Shorts and Found Footage with Crate Diggin': Fridays at Rough Trade (Dec to Jan)

20 Dec

CRATE DIGGIN FRIDAYS

Some short films and related found footage will be showing alongside the Truth & Lies nights upstairs at Rough Trade, Nottingham, over the next three weeks. The first selection, themed around the Cold War, screened on Friday 19th Dec, the second – films linked by an interest in Exotica – is just after xmas, and the final set of films, built around Disturbances and Design – plays in the early new year. Crate Diggin‘ is a regular slot hosted by Joff & Ex-Friendly at Rough Trade and covers soul, funk, jazz and anything else the DJs feel like spinning from 7 – 11pm every Friday. The following post offers a few comments on the material selected (note that films are screened at Crate Diggin’ without sound, for obvious reasons, so I will add links to versions with their original scores and soundtracks intact to this post after each event).

Moscow 1972 (Kino)

Part 1: The Serendipity Loops and the Cold War (19 December 2014)

The Serendipity Loops (Wayne Burrows, 2012)

This film runs in six sections, made up entirely of still images, and draws on a large archive of print material produced on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War period, sequencing Western and Eastern Bloc material in ways that emphasise their essential similarities. Each section is edited to accompany a piece of music, ranging from Tom Dissevelt’s ‘Whirling’ and Dick Mills’ ‘Purple Space & White Coronas’, early experiments in sequenced and atmospheric electronic music; to the late Graham Dalley’s ‘Pacifico’ and ‘Surf Ride’ (both from his privately pressed 1966 LP ‘Graham Dalley At The Barn Restaurant, Solihull’); ‘Elusive’, a Studio G production for an Avon marketing flexi-disc narrated by Patrick Allen (who also did voice-overs for the British Government’s notorious ‘Protect and Survive’ series of 1970s Nuclear fall-out public information films); and the anonymously produced Radiophonic Workshop alien invasion scenario of The Cimex Corporations’s advertising 7” extolling the value of their industrial cleaning services. The introductory sequence, built around machine-like heartbeats and Andre Bazin’s 1946 comment about cinema returning to its origins, reflects this film’s own status as a kind of digital magic-lantern slideshow.

Out Of This World (General Motors, 1964)

A beautifully made commercial film produced by the Frigidaire division of General Motors and based on their exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York – a piece of corporate Cold War marketing that seems to echo the identical tendency in the Soviet Union at the same moment to promise a utopian future. Its vision is – as such visions usually are – both seductive and slightly terrifying.

Village Sunday (Stewart Wilensky, 1961)

In contrast to General Motors’ corporate and technological vision of the future, another strand of the Cold War narrative is seen in an early form here, as Jean Shepherd narrates a whimsical portrait of New York’s Greenwich Village, just on the cusp of its decisive transformation into a counter-cultural byword. Painters, small theatres, musicians, beatniks and drop-outs – all ending with some great footage of the Beatnik/Surrealist poet Ted Joans giving a recital with free improvised jazz-flute accompaniment at a Greenwich Village artists’ hang-out.

Biological Camouflage (New Zealand) [1978]

Part 2: Entropicalia and Exotica (26 December 2014)

Biological Camouflage: Entropicalia (Wayne Burrows/The Soundcarriers, 2013)

Something of an experiment, this film is made up of still collages from various iterations of the ‘Biological Camouflage’ series, made by fictional British artist Robert Holcombe between 1974 and 1978, set to music by The Soundcarriers, then punctuated with a short, repeated animated photo-sequence of a sleeping woman. The song – to whose propulsive rhythm the images are cut – is ‘Entropicalia’ from ‘The Other World of The Soundcarriers’, issued on The Great Pop Supplement during 2013 (a vocal version is available as the title track on the band’s first release on the Ghost Box label, released in May 2014).

Afro Mood (Unknown Director, c.1947)

A short burlesque film in which the dancer Amalia Aguilar pulls some incredible moves to some hot Afro-Cuban jazz. ‘Afro Mood’ is one of two numbers that she also performed in a movie entitled ‘A Night at the Follies’ (1947) which perhaps helps to date this particular clip, which was produced as part of an ‘exotic’ series, ‘Joe Bonica presents the Movie of the Month’, possibly intended for viewing as individual segments on reels sold for private entertainment and parties.

Exotica Fragment (Wayne Burrows/Paul Isherwood, 2014)

A very short loop of re-edited footage from a variety of public domain sources, ranging from a 1920s adaptation of The Lost World to undersea documentaries, Cheerios commercials, burlesque films, a study of ants and an advertisement for a wall street consultancy. The score includes an incantation from an Egyptian son-et-lumiere recording of the 1960s and an early sketch of a track made by Paul Isherwood for a forthcoming project, Exotica Suite, set to be released as a book, vinyl LP and series of films in late June 2015, financially supported by New Art Exchange and Arts Council England.

Disturbances (still) [2010]

Disturbances and Design (2 January 2015)

Disturbances (Wayne Burrows/Jon Brooks, 2010)

‘Disturbances’ is a short film compiled from found 35mm slides and it was originally screened with a recorded score made for the purpose by Jon Brooks, then narrated with a live voice-over as part of an Annexinema event at a disused cinema. Brooks is best known for his work with Ghost Box records, under the identity The Advisory Circle, though he has also released two LPs – ‘Shapwick’ and ‘52’ – on Frances Castle’s Clay Pipe imprint under his own name.

Design For Dreaming (General Motors, 1956)

A visually incredible long-form musical commercial advertising the General Motors Motorama of 1956, presenting consumerism as a fabulous dream world. It’s likely that this was exactly the kind of film that inspired the early days of British pop and youth culture, as seen in exhibitions like the Independent Group’s ‘This Is Tomorrow’, staged at the Whitechapel Gallery the same year.

Film Strip: 1966 (Wayne Burrows, 2012)

A digital reconstruction of a sequence of still images compiled in a concertina book by the fictional British artist Robert Holcombe in 1966, with a score by British electronics pioneer F.C. Castle.

