Recoding and Recording Practice*
All mysteries which lead theory to mysticism find their rational solution in human practice and in the comprehension of this practice (1).
It’s easy to get left behind when fleeting content is being churned out at increasingly breakneck speeds. For artists to keep up, there is less and less time for rigorous processes before the product. Must quantity in terms of production begin to outweigh the quality that stems from practice? Does favouring quantity profane quality? If so, is there an alternative? Can an artist subvert or deny the value of result-oriented projects in this high-speed production model? I begin to wonder: Is it time to recode my creative framework to privilege praxis (the act of doing; artistic practice) over poiesis (the act of bringing something into being; artistic production)?
When I pen the words “fleeting content at increasingly breakneck speeds” I am speaking of how a viewer currently consumes media and the speed a cultural producer must create new work to feed the viewer’s appetite. Exhibitions and artworks are increasingly viewed in online spaces via their documentation. Online, artworks are debased as “content” and only seen for a transient moment before they are scrolled past. I am doubtful of how generative this high-speed production model is for an artist when there is little time left for process and development between outcomes if the viewer's appetite is to be fed.
This doubt is the root of the recoding this essay will seek to facilitate. To activate a conveyance of how I understand and value artistic practice, I’ll stage my own personal investigation into a trail of conversations, considerations, and reconsiderations.
The words praxis and poiesis have Greek origins. Aristotle suggested that praxis itself is intrinsically valuable. In his writings, a clear distinction is made between doing and creation. However, over time, distinctions between praxis and poiesis have blurred.
Artists have made attempts to overcome this convergence and move away from art based on actualization. For instance, Berlin-based American ex-pat Adrian Piper’s (b. 1948) essay, To Art (1975). In the text, she calls for a change in language: Doing as opposed to making art. Piper promotes a grammatical relationship between “doing art” and “doing work”:
a.I do work
a’.I do art
b.I am doing work
b’.I am doing art
c.I am working
c’.I am arting (2)
What Adrian Piper is driving at is a move towards art as a verb. I do art, I am doing art, and I am arting all exist as synonyms to artistic practice.
The term “artistic practice” speaks to the processes in which an artist works. My own practice is formed and informed by words, communication, listening, recording, writing, and rewriting. My creative outcomes encompass a variety of outputs that span video, artists’ books and other printed matter with writing being the arrow that runs through; an expressive conduit for each. Practice is the expansive inquiry that enables me to develop and create those artistic outcomes. The blunders and triumphs that happen along the way are equally as crucial to enlighten both the work I make and my practice itself.
It must be said that the word “practice” in relation to art processes could be labelled as slightly cringy jargon taught in art schools to validate what is being done as professional and important work — a satisfying of ego. To American art critic Roberta Smith (b. 1948) the use of the word in relation to creativity represents everything wrong with contemporary art. She writes: “[…] there’s the implication that artists, like lawyers, doctors and dentists, need a license to practice. Of course it could be said that too many artists already feel the need for such a license: It’s called a master of fine arts. But artists don’t need licenses or certificates or permission to do their work. Their job description, if they have one, is to operate outside accepted limits.”. Smith goes on: “Does Paul McCarthy covered in ketchup constitute a ‘practice’? Please.” (3).
I understand Roberta Smith’s sentiment but prefer another American critic’s writing on the same topic. Dave Hickey (b. 1940) writes: “Three decades of art theory and art history have destroyed our understanding of art practice. So, let me remind you that the practices of law, medicine and art are dedicated to maintaining and renewing our ideas of justice, safety and happiness.” (4).
The trail of my coding, decoding, and recoding begins in 2002. As I sat watching sports highlights one morning before school, I had a seminal viewing experience that formed my early understanding of practice. On the TV, defending himself from journalists questioning his dedication, Philadelphia 76ers basketball star Allen Iverson indignantly enacted his infamous press conference interview.
In front of cameras, Iverson said the word “practice” an exasperating 22 times. Frustrated with the situation he ranted: “[...] we talkin about practice. Not a game. Not, not… Not the game that I go out there and die for and play every game like it's my last. Not the game, but we're talking about practice, man. I mean, how silly is that?”.
My childhood brain interpreted Allen Iverson's words like this: If you're good, you're good; you're talented, or you're not; you’ve got it, or you don’t. An MVP like Iverson doesn't need to practice and why should I?
Upon adult reconsideration of my childhood understanding, it's clear that the nuances of the situation were lost on me: The contentious relationship between Iverson and coach Larry Brown; the often negated second half of the clip where Iverson grieves the recent death of his best friend. There are reasons his replies we’re so emotionally charged. To be sitting in the position he was Iverson had undeniably practiced endlessly.
In the biographical documentary, Iverson (2014) a mirror to the infamous rant ends the film. To the right of the credits is a small window displaying a clip of a young Allen Iverson. Failed takes are left in as the sports star struggles then succeeds to perform the line: “You ever watch a big game, see somebody do a nice move, and say to yourself: ‘I wish I could do that.’? Well, it all boils down to one word: Practice, practice, practice.’”.
