NORWICH SCHOOL OF ART
Other members of staff at the Norwich School of Art found the challenge of lecturing surprisingly forbidding. They were depressed by reluctant students in enforced attendance, scattered thinly over the raked seating. So thirty sheets of notes were slowly read with trembling guiding finger. Their slides were pale and stained, often back to front (but see beneath). And they had little awareness of the audience’s responses, their boredom, secret jokes and fumblings, acts of wanton contempt. In giving a Lecture I found my metier, where I could put on a show in total control, where panic forced me into imaginative solutions. The only other person at Norwich I remember associating with lecturing as creative performance was the delightful Brian Catling, sculptor and poet. We planned a joint lecture where each speaker provided the slides unseen for the other. It would have been fun.
All departments at Norwich were happy for me to notch up the hours at the lectern which would be subsumed within their accountability. Gill Doel the Slide Librarian was so helpful and encouraging. The Technician happily churned out the slides as he listened to the J.Y. Prog. There were well maintained slide and cine projectors and a good sound system. Best of all there was raked seating and a sealed projection booth.
I know that lecturing meant much to me, because, even to this day, I dream at least weekly about the act of addressing crowds from the lectern. In eighty per cent of the dreams however I am left foolish and whimpering as accident after accident cloud my performance to an ever dwindling audience. In one dream I brought my favourite five students (all girls) to an out of town art school none of us knew. The slides could only be projected on a distant wall about three inches square. As a de Chirico train puffed at the end of the street, the audience dwindled, one by one. I had let down my faithful five in what was an away fixture.
I rarely used notes but always provided handouts. Astute students would often realise glaring discrepancies between what I was saying and what I had written. Often the whole shape, the whole meaning, the whole conclusion would change during the proceedings. If the show was good enough, who cared? After a couple of years teaching on the Undergraduate programme at Noriwch it dawned on me that there were two approaches to the task, the information heavy routine, and the exercise of the imagination. I drifted inexorably towards the latter at Norwich.
The first basic technique was Mobility. Through wandering in and out of the projected light, scooting up the raked seating, and suddenly looming over those nodding off, it was possible to generate attention that the material didn’t justify. Lecturing to American students at the Royal Holloway College for Scholastics International’s Summer Programme for Advanced High School Students, mobility allowed me to intrude on a young couple barely at the age of consent hiding at the back. A true moment of coitus interruptus. It was difficult for a bored listener to sustain a whispered account of last night’s drinking, when the lecturer was standing behind him or her in the darkness.
The second basic technique was Interaction In the normal course of an average lecture, Members of the Audience (MOTAs) are often bursting to join in some contentious point but, not catching the speaker’s eye, seem content to sink back into the darkness. One of the most pathetic cliché of the lecturing patter comes at the end, “And now are there any questions?” and before the somnolent can reply, you say “Right then…” and you’re off.
To be sucked into Questions at the End unsettles the MOTAs in several ways. However fascinating the talk, let's agree it’s all over and we are all knackered. If encouraged, questions might be sustained beyond the usual anticipated time, your carefully structured presentation dwindles into an exchange of the deaf with the sole remaining MOTA, a wild-eyed Trot who would only leave by storming out. No, I thought, build this knock-about into the body of the lecture and fifteen minutes minimum are knocked off the expenditure of the speaker’s energy. Together with astutely chosen film clips this reduces the actual lecturing time to 30 minutes in any one hour. To extend beyond the hour is a cruel trial of everybody’s patience. To protect my Thespian ego, neither did I ever offer a coffee break before launching into Part Two. Even the failure of one MOTA to return dealt my confidence a stinging blow that fed my nightmares.
At an early stage in the proceedings the speaker should pick on somebody at random. “Is that water running uphill or downhill?..... does your Grandmother has false teeth?” etc. The chosen victim sits upright and blathers but attention from that moment rises phenomenally among the group. “Anybody seen that gleam of dentures in an elderly parent?” Your capacity for the unexpected discomforts the audience but at the same time excites it. The whiff of bear baiting is in the air.
