March Featured Artist
I’ve had the pleasure (and welcome challenge!) of working with Laurence ‘The French Artist’ these past years. She is half way through her PhD on creative pedagogies, and we are together planning a Social Practice Forum for 12-13 July 2019 which will offer you the opportunity to experience her Truth-Dare-Art methods of developing creative social actions.
With that in mind, I interviewed Laurence for our Featured Artist interview series so you can get a sense of the artist behind the vision. Laurence envisions a conversational, collaborative, connected experience that will lay the foundation for action that is responsive to this place and time, our environments and relationships.
Laurence, how has your practice evolved over time?
My practice has evolved always.
I think art is about change, things change all the time, including the way you deal with it. Although you develop a method and a structure, your practice changes. I was a painter and a sculptor and found that the space of the painting was too constraining for me and so it became a collage which then very naturally came off the wall and took a life of its own. So I started to build installations which always included something about inviting people to participate and use their senses and their thought process to become part of the project.
When I began my PhD I went back to the origins of my interest in art and realised that art was simply a path toward creating change.
Art is the medium, my work is change making.
As a creative being I feel that I have a responsibility as a change maker. It’s important for me to identify as an artist because it means taking responsibility for what I am creating and acknowledging my role in this world and society.
What provokes that ‘change maker’ impulse?
This was established a long time ago; my home town in France set the tone. I grew up in a family context where we spent most of the weekends occupying my father’s factory, or marching in the street to support one cause of another. My parents always had meetings whether these were religious, political or social. I felt like a member of the community already larger than my very large family, we always had last minute extra guests at the table.
What change would you like to see?
At the moment, through my PhD research, my focus is on education; probably because I am aware that young people are the future – so if we want to change society, we need to start with changing the way we educate young people. I want to play a part in making our education democratic and fair with a sense of freedom and creativity that develops thinkers. Because that’s the best way to see change. Young people are very much in the process of change. They change drastically during their teens and are in the middle of constructing their identities. It’s a crucial time when they need support to develop confidence in their own creative ways.
What was your biggest personal challenge as an artist and how did you overcome it?
Everything I do needs to be a challenge. A challenge is an opportunity. I always get myself in trouble. I always go for something that seems impossible to do. Then, I make it possible through my actions and the involvement of different communities.
For example, the ‘1000 sheep’ project, 2010-2013 was a huge challenge. I had a vision which I couldn’t get off my mind. I had no idea what it was going to take to make it.
When I was confronted with the physical reality of all the elements; I ended up in a field with stinging nettles up to my neck, a stable full of sheep manure for a studio, with just a spade and wellies. I learned to ask for help and involved hundreds of volunteers over time. Together we learnt how to deal with the tasks presented.
I always imagined landscape intervention as spiritual and poetic but my time at the farm was never that. It was very much about solving problems one after the other and taking action until I had something to install in the gallery.
The work was made possible only through the involvement of all of the volunteers who helped to process the wool, who lit fires under the bathtubs for dying wool, those who sheared the sheep, washed the wool, spun wool, and tied the wool bundles together. 300 children also put messages inside the wool bundles.
One volunteer at the farm came all the way (miles!) to the art gallery to install the work. She didn’t know anything about art when she started but she followed me all the way through believing that there might be something good in it. We were both totally astonished by the final work. And we knew what it took to make it, which is why I made a film because the process was more important that the finished result.
It never became an object it was a place where people played. People wanted to play music, dance under it, lie under it, and use it as a place of discussion.
What does your process look like?
My process sometimes starts from a concept and moves towards a material response. Or it can start from a material and vision and develop into a concept. So in a way both evolve together; the thinking through making and making through thinking. More recently, I figured that I am inclined to starting from a concept which develops through conversation and ends up into a material shape which then returns to concept. I am aware I need to ground the learning through making and shaping, because I need to understand concepts through action. The making situates the knowledge in time and place.
I start with people, a situation, or something that bugs me, something I see that has the potential to be different.
What insight would you like to pass on to other practicing artists?
Every artistic act is about learning, everything I do or make is teaching me something, so this is why I am motivated, and why I make art. Everything I do, I learn something about myself and others, so I would encourage artists to ask “what am I learning?” we are all a work in progress and that is why we thrive to learn more and try new things.
Asking “why am I doing this and what am I learning from it?” means you stop thinking of mistakes as mistakes and see them as an artwork. It’s a learning curve.
Continue to make art because you will keep learning from it, and probably, if you’re not learning you’re on the wrong path. If you’re not true to yourself you’re not making art, but it’s a hard path because our society is not geared toward that mode of action. That’s why we are often considered as standing in the margin of society, but I think we have the potential to be innovators bringing new thinking, new adventures at the core of it.
What has made the biggest impact on your practice?
The first big step in the history of my practice was probably my fathers’ death, which made me realise it was my time to act now. Then I had to have a back operation – learning of physical limitations also highlighted my physical opportunities. I saw my capacities and my understanding of space in a new light. I reduced and selected my mediums at that time, all my world shrunk to one colour, the colour red which represents energy, love, life, death all in one.
The next one was getting a very large studio, with 5 metres of height, which totally expanded my world, life and work. My brain started to look upwards, my thinking opened up, there was no longer a lid on my thoughts. I learned that limitations weren’t real, yet they are: they need negotiating, discarding, and selecting.
