Application Sunday, part IX: Publish my work? Thanks, but no thanks: A vanity publication cautionary tale

Vanity publication

Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I submitted  work to this open call by Saatchi Gallery Open Call to artists

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part IX: Publish my work? Thanks, but no thanks: A vanity publication cautionary tale

We give it all we’ve got, our dreams, our time, all of our valuable resources, all into our work. Now it stares back at us, completed. Completed, but not fulfilled. A separate entity in itself, nevertheless still depending on us for its journey to meet its final destination: Its message communicated. The opportunities for such a thing are out there calling us and, as is the case with all self-proclaimed artist opportunities, they are overwhelmingly numerous. But are all of them good for us and our work?

Maybe it is a series of paintings we have just finished working on, maybe a mural, a group of works created in a new technique that we ourselves devised, an ephemeral artwork, that now exists only in the form of its documentation, one perhaps lasting hours but that took months to prepare. There may be a gallery we would like to show this work with and some ideas about how to pursue this, or we may feel that we have yet some distance to cover before getting there: Maybe we would rather “be discovered” or “get in the radar” of the gallery we are interested in, than actively pursue attention. No matter how close or far we are from showing our work in the framework of a real, physical setting, there is one thing that can definitely bring us a step closer to this desired outcome: Being published. More that that, being published is an exhibition opportunity in and by itself: It can communicate one’s work to the public, and also make it known to the very specific audience of the art world. But could being published be a recipe for success – or “discovery”- all by itself? Even more importantly: Could being published furnish the opposite results from what we wish for? Are there instances where publicity would rather be avoided than pursued? These are legitimate questions that could be posed by someone already aware of the dubious nature of most “opportunities” out there, among them those that are usually advertised with a “Get Featured!” moto, and, usually, come with a price. 

As is the case with having your work exhibited in a gallery, having your work “exhibited” in the virtual space of an art blog, online art magazine or printed publication/review, should not in and by itself be considered beneficial for your work or your career as a whole. Given the striking analogies between showing in a gallery and “showing” in a publication, it would be fair to assume that one’s association with certain publications could very well discredit one’s work, on the sole grounds of these publications’ predatory and self-serving nature. In my previous post To apply or not to apply? 7 indicators of the wrong kind of artist call I talk about what is know as “vanity galleries”. These businesses, investing on the “vanity”, and sometimes desperation, of artists that want to show at all costs without giving any serious consideration to the actual value the particular gallery will provide them with, sell their services at a high price, when in reality they are doing more harm than good: Individuals that occupy key positions in the art world, owners of reputable galleries, collectors, curators, critics, etc., all of which an artist would naturally be interested in attracting the attention off, are well aware of these “pay to show” enterprises and are most likely anything but positively impressed when spotting them in an artist’s resume. Why wouldn’t the same logic apply to the field of publications: On the one hand there are the respected publications, the ones that have established themselves in the art world over years of providing it with a quality resource. One should naturally be delighted, if not humbled, to be featured in one of these publications. This would indeed be a success and could potentially propel one’s career. On the other side of the spectrum, there are publications with no long standing presence in the art world, no valuable contribution to demonstrate and that use practices that could be characterized as predatory, practices quite similar to those employed by “vanity galleries”. They promise instant fame and fortune, instant “discovery” (just as “vanity galleries” do), often for a hefty price. One could therefore call them “vanity publications”.

Just as is the case with predatory galleries, “vanity publications” feed off certain artists’ desire for their work to be communicated, and off their perceived “need” to be heard then and there. In doing so, these organizations pretend to be some kind of gatekeepers (and charge you to “let you in”), but in reality these are not gatekeepers one should care to pass through (and for that matter one shouldn’t be fully invested in passing through any of the real gatekeepers either). If you come to think of it, these publications’ existence is quite natural, given the state of the “market”, which, in this case, is the artists themselves: Whenever the demand in something overwhelms what is on offer (in this case, whatever publicity is there to be had from the traditional publishing sector) there is opportunity for profit. That isn’t to say that the so called traditional publishing houses or established art publications always practice “fair play” in their field. One look at the content of these publications would suffice for one to question whether factors such as the newsworthiness of an event or the intrinsic value of an artwork are the only ones that come into play when determining what will be published. But then, the same goes for the gallery world: The work’s intrinsic value, its meaning and artistic quality, is not always the primary criteria in choosing what will be exhibited. After all, galleries, as well as publications, are businesses as well as art organizations and one should not overlook the implications of this fact on every level of these organizations’ activity. Having said that, there are some art publications that do not operate like businesses, meaning, with profit as their ultimate, superior objective, and are primarily invested in showing the best of what is out there. Needless to say, that this is the kind of publications that one would be most benefited from having their work featured in.

Leaving the scholarly art publications/journals aside, the essential difference between the two kinds of businesses, the galleries and the publications, is that established, respected publications, just as it is with galleries, are also interested and vested in benefiting the artist, whereas the “vanity” kind, care solely for their own, namely financial, benefit.

So here again, as is the case with galleries, artists that “want publicity and they want it now”, are the first, easy, targets. They are the ones that get tricked into paying the price for the feature, are featured in a usually badly edited, heavily populated publication (the more the featured artists, the higher the revenue), and list the “success” in their resume thinking it will provide them with CV value, when it will most likely do the opposite. These “feature opportunities” can usually be easily identified and avoided. There are some calls though, crafted by real “professionals” (I will leave it up to you to decide what they are professionals in): Their expertise is such that one can easily mistake them for real opportunities, and in the end find themselves featured in a “vanity publication” just as well. These “incognito” vanity opportunities make a category in themselves, and multiply like rabbits, most probably because the traditional “vanity publications” using the old recipes of “vanity opportunities”, namely charging a fee outright and having a flashy visual identity, are more and more seen by artists as what they actually are and avoided. So they have started to mutate into something else, difficult to read right from the start. I happen to have had the experience of applying to be featured in such a publication. I was accepted and, after realizing what the deal was, managed to prevent my feature from being published in the nick of time. This experience is worth sharing, as I believe it could serve as an eye opener and a cautionary tale for artists starting out, that can be easy targets for these sugar coated “opportunities”.

At some point during last year’s operation “application storm”, that involved sending out at least 4 applications per month, without giving it a lot of though or doing any substantial research (as I realized afterwards the situation called for e-mailing the organizers and asking them to clarify some points), I responded to a call by an “arts organization” to be featured in what they described as their first publication dedicated to emerging artists. The call, with the tag line “Emerging Artists – Free Opportunity!” (now, reading this again, I should have been warned!) invited artists interested in being included in the catalog to submit “their best work”, that, if selected, would be included in the catalog feature. As advertised, no fee was being asked to apply or to be included in the catalog (if selected). The call’s page on the organization’s site “shouted” that the organizers were doing this out of sheer generosity and interest in helping emerging artists to advance. In their own words, because “we know how important it is to keep creating opportunities for artists. We constantly look for new doors to open, and when we find one we want to hold it open for you too.” Describing their “eureka” moment, as they called the moment they had the idea for their “Artists to look out for” catalog, presenting it as a revelation that came to the emerging artists’ rescue high and wide, they went on boasting (in the humble way a savior would): “We suddenly realized that you — as a unique artist with a unique story — should be treating yourself like a brand and that we — as the trailblazers that we are — should be helping you do that because, well, it’s is what we do. We thought of ways we could implement our new found ideas, and one of them was to create a book. Hell, we’ve already made catalogs for all of our exposure exhibitions…” At which point a link to one of their past publications was included. I did visit the link and concluded from what I could make of it, that it was a decent exposure for the featured artists: A publication of decent taste, not having the flashy aesthetic one usually sees in “vanity publications” and also the artists were quite few in number, about 15 from what I could tell. So, judging from this reference, and also by the fact that there was no fee, this seemed like a genuine opportunity. So I applied. Some time passed and I was informed that my work had been selected. In the e-mail informing me about my success, the organizers’ generosity was being stressed yet once more in saying that the Director of the Organization’s Programs “decided that after all of our hard work this year, she just wanted to give something back to the art community. That’s why she decided to create the Artists to Look Out For catalogue; to help emerging artists like you even more – and make it free! I can’t tell you how excited we are to share this opportunity with you.” So once again, I was meant to be humbled at the altruism and kindness of these people and regain my trust in the good in this world.

