Studio Practice: Nostalgia Revisited

I was recently on a panel at London’s Victoria & Albert Museum exploring the idea of studio-based practice as part of Guy Julier’s excellent Design Culture Salon series. The discussion followed from a newly-launched book called Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements by Ignacio Farias and Alex Wilkie [1].

Theorising studio practice is always going to be a complicated read, but there are some real moments of lucidity and insight. One quote that appears in the book, from William James (the psychologist brother of novelist Henry James) summed up the book nicely for me:
“what really exists is not things made”, James says, “but things in the making” [2].

Process is where it’s at, in other words.

Working out what exactly happens in a studio is evidently a difficult business. It’s easy to revert to William James era psychology and look for those ‘ah ha’ moments delivered from on high, but really the whole time in the studio is one long, extended, playful, social, accidental, ah ha. More of an aaaaahhhhhh than an ah ha. What we think of as creativity – if that’s what we think happens in a studio – seems to slip through our fingers when we try and point to it. Where is the creativity exactly? Is it cognitive or social or spatial or temporal? The book argues that it is the process that matters, not the atoms that make up the process. It is the materials and practices of the studio – human and non-human – that help to construct that process, however wide we might care to define what a studio is.

David Bowie, talking on one of the many recent radio programmes following his death, sums up this idea well. Working in Berlin in the late 1970s he reflects that:

“I was starting to use the studio itself as an instrument, little accidents would happen with the notes and things would go wrong and the notes sounded so good wrong that I’d make four instruments play the same wrong note and then it sounds like an arrangement, and it becomes an integral part of the composition.” [3] (48:20)

For my introduction as member of the discussion panel, and to link the idea of process, outcome, and how to describe them, I gave two examples.

The first was Artangel’s 2015 installation Recording in Progress [4] at Somerset House in London, featuring the musician PJ Harvey working in her studio with other musicians in full public view. People could book a slot to watch and hear whatever was happening through sound-proofed, one-way glass. A transparent version of the creative black box.

Work in Progress

Recording in Progress by Artangel featuring the musician PJ Harvey recording in public.

For visitors, a lot of the time there was a lot of nothing happening. One reviewer noted:
“Thursday evening they were having trouble with a chorus, “Near all the memorials to Vietnam and Lincoln”. It sounded turgid. “Could you all sing like you’re somebody else?” PJ suggests.” [5]

Let’s leave aside that ‘turgid’ remark – the aesthetics comes later – and try and summarise the experience of the studio as incremental: adding and combining – sometimes subtracting – elements; trying stuff out to see what happens and what might be the next thing to happen. Building stuff up bit by bit. Looking back It’s easy to romanticise and mythologise the activity; identify the ‘key’ points, narrate the process as logical, inevitable, even mystical, if a little haphazard.

George Shaw's etching

Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks, Etching by George Shaw, V&A Collection [6].

My second example was from the painter George Shaw, whose work records everyday scenes of housing estates – underpasses, dead ends, untended scrubland, paths next to fences, edgelands. The mundane brought to attention through art. One of Shaw’s etchings, Untitled 07; 12 Short Walks (above), appears in a current exhibition called Recording Britain at the Towner art gallery in Eastbourne, Sussex. It was the description on the caption accompanying the work that attracted my attention:
“Since 1996 Shaw has focused on the unremarkable landscapes of the Tile Hill estate in Coventry, where he grew up. He imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia which encompasses the place itself, and the spirit of post-war idealism and ideas of community which shaped it.”

With the idea of studio practice in the back of my mind It was that phrase ‘he imbues his meticulous records with a melancholy nostalgia’ that got me. It is essentially a process-based description but one, when you think about it, that is wholly inaccurate. The implication is that George Shaw has something like an imbuing machine in his studio, Something that he can programme with ‘melancholy nostalgia’ (or perhaps ’rueful wistfulness’ or ‘sorrowful yearning’) and apply it or inject it into his image. Of course George is that machine, the person who is able to take paint and canvas and produce melancholy nostalgia. But if we imagine for a second that George has made his studio transparent, like PJ Harvey, then when would we be able to point to the bits where the ‘imbuing with melancholy nostalgia’ was taking place? Quick, don’t blink, he’s just about to start imbuing! Ah, there he goes, you can see that nostalgia imbuing itself there now…

There is a problem of aesthetics here; of getting from the practices that take place in the studio – putting sound onto hard disk, paint onto a canvas, sitting around, talking about what else is needed or something else entirely, instructing people about what to do – to the qualities of the outcome. Aesthetic value results from the process, but the process doesn’t seem to be about aesthetic value in any nuanced way; beyond the ’that’s good’ or ’that works’ comments, anyway.

The Studio Studies book refers to this problem as ‘the elephant in the studio’ (p.152), the problem for social science disciplines like sociology or ethnography or ethnomethodology to ascribe aesthetic value to empirical processes and outcomes and to account for something like ‘style’ originating from particular studios.

That’s not quite the case with the PJ Harvey example. Presented as an artwork, the process of working in a recording studio is itself given aesthetic value, independent of the outcome arising. The black box as transparent box turns out to be a bit murkier than we expected though. The boredom or excitement or interest that is felt when watching and listening to the process reveals to us the aesthetic nature of our experience; the process of production thus becomes our object:

“what really exists is not things made, but things in the making” to repeat the William James quote with a dash of melancholy nostalgia.

[1] Farias, I. and Wilkie, A. (Eds.) (2016) Studio Studies: Operations, Topologies and Displacements, Routledge.

[2] p.68, ibid.

[3] BBC Radio 4 (2016) Archive on 4, David Bowie: Verbatim, Broadcast on Saturday 30th January, 2016 (accessed February 21st).

[4] Artangel (2015) Recording in Progress.

[5] Searle, A. (2015) PJ Harvey: Recording in Progress Review, The Guardian, Friday 16th January.

[6] Shaw, G. (2005) Untitled 07, 12 Short Walks, V&A Collections.

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