Zinnia Naqvi, March 2020

In the Studio

While I was pursuing an undergraduate degree in photography, the studio was intended to be the primary place to shoot photos—a cavernous room filled with backdrops, curtains, large flashes, and expensive equipment. About a dozen partitions called “bays” were sectioned off with heavy, black velvet curtains. There was no natural light in these spaces, and you could only book a bay for a few hours at a time. The bays were often in high demand, especially at peak times of the academic year. In maybe two or three hours, you were expected to set up your shoot, arrange heavy and expensive lighting equipment, get your work done, and then take it all down. There was very little time for play or experimentation. If not handled properly, the equipment could burn you, crush your hands, or break and cost you hundreds of dollars. I did sustain a few unfortunate injuries in this

space. As you tried to shoot, other students’ flashes and strobe lights would go off in the adjacent bays, spilling into yours. A queue of impatient students might be waiting for your spot. This absurd setup made everyone run around at hyper speed and full of anxiety. One small mistake could lead to a total re-shoot. I hated this space. I found it very intimidating and avoided using it. A studio like this is the photographer’s equivalent to a blank canvas. A neutral space. It’s up to you to set up the tools and make something. I’ve never had much interest in a blank canvas.

Because of this overlap in the lexicon of photography, between the photographer’s studio and the artist’s studio, I never really understood what one was supposed to do in the latter. At Concordia, the Photography department had to fight for many years to get artists’ studios for graduate students. The students had darkrooms, printing facilities and studios for shooting, which was thought to be enough. Subsequently, this was the first institution to give me an actual workspace. I think learning how to conduct oneself in a designated workspace is a critical first step towards developing as a professional artist.

I recently came across this series called The Artists’ Studio by photographer Joseph Hartman. He travelled across Canada to photograph artists’ studios. In an interview with Leah Sandals about the project he talks about the uniqueness and intimacy of each artist’s space. He also touches on the fact that many of the artists’ spaces he has photographed have ceased to exist, particularly in cities such as Toronto and Vancouver, as a result of gentrification.1 Sandals goes on to ask:

“LS: What about art that doesn’t fit in a studio practice? Or that is a post-studio practice, done on a laptop or in a community or in a camera? Most of the artists in your project focus on painting and sculpture—traditionally studio-based mediums. But that’s not the only kind of art that gets made nowadays.

JH: We are in an age where, because of digital technology, you can make art without a studio, you can have your photographs or 3-D prints or sculptures made off site, and you don’t even have to have much of a studio, just a work desk.

More and more artists are moving and making that way. The reason I didn’t photograph any of those, though, is that I felt that act of making the artwork on site was very important to the photographs. That is why I stuck mainly to painters and sculptors.”2

The irony in this statement is seeping through the pages. Hartman, a photographer himself, has decided that those like him—photographers and other users of digital or non-tactile mediums—and those who simply can’t afford a space, were unfit to be included in his series. As a consequence of the current real-estate crisis in Canada, many artists are unable to access affordable workspaces and must instead work from home or their laptop.3 I wish Hartman, or perhaps someone else entirely, would document how artists working without designated spaces are adapting their practices. It is a reality facing too many.

One of the reasons I decided to move to Montreal was real estate. As the cost of living is significantly lower here than in most cities, studios are plentiful and affordable. Here I was able to take the studio out of the dark and into the light—a room with large bright windows and white walls. A place where I could set things up and leave them there for long periods of time. Look at them for many weeks before I took any photos. Try out various tests and arrangements. I took digital test shots with my phone, looked at them, showed them to friends, posted them on instagram, before I was ready to shoot the final images.

At first I definitely did not know how to make use of the space. I would say that most of my artmaking happens in my head. While speaking to a friend of mine, we called this the “incubation period”. You incubate on an idea for many weeks, months, years. You think about it a little at a time. You look at other art and that helps you think about your own art. In that sense, going to exhibitions or artist talks is also part of the incubation period.

In Raqs Media Collective’s essay, How to be an Artist by Night, they describe the perils of artmaking in a “continually burgeoning culture industry”.4 Artists who graduate from institutions often have to spend time being “no collar”5 workers by day and artists by night. There is continuous pressure to balance this work and that work. Nevermind that it isn’t enough for artists to simply create, but they are expected to constantly innovate. “The fear of irrelevance, obsolescence, and marginality haunts many younger practitioners, and the pressure to exhibit as an artist is almost as lethal as the pressure to innovate as a cultural worker or entrepreneur.”6 “What is missing in this frantic supply-chain is time and care, and the ability to reflect on one’s own practice.”7

Raqs suggests that a solution to this problem is a self-reflexive artist’s practice. The practice itself becomes a space for the artist to think through ideas and present them to the public. The benefits of this strategy is that “Here, making is thinking, and learning is what occurs at the instance of activity. Praxis is theory.”8

I do agree with Raq’s overall propositions towards using practice as a space to think, reflect, make comparisons and visual puzzles. Here you can invite the audience to try to understand your thinking work, and a little of what happens in the studio.

However, I also believe there is a line to be tip-toed in this realm. In the essay, the authors go on to name attributes that reflexive work should contain, such as embedded criticality, unintended consequences, and radical incompleteness. This brings to mind trends I have seen in contemporary art right now, for artists to simply display different parts of a project, such as research components and ephemera, and leave it to the audience to make the connections. I find this kind of work can be very demanding and inconsiderate of the audience. Those who come to the gallery space rarely have the time or patience to spend hours with a single work, no matter how much they would like to.

The key is to create a work that both has immediate and lasting impact on an audience, through visual language, while also creating a space for those who wish to dive deeper. This is the power that visual art has, to use various techniques to draw in a large audience while also creating space for intense criticality. I think regularly about how intimidating a space the cultural institution can be for those who do not frequent it. I do not wish to speak to only the no-collar workers, but also the teachers, security guards, administrators, and children who are invited into the gallery. It is a very difficult place to inhabit, but one that I strive to make for my work.

Notes:

1. Leah Sandals, “‘Photographing the Artist’s Studio—More Than 100 Times Over,’” CanadianArt (CanadianArt, June 13, 2017), https://canadianart.ca/features/joseph-hartman-the-artists-studio/).
2. Ibid.
3. Raq’s Media Collective. “How to Be an Artist by Night,” in Art School: Propositions for the 21st Century (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009), pp. 71-81)
4. Ibid, 73
5. Those who obtain whatever kind of employment necessary in order to fund their artistic practice. This could vary from being a studio assistant, working for a cultural institution, or working in the service industry.
6. Ibid, 74
7. Ibid, 74
8. Ibid, 76

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All images © Zinnia Naqvi 2020.