Xavier White is a London-based artist, designer and maker. He currently holds the position of London South Bank University’s (LSBU) first Artist in Residence. The residency has allowed Xavier to develop new work, sharing his progress along the way through a series of exhibitions and events. Xavier spoke to Outside In about this experience and shared some of the work that he has been producing during his time at the University.
To begin, please can you tell us about your art practice before embarking on the LSBU residency.
I spent a lot of time post serious head injury (in 1985) as an Outsider Artist, eventually doing a foundation course in 2002 at London City Lit.
I tend to work in an ad hoc way, but am persistently returning to a subject area, or working towards completion. I work with found objects and snippets of information eg. a line of a song, or a concept to play with and apply to whatever is around me at the time, relating it to what I am working on. This makes me slow. I don’t know if this is similar for other head injury survivors, or artists, but is my modus operandi. These ideas and the research then form together into a final piece, once I have talked it through with people, and shared my ideas. I then get inspired to create a piece, and use that template to repeat the pattern in different forms as a repetitive crafting process.
For the final major project on my Foundation course, in answer to the question, What are your interests and obsessions and how would you represent them? I had such a multitude of ideas and issues, I came up with Cohedia: a mind expanding cityscape. Cohedia comes from an amalgamation of cohesion and megalomania! I wanted it to be my mind-map for dealing with university life but since then it has become more of an auto ethnographic fine art piece, dealing with possible potentials, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
Cohedia, a mind expanding city scape:
What attracted you to the residency at LSBU?
It was the nurses! As caring professionals I wanted to repay them for the intensive care I had received during my rehabilitation from the head injury all those years back. The residency offered me routine, a space to create and engage with students on their health degrees. It has been a supportive environment that has also helped me reconfigure my ideas of higher education, as I had come with bad past experiences.
The company, supportive staff, activities and routine of the university is a blessing, which has led to my creating a series of glass works that will go into my next art installation due in March 2017. I have been given a pukka new studio space, which as the first artist in residence this first year has been one big experiment really for everyone. When I first came I was using space around the University where ever I could find somewhere big enough to work, but now I have established a great working space. My most recent work has been in travelling exhibitions of my Verrelic Spires (glass sculptures), nationally with Outside In’s Radical Craft Tour, and to Paris annual Outside Art Fair. I had an open studios at the end of 2016, setting me in a good place for a really productive 2017.
What has working with the health and social care students been like?
This has been a slow process, being able to get time to meet them because the timetable of teaching is pretty full for them. I have created a series of creative workshops. One of these workshops I presented at a nursing practice development conference that was really interesting to see the other side of the qualified staff as the more experienced part of health care education. What surprised me was there were health visitors talking to and sharing information with other nurses of all ages, nationalities and experiences. This represented the ‘globalness’ of caring, and my first experience of an international nursing conference.
I have also been able to take a group of new students to the Bethlem Gallery and Museum of the Mind, which they seemed to really enjoy. I really want this next year to be more about engaging with students and honing my presentation skills as part of the residency opportunity.
How has working in this environment influenced your work?
I have been keeping a journal/year book of the work that I’ve been involved with over the past year. It’s been interesting to see how my ideas are being brought into focused activity. I am making new pieces, and trying not to be distracted by all the ideas that I have. I feel like an oily molecule on a bowl of water. The University is a massive organisation and having to fit in, as an outsider all my life has been a real challenge, what with my past experiences at University. But I shall rise up to the challenge.
My working practices have been challenged. It has really helped me having a routine of coming into the University and being around the students is helping me to develop my ideas and confidence at presenting to people through the workshops I deliver at Bethlem hospital and at LSBU. I have had a successful open studios and a summer art installations last year as part of My Human Campaign, which has been on permanent display in the University, and where groups from the community have come into the University and I offer a guided tour. This also helps the University with its community citizenship and promotes the School of Health and nursing courses which I didn’t plan as part of the residency, but that has been fun.
Tell me about your workshops
My workshops are inspired by the nurses in Mental Health Care. Developing them is my way of giving back something for the exceptional care I received post head injury. The workshops are art based and are a creative way for participants to centre themselves, a self care moment if you like. My latest workshop development is the Patient Story Cube Project. A six sided cube is used as a tool between patient and nurse to represent six elements of the person. Each face of the cube aims to identify practical, mental, physical and wellbeing needs using words and images in order to discover how the person came to their present situation thus finding what is needed in order for them to live well. I hope after successful piloting this workshop and other workshops I have developed may be used around SLaM.
In June you launched your exhibition My Human Campaign. Can you tell us a bit about the work that you’re doing at the moment and how you hope it will develop over the coming months.
With the Blessed pieces, I started with complex structures, and have now moved to a simpler representation, more ethereal like thoughts and mental health. Maybe I am learning to simplify things.. getting lighter on my feet. I am linked with the School of Health and Social Care’s Peoples Academy, who are people who work with the students as recipients of health and social care. So my work really fits well into that lived experience element of the teaching for students.
Phosphenes of Qualia, is my next exhibition at LSBU, opening in March 2017. This is something I have been working on for a while, the hard problem of how our mind interacts with experience and movement. How neurons and chemicals effect an emotional response, or physical actions.
Phosphenes are like lights of our mind working with unseen lights of neurology. I have used this imagery before in the Verrelic Spires.
Verrelic Spectacle Day
Verrelic Spectacle by Night
In this new exhibition I am attempting to expose works of individual instances of subjective conscious experience. This is a theme I have been thinking about for a while now, as my interest in the hard problem of consciousness and supporting mental health. It’s a bridge between neurons and ideas, and then how these ideas become actions.
Daniel Dennett says of Qualia – ‘it is an unfamiliar term that could not be more familiar to us, the way things seem to us’. I work with this in my images and materials, to create the pieces for the exhibition, challenging the viewers perspectives and understanding of how their brain works. Information about that next exhibition will be out soon. I am working towards the week of 20th March for the opening.
Finally, what do you think you will take away from this experience after the residency ends?
Largely it’s an increased confidence and a sense of achievement and hopefully a new group of friends and contacts as I am at the University every day, which is a new and refreshing experience for me. Possibly this could lead me into the bigger art world, through my new connections made during the residency. I have plans to do an art performance piece to welcome Maria Balshaw to her new role as Tate Director. She interviewed me as the ‘leading lady’ on BBC 2 Artsnight TV programme, when the Museum of the Mind was shortlisted for Museum of the Year 2016.