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Carolyn Mackenzie Craig: Through The Keyhole, Gambit Lines

Published 11 August 2016 Carolyn Mackensie-Craig edited by Simon Marsh

“When we begin to look closely at the principles of both power and privilege and those of truth and justice, we can clearly see that if you pursue truth and justice it will always mean a diminution of power and privilege. And conversely if you pursue the principles of power and privilege it will always be at the expense of truth and justice. What it is that Chomsky reminds us is that genuine intellectual (and artistic) inquiry is always subversive. It challenges cultural and political assumptions. It critiques structures. It is relentlessly self-critical. It implodes the self-indulgent myths and stereotypes we use to elevate ourselves and ignore our complicity in acts of violence and oppression. It makes the powerful, as well as their liberal apologists, deeply uncomfortable”. [1]

My practice examines the graphic parameters within a studio practice that converge in the research and visual articulations of drawn and reprographic processes. It discusses the instrumental behaviour of graphic devices within the cultural arena to construct knowledge and a clearer understanding of subjectivity and systems of power. In particular, systems that construct typologies: more precisely gender typologies as they are articulated in the body’s gestural routines.

I am particularly a print maker primarily due to its long history of distribution and subversion and it is this that formally attracted me to undertaking a teaching position within the print making department at the National Art School in Sydney. Historically print making can be seen as a practice that provides, institutes and importantly challenges acquired knowledge. And although my work extends beyond solely a print medium, it continues to arrive from a space of multiplicity, movement, disruption, distribution and an artistic criticality in defining our acquired knowledge.

So, to be clear here within the studio environment I am consistently photographing a range of gestural actions and delineated line work that are both aligned with what it is I am investigating. These photographs and drawings are then printed out as a photocopy in direct proportional relationship to the imagined finished piece. Now the photocopies constantly produce errors such as running lines and random marks motivated by fragments of pigment and the toner that I then incorporate into the finished piece of work. Throughout these processes of reproduction I find the residue of white noise that asserts itself onto the paper – this analogue error – is a thing of great beauty and accordingly something to work with. And so It is in this sense that I am particularly interested in the production of a multiplicity of images and taking each image through a range of differing reprographic processes. In a way to observe what the works can withstand.

This methodology utilises the lowbrow technology of the photocopy machine, for which I have had a life long obsession. The photocopier erases and inscribes as a drawing machine – through its very reproductive process. Integration of reprographic media within an inter-disciplinary practice can allow the symbolic residues of knowledge and power distribution networks to operate as key elements in print practices that query “ the way in which systemic or pervasive political and cultural structures are enacted and reproduced through individual acts and practices”

I have always loved working within this reprographic process. It is something I can honestly say that I am addicted to. It is a love that is directly relational to my childhood experience in that when I was seven I had three photocopiers in my bedroom. And yes in retrospect I can clearly see this as falling outside of what it is we consider normal. And yet from this seemingly abnormal space arrives the copy: the copy that is not quite the copy, that changes the original toward something that is steeped in the overall idea of production as opposed to a direct form of representation and it is precisely this that reprographic media can do exceedingly well.

I along with many other artists do not think that a crisp digital image tells us anything anymore. It is simply indicative of a hyper-reality. One that I would argue we artistically struggle with. Primarily this struggle encompasses the desire to artistically engage with it – certainly not in any meaningful, critical or lasting way – our gaze simply passes over an instituted form of hyper-reality and onto the next virtually vacant space. I firmly believe that what it is we are looking for as artists is the definable error, the intentioned erasure or analogue error that artistically can lead one to the discovery of a definable truth.

The authorial majesty of court painting is often discussed as an object oriented practice focused on creating relics to cement social and economic position. Francisco Goya’s print practice is considered in contrast as a subversive and democratic vehicle to disseminate social ideas through the graphic medium. The links between the social context of his prints and the origins of the book as a sight of literacy and knowledge also provides a strong historical framework for current uses of print media which seems ideally situated for utilisation within contemporary art focused on the dissemination of ideas, social practice and the subversion of dominant forms of consumption.

My prime example here – as previously mentioned – is the work of Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes. As a painter we can clearly see Goya as associating with the high court arts. Now not wanting to sweep this formidable achievement to one side, we can appreciate that in this period of high patronage an artist had little room to manoeuvre if indeed maintaining a livelihood was the paramount concern. And yet, throughout this period we also see him as associating with what was considered as the low brow, democratic medium of the print which engaged with a direct, honest graphic dialogue. Interestingly when we compare both mediums, what we see in Goya’s prints is an almost unbelievable honesty, authorship and presence of his voice in the work that is simply not accessible in his paintings. Which begs the question: were the paintings merely subservient to the structures that provided the money for them? Possibly, however for myself, what continues to thrive and inspire – through the processes of distribution – are the prints. They hold a phenomenal liveliness and continue to promote a subversive dialogue. We only have to look at the number of contemporary artists who continue to reference Goya’s prints such as the Chapman brothers to understand the constancy of their referent nature: they are incredibly powerful works.

