Reflection on tutor's feedback to Assignment 1

I'm late getting back to the coursework after some recent changes at my job and a month's holiday in Scotland. Things are back to "normal" now, so it's time to get cracking on Creative Arts Today. 

I probably put off submitting Assignment longer than I should have because I wasn't completely confident with my work or the requirements of the course. I'm not suggesting that there is anything wrong with the OCA course materials: it's more a case of getting used to distance education rather than more customary on-site education. Assignment 1 broke the ice, though, so I'm fairly sure I'll move through the remaining assignments at a better pace.

As it turns out, I was pleased with my tutor's feedback. Garry had clearly read very carefully what I had written and I found his comments both helpful and fair. The one sticking point was that he had not received the URL for my learning blog, so he had to rely solely on the Word document that I submitted for the assignment. I did indeed include it via the OCA submission interface, but I'll make a point of including the blog's link in the Word document itself next time. 

Garry's overall comments about my writing style and content were positive and he identified a couple  of areas that I could strengthen: 

  1. some research gaps; and
  2. the need to be more specific in some of the statements I made. 

The research gaps were largely related to drawing on thinkers and critics in the arts whose work could illuminate, bolster or challenge some of the points in my paper. As a new student in the visual arts I think this is normal and I will look to broaden my knowledge of theory, criticism and performance as I progress through this course and others. I appreciate the additional references and links Garry provided and will follow up on them. I will likely blog on the pieces that I find most useful or provocative. I expect that my understanding will increase through this reflection and that my critical vocabulary will grow and allow me to express myself on the arts with greater accuracy. Expanding my understanding and "toolkit" will also help me to situate my comments within a larger conversation around art criticism and appreciation. Given the negotiated meaning (negotiated among artist, viewer, critic, etc.) and social dimensions of contemporary art, it will be important to have this degree of awareness about one's own thought and expression, and those of other people. The issue of context has multiple dimensions and it is crucial to know where one stands in relation to time, place and discourse.

I accept without reservation Garry's comment on my need to be more specific in parts of my text. As I read through what I had written I could see exactly what he meant. I don't think I need to spend a lot of time reflecting on this: it's something I need to watch for in future writing.

As I mentioned earlier, I will follow up on the additional readings and references Garry has provided. They will supplement my learning and I look forward to reading them.

Garry also mentioned that he had a grid that outlines modernist/postmodernist definitions and strategies. I have some familiarity with these in the fields of literature and philosophy, but I am sure I would benefit from seeing how they are applied in the visual arts. 

All told, I breathed a sigh of relief as I worked my way through the comments from my tutor. He spent time on what I wrote, made some encouraging remarks about my writing and thinking, and directed me to some additional sources to help deepen my work. I couldn't ask for much better than that and -- importantly for me -- the exercise provided me with a baseline for expectations. (So that's what they're looking for!) 

I've learned some things, I'm encouraged and I'm ready to work toward Assignment 2.

No complaints here. 

Case study: 'A Place Beyond Belief'

A case study of A Place Beyond Belief by Glaswegian artist Nathan Coley.

• What’s your first response to this piece?

I find the contrast between the deep shades of blue in the sky and the yellow of the lighting attractive. I like that there is a range of blues in the sky and I like the silhouettes of the framework and the building behind the sign. I also like the angle of view from which this image was shot—it seems more dynamic than a straight-on shot. I don't yet have a firm understanding of the piece, though.

• What questions are you going to ask in order to make sense of the piece?

Where is the piece set? Is the text a reference to something specific? How was the piece constructed? Is it a permanent installation or temporary? Or was the image just found by the artist? (Doubt it.) Does the specific place matter or could the work have been installed anywhere? Do we know anything about the artist's intent? How does the work fit within Coley's body of work? Have any reflections on the piece been published?

• What type of work do you think this is? It could fit into several categories. How would
you define it?

I've been referring to it as an installation, largely because I'm assuming that this is not a "found" piece. It could be site-specific but that remains to be seen. It could be classed as a scultpure, depending on how integral the supporting structure is (or is it just hold the thing up?). Is the work just the text? The entire structure? Or does the building in the background play a part in the piece? If so, is the work the photograph of the installation or the installation itself? Not having any information yet on the role of the site, I'll have to define this as an outdoor installation featuring illuminated text. That's more of a description than a definition, but I'll be ready to adjust it once I have more/better information.

• What do you think the text is about?

It's difficult to land on a meaning. "A place beyond belief" could mean "a place where belief does not exist" or it could mean "an unbelievable place." The text could be referring to the specific location of the installation or it could have broader application. If it is site-specific, the text might refer to the church in the background and offer a commentary on religious belief in general or the Christian faith in particular. 

• What are your first thoughts after listening to the monologue?

My first thoughts are that this is a moving and powerful story and that Coley tells it well. For those of us with strong memories of 9/11, it is easy to remember the feelings of sorrow, anger, confusion and disbelief in the time during and following the event. It is also easy to imagine the tensions in the subway car, both on the part of the Sikh man and the others around him.

• What other information can you find on Coley’s website about this particular piece?

