At the moment I am reading a lot about newer developments in management and design. While this is nothing brand-new, there is quite a revolution ongoing. Some of the buzzwords would be “design thinking”, “Scrum”, “lean” or “Kanban”.
The whole set of ideas seem driven by the basic thought, that design needs to be centered around the needs of the end user. In times past, a lot of thinking went into the creation of one specific item, but that thought process was mostly done internally. Internally could mean inside the design company or even inside the mind of the designer. There was little interaction with users before the item actually hit the shelves.
Starting with developments in software design, lean methods have taken over huge parts of the design world. Here, designing an object is not seen as one enormous thing, but rather as a series of miniscule steps. Rather than designing a finalized object, right from the start, a goal is set, and tiny little steps are made to reach said goal. Every step – and that is the part that truly intrigues me – is then tested with end users. While mostly invisible, the change as a whole becomes noticeable, when comparing the software on your smartphone to the software that ran on your computer ten years ago. Back then, new software versions were released maybe once a year. Final new versions, often with grandiose names. In contrast, when looking at my phone, not a single day passes, that not some of the installed apps have been updated to a newer version over night. Most of the changes are tiny and rarely do they really affect the way I interact with these programs. Sometimes a change noticeably improves the app by a little step. And in even rarer occasions, the whole look and feel of the app might change. Mostly though, the “improvements” need to be looked for.
That makes a lot of sense to me. Rather than change the whole thing, change a little thing here, and another one there. If something does not work, or if users hate the change, just roll it back. Implementing the structures that are needed to enable this approach is not limited to companies developing software. Only with software, updates are delivered constantly and quickly, we can see the changes happening on our devices, in front of our own eyes. Hardware is trickier. There, the techniques are implemented before a single device hits the shelf. New devices are developed in little increments, rather than in one big swoop and every little change is – in theory – looked at through testing by end users.
These techniques derive much of their power and much of their success from a constant state of feedback. Nothing is taken for granted and everything is looked at and judged by people outside the design bubble.
Oh boy! Am I jealous!
For most artists – at least the ones I know and interact with – the reality looks much different. Compared with the approach just mentioned, the way artworks are created feels to a huge part highly antiquated. To the outside world, the artistic process is a black box, internally it seems unchanged from the past decades. An artist thinks about stuff, comes up with an idea and realizes it to the best of his or her ability. From the moment of first thought to the final piece, very little interaction takes place between the artist and whatever might be classified as an audience. Very little, mostly equals none.
So how can I be sure, that a work works?
I can’t, and that is the issue I am having.
Back at art school, everything revolved around feedback. There were the one-on-one meetings with your professor or tutor, then there were class panels of different sizes, and even the final exams took mostly the form of a broad feedback session. Once I had left art school, this changed pretty much from one day to the other.
From time to time, I might talk to a friend about an ongoing project, but that is rare and as a whole, friends and family might not make for the best critique partners. Liking someone, easily taints the way you look at a project they seem driven by. If you need to feel good about something, those might be the right persons to go to, yet to see if a work really works, you would need to look further afield.
Normally, there is just not the right environment available, that offers this neutral outside perspective. While my work is visible on my website. Rarely, if ever, do I get any feedback regarding works seen there. I am not really tracking my visitors, but the company I use to host my site, offers a rudimentary counter. Often, that is the only indication I am having, that my site gets any views at all. That has to do with the way the Internet works. When was the last time, you have seen something online, that made you get in touch with the creator to let him or her know, that you like what they are doing? My guess would be never.
But it also goes beyond an issue with the audience as it appears on the Internet. The same is true, if it comes to real, I.e. physical, exhibitions. Most visitors to exhibitions seem to take these events as social gatherings. And who might blame them. Maybe that is just what these events are. And maybe my expectations are just misplaced. Then the question remains, where I might get any feedback, whether or not my work actually works as intended. Or how I might be able to improve what I have done.
This might have to do, with the whole notion of the “artist” as this reclusive genius fighting with his inner demons. If he or she then banishes something on canvas, who might be in a position to judge? While this is a pretty kitsch sounding idea, quite a few art schools still seem to be poisoned by this. “Everything goes” becomes “nothing can be judged” in a heartbeat. I get it partially, when we are talking about very expressive art forms, that border at self-therapy. But the role art has to play within society has undergone a drastic transformation. And many artists actually need to know, whether their work works or not. Artists find themselves in an environment, that is full of these self-therapy sessions. Everyone creates something and everyone hunts for the same thumbs-up-thumbs-downs, shares or likes. This results in many artists moving away from pure creation to curation. And that is important. Trying to make sense of what is out there already. Trying to help society to find its way.