Exotica Suite at New Art Exchange (16 April, 2015)

10 Dec

Kapu (Forbidden) - Exciting Sounds of Milt Raskin (Crown Records, USA, 1959)

‘Exotica Suite’ (New Art Exchange, 16 April 2015)

New Art Exchange and Arts Council England are currently supporting Exotica Suite, a collaborative work by Wayne Burrows (text) and Paul Isherwood (music) exploring the ‘Exotica’ craze of the 1950s – and the threads connecting its play with real and fictional cultural artifacts and identities to artists like Sun Ra and E.A. Markham. To explore the themes raised by this new work, Wayne Burrows has invited a panel of artists to take part in a conversation. All address questions of identity and authenticity in their own work, but each does this in their own way and to a different purpose.

Fawzia Kane uses the voices of real and mythical characters to explore history and storytelling in poems and fictions set in London and Trinidad, with nods to traditions of Carnival masking. Kashif Nadim Chaudry grounds his sculptural work in his own experience as a gay Muslim male, born and raised in the UK, working with fabrics to create objects that are opulent and uncompromising. Maryam Hashemi, a London-based painter who grew up in wartime Tehran, regards her work as an interconnected autobiographical sequence, rooted in experiences that are simultaneously real and symbolic, magical and imaginary.

Notes on the panellists:

Fawzia Kane reading with Stonewood Press (2014)

Fawzia Muradali Kane was born in San Fernando, Trinidad & Tobago, at the cusp of the country’s change over from being a colony to full independence. She came to the UK on a scholarship to study architecture and now lives and works in London where, along with Mike Kane, she is co-director of KMK Architects. Her poetry has been widely published and is collected in Tantie Diablesse (Waterloo Press, 2011) and Houses of the Dead (Thamesis, 2013). She has also written a novel, La Bonita Cuentista.

Kashif Nadim Chaudry - Swags & Tails (2014)

Kashif Nadim Chaudry  is a sculptor whose work focuses on negotiating an identity as a British born, Pakistani, gay Muslim. His installations bring together a family history of tailoring, borrowing from historical periods such as Mughal India and Tudor Britain, and draw on the creative disciplines of sculpture, architecture, interior design and Bollywood cinema. His work is both opulent and abject, including luxurious fabrics, human hair and animal bones. Recent exhibitions include Memes (Djanogly Gallery), Nads (Lace Market Gallery) and Swags & Tails (Asia Triennial, Manchester).

Maryam Hashemi - Motherships (2010)

Maryam Hashemi’s work is rooted in her wartime childhood in Iran, layered with everyday, subconscious and often absurd events. She studied Graphic Design at Azad University in Tehran, held her first solo exhibition in 2001 at Haft Samar Gallery and was selected for a group show of Iranian female painters in Brussels the same year. She moved to the UK in 2002 and recent exhibitions include ImaginHer (198 Gallery, Brixton), Inner tales of my outer shell (Westminster Library) and Edinburgh Iranian Festival. In May 2014 she featured in a BBC 2 documentary, Making Art.

Yma Sumac - Mambo (Capitol Records, USA, 1954)

Robert Holcombe as Fiction at Nottingham Writers’ Studio (October 6th, 2014)

11 Oct

Immersion (Milk Capital III) [1970]

On October 6th 2014 I was invited by NWS director Pippa Hennessy to deliver a short talk about the origins of the fictional artist Robert Holcombe, and the shift in my general approach to writing since around 2010, as part of the regular ‘social’ event held every month at Nottingham Writers’ Studio. As I’d got the notes already written down and the images gathered for the slides used on the night, it seemed worth preserving an outline of the talk here, if only because it might help to explain what it is I think I’m doing and how I ended up doing it…

Wood & Ink (Shoestring Press) (545x800)

At the start, writing poetry for the most part, I worked in the generally accepted way. That is, I mostly did things other than writing for a living (in my case, working in retail, picture framing and other similar trades) and sometimes got to write things in my spare time. I sent these things out to the magazines I knew about, who would sometimes publish them. At a certain point – around 1997 – I had gathered a book’s worth of poetry that seemed both OK in itself, and gave an impression of coherence, so this was sent out to publishers. Marginalia appeared from Peterloo Poets in 2001, and after several years focused on a day job in freelance journalism, compiling a fragmentary book about money called Shrapnel and projects like a sequence about genetics written for a dance company in 2005, a second short poetry collection, Emblems, emerged in 2009.

The Apple Sequence (Orchard Editions, 2011)

It’s worth noting that I still work this way, though I’ll admit that I’ve been negligent about sending things to magazines since 2010, perhaps because I edited one, called Staple, between 2007 and 2011, and needed a very long break from the endless round of envelopes, stamps and emails by the time its natural life-span and funding expired. Even so, a series of poems written in response to woodcuts by Alan Dixon were included in the anthology Wood & Ink last year, and a further chapbook, A Cycle Of Songs From The Body’s Interior, is forthcoming from Shoestring sometime during 2015. But there was also a turning point, where a new way of working became possible, and this was probably a 2010 commission to work with Neville Gabie on a project built around the redevelopment of Sneinton Square, a historic fruit and vegetable market on the Eastside of Nottingham city centre.

Sneinton Square by Patel Taylor Architects

This project became known as Orchard  and my contribution to it was a book-length series of poems called The Apple Sequence, a 64 page publication distributed free to an audience not usually engaged with the arts, but with a stake in the future of the site: market traders and their customers, activists involved in urban food production on the many allotments and city farm nearby, tenants and residents of the Sneinton and St Ann’s areas more widely. The commission included money to cover production of an artwork, so I used this to create a book from scratch – designing, typesetting and writing it simultaneously, to a tight deadline and with a definite public purpose. This seemed a more interesting way of working than the standard literary and publishing industry model. More to the point, it seemed to work, with The Apple Sequence widely read by those we’d hoped to reach.

