Monday, 7 February 2011

'School Trip'- Art Academy at Instal Glasgow

Last November three members of Islington Mill Art Academy, including myself, travelled North-wards to Glasgow in order to attend, and take part in a series of workshops organised by Glasgow Open School (G.O.S) as part of the tenth annual Instal Festival. Given our status as an alternative art school organisation, and rather academically referential title, I like to consider our visit to be a kind of school trip.

Instal is an experimental music and sound festival, organised by Arika. For this tenth edition of Instal the aim was to present not just a festival of experimental music, but an experimental festival - challenging the conventional structure of a music festival, and exploring the dynamic between audience and performer. Improvisation and the denial of the subjectivity of the artist were central concerns. Nowhere was this explored with more dedication that within the evacuation of the great learning workshops, run by G.O.S. which we had been invited to take part in.

A number of individuals who had been partaking in G.O.S prior to Instal met with Ray Brassier, and Mattin to discuss what form these workshops would take. Ray Brassier is a philosophy faculty member at the American University of Beirut, and an proponent of speculative realism, Whilst Mattin is a musician/sound-artist exploring the anti-capitalist and revolutionary potential of improvisation, who also performed at Instal. They had been looking to the improvisational work of Cornelius Cardew, particularly The Great Learning as performed by The Scratch Orchestra and, as such, the concept of a graphic score was prevalent, along with a somewhat confrontational approach to the notion of a workshop.

Just as Instal as a whole was seeking to interrogate the notion of an experimental music festival, so these workshops denied many of the expectations which the term workshop evokes. An Intense, sometimes unpleasant, and sometimes highly enjoyable experience for the participants, evacuation of the great learning certainly lead us three from the I.M.A.A to question our approach to meeting, learning and making.

At G.O.S HQ when I arrived the participating non-leaders were busy accumulating objects for making noise and could serve as props for the workshop. These were, however, in the end mostly ignored. Setting up the space before any participants arrived we began by arranging chairs into a large circle, the traditional method of seating a group so that theoretically everyone has equal power. However, we soon realized that in such a large group (around 50 participants were signed up to attend) the massive circular space would only intimidate some, and encourage others. With this in mind we rearranged the chairs messily; facing each other, back to back, upside down and every which way around the room. At first participants took chairs and sat amongst each other, however soon the group had organised themselves into the giant oval which we had initially rejected. Some of the participants became frustrated and demanded that 'something be done!', others were happy to quietly sit and listen, yet others still actively tried to avoid any action; certain G.O.S-ers notably 'striking' when plans and alliances began to form. From the beginning of the very first workshop every single action which was taken by anyone was interrogated, questioned and denied, and the suffocating lack of action which this entailed surely contradicted many expectations of an 'improv workshop'.

On the first night evacuation of the great learning had failed in almost every respect, if it were to be judged as a traditional workshop; engagement had been nigh on impossible, after all what was there to engage with? Confusion and frustration reigned, and it is doubtful that anybody left feeling creatively empowered. However, in interrogating the notion of 'a workshop' and in exploring boundary-less improvisation it was judged to be a success. Those members of the G.O.S who were there, along with Ray and Mattin endeavoured to play a minimal role, denying their subjectivity and status as workshop leaders and arts practitioners.

Travelling to Glasgow and partaking in the workshop prompted us to reflect on our own structures and means of engagement at I.M.A.A. At the Art Academy I would generalise that we tend to favour action, over debate. Taking part in The Glasgow Open school has acted as a catalyst for us to re-address our engagement in debates and ignite more discursive meetings.

A defining factor of G.O.S, though they may not intend this to be the case, is that many of the 'core members'* are friends. Whilst at Islington Mill our relationships seem to manifest in a seemingly professional way: we work together, we have meetings, but we don't necessarily spend time together socially. This may be to do with the way in which G.O.S germinated within the Glasgow Art School, and as such attracts many, though not all, attendees of similar ages and lifestyles. Whereas within the Art Academy we have often found our differing lifestyles problematic, with some members working full time, some unemployed, some living in Islington Mill and some living miles away. In fact, a suggestion which arose from our experiences in Glasgow was that we should endeavour to spend more time together socially, in order to function better as a self-supporting collective taking something from our experience of G.O.S to develop our own collective means of action, education and debate.

Lauren Velvick - Islington Mill Art Academy - Feb 2011

* I must apologise here to Glasgow Open School for describing them in this way. The Open School is perhaps best described as a belief, or concept which anybody can partake in at any time, however for the purposes of this article I need to refer to the 'group' so mundanely. Cornelius Cardew's 'Evacuation of the Great Learning' being performed Glasgow Open School