I could say I wish I had someone who would check my work for me, but then a piece of writing shouldn't only be dependant on the spelling and grammar and nor should it be dismissed if it comes in an unfamiliar format (more on that later).

I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the art that I see, the art that I make and the art I hear others talk about. How art is seen and experienced. These thoughts pop in and and out of my mind as I continue to wrestle with my own identity. How traumatic and non traumatic events have shaped, and continue to shape my self-identity and my art practice. The only art I have seen since April 2020 is predominantly the art posted online with the exception of the Turner Prize, and Coventry Biennial: HYPER POSSIBLE at the Herbert Art Gallery, Coventry, and A Very Special Place at Ikon, Birmingham.

I follow(ed) all kinds of artists, including those who don’t identify as ‘artists’ or those who consider themselves ‘hobby artists’ and I have to say some of their work blows me away. It may not always come with wordy explanation, or political meaning, it may be purely aesthetic, but what is wrong with that? If a work of art is aesthetically beautiful does that mean it doesn’t contain hidden meaning? If we can’t see it does it mean it isn’t there? Does it need to be there? Maybe it is that which we don’t see that is the true art?

Social art, or any of the other labels it has been given over the years, is a great example. It is exactly that which we don’t see that is at the core of social art. Yet with little to show, in the form of tangible pieces, it has struggled over the years to be acknowledged by the art world. It is disappointing that, for it to be considered art, it requires physical artworks to be exhibited in a gallery. I’m thinking about the recent (2021) Turner Prize exhibition at the Herbert Art Gallery.

Now, this is where my thoughts begin to push and pull against one another. On the one hand I delighted in walking around that exhibition and seeing the work that had been made in collaboration with communities, whilst at the same time feeling sad that the ripple effect of those collaborations; the connections made with others, the new skills learned, the facilitation of spaces of belonging, the sharing of common purpose could be missed. These unseen elements that are so important, if not the most important context of the work. Exceptions are the collaborations where a shared common goal is public, visual, activism such as Array Collective, who went on to be awarded winners of the 2021 Turner Prize. Yet, and here again I feel the push and pull of something not being one or the other, the installation, “An imagined síbín (a ‘pub without permission’)” a space that on the surface we recognise as one where people gather, could be viewed as contrived, yet it provides a reference to the unseen art. One of a few that also includes Project Artworks and Gentle/Radical that I believe did highlight the unseen and seen equally well.

When I first began thinking about what I wanted to write in this blog I entertained the idea that it would come with a sub-heading: Is Conceptual Art the Gatekeeper to accessibility in the Arts? I then spent a few weeks rolling this idea around in my head but couldn’t quite make peace with it. In order to do that I would need to acknowledge that I was a part of the problem and censor everything that I make. I enjoy conceptual art, it challenges me and I also enjoy making conceptual art. The more I thought the more I began to realise it isn't down to any one style or genre of art. As we already know, what one person understands or likes, another doesn't, but more than that, we can't base a dislike of one piece of art as a dislike or inaccessibility of all art that sits under the same umbrella.

As artists is our work the carrier of messages, thoughts, feelings, or a combination of some or all? If it is only accessible within the confines of those who understand the various genres of art the message, or visual language, we have to accept that some of our audience will create their own narrative. However, if I refer back to the collaborations exhibited as part of the Turner Prize, there is a more organic and rhizomatic process happening with how far the messages of solidarity, care and collaboration is carried and maybe these works can be celebrated for providing an opportunity for audiences to unsee the art?

Moving away from social art, how are we unseeing other forms of art? Performance, abstract and conceptual art are a few that begin to jostle within my thought processes. As with all things in life, there are some that baffle me, even with my art degree and exposure to a variety of artists and genres. There are other works that have drawn me in and held my attention to the point of wanting to know more than what is in front of me at the point of engagement. Do certain genres of art in particular require an arts degree to be accessible? Who controls what is understood from the art and should it be controlled or should it be unrestrained with an acceptance that, it will become whatever it needs to become, to the one that is engaging with it? If an artwork is so obscure as to be impossible to decipher its true meaning, even with a carefully crafted text, is it the art/artist that is unseeing or the audience?

There will always be those who can't or don’t wish to understand something deeper than surface level and that’s ok. As I wrote these words an essay written by William Morris (Morris, W. (1894) ‘An address delivered at the distribution of prizes to students of the Birmingham Municipal School of Art’, begin to prod at the outer edges of my thoughts. I remember it took me a couple of readings to grasp the text, but my takeaway from it was that we should not make the assumption that a person is not able to understand that which they see, based on their status in society, ergo, we should not keep from them, that which can challenge. Art, therefore, in any of it's forms has the potential to be accessible to those who desire that access. I should stress that this also requires us to remove all barriers such as, poor education, socio-economic status, health, disability, race, gender etc.