But, because from my initial reading of the call, that for your reference, and to maximize your benefit from this report I provide a link to here, some questions were left unanswered, after thanking them for this opportunity, I proceeded in asking them to clarify some grey areas. Here is my e-mail responding to the news of my “success”:

Dear Ms …….,

I was very pleased to receive your e-mail and the news about the acceptance of my application. I am excited to be part of this project and looking forward to seeing the printed catalog.

I would be interested to know, if possible, some further details about it, such as how many artists will be featured in it and whether the catalog will also be distributed at any of the events that Starry Night Retreat will be participating in, such as an art fair.

I will be available at this e-mail adress in case you need anything regarding the catalog.

Best regards,

………

To which I received the reply that the catalog would be featuring 100 artists and that yes, it would be brought to upcoming art fairs, but it was obvious that for the artists included in the catalog, just as it would be for the visitors of the Maiami Art Fair (one of the events the catalog would feature in) the catalog would have to be purchased. That, combined with the fact that no less than 100 artists would be cramped into this publication, lit a red light for me. Fathoming the approximate amount of money the organizers would be receiving from this venture (who would be published and then not purchase at least one catalog to be able to show? After all, one of their main “hooks” in the initial ad, as you may see on the ad’s page, was the artists’ “need” to have a “catalog” to show to galleries, art lovers and collectors). This is when I had my own Eureka moment: This can’t be but for the money! The “savior” profile the organizers seemed so anxious to project made this all the more evident. I realized I didn’t want to link my work or my name to this!

At which point I wrote the organizers the following:

August 2, 2014

Dear Ms …….,

After considering the facts about the catalog publication, I decided I would rather not be included in it. I was under the impression that it was going to be something concentrated to a small selection of artists, such as the one you are presenting on your site, the “Exposure Artists 2014”.

I am sorry to be withdrawing my participation but I am afraid the project seems to be something rather different than I thought.

All the best,
……

And then Silence. Silence again. After 6 days (they were very prompt in replying in our previous communication), I wrote to them again:

August 8, 2014

Dear Ms ……,

I am writing to request confirmation that you received my last e-mail and that my wish not to be included in the emerging artists catalog will be respected.

Kind regards,
….

No reply to that either. As the days passed I was growing anxious that they could potentially be as reckless as to publish my work never mind the withdrawal of my consent: Publish my work against my will. I wasn’t going to let that happen, and the more the silence from their end continued, the more I became certain that these people were opportunists and that I should definitely get my work out of their claws. Since there was no sign of life coming from their end, I tried to generate one once more by sending a message, this time through their contact form on their site. This was about a week after my initial request to withdraw my material:

Dear …, (this time I addressed another individual in the organization)

I have been accepted to be included in the Starry Night Retreat catalog “Artists to look out for'”. Nevertheless, after learning the details of the publication from ….. I expressed the wish not to be included in the catalogue, something I communicated as early as August 3rd through e-mailing …… In the e-mail I explained that having received the details of the project, the catalogue seemed to be something different than I thought. I didn’t receive an answer confirming that my wish would be respected, so i e-mailed to ….. again requesting confirmation, another e-mail that went unanswered..

I would like to make clear that Starry Night Retreat no longer has my permission to reproduce my material (text and photos I had sent responding to the call), and if it does, it (and you) will be facing the consequences of copyright infringement.

Silence. Again. In August 17, 15 days after my initial call not to be included in the catalog, I sent the above contact form message by e-mail to a different individual, the one I was initially communicating by e-mail, the Program Coordinator of the organization. I sent her the message in the hopes that maybe this time my wish and the implications of its neglect would be taken seriously. It worked. It only took 24 hrs to get the reply that yes, my wish would be respected, and I would not be included in the catalog.

But the reply came in a mysterious package: In the message I received the Program Coordinator maintained that the answer had already been sent to me over a week ago (before I wrote the “copyright infridgement” message) as a prompt reply to my August 8th e-mail to that person. This present message of August 18 seemed to just be forwarding me that allegedly already sent message. Yet that message had somehow never appeared in my inbox or anywhere else (spam folder included). This is how I interpreted all this: It took me letting them know that I knew my rights and present them with the potential legal consequences of their actions for them to be mobilized to do something and decide to pull my material off the “selected emerging artists” pile, thus respecting my wish. But of course, an organization only interested “to give something back to the art community” would not want to let it show that it took me invoking copyright infridgement in order for them to respect my wish.

Eventually the catalog came out, for which, as I found out, I would have to pay $40 to get my hands on, by itself a hefty fee (here is the purchasing page by the way). Only, this time, the fee was not clearly stated in the initial call and the applicant was led to believe that this was to be a FREE OPPORTUNITY. 

So here are some concrete lessons I learned from this episode:

  • If it looks like one, it is one (a vanity opportunity, that is). One good look at this one page call should tell you that these people, yes, employing better aesthetic elements that usual, but still, are praying on artists, even worse, on emerging artists (easier pray), using their hopes (We constantly look for new doors to open, and when we find one we want to hold it open for you too), fears (When you are talking to galleries and they ask “Where have you been published?” What do you show them?), flattery (We suddenly realized that you — as a unique artist with a unique story — should be treating yourself like a brand) and vague, empty promises of success (This catalog willSecure your position as an emerging artist that an established art organization has identified as an “Artist to Look Out For”). I promise, from now on, for my sake, I will keep clear from those that, apparently, all they want to do in this world is be my savior!
  • The sting is in the tail, as the saying goes. If something looks vague to you and creates uncertainty, as it did for me, it is better to ask up front and have the issue clarified before you take any further steps. A common denominator of vanity publication opportunities faking as real ones is that in one way or another you don’t get the whole story in their initial call. If they gave you the whole story then they would spoil their sugar coated image and scare you away (and what good would that do? -to them of course) In my case, in the call there was no mention as to the scale of the publication (the number of artists featured) – on the contrary, one was misled into supposing that this would be a modestly populated catalog. Also, there was no mention as to the cost of the catalog, that the artist would have to pay in order to et their hand into this -career boosting-artifact. Questions relating to these issues did emerge when I encountered the call, especially as far as what it would take for me to have the catalog if I was featured, but I did not take any steps in inquiring about them before I submitted. I decided not to ask, hoping for the best. Asking, and having “details” like these clarified up front is especially important because of this special feature this new kind of calls representing vanity opportunities have: As mentioned above there is a surge in “incognito” vanity opportunities. These are indeed empty opportunities that incur high cst for the artist but they are difficult to spot. They represent the evolutionary adaptation of the traditional predatory vantures, that, at least, one can spot pretty easily. You can read my seven indicators here.
  • Know your rights and let potential predators know you know them. Even at the last minute, once you have realized that you have been had, you knowing your rights and being willing to invoke them, may make the difference and save your work and your name from being associated with parasites of the art world. You and only you can say who has and who doesn’t have the right to use your material, that is images of your works and text that belong to you. And all of your work is by definition copyrighted material. If a person or organization goes ahead and uses your material without your permission they are exposed to the law: They are guilty of copyright infringement, an offense that brings with it sometimes serious consequences. So, don’t be afraid to use the big guns if you have to in order to protect your ultimate right to your own work! Even at the last minute, it may save the day.
  • As with everything else, if you want to be on the safe side, and be sure you are applying to publications that will represent you and that you will feel proud featuring in, do your research.. If I had done mine, I would have bumped on pages on the organization’s site like this, and this (not to mention the bio page of its founder) , and that would have told me loud and clear: Stay clear!!
  • Lastly, and maybe most importantly, be skeptical of organizers who like to present themselves as great altruistic benefactors: The best masquerade for someone that can easily separate you from your valuable resources for little in return is that of a great benefactor. No one can challenge the moral integrity of someone that does it “all for you”, to the point of self sacrifice.Again, the case study presented here, involving a particular organization, is intended to serve as a vivid example and a sample from what I understand to be an entire genre of “vanity publishing opportunities” masquerading as real ones. At the same time, specifics are shared in the belief that if questionable opportunists in the art world were exposed more often, the art world would be a more suitable (and safe) place for artists.

