Early Draft of Critical Reflection

The following text is an initial draft of my Critical Reflection essay. Several sections – indicated by the headings – are still unfinished at this stage, however I will be able to add more content in these areas as my project draws to a close.

Word Count: approx. 2205/5000

Introduction (finished draft, pending feedback)

The following text constitutes a critical reflection on the work I have done towards the Major Research Project component of the MA Contemporary Art Theory course. In the first chapter I outline my central thesis and research methods, and give a brief overview of my research findings; in the following three chapters I describe in more detail my Literature Review, Case Studies and Outcomes, and in the final chapter I offer some concluding thoughts on the project. Additional materials – including resource lists and images – can be found in the Bibliography and Appendices. 

Thesis (finished draft, pending feedback)

During this Research Project, I have been attempting to explore various issues pertaining to the nature of work and site as they relate to contemporary art practice, with a particular focus on the notion of “the studio” and role that it plays in artistic production. This is in part an extension of the work that I did as part of last semester’s Curating course, and in particular the final outcome for that project – the website / blog WORKSITE – which has proven to be a valuable resource and inspiration for my current work. 

The central proposition of this current project is that site can be seen to represent not just a mere “space” within which work takes place; but rather, can be reinterpreted as a kind of nonhuman “actor” which directly influences the work produced there. It is my view that this influence is enacted by means of enabling constraints which determine what is possible within a given environment, and which constitute one half of a productive dialogue between artist and site.

I believe that this is a valuable research topic, as the notion of site as an “actor” has received little attention in contemporary art literature, while paradoxically theories of “the studio” are abundant, almost to the point of mundanity. Therefore my thesis is located at the site of a gap in knowledge, and by taking steps toward filling this gap I hope that I will be able to propose a novel way of approaching artistic practice – one that foregrounds the dialogue between artist and site and which reframes limitations as “enabling constraints”. 

My intention is that this research will broaden the scope for more sensitive and diverse ways of working, and I feel that my findings may be of particular benefit to those artists who make work outside of conventional “studio” spaces.

Research Methods (finished draft, pending feedback)

I have approached my research through three main methods – which are outlined briefly below, and are each described in more detail in the following three chapters. 

Firstly, I conducted a literature review which gave me a broad overview of the themes of work and site, as well as other relevant topics including the studio and artistic practice. As my project developed – and my reading became more specific – I began to look at more specialised topics such as actor-network theory, site-specificity and the notion of enabling constraints. I chose to use this research method as I believed that – given the wealth of resources available in both the university library and online – a period of focused reading would allow me to quickly discern the relationships and gaps between different topics, in effect mapping the context of my research theme and therefore allowing me to begin developing ideas for further work.

Following the literature review, the second research method I chose involved conducting a detailed review of the work produced for last semester’s Curating course. I chose this method partly because my Curating project explored similar themes to that of this Major Research Project, and can be seen as something of a precursor to my current work. The main outcome of my Curating project was a publicly accessible website / blog which invited a small number of artists to fill out a short questionnaire on their own work and work sites, and to contribute images or other documentation of work they had produced and which they felt was relevant to the theme. By revisiting this content – armed with new insights gleaned from my literature review – I was able to further develop my central thesis. 

The third and final research method I chose was more practice-based, and represents the “outcome” of my research process. I chose a practice-based method because as I developed my thesis – informed by both my literature review and the case studies outlined above – I began to consider how I might articulate my ideas in an accessible and useful format. Ultimately I concluded that the best way to do this would be through practice, so I decided to produce a hybrid “manifesto” / “workbook” which reframed the thesis as a series of prompts and questions which the reader could use to better discern – and leverage – the “enabling constraints” of their own particular “work site”. This small publication will be illustrated throughout with examples of both my own work and that of the original WORKSITE contributors, and will be published as both an online (or “print-at-home”) resource and as a hard-copy “artists booklet”. 

Literature Review (finished draft, pending feedback)

Prior to starting my literature review, I began my project by generating a series of questions pertaining to the broad themes I was interested in. Examples of these initial prompts include “what is understood as ‘conventional’ and ‘unconventional’ in regards to artistic work and/or site?”; “what constitutes a studio or work site?”; “how do practical limitations both positively and negatively impact artistic work?”; and “in what ways can constraint be employed as an artistic strategy?” Making this list allowed me to both focus my ideas and identify key words and concepts which I could then use to find relevant resources. [1]

The first text I approached for my literature review was Daniel Buren’s 1971 essay The Function of the Studio. In this influential text, Buren argues the “primary importance” of the artist’s studio as “the unique space of production”, before describing in detail two specific types of studio (the “European type”, and the “American type”). Buren goes on to describe the “unspeakable compromise” of the studio as being that:

when the work is in place [that is, in the studio], it does not take place (for the public), while it takes place (for the public) only when not in place, that is, in the museum. (Buren 1971).

For Buren, the artwork is only “in place” while it remains in the studio, meaning that when it leaves the studio, it is removed from its context and thus “lost”. I found this idea interesting, especially in relation to practices such as installation and site-specific art, which would each appear to require removal from the studio in order to function – quite the opposite of Buren’s thesis. I was also interested in how Buren’s argument would apply to forms of practice which are less object-based – such as performance – or that leverage multiplication, versioning or redistribution as part of their functioning as works. (Buren 1971). 

