Illustration as a discipline is rooted in the personal development of communication, processes and practical skills. Placed uniquely in the art school, it can potentially employ all the faculties traditionally associated with fine art and craft while employing the structure and brief mentality of the designer. But as a degree, it lies on an important if intangible axis of theory and contextual awareness. In your roles as the makers of units, writers of briefs and givers of seminars, how do you construct this axis?
Darryl: You're flagging up issues that I suppose we are aware of implicitly in terms of what we want a course to be. We start with a set of principles or a loose philosophy which is propped up by all sorts of other factors, often political, driven by structures within the university. There's an element of balancing one against the other: not losing the flavour or the core of what we think is important in the course, but also trying to make sure that it sits comfortably within the context of the university. It’s one of the paradoxes about delivering degree courses. Our kind of unique selling point at Camberwell has always been about taking a more catholic approach to the subject and also creating an educational experience. I’ve got this old fashioned belief in education: as an opportunity and as an experience. On one hand there’s the vocational aspect, yet there is a large part of your human development in your 20s that is grossly underestimated, and I think education should support that process, not work in spite of it.
Peter: We have lots of crises about the course… I mean a lot, because we're not somewhere where it’s impossible to understand what you might do afterwards. It's quite easy to get into a conversation about illustration at it's core, and then what it's become - or what it's becoming - with the myriad approaches and multi-disciplinarianism on the course. I think that, much more than is ever explicitly discussed, there is quite a big nut there which is the impulse to illustrate content. I don't mean necessarily in what it looks like, I think if you start to talk about what it looks like it becomes kind of, sentimental or something… but it’s more in the impulse to iterate something in a visual way. Yet there’s an unspoken assumption, still, that to illustrate something, or to show people pictures, is to err towards the childish. If you need pictures alongside the words it means you have a more childish mentality. So when it comes to talking about theory, or talking about understanding illustration as a serious subject, it seems to not hold water in the way that other subjects do.
Adrian: The relationship between practice, theory and illustration is a very interesting one. In the Renaissance, words and images started out on a very equal footing with the tradition of the emblem book showing the image and the text very finely balanced: circulating around each other and completing one another in a very rich dynamic. Then in the Enlightenment the image was taken out of this central place in serious discourse. The emblem book becomes a kind of chap book, and finally a book for children. So the kind of trend to not really acknowledge the significance of the image, as opposed to words, is an assumption that words are somehow more serious or more weighty, more precise. But I think we are now in a culture that is moving very rapidly in the other direction, towards a recognition of the power of the visual. The visual is really, again, beginning to occupy a very central place in discourse at all levels, including the most ‘serious’ discourse.
D: Do you think there's some truth in the idea that words are more precise, and that level of precision or abstractness is not necessarily what we're looking for now, which is why we're maybe finding ourselves moving towards a more visual culture?
A: It did revolve very much around precision in the Enlightenment where everything could then be kind of quantified. Images can't be. The Chinese saying 'a picture tells a thousand words' is kind of very revealing in that sense.
P: There was a period of time when people started to use illustration in a more ambient way, with a more abstract expression of meaning. Because it’s not like a quarter of the cake is delivered by writing, and then half the cake is the audience kind of making up meaning, with the last quarter made up by the illustrator. It’s more that you put in another piece of content and the separate elements rub up against one another in an exciting way. For example, in the film Taxi Driver the soundtrack is a really good example of where it’s a piece in its own right, as is the film, and they’re really exciting. The two together really change each other but they don't explain or kill each other. This is still under-explored in illustration, where there is the possibility for an illustrator to experiment with the way that they face the page of text with an image.
D: It’s that argument which is used to make a distinction between illustration and a kind of art book, or the artist working alongside the author. The implication is that when an artist produces the imagery, not an illustrator, that the work has a different kind of weight to it… I don't really want to get embroiled in the argument in the difference between art and illustration, but it’s an interesting idea that one is subordinate to the other. That is what’s tended to happen in the past couple of hundred years, where the idea of the image, as subordinate to the text, is there to kind of illuminate. Illustration is different to illumination, but I think they can become confused. It’s interesting to look at the other side of that process, where authors begin to illustrate as well. People who start their lives as writers, and then go on to make imagery alongside their writing, tend not to push their image making as far as they will be willing to push their writing.
Isabella: It’s interesting because illustration can encompass a lot of literary techniques. Similes, metaphor, allegory...
P: Matisse's book works are really influential for illustration, or it was in my time anyway; Jazz is such a joyful book. There’s text, but the text is like an accompaniment to the images: it doesn't really make any sense, and it’s placed as a kind of back garden to the house, or something like that, for that book. It is like it needs the words, but they're a support for the images.
Anne: I remember Peter asked me in a tutorial in second year, ‘why did you put that word underneath this image?’, and that was the first time I considered it. Now it’s something I think about a lot. Does the image need the word? or does this paragraph need an image? If you are constantly questioning, ‘is there need for this?’, then when you bring both together they can be equally important. Then something quite interesting happens.
