Bright Light 3: Ethos

Mark Dean

You don’t have to read this. I didn’t have to write this. I just wanted to establish that upfront. But does this mean we’re engaged in free activity?

A first year student once said to me, after I had given a talk on the relation between contemporary art and religion, ’I don’t understand how you can be an artist and religious, because art is about freedom, and religion is about doing what you’re told’.

Now you may or may not agree with the second half of that statement, but chances are you would need to qualify the first half. Bright Light is an (in-house) academic art research journal, and so if you are reading it you will likely have some kind of engagement with academic art research, as a student or teacher. And as such, you will have learned by now that if ‘art is free’, you don’t need to be in an academy to practise it. And so if you are in an academy, it must be for reasons beyond the ‘freedom’ of art.

So what are we doing here? Whatever our various answers to this question, they must bear some kind of connection to the reasons we came to art school in the first place. And if, like our young student, that was something to do with notions of art as freedom, then the distance between that aspiration and our current situation is a matter of ongoing concern. That is, it affects students, as they progress through their course, and it affects teachers, as they seek to maintain a relation to their practice in the context of institutional demands and constraints.

This is not say that art and the academy are in opposition in this regard. Another thing we have already learned is that when the avant-garde attempt to overthrow the academy, they end up running it. For all its faults and frustrations, an art school is basically a place where artists gather together to talk about art. Of course, they may make art there as well, but that’s not essential. And in talking about art, they naturally do so with those who write about it. So learning how to talk about art, especially your own, is what art school is really for. And it’s not easy – especially for those who are less ‘academic’ as the saying goes. But even for those with a facility for words (innate or acquired), this does not necessarily enable the production of art worth talking about.

Discipline is defined as ‘the practice of training people to obey rules, or the controlled behaviour resulting from such training’. But it is also the term we use for ‘a branch of knowledge, typically one studied in higher education’ (and of course it is also a religious term, wherein a disciple chooses to follow – which is not quite the same as being told what to do).

These tensions – between freedom, constraint, and discipline – have informed the production of the material you are now invited to read. The starting point was this:

A refusal of the demands of ‘technos’ – a move away from fulfilling the functional demands of instrumentalising operating systems sometimes deployed by institutions, such as REF. Instead, we look towards what moves, motivates and inspires.

The relationship between the spiritual language of ‘inspiration’ and the more psychological language of ‘motivation’ is a key matter to consider. What underlies both is the sense of maintaining movement. In this issue, we want to look at the motor that drives forward the movement to make art. What is it that helps us
keep going?

An exploration of these issues seeks to address those who may feel disengaged from institutional preoccupations with the technicalities of audit culture. Instead of asking people to get in step with such technicalities, we ask people how they get on without them. The deeper question, is to ask what moves us when all the technical demands have been switched off. To whom or to what do we turn? What, in essence, is our ethos?

In pursuing this, a key question for me as editor was whether the ‘movement to make art’ is one of being driven, or being drawn. In terms of the current context, research culture as ‘technos’ could be understood as a driver, ie something to which one must conform; being driven to produce a cultural product, the parameters of which are defined in advance.

Alternatively, research culture as ‘ethos’ could be seen as something to which one is drawn, through commonality. In this latter understanding, difference remains, and to an extent it is this difference that defines the practitioner. But as the movement towards cultural commonality is fluid, so is this difference.

This understanding informed the methodology of this project. Thus there was not a predetermined theme, one which might have been expressed in an event that generated content for the publication. Rather, practitioners were invited to respond to the starting point by initiating ideas, drawn from their own practices, and reflecting on their own understanding of their situation within culture(s).

These ideas were then developed in conversation with myself as editor, as much guided by principles of chaplaincy as anything else. As a chaplain, I cannot tell anyone what to do. But perhaps because of this, I am free to talk about anything with anyone, if they want to. And of course, as an ordained priest, I am not speaking simply from my own individual perspective, although I am able to incorporate my personal experience, in so far as it may be helpful to others. In this way people may find their own answers to the questions that matter to them, but within a potentially broader context (in this sense at least, the ethos is not that different from the way we teach art).

The result here is a set of creative approaches to text-based research activity that began with personal connections, and will extend beyond this journal into social and performative space, as the material is presented live at the launch event for this publication.

(Eleanor Bowen has pointed out to me that, having been through this process, the outcome should hopefully be texts which speak for themselves. And so they do… nevertheless, here are a few observations drawn from my reading of them)

When David Dibosa reflects on the possibility of an ethics that is not dependent on an instrumentalised notion of social value (because whose value is that?), he is doing so in relation to the curating of objects, but clearly this has the potential for wider relevance (as his movingly articulated subjectivity indicates). Significantly, in distancing the curator from social concerns by focusing on relations between objects, he does not speak in terms of curatorial freedom, but rather responsibility and commitment. It is through these disciplines that the potential for genuine freedom may be realised.

Patti Ellis speaks in terms of Super-Optimism, which sounds like a great ethos, until you realise that it is one of the defining cognitive characteristics of a career criminal. Notwithstanding, her campus novelette is not only hilarious, it is a precisely located example of how something apparently negative can be positively life (and art) affirming. The author will be reading from her work at the Bright Light 3 launch event in Camberwell (the scene of the crime, so to speak).

Jonathan Kearney writes specifically (and knowledgeably) from his position as MA Fine Art Digital course leader, which might sound academic, until you read that he feeds his students in his own home. His reflections on food production as a metaphor for art-making put me in mind of a former teaching colleague who referred to art school as a ‘sausage factory’, but thankfully Jonathan points towards a more person-centred pedagogical approach.

Phil Mill’s ethos in relation to exploring free improvisation is one of openness, non-hierarchy, leaderlessness. His text is in the form of a musical score, albeit an unconventional one, in that it is formed of elements of his own academic text. But at the same time, it is not a score, in the sense that neither he nor we can know what it would sound like by writing or reading it – it has to be realised in performance, and in community, as it will be by participants at the launch event for this publication. Hence it is presented here as a potential score. In conversation, Phil speaks of ‘following a map of a place that doesn’t exist: in the act of following we create a path’ … and perhaps that can serve as both ethos and technos for our current endeavour.