241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

Echo + Seashell consists of artists Henna Hyvärinen and Susan Kooi Together they write and perform songs about their problematic art- and love life, based upon what is going on at the moment. The music is produced by and in collaboration with different musicians, resulting in variations in both style and genre.

The lyrics form the core, the “baby soul” of Echo + Seashell. Their collaboration consists out of live performances, videos and exhibitions. After having received many rejections on both a personal and a professional level, they recently produced a musical on the theme of rejection. For this project they held an open call, inviting people to send in an instrumental song. Striving for 0% rejection, they used all the 18 songs that were sent. For some they wrote lyrics, for others they made videos or found another platform. The musical consists of four parts: In the Game but Losing It, Hard and Soft, Project Runaway and Coldplay.

Play
Stone Shelter
Play
Stone Shelter remix (2014)

Music by echo+seashell and Islaja
Remix by Molly Waters

Play

When I was asked to find a subject for my thesis, I panicked almost immediately. I felt that my subject would need to relate to my work and connect to my artistic research. It also had to inspire new work, be original, innovative, and relevant. All in all, it had to be perfect.

During each and every one of my assessments and work presentations at the KABK, I’ve been told that I need to learn to let go. To dare to let go. Dare to fail. On the first day of each academic year, the head tutor Johan van Oord proclaims the necessity of failure for the student’s artistic development. In his opening speech, he refers to the academy as ‘the temple of failure,’ where one is expected to produce a multitude of ‘bad’ works rather than ‘good’ works, a place where failure is valuable. Failure is the only way in which the student can learn, improve his artistic practice and develop himself. But is this really the case?

I decided to dedicate my thesis to a study of failure within the artistic process and its influence on artistic development. I named it Fail to Learn.
But what does it mean to fail? I turned to the most practical tool first: the dictionary. The Oxford English Dictionary listed a number of definitions that I applied to a work of art as well as to the artistic process. In a nutshell, it seemed that what doesn’t succeed, fails, and what doesn’t fail, succeeds. The context in which the word is used is of utmost importance. An influential figure in the ‘art world’, a gallery owner, or art critic might refer to an artist as ‘failed’. But does this really mean that the artwork and the artist have failed? Or is it the artist who determines whether or not his work has failed? There’s one thing I’m sure of: we can’t control failure. Failure is dependent on coincidence and purposely failing is impossible. Maybe this is the source of my frustration when I’m summoned to take a risk, to dare to fail. Being a perfectionist, I tried to learn by doing my best to fail. In the end, I fail to learn.

I also looked at the psychological factors that influence failure within the artistic practice. For example, my greatest enemy: fear of failure. In Creativiteit onder druk, Maria Hopman writes that fear of failure is a fear that exists exclusively in our own experience. Her research uncovered that people who see themselves as fearing failure are equally tense as those who don’t consider their anxiety to be fear of failure. It seems that fear of failure is a phenomenon inherent only in the way that someone experiences or defines their fear. Still, fear of failure can have a stifling impact on the artistic practice. Hopman claims that taking responsibility and maintaining an active attitude are the only effective weapons against the blockade that fear of failure can produce. Additionally, Klaus Ottman describes the importance of assuming a certain attitude when dealing with failure. He calls it the ‘genius decision’, which boils down to the artist’s attempt at making the impossible possible. Art’s possible significance lies within this relationship between failure and striving for success.

Thinking back to Johan van Oord’s statement, I kept wondering how one could truly learn through failing. I realized I was looking for a practical use of failure within the artistic learning process. To study this further, I looked at the psychologist B.F. Skinner’s research into behavioural therapy. I attempted to apply his ideas on ‘operant conditioning’ on ‘art-making’ behaviour. According to Skinner, all behaviour (like art-making, for example) can be conditioned (taught) by giving the promise of a positive reward, which encourages and possibly even improves behaviour. But when behaviour is met with a negative response, like when your teachers disapprove of your work, this behaviour will be avoided in the future. In this sense, the ‘use’ of failure lies in its ability to teach someone to cease certain behaviour in order to avoid failure. Most important, according to Skinner, is that failure related to ensuing negative consequences, leads to a change in the artist’s behaviour and a modification of his artistic strategy. This can be seen as a positive influence that learning through failure can exert on the artistic development.

However much sense this principle might make, it’s obviously not that simple within the every day practice of art education. Here, the art student is expected to conduct fundamental research for his work on a ‘theoretical’ and ‘artistic’ basis. This sounds very broad, and it is. It’s difficult to discern whether a student has failed or succeeded to live up to these expectations. In any case, it’s essential for a student to learn how to deal with consequences such as negative feedback, because criticism from tutors and students is the most influential and important frame of reference available to the student. As long as the student remains open to the learning process inherent in criticism and feedback, the artistic crisis and failure can be overcome.

