57 DIGITAL SKETCHES ON THE THEME OF CIVIC PROTEST
The theme arose at the same time as Robo; similarly, as counterpart to the female nudes of Privacy. Both ideas had good points. Macho robotics seemed the stronger, simpler contrast but the idea of public interaction for figures – male or female – is closer to an opposite of privacy in the usual sense. Of course any number of routine business interactions would have done on those terms, hardly an exciting prospect, but then I hit on the idea of special civic or political occasions and this suggested a different kind of contrast. It was not the impersonality of robots, but rather more earnest and urgent tasks, compared with the whimsical capers of Privacy. It was still personal, but not private. Thematically it was an intriguing contrast but didn’t seem as compelling pictorially.
It was only as I idly trawled through images for street demonstrations on the web that I began to see how much the theme echoed longstanding concerns with presentation, co-ordination, gesture or dance, civic dissent and marginalisation, urban identity and orientation. Public protest had it all really. In a lot of ways it is my dream theme. That gave the material some focus and although I still wanted to maintain a full-length figure to the foreground (as in Privacy and Robo) for contrast, I decided to relax the dimensions and allow a variety of height/width ratios to picture shape. This new breadth makes room for more complex interactions between figures and more elaborate settings, hints at a grander scale to intended paintings in some cases. Although the pictures rarely achieve the simplicity of Privacy, in terms of figures they often fare better than Robo. Robots are hard to simplify and still identify as robots. The relaxation in format is carried through to mood. Given the theme, the mood is surprisingly celebratory, probably because demonstrations in which I’ve participated have all been peaceful, largely cheerful affairs. There is something liberating about walking down the middle of streets usually jammed with traffic, in a band of like-minded strangers. It feels a little unreal, dream-like. There are more confrontational demonstrations of course, but I leave those for another occasion.
I’ve introduced sub-pages for this series, whereby more than three variations on an overall composition are given a separate page via a link following the example on this page. This helps to maintain an overall flow, concentrating on 33 of the 57 works available. That said, just when a picture is a variation on a ‘composition’ is not always easily decided. Groups of figures may be reversed, reconfigured, given different backgrounds, but whether we still have the same ‘composition’ is moot. Sometimes the grouping suggests more of a sequence, something I hope to explore in future. Increasingly, the range of variation is important, from small changes in facial expression or gesture to nuances of atmosphere through colour and tone; all are now worth demonstrating as integral to a project of reconstruction. So long as the work remains merely digital sketches, there is no problem with practicalities.
More notes at the bottom of the page.
Variations on ACTIV-20 are here.
Variations on ACTIV-30 are here.
Variations on ACTIV-32 are here.
ACTIV-33A (enlargement here)
Variations on ACTIV-33 are here.
Although the theme ticked many boxes for me, that is not always a good thing. It has to be weighed against the danger of repeating past work. On the one hand, one doesn’t want to just leap from one arbitrary enthusiasm to the next, demonstrating little more than a shallow engagement. On the other hand, one doesn’t want to be confined by too narrow or dogmatic a project. A satisfying balance is essentially a matter of theme and variation. In this case it seemed worth consolidating or restating earlier interests after a number of bold forays.
The series returns to urban settings to find public protests, contrasting not just with private nudity or robotic labour but the loner drivers of Car People. Similarly, locations recall Cityicity; indeed several are used as backgrounds (Activ-21, Activ-22 and Activ-31) to underscore the link. Yet a new reliance on Photoshop allows a different kind of reconstrual of source photography, gives settings a new flexibility. We are not just in former territory and we cannot really stay there. Activists here often use costume, song and gesture, recalling the dance-inspired poses of Domestic Routines and a similar manic exultation. But unlike Domestic Routines, where the choreography was purely a formal imposition, activists’ gestures are content, adopted as deliberate theatrical presentation, much as the singers in Serenades, the food in Acquired Taste and the retail in Deep Shopping all slide between presentation and representation, realism and stylisation. Activists also adopt masks, adding to the ‘carnivalesque’ proceedings although this also flags a grave concern with surveillance and the invasion of individual liberty (this is especially true of Anonymous masks, alluded to in several works) and hence, privacy.
Activists firstly declare public dissent though and while this has no direct precedent in my work, it is related to the civic militancy in Crusade Culture and the dystopia of Decline, where protest banners and masked activists also appear. Yet the series has an altogether lighter, brighter tone than either of the preceding series and that is hard to explain. There is no corresponding improvement in my circumstances; the work mines its own mysterious seam of elation. It is the unexpected reconnection with key undercurrents that allows the series to filter the source material for something other than the usual clichés of jaunty selfies and long lens vistas of advancing hordes. Activists here are not simply the publicity opportunities of the press, but forge a different style of picture. Conversely, sources drag entrenched concerns with style and fragmentation into novel and topical territory and make for a satisfying exchange. It builds a subtle summation that makes this my best or favourite work so far.
The series also recovers some of the linear rawness of my pre-digital methods (Activ-23, 24, 25, 28 and 29) and augments it with a growing confidence with Photoshop. That said, I suspect I will never amount to more than an average compositor by commercial standards. I’m too reckless. On another technical point, colour again toys with standards of realism and expression, as with recent series, and while I am aware of crucial differences between screen colour (RGB) and options for printing (CMYK), much less painting, here and there I may have succumbed to the temptations of screen luminance.
The issue of text to banners and placards is a tricky one. Initially I obscured texts, sensing they would make the pictures too much about the issues rather than the people. But then I realised that without some specific text the figures seemed too evasive or unfocussed. I then chose fairly general slogans or parts thereof for following works, just to anchor the figures a little more. The issues I’ve used are largely familiar ones of environment, economy, animal rights and liberty, all of which I approve. Finally, it is such a rich and suggestive theme I may well return to it. In part this possibly adds to the exuberance of the closing works (Activ-32 and 33). For the moment I need a break.