Blogging as reflective practice

You are reading a blog that started off about art practice-based research charting
the journey of doing a phd. It explores alternative ways of using hand held devices
to create print-based interactive artworks using graphical tagging such as QR-codes.
Art, design, technology and craft were the main themes in writing. But life gets in the
way, and over this journey the story takes unexpected happy twists along the paths
of having a baby, going on a UK Digital Economy Sandpit, meeting fanstastic people,
and subsequent group success in funding for a large multidisciplinary research
project called TOTeM.

Entries in art (20)

Impact 8 Conference

I’ve had an academic paper accepted for the IMPACT8 printmaking conference happening here in Dundee in August this year, so another thing to keep me busy! If you head over to the abstracts section of my website, you can see what I’ll be presenting about this time round in my paper A Medium in the Liminal Zone: Exploring New Territories for Printmaking. Last time the conference was in Melbourne and I mostly enjoyed it – save the war rationing approach to catering. I’m looking forward to seeing what this conference brings and especially seeing the artworks that will be exhibited about the town.

Posted on Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 03:05PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , , , | Comments1 Comment

The Group at the Creativity & Cognition Studios, UTS

The methods that I have been using to test my work in the gallery space are those I came across in a paper by Ernest Edmonds, Zafer Bilda and Lizzie Muller called Artist, evaluator and curator: three viewpoints on interactive art, evaluation and audience experience . Here the group from the Creativity and Cognition Studios at the University of Technology, outline how they have used cued video recall techiques in testing experiences of interactive art. After doing allmy user testing over the summer at the Small Society Lab, I had quite a few questions to ask about their experiences which weren’t covered in the paper. I wanted to know if they had come across similar things that I had, so I contacted the group, and since I was going to be in Sydney, managed to meet up with Zafer to talk to him about his experiences.

It was great hearing about the research that had been going on at UTS, and also to find out that what I had experienced in my user testing was very similar to their experiences. It was also excellent to talk to someone based in Sydney after being away for so long, to get a lay of the land in terms of research, design thinking and interactive practices currently in Australia. The group are launching a book on the 24th of November called Interacting: Art, Research and the Creative Practitioner which looks great and a definitely must buy as soon as Amazon have them in stock!

While Mr Chicken-Pox Sleeps 

The past week has been a real mess – my 18 month old son was sent home from nursery with chicken pox, and so I’ve had to work from home, cramming things in when he has his naps. His Dad and I have been taking it in turns to miss work, and my phd gets shoved late into the evenings as I do everything else in an attempt to clear the decks. This morning I had a respite and got out to the 4th of a series of 5 workshops in the Venture Programme that I have been going to, being run at the university. (Though as I write this I am back at home for the afternoon shift of spotty toddler care, snatching moments while he sleeps.)

The programme is a series of workshops in creating spin outs, research projects, small businesses out of research and the whole series really really interesting. I think this is partly because the workshop facilitator is so good. Anyway, I feel inspired by the Venture workshops –I am more confident in the way I work and my value to the larger world (I suspect my lapses of confidence may have to do with being at a university where research can be very science-centric). As part of the workshops we were given a book called ReWork by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, the guys who set up BaseCamp (excellent online project management software for teams who are spread out – we use it for TOTeM). The book has been great in confirming some of my own thoughts and beliefs as well as articulating concepts/ approaches to things that I didn't realise I was doing. I particularly like the chapter on workaholism.

Today in the Venture workshops we ”wrote a book” on research as part of an exercise using the ketso tool. Really its works in exactly the same way as a whole pile of post-its and flip charts, but its prettier, more environmentally sustainable and in its development in Africa it enabled women who weren’t allowed to speak to write down their views and be “heard”. The whole process of using ketso took me back to the EPSRC sandpit where TOTeM was born, and reminded me that this type of brainstorming and ideas development in groups of people is a good approach for public workshops exploring concepts in my phd, based on public responses to my artworks. Going through the process again has given me ideas on how to engage with others in drawing out useful gems for my research.  I am a sucker for pretty things and would like to be able to use ketso in my work, but it costs £500 odd which is a bit much for a phd student (and an artist at that!), so I shall stick to the old post-its for the timebeing…

On that note, my little boy has just woken up, climbed off Mummy & Daddy’s bed where he was sleeping for a treat (being sick, weepy & afraid of the wind, howling down the chimney) and has accidentally locked himself in our bedroom while trying to get out, so is now crying for help. Off with the artist-researcher hat and back on with the mother hat.