Further reading allowed me to consider the implications of these ideas in more depth. For example, in her 2015 essay The Need for Space in Art Practice, Ruth Solomons argues that a painting “when relocated to a different site […] communicates something about the space of the studio” in which it was made, thereby “indexing” the process and site of its making. This is an interesting counter to Buren’s thesis, as it proposes a possible (even necessary) connection between the conditions of the studio and the nature of the outcomes that are made there – without suggesting that this is a self-defeating or otherwise negative association . (Solomons 2015). 

Solomons goes on to suggest that constraints such as a “lack of space” in which to work “may lead to a situation where the artist becomes increasingly resourceful and adaptive”. This led me to think more about the potential positive effects of constraint, and I also began to consider the more complex relationships between the artist, the conditions of their work site, and the ways in which each might be “indexed” in any resulting work. (Solomons 2015). 

Further reading on “the studio” highlighted the disparities between historical expectations of the studio environment and the realities that face the contemporary artist. In the essay Studio Unbound (2010), Lane Relyea describes the transition of the studio away from “an ideological frame that mystifies production” and toward a mere node in a network which “privileges itinerancy and circulation over fixity” and “diminishes hierarchies and boundaries in favour of mobility and flexibility across a more open, extensive environment”. (Relyea 2010).

Katy Siegel’s essay Live/Work (2010) was similarly critical of the current state of the studio, suggesting that this site was once a place “closer to the original meaning of the studio apartment” – a “single room for a single person” where “the occupant does everything in the same room – sleeping, eating and ‘living’”. Siegel argues that the architecture of this small space freed the occupant from “the rigid social divisions that usually order daily life”. In comparison, the contemporary studio is more of a cross between the sweatshop and the office cubicle, where “work is split from living” and where making art “takes on many of the attendant pressures of ‘real’ professional or wage labour work”. (Siegel 2010). 

As well as researching “the studio” as both a concept and a space of production, I also began to look at artists who had in some way attempted to bridge the gap between the studio and the domestic space, or between work and life. The work of Mierle Laderman Ukeles was particularly relevant in this regard, and her 1969 Manifesto for Maintenance Art caused me to consider the impact – and potential value – in material constraints:

clean your desk, wash the dishes, clean the floor, wash your clothes, wash your toes, change the baby’s diaper, finish the report, correct the typos, mend the fence, keep the customer happy, throw out the stinking garbage, watch out don’t put things in your nose, what shall I wear, I have no sox, pay your bills, don’t litter, save string, wash your hair, change the sheets, go to the store, I’m out of perfume, say it again–he doesn’t understand, seal It again–it leaks, go to work, this art is dusty, clear the table, call him again, flush the toilet, stay young. (Ukeles 1969). 

With Ukeles’ assertion that “Everything I say is Art is Art. Everything I do is Art is Art”, the boundaries between art and non-art, and between work and life are blurred, with art becoming a matter of perception. The daily tasks listed in the above quotation would be seen by many as constraints, or obstacles that stand in the way of making work. However, after Ukeles’ theory of Maintenance Art, we might reframe these constraints as enabling; as the very stuff that allows us to make work in the first place. (Ukeles 1969).

At this point in my project, I began to consider how I might find out more about the impact of constraints on artistic practice, and I ultimately decided that the WORKSITE blog I started during last semester’s Curating course would be an interesting source of research material. My experience of re-reading the WORKSITE content is described in detail in the following section. 

Case Studies (unfinished; will summarise insights gleaned from rereading the WORKSITE texts)

The WORKSITE blog I started during last semester was at its core “a blog about work” that aimed to explore “the ways in which we work, and the spaces in which work is performed” and “to function as a resource for all those interested in the particulars of WORK and/or SITE”. The site’s content consisted primarily of artists’ responses to a short Q&A which I had asked them to fill out, and most posts also included images and other documentation of the artists’ work. The Q&A asked questions such as “what is your definition of the term ‘work’?” and “what are the limitations or parameters of your work?”, and I received a diverse range of responses from the ten individuals who agreed to take part. (WORKSITE 2022). 

Some respondents – such as sculptor Joel Davidson – alluded to the complications of working within a domestic space, alongside pets and other family members. I began to think about the potential value that could be found in “highlighting” the “enabling constraints” of the domestic space, and perhaps finding a way of incorporating these aspects more explicitly as 

part of the work produced. Indeed, some artists – like Priya Peña – chose to more explicitly highlight the constraints of the domestic setting, through focusing their work on a specific space within their home (in Peña’s case, the bathroom). 

James Shannon’s responses to the Q&A noted the “subconscious” influence of his environment on his work, an idea echoed in Sam Dybeck’s suggestion that working a day job at a bakery might “enrich” his studio practice by providing “insights that other artists wouldn’t have because they are not in the position to have to work a 9 to 5 in order to make ends meet.”. To me these insights suggested that a “site” could in fact be an “actor”, and that art practice could constitute a relationship of exchange – a kind of “dialogue” or “collaboration” – between artist and site. 

Outcomes (unfinished; will detail the development and production of my research outcome / artist’s book)

Conclusions (unfinished; will complete this section last).

References, bibliography, images and appendices will be added once the main body of text is complete.

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