Now it’s your turn: Have you ever swallowed the bait of a “vanity publication”, and been published in a way that didn’t represent you? Did you by any chance realize what you had gotten yourself into and managed to get out of it in time? What has your experience with art publications taught you so far? Has it been easy or difficult for you to get the right kind of exposure? Would you add something to the list above as far what is it that one should be aware of when responding to publication opportunities?

Featured image: Latteral move, 25 x 20 cm, image transfer, 2011, Penelope Vlassopoulou

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Application Sunday, part VIII: To apply or not to apply? 7 indicators of the wrong kind of artist call

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I have learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I have sent work for consideration to the open call to artists / writers / poets of the Brunswick East Cafe independent bookstore in London

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part VIII:

As is the form, so too is the soul
Ancient Greek adage

Recently I stressed the importance of choosing the right kind of artist opportunities and described the nature of the wrong kind. I made this distinction: The wrong kind are those designed for the sole benefit of the organizer; the right kind benefit both parties, the organizer as well as the artist. Here I will discuss the indicators one should look out for that could be used to discern which is which from the very start of your search, that is, as soon as the page with the various artist call announcements appears on the computer screen.

One of the first things that hits someone commencing the hunt for artist opportunities they can submit work to is their sheer quantity. The landscape of the artist opportunities posted online is so vast that one can easily be overwhelmed and confused as to where one would be best advised to focus and look into further, especially when one is aware that many of these announcements represent opportunities one should rather avoid. Confusion can lead to indecisiveness, and at times can be paralyzing, leading one to call the whole thing off, or at least postpone it (which often is very much like calling it off). Failing to make an initial sifting from the get-go, which would allow us to determine where to click our way through and eventually apply, we may find ourselves virtually swamped by an ocean of ads we feel compelled to wade through one by one (that is, click through the announcement and go through the details of each one on their respective pages), therefore squandering our valuable resources, namely time, money (if during this process we happen to be lured into paying an application fee), and, maybe most importantly, peace of mind.

This ability of being able to single out from the very start which artist calls are worthy of our attention becomes even more important for yet another reason: The majority of the calls happen to be on the “bad” side of the spectrum: Think of them as misleading baits representing opportunistic ventures. At least this is the conclusion I reached after my first year of consistently submitting work, and after spending much time and energy wading through this vast field of “opportunities”. Getting better and better at spotting the misleading calls from the get-go gave me the advantage of being able to focus and be more productive.

After this first stage of excluding the artist calls that are no more than “white noise”, a skill that in time should become second nature, one can invest one’s resources in the opportunities that matter.

Of course, in this process, the individual goals and aspirations of an artist come into play as well. If one determines that the most desirable thing is to populate one’s CV with exhibitions, artist residencies, features, etc., regardless of their value, then this whole discussion may probably seem irrelevant. Here I address the problem that one may face when interested in the quality of the artist opportunities that one responds to as well as in not overtaxing any resources in identifying the few opportunities that matter. Also, it is considered as taken for granted that an essential first determining factor when singling out the opportunities that are good for us is the particular field or practice we identify with: A sculptor will exclude the artist calls addressed to painters, a video artist will exclude those addressing performance artists, etc. So this natural disqualification factor is here considered as a given and not as part of the “problem” to be solved. We are interested in what may be the indicators of an opportunity being unworthy of our attention after we have resolved: (1) That the opportunities providing us with value are indeed the only ones we care about and (2) The disciplines we identify with and would see ourselves competing in.

I found that just as is often the case with people, here also, the esthetic qualities can be indicative of matters of essence. What, more than anything else that gives away a “bad” kind of opportunity, is poor esthetics

This is good news, because it means that we can get rid of a great deal of these calls with practically one glance at the artist call list. Bad esthetics though is not the only indicator. Also, bad esthetics goes further than just hair-raizing color combinations, poor quality of photos used in the ad, or tacky terminology.

Here is a complete list of what I consider to be the basic indicators of a “bad call” one can train oneself to identify practically at a glance:

  1. Flashy visual identity. An ad that “shouts” to be noticed usually betrays that there is no concrete, real value to be had. Art call announcements that look like the ads on the last pages of a newspaper are not what you should be spending your time on.
  2. Poor use of language. If the organizers can’t use language correctly or are not interested in investing the necessary time or money for a decently versed ad, they should not be rewarded with our attention. This “detail” is an indicator that they will most probably lack professionalism elsewhere as well.
  3. Use of the language of advertizing. This is as simple as that: We are not sheep.
  4. Fees. As a fellow artist put it recently, “If money is going to pass hands, then that’s the bottom line”. Especially when it is significant and coupled with the promise of an award of dubious value, application fees (or “participation fees” if they are paid only by the artists selected) betray that the organizer’s primary interest is financial rather than artistic. Alternatively, it should serve as an indicator that this simply is not a serious, well organized venture. In my post about choosing the right kind of opportunity, where I presented my experience of a poorly organized exhibition, one where I failed to see the participation fees requested as a red light, I emphasized that one should be skeptical, if not dismissive from the get-go, of “opportunities” essentially funded by the artist. In the era of crowdfunding and with so many state funding opportunities that still abound, in some countries more than others, why should we continue to accept “the artist pays to be exhibited” practice? It doesn’t make much sense, since in most cases it is not a sustainable practice for the artist and apart from that, since art addresses an audience and, essentially, is a product directed to society as a whole, shouldn’t the costs of bringing it to the public be funded in ways other than the artist digging into his or her pocket? Unless of course one regards art primarily as a self-advancing enterprise of the artist, in which case any kind of fee goes…
  1. Calls being “sold” heavily on their connection to a particular location. You should be wary of calls whose main attraction is that the events they invite you to apply for are being held in places considered to be international art centers, like New York, Chicago, Miami, London, etc. It is usually certain galleries that engage in this predatory practice, by issuing calls for group or solo exhibitions. If one takes a closer look at these “opportunities”, one will see, from the language used as well as other tacky advertizing methods, that they prey on the artist’s desire to have their work connected with the location where the exhibition is to be held and rely on the misconception that this alone can provide an artist with career value. The truth is, what many artists must have had to learn the hard way, that having shown at a major international center does not, by itself, confirm that you are an internationally renowned artist or that the show you participated in is some kind of testimony to your “success”. On the contrary, it can often furnish the opposite results: These galleries are generally known among the people of the art world, that is, critics, curators, other gallerists, and in general people an artist would naturally be interested in attracting the attention and gaining the respect of. Seeing the name of a gallery engaging in these practices, often known as a “vanity gallery”, on your CV, will most likely be taken as a bad rather than a good signal by the reader of the CV. “Vanity galleries” are so aptly named because they appeal to the “vanity” of artists, who, instead of waiting for their work to improve or until they’ve gained further recognition for their work, meanwhile showing in the framework of traditional galleries, are willing to pay in order to get exposure. “Vanity galleries” often advertize themselves with a flashy ad and on their site, they seem to be promising you the world if you exhibit there, often showcasing testimonials from other artists stating how their whole career changed after showing with them. In general, they project a misleading glorified image and an elusive “award” they are willing to bestow for a hefty price. A classic example of such a gallery, which is mentioned in the artist career handbook “How to survive and Prosper as an artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul” by Caroll Michels, and also one I have very often come across in my application hunt, is Agora Gallery. Their site provides a unique graphic example of what is presented here.
  2. Calls playing the card of big names participating in the jury combined with a fee to participate. This is a very similar case to that of the “vanity galleries”. The organizers prey on the artists’ “need” to be somehow connected to renowned names in the art world, and are lured into paying a fee in exchange for a dubious outcome. Often, as is the case of a Greek artist friend having sent work for an exhibition in Japan, never to see it again or been able to get a reply from the organizers to her attempts of communication, after the fee has been paid and the work has been sent to the exhibition venue, the organizers are nowhere to be found, nor is the artwork.
  3. Artist calls that include “awards” of $50 (or something along these lines): It is plainly insulting and betrays an ignorance of what an artist is (Is he/she a millionaire Sunday painter? Would he/she be above any material needs, able to survive without sustenance?) If an award is included, it should amount to a dignified one and shouldn’t match the “give the dog a bone” approach. This also includes artist residencies that award money for “subsistence” which, given the cost of living in the places they are located in, wouldn’t be even close to covering the basic needs of the artist. This is just another case where the cliché of the artist being able to get by on scraps is insultingly perpetuated and employed in a vulgar way for the organizers’ benefit. Usually these applications require a fee of somewhere around $35. Do the math and see how much this brings in for 1,000 applications, a very likely number for international venues such as New York, London, etc.

