East 2018: Michael Hawksworth Performance Piece

6 September, Orientation Design,
Michael Hawksworth Performance Piece
By Rosheen FitzGerald

Michael Hawksworth is something of a Renaissance Man. He is an artist, yes, but he also plays music, he writes, and he teaches. The latter activity is fraught with tension. At its loftiest, it is an opportunity to inspire and to pass on the tools of creation to the next generation of budding artists. Practically, it keeps a roof over one’s head and food in one’s belly between gigs, commissions, sales. But with it comes the banality of academic bureaucracy, the tedious crossing of t’s, dotting of i’s, conforming to standards, wrestling with the impossibility of quantifying the expression of the human spirit with a letter or number grade.

A lesser man might allow such minutia to grind him down, finding solace in the simple pleasures of amassing a collection of increasingly obscure vinyl or losing oneself in the collected works of Proust. But not Michael. Instead he has channelled his frustrations with the academic processes that are the antithesis of free flowing creativity into his art. His trio of photocollages created for EAST 2018 tease out this dichotomy. Prosaically named, painstakingly pinned layers of images and text build upon each other like a surrealistic pop-up book to create an aesthetic that is at once banal and beautiful.

Expanding on his creative process, he performed a PowerPoint presentation – surely the pinnacle of information delivery and Bill Gates’ lasting contribution to academia (other than the ubiquitous “word document blue” alluded to in the text). The artist stands at the back of a darkened room allowing his voice to be reflected off its irregular polygonal sides, while the images take centre stage.

The premise is an instruction manual in orientating a visitor or student to the oft alluded to, never pinned down, “project”, directed towards someone who has read about, but never experienced human interaction – a handrail to help an academic down from their ivory tower. There is a nerdy humour here, in lines such as those which counsel the correct response to unsolicited exposure to a prospective artist’s Instagram feed (“So you are quite a dreamer!” or “It seems as if your friends have given you valuable advice!” or “You obviously have an eye for these things!”, in case you were wondering); or “The facilities were eccentric and unsafe. It looks like it might have been fun. It was.” A heartfelt professed desire to improve accessibility paired with an image of a headless anatomical skeleton, toppled off its stand. There are some titters from the audience but we are all constrained by the setting (the lingering shame of laughing inappropriately at a serious art event!), and unsettled by the strangeness of the images that flash before our eyes.

Familiar flotsam and jetsam of the trappings of academia – a speaker on a stand, the underside of a desk, the castors of a swivel chair – are juxtaposed with images of untamed nature; a close up of what appears to be an algal bloom but could also be a broccoli patch, or a city in the throes of nuclear annihilation. Computer generated plans for a campus green space alongside fag ends and concrete and a tangle of wires, a lecture hall in construction, a low res image of Rivendell from Lord of the Rings. A charming and complex metaphor of the tools of bureaucracy as an organic living thing, to be pruned and trained into utility is created in image and text alike.

Everywhere there is conscious negation of the polished presentation of fine art – computer text boxes appear and disappear, video stills with visible task bars – echoed in the text – longwinded citation of file locations, forward slashes included; frequent referrals to “Marketing” choosing fonts and colour schemes in accordance with their surveyed preferences. But there is linguistic as well as visual beauty here too, poetry to be found among the administrative dystopia.

There is a delicious irony in that the experience of something ostensibly focused on orientation can be so disorientating; that something that aspires to design can so unselfconsciously lift the curtain on its own process, eschewing polish in favour of authenticity. Nestled within the text is the whakataukī,

Ko ahau te pa kaha o te hunga katoa e whakapono ana ki ahau

I am the stronghold of all that believe in me.

The power that we give to academia, to art, to culture, is the product of a shared delusion agreed upon by a critical mass of society. As such it deserves to be examined, picked apart and, if only to prevent us from crying, to be laughed at.

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