Frownland Analysis

Looking

Swansea Open/Glynn Vivian

Today I managed to squeeze in a visit to this year’s Swansea Open Exhibition at the Glynn Vivian gallery, just before it closed. Absolutely delighted to have a film included.

Rachel Whiteread/Tate Britain

Let’s just keep this short: I was not at all impressed with Rachel Whiteread’s work. I found the show to be like wandering through a large and utterly soulless superstore, some surreal marriage of B&Q and Ikea, truly hideous in its lack of emotion.

My comment on the day: one trick pony.

So, leaving my companions cooing and purring behind me I hastily departed for pastures anew. Like the lonely cloud, I wandered romantically and oh so wistfully through the Tate for the next hour or so:

Bernard Cohen:

Unknown Artist: The Cholmondley Ladies c.1600-1610

Richard Hamilton:

Time for tea…

Dalí/Duchamp

On its last day we managed to catch the Dalí/Duchamp exhibition at the Royal Academy. It wasn’t an entirely satisfying visit—it was pretty busy, there were a lot of exhibits crammed into a relatively small space, and photography was forbidden—but worth it nonetheless.

Firstly because it was an interesting idea to present the work of these two artists together: firm friends in real life but with remarkably different approaches to the artistic endeavour and diametrically opposite strategies for maintaining their public personas.

Secondly, because any opportunity to see The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even should not be spurned (even if this is the Richard Hamilton recreation):

For me, the work of Marcel Duchamp is crucial to understanding the development of art in the twentieth century and beyond. However, I’m not ready to write that piece just yet. Suffice it to say that his work continues to delight, baffle, and infuriate in just about equal measure.

Salvador Dalí is perhaps easier to take the measure of. Looking at the shockingly bad photo above that I took in the RA on Wednesday (under clandestine conditions, I hasten to add), could I direct your attention away from The Bride… to the Dalí painting we can just see toward the upper right-hand corner. This is a small part of his 1958 Madonna, which looking at it now we can see clearly prefigures many of the later developments in Op-Art and Pop Art. Note the “sheet of paper” painted in the top-left corner with a pull-cord hanging from it: even at this distance it looks believably three-dimensional. The painting as a whole is a stunning tour-de-force of optical effects. What ever else we say about him and his weird landscapes, deformed figures, and crazed deviant sexuality, Dalí is a technically brilliant painter!

Also in the show, his Still Life Moving Fast is almost like a sampler (in the old sense of the word), a demonstration of complete technical expertise. Beautifully painted folds in cloth that match any Renaissance master, glass and liquid suspended in mid-air the equal of Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, the stunningly lifelike hovering bird and baby cauliflower.

Typically, the question with Dalí is whether the deployment of all this technical skill adds up to anything meaningful…

McLuhan 7: The Golden Probe Show

The New You – Whispering Down

To kick the New Year off, here’s a New You promo video dating from (gulp!) 1987. I’ve had this sitting around for ages, most obviously in need of a serviceable audio track: as you’ll be able to see time has taken its toll.

Credits:
Marie Malone: vocals.
Paul Hazel: guitar, keyboards, percussion.
David Westmore: bass.
Ian Cleverley: drums, vibraphone.
[There was also a whole bunch of people playing acoustic guitar in the choruses. Can’t remember who exactly…]

Video filmed and edited by David Stonestreet.
The New You logo and backdrops designed by the Bleach Boys.
Video transferred from VHS tape. The original audio track has been replaced with a recording from the 45rpm single: one pass of noise reduction has been applied.

Song written by Willson/Hazel/Malone.
Produced by Paul Hazel.
Engineered by Martin ‘Crazy’ Pavey.

Quote of the Month

Make the present your past, enter the flux before it gets frozen over, write about change, write about transformation.

William H. Gass

Quality and Higher Education.

The stated “mission and strategic goal” of my employer—University of Wales Trinity Saint David—is Transforming education, transforming lives. My default view on mission statements is to view them with some suspicion: however, I actually kind of like this one.

Can we transform education? Well, maybe… that’s actually a pretty tall order. However, it’s true that the practice of teaching and learning in the vast majority of Higher Education establishments is largely archaic and no longer fit-for-purpose: almost anything we can do to transform this has got to be A Good Thing. When our SA1 campus with its new-fangled teaching spaces has been built we’ll be in a better position to judge. Let’s just say the jury is out on this one, because the challenge is not going to be in building those new spaces but in fundamentally changing long-established and deeply engrained habits and practices. As Robert Pirsig has said:

If a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory.

Can education transform lives? This one’s easier to answer: yes, it definitely and unequivocally can. I know this to be true from personal experience: a year’s study at City University completely and utterly changed me forever. It remains one of the most profound experiences of my life, and I remain eternally grateful…

But looking at this idea a little more critically, it’s obvious that just saying we’re “transforming lives” isn’t really good enough. Surely we need to say that we’re transforming them for the better? And, from there, go on to say what we actually mean by “better”. Happier? Ready for the workplace? More confident and mature? Perhaps all of these things…

The word that I am going to use as a unit of measure here is quality. Now quality is a concept that we all think we understand. I’m pretty sure that if I put a selection of objects out on a table somewhere—it wouldn’t matter what: cakes, or watches, shovels, underpants—we could all reliably pick out the high quality items from the poor. Quality, then, seems to reside in the objects around us. It is a property of things. But if we think about this a bit more, we can see that this is only actually true for a limited set of things. We do not, for example, say things like “oh, look at that high quality sunset”, or “look, there goes a high quality bee!” In fact, the only things we describe in terms of quality are those that are man-made. And the reason we describe an object as “high quality” is because someone—a designer, artist, craftsman, engineer—has invested that object with quality in the first place. Quality is something we make.

And the way we make quality is by engaging openly, honestly, calmly, and skilfully with our materials, whatever they may be. We have to pay attention to every detail. We must show infinite care. We must love what we do. It is our total commitment to the creative process that makes quality, that invests our animations, our games, our films, our music, with quality. In other words, quality is a function of the creator’s interaction with their materials.

We can take this train of thought further. Even if we do our very best and create a high quality product, that still isn’t enough. Before that quality manifests itself someone has to interact with it. So, yes, quality is embedded within man-made objects. But much more than that it is the fundamental descriptor for all human experience. Quality is the means by which we measure what is happening to us in the here-and-now. Quality is a function of interaction. It is the human measure of experience.

So what happens when we bring our new understanding of quality back to our mission statement, to transformed lives? Well, firstly, it implies that there should be a high quality interaction between the student and the university, particularly (obviously!) a high quality learning experience. Our job as educators, therefore, is to teach the student to engage openly, honestly, calmly, and skilfully with their materials, to pay attention to detail, to show infinite care, to show love for their subject. Then, secondly, it should follow that our transformed students go out into the world and make it a better place by investing everything they do with quality.

That is the goal. That is what we are here for.

[This is an edited version of a speech I gave at the School of Film and Digital Media end-of-year show in June 2015.]

 

Quote of the Month

If Pac-Man had affected us as kids, we’d all be running around in dark rooms, munching pills and listening to repetitive electronic music.

Marcus Brigstocke