Sunday, December 17, 2006

Laura's RCA Secret Experiences

Here are Laura's experiences of RCA Secret, originally posted to the yahoo group:

I've been going to the RCA Secret postcard sale for 4 years now and I do look forward to my yearly viewing, list-making (and week of refining that list), long
wait in the cold, and the slow crossing off of all my favourites in
the queue downstairs - what I come home with is often dictated by what
is left by the time I get to the tills, which is all part of the fun!

The best known artist I've acquired is Andrew Stahl, completely by
chance. It was my first year and I cut my list down to about 20, not
knowing what I was in for. By the time I'd reached the tills nothing
was left, and I would have been disappointed if I'd gone home empty-
handed after all the queuing, so I picked an available number at
random (judging by the look on the guy's face I don't think they get
that often!) - very risky as there were quite a few biro-scribbles and
the like that year if I remember correctly. I've managed to get
postcards quite high on my list since, but I don't seem to go for well
known artists.

I know next to nothing about art but I've noticed that year on year
some artists turn up in my favourites list, without me making any
effort to look out for their work. I seem to like Joy Fleischmann's
nudes although I've yet to buy one, but it was satisfying to look her
up on the internet and put a face to the name - I remember seeing a
documentary about her husband's work in which she was interviewed by
Tracy Emin.

I only buy one piece every year, although one year a friend came along but decided she wasn't keen on her choice after all so gave it to me. The artists are as

Andrew Stahl - a Google image search will give you plenty of
examples of his work. Although a chance buy, I really like the card
and some of his work so the lucky dip worked that year.

Jane Skinner - desperately wanted one of her Sindy doll pictures the
year before but they were all gone. Didn't get a chance to view the
cards but a friend (my regular partner in crime in the queue)
recognised one that I may like and took note of the number. I
queued just for that card and got it. More of her work can be seen

Jo Longhurst - a gift from a friend who was new to the sale.
Wouldn't have picked this myself but I like the colours and I quite
like Jo Longhurst's whippets. She's a student at the RCA doing a
PhD in photography, and easily found using Google.

Craig Moore - has entered cards since at least 2001. His work
always appears in my friend's list, sometimes on mine. I'll put
some other cards we liked (but didn't buy) in the photos section as
I can't find any of his work online.

Maureen Lacey (pictured) - my favourite this year. The only thing I found of
hers was from a very small exhibition, which can be seen here.

Friday, December 01, 2006

RCA Secret 2006 by Jonathan

Here's a piece written by Jonathan for the RCA Secret yahoo group.

I've never owned any art before. Of course, I've bought posters and
pictures before, but these are things which are relatively
inexpensive, mass produced, get put up on the wall for a while, and
then thrown away.

So, I know a lot of people say that everything is art, but that
seems too much like an evasive answer to me; I view art more as
something that is unique, where someone has put some effort into
developing a talent, and then spent time using that skill to produce
a one of a kind piece of work. This, of course, brings the worry
that if someone like Steve Wynn can stick his elbow through a
Picasso, it'd be terrible to damage something unique, and perhaps
partly accounts for why I've never considered buying art before.

I've never had artistic talent myself, and I was always a bit
jealous when I'd sit next to people at school who could draw or
paint something that looked almost exactly like a photograph. My
lack of talent, lack of understanding of all the strange terminology
(line, balance, texture, proportion, perspective, etc.) that art
teachers talked about lead me to drop art as a subject when I was
about 13 or 14, and since then people have always been very
surprised when I was honest and told them I knew nothing about art.
Of course since that time, I learned to bluff my way, by telling
them that I really liked the works of C.M. Coolidge. Most people had
no clue about him, assumed I knew a lot and never questioned it
further, while those that did know laughed at my joke, until his
paintings started selling for quite large amounts of money.

Anyway, I saw the RCA Secret exhibition mentioned in one of the
newspapers, a few weeks back and decided that as I had a little free
time, I could use the opportunity to acquire some art for myself,
improve my knowledge of the subject, and have a little fun in the
process. Then, a little searching around on the internet bought me
to this group, and also plenty of material to look at on the web.