Robert Holcombe: Marine (1955)

Yet the fact that this book was directed not at the poetry world in the standard way, but addressed to a very different readership, seemed to mean that as far as conventional literary acknowledgement went The Apple Sequence barely existed. Perhaps this was partly delayed response: no reviews, for example, but one of the few literary events the Apple Sequence poems were presented at was a Nine Arches Press reading in Leicester soon after publication – so the apple-themed anthology that appeared from Nine Arches this year may not be entirely unrelated to the 2011 project. At any rate, The Apple Sequence proved liberating in terms of the control it allowed over the design, format and speed at which the book could appear, and for the readership it was able to find while by-passing the usual literary channels. It is probably not insignificant, either, that the work of writing poems was, for once, reasonably well paid upfront.

WayneBurrows_Robert_Holcombe_The_Modernists_Diptych_I_(Primal)_[1972]_(2014)

I’ve been exploring the possibilities of this way of working ever since, in poetry and various kinds of non-mainstream fiction, the resulting work mostly distributed outside the channels of traditional publishing. A couple of these later projects might include Spirit Wrappings (2012), which was produced as a short, beautifully designed fiction chapbook by Nottingham Contemporary, commissioned in response to an exhibition about a collector named Rashleigh Jackson by visual artist Simon Withers and curator Abi Spinks, and The Disappearances/The Peel Street Codex, commissioned by Jo Dacombe and Laura Jade Klee of Sidelong to be performed in caves, then made into booklets for A Box Of Things (2014), a limited edition publication documenting a project based on the myths and legends of Nottingham’s cave network.

Robert Holcombe: Biological Camouflage (Les Chateaux de la Loire I) [1977]

The creation of Robert Holcombe, an alter-ego who could be put to many different uses, was almost accidental. He first appeared in a novel I’d been writing, Albany 6, which traced an alternative history of the late 20th century, where he was the author of a handful of pulp science-fiction stories that had shaped the obsessions of the book’s main protagonist, a Chicago musician named Thomas Satz, and grew from there. His public debut was as the subject of a fictional lecture during 2010, expanding on one of those pulp stories, Not smoking can seriously damage your health (1976). More fake lectures have been delivered since, among them a fabricated paper exploring the invented connections between Holcombe and the leading post-war Polish sculptor Alina Szapocznikow, presented at a Nottingham Contemporary symposium on the meaning of disgust in November 2013.

The Modernists: Portal (1967)

So who is Robert Holcombe? An exhibition hand-out written in early 2014 gives the basic facts of his fictional biography: “Robert Holcombe is an entirely fictional British artist (b. Leeds 1923 – d. Exeter 2003) whose fascination with collage was first discovered when he began cutting up magazines and rearranging the parts whilst convalescing from injuries sustained in 1944, during active service in Malaya. He was a radio engineer, a contemporary of Richard Hamilton at the Slade School of Art between 1948 and 1951 and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in the city of Leeds. His early, if oblique, involvement with the Independent Group continued into the 1980s, and he maintained a long correspondence with Eduardo Paolozzi, whose interest in elaborate fictions and alternate realities he shared. Although Holcombe did not exhibit publicly during his lifetime, he made most of his work under two pseudonyms – Gene and Michael Harrison. It’s also notable that many of his images, particularly those featuring material rooted in fashion, advertising and technology, show a more ambiguous enthusiasm for the world of the Post-War era than was generally usual at the time. His works are marked by a fascination with consumerist excesses, inscrutable apparitions of surgical, sexual and folkloric symbols inside modernist interiors, and unsettling disturbances of ordinary space”.

From The Holcombe Family Bible [Apocrypha - The Appearing of Three Angels to Abraham] (1967)

Another lecture on Holcombe’s work was improvised at a closing event for the fictional retrospective exhibitionThe Family Bible & Other Fables: Works From The Holcombe Collection 1948 – 1978, staged at Syson Gallery in January 2014. This outlined links between the fabricated collages on the gallery walls and their literary sources, some fictional, like Holcombe’s own pulp SF writings and letters, others, like Angela Carter’s The Infernal Desire Machines Of Dr Hoffmann and JG Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, very real. A quote from Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition perhaps gives a flavour of the literary origins of Robert Holcombe: “These mental polaroids form a large part of our library of affections”, writes Ballard. “Carried around in our heads, they touch our memories like albums of family photographs. Turning their pages, we see what seems to be a ghostly and alternative version of our own past, filled with shadowy figures as formalized as Egyptian tomb-reliefs.”  

Marine - A Story in Eight Objects (Nottingham Castle, 2013) Cover design by Joff + Ollie.

The first time all of these literary, historical and visual threads had come together in a single place was with Marine: A Story in Eight Objects, commissioned by Nottingham Castle and Fermynwoods Contemporary Art to be part of Make Believe, a series of interventions in the collections and grounds of Nottingham Castle during the summer of 2013. The exhibition explored the blurring of fact and fiction in the site’s real and legendary histories and Marine combined a 30-page print publication, tracing the actual and imaginary resonances of a sea voyage from England to Hawaii aboard HMS Blonde in 1824; a film remix setting fragments of that published text to 1950s ‘exotica’ music and sequences of visual images; and an installation featuring a Holcombe work inside a high security case (another collage appeared as the book’s frontispiece and the opening image of the film).

Make believe -7560

The Marine film and publication were also presented at two venues during the inaugural Pilot Festival in Brightlingsea, suggesting that they did not depend on the site specific context they were devised for. Site specificity could also arise by accident: with Holcombe having been partly inspired by JG Ballard, it seemed a good omen that the second fictional retrospective – Folklore, Ritual and The Modern Interior: 1955 – 1975 – was shown at a London gallery named (by the curators, Pil & Galia Kollectiv) after three ‘psychic projections’, Xero, Kline & Coma, who appear in several of Ballard’s books. Even more pertinently, Folklore, Ritual and The Modern Interior’s opening night accidentally coincided with a major Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern and the presence of Hannah Hoch’s work just down the road at the Whitechapel, both of which added a certain additional resonance to the work on display.

