As is routine on the final Tuesday of every month, last night we gathered at Oval Space to listen to a line-up of inspiring, insightful and altogether enjoyable creative talks. We were in high spirits as, for the first time in a long time, it was still light when we arrived and, it’s safe to say, the evening only went up from there.
Starting with photographer Alexander Coggin, then animator Caitlin McCarthy, followed by photographer, writer and filmmaker Yumna Al-Arashi and finishing with Mitch Paone of DIA Studio, last night’s event proved just how diverse and exciting creativity can be. We heard about the power of the camera to connect people, got a little glimpse into Caitlin McCarthy’s awkward teenage years, mused over important questions about the difference between representation and exploitation, and learned how a caterpillar inspires Mitch Paone.
Here’s everything we laughed at, were inspired by, and will take forward from March’s Nicer Tuesdays.
The camera is a mysterious tool
Having moved around a lot – Chicago and Berlin list among his previous homes – photographer Alexander Coggin is now based in London. But it was his time spent documenting his husband’s family in Philadelphia, and their summer holidays in Michigan which formed the basis of his talk.
A project which spans the past seven years of his life, Alexander detailed how the camera has been a tool for him to channel his creativity (which had previously been channelled into theatre) but also to “gain access and a sense of inclusion” with his new family. “As a self-taught photographer, I learnt by doing,” he told us, “I shot what was around me at the time.” In turn, his mass documentation helped him find his role “in the complex familial structure”.
When Alexander first entered his then-boyfriend’s family, he had been living in Berlin, a queer-embracing city altogether different to the somewhat cis, conforming, middle-class familial structure which played out in country clubs and on golf courses. “The camera is a mysterious tool,” Alexander mused, “I used it as a way to look at heteronormative lives and study them.” The series, which now falls under the title Brothers and Others, as a result, forms a fascinating study of gender, power, and masculine and feminine binaries while proving the camera’s ability to connect people, acting as a tool for communication and bonding. Now firmly a member of “the tribe”, Alexander concluded: “I’ve personally been quite surprised by the project, as the images became more intimate, the photos revealed more… The camera is such an important tool for me, allowing me into that private space where their walls can slip.”
Colour can help you build tone in an animation
Despite having only started animating two years ago, Caitlin McCarthy impressed (and tickled) the audience with her recent short Coldsore. A graduate from the Camberwell College of Arts’ illustration course where she made “very pretentious video art”, Caitlin never got to produce a graduate film in the way most animation students do, so Coldsore is her version of that. On the inspiration of its comedic storyline, Caitlin told the audience: “No one was willing to get off with me until my 20s, so that’s where this film came from.”
Caitlin got started in the world of animation after leaving university when she met Rob Wallace AKA Parallel Teeth, a mentor recently described by her friend as her drag mother. (Does that make Rob Alyssa Edwards, and Caitlin Laganja Estranja?) Now, a year or so and a signing to Strange Beast later, Coldsore utilises all the techniques and character development she learned during that “formative job”.
Like many of us, Caitlin grew up watching teen movies, the kind with “female protagonists who start off really lame and become really hot and popular”. “I was a very awkward teenager,” she professed, “for Coldsore I wanted to make something that was like these teen movies but a bit more accurate to my experiences.” As a result, the animated short features far less transformations and happy endings than Clueless, 10 Things I Hate About You or Mean Girls because “being a teenager is really shit” she joked.
An important part of achieving her signature tone – a slightly sad, but altogether hilarious one – is her use of colour. “My colour palette is girly and childish which works really well for a dark storyline because I don’t like to be sincere or earnest,” she told us, “using bright colours avoids it becoming edgy or really sad when you are talking about something quite serious.” Rounding off her talk, Caitlin treated us to her favourite review of the film so far, delivered via a YouTube comment and including the words “pain, vomit and uncomfortable”, “I hope you all feel the same”, she concluded.
Commercial work is important for minorities in the creative industries
“Representation is a hot topic these days and I’m aware of that,” began writer, photographer and filmmaker Yumna Al-Arashi when she took to the Nicer Tuesdays stage last night, “it feels really inspiring on the surface but I really question these ideas and whether our work in representation is actually creating more divisions.” Over the next ten minutes or so, Yumna opened up about her opinions on representation within photography, how she’s attempting to better it, but also how she struggles with the authenticity of the subject.
As someone with myriad creative outputs, Yumna commented “I can’t really fit into a box but who can… My work is a representation of me and I contain multitudes.” Through her work, whether photographing women from Yemen in their hijabs, the last generation of Muslim women with facial tattoos or an editorial on Orientalism for Asos, Yumna has learnt that “identity doesn’t exist in one dimension, it’s evolving, confusing, nonsensical and weird” and so her images are a reflection of that. However, by documenting Muslim and Arab women, she “seeks to give humanity to the lazy stereotypes I encounter on a daily basis… I am protesting the media’s representation of people like me,” she added.
A particularly interesting moment amidst Yumna’s talk, which was packed full of insight, occurred when she got onto the topic of commercial work. Often viewed as separate and shallow compared to personal work, she challenged this idea. For example, when producing work for Asos, she subtly used the commercial platform to present beautiful images of Islam and Islamic women to the Western world. However, it goes beyond this she explained: “The reality of today is that for people like me who have a hard time climbing the ladder in the photography world, corporations really matter.” Concluding by admitting that she doesn’t have all the answers, and that the issue of whether we can represent each other without exploring each other is a confusing one, Yumna left us with the profound remark of: “Confusion can challenge us to question the world around us, and that’s what we need.”
Identity is based on how something moves, not how it looks
Rounding off the evening with a talk as energetic as the kinetic identity systems he creates was Mitch Paone, one half of DIA Studio, which he runs with Meg Donohoe. An absolute whirlwind of references and graphic design theory, Mitch outlined the studio’s ethos when it comes to producing work. “There are two sides of how we work: input and output,” with improvisation happening in between at the point of creation, “it’s important that there’s a separation between the two.”
Having found his way to motion and graphic design through music, Mitch’s talk outlined how designers should be working more like musicians, breaking the rules and “playing from the heart”. “Everything is connected,” he stated, going on to detail how physics and biomechanics impact the natural world and how this can be employed in design. For example, the identifiable thing about a horse, he explained, is not it’s hair or the even the colour of its hair but how it gallops. “Identity,” therefore, “is based, not on what something looks like, but how it moves.” It’s a significant revelation which makes a huge impact when employed in a design setting.
Before leaving us with Wayne Shorter detailing his process for creating music, Mitch outlined his belief that we need to completely rethink how we approach design. We need to move on from the traditional still things become moving things which become interactive things approach, he implored and instead, “we need to think about animation, stills and interaction as unequal”. In the same way that musicians have adapted their tools over time – from the organ to music generating software – designers, too, “can evolve the tools we use to deal with the current state of communication”.