This text addresses the question of accompaniment versus solitude in artistic creation and scientific research. We wonder who-what’s with us. The practice and ideology of the DIY (Do It Yourself) is explored and an interview with Montreal artist Samuel St-Aubin testifies to this and offers a perspective from within the artistic practice. We mention the political scope of the DIY, then we talk about the creation of prototypes in science and we imagine residencies for scientists in artists’ studios. Nourishing” works are mentioned and we end on a rock image.
The resistance of myths (or folklore around the idea of the artist)
Can we talk for two minutes about the romantic myth of the artist alone in his studio? Genius tortured, isolated and secluded from the world, society, possibly poor and a-political, obviously living on creativity and fresh water, feeding on clay blocks and draping himself with unbleached canvas, paint in the hair and hands stained with inks. Because that image exists. But it’s just that: an image, an idea.
Like many, I lived in a shared apartment during my first years of university, when I was a visual arts student at UQAM. One of my roommates, and friend, was studying philosophy. Something amazing happened in the first few months: I became the official “manual” person in the apartment. I suddenly had better skills at washing dishes, emptying cat litter and vacuuming. We had virulent discussions on this subject, but she did not disprove it: the artist was the one who knew how to manipulate effectively the things of material life, whereas the philosopher excelled at manipulating ideas, concepts. We are then towards the end of the 90s, not in Antiquity. How can such myths go through time and crawl behind a pile of grunge CDs? Some people seem to have harder skin than others, and artists have a solid back as for the quantity of aberrations that our societies project there. In 2018, we even do cheap architectural mapping on their backs.
The myth of the artist alone and isolated must be dispelled: it is an obstacle to a fair perception of the situation of artistic creation. I’m not saying it doesn’t exist, we’re all alone occasionally, momentarily. And ultimately, we will all find ourselves alone before death, during the fraction of a second when the end of the world will become – in an imperceptible withdrawal – the end of life, but in the meantime we are not, nobody is. There is something with us, inside us, right from the start. Whether we are an artist, scientist, criminal, clown, schizophrenic, main character, supporting role or extra – extraterrestrial? – we are always accompanied.
It’s not all rocks inside a bundle
The question of accompaniment in the process of creation-realisation of works immediately places two poles of practice team work and solo work with, between the two, the full range of possible variants of levels of collaboration, whether they are occasional, recurrent or permanent.
Although the artist, in solo work, is effectively and concretely alone in his studio or studio (let us say most of the time), he is never completely and absolutely alone: he is always accompanied by knowledge – his own, already acquired, and those to be acquired and integrated, which will be necessary for the realization of the work to come. In this sense, accompaniment can be understood from (at least) two angles: that of human accompaniment – that of a team of specialists, punctual or not, who contribute to the realization of the works – or that, both theoretical and practical, of the acquired knowledge which “replace” in a way the external contributors.
In all cases, the type of support will influence research and creation – whether artistic or scientific. We never work entirely alone, just as no one starts from scratch when it comes to bringing a cornerstone to the edifice of knowledge or simply expressing an idea or even an opinion. We all think, create, produce and write from our baggage, whatever it may be. And there is always luggage, however thin or generous it may be. There’s the one that was taught to us in elementary school and then high school. The one that our parents and family passed on to us through education. Content communicated through television (in the past) and the Internet (today) – no one escapes it. There is the baggage that one will have chosen to seek, either through academic studies or through a self-taught process. The integrated baggage through our social interactions, through information and contact with the media, the hazards of life that drain with them a learning hazard that inhabit and infuse us. The influence of this accompaniment in creation will therefore vary according to what we have accumulated in our bundles: there are always a few rocks, but otherwise there is a panoply of basic tools and fundamental knowledge.
Some have fuller bundles than others, more diversified, with more complex contents, new and personalized contents. This singular knowledge includes self-learning, self-taught knowledge. And among these, the DIY (Do It Yourself) certainly represents the most radical of the self-taught strategies. Freely translated as “do it yourself” – an injunction that sounds a bit like a slap in the face – the DIY is a North American influential practice that was used, as early as the 20th century, in construction and home improvement contexts. Wiki also mentions that “in North America, there was a niche for DIY magazine publishing in the first half of the 20th century. Magazines such as “Popular Mechanics” (founded 1902) and “Mechanix Illustrated” (founded 1928)[a “Sports Illustrated” for geeks?] offered readers a way to keep abreast of practical skills, techniques, tools and useful materials. Because many of these readers lived in rural or semi-rural areas, much of the material was initially tied to their needs on the farm or in a small town. “Gradually, the term DIY has taken on a broader meaning and has spread towards alternative, punk and independent cultures – such as pirate radio stations and zines – as well as towards artistic practices in general.
