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Biography


Part I

I was born and brought up on the north coast of Northern Ireland in a landscape of rolling hills and valleys, swift flowing rivers, beaches and cliffs. I spent much of my childhood happily lost in this beautiful place. But as I grew into my teenage years, my awareness of the conflict and division in Irish society increasingly impinged upon my experience. This contrast between the beauty of the landscape of Ireland and the traumatising reality of its religious and political divisions remains a formative perception of the place that I find still informs my art today.

I spent the period from 1976 - 1990 living and developing as an artist in Belfast. This was at the height of the conflict and once again life was characterised by extreme, and at times surreal, contrasts. I remember attending seminars or lectures at the art college where we might be studying Greenberg's ideas of "flatness" in painting while a gun battle could be heard raging in a nearby estate. I also remember a friend who enjoyed getting stoned to hang out at bomb scares in the city. My work developed in direct response to these tensions. Modernist idealism was tempered by the socio-political reality of life in the context of a near civil war.

Performance art seemed like a way to address these realities and between 1982 and 1991 I made many works, often site or place specific, in this medium. The immediacy of performance matched the immediacy of city life in Belfast at that time. It offered a way to get to grips with events literally on the ground. I created durational actions that often took place in non-gallery spaces or in specific locations. I incorporated the realities of a community absolutely divided along political and religious lines while attempting to create, or at least suggest, a less determined, more open space of identity between such binaries.
At that time I was working on building sites and in suburban gardens in order to support my unemployment benefit, or ¡°dole¡±. I soon incorporated the tools of my trade into actions and installations. Shovels, buckets, barrows and sheds were employed in an aesthetic that crossed folk or fairytale ideas with concerns about art and its relation to everyday life.

By the late eighties I was spending regular periods abroad, undertaking commissions and residencies. Performance was particularly well supported then through a network of artist run spaces and a busy calendar of Performance Festivals. In 1989 I spent four months travelling, coast-to-coast, across Canada, being hosted by a series of artist residencies. I returned to unemployment in Belfast and resolved to embrace the first opportunity to move that came along. Within two weeks I had been offered a part-time lecturing post at Sheffield Hallam University, England, and was living in an attic room high in the hills overlooking that city where I would spend the next five years. I made what were my last performance works in Derry, N. Ireland, All Over Walls, and at The Last Weekend, a festival of performance in the wilds of Northumbria in 1991, Tree Line Poison Well.

Becoming increasingly disillusioned with performance I began using a video camera. My first tape, (no discs in those days), was actually completed during the Canadian trip. Vancouver Tree Line, commissioned by The Western Front, was built from sequences shot during seven days of walking the streets of that city. Subsequently I completed numerous video commissions for video installations and video pieces. Works such as, Flat Earth, Beyond The Pale, The Needle's Eye and Landscape With Watchtowers, continued to reflect aspects of my memory and experience of those earlier years in Northern Ireland.

In 1996 I moved to London. This was not so much for the art world, more to simply be in a place I was deeply fascinated with. I had lived there in 1976 and had subsequently promised myself that as some point I would return and stay. In particular I was interested in the City of London, the Square Mile, which I viewed as a vast performance site, a 'found object' almost. The swarms of business types striding through its streets seemed choreographed by some unseen hand as they performed their daily commuting actions. An exhibition at Platform Gallery in Spitalfields, in 2001, drew heavily on this preoccupation. In the basement space there I also screened a video sequence that derived from recordings I'd made in some of London's many and varied parks. Endless Park was shot on Primrose Hill and functions as a performance of park life in London.
, shot over a single day.

Moving to the Waterloo area of London in 2000 I became increasingly aware of firework displays taking place at regular intervals on the nearby Thames. Big business and City institutions like to celebrate with loud bangs and flashing lights. There are many displays that take place for reasons inaccessible to a general public. This was all a bit ironic for me as I had been fixated on attending large firework displays in order to record the enraptured faces of those watching the spectacle. Face Up, was a work that grew from this. It was screened as a site-specific video piece in the Round Chapel in Clapton, London in 2000 and subsequently at other venues and festivals including the World Wide Video Festival in Amsterdam in 2001.

