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diskant rewind: Honey Is Funny #6

Posted: August 5th, 2008, by Chris Summerlin

(Originally posted November 2002)

Honey Is Funny by Chris Summerlin

I’m late with my column again. Knackers. So I’m covertly doing it at work which adds to the excitement of my working day if nothing else. The reason I am late with it is because after 2 years of sharing a house with people we all decided to move out, taking each item we own with us. I don’t own the phone extension cord so my home internet access is gone. I also don’t own a sofa so my ass hurts.

Marceline has informed me that my column is for the ART issue of Diskant so I best make it about ART.

Which is awkward.

Let me explain.

I hate ART.

Well, maybe not all art but certainly ART and DESIGN.

In fact, hate is the wrong word. Let’s settle for absolutely fucking loathe with a passion.

I am a qualified Graphic Designer. In fact, I still work as a designer. I just did the Econoline album and a compilation CD with Cat on Form on it (among others). I design and sell posters in Nottingham for gigs we put on here. In fact, if I negotiate home internet access again in the near future I’ll put some of them up here for you to see. I work hard at design (part time) and I never charge much more than my costs to clients I work for because I want to keep it fun. This is one of the reasons I couldn’t do it as a job. The other is that most graphic designers I have ever met are scumbags and the profession is morally wrong and bordering on evil.

MENTALIST

you’re thinking.

You’re probably right. But I blame design for my mentalism. That and Salvador fucking Dali.

I did Art at A Level. I got an A grade.

At A Level standard, doing art based subjects is pretty much a technical exercise for the first part of the 2 years and then one day they throw Salvador Dali at you.

I can’t blame them (“them” being the teachers and the curriculum). Especially at the time I was doing A Levels. Everyone was painting these “trippy” “cosmic” images anyway because they’d seen them on fliers for Dreamscape so when the teacher pulls out “The Metamorphosis of Narcissus” (or whatever the hell it’s called) then it’s the perfect link between the obsession with realism you have as a young person who does art and the “woah that’s far out” bullshit you find yourself thinking about as a young smoker of weed. The reason Dali figures so much for students of art is he is seen as the gateway to understanding “conceptualism” and moving students away from realistic art and into the communication of a concept. Dali also said he hated intercourse and would only masturbate for sexual gratification. One of his paintings was called “Le Grande Masturbateur” (which, coincidentally is what the French call Ian Scanlon). So it’s no big surprise that he appeals to teenagers.

I mean, no one who does A Levels is stupid. So imagine you’re a teacher.

The way to show kids how having a concept and a message is important in art is to make everyone do a still life for 3 weeks solid and have a competition for the most realistic end result. You announce you will enter too and challenge your students. In each lesson just kick back, have a coffee and read a book. Don’t even get your paints out. Then in the last 5 minutes of the last session, as your students are cramming in a paint frenzy, just whip out a Polaroid and snap the still life and claim your prize.

The point being is that conceptualism and the emergence of more abstract or “modern” forms of art are an evolution of the role of the artist from a person who captures images for historical reasons to a philosopher of a kind. It’s not an evolution of art itself. With the invention of the camera the need for draughtsmen was removed in all circumstances except using painted images as decoration. The camera beat the portrait painter. There had always been conceptual art (most of it religious) but now the way to make cash from being an artist changed dramatically.

I dug this a lot.

My final piece at A Level was a loose conceptual piece based on a broken guitar and some heavy duty symbolism alluding to the suicide of Kurt Cobain. In Gouache.

Serious stuff I assure you. And not the “spliffy” jacket cartoons of my peers. I had little doubt that, although I would make numerous fantastic records as a musician, my fortune and fame would be made as an artist because I had grasped conceptualism. Hell I was even starting to get into Willem De Kooning and the New York School. I was beginning to see that Jackson Pollock’s paintings were amazing moments of genuine human emotion, related directly to the artist’s frame of mind and not just a mess of paint (and this is after the 1980s where Pollock style paint slashes were used to decorate everything from bedspreads to pencil holders).

So while my friends went and did Technical Drawing and Product Design at University (pah! SCIENCE!) , I went off to do Foundation level Art where I found out more about this CONCEPT lark.

After you’ve done Foundation Art for a couple of months or so they push you off into specialist areas like Fine Art or Graphics, which were the 2 I decided to choose between. I opted for Graphics because even in that subject everything was concept based and I liked the idea of working with other people to realise something unique. I did OK at Graphics because I trod a line between that and Fine Art so while they were still saying things like

“It might look good, but WHY did you do it like that? I need a CONCEPT! I need DEPTH!”
I was OK. I was DEEP.

