Thursday, 16 April 2009

Fame by the £1

Creative people, be they musicians, writers, painters, - I’ll use a generic term ‘artists’ - are usually broke. Except for the Damien Hirst’s of this world, creativity and income are often mutually exclusive.

Harvard psychologist Theresa Amabile found that a successful artists’ motivation is usually intrinsic and not driven externally by the rewards of money.
Ironically, she also found that rewards can lower creative performance levels.

Although money is welcome as it brings more freedom to create; opportunities to create and be valued for creative expression usually has precedence over making money. Artists will do anything for a chance to be artists but when there are more practitioners wanting this than people prepared to buy the end product; these chances usually mean forgoing financial rewards.

I have observed that the mechanisms by which artists come to market are very generally much the same for a novelist, musician or painter. In our capitalist economy, the market rewards a few artists handsomely whilst for the majority, money is always a concern, and especially whilst they undergo training or develop their skills as artists i.e. as students. Ambilie’s research also finds formal education seems essential in most outstanding creative achievements.

Students of creative arts are usually broke too. Tuition is no longer free and if self-supported, the time required to study usually precludes lucrative employment and by definition student artists are at the beginning of their careers so have not accumulated wealth by their art.

What basically motivates artists is recognition and the ultimate manifestation of recognition is fame and so creative people, especially those wanting to exploit notoriety such as Damien Hirst, have always been concerned with acquiring it.

Until recently, unless fortunate to be ‘discovered’ accidentally, fame was otherwise expensive to acquire deliberately and the destiny of mainstream artists was generally controlled by a smaller number of gatekeepers at institutions who influenced the sources of patronage and controlled the media by which fame was generated.

What has changed remarkably in the last 25 years has been the democratising of access to the media for artists to create fame enabled by the internet and the search engine.

Once upon a time your ability had to be recognised by the gatekeepers which were impossible for many to access. Until recently, the mainstream and alternative media was expensive. In Benjamin Franklin’s day, printing presses required considerable capital to set up and newspapers or pamphlets were cumbersome to distribute. Later, radio and television media did much to improve the speed and cost of dissemination but the gatekeepers to what the audience saw and heard were still those allied with the sources of capital.

Since the invention of the World Wide Web, the ability for an individual to broadcast to every available receiver no longer governed by a select few gatekeepers (as the Chinese Government have found out). We have undergone a “democratization of the media” where the agenda of public discourse is no longer set by Hearst or Pulitzer. Except that it is.

But whether peer-pressure to be cool, or acknowledgement that the internet enables communication of heretofore unheard of breath and depth, anyone who is creative needs to get a website. Publicity is the lifeblood of the commercial artist (and most artists or ‘creatives’ unfortunately have to consider commercial reality of a market for their work in order to eat).

One of the most critical things an artist needs is recognition, a reputation, a great number of people who know their identity and the nature of their work. Before the internet, artists needed to overcome the gatekeepers of the galleries and institutions and win over the media to inform the world of their existence but today with the internet, the artist is the media and with a web page and some effort can leverage slight recognition into fame. Britain’s ‘Super Solveig’
has shown us that a ten year old can do it.

Brighton’s Solveig.

Friday, 10 April 2009

Geoffrey Bocking: In Memoriam

By the Good Friday of 1969 on April 4th Geoffrey Bocking [born 1919] could have been dead for several days. It would be a week before his letters to his girlfriend and to his long separated second wife would arrive on the doormats that had been vacated for the Easter holidays hinting at what he was about to do. But it wasn't until April 20th that his friend George Christie was sent by his girlfriend and knowing of his depression, called around to his home and found him dead from barbiturate poisoning.

Propping himself up on his day bed with his Filofax journal and a glass of whiskey and a cigarette he, with characteristic rigour in his research process, recorded his descent into unconsciousness; "how strange... " he began and then as he felt the rush of enveloping darkness he composed a poem. It ends "love, love, love...." with the line slipping off the page. 

It is still hard for anyone that was there to relate the horror of the aftermath. All that I remember is being taken out of school for an unexpected stay with family friends and after the cremation and funeral had been competed, my sister and I sat on the stairs as our mother told us that he was dead.

I was only seven at the time of his death so I cannot write about my father in any concrete way, principally because so little evidence remains that I can refer to apart from the emotions I felt afterwards.

To say his death turned my world upside down would be an understatement but now, at the fortieth anniversary, and as I approach the age he was at that time, I feel there is enough emotional distance to mention him outside of my family and friends and I could not let this significant date of what would have been his 90th birthday pass without any remembrance at all.

A few years ago I discovered two photographs of my father and with the help of a defence picture archive I was able to identify the time and place they were taken. Here he is on the left in his twenties working at Cossor in a secret research laboratory at Highbury during WWII. 

