× Good Enough Sculptures:
What Happens When Sculptures are Made to be Filmed?
A Territory – Preface Introduction Three ‘Finished’ FilmsThe Research Practice Collaborative Films Improvisation Sequences and Split Screens The Camera, Film and by Extension Perception Aphorisms Filming ‘Real’ Sculpture Gifs The Sculptures and Objects More Generally Conversation with Franz West, April 2019 Table Tops – a Conclusion of Sorts. Nothing is Finished Download as PDF


Improvisation has become a key concept for the work that is done in front of the camera. This came into focus when working with collaborator Claire Undy on the video Because We Have Hands (2017), which was intended to extend my work in the film studio by inviting another person into the filming process. What emerged was a highly focused period of physical exploration during which neither of us spoke. This had not been planned, neither was it strictly necessary – we were not intending to use the sound recorded by the camera. We watched one another intently, exploring different ways in which the objects I had made could be played with. One of us would do something then stand back to allow the other to respond. There was a heightened awareness of one another’s actions, body language and eye contact. Exploring the possibilities of the sculptures became a means of communication.

This prompted a number of collaborative experiments in the studio, as well as the developing of experimental workshops run at Kingston School of Art and Tate Modern. The developing importance of improvisation was supported by readings of Gary Peters whose Philosophy of Improvisation (2009) describes the constant looping of the jazz improvisation in which phrases are picked up and developed within a continuous stream of musical dialogue. Improvisation in this context is something that happens between people in an intensified atmosphere.

Repetition as a process within creative practice was explored in the essay Repeat, Repeat and Repeat Again: Repetition as a Strategy for Fine Art Research (Leslie 2018). In this I outlined the creative potential for repetition within research as a means of developing deep and highly contextualised understandings of a subject matter. It also explored repetition more generally in terms of child development, creativity and psychoanalysis.

Peters refers to improvisors such as Derick Bailey as having great memories. Improvising for him is not about continual innovation but rather a constant looping back to moments from earlier in the dialogue, or past experiences, reworking elements from the repertoire in ever new and shifting iterations. Referring to Keith Johnston, himself a pioneer of theatrical improvisation, Peters cites a passage in which Johnston outlines the Yes Game in which participants in an improvisation verbalise a contract of sorts.

‘When I arrived at class, I asked the students to say “Yes!” to any suggestion, explaining that the suggestion should come from everyone – that there were to be no leaders: “If you can’t respond with genuine enthusiasm, please leave the group and sit quietly at the side. We’ll time how long the group can sustain itself, so don’t fake it! Is that agreed?”

“You promise not to say ‘Yes’ to any suggestion unless you really mean it?”
“You accept these conditions?”
“You want to begin?
- Yess!
If you want to accelerate the stories for entertainment purposes switch to Yes! And…
- Let’s explore the forest!
- Yes! And…
- Let’s go into the deepest part of the forest!
- Yes! And…
_Let’s discover an old castle surrounded by thorn bushes!
- Yes! And…
- Let’s make our way through the thorns!
- Yes! And…
- Let’s find a sleeping princess!
- Yes! And…’

(Gary Peters (2009) The Philosophy of Improvisation, p. 39)

... This constant reaffirmation is designed to maintain a continual movement. The focus of the participants is therefore shifted away from outcome based and strategic thinking in favour of a moment by moment reworking, in which the ideas and spontaneous interventions of others (the developing dialogue) are intended to overcome any sense of individual ego or competitiveness. By shifting focus away from the final outcome, what emerges might be seen as a type of play through which unexpected discoveries can be made.

In the context of this research, improvisation in the film studio is closely allied to the articulation of the concepts of intuition and whim within the Aphorisms text that accompanies this submission.