So I went to University. I got interviewed by the Surrey Institute and got in there. At the interview I showed them tons of paintings and pastel drawings and lino prints and screen prints and messy collages and they liked it. Sadly the cost of living down there was too much and at the last minute I went to Northampton instead.

And it wasn’t bad. For the first year. We did messy art based stuff with the theory being that we had to be good at getting in touch with meaning etc. in order to be good designers. The students with Apple Macs at home and that weird hairstyle that’s sort of like a mohican but more messy (think singer from Travis) suffered. They were not CONCEPTUALLY AWARE. I got a first for my first year because I transcended their shallow thoughts and invested MEANING in my design work.

What fun I had that summer break.

Then I got back to my second year and my timetable included classes with a teacher that sort of fell between business studies, psychology and some kind of Americanised self confidence class. Have you seen Donnie Darko? If you haven’t then go see it but if you have then you’ll know the shit I’m on about from the female teacher who does the course to Donnie’s class based on the confidence lectures of the character played by Patrick Swayze.

I was going to refer to this teacher as Mr Smith or something equally anonymous but fuck it, his name is JOHN MOONEY.

Suddenly professionalism entered the curriculum. Not a bad thing at all, we had to leave and go out into the world in under 2 years so I figured now was the time for me to hone and concentrate my conceptual skills into a package and sell that package to the people. Sadly I was wrong. Now was actually the time for the Apple Mac mohawks to reap reward from their computer investment and clean up before going out into the world and contributing more to world of design already saturated with shallow garbage.

John bought into a lot of crap. I mean, it’s fine – it’s his mind, he can buy into what he wants. It’s also fine for him to put these ideas to us and for us, as a collective class, to discuss them. Unfortunately we were taught it as curriculum, as fact. Suddenly I was coming home to my student house and finding people I lived with were reading “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” – for FUN. Amateur psychological/philosophical bullshit took over my life and I had no choice but to try as hard as I could to pretend to agree with it to get through my course. One session with John was a role play in which I acted out the part of a person on a Jerry Springer style talkshow defending my car (which my neighbours thought was an eyesore) because it held memories for me.

And the point of this? “Beauty is not just about looks”.

WELL FUCKING MOW ME DOWN.

You know the experiment with the still life I mentioned earlier? ROCKET SCIENCE compared to this I tell you.

It would be easy for you to assume I am bitter because I got a bad degree grade.

And you would be right.

DAMN RIGHT I AM BITTER.

But with reason. I am bitter because college made me hate the thing I once enjoyed – art.

The grading system is a crappy competition anyhow and although I would prefer to have got a first, in the world of design the grade is secondary to the portfolio anyway.

Someone who actually will remain nameless once told me (in front of an audience of a few people) that the reason I hated him was because he beat me at university and got a better grade. Had he been less of a self centred prick he might have realised the reason I hated him was because he was an obnoxious arrogant shit who was (and for all I know still is) incapable of engaging in any act that does not, in some way benefit himself. If he gives £50 to charity it’s so he can tell everyone he gave £50 to charity and for one minute feel less like the bastard he knows he is.

While I type this I am spitting onto my work desk and my right armpit has become sweaty. I am going to take a 5 minute break and a coffee.

* * *

Anyway, where was I?

Yeah, university course. Immense bitterness. Course changes direction. Stuck in dead end job as result. Thread regained…

I like record sleeve design. It’s kind of an obvious choice and perhaps you think (like some of my tutors) a bit of a juvenile one. But hear me out (and I said all of this at the time) – I feel doing record sleeve work is a truly unique field to work in as a designer. I’m talking about less commercial sleeve work here by the way, not photo shoots of Holly Vallance (which have their place too). It’s the only opportunity, aside from perhaps a book jacket, to use fine art style thinking in a design format that doesn’t make concessions to advertising. Also, you’re interpreting someone’s “art” (i.e. the record) to create something new. In a way it’s no different to abstract landscape painting because you’re taking something you didn’t create and interpreting it. Maybe why Don Van Vliet’s paintings are also his record sleeves.

So with this in mind and as a way to claw back some of my original ideas about being a designer I decided my final project (worth 40% of my marks if I remember) would be a real live project to do a record sleeve. It satisfied the commercial aspect of the course in that it would be manufactured so liaising with print companies would happen and also it allowed me free reign to explore a theme.

The sleeve concerned was for “Field Recordings” by the band Reynolds, I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone and do the sleeve for my own band’s first album and my college work at the same time by making them the same thing.

