It All Began with a List

January 07 2014

In October 2013 Eliana Joy sent Enjoy a collection of four books to be added to our Library.  Each book contains a group of notes collected at a different New Zealand art institution; Creative Arts from Massey, Elam from University of Auckland, Ilam from University of Canterbury, and Visual Arts from Auckland University of Technology. The following is her reflection on the project.

Eliana's publications in the Enjoy Library

Eliana's publications in the Enjoy Library

It all began with a list...

“If it’s a good idea, go ahead and do it. It’s much easier to apologise than it is to get permission.”

Grace Hopper

It all began with a list. Lists have been used to collate and process a range of information over the years and are an area of fascination for a lot of designers and artists. I love lists. I’m organised and they keep me functioning through the busyness and chaos of daily tasks. Their portability yet transient usefulness renders them disposable and use-less when their purpose has reached its end. As I write this, I am crossing off points I need to emphasize, highlighting my addiction to list making. Lists help us refine ideas and concepts.

My final year project catalogues and documents notes found in four different New Zealand art institutions; AUT Visual Arts (Auckland), Elam School of Fine Arts (Auckland), Massey University School of Fine Arts (Wellington) and, Ilam School of Fine Arts (Christchurch). Feedback from my original exhibition ‘Note to Self’ made me realise that the notes’ context needed to be connected to the chosen viewer for a stronger response. Narrowing down my research to art schools, enabled me to focus on one audience; the art community surrounding New Zealand art institutions.

While completing this project my confidence, my moral duties and my political viewpoints have been challenged. My tutor Aaron exclaimed, “The best part of this project is that you are doing it.” When I first began collecting notes I found a group of green post-it notes stuck to the corners of the James Height library bookshelves. They served like a secret communication system between librarians and I desperately wanted to take them but I couldn’t. I rewrote them on my own post-it note pad, took the original and replaced it with my own replication. Using post-it notes makes sense to me because of their portability. This process was soon coined ‘polite stealing’ and was a character defect that challenged me for the rest of the year.

“All art is theft…we live in a Retrievalist world where the past is a bottomless pit that can be infinitely ransacked. Invention is a myth. We create only from using what already exists.”1

The epitome of this idea lies in my project. It’s appropriation, not stealing. I have taken existing notes from these art institutions and have collated them into books to create a summary of each school. Could you not say that all ideas are stolen? I stole this quote from another student; they stole it from Rick Poynor, who stole it from Michael Garret. So I thought what’s yours is mine? No harm done. Sadly not everyone has this view, my original thought of ‘there are no consequences’ was very wrong.

You can’t please everyone, I write disappointedly. There have been negative implications to the project. Artists upset their observers. It’s a fact. I have upset some students. 

  •     A stolen note had been saved to use for later development of a typeface.
  •     I received an email from a student who felt I’d violated and invaded her space.
  •     I interrupted an assessment when trying to steal a note.
  •     I’m sorry.

I thought everyone at the art institutions I visited would be open to the project, its art. Better not to assume anything.

Though we like to think our contemporary art context of New Zealand gives us freedom to explore our creativity, the reality is that in an art institution we don’t. My naivety, expecting to be welcomed into fellow students’ spaces and steal their stuff, was replaced with fear and discomfort going against authority and sneaking into the buildings without an ethics application. If I had done things the ‘official’ way, I knew my representation would not have been as accurate and raw.

On one hand, we are told institutionalisation is ok. A student loan is essential to complete your degree. Universities need to be run like a business. But on the other hand, job prospects are limited for art students. Creativity is to be encouraged to put you ahead of your rivals for the dream career position. We must be creative to pay back a government whose institutions seek to regulate our creativity. This seems like a paradox.

I am glad I have studied at Ilam. I have not felt restricted by regulations and traditions. Funnily enough Ilam is considered one of the most traditional schools in the country, ‘oh the irony!’ Last year I painted music symbols on the walls of the Fine Arts department. No questions were asked, no permission was granted. I just did it. Isn’t an art institution supposed to give an art student the freedom to develop their practice? Who knows what art institutions will be like in ten or twenty years but I hope my books will serve as a past document of what they were like in 2013.

My notes are a historical representation of a place in time. Liza Kirwin stresses the importance of the documentation in list collection she archived at the Smithsonian American Art Gallery.2 One to-do list by Clay Spohn’s mentions a reminder to; “Make out your will for all your things in your studio, including your writings, notes, files… to Archives of American art…do this for the future generations, so they might know about this age.”3

Kirwin’s text displays examples of notes reflecting individual personality. In the same way, an artist, influenced by personality, background and upbringing is seen in their work without the spontaneity and conciseness of a note.

The written word in note form has become as temporary as a throwaway chewing gum wrapper. Emails, Facebook and other Internet sites have made us take the written word for granted. I hope this collection of notes will help the reader to be mindful of a particular place in time; an invitation to the movies, a thank you note, a warning, a declaration and perhaps to ask themselves, “What notes would be collected in the areas I live?

Each university will have contrasting views on what is important and relevant for their students. I believe this has been reflected in the notes collected from each institution. They’re just notes and highlight the personal experiences shared between students, the issues within different courses of regulations and technology. They explore the creativity of individual student artists. This set of books brings together contrasting views and gives a surprising and insightful overview of four art institutions from around New Zealand. 

  • 1.

    Rick Poynor, No More Rules; Graphic Design and Postmodernism, p. 76. 

  • 2.

    Liza Kirwin, ‘Lists, to-dos Illustrated Inventories, Collected thoughts and Other Artists’ Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s archives of American Art’, pp. 6-19.

  • 3.

    Ibid. p.6.