Having received my first ever Arts Council funding (woohoo!), I’ve recently started working with a mentor to help me network, navigate Artland and work out more clearly how I fit into all this. One of the first things I looked at is what I am artwise. I could be a ‘junk artist’ – I certainly use discarded and waste materials, but the junk-art vibe online looks very different. I definitely include elements of assemblage in my work, but again, this doesn’t quite cover it. However a bit of research suggested I might be engaging in a bit o’ bricolage. I know this as (more-or-less) French for ‘DIY’ but it turns out it is also used as a visual art term referring to the production of artwork from whatever materials come to hand. I am other things as well (I draw for example) but still, Goldilocks-style, this tastes just right.
Of course, this started me both thinking and reading. In 2014, MoMA referred to bricolage as a ‘historical strategy’, with their 1961 Art of Assemblage show often being cited as a high-point for art of (broadly) this kind. However, artists have clearly continued with these ideas and burrowing into the online rabbit-hole bore copious fruit. I soon found that many of the contemporary artists who inspire me most are also bricoleurs whether or not they use, or are given, that label. With the world more aware of environmental issues including resource use and pollution as we find ourselves in the Anthropocene (as do all the other species unwillingly along for the ride), re-use of materials becomes a statement in itself. The bricoleur is an activist. This isn’t new, I know – in the early 20th century, Kurt Schwitters used the detritus of consumerist society to create often-satirical works. What is new is our scientific understanding of the issues and the immediacy of threats to our ecosystem.
This brings the bricoleur close to the world of the tinkerer, of makerspaces and repair cafés seeking to reduce individual resource use/waste and hopefully make the world of ‘stuff’ more equitable. How successful this is varies, but the intent is typically there. There also seems to have been a shift towards the intricate, something which I applaud as a lover (and producer) of fine detail. These form a subset of my inspirations and influences – the foamily Gothic sculptures of Kris Kuksi, the lacy newspaper constructions of Myriam Dion, and many more. Re-use with intricacy is clearly A Thing and I am a part of it; maybe not a big part but a part nonetheless. It gives value back to valueless materials and in doing so gives the artist worth.
This may not be the same sort of worth as someone who can fix your laptop using scrap parts from their shed, but it’s a close cousin. It also brought to mind the rich tradition of bricoleurs in Science Fiction – this might seem to be a considerable leap, but remember those makerspaces out there right now have laser-cutters, 3D printers and all manner of other devices that were SF not long ago. You don’t have to watch many episodes of Star Trek before someone escapes peril by either building, enhancing or repurposing some gadget or other. If you like Guardians of the Galaxy, Rocket is right there, tinkering – a cyber-raccoon bricoleur in space. And so on. What this does is not only highlight our love of ingenuity, but also the privileges and inequities of our world which are mirrored in SF. Choosing bricolage (as I do) is a privilege – I do it because it calls to me aesthetically and via my interest in all things green; I could choose to buy oil paints, I’m not forced by circumstance to repurpose rubbish. In the worlds of SF it is the same. Some characters choose to leave their respective Utopias (or Ustopias) to seek uncosseted experiences (space-faring gap years if you like), but others are forced out of their post-scarcity paradises like Star Trek‘s Maquis rebels, or are ideologically opposed like the Independents of Serenity/Firefly. They become rebels, revolutionaries, activists.
And so, over a few paragraphs, I’ve charted a little artistic self-discovery and thrown out some tendrils that link to other fields of creative endeavour. This is going to be a long, probably unending road, and I look forward to seeing where it leads.