I try to remember you don’t have to see things as limitations but as opportunities.
CAS Associate Artists’ Laboratory of Dissent (2015) was a huge turning event for me because I started to come out as a performer, something which, I realised, was buried in my work all along. I understood my art as a process. Since that time I have had ‘The French Artist’ as a persona, because it was an identity I questioned and welcomed during the Laboratory. I had always felt as an outsider, always displaced. Acknowledging myself as a displaced artist, displaced from my culture, my place of origin, my sense of geographical belonging, and also in society as an artist… and even displaced from the art world. Yes, there was all these questions underlying my identity. So the French Artist came through that costume with humour, audacity and a childlike attitude. My costume consists of a red beret, a striped shirt, and paint soaked overalls presenting himself as stereotyped cliche.
I was daring to throw out into the visible the things that were dormant in me, like when you create an artwork to see outside of you, something inside you. It was great and very playful. The costume thus became an element of play with which I could present myself in many daring ways.
What are you working on at the moment?
I am working with young people with art process as part of my PHD. Also, I’ve just been looking at identities and different part of self with some young people during an ICE project focused on young people and mental health and working with Andover Young Carers.
In the past I was given the idea of the identity of a brick wall – you can select a brick, one part of your identity, and look at the back and cherish and explore, and place it back there, it’s solid, and you know where it is. We ended up talking about the brick as art. A brick seems like nothing on its own because it is an element, one element of a whole. (We looked at the work of Carl Andre, Equivalent VIII
We had a brick that was broken that would never be used for its intended purpose and it became a focal point of our discussion. We ended up looking at a how a brick may become art as a concept. At the end I said to them ;’ the only thing we haven’t done with a brick is make one’, so we did just that. That was such a hard process, it was great.
They made a brick and experienced what it takes to make an object that is taken for granted as part of our lives. We started with an object, observed, asked questions, explored the floating concept of identity, and then made our own solid brick representation.
How do you share and promote your work?
I still haven’t found something that really works, word of mouth has been my main way, going places and meeting people face to face makes a difference. Conferences provoke new opportunities, informal meetings and keeping a connection, oh and being in a peer network.
CAS has provided me a lot of work and sense of support and connection with other artists. As artists we tend to work in isolation, but learning that we all have a different way of seeing is quite reassuring. I am in the process of developing a new website to better reflect the consultancy and creative leadership I can offer to organisations and communities as well as highlight the performative aspect of my practice now.
What achievements are you most proud of?
When I’m surprised by people’s reactions to my actions, when people turn my world around or vision through the encounters I make.
When I was expecting one thing and it turns out the other way. I want to be turned around like a pancake every time I make art, turned around by people.
That means looking at the other side of things. It can only be little moments like this that impact hugely on the rest of someone’s life, taking on those precious little gems, mere moments, that emerge in an art project is a great achievement.
For example, during Laboratory of Dissent 2015 when Lydia put on my dungarees and did exactly what I said not to, I was infuriated and emotion was stirred. I was thinking of my art as an installation and she turned it into an invitation which is what art is – that’s how I see it now. How does art invite participation – by looking, by understanding, by engaging? Now I ask “what is the offer and what should it be?”
There were no boundaries about what should or should not be during the Laboratory, we were making it up as we went along, and Lydia stepped over what I thought was an established boundary. It showed me that if I am sending an invitation out to the world it is up to the audience to choose how they take it and how much they take, and in what way. It reminded me that positioning your work before you put it out there is good, but at the same time there is almost more surprise, and more to be discovered, if it’s not what you expected it to be.
It’s also rewarding when someone comes to you, like Suzanne Baker who comes 3-4 years later and tells me that she was turned and really moved by the performance of the spinning of the wool , and carried that experience with her of being listened to so deeply and having her story woven in the wool attentively. Everything is connected, everything you give comes back in a way. Suzanne has played a big part in making it possible to deliver Truth-Dare-Art Social Practice Forum in July 2019.
What can people expect from your upcoming event Truth-Dare-Art: the two day Social Practice Forum?
Artists, educators, change makers and community representatives are all invited to join us for 2 days of experiential learning – the invitation is to learn through experience and sharing because the experience of art is such a direct language. It speaks to our emotions, our heart, and beyond words. Although I think words are important, it is also important that words come later.
My intention is that everyone can get to a deep understanding of why we work together and how art can impact on life, and how we can change things together. We will do this through creating connections with people, materials, environment, and art as a process to manipulate those things collaboratively. I really believe we have the power to change the things around and within us, and art practices help us to understand the power as part of us, as part of our world.
Regardless of your knowledge of art you can expect to have a much deeper understanding of that process by the end of the two days and feel confidence in your response-ability to the challenges you face personally, and that we all face, globally.
I hope that people will find it impossible NOT to act after this event – and in time discover the possibility that the impossible is possible.
CAS is proud to be offering this opportunity in partnership with Laurence as part of the CAS ‘Creative Dissent’ program. We all look forward to strengthening our links with artists, educators, community organisations and individuals with a desire to make difference. Tickets will go on sale this April. Please save the dates 12/13.07.19 and go to www.chapelartsstudios.co.uk/truth-dare-art for more info.