I knew a few things I liked about record sleeves. The first thing was something Kevin Smith (our drummer) tells me is called synthesis and is what makes listening to a record such a unique experience. The sleeve can, in some way, “colour” what you hear, or give the sounds a “feel”. Example: Trout Mask Replica by Beefheart is a pink sounding record, the sleeve suits it. Phill (our bassist) maintains that Uncle Meat by Zappa sounds exactly how the sleeve looks. When people call “Houses Of The Holy” by Led Zep the “Orange Album” they’re not just talking about the background colour of the sleeve.

So with this in mind I listened hard to what we recorded and decided it was a) barren b) dark and c) a bit sinister at times. I might be wrong. So I took my car and went on a field trip back to East Anglia and did tons of location photography in the Fens with these things in mind and also with the intention of giving each of the 10 songs on the record it’s own image that I felt looked like the song sounded. It was a bastard of a job and I took hundreds of pictures.

The second thing I like about record sleeves is when they mirror the idea of what it is to make a record. What I mean is that they represent a snapshot and hint at what goes either side of that moment. An album is a moment, nothing on it is definitive, it’s just how it was then. A sleeve should be as fixed and in line as the music but should hint at some kind of narrative, almost like it’s a still from a film (though not literally). The best example of this is Raymond Pettibon’s illustrations that were used as sleeves by SST bands in the 1980s. They appear as single frames from a comic book and so because you are familiar with the format you automatically place what you see in the context of a narrative.

The best Pettibon piece for this is the Sonic Youth LP Goo – “We killed our parents and hit the road”. You know what they’ve done and what they’re doing and the details are filled in by you. Of course the trick with Pettibon is that the frames never had an accompanying strip, they were just single frames, loaded up with tension and designed to make you fill in the gaps. I guess you could call it audience participation, in the same way you create visuals unconsciously while you hear the music on the record.

So with this mind I picked a photo for the sleeve. It was the last one I took and I took it driving back from our rehearsal room in Wisbech in the early hours of the morning in the freezing cold. The photo is of a pet food factory and although it looks like it’s exploding it’s just letting out smoke into the night air. It looked just like the photo so I pulled the car over and took one picture of it and really liked the end result. Not only does the factory dominate the skyline as you enter the town it also dominates the smell too. It was very apt. It was also mysterious in that it’s hard to figure out exactly what’s going on and so it fulfils the part about creating a narrative.

We even printed a mock up and stuck it between the 2 speakers as we mixed the record so we would somehow mix it to sound how it looked. “Keep thinking black and orange” was the mantra…

The inner photos were picked the same way. Too boring to list but the pic for “This Flat Land” is, well, flat land. But it also is the first corner in the road between the 2 towns we all lived in and also it has HMP Whitemoor in the background, the maximum security prison built in our locale because the immensely flat landscape made escape without detection from helicopter impossible. The song “Airplane” was all about leaving what you know, so that’s the only photo taken outside of the Fens (actually it’s a pic of some of Canada taken from a jumbo jet). See what I’m getting at?

Anyway, it was a lot of work.

I exhibited the work at the end of year show. I assumed the marking procedure would be based in part on the piece itself and also on tutorials throughout the year. How wrong I was.

We had 5 minutes to present the work to a panel of tutors. We each had a specialist tutor throughout the year. Mine was not part of the panel though for some people in the group as many as 3/5 of the panel were very familiar with their work. This was a bit weird. My work was quite in depth but most of the panel were seeing it for the first time and I had 5 minutes to explain all of the above. Phew. I had a go.

I tried to explain first of all why I decided to do a sleeve. Then I attempted to explain that all the photography was mine and I had used all original images. 4 of the 5 tutors listened but then the conversation went along these lines…(C=Me, JM=John Mooney):

C: “So each of the photos has been chosen to further support the narrative of the record and to involve the listener and…”
JM: “So how does the sleeve tell us what the music sounds like inside?”
C: “Well, it cannot tell us it can only hint at it. For example, I think the sleeve has a sinister and mysterious feel like you are seeing a snapshot of something bigger which in some ways…”
JM: “But how does it tell us what the music on the CD sounds like?”
C: “Like I said it can’t, it can only hint. I picked each picture to support the song it relates to. This is called synt…”
JM: “How do I know what the music sounds like from the sleeve?”
C: “I think we’re becoming stuck on this point John, I think the sleeve should support the music not advertise it or force it into a genre, if I can just move on and…”
JM: “But how do I know what the music sounds like?”
C: “YOU LISTEN TO THE CD”
Everyone: “Thanks Chris, that’s your time up”

I got a third for the project and scraped a 2:2 overall because my previous marks were so high. I appealed. They told me to get lost. I thought about not going to graduation. My Mum got upset so I went.

