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Fail, Fail Again, Fail Better

16 Dec 2015
Mark Amery writes on the need to embrace failure.

This week I am going to write about failure. I get a little tired of reading about success. At this time more than any other, as we look back on our year, perhaps we need to remind myself that even the brightest mostly struggle.

To work as an artist is to live with doubt. It is to keep faith in uncertainty. It is to do the no easy thing of something different, something untested, something difficult to describe. 

The isolation this can involve can lead to a judgement that you have little concern for your work's effect on others. In fact, my experience is that artists spend undue time worrying about their work's agency in the world. A paucity of critical and media attention only amplifies this. Artists are keenly aware that their work forms a disturbance - its part of its potency. We’re likely to spend more time than on anything else thinking about how it might reverberate.

It is not easily valued. The artist’s job is to test out new models of being and looking and telling stories. To recognise that society depends on this experimentation. We are not teachers, social workers or cooks. Our work can deliver joy and learning, it can feed us, but it will also throw down challenges. In challenging frames it will make us feel uncomfortable. 

The world changes through the effervescent bubbling of many ideas up to the surface. My introduction might seem to privilege the big 'I Am' of the label Artist but I'd like every reader to consider the creative aspects of themselves and treat them with respect. 

In my social media circles the award of the Turner Prize to a Liverpool urban regeneration collective Assembly, a group of so-called non-artists, last week caused a lot of discussion. Delight on the one hand that work outside the art market was being acknowledged for its sophistication. Concern on the other that the profession of artist might not be valued.

We need to value the profession of being an artist, and introduce these thinkers into diverse wider aspects of planning. But also we can’t treat this practise like we do the law or medicine. Certification is important but there is also the practice (another overused word) that is wider - the verb art, as in ‘the art of’. We need to treat seriously the difficulty that involves.  

I’ve had a lot of cause for reflection on my own role as an artist of late. Like many I’ve lived most of my life writing down other labels on forms: lawyer, critic, writer, broadcaster and curator. But never, as profession, artist. Yet I find as soon as I substitute the over-abused word curator for artist I start to treat the artists I work with with far more respect and care - and generally my responsibilities in the world also. Working outside the public gallery, I increasingly question the helpfulness the hierarchy that curator implies in my line of public commons work with organisation Letting Space. 

Letting Space has been busy delivering its biggest project yet, TEZA: Transitional Economic Zone of Aotearoa in Porirua, alongside a pilot of our Urban Dream Brokerage work. The difficulty of this negotiation is touched upon by Reuben Friend in a piece of writing here that forms the first of six written responses we commissioned for the project. Friend put in writing what I’d been grappling with - this is our art.

And its rarely comfortable. I’m very proud of the project. But the last year has not been an easy one. I've often felt like I've been failing. It has been hard to keep faith. Introducing new ideas is challenging, bewildering, for both those being introduced to it, and the introducers. There is a lot of questioning. But I've also realised that the end result isn't 'success'. That what we've been creating isn't about finding some perfect model.

Nor is this column written with 'Mission Accomplished' strung up as banner across the flight deck of the aircraft carrier. The doubts, the sense of how things might be done differently, the way your work abuses some privileges with people, at the same time as it empowers and enables others, are very much alive. This is the nature of experimentation. In my case, the wish to use the word art to explore different ways for people to work together, with all the tensions in breaking down comfort zones that entangles. The words of Samuel Beckett (from his late novella Worstward Ho) keep ringing: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Fail Again. Fail Better.” Being an artist involves breaking moulds as well as making something beautiful - something that in a different light might be considered a fail.
And here I give thanks to Julian Dashper. The artist, who aged 49 in 2009 left us far too early. The excellent Julian Dashper and Friends exhibition at City Gallery Wellington reminded me this week of how Dashper’s work was all about frames. Testing the boundaries we place - around our country, around the gallery and different spaces, around identities, around the status we apply to different forms and media. And how brave and determined he was to follow a path that opened things out for those who followed - the inclusion of Fiona Connor’s reproduction of the door to Artspace and Dane Mitchell’s award winning  “pile of rubbish", Collateral are perfect. I continue to find his work at times dull at other times extraordinarily resonant. Never not smart and daring. 

I’m not sure whether Dashper would have embraced the word failure. He was outwardly so beautifully, independently focussed on success. He chose words far more carefully than I. So cooly on his own terms, he made an art of making us feel uncomfortable. Of asserting the need for frames in order that we might step in and out of them. 

In the beginning of Simone Horrock’s documentary with Dashper My Space, we watch Dashper for a long minute or so. He then breaks in: "That's half an hour. What do you think Simone? Shall I think some more?" A smile, a pause and then: "What I was thinking was that the challenge is to make something more beautiful than the unused film."