I Guess You Could Say I’m a “Conceptual Artist”

For want of a better descriptor, I tend informally to refer to my practice as “conceptual”, by which I mean not only that it owes a specific debt to the Conceptual Art movement of the 1960s and 70s – which did indeed prove a formative influence during my training as an artist – but also, and perhaps now more pertinently, the label acts as a kind of shorthand for a series of formal, methodological, and theoretical positions embodied both in my own practice and in that of other, influential contemporary artists.

Formally, the primary concern is not with any particular artistic media; although in practice I often work with the same media (particularly video, drawing, performance and photography), the examination or “furthering” of the specific languages of these media is secondary. Rather, the work sets out to address a particular subject-matter, employing whatever medium proves most germane to do so. Over the course of the development of a work, the specificity of the medium may indeed become foregrounded, leading to a formal self-reflexivity, but the medium is nevertheless conceived of conceptually, as a more-or-less successful mechanism for communicating a given subject-matter. The sought-after formal integrity of the final, resolved artwork therefore arises not through any isolated medium-specific properties, but through the relation of its form to a given framework of ideas.

Methodologically, the development of the work typically begins with research into a given subject-matter: either through “data-collection” in the form of reading, watching, listening, visiting, photographing, transcribing or interviewing relevant material, places or people; or through the more markedly subjective activities of inhabiting and experiencing places, encountering situations, or experimenting with unfamiliar activities, processes, or behaviours. This process of gathering and analysing material can be characterised as a form of qualitative research, albeit with a frequent reliance on personal, intuitive, unconventional, and erratic approaches. The next stage (which, in practice, often overlaps with the first) involves making some decisive intervention into a context relating to the subject-matter. This might entail making something, adding or removing something, acting differently, repeating something, introducing some conceptual parameter or logical premise for an activity or set of activities, or altering the context in some way. It is at this stage that an element of tactical absurdity is often introduced. The final stage (which, again, is not entirely distinct from the second) is to shape the intervention into some manageable form. This is achieved through various processes of editing, selecting, isolating, reproducing, or documenting – in other words, by re-presenting the object(s), performance(s), action(s), or image(s) that have resulted from the decisive intervention into the context. In general, the methodology can be described as “process-based”, accepting that the focus of the work is not exclusively on the process of its development.

Finally, the theoretical position implied by the label “conceptual” might best be characterised through a notion of “criticality”, since work of this nature tends to approach its subject-matter as a problematic, driven by a sense of critical enquiry. Whilst it would be a mistake to push this association too far – and indeed I reject any automatic conflation of the value of an artwork with its discursive operation – conceptual art practices can in general be said to originate in, and to a large degree be motivated by, intellectual concerns. Accepting that the relation between an artwork and the critical position it imparts is complex and ambiguous, it can nevertheless be maintained that conceptual practices demand and foster an engagement with their subject-matter that is critical, discursive, and rigorous.

Adapted version of a text written as part of introduction to PhD research, 2017