An interview with a DIY master: Samuel St-Aubin
I wanted to discuss these issues – those of accompaniment and the DIY – with someone who would be able to share his perspective from within artistic practice. Samuel St-Aubin, a Montreal artist well known for his DIY oriented work, was the ideal person. Here is our exchange:
-Your work is very much associated with what is called DIY (Do It Yourself) – and we associate DIY a lot with a solo work, where the artist learns by himself the techniques necessary to the realization of his works. What do you think of this relationship between the DIY and solo work?
First, I would like to clarify what I mean by DIY. A quick search is enough to realize that the DIY is well established today, judging by the amount of blogs and publications on the web. The acronym DIY alone generates 1.6 billion search results on Google.
For as long as I can remember, “do it yourself” appeared early in my life when I was flipping through a magazine called “Pocket nose – special editions”, in which you could learn how to make all sorts of practical things. I had no idea that these little readings were already part of an important movement. In the fall of 1968 the magazine “Whole Earth Catalog” published in their first issue called “Access to Tools” a directory of the tools and techniques they considered most important. This was apparently the beginning of the DIY as we know it today. There were also references to architecture, music, biology, cybernetics, etc., where influential authors were cited, including Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, Norbert Wiener. In this sense, DIY means for me access to the tools and knowledge to use them effectively at a lower cost. It is also, in a way, a way of circumventing industrial methods.
Having interrupted my studies in telecommunications, while keeping the will to work directly or indirectly in this field, I turned towards self-taught learning. Later, I kept this way of working to continue my consulting contracts[in the art world]. The DIY has proved to be an interesting learning method but, obviously, it is not suitable for all artists. Some will develop a multitude of concepts and use only one tool, this is not my case. My work relies precisely on the use of various techniques and know-how, I must frequently inform myself and update myself to realize my works and the works of consultations. However, I do not believe that the DIY is of interest only to people who work alone. Other artists who are used to working in teams will sometimes test the ground before hiring an expert or continuing without him. It is not surprising, creation implies at the base of the “do it yourself”!
-You make your works mainly solo: how would you define your way of working? Do you have a method (or an anti-method)? Do you see recurrences in the way you do things?
Working alone and having all aspects of the design in mind helps to visualize the project. Following an idea, I think about concepts, materials, components and codes before even starting anything. Sometimes, I validate with the help of software and simulators for the form and feasibility by referring to the specificities of the materials via their technical sheet. I prioritize online components with clear references. The code (firmware) is largely written before the circuit is even finished to avoid physical and electronic design errors. The time of realization depends on the quality of the work upstream. Being independent saves me time, money and dependence on others. I adopted this method by intuition and it seems to me effective, it returns in each of my projects.
-Is it possible that some external expertise is beyond the scope of learning?
There is “doing things” and there is “doing things well”. Some expertise requires several years of experience, time that I do not have. I can nevertheless learn expertise at a sufficient level for what I have to do and to continue as needed. Sometimes I try certain techniques out of curiosity or pleasure. For example the acquisition of a numerically controlled machine, the CNC. It allows to cut with precision any kind of materials on several axes, mine has three axes. The quality of its performance can be comparable to what is done in industry. I bought it for no specific purpose and gradually integrated it into my projects. It is now essential to the realization of my works. Outsourcing this kind of work would involve generating more preparatory documentation and paying money for know-how and access to a machine.
-Are there any of your past projects that you would have preferred to work on as a team? If so, for what reasons?
The time of realization is so rare that I prefer to devote myself totally to it. My projects do not allow me to delegate because the implementation stages are generally brief. The rest of the work is long thought out and I find it hard to accept that someone else does it in their own way, I would feel dispossessed. I must say that the projects also have me, I spend far too much time on them. The devil is in the details!
-Have you ever joined large teams as an external expert? And if so, can you tell me a little bit about the work dynamics you have experienced?
Yes, several times, with teams of up to ten specialists. Machinist, programmer, technician, mathematician, electrician, industrial machinery specialist, industrial designer, dressmaker, accountant… The artist (the one who calls on external experts) becomes in a way a manager. He must manage contracts, schedules and verify that the work is well done. He must share tasks well and respect/know each other’s specializations. An electrician is not an electrician! Experts must be patient, ready to start work again, increase efforts to communicate their needs well and sometimes defend their points of view. Schemas and plans are essential to agree on certain aspects. They become all the more important when the people concerned do not work under the same “time zone”.
-Do you feel that working in a team dilutes or displaces or somehow affects the artist’s “signature”[for want of a better term]?
It depends on the nature of the project or how it is conducted. External specialists or the team ensure that projects are possible within a realistic timeframe. They should not affect the artistic signature of the work. It is the responsibility of both parties to clarify any ambiguity regarding authorship. It’s the subject of many quarrels! I have already had to refuse some contracts for this reason, where for example my technical know-how was put in the foreground.