In 2003 my video camera finally died after eight years continuous use. Not having enough cash to invest in a new one I decided to pursue another way of working. My father died that year and for the first time in my life I felt that my Irishness was not overshadowed by paternal influences. Someone once said to me that when your parents die you can see the horizon for the first time. Over the years I had created a varied body of work reflecting on that identity but now I just wanted to defer any art ideas and meet and talk to people in an informal and open way about how they understood who they were in Ireland. As artists are considered individuals who make careers out of reflecting on such issues I decided that I would focus on that community for the project. Starting in 2004 I began recording a series of extended conversations with Irish artists. Though these were informal social meetings they were, nevertheless, governed by a concise set of protocols. I wanted to produce a work that engaged the viewer for a longer period of time than most gallery visits required. I wanted to publish something that a reader would engage with in private in a way that just isn¡¯t possible in the more public space of the gallery or museum. After three years recording, editing and designing, no-one's not from everywhere, was published in 2007. It is composed of around 450 quotes, sampled and reassembled to create a text of extreme juxtapositions and contrasts that avoids offering the reader fixed positions or politics to latch onto. It attempts to pitch the reader into a space where these certainties are questioned and where decisions have to be made as to the relation of one text to another. It is a text that explodes the easy binary positions of Irish identity and offers a space to consider the contradictions and narrowness of such fixed identities.

Borders persist with ever-greater anxiety and fear post 9/11 and yet, in the context of globalism, borders are increasingly breached, albeit for purely strategic financial reasons. Similarly, nationalism has surged worldwide in the early twenty first century, in spite of, the phenomena of global communications, travel and multiculturalism. However, I am not particularly interested in the grand abstractions of ideological debate that surround such issues. Instead, I¡¯m focused on the minutiae of everyday life and experience in a border hinterland as defined by my personal history and culture. It is this detail that is, for the most part, absent from discussion of the subject of borders.

A new project, Which is The: 49 Views, reflects this interest. In September 2011 I spent a week driving repeatedly back and forth across the Irish border. The detail of what I saw at these viewing locations was meticulously recorded as a developing narrative comprised of forty-nine separate texts, each one accompanied by an image, sampled from Google Maps, of that precise location. The project culminated with the publication of a book, Which is The: 49 Views, in late 2012. A PDF of the work is available on the appropriate Works/Projects page of this site. Related video and photographic work will also be de developed in the coming months.

In, Last Call, I have tried to reflect the range and depth of the on-going economic crisis, post-2008. I collated stories from my personal family history that illustrate how dependent we have become on an oil based economy and how we have barely begun to consider that it might ever end. Related written pieces were published in two books, Despatches From The Invisible Revolution, and, The Future we Deserve, both published in 2012.

In late 2012 I travelled to Mexico to record a series of conversations between Dougald Hine and Gustavo Esteva. The conversations between Dougald, one of the most celebrated radical thinkers in the UK today, and Gustavo, a man who has both served as a minister in the Mexican government and in the rebel Zapatista movement, ranged across a breadth of contemporary issues in relation to the question of globalism. A series of moving image works will flow from this trip, including, cinema, gallery and web based iterations over the next couple of years.


Part 2


Some Thoughts on Education. (A personal story).

This was originally written for, The University Project: http://www.theuniversityproject.org.uk/

I studied Biology and Environmental Science at the University of Ulster in the 1970s. This institution was the last of a government university expansion programme founded on the 1960's Robbins Committee Report on Higher Education in the UK. The buildings I studied in were typically modernist of the period, in this instance based on a Tuscan village concept. Perhaps not the best choice for a storm lashed Northern Ireland coastal location but certainly one that, with its glass walls and roofs, brilliantly facilitated the daily contemplation of such an elemental aesthetic.

