As an artist, I have taken a very indirect journey to where I am now and, although I have travelled along some of the same paths as others.
I saw a call for conference papers on the subject of “Improfessional practices” in relation to an “artist’s journey”. I don’t write conference papers, I’m not an academic and I generally don’t go to art conferences (except when I am paid to work on them), although I have done on occasion. I don’t know who has coined the term (it’s not a real word), but the idea of being an “improfessional” seems to suit my practice very well. I consider myself to be a professional but I do do not subscribe to many of the established “professional” practices that are understood to be necessary these days, at least in the UK, in order to be considered credible: the minimalist website; the CV of hierarchical milestones; the impenetrable artist’s statement; the academic qualifications.
I was born in 1964 and I was 12 when Punk happened. I was still a child and, although I remember it very well, but it was not until 1978 that I put away childish things and started to look at the world around me. The post-punk period was the cauldron of my cultural education, and in those days, everything seemed possible.
Not only then, but the period 1978-1982 was especially influential on me, not least the anti-establishment sentiment of punk and indie music, but also all the secondary references that its protagonists revealed to me. I would not have discovered the cut-ups technique if I had not heard a radio interview with David Bowie talking about Brion Gysin, nor would I have read William Burroughs if I had not read interviews with Genesis P. Orridge because I was listening to Throbbing Gristle, and I might not have read Gustave Flaubert and Joseph Conrad if I hadn’t gone to the local library, looking for the mentioned books. I was introduced to the concept of political anarchism by listening to the music and reading the lyrics of the punk band Crass.
Of course, I might have discovered those influences elsewhere, but originally it was through a vertically narrow but horizontally infinite field of view of a culturally unguided life that might also be characterized by the idea that I heard expressed first by the author Martin Amis, of the “post-literate” generation. That is, people who gain their primary cultural references from popular media rather than books. I am one of those people, although I also read books. Those two positions are not mutually exclusive but through popular television, rather than academic research, I was introduced to Eduardo Paolozzi, Michael Clarke and Joseph Beuys, amongst many other cultural influences.
My parents encouraged me to do academic subjects at school and actively discouraged me from doing arts subjects, it was all about getting a job. Dinnington Comprehensive School was not the least interested in me, although I’m sure that would have been different if I had been good at football or was likely to win some sort of academic prize for the school. I left school to unemployment in the early 1980s and have drifted ever since, although mostly employed. At the age of 55 I am still not sure what I want to do when I grow up, but what I do know is that I don’t want to conform. I don’t mind working, nor do I mind doing what I am told within the reasonable description of a job for a wage, but that has nothing to do with what I am, although there have been time when I was not so sure.
For a few years in the 1990s, I ran a business writing and selling administration software for schools. With hindsight, I don’t know how I can have been so foolish, but I did it because I found that I could. It turns out I have some aptitude for computer programming but, looking back, that was no reason to think it was a good idea running a business as a platform for a skill that I just happened to have, or at least that I had developed. Unfortunately, running a private business also requires a wide variety of other skills and perspectives in which I was not so blessed.
I spent most of the late 90s trying to kill myself with overwork. But I didn’t, and eventually, after I had gone out of business, followed by a short stint in corporate IT, I asked myself “Is that all there is?”.
I had always been arty but, at that time, never involved in the world of art, and most of the people I mixed with in the 90s were not even indifferent to art, they were downright hostile. In the early 2000s I found myself working in the arts, initially as an IT technician, but got to know artists and art professionals and gradually became involved.
In the mid 2000s, having dipped my toes into a number of projects organised by other artists, more professionally involved in the world of art, I got noticed a little bit and was encouraged to apply to do a Master’s Degree in Contemporary Fine Art at Sheffield Hallam University. Despite having no ordinary degree, I was accepted on the course for no more reason, as I was about to find out, that I could pay the fees. I hope things have changed on that course, but my experience was less than ideal. Initially, I attempted to go native and engage as fully as I could with the course but, whereas I thought I was there to taught how to master what I was doing (it’s all in the name), the tutors wanted me to work, think and speak in a way that fitted in with a teachable orthodoxy that had already established itself. Before long I started to part company with the then established professional world of art. I was formed in a cultural world that was fundamentally anti-establishment and anarchistic and I found the formalised nature of academic art study to be both stifling and disingenuous.