I asked my friends and colleagues about the artists that had
previously exhibited, and predictably everyone had heard Damien
Hirst and Tracey Emin, while a few people knew of David Hockney and
one person had seen Mario Testino's work. Even my sister, who has
studied art, looked at the RCA website and said she didn't recognise
any of the artists. Clearly, I had set myself quite a challenge.

I'd been to see the exhibition, and written about my learning
experiences in so
nearer the time of the sale I was feeling more confident, and more

I'd found out that there was already a small queue outside by Friday
afternoon, and wondered how big it would be by the following day.
Surely there can't be that many art fans? And there's always the
possibility that I'd win one of the raffled places. Work colleagues
suggested it was more likely that I'd get a cold than get a work of
art by a famous artist. I pointed out that I had no intention of
standing in the rain all night, but they still thought porcine
aviation was more likely.

The RCA either has bad taste in the people it chooses to get the
first fifty places, or my beginners luck wasn't working, because I
received no phone call inviting me to choose first. So, resigned to
waiting in the queue, I cancel friend's invitations to go out on
Friday. They suggest that I might need my brain testing, but all the
same, we reschedule for a later date and I get an early night in a
nice warm bed.

Come the day of the sale, I get out of bed, get ready and try to
catch the first train to Central London. London Transport presumably
thinking that nobody in their right mind would catch a train at half
past five in the morning does the invisible train trick (i.e. the
display board counts down the arrival of an invisible train, and
then counts down the arrival of another train) Luckily the second
train was more tangible, and I'm transported into central London
without any more of LT's misdirection.

Arriving at the RCA about six thirty, I do a double take, and have
to check to make sure that I haven't got off at the wrong station or
somehow ended up at Vauxhall Bridge. I'm confronted with what I can
only describe as a Transit camp or a Shanty Town! And I'm struck by
the thought "How can people that care so much about art care so
little about their personal appearance?"

I wander past art refugees, and the queue changes from bedraggled
figures in waterproofs and sleeping bags, to rather more ordinary
looking people wrapped in warm clothes. I wonder if anyone from the
Yahoo group is there, perhaps I should stop and find out, so I can
wish them a good morning. I decide I should find out where the end
of the queue is, and follow it round the corner. Some people have
set up a table, and seem to be sitting down to breakfast. I walk
past them to find the end of the queue, turn another corner and walk
further down the street. I start to think if I turn another corner,
I'll arrive back at the entrance to the RCA, and maybe I've been
walking the wrong way... But eventually I find the end of the queue.
I guess that anyone who didn't get a raffle winning phone call
jumped on a train, and headed straight into London for the night.

I consider walking straight past and going home, the queue is that
long! But I figure I've gone to all the effort of learning a bit
about art, coming to London, and making a list, so I check with a
professorial looking gentleman at the end of the queue. "Is this the
end of the queue?", "Mmm" he answers.

I join the queue, and seconds afterwards, another gentleman who
looks a little bit like a business consultant I hired a couple of
years back joins the queue. Figuring we're all in for an incredibly
long wait, I try to engage either of them in conversation; though
both are about 20 years my senior:
"Have you been here long", I ask the professor
"Mmm" he answers
"Have you been here before?"
"Mmm" The professor answers
I look at Consultant guy, expecting an answer, but nothing comes
"Do any of the cards stand out to you", I continue
"Mmm" The professor says
Again, I look at Consultant guy, but he remains mute
We continue a similar routine, until I get bored with it.

Now, I've queued over an hour for one of LT's appallingly infrequent
buses before, and I've queued for about two and a half hours at JFK,
shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks, whilst they X-
rayed everyone's bags several times, and generally made life very
difficult for travellers. But nothing prepared me for the queue
outside the RCA. Yes, I was expecting a big queue and had come
prepared with warm clothes, snacks, drinks and an umbrella, but this
was ridiculous - and people were still joining the queue behind me.

I realised I was in for a long boring wait, with no conversation,
and I regretted not stopping to buy a newspaper from the stand that
was opening for business, as I came out of Kensington Station.
Evidently Perry and the Yahoo group had deceived me into believing
that art lovers were a sociable bunch that enjoyed talking about art.

