Month: May 2016

May 28, 2016

Maxim: Change must begin on the inside and work its way outwards. Opening prayer: Help me to work intelligently, methodically, intensively, passionately, and contentedly. 

9.00 am. A studio day. To begin. The apparatus that I’d constructed for the SteelWorks project needed to be put through its paces. The system, having lain dormant for the last few months, may now be plagued by gremlins. Each handboard and pedalboard, and every effector thereon, required a thorough test for function and efficiency. Alongside, I compiled a shopping list of items required to secure the betterment of the whole, and began schematising (again) the relationship and connections between the parts. The system must be made not only studio worthy (for the purpose of recording) but also road worthy (for the purpose of touring).

Switch on! Silence. Stage 1 diagnostics: Test each handboard and pedalboard independently. Success! On this occasion, I was the gremlin — having wired an output to an output (rather than to an input). (The blue socks played no part in it.):


Each of the handboards and pedalboards required its own schematic. My, former, integrated schematic, showing the connections between all boards and their components, was too complex, visually, to be useful. Once Handboard — which is very eccentric and immensely versatile — was certified operational, I commenced ‘nailing’ the effectors to the table and rationalising the audio and power cables. ‘Let the Velcroification begin!”


In the background, I listened to episodes of BBC 3’s Late Junction. I make it a matter of professional commitment to hear new music regularly. An artist/student ought to be immersed in the work of others; it’s not only invigorating but also helps them to determine the distinctive contribution that their own work may make to the field. New music has taken hold of the concept of the ‘outsider’ musician/artist in a very positive and defining way. In visual art ‘outsider art’ refers to the work artists with psychiatric conditions, principally. We really need a much broader application of the term. In music, it appears to refer to those who don’t affiliate with established record labels, movements, and groups. In art, we stand in need of an analogous identity.

Afternoon. In the same vein: fixing and binding. Some great news from Maureen (‘Mo’) Vyse — one of our PhD Fine Art contingent. She’s had two paintings accepted for the forthcoming RA Summer Exhibition. ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice’:

Maureen Vyse, Reflections on Gaia (2016) [detail]

The best students thrive in spite of their teachers. In the late afternoon, while working under the ‘bonnet’ of Handboard 1, I listened to music by and interviews with Cornelius Cardew. He was one of the great, pioneering experimental musicians of his generation. The Art/Sound module stands in need of a little more content on his contributions at the visual-sonic interface [To Do]. How do I convert the mono output from Handboard 1 into a stereo one (or is that two)?

5.20 pm. ‘Sufficient unto the day …’. An evening with my wife.

Closing prayer: Thanksgiving for challenges received and overcome, as well as for those that defeated me.


May 27, 2016

8.30 am. A fast but thorough moderation of the Art in Wales projects was required. These scripts can now be sent to the External Examiner for her own scrutiny. Although, I’m unsure how our examiner will respond to the UCU’s call for all such to resign over the issue of pay.

What am I assiduously avoiding doing? (‘Do that first, John!’) Well, Postgraduate Research Monitoring forms are high on that list. So … . Then on to more palatable business: arranging tutorials and appointments with the postgraduates and others, for next week. Localisation, rationalisation, and compression are the watch words when it comes to teaching over the Summer.

My thoughts continue to gravitate to South Wales during the period from 1981 to 1982. I opened my box files of 35mm transparencies for those years and beyond. Transparencies, or slides, have the quality of miniatures. I’ve always preferred them unprojected. Those years were formative in respect to every dimension of my life. Large stones were cast into the pond back then, and the outward incremental effect is still on going. It was a time of completeness before dissolution, of uncertainty before definition, and of vacillation and unknowing interspersed with moments of extraordinary wellbeing:


In the Summer of 1982, I walked the length of the Arael Mountain, photographing the town and conurbations of Abertillery, where I’d grown up. I used Agfa 200ASA black and white slide film. It could render a very fine grain, reminiscent of an aquatint:

Arael View housing estate viewed from the summit of the Arael Mountain, Abertillery (July 1982)

Whatever happened to the Williams twins? Mark (on the left. Or is it the right?) was my contemporary at art school. His brother, Phil, visited the studios often and, I suspect, probably substituted for Mark at some of his tutorials. It was rather like having a clone of himself. Someone with whom he could share his life, quite literally. The Falmer twins, who worked in the sculpture annex, certainly represented each other on occasions. Their resemblance was absolute; quite eerie:

Mark’s Australian cousin, Mark, Phil, and Nigel at the abandoned pit workings, Arael Mountain, Abertillery (July 1981)

I discovered Mark Williams’ website later on in the day. He’s still painting. Phil is now a poet.

