Noticing things: what artists do

“Recently a friend told me about a child she encountered in an education programme she was working on at Whitechapel Art Gallery. At the beginning of the project she asked the children, “What do you think a contemporary artist does?” And this particular child rather precociously put her hand up and said, “They sit around in Starbucks and eat organic salad.” And I imagine that is a pretty accurate assessment of many artists’ behaviour in the fashionable parts of the city. At the end of the course, after they had spent some time looking at what contemporary artists did, my friend asked them, “What do you now think a contemporary artist does?” And the same child said, “They notice things.” And I thought, wow, that’s a really short, succinct definition of what an artist does. My job is to notice things that other people don’t notice.”
Grayson Perry (2014) Playing to the Gallery. Penguin. p116

I’ve just finished reading “Playing to the Gallery” by Grayson Perry. It’s a lovely read and is absolutely perfect as a ‘plane book’: the kind of book that is interesting and entertaining enough to hold your attention during strong turbulence, but short enough that you can read it in a couple of hours and give it to a friend who also has a flight coming up. I love this sort of book because I find that so many books these days are just too long. At 135 pages this is the sort of book you can read once and then almost immediately read again to make sure you remember all the good bits for later when you want to tell someone about it.

There were lots of things in the book that made me think, made me laugh and made me nod in agreement. The section I’ve quoted above about what contemporary artists do was a bit I liked so much that I bookmarked it so I could come back and think about it some more. What struck me personally about the statement “They notice things” is that this is something people have said about me since I was a child.

My mum has said for as long as I can remember, “Oh, Mary notices all these things that I never even see.” This is particularly tied to my ability to find four leaf clovers everywhere as they seem to jump out at me as being the ‘wrong pattern’. (It freaks people out a bit to be honest).

My partner, Dan, thinks I’m hilarious because he imagines I just wander the streets pondering life and getting engrossed in noticing things while being oblivious to where I’m supposed to be going. He calls this ‘Puffining’ because he thinks I resemble a thoughtful puffin, especially when I wear my backpack on the bus; “What were you doing outside? Just puffining around I bet!”

I’ve discovered that even as a contractor I notice far more about the physical aspects of the office environment than the people who work there full time, so when I ask them questions about things I invariably get the answer, “Oh, I don’t know… I never noticed that.”

I always thought this was just a quirk of my personality, but now I’m coming to realise that this is what it is to be a contemporary artist. We all do this – wandering around noticing things and annoying other people. Grayson Perry has made me feel that my noticing ability is actually a boon to my art practice and not just something that my family thinks is amusing. As he said above: my job is to notice things that other people don’t notice!

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Prof Brian Cox & Robin Ince live in Auckland

Last night I went to Prof Brian Cox’s lecture at the Aotea centre. I had some predictions about what he would include in the talk; light speed as a universal constant, ‘red shift’ and the expanding universe, the moons in our solar system with water that could potentially hold life, and the new LIGO discovery that I wrote about in my last post – very exciting!

The Aotea theatre stage was completely covered in a huge hi-def screen that he used to show photos and video of various cosmological events and to explain some of the more important theories and the relevant equations. Although I would say most of the audience there were not scientists, just enthusiastic amateurs like myself and my friends, he didn’t dumb things down too much like often happens with TV series, so I felt engrossed for the whole 2.5 hours.

My favourite visuals were the Cassini images of the moon Enceldus, the video of Mercury’s transit across the face of the sun (I’d seen this before but it was incredible on the giant screen), the real data visualisation fly-through of all detectable galaxies and the computer simulation of two black holes converging (data also captured by LIGO). I’ve linked to the video below on the LIGO YouTube page, it’s fascinating how spacetime around the holes is warped and stretched as they merge. The event horizon is shown as the thin edge of light before total blackness.
Black Holes Merge video

(While I was hunting around for videos of the Mercury transit this morning, I kept coming across videos from flat-earthers ‘debunking NASA’. I find the whole thing fascinating! I still can’t quite get to grips with what they feel is to be gained by NASA pretending to the world that the earth is a sphere orbiting the sun? So curious.)