I glance down the queue, behind me is Consultant guy, and behind him
is a fierce looking woman who spends most of her time scribbling
notes, furiously, and behind her is a man with the biggest set of
headphones I've ever seen in my life; he must have been here before,
and has worked out the correct strategy. Ahead of The professor, is
a loved-up couple who seem oblivious to anything else, and ahead of
them is a small group of Japanese people. I try to converse with the
Japanese group, but their English isn't very good, and by now from
the looks I'm getting from The professor, I suspect he thinks I'm
trying to jump ahead in the queue.

Time passes, and I start to feel solidarity with the Russians; I've
seen footage of people queuing in big queues, in the former USSR,
and I can imagine how they feel, though I do recall a Russian I once
knew telling me that one could ask the person next to you in the
queue to hold your position, while you went off and did your
shopping, and then rejoin the queue a few hours later. That seems
like a much better way of way of doing things.

Soon, Radio London turns up, they must want to interview a few of
the first fifty, and shortly before 7am the queue moves forward and
stops. I ponder if there will be anything left by the time I get to
the sale. I wonder if people from the first fifty had joined my
queue by mistake, and were leaving now. I start calculating that the
people in the first fifty will most likely represent an average
cross section of the population, and therefore not have any in depth
knowledge of art, and I console myself with the idea that they'll
probably just pick cute looking cards, rather than ones by someone

Time passes, and shortly after 7pm the queue moves again, suddenly I
can see the edge of the Royal Albert Hall... Time passes, and it
starts raining. Slowly, slowly, we trudge past discarded squalor
from people earlier in the queue, empty bottles, plastic bags, part
eaten food and even miniature drinks bottles. The pigeons can't
believe their luck, and for a spilt second, I consider that if
people at the head of the queue can't keep the pavement clean, then
perhaps the Sudanese or Zimbabwean government way of dealing with
big crowds is a good one.

Three hours later, we pass camping gear and associated equipment on
the pavement, we're nearly at the entrance to the RCA, and
eventually The Security Guard ushers us in, in a small group. But
wait, last time I was here, we went left, now were being told to go
right... And join yet another queue.

The shock of this revelation gets Consultant guy talking. He tells
me he won't come here again. I finally manage to strike up a
conversation with him, and find out he's just a slightly shy guy,
with an about average knowledge of art. We wind our way through the
basement of the RCA, and talk about some of the more unusual
postcards we'd seen. Eventually, we arrive at the sale room, and
we're in the home straight. A monitor at the far end of the room is
showing what has gone, and what's still left. My list isn't in
numerical order, there's a number of columns blocking the view
whilst the screen changes a little bit too often, making it
difficult to cross off more than a couple of numbers before I get to
the checkout.

Now the fun begins, and finally I get my chance to buy something, as
I'm called over to the cashier. I call out numbers, the cashier
answers, Gone, Gone, Gone, and The Everly Brothers plays in my head.

Eventually, we get to what I suspect might be a Frank Auerbach, and
I'm told that's available, I'm taken aback, and say "I'll have it",
then I start wondering "If it's still there, maybe I'm wrong." I'm
very low down my list of cards that I think are, or might be by
famous people but I decide to push my luck, and keep calling out the
numbers. Soon, another one is available; I look at my description by
the card number, and picture it in my mind. Why did I put that one
in the list? I hesitate, and say something to the effect or "Erm,
I'm not sure about that one, can we leave it aside for the moment?"
The cashier looks visibly annoyed, and I can't really blame her,
I've been calling out duff numbers for ages, and suddenly I'm
getting fussy.

I switch categories, and call out more numbers, all are gone till we
get right to the bottom, and finally another one is available. I
pick another category, we get half way down and I find another
available card. I'm told that's four, but the cashier agrees to
remove the card I wasn't sure about, and I find another card at the
end of another category.