Then, on to research admin — chiefly emails to remind others, higher and lower in the food chain of my projects, of their promised undertakings, roles, and the deadlines by which they need to respond to my incessant badgering. Late morning, I returned to the CD booklet text and continued on that course after lunch. Responses to the morning’s arrangements and proddings began to plop into my inbox. There was encouraging news on several fronts — small forward movements were being made, where before there was only stasis.

The SteelWorks [working title] sound and photography project, to which I’ll be moving tomorrow, still requires the green light from the folk at TATA Steel, Port Talbot. Clearly, they’ve weightier matters on their mind at the moment. Part of me wants to work with a collaborator: someone who would take charge of the visual element of the project. But until I begin working up the sonic response to the collection of glass-plate photograph, I wont know what the work requires. (The work is the boss.) The plates are deposited with the People’s Collection of Wales. There are some astonishing images among them:

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 15.13.57

4.15 pm. Distant thunder rumbled, stereophonically. It was sublime: ‘full of sound and fury’. (‘Listen! Listen to it carefully, John!’) Sometimes, it resembled a landslide or the churning of coal trucks on a railway track, and at other times — a gunshot. The sky darkened; clouds plumed and hung heavy, like an acrid industrial discharge. The torrent punished, unstoppable:


Evening. The morning and afternoon sessions had been too dispersed and bitty from doing the necessary. So, I gave over the day’s final third to the CD booklet text again.

May 26, 2016

9.00 am. Today I took the first step towards an protracted and intensive period of research, which will take place over the Summer. Such times need to be planned and executed with the same precision and organisation as any teaching and administrative duty. Where research time is concerned, the principle of ‘waste not, want not’ is paramount. Back, then, to my CD booklet text, and forward to reflect upon possible futures.

Over the last year, I’ve become conscious of industrial sonorities in my sound work. I associate them with coalmining and the generation of electricity, principally: the grind and clank of metal on metal; water under pressure; steam escaping; the dull thud of something pounding deep underground; the blare of pit hooters; and the resonant 50Hz hum of distribution transformers in unison. During the year after I graduated, on my visits home to the South Wales valleys, I documented the few still extant ruins of industry. The photographs were taken on a Soviet made Zenit-E SLR camera with a Helios 44-2 lens; it had the recoil of a 129-mm Howitzer:

‘Cutting off Shop’, National Grid substation, Aberbeeg Road, Abertillery (September 1982)
‘Danger’, transport cage, Big Pit, Blaenavon (September 1982)
‘Notification of Emergency’, coal truck terminus, Big Pit, Blaenavon (September 1982)

You get to a certain age or point in life when formative interests beckon once again. Ignore their call at your peril.

I’d been invited to comment on a piece of ex-curricula, off-site artwork by one of our ‘retiring’ BA Fine Art students. There’re some conversations that I wish I’d enjoyed earlier on in a student’s education. This was one. A truly remarkable, resilient, and resolute person disclosed themselves.

Thereafter, it was back to the School to double mark a set of module papers. At homebase, I inched the CD booklet text forward. On the deck: King Crimson’s Lizard (1970) (about which I’ve remarked elsewhere). Inches turned into feet turned into yards. A conclusion to the general statement of intent was in sight. Some endeavours (and this is one) are difficult because they’re impossible. One cannot fully either articulate the motivations and processes that give rise to an artwork or interpret the outcome of such. But one can do these things sufficiently and satisfactorily. That is enough.

Evening. I try not to expend all three (and sometimes four) sessions of a day on any one activity. The adjustments that I’d made to ‘The Wilderness’ composition from ‘Image and Inscription’ needed to be heard and confirmed on the main monitors. It felt good to be back in the studio once again. I fired up the ‘boiler’, and was off:


A two-day ‘strike’ (or, in this university, a ‘work to contract hours’) is presently underway. No longer do I have to suffer the indignity that some of my part-time colleagues endure. But I did, once. I first began teaching in 1985, during the initial year of full-time studies for a PhD in art history. Three part-time jobs sustained me: one at a further education college in Pontypool, Gwent, giving instruction to 16 to 18 year old students in every conceivable medium and its history at O- and A-level; another at my old art school in Newport, a half-hour bus journey from Pontypool, running first year art history seminars; and another in Aberystwyth, where I was studying, running the, then, biggest Open College of Arts provision in the UK. Each institution paid me by the hour to teach, but not for the time it took to prepare lessons. (When you’re starting out as a teacher, a one-hour lesson might take four hours to prepare.) And, I received no reimbursement of travel expenses to, from, and between my places of work. I maintained that regime, in one form or another, for the next five years.

