Like many other immigrants over the decades, my first move into Nottingham was to move into Sneinton. It’s a compact neighbourhood and it wasn’t long before I was exploring the Polish delicatessens, the Asian supermarkets and the perpetually open corner shop which sold “everything you could ever want at any time”: apart from the very thing you wanted at midnight on a Monday.
My early weeks in Sneinton reminded me of earlier times in Harehills in Leeds, Toxteth in Liverpool and numerous boroughs across London: thriving, lively communities which, whilst they were culturally and economically far apart from the centre of their host city, were perhaps better placed to describe how the host community claims to tolerate diversity and endeavours to encourage community cohesion.
So, I was intrigued this week to visit the “Portrait of Hockley, St Anns and Sneinton” exhibition at City Arts in Hockley, presented by the Nottingham based artist Mik Godley: a painter, lecturer who works out of Primary Studios in Lenton.
The exhibition aims to show the vibrancy and diversity of the three neighbourhoods and is made up of work that was originally created for Nottingham Light Night 2015. Mik visited groups, communities and landmarks in those communities and produced over 50 images of local people and landscapes. You can see details about it on the BBC East Midlands programme here.
Mik uses the iPad application ‘Brushes’ for this exhibition which, if you’ve never seen it at work before, is an intriguing experience. You use the app much like an artist would paint: you use the touch screen as your canvas and your fingers to choose colours, brush sizes and textures to suit your purpose. The app captures every brush stroke you make in real time and allows you to play it back: with the effect that rather than looking at a static portrait, you see a portrait being composed and constructed as you watch.
The exhibition is consequently both a video and photographic experience as Mik has printed off several of the portraits to accompany the screens which show the portraits in motion.
I wondered whether his vision would compare with mine, or if there might be some significant differences in how we experienced the community and its people. The questions I found myself asking was whether the technology added anything to the interpretation or whether it got in the way. Mik had stated previously that he “.. really enjoyed meeting all the different sitters. It gave me a fascinating insight into their varied and interesting lives. I hope that the exhibition captures this.” So I wanted to see if the exhibition captured the interesting lives he saw in front of his ipad. You can see how it played out in the gallery here: Mik Godley Portrait
The answers to these questions became quite complex as time wore on. Initially, I just concentrated on the still images which were presented around the gallery and I was left with a continual doubt as to whether these portraits told me anything new about the neighbourhood I had recently moved to. I didn’t feel that I had learnt anything new about the streets I walk down daily or the people whose shops I visit or share the bus to work with. But I found myself wondering whether this mattered. Does art have to give you new insights all the time or is it enough to have people’s daily experiences affirmed by the work of the artist? Perhaps it’s enough that the subjects of the paintings felt honoured to be painted by the artist and for their images to be exhibited in a public gallery?
But as I shifted from looking at the portraits to watching their play back, I realized that the video experience enabled me to look at the portraits in a more engaged manner. The change of lines, tones and contrasts as the faces developed were like micro-films of the people who were sitting for you. You could imagine stories of journeys travelled, family discord, weddings, of resistance, of drudgery, of wealth and poverty, of darkness and lightness of being: a whole range of stories were suddenly opened up to you by the ability to see the portrait under construction rather than being presented as a fait accompli. I realized that the still image is all too often an image which does exactly that – it stills its subject, fixes it and doesn’t allow for their growth and development.
Finally, I was left wondering how much control the artist has over that technology buried deep in the heart of the ipad. The algorithms do their job very well but it seems to me that all too often they allow for clichés to accrue. They dictate how the images are viewed in a tightly predefined and regulated ways: the presence of that maddening Ken Burns zoom effect which finished every portrait playback is a classic case in point.
The challenge for Mik and artists who use this technology is to not only get under the skins of their human subjects, but to get under the skin of their technologies too and make sure it becomes more of a servant to them, rather than their master.
Portrait of Hockley, St Anns and Sneinton will be exhibited in City Arts’ window from the 1st to the 17th of April.
You can download the Brushes app from all good app retailers but you won’t find it in the corner shop that claims to sell you everything at all hours. Especially on Mondays at Midnight.
Further details: www.city-arts.org.uk