In conversation with my mentor Benjamin Lignel on our personal Handshake 4 experiences.
My personal Handshake journey started in a haze of self-doubt due to a period of instability in my life. The place I called home changed several times, there was a death in my family which rocked, tested and even broke some family connections, and I changed my job. These events tested me to my core and made me reassess and redefine the person that I wanted to be. But I am thankful for it all – for the growth I have experienced, by embracing change, which has ultimately lead to more stability in my life.
Handshake was a professional and creative challenge added into the alchemic pot, from which a different me emerged. Handshake coincided with what the most intense and life altering two years of my life, it is hard for me to articulate exactly how my work has evolved other than I trust my intuition around decision making more. Did you notice any changes in my practice or work as you mentored me over that time?
Ben: I did, of course, notice several changes: while you continued to be rigorous in your approach to material experimentation, you became more assured in your decisions and choices: development seems to have been folded into shorter cycles. But this assessment misses the bigger picture, I think: as you point out, your life was a roller-coaster over the last two years, and you seem to have managed to stay grounded – and found the resources to protect and nurture yourself – through these tough times. The positive effects on that (and of the many things that went on during that time, including HS) may take years to become apparent.
You also mentor for a Master’s in Critical and Historical Craft Studies programme. Although vastly different, are there things that Handshake could learn from the way you engage with mentees in that programme?
Ben: As I have written in the first Handshake publication, the Mentor/Mentee relationship is one that is very dependent on a good fit, but that can be more beneficial to mature students than conventional class-room teaching. As it happens, the MA in critical and historical craft studies at Warren Wilson College combines both: intense, 2-weeks long, in-person residency sessions of are conducted once a semester. Residency classes resemble doctoral seminars, more than anything: a roster of international “guest thinkers” share material with a small group of highly motivated students who are expected to take an active part in shaping the material under discussion. The teaching model is collegial rather than magisterial, and all faculty attend all the classes. This residency period is followed by a 4-month semester, during which each student working “from home”, accompanied by both an advisor (one of the faculty) and a mentor, chosen for a 6-months period according to individual students’ area of research. In the best Mentor/Mentee scenario, a sense of shared purpose and common interest will develop into a emulation/nurturing relationship, and be both affirming and inspiring for the student. Like any interpersonal relationship, this is a delicate arrangement: though not exactly a peer-to-peer collaboration, it seeks to annul the difference between the Mentor and the Mentee, and relies on good doses of empathy and sympathy.
What do you think are the benefits and/or pitfalls of the Handshake model?
Ben: The benefits would be: a nimble, unconstrained working relationship that can adapt to changing interests quickly, with all the benefits of a sustained discussion. As months passed, I got to know you better, and you me, which means that we learnt to get to the heart of the matter more quickly, and I felt I could gradually attend better to your needs. The pitfalls of the HS model reside in having the single mentor, and being stuck with them: there are many ways that an long-distance mentoring protocol can fail, and I am not sure how that has been addressed in the past, if it indeed ever came up. More emphasis should be put, in art school, on building a network of critical “companions”: a group of friends and peers who you can turn to during research and development, to receive feedback. The mentoring system is not exactly that (HS mentoring is a paid, rather than a voluntary, work), but hopefully provides a good template for well-prepared, one-to-one presentation/discussion sessions. Would you agree? Have you thought about such a support system?
Kylie: Yes I think that establishing a good circle of art school contemporaries is important for life after graduation. If a graduate is operating out of home/alone they can easily become very isolated and get ‘stuck’ on a problem, when all it could take is one brief conversation with someone familiar in critique or observation to quickly see a way forward.
I have been lucky enough to still be in close contact with my former art school tutor who could offer problem solving advice on ‘making’ issues or another pair of eyes/ears experienced in critical discussion to sound out ideas. But I do miss the group critiques we had in art school, and interestingly recently attended an alumni event organised by the school with the purpose of brainstorming this very problem. The school wanted our feedback on how they could offer help to develop a system moving forward whereby the graduates had access to a network/forum and ongoing opportunities for professional development while operating in the ‘real world’, we all look forward to what the new year will bring!
As a maker, the hands are connected in the heart line which means that significant experiences felt are transmuted into the work in some way.
As a writer, designer, curator, commentator of contemporary jewellery, and mentor among many things, you would firstly view a practice or work through your own frame of reference and personal aesthetic. Do you find it a challenge to advise, provide grit or nurture a mentee into a higher level of development without asserting your personal beliefs too strongly, but still drawing on your rich experience and knowledge?
Ben: Mhmm…I certainly strive to respect the mentee’s space, to work with the goals and criteria that they have set themselves rather than impose my own, to invite them to “look elsewhere” without forcing their hands, and to point out what I believe are issues that should be addressed in a supportive manner. Do I succeed? Not always, is the lucid answer (Kylie, do you feel like answering this question – that could be more useful, I think, than me blabbing about what I think I did? Do you think I imposed my own views? Are there ways this could have been avoided?)
