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Left Lion Magazine

  • Art talk

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to write an article for the Nottingham-based Left Lion cultural magazine. The topic for the January edition was empowerment so this was an interesting slant from which to view my art practice. I’ve dropped my article below and it’s online here.

“I want to help my audience step off the treadmill of consumerism and gain more control over their lives.”

The artist David Hockney observed, “Most people don’t know how to look. They scan the ground around them to move around but that’s about it”. A highfalutin statement, but he’s really talking about the ‘artist’s eye’, with its heightened ability to see beyond the surface, to strip away complexity and reveal hidden patterns. This ceaseless enquiry tortures musicians, writers and visual artists alike, but also keeps them alive in the moment because one day, just maybe, they might discover the elixir of life.

I haven’t found such a potion yet, but I’ve trained my artist’s eye to see better by using consition. This wonderful word means to ‘remove redundancy to make what remains more meaningful’. I love that mantra, not just for art, but as a way to navigate life, so I use consition to delve into the cracks of the present, to interrogate what we blissfully ignore and to slow us down to give a glimpse of a more affirmative reality. I want to help my audience step off the treadmill of consumerism and gain more control over their lives. Given the melee of social and political arrows we now dodge, even this small nugget of empowerment can go a long way.

I recently took a mind-numbing tram commute as a starting point and used consition to find a novel aesthetic beyond the window condensation and rubber floor. Taking time-lapse photos then extracting the dominant colour from each image created a linear palette from Nottingham city to Toton Lane. View from a Tram Window created a fascinating pastel change from grey to green as nature encroached. Detail was removed to expose a wonderful clarity, so we should all add consition to our armoury, as if it enriches a modest tram journey then it might be your new superpower.

Artificial intelligence (AI) has taken our most complex decision-making away from us, which arguably we all benefit from. But how might AI erode the human experience next? Indeed, what have Musk and the rest in store for us? I am concerned that these unseen forces challenge what it means to be human. My ongoing project, Cafe Wisdom, studies the behaviour of Homo Sapiens to bring out the quirks and rough edges that no machine could ever replace. When we socialise with those who know us best, our barriers are set at their lowest and we delve deep, uncovering confounding anecdotes, ingenious humour and uplifting flattery. I watch and listen then blend characters and conversations to show the very best of who we are. I accept that sharing this work can’t fix the problem, but it can help maintain open-mindedness about the need to cherish our biological selves. So to keep AI in its place we just need to keep remembering, laughing and caring… face to face.

I get a kick when a project takes on a life of its own, which one of my favourite artists, Jeremy Deller, has used to astounding effect (remember his Turner Prize winning Battle of Orgreave). We need to accept that our world is riddled with uncontrollable chaos so art that helps us to embrace disorder, rather than fear it, gets us closer to the ultimate source of chaos… nature. Nature often vents horrific suffering in the world, but art can create a moment of doubt and maybe help us suffer and survive more successfully. The evidence for this is the groundswell of creativity that surfaced during the pandemic, particularly Grayson Perry’s Art Club which initiated a national explosion in creative endeavours.

The chaos of nature was unleashed in a project I called Free as a Bird, which explored the panopticon design of the former Millbank prison in London. This cunning structure allowed a single prison guard to observe all cells from a single, central location. A prisoner had a nagging feeling of always being watched, whether they were or not. For me, the omnipresent CCTV camera is the modern-day panopticon, given that the average Londoner is unwittingly caught on camera 300 times a day. So as a subversive act, I created a suspended panopticon bird feeder, filled the geometric shapes with peanuts and captured a time-lapse film of bird life as it innocently grabbed the free booty. Positioning a historic motif of control against the freedom of the skyway asks questions of surveillance in contemporary life. Accepting nature cares little about being observed unless there is a threat to life, should we not feel the same? Or has the monitoring of our lives crossed a moral line in the sand?

A challenge for all of us is making our voice heard in an impossibly cluttered world. It’s tempting to continuously make and deliver our creations but incessant making also feeds a capitalist mindset. Perhaps we need to focus on simply touching people’s lives, even if that’s just a single person. Ideas spread from person to person and in a wonderfully chaotic way, your influence can spread forever.

Banksy tells us that art should “Disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed” which brings morality and well-being beautifully together and reflects my belief that the best art questions and heals at the same time. He might just have a point.

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