Patricia Niven Interview

Patricia Niven canalDM: Patricia, can you answer the question, why do you do art?

PN: I don’t have any other choice is how I feel. It’s essential for me to function as a human being and it has to be done everyday. Short and sweet!

DM: On that, what motivates you to do it everyday?

PN: I suppose to be strictly accurate, I’m not doing art everyday because there is a lot of spreadsheets, invoicing, post-production. I’m not making new work everyday but it’s all related to me being an artist so it never feels like a job. It just feels essential.

DM: And how do you sustain your practice?

PN: At the moment – if you’re talking financially – I am sustaining it, which is great. But in the past, I have had very generous parental support, which is slightly embarrassing to acknowledge but I also appreciate their belief in me. My partner has been helpful. Credit cards continue to be helpful! But at the moment I would say I’m earning a living and I would say that’s a really good place to be.

DM: Not many artists can say that about their practice.

PN: No, it feels like it’s a recent place to be in. I’m ready for it to become more than earning a living. I’d like to have a surplus – that’s my next aim.

DM: What do you get out of being an artist? What does it do for you?

PN: It allows me to connect with other people. I don’t know how you connect with other people without being an artist. That is my experience. Because I have a camera and that helps me overcome any shyness I might have. Any thoughts that it’s inappropriate to talk to someone, having a camera gives me access and a license. It allows me to be more open and less reserved. Somehow you can connect but still be quite distant, depending on what environment you’re in. And somehow the distance is as important as the connection, which sounds like two extreme opposites but I find the balance of the two really important. If I’m one-on-one with somebody in the studio, I need a close emotional connection. If I’m in a large group – for example I was at an opening yesterday – I can’t have a close connection with everybody. But you can be right in the middle amongst everybody.

DM: That’s really interesting. So the camera is like a tool that enables you to gain access to other people but without having to completely open yourself?

PN: Yes absolutely, it’s a way in for so many different people and I’ve been using that since I was about 12, to gain access to people. So I’m comfortable with it, as a way of being the photographer in a situation. I think that people also engage with you in a different way as they know you expect something from them if you’ve got a camera and that’s helpful too because the dynamic is in place for an exchange and that’s a really nice way to interact with people even if they’re saying “I hate being photographed.” A conversation has begun.

DM: And how do you reflect on your practice? Do you reflect on your practice?

Patricia Niven workingPN: Yes, definitely. I think one easy way to be reflective is shooting digitally as the post-production takes a really long time. You sit there and you go through it and that’s a really immediate way of reflecting. Going through it might not take one day, it might take a week or two weeks and so each time you go back, you see something new. Something you thought was amazing is terrible and vice versa. So that’s my regular constant way of reflecting. Then I think I have unstructured, unspecified times, maybe on holidays, it’s a bit like being in James Bond or something when you have a whole load of images on an invisible screen in front of you and suddenly I start to see what’s happened or what has been shot. If I could move them around and edit, then I think I would do that with my mind and start to make notes about how one project might fit with another project or might lead to another project or might influence access for the next project. So I don’t think I have conscious moments of thinking I’m going to sit back and think about the last six months but it happens inevitably when ever I’m away. It happens quite a lot on planes because that’s when you stop.

DM: And are the pictures in front of you when you’re doing that?

PN: No, they’re usually in my mind.

DM: Are there any particular learnings that you have got from being an artist?

PN: I feel like I’ve got loads but nothing’s at the front of my mind!

DM: Is there anything about that process of reflection that you think is useful for other people?

PN: I think – we were talking about mindfulness before – I think it’s always beneficial to stop and think. What I’ve learnt is that you need to give yourself time to sit with yourself to know what you think and know what you feel and know what you want. I think it’s allowing yourself the time, whether it’s five minutes once a day or an hour a week. I think there’s something about it being very good for your mental health as well. Like how you allow time for other things, whether that’s commuting or making dinner, or washing your hair, I think you need to factor in giving yourself time to think about yourself and think about what you want and what you’ve been doing and what you want to do. That helps me anyway.

