Re: the verbal nature of teaching art


When John Reardon asked me to collaborate with him, he sent me the interviews as straight transcriptions from the recordings he had made, with nothing of the dialogue left out and no initial tidying-up. He had even left large gaps in the text representing silences, hesitations, awkward or otherwise. This act of designed obsession that had developed between John and his transcriptions I felt could be exploited in relation to the idea of artists talking about teaching.

I equated the chance to both work from and preserve this initial open form that included all the mistakes and confusions of the conversation/dialogue between two people with a possibility for misunderstanding – something that I believe to be part and parcel of the verbal nature of teaching. Such a situation is hard to recreate in a transcript of a conversation, being, in the end, a text, but it allowed this as a possibility. If the conversation/text was left as close as possible to what was on the recording, then maybe there would be a greater chance of misunderstanding, allowing for a broader inference from what was said. Much, I believe, can be lost in the transition from talking to text by thinking one knows what one is saying, and going about reducing the sentences and paragraphs to just that and nothing else. This is when the dialogue starts to look like a text, and not a very good one at that, certainly not compared to the original conversation. One only has to compare the conversational aspect of teaching art with certain other elements of teaching art, for instance the lecture, the paper given at a conference, or the statement of intent in a prospectus, to see what we were trying to avoid here.

Now, having more, or even complete, control over the text suits some people more than others, particularly if they feel themselves to have the responsibility of telling ‘how it was’, to be a very specific and important part of history, rather than in the more general history of the kind espoused by the aural historian Studs Terkel in books such as The Good War or Working. If you are a specific, named, part of history (and in one sense, all these interviewees are, being named), the last thing you want is to be misunderstood – there’s a lot at stake, after all. When one needs to set the record straight, then one cannot allow any kind of sloppiness to infringe on what is far more important than idiosyncratic concepts, or ways of making a book more interesting for the editor. What is being said in the clearest way possible is what is important, and goes, paradoxically, above and beyond the individual named character. Some people would argue that such clarity is what teaching is about, thereby linking the process of teaching to the achievement of bigger goals, hard to guarantee, but nevertheless an idea. And some of that kind of thing is in the book.

In some cases, leaving in a ‘Yeah’, instead of changing it to a more formal ‘yes’ is unforgivable. And if that’s what someone wants, then it is disrespectful not to change it, even if they said ‘yeah’ at the time. To disrespect such a request is like putting your feet up on Jonathan Ross’s sofa – you just can’t assume it’s okay. Also, there is the issue, when leaving the transcripts as close as possible to the recorded interview, of public and private appearance. Just because an interviewee dressed casual to an interview where only J was going to be present, that is not to say he or she would do the same if they were publicly interviewed. The same applies to presenting yourself for publication. This has to be respected.

The changes made by the interviewees in the final draft on the whole improved what they had to say, because they wanted to make the changes. And as they said what they said, you have to assume they knew what they wanted. That they had this knowledge in spades, as it were.

The editing was always going to be a collaboration of what we wanted and what they wanted. Often we unknowingly saw eye to eye.

Also, in the case of published interviews, where what has been said during conversation - the same unguarded, verbal form that is part and parcel of the day to day machinations of artists/teachers talking to students - is written down, another problem is posed, similar, but not quite the same, as the one above: some people don’t like the sound of their own voice when it is played back in the form of a text. One artist, for instance, had interviewed candidly, and very much in keeping with the spirit of her own teaching philosophy. A fellow teacher and member of the same collaborative group, had been in the background on his computer, googling information for her. They sat at a table that was a symbol of the ‘open plan discussion’ encouraged at the college, a table that had been built by him and varnished by her, made for a previous event, but now taken to heart by the students. The open plan nature of the artist’s department was well illustrated in her freely spoken interview.

She sent back the text reduced down to a couple of pages, not even a table leg.

We had to sadly drop the interview, as the artist was not willing to publish anything vaguely resembling the original. We dropped it not because what she sent back was not good for what it was, but that it was so far removed from the spirit of the book, as conversational dialogue.

Maybe I misunderstood some of the transcripts in the job of getting them ‘punctuated’, organised. I hope so, then at least there is a chance that they can be misunderstood by the reader. Not unlike teaching situations in art schools where one can talk about anything, and possibly late at night if that’s what it takes, and still things happen. It’s not what’s said, and often what was of help wasn’t even said at all, not even inferred, but imagined or overheard, or part of a ventriloquist’s act, a voice thrown over screens, or even something witnessed. All this oddness either has a firm methodological structure around it in the teaching studio, or is kept in check, or denied completely as a powerful element of teaching. Consensus is the goal at the end of the day, and the various methodological frameworks that have replaced the teaching of craft and technique, and rid the place of the belief that everybody is an artist, allows some kind of consensus to be made periodically throughout the year. We have not tried to draw out a consensus within this book. We have tried, in fact, to do the opposite, as this was a goal that appeared more achievable.

