As in life, so in art – we do need constraints. In their own way they can even liberate, by relieving us of the pressure of having to encompass everything. That has certainly been my experience with the two 26 projects I’ve written about in the last year: 26:50 with International PEN and 26 Treasures with the V&A. In both cases we were permitted a very limited number of words for our response to a brief. These constraints actively encouraged creativity.
But there’s another side to this, and whenever I think of it I see myself aged 23 on a large horse careering across a field in Argentina. There are several things about that image that still make me shiver. One, I’m not a natural horseman, in fact horses frighten me and this one knew it. Two, the ground was covered with termite hills, three feet high, baked hard as concrete, and tapering to sharp points. Three, fields in Argentina are the size of English counties. Clinging to my steed’s neck, I thought the ride would never end.
Sometimes I get the same feeling when I have to write something, particularly to the sort of brief that ends with the client saying vaguely, ‘Oh, you know the kind of thing we want…’
I go home, sit down and look at my notes and there’s a horrible moment of paralysis. It’s not simply where do I start, but where on earth do I stop? How am I going to give this thing structure, form, some boundaries so that my thoughts don’t just slither about like amoebas and go wobbling over the edge of the earth?
So I look for whatever I can find that will help to contain the job and make it seem manageable. There’s always something. Maybe it’s the word-count. Maybe it’s the designer’s layout. Maybe it’s something the client said that I hadn’t picked up on. And if none of those are available, I work through my notes to start giving some kind of shape to what I do know. Perhaps there’s a chronological flow to the information or some kind of inherent organisational logic. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made or a story to be told.
Whatever it is, I’m looking for a constraint, something that encloses the work I have to do and makes me feel safe in the knowledge that it will end and that I can get there; that I’m not back in that seemingly boundary-less Argentine field. For constraints don’t merely liberate, they also protect one from the void – sometimes known as the blank page.