Background: Below is the (unedited) proposal I wrote for GOSH Arts. I wrote it over a number of weeks and I’ve since described it as feeling as much like putting my brain on a page in a proposal as I’ve ever felt. Please note I also got paid a fee to write it. Which is of course only right and proper but major acknowledgement to GOSH Arts for respecting the labour that goes into these things.
I have been thinking about the concept of status for a number of years, who assigns it and how it is measured, and how these metrics might be questioned or redrawn so they don’t follow the dominant system. This thinking has fed into projects such as I Love my Yugo (much maligned/much loved) I’m Looking for Barbara (addressing the non inclusion in archives of artists without enough ‘evidence’) and strategies for promoting conversation for a current residency at the Women’s Art Library starting with What’s your Favourite Vegetable? (totally subjective but an almost level-playing-field conversation starter).
My personal instincts regarding status are to root for the less valued, not just the underdog but the middle range, the fine but not great, that or those who might be thought of or graded as mediocre. This isn’t saying we should value mediocrity above success but is questioning how success is assigned and trying to acknowledge its fluidity and subjectivity. I dislike the phrase ‘be the best version of yourself you can be’ because it’s unrealistic and sets people up for a fail, implying the onus is on them to try harder to be better rather than questioning the systems that they live life through.
My proposal, therefore, is to start with a white sheet of A4 paper, the underdog, the derided. If we drew the graph of materials in the GOSH art cupboard based on their desirability then white paper would seem to fall nearest the origin of the axes. I would like to use this sheet of white paper to start a conversation about its unpopularity and then see if we can explore together how to elevate its status, to make it desirable, to make it valued. This might be about using it as a material in itself, exploring its materiality and changing its shape, it might involve thinking about its presence in the room, for example the difference between placed underfoot or raised above our heads, which itself might prompt a conversation about why underfoot is potentially less valued, for example a doormat is a useful thing with creative potential. The paper might be transformed into a tool, rolled up to play I-spy and used to spot equally unloved areas or materials in the room, or repurposed as a space divider, a fan, a portal, a musical instrument, a pet. By exploring its possibilities we are evidencing the possibility of change and our agency in this process but also allowing us to question whether ‘better’ is really that — is it the paper that has changed or our attitude towards it.
I like the accessibility of the paper, it is instantly recognisable and (almost) non threatening. One challenge will be in avoiding people wanting to draw on it, particularly in the waiting room environment when I can imagine parents will understandably grab at anything to keep their children occupied. Drawing and its privileging of skill is something I’m interested in but it is not what this proposal is about. There might be playful ways of labelling the paper or framing the invitation that indicates it isn’t for drawing but if asked for ‘a piece of drawing paper’ I would try and persuade the asker to join in the experiments that are happening, to involve them in the activity.
All of this is up for discussion and there are contradiction which I acknowledge in my approach – I find myself torn between wanting to elevate the status of the white sheet and feeling we shouldn’t have to ask it to do more than it already does, am I guilty of asking it to be the best version of a sheet of white paper it can be?! It is these apparent contradictions I find interesting as my position slips between them, if I were to follow my argument about mediocrity to its natural conclusion then should I be celebrating the paper’s apparent mundaneness with a not very exciting activity — questioning what’s wrong with being dull. I would love to discuss this with a willing participant. We could compete to see who could make the dullest activity perhaps working on the principle of the uncomfortable chair, so uncomfortable that when you get off it you feel the ecstasy of relief.
Where this might go:
Although I want to start with white paper I can see the potential for this to extend into other materials and media. After a quick twitter poll of least favourite art materials sugar paper received a nomination along with dried out felt tips so each of those might have their moment (although the latter does seem perhaps a challenge too far). I also use language a lot in my practice — though I’m aware ‘a lot’ is considered bad English – and the status of words or phrases is definitely something that might crop up, along with the letters of the alphabet. Given a box of scrabble letters how would you grade them and which one would be considered the most important — is it e for ubiquity, S for Sarah or x for rarity and if you don’t have English as your first language which then?
The key thing will be to remember the underlying aim which is to prompt thinking, conversation and experimentation around how and why we value things and how we might change ours and others’ attitude towards those things that are unloved or looked down on either by altering the perceived role of the object or by exploring our perception of what worth actually means.
Status of architectural space — room type, corridor, ceiling, floor, doorway, indoors, outdoors
Status of objects — toys, furniture, soft furnishings, clothing
Status of time — seconds, minutes, hours, clocks, alarms, days
Status of surface pattern — colour, design, location