Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Study Visit - Bank Street Arts & Sheffield Hallam University

Bank Street Arts - "The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right" is here: 

LINK Bank Street 

and the Sheffield Hallam University students' "Creative Spark" is here: 

LINK Sheffield Hallam.
As always, it was a pleasure to spend 3-4 hours in the company of fellow students and Andrew Conroy, OCA Tutor, Photographer in Residence at Bank Street Arts, and curator of the exhibition we were viewing.

The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in its Own Right

The inspiration for this exhibition (and the background to its wordy title) is a pamphlet by poet Simon Armitage, with the same (not to be repeated!) title.  The work is from 11 photographer/artists (including curator, Andrew), mainly photographic prints displayed on walls, but including one multi-media presentation and a pair of books.  Andrew approached a number of photographers, two years ago, with the idea and has managed the process of bringing the exhibition together in this form.  It has been done with limited (if any) funding of the artists' work; and they have had complete freedom as to how they respond to the brief and in what form the work has been submitted.  Andrew did see some small jpegs in advance, and the curatorial team has 'edited' the artists' supporting text to manageable length, as well as, of course, making the 'hanging' decisions.  Andrew highlighted some of the pressures of making such an exhibition happen - not least, opening the work when it arrived with no real knowledge of what it would comprise. 

It worked, for me, as an exploration of the relationship between a text and visual imagery, but also as an opportunity to compare the responses of different photographers to this type of brief.  On the whole, I found them to be quite 'conservative' responses - when compared to the work of some of the SHU students, for example - and that, in some cases, the depth of creative engagement was limited, albeit understandable with limited funding.

My most positive response was to Andrew Robinson's 2 books, 'North' & 'South', which can be seen here - ANDREW ROBINSON.  The books comprise images compiled over a Bank Holiday weekend last August, as he drove a total of 1000 miles (more or less 50/50 North & South from Sheffield), stopping at 30+ service stations along the way and recording his impressions.  The book form matches well with the journey concept, of course, but the editing and presentation also worked very well. To be totally fair, in a multi-artist exhibition such as this, with relatively little time to take in context, the 'obviousness' of the book form response appeals most easily, perhaps; but there is a lesson for any of us in that and I have to say that the obvious depth and quality of this particular response was what really stood out for me. 

I found Tribble & Mancenido's contribution more of a challenge.  This is a link to the relevant page on Bank Street Arts' site - LINK - but there is nothing showing the whole work.  They had chosen to respond with images, or cropped/edited versions of images, from their existing portfolio, in order as it says on the site to evoke a sense of "... travel, time, memory and wanderlust"; and create an "... abstract narrative ..." around an "... imaginary road trip through memory".  There were ten prints (of consistent colour and style), pinned to the wall, in an order determined by Andrew and his colleagues.  Perhaps the setting at Bank Street wasn't right for me; perhaps I wasn't in the right frame of mind (I do often struggle to fully engage with more challenging work in this type of group viewing); for whatever reason, I found it hard to discover more than a somewhat superficial appreciation for this work. 

There isn't time to write a detailed reflection on all the artists' work, but they ranged from a single large print of 20-30 images of the sky, by Jessa Fairbrother - actually a highly personal response about a journey taken just once, by her mother, from Bristol to Tibshelf Services, for which the supporting text was essential to appreciating the work - via some almost typological large-format images of anonymous service stations - shades of the Bechers or John Davies; to Andrew Conroy's multi-media work 'The Drive', viewable via 'We Are OCA', HERE.  The latter, I viewed five or six times, on line, before attending the study visit.  It produces a kind of tension in me, interestingly more so the more I view it.  I don't know whether that is intentional, but I feel a 'clash' between the word-based imagery evoked by Armitage's poem, as spoken in the background, and the visual images of Andrew's drive.  I find it makes me uneasy, and I can't quite reconcile the two - which may well be intentional.  If I simply go with the rhythm and sound of the poet's voice (with the music, that does kind of bring both aspects together), then that's find; but if a really listen to what the voice is telling me, I sense a kind of dissonance between quite strong visual images evoked in the poem and what I am viewing on the screen.  It's a moody and uneasy piece. 

We did discuss the mood of the exhibition overall and it isn't a particularly optimistic one.  There seems to be a consensus that the notion of motorway services evokes a somewhat negative mood in all of us - tedium; impersonal; necessity over desire; and so on.

Creative Spark @ Sheffield Hallam 

This was my first visit to a degree show, so bound to be useful as a comparator and as a benchmark, quite apart from the inspiration and information that are always derived from looking at other peoples' work.  One the whole, it was much as I would have expected.  A wide diversity of approach, subject matter and presentation, as would no doubt be normal for such a show. 

Presentation is probably a good place to start.  The modes ranged from printing on fabric & hanging as a 3-D presentation (Georgia Mackey - can't find anything on the Internet & didn't take a picture, but there is an example of her work here - BOOK LINK), through to a single, 'faded', self-portrait image printed life-size onto wallpaper (Milly Futter - again no further info to show on here), which was about 'Conformity' & which worked well, for me.  As well as diversity of mode, I felt that one could also easily identify a diversity of effort and engagement - predictably. 

The accompanying texts were also informative to us as 'fellow students'.  One assumes that most of those presenting are in their early twenties, and the creative energy displayed reflects that; but for many young students, diverting from that creativity to express what they are doing, through writing, in a recognisably 'academic' fashion will be understandably difficult - and it showed, in some cases. 

I was surprised by the seeming lack of engagement with digital techniques; and, truthfully, a little disappointed by the fact that so many of these young people seemed to be more engaged with early photographic techniques than with those of the 21st century.  Discussing this with Andrew, it emerged that many, perhaps most, of the students are 'anti-digital', seeing it, perhaps, as a threat to photography's authenticity and, maybe, to their career prospects.  I don't know enough to say that this reflects the teaching - though that would be an obvious place to start - and any proposed explanations are pure conjecture. Is it possible, for example, that they want to see their photographic work as something different from the preponderance of digital imagery to which they are subjected day after day, hour after hour?  As I say - it is conjecture - but I find it surprising and, truthfully, disappointing.

One person's work did strike a chord with my own current thinking - Katie Sturgess' Simulated Simulacra.  She was one of the very few who seemed to have positively engaged with the digital medium and I like the fact that she is acknowledging the "crisis of faith in the medium" and looking to explore it rather than revert to techniques of the past.  That's my take on it, anyway!

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