Needless to say that any announcement where more than one of the above indicators are red pushes it into the “high toxic” calls list and should definitely be avoided.

Steering clear of the traps set up by the professional parasites of the art world is not an easy thing. After all, this is their bread and butter and they are expert in misleading artists, usually by appealing to their “weaknesses”, namely, ambition, vanity, and sometimes even despair. The above “red lights” that I identified are most probably not the only ones you should be looking for out there, nor is this a bulletproof method, sure to keep you safe from the “bad guys”. I believe though that it is a good starting point in training your “artist nose”, which is an indispensable tool in the process of submitting work and getting your voice out there in a way that represents you.

So next time you click on a site listing artist calls, do a test: Set the timer to 15” and see how many of them you can exclude during that time. And the time after, do the same again. If you are doing things right and training your “nose”, soon you will be able to exclude more and more in less time, filtering out the unnecessary “white noise”, saving more of your valuable time and resources and being left with the handful of “gems” that are good for you.

Mind you though, even a gem may have some imperfections and often we can’t taste the goodness of an artist opportunity without also getting a taste of the bad. The key here is to keep trying to get closer to what we believe is good for us and our work, without setting unrealistic standards that may eventually make us cynical and dismissive of the whole effort of getting our work out there.

Is there any indicator of a “bad kind” of artist call you would add to the above list? Was there a time for you where ignoring one of the indicators led to a significant waste in resources and/or a negative general outcome? Was there a case where you applied to an ad that involved one or more of the “bad call” indicators and it still furnished a positive outcome?

Featured image: “Still Life With A Skull”, circa 1671, oil on panel, 28 cm (11 in). Width: 37 cm (14.6 in), Philippe de Champaigne – Web Gallery of Art:   Image  Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

Application Sunday, Part VII: Dealing with rejection

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted my work to the magazine Beautiful Decay.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part VII:

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will. _Epictetus (A.D. c. 55 – 135)

The taste of rejection and what is really at steak

If you have ever submitted your work to any kind of outside official judgment, and done it more than once, then you must have seen your work being rejected as well. Odds are, if you happen to have submitted your work many times over a certain period of time, in response to exhibition open calls, calls for artist residencies, grants, etc., you tasted rejection many times as well, and with it one or more of the following: Self doubt, confusion, anger, frustration, withdrawal from submitting any more work, symptoms of depression, feelings of hostility towards the “unjust” outside world and the kind of overall anxiety you cannot put your finger on and effectively deal with. Oh, did I mention envy towards other artists’ successes? Needless to say that what all these maladies have in common, is their ability to drain you from your energy, deprive you of your focus, sink you in negativity and ultimately incapacitate you in regard to the single thing most valuable for an artist: his/her ability to work.

What is known as an artist block can often be the result of a loosing battle with rejection. How then can we beat rejection?

Since the outcome here is one that is out of our control, we cannot beat rejection itself, that is, prevent it from happening. We can however overcome it, that is, rise above it and prevent it from destroying what we value most. The desired here is to render rejection powerless in inflicting us any kind of pain, psychological or other, and compromising our creativity.

Fixing our relationship with rejection

Like most problems of this nature, that is, of the kind that lie outside of our control, the solution lies mostly in our perception of rejection. To bring Epictetus, who opens the debate of this article, some fitting company, here is a dictum by Seneca: We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.

What is imagined here is that rejection is indeed in and of itself an evil. Regarding rejection as a bad in and of itself we ourselves award it the ability to hurt us.

But how does rejection ends up being considered a bad in and of itself? A series of misconceptions seem to be lying on the basis of our distorted relation with rejection.  Seeing rejection for what it is would require that we identify these misconceptions one by one and neutralize them:

  • Mistaking rejection within a certain institutional framework for rejection of the work per se. Juries and committees of organizations, judge in reference to that organizations’ particular set of values and criteria. The rejection therefore is relative and should not be perceived as a rejection neither of a specific work’s value, nor of one’s entire artistic practice.
  • Ignorance about the real odds of succeeding. If there is one lesson I learned from my first year of rigorously applying to artist calls is that rejection should come as no surprise. Instead, it should rather be expected as the rule: 18 out of my 28 applications were rejected. That is, there was an actual verdict communicated to me, that usually went like this: “…I regret to inform you that your application has not been selected….” (this is actually from a fresh one received today in my mailbox!). From the 10 applications out of 28 that were not met with a rejection, 3 were never answered (these calls never materialized into something), 1 fell through because of an application error on my part, and only 6 were met with success. It took 28 submissions for 6 successful outcomes. That represents a 21% success rate coupled by a 64% rejection rate. Which means that the no’s I received were 3 times more than the yeses. Still, it seems I did pretty well: In “How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist: Selling Yourself Without Selling Your Soul”, a book that contains quite a good amount of practical advice directed to artists, the success rates that should be expected from such a procedure are quite a lot slimmer. Which goes to say that the disappointment that many artists feel after applying to only a handful of artist calls and been rejected is unsubstantiated.
  • Overestimating the actual authority of authorities: Disregarding that often the gatekeepers are wrong
  • Lending the application venture itself more value and importance than it actually has. If, when served with a rejection, it is the actual value of our work we are agonizing over, and not the loss of certain honors or benefits, then our agony is simply not justified. As I already tried to demonstrate, more often than not success is determined by the institution’s agenda rather than the work’s actual value.

Since rejection is outside of our control, and since it cannot be considered a determining factor of our work’s inherent value, it should be regarded as being indifferent.

This, essentially stoic, view may seem as an impossible one to adopt or even one not befitting to humans: Artists, after all, like everyone else, have the desire and the need to succeed in their careers. Therefore it is somewhat natural that every rejection would feel like a failure to march in that  direction (of success).

Nevertheless, it is also valid to maintain that if an artist is to achieve any real greatness, he/she should also be able to view the judgments about his/her work coldly and as being irrelevant to the work and to oneself in order to be able to continue with his/her mission. This must be almost impossible for someone that has made his/herself dependent on outside approval.

Having said that, the opinion of the environment is indeed a legitimate concern, especially when one is interested in impacting society in some way. But the usual place we look for approval is not always the right one.

An effective strategy in dealing with rejection

The pressures that are applied today on the artist from all sides, to a large extent due to the incompatibility in nature and objectives between the artist and the societal structure, are so great that a broader strategy is needed in order to deal with rejection. Seeing rejection for what it is is an essential first step of freeing oneself from its effects but it can’t be enough to triumph over it.