If its easy it can’t possibly be right...can it? 

The more I work on my phd and on TOTeM, the more I enjoy myself, and I’m left with a sneaking suspicion that I can’t be doing enough, or I am doing something wrong, or I’ve left some stone unturned because its all too easy and I actually like what I am doing. The work ethic that has been drilled into me, probably through my hardworking Australian upbringing, is one must work hard to do good work, but I’m starting to suspect that in all cases that’s not so.

I look at the works I have created that have come easily to me, and try to make them more complex. I try to rework them in order to make them harder to produce, so that I feel they are good. But in this case, maybe I am killing the works. Feedback I have had, seems to be that people really like the things that I’ve whipped up in a free and easy moment, and later thought are too simple and don’t challenge my skills enough. Maybe because all people have to look at with most art, is the finished piece, where as I can see the process and making behind my works, so always value whichever was harder to produce, which maybe is bit of a funny way to see art. 

The other day I had it pointed out to me that perhaps some things seem easy because I might actually be good at them… a thought I’ve had fleetingly, but banished on account of being too complacent and full of myself, but then again most people are good at something, its just a matter of finding out that that is.

Really I should learn from past experiences: During my final high school years I had the most horrendous struggles with advanced maths and chemistry. It was lots of hard work, I used to get very upset, my head always hurt from the effort and I was never ever much good at either. I understood the concepts, even quadratics, revolutions of solids in maths and all those bonds and double bonds in carbon chemistry, but could I never make anything balance; my working out was always a jumble and I would end up getting terribly lost in it all. My struggles brought so much misery to my teachers and parents that, although it was hard work, it certainly wasn’t of any value to anyone (not even me – I should have dropped chemistry and stuck to dummy maths). I put in more concentrated effort in maths and chemistry in those two years, beating my head against a brick wall, than I have ever done on art, and I’m still no good at them. In fact I feel slightly ill at the prospect of even so much as looking at a polynomial equation or diagram of a carbon atom.

So I guess that is perhaps “difficult for me to do” does not equal “valuable”, and “things that come easily” do not equal “worthless”. I really need to change my attitudes. Besides, no doubt, tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or next year things might not seem so easy or enjoyable, so I should make the most of it now.

Posted on Tuesday, February 15, 2011 at 03:10PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , | CommentsPost a Comment

The problem with 30% damage

I’ve worked a bit more with the codes onto solar plates, but the studio ran out of Toyobo plates so had to use Plastalon (apparently the same as Miraclon) instead. By reworking the cyanotypes onto solar plates I have created an aesthetic that I like, and the codes which I put in seem to look a lot better than before. But… now they don’t work! I tried scanning them using my favourite reader i-nigma, then Neo Reader and even our Tales of Things iphone app but alas none would work.

There are a number of variables which may be affecting the codes, and creating more than the 30% damage threshold:

  1. The size: they are quite small within my prints, and this is the challenge - I don’t want them to dominate the image, but I still need to make them readable
  2. Last time when the code scanned I used a Toyobo plate, now I am using Plastalon, but I don’t really think this is an issue because the image quality from Toyobo and Plastalon is pretty similar
  3. The half tone screen I had to add to the image to ensure that a matrix is created on areas of flat colour that the ink can stick to on the plate
  4. They are not straight codes - I altered them to make them more organic
  5. In one of the images, I made the white bits of the code trasnparent to try and create more of an embedded look - I think this took me over the 30% threshold

trying to embed the code into the nature of the image itselfThe annoying thing for me as an artist who thinks visually and looks at how things feel, working out when I have gone over the 30% damage is difficult. What does 30% look like when you are fiddling around with a whole different lot of things? Its not like I can chop off a 3rd of the image and say that the 30% damage because a line or a misplaced pixel, or the colour or the tone or the background will all be adding up to that 30%. I can’t equate the maths of it when looking at say, a damaged code and a non damaged one and say “ahhh that’s about 27.5% damaged”

I need to understand a little more about this because if I “damage” a code in illustrator to create a more organic form, I guess I have to do it less than 30% damage because each time I remediate the code and take it into a different form there is the potential for damage.

