Thursday, September 24, 2009

Chalking up the school

My first chalk poem at school was also my first published poem: I found the clipping again recently and as I wrote it when I was only 14, it seemed ideal for here. It's about a friendship on the cusp between girlhood and womanhood, with lots of twilight colours, so I chalked in shades of purple.

First poem

Lots of positive feedback emboldened me to try a new, not quite finished, poem out in chalk, safe in the knowlege that spring rains would wash away this early version soon enough. I chalked it on the steps leading past my studio, which has allowed me to see it read in both directions (up and down the stairs) over and over again by groups of students, often reciting it aloud in unison, testing their tongues on the hard words (like self-propulsion and Ediacaran). Although it's not an easy poem the students have said they liked it (in both directions).

Reading my unset jellyfish poem outside the science block

Then one sunny day, instead of holding an Open Studio at lunchtime, I waited for the first half dozen girls to arrive, and led them out with a bucket of chalk and a pile of poetry books to write more poems around the school. Choosing what to write was half the fun as we read aloud to each other from my recently acquired collections of sci fi poetry, and the tatty old Voices books that I've had since I was a girl.

The girl on the right is chalking her own original poem with illustrations

One girl had an original poem she could recite from memory so with the help of a friend put that on one flight of steps. A couple of others found an old teacher-teasing rhyme which they thought was hilarious so wrote and illustrated that alongside a short pathway. Isabel and I searched long and hard for a poem the right length that we liked and thought appropriate for school, finally settling on a Chinese anti-war poem (the Voices books are loaded with war/anti war poetry), and wrote it together, going up the stairs.

Jessica drawing bubblegum

Part of the fun of chalk poetry is the slight frisson of it being almost illicit. Some of the students were nervous that they might get in trouble, and I promised it would be fine, but that I would take any rap if it came. However, the teachers coming through our creative space all expressed their delight, one even gave me a hug and said it was fabulous, which made all the girls relax.

Poetry on the hoof...

For a couple of days, until the big rain started, every time I left the studio I would see girls reading poetry off the pavement as they walked from class to class.

Monday, September 21, 2009

29 Cu: An exhibition of artists books in Hamilton

This book looks like it is on the move, creeping slowly across the plinth under its own volition

It's not often that I get to see the work of a talented and experienced book artist except as photographs. This month ArtsPost is showing 29 Cu, a wonderful exhibition by Ann Bell, book artist, and her collaborative partner, Margaret Mecchia, weaver. Ann Bell was a fibre artist long before she started making books, and this background is manifested in the exhibition's majority of books with woven and stitched structures.

This folded book structure shows off Ann's expertise in treating papers to achieve both colour and texture

The theme of the exhibition is copper which gives a coherent colour palatte that ties together the diverse materials and techniques used by the two artists. Most of Ann's works are so sculptural they are not even described as books on the price list. The most effective pieces utilise well-known artist's book bindings (piano hinge binding using skewers, and coptic stitch). However, with dozens of signatures the books become long sinuous snakes that would be impossible to confine to a bookshelf let alone hold in your hands.

I love this rusty piano hinge book for being not so much a book as a breached barricade around a pa

All but a couple of the books have are free of text or image, but the pages have been 'rusted', a treatment that creates subtle mottled coppery paper. These are truly artists books in the sense of having manipulated and disrupted book conventions to create book-inspired objects.

A stitched snake of many papers, this might be the great wall of China or an endless flight of stairs

Books with some text: An accordion sampler playing with the word 'copper' and in the background a tunnel book looking down a mine shaft

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Settling into Residency

Doris announces another Open Studio

As I settle into my third week as Sunrise Rotary Writer in Residence at Hamilton Girls High School (HGHS), there's a lot of books being made around the school in and out of the classrooms. I've done presentations and mini-workshops with half a dozen English and Art classes so far. Now when I meet a new class, there's usually one or two girls who have already been making books with friends who have learnt from me in the past week or so. I won't be surprised when some kind of critical mass is reached and the school is literally exploding with colourful little handmade books.

Jessica and Isobel making paper cuts

At lunchtimes I often put out 'Doris' the dressmaker's dummy to indicate that its an Open Studio today. The first few times a handful of girls came in to have a look and stayed to play with paper. Yesterday, fifteen students were crammed in! There was painting in one room, and papercutting and folding in the other. It was hectic fun but lunchtimes are short, so quite a number of projects have been left unfinished for the next Open Studio. Some of the girls are coming back again and again, eager to extend their book making repetoire and meet new friends who share their interests.

Painting paper to be made into books

It's particularly thrilling for me when students show me a book they've made in their own time and filled with original writing or drawings. Or when a student has been inventing new book structures and we can talk about how to solve design problems to achieve what they want.

