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I want to understand my own work. How do I go about it?

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Understanding your work is an endless process of approximation. While objects might appear to be static or finalized, our minds keep changing their ideas and interpretations about it. Someone might mention an aspect that we previously were oblivious of; a new piece might add additional contextual layers to a body of work. Understanding your work requires you to have an open-ended discussion with it, and to continuously manifest, challenge and readjust your opinions. Consider the following strategies:

  1. Investigate your work to understand the topics it touches. Compile a list that includes as many attributes as possible, at least going into the work’s aesthetics, semantics and process. Understanding the basic metrics can be a first step (is it time-based or not; what are its size, weight, duration, materials, edition size, resolution, stableness, etc), but also your emotional associations.
    Understand this as brainstorming exercise where you can’t do anything wrong. All associations are welcome, even if they might not make sense yet: your subconscious might know more about you and your work than might be obvious.
    • Aesthetics: What materials are used in which way (“Yarn is colored and attached to stone surfaces”).
    • Semantics: What is the work’s content (“Unclear, but potentially related to nocturnal activities of insects and/or surveillance technologies”).
    • Process: How does your process look like (“Yarn is burnt at night, with a heat-sensitive camera recording it”).

  2. Research references that touch these topics. The list you compiled will serve as research reference: which artists or art works exist that touch your aesthetics, semantics or process? This research works better the more you know about art history (including contemporary and emerging art) – but even if you don’t know too much yet, the process of researching will naturally increase your knowledge.
    You might find works that touch your aesthetics, but happen in a different medium: can this teach you a new angle about your own work? What texts (books, magazines), videos, podcasts or movies exist about your topics? You want to go ever deeper into the rabbit hole of your work, to enclose yourself within the world you created. You want to become an expert of your work.

  3. Understand (rationally and/or emotionally) which topics to deepen further. The idea of this research is to find previously undiscovered, potential paths. You’ll never be able to pursue them all, but that’s not the point: rather, the goal is to deepen your understanding of your work.

Note that you don’t need to do these steps on your own, but can also discuss them with others. If you feel uncomfortable showing your work, you can investigate your work on your own, to only then start a discussion with someone else – based on your description. This lets you keep your work under the hood, while approaching others with a list of reference topics (those compiled in step 1). Some will find it easier to ask “Which artists worked with yarn?”, “Which artists use fire?”, “Which artists used heat-sensitive cameras?” than to show their work – especially if it’s unfinished, or if you don’t yet know whether you trust your dialog partner’s judgements or sensitivities.

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