A text work for the artists' book, "APOGEE - a compilation of solitude, ecology and recreation",
published by nuans artist collective, 2011

A Letter from the Island

I'm living on the island. I was brought here by my work.

It's very quiet on the island. Quiet calms me. Quiet makes me nervous. I'm not sure I want to stay here. I'm not sure if I can leave.

I always dreamed of being on the island. I dreamed of being in the place of absolute peace and ultimate productivity. In 2000 I made a work about living alone in a cottage in the Outer Hebrides and reading philosophy. Between 2000 and 2008 I kept returning to a work where I was living in an artists' colony. In 2009 I made drawings of an artists' community where I lived with my closest friends. I was always trying to visualise the perfect environment for making art. I wanted enough comfort so that managing my life didn't steal too much time from my work, enough social contact to both ensure my emotional balance and to provide an external check on the relevancy and quality of my work, and enough isolation to minimise distraction. I dreamed of an environment that would keep me productive without having to rely on will power.

Now all these dreams have become redundant. The island is different from anything I ever imagined. Productivity is not an issue because there is no imperative to produce, external checks are unnecessary because relevancy and quality are meaningless criteria, distractions are unimportant because productivity is not an issue. Isolation is guaranteed because there is nothing on the island except me and my work.

I haven't been on the island very long. In fact, it was only when I was invited to be part of the nüans book APOGEE that I realised I was here. I started wondering what I could contribute and immediately knew that my current work was never going to allow me to stop making it long enough to produce a new, unrelated work, nor was it going to allow me to submit a pre-existing, unrelated work. Then I knew I was on the island. My work had brought me here.

Of course, the fact that you are reading this shows that in the end I was able to contribute to the book. However, I was only able to write this text because I am writing about my current work. The text will of course be appropriated to become a part of that work.

My arrival on the island happened in a most unexpected way. I was feeling despondent about my work (again), tired and lethargic (again) and my head was empty of ideas and inspiration (again). I was again filled with a profound feeling of pointlessness and futility. I didn't know what to do, but I needed to produce something to appease my need to produce. In this state I usually return to something that I've started but haven't finished - for years it was the artists' colony, but I've also got a few videos that I keep re-editing and numerous photos that I'm always trying to turn into works. But this time I was in the process of moving studios, my computer was packed away and my photos in boxes. Because my usual distraction projects weren't available to me, I started making a series of small abstract drawings on postcard-sized pieces of paper, which could be easily made between packing, renovating and moving. I was also writing about my work, because this is something I always do. I was (as usual) writing about how I go about making work and (as usual) wondering if there could be strategies that would finally stop the endlessly repeating cycle of a period of brief excitement and productivity followed by a period of crushing despair. The difference this time was that, instead of writing in my journal, I decided to write on the same paper that I was using for the drawings and I decided to think of the drawings and texts as a work. And, because I always give my works working titles, I started to call the work: “Guide To Life IV(C): Autobiography (Inventing Reality): In 2010 I Spent A Year Producing Work Without Worrying About Why I Was Doing It Or What I Was Producing” and “Guide To Life IV(C): Autobiography (Inventing Reality): In 2010 I Discovered A Way Of Making Art Which Is Emotionally Sustainable”.

When I finally moved into my new studio, I put the drawings and texts on the wall and looked at them and saw that I was (again) making a work about the nature of art and the nature of art-making and that I was (again) looking for an answer to the eternal mysteries of beauty and transcendence and decided, in a mood of ironic fatalism, to give the work the title: “Guide To Life VI(C).8: Art-Making(Strategies): The Answer To Everything”. And I carried on making the work because it was still 2010 and that's what I'd decided to do.

As soon as the drawings and texts were on the wall something very strange started to happen. The work became autonomous. When new drawings or texts arrived on the wall they were immediately consumed by the work and I had no relationship to them any more as the artist, only as a viewer. This is not normal. Although I always say that I wait for the moment when the work turns round and starts talking to me and tells me that I should leave it alone, this usually only happens, if at all, after a long period of adjusting, re-adjusting and editing. When this moment happens I can say that the work is finished. Conversely, when it doesn't happen, the work is not finished. With this work I was losing the right to edit and adjust immediately. But the work isn't finished, it will never be finished and can never be finished.

In retrospect I can see that my arrival on the island was inevitable. Without intending to, I had laid a perfect trap for myself.

