Infra-ordinary Alchemy

“Infra-ordinary Alchemy” was written for a publication to accompany the exhibition All or Nothing at Platform Arts, Belfast, between the 5 and 27 November 2014 and featuring the work of  artists Ben Craig, Lucas Dillon & Paul Quast.

Instead of having a studio, I now work at home in the second bedroom or study (it is both). As an ‘extra’ space this is where placeless objects gather, like domestic flotsam and jetsam. Growing stacks of books, clothes, ever accumulating papers and boxed belongings (unopened after several moves) are stacked beside seasonal storage. Loose things create clutter that shifts into containers, cardboard and plastic shapes arranged by passing idle hands, filed based on type, stuff, memory or explanation; a narrative, an argument even, constructed through things. This material has to be dutifully shifted and sorted (weekly, daily, hourly) in order to reach the desk and the chair. These larger, structured, solid blocks of material are grouped in a corner, looking out the window; the desk and chair soldiered by shelving. Vines of cables grow from behind the desk, wrap around it and hook themselves to a laptop, a set of speakers and usually, a phone: a feed of information and disturbance (both welcome and unwelcome). Readers of theory, history and art-world type discourse are the most well arranged objects, ordered by complimentary subjects that run back and forth along a seated eye-line shelf. Such conversations waver and get lost, buffeted by the heavy excess of a dictionary, or ramble off into miscellany with novels that have migrated from some the surrounding literary stacks. Due to size, photo-albums become bookends for the serial pillars of thought as they squeeze into position beside one another. At the foot of the wooden t and h shapes made by the desk and book shelves, more bags, boxes and piles shelter, while magazines, postcards, newspapers, jumbled tools, paints, pencils and notes make up a variable surface strata of layered horizontals. Carefully wrapped and boxed works weigh down the base of a free standing bookcase or stand heavily beside it. Nothing is really attached to the walls, rather temporarily settling there like paper moths. Things migrate to the edges of the room, portfolios and box-files slipping into and settling within the crevices of negative space.

Unlike any other room, this space’s cluttered relativity and neutrality of use allows it to stage variable activities, replicating the flexible feel of the studio, but with some domestic caveats. It is constantly besieged by things, people and nagging concerns, all of which conspire to question what activity it is that occurs here, what it is for. Often it is a room to ignore on work day evenings, only to be inescapably drawn to at unsociable hours; a place to think about making work, look at things and then do nothing; mess about and consider how things are not working at all; and a memory bank that returns attention to week old concepts, running fingers over and through those thoughts, finding a place to pick up where they were left off.

Despite the growth of art practices that occur seemingly without the traditional studio, or within and without its more contemporary incarnations (the office, on paper, the media suite, in meetings almost anywhere, on tumblr accounts, on the go, device attached, connected, in hand) it has been the subject of a collection of studies, including The Fall of the Studio: Artists at Work (2009), The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists (2010), The Transdisciplinary Studio (2012), The Artists House: From Workspace to Artwork (2013) and Hiding Making – Showing Creation: The Studio from Turner to Tacita Dean (2014). The studio remains part of the mythology of what makes an artist as much as what the artist makes; the process and purpose of the slippery term ‘practice’. Concern with the multiple, fractured and transitional studio perhaps reflects an apprehension for the total and yet dispersed nature of this practice.

For it is not just the artwork, but the practice of art-work, of being an artist and having a practice that slips constantly between spheres of purpose, definition, ownership and value: between the artist, the public and the market. In combination academic, skilled, ludic and leisurely, practice is an activity that occurs amongst the personal and the banal and the creative alchemy of artistic practice remains connected, if only conceptually, to this space and time of ‘the studio’ that is both and neither work and play. Curator and writer Charles Esche calls this space of art activity the “tolerated enclosure within global capital in which non-productive, dysfunctional and pointless experimentation can still take place”. Productively unproductive, practice can be work’s antithetic double image, allowing the question of why this activity, this way of organising, interacting or looking at the world is better than work. However, it is this very same alchemy of the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, that is so potent to work and to capital. Creativity is capital: opportunistic, flexible, self generating, personal, self-managed, independent and individualistic. That cusp is what living and working in my spare room is. Fractured, neither here nor there, a constant question of validity of all sides of all arguments: career, ambition, competition, shame, self-purpose, curiosity and love.

Art practice has become, as phrased by critic Lars Ban g Larsen, the “articulation of things that have grown together”. This fusing can appear monstrous, a surreal cartoon that is true to life. Yet, although utterly inundated, practice operates within the impossibility of navigating a total culture devoid of borders. It sifts through the surplus of reference and creates back pocket, copper coin constellations, shines a light on a cosmos of things; it plays, picks up the familiar, memorises, collects, discards, exorcises and gives everything away to make space for something else. If the value of art is feared to have been bled by the greed of total culture, it is within this diffused deluge that it can be re-discovered, many times over.

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