1. When I worked in advertising I was surprised to meet people who didn’t do anything. They are called ‘art directors’. People like myself that perform the actual tasks are called ‘operators’ and there is a strong class distinction which leads ‘art directors’ to cross their arms while speaking near any object that they may accidentally use*. I was employed to move text on a page for an irate person standing a few feet away from the means to do it. Apparently their pureness of thought would be sullied by contact with a mechanism.
It was shameful to then work at a university where I would speak as an ‘academic’ and have a ‘support’ staff member come in and touch the equipment I was speaking about. This partly comes from film production, where the auteur tells a camera operator what to do. The day that Alex Davies was sent in to touch the equipment for me I called bullshit on the whole idea. I touched the equipment. I will not accept this division between worker and foreman.
I can use a video camera, I have practised its handling over many hours and learned the muscle skill of it. I position the tripod, sand bag it, frame the shot. I set the shutter and the aperture. I raise lights and aim them. I replace bulbs. I write code, slowly and poorly and am even worse at soldering – but I do it. I make digital composites in Photoshop and After Effects. I build games and animate 3D objects. I replace daughter boards. I justify text on an A4 spread. I cut vinyl, print, sew.
When I taught ‘digital media’ I assured my students that they would some day not have to put up with ‘art directors’. I’ve since lost that hope. The gatekeepers have been torn down but artium magister now stands ready to keep the techniplebs under foot.
This post was prompted by something I read about field recording. Yes, I hold a microphone. I choose the appropriate kind; shot gun, crossed pairs. I set the levels on the recorder. I set edit points. I cut tape. I adjust clip amplitudes. I apply filters and set fades at the edges. Does someone have a problem with any of this? Because I don’t care. I have a problem with people who rely on ‘operators’ and ‘assistants’, who are ‘ideas people’, who ‘direct’ others, who evidence a distaste for production, who have tried to turn their ignorance into some kind of superiority. Like eating in restaurants somehow makes them a chef.
2. The first time I made an ‘artist talk’ at a significant event was a Sydney Biennale. Up on stage was a gaggle of ‘media artists’, who like me had a sculptural sound or video work currently on display. When asked to explain the work I said that if I had to use words, it had failed to do its job, and that the audience should go and see it if they needed. That was the first time I encountered a deeply angry ‘artist’ who spent the rest of the panel punishing me for sacrilege. It’s not been the last, but these days I laugh at them.
In every definition of art I’ve read it comes down to context. The ‘artist’ creates a work ‘in a studio context’, which then goes into the marketplace ‘in a gallery context’ for an audience who engage with the work ‘in an arts context’. This explains how somebody’s dirty old bed and their trash gets shown in the Tate Gallery; it’s in context. This is a fantastic sleight of hand which suggests there’s a hidden aspect to everything that is visible which evades scrutiny. A kind of dark matter holding art together.
Even if you don’t want to go down that rabbit hole, just see that an exchange between two parties takes place. There is communication. When I communicate I think it best to use the appropriate means to do so, which shouldn’t then require subtitles. I insist that the thing itself is what matters, and I deny the idea that there’s a separate rather mystical layer to the whole business – a mysticism that often gets turned into International Art English. I have great respect for writing and words. But I don’t think that they are always necessary.
3. Opening night comes and everybody does their entrances and dances like an 19th century costume ball, followed by days of empty rooms and bored gallery staff. It’s such an ineffective means of connecting with a wider audience that the sham is obvious – the audience is the least important aspect of it. It’s about the congregation, their bonds and alignments. Every career involves some politics; being ‘an artist’ is no exception and requires constant stroking of the powerful and important. All of which distracts from the work (and probably why so many artists employ operators).
Recently I was speaking about visual music at a gallery. Halfway through the talk there was a flurry of suits and the audience fluttered around in an agony of politeness. The incoming federal arts minister was making an inspection and much bowing and scraping was in order. I didn’t care, did not pause or give the suit man an inch. It was my talk, and fuck the politics.
Worse in my eyes is that real friendships are masked by the arranged ones. I’ve met some good people who are also ‘significant artists’ and so we could only communicate via approved dance steps of interviews, panels, audiences. As I get older I forget to follow protocol and do things like punch ‘significant artist’ arms – it seems to shock but I think the actual person is grateful for being reminded that human contact is still possible.
4. I’ve said it too many times: the ideal of an artistic career is inertia. Innovate for a while. Find a practice, a style, a scheme that earns attention. Repeat it endlessly, never daring to step outside your persona because the system will need to bind you to an iconic representation of yourself. Do you reproduce famous paintings as slow motion videos? Or use a skateboard as your macguffin? Better stick to that. Keep on making action painting, or ‘industrial’ tape cut up until you die – which is your prime function, sealing off the quantity of your saleable work.
Artists that constrain themselves are recognised more quickly, they are funded, they are more acceptable to publications because they are easier to digest. They are the cheddar cheese of creativity, and when I am I told that ‘all the best work is happening over here’, I know the place to look is anywhere but there. Innovation is part of a continuing vitality, and confusedly being alive is more important than being neatly dead. We should never ever pre-organise ourselves into categories that fit nicely in museums, journals and repositories. That’s like pinning yourself into a display case.
5. The quality of much ‘celebrated art’ is debatable and fails to inspire any true love or respect. Given that the audience is not required, the thing itself needs endless explanation, the auteur has no skills and innovation is abandoned as soon as it gets in the way it’s amazing that there is any good work at all. It’s made by people that don’t buy into all this bullshit. That’s what I want to be.
What will we call ourselves? The Kraftwerk guys were onto something when they called themselves ‘music workers’. But I have another idea. In advertising the term ‘creative’ is a mixed signal, it seems to be a positive, but can be a polite substitute for ‘operator’. I’ve often heard somebody say, ‘we’ll get our creatives onto that’. It means ‘all slaves to the oars’. If so, perhaps we can claim ‘creative’ or ‘operator’ back. It can be our own swearword.
* ‘Class’ seems a heavy handed term until we recall that some societies such as ancient Greece and pre WW1 England defined the upper class by their inactivity.