This whole question of punctuation is an odd thing and causes a lot of distress if they are in the wrong place, to me, John, the interviewee, the reader, the publisher – all of us. I was never sure if I had put these dots and semi-colons and commas and dashes in the right place. I am not talking about a comma wandering off into the middle of a word or an apostrophe missing, leading to green wiggly lines nagging me up and down the page, I mean just where the hell does that full stop go? Could be anywhere sometimes. But you pick up on the characters talking; they take you there to a large degree. When having to work out what punctuation goes where I started thinking about Richard Rorty and how he talked about punctuation. He described things that fall out of the semantic pale, things that don’t make sense necessarily but do something, are there, have effect, were like odd punctuation, akin to a slap in the face. They have an effect of us wanting to bring them into meaning, to produce. And when you have a transcript like the one John sent, then odd, or no punctuation, and a few slaps in the face, abound. So punctuation problems can serve as motivation, not only the characters, or interviewees, take you there. Sometimes punctuation can take you in the opposite direction to the characters, or interviewees, and you have to follow that.

But to overly dwell on misunderstandings, or things and moments that fall out of sense, would just be subversive and destroy the interest that these interviewees had in what they were formulating in front of John’s microphone. This is why much of the editing was a balancing act of these ‘things’ that fall out of the semantic pale, that abound in a straight transcription, that might be interesting, but also disconcerting to leave with their possible potential for destruction, and the striving for the coherent sentences that produced them - what people actually said, or at least meant.

Another reason why the straight transcriptions were key to the editing process, was that it gave me, as editor rather than interviewer, access to the distractions and literal interruptions that occurred during the interviews. It helped make me aware of the room within which the interview took place. To indulge in this space was, in part, simply a way of making the interviews more interesting for me. I liked this other dimension, sitting, as I was, in the same room each time I worked on the texts. It was also a way of helping me understand something more of the characters by placing them in some kind of environment. Rainer Ganahl, for example, requested that his interview take place in front of an audience of his students and his replies were projected. Walter Dahn played rock music to J all the way through his interview, and talks over the music. Jon Thompson has the weight of his own experience insulating the points made from other disturbances. There is the knowledge that Liam Gillick was interviewed in a busy coffee shop near the main train station in Amsterdam. His ideas relentlessly delivered in transit, not that far from Erwin Wurm’s coffee shop in Vienna - the previous haunt of Thomas Bernhard - but much closer to the station. All this helped me, to a certain extent, imagine what the tone of their speech was, without resorting to the more flattening option of listening to the audio. It’s odd that, in my opinion, the audio would not give me any sense of the room or the person talking – not nearly as much as the transcription. Rooms on audio tend to merely hiss, they drown themselves out.

I also wanted to break the flow of the conversation by keeping the interruptions as much as possible. I liked it when there were moments when the interview was diverted by something external, breaking the train of thought and sending it in a different direction, or into forgetfulness: a phone call, a request for directions, an assistant bringing tea from China, or a large delivery of wood. It takes all sorts. This is the other ‘thing’ present in J’s transcripts that was not odd punctuation but the sound of the building. It is the sound of the room within which the interview took place, and sometimes it is the sound of the building evoked when the subject of teaching is discussed, the building as a structure within whose constraints an artist/teacher must think, constraints on sentences and constraints reflected in body language. Sometimes it is the constraints of not hearing yourself think. So we have chairs scraping, beeps and bobs, phones ringing, the trees outside and in, traffic, venetian blinds going up and down, opening and closing, office tip-taps, a London bus, Dutch coffee cups; the fiddling, coughing, tension, the um-ing and ah-ing of both the interviewee and the interviewer, loud as day.

Finally, I want to mention that, always present in the transition between ideas for the book and the final draft, is the question of ambitions. Ambitions shape the final draft and in the end it is more interesting to have a book shaped by the various ambitions that come into play at every stage - from the moment anyone opens their mouth, in fact - than by some preconceived idea of what makes a good book. This is particularly what makes books of this sort interesting, where many different people are present. The shape of the book, the complaints and achievements and liberties taken become what is driving the ideas propagated in the book. It has taken on a shape of its own.

One of the questions that John’s interviews raise is the role that these artist’s own ambition in their art work and art careers play in the teaching, which, it is claimed by some, is so intrinsically linked to their practice? It is a question of focus. Can one teach successfully when one is a successful artist, and fully focused on one’s own practice? Is this a case of teaching by example? Or can it also result in merely a source of assistants to realise one’s own institutionally subversive, or institutionally exclusive, projects? What does such a teacher see when he or she looks at a student’s work? What about the person who merely wants to be a good teacher out of love, devoting all their time to the activity? Have they anything really to bring to the table if they have no practice, as some would claim? Or no research points, as others would put it? One is also left to wonder if a person who wasn’t even an artist might not be better qualified to teach art? Someone not involved at all in the business. This would be a logical step perhaps to the burocratisation of art education, and an odd managerial twist (or even managerial coup) to the claim still popular that one can’t really teach art.

What one is hopefully left with, after all of this, are specific artists talking specifically about their work as teachers, professors, or whatever, with no deadening uniformity that would come from boiling things down to ideas.

And in some ways a decision to at least try to keep all the incoherencies of a discussion or conversation present in a text is the sole justification for this book being titled as it is, even if these incoherencies end up lost after everyone’s had their say (there’s nothing like the context of education to start making people precise). It is these moments of incoherence that are the struggle, from the recording to the page. They are initiated in the directly spoken opinions given in the face of one’s own investments being often or always subject to change, and which move through a process of others’ own collapsing investments. Change itself taking place can only be present in moments of incoherence and collapse, odd moments. It is this that we tried to emphasise, perhaps only symbolically, in these interviews: a stuttering change embedded within the necessary certainty needed to teach.