P: It’s like bringing two sets of friends together who've never met each other in a room; it’s a bit awkward when you ask them to mingle. I think in visual culture people now stake out ideas with images: they triangulate a single idea with a Tumblr ... it’s about articulating either an idea or, a colour, or a mood, or something like that. When you're using words to explain something and the first sentence doesn't work, then you have to have a plan b sentence, and a plan c sentence, and so on, and I don’t whether you run out of words more quickly than you run out of images. If you think about a mood board or something like that, people do speak to each other through images. It’s probably a more effective use of the blogosphere than people writing about what they do all their lives, or their ideas, or their work: there’s more poetry in those ones I think.
I: It’s a new context that’s kind of becoming a reality - exactly what you're saying - where images are more and more prevalent and can be taken away from their original context then reshuffled into a personal playlist of moods. A person becomes the maker, or the curator, of their own world. But what happens - considering students who are making work - when you remove not only the image from its original context, but the image from its original maker, and it kind of goes off into this blogosphere? What are the implications for artists and image makers?
P: I don't think anybody really knows. But in terms of its potential... if you think about how a new word comes about… words are open source. They just are, aren't they? Somebody comes up with a word, and unless its a brand name or something like that, it’s co-opted into the Oxford Dictionary. I think that people have quite naturally started to use images like that. It doesn't even occur to them to change an image’s meaning, or to change its set of associations. It’s almost impossible to protect one’s work in that way completely. You can go after it to a certain extent, but there’s a point where you also have to implicitly release it, and just say ‘well, let’s see what somebody does with it’.
D: You can’t really legislate for how someone’s going to interpret any image that you produce. There are things that we talk about on the course: we’ll say let’s talk about tone, let’s talk about quality of line, or the semiotic value of each of these images, or icons that are being used. In the end, you can’t create something that is so narrow and focused that it only ever says one thing. The appropriation, or the aggregation of imagery through blogs is another matter. There are implications financially, and implications into intellectual property right, but for me the bigger cultural consequence is that people are starting to communicate in that way which is much more ambiguous. I think it’s an interesting human development. The associated meanings of imagery, the use of a particular style or the look of the image and how much control you have over it, relies on a prior knowledge, and I don't know if that prior knowledge is necessarily as fixed as it used to be. So, you could do something that looks like a Victorian etching, but actually how many of your audience have experience of a Victorian etching?
A: The signs being stripped away, in semiotic terms, from their reference. The speed of technology is making us very good at making links, flipping from one thing to another. If you consider the experience of searching the web: you're going from one image to a bit of text to another. We're probably better than anyone else in the history of humanity at connecting things. Even young children are doing it, and doing it faster and better than adults. There is also a kind of contrary element, which is finding a deep-rootedness in things. You’re never going to have a completely simulacral world - there’s always some connection to the real. On the course we try to provide something of this kind of counter-current: being able to find the deep-rootedness of images. And also how one thinks about them and articulates them.
I: One of the interesting aspects of the seminars that Adrian brought was rerouting to these classical ideas of representation. And they always seemed to kind of run alongside the projects we were doing, there was obviously a dialogue between the briefs and contextual studies.
P: Adrian came in with lectures and themes, there was a set of ideas there: a set of ideas that he had, and a set of ideas that I had, and we looked for a relationship or points of tally that would work. Illustration is at a kind of crossroads in terms of its reference points, its theory, and how its defined. We wanted to reflect that illustrators are naturally curious about philosophy, science, art, literature, and so on... they have to be. We hoped that the theory programme could have that kind of character, and also have a relationship with the projects. They nourish each other, but in a lateral, rather than a linear, way. I think it is important for there to be poetry in the way that something is delivered, as opposed to being nuts and bolts-y, because you're dealing with degree students. There’s a kind of expectation, among degree students, that you’re not meant to mortar in all the gaps between the bricks. Also, perhaps noteworthy is that we add new content each year, which is a natural thing to do.
A: The theory programme that we've put together has two principle strands: one of which is a really deep enquiry into the nature of representation. With the idea that if one really understands Western forms of representation, then one can work against it, or do other things. The other strand is more about media theory - people like McLuhan, Roland Barthes, Baudrillard - who also discuss representation, and where they come in. One of the things I really love about illustration is the kind of eclecticism about it. Our philosophy is of empowering students to make their own choices and their own study, and I think that is reflected in the great, wonderful breadth of dissertation work. The dissertations are not formulaic, and we've got no interest in just supplying a certain body of set theory. It’s just to kind of open things up, so that students feel empowered to do their own research and to go their own way, without just parroting theory, which would be the worst thing to do.
