I recently replied to an old friend and work colleague, Patricia Cain, as part of a conversation regarding a paper she was preparing following her conference presentation and exhibition: Body of Knowledge: Art and Embodied Cognition Conference 2019. She is exploring first-person methodologies in research, particularly in connection with neurodiversity, and valuing and enabling difference in society, including within research structures.
Excerpt from my letter...
"Obviously, I feel like our work asks many of the same questions, and over the years we have tried to answer these questions.
I have definitely used art to ask questions about my life, as it has unfolded. I haven't necessarily found answers, until much later, but the asking has made life more bearable. And when I worked with others, it was the same principle - I helped them to find something interesting to focus on, from which they could develop visual ideas or ideas visually. For some, who hadn't left their houses for years, perceiving there to be no place for them, they began to make, to exist, and exist in the mind of others. It is the same thing, in structure, as you had mapped for many of your projects.
I have often made art to help me work through something I am living through.
- I wrote a book in my first year of my BA Fine Art. Due to the heady onslaught of the ideology and visual language of the art degree, I struggled to connect back to my original identity (which had grown from my mother's sewing and crafts). The book was an illustrated transcription of Gulliver's Travels, a man on a global journey resulting in 'enlightenment'. My version used the metaphor of a girl using her father's time travel machine to travel through art history to learn about and experience various painting movements (from French academy through to Rothko). She takes on board what she is seeing and learning, as I did while I studied at Carlisle. However, for a while, she mourns/I mourned this loss of connection with the her/my past.
- bridal paintings about my parents' marriage, when I was preparing to get married
- grill pan paintings, when I was stuck at the farm
- the recent 'dreaming of home' stuff, as a result of my home being ruined by floods
- During the divorce wilderness years, I fixated on that Brazilian novel, about a girl deemed useless by her society, who yet is given substance through being written beautifully about. I had largely retreated from the community art work by this point. I had lost my resilience. Critical appraisals I have read about the Brazilian novel, talk of the novelist feeling impotent in the face of real societal problems. This was also the concern I had about my new position, as a bystander, not an activist anymore. I am about to start on a new transcription, of a Spanish novel of a similar kind. I don't mind that I can't be at the coalface anymore. I will make this transcription anyway, because some good thinking will come of it.
- my recent interest in mining stuff - I suspect this is driven by old reminiscences of my urban childhood (old industry, old ideas of honest hard work), and finding connections with Craig (landscape, endurance, hard work). The art is the space in which to re-live imagined connections, and to dream up new ones.
-And now I find myself making my wedding dress, and absolutely loving it. Altering and embellishing, just for the love of the aesthetic. Definitely being able to make aesthetic decisions, because the work is only going to be 'judged' by me. So, away from critiques and the fashions of commentaries, I have circled back to the crafts of my mother.
It seems very simple really, what we are asking of the world...just a democratic, non-judgemental space where we all jointly play into the creation of new realities. And we, the artists, writers, dancers, musicians, teachers, parents, mentors provide some of the apparatus through which other people can grow.
Obviously, present systems are stymieing people's ability to offer this apparatus for the growth of the next generation coming through. Some people can't listen, can't put themselves aside, haven't the patience, have lost their childlike sense of wonder in the smallest things, can't share, and essentially, can't let others grow beyond them.
Ideal traits of a system that would promote growth in individuals
Provided by facilitators who have patience, fresh sense of wonderment, are expressive and positive, and are long-served in the art form they are sharing with the participant. The most important attribute of the practitioner is the ability to really listen to a person, over many weeks and months. They have to have a love of listening, more than anything else.
2-Protection for the facilitator
I don't think that 'support' is a strong enough word. This work takes planning, time and huge amounts of mental energy on behalf of the practitioner, who carefully creates the protective environment for others to begin to make. Anyone using the arts therapeutically understands this (the medical model therefore incorporates years of training and continuous supervision and peer support). The facilitator would be awarded respect, protection and renumeration. The renumeration would be reliable and respectful and would include time for the practitioner to pursue their visual thinking/thinking made visible. This is their re-charge, their way of maintaining balance. Everyone in the team around them would work in the same way, with a shared understanding of this model. Respect would also come in the form of proper time allowed for these processes - for the listening and the nurture.
3- Making thinking visible, contibuting refined ideas and philosophies. Making the person visible.
As you say, a person makes art, makes their thinking visible, and with their interconnection with the world and others, has agency. Their thinking made visible adds new philosophical positions, ideas and questions into the world, enriching it. I have seen this noted by art historians when they observe how the lifetime's worth of artwork of an artist is seen as exploring (albeit in a very slow way) a particular research question. As Varela says, it would be great to learn from this way that artists naturally work, in order to acknowledge this in all human development.
4-A buddy-up system, where no one is abandoned along the road.
This applies to everyone involved, including practitioners. I keep recalling Prof Sugata Mitra's self organising learning environments (SOLE's), which he has trialed around the world. Children are provided with IT to do their research, but there is always a 'granny' figure placed within each hub, as moral support for the children (https://www.ncl.ac.uk/solecentral/join/#overview).
Barren land - the present faults in the system
1-One size fits all (or fits one group)
People are recruited into a system where cynicism is prevalent. The recruitment starts early, with emphasis on literacy and numeracy, business and marketing skills, dominance of the intellect, getting things done to deadline. The system is designed for a narrow group to eventually learn to sell money, services or products in the world. There is little long-process art, or any other means for the purpose of the development of refined thinking.
2-Precariousness of the status of the facilitator who wishes to engage in this work.
Low pay, short-term contracts, bureaucracy, competition, practitioners protecting their brand/thinking/status; culture of scepticism; no models for balance, for re-charge for the practitioner, leading to fatigue and burn-out, who are often fund-raising their own renumeration.
3- Too many identities are left undeveloped.
Not only are new ideas, innovations, philosophies limited, individuals aren't able to make visible their thinking, arn't able to make interconnections with others, have little agency. Without a developed sense of identity, it is difficult to strive forward in society.
4 - Loneliness
If you're working against the system for little reward, in competition with others, and don't keep time for re-charge, this can be a lonely place.
Re Varela talking about his school of thought within cognitive science and AI, I hope that his ideas/research wins over. Clever minds putting time into AI gets on my nerves though, while there are humans out there by the truckload, who, as you say, due to society's present intractability, aren't able to grow as they should."
Food for thought, to take with me, as I embark on a Masters Degree in Fine Art at Baltic 39, University of Northumbria, Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Pursuing an understanding of what we need to exist in the world: how do we connect with others (and the wider world and its objects), what is our language.