2nd May 2019 — Becky Shaw: artist-in-residence reflections

Becky Shaw: artist-in-residence reflections

Becky Shaw



Residencies, and other types of responsive commissions feel a bit like prospecting. There are lots of subjects and starting points that are full of potential, so you pick them up in your sieve and wash and shake them and bite them to see if they are knotted and compacted enough. I’m looking for a bit or an edge of the SWA context, which I can unpack or unfurl to understand the relationship between the whole and the bit and, to extend the (already limited) prospecting metaphor further, to see how it is shaped by pressure, depth and climate. In a conversation a couple of weeks ago at DeMontford Gallery, Hugo Worthy described my process as ‘finding something in a pre-existing space that can be used/activated to do something else’. This isn’t as linear as site-specificity, rather it is introducing a continual negotiation with space. Social contexts are changing and unstable, as are artistic processes, so the interaction itself is also unstable, with uncertain value or meaning. Where different disciplines are brought together conflicting viewpoints make spaces and art processes come in and out of legibility- a literal, and (to me) highly valuable experience of not being able to separate the wood from the trees.

Of course, prospecting has rather a lot of unattractive associations. In films prospectors are lawless, toothless and opportunistic. In contemporary documentaries like ‘Outback Opal Hunters’ and ‘Ice Cold Gold’ about ruby hunting, the teams are desperate, ferocious, scheming and disloyal. These are qualities I try not to emulate. However critiques of social art practice recognise the problems of the artist as prospector- where the artist is characterised as taking from their social context for their own ends or/and the commissioner as framing ‘a place’ according to an institutional script. I try to be attentive to these problems while also recognising that, for me, nothing can happen without the personal heat of curiosity. Residencies also generate a certain kind of anxiety- the fear of not finding ‘the thing’, and this sense of a hosts’ expectation is part of the context you are exploring. However, you have to learn to push it further back stage so you can do the sifting, washing and shaking with an open mind.

So what are my ‘things’?

Firstly I have been keeping an eye on the SOS20 project, the redevelopment of Stock Orchard Street (SOS) to bring it up to contemporary energy efficiency standards and to make it sustainable for continuous dwelling into old age. I spent time with the original drawings, fascinated by the MVHR that captures and recirculates warmth and the most amazing drawings done by Rosie giving detailed instructions about where heat sealing tape should be fitted into joints and around heat-leaking beams. I found it remarkable that this level of architectural precision and instruction was being given to this intimate, thin layer of (very special, German of course) tape.

I pop into the house and office and look at the changes every day I’m at SWA. My first visits saw the new boilers being installed and immaculate copper piping installed, then walls remodelled, and now tape. In addition to taking photographs I try to continuously squeeze my experience of the drawings and the building together. While I conceptually grasp a fair bit of the architectural drawing ‘code’ I don’t easily translate the plans into a sensorial experience of the space so my first drawings tried to put my hands in the drawings, following the red tape across my fingers. I’m reading Elizabeth Grosz’s ‘Architecture from the Outside” and its helping me think through the relationship between the ideal and the real, the material and the virtual.

Heat Exchange

After viewing the collection of thermal images produced to assess SOS, I’ve borrowed a dated, futuristic 1980s thermal imaging camera and am exploring the building through its usually invisible thermal expression. The differences between house and office, and at different times of day, are extraordinary. These differences were planned and predictable due to the thermal mass produced by the scale, volume and qualities of the materials used. The heating schedule also accounts for the different times, scales and forms of occupancy. At peak work time the under floor heating in my studio glows and I can follow the beautiful wiggly line like playing slitherio (a contemporary retro game where snakes eat each other). However in the busier office downstairs where there are more people, hot computers, and printer the under floor heating is visible but less distinct from the rest of the temperature. Then in the house there is no visible sign of the heating as a more consistent temperature is maintained.

In my studio and in the boiler cupboard I play at picking up the heat off the floor and walls, with my hands and seeing how far I can carry it or transfer it into another object. I’m using the camera to take pictures, to tell stories (it has a voice record feature). I’m also drawing the thermal patterns onto my body so they can stay there and be visible, as well as videoing what the thermal camera sees in situ. Thermal imaging technology isn’t necessarily dated but its visual qualities seem so- so very disco, so very ‘1970s rainbow’, with a bit of ‘kirlian aura’ mixed in. I try converting the thermal images into pixel art, an also weirdly dated and contemporary piece of time-wasting/filling software. However I have to remind myself that thermal imagery isn’t rainbow- it is a translated representation of data that is off the scale of the rainbow. I’m reminded of a favourite drawing by my kids- ‘rainbow vomit’- a weirdly shamanic mixing of inside and outside.

The Contemporary Past

I’ve also been looking through the incredible archive of images of SOS.The images of the build and early shots are in medium format and transparency, a point before digital was ubiquitous. These warm coloured, glowing analogue images echo the hand-made architectural drawings, the physicality of the process, the craftsmanship needed to build SOS. The images ten years later are blue and grey in colour, taken in winter, digital, but with a gritty materiality, showing some wear, unexpected and unglossy material juxtapositions and domestic life; washing, gardening. The differences in the feel of these images is hard to articulate, a decade of politics and social change, different principles shaping how a challenging building is received and placed.

I keep thinking about Kester Rattenbury’s great essay in ‘Around and About Stock Orchard Street’ about how time affects how we experience buildings. She remembers a refrain of Martin Ware DJ-ing, I wonder what the contemporary refrain would be? I’ve been rephotographing the images, moving them across each other, shocked by how my rough technique gives a hazy nostalgia to all of them. After trying this, I see Anna Lucas’ fantastic films and live image construction with Alice Walton and think it might be something better left to the moving image professionals.

Rachel tells me more about architectural photography and about how editing generates an obsession for the perfect image, a type of perfection she recognises as part of what the institution of architectural photography generates. I want to watch Rachel edit!

300 windows, 52 types

Clare is working on a school redevelopment that includes the refurbishment of the windows. The school faces a heritage site so she must navigate planning and conservation regulations, the school’s needs, cost, sustainability and installation issues. The previous windows were green and white so the new ones must be too, but the old ones are faded in the sun so the new ones mustn’tmatch the faded colour, so even time, age and weather has to be accounted for. The windows must be installed across a summer and autumn term, and in a particular order to interlock with another part of the job being undertaken on site.

All 52 different types of windows have been ordered to fit existing holes in the school building, but even so it will require skill and craft to fit them all. SWA has to take all the different characters and historical languages of a patchwork school building, and both maintain this as well as streamline and unify. As in SOS, joints are again the issue- the practical and aesthetic butting of one material object into another, the joining of timescales, and the joining of two different contracts. If the project is finalised I hope to work with Clare across the summer, finding a way to understand all these different joints.

A space for movement

Today I visited another SWA project, Siobhan Davies Dance, a space wholly designed for movement. This is the second SWA building I have been in and I have an ‘ah ha’ moment when I can taste the SWA sensibility at work. It’s just not enough to look at photos of buildings, you have to be in them and around them.

In Siobhan Davies Dance and SOS I feel the same body-related sense of scale, a joy in juxtaposing warm and different age materials, acoustic gentleness (receptivity?), an almost cubist orientating (rotating?) of a new space in a small and busy location, and strangely, the same smell. I’m wondering whether I could move or join something between the spaces? Bodies, warmth?