Gerald Curtis reflects on his process
For Liberty Festival I had been asked to develop workshops for children in SEND groups. These workshops, relating to my practice, combined music or sound with drawing in a performance setting. I came up with a workshop that I called ‘Drawing with Music’.
For me, using music or sound with my performance work is a way to focus my attention on to the surface. I want to transfer the energy that I receive from the sound to the paper itself. I have been using music in this way for just over a year since I collaborated with Claire Zakiewicz and Habib William Kherbek on Writing the Future (2021). After developing my work in this way, I have become more fluid, using sound as a catalyst for mark-making. I was interpreting it rather than using it as a form of strict choreography. What I aim to achieve through this process is a kind of state where I am no longer thinking about what I am doing; I am simply making. This kind of state is the most interesting to me, it is the closest to a flow state, where I am being consistently surprised by what I am making. I am also interested in the evidence of this process of making, which is why I choose to use a surface to catch the traces of performance. It is a kind of temporal map.
One of my collaborative pieces with Claire that stuck with me is a combined drawing to Music for 18 Musicians. This piece of music is a Steve Reich score lasting approximately one hour. It has eleven different sections of instrumentation pulled off in his characteristic minimal tonality. For this performance, we used only graphite and one sheet of paper, overlaying each other’s marks for one hour with our eyes closed. To be free of judgement, or of pre-thinking any possible image. This was to be one exercise in the workshop – the children collaborated to make a composition following the music that was playing. During the workshops, the music changed a couple of times from Jazz to Music for 18 Musicians to a collection called Different Trains. The aim was that these drawing games encouraged the children to think differently about the way they draw together.
For another activity, this time a solo performance called Tracing the Fragmented (2021) where I drew on the floor guided by the composition of a Chopin nocturne was the premise. At certain points the piece had sparse notation then at another point collapsed in a quick succession of notes. The idea of tempo and pace, rhythm and repetition are ideas that I also wanted to explore; however, this was not too successful. As the workshop progressed, the children preferred to focus on the drawing itself, and seemed less engaged to change the flow of the drawing. For me, this was the greatest disconnect I felt between my performances and the workshops. I discovered that listening requires a lot of practice and that pace and tempo are something that takes time to learn. Learning about tempo could be a whole different workshop or an extended series of sessions.
After the first workshop we changed our approach and placed the collaborative drawings on a big sheet of paper so that the students would begin there, and then extend the marks onto the larger sheet. Because the students worked at a different pace, I removed them carefully to allow the larger sheets of paper to be filled. I was interested in the way they spread their marks from a small drawing to a larger composition and how they interacted with each other. For me, the last group was the most memorable in this activity. I found that they understood the activity and were the least inhibited by how they spread the paint around the large drawing paper surfaces. I had also organised the paints into two pallets of colour: one contained different blues and purples, and the other contained yellows, oranges, and reds. The drawings from this were vibrant or blue, with different unmixed patches that leapt out. I encouraged the children not to mix paint before, but to mix on the paper itself, to give more time to paint.
After these workshops, I choose to reflect on the nature of making this work from a disability perspective. I believe it is important to explore the potential of using music and performance in relation to art making, specifically in relation to non-figurative work because of the freedom and potential for interpretation it offers to the artist and the viewer. The many codes of representation that are around us day to day can be a barrier to replicate and decode, so why not create your own?