How artists work: The Braid

Artist’s workflows – making, mediating and managing – are tightly embraided and cannot be observed in isolation from each other. This is complicated by the fact that each strand of the braid is embedded in a separate discourse. That impacts how artists are able to integrate all three, necessary activities into their practices.

I imagine the braid as embedded in a torus, a donut that shape-shifts topologically, depending on which activity is dominant at the moment.

The predominant, public and academic understanding of artists as makers [while bracketing the making process itself] is but a hangover from philosophic thought, still deployed to benefit market rhetorics. This is how I both experience and see the making process in a nutshell. What artists train themselves in and collegially compare notes about in studio visits and critiques is how to attend: to their own attractions and refusals, their observations, the world they find themselves in, to the constraints they tease out and to the objects they create through those constraints. Knowledges thus developed are deeply personal. Formal principles are developed in that manner. Akin to Eco’s ‘epistemological metaphor’, I believe that ‘content’ is but a magnet for attention.

Instead of working towards evolving a theory of attention, which can be derived from witnessing artist’s ways of working, mediating has recently been admitted into the explicitly accepted artistic skillset. Mediating includes at minimum the framing and presenting of talks, but also much more extensive writing and what in borrowing from scientific vocabulary is called research. Indeed, the academization of art has led to a fraternization with science that has sold the arts short. What creates confusion here is an apparent unawareness of the reverse flow of narrative processes in art making. Scientists mobilize perception analytically, to make it available to language (hypotheses) and then formalize this language to make it available to data through material experimentation, resulting in strictly formalized language as theories. Artists, on the other hand, observe their attention, materialize it in objects, assess objects in critique, where making processes then partially emerge into language. They finally narrate this evolution in retrospect. This is an ancillary process, as the result of the work consists of strictly formalized objects (performances, etc.). Properly respected, this workflow from attention into narration is a beneficial one. If attempted in the ‘scientific’ order, attention cannot come to fruition towards object creation.

While mediation skills might be perceived as residing in the academic vicinity of the studio (framed as various forms of criticality), it is only a natural outgrowth of accepting those narrative capacities as part and parcel of artwork production that occurs at sites of professional application. These are sites that demand managerial engagement: grant writing for increasingly project based support, an understanding of institutional and political discourses to create/make use of production, exhibition, performance, publication and other opportunities, curating/editing and forming artist run organizations to gain control of discourse, with that creating and managing teams, creating budgets, accounting for choices and expenses. As settings, these sites may be brief interactions with organized framework or variously framed organizations in their own right. In these settings, criticality and pragmatism meet. While often being competent managers indeed, artists in many instances have no access to vocabularies to aid them in  reflecting on the implications of their managerial choices, abilities and activities. With that, the impact of opportunities on the creation of constraints may be underestimated. On the other hand, those that do engage all strands consciously tend to call the entire operation their artwork.

The above is coming into focus as I am in conversations with artist colleagues. I use modalities of studio critique (slow observation, description, joint reflection) to elicit what is often, but not always tacit knowledge. In doing this, I am working in the artistic mode: I am attending to my attention, use drawings and diagrams to capture what resonates, talk with colleagues to allow an emergence into language, and am now beginning to narrate the evolving piece. In the process of knitting the narrative, writing by others will be drawn upon in support. I would be willing to call this artistic research. [material, more material]

Process diagram copy




Artist, professor [Arts Administration and Policy] at SAIC.

Posted in remarks, The Braid
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