One guy on the course did a final piece which was a book with illustrations on facing pages. One was big and filled the page, the other was a shrunken version which did not. It was about the way scale affects perception. It related to one of John’s many theory books we were supposed to have read throughout the year. He said it was “rich” as a “concept”. So rich it could be explained in 5 minutes.

And this is my BEEF.

I was suckered in. I believed the lies that people sell you about Design being a creative thing. I don’t believe them anymore. Which is why I work for an electricity metering company and not a design firm. At least I know I’m being fucked and everyone I work with does too. The thought of surrounding myself with deluded mohawks, each thinking they are in some way contributing culturally (or worse still, artistically) would send me over the edge.

The problems with doing an art course are that the people setting the work want you to work in a meaningful way. They even teach you about meaningful things like Dali and bizarre positive thinking books to make sure you’re doing it right but the guys and girls with the Mac at home still get the firsts. Good for them, design companies don’t want people who think, they want people with a nose for trends who can work on a computer quickly and to deadlines. They will take their degree out into the world and earn a fortune. But they won’t be contributing anything. They will take all this creative knowledge and deep genius and make advertisements. The worst part is we live in an age so fucking CRAP that the adverts are seen as a great achievement and as possessing some type of worth.

GAG

The only guy on the course who I thought was truly amazing was a guy called Ian. He did a final piece for Adbusters where he parodied corporate logos into a magazine piece about the perils of advertising. As a designer it was biting the hand that would, in theory, feed him. It was brave, intelligent and very complex. There were reasons for him doing it above “it looks nice”. He still felt he could do something valid within the field of Design. It looked wonderful, I wish I had a copy of it now.

I see him at weekends waiting tables in Frankie & Bennys in Nottingham.

SO THAT’S WHY I HATE ART AND DESIGN.

I am available for record sleeves: www.honeyisfunny.com

So here’s some other stuff from the last month that I could easily have written the column about instead:

A few days ago I had a dream that I was carrying a very heavy Fender guitar amp across a light coloured city with Ian Scanlon. Ian’s left shoe was normal but his right shoe was like an elongated pointy satsuma. Every so often the toe to the Sat-shoe-ma would drop off like a piece to a jigsaw or something and we would have to put the amp down so Ian could slot the missing segment back on and we could continue. I told Ian and he said he knew about dreams and it meant I was a pervert.

A few weeks ago I met John Peel. It was nice. I played guitar live on his show from One Live in Nottingham with the band I play in Wolves! (of Greece). We had a ball. The evening ended with myself and our esteemed bassist Phillip John Welding being ejected from our own dressing room (which we shared with The Datsuns) because The Datsuns needed space and a photographer was snapping them in a post gig sweaty haze. Phillip John was less than speedy to leave and a couple of Pringles related japes later and we were out on our arses. Though the snotty photographer woman had sour cream dip on her upper lip. IN YOUR FACE. Literally. The lovely Radio One people then let us watch Peel do his show from the ladies changing room and we all bombed back to the Bunkers Hill pub. They were holding the “Fringe” festival nights there and had stopped proceedings to air the Wolves set over the PA on the radio for the crowd to hear. Neil our guitarist was present working behind the bar and looked quite tearful when we arrived, having heard it over the PA. Splendid night all round.

You know how I said I was selling guitars? Current stock: white Fender Strat copy with Humbucker pickup £60. 1977 Travis Bean Artist with non original case in good condition £800. Email me. I accept trades. Especially if they are toploading washing machines.

Meg White from the White Stripes stayed at my house on Thursday. I didn’t meet her but my girlfriend says she was very nice.

Next month – an interview with former Captain Beefheart guitarist Zoot Horn Rollo which leads me neatly onto:

Playlist:
Clear Spot – Captain Beefheart
In Love With Jetts – Antioch Arrow
Chart Pimp – Part Chimp
America – John Fahey
In Truth Loved – The Lapse



Chris Summerlin

Chris lives for the rock and can often be seen stumbling drunkenly on (and off) stages far and wide. Other hobbies include wearing jumpers, arsing about with Photoshop and trying to beat the world record for the number of offensive comments made in any 24 hour period. He has been married twice but his heart really belongs to his guitars. All 436 of them.

http://www.honeyisfunny.com

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