DM: We’ve talked in this project a bit about it being like a mental health club, so rather than being a health club where you think you should go and exercise; it’s about exercising the grey matter upstairs.

PN: Yes it’s essential.

DM: I think you’ve answered my next question, but do you take time out to think about what you’re doing?

PN: Yes, I do. But that’s not necessarily a long period of time. I think giving yourself whatever period of time to think, allows you to think about, “Right, what am I doing next?” I have this little thing written by to my desk: ‘State my intention’. I find that stating my intention, whether that’s for the day, or a project that I’m working on, or something that I’m leading to. I feel like if you know what it is in yourself that you’re trying to accomplish, that’s what will allow you to accomplish it.

DM: And where’s that piece of paper come from? Is that something you’ve written down or something you got from someone else?

PN: Yes, something I wrote down and I may have got it from the classic self-help book Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway. And if I didn’t, then I got it from somewhere in that kind of circle. I have a kind of ‘to do’ list that is more long-term than immediate, or maybe medium-term, and it’s at the very top of that page always.

DM: That’s very helpful. To what extent are other people important in your practice?

PN: Essential, especially if they’re in front of the camera! Then, having a great assistant is essential for me, particularly if I’m on location. Having extra muscle is essential. Having someone to feedback with, particularly if I’m finding something a bit challenging, whether it’s for lighting reasons or for accessibility reasons or if you’re just having a bad day – just to reflect on what you’re going through is really helpful. And then talking with my partner is really essential. We do that a lot – talking about her work or talking about my work. Sometimes I think it’s just saying something out loud so it’s not just in your head and somehow the saying it out loud, it doesn’t matter what their response is. It just clarifies for you that thinking or the direction you’re thinking about taking is potentially a good idea or potentially a waste of time. Talking with the guys here in the studio is really helpful too, particularly technically because it’s not my strength and is all of their strengths and they’re very generous with all of their knowledge and equipment. That’s really great because it’s an expensive profession.

DM: Is there anything about the way you collaborate with those people, whether it’s your assistant or the technical team here or others that you think is useful as a way of thinking about arts practice more generally?

PN: I think not being afraid to ask for help is a really big thing, whether that is technical, or can you just turn your head to the left for this portrait because that’s helping me to get a better shot. I think for a long time I was a bit shy or resistant to make people do something they weren’t naturally doing. Yeah, I think you need to ask for help.

DM: People like being asked for help don’t they? People tend to be quite generous when you ask for help.

PN: Yeah, they really are. I think I thought for a long time that I needed to be able to do it all myself, which is wholly unrealistic.

DM: We were just talking earlier about your book, which is out. The book of photographs you’ve taken was published yesterday. What difference does having an audience make do you think?

PN: It’s so exciting to know that people are seeing it. That’s a really great feeling for me. That’s a big thing to know. And to know that people are feeding back on it. To hear feedback is amazing, particularly if it’s positive. I’m ready for less positive stuff as well but the positive is really nice, just to know it’s out in the world being seen is nice. But that’s not the reason to do it I don’t think. I think you need to do it because it’s part of you; it’s a bit of you that needs to be expressed. This is a commercial project so it needs to be seen, the publishers would appreciate it being seen!

DM: My final question, is there any advice you would give to someone who was thinking about taking up photography or doing art more generally?

PN: Just begin. Stop talking about it and begin. If you don’t know where to begin, go to City Lit or any other similar establishment in your local area because you need to be in the environment. As a starting point I think that’s really helpful. I’ve done a few courses at City Lit because I’m terrible at Photoshop and they’re quite good at teaching Photoshop. But to be in one of their buildings, particularly in the arts studio area, for me that’s a really exciting place to be in. If you’re into theatre, I’m sure it’s the same in the theatre area. Or if you’re really into building computers from scratch or something, then I think it’s the same thing. Try and immerse yourself in it whether that’s looking at blogs online or going to a gallery or going to a free performance at the LSO lunchtime performance. Just go and absorb it anywhere you can and then go and practice it.

DM: That’s great. Thank you.

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