January 2021

A copy of a recent letter. The images below are the front and back of some recent work with cotton embroidery thread and masking tape on paper. I included one of these embroideries in each envelope. I’ve added footnotes to this copy of the text to give some contextual info that might be useful for readers other than the original recipients.

Dear Efrosini, dear Robyn, dear Nic,

I have returned to embroidery! I’ve been working on paper: it’s more stiff and less forgiving than fabric, and demands everything be planned out in advance. I’ve been doing these very minimal faces, just eyes and brows, and enjoying how the ‘messy’ back of the image – the connecting lines, the trailing threads, the masking tape – adds an intense expressivity. It looks almost surgical. Like the skin is being peeled back to reveal a colourful and taut network of nerves, tendons and blood vessels. It makes me think about the pretty significant relationship between sewing and flesh.

I don’t know if these embroideries relate to the PhD, because I don’t yet know their possible force, meanings, or value – what they might be able to say, or question, or do. So I’m spending time with them in their more-or-less ‘incompleteness’, trying to figure out their parameters or rules. What can be shifted or stretched, and what needs to remain fixed; how it tips from one thing to another, and when any of it might be potent or meaningful. And as I’m continually re-appraising these materials, I’m imagining different ways that they might be placed in the world and encounter a viewer. Not only in the practical sense of how to install them such that both sides can be visible, nor the ambitious sense of how to get them ‘out there’; but in the Duchampian[1] understanding that the completeness and eventual meanings of the work will be so deeply tied up in its presentational context.

And I’m really curious about this position of inchoateness. About undertaking practice without yet knowing what it might ‘do’ or ‘contribute’: without yet being able to surround it with promises or predictions or valuations. When speaking with Nic recently, Rohanne and I mentioned that the term ‘unjustifiable practice’ is really important to our collaboration.[2] It’s always been the most unjustifiable things – that feel stupid, ridiculous, wasteful, irresponsible – that have been the most rich, transformative and liberating, to ourselves and (we think) the works’ audience.

If I were to give any advice to recently-graduating artists (I mean… I’m ignoring Covid here, because to try to address that devastation and grief would just obliterate anything else I could write), I would tell them to develop practice that does not rely on institutional resources. That doesn’t require expensive materials, for example, or access to a dance studio; and doesn’t need major platforms (galleries, stages, publishing houses, etc.) to reach and encounter an audience.  That does not require them to justify their practice to institutions before it can take place.

Of course, there’s the pretty reasonable question here: who has the resources to work independently of institutions? Who can practice without remuneration? The implications of this around class pretty obvious.[3] My PhD scholarship puts me in the rare position of being able to commit a significant amount of my time to ‘unjustifiable practice’ (although – of course – it required a pretty intense application process to get here; and I suspect my time for ‘the unjustifiable’ will rapidly diminish as the project moves forward).[4] Outside of this kind of context, this activity would have to be squeezed in between other work, or in hours in the studio ‘stolen’ from other formalised projects.

But if you were to declare that you will only work as an artist when you are awarded sufficient remuneration, you would simply never make anything. Arts and culture in the UK are chronically underfunded. Material support for artists is massively oversubscribed. Even as Arts Council England has committed to notions of ‘accessibility’ and ‘culture for all’, the actual processes to acquire resources over the past few decades have become highly bureaucratised; and the intense competition means that applicants must make increasingly grand claims in specialised jargon.[5] If you aspire to enter into institutional contexts, I hold that you need to build some momentum outside of them before you will be granted any access. (I won’t go into it here, but I’m really interested in how projects that profess to shun institutional validation entirely, can end up being used as a launching-pad for mainstream careers.[6])

But my interest in un-(or pre-)institutionalised practice goes beyond the strategic. I think something is at risk when we overly orient or articulate our work in relation to institutional interests. I’ve been pretty suspicious when I’ve heard fellow PhD students say of the university’s excessive evaluative processes that “it doesn’t matter, you can just write whatever they want to hear”.[7] It’s not that I’m against deceiving these institutions. But I’m not sure how easy it is to shed whatever claims and promises we make around our work. They do something to us. They form neural pathways and conceptual blinkers. They align us with more available (or desirable) trajectories of understanding; and pull away from less-trodden routes, even if the material itself begins to reach toward in those directions.

In my studio, I am trying to observe how materials and processes actually behave[8], and from there consider ways that they might become meaningful or generative in the world.[9] And I want to particularly be attentive to those things that I cannot yet predict or articulate; to go beyond my own assumptions and limits, such that the artwork might end up expressing something that I couldn’t have conceived. This is one of the reasons that art is interesting: it can help us pay attention to that which is otherwise hard to value or justify in the world. (I suspect there’s something self-contradictory about this justification of the unjustifiable. Even as I write it, I’m keen for this principle to be troubled, questioned, challenged. Maybe this is suggestive of the irresolvably unsettled relationship between artistic practice – at least, the model of it that I’m describe here– and the institutional, political or conceptual structures that strive to frame and support it.)

To put it another way: there is a certain kind of work that tends to do quite well with funding bodies; work that can declare its urgency; an urgency constituted by values that are already widely held (or at least, held by the kinds of people who are on selection committees). But I’m interested in work (and ways of working) that might open up different ways of valuing and understanding, which by necessity would struggle to justify themselves prior to their funding, making, or encounter with the viewer. 

