Sarah Roberts: on developing practice in the face of deadlines

When Is Too Close Too Far In Practice That Treads The Deadline?


Deadline vs Live Development

I have a show in July, The Whitechapel London Open – it’s still a long way off and yet I have it in mind as a deadline, it’s my biggest show yet and I want to make the most of it.  I’m not a ‘loans’ exhibitior, so an exhibition means a new work,  and I want it to be just that;  ‘new’ somehow developed since the last tableaux,  the more I think of it the closer it seems to get, and as I work on in infinitum on my current suite of works, I wonder about deadlines:

  • Should I be applying for more stuff in the interim?
  • Should I be more ‘professional’ and already know what I’ll be showing in July?
  • Should I just be making and not even considering the deadline?

Essentially, I worry that I’m stopping short (in terms of developing the work, and in terms of showing it) and I worry that I’m coasting too close to the deadline.

Labour Intensive Last (Wo)Man Standing

I tend to only pin down or finish a work when someone says stop. Deadlines are something that rather than ceasing practice, call for me to take everything I have and evaluate it up to that point. I notice that as a deadline approaches I start to push myself and the direction of pieces. I’d say I make with an increased rigour and take more risks with material if anything, whether or not that is wise or not I’m not sure but I am certain that the face of a deadline stares your practice down and makes it consider itself and what is currently lacking.  The culls and the additions happen here, the ‘pop’ pieces that act as catalysts rather than compliant others are often made at this stage.

I make each new work in situ in the exhibition space, in this sense the exhibition is a testing ground, it informs and allows a new work to take place.  I will always have an idea of what a work will look like, roughly which components will be used and the palette of course, but until the work is made in the space there is always a degree of uncertainty, the finished assemblage will be determined by a sense of formal rightness that can only be judged physically in the space.  Saying that, my work is never ‘finished’ it simply reaches a point of arrangement or assembly when it is shown, but I think, as everything in the assemblage remains material, it retains potential, it’s a state of flux that rests somewhere in-between the site of provenance, the studio and the gallery – and that’s what’s interesting… and that’s what makes the ‘deadline’ and the exhibition one and the same.

The Great Unknowing vs The Under Par Unplanned

‘To work without knowing where one is going or might end up is a necessary condition of creation, of the generation of difference rather than the reproduction of the same.’ – Rachel Jones, 2003, The Value of Not Knowing: Wonder, Beginning Again and Letting Be’.

So when your practice of making and showing is embraces this ‘unknown and coasts deadlines for all their worth, how do you try and avoid failure?  I worry that if I plan a piece too thoroughly at the outset I might be closing things down early/ stopping short in effect…but how close is too close to a deadline, and when does pushing the work to it’s limits quite simply leave an artist and the work broken and become more badly planned than calculated risk.

I have learnt however that a few key tips can keep you sane when your work coasts the deadline by nature of the practice.  It’s like scaling a volcano as a pro explorer as opposed to being the idiot that only brought flipflops and a bottle of evian.

Be Upfront

If your practice works better with chance, risk, or a situationist or site specific approaches etc – explain that in proposals.  I always try and be upfront about the fact that sketches I provide are simply examples of the type of work or the palette, and that the work will be finalized nearer the show or during installation.  So far this has been fine and curators have had a good understanding of this as a part of my practice.

Real Time/Real Money

Be real about your costs, especially when you are constantly making- you need to keep receipts and tally a spreadsheet of expenses for each piece.  If the gallery pays expenses, or if you want to cost a work for sale/taxes then this awareness of production costs will be essential.

Be aware of timescales for your own sanity if nothing else, whatever time you think you need double it to include deliveries, logistics, last minute shifts and other stories.

Make Sense

Do TESTS- you don’t have to make the final decisions too early, but do test out any new processes or methods early so when you sit down to make decisions  on the day of install they are well informed.

Experiment with skill.  In the last month I’ve been trying to push my practice by up skilling- I’ve taken classes in print and ceramics to try and help me to experiment further but with some knowledge of new materials and processes – to avoid wastage and disaster! You can do 1-1 sessions, short courses or open access at a range of places, I’ve been using East London Print, and The Ceramicists it’s affordable and a great way to learn new tricks and network.

Establish some boundaries for the piece (for me, my palette provides parameters for form and colour and materials to be used within the piece) material freedom is good but infinite possibilities could be more aimless than experimental.

Plan Logistics

A set of logistical and cost based boundaries can provide a safety net to work within without shutting down the capacity for flux in the piece.

Get dimensions for the space/ parameters for the work as early as possible and if possible spend some time in the space.  Consider access, temperature, light, sound etc. Think about how long the piece will be installed for and whether this will be a consideration (i.e. decay, fading etc)

Plan your fabrication timescale and contact your suppliers in good time and find out your lead times.  I know my vinyl shells need 2 weeks to be safe at the printers, they have been done in 2 days but you can’t pre-empt what other jobs your suppliers/fabricators might have on that may take precedent.  I think remembering that everyone thinks their job is the most important and urgent is key, try and be prepared well and your relationship with fabricators will be a lot better.   I also always let printers and fabricators know in advance when I plan to send over artwork or when I would ideally like to come and work with them so you can be aware of each-others timescales and at least get rough dates booked in.

Be aware of packaging requirements/materials and delivery timescales and transport AND any fitting requirements by technicians and/or fabricators and get that booked in so when you are making those ‘last minute’ decisions near the deadline they are just the creative ones.

So, all things considered it is still the great unknown, but you can feel a little more like a professional explorer than a fool in flip-flops trying to scale a volcano.

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