XeroKline&Coma

Holcombe’s Performing The Curtain Rituals series, supposedly made in 1966, directly references work by both artists, a fact that earned the show a small place in a dissertation on the politics of parafictional art published by Keren Goldberg at the RCA in summer 2014. This seems apt, as chance meanings were the subject of The Holcombe Tarot, a series of 78 collages made between 2011 and 2014 in which a few classic Tarot symbols, like Death, The Tower, The Lovers and The Priestess, were vastly outnumbered by such oblique images as The Mirage (some banknotes hovering above a glacier), The Source (a seemingly gigantic chrome tap standing in a ruined abbey), The Purge (a burning rice field, suggestive of the Vietnam War context in which the cards were supposedly made) and The Nest (a classical marble column protruding from a birds’ nest). Devised to appear meaningful, while remaining largely open-ended, the curious thing is how the drawing of one of these cards can still feel significant.

Tarot Series (The Mirage)

These cards were first shown (as a selection of 12 collages) at Xero, Kline & Coma and have since been prototyped as a working Tarot pack and launched on Kickstarter, so a limited edition of 100 packs of The Holcombe Tarot will be produced in November 2014. The Holcombe Tarot also, I suppose, works as a kind of mutated poetry collection: a gathering of images that seem to relate to one another, can be ‘read’ in sequence or dipped into at will, each card freestanding but dependent on the others. Perhaps this is the thread connecting these bodies of written and visual work. Collage and poetry, after all, both operate through the selection and recombination of images and details from multiple sources. In a poem it might be a written recollection or voicing where a view of an apple orchard merges with a memory of factory machinery; in a collage it might be some photographic combination or overlay of the two things. The effect, either way, is similar.

GBX020 CD 800

A project currently in its early stages of development is Exotica Suite, a collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood (look up The Soundcarriers’ back catalogue for some examples of his work). At this point Exotica Suite is not planned as a Holcombe project but a sequence of new texts exploring identity as something constructed, both for us, socially, and by us, in response to assumptions made by others. Inspirations are figures like Sun Ra, Yma Sumac and Jack Bilbo, who each in some way refused or complicated authenticity and rebuilt reality around themselves (as Holcombe notes in a 1984 letter: “We resist the effort to shape us by a refusal to accept the stifling conformity of being ourselves.”). Where all this will lead is not yet known, but the results will be released as a vinyl LP and download and a print publication. There will be events at New Art Exchange to introduce the ideas and influences behind the project and discuss the issues it raises. I think it is going to be interesting.

Vicious British Bullshit: A Few Known Antidotes (2014)

4 Oct

Sleaford Mods

The other week, Pieter Last from Rammel Club sent me a message to see if I’d be up for playing some Eastern Bloc vinyl records early doors and between the first couple of band changeovers at the two sold-out homecoming gigs by Sleaford Mods in Nottingham, a question to which there was only ever going to be one answer. I’d seen them play at least twice before, once in the days before Jason Williamson’s hook-up with Andrew Fearn, once after it, and the change between 2010 and 2012 had been remarkable. In 2010, Williamson’s persona, observations and potential were all there, but with Fearn on board, things had become very different. However great a joke it seems that Fearn just pushes the ‘play’ button on his laptop and stands back when they’re onstage, it’s clear that offstage, making the loops, something miraculous is at work – one after another, Fearn’s loops are so brutally memorable that it’s as though he’s hit on the dance music equivalent of The Ramones’ early catalogue of primal guitar riffs.

More recently there’s been something else, too, and that’s the energy that comes with being heard. Put bluntly, it’s hard to sustain things when your focus is chopped up by other commitments, one gig every few months, or weeks, between office jobs and the usual kinds of everyday shit the world at large dishes out. Even when that’s your subject – as it is very much Williamson’s – the energy of those two gigs in Nottingham were the product of that long struggle plus the sharpening of tools that has come from playing more gigs, getting the records out and heard – the purpose that comes with a sense that someone out there, after all the hard slog, is listening. The attention won by Austerity Dogs in 2012 has been consolidated in spades with this year’s Divide & Exit, both records full of on-point take-downs of three decades of political and pop-cultural bullshit. Songs like Tiswas and Jobseeker will make this clear to anyone who isn’t too invested in the present mess to acknowledge it.

Datblygu

One of the joys of witnessing Sleaford Mods in a packed small venue, in front of a home crowd, and not once but twice, was being reminded of other things I hadn’t thought about for awhile. The Welsh language post-punk of Datblygu came to mind, and if you haven’t heard Datblygu before, their 1988 masterpiece Gwlad Ar Fy Nghefn (‘Land On My Back’) is a good starting point, well worth a listen almost 30 years on from the band’s inception in Cardigan. Even if you don’t speak Welsh, the message will communicate itself loud and clear, much, I suppose, as some in the US and Germany struggle with following Williamson’s East Midlands streams of consciousness and UK specific references, even as they respond to the sheer force of what he and Fearn are doing. Looking up Datblygu last month I was pleased to discover that their mid-nineties vanishing act appears to have ended: an interview by Sarah King with core members David R Edwards and Patricia Morgan covers the band’s history, while a new documentary (in Welsh, but with English subtitles) emerged in 2012.

