The weekend of the Haratua Hui loomed just around the corner and the copious amounts of peppermint tea I was ingesting did nothing to soothe the anxieties I was feeling at the thought of having to present my creative work at an open crit. I think I spent more time on the toilet than in my bed that night. The word critique isn’t new to me; however what that entails within a fine arts degree, let alone a master’s degree, was completely foreign. Did I need to prepare a speech ahead of time detailing precisely how I had made the work and what its ontological and phenomenological ambitions represented? Was I expected to valiantly defend my work and the concepts involved against a barrage of conscious attempts to undermine my processes? Surely I wasn’t going to just, you know, talk about the work? I have a slight addiction to self-deprecation and tend to get trapped in a perpetual cycle of malcontent; never truly satisfied with the work I am able to produce and constantly searching for ways to improve it (often to the detriment of my own creative output). My mum tells me it’s because I’m a Virgo. I once asked her if she had ever read Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. She had not.
Friday came around and I found myself so engrossed in the discourse surrounding my peer’s work that I nearly forgot about my anxieties. Funny how that works. Hearing others talk about their practice in this critical yet supportive environment was extremely informative and I was humbled and inspired by these people who were willing to share such a personal part of their lives. Listening intently to the guest critics respond to the presented work helped me to gain a clearer picture of what it means to read art. Though I didn’t contribute much in the way of discussion (something that in retrospect I deeply regret), I was beginning to understand the vocabulary and analytical thought processes implemented when giving constructive criticism. I felt reassured when my silent opinions were reflected amongst the group and I soon found my confidence growing in regards to reading the work; almost to the point of being comfortable enough to voice my observations. Almost. I’m still fighting a civil war with the domestic menace that is imposter syndrome; though rest assured he just rolled snake eyes and I’m yet to hand in my reinforcement cards. I was impressed with the relatively ardent levels of engagement kept throughout the day; however it was evident from a sense of waning motivation near the end of it that reading and critiquing art was a mentally draining and arduous affair. I had observed and learnt a lot that day, both about myself and my peers, leading me to feel less anxious and, dare I say it, a little excited even to present my work the next day. There was so much to digest from the conversations that had been shared that day and my mind was racing with more questions than I had answers for. I decided to treat my brain to a well-deserved rest and so endowed it with the pleasures of incessant YouTube advertisements while I began to set up the necessary equipment for my work. As I held open the door to the space in which my installation would take place the real question became clear: why hadn’t I asked for help to manually pour and spread 160kg of salt into a dimly lit room?
It occurred to me that listening to and being enveloped
by the eerily human-like drones of a dying saxophone amplified at volumes
potent enough to violently vibrate your body and induce states of primordial
awe might not be the best way to begin critiques at 9am in the morning. But who
was I to question the fervent will of Saint John Coltrane? Being first up meant
that I didn’t have to worry about the innumerable amount of mandatory nervous
bathroom visits throughout the day and I was thankful for that. I decided that
a manifesto was probably unnecessary and that I would simply utilize what
$60,000 of student debt had bought me through an education in Jazz performance:
the ability to improvise. At this stage I was honestly just too nervous to
think straight and if push came to shove then I was prepared to lay myself down
on the salt-lathered floor and exclaim ‘wreck me senpai’. Performance anxiety
has always plagued my practice as a musician and I have come to grips with the
fact that it is better to write a sick collab together than to go solo (see Beats
by Fray feat. Young Qualmy).
But nerves are a good thing right? Nerves indicate that you are passionate and
actually care about what you are doing, allowing you to (if harnessed
correctly) focus precisely on the task at hand. If I didn’t get nervous before
performing, or in this case talking about my creative work, I would be worried.
I just fucking hate spotlights. Installation as an artistic practice was still very
new to me and I was only just finding my feet and the courage required to climb
that first step. I knew that I had invested considerable time and effort into creating
something that I was reasonably proud of and trusted that would be perceivable
within the work itself. Turns out people kind of like weird dark rooms that are
loud and ominous. I was immensely happy with how the critique went and was
grateful for all the feedback I received from my peers and guest critics both
within the talk and throughout the day. Seeing people’s different reactions to
the installation was illuminating, although in hindsight I wish I had removed myself
completely from the room as I believe it had a negative impact upon the
experience. I also realise that I may have talked too much and not allowed for
a proper conversation to emerge. The most memorable and beneficial criticism
came from Catherine Bagnall when she said: “The work wants to be Matthew Barney
but the Hobbit is holding it back. It has room to be weirder, just go all in.” I
completely understood what she was attempting to communicate aesthetically as
well as conceptually with this statement, but I was simultaneously bemused; and
this brought a smile to my face. Obviously there was still room for improvement
but I felt compelled to work even harder knowing that I might be on the right
track. After such a warm reception from my friendly and supportive peers it was
hard not to feel at least a little proud. My motivation would have peaked had I
not been thinking about how I was going to clean up all of this fucking salt.
 Lolza, Just Testing This Shit Out (2019).