Isobel's castle

Sunday, September 13, 2009

User Profile on Upstage

Click on the photos to enlarge, so you can read the text on these screen shots from the live performances of User Profile

I seem to have a persistent attraction to the steep learning curve. I am always putting myself into situations where I have to learn new things through total immersion in order to publicly achieve high goals quite quickly. And then, having (at least superficially) got the hang of that thing, I move onto the next challenge. I admire anyone who spend years mastering their craft or becoming expert in their field, but I have finally come to accept myself as a dilettante*.

This 'insatiable craving for novelty' is one of the few things I have in common with the narrator of my poem, User Profile. The poem is the object of my latest dabble, in cyberformance, which involves typing in the lines of the poem which appear as text on the screen and in a computer generated voice, and clicking on different icons to change images on the 'stage', play sound recordings and move avatars around like actors. The audience can type in comments which also appear as text, but silently, so it's a very interactive form of theatre!

Earlier this week I did four live online performances of User Profile, as part of the Upstage Festival 090909. Online performance proved to be challenging, exciting and fun. Here are some of the screen shots from the performances. If you click on the photos to enlarge them you can read the text. The words in bold are being spoken by my avatars, and the light coloured words are the audience, commenting throughout the performance.

The images I used are all from my collection of vintage sci fi novels which I scanned and edited into backdrops and avatars. At the very last minute I had some help from Mem, to upload some sound effects (from FreeSounds), and the spooky space noises were a great hit. In fact I had great feedback in general, and even got asked to do an encore of my second show. Hopefully someone recorded one of the performances as video, that I can post/link sometime, so you can see and hear the whole thing.

I also managed to see most of the other performances in the Upstage Festival, which were all quite different, although there was a tendency towards the absurd/dada/advante guarde, which made my little story seem quite conventional by comparison.

*Dilattante, is of course a pejorative term, like bureaucrat, another of my careers. Along with my attraction to novelty, I seem to have tendency towards despised identities such as wowser, feminist and greenie (though this latter has suddenly become fashionable which is quite disorientating).

Friday, September 11, 2009

Someone dies

for Aileen Grant (1.6.1937 -29.8.2009)

Someone dies and the world wobbles:

earthquakes and tsunamis for a husband, daughters;

and though the passing of a student is a smaller loss

the centre of gravity shifts a little in my life, too.


The night before your funeral my teaching is listless,

your absence felt as ballast overboard,

I’ve become used to your eccentric sweet intensity

pulling against the direction of the other students,

apologetically stubborn, heroically persistent.

Finding my way through generations of stories,

drifts of photocopying only you could treasure

and your perpetually erratic toolkit

distilled a bodhisattva spirit into my teaching.

You educated me in compassion,

better than I ever schooled you in making books.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This finalist's response to the 2009 NCAA 'controversy'

You are an agent of change- Meliors Simms (Finalist, New Zealand Contemporary Art Awards 2009)
It's a painful thing, having so many people saying they are outraged on my behalf. Yes, I wanted to win the 2009 National Contemporary Art Awards (NCAA) with all my heart, but as soon as someone else's name was announced, I let it go. Really, I did. I'm a grown up. I can take disappointment. I moved on (literally: the very next morning we shifted to a new house).

But over the past few days friends and strangers have been eager to tell me (personally and in the media) that I and the other entrants were 'ripped off', 'insulted' and 'mocked' by the judge's choice.

Every time someone tells me the winning entry is a mockery or or an insult it prods at my equanimity. And since I don't particularly like the winning work*, I feel somehow forced onto the side of the outraged and offended. But I don't want to take sides in this controversy.

I deliberately, knowingly, chose to place my work in a contemporary art context, rather than any number of other environments. Therefore I accept the terms of this context: the values, fashions and foibles of the contemporary art scene in New Zealand.

I have chosen to participate in an environment that values highly conceptual work. Damien Hirsch is the most expensive living artist in the world and he is no longer physically involved in creating his own art.

 Works questioning the nature of art by presenting banal found objects in a gallery context are not actually new, challenging or surprising. Think of Marcel Duchamp's urinal a century ago, Tracey Emin's bed a decade ago, and, most pertinently in this case, Patrick Lunberg's bit of wall board that won last year's NCAA.

I wasn't surprised or offended when the NCAA's winning entry turned out to be a pile of the discarded packing material collected from mine and the other entries, placed by gallery staff following the artist's instructions provided, sight unseen, from his artist's residency in Berlin.
I'm quite sure that neither the artist, Dane Mitchell, nor the judge, Charlotte Huddleston intended me, or any of the other finalists, any insult or mockery (although they are mocking the very art world in which they hold privileged positions).