Many of you will remember the surge of Performance Art in British Art Schools, where the eternal studio verities of Airbrush and Mahlstick could be put aside, for eccentric clothes, makeup and silly walks. A good hearted student called Jeremy silent stalked the darkness in my lectures arranging daffodils in milk bottles around the periphery of the room. He dutifully warned me in advance and after the first three minutes was a comforting aside for those bored with the slides and me.
These techniques relax an audience and give them the license to respond, either to contribute or to take the piss. I have experienced cries of pleasure from the audience and barracking of a high order. Once a mature student, correcting my pronunciation of Oscar Schlemmer, had to endure much sneering from my sympathetic audience. One unusual factor in the Norwich Main lecture Hall was the proximity of the River Wensum which lapped outside the tall windows. I would build towards some grand conclusion about Seurat’s depiction of Liminal Paris, and, at delivery of U.S.P., the stunned silence would be filled by the derisory quacking of the ducks. This was always followed by the rich gales of laughter from the MOTAs, and we all went home happy.
I met up with a variant of this lecturing to an Open University audience at Cambridge. The facilities were primitive. I was asked to bring my own blankets for the four windows, but Equal Opportunities determined that a Transcriber (a strangely dour man,face clouded by the weight of responsibility) with keyboards and multiple screens was placed at my right hand side in support of Deaf students. His frantic pounding of the keyboard caused much much merriment in my preamble to Was Botticelli a Piagnone? At one stage the pounding slackened as he looked at the slides, then, as I reached the main conclusion, he was silent, having fallen asleep. Woken by laughter, he rattled those keys as a facsimile of note taking, but on the screen was gibberish.
Towards the end of my time at Norwich, it was considered a consolidation of resources to book Cinema City across the road for lectures to be attended by all students at the School, painters, sculptors, designers and illustrators. The potential attendance rose from about 150 to over 400. The projected slides which had appeared slightly over life size, suddenly filled the space occupied on other days of the week by "Blade Runner" or more appropriately, "The Exterminating Angel". I would leave handouts near the door, and drink in the gathering anticipations of the MOTAs. I caught myself massaging my neck like a footballer in the Tunnel, knitting my brows, and other manifestations of what it was called ‘getting psyched up.”
I could leap about, spring from one side of the stage to the other, strutting like Freddie Mercury. I could emphasise a point by nodding my head with clenched jaw in the vertically directed light of the lectern, until I realized I derived this rhetorical punctuation from Mussolini. Anybody who saw (Peter) Reynham Banham at the Lectern knows how effective its light can be to catch the expressive gestures of the eyebrows. I am told that Walter Mondale, like most American politicians of his age, mastered the Sincerity Machine, but also kept piles of different coloured blank paper on the Lectern to reflect up on his face as a sort of Fill Light. Each lecture I gave was supported by a Box File of research materials in the Library to which students were invited to contribute. Needless to say these boxes were junked soon after I left Norwich. The words “spoon feeding” were often applied to my teaching methods.
The illustrator Genevieve Webster drew my attention during one lecture to how much my delivery was getting suspiciously close to that of Ben Elton, a high speed gibbering with glasses flashing in the light. I was grateful to her for the warning. Cinema City was an indulgence on a large scale but was before the age of sound mikes and laptops. Doing a keynote speech for the Norwegian Trade body of design and illustration GRAFIL, I had devised an audio-visual programme , “Telling a Story” on my laptop with a collection of paintings of Kim Il Sung addressing the citizens of North Korea. On the giant cinema screen the cursor was as big as a canoe, and as quick as a rocket. I held in my hand a zapper with a quicksilver arrow that shimmered over Kim Il Sung and I was fitted with a wireless voice mike. Half way through the lecture to 400 MOTAs I saw people’s amusement at my dancing delivery of the 20 minute presentation, and realized I was posturing like Madonna but without the revealing costumes. I struck a more manly and sensible pose for the peroration.
On another occasion my audience was helpful in confirming whether I had acquired idioms which were thoughtless repeated, distracting from what I had to say. A few cliches were listed but the conceit that won most approval as being characteristic of my spojen imagery was, " a great Hokusai wave of...." (add your own unit here). Of this I had no awareness but it chimed true.Ever since I have kept an informal audit of my very own cliches.
