Daily Rituals

Every artist will at some stage feel a block, and go seeking guidance. I myself am guilty of having spent far too many hours reading about creativity as opposed to actually creating stuff, so I know the risks involved when you go looking for advice (the risk being spending too much time chin-stroking and not enough time making). To those seeking guidance: I feel your pain, and I would like to spare you some time.
There is an overwhelming quantity of writing about how to find and sustain inspiration. Books on the subject can be found in almost every section from self-help to business, to biographies and psychology. From the viewpoint of their respective disciplines, the authors try to address the daunting questions that arise while maintaining a creative practice. How do you make meaningful work while also earning a living? Does hardship make us work better? Is the opposite true – that getting down to work actually necessitates a basic level of comfort? When time is tight – must you make sacrifices, and if so what – income, social life or a clean house? If it is possible to have it all, how do you organise your time so that you can pay the rent, keep in touch with friends, clean the house, and do what you love?

 

Developing a better understanding of the creative process is clearly a widespread (not to mention lucrative) concern. With such a huge amount of information available, it’s hard to know what to trust. Even the researchers, TED-talkers, ‘gurus’ and authors who are the supposed voices of authority in their fields would have to admit that the creative process is a highly subjective matter and “whatever works – works”. Unfortunately vague sentiments like this aren’t much use to those who are actually experiencing a block. Those who wake up one to discover that they don’t have a single idea worth writing down. Those who, try as they might, have never quite been able recover from a particularly brutal crit. Those who can’t remember the buzz they first experienced when they first picked up a camera and are secretly terrified that they won’t ever feel that way again.

 

In 2007, Mason Currey was sitting in the office of the architecture magazine he wrote for, suffering from a block. It was during a particularly restless afternoon of online procrastination that he started the Daily Routines blog, which was eventually reconfigured into the book ‘Daily Rituals’. The blog is simply a collection of the day-to-day routines of 150 great minds, including Ingmar Bergman, Sigmund Freud, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Frederico Fellini, Slyvia Plath, David Lynch, Marcel Proust, Twlya Thwarp and Marina Abromovic, etc.

Daily Rituals Mason Curry

Whenever writing about revered figures in any field, their successes can often overshadow the context of their private lives. The sheer randomness of events which lead them to create the masterpieces of which they are famed can be very easily overlooked. It’s an easier and more saleable to go for the age-old artist-genius story. What sets ‘Daily Rituals’ apart is that it isn’t about the masterpieces – it’s about the circumstances in which the work happens. Put the work itself to one side for a second, and it’s possible to glimpse at the artist as a creature of habit. By focusing on the mundane details of his subjects lives – Currey give us a novel angle on the creative process.

 

Marina Abromovic undergoes a militant routine to prepare for her performances but lives a loose and unstructured lifestyle when she isn’t working. Some work by day, others by night. Some desire solitude others can make progress by sharing their ideas. F.Scott Fitzgerald could only write in gin-fuelled bursts and insisted that alchohol was an essential part of the process. The book presents an expanded, and much more thoroughly researched versions of the blog, drawing from biographies, obituaries, interviews, letters and dairy entries of his subjects which make up a summary of each individuals routine (or lack there of).
For some, a vigorous routine is perfect. Edward Gibbon was a dedicated historian who persevered with his studies even when he was recruited for military action. He could often be found reading up on theological debate in his tent, recalling ancient history while on the march, always awake at the crack of dawn to get on with his research before the day’s maneuvers began. The adverse conditions didn’t faze him in the slightest. VS Pritchett said of Gibbon: “Sooner or later the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never loose a minute. It is very depressing”. Yet, for every cheerfully industrious type like Gibbon, there exists the opposite. Franz Kafka was an extremely talented writer who produced astoundingly vivid and influential stories while living a civilian life. Working lengthy hours in claustrophobic conditions with a highly-strung home-life, he seemed to live most of his life in a state of perpetual horror at these surroundings. This undoubtedly contributed to his nightmarish tales, but his torturous blocks are well documented. As he waited for inspiration to strike, he suffered from agonizing anxiety and self-doubt.
If the case studies in ‘Daily Rituals’ are anything to go by then Gibbon and Kafka are some of the most extreme examples. It’s encouraging to note that most people in the book fall somewhere in the middle-ground between these two. Most of Currey’s subjects make time for their passions as often as they in spite of the obstacles in their way. Yet they are never 100% confident in their approach. Even during the good days, they are superstitiously looking for anything that might upset the delicate working conditions that they thrive in.
It just goes to show that whatever works, works. No-one can answer the question of how to work better in a way which is meaningful to everyone. As Currey puts it – this can only be resolved “on an individual level through shakey personal compromises”. Or, as Kafka puts it (speaking from his tiny office where he is scolded and terrorized by his colleagues and family) – “time is short, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers”.