Datblygu

If the attitude and way with words of Sleaford Mods appeals, then there will be much to delight you in Datblygu’s extensive back catalogue and uncompromising stance, not least David R Edwards’ thoughts on being considered a poet. As King notes, “when I ask him if he sees himself as a poet the answer is an emphatic No. I fucking hate poets.’’ His full elaboration on the theme strikes a definite chord:

‘The Welsh national anthem says land of poets and singers. Well I’m neither. I’m not willing to put myself in one camp or the other. I like poems, I just don’t like the label poet…Creative Writing courses just keep the stupid universities open, making themselves and their professors rich and their students poor. Personally I write by observing the world, and by thinking aloud my own thoughts, via a pen, on to a piece of paper. This then reaches the recording studio which is simply a modern cave for modern cave people. I draw on the walls using modern technology. The music Datblygu create then makes a connection with other people. Large amounts of tobacco, and small amounts of alcohol, help oil the creative machinery. If I was gainfully employed, married with a mortgage, car and children, I probably wouldn’t be a writer. But I would rather be a writer than have any of that…’ It’s good to have them back.

Sarah Curtis (Snub TV, 1989)

Hearing Sleaford Mods run through Tied Up In Nottz brought another sound I’d not thought about for years back into focus, this time triggered by the loose resemblance between Fearn’s bassline and the one used on Manchester based King Of The Slums’ Vicious British Boyfriend (1989). Any resemblance is probably coincidental – it’s a pretty standard post-punk bassline, after all – and KOTS’s distinctive feature was always, anyway, the play between the distorted viola of Sarah Curtis and the tabloid-skewering lyrics of Charley Keigher. Like many late eighties bands, their recorded output is often patchy, the production doing their live impact a disservice, but there are tracks that still hint at what they were capable of. Bear With Me ventures into a strange territory somewhere between abrasive psychedelia, hypnotic rave and blunt realism: “Bear with me,/my best is yet to come,/and I am a liar/with a lot of material…/la, la, la…I got loads/la, la, la…I got loads”, sings Keigher, over and over, while Curtis merges the spirit of the Velvet Underground’s Black Angel’s Death Song with a feeling of having lived through one lost decade, just as another throws its shadow over the near horizon.

King Of The Slums (Early 90s)

How that next decade turned out has been the subject of predictably anodyne media reminiscences, a fake nostalgia neatly deflated in Sleaford Mods’ A Little Ditty, but it’s worth remembering that much has already been half lost to that reductive Britpop story of 90s UK music. Next year marks the 20th anniversary of Tricky’s 1995 debut LP Maxinquaye, a record that managed the peculiar feat of being sufficiently avant-garde to feel like something we’re still trying to catch up with (if you doubt this, watch the video he and Martina Topley-Bird made to accompany Hell Is Round the Corner and consider how far ahead of the curve it looks and sounds even now) while also finding itself adopted as a dinner party soundtrack staple. “As I grow, I grow collective…till then you have to live with yourself”, drawls Tricky, aka Adrian Thaws, perfectly articulating the movements of a mind caught between political consciousness and outright paranoia: “We’re hungry, beware of our appetite…My brain thinks bomb-like, bomb-like”. All the while, Topley-Bird’s voice underscores the presiding mood of psychic fragility and potentially explosive threat.

Tricky - Hell Is Round The Corner (Video Still)

If Tricky’s Maxinquaye built its unsettling, alienated atmospherics from seductive harmonies, and found itself too often misread as a kind of hip easy listening as a result, Vent, the opening track on Pre-Millenium Tension (1996) made it clear that he wasn’t planning on letting that particular misunderstanding happen twice. Raw, abrasive, claustrophobic, like a panic attack in sound, Vent is an unequivocal nineties update of one of the founding statements of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five’s The Message. Its ‘don’t push me’ refrain is transformed from the socially-conscious statement of 1983 to a cog inside an internal monologue, a phrase circling a mind that’s coming apart under pressure. Just as Williamson and Fearn articulate the internal monologues of that post-crash underclass created by a fabricated (and entirely misnamed) ‘austerity’, so Tricky articulates the psychic chaos of the years that laid the foundations for this post-crash world, with its discredited institutions, corruption and increasingly dangerous demagoguery.

Tricky with Martina Topley Bird (mid-90s)

Perhaps it felt relevant to play tracks from 1970s Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland at those Sleaford Mods gigs in September precisely because what their music describes is life, as lived at the fag end of a discredited ideology whose adherents still cling to power despite barely believing their own words, let alone expecting anyone else to. The reigning assumptions of the 2014 political conference season must feel not unlike those imposed by Party bureaucracies in the former Eastern Bloc: badly scripted rituals, determined to miss the point at any cost. The substance of a dissident essay like Vaclav Havel’s The Power Of The Powerless seems as applicable to the here and now of the UK as it did to its original context of Czechoslovakia in the late 1970s. Meanwhile, as all this plays itself out, we will be subject to increasing quantities of bullshit to defer the inevitable reckoning. Luckily, wherever there is bullshit there are antidotes to bullshit, ready to be heard if we only care enough to seek them out and listen.

Footnote: Jason Williamson played Arthur Seaton in a voice-over recorded for James Walker’s Slap and Sickle, a film essay about Alan Sillitoe’s links to Russian dissidents in the 1970s, screened as part of a link up between Nottingham Writers’ Studio and English PEN, designed to promote the national Catechism campaign on behalf of Pussy Riot on November 12 2012.

The Holcombe Tarot Series (1971 – 1975)

28 Jul

“The Tarot has always intrigued me, not because I believe it has any supernatural, occult or divinatory properties, but for precisely the opposite reason: that its symbols are empty, ambiguous and contradictory, and in being so seem to absorb whatever meanings or interpretations we wish to project into their random alignments. In this, they have something of the same quality found in art works that transcend the time and context of their making – not because they contain anything innately transcendent but because they remain ambiguous and open to interpretation for all times and potential viewers. Perhaps my own Tarot series is an exercise in this kind of randomness. The cards it contains mean nothing, in themselves, and any reading of their faces is as valid as any other, beyond a few very rudimentary cues and prompts. Yet in meaning nothing they may also be open to the kind of interpretation that will seem to signify psychological and personal insight…”

[Robert Holcombe, unpublished letter to Cy Albertine, 1975]

Questions of Identity: Donelle Woolford, E.A. Markham and Robert Holcombe (2014)