And yet printmedia is associated with ideas of the secondary shadow mark of the artist, mediated by technology, distributed in multiplicities and produced with materials associated with mass production and disposability.

Now in direct relationship to this particular exhibition – Gambit lines – I have focussed mainly on one bodily gesture: the notion of making a fist. Coming to my attention through a sociological study that measured gender differences through the action of making a fist, this study covertly ascertained its information through the game of paper, scissors, rock. And whilst the participants were unaware of the motivations behind the study, what was measured was a sense of self empowerment, self esteem and the participants personal positioning in relation to others whilst making these different hand gestures. Interestingly it was revealed that women experience 30% lower self esteem when making a fist whilst the male participants experienced around 20% higher self esteem and power whilst making the same gesture.

I found this to be an incredibly interesting result: the fact that women whist making a fist feel around 50% more vulnerable than their male co-participants was the motivator that interested me to begin uncovering an inscribed gendered difference in relation to a subjective view of self, of one’s position and of one’s perceived power as evidenced through our own feminine bodily actions. Through an awareness of this paradigm we can begin to question how much personal control we have over this form of gendered inscription and over time if it is at all possible – as women – to free ourselves from these genetically inscribed actions and thereby banishing the belief systems stemming from millennia of inscribed male dominated societal power structures.

The series of images in this current exhibition follow a choreographed set of actions using strategies of repetition, exaggeration, and absurdity. They were then taken through stages of reprographic process’s to disrupt the direct indexical nature of the photo archive and introduce alternative potentials through the action of reproductivity.

Art, parody and genuine intellectual inquiry are all culturally accepted means through which subversive dialogues can be articulated, explicating social norms in sometimes the most horrendous ways and or subverting these norms in ways that ‘others’ are not permitted. And so the majority of the works throughout this current exhibition comically juxtapose my analysis of making a fist with a “social sculptural” work by Joseph Beuys titled Boxkampf für direkte DemokratieBoxing Match for Direct Democracy – which, to be brief, is a political satire. However the work is also indicative of a typical masculine trope in that the boxing ring and implied violence act as a universal – mostly masculine – fight or flight mechanism. And so the work confronts the impact of specifically perpetrated violence. And yet Beuys would have had little idea of gendered inscription, in fact would not have considered himself as part of the male paradigm that existed and still does to an extent throughout the art world. And yet he is an artist that I truly admire and deeply respect. Beuys of course was an overarchingly subversive voice of his time.

In ridiculing body and language tropes that confine and define women, I separate trope from subjective presence to articulate a moment of an authorial voice outside of codified regimes. The presence of the deviant woman is re-contextualised within different contexts, so that through repetition and absurdity the trope itself may become stale.

The basis of all the research I do is focused on the interplay of power and privilege and how it is constructed and maintained throughout society. For myself gender is a large topic and it is aspects of this paradigm that I am isolating throughout Gambit Lines.

When I am drawing I feel my body actually move with whatever gesture it is I am focused on. I have pinpointed this approach as a means to enter the third space as promulgated by Deleuze and Guattari. I am literally uninscribing the action through creative gesture and importantly for me I hope this transfers to the viewer. Now the deterritorialised space that I am speaking of is yet to be codified by culture. And so it is imperative for me that I inhabit this space throughout my practice. The immense pleasure that I feel when I am creatively engaged comes from entering this space and the knowledge that I am personally uninscribing an inscribed action – the act of making a fist – from my physical being is phenomenologically liberating. And so the intent of the action is held throughout the entire creative process – the fist, the boxing glove and various posture – leaning toward an authentic process of uninscription: a wiping clean of the slate of selfhood.

From this deterritorialised zone the artist can offer an aesthetic way in which to transcend the ordinary, a means to fracture, jolt the viewer with a punctum that can splice your everyday perception of culture and importantly begin to question your positioning within that matrix. As artists we represent the very few individuals remaining in society who are afforded these freedoms. And I personally see this as being somewhat related to the current structures of political power and its desire to close prominent schools of art throughout the greater Sydney area. Artists can offer you a type of descent that is beyond language, it is a felt descent. And you can feel that rupture whenever you look at good art. As an artist that is the space I always like to enter: this space of rupture.

In order to sever control over the representational aspect of the drawing process, I introduce elements of chance and play, and rituals of time and seriality. These elements create conditions outside of subjective control, providing the potential to enter the deterratorialised spaces described by Deleuze and Guattari. In this way I am able to map multiple viewpoints and potentials of expression.

