How to Get Lost: Alternative Acts of Architecture
I have been a professional artist for over 25 years. When I started out, I was effectively illiterate despite successfully graduating from a Fine Art BA Honours course. I now have the use of voice dictation software that both enables and disables in equal measure (but more on this some other time perhaps)! In my time as an artist and mentor, I have given a considerable amount of advice and mentoring to a wide variety of artists and other professionals. The thing about advice though, is this; it is easy to give but it can be very hard to take.
Generally, the reason for this is that the paths we are on have their own inertia. If we as humans, are moving in a specific direction at speed, then to change, or even to consider changing takes a considerable amount of work. Additionally, it seems that the life of an artist suits those with a stubborn personality. Despite this, I now find myself at the beginning of a new journey in the shape of a two year project that has been structured with a considerable amount of advice. What makes it even worse is that not only am I planning to take this advice but that most of it is my own advice! Though I suspect that this doesn’t necessarily make it any easier to follow.
For many years, in my role as a mentor, I have advised artists to interrogate, to develop and to consider three key elements of their practice:
1. Public persona – The face you present to the world, via websites, portfolios, online communications and such.
2. Professional development – Who advises you? Where do you seek new knowledge? How do you challenge yourself and your work, and communicate with the wider professional community?
3 – Personal development – Finding the time, space and materials to make new work in a profession that offers little in terms of budget for R&D and reflection.
In order to engage with my own advice, I have had to successfully create a network of support and opportunities to explore, develop and express my ideas, building partnerships with individuals, organisations and funders such as Arts Council England. This has not been a simple or straightforward process. Opportunities that initially appeared to be the answer to a prayer have lead to nothing, whilst other opportunities which first appeared to be dead-ends have turned out to be crucial for my practical and aspirational needs. Through this long and intense process of identifying what I wanted to achieve alongside what might actually be possible, new ideas and opportunities began to present themselves.
As you may or may not know, there are as many as a hundred pages of documents that are recommended to be read in order to understand the process and context of an application to Arts Council England. Taking this into account, it was important to begin by communicating the access issue which immediately presented itself to someone who is severely dyslexic.
Communicating my requirements for support came swiftly on the heels of deciding what it is that I wanted to do and ACE were able to offer paid time for several days of assistance with working through the guidance and application form. If I was to give any advice about funding applications, it would be to decide on what it is you want to do and only then to start to answer their questions. Sounds simple. It’s not!
Where to begin when reflecting on how to be a dyslexic artist? In one of my many guises as creative director of Digital Media Labs, we believe that creativity cannot originate from a position of knowing, so we start by posing this question to participants:
‘How are you going to find yourself without first getting lost?’
My first advice to myself was to ‘get lost’ as I began a six-week residency with Access Space in Sheffield, taking the title Alternative Acts of Architecture as a starting point. At the beginning of the residency, I had some ideas and concepts that I intended to explore alongside some concerns that I wished to voice and to discuss. These centred around the way in which our public and private cityscape has evolved through the application of technology. What is taken into consideration when people design our streets and public buildings?
I’ve become particularly interested in how artificially generated three-dimensional space relates to contemporary architectural design practice and I was lucky enough to bring on board three project research partners; Jonathan Lindh, architect with LEDA in Leeds; Neil Orpwood an architect and collaborator on a city project in Hull; and Sam Vardy an artist and architecture lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University. With these partners, I was able to have valuable one-to-one discussions about design practice. In this way, speaking and listening form a key part of my practice, being more instinctive and creative methods of research than reading and writing when attempting to understand and generate new ideas.
My experience of and interest in the built environment I would argue, comes from being a dyslexic. If you cannot read or write, then navigating cities is complicated! How do you know where the buses are going or if you’re on the right street if you can’t read the signs? As a child, I would copy lines from maps onto small pieces of paper representing the journeys I was taking and at junctions I would draw the first letter of the name of the street, which I was able to recognise. I’ve also come to realise that I have excellent spatial memory, and can remember 40+ years of buildings, memorising their shapes, sizes and scales, leading to a fascination with the way that spaces are constructed.
When working with architect Neil Orpwood on the Hull City NHS Health Centre in 2008-2012, I started by drawing the negative space suggested by architectural plans, Spaces that would be full of air like angled atrium that ran through the centre of the building. Whilst developing designs for a public sculpture in Sheffield in 2008, I spent an afternoons sat in a cafe window staring intently at the building across the road, sketching away with a clear intention of making an accurate observational drawing.
When I completed the drawing, I examined it and suddenly I was struck by the fact that the perspective on the building was not the one I had intended. In fact, it seemed to me that the drawing had been done from approximately 25 feet to my right, in the middle of the road and from 17 feet above the building itself. The thing about my brain is this; it does not always necessarily do what I ask of it or what I expect it to do. As such, I am in a constant dialogue with myself about what I can expect of myself.