7 Jun

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume IV (The Prodigal Son by John M Swann ARA) [undated]

I came across a link today to the news that the Yams collective  had withdrawn from the Whitney Biennale over the inclusion of work by a fabricated black female artist, Donelle Woolford, whose life and work are purportedly the creation of a white, male academic, Joe Scanlan, working with actresses. A polemic by Eunsong Kim and Maya Isabella Mackrandial, implicitly endorsed by the collective, and explicitly endorsed by other exhibiting artists, makes a powerful case. As with many fabricated artists currently in circulation (whose numbers, since 2010, have included Robert Holcombe himself) I’d been following the fictive career of Donelle Woolford mostly out of a straightforward curiosity about how (and why) others pursue the making of work under fictional identities. One point of interest was that in this instance, while the fabrication itself didn’t seem particularly compelling, the possibility that Woolford was not, in fact, Scanlan’s creation, fronted by actresses, but potentially the fabrication and creation of those actresses, Abigail Ramsay and Jennifer Kidwell – both involved with the project for many years – who were in fact using Scanlan as a front to manufacture Donelle’s physical artworks while they handled the performative elements…well, that possibility was compelling. Thinking parafictionally, this not only seemed possible but pretty much essential if the project were to mean very much at all beyond the banal points about authorship, race and gender it makes when taken at face value.*

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Donelle Woolford: Avatar (2007)

Since November, these questions about Woolford and her highly ambiguous play on identity have became of somewhat more particular interest. After exhibiting at the Nottingham Castle Open in 2013, Robert Holcombe received the accolade of a new commission from New Art Exchange, which meant he’d be making a new work in the context of a venue where the questions of identity already implicit in the project (indeed, the very ability to choose an identity) required deeper consideration. Mainly focused on issues of class and post-war British history – what Fabricated Archives had defined as his ability to bring about “a distancing from the present and an estrangement of the recent past” –  Holcombe’s is a parallel history, grounded in the actual but unrealised potential of the real one, then deployed as a means of countering claims that ‘there are no alternatives’ to our present state. This construct is now entering a context where willed suspensions of reality and, by implication, re-writings of the very real struggles factored into the construction of identity, are likely to be questioned.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul's From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume II (St Paul’s From The River by Henry Dawson) [undated]

For that reason, I’ve been grateful to my colleague at Primary, Kashif Nadim Chaudry, not only for his bemused comment on hearing about the commission (“What colour is Robert Holcombe?”) but for several conversations since, in which questions about how we might be responsible for a real identity, while challenging those identities imposed on us from outside,  might all be navigated and addressed. I’d very deliberately conceived Holcombe to be of a similar profile to myself (white, male, raised in Midlands/Northern factory and mining towns, Methodist upbringing, working class) but displaced in time: he’s of my grandfather’s generation rather than mine, though my grandparents imagined as having had some of the opportunities my own never did. The decision to keep his profile close was pragmatic (I knew this world well enough not to need research to make it convincing) but perhaps also unconsciously linked to some felt responsibility to an actual identity.

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

E.A. Markham: Living in Disguise (1986)

Within that, however, are other threads and influences that I’m fairly sure I hadn’t been conscious of at the time, including the fact that I spent several years studying in Sheffield with E.A. Markham whose own career was marked by the adoption of a series of fabricated identities. Markham spent much of the 1970s and 1980s Living in Disguise (his collection owning up to these ‘other persona’ works used this title in 1986) most notably as a younger generation Black British poet, Paul St Vincent, and as a feminist poet, Sally Goodman (“She is Welsh, is young, is white, is blue-eyed, is blonde; is very much, in a way, like me”, he wrote of her). His personae appear to be responses to a feeling that voices and identities are malleable, and extending them extends our own understanding of others. It’s hard to ignore the fact that the licence to be other than oneself granted by Markham (the responsibility, even) had one source in Sheffield, though the link made by James Proctor between Markham’s use of “play and personae with his interest in Anancy, the trickster Spider-god of African and Caribbean mythology” just complicates things further.

That said, another thread leads back to that mythology, by way of a very formative work (a work that will, I think, be a touchstone for anything produced at New Art Exchange). This is the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola’s The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952). I first stumbled on a copy (for ten pence) in a sale in the unlikely setting of Heanor library at the age of nine or ten and still regularly re-read it today. To those who know Heanor, this area of South East Derbyshire, and their reputations, the place where I spent much of my first decade has long been notorious as a stronghold for the National Front, the BNP and (currently) the likes of UKIP. That Tutuola’s book turned up there, and opened these other possibilities – the kind of possibilities that led, ultimately, and in very indirect and tangled ways, to working with E.A. Markham, making the work of Robert Holcombe, and thinking about the issues raised by the fabrication of Donelle Woolford – is almost too neatly poetic.

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr's Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Robert Holcombe: The Master Painters of Britain Volume III (The Legend of the Martyr’s Well by George H Boughton RA) [undated]

Today, I don’t remember how I visualised the characters in The Palm Wine Drinkard in my head that first time I read it: did I even know the book was Nigerian or understand what that meant? What I do know is that I fully immersed myself in its story, and identified with its characters, even as I almost certainly failed to understand any of the book’s real context or meaning. In the same way, whatever my own take on Holcombe’s work might be, and whatever framework I construct around it to facilitate that meaning, there is a near inevitability that it will, eventually, escape that context and be seen as it is, just as ‘real’ works invariably lose the cultural and temporal contexts that define them and find themselves read against the grain of their makers’ specific intentions. Any parafictional project is ultimately founded on the belief that shifting the context changes and extends the work’s meaning and such work aims, however briefly, to make itself appear real, to conjure a mirage or hallucination even as its fabricated nature remains explicit. What happens when our fictions escape those framing contexts might be largely out of our control, but remains our responsibility.

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Amos Tutuola: The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952)

Note: *I have no idea if this is the case or not: it’s entirely possible (and wouldn’t be the first time) that a project had been oblivious to its own potential, or had been made for banal or spurious reasons.