 

No one said a good working routine is easy to achieve, and if you are in a block and seeking guidance then this might all be getting a little depressing. My advice to you is this: if you go looking to the greats for advice, then bear in mind that they too are reliant on the circumstances of their day to day life in order get on with their work. Put their masterpieces to one side, and it’s possible to glimpse a person’s life’s work as the consequence of thousands of tiny day-to-day decisions. You too can choose to see your life’s work as the miraculous realisation of grand creative vision. Or, you can see it as the product of 89790 cups of coffee, 90015 cups of tea, 299930 early starts, 299981 glasses of water, 279 u-turns, 800 false starts, 400 tearful conversations, 399 hours of networking and 337 hours of online procrastination (approximate figures – do not hold me to these). Whatever helps you to ‘wriggle through.’

 

Stabbing And Stitching

‘Multiple Points In This Vague Landscape’

Jonathan Baldock and Florence Peake At Primary, Nottingham

Jonathan Baldock does uncanny things with fabric, creating absurd tableaus from semi-abstract shapes and disembodied heads. The sheer meticulousness of his craft suggests a serious and focused attention to making which can transform the most innocuous objects into taut, tactile and slightly unreal versions of their original forms. Since working with choreographer Henrietta Hale at Wysing Arts last year, he has been turning his eye for the uncanny towards performance. For his ongoing exhibition at Primary, he worked on a one-night-only performance choreographed by artist/dancer Florence Peake.

Although the Pembroke born artist is best known for his soft-sculpture installations, he has a background in painting which he shares with Peake. Peake’s work has often involved objects, and shows a very fluid relationship between object and performer, sculptor and sculpture. With just 2 days of rehearsals before the performance, they’re both learning about the possibilities of each other’s discipline. I went along to see the one-off performance at Primary, where the installation will be on show until the 7th of June.

Jonathan Baldock Photo Credit: James E Smith

The installation where the performance plays out is dominated by a gigantic yellow face. The entire head, standing well over 8 ft tall, has been arduously hand stitched. Its eyes have been removed, leaving two gaping holes and red-rimmed sockets. Piles of fluffy wodding are strewn around the stage like innards. Other objects occupy the floor before the monumental head: a huge cushioned red lump, swathes of grey fabric and a circle of sherbet-yellow sand. A collection of ceramic sticks laid out neatly on pieces of brightly coloured fabric of varying size and shape suggest a kit for picnic as much as they recall a surgeons tools. The smell of incense and a low soft humming begins to fill the room. Despite the unsettling connotations of this scene, the world which Baldock has created for the performers, full of kooky outsized shapes and cheerful colours appears soft, silly, even comical and almost, *almost*, harmless.

The performers costumes cover them almost completely from head-to-toe. At times they move so slowly that they could be part of the set they inhabit. It’s the uneven shifting of weight, as well as the exposed hands and feet, that give away the fact there is a person underneath. For much of Act 1, the two sit peacefully holding balls of wadding while using hooked, semi-circular needles to slowly draw out thin strands of wadding. At the first, these characters seem quite benevolent with their silly ‘emoticon’ faces, and their absurd ceremonies. *At first*.

In Act 2, the tone shifts. While one character continues to sit and stitch, the other holds two long poles as he performs a series of rapid but controlled gestures that look like a martial arts performance. As he moves, the poles draw scrape lines through the sand he stands on. The poles could be drawing tools, or weapons, or simply extensions of the characters arms. What the function poles serve is unclear, but the intent is deadly serious.

In Act 2 there is no ambient background noise. They prove that they are also capable of sudden aggression, as the pair set to work attacking one of the sculptures with violent curiosity: repeatedly stabbing and jabbing at the object with ceramic implements. Every stab that penetrates the surface emits an ear-splitting squeak which sets your teeth on edge. The fact that Baldock hand stitches his sculptures, and that his performers use knitting needles as their weapons can hardly be coincidental. As they hack away at the harmless, inanimate object, it’s as though they are distorting and parodying the process of making. Sewing – associated fixing and mending, is suddenly coupled with piercing and stabbing and tearing apart, so that making and destroying become the same sort of action.
Primary Nottingham

Photo Credit: James E Smith

Through the 3 Acts they gradually undress one another – but this only reveals robes beneath robes and masks beneath masks. Gradually exposing more skin, the performers become more human and less like animated sculptures. In the final Act, they stare out at the audience from behind the gigantic yellow head – acknowledging the audience directly for the first time. Up until this point, they have been oblivious to us, wrapped up in a world of their own. Now that we’ve been noticed, the atmosphere shifts again. At first the prolonged staring elicits a few nervous laughs from the audience. As they continue to stare, it goes beyond a joke. Gradually, people realize that this is the end of the performance. There are not going to be any further theatrics. They are not about to enact final climatic ceremony. This is simply the end.

Although the final scene feels like the most intimate moment of the performance, we are kept at a distance by the many layers of disguise. It ends with two pairs of eyes looking out from behind two masks. Two masks, which belong to two performers, which are staring out from the holes in a gigantic yellow mask. The gigantic yellow face, in a vaulted hall surrounded by soft props and implausible tools that serve no real purpose.

