Symposium presentation

Below is a video presentation given to an online symposium on 1 June 2015, focused on research and showing how my practical work has been contextualised by my wider research. Following the video is also a transcript.

I began this MA with many different ideas but focused my project proposal on the question: what is the visual language of the inner city?

I wanted to reveal the visual qualities of this subject area – such as utilitarian or decayed objects – which might otherwise be overlooked as mundane or ugly; and to validate the intrinsic aesthetic worth of the inner city.

I’ve worked with various media and processes – including installation, painting, printmaking and photography – and used found objects, materials and images taken from the urban environment.

This reflected my personal situation as a long-time resident of inner London, but more importantly, I sought to develop a practice that was also outward-looking and ‘exoteric’ – defined as ‘relating to ‘external reality’ as opposed to your own thoughts or feelings’. Increasingly, I understood how this relates to artistic practice described as ‘socially engaged’. 

This was developed in my research paper which was titled: ‘The art of the inner city as a socially engaged practice: a comparison of works by Robert Rauschenberg and Cornelia Parker in relation to Guy Debord’s concepts of psychogeography’.

The paper outlined different approaches to artists’ social engagement. The first, and perhaps most common, use of the term refers to projects involving public participation in their production – such as the Field series by Antony Gormley; or Sunflower Seeds by Ai Weiwei. I also looked at online participation projects like Smilesfilm by Yoko Ono.

I then examined community arts projects such as the South London Gallery’s Shop of Possibilities; and public art installations like the Art Everywhere billboard project; as well as work by practitioners such as Thomas Heatherwick and Greyworld.

This was contrasted by work with an overtly political message [political art] such as Picasso’s Guernica and The Spear by South African artist Brett Murray (which was defaced when exhibited).

I also explored how social engagement can be understood as increasing and widening consumption of the arts in general, one of the key aims of the Arts Council of England; and I briefly addressed the problems of authorship and quality in participatory projects.

This led to the question of how else might artists – who may not have the resources or desire to recruit volunteers – create socially engaged work?

An alternative strategy is for them to seek source material from their immediate surroundings and by implication, their own social context (rather than focusing inwards on individual or purely aesthetic concerns).

The inner city as a site to conduct such practice is not just relevant to those resident there – it becomes more so as the global population continues to shift from the rural to the urban. Typically characterised by an intense concentration of diverse peoples, materials and environments, inner cities also offer unique opportunities as a source of inspiration for artists living in them.

One such artist was Robert Rauschenberg who, emerging in downtown New York in the 1950s, said, ‘I wasn’t interested in attaining a precious state of isolation [but] in what was around me’, and, ‘I want my paintings to look like what’s going on outside my window, rather than what’s inside my studio.’

His 1950 collage Mother of God was an early example of Rauschenberg’s inventive use of found materials and his shift away from abstraction – and it prefigured his belief that anything could be art. This was developed in his series known as ‘combines’, such as Black Market (1961) which included newspaper, print, wood, metal, clipboards, a license plate and a road sign. I have also created work out of seemingly mundane materials, such as these [example shown] made from PVC electrical tape.

As Rauschenberg said, ‘Everything starts out on the street and New York was, I thought, so incredibly rich in materials that whenever I started working, instead of going to the paint store or any place else, I would just walk around the block’. With this piece [example shown] I moved on from painting images of road signs to collecting and using the real thing.

The act of walking in one’s locality as a creative methodology is formalised in the theories of Psychogeography, defined by its protagonist Guy Debord, as: ‘the study of the effects of the geographical environment on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. 

This was practically elaborated into, firstly, the concept of dérive (meaning ‘drift’) involving a journey through a city without a planned route. As Merlin Coverley said: ‘the street-level gaze that walking requires allows one to challenge the official representation of the city by cutting across established routes and exploring those marginal and forgotten areas often overlooked by the city’s inhabitants’. I originally took these digitally-manipulated bokeh shots while drifting through the city.

The second key psychogeographical concept is détournement (meaning ‘rerouting’ or ‘derailment’) and involves the appropriation of signs, images, text or media of the capitalist system and subverts them, turning an oppressive culture against itself. And these pieces [example shown] might owe something to this approach.

A contemporary artist who also arguably uses these methods is Cornelia Parker. She said, ‘I was brought up in the countryside and was pretty phobic about urban spaces, but now I live in London and I don’t think I could ever leave. It’s just continually throwing up stuff that I love. I left home and went to a gritty urban space. It had urban blight. My aesthetic changed, I began to look at decay as something that possibly could have value.’ I created these multilayered montages [example shown] partly in response to my own fascination with decay.

Parker’s 2013 works, Pavement Cracks: City of London were made by creating a rubber mould from cracks in the pavement, which are cast in bronze, before being finished with a black patina. These pieces are effective in that they resemble the original cracks as well as a street map – offering a simultaneous micro and macro view of the city.

Prison Wall Abstract: A Man Escaped is a series of 12 close-up photographs of Pentonville prison wall, which Parker took as builders were repairing it. She responded to them because, to her, they looked like Abstract Expressionist paintings.

While both Rauschenberg and Parker are multifaceted artists whose prolific work is not confined to the urban, they nonetheless offer valuable examples for inner city artists seeking new ways to develop a socially engaged practice.