I still continue to work in the world of art, as a technician working for other artists, but I no longer take part
A few years ago, I was employed to do some technical production work for an artist who was based at a local studio space. In the reception area of this shared studio space was a display holding a number of small booklets, each one containing information about one of the studio holders, all the same size and format. Nearby was a display of prints for sale, one by each of the same artists, all the same size and all of a similar colour scheme and visual style, and I remember being horrified that a group of individual artists would buy in to such a corporate, homogenous emulsion of mediocrity.
I suppose it was an idea of peer professionalism but I find that consensual conformity fundamentally repellent. I have been involved in group shows before, where all participants are presented with a common starting point, but the most interesting thing about that is the diversity of how artists respond rather than how willing they might be to conform.
And this is where I get to the point. Whereas I had decided never to apply for arts funding again, it’s not because I have given up on the idea of being a professional artist, it’s just that I have lost faith in the competence of the gatekeepers, those professionals who administer the grants and curate the work.
For me, if it has any meaning at all, I take the word “improfessional” to refer to those of us who do not consider ourselves to be “unprofessional”, but choose to do it in a way that does not require us to be a professional in a way that is defined by others, especially whom we consider unqualified to make that distinction.
My own salvation has been to fall back on that do-it-yourself culture, that fuck-you attitude of the post-punk culture, although the world has moved on a great deal since the end of the 1970s.
In 2014 – 2015 I celebrated my own major retrospective at the age of 50, and this turned out to be one of the most productive projects I have ever done.
In 2004, after seeing the major major retrospective of Eduardo Paolozzi’s work to celebrate his 80th year, I had the idea to celebrate my own retrospective in 2014 when I was 50. It was concept that I have used several times since of something that is simultaneously fake and real. It’s fake in the sense that I just thought it up without permission, but also just as real as anyone else’s retrospective show. I produced a lot of work that was a recombination of previous work and, as I was unsure how to proceed to produce a coherent catalogue, I decided not to and started a catalogue as a magazine part-work whose aesthetic and production values were based upon the low quality classified advert magazines that I remember from the 1970s.
The whole project was simultaneously deadly serious but also a monumental piss-take, it was real but I made fun of myself and all the clichés and assumptions that go with the idea of being a professional artist. I didn’t see it coming but Retrospective: Richard Bolam at 50 was the most productive project that I have ever engaged in. Despite its veneer of triviality, it gave me a perspective on my work that I had never seen before, and a directed motivation that I had never experienced before.
I recommend everyone does their own major retrospective in their middle years, unless the overpaid curators and unpaid interns at Tate Modern will do it for you. That’s a lot easier.
There was a major anti-climax after the year of Bolam at 50 but it didn’t last long, and I reminded myself that it was all fake anyway and the date was an arbitrary milestone and so why not do it all again when I’m 60? I have started the process of working towards Bolam at 60 which will be the same but different. The project will run from my 60th birthday in 2024 until the day before my 61st and will be a much more sophisticated than the first iteration. The production values of Bolam at 60 will be based upon much of the professional paid work that I have done over the last 20 years, and will be based upon the look, feel and technology of corporate events and digital signage. Part of that project will be a regular Bolam TV internet television broadcast. Again, this is simultaneously fake and real, I’m just making it up, but that is all anyone else is doing anyway.
Technology has made this all possible on a fairly modest budget. You can start your own internet tv channel with nothing more than a laptop, a webcam and an internet connection, and I see this idea of television to be the modern equivalent of the self-published fanzines and cassette tapes whose production became accessible in the late 1970s.
I know many artists who hate (yes, really hate) the art world but, as an artist friend always reminds me, the art world is not the same as the world of art. Many are afraid to speak out because they think they will exclude themselves from opportunities and funding. I think I’ve already burned too many bridges to worry about that anymore and my own response is DIY. I am not too proud to accept invitations, or even funding, but I decided I would never again write a formal application. I have a studio that I pay for out of my own pocket and I buy my own equipment and materials. If I ever do any gallery shows again, if need be I’ll just pay for that myself. This approach is not without its limitations but I decided to self-fund my work using the money I get from working on corporate events, mostly conferences, and thereby getting corporate business to fund it.
I like the contradiction embodied in the word, and I wonder if this acknowledgement of the validity of being “improfessional” is actually a confession, a realisation that the established, professionalised path is a narrow cul-de-sac that has too many limitations and has excluded too many possibilities?
I’m not sure what response the organisers of this conference are expecting, and they extended the submission deadline by a week, accompanied by an explanation of the term “improfessional practices”, but this is mine.
Richard Bolam 2020