In addition to multiple images of the installation, the website contains details of its construction (illuminated text on scaffolding; dimensions variable), photo credits for the images, locations where it has been installed (Haunch of Venison, London; Art Gallery Kosovo, Pristina, Sept 2012; Kunstverein Freiburg, Germany, Jan 2013), the link to the video of Coley providing background on the piece and a link to a site related to the location in London (the link was broken when I tried to access it on May 7, 2016).

Where is it actually sited?

I am not sure where it is actually sited. The most recent location I can find for the piece was at the Triennial Bruges 2015

• Does this alter your response to it?

No, not at all. Coley has installed the piece in different locations around the world and has often juxtaposed it with buildings connected with religious, political or commercial activity. His message of the need to find a "place beyond faith" is probably a broad concept in his mind and can lend itself to a sort of universal social criticism in many settings.

• Have your views on this piece changed after listening to Coley speak about it? If so,

They have changed somewhat. I've come to a better understanding of the meaning of the piece and how Coley, and his hosts, have used it as a social critique that can lend itself to a number of sites. In a sense, then it both is and isn't site-specific. Given the general nature of the message, the text will also be understood in different ways over time just as it has already moved on from its initial association with the 9/11 attacks. I, like most people, want to live in a world that is free from violence and injustice and on a simple level "a place beyond faith" seems to provide an answer. I am not confident that we can all move to that place, though, as our lives and societies all depend on some form of faith, whether acknowledged or not. If Coley's interviews are anything to go by, he may enjoy just that kind of irony and ambiguity.

• Do you think contextual information is essential to gaining a greater understanding
of contemporary work? Make a note in your learning log.

I think the answer to this question has to be "yes and no." Yes, contextual information is important if we are concerned with the artist's intent: context can help get us closer to intent but it cannot guarantee that we have complete understanding (and it is always possible that the artist has not completely understood his or her own work). Yes, contextual information can be helpful for the viewer in considering a broader range of meanings than a first view might provide. But no, contextual information can never exhaust the evolving range of meanings that a piece might suggest through changes of time and place.

• Do you think it should be an essential ingredient?

I think that contextual information is an enriching and important tool, particularly for those interested in art, culture and the history of interpretation. But I'd hesitate to call it "essential"—I'd be concerned with giving the impression that we can ever arrive at the "correct" reading of any work of art. Some are better informed than others, but none should pretend to be the last word.

Exercise 1: Exploring 'place'

‘Place – The First of All Things’, an essay by Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar (pp.11–26)

The essay provides a conceptual and theoretical introduction to understandings of "place" and begins by walking through some basic definitions before moving looking at how the concept has evolved over the centuries.

Dean and Millar use "place" in a technical sense that goes beyond a simple understanding of location of an object or place in space. In fact, much of their discussion has to do with distinguishing "place" from "space." In their use, "space" has more to do with attributes of physical location or presence, while "place" has overlays of meaning, value and interpretation. Along this line, they go so far as to suggest that "[o]ne might even argue that a landscape ceases to exist if there is no one to look upon it" (p.13). Space might just be there, but place has to have relationship and meaning or order.

The relationship to a viewer or interpreter means that "place" is also touched by time, whether by simply becoming familiar (one way that "space" becomes "place," p.14) or by association with particular events.

There then follows a discussion of how developments in theology, philosophy and science gradually inflated the understanding of "space" and downgraded appreciation of "place." God could not be less than the space He created, so it was posited that a limitless God implied an infinite space. Space, then, became the stage for expanding imaginations and exploration, while place seemed diminished by comparison.

The notion of "place" was never completely eclipsed, however, and came back into its own at least partially because of romanticism. More importantly, "place" still had interpretive power to help people think about human experience and meaning: 

As such, we must recognize not only that there are fundamental differences between place and space, and place and site, its modern replacement, but also that there are many places within place, many regions, each with their own identities, dialects and dialectics.
— Dean and Millar, p.15

And those places have interesting qualities—they can change in meaning over time and can relate to one another through overlap and interpenetration.

Overall, I found this to be a very useful article that helped me to think differently about the importance of "place" in art (and in other ways, too). I have to admit to rolling my eyes in the past when I would read yet another artist statement about "exploring space," but I've gained a new appreciation for the concept.

My only real quibble is that I think Dean and Millar are a little hard on the Enlightenment philosophers who gave greater weight to "space" than to "place"—this was an age of exploding knowledge and exploration in all the sciences, after all.

I will want to think more about a number of the ideas they present. For example:

  • the role of time, meaning and value in defining "place" helps to underline how two or more people can inhabit the same "space" but not necessarily the same "place."
  • a single space could constitute multiple "places" even for the same person, depending upon the interpretative lenses he or she chose to wear.
  • the idea of "thresholds" is very helpful in suggesting how different places can relate to one another without marking hard boundaries between them. There is not necessarily one "place" beyond which is limitless and unknowable space: there can be limitless "places" beyond, all shifting and changing in size and meaning, like soap bubbles running over one another.

All told, a good piece for generating some fresh ideas for me!