Writing Objects Part III: Masks and Masking (Primary, June 4, 2014)

5 Jun
Leonora Carrington

Leonora Carrington

For the third and final Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s Multiple points in this crude landscape, we looked at the various forms that masks can take and the even more various ways in which masks can be deployed in the creation of texts. Strictly speaking, a mask is a physical object that covers all or part of the face, from behind which the wearer looks out. Technically, this means no text can truly be a mask. But in a more expanded sense it’s clear that in the different personas we project in our choices of clothes or accessories, our movements between behaviour at work and in private, our editing of images and interests to represent ourselves on social media, we all, in practical terms, use masks.

To give a sense of how this kind of masking can operate, we watched an excerpt from Forced Entertainment’s recent re-staging of 12am: Awake and Looking Down (1993), a durational piece in which, as the company themselves explain: “five silent performers endlessly reinvent their identities using stacks of cardboard signs with which they name themselves, and a store of jumble-sale clothing (coats, dresses, suits, anoraks, trousers, pyjamas) from which they dress and re-dress…”. The minimal resources and suggestive capsule descriptions on the cardboard signs bring to life a range of archetypal characters in their wider imaginative contexts and suggest multiple potential narratives.

The tones of voice, degrees of intimacy and formality we adopt for different email correspondences (personal and professional, with close friends or casual acquaintances) serve a similar function to Forced Entertainment’s cardboard signs in presenting a shorthand for different aspects of ourselves in different contexts and situations – some close to our real selves, others almost entirely fictional. Even in supposedly pure self-expression, we tend to highlight insecurities to win sympathy or strengths to seem more capable and attractive. Paradoxically, an actual mask might distance us from this kind of everyday self-consciousness and liberate us to explore other possibilities.

Leonora Carrngton: Self-Portrait (1937)

Leonora Carrington: Self-Portrait (1937)

In Leonora Carrington‘s short story, The Debutante (1939), a mask plays a role in the narrative but the text itself masks autobiographical content behind the appearance of a darkly surreal fairy-tale. The characters, a young girl and a hyena, represent the constrained and liberated sides of Carrington herself, who wrote it at the age of 22. A raw 16mm film version of The Debutante by Ric Warren, made in 1994, illustrates Carrington’s point that the human face acquired for the hyena is little more than a skin, a civilised veneer covering the hyena’s true face. This is – visibly and significantly – a mask. Only when the hyena gleefully reverts to her authentic mask is the girl’s own potential revealed.

In the Nigerian writer Amos Tutuola‘s novel The Palm Wine Drinkard (1952), there is an early scene in which the narrator follows a handsome gentleman at the market. At first, he is consumed by feelings of inferiority: why can he not be as handsome as this gentleman? Yet time passes, the market winds down, and he sees the gentleman leaving another piece of his own body at each stall he passes, until he is finally exposed as a floating skull with no body, no arms or legs, no skin or skeleton, not even a face of his own. His substance is borrowed, rented by the hour on the market. As a metaphor for consumerism, the sale of identity and appearances, it’s a remarkably prescient passage.

Perhaps the unsettling quality of masks, exploited in many films, including Georges Franju’s Judex (1963), relates to this sense that appearance and reality can no longer be matched or trusted. A mask can erase or expose us, free us from responsibility for our actions or to express what is forbidden. A mask can also break habitual frames of reference. The Portuguese modernist poet Fernando Pessoa used his various literary personas in this way. We concluded the session with an excerpt from Jan Svankmajer’s Jabberwocky (1971). This neatly drew together threads from all three sessions: everyday objects are performed, Lewis Carroll’s incantatory poem is recited, and the film’s political meanings are both blatant and ingeniously masked.

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

Twins Seven Seven: Amos Tutuola (c.1964)

 

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Notes from session two, looking at incantation and ritual, are here.

Writing Objects Part II: Incantation and Ritual (Primary, May 21 2014)

23 May
Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

For our second Writing Objects session at Primary, using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s commissioned installation, we looked at the various ways in which the sound and rhythm of language can be used to create an illusion of almost magical power or authority: the realm of the incantation, the chant, prayer and spell. These, after all, are the kinds of texts used in anything from a horror film to a stage magician’s act, and from a Church to a coven, to imply that words possess the power to bring objects to life and influence nature.

We began with Marie Osmond, specifically her 1980s appearance in an episode of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, in which she introduces and then memorably recites Hugo Ball’s Dada sound-poem Karawane (1916). Ball’s text implies meaning through its imitation of some of the expected patterns of spoken language, from which all familiar syntax and vocabulary has been erased to replace comprehension with patterns of repetition and verbal sound to generate an air of impenetrable significance. In this, the sound-poem echoes much that is commonly found in the form of the incantation.

Looking at the traditions of Biblical or Oral song-texts, the way these patterns work emerges more clearly. In The Song of Solomon the effect lies in the repetition of sentence structures, of patterns of concrete nouns and vivid images shaped by rhythmic variations. A text that imitates the more sinister possibilities of this kind of incantation is The Peel Street Codex (2013), commissioned to be performed in a (supposedly haunted) cave underneath the Salutation Inn in Nottingham during a series of walks curated by Sidelong. Although contradictory when examined, and designed to expose its own fakeness, when recited it creates a ritualistic, if theatrical, intensity.