During the Access Space residency, I decided to interrogate the idea that there were problems with the use of digital technology in realising architectural and spatial design. Sam Vardy recalled a conversation with a fellow architect who had said something like :
“I can walk you around this city you point out a Building and I can tell you what program was used to design it.”
This sense that the designer is supporting the computer program was further discussed with Jonathan and Neil, looking at ways in which the architect and their designs become more and more engaged in two dimensional representations of space which is then drawn out and described in three-dimensions by computer programs. Through this process, the removal of the conceptualisation of the space itself by the designer is suggested.
Are we moving towards a position where the creative process of imagining is being handed to programs with a series of generic and ubiquitous design parameters? Are hierarchies within architecture starting to be drawn by those who have the freedom to build models and to do drawings; to imagine first and then allow digital rendering programs to facilitate that vision? As Jonathan said to me, the thing about the computer programs is that they don’t know what the stuff actually is, so sometimes you find inconsistencies and glitches; a stairway disappearing into the floor in the corner of a room, going nowhere.
All of this was whirling around my head at the start of my residency at Access Space. Thoughts about what had brought people to the city of Sheffield historically, the things that have
driven the development of industry in the city over hundreds of years and the thing that is almost completely invisible today became the focus of my investigation. I began to think of the rivers of
Sheffield, like my dyslexia, as a powerful force flowing and affecting everything below the surface, yet almost invisible on the facade.
The River Porter runs underneath the streets and in parallel with platform one of Sheffield train station. You can find fish swimming upstream, spotlit in the darkness if you take a torch with you. I would recommend waders as well as the torch – this river of perpetual shadow fluctuates between three inches and three feet in depth. I wondered how I could show people what’s directly below their feet.
After all, you can’t just see through the stone and asphalt to the history that flows 30 feet below. How might I make this hidden space appear in the public domain? It made me think about the action of watching a home movie on your phone in a crowd and the way that all you have to do is turn the volume up and the screen around for the private to become public.
My answer was to flip the screen around, metaphorically speaking, from a private walk that I made and filmed, following from the source of the River Porter to the heart of the city. With this in mind, I created a new configuration of technology which allowed me to carry my film of the subterranean river in a physical suitcase with a trigger button on the handle. The trigger button controlled a looping sequence in order to extend the length of the film to allow for improvisation and conversation with the participants.
The work was presented as a live performance and walk, through the third iteration of my ‘dyslexic 3D thinking persona’ The DIV. The DIV is a character specifically generated to embody dyslexia, allowing me to speak about and explore this experience from an outside perspective and to avoid becoming classified as ‘a dyslexic artist’. Instead, The DIV allows me space to function as an artist who periodically makes work about his experience of being dyslexic and is informed by it.
A test run of the Alternative Acts of Architecture performance presented by The Grey DIV (the Architect) led a walk over and alongside the river while displaying a film of its inaccessible architectural spaces, both timed and in parallel with the above ground route. The film onthe suitcase shows us the green of the flowing river, penned in by tall brick and long dark tunnels constructed in stone; whilst above ground, we walk past modern developments of steel and glass, crossing the road junctions where earlier we struggled in waders and darkness feet below, walking towards a spot of light in a straight line below platform one.
The walk ends at the mouth of that tunnel, a place to stand under the trees and look down into the depths of a ‘cut out’ in nature where trees, river birds and fish sit, like an island surrounded by an ocean of tarmac and concrete. The work seeks to examine the loss of not only our green environments, but of the use of our imaginations in the way we design our environment.
So did I really get lost? What’s clear to me is that it is only through conversation and debate that I can drive my ideas forward. At Access Space this was done through mediation in collaboration with the creative director Jake Harries. I am now able to imagine and realise my ideas using technologies and processes that were unfamiliar to me two months before. This is already changing the way that I think about designing and building my work over the coming year. Rest assured that my intention is to fully realise ideas in my mind before I offer them up to any design programs! I have begun to focus my mind, this creative machine itself, on what I do not know.
How does this end? I’m left with the desire I understand the mechanism of the three dimensional conceptual space that I feel is generated when we put our minds to work imagining and designing objects and structures. I am a 3D thinker because I am dyslexic, and if so is it because of or inspire of this my dyslexic state being? And it still seems to hold true that, you cannot invent from a position of knowing.
Benedict Phillips is currently working on How to be a Dyslexic Artist, a two-year research and professional development project, reflecting upon and re-imagining 25 years of artistic practice with mentoring from Mark Segal (the artists agency), and Nick Galvin (former Archive Manager, Magnum) and research partner, Jonathan Lindh LEDA Architects (Leeds).
He’s consolidating and archiving a database of works, developing a new website and undertaking residencies while
developing new sculpture and photographic works for exhibition. A new publication is planned along with a series of public events. Partners include Access Space (Sheffield), Royal Conservatoire Scotland (Glasgow), Gallery Oldham, and Arts Catalyst (London).
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