The art department, Pontypool College, Gwent (May 1986)

May 25, 2016

8.45 am. Off to work. A deadening grey awning covered the town, and a quietness — associated with the end of term and the long stretch of Summer vacation ahead — filled the rooms and corridors of the School. After the hubbub and feverish activity of the past few weeks, the contrast was striking. It felt like all the children had left home at once:


At 10.00 am, I held a meeting, in my capacity as Exhibitions Module Co-ordinator, with Professor David Ferry, our External Examiner for Fine Art. This was in preparation for the more formal gathering of the Examination Board Meeting, an hour later. As ever, the latter occasion was a matter of not only business but also reflection upon our practice as teachers and assessors. He brought to the table a wealth of experience, a bucket of common sense, perspective, clarity of thought, diplomacy, and high standards, all peppered with a cheeky and infectious humour. The ideal External Examiner in every way. We’ll miss his contributions dearly:


After lunch, I began preparing feedback forms and marks for distribution to my BA and MA fine art and art history tutees. All morning I’d been plagued by the melody of Spandau Ballet’s Instinction (1981).The song was released in the year I graduated with a BA (Hons.) Fine Art degree. It’s curious how some music stays with you. Back then, I doubt whether I’d listened to the recording more than half a dozen times. This is a testament to the composition’s good ‘hooks’. And, I don’t believe that I’ve listened to it again in the intervening thirty five years, In that strange age, many New-Romantic guitarists held their instruments high upon their chests, like the lute players in Piero della Francesca’s The Nativity (1470-5) [detail]:


The positioning of the guitar looks naff; but it’s surprisingly ergonomic. China Crisis’ African and White, from the same year, is another song that haunts my sonic memory. An intelligent bass-riff!

Leaving art school was no less unsettling an experience then than, I imagine, it is for students today. Up until that moment, education had divided my life in to one, two, and three year intervals: ‘O’ levels, ‘A’ levels, Foundation Studies, and the degree. On the 2 July 1981, a road called ‘The Rest of My Life’ stretched, as an unbroken continuity, into the distance; it had no sign-posts, markers, crossroads, or obvious destination:

At the close of my final day of art school, halls of residence, Caerleon campus, Gwent College of Higher Education, Caerleon, Gwent (July 2, 1981).

Academic gown et al ordered. ‘Let’s party!’.

Evening. I’ve a PhD Fine Art student who’s reaching the conclusion of the degree’s thesis element. I read that conclusion and provided a commentary.


May 24, 2016

8.00 am. An earlier start than usual. Exam admin was prepared in readiness for the External Examiner’s series of viva voce with the BA exhibiters. A cross section of students had been chosen, variously representing either classes of mark, the whole range of mediums, and different student experience of the study program. The viva is not onerous for either student or examiner. And, what results from the interaction can instruct both parties, as well as for the School’s staff as a whole.

9.00 am. A PhD fine art tutorial was followed by my final, final exhibition assessment of the semester. Then, onto my notebook list of small but necessary tasks to complete:


I was going to have to postpone lunch and until later, so a little consciousness-enhancing substance, for sustenance, was required in the interim:


At noon, I began the next stage of the MA Fine Art program with two of my students, one of whom is moving towards their first exhibition and the other, to their second exhibition, which will be held in September. My thoughts are, now, directed to ways in which those who had taken MA Vocational Practice can continue to refine and apply their teaching skills beyond the module. What is the point of training postgraduates if they cannot continue to exercise and develop their gifts? And, their input so far has been invaluable.

After lunch, back at homebase, I was back on the PhD monitoring report trail. One by one, the trees of a forest are felled. In tandem, I parried emails and set in motion appointments and consultations for the weeks ahead. In the evening session, I continued to wield my axe. Sundown. One cannot explain these occasions in terms of physical phenomena alone:


I completed as many reports as possible. Before completing the outstanding ones, I need to discuss the progress of several student’s work in my capacity as second supervisor.