Rising above success and rejection (the former often being more harmful than the latter) especially when one happens to be particularly vulnerable to their influence, requires a positive set of actions as well the negative affirmation of what rejection is not. Here is a list of things I consider to be valuable:

  • Working on one’s projects with single mindedness, bringing them to an end undisturbed, and only then subjecting them to outside judgment.
    The Other’s view on an artist’s process should not get in the way or predetermine the creative process itself. This can be especially disorienting if this Other represents the art market.
  • Having said that, one should have people around them they trust, in their opinion and judgment. It is they who will provide him/her with the necessary outside support and reality check an artist often needs, especially when rejections seem to be falling down like rain.
  • Don’t let anxiety turn a waiting period into a dead period. One shouldn’t just wait for the results of an application to come in, especially if they are anxious. This will sink them deeper in their imaginary quicksand and make them a victim of something over which they have no control. I don’t usually quote Andy Warhol but here is something of his touching on the matter, that I like: “Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art”.No matter the verdict, you know that at least you are safeguarding your creativity and advancing in your work. This possibly sets the scene for a future success, even if all you get now is rejection.
  • Make the best of the successes you do have, no matter how scarce. You can find creative ways to use these successes as an opportunity to communicate your work and reach more people, in a more regular/consistent manner.

Some hands-on practical methods against rejection

Whether you are in the process of sending out applications and are finding yourself overwhelmed from the answers you receive, or are trying to bring yourself to start submitting work and are paralyzed at the prospect of rejection, here is an actionable set of methods you can start applying today that can make a difference in how you deal with rejection next time around:

  1. If you aren’t already sending one, start sending out an artist newsletter. When I started having some few but nevertheless consistent application successes, I began sending out a newsletter through e-mail to a list of contacts. This newsletter is now a standard, trusted, and personalized means of communicating my news in the workshop and my accomplishments and keeping my audience updated on my course. Also, it is a means of broadening this audience. And even though this method of communication would have never been initiated if I wasn’t doing work I felt confident about and wanted to share, the extra bit of wind behind my sails for the first newsletter to be composed was probably these first successes: They lifted my morale and gave me one more newsworthy element to share. There is a lot to be said about learning how to see the glass half-full instead of half-empty and leveraging your successes even if they come few and far in between.

    You are the one that can give courage to yourself by not letting your successes, no matter how scarce, run through your fingers like water. Turn them into something concrete instead.

  2. Document your application process and its results. Create a document in Google Drive, Evernote, or some other application and each time you send out a submission, note the date and the other basic information regarding the application. When the result comes in seal the respective application report with this final piece of information. This way you will be able to have an objective record of this process that over time will provide you with essential information about your actual success rates, and about whether or not your application frequency justifies feelings of disappointment.
  3. If you want to become immune to rejection, or the closest to that you can be, apply often. The fewer the applications, the more their importance gets blown up in our imagination. The more frequent the applications, the easier it becomes to complete them, and the smaller the perceived importance of each individual one. Simply put, by applying often we become better in it and we also mathematically increase our chances of success.
  4. Spare yourself from any unnecessary pain early on by choosing the right kind of artist opportunities.

Closing this report of what I consider to be effective when dealing with rejection I ‘d like to add: No matter how important it may be for an artist to have some successes of the kind discussed here, no submission goes to waste regardless of its outcome. The process one undergoes because of it and the particular kind of work involved always adds something valuable to his/her practice.

How do you deal with rejection? Is it something that can get in the way of your creativity? Do you have any strategies of your own or practical methods you would recommend to other artists?

Application Sunday, Part VI: When the gatekeepers are wrong

Eugène_Delacroix_-_The_Barque_of_Dante

Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted work to the General Open Call of the No Man’s Art Gallery.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part VI
When the Gatekeepers are Wrong

An application portfolio contains mandatorily: ………. a letter of recommendation (e.g. from a university institution, an art college, a gallery or other institution related to art and culture etc.) _Part of an organization’s awarding residencies to artists official application call

Whenever I failed to provide a letter of recommendation to authorities in the art world, I felt inadequate, even ashamed. I have been experiencing this as a failing, a black whole in my practice. Could it be that I should be wearing this inadequacy proudly instead?

    Being a Fatherless Child

In the article The Death of Mentors I explain that it is not the death of the Mentor per se I am proclaiming, but rather the gradual extinction of a particular kind of mentor, one that used to be taken for granted in the course of an artist’s development, and that was for the him/her (but usually him) an invaluable Guide into Art. This Mentor was generally to be found in institutions the aspiring artist would turn to in order to learn his trade (the fact that once art began to no longer be considered a trade, the mentors became scarce calls for closer inspection). As I go on to say in that same article I myself in fact do know what a real mentor in the broader sense is because I had the fortune to meet one in the person of my father. That in turn goes to say you shouldn’t take the term “fatherless child” literally either: Fatherless here means with no mentor in one’s trade.

But what does that mean exactly? There are books (nowadays there is also the internet) and there is the history of art, accessible now more than ever. Furthermore, if we agree that a mentor is essentially a guide and a mystagogue in one’s art, it is no secret that artists could always choose their mentors among the legions of the dead. Dante never met Virgil in person, in fact the latter lived over 1000 years before him, nevertheless, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the ancient Roman poet is awarded the role of the young poet’s guide across the dark waters of Art and life. Dante’s infernal journey that ended with his triumphant vision of God is one in which Virgil as his guide helped him take.

Not having a real life mentor doesn’t mean that you are left with no guidance in your quest to meet your vision in art and life. Given this, one might ask, why is being a fatherless child even an issue? Having no guidance seems to have never really been an inescapable situation (except for extreme cases defined by much serious problems than not having a mentor), but rather one that an artist might find him/herself in voluntarily (although, everyone, whether they choose to admit it or not had at some point some spiritual guidance). Maybe I should add something to my previous definition: A fatherless child has no real life mentor to guide or protect him/her. The mentor here needs to be among the living and therefore be able to protect in a certain way.

But let me clarify this, again with Dante’s help:

In Canto XIII of Divine Comedy when the young poet and his Master are about to enter Hell’s eighth circle they are stopped by “more than a thousand” that inquire who might this man be daring to enter the gates into the regions of the dead “without death first felt”. Virgil is urged to enter alone and leave Dante behind to return on his own “by his witless way”.

At which point Dante extends a plea:

O my lov’d guide! who more than seven times
Security hast render’d me, and drawn
From peril deep, whereto I stood expos’d,
Desert me not,” I cried, “in this extreme.
And if our onward going be denied,
Together trace we back our steps with speed.

His guide replying:

Fear not: for of our passage none
Hath power to disappoint us, by such high
Authority permitted. But do thou
Expect me here; meanwhile thy wearied spirit
Comfort, and feed with kindly hope, assur’d
I will not leave thee in this lower world.

Dante’s guide was able to protect him. Nevertheless, he wasn’t alive. Actually the fact that he was among the dead made it possible for him to guide him in this infernal journey.

Things in today’s art world are rather measured by different standards. The divine guidance of the dead may at times not make the cut. In order for one to not become disheartened or loose faith in one’s art, he/she should be able to discern when they are being judged for their work and when for something entirely different. And to know that being a fatherless child can be enough for the gates to remain shut: Because, getting closer to a more complete definition, being a fatherless child in art today means starting out with no real life mentors (not the kind that officially counts anyway) to protect you in the face of the gatekeepers.

The gatekeepers are important here, because, like in the case of Dante attempting to enter inferno’s eighth circle, they are the ones that will judge you. And if you happen to even remotely be interested in engaging with the official world of art it doesn’t take long to find, gatekeepers are everywhere;

Taking all the possible forms of authority, from artist residency directors to grant awarding committees, to heads of post graduate studies departments, they, never mind their proclamations of nothing being more important than your work itself, request, or rather require that you do nevertheless have a protector, a real life one, that is ready to vouch for you (usually in the form of a letter of recommendation) if you are ever to be let in through those gates.