I lectured to the Vocational Designers at Norwich, then the undergraduates and then Foundation, each requiring variations in pacing, in material, and in my persona. I hoped that, whoever the audience, I made a difference, and made things imaginatively credible even if only for the afternoon. I still meet people who remember my “Penis in Art” lecture. Colleagues seem pleased to have a final destination for penile discoveries, although I no longer give that lecture an airing.
Other responders have not always been so compliant. I wanted to introduce the Foundation group, who numbered about sixty students, to editing techniques in Donald Cammell and Nick Roeg’s film “Performance”. The Art School had no available Audio Visual equipment at that time other than a fully operating Cine Projector. So I hired a TV on a stand from Rumbelows which was delivered for the eleven o’clock lecture. I showed several excerpts, concluding with a the sequence of a mysterious exchange of identity under the influence of psychedelic drugs.
It was an unusual audience, numbering two psychiatric nurses and a boy with his dog. Turning the TV off I was about to call for a coffee break for reflection before the noon discussion, when, as the lights came on, one tall heavily built student we’ll call Ken, had got to his feet and was pointing at me. “So,” he boomed, “you think yourself God.” I tried to calm him down with the usual bland offers of ‘talking it over’.
This made him even more aggressive. He leapt in the air and punched one hand into the other. The dog barked and tried to to bite his owner, and the other students bolted for the Exit. The two psychiatric nurses little thought their skills would be called upon that fine Norfolk Autumn morning.
As Ken bounced down the raked seating towards me, with two nurses in tow, I realized that the main danger was to my rented Television which I managed to unplug and trundle out of the door. The nurses had managed to stall his progress, and the dog distracted him further, allowing me to get down the corridor as far as the Assistant Head of School’s office. George Williams came out of his room, slipped me and the TV into his anteroom, and went out to deal with Ken.
Half an hour passed, the hospital restrainers had been called and it was safe for me to resume my teaching for the day. George smiled indulgently as if he expected little else from such a flamboyant lecturer. “Ken’s been taken home, and his parents have undertaken to make sure he takes his medicaments this time.” Nobody had thought fit to tell me that over the summer Ken had taken a large box of LSD infused sugar cubes on holiday to the Canary Islands. With the Police at his door, he swallowed the lot. The film “Performance” had reminded him of the whole business, and he was looking for revenge. Months later I was hardly reassured to hear he’d left the Foundation department to become a mini-cab driver.
George Williams had me marked as a possible trouble maker because at the beginning of term I had given a lecture on Russian Suprematism, and a parent had written to the Principal that I might be one of those Red Teachers the Daily Express was identifying. Somehow the National Front had got wind of my subversion and sent an observer to my next lecture in the series which turned out to be “Madox Brown and the Sustaining of the English Tradition”. The observer approached the lectern after I had rounded off my regrets at the neglect of British Culture, expressing his appreciation, and whether I would repeat the lecture for his own group.
Lectures at Brighton were another matter. Both George Hardie and John Vernon Lord found the lecture a profitable way of concluding the day’s advising on the MA Narrative Illustration/Editorial Design course. We attended each other’s talks and added to the fun. I learnt close scrutiny of the manufactured image from George, and a wide range of musical and literary references from John. A much appreciated feature was the Visiting Practitioner lecture, and an introduction in one of these to the term 'Love Handles' from Posy Simmons.
Giving up teaching in 2005, I missed the option of showing off, either as part of the syllabus, or at the drop of a hat because someone had gone missing. The phone rang in Hardingham half an hour before the WI's lecture on Thomas Hardy, and for an extra fee could I talk on anything at the time their lecturer should have arrived but no projector was available? For an hour I performed a sort of after dinner speech about lectures that had gone wrong. It was cathartic for everyone involved.