Does the artist use external expertise only to save time? No, he will also – and above all – seek the expertise to complete the skills necessary to carry out a project. And it is for this reason that these aids must be absolutely mentioned (in the sense of credited) since they affect in one way or another the result, but without affecting the signature. External know-how or device design must remain a working tool of the same order as the use of a computer, for example.
-According to you, does the realization-production of the work include a part of ideation-creation? Or are they two completely separate things? And why is that?
Yes, they are two rather distinct things, but it depends on the artistic approach. In my case there is ideation, design-creation and then production. The ideation is very brief compared to the rest of the process, but must be strong enough to motivate the project. Design-creation can take several months, an important period when I reflect on its different aspects. The goal is to use acquired techniques to foresee everything that will be necessary to realize the idea-concept to the best of my knowledge. It also includes a feasibility study to lead to production. It is at this moment that the components and mechanisms are put to the test of the natural laws, gravity, friction, resistance, magnetism… What allows me to validate that my forecasts were correct.
-What is your perception of the concept of artist-entrepreneur? Do you recognize yourself in this formula?
Whether we like it or not, the artist is comparable to a company. I believe that the fruit of his work is not only attributed to his artistic skills, but also to his entrepreneurial skills. For example, they must also have the ability to find grants, communicate their work, manage priorities, connect and be able to renew themselves. He must also document his work, update a website and sometimes call on experts. This is what an artist must accomplish while maintaining his creative momentum. Yes, I recognize myself in this formula and this is often the case for many artists. So far, I have learned “on the job” and managed each task when necessary.
-How do you think the practice of DIY implies a political positioning?
We all did it, but we didn’t know the scope of the gesture, we did it out of economy. With time the DIY has become for me an alternative vision of consumption, I can now repair devices and build some. But also making furniture, using an analytical scale, resin… In short, I can use a range of tools to have a certain independence and develop know-how. In addition to being practical, the DIY is even more ecological and rewarding. It may not be perfect, but I did it! A little nose thumb to the capitalist system.
-Thank you Sam!
Ideological and ethical posture in its most pragmatic aspects: the DIY necessarily – and sometimes involuntarily – carries within it something political. There are artists, like Samuel St-Aubin – and also Mathieu Zurstrassen, whom I mentioned in the previous text of this blog – who work consciously in a DIY perspective, but if you look closely, many people practice DIY without even knowing it. Gardening, DIY, various repairs, sewing and knitting, infusion and homemade jam, cutting your own hair, making a Halloween costume, making your own similar synthesizer,’gosser’ a clothesline on your balcony: all this falls, to varying degrees, into the category of’made by yourself’. These practices reflect a political posture, conscious or unconscious, with the primary motivation being to free oneself from economic limitations, standards and models dictated by industry and the mass media: growing vegetables without GMOs; creating clothes at lower cost and according to one’s tastes; reducing one’s sugar consumption with “home made” jams; freeing oneself from fashions and brands; etc. At the same time, not everything is always possible in DIY. As Samuel St-Aubin mentioned, some knowledge can take years to assimilate. And if tomorrow morning someone decided to tinker with their own Facebook… Well, I guess we can always wish them luck! In all cases, these are gestures by which the individual finds himself very closely identified with his personal intentions and objectives. It is a form of emancipation that works to reverse the manager-managed dynamic: an assumption of responsibility for one’s own needs that are otherwise controlled from the outside, if not created from scratch by the media and advertising. So we are also talking about freeing ourselves from an imposed accompaniment, that of an omnipresent system of consumption. Yes, we are always accompanied, but do we really choose who or what accompanies us?
With a solid knowledge base in the pockets of his white coat, the scientist is not alone in his laboratory either – when he is not clearly in a team, which is often the case. And he will also use DIY practices, especially when it comes to building prototypes which – according to Philippe-Aubert Gauthier – sometimes have nothing to envy contemporary art. Science and art share this same taste for exploration which, to a certain extent, makes them equal in terms of starting point. It is an equality similar to that of elementary school children: all play in the same sandbox to build the same castles with the same plastic shovels and the same star-shaped moulds, but by telescoping towards the future, some sandboxes will take the value of patented intellectual property, while others will be the subject of copyrights and dissemination stamps. Still others will be forgotten in the sun or beaten down in the rain in the autumn of life.
From the point of view of the sandbox, DIY exploration is a form of exploratory DIY that progresses in a necessary uncertainty. You have to “not know” to give yourself the opportunity to “find”. It is both one of the laws of childhood and that of the heuristic approach in research. With materials x and a partial hypothesis – even a naked intuition -, the scientist as well as the artist shapes an object suitable to receive the projections of thought. If, however, in science one builds a prototype to test the material potential of an idea, its solidity or stability, its invariability and its constancy as a convincing model of an object of the world, in art it will rather be a question – almost the opposite – of building the model from an internal perspective, invisible and oscillating, variable and unstable, expressing contradictions and nonresolutions that return existence to itself. Seen from here, art and science are necessarily complementary: the objects of the world they propose illuminate each other.