As an adult, I recognise that Allen Iverson is a paragon of practice. Just as it was for Iverson, practice must be constant in my life to enable growth.
On the back of a reconsideration of Allen Iverson, I met a man on the train who had a special, subverted relationship to practice. After talking for some time, I confessed to him that I felt my creativity was being hindered by a socially-influenced and self-imposed competitive pressure of fast turnaround times when it came to artistic production. I was in danger of developing content brain. My new friend revealed to me the story of his recovery from a gambling addiction to scratch-off lottery tickets. He suggested it could prove helpful as an allegory.
His recovery began when, in a cruel joke, he was gifted a fake scratch-off lottery ticket. He scratched his gift, a dusting of lurid detritus gathering on the edge of his hand. Below the surface of the fluorescent cardboard symbols and numbers matched and glid alongside one another. Excited and believing the promised land of a windfall awaited him, he flipped the card around to read the redemption instructions.
The back of the card read:
Winning tickets must be validated by and claimed from the Loch Ness Monster.
*Notice to all players: Don’t quit your day job.
Surprisingly, the event culminated in an appreciation of the humour in the gag. He laughed beautifully, horrifically at the folly fortune. Since then, he has begun to wittingly purchase fake/joke tickets in lieu of authentic ones as a liberatory praxis. He suggested that I experiment with subverting outcomes and forming a ritualistic commitment to process as he has, but in my artistic life. “Maybe it's a better bet.”, he said.
Back in my flat, after that meeting, I researched artists who have formed a ritualistic commitment to process. An enamourment with the oeuvre of Taiwanese-American artist Tehching Hsieh (b. 1950) grew out of that research.
Hsieh made performances he called actions. I looked closest at one of Hsieh’s one-year durational actions informally known as Time Clock (April 11, 1980 — April 11, 1981). For one year, every hour on the hour, twenty-four hours a day Hsieh punched a time clock in his Manhattan studio. Each time he punched the clock he photographed himself beside the machine as documentation. At the end of the year, more than 8600 photographs were compiled into a six-minute long, 16mm film. Elements of mechanical or human failure are included and acknowledged. In the film, every one of the 133 times he missed a clock-in is visible. The spectre of Hsieh’s praxis haunts the video.
Tehching Hsieh focused on a year as a unit of measure for which we judge our lives: One trip around the sun. Instead of a conventional body of physical artworks, Hsieh’s oeuvre is a record of time and process. The artworks are alive with a sense of still being formed. Hsieh reifies that practice itself can be a creative outcome.
Hsieh’s durational actions are parallel to the interminable labours of Sisyphus rolling his gigantic boulder up a hill only for it to roll down every time it neared the top, repeating this act again and again for eternity. The work is absurd, but so is life. The paradox of praxis is that sometimes making something leads to nothing (5). Maybe the doing can be enough.
I can track the trail of the recoding of my creative life across three sections: An exploration into the oeuvre of Tehching Hsieh; a seminal conversation on the train with a recovering scratch-lottery ticket addict; and a reconsideration of a formative childhood viewing of Allen Iverson’s infamous practice rant. Reconsidering Allen Iverson helped me to recognise the inherent value of practice. The conversation on the train introduced the idea of subverting outcomes and forming a ritualistic commitment to practice. Examining the oeuvre of Tehching Hsieh confirmed that practice itself can be a creative outcome. Practice, practice, practice.
I like the idea of doing as a purposive project that produces results that are good and worthy. I’ll devote myself to artistic practice. Artworks will occur as detritus along the way; reifications of the creative process. My catalogue raisonné will live as an archive that unveils the flow of process. For the artworks on its annotated list to be generative for the larger project, time must be set aside for thoughtful praxis.
If keeping up in today's high-speed production model doesn’t facilitate learning and growing along the way, I’m okay with being left behind. I’ve recoded my attention to shift away from result-orientated poiesis and towards a rigorous praxis of doing.
*An alternative title for this essay could be: My New Artists’ Statement or Something
With my research for this essay in its preliminary stages, I purchased three joke/fake scratch-off lottery tickets for £3 from a shop called The Magic Cave in Covent Garden. Playing the joke scratch-offs was an enjoyable experience. Only the fun and satisfying gesture of scratching the cards remained.
(1) Karl Marx, extract from ‘Theses on Feuerbach’ (1845), first published as an appendix to Friedrich Engels, Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy (1886); trans. W.Lough, in Marx and Engels, Selected Works, Volume 1 (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969) 13-15. Marx/Engels Internet Archive. (marxists.org)
(2) Piper, A. (1975) ‘To Art (Reg. Intrans. V.)’, The Fox, (1), pp. 60-62.
(3) Smith, R. (2007) ‘What We Talk about When We Talk about Art’, The New York Times (23 December 2007), pp.237.
(4) Hickey, D (2009) ‘Orphans’, Art in America (January 2009), pp.35-36.
(5) Alÿs, F. (Mexico City, 1997) Paradox of Praxis 1 (Sometimes making something leads to nothing). [moving image]. David Zwirner, New York/London.