OCA North Study Day – Halifax – 10th November 2019

I made the journey to Halifax for the bi-monthly OCA North study day in Halifax. OCA tutor Andrew Conroy made an excellent presentation about his photographic practice and ways of working – particularly his thoughts about collaboration. Andrew describes himself as being interested in space and place and is particularly drawn to urban edgelands because of what he describes as his ambivalent relationship with nature. He resists the label psychogeographer, both because he feels the element of ‘drift’ (derive) this implies does not apply to his way of working, and also because he has an aversion to labels in general. He finds that talking to people as he makes work can influence how it develops – often key information or a different viewpoint can spark the imagination or unlock something that would otherwise have remained hidden. Much of what Andrew said resonated with me, particularly his way of working which involves going back again and again to the same area. He encouraged us not to overthink and just to make work, however, he also pointed out that research should be used to force ideas as these do not come from nowhere. He summarised this with the advise to widen our research but narrow our focus. Reassuringly, he said it was important not to be driven to make every project a magnum opus as this can be stifling to creativity. It was encouraging to learn that some of his own work either ends up going nowhere or is only resolved when a conscious decision is made to bring it to an end. Strategies that work for him include imposing a time limit on completion of a particular project or limiting the number of images series – he mentioned 12 as being a number he often returns to. He showed some recent videos he had made using a ‘glitch’ app which he described as ‘micro films’. He did not know if these would develop into anything else but were the result of limiting himself to make a small film in one day using his smart phone.

Images from the series ‘1984’

Andrew’s series ‘1984’, which he describes as a long term aftermath project, resonated with me immediately as the subject matter of the legacy of the coal industry is something I have explored myself in my local area and something that continues to interest me. The title is loaded with significance as it refers to the Miner’s strike of that year and marks the beginning of the end of the coal mining in the UK. The series of 12 photographs are taken at the former site of the Orgreave colliery that was a key flash point during the strike – the so called ‘battle of Orgreave’ remains controversial to this day. The transformation of the are into a major housing development and nature area can be read as an attempt to conceal the trauma of the sites history which remains unresolved – despite attempts to erase the industrial past the area remains Orgreave. The project’s culmination was a self published book with a limited edition of 10 – 5 of these were left in the area that the photographs were made for people to take, or not, or to be eventually taken by the elements. A follow up is planned if an enquiry into the events at Orgreave is ever granted.

Postcard featuring a still from Indices of Irregular Return

‘Indices of Irregular Return’ is an abstract video made in collaboration with poet, artist and soundscape artist Linda Kemp. The interesting aspect of each of the collaborative projects Andrew discussed is that none of these involved working directly with the other artist. In this instance, Andrew took a track from Linda Kemp’s band camp site and used this as the soundtrack to the video without her knowledge. Another example involves the Andrew sending photocopied photographs of an area that was the site of a second world war POW camp in Yorkshire to artist Chris Graham who then paints over the top of them. Graham’s style is overtly political and loud and often involves the use of found materials and even the destruction of work – something that is at odds with the quiet nature of Andrew’s images. Andrew described initially feeling shocked by the way the photographs were transformed, but ultimately, and as the work developed, recognised the unexpected directions it was taken. Not being precious about your work is an important, even essential, aspect of successful collaboration.

An example of artist Chris Graham’s politically driven work – Donald Duck/Donald Trump

‘The Drive’ is a work that was made in collaboration with poet laureate Simon Armitage, although Andrew has not met or even spoken to him. Armitage sent Andrew a sound file of him reading a piece from his collection ‘The Motorway Service Station as a Destination in it’s Own Right’ – his only involvement in the project. Originally, Andrew had envisaged a slideshow piece that would last around 15 minutes, the reading of the poem however only came in at over 2 minutes which meant he had to radically rethink what he was going to do. Armitage’s distinctive delivery is accompanied by a slideshow of grainy, black and white images images that were taken during car journeys in rainy conditions. A soundscape by Ian Baxter completes the piece. For me, this is a great example different artists coming together, albeit separately, to create a work that is greater than the sum of its parts. The images, words and evocative soundscape combine to make a piece that reminds me of so many car journeys I have taken – the feeling of the mind wandering as you look in a detached way out of the windows to the grey world beyond – it is melancholy, but beautiful, both a celebration of the everyday and lament for wasted time.

The meeting ended with a chance to chat to the other students present in an informal way and view some of each others work. Rather than present the work formally as we had at previous meetings, it was placed around the room which led to some interesting and informal discussion. I took along my work for assignment 1 which was well received, previously, I have been reluctant to take work and have been racked with anxiety about showing it. On this occasion I felt quite relaxed which I feel is a major breakthrough and shows a growing confidence in putting myself ‘out there’. Andrew made a couple of interesting suggestions – he said the images would look good blown up to a giant size and displayed upon the wall, and following from a discussion about how I had been influenced by early Dada collages, he suggested I revisit the hand made work and drop the individual strips randomly before photographing the resulting arrangements.

Level 3 photography student Hazel Bingham brought her body of work submission which was a photobook exploring a particular urban landscape in London and had strong political intent. It was fascinating to hear Hazel’s plans to exhibition her work as part of her ‘Sustaining Your Practice’ submission and to listen to her share her experience of her photographic journey with the OCA.

Andrew Proctor, currently studying his first OCA photography course, brought work from the other end of the spectrum for his first assignment. Andrew had chosen to shoot on film and printed his own work as a practical response to the brief of the decisive moment as limiting how many images he could take and not being able to view them until they are printed forced him to really consider each time he pressed the shutter. Along with his final selection he also brought ‘real’ contact sheets – it was great to see these being so used to viewing everything digitally. For me, these could make the assignment submission itself or form part of another project – I love the idea of going out of your way to limit yourself to the confines of the decisive moment and then to subvert this by presenting everything that has been shot!

One of the things I love about OCA North is that it is multi disciplinary and it was great to say some paintings from Emma Wilson and Helen Jones. Emma is currently studying UVC, and although the course has been rewritten since I did it, I was glad she was enjoying it and finding her thinking stretched. We came to the consensus that this sort of course should be compulsory, and I certainly think that the challenge of the course has meant I have been able to progress unperturbed by research and challenging academic writing – the difficulty of which is a common complaint from students as they progress through the levels. To her credit Emma has also managed to keep making work while studying UVC – something I did not manage to do and the canvasses she brought had a contemplative and claiming feel. Helen presented 4 large paintings and asked everyone to respond to specific questions:

1. what is the first impression?

The 4 pieces are bright abstract works that immediately attracted my attention and made me want to consider what they were about and how they made me feel.

2. Do they make a cohesive group?

There are natural motifs and shapes in the individual paintings that unify them even though they are different both stylistically and through the use of colour. One of the pictures has what appears to be an horizon line which is not present in the others and felt out of place to me.

3. What are they about?

Initially they appear to be about the natural world – landscape and sky perhaps. The use of colour had an emotional effect upon me the more I viewed them an I wondered if representing different emotions was the intention.

4. What should they be called?

No idea! perhaps they should be untitled to maintain their ambiguity – this is certainly an aspect of the work that I appreciate and attracts me to them.

This exercise really forced me to consider the work and Helen’s intention – this might be something I consider to try myself in the future.

All in all, a fantastically invigorating meeting and trip out. With 9 attendees on the day (second highest since the group started last year) the indication seems to be that having a fixed location and planning when the meetings are happening in advance is paying dividends. As with all of these types of groups the main success is the building of networks – hopefully we will be able to work towards a collaborative exhibition over the next year. In short, well worth the 250 mile round trip!