The equipment that surrounds him was used to calibrate the top secret radar transmitters and receivers during manufacture and my father specialised in circuit designs for the equipment that tested and calibrated radar sets. There are several articles by him in electronics journals of the time. In 1941 in the Journal of British Radio Engineers he discusses the problems of stabilising fluctuations in power supply. Every time I plug in my laptop I think of him.

The man he was with in the pictures was later an eminent engineer Owen Hosmer Davie recalls my father being concerned that he was thought of by his colleagues as a very difficult character. My father's war work vindicated his status as a conscientious objector. I consider it a testament to his intellect that he convinced the magistrates at his tribunal of his pacifist beliefs; arguing on moral and not religious grounds.

I can read in his letters to his first wife that he felt later this position had cost him dearly when commissions for public building projects in post-war reconstruction went to architects that had distinguished service records. He did design the shop for Penguin Books at the Festival of Britain and a revolving wire rack to hold the paperbacks and his bookshop in Kensington Church Street opened in 1956 would not be out of place today. Its exposed internal pipework and distressed steel fascias with the shop sign cut in plate steel with an acetylene torch and left to rust pre-figured the post-modern aesthetic of today.

But there is not much other evidence of his work. Later on in life, by the time I was born, my father was a Senior Lecturer in Design at Hammersmith College of Art and Building and before that had taught at Corsham College of Art where he had also founded a cabinet making workshop. He was part of a tight social circle of designers including Anthony Froshaug and Norman Potter who - by virtue of living a long and well documented life - are now much better recognised than he is. Potter says in his autobiography "that remarkable man Geoffrey Bocking (he burned himself out, if one can speak in such terms and committed suicide). For some years we were a trio..." I don't bear any resentment or malice but I feel Potter's and Froshaugh's published works - therefore some of their reputation - has the imprint of constant discussion and argument about what is design with my father.

Somewhere I know there are a couple of houses for artists and workshops for a weaver and a potter and I recall him telling me amongst the machines had designed was one that shelled peas. Some scraps of paperwork attest that several schools and a few country estates, Tregothnan amongst them, and some smart London flats had ordered his custom made furniture but I doubt any survives.

I have established he was good friends with the lyricist Michael Flanders and he designed and built the interior of Michael's flat in Hampstead, which was specially adapted because its occupant lived in a wheelchair and it was photographed for House and Garden.

I was only two and my sister was a newborn when the great man came to visit and so was promptly put to bed but when R. Buckminster Fuller came to our house, the event became part of family legend and an indication of why my parent's marriage failed. One afternoon my father rang my mother with the most matter of fact casual request that as he and most of RIBA was coming to our house in a hour to hear Fuller speak, so could she possibly clear away the drying nappies and rustle up some tea... While Fuller held court in our living room for several hours  - sitting on an original Rietveld chair fetched from Anthony Hunt who was a neighbour - my mother crept into my room to collapse from exhaustion.

A year before he died my father presided over the MORADE conference at the Roundhouse to determine the future of arts education. It was a hugely controversial issue at the time spurred by student activism such as the Hornsey sit-in.

The most telling thing I know about my father is that Bocking is not a terribly common name and several times when I have been introduced to people, especially in the design world, is that they then say "Bocking, Bocking, not by any chance related to Geoffrey Bocking are you?" When told I am his son there is often a floodgate of emotional confessions about how inspirational a teacher he was.

I may expand on this further if there is ever time and emotional energy in reserve but thanks to Google, perhaps anyone else looking for any further evidence of his work and life will find this and share whatever else they have.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Backwards thinking

I find the most annoying aspect of using public transport is accessing the infomation I need to plan my route, especially in this day and age when service is a bygone word and reliability is utterly uncertain. I can usually locate the timetables I need quickly on the internet before I go but once on the road, I am defenceless against any variation and unable to deviate from my planned route unless I can locate again the necessary information. Many of the methods available to me in Suffolk like SMS bus enquiries aren't quite there yet and their data is patchy and limited.

For example, the Anglian Buses website will tell you that the last bus journey to Halesworth from Norwich is 5.15 PM. The National Express website will route the same journey by rail via Ipswich taking a ridiculous two and a half hours but neither, nor does Suffolk Traveline, tell you that if you take a bus from Norwich to Beccles - arriving Beccles 8.59 PM and, if the bus stays on time and you can run like the clappers in six minutes down London Road, you can catch a train from Beccles to Halesworth - departing Beccles 9.05 PM - so that you can linger in Norwich until the utterly decadent hours of 8 PM.

The ultimate 'killer app' that could get me to buy an overpriced I-phone might be the ability to plan journeys in real time using all modes of transport in a seamless database and map application. We're not there yet and we'll never get there if National Rail Enquiries takes such a proprietory attitude to their database. An anonymous British/Polish train blogger takes up the story;