The idea of working out that I may damage the code a certain percentage in the computer, a bit more when I embed it within a image, then an additional percentage in getting it onto the plate, and then another percentage when printing it up, and then assign numeric values to each stage actually hurts my head. The maths of it makes me want to go and jump of a bridge – I don’t think I can be quite that methodical and precise – those constrains would kill the joy of what I am doing, and, I suspect, the aesthetics would suffer as well. This has made me realise that I work in the studio quite a fair bit by gut feeling, and to not work this way would make me feel quite bound up and a bit claustrophobic.

Posted on Wednesday, August 11, 2010 at 10:11AM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , , , , , | Comments2 Comments

Mary Kelly and Post-Partum Document

In 1973 (the year I was born), Mary Kelly started Post-Partum Document, an artwork which on first glance seems to be charting the development of her son (also born in 1973) over the first 6 years of his life. However, the work is embedded within feminist politics of the time and Kelly’s approach is based on the psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Lacan, exploring ideas such as a mother’s fetishisation of the child being transferred to the art object and the development of language as entry into a patriarchal realm.

I’ve really only just started looking at it, and in a book form, rather than its original presentation as an exhibition. Perhaps it sounds trite of me, but the sexualising of everything and putting it within an engendered framework, for me is really oppressive… yes that is the word, I feel oppressed and suffocated by it, because all the joy and curiosity has been taken away.  Postpartum Document has been presented in a quasi-scientific way, which bows down to the notion that something is not valid unless it is scientific (and something in me says, isn’t that then subscribing to a fairly patriarchal notion?) Kelly has deliberately removed herself and her son, as people from the work and they become the focus of a supposed impartial scientific study, making the artwork feel more like it has been created by a man.

The dirty nappy liners and documentation of first speech utterances are a reflection of their time – concept being the key to each of the works. We’ve come a long way since 1977 and such things no longer shock many, *yawn* and I find myself looking at the whole thing, not as a piece of art, but as a very interesting way of comparing my own baby’s development and how things have changed since the 1970’s. Mary Kelly would probably hate me for looking at her work in this way, but I can’t help it, I just find the whole thing fascinating, and although I “get” the political framework behind it, I just can’t get myself motivated to engage with Post-Partum Document in that way right at the moment.

The pressure we’re under to follow all the healthy guidelines for our babies, and the paranoia about allergies makes the nappy liners all the more intriguing for me. On each one is typed what her son ate that day - which begs the distracting question: did she get poop on the typewriter when she put them through it?  It appears that at 6 months this staunch feminist had her baby on formula, when these days,breastfeeeding for 6 months is the minimum they are saying we should do, but if you can keep going for a year, THEN you are a real hero for the cause (much after that and it gets a bit weird). Now we’re not allowed to feed our babies juice because it rots their teeth, and oranges are out until they’re at least a year old because of the risk of allergies. Kelly was feeding her son ribena and oranges at 6 months – a cardinal sin these days!

Like Kelly, when I was weaning I kept a food diary – just in a book though, I was to sleep deprived and mentally addled to even come up with the concept of printing onto dirty nappy liners (which is probably just as well because I am sure I would have lost them and the printer would have been totally ruined). When I look at how much my baby ate, or to be truthful, how much he refused, I got a lot less into him than she did, but then we had many problems with his weight. I wonder how she found that whole process – was she confused as to how to go about it, like I (and my friends) were? Did she worry that he was getting enough? Was she harassed by health visitors and their blasted charts?  We are given more clues about Kelly’s internal debates with the little cards of Documentation IV, Transitional Objects, Diary and Diagram and I guess these tell us that she did have the same insecurities all of us have. One says:

“ I didn’t see K much this week because of the Brighton show.  Now I’ve noticed that he’s started stuttering. Dr Spock says it’s due to ‘mother’s tenseness of father’s discipine’. My work has been undermined by the appearance of this ‘symptom’ because I realise it depends on belief in what I’m doing as a mother….as well as an artist. I feel I can’t carry on with it.

T3 27.2.76 AGE 2.6"

I do wish I were able to see the work as an exhibition, because I am seeing a mediated from of the work. It has an introduction and reviews which I have read. The images are in black and white and I don’t get a sense of how Kelly would like the viewer to explore the work in a gallery space. Kelly notes in the introduction that the meaning of the work is changed in a book and the discussions that emerge relating to the art object and to the exhibition of works are exactly what I am exploring in my research, but of course Mary Kelly didn’t have QR-codes or digital media to augment her objects.  How would such technologies impacted such work?

