Visual Intelligences Research Project

Seminars : Artists' Seminar : Rebecca Fortnum's Introduction

RF: I'd like to welcome you to this seminar and am very happy that you are all here. Firstly, I’d like to thank the artist, Richard Hughes, (who is not here but his work is) for allowing us to hold this seminar in the gallery while his show is on. This seminar is held by Lancaster University Art Department and hosted at the Showroom by the kind permission of its director, Kirsty Ogg who some of you will know, she’s working away in the office there, and also thanks to Bridget Crone, who is her assistant.

You’ve been invited to this seminar not only because members of the art department are interested in and admire your work but also because we felt that in various and different ways your work could be described as demonstrating visual intelligence. For me, and I have to speak for myself, this is a sense of an active and responsive mind operating in the visual decisions that are evident in the final work of art. It was very difficult narrowing down the field of artists we wanted to hear from and I am absolutely delighted that the artists who we have invited accepted our invitation. This is the first event that I’ve been involved with that has arisen out of the Visual Intelligence Research Project based at Lancaster and I shall tell you a bit more about it. For a while the department has been interested in exploring the notion of the visual intelligence that visual artists use when making their work. With the belief that this could develop into a large research project they raised funds to appoint the Research Fellow. When they appointed me in April it was clear that they wanted the project to evolve through a relationship with practising artists rather than art historians or theorists, as I am neither. For those who don’t know me, my experience is an artist, educator and curator and when I say curator I should add that the projects and galleries that I have initiated usually go under the title of “artist-led”. The staff at Lancaster; Nigel Whiteley, sitting over there, an art historian/cultural theorist, and Gerry Davis, sitting there, an artist, as well as their colleague, Emma Rose, who can’t be here today, had a vision for a research project that prioritised artists’ involvement and this was a great attraction to me when I accepted the post. Another strand of the project has been within Art History and Nigel initiated a group of papers on Visual Intelligence at the Art Historians’ Conference last year in 2004.

Visual intelligence or rather visual intelligences as we’ve come to say, for surely there is not only one type, is a difficult term. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. Both words of the phrase bring up questions of definition. What does the visual include and preclude? What do we mean by intelligence? I don’t want to shy away from these difficulties, I want to explore them and understand them. But I also don’t want to be directed away from the dominating thrust of this project which is to find ways of examining artists’ visual thinking. The project has been set up to investigate notions of intelligence operating in visual art and to examine the way insights are articulated visually. Personally, I think that this is a timely and very important study. Indeed as someone who has been involved in H.E. teaching for the last fifteen years I’d stick my neck out and say I think this study could become crucial in gathering artists’, researchers’ and writers’ work on the visual. As visual makers we are all aware of the difficulties of using words to describe or define the visual and different historical moments have provided us with various ways of understanding, verbalising and analysing this relationship but the difficulty prevails and is surely the reason why we should keep looking, thinking and talking. The visual presents many problems for both educator and researcher. I currently teach at an art school which is considering abandoning the final degree show and indeed none of its assessment criteria are to do with assessing any visual artefact, preferring instead to test the student’s knowledge and understanding of their making. In the field of research there are still major difficulties in adopting scientific research models for creative practices. At a recent Art & Design research conference I attended, the ill fit of the current models for research were denounced vociferously, not least as the keynote speaker from the A.H.R.B. was listening. And outside of education – in a recent Arts Council funding application I was aware that no visual material was required for an application to fund an exhibition of visual work. Does this signify a crisis of confidence in judgements made by looking? Could a mapping out and debates around notions of visual intelligences help us to acknowledge, discuss and even assert the visual more readily? Our initial research into contemporary artists’ process will investigate how artists’ procedural decisions are evidenced in finished work. We hope that this exploration of Visual Intelligence will chart how work gets made as well as the relationship between the work’s visual properties and its meaning. Although I have begun work attempting to define this, we thought it would be best not to put the cart before the horse and begin with a statement of definition. We thought rather to listen to the responses from the question sheet and test our initial understanding of the term in the light of the information this seminar brings up. I have been looking at art historical models which have proved very useful, in particular Svetlana Alpers and Michael Baxendales’s book Tiepolo and the Pictorial Intelligence which traces Tiepolo’s process and techniques and their impact on his major achievement, the frescoes at the Treppenhaus. Michael Podro’s book Depiction has also been instructive. He examines (I’m quoting from the book jacket here) how the materials and procedure of the painter or sculptor are absorbed into imagining the subject. I’m very interested to see in what ways these arguments might be useful in the study of contemporary artists’ work.

You were sent a list of questions. I’m curious to know which ones will hold the most meaning for you, which ones you will answer today. I’m interested in points where your thinking, born out of very different practices, will collide and moments where you may differ. I’m interested in the words you use to describe the complexities of your practices and the ways in which you relate to and think about your work. I plan to write up the results of this seminar for an academic paper for publication. If I use quotations from any of you, you will be asked for permission and no quotes will be used without the artist’s agreement so please feel free as you speak today. Let me know if you are interested in receiving a transcript of today. I’d like to keep in touch with you all. Any reflections or thoughts that arise from this seminar will be gratefully received. Do call or e-mail me. We are working towards some long term goals which include an exhibition and a publication. I want to look at exciting, original and worthwhile ways to document visual thinking and artists’ processes, to make this kind of information available to a wider audience and, to test our theories.

But back to processes. Work changes as you make it. Very often you don’t make what you think you might. As Martin Kemp has said, “Works of art are physical products made by executants who face real challenges and do not come ready made from the heads of their makers”. So, how much of a finished work is vision, how much revision? As we might expect, Picasso has an answer. Rudolph Arnhem quotes him in his fascinating book The Genesis of a Painting: Picasso’s Guernica: “It would be interesting” said Picasso two years before he painted Guernica “to preserve photographically not the stages but the metamorphoses of a picture. Possibly then one might discover the path followed by the brain in materialising a dream. But there is one very odd thing, to notice that basically a picture doesn’t change, that its first vision remains almost intact in spite of appearances.” A moment later he is reported to have said “A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change.”

So, let’s see what you think. Because we’re recording this, if you can say your name before you speak that’s going to be helpful when I’m doing the transcription. So the idea is that people are going to give ten minutes’ presentation in response to the set of questions and then we can chip in and ask questions for a further five minutes and I’ll keep my eye on the watch. Thanks a lot. Over to Mary.