Kylie: Receiving a reading of one’s work in progress which comes from audience of a divergent cultural background is always interesting and revealing of how work can be translated.
You are very good, (as you describe below) in seeing the ‘gaps’ of an artist’s intention and what was actuality, then offering advice on where the solution could be found to plug them.
You had said you were interested in providing me with ‘productive friction’ and learning to get better at tutoring. All relationships are always a give and take and I found the ‘friction’ or differing opinions to be very beneficial to me in that it forced me at times to take a stand and defend my intentions by communicating my viewpoint or meaning behind a work more effectively, or dig deeper into my own research or making to transmit my idea more thoroughly.
I knew that this journey wouldn’t be an easy ride and that is the whole point really, to place one’s self on the edge of discomfort, bordering on what you know and what you don’t, so that you can grow enough to fill the space with experience where there was once just a desire to know and understand more clearly.
The programme is really a test of character, we are putting ourselves ‘out there’ in trust on this public platform. Trust that we can rise to the challenge, that we can bring worthwhile ideas to fruition, that we can take the critiques and grow from them, that we will gain more understanding of ourselves and our projects so that we can attain more insight and certainty moving forward.
Ben: While on the subject, I think that my role as a mentor to a practicing artist is essentially to provide another set of eyes. Discussing a work in development -and by “work”, I mean both a series of objects and a discursive apparatus built around it – implies trying to identify possible gaps between the intention of the artist, and the object/text they (actually) produced. These gaps are the productive site of mentoring, where incoherence and grace have at one another : )
Were there any challenges for you within Handshake or valuable insights learned that you could take away?
Ben: There are too many! It feels like I have been a long-time companion of HS, in ways that are also very personal (I wrote an essay for the first handshake publication shortly after the birth of my daughter: I have indelible memories of a summer spent between keyboard and nappies, trying to read up on Socrates to better understand the history of that pedagogical model…and thinking all the while about what “parenting” meant). I think Peter Decker’s invitation to look at, think about, and eventually participate in HS has spurred an ongoing interest in models of (self) growth, learning, and living together. I have experience a few different teaching/learning formats, some more reliant on empathic listening and conversation, others on friction and debate. I am not sure that one is always better than the other, but it seems to me that there is a global crisis in conversation making across ideological divides. Handshake teaches me, I think, to take conversation seriously, to not take understanding for granted, and make space for critique in a respectful way.
Would you do it again?!
Would you? More specifically, what do you think are the skills/insights HS gave you? How do you think it could be improved?
Kylie: I would certainly be involved with HS again, but I probably don’t need to participate in a longer term mentorship scenario at this point. I was only one year out from having graduated from art school when I started HS and it was great for helping to bridge the gap between what I’d learnt there and a regular exhibition practice. That integration time between graduation and finding your feet in the ‘real world’ can be quite unstable, so the opportunity for feedback from someone such as yourself (and at any time) is just priceless. There are a lot of moving parts to be mastered within exhibition and I am excited about this further inquiry inside my own practice.
For the moment I have filled myself up with enough valuable feedback and various opinions to last me for some time…I think there is a tendency in this particular age we are in as there is so much at our fingertips, to constantly look outside for the ‘answers’ to everything we crave through continuous instruction.
While feedback on our work, writing and advice regarding professional and personal development is always incredibly invaluable, there is also a stage for letting go of what everyone else is thinking, and allowing time for integration of experiences and delve inward for our own answers within our explorations.
The skills and insight that HS has given me is the ability to find my courage and work more decisively once I’m rolling with an idea, to work an exhibition space more effectively than before (which was one of my goals) and as a characteristically shy person, to hold my own within a large group collaborative. Developing a specific vision around a project from conception to final delivery is something that I’ve been pursuing since I entered art school, so the chance to present something that can stand alone is also an objective of mine.
I think HS can give more credibility and a yardstick to measure our professionalism as artists, from a viewpoint of industry professionals.
Ben: And: What’s next for Kylie?
Kylie: Presently I am working on a third iteration of object and installation from my first HS project, where I am collaborating with another artist and which will incorporate audio visual and a more participatory element to the experience. This is in an outdoor music and arts festival setting, so presents a new set of considerations. It is on a larger scale and a new level of challenge for me!
I am very interested in collaborative projects with other artists from different disciplines, I find the introduction of another’s creative energy and medium very exciting.
Beyond this project I am keen to continue developing the sensorial experience for audience further in my display structures and methods. But I would also like to get back to my roots of making and use some familiar materials again and hopefully some production pieces.
My aim for 2019 is to integrate more balance between these two sides of my practice : )