The real thing can be experienced in the work of American poet and musician Jayne Cortez: looking at her 1980s piece New York’s Bullfighter Gums on the page clearly implies the presence of this kind of ritualistic tone:

New York’s bullfighter gums
mashed up like red bananas
fiery sauce caked on
its rocket-shaped head
E train eyes rolling like
some big time frog from Uruguay
& I say
it’s not impossible
to find deep fried romance
in this concrete ocean
of marinated snake juice…

The real impact of the piece, however, emerges when it is heard in Cortez’s own voice, and while this particular poem isn’t available online, re-reading it after listening to the author’s rendition of I See Chano Pozo (an incantation to the spirit of the musician who fused Cuban music with Be-Bop jazz in the 1940s as part of Dizzy Gillespie’s band) transforms the way we read the text of Cortez’s poem. With the drums and rhythms of her voice planted in our minds, the logic behind the construction of the initially baffling but powerfully vivid images of New York’s Bullfighter Gums sharply clarifies. Cortez uses concrete nouns, repeated sentence structures and rhythmic patterns to give shape to a series of images that follow no ordinary or everyday logic, but instead by-pass conscious reasoning and aim to find echoes in the unconscious.

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

It’s a patterning used everywhere in political slogans, advertising catchphrases and management mantras – from the French Revolution’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity to the striking Miners’ Maggie Maggie Maggie, Out Out Out; from Just Do It to Gotta Lotta Bottle; from Education Education Education to Hard-Working Families. Stringing a catchy threesome of words together has long been known to be memorable and devices like this have been rhetorically exploited for the purpose of persuasion for centuries – a secular form of spell casting and ritual speech, even if it rarely acknowledges that it is.

Used to very different purposes, in Maya Deren’s silent and self-consciously ritualistic film Witch’s Cradle (1943, partly a documentation of a Marcel Duchamp string installation at the Museum of Modern Art in New York) or Kenneth Anger’s (equally self-consciously ritualistic) Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), fragmentary images develop coherence through the use of repetition and visual rhythm. Just as Hugo Ball’s Karawane created an illusion of potential meaning from seemingly arbitrary sounds, Deren and Anger’s disjunctive edits develop their own elusive sense and operate like languages whose precise meanings lie only slightly beyond our grasp.

Eva Svankmajerova’s Baradla Cave uses similar methods, sometimes reading like ordinary fiction, but swerving between genres and forms from one sentence or paragraph to the next. Baradla herself is the cave setting of the book and its female heroine: sometimes one, sometimes the other, and occasionally both. But then, if Baradla Cave is anything, it is a satirical parody of narrative sense that holds its reader’s attention with the patterns of its language, which is full of lists, jokes, factual commentary and arbitrary sequences that deliberately refuse to add up. Its real aim, like any good incantation, is to imply sense while purposefully defying logic, and at its most nonsensical reveals some of its deepest and most intriguing truths.

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Writing Objects session three, on masks and unstable identities, is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm, free). All welcome.

Notes from session one, looking at actors as objects and objects as actors, are here.

Writing Objects Part I: Ubu Roi and the Actor as Object (Primary, May 7 2014)

8 May
Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry (1896)

The first of the Writing Objects sessions took place last night at Primary, bringing together writers, performers and artists interested in using text to create responses to Jonathan Baldock‘s installation Multiple points in this crude landscape, which launches on Friday 9 May (6 – 9pm) with an opening performance devised by Baldock in collaboration with Florence Peake. For the first session of three, we decided to explore the idea of the ‘actor as object’, or more precisely, reconsider the usually frowned-upon practice of objectification.

Usually thought of in contexts like pornography, advertising and mainstream cinema, and often used in propaganda and news media, where our sympathy or animosity is aroused by stereotypical victims and dehumanised threats, objectification is about the presentation of human figures as things, stripped in some way of their particular identities and voices, and thereby rendered passive and powerless.

Our starting point was to consider other ways in which this act of objectification might work, and we looked at four texts and a selection of related films that seemed to challenge conventional approaches to objectification.

To illustrate this approach we watched the opening scenes of Vera Chytilova’s Daisies (1966) which first reduces its two teenage protagonists, known only as Marie I and Marie II, to mannequins, then in every subsequent scene has the girls constantly changing – from one role or context to another, almost randomly tumbling through the film’s discontinuous settings – while keeping them exactly as they are, utterly unfazed and unchanged by even the most extreme and unsettling things in their environment.

This technique relates to folk traditions, where, as in the Brothers Grimm version of Hansel & Gretel, the characters – the Woodcutter, the Witch and Hansel & Gretel – are always ciphers rather than individuals, blank spaces into which we are free to project our own identities and experiences rather than rounded individuals in their own right. Their presence in their own story is overshadowed by the objects and things around them: Hansel & Gretel are not only interchangeable with one another but with any child, while the Witch’s house, if not the Witch herself, is very specifically memorable.

In a different way, the character of Père Ubu in Alfred Jarry’s 1896 play Ubu Roi is objectified by exaggeration, a broad-brush caricature: human traits of cowardice, avarice and lust for glory are pushed to extremes, dialogue is laced with obscenities. Jarry’s drama is an absurdist satire on the workings of power, a Punch & Judy version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth with no intention of being even-handed or naturalistic. When we see performed versions, either on stage or in films like Jean Christophe Averty’s live-action Ubu Roi (1965)  or Geoff Dunbar’s animated Ubu (1978), Jarry’s intention to make his play a live-action puppet show becomes unmistakable.

Another approach to the stripping away of specific identity can be seen in Samuel Beckett’s short, intense script Not I (1972) in which the central (and only) character, a woman, possibly old, possibly already dead or in limbo, is reduced to a mouth, floating disembodied on the stage while speaking a rapid-fire monologue composed of fragmented generalities and shattered bits of memory. Here, loss of identity is contradicted by language, which floods out, veering between emotional states, as though speech is the only thing that keeps Mouth (or any of us) from disappearing altogether (a point underscored by the fact that, if she ceases to speak, nothing at all remains visible).

Returning to the conventions of Hansel & Gretel for our conclusion, we watched Jan Svankmajer’s 1983 short film Down To The Cellar, a work which utilises the affectless characterisation of the Brothers Grimm and Lewis Carroll’s original Alice books (also filmed by Svankmajer, in 1987) in a modern, political setting. Down To The Cellar is entirely wordless, its whole effect built on heightened sound and visual atmospherics. The protagonist is silent, a figure into whose shoes we place ourselves (or