“I don’t make pictures just to make money. I make money to make more pictures.” Walt Disney
Structures and scheduling define our existence; When did you last brush your teeth? Was it the same time as yesterday? You are what you habitually do. As part of his daily practice the novelist John Cheever would dress in a suit as if he were about to go to a 9 to 5 job and take the elevator to a maid’s room in the basement, where he stripped to his boxer shorts and wrote until lunchtime. Whilst stripping down to your underwear is a strictly optional element of daily practice, embedding rigorous systems and sticking to them are not. I believe that a creative practice is a series of positive habits built up over time. As I write this I am nearing my 500th day of making art everyday. What started out as a flippant challenge to see if a friend and I could produce one piece of art a day for a year has evolved into numerous projects. Through this daily questioning and documentation I have watched my practice evolve.
The thought of toiling away in a studio making art is an aspirational goal for many artists including myself. It stretches many people’s imagination to think of an artist outside of this context. We dream of Tony Hancock in “The Rebel” rather than a practitioner working in their kitchen, a bus or a classroom. The romantic vision of art making involves a very specific set of circumstances and a very specific set of ephemera and art making tools. I can’t imagine any creative person describing their work or their practice as easy but once certain assumptions like how and where and when art is made are questioned and acted upon, a new layer of complexity is introduced.
Making art is hard, making anything without a structure is nigh on impossible. Many artists would list a studio as a vitally important structural element of their practice, studios are seen as essential and many potential artists shy away from making work simply because they don’t have a space to work. I think that if these potential artists were to push against their immediate limitations they would discover new ways of making despite the external pressures not to make.
Defining yourself as an artist is easy during casual cocktail party conversation. Just lie. Proving that you are an artist is a little more challenging and requires you to be able to show work and explain how it came about. It is very difficult to present a coherent vision of what an artist does at the best of times. Sometimes it feels like a battle to convince even yourself. Actions speak louder than words and artists need to make work. To be an artist, you keep on working; It’s a bit like a shark in a beret. I obsessively need to make, I find cocktail party conversation difficult and I cannot easily explain the scattershot range of work I have produced. Over the last 17 months I’ve become fascinated by the notion of formalising my need to make work within some kind of context that provides a structure and possibility of recording patterns within the seemingly random collage of work that I produce. I have for the last 494 days made and documented on the internet various projects, spanning drawing, painting, video, photography and performance and I see no reason to stop. I suppose part of me believes in the Malcolm Gladwell notion of a practice developing over 10,000 hours and that chipping away at my work for a couple of hours a day can only help me as an artist.
Working without the security blanket of a traditional studio is daunting, but it should not be used as an excuse. John Baldessari’s infamous “Post Studio Art” class at CalArts, in which students were encouraged to “stop daubing away at canvases or chipping away at stone” and embrace a wider framework for art production is hugely inspirational. During his time at CalArts, Baldessari attempted to overcome various challenges associated with balancing his art practice with the practicalities of life and his teaching commitment. Baldessari used his practice as a test bed to collaborate with a generation of students (who he identified as artists) to challenge the cliche views of who an artist is and what an artist does. Baldessari’s example of Post Studio practice took advantage through various projects of CalArt’s cache of mediums such as video cameras that at the time were not commonly associated with making art. Against many limitations, the works produced by Baldesarri and his student artists are rich with potential and indebted to the artist’s experiences, environment and methods used.
Keri Smith’s books make me want to vomit a little bit. They’re mostly a faux messy list of instructions detailing how to be an artist. Once I get past my snobbish knee jerk reaction however, I can see her books as a first step for many of her readers to start thinking and working like an artist. Smith’s mini projects allow the suspension of disbelief to last just long enough for the reader to start thinking of their own projects to work on. We are conditioned to think that making art somehow involves witchcraft. There is an element of unweaving the rainbow about using Smith’s instruction based tasks to force a situation where you can be “creative”. As John Cleese eloquently puts, “Creativity is not a talent. It is a way of operating”. This year I have collaborated with my Photography students on a set of instructions that we have produced and shared within the group to automate our practice. Some of the instructions are derivative of Keri Smith’s work; others are avenues to be explored. The project has it origin in quite proscriptive instructions but the resultant practice demonstrates more interesting deviations and personal outcomes.
Creating a framework within which your practice operates is important. Michael Beirut annually sets his Yale Graphic Design students the challenge to produce and document the same task for a hundred days “Everyone starts with high hopes. But things get repetitive by day ten. By day twenty, no matter what you’ve decided to do, it feels like you’ve been doing it forever.” Forever isn’t such a bad thing and stress testing an idea over an extended period of iterations and versions reveals an incredible number of things. Forcing yourself to make time to make work into your daily life feels like a daunting challenge at times. Working without a studio feels like working without permission, but if you expose yourself to a daily practice, things start to happen. It might sound like a prison sentence, but it’s actually very liberating. Once you start to find time in everyday to make something a new set of challenges open up; the classic how/what to represent Gerhard Richter type question is joined by something even more daunting, the possibility to make something everyday for the rest of your life, the endlessness of it all takes your breath away. You could literally do anything.
A famous example of pushing a simple idea to it’s limits is Noah Kalina’s “Everyday” project, in which the artist takes a compositionally similar photograph of himself everyday and collages the resulting images into video that has, for the last 12 years, documented the faint nuances of a man aging. Kalina’s videos and photographs are epic in their ambition and scope but even the most banal of daily projects read as part of a larger whole showcase how creativity and inspiration can be harvested from incredibly unlikely sources.
“We need to be in the open mode when pondering a problem — but! — once we come up with a solution, we must then switch to the closed mode to implement it. Because once we’ve made a decision, we are efficient only if we go through with it decisively, undistracted by doubts about its correctness.” John Cleese.
Daily practice relies on devices like digital cameras and computers to make work in the same way the Impressionists exploited the portable qualities of tubed oil paint, the act of making art becomes free of previous constraints and expectations. The iPhone as portable studio, is the oil paint of the 21st century. It provides anyone the opportunity to make, document and share your work from anywhere.
Entering “365 Project” into Google reveals that seemingly everyone has some sort of daily practice project going on. I think any engagement with a making practice is a good one, but I also believe that as with many things it is important to recognise the journey as more important than the outcome. When you reach the end, what comes next? What if the end wasn’t what you really wanted? Sometimes being an artist feels like having the idea versus the ability to implement it. Daily Practice allows an amount of time, space and attention to chip away at the big ideas. Even being sat on the bus with a sketchbook on your lap it is impossible to not develop and evolve your work.
I don’t make money. I make.