CHRIS FREMANTLE

Failspace Presentation

Posted in CF Writing, Failure, Research by chrisfremantle on December 11, 2022

Presentation given at the Failspace Conference, Queen Margaret University, Musselburgh, 7 December 2022

Introduction

In terms of the earlier discussion about self-disclosure I am he/him, short, pale skinned, grey haired and dressed in grey and black

I’m also aware as a middle-aged middle class white male I have a form of privilege which makes it easier to talk about failure. This is particularly manifest in a certain form of confidence in the ability to work with dominant narratives and construct versions of reality.

Story telling is at the heart of the problem with failure. Storytelling and neoliberalism.

Storytelling because we find it very difficult to end stories with failure and on some levels storytelling is our business. Helen Mayer Harrison and Newton Harrison, the pioneering artists working with ecology, ecologies, watersheds, planning and the global environmental crises had a saying ‘every place is the story of its own becoming’ ie that the way things become is organised by the story it is telling itself (Harrison and Harrison 2007).

Neoliberalism because it has constructed a culture of competition – competition is one of the pillars of neoliberalism alongside privatisation, deregulation, globalisation and free trade.

So the work this contribution draws on started with a ‘research’ residency at Gray’s School of Art when I was still a freelancer (at that point having been made redundant twice). I was asked to work with a group of staff to establish a ‘research theme’ – as part of that process I interviewed 8 members of staff. In preparing for the interviews I added a question about failure on instinct. Otherwise all the questions were things like ‘what does making mean to you?’ – too comfortable.

When the research residency ended the ‘research theme’ stalled and never developed in any useful way. The book we discussed drawing on the interviews never got written.

A couple of years later I got hired onto Gray’s as staff (other things I had worked on at Gray’s had been more successful). I was asked to manage Design in Action, a research project, and there was already a Postdoc in place. Gemma Kearney was from the Business School with an interest in Entrepreneurship. We ended up discussing failure and used the interview material I had collected as the basis for a paper (Fremantle and Kearney 2015).

The heart of the paper is the sequence of observations made by the lecturers, artists and designers.

Questioning of the concept of failure, specifically, considering if failure is an end-point or part of an overall trajectory

Maybe they’re just experiments. Failure, perhaps, becomes a bit more strict about it.’

‘There are pieces that I’ve made over the years that I’ve not been pleased with, but they’ve always been ‘not a failure’ because they’ve stepped onto something else.’

I always juxtapose this with the story about Cezanne. According to Renoir Cezanne sometimes came, ‘…away disappointed, returning without his canvas, which he’d leave on a rock or on the grass, at the mercy of the wind or the rain or the sun, swallowed by the earth…’

So the stories we tell ourselves of failure as process need to be juxtaposed with the actual judgements of outright failure.

The potential to learn from failure

‘If I saw myself in the light of all the failures that I’ve made – I’m much more of a failure than a success – but then, I’ve learned much more from those failures than the successes.’ 

‘There is a quote from Dieter Roth. He reached the point in his practice where he deemed everything he did was of equal value; nothing as such was a success and nothing was a failure. Ever since I came across that, I’ve been fascinated by that notion because, again, it almost, in a sense, is the antitheses of teaching and especially assessment; we’re making value judgements on whether things are successes or failures.’ 

“It’s important to exhibit your mistakes. Man is not perfect. Neither are his creations. I’ve given up using sour milk. Instead I use music. I sometimes fasten a tape recorder onto paintings or objects and have the music pour over the spectator/listener. This creates as certain effect: those who look at the art don’t realize how bad it is when they hear the music. For the music is even worse. Two bad things make one good thing.” (1978) 

The role of failure in assessment

‘…so, if you can have a discussion whereby you say that failure is OK and that it might even be a good thing, then the student is only going to say “Yes, but what will that mean if I actually fail?  I can’t fail my assessment.”… It is really, really difficult.  I think the whole assessment process makes it difficult to have a proper discussion about failure’. 

What we realised was that when it comes to assessment there is this slippage

“Yes, but what will that mean if I actually fail?  I can’t fail my assessment.”

If I fail my assessment I’ll fail my course and then I’ll be a failure.

I was co-present for the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities together with Elizabeth Reeder who leads the Creative Writing Masters at Glasgow.

We developed a presentation and I think it was the second time we delivered the session someone asked about Mental Health and Creative Failure.

Since then I’ve given a mental health warning at the start of each session. When I had to record the session so it could be delivered during lockdown and I had to break it up into 4×15 minute chunks I had to put the mental health warning at the beginning of each – that still oddly resonates in my mind.

But the point is critical – all the talk of using failures creatively is fine except when the failure has led someone into some sort of depression or anxiety, at which point offering them “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” is actually dangerous.

However discussing failure carefully and opening it out as a subject which we can engage with does seem to be useful – I’ve used live polling a couple of times now asking students at the beginning of a session and at the end what words they associate and the anxiety words reduce in frequency. I’m not a psychologist and it isn’t a controlled trial, but it is an area that I want to explore further because in particular of the link with assessment – the double bind which has the affect in the end of making students cautious – “Yes, but what will that mean if I actually fail?  I can’t fail my assessment.” The response to this is to be risk averse.