As I mentioned in the beginning, whenever faced with a gatekeeper’s request that I was not able – or not willing – to satisfy, I felt inadequate. At some point this question set in: What if not having protectors was to a degree the inevitable outcome of my actions? And what if it had been who I was ultimately that had led to my present “predicament”? To the degree that I still recognized myself gladly in the actions and choices that made me who I was, could it be that my predicament was just how things were meant to be? This realization, one that can be considered as a kind of realization of the self, made the regret, the shame, the feeling of inadequacy to seize to have any power over me.

This inadequacy was part of me, and one that was welcome, since it came as a result of a series of choices I recognized myself in. Still, somehow I wasn’t good enough for the gatekeepers. Could my inadequacy be just a reflection of the gatekeepers’ own failings?

How one ends up being a fatherless child in art anyway? For one, there is the death of mentors, then there is the element of chance (not everyone is fortunate enough to have real life guidance in art), and ultimately, leaving out the case of one not being worthy enough to be awarded a guide, there is the kind, not so rare in the ranks of the artists, that doesn’t make friends with flattery, nor so much with authority. And the sad truth is that most “mentors” today, require something in return. That something not being solely respect or gratitude but rather an acknowledgment of their complete authority, that is, the student’s humiliation.

Gatekeepers were always used by authority to control behavior. By rewarding a certain kind and punishing another they participated in the kind of social engineering we are familiar with since our childhood.

Some of the brightest kids I met when teaching art in public schools were also the ones being “punished”, either by low grades, or by actual means of punishment by the school’s “gatekeepers”, the teachers. These kids were guilty of being too free in the face of authority.

So even though the gatekeepers may be wrong in demanding that a young artist provides them with proof of an authority figure’s support, they are also right: One must expect this from the gatekeepers, at least on occasion, and not be surprised when allegiance to authority is considered a requirement.

So let the gatekeepers do their job while we entertain this thought: If Dante felt in any way obliged to meet such demands in order to enter the infernal gates would he ever reach the vision that awaited him at the end of his journey? Maybe the gatekeepers of the art world aren’t always the ones we should keep our sights on.

Were you ever discouraged by a gatekeeper’s demands you weren’t able to meet? Did you ever feel that the standards by which you were judged as an artist were not the ones they should be? How did you overcome this obstacle, and if it is one you are still facing have you changed the way you view it over time?

The excerpts from Dante’s Divine Comedy, Canto VIII, are translated by the Rev. H. F. Cary, M.A.

Featured image: The Barque of Dante, detail, 189 cm × 246 cm, oil on canvas, Eugène Delacroix, 1822

Application Sunday Part V: The good, the bad and the ugly of a London show

Thirty-six blue moons_

Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted work to the Open Call of the Looking at Painting journal.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part V:
The good, the bad and the ugly of a London show

December 25th, 2013 found me in the intensive care unit of a hospital in my home city of Athens, Greece. It was Christmas Day and there I was, instead of celebrating with my family and enjoying one of my mother’s delicacies, I was lying in one of the beds of the respiratory ward. How did I get there? The answer may not be what you expect: Art.

Sure, if I wanted to be more literal I should perhaps refrain from blaming art and instead blame it all on my frivolous behavior. But the fact of the matter is that it was indeed my precarious involvement with art that landed me this Christmas gift.

A recently adopted drawing method in combination with my failure to take all the necessary protective measures it called for brought this on me. Thankfully I came out of it unscathed (and wiser); What’s more, I had a “trophy” to show for what I’d been through: What I was working on when I got sick: Thirty-six blue moons.

This was the last work I finished in the year 2013, but it felt as if it were the first one in a long time, maybe because its creation coincided with a newly acquired sense of self-coherence that came after a long period of confusion (see part II). It was also the first work I submitted in response to an artist call after my 2014 new year’s resolution to get my work out there. My desire to take this particular work out of the workshop was probably what gave the final push for that first application to happen.

Not very long after the submission I received the news that it was successful. The opportunity had been posted by an independent curator and it involved participating in a group show in London.

When the news came I was overwhelmed. This was a huge morale booster, especially following a lengthy “exhibition drought”, and was interpreted as an early confirmation of my newly implemented strategy.

I found it kind of entertaining, and not lacking a generous dose of refreshing irony: The work that not so long ago had landed me in a hospital bed was now landing me an exhibition abroad. Things did come at a price, it seemed.

But, as I would find out, refreshing irony aside, I was also in for a generous dose of disenchantment.

This was the kind of artist opportunity that had all three: The good, the bad and the ugly. Let’s take it one by one because valuable lessons were learned from all three:

The good: My work was benefited in unexpected ways and, as often happens, the blessing came disguised as an insurmountable difficulty: Thirty-six blue moons, a work playing with the concept and form of the calendar, consisted of 36 drawings set in calendar structure. When news of its success came in, the individual drawings weren’t yet mounted on the surface that would carry them. The work was more or less still open. This proved to be a good thing. Faced with the logistics and considerations of transporting a 1.5 x 1 m frame to the UK from Greece I realized this was out of the question. The cost of transportation, all of which had to be covered by me, not to mention the potential cost of damage (it was certainly possible that the glass would break in transport), also to be covered by myself, all these added to the costs of travel and subsistence for over a week (thankfully a friend living in London had graciously offered to be my host) was turning the whole enterprise into a science fiction scenario. Where is the “good” in all that, you might ask. The good was that being faced with what seemed to be an impasse in the beginning forced me to find a solution that eventually led to the work itself evolving.

I finally flew to London with the work securely packed in my carry on. In the days preceding the exhibition, Thirty-six blue moons evolved into an artist book in a process that not only didn’t compromise the vision I had for the work but proved to be the continuation of its creative process. If one comes to think of it, there are always rules and limitations in the workshop, often set by us to function as catalysts during the creative process. In this instance it was this logistical problem playing the role of this limitation that had to be overcome creatively. The challenge was met not only by harnessing the best possible results for the work but also with the best possible outcome for my budget.

The bad: This was an international call for an exhibition held in London. Meaning that the artworks would come from all over the world. Therefore shipping the selected works to London and back was a logistical prerequisite for the exhibition to be held. This in turn makes the works’ shipping costs by nature an integral part of the exhibition’s budget. However, these expenses, which are considerable, were to be paid by the artists themselves.

When asked whether the works would be covered by an insurance the curator gave me no clear answer, other than that once she received them the works would be “under her care” and while in the gallery they would have “public liability insurance”. Reading the terms stated in the contract between the gallery and the organizers, I understood that this didn’t amount to much. There was no guarantee whatsoever that the artist would be compensated in the event of damage or loss of his/her work. The Liability section of the contract read: “…the Gallery shall have no liability whatsoever for any theft, loss, damage or destruction (including incidental losses) to or relating to, artwork, exhibition elements and personal property”. Doing some research I found out that the lack of insurance coverage in international exhibitions was not an uncommon occurrence at all. Quite the contrary, at times even prestigious venues left that aspect unfulfilled. This realization served as a kind of perverse reassurance for me to put this issue aside and go on with the show.

The ugly: I think one of the worst scenarios for an artist when his/her work is shown in a group show is for that show to take the form of something that doesn’t represent him/her.

Sometime after I learned my work had been selected I found out that the number of participants was no less that sixty. No indication of the show’s scale was given in the initial call, and combined with the fact that there was an exhibition fee of 60 GBP ($100) to be paid in order for the successful applicant to be included in the exhibition, that didn’t have a good ring to it at all: Was this some kind of predatory “opportunity” luring artists, eager to participate in a London show, into an exhibition that provided them with no essential career value, while incurring high costs that they would be called on to cover? I wanted to show this work and looked forward to experiencing this to the end regardless – this would be the first time I’d travel abroad on such an occasion after all – so I didn’t let these doubts deter me. Unfortunately, they were confirmed.

