Friday, 13 July 2012

Can too much freedom be a bad thing?

I'm not sure if I've mentioned it yet, but I work for an art gallery. Last night we had an opening and it was gooood—one of those that feels more like a big party than a formal event. I prefer to keep my working life and personal life separate these days, which is hard in a regional centre when you can't help but make friends with artists because they are hands-down the most interesting people around, but this post blurs that line a little—it's a rare occasion.

Of all the many conversations I had last night, one of the most interesting was with Mark, of The Stylus, but then that's pretty much business-as-usual for a conversation with him, they're always interesting. Apart from being a kick-arse artist, Mark is also a teacher at a school that partners with us on a project that is one of the things I have been most proud of in my seven years working for the gallery (we do more than just put pictures on the wall, obvs!) That's all I'll say about Mark, because he likes to compartmentalise like me, too, but the gist of the conversation was this: do boundaries and limitations make for better creative outcomes?

Talking about this blog got us started: I referred to it as a discipline. I knew that I wanted to write from a more personal perspective than the writing I do for work, but I just wasn't getting my thoughts digitised (no point in kidding anyone and saying "on paper"). I knew that setting up a blog would give me a sense of...obligation, in a way: if you start putting it out there you have to keep putting it out there. But still, it took being confined to my house for seven weeks to, perversely, give me the freedom to set up my template and really give thought to the focus of this blog. Not only is a blog a discipline in terms of regularly contributing to it, but it also a discipline in focus so your blog has some sense of cohesion for you and your audience if you are lucky enough to attract one. Even apparently random brain farts can have some sense of order to them.

As an arts administrator, I have seen time and time again that better creative outcomes seem to be achieved when the artist has some boundaries. The boundaries may be self-imposed, thematic, temporal or site-related. Having to problem solve leads to creative solutions, whereas open slather can waffle on forever because there is no sense of point of completion. Examples?

I have seen an artist with an international career not be given a due date for delivering work and as a result just not know when to stop adding to his sculptures. When they eventually turned up they were massive to the point of impracticality for clients and the exhibition space, so thick with paint and varnish I don't think those suckers are dry yet four years later and, of course, he could never put a price on them that would reflect the true amount of time he put into them. I think he only stopped because he ran out of room at home: a site-related limitation, too, I guess.

Our most recent installation was fraught with mini-disasters—work was sent from an overseas gallery, but that gallery didn't include all the connector parts of the slot-together sculpture, there was a communication mix up and one whole piece didn't get freighted from Melbourne, the video work had all sorts of technical issues and the artist wasn't sure how to fix them. The outcomes were: the artist got much more physically connected to his work, which he hadn't laid eyes on for well over a year, because he had to quickly re-fabricate the missing pieces; our curator and the artist got to learn a whole lot more about the technical aspects of the video in order to get it to function and that is going to serve them both so well in their future work; and the exhibition looks much better for the extra breathing space created by missing a piece—it would have been too much if it had arrived and gone in the show. Our beautiful curator, after two weeks of intense stress, commented last night on how much she had learned through the process and how much better she felt she had become at her job as a result. The exhibition looks perfect, too. Wins all round!

I used to have a friend who was an artist, and oh, how he railed against exhibition thematics. "Why do I have to have a theme for my show? I just want to paint whatever I want to paint and put my work up on the wall." Y'know what, I don't know why he bothered to complain about this because he didn't start a show the whole seven-plus years I knew him. His choices were just so vast because he wouldn't set a theme, he didn't know where to start, let alone stop.

Even my work writing I view as improving my writing style. I write a lot of grants and acquittals and inevitably they have a word or character count. Get the crux of your project across in a 40 word project description—go on, I dare you! Think about it real hard now so you cut right down to the marrow of it. It's difficult, but it makes you more succinct. Four hundred words to explain the purpose of your organisation when you do a gazillion things? Again, what is most important? What's your message? Do seemingly disparate projects actually relate to each other somehow and can be summarised together? I'm such a nerd I find it fun.

Artists, writers, and creative types in general will always have boundaries imposed upon them. Whether this is lack of money to fabricate their vision, the cost of basic materials, the need to keep a day job to support their personal responsibilities, people just not 'getting' them, no gallery space to exhibit in, or no time for creative expression. However, I really believe it is the pushing against those boundaries that leads to better creative outcomes. Problem-solving leads to growth and improves your practice. Fighting against the limitation, or working with it or around it, sharpens your focus and helps you know when 'it is done'.

Anyway, that's my two bobs' worth. (Speaking of keeping it succinct, oops!) Do you enjoy the challenge of finding a creative solution? Or are you sure that total freedom would be better for your practice?

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