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Those With Whom You Look Intently

Those With Whom You Look Intently

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Published by LUX
Artist Michael Curran's contribution to the LUX Genealogies project. Read an introduction to the project in the initial LUX Genealogies page: http://www.lux.org.uk/blog/lux-genealogies

Artist Michael Curran's contribution to the LUX Genealogies project. Read an introduction to the project in the initial LUX Genealogies page: http://www.lux.org.uk/blog/lux-genealogies


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Published by: LUX on Mar 18, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Those with whom you look intently
Those with whom you look intently are very particular companions. Together, searching,with difficulty, you dart glances at one another, snatching a glimpse, receptive to eachother’s endeavours and travailles: supportive, competitive, critical and occasionallysuspicious, even hostile. You are equals. This support often involves a judgement of sorts,a continuous assessment as ally and combatant. Such relationships are essential, since theystem from the unavoidable reality of working in close proximity, whether desired or not,with people you have not chosen and who have not chosen you. I speak not simply of contemporaries in era, but of those with whom the location and situation of working isabsolutely contemporaneous.In this case influence is determined by circumstance and the people you are are surrounded by. It is within this context that one finds true peers - individuals caught up in the samestream. You literally peer 
them, in combinations of curiosity, animosity, and admiration.Over time, this scrutiny evolves into some form of trust, respect and exchange. At a certain point your peers are simply down to potluck, but with good fortune this becomes, at leastfor a time, potlatch, during which an open exchange of ideas, tools and skills can happen.These occasions have occurred sufficiently frequently that to attempt any exhaustiveaccount of my own personal peer influences, and the specific people and situationsinvolved would be an unworthy undertaking here. But risking very swift shorthand, I willtry to convey briefly an account of one such grouping in which a remarkable freedom of exchange took place.In the autumn of 1993, I began a course of study at the Jan Van Eyck Akademie in theCity of Maastricht, Holland. To the newcomer, the term city will resound as a clangingmisnomer, since this capital of Limburg Province is tiny. This is not to diminish it anyother way than size, for it comprises several districts, a wealth of history and extantartefacts - a Roman bridge, the red tower of Sint Janskerk, as painted by Bosch, acontemporary art museum designed by Aldo Rosi: a blue plaque on a side street remindsdoubting tourists that even Karl Marx saw fit to bed there for the night. It is also the birthplace of the Euro, the Treaty of European Union having been signed there in 1992. Butwhy am I shirking my duty? Despite its sophistication, Maastricht is a model villagelocated somewhere between the fine lines of the franking on a picture postcard: for urbanites it comes as a shock - a confrontation with the diminutive.The Jan Van Eyck Academie, a white modernist spacecraft, hovers off centre from the citysquare, secreted within a maze of narrow, cobbled streets. Lurking at night like a pale giantwho is slowly falling asleep in a toyshop, the architecture never appears quite earthbound.As is the case with many institutions, it has undergone several transformations, althoughthe JVE’s reincarnations are perhaps a little more radical than most.At my time of arrival, the Academie wore a freshly manufactured skin, grafted on by the policy-speak of its new director, Jan Van Toorn, whose vision was focused on a parity
 between the three graceless gorgons of Theory, Design and Fine Art, a triumvirate withouthierarchy, somewhat harking back to the institute’s origins as a catholic arts academy. Theaim was to scrutinize accepted visual and theoretical values, questioning their content,context and dissemination while re-figuring the three disciplines, through research, criticaldebate, risk and a high degree of social awareness, all to be consolidated in practice.At first I felt like a wet-eared ignoramus press-ganged into a crypto-Marxist commune. ButI speak brazenly and far too flippantly, for the policy was truly visionary, radical andchallenging, if not always able to effect its goals in reality. Despite some pedantry and archdoublespeak, the ideals were of the highest and it is a great misfortune that art schools now, particularly those in Britain, will no longer be open to such adventurous and open endedforms of practice and enquiry, until and unless there is an unforeseen and, sadly, unlikelyrevolution in education. The vitality of the Academie arose from its participants’ ability to puncture and expose some of the more dogmatic and ridiculous assertions of its director, inthe most provocative and startling ways.All of this is an aside, for the hard-line ethos of the institution was not my primary concern.It was the presence of Jon Thompson as the newly appointed Head of Fine Art that drewme there, and his extraordinary vision of an intensely discursive community of artists,working together in a shared enterprise, grounded in studio practice, critical debate andtransparency of communication; a coming together founded on mutual respect and thecollective will to make real discoveries through all the activities encompassing the arts.Key here was a willingness to open out one’s self and working methods to rigorousanalysis and interpretation via penetrating group critiques and exchanges of perceptionsand insights. Theory and conjecture, however, were never permitted to take precedenceover actual practice, and materiality, process, presence, and even unaccountability, were of 
equivalent value. Hasty explanations for any activity were eschewed and viewed withcircumspection. In short, to be involved in such a project was a highly serious commitment.The apparent restrictions of Maastricht actually proved to be critical in producing avery special approach to circumstances, creating a seedbed of activity, group interactionand an attuned sensitivity to the actuality of making art: one had no other choice. Themajority of participants could not afford the luxury of apartments outside of the institutionwalls, and had to bed down illegally in the building, thus the activity of research andmaking work was intensely bound up with the activities of cooking, eating, and hygiene.This rough approximation of hybrid domesticity, in the most unlikely environment, meantthat a high degree of social interaction was largely unavoidable. One had to reassess ideasof private, public and social space immediately and to adjust very quickly. Opting out wasnot a feasible strategy for any extended period.Difficult though they were, these conditions created a very, lively and passionate form of communication in which art was never put to bed for the night. Conversations wouldcontinue into mealtimes and social events, while working routines, collaborations andfurther talk would go on throughout the evening, often until dawn. As should be the casemore often, the action of making art was not separated from the day to day concerns of living a life. Of course this was a situation that could not sustain itself endlessly, for obvious reasons, and others more complex. It could become highly unpleasant, evenalienating, but that is a whole other tale that waits for an as yet unwritten History of the JanVan Eyck.I mention my experience here because I’m considering Peer Influence, and under theseunrepeatable conditions peers were everything and never to be dismissed lightly.The video studio, as is so often the case in institutions, was an tight environment where one

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