By Jo Howell
Middlesbrough art week began as a weekender, and it has grown year on year. It’s a brilliant example of an arts based community event that has wide reach across the whole of the North East. Middlesbrough’s story is one of metamorphosis. From “smoggies” to sophisticates.
Raging out of the shackles of the industrial past with colour and aplomb for the first time in 2017. It has become the largest annual contemporary arts festival in the North East.
Perhaps shackles is too strong a metaphor. Loads of Cities in the North East are similar. There’s actually a lot of pride that we take from our industrial past. The buildings mark our landscape. Shape our character. They have become symbolic of each City’s cultural identity.
The Middlesbrough art week takes you on a walking tour around art venues and pop-ups in the city. People come from all over to take part and enjoy the offering. To we observers from nearby, the success of our friends in Middlesbrough is a brilliant example of how to embrace the past whilst striding into the future.
This year The Auxiliary developed a brilliant project open-call named Punchcard. The idea neatly tying back in to the industrial processes of the past, to ask pertinent questions about cost vs value. In the factories of the past your punchcard was how you logged the hours of your working day. You punch in at the beginning and punch out at the end. Physically putting a time stamp on a card. These days a lot of this is done electronically.
Launching from the the theme of getting what you pay for, The Auxiliary worked out an hourly rate for artists. This was a speculative rate that considered all of the additional time that artists are expected to put in for free. Then they asked us to work for 15 minutes on a postcard sized artwork for the fee that they calculated. They provided the stamp and the postcard.
My effort is the blue messy postcard on the bottom left of the shelf. I set a timer on my phone and just went for it. No plan. I wasn’t even sure that I could get a result in such a small window of time. I decided that the time would be active time and that I wouldn’t include the final drying stage. That was the only way I could make it work.
My practice is based in photography but with a fine art approach. The postcard supplied was not the best. It was a cheap postcard that really wanted to disintegrate in the wash. I’ve just started and already I’ve made 2 compromises to try to achieve something, anything, in 15 minutes.
Timer started so I slap dash some cyanotype emulsion onto the postcard. I move quickly and try not to overwork the card. It needs to dry a little bit so I take that time to set up my lamp and to look for something to make an image out of.
It’s 5 minutes in, a full 3rd of the allotted time, before I’m ready to make the image. I have decided to use a Victorian pressed glass ashtray with a single roll-up cigarette left in it. The pressed glass shows a horse drawn carriage with the driver raising the whip. The horses are at canter speed by the looks of the position of their legs.
Where is this carriage going? Why the breakneck speed? Are you going to? Or running from?
The card now needs to stay inside the UV exposure unit. I now have to leave it long enough to get an exposure, but short enough that I have time to wash it properly.
Working with chemistry as an artist is sometimes a bit of a gamble. Humidity, age of the chemicals, application, surface, water temperature, and lots of other things can effect the final outcome. For 15 minutes of work though, there’s no time to test it. I have to call on my years of experience, and pray a little to the gods of the divine blue. (Cyanotype).
I made a time-lapse short film thinking that 15 minutes is an interesting time to condense. I start off with my usual set up off a box and lamp overhead, but I quickly decide the the exposure isn’t intense enough to get a fair exposure. So I get rid of the box and handhold it at the level I think will work best.
Staying true to the allocated time meant I had to make another compromise. I didn’t have time, or the sense, to quickly adjust the rig, so I had to hold it by hand. I wobble. I shake. I didn’t realise it was so bad until watching the time lapse back! I think this is because of my fibromyalgia. Anyway, we are only at minute 8 of production, and I must be at compromise number 4 already.
I wash the piece and I have to agitate it a lot to get the chems to release out of the cheap paper. The rough handling and the short wash time are another 2 compromises that I have to make to create the artwork.
The alarm beeps, and I grab the card out of the wash tray. I have to place it on my plate drying rack because I have ran out of time to run to my print dryer. Trying to work only to the allotted paid-for time has seen me having to take many shortcuts, and to make many sacrifices in terms of quality, in order to create something in 15 minutes.
I left the print to dry for a day then sent it in. I didn’t include the time it took to write out the address on the card, buying the stamp to post it, or walking to the postbox to send it. So no matter how hard I tried essentially I could not make even a shabby artwork in 15 minutes. I didn’t include the administration or logistics. I didn’t include the cost or time for filming, photographing, writing about, and posting on social media. Suddenly the 15 minutes of active creation has morphed into several hours at least when you include all of the satellite work we do that is unpaid.
As a thought exercise this was brilliant. It demonstrates how much extra goes into the creation of work, and shows us how inadequately commissions are paid.
When everyone wants to pay the least for the most, then you are risking the overall quality of the output.
It also shows us how the cost or price of something can undercut the value of it. In the clutches of capitalism we have to remember that industry without art is brutality.
We need to collectively think about our values. What is important? The capacity for abstract thought, and it’s application in the real world, is crucial to any serious change to the current status quo.
Thanks for reading!
There are more insightful articles to read, workshops, short films and images for you to access. I’ve also put a mentorship program up. For the £45 tier you can get 1 hour a month zoom mentorship with me. We can talk about your practise, running a creative business, your goals, photography… anything really. It’s your hour! There are only 20 spaces so join in now or buy it for a loved one ❤️