My creative process is consciously driven by chance. I use dice a lot to let me know for example how long I’ve got to work on a section of any particular piece. These works in particular are about parody so I am mainly looking at gesture and disrupting it with absurdity. There is a lot of self deprecation expressed in these actions that have been rehearsed, photographed and then reprographed. However I always have different groupings of gestures and the ones that I inevitably use are decided on the roll of the dice. My use of chance is directly related to the causative effect of disruption with regard any notion of linearity or predictability. For me it is often the rational decisions that are often boring and so if you disrupt that process with chance, at times, this produces a better, less contrived outcome.

The act of drawing also enters a Mobius strip of potentiality, by avoiding finished edges, and leaving the substrate visible, it remains a “process” that reveals its layers of making and unmaking.

The lines throughout Equations for Squared Space are digitally produced and manufactured through illustrator after of course I draw them. The other aspect to this series required a sequence of stills that I shot in the studio. The work looks at notions of enclosure. And how adhering to specified gender roles and power paradigms can inhibit an individual into adopting subservient modes of behaviour. As young girls we are taught to enclose ourselves into less space, to not look outwards but instead to focus inward. All of this is exceedingly confronting stuff to contemplate. And when we consider the most obvious defined difference between gender – that being genitalia – it seems absolutely nonsensical that surrounding this difference lay socially inscribed power systems pulling the levers of what is considered acceptable social behaviour.

It was through raising a daughter that made me aware of this. Interestingly I don’t think I cared about myself adhering to inscribed behaviour and yet it was through recognising that my daughters behaviour required moderation and that it was my responsibility to do this – that I was the power system at play throughout this process – I found quite confronting. I told her to cross her legs! As you can imagine I was absolutely horrified that I had said this to her. However in the knowledge that she would be socially castigated if I chose not to impart these snippets of socially inscribed gender behaviour, the question that remained for myself was how do women in particular confront and break these paradigms without sacrificing their children? And realistically why can’t a woman sit with her legs wide open if she so chooses? And yet the absolute ridiculousness of the conversation surrounding the fact that it is not deemed proper to be showing her panties on the train, given the predatory nature of some men, was an incredibly difficult topic to breach.

The strategies for designing the text works are drawn from theories of Julia Kristeva (1980) and her discussions of the poetic as an agent of active potential against the enclosures of dogma and direct signifying processes in language. Kristeva considers that the poetic offers a fluid state of flux that circumvents fixed meanings. Poetry can invert grammatical hierarchies and explore new zones of potential that exist in the spaces between (the) symbol and referent meaning.

Literary metaphors in and of themselves blur linearity and offer grey zones of meaning and potential. They can provide an incredibly rich palette from which artists can actively work. It certainly is a way to bring the poetic form back into some kind of alignment with the visual. The poetic form can be utilised to cut to an essence of a distilled truth. A truth that cannot be skimmed over whilst looking for its defined meaning. I am speaking here of a deeper truth. One that slightly confuses us and yet opens a way for us to enter into its fractured universe.

In saying that I really think that to be a successful contemporary artist you really do need to be engaged with all aspects of culture and not rely on some romantic, traditional notion of what it means to be an artist. As a print maker I’m constantly considering the cultural detritus that I can put to work in re-contextualising the referent. For myself I tend to look at the drawn line, the digital, of course the photographic, text and language. I believe that the action to artistically isolate one thing is culpable of a cultural blindness. Everything is in a constant state of flux. Everything that enters our gaze on a daily basis is a jarring of many multiple elements. With one of my roles being to garner an understanding of what it is that I am responsible for. And just how much more aware I can become of gender and inscribed behaviours surrounding these archaic forms of gender specificity. And can I give a fairer score to the next generation? Yes I believe that this is possible. And whilst uninscribing the power structures that surround gendered binaries we can enliven a space where gender performance enters a blurred arena. However it is all about class, education, broader aspects of resource management and that is all about the binaries that exist between a reconciled gendered understanding of both truth and justice and conversely privilege and power.

Header Image courtesy Carolyn Mackensie-Craig, Equations for Squared Space, Etchings from Performance, 110x120cm, 2016.



[1] Hedges, Chris. Noam Chomsky Has Never Seen Anything Like This, Taken from, http://www.filmsforaction.org, at 27 July 2016.

Carolyn McKenzie-Craig is a lecturer in Printmaking at the National Art School.  Her Art Forum will discuss her current studio investigation of the intersection of indexical reprographic media and graphic drawing methodologies. These material concerns will be related to the history of print media and its close relationship to the construction of normalcy through visual typologies. Social typologies that are instrumental in sustaining positions of power are deconstructed in her practice through performance and drawing rituals. Using irony and trope, gestures that define fixed social positions are parodied in Carolyn’s practice to query such stereotypes and their use to justify forms of exclusion and privilege.