I had started drawing and writing in a state of despair where I thought it doesn't matter what I do, so I may as well do anything, and I was tired so I wanted something that was simple in structure and easy to achieve. I thought of the work as a time-filler, an illusion of productivity, symbolic for the act of making art, a kind of performance of being an artist. I thought I would at some point get into a different state and be able to start making real work again. I looked on the drawings as exercises. I started a drawing with a simple plan in my head like making a drawing from a single line without taking the pencil from the paper or creating a uniform texture or producing an even gradation of shading across the page. I then struck the problem that whatever I was planning to draw, I was increasingly unable to complete it. I would look at the drawing while I was making it and it would suddenly tell me that it was finished and I was unable to keep going. I found myself trying to avoid looking at the drawing while I was making it so that I would have a better chance of being able to finish what I had started, but drawing without looking at what you are drawing isn't really possible.

I had wanted the drawings to look like exercises in learning to draw. I had intended the work to look like an attempt to make a complete compendium of drawings. I had intended the work to be about the process of trying to learn something that might be unlearnable, to control something uncontrollable. I had intended the work to be a metaphor for art, for the need to make art and for the endless striving and longing to understand art and beauty and the transcendence that comes from it. But because I was unable to plan how the individual drawings would look, and consequently unable to plan the narrative between them, I found that my intentions were thwarted.

I felt powerless over the work and I needed to regain some feeling of control. I decided the only possible strategy would be to reframe what was happening in the work as a conscious choice. I made a positive decision that each individual drawing would be the result of my internal necessity at the moment of making it. When I felt like the drawing was finished then it would be finished, when I got the feeling that there was something in the drawing that needed to be preserved then I would stop. I thought that this strategy was the perfect solution. I thought that this decision wouldn't even affect the final work. The work could still look like an attempt to make a compendium of drawings and could still be a metaphor for the process of trying to understand art. I had changed my relationship to the individual drawings, but my intentions for the work didn't have to change. I thought that this was the perfect solution, until I realised that if the drawings were individually unintentional, if they didn't have any conceptual meaning beyond the moment of making them, then collectively they must be unintentional as well. I wouldn't be able to impose a meaning on them in retrospect. I realised that putting these individually meaningless drawings on the wall together and calling it a work was a profoundly illogical act. But this is what I had been doing and it was now too late to stop. The drawings had, after all, always been meaningless before I had recognised them as such, and now they were on the wall and already part of the work and I couldn't take them down because I had no right to edit the work. I found myself in a position where the implications were both liberating and terrifying. I had arrived on the island.

My first feeling on arrival was a feeling of liberation. I realised that on the island I have no power over my work. This means that I'm not an artist any more. I'm just a vehicle for making art. This was a huge relief. Being an artist has often been unbearably painful. I know that I need to try and make good art, because that’s my job as an artist. I also know that this is a futile struggle against my limitations since my limitations both determine the work that I do and determine my ability to assess the work that I have done in order to decide if it is good. I can only fail. On the island I can keep making art, which I love doing, but I no longer have to engage with any of the problems associated with being an artist. I don't have to worry about whether what I'm doing is good because the quality of my work is only relevant if I'm trying to be an artist. If I'm no longer an artist, I don't have to decide what kind of artist I want to be. I don't have to decide what kind of work I want to do. I don't have to worry about having a career. I don't have to compare myself with anyone else. I don't have to judge my work. I don't have to let my work be judged by others.

My second feeling on arrival was terror. The island is terrifying for the same reasons that it is liberating. If I'm no longer an artist, just a vehicle for making art, then it means that I am no longer working to create my identity as an artist. I am no longer working to make good art, to make the kind of work that I want to make, to become the kind of artist that I want to be. If I am no longer an artist then the only reason I have for making art is art itself. While this might seem to be a liberating reduction to essentials, it has terrifying implications.

My decision to be an artist has always been accompanied by moral conflict. I see that the world is filled with horrific injustice. I feel a moral responsibility to perform good and useful acts to make the world a better place. Inaction means actively ensuring that nothing changes. I am an artist. I am unable to wholeheartedly believe that art is useful. I have a dream that art is the embodiment of an essential humanity and an expression of a vital truth and that artists are the bearers of crucial messages. I am unable to unreservedly believe in my dream. I worry that art could be just empty decoration and to see myself as a bearer of crucial messages and my private acts of self-expression as having universal meaning would be colossally arrogant. I am caught in a dilemma. I love art, I love making art and I love my dream. I am convinced that making art is a morally reprehensible escape from my responsibility and an act of surrender to my selfish desires.

This dilemma has defined my life as an artist. At school I was torn as to whether I should become an artist or a social worker. At art school I discovered political activism and, although my decision was in some sense taken away from me because I was thrown out for protesting against the life-drawing tutor's sexual harassment of students, I was already convinced after a year that I needed to leave art school and commit myself to the struggle for social justice. The trouble was that I still had my dream of art, and I believed in that just as strongly.