May 23, 2016

8.40 am: Off to School:


After communicating the weekend’s preparation of marks and scripts to various co-ordinators, I prepared copies of the marks sheets for the morning’s degree show ‘walkaround’:


The purpose of the exercise, in which all staff together tour the exhibitions, is to ensure parity of marking across all the medial disciplines: a ‘cross-check’ (as they say on airlines prior to take-off. Whatever that means). This procedure will, in turn, be scrutinised by the External Examiner tomorrow. So, all in all, each student’s work will have been assessed three times. Today’s ‘stroll’ took three hours to complete.

After lunch, I pressed on with the PhD Research Monitoring reports (with a little Otomo Yoshihide in the background for company, and a chunk of dark, chilli chocolate for comfort and solace). I find it both instructive and inspiring to immerse myself in the work of a single guitarist (substitute any type of creative practitioner) for a period. One ought to be acquainted with both artists and their artworks. There are few things more encouraging (particularly, when one’s own work hits a brick wall) than reading artists’ biographies and autobiographies, and discovering that they too have smashed into, and through, obstacles in their way.

Evening. The sunlight of the parting day poured into the studio:

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 20.47.07

My task was to remain constant: reports were waiting to be written, and they’d not get any fewer for my staring out of the window. Onwards and sideways. The reports, to my mind, needed to be summative, diagnostic, prescriptive, encouraging, and supportive. I’m gratified by the work that our PhD Fine Art students are undertaking. Each is working in a world entirely different to that of the others. Supervising them is a very rich (if exhausting) experience.

At bedtime, I’ve begun reading:

Screen Shot 2016-05-24 at 08.07.30

I felt in need of a refresher course.

May 21, 2016

At around 1.30 am, one of the domestic fire alarms was set off for no apparent reason. Better to have a false alarm than no alarm when something really is amiss. I needed to make an early start in order to compose the intercessory prayers for tomorrow morning’s service of Holy Communion at Holy Trinity Church, which will be celebrating its annual name day during its 130th anniversary:

Design by J H Middleton for the pulpit, Holy Trinity Church, Aberystwyth (built c.1887), The Building News (January 21, 1890)

At noon, I headed to the School to pick up a late British Landscape exam paper. Dr Webster, donned in a white lab coat (as many of the former chemists of this building would have been), was conducting experiments in the darkroom. He had not yet animated ‘the creature’, it would appear.


After lunch, I marked the final British Landscape paper, and compiled the aggregated marks for our secretaries to process on Monday. On, then, to compiling scripts and marks in readiness for the External Examiner’s viva voce with the BA and MA exhibiters. At the close of the working day, I second-marked the incoming assessments, prepared by Mr Iliff, of the Vocational Practice web-design projects, and completed the mark sheet for the module.


5.20 pm. Time out!

May 20, 2016

9.00 am – 2.00 pm: a protracted session of assessing the third year fine art finalists. This is the last day of intensive assessing. (A few rescheduled appointments will be held early next week.)


Once again Cerebos was let out of his/her kennel. On the whole, the students gave a good account of themselves. These are the last professional conversations we’ll have with the finalists. As such, the assessments are coloured by the melancholy of departure. No teacher worth their salt can remain untouched by it. Some students will go straight into employment, others onto MA studies, and yet others along a path, the destination of which is still unknown to them. But all will leave with a greater sense of self-awareness. At the very least, they’ll know what they don’t want to do in life.


Occasionally, this parting exchange reveals something (either a fact, an anecdote, an attitude, or an opinion) that discloses something quite remarkable about the student; something that had been concealed or unsaid hitherto. I’m convinced that they’re not conscious of the disclosure. Suddenly, you see them and what they’ve achieved in a very different light. Wonderful!

For some students, the final exhibition will be their final exhibition. No shame or sense of failure should be attached to that. Many came for an education in art, an education through art, and, to their great surprise, an education by art. Not every one wants to, or should, be an artist. For others, this exhibition will have been the first of many public and professional engagements. By early afternoon, my colleagues and I had given of our best. The experience of assessing continuously is hollowing. It incurs a heavy expenditure of physical energy, emotion, and intellect.  We were ‘maxed out!’


Over lunch with a colleague, we reflected upon the week’s work and engaged in mind games about the possible futures of an education in painting at the School. The imminent death of painting as a viable and progressive art form has been anticipated since the close of Modernism. However, with the rise of Postmodern, painting became, once again, central to fine art practice in the occident. Granted, painting has not enjoyed a golden age during or since that period. (The last great movements associated with the medium were Abstract Expressionism and Post-Painterly Abstraction, in the 1940s to 50s.)