I spoke to Johan van Oord about the academy as ‘the temple of failure’ and asked him about the photo he used to illustrate this: Leap into the Void by Yves Klein. According to van Oord, this is a good example of a work resulting from failure. During the making of the photo, Klein had to fall in order to fly within the photo. Falling to fly. Failing to succeed. Failure and triumph are of equal importance within artistic development, said van Oord, upon which he concluded by saying that it would perhaps be better to refer to the academy as ‘the temple of failure and triumph’ instead.
  1. M. Hopman, Creativiteit onder druk, omgaan met faalangst en kritiek in kunst en kunstonderwijs. Assen: Van Gorcum, 1999
  2. K. Ottman, The Genius Decision: The Extraordinary and the Postmodern Condition, Putnam, CT; Spring Publications, 2004
  3. J. van der Tas, De muze als professie, Onderwijsvernieuwing aan de Koninklijke Academie van Beeldende Kunsten. Raamsdonksveer: Drukkerij Dombosch [z.j]
Bas Jan Ader

Although I never followed formal training in photography, I was briefly affiliated with an academy, just not as a student. In 1986, I was appointed the position of photography tutor at the Rietveld academy.

For the first assignment, I asked students to sit themselves in the canteen with their camera.

The time of day was up to them: early in the morning without a student in sight, at the busy lunch hours, or in the evening when the part time students entered. It was all up to them, my only demand was that they shut their eyes, clicked their camera, and filled up a whole roll of film. Hopefully, this exercise would loosen and relax their way of seeing.

I don’t remember what the assignment resulted in. However, I do know that I had a meeting with the supervisor at the end of that year. The supervisor let me know that they’d been under the impression that the bottom of my photographic knowledge had come into sight during my year of teaching. They would no longer be needing my services.

I can imagine that for many people it would be a huge blow to hear from the supervisor of an esteemed art academy that they’ve seen the bottom of your photographic knowledge. But I wasn’t too bothered. I asked them for a written statement to confirm the termination of my contract. Including the reason. I wasn’t bothered because I had my Red Folder: the folder where I collected all my Rejections and Disappointments.

As with all collections… once you start it, you need to complete it. I simply had to fill up the folder. And so, I perforated the Rietveld’s letter of rejection and stuck it in with the other rejections.

In retrospect, the Rejections and Disappointments folder may have been too big for its purpose. But the good thing was: to fill it up, I needed a whole lot of rejections. So I had to write applications, throw lines here and there, submit proposals, present my work, apply for jobs. Applications that were accepted were placed in the Green Folder. This is where I collected Grants and Other Successes. The fact that my folder for Successes was as big the folder for Disappointments might display some misplaced optimism.

Thanks to these two folders, I discovered that rejections positively affect your career. I can best demonstrate this correlation through a graph.

On the x-axis I’ve placed the years, from 1980 until now.

On the y-axis you’ll find my income in Euros.

There’s no better measure of success than turnover.

A small dip is visible in 1986, after my contract at the Rietveld was not renewed. I never made a lot of money there. Nobody did, and they still don’t. In 1995, when I quit photography and began to write, a much bigger dip entered.

It’s interesting to compare the yearly rejections in my Red Map to the above. Now we’ll enter a world of higher mathematics, as I’ll place these two graphs on top of one another: the scale of the number of rejections on top of my turnover.

But the point is: during the first fifteen years, the graph of rejections follows the same form as that of my turnover. There must be, then, a direct correlation between rejection and artistic success.

When I quit photography in 1995 and begin writing, rejections still follow turnover, albeit with less precision. Both decline because I still hadn’t mastered writing. I practiced all day, leaving me less time to write applications and in turn, fewer rejections were sent my way.

Slowly, after 2000, my income begins to rise again. As I begin receiving assignments, I write fewer and fewer applications. In 2003, I start writing a column for the website PhotoQ where I analyse photos like a detective. The column is a success and in 2004, the Volkskrant asks me to analyse a press photo each week. My income steadily begins to rise. While the amount of rejections dramatically drops, so does the amount of applications and proposals I write.

At this point, everything begins to calm down. The income rises even further, the rejections decrease until they cross one another, here, in February of 2012. It’s in this very month that the Rietveld asks me to open their graduation show.

The opening of the graduation show!

Yes, then you’ve got it made.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I can’t help but offer four tips to the budding artist:

1)Buy two folders, one green and one red. Place your rejections in the red folder, the successes in the green folder.

2)Don’t bother with self-promotion. Don’t over advertise your work. If you discover something, or stumble across something interesting while working, don’t keep it to yourself. Tell anyone who will listen. Your friends, your parents, the baker on the corner. And if someone’s around who can help you further (you know the type)… just keep talking.

3)Speak about your work clearly and directly. No jargon. If the baker stops listening, you’ll probably have to tell it differently the next time. This is how you start understanding your work better.

4)Don’t be too picky. Don’t just reach for the top. Starting at the bottom can have great advantages. You’ll have room to experiment and to find out what your work is about. It’ll be useful for the future, when you’ll be tossed into the lion’s den.

Art Bin, Michael Landy
John Baldessari, No more boring art

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student - pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher - pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: be self-disciplined - this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There's no win and no fail, there's only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It's the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don't try to create and analyze at the same time. They're different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It's lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: "We're breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities." (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything - it might come in handy later.