The work I have been making recently is a huge departure from that which came in the more recent past. Yet, it is no dissimilar to the work I was making eight/ten years ago and I am aware of a fear within me that it probably won’t light any fires under the curator’s of upcoming exhibitions. It is art often but not always created on a tablet for one thing, there will never be an original copy of it other than the one that exists on my tablet. It doesn’t necessarily scream social or political, or activism, satire, innovation etc. There is meaning behind it, subtle, obvious or unseen maybe, depending on each individual viewer of it. To me the art is both visible and invisible. It is not trying to control the audience response to it. I can offer the option of learning more about the work, leaving choice on the table rather than forcing my own narrative onto others. Does matter if it is appreciated purely for it's aesthetic value rather than the deeper meaning that has gone into the process of making? I have introduced the work on the website here.

I made the decision at the end of last month to delete all my social media, it was too noisy, distracting and stressful. I felt a need to remove myself even further from the art I see daily on my screen, the ‘opportunities’ that were coming up and the curatorial decisions that were/are made on what art gets exhibited and what doesn’t. I had also realised that whilst those apps still sat on my devices there was a pressure for me to constantly look at work and regularly produce images of my own work in progress, far more often than I wanted, thanks to algorithms that select what shows up when and where on newsfeeds. I was also not really seeing anything. I was unseeing in a different way square after square of images of work, finished or otherwise. I wasn't respecting the work or the artists. Posting my own work felt like as futile as throwing an arrow into a titanium plate . I essentially disappeared myself from all the usual spaces that a lot of artists rely on to stay seen, networked and relevant. Perhaps I would disappear into complete obscurity if I remained unseen? I could not have even entertained the idea of doing this 6 months ago, the mere thought would have had me riddled with panic and anxiety. So how could being unseen affect my practice development? I don’t currently attend events where I can network, I didn't exist on social media, I do not have a studio in an artist space. I currently have this website and blog plus my gallery on Outside In. I have a subscription with Curator Space which ends on 7th December 2022. I am unsure of my status with Axisweb but I still exist on there and can apply for opportunities if I wish. I have, however, expanded my circle of peace and self-care and if that results in obscurity I will at least be in a place of (in)action and well-being.

This period of social media abstinence helped clear my head of distractions. Outwardly I may not have looked as if I was doing anything purposeful. Inwardly though I stopped comparing my work to everyone else. I was able to stop producing visible work. This process, on the back of all the reflective searching of the last 5 months brought me out of a fear of precarity because I began to recognise where my fear really stemmed from.

I activated Insta once more with a fresh determination and the beginnings of renewed drive and passion, which were feelings I thought would remain as a memory. I made a decision to present the unseen work for seeing and unseeing. I would embrace the processes of creating with the materials of colour and text.

"It's been 5 months of recovery, reflection, and recalibration.

It's been scary to acknowledge that the kind of work I made before just didn't feel like the right thing for me to do.

I've spent time going through old journals, sketchbooks, folders and hard drives searching for... Well, just searching and waiting to feel connected to, and know, who the hell I am.

My practice has evolved and shifted over the last eight to ten years. It will continue to shift, but I think I lost myself somewhere along the way. [even before the period of (in)action].

There is so much work that I did 'behind the scenes'. It didn't fit with the narrative I'd placed on my artistic practice so I rarely shared it and didn't respect it for what it was.

It is possibly the most authentic work I've made, but the least celebrated.

It's time to lean into that work and develop it.

I need to stop overthinking whether it has a place, whether it will be accepted."

This work has predominantly been made between 2020 and 2022 and can be viewed here or on my instagram. It has been formed through processes of deconstruction of words, phrases, conversation, lyrics, feelings, thoughts and environments. I will begin to share this work, here on my website and on my socials and reflect on how that and my most current work connect as I step out of the familiar into what was once familiar.

Unseeing art is not only art that isn't seen but also art that does not see, artists that are seen and artists that are unseen, the audience that we see and the ones that we don't. Maybe we need to be less precious about how audiences read the work and give people the freedom of seeing and unseeing. I'm not sure, this is all just musings and reflection.

Thank you for reading. I wish you all the best as we head towards Autumn and please do comment if anything in the blog has resonated or otherwise with you!

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