Written By Hannah Roast

The Eight Artistic Principles

The Attic sits at the very top of Nottingham’s towering gallery/studio complex One Thorseby St, which has always played host to an ambitious range of events. Lately the Attic has been used for talks, screenings, performances and parties alongside the regular exhibitions. Last month it was host to ‘The Eight Artistic Principles’, a show inspired by a convergence of painting, sculpture, neuro-aesthetics and evolutionary science, guest-curated by Thorseby St resident Joshua Lockwood.

Although Joshua has been aware of evolutionary theory since his A-levels, he has only recently begun researching more thoroughly, having been introduced to a paper called ‘The Science of Art – A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’. In this paper V.S Ramachandran and William Hirsteinset out on a “quest for artistic universals”. Their hypothesis is that even if beauty is largely subjective “there might be some universal rule, or ‘deep structure’, underlying all artistic experience”. To test this they put forward The 8 Artistic Principles, which they claim that artists consciously or unconsciously employ when making work in order to stimulate brains of their audience. The Principles are as follows: 

 

“1. The peak shift principle

2. Isolation of a single cue

3. Perceptual grouping

4. Extraction of contrast

5. Perceptual problem solving (visual puzzles)

6. Unique advantage point

7. Visual Metaphors

8. Symmetry.”

Used together or separately, they act as a framework for understanding visual art, aesthetics and design”. In the paper that the show draws from, Ramanchandran and Hirstein explore how each of these operates in forensic detail.

This is by no means the first time evolutionary biologists have offered explanations for what we find visually attractive, some of the above are quite well known – such as symmetry. To take another example, the appeal of visual puzzles in art can be explained when compared to camouflage. Think of a caveman, keeping watch for predators: if you can figure out the ‘visual puzzle’ in the layers of undergrowth, then your chances of escaping and surviving are higher. Viewed in this way, solving perceptual puzzles can be considered an adaptive quality. It benefits the caveman to be able to do this, and so we have evolved to enjoy solving visual puzzles. In the Science of Art, Ramachandran and Hirstein take these ideas and extend them to man-made objects.

Having been drawn in by the press release, I found it hard to resist playing a game of snap when I was in the gallery. There you see symmetry in the arrangement of lines (principle 8), there you see the contrast between rusted metal and the impossibly smooth surface on the inside of a shell (principle 4), etc. In the largest of the paintings (by Benjamin Brett) I can make out half figures, corners of a room, the outline of jugs and distinctive round shape of bowler hats, some shadows, but the initial overall impression is an abstract tangle, and in the back of my mind I know I am playing out Principle 6 – perceptual puzzle solving.

It could be seen as reductionist to propose formulas like this, however Ramachandran and Hirstein emphasise wherever possible that these principles can be played out “consciously or unconsciously”. I asked Joshua how the research he was reading had affected his work: Joshua stated, “Something that has become apparent recently is that I am more interested, more times than not, is the stuff that surrounds the objects – what the work triggers”.

Perhaps this is why the press release doesn’t go into detail about the practices of the individual artists (Benjamin Brett, Jack Brindley, Alice Browne, and Jess Flood-Paddock) leaving much of the viewer’s interpretation down to the aesthetics.  It’s also notable that within the press release itself, the references to ‘The Science of Art’ are kept ‘light’. The writing describes very complex ideas, but it doesn’t overwhelm you with jargon or try to convince you, it just states what you need to know. The rest is between you and the work.

FMG Arts

Images Courtesy Of David McAleavey.

A “quest for artistic universals” might sound grandiose, not to mention implausible, given that art might encompass everything from cave paintings to Jeff Koons, but the more I understand about the potential relationship between art and evolution, the more fascinated I am. The idea that making art is a fundamental part of human nature hardly needs proving – the species would have not have gotten this far without it, but I still find it exciting that something I feel instinctively can be backed up by dialogue between these different disciplines: artists, visual psychologists and evolutionary biologists alike.

Applying an evolutionary logic to art and aesthetics might make total sense in a cave-man era, but the issue of cultural differences, as well as individual taste, complicates the picture massively.  To think that looking at art from an evolutionary perspective might level the playing field as far as interpretation goes would be a huge over simplification. Ramachandran and Hirstein themselves acknowledge that what is considered generally attractive will vary from culture to culture, and that the “aggressive marketing hype” of the art world have a huge impact on how we experience visual culture. They admit that their work is in the early stages and untested for the most part, but they stand by their point and make a compelling argument regardless of this.

Currently, Joshua is in the middle of a research and curatorial project, called ‘Ritual Significance: Contemporary Art Through the Evolutionary Lens’, in which he is working with

his ex-tutor David Mcaleavey.  Mcaleavey was Josh’s A-level art tutor, whose “interests and research surrounds the question of why we do the things we do, trying to understand behaviours through evolutionary psychology”. Both David and Joshua adopt a holistic approach to their practice and seem to take a strong interest in the experience of artwork. Happily the two have kept in touch since their studies, and their on-going project will be presented as an exhibition at The Collection and Usher Gallery in Lincoln Feb-April 2015.

Written By Hannah Roast