CHRIS FREMANTLE

Failures

Posted in Failure, Research by chrisfremantle on November 26, 2012

I’ve started adding examples of failure into my blog. I’ve tried to put them into the blog at the time they happened. This will probably mean that there is a clump retrofitted into the time before I started actually keeping the blog. And to be honest I’m not going to be able to put anything that’s going on right now that might constitute failure for obvious reasons, so this will be a backwards looking exercise.

The first I put in is a misunderstanding from the late 90s. I was running SSW and trying to learn about artists working in the landscape. I was picking up on references to John Latham and his work in Scotland. I had heard that it had something to do with the bings of West Lothian. So I was down, probably visiting with relatives and went looking. I came across the Five Sisters near a now defunct retail park. I took a load of pictures. I thought at the time John Latham was an important largely unknown British land artist in the American sense. I thought he had literally shaped this monumental earthwork. It took a while for me to understand what was really going on. I did write about that a while ago here.

I think this is typical for me. Often I’ll misunderstand something to start with, and it will take a while for me to get it the right way around, sort out what’s important.  Interestingly Johan Siebers recently highlighted the Slow Science movement and in their manifesto they say,

We do need time to think. We do need time to digest. We do need time to mis­understand each other, especially when fostering lost dialogue between humanities and natural sciences. We cannot continuously tell you what our science means; what it will be good for; because we simply don’t know yet. Science needs time.

The next example is a piece I was asked to write as an introduction to a catalogue. This would be around 2001. The catalogue was for the exhibition Common Place at The Lighthouse in Glasgow. I was living and working up in the North East of Scotland and I got completely obssessed by farm bothies, bothy ballads, Bob Dylan and the way that these were connected. I wrote the piece. It definitely wasn’t what was wanted. There is a model for writing an introduction to an exhibition catalogue and I missed that model completely. It’s taken me a very long time to work out that models are important. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. I like starting with a blank sheet of paper. Not everyone else does.  You can read it here.

This brings me onto another failure – if being made redundant from a local authority is a failure (could it actually be a badge of success?). Before I went freelance I worked as the Arts Links Officer for South Ayrshire Council. They made me redundant at the end of the contract in 2006. I went freelance and have not looked back. Even in South Ayrshire, where I still live, I think I’ve achieved more since than I ever did during. But I do think there was a conceptual failure on my part. I don’t think I understood that I was simply there to deliver on existing models. What I should have been doing was networking with other Links Officers to find out what was being done in other Local Authorities across Scotland and simply bring those programmes to South Ayrshire. I was doing some of that, but I was always looking to make it distinctive, specific to that place.

Another much earlier failure, again at SSW, was not managing to deliver the tenth edition of the Scottish Sculpture Open. That should have opened in 1999 in early July. I had a number of meetings with SSW Board members and we discussed and or approached a couple of people to be guest artists (I remember Martin Puryear and John David Mooney). I remember writing to Puryear and sending him some images of Kildrummy Castle. He didn’t want to do it. The Sculpture Open had been done on a shoe string in the past and we had, with the ninth edition, tried to do it properly with at least some fees and production expenses. It has to be said that there were a few other things going on at the time, but essentially I definitely failed to keep the programme going.

So why put examples of failure into my blog? Failure is something we don’t talk about enough. There is Beckett’s brilliant quote,

Ever tried.
Ever failed.
No matter.
Try Again.
Fail again.
Fail better.

Samuel Beckett

Failure is about taking risks. There seems to be a bigger and bigger gap between the public sector and the private sector in terms of risks. It is talked about a bit in terms of design and innovation – fail fast, fail frequently. On the other side the requirements in the public sector for clear identification of outputs, outcomes and risk assessments are all limiting the bureaucratic exposure to risk and pushing it onto individuals and organisations.

Working with staff at Gray’s School of Art on a research residency last year we discussed failure a lot. The staff highlighted how difficult it is to promote failure as an important way of working for art school students. All the staff were quite happy to talk about failure in their own practice. Most said that failure was a more common experience than success. No one had any problem talking about failure.

But they described the situation where students need to be prepared to make works that fail, but they are constantly worried about grading and being failed. How can you develop a practice that has a healthy relationship with failure if the structure you are working in constantly threatens you with failing the course?

Failure is about learning. By listing failures I am also listing things I have learnt from (or should have learnt from). Talking to Chris Hewson from Manchester School of Architecture, who’s doing research into multi-faith spaces, he said that the Planner on the research team is always wanting to visit spaces that don’t work, rather than the ones that are exemplary. He says you learn more. People can tell you exactly why spaces don’t work, but find it more difficult to explain why things do work.

There are some good books on failure:

Antebi, N., Dickey, C., Herbst, R. (Eds). (2007). Failure! Experiments in Aesthetics and Social Practices.  Los Angeles, CA : The Journal of Aesthetics and Protest Press.  http://www.journalofaestheticsandprotest.org/ accessed 26 November 2012.

Hope, S. (2011).  Participating the Wrong Way: Four Experiments by Sophie Hope.  London: Cultural Democracy Editions.  http://culturaldemocracyeditions.sophiehope.org.uk/ accessed 26 November 2012.

Le Feuvre, L. (ed).  (2010).  Failure (Documents of Contemporary Art).  London: Whitechapel Art Gallery.

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