Here then, whether a work works, whether it is understandable, approachable, consumable. All that does in fact matter. When an artist tries to broaden the understanding of a certain, urgent sociopolitical issue and no one gets it? That is a problem. To put it quite simply. Someone should have told the artist, before he spent a lot of money on prints and frames. Maybe his idea was the right one, just his approach should have been different. Maybe the whole thing was not all that bad, but incrementally it could have been better.
Of course, having an idea, whether one of my works manages to tell the narrative I want to tell, is my key professional expertise. This is why I tend to think about my works a lot. This is why I look at many artworks done by other people. What I am trying to hint at, is that the same is true for product designers or software engineers. Yet in these fields, there seems to be a consent, that there is a lot of room to improve beyond the expertise of the individual. I mentioned earlier that friends and family make for a crappy jury, when looking at a loved one’s work. It is much worse, when it comes to judging your own work. Many design companies big and small have seen that by now, and they have found ways to mitigate these issues. That is the thing that makes me jealous.
It is not entirely clear to me, how these newfound powers and mechanisms could be adapted to fit the needs of artists. I would just love to be somewhat better guided, when trying to realize a new work. I am slightly fed up with constantly following my instincts. While my goal with my works is always to feed my own curiosity, I see myself in an outward facing role as well. The things I understand through my research and my thinking, are things other people might benefit from. This is why I present my thought and works in exhibitions, talks, conferences. Everything that helps me, getting my ideas across easier, would be great.
I resent the art education I received quite a lot, and from time to time I am even bitter. This resentment comes from the fact that at art school, everything was meant to be done solo. No one ever forced me to work with others. There were some artistic duos or groups, but they were always the outliers. Special ones, not necessarily to be copied. And the way these duos or groups worked was pretty much a copy of the reclusive way I was working, just with one or two more people. Everything was internal.
Maybe I am contradicting myself here, given my claim earlier, that in art school, everything seemed centered around feedback. While it is true and feedback was given, this was mostly limited to a brief glimpse at a more or less finished work, and not really seen as something, that was an integral part of the process of creating an artwork. Better this than nothing, but there would have been so much room for improvement. Plus, the feedback given, was always one from within your group of peers.
Never for instance did anyone ever bring in “layman” viewers from the outside for an interaction with the artists. Once a year, there had been an open house summer fest. But this, again, was a mostly social gathering, with no encouragement for visitors to voice their true concerns or ideas. Art there, almost like in a museum, was ought to be looked at, and not questioned. Yet other than in most museums, the artist responsible for a certain work, would have been right there, available for replies and questioning. I always tried to interact with the audience on these occasions. Something that was frowned upon by many of my classmates. Of course, it hurts, when the feedback is negative. So why leave your hiding place, if there might be a negative judgement waiting for you? Better ignore the audience and play the “arrogant genius” card. Does that help? I don’t think so.
Maybe that is not possible. Maybe art cannot be created in an environment that would hold up to the standards of agile design. And maybe I am just naïve. I just think that in today’s environment, everything about art needs to be open for discussion. The role the artist plays within society. The role as a creator. The way authorship works. And even the way art comes to be.
Even with interdisciplinary teams like the studio of Olafur Eliasson, do people expect there to be just one name associated with a specific artwork. I am quite certain, that many people are actually involved in the development of these ideas, the name Eliasson is still the big thing on every catalog cover. The façade of the genius artist is still maintained. Society does not seem to be open to new development. And since the dangling financial carrot is linked to the wishes and demands of society and the market, there is little incentive for artists to try something entirely new. As a whole, art would definitely benefit from some drastic change. Personally, it might feel nice to create something new, sitting alone in your room, but that is not necessarily the best approach when tackling the big issues and topics at hand. In the end it should not really matter, whether one or ten people have been involved in the thought process behind a certain piece of art. How many people have cooperatively come up with the great designs of the past decade? Who knows? And who cares? Why is it so hard to look at art in a similar fashion?
I think it would be great just trying to implement some of the new tools and some of the new thinking into art. But that is nothing I myself could do. That is the key thing. These techniques are not meant to be used by someone sitting alone at their desk. They are necessarily a team effort. Another positive aspect would be, that they are not only meant for teams, but they seem to work best in an interdisciplinary environment. Another idea I quite like.