Looking at post Post-Partum Document is important for my own studio work, but for my phd, I can’t afford at this point to go down the whole feminist art debate , besides I don’t really want to because is a red herring distracting totally from my research questions. I am seeing my current work in the studio more as a vehicle for exploring concept and form in relation to my research questions, as well for me as an artist to develop art practice as a research method. So in some ways I am going the opposite way to Kelly – her art appears to be aiming to be more “scientific” whilst I am advocating for “scientific enquiry” to borrow more artistic exploration in uncovering new knowledge.

The Divided Heart by Rachel Power

Last year when my baby was born, a friend in Sydney suggested I read this book. Unfortunately its taken me a long time to get it because its published by an Australian publisher and when I first heard of it, it cost the earth to get it over here in the UK. I finally picked it up on Amazon.co.uk for £22, plus postage, so still not that cheap but I’m glad I finally got a hold of it. It is an excellent book written with a straightforward down to earth-ness that is honest and thoughtful.

There is no overriding political agenda to this book, no confronting feminist rants – just interviews with successful Australian artists who are also mothers. It gives insights into how others juggle the conflict between wanting to be there for your child, but also needing the time to develop and work on one’s art, be it writing, acting, painting, etc. The people Powers has interviewed include Rachel Griffiths, Niki Gemmel and Alice Garner.

The style of writing is easy to read and really enjoyable – I see my own dilemmas and self doubts mirrored in the artists Powers interviews and it makes me feel more confident in my self, both as an artist and a very new mother.  That’s one thing they never warn you about; the way your self-confidence is totally stripped away when confronted with such a helpless needy person, the plethora of conflicting “instruction manuals” and various family members on both sides telling you how much more they had everything under control when their babies were the age yours is.  Reading this book has given me a reality check and makes me realise that I am not doing anything outrageously wrong and that I am not a neglectful mother because I am working on my art.

Posted on Tuesday, June 1, 2010 at 01:59PM by Registered CommenterSimone O'Callaghan in , , , | CommentsPost a Comment

Art is Life, Life is Art ... you know? that old cliché?

At the moment I’m working through ideas based on some audio I recorded during the first dark months that my baby was born. I guess I am giving a physical form to the digitalized audio at the moment, but it is all work in progress and more of an exploration of ideas. The work is based on my own experiences, and in reaction to the feelings of helplessness and frustration not being able to communicate with or soothe my son who groaned in pain for 6 hours a night for the first 6 months of his life (when we we found out what the matter was after months of being turned away by doctors convinced we were just over anxious new parents).

As a new mother who attended the NHS and NCT (National Childbirth Trust) antenatal classes, all her midwife appointments, and read the compulsory free Scottish NHS “Ready Steady Baby” book, there is so much pressure to do the “right thing” yet the information is so conflicting you no longer become sure of what is right. My doctor, the troop of health visitors that came through our flat, the midwives, the NCT and parenting “gurus” like Gina Ford, Tracy Hogg and Mirian Stoppard all have their views of things and each say the other is wrong and you will be damaging your child beyond repair if you don’t follow their advice.  The only consistent between the lot of them is “breast is best” and I had so many physical problems actually even achieving this, that I felt I was a total failure because I can only feed from one side and have to top up with formula.

I don’t want to go down the path of feminist art because I feel that that can be too confrontational, and this is more about trying to share something else – the darkness, the isolation, the confusion, the exhaustion? The words aren’t here yet – that’s why I work in the studio – that’s how I find the words. I don’t feel the need to get on a hobby horse and be an activist in my art – I think my approach is more introspective and thoughtful. At the same time I also feel a bit shy of working in a subject area that is a reflection on the fact that I am female. I have spent most of my working life being in such male dominated areas, that I am fearful of wiping out half a potential audience to my work just because it deals with a subject area that I (hopefully wrongly) suspect makes men yawn and run away in boredom. Yet how awful for me, if I decided not to make work because I am scared men won’t like it. I can’t believe I even have such thoughts, but I do! I guess it comes from working as a designer and always trying to please the largest group of users, regardless of their gender.

Working with the tactility of print and augmenting it with audio (and perhaps other digital forms) is a good platform for the ideas I am trying to convey. I know I could have a series of prints in a gallery with audio being boomed around the space, but that does not convey the intimacy, closeness and capsule-like feeling of night after night after night of feeding a little helpless thing every 2 – 3 hrs. Until now I really understood “Life is Art, and Art is Life” but suddenly it all makes a whole lot more sense.

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