A few months into the course it was clear to me that I had little prospect of ever becoming a successful scientist. I was more interested in spending my time walking the nearby beaches or hanging out with the other renegades from academia that the University of Ulster seemed to attract. Two years down the line I had managed to fail almost every academic task that was placed in front of me and, as I imagined at the time, agreed to set aside the fantasy of achieving a degree level result and get a job instead. In reality I was thrown out.

The next few years were a blur of self-abuse masquerading as "experimentation" with drugs. I also became something of an expert on politically dodgy, cheap, South African wine of the sort favoured by those who preferred the pavements of my local neighbourhood to the luxuries of indoor living.

Prog Rock was a big thing at that time and I had amassed an impressive collection of what today might be considered seriously unfashionable Concept Albums. Be that as it may, these albums, or at least their cover 'art', proved decisive in turning round my experience of education and learning. I began copying them and spent much of my time drawing and painting detailed facsimiles to give to friends. At this point I had never experienced an art class or in fact had any education in art at all. The school I attended in the Northern Ireland of the 1960's did not believe in such frivolities, preferring instead the joys of healthy outdoor pursuits like rugby and cross-country running.

The turning point came when a friend with a somewhat more sophisticated take on my activities, (I can't claim they were art), suggested I applied for art school. From then on I set about reading every art book I could find while also developing a proper portfolio of more diverse works.

In 1978 I was accepted on the art degree course at Belfast College of Art. That city was in turmoil then and bombings and shootings were a daily occurrence. Life at the art college was somewhat surreal. Reading Clement Greenberg’s thoughts on “flatness” in contemporary painting accompanied by the sound of a nearby gun battle lent a certain edge to my studies. In fact, this contrast, or contradiction as I saw it, between high modernist ideals and the blunt reality of civil conflict was a key formative experience that soon led me towards more integrated concepts of art and life. Allan Kaprow’s experiments with daily behaviour, ritual and art: his idea of “art like life”, as opposed to “art like art”, was a key influence. This connection between art and the everyday: the ability to take raw experience and transmute it through the activity of art: to be able to perform a mental and emotional alchemy, initially through the making of images and objects - later as a process in its own right, gave me a purchase on life. I was no longer simply a passive consumer, a watcher. I had discovered that I could change things, give form to thoughts and feelings and thereby shape my life in a way that my education to that point had failed to do.

In order for education to work it must enable such a transformation to occur at both the personal and the societal levels. I can’t pretend that this is an easy task but somehow education must enable people to embody knowledge through experience. Not just be a ‘brain on a stick’, in competition with other brains, separate from a social context that validates the usefulness of that knowledge while also enabling its continued development.

Certainly it would be beneficial for educational institutions to engage with art in this way: to have artists, and other creative people, present at all times in the educational experience. I’m not imagining art as some kind of therapeutic or expressive adjunct to learning. Rather, what we should seek is a holistic dimension of the experience of knowledge and learning that accords with life as lived: a creative questioning of the resonances and results of forms of knowledge that bridge the mind-body divisions of current educational paradigms. This should not necessarily demand the writing of new “modules” or courses. What we need is to examine all aspects of the learning process from the point of view of delineating places and possibilities for new creative relationships, between knowledge and experience, to be established.

I can’t regret my educational experience. Somehow I managed to turn it into a thirty- year cycle of public exhibitions, performances, publications and latterly, a successful tenure as Course Leader in a leading art school. Nevertheless, I often feel that my life is ten years or more behind where it might be had I not been required to play such a game of educational chance in my teenage years.

Thousands of (mostly) young people are still required to play that game today, the only difference being that they are now required to pay large sums for the privilege of doing so. We urgently need new models to challenge this fragmented and alienated way of learning and if radical educational initiatives mean anything they should contribute to that challenge.



Copyright (C) Nick Stewart 2010 | Design by RUI STUDIO.