Painting today is, as Clement Greenberg would have out it, ‘coming along in a small way’. Thus it’s neither in terminal decline nor comatose nor otherwise so stricken that we need write ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ on its clipboard. Curiously, musicians never argue for the death of the piano forte due to the invention of the electronic organ and synthesiser, or the abandonment of traditional compositional structure with the rise of twelve-tone serialism and noise music. The new was accepted, eventually, as an extension of, and complimentary to, traditional instrumentation and compositional practices. We fine artists and art historians really do have it in for ourselves on some issues.


Back at homebase, I assembled the marks for the BA Exhibition and MA Exhibition and Portfolio modules in readiness for the annual ‘walkaround’ the studios by the staff en masse on Monday, prior to the External Examiner’s visit on that day. In the evening, I completed writing up my feedback reports on the day’s exchanges.

May 19, 2016

8.15 am. An administrative dust and tidy opened the day. At the School, I readied myself for a morning of MA Exhibition assessments. It was heartening to see Dr Pierse in the building again. (We’d be reviewing work by a number of his students.) He, Dr Forster, and I were a Cerebos. Although there was no barking, biting, and fighting on this occasion:


Some principles and observations derived from today’s engagements:

  • There’s a world of difference between being focussed and remaining at a standstill.
  • The quality of the work betrays the integrity of the work ethic.
  • Clarity and discipline of thought, and the ability to rationalise and delimit a field of action, contribute significantly to the success of an artist’s practice.
  • Find yourself; find the way. The reverse is also true.
  • Make a virtue of your limitations. Often, what we cannot do is irrelevant to us. Which may be one reason why we can’t do it.
  • The practice of art is a capital investment that’s given to us on trust. We must return it with interest.

After lunch, I held an MA inquirer’s discussion with a prospective applicant. One should never try to persuade an inquirer to apply to this School at all costs. Rather, the interviewer should have their best interests at heart. This may be right place for them to study. But it may not. On this, both parties must agree. Often, I’m struck by how the circumstances of the applicant’s life and the affairs of their heart appear to have converged upon this moment, this discussion, here. In this room, the course of some people’s future has been either changed or set:


And this, not of my doing. It’s a motion of the student’s spirit — a realisation that takes place as they listen to their testimony about themselves and the work that they’ve made. Afterwards, I wrote up the essence of the morning’s exchanges, and undertook exam admin correspondence. We’re moving towards a climax.

Evening. Less a gear change than a vehicle swap: Holy Trinity Church Committee, and a very different set of priorities and orientations:


May 18, 2016

8.30 am. Several emails had sat, unanswered, in my inbox for too long. Acquitted! Marantz gets a toupee:


There were two further Vocational Practice, small-group tutorial projects to mark. The students have put hearts and minds into their task. Only a year ago, most of them were third year undergraduates. Today, they’re tutors in the making: confident, able to self-evaluate and learn from their experience, and rigorous in their curriculum design. They’ve laboured with love.

A tussle with Turnitin thereafter, with Mozart’s Requiem in the background to remind me of my end, and to prepare thereunto.  Bach’s Art of the Fugue oiled a period of dry and perfunctory exam administration until noon. With a warmed pasty in my sandwich box, I walked to the School to attend a markers’ consultation meeting about the MA Research Project submissions.

After the meeting, I returned to exam admin: number crunching, uploading reports, and sifting anomalies:


Thereafter, it was an afternoon of BA and MA inquirers meetings. Some principles and observations derived from today’s encounters:

  • Don’t seek to be better than others in your cohort. Rather, seek to be better than you are in the company of others with the same ambition.
  • Now is the best time, usually. Indeed, now is the only time you can guarantee.
  • Who you are is your greatest asset. What you’ll become may be your greatest surprise.
  • Life, for some of us, proceeds along a wiggly line.

During the evening’s practise session, I explored the Zvex Fuzz Factory effector further. Back at my desk, I initiated the most hateful admin task of the year: the annual Research Postgraduate Monitoring Report round. It should be simple, but the constant toing and froing of a document file between the student, their main supervisor and second supervisor, and me by email complicates matters and slows down the process considerably. What’s required to facilitate efficiency is an on-line electronic form that’s visible to all at any time. ‘Some Roxy Music, please!’



We are spoiled by these silent, end-of-day spectacles at this time of the year. ‘Count your blessings, name them one by one’.