Walking in the gallery for the first time, when the works were being set up, was when I received the first actual confirmation of the negative signs I had been getting. There was no coherence in this assortment of works, no apparent connection between them or between them and my work.

I was under the impression I had walked into the wrong gallery, until I spotted the curator, whom I recognized from a photo posted in the initial artist call. I wondered if the other artists stood frozen like me when they first walked in. I snapped out of this pretty quick. I was there after all, Thirty-six blue moons was there, and I had to get to work. Plus, deep down I knew that what I was facing at that moment could in fact have been foreseen.

So I decided not to worry too much about the incoherence I found from that point on. But at the same time I knew that this was an indicator of the show’s questionable value and it also posed questions about the motivation behind it. I would have to be on my toes until this was over, since failure to provide for the show’s aesthetic and conceptual coherence made me think that a lack of professionalism would be demonstrated throughout.

And yet the lack of aesthetic quality, and the poor taste that was eventually demonstrated in all aspects of the exhibition, was something that had manifested itself months before I took my moons and flew to London. Early on, yet over a month after the fee to participate in the exhibition had been paid, a new element about the show emerged. The exhibition press release sent to us by the curator read that the show was being held “in aid of OCD UK”, meaning that somehow (it wasn’t disclosed how exactly) the show was connected to a charity organization. This alone should have probably sufficed for me to up and walk away from the event since it revealed the utter disregard of the organizers for the participating artists: It was obviously considered to not be their business to know about the exhibition’s profile and be able to make an informed decision about whether its overall profile suited them before they opted in. Adding insult to injury, this news was followed by an e-mail inquiring whether any of the participating artists who may have suffered in the past (or still did) from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (the condition connected to the charity), would be interested in providing a radio interview in the days leading up to the exhibition to talk about their condition. This I leave up to the reader to assess…

Regardless of the fact that this venture provided me with little to no value professionally, I do believe its overall effect at that time was constructive: I gained indispensable experience just when I needed it, I did something new that pushed my practice further leading to a breakthrough in my work, and, maybe most importantly, I met a couple of fellow artists with whom I have a valuable exchange to this day.

Lessons from this I will keep:

When something looks unprofessional it usually is all the way through. If the person in charge of the “opportunity” can’t use language correctly or is vague on essential issues, odds are there will be larger and more serious failures in their performance along the way.

Be skeptical, if not dismissive from the get go, of “opportunities” essentially funded by the artist. As I realized the fee the artists were paying for their participation was going to cover the gallery’s rent. One can’t expect any real career boost from these kinds of setups.

There are two kinds of opportunities: One-sided “opportunities” tailored to serve the organizers’ agenda, and true opportunities that benefit both parties. When the artist feels like he/she is only a means to an end, his/her opinion is not respected or even taken into account, or that they are part of something they didn’t opt in to, they should leave early and cut their losses.

If you are starting out, trust your instincts and read the signs. If you find yourself at the receiving end of this kind of opportunity, make some friends along the way, because this is one of the few valuable things that remains from any venture. And in the end, look back on the experience and evaluate.

Do you have the experience of a similar kind of opportunity? When was the moment you realized it wasn’t going to provide you with the value you expected? Was anything gained from this regardless?

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Thirty-six blue moons, detail, Artist’s book/installation, accordion book in case, powdered pigment, handmade paper, abaca paper, 139 x 93.5 cm (open accordion dimensions), edition, unique, 2014

Application Sunday, Part IV: The value of putting one’s work into words

Metamorfosis_Kurfur_TraceA_March15_VI

Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I submitted a project for publishing to designboom.

Lesson 4: The value of putting one’s work into words

An artist’s statement (or artist statement) is an artist’s written description of their work. The brief verbal representation is for, and in support of, his or her own work to give the viewer understanding. As such it aims to inform, connect with an art context, and present the basis for the work; it is therefore didactic, descriptive, or reflective in nature.

Artist’s statement – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Once an artist decides to give this applications enterprise a chance and start submitting work to artist calls, one of the first things they are confronted with is composing this brief text, known as an artist statement. For me this proved to be quite a daunting task, but intimidating as it was, it also proved to be quite a revelatory experience.

One would think that every artist should be able to compose such a text off the top of his/her head. After all, if one isn’t in a position to say what one’s work is all about, or at least utter a few words on the subject, then who can? But therein lies the first obstacle; In order for one to be able to define something they must first understand it. Or at least be able to trace some of its basic components. And for that to be remotely possible one has to be free from the utter state of confusion such as the one I described here, one that essentially comes from the inability to discern basic elements of one’s desire, elements of the self.

Naturally, this process that leads to a certain degree of self-coherence is gradual and cannot be forced, but, as explained in the last post, it is a development that can also be determined by our actions. We only have to persevere, to not give up, and trust in the law according to which quantity (of efforts) eventually leads to a change in quality.

Only, as I eventually realized, all these steps, all the battles won, would probably have remained unfulfilled if not for that first artist statement that forced me to put my work into words.

Plato in one of his writings has Socrates arguing that something had only to be named correctly in order for its essence to emerge. Knowing a thing’s true name was therefore enough to offer us an insight into its true nature.

There is something magical in the process of putting things into words. Something coming from the simple fact that this process forces us to make sense of what it is we are trying to describe, to see the connections, and to name them.

The opposite is also true. Failing to lend a thing its proper name leads to losing sight of its nature. Something that is especially evident in an era named and therefore ruled by whoever has control over the mass media. Yet in issues of self-coherence, the importance of a self-audit that would lead to the correct naming, and therefore understanding of things, is usually underrated.

If you are to have any chance of grasping the essence of things that go on inside you, you need to sit down and ask yourself specific questions. 

And this is exactly the service that the seemingly mundane task of writing a paragraph about my work provided me with. It forced me to name things. Connections between works and periods that until then seemed to be randomly succeeding one another started to emerge. I realized that there were indeed recurring preoccupations in my practice, but which, because they were expressed in all sorts of different forms, and because I hadn’t looked for the connections, had remained hidden. I started seeing patterns that were repeating themselves, meanings and processes revisited underneath the “garment” they happened to wear.

From this process a brand new world of me emerged, and I felt like a child with a new toy. Having named my demons I had managed (albeit for a moment) to conquer them, and break the vicious cycle of them dominating over me.

Have you had the experience, of a seemingly “mundane” task surprisingly offering you some kind of insight into your practice? Has putting your work into words at any point helped you to overcome obstacles in the work itself?

 

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Kurfürstendamm, Trace A, Improvisation VI, detail, 15 x 24 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014

Application Sunday, Part III: Why to not give up

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: I applied for the HORDALAND KUNSTSENTER artist residency.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part III: Why to not give up

Having a clearer view of myself (see part II) was as if a veil was lifted from my eyes and everything, my past works, the works of other artists, the skills I had acquired up until then, suddenly appeared in a new light.

It is hard to pinpoint the exact source of this brand new sense of clarity or the precise moment in time when it emerged. Perhaps the best way to describe it’s beginnings is by invoking a word from one of my favorite books, back from the beautiful age of eighteen, when one begins to delve into the wonders of knowledge, after the notoriety school has stained it with starts to wear off: Maturare. This is the word that Mr Test, the main character of A night with Mr Test by Paul Valery, used to describe the necessary process for a syllogism or intellectual problem to come to a resolution. Things have to mature, the stars have to align in a certain way, events have to play out, before something “suddenly” becomes clear.

But: This process and its fruition, as much as it lies outside of our control, linked as it is with the slow and painful process of maturation, also depends on our being there to see it through. Mr Test, an imaginary creature that had chosen the citadel of the mind, putting it in Markus Aurelius’ words, as his battlefield (or, had the battlefield chosen him?), was as much an object of his thought processes as he was their master, taking the steering wheel of the intellect when he had to and leaving the boat to its devices when the coordinates were right.