I'm very excited to have found four, after waiting for so long, but
then the RCA go and spoil it all by telling me there's an extra
charge for paying by credit card. I'm sure that wasn't mentioned in
the publicity, I wonder if it's even legal to charge extra for a
credit card, and whilst I know it's only a few pounds, I still feel
like I've been cheated. Now, I've gone to so much effort to buy the
cards, and I don't have a lot of cash on me, so I'm forced to pay
the extra charge. I'm rather disappointed, but I try to stay

I go to collect my cards, and whilst I wait, someone tells me that
the Hockney's have all gone, I ask which ones they were, check my
list and I'm glad to report that I was right about them, even though
I wasn't able to buy them.

By now, the assistant has gathered my cards together, wraps them up
for me and gives me them in a big DO NOT BEND envelope. I thank him
and walk out... Suddenly, everything is over, and I'm not sure what
to do with myself. It's still morning, but I feel like I've been up
all day, my feet hurt from all the standing about, and I can't
believe there's still a massive queue of people waiting to get in.

I decide the best thing to do is to go home and rest, but I still
don't know who made the cards and it's starting to rain again. I
don't want to damage the cards in the rain, but I want to know who
made them. Now, all the proper restaurants are shut at this hour of
the morning, and the only place open before the station is
McDonalds, I steady myself before going inside and ordering the only
edible thing on the menu, a milkshake.

I clear space in the virtually deserted eating area, and making sure
I keep the cards in the tissue papers (just in case), I find that I
have a Christina Niederberger, a Simon Elvins, a Miyuki S.
Harrington, and finally the card I thought might be a Frank Auerbach
turns out to be by Jenny Mellings. I haven't heard of any of these
people, and resolve to look them up when I get home. I had hoped
that I'd get at least one by someone I'd heard of, so I pack them
safely away, and I start re-examining my list. I'd called out nearly
all the cards on the list, and there were only a couple that I
thought I could have tried, so all in all, I probably made the best
choice I could at the time, but it did all seem like an awful lot of
effort to go to.

I head home, and by now, a couple of friends are ringing my
cellphone to find out what I've been up to, I tell them I think all
the cards I bought were by students. One says wait and see if they
get famous, and the other says I'll have something to leave my kids
(seeing as I don't have kids, that seems rather surreal, but I let
it pass) though both comments seem too much like cognitive
dissonance for my liking.

I look up the artists on the internet, none show up in the Grove art
database, but I did find that Jenny Mellings is a lecturer at
University of Plymouth, Christina Niederberger seems to have a
surprising number of degrees, and is studying for a PhD in Fine Art,
whilst Simon Elvins is exploring ways of linking sound to print (I
don't know much about Synesthesia, so I think that one will be
difficult for me to get my head round) Finally, Miyuki S. Harrington
seems to be completely anonymous, and therefore I can only guess
that she must be a student.

So, to sum up, I think I've done well in being able to make an
effort to identify well known artists, even if I didn't get a chance
to buy any. I achieved my primary goal, to own some art, I learned a
lot, and I've had an adventure. When the final list of who made what
comes out, I'll be able to work out my hit rate for artists I was
prepared to make a guess at. But, looking back, the queuing
experience wasn't fun at all, and unless I win the raffle, I doubt
I'll go next year. I suspect the RCA Secret experience is the sort
of thing for which you need art loving friends, if you're to enjoy
waiting about doing nothing, or to be the artistic equivalent of a
train spotter, and prepared to stand about in all weather.

I'm thinking maybe I should have just bought some work by a well
known artist, the queuing experience was really that unpleasant, and
I'm annoyed about being charged extra. So, now every time I look at
the cards, I just think about the bad experiences I had. Maybe it'll
pass in a few weeks, I'll have to get them all framed and see how I
feel afterwards. Perhaps the answer is for the RCA Bouncers to
employ the same tactics used at night clubs; and to not let in
anyone that looks unwashed or dishevelled, I'm pretty sure that
would stop such a huge queue forming.

Finally, I'm still left with some questions:
- Why are so many of the cards needlessly offensive?
- What was the significance of the Matthew 7:13-14 quote?
- Who is Miyuki S. Harrington?

Answers on a postcard ;)