Intuition and whim

What is intuition? It’s an idea I come up against and use frequently but it has both positive and negative associations. I have heard it used as a way of closing down discussion, albeit unintentionally. When asked, for example, what was the rationale for such and such decision? It can be all too easy to cite intuition. It seems often to be used as shorthand for a type of thinking or making that is responsive, immediate and not pre- meditated. There are many merits to using this type of approach and I would think in many cases it is a practical necessity, but it should not preclude other types of practice, making or thinking. It’s important to be honest about the role of uncertainty, chance and personal preference in making art. When asked early on at my first PhD presentation why I had made objects that looked the way they did, I could only answer ‘whim?!’. This was true to an extent, though it did not articulate what, at the time, would have been a complex series of decision making (conscious or not) around the particular form and material of the objects; the influence of whatever I had been looking at or thinking about at the time, and the history of my own making which must have been present in the background when conceiving and working on the objects. This could perhaps be a working definition of intuition, the complex network of small decisions, the background of culture, personal experience, preference, engagement and enjoyment as well as current influences, ideas, readings, artworks or exhibitions. Whim works in a similar way, but is more fanciful, braver perhaps, describing that moment where you unburden yourself of the reasonable course and do something unexpected. My online dictionary describes whim as ‘an odd or capricious notion or desire, a sudden of freakish fancy’. Compare that to the definition of intuition as a ‘direct perception of truth, fact, etc., independent of any reasoning process.’ Intuition would certainly seem to have a more positive connotation, but, at least by this account a more problematic one. The current use of intuition has lost the religious association but retained a certain seriousness. What is notable in this definition is the passivity of the one who intuits. Whim on the other hand is an active form of decision making, if at times a foolhardy one. It might lead to the rejoinder, ‘you’ve only yourself to blame’. In this way the current meaning of intuition when used in relation to making art has qualities of both whim and intuition. It is an attitude which is open to chance and fancy, but which also allows small decisions to be made without overbearing rationalisation or contemplation. It tends to be linked with practical dealings and the type of embodied thinking that is dictated by one’s sensibility in the moment. It is a state of mind which I think most artists will recognise, where the broader questions and problems of the work are put aside in order to focus on the making of something in particular and in which ideas come to mind semi-automatically. What is important, it seems to me is that both the intuition and the whim provide the impetus for action which is so necessary for the development of practice. They are tools to be wielded.

(This passage is taken in its entirety from the Aphorisms text which accompanies this thesis.)

Similarly, these concepts delineate practices which eschew strategic and rationalised thinking in favour of decision making, which is tactical, physically engaged, and responsive to the forms and materials with which the artist is engaged.

To this extent, Steven Connor’s A Philosophy of Fidgets (2010) has been useful for the way in which he describes activities which may at first glance seem unfocused and inefficient, but which reveal new possibilities. Doodling, for example, is described as a process of local inclinations rather than global strategies in which there are rules but no ground plan, ‘add a line here to close off this box, add a diagonal there to nudge the whole just a little away from equilibrium again,’ (Connor 2010) a continual process designed not to reach a particular destination but to occupy space, ‘optimising chances and amplifying responsiveness’. (ibid) A research visit to the studio of artist Adam Gillam in 2016 provided the grounds for consideration of these ideas within the field of contemporary art, sculpture and the studio. His practice appears to be one of occupying space. Sculptures cover the walls and floors, and he works on them as a whole, adding some things here, others there, in a series of potentially endless small practical decisions.

Using remarkably similar language to Peters, Connor writes: ‘The aim of the loopy [...] is precisely not to reduce possibilities, but to maximise them. Loops are in fact optimal itineraries when what counts is occupying a territory – leaving as little space as possible left over – rather than optimising a trajectory.’ (ibid)

My own adoption of the concept of whim as an active, provocative and generative moment within practical making, is closely aligned with these practices. Conceived of as a moment in which a decision is made without concern for where it will lead, but in the knowledge that it has the potential to propel the work forward in an unexpected direction, whim is both a tactic which can be employed, and an acknowledgement of the uncertainty inherent in the creative endeavour.

For artist and teacher Jo Addison, uncertainty is a central factor in the artistic process. In her teaching, she encourages students to be open to uncertainty, and to be comfortable with not knowing what their work will be and where it may lead. ‘[A]s a tutor, I am always looking to recognise the uncertainty of the student as a function of their learning. As well as learning about the historical and contemporary context in which they make work, they are learning their own work. And we don’t know what that’s going to be. So, it seems important sometimes, to debunk or broaden inherited models of what it is to be an artist. Or to point to enough examples to encourage an uncertain and negotiable testing ground.’ (Addison and Walton 2016, p.12)

This can be understood as both a psychological and critical approach, one aligned with our earlier discussion of learning environments, in which students are encouraged to reconsider their pre-existing knowledge and understanding through practical engagement. Here, by being asked to embrace uncertainty per se, students are being encouraged to go beyond their immediate possibilities and ability, to imagine and to get involved in the complex and messy business of finding out what their art is, by making it. A sort of deliberate forgetfulness which might lead to the expanding of the individual’s possibilities, and later to the extension of artistic possibilities more generally.

In her own sculpture making, Jo Addison attempts to allow the materials with which she works to show her the way, learning the objects she makes by making them. Speaking of a sculpture which she painted and repainted many times, unable to get the colour just right, she describes the process as one in which she ‘learned that object, like learning an instrument ... but I didn’t know what instrument it was!’ (ibid, p.8) Using language which bestows a certain amount of agency upon her materials, and a painful amount of uncertainty in the process, she plays with materials until forms emerge. Exactly what it is that finally brings the process to an end, is negotiated intuitively and physically with the materials and forms as they come to be. This strategy deliberately resists what might be seen as institutional requirements (within the academy and the art world) to account for, and rationalise, the artistic and creative process. It positions the intuitive negotiation with materials and forms – flawed, difficult and emotionally/intellectually complex – at the centre of the making process.