However, the DIY in artistic creation is more of an ideological posture – and even a finality – than a method and a simple stage of a process, as is rather the case in science. And that is where there is divergence: beyond the stage of hypotheses and prototypes, they take (almost) opposite paths. One refining his certainties, the other cultivating his ambivalence. Would it be interesting to imagine shared prototyping sessions, where scientists and artists work in the same space? Maybe even bring scientists into artists’ studios – create residencies for scientists? There are already many cases where artists travel to research labs to work with scientists, but the reverse could somehow complement the ongoing collaborative experience. And specifically for prototyping where the required materiality can resemble that of art. By creating a common space-time, entirely reserved for DIY-type work, who knows what could come out of it? it is even possible to imagine that this joint initial work could have repercussions on the evolution of the respective projects: isn’t any foundation determining the way in which the building will be erected?
In the bundle too: muffins, an egg and tea
DIY also means taking the risk that everything is not perfect. If it is not an industrial object there will necessarily be variations, roughnesses and micro defects resulting from the manufacturing process. Before the systematic industrialization of almost everything, we were not afraid of these differences from one object to another. Today the imperfection of an apple or a tomato disturbs us so much we are worked by this perceptive means. Let the difference happen, however, is the condition for all creation – and for all scientific innovation. To allow the possibility that an object of the world may have no other use than to support the value of the useless in a world governed by productivity is a transgression on the one hand, a breathing on the other. Breathing is a good idea. And I insist on the value of machines that run empty: they feed our projection mechanisms.
Many of Samuel St-Aubin’s works can be described as machines that run empty. Among them, Thé (2012, 2014), Œuf (2012) and Muffins (2015) allow us to continue the reflection, to feed it (!). Tea is perhaps the most “useful” of the three machines in that it marks the passage of time. It does not measure it: it testifies to it. The artist tells us that a “cup, containing tea pivots on itself while keeping a constant inclination. Throughout its journey, tea leaves a mark whose intensity is the consequence of the time it takes to evaporate. The time between each rotation is about three hours and the cup rotates 30 degrees with each rotation. Spiral patterns emerge. A diode indicates the downtime. “Tea telescope us into a daily life whose rhythm we would have slowed to the extreme. Take tea; stop time; never leave the machine of everyday life again: repeat this cycle of near immobility in a loop; wait and be attentive.
Let’s go back to the menu. Egg is also a rotating machine. Its rotation, however, is more of a choreography than a cycle. Egg is a dance whose measure is a mathematical calculation, a philosophical equation. Here: “Two rotating spoons exchange one egg. The movements of the mechanism are exactly repeated. The egg passes from one spoon to the other focusing the spectator on the manoeuvre. When they do not exchange eggs, they perform a synchronized choreography. The work emphasizes the exchange between machine and matter. “And sometimes the egg falls and breaks. A moment of magic and healthy disruption where the imperfection of existence asserts its right over the machine. Pure DIY, Egg is nevertheless implacably precise. For this very reason, its relationship with the possibility of chance – one of whose etymological roots refers to risk, to potential danger – creates a hypnotic tension effect. A more ambitious version was later produced: TableSpoons (2015) where eight rotating spoons exchange four eggs.
Then for dessert. Muffins is a work that turns on itself, but it does not do so in vain. Behind its seemingly innocuous and gratuitous rotation is hidden a micro event imperceptible to the naked eye: one of the two muffins is motionless. While one muffin is simply installed on a rotating base, the other is activated by an electronic device, taking the passive muffin with it. On his site, the artist tells us that two “muffins, side by side, turn slowly in the opposite direction. Only one drives the other by their serrated contours acting as gears. Each tooth, resulting from an industrial manufacture, is perfectly identical and aligned to the following one. “Is not inert who wants in this mold-world. The lazy eye of the (gear) system does not prevent us from seeing even if it contributes to bias what we perceive. And here again it is the meeting of extreme precision and formlessness that is at issue. Before entering the mould, the muffin has no shape, it is a semi-liquid sugar paste suspended in the limbs of existence.
Finishing with an image of a rock
You must also think of the accompaniment as food, and remember that rocks are sometimes difficult to digest.
Images (top) : Crowd – photo by Goa Shape (unsplash.com) / Roche (Google Image).
Images (body text) : memes found on Google Image.
Images of the works:’Tea’,’Egg’ and’Muffins’ – photos by Samuel St-Aubin (courtesy of the artist).
Translated with www.DeepL.com/Translator