At the time, it was equal parts intimidating and uncomfortable, though in the end, an ultimately fortunate turn of events. Fortunate, in the sense that the first ever time my words were to be published, they were to reside in a temporary art installation, housed in a Canadian national art gallery.
By invitation no less.
A scenario that, however improbable it seemed at the time, was disarmingly simple. We should have known there would be a catch.
Today, eight years later, and via the benefit one is offered through deep and thoughtful consideration of an issue over time, I realize just how off the mark “disarmingly simple” as a description was.
The project slash opportunity began as one of two final year course requirements for ten students. It emphasized a mixed media, visual art approach in the production of a publication worthy piece of artistic work. Specifically, it called for creation of a 3 ft “ 3 ft “self portrait”, presented in the theme of a personal add. The format however, seemed disconcertingly restrictive. Only one image was to be used, and the text was to consist of random, unrelated phrases or sound bites. The stated intent? To get as close as possible to an accurate, encompassing self description, in a prohibitively limiting format. Something that, however potentially restrictive the process, for a writer in the final year of a graduate level creative writing degree, was not all that much of a challenge.
That slightly swollen and misplaced arrogance, our fatal error.
Because less than a day after our final drafts had been submitted, we were presented with part 2 of the instructions to our just completed project. It came in the form of a rather ominous sounding letter, the elegant serif text neatly aligned on crisp university stationary. Informing us that, due to gallery priority and need, the material form of our project had unfortunately changed. Instead of individual personal narratives, the works would be combined in a stand alone group installation. Stark minimalism seemed to be the order of the day, as we could offer no introduction and no statement of artistic vision or contextual intent. The letter went on to outline the strict physical style of grey scale only (black and white) for text and image. In a refreshing break from the directive tone, the placement of said image and text, however, would be up to us.
Well fuck me.
The curtain pulled back, pedagogical intent revealed, it was now clear that this assignment was meant to facilitate awareness of our own work suddenly existing “out there”, beyond our control. Successful at instilling an inherent and tangible sense of risk, the goal was to experience our work as having been appropriated to fulfill anther’s needs. An experience which quickly became an issue of our own artistic intent being at serious odds with a potential viewers perception. A framing which mandates questions and considerations over just what, and who, have license to define and create meaning from a piece of art.
Our takeaway? Besides being somewhat shell shocked, I suppose we were left with a visceral awareness that artistic intent, perceived meaning, and the functional relationship between the two can easily be rendered irrelevant, and will often exist in largely inaccessible, ephemeral states. That is to say, annoyingly beyond our control.
Please note, the above consideration has been arrived at over significant time, and only after excessive amounts of focused introspection. The pleasantness of which I would liken to chewing tinfoil. At the time though, all I knew was that my fucking head hurt.
In the end, our gallery showing was by far the most transformational, lesson imparting experience from my entire two years of graduate work. Our mixed media group installation project was on national display for three weeks, and participants were invited to leave written or audio taped feedback relating to their impressions. The impact, connections, lack of connections, and perceived meanings — accurate or wildly ill-convenienced, were infinitely varied. Most positive, some intensely negative.
It was a needed, albeit not always pleasant exercise in coming to terms with the undeniable truth behind an act of creation. Simply, the job of an artist is to suggest or show truth as they know it. Period. A process that functions both parallel, and in direct proportion to the artists self awareness and understanding. The reactions to, and responsibilities for those reactions always exist separate from the work, and most importantly, from the artist.
My idea was to make it appear, both initially to the reader and throughout the piece, as if it could be seen as both fading from view, or perhaps coming into awareness. The uncertainty of time that indecision provokes, makes comprehension of the text seem almost urgent. Combined with the light gray / white font on black, slowly fading background, a reader might begin to feel almost frantic, oddly invested in completing the text. I also put a left directional gradient on the image from where it appears on the right, through to fading it out completely just before page end. It’s not that easy to tell on this reproduction, but it was obvious in the original, which is like, triple the size.