I googled Charlotte Huddleston before entering the Awards and I could tell that she's into very minimalist, very conceptual, quite abstract art. It looks like the Museum selected her precisely because they wanted a controversial winner in order to draw all this media attention and thus more visitors to the exhibition.

But should the point of the NCAA really be to get people talking about art in ways that entrench divisions between those who are in on the joke, and those who prefer work displaying talent and skill, beauty and craftsmanship, complexity and depth, as well as conceptual intelligence?

Personally, I'm not much interested in a debate over what art is or isn't. I have other concerns. But I want to participate in the contemporary art world. My intensely handmade, busy, colourful entry is not at all like the art the judge is associated with on the internet, so I worked hard to write an artist's statement that would frame my piece in terms that I hoped would resonate for her.

You are an agent of change (detail of embroidery)

I want my work to be appreciated not only because it is thought provoking, but also because it is beautiful and complex. You are an agent of change was pleasurable for me to make; I want it to be pleasurable to look at, so that it encourages and supports viewers to think about uncomfortable issues, rather than provokes and disturbs them to defend entrenched prejudices.

Most of all, I hope that the outcome of my 400 hours of so of intensive, time consuming, handwork will provoke reflection and conversation about questions such as our relationship as a species with the rest of the natural world, an issue that desperately needs fresh responses, impassioned debate and righteous indignation.

You are an agent of change (detail of crochet)
Thus my concept and practice puts You are an agent of change at another place in the spectrum of contemporary art from Dane Mitchell's Collatoral. However, that doesn't mean our works shouldn't co-exist in the same gallery. The judge selected both of our pieces as finalists, and wonderful variety of other art works. If you insist on the question of 'what is art', then it is this diversity that should answer it.

Dane Mitchell's entry is consistent with his body of work. Charlotte Huddleston's decisions were consistent with her curatorial history. Both acted consistently with the values of contemporary art activity in New Zealand. I can't be upset about that even if I don't share their taste.

What I find offensive is actually in the way the exhibition is being promoted and publicized, as though the main point of art is controversy. The insult to us all is in the media's rehashing of this tired argument in ways that perpetrate stereotypes and prejudices.

Contemporary art is a very broad church and the contemporary art scene is a game and a gamble.

Contemporary art works that are clever in-jokes will never be dislodged from their valued status by outsiders' outrage.

Your expressions of passionate indignation are counterproductive if your intention is to unseat the privilege afforded to purely conceptual art, since the controversy serves the commercial goals of cultural institutions who are deliberately provoking it.

Please don't be outraged on my behalf. I suggest that you don't even bother being outraged on your own behalf, as there are more important things to be upset about right now.

If you must direct some energy into being angry, channel your righteous indignation at our collective greed and intertia causing thousands of species extinctions every year, melting ice caps and warming oceans.

Be outraged at poverty, war, slavery, rape and child abuse.

Be angry at corruption, at prejudice and hatred, at the pointless consumption of limited resources.

But don't waste your energy being outraged about art.

 As the 2009 National Contemporary Art Award online catalogue quotes:

The good thing about art is… it’s good to try out this kind of experiment because it doesn’t matter what happens , it’s not dangerous, it’s not life, if you don’t like it you can switch it off, or rent another DVD. Art is something we deliberately let ourselves enter into because we know we can take some mild psychic risk.

Brian Eno, keynote address, Luminous Festival, Sydney Opera House June 2009

Edited 2018 to correct errors, remove references to dead links and adjust formatting. 

Monday, September 07, 2009

i'm not sure i can do this right now

In the past week I have started as the Hamilton Girls High School/Waikato Sunshine Rotary Writer in Residence; sewn another 100 books on commission, attended a friend and student's funeral, attended the National Contemporary Art Awards, moved house with my two flatmates, discovered that the gas isn't on at the new house (no hot water or cooking), went to my parents' for dinner and a shower, and thankfully was there to help them deal with a spectacular burst pipe flooding three booklined rooms ankle deep in water. The incredible outpouring of water and consequent indoor lake was like a physical manifestation of feeling overwhelmed by the pileup of major events in the past 8 days.

There is a lengthy/illustrated/entertaining/poignant blog post crying out to be written for each of the above items. But here's the thing, my internet access is patchy at best right now what with the move, and new starts and all. This visit to the public library's free wireless is possibly my only opportunity to rehearse and prepare for my solo performances of User Profile, in the 090909 Upstage Festival in a couple of days.

When my internet access is resolved and I have gotten through the next couple of days of classes, unpacking, and (hopefully) online performing, I promise I will make it all up to you, with posts, pictures, and maybe even a new poem.

090909 UpStage Festival Preview from UpStage on Vimeo.

User Profile is the blue image in the centre of the montage you'll see in the video