I’m not sure exactly how the processes of assessment in education and evaluation in organisational systems are related.

Being here today has helped me realise that my concerns with failure are from the perspective of practitioners much more than from the perspectives of policymakers or funders, or from the perspective of arts admin – but then I teach in the Art School, not in our School of Creative and Cultural Business… I don’t come at it from the issue of participation and the challenge that the research team set themselves – of the wider issue of who participates in arts and culture.

I’m also not regularly involved in evaluation per se, though sometime research papers reporting on projects are also playing an advocacy role.

However I was part of a team commissioned by Creative Carbon Scotland to evaluate a EU funded project on the relationship between culture and climate adaptation (Fremantle and Mabon 2021). The other member of the team – Leslie Mabon – is an urban climate adaptation specialist. It was a highly experimental project – climate adaptation has been the ‘poor cousin’ of climate mitigation, and it was only at the point the project was happening that the importance of public engagement in adaptation was beginning to be recognised at the strategic level – certainly only a few years before it was seen as a matter for infrastructure and technocrats.

Leslie and I from the outset agreed that we could only do a formative evaluation because there were really no comparable projects against which to evaluate Cultural Adaptations.

What was interesting was that one of the partner organisations TILLT, which has a very long track record of doing placements of artists in industry and public bodies brought up the issue of failure and had reflected on it organisationally (Cultural Adaptations 2020).

There examples are all to do with project management, expectations and communications, and they had as an organisation clearly reflected on the failure and developed effective responses.

The model is that TILLT organises for an artist to work on a placement in a non-arts organisation – sometimes the non-arts organisation is commercial, looking for ‘out of the box’ thinking and they fund the placement. Sometimes the organisation is public or third sector and TILLT does the fundraising.

The artist placement is supported by a TILLT member of staff, originally called a project manager, but for a long time now called a ‘process’ manager.

What TILLT told us about their experiences of failures focused on in the first instance on the gap between the person in the organisation who thinks bringing an artist in is a good idea and the people in the organisation who are expected to benefit from the artist’s input.

Since then TILLT have always had ‘project groups’ including staff as well as management, artist, and process manager.

Another example fundamentally changed TILLT’s approach – for the first ten years the underpinning assumption was that the artist’s role was to disrupt in some way. This approach came to a head when an unnamed artist in an unnamed organisation did a whole date of activity around the theme of ‘death’.

The Director of TILLT told us:

“I had no idea of what the artist and the process manager was planning, and when I on the Monday after found some papers in the printer about experiences and thoughts about death I contacted the client’s contact person to ask how it all went. I got some very hard feedback from her and also very personal. She explained that they all had a very distasteful feeling after the lab, and that she, who was taking a plane the day after the lab, had a panic attack during the flight…

Their conclusion was:

“Today we want to create relations to the participants instead of uncertainty. If you have trust between the artist and the group you can have them do anything and really expanding the comfort zone. If you have no trust nothing will change.”

In terms of the evaluation we delivered it included failure as an issue.

Adaptation requires trust and a willingness to understand and work with the issue of fail­ure.

Exploring what success might mean and embracing shared ambition are both critical parts of learning from different expertise. Criteria for success in adaptation are difficult because success is the avoidance of disruption and collapse.

In the conclusions the term we used was ‘success criteria’.

Turning to some conclusions…

It is interesting that for TILLT it was only in a failure of something that had been working well, that a new model was developed. They had been using a disruptive model for 10 years, presumably effectively. Someone pushed it too far and that resulted in an opportunity for development. They offered it as an example of failure, but they also offered it as an example of development and innovation. Of course they were able to tell us these examples with hindsight. The examples weren’t fresh.

In the end we need to be really careful because the criteria against which we judge failure become normative, are intended to be habitual, and are disciplining – and here I’m channelling Foucault (Conway 2021).

I think for me the areas of future work are around how addressing failure as a subject might actually reduce anxiety. But how we equally need to be willing to deal with discomfort.

And secondly around the way failure might also be something to do with not knowing, and how this might be a form of resistance to neoliberalism and the dominance of competition as an organising principle.

References

Conway, Will. 2021. ‘Going Astray’. RevoltingBodies (blog). 13 December 2021. https://revoltingbodies.com/2021/12/13/going-astray/.

Cultural Adaptations. 2020. ‘Learning from Failure in Experimental Projects’. Cultural Adaptations. 23 January 2020. https://www.culturaladaptations.com/resources/learning-from-failure-in-experimental-projects/.

Fremantle, Chris, and Gemma Kearney. 2015. ‘Owning Failure: Insights Into the Perceptions and Understandings of Art Educators’. International Journal of Art & Design Education 34 (3): 309–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/jade.12083.

Fremantle, Chris, and Leslie Mabon. 2021. ‘Cultural Adaptations Evaluation Report’. Edinburgh: Creative Carbon Scotland. https://doi.org/10.48526/rgu-wt-1513437.

Harrison, Helen Mayer, and Newton Harrison. 2007. ‘Public Culture and Sustainable Practices: Peninsula Europe from an Ecodiversity Perspective, Posing Questions to Complexity Scientists’. Structure and Dynamics: EJournal of Anthropological and Related Sciences. https://escholarship.org/uc/item/9hj3s753.

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