I recently attended a day-long event about curating. I quickly realised how niche my understanding of curation is within the wider field. Mostly I’ve encountered it through the commissioning of new work, or of working with live performance; whereas most of the people that day seemed to be primarily dealing with historical objects and collections. I found myself to shocked by (what I perceived as) the deep possessiveness that saturates curatorial practice and discourse; people speaking with glee about rummaging, probing, handling and unfolding objects in their institutional archives; about visiting glamorous studios and production houses with the aim of ‘acquiring’ new objects for their collections; curators referring to historical artists – around whose work they have developed their careers – as their ‘research object’ or their ‘territory’.

It’s easy to forget about this kind of thing when your work (like mine) isn’t in particularly high demand. But in the face of these curator-vampires, sustaining themselves through sucking life from artists, I was reminded of how deeply my work is influenced by a legacy of practice that developed in resistance towards institutional capture. It’s so embedded in my work – the materials I use, the kinds of objects or performances I create, the language I produce around my work, the kinds of organisations and people I cultivate working relationships with – that I end up forgetting about it.[10]

(To be fair – the event wasn’t all bad. I got to hear from Lucia Pietroiusti, who is doing some super interesting thinking around institutional structures and the non-human at the Serpentine Gallery.[11] Alongside my ire above, I left with the question of whether there is something particular about ‘curators’ or ‘curating’ – as opposed to other kinds of roles and work in organisations – that makes it especially well placed to think about governance.)

One of the key concepts of this PhD project is ‘hosting’ – the curator as ‘host’ of space in which artists-guests are invited – through which we can think about invitations, permissions, agency, sustenance, exclusion. But we can also think of the biological host; and of viral or bacterial micro-organisms that resist absorption by becoming indigestible, poisonous, or parasitic to the institutional host’s body. And I think this helps to deal with the apparent contradiction between my eager contemplation of how the embroideries might enter an institutional context, and my evident distaste for any easy capture. Because it’s not just a question of inclusion or exclusion; it’s a question of what these things can do in different spaces; what they might obstruct, break down, or give rise to.

Anyway. Between starting and finishing this letter I’ve finally figured out how the embroidered paper might be physically displayed. I’ve suspended them from the ceiling by a thread down to the top each page. So now they’re hanging there in my studio, a little cloud of suspended anxious faces; somehow spinning endlessly around to look over the room and each other. Eyes wide and strained and fragile, so terrified of not seeing something that they’re trying to look out the back of their own heads. Elevated, restless, fearful, surveying: I’ve called them ‘The Stewards’.

Amidst everything, sending smiles and hugs,

Paul

[1] Marcel Duchamp was an influential French artist working in the early twentieth century, who is most well known for his ‘readymades’: non-traditional materials incorporated into and presented as artworks. The most famous of these was probably his ‘Fountain’ – a urinal he pseudonymously submitted to the Society of Independent Artists in 1917 for exhibition in New York.

[2] Rohanne Udall and I have been collaborating since 2013. We currently work under the name Chatum Tanning.

[3] Surprising no one, the 2018 report Panic! 2018 – It’s an Arts Emergency! showed that working class people are massively underrepresented in cultural industries.

[4] My scholarship roughly equates to a waiver of university fees (~£4,000 a year), and a stipend of ~£17,000 per annum for four years. It was a pretty long and brutal application process, and I received a lot of help. If you’re interested in doing a PhD and would like to know more, please get in touch and we can have a chat. 

[5] Arts Council England is the state funding body for arts and culture in England, and reports to the department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport. Its ideology and structure has changed a few times since its origins around the end of the Second World War. In 1997, New Labour instituted new policies for arts funding that centered notions of ‘inclusion’, ‘access’ and ‘community’ – about which Mark Wallinger and Mary Warnock’s book Art for All: Their Policies and Our Culture (2000, London: PEER) is a brilliant and critical overview. Currently, ACE’s two most significant strands of funding are ‘National Portfolio Organisations’ - around 300 cultural organisations who are each funded a percentage of their overall costs for 3 or 4 years; and then one-off ‘Project Grants’ to individuals and organisations. Last year ACE announced its new policy for the next ten years, ‘Let’s Create’, with the three principles of ‘creative people’, ‘cultural communities’ and ‘a creative and cultural country’. More here.

[6] David Batchelor’s 1992 essay ‘Under The Canary’ in Frieze comes to mind: “found spaces are being used as a springboard from which to jump back into the gallery.” (Introduced to me by the artist and educator Sophia Kosmaoglou.)

[7] Each university structures different ‘milestones’ throughout the PhD process. I’ve suggested before the way these are set up at my host institution – the University of Roehampton – are totally hostile to artistic research.

[8] I am reminded of the George Perec quote (first introduced to me by the artist Vlatka Horvat): “Note down what you can see. Anything worthy of note going on. Do you know how to see what’s worthy of note? Is there anything that strikes you? Nothing strikes you. You don’t know how to see. You must set about it more slowly, almost stupidly. Force yourself to write down what is of no interest, what is most obvious, most common, most colourless. […] Force yourself to see more flatly.” Perec, Georg (1997 [1974]) Species of Spaces & Other Pieces. Translated by Sturrock, J. London: Penguin Classics

[9] This writing has been in part prompted by a recent post by Simon Ellis on his excellent blog dedicated to artistic research. He’s arguing that the research questions of artistic PhDs should emerge from the practice; otherwise people just end up “making shit up”. While I’m totally in agreement with Simon, I think I’m keen to stress the structural and institutional pressures that lead people to this situation.

[10] Again, I turn to the Perec quote. How can I see what has become invisible in its unremarkability? I try to remind myself that I don’t need to try have any clever ideas for the PhD. It’s more useful to just try become attentive to and articulate of (and then question!) what is sedimented in my understanding and practice. 

[11] https://www.serpentinegalleries.org/general-ecology/

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