Anne: Yeah, I think it works because we're all interested in different things, so everybody is given a starting point and then the chance to go off and find their own way through what they're interested in. But with the briefs and the lectures we’d come back to points where we met again, then we'd go off again… I think that really worked out.
Grace: The theory side makes you think a lot more about making your own work. Before that you go a bit more on face value and style, and a bit unsure of how to approach the research part. Then when you start to bring the theory in with the lectures, it provides you with a different approach. I think it makes it a lot richer, being able to see that you can have so many different sources. It’s so much more interesting to look towards those than just other illustration.
I: I think there's a lot to be said about that constant micro-cycle of perpetual anxiety and productivity. It’s counterbalanced with what you’ve said about robustness. You're always making work, and there’s always something to respond to; it keeps people thirsty.
P: If you're going to be a survivor, you're going to need this kind of toughness. What you were talking about was really interesting, about the way that a programme can increase your level of interest in your subject, and it is this richness that becomes so important when you leave. The level of intent that you have in what you want to pursue is where the toughness comes from. You can’t ever be bored by it. And the way to be unbored by it is out of a rich programme, and the idea that when you’re left alone, you’ll be able to sustain yourself. The way the markets are fragmented now that’s the very thing you need to be commercial, because it becomes more about how you can innovate with the products that you make.
A: There’s one thing Darryl was talking about that I just wanted to endorse really, which is the human element in the course. I think it’s something very important to us, certainly something important to me; that we're dealing with human beings on the course, and it isn't just a matter of having a system. I think its necessary to defend that notion of a kind of humanist vision of education. One could easily see that supplanted, but I think there’s something inherently important in having humans at the centre of things
D: I think in a way, the more that we can avoid assumptions about what happens to somebody in a three year period the better position we'll be in. It gives us the kind of flexibility in constructing a course... I mean we still have to construct a course so there are edges to it; there is still a structure and certain things happen on certain days. But I have a very firm belief that we have to approach the process with enough mental latitude to be able to accommodate all sorts of different expectations. It can be a bit kind of … it can push and pull you mentally in lots of different ways. It would be much simpler if everyone acted like a little automaton. But that’s not what we're in the business of... An awful lot of educational models which are about presenting absolutes: 'that constitutes illustration' 'make it this way' 'that’s the right way to do it, there are no other ways'. I think the distinction is that you provide content, but you don't present it as an absolute.
Darryl Clifton is the Design Programme Director and Course Leader for BA Hons Illustration. Peter Nencini is a practitioner and senior lecturer for BA Hons Illustration. Adrian Holme is a practising artist and lecturer in visual theory for Illustration at Camberwell College of Arts.
Among Other Things
Fresh Prints: Camberwell Press has been invited to display a range of recently produced publications at the Fresh Prints exhibition – Showroom, University of the Arts London. Please join us at the Private View on Wednesday the 1st of May to discuss and see what we have been working on.
Let's Get Quizzical – Round 2: Following the success of the first, we are inviting you to join us and take part in the second instalment of the Camberwell Press pub quiz, with categories such as: Typography, Animation, Illustration, Film and more to question your creative mental knowledge.
18 February 6pm - 9pm
Camberwell College of Arts
Book launch for I used to be a design student, created by Brighten the Corners, Frank Philipin and Billy Kiosoglou. The launch takes place at Camberwell College of Arts where the inspiration began after a workshop led by Brighten the Corners for the BA Graphic Design students, which looked at the relationship between their student work and their development into professional practice. Find out more about the book and event here.
13 December 2012 09.00 - 18.00
LBi Event Space
To find out more on the event visit the Alt/Shift website and join the discussion online.
4 October - 20 October 2012
Mokita 2: illustration Symposium
16 October 2012 10.00 - 17.00
Le Fil The Filosophy of Making
25 - 28 September 2012
Le Fil presents his debut solo show 'Pop Sculpture: The Filosophy of Making', which will bring the spectacle of pop music into the art gallery context. Camberwell Space will be transformed into a multi-disciplinary platform ready for a pop sculptural reinvention. 'Pop Sculpture' features new songs, ceramics and sculptures created by Le Fil during his art residency at Vanguard Court Studios in Peckham.
Writing on the Wall
14 March 2012
CCW Wilson Road
Into the Fold
24 February - 13 March 2012
Camberwell Press seeks to create and ideal and interactive studio within a public space for two and half weeks. The exhibition will culminate in a publication formed from material generated with collaborators via a series of talks, workshops, design & publishing projects.
Among Other Things
10 January - 10 Feburary 2012
Among Other Things brings together objects, video, sound and installation by four artists who question what it means to produce work through relational encounters with and between people.
onedotzero_adventures in motion
23 - 27 November 2011
2011 sees onedotzero celebrate 15 years of championing the progression of global digital culture and innovation in motion. Programmed in partnership with regular host venue BFI Southbank, this special anniversary will present short films and animation, music videos, interactivity, digital art and everything in between.