A few years later, after reading about the Bauhaus, I thought that design could be a way to reconcile my political beliefs with my need to make art. I believed that it must be possible through design to create objects which could transform people's lives. This is essentially true, but at design school in the late 1980's I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. After 3 years there I was finally broken by the realisation that all that was expected of me was designing things that were pretty and sellable. With a feeling of intense relief, coupled with a feeling that I was surrendering to an essential weakness, I went back to art school.

At art school (it was the early 90's) I inevitably came into contact with post-modernist theory. It is easy to disparage post-modernism as an intellectual game to avoid commitment, but for me it was the answer that I needed. I had spent most of my adult life being driven in every direction by overwhelming convictions, and now I learned that the absolute truth I had been trying to discover had only ever been an illusion. My beliefs about the world and myself were determined by cultural and social constructions. While this new knowledge didn't actually change my feelings - I still felt that art and the world were two sides of a dichotomy and that making art was a way to avoid moral and political responsibility - it was now both possible and necessary to call these feelings into question. Post-modernism taught me the necessity of existential doubt and ironic distance. It showed me a way out of my dilemma. I recognised that my moral conflict could never be resolved, but through a calculated employment of doubt and irony I could hold the conflict in balance, both simultaneously believing and doubting. My need to make art had always been more urgent than my need to be politically active, but my moral guilt had repeatedly stopped me from doing it. Post-modernism offered me a way in which I could hold my guilt in check to allow myself to make art. It became pivotal to my understanding of myself as an artist, and pivotal to my justification for allowing myself to make art, to see what I do and what I think not as representing some kind of truth but as the product of my particular constellation of cultural and social influences. My work became an ironic but impassioned investigation of my culturally determined dream of art and of being an artist.

Making art is a serious game of simulation. I play the dream. I say that I believe in art. I talk about internal necessity. I talk about the magic moment when a work detaches itself from me and I become superfluous. I talk about beauty. I talk about transcendence. These are just things I talk about though. It's a shorthand way to express my (culturally determined) yearning for meaning. Conceptually, I want my work to be an expression of the endless and futile process of searching, of the intense feelings of longing for something that can't be found. Irony is essential. Doubt is crucial. I am appalled by artists who dare to come from a position of absolute conviction and aesthetic righteousness.

Now I am terrified that this has changed.

My current work has silenced me. The work denies me any possibility of conceptual expression. The doubt and irony, the conceptual foundation of my work, is only in my head. I make the drawings, and as soon as they are on the wall and have become part of the work, I am powerless to intervene. I make a drawing until my internal necessity tells me I should stop. I look at the drawing and I feel that it is beautiful and I feel transcendence. I observe myself having these feelings with doubt and ironic distance. And as soon as the drawing is on the wall, it becomes part of the autonomous work and I can doubt the work as much as I like, but the work doesn't care. The work isn't ironic. The work doesn't doubt itself.

I feel helpless. The obvious solution would be to stop making the work, but I find that I can't. I am unable to defy my internal necessity. I observe what is happening to me with intense scepticism but I am powerless to change it. I feel like I've been tricked. I know that the work is completely meaningless, because if a work is fundamentally unplanned and unplannable, if an artist is unable to make any intentional conceptual statement, then the work must be completely meaningless. But the work is adamant that it is profoundly meaningful. I feel like the work is confronting me with everything that I ever said, everything that I talked about as part of playing the game of serious simulation, and telling me that it's true. I feel like the work is saying, “This is your dream. This is what you always talked about, this is what you always said you were longing for, and now you've got it. So see how you like it.” And I don't like it. I think it's repugnant.

I never wanted to be liberated. Liberated to do what? Liberated to make art? I have been liberated back into moral conflict. I have only ever been able to hold my moral conflict in balance long enough to allow me to keep making art by deliberately disarming it with doubt. I refused to claim artistic certainty. I refused to claim that my work embodied an essential truth or that I was a carrier of crucial messages. Now I am silenced. The work is the only one that is able to refuse or claim anything. The work has taken away the only justification that allowed me to keep making art. But I find myself still making it. Although my moral values are telling me that I should stop, I feel as if I have no choice. The internal necessity that I never believed in has taken control. I am coming from a position of absolute conviction and aesthetic righteousness. I have become the kind of artist that I never wanted to become.

I hate it.

I may have called the work “The Answer To Everything” but it was meant to be ironic. I wasn't looking for an answer to anything. I was certainly never looking for a way to get to the island. My work has taken me hostage here and doesn't intend to ever let me leave. I want to be rescued.

I'm terrified that I might fight to stay.

What does all this mean? Now it means everything, in a week or a month or a year, maybe nothing. The text has been created by my internal necessity at this particular moment. The text is now telling me that it is finished. There is nothing more for me to do.