Note: In this episode I refer to Grayson Perry’s 2013 Reith Letures, which I highly recommend! You can listen to the entire series (or read the transcripts) for free at the BBC’s Reith Lectures website here.
Good morning. Good afternoon. Good evening. All of these are true for someone right now. Whatever it is, wherever you are, welcome to Parallel Worlds.
Let’s start the podcast the same way we always do – a five minute freewrite, or free-record, reflecting on your circumstances. How’s it going for you? What’s on your mind? Where are you escaping to right now? What do you want more than anything?
The same rules apply as every day – five minutes, keep the pen, or whatever you’re using, moving. Don’t stop to question if what you’re doing is good or bad, just let it flow. If you come to the end of the five minutes and want to carry on, then do! Pause the podcast and let your thoughts spill out. This exercise is for you.
I will be back in five minutes. Until then, you’re on your own. Let’s go!
Welcome back. I hope you’re enjoying this self-reflection. Have you noticed any changes over the weeks? Have you opened up, closed down, is it easier than when you started? Have you felt the urge to take something you wrote and edit it, turn it into something else? Has it made you want to write, or draw, or paint, or make a film?
That makes me think: who are you? You’re a person, listening to this podcast. Maybe we’ve met. Maybe we haven’t. Maybe you present a different image to some people in your life to the image you present to others. Maybe you go about your life being the same in front of everyone, maybe you swap characteristics in and out as it suits you.
I’m talking about this because this course is designed for designers, and artists. We present ourselves to the world all the time, and often go to great lengths to form the image people will see.
The British artist Grayson Perry talked about this in the third of four Reith Lectures he gave for the BBC in 2013. How do we, as artists, shape the image people have of us? He talked about the transformation of the art world, from a, (quote) ‘little backwater you know that was very rarely visited’, (end quote), to the all-encompassing thing it is now. We’re all familiar are illusions of artists being rarified souls, tortured outsiders who need inner turmoil in order to produce their work – does that sound like you?
Grayson Perry talks about Allan Kaprow – the man who came up with the idea of the Happening, a guy who was a big name in the 1950s avant garde art scene. In 1964, Kaprow wrote a book called The Artist as Man of the World, in which he claimed that artists are really just skilled workers. His claim is a sort of a tease – he was poking fun at the image of the tortured, outsider artist, saying that we all want the same as any other middle class skilled workers, a nice house, meetings with colleagues, self-improvement, and so on.
By the way, Grayson Perry’s Reith Lectures are great, and they’re all available online, with transcripts if you prefer, for free. There’s a link in both the podcast description and on the resources page of the website at parallel.olliepalmer.com
But back to the subject: artist origin stories. At about the same time Kaprow was writing his book The Artist as Man of the World, a new and influential artist was emerging in the same city, New York. Bob Dylan was a folk singer who came to prominence in the early 60s, playing clubs and festivals and so on. There’s a documentary about Dylan made by Martin Scorcese, called No Direction Home (2005) about Dylan’s early years (there’s a link in episode notes). There was an air of mystique about him – he told people stories about his origins, he’d learnt guitar from so and so riding in a box-car from Mexico, he was born in one place or another, he knew this or that person. There are five or six people interviewed in the film, each giving a different rumour about Dylan’s origins. Of course, this was easier in the 1960s, pre-internet, but the power of the origin story still persists.
Otherwise why would we be faced with endless films, books, and elements of popular fiction that present origin stories? This person came from that place, against all odds, is now successful. This person was a misjudged genius, out of place and out of time.
We’ll talk about the role of origin stories more in the final weeks of this course, when we’re talking about how to use the things we’ve learnt to frame your own practice. But for today, I want you to spend ten minutes – that’s longer than normal – writing origin stories for an artist. They can be an artist of any genre – a musician, a painter, a writer, a director, a collective of knitters, a sculptor who lives in the woods and only comes out on a Thursday – whatever you like. You could write about yourself, or a friend, or someone you admire. You can just make people up, as if they’re characters in a book. But I want you to list as many origin stories as you can in ten minutes. What hooks make a character more intriguing? What motives might they have for pursuing their art? Perhaps they come from a really repressive place, and have found their true identity in a tolerant metropolis. Perhaps their grandfather taught them a precious art before he died, and the artist practices to keep a culture alive. Perhaps many many things. Take elements from your favourite artists, or fictional characters if you need to. If you find one who’s particularly interesting, come back to them after the exercise and flesh their story out a bit more.
But, loosen up your mind – ten minutes to devise back-stories, starting now!
Welcome back, thanks for listening this far. How was that? Looking back over your list, do any stand out? What did you learn about what’s interesting in origin stories? Did you repeat yourself? Did you stay in a time or place, did you flesh out a whole town of people, did you flit from era to era and place to place?
Please do let me know how you got on via the voice messages. Keep hold of this writing – you will need it for later exercises.
Thanks for listening, I’ll be back tomorrow.
- Self-reflection (5 minutes)
- Artist origin stories - brainstorm. Bob Dylan was famous for telling everyone he met a different story about his background when he first arrived in New York City in the early 1960s. These built a mystique around a young man who was really the middle-class son of an electrical appliance store owner. Today we’re going to write origin stories! In 5 minutes, write as many intriguing fictitious origin stories as you can (e.g. she was raised by wolves in the Appalachian mountains, he became an artist after breaking out of prison for an unknown crime). If you get stuck, perhaps try creating silly names then working out a back-story – for example, “Old Cranky” got his name because he worked in a coalmine for twenty years hand-cranking the lift to take miners up and down. (10 minutes)
- No Direction Home (film; 2005, dir. Martin Scorcese). Film focusing on Bob Dylan’s career from his arrival in New York City in 1961 until his near-death motorbike crash in 1966. In the film, numerous people describe the fictional origin stories he presented early on in his career.
- Grayson Perry, ‘Nice Rebellion, Welcome In!’, lecture 3 of 4 in the Reith Lectures ‘Welcome to the Gallery’, 2013. Audio and transcript available on the BBC Website
Want to contribute? Send a voice message!