So I was aware of that logic. I believed in this law, one that is also rooted in our culture as Greeks: Things do come by the virtue of the gods, or, if one prefers, by the virtue of destiny, or chance, but they also come by virtue of our efforts. And so, as much as I despaired, feeling trapped in this vicious cycle, I never really believed that this cycle was all there was to it. Since the need was there, the question was there, there must have been a well grounded reason for it.

Eventually, another, more material law than the divine one described above made itself apparent. One often invoked by economists but having an extremely broad range of applications. That which refers to the transformation of quantity into quality. According to this dialectical law known from antiquity, small changes, that are incapable of bringing a qualitative change by themselves, reach a point where they do exactly that. They change quantity into quality.

At some point the quantity of our efforts (not disregarding the importance of their quality) is bound to turn into a qualitative change in our condition, whether it be our material condition or that of our consciousness. In other words, our efforts must amount to what in scientific terms is known as critical mass. They must reach the point that will allow for that qualitative leap to happen.

All we have to do is not give up, keep listening to our desire and be attentive to anything that sounds like good advice from our surroundings.

Is this process something you have experienced in your work? Has there been a turning point that seemingly came out of nowhere but in reality was the result of a consistent effort on your part? If the answer is yes, contribute with your version in the comments section below.

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Athens, Trace A, Improvisation XV, detail, 28 x 34.5 cm, powdered pigment on handmade paper, 2014

Application Sunday, Part II: The value of knowing one’s self

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Every Sunday I share the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: This week I submitted my work to an exhibition: The Telfer Gallery Open Call 2016.

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part II:
The value of knowing one’s self

Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.

Ah me! how hard a thing it is to say
What was this forest savage, rough, and stern,
Which in the very thought renews the fear.

Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto I, Dante Alighieri, translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

For a long time the word that could best describe my relationship with my work, and my “artist” identity was agony. Fortunately not in the sense of a maniacal crisis, but more like the silent, paralyzing agony that takes over one that is lost in a dense forest, or tied by an undecipherable riddle. That is not to say that love and desire, in the way Plato means it when he uses the word eros (it’s meaning can’t be fully translated in English), weren’t also there. But this desire to give birth within beauty, recalling Plato’s definition of his love, had become too elusive, too vague, and thus too unfulfilled. Typically I would start working on an idea, or an impulse, only to abandon it, feeling no strong commitment, no strong desire to complete it. And despite the fact that I managed to get into the flow of creation several times and complete some series of works over the years, I still didn’t have the feeling, or the understanding of continuity in my work. I didn’t feel I was building something. All these were more or less perceived as fragments, sparagmata (in Greek), failing to form a picture of self.

Either in the form of incomplete works or as what I perceived to be series of works disconnected to each other, the vicious cycle would repeat itself again and again paving a path of unfinished works, fragments of an unfulfilled desire. A desire that was there, but only to torment me and make me feel trapped. It existed, but it was weak, lacking in direction, clarity and focus.

This landscape of torment and despair (as if the myth of the tormented artist needed any further reinforcement!) makes it sometimes hard even for myself to understand how I reached the point (described in part I) where I began to actively take steps towards getting my work outside the confines of the studio. It would seem that I would have had a lot to deal with before any concern about showing my work would be legitimate. And this is exactly where the key out of that vicious circle lied.

I don’t think that things would lead up to that first artist call application in January 2014 that marked the beginning of a drastic shift, if not in my overall position in the art world, at least in my psychology and sense of control, without the necessary work within.

As much as it was several factors that came into play, the basic prerequisite for a change to happen was the untangling of the mess inside. I had to realize what I wanted, where my heart and mind were as an artist, who I was, or, if this seems rather unattainable considered in absolute terms, what certain fragments of myself looked like and how they connected to each other. This may sound dramatic, and I know I have the tendency of being that sometimes (a friend once told me I have a weak spot for the tragic, which of course I took as a compliment) but I believe there is something there.

When this transition started to happen, from my confused state to a sense of self-coherence, things started falling into place. A newly acquired confidence set in, hesitation and fear started to recede, the paralyzing self-doubting started to dissolve. This allowed for me to act more readily on my impulses in the studio and defend my work more naturally outside of it. The connections between my past works started to become obvious and my desire could at last be traced. I could eventually make out a picture of myself, or rather a rough design (how could it be compete since a proper picture of one’s self can only emerge through a life’s work?). It seems that a rough design was all I needed to begin.

What about you? Was there a point where confusion had taken over your practice and your desire to create failed to liberate you (in fact, it did exactly the opposite)? Does any part of my experience resonates with you and what you might have been through or facing right now? In what ways it is the same and how is it different?

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Belgrade, Trace A, Improvisation IX, detail, drawing, 33 x 23 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014

Application Sunday, Part I: The angel I was waiting for was me

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Every Sunday I will be sharing with you the weekly open call I submit my work to and the lessons I learned from a year of following a relentless application regimen!

This week’s open call: Art in General Open Call

What I learned from a year of artist call submissions, Part I:
The angel I was waiting for was me

Last year, for the first time in my life I started applying to artist open calls and doing it in a systematic way. The night of December 31, 2013 found me on my computer making the final adjustments to my first application for 2014. That is how I chose to welcome the new year -I didn’t even allow myself a break for a glass of champagne!

All through 2014 I strived to stick to the year’s resolution: Submitting to four artist open calls per month. As an artist open call would count any of the following: A call for participation in an exhibition, for an interview published by an online or printed review, a call for a contest/competition, for an artist residency, for a grant, etc.

And even though strictly speaking I didn’t reach my goal, I managed to roll in over 28 applications. Which, for someone who until that time may (or may not) have had applied to any of the above two or three times in total, was a real breakthrough.

These things always overwhelmed me. I felt that the list of the application material requested was too long, too demanding, often irrelevant, and even when I started the procedure with enthusiasm it wasn’t long before black clouds would appear over my head and defeatism would set in. Not to mention the discouragement because of all the paperwork that needed to be done, something that -surprise!- in the digital age I woke up to find myself into, was at last a thing of the past (with the occasional exceptions).

My commitment to this practice, applying and applying with a system, guided by the determination and single-mindedness to push what I was currently doing in the workshop out into the world (living in Greece, I realized after a while that it was either that or total obscurity) indeed bore some fruit. As a result I was invited to participate in a couple of exhibitions abroad, was featured in some online publications, became a member of a curated artists’ network in Berlin, and even got to reject a feature by a printed publication when my awareness about what is good publicity for an artist and what one would rather avoid started rising (something that happens only if one applies and applies a lot).

The aforementioned results/accomplishments are far from impressive but they were something. And something compared to an endless desert of nothing amounts to a lot, even solely on a psychological level, of which, every artist knows the value. These few steps forward as far as getting my work noticed were enough to convince me that whatever was to come, wouldn’t just come to me in the form of an angel landing in my studio, but would most likely occur as a result of certain targeted actions. I finally grasped in a real, three dimensional way, and not in vague hypotheses, that, to the degree I was doing work I believed in and could back passionately, it would get through or remain in the workshop depending considerably on the amount and quality of actions I would succeed in taking after the work in the studio was done.

This strategy, that I continue in 2015, with some discrepancies due to a few personal difficulties, was also my antidote to despair. On the day I would have completed and sent out a strong application I would fall asleep like a baby, content with the fact that through my persistence a bird was set free, a messenger-bird taking my work out into the world (as mushy as it may seem this is the metaphor that would come to mind!) and giving it a chance.

Featured image: Penelope Vlassopoulou, Metamorphosis/Kurfürstendamm, Trace A, Improvisation I, detail, 32.5 x 23 cm, powdered pigment on paper, 2014