I’d never been interested in the banalities of Powerpoint but had committed many of the lectures to the language of the internet, HTML, and after 1995, justified a website for part-time members of the course who couldn’t get to the Wednesday meetings, beginning my present labyrinthine presence on the WWW, “The Visual Telling of Stories”. The very maverick nature of this resource, outside the corporate control of the University was to lead to my leaving Brighton in 2005 with it under my arm.
I loved the lecture that started out with a mystery and then slowly mustered the evidence towards a possible reading. The narrative programme of Gertler’s “Merry-Go-Round” and Lewis’ “The Crowd” gave me a buzz to deliver. Both explored a balance between existing and deliberate knowledge, and the artist’s intuition.
I relished a description of the artist Mendel whom Gilbert Cannan based on Mark Gertler, "He was baffled by this association of art with things like politics and music-halls, which he had always accepted as part of the world's constitution, but essentially unimportant. He had no organised mental life. His ideas came direct from his instincts to his mind, and were used for immediate purposes or dropped back again to return when wanted." My piece de resistance was showing how Duchamp had exactly copied the outline of a Michelangelo drawing for his contours of "Etant Donees". It mattered little if there were dissenters. It was enough that, for that moment, it looked plausible.Few contributors to the Burlington and the Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld would have been that content with the ephemeral. The embarassing component within that lecture was the sudden tearing into two of a paperback copy of "Interviews with Duchamp". The quiet acceptance by colleagues of this vainglorious and mysterious act reassured me I could get away with anything.I offered the damaged copy on Amazon but, irritated by its presence on my shelves, gave it away to an inquiring customer. Books can easily retain their potency and sense of threat long after the memory has lapsed.
Most practising artists in the audience responded to these thoughts about considered craft and the intuitive, although historians and theoreticians at Art School were uncomfortable with such flexibility. Having a PhD is useful when surrounded by the Slaves of Post-Modernism and the Axemen of Semiology. Seeing Helen Boorman with whom I taught in Norwich at the Nigel Henderson Conferenc in 2000, I was flattered that she marvelled at my capacity to ignore its reverberations, as Post-Modernism came and went. Just like avoiding Gymnastics while hiding in a Balcony above and out of sight.
My much neglected triumph was a sustained and costly fiction in inventing a gay American sculptor, who I named Dalton Moncrieff. I was to initiate a new series of Lunchtime lectures proposed by the Head of Graphics. Students from all departments were invited on April 1st. Using slides of coastal defences I conjured forth the Star Temple of Winterton, based on a book once owned by E.H.Shackleton, the White Magician of Norfolk, proposing a sort of horse race that regularly took place among the Planets. This complex cosmic alignment was the Life’s Work of a rather muddled American living on the Coast. He had started in the Beaux Arts tradition and been an early exponent of Ley Lines and effing the ineffable.
If I was to do this, there was no chickening out halfway through, or revealing the hoax at the end. My most dangerous moment was when I projected an old slide I’d taken of a battered concrete mixer on Watford Golf Course. A careful scrutineer could clearly see a tee and a bunker in the background. That these huge cubes of concrete were the product of this tiny machine was, I suspected, about to be rumbled or at least generate an irreverent belly laugh. But I made it through to the end of the lecture and of Dalton Moncrieff. I was warmly received. The next day students came up to me and cursed a system that had neglected such a genius. Colleagues made no mention of the lecture, a sure sign it had gone well.
Rumours of mass student movements out to the coast reached me a week later. “Can I see you please Chris”. I sat in the library in front of the deputation. “All three of us have decided to scrap our third year theses, and will start a collaborative research project on Dalton Moncrieff.”
I was called into to see the Head of Department who said it was not so much the deceit, but the lost opportunity to enlarge the intellectual horizons of our students. Within weeks I had lost a day’s worth of teaching, a fine for my foolhardiness. Within five years I claim here and now, it was a commonplace to expect an invented entity as part of Post Modernism, challenging the theory of the auteur, extemporising narratives beyond the envelope and challenging the eternal verities.
Screw you, fella, I hissed at every opportunity as the Head passed me on the stairs. Only a few years ago he of course revealed he was aware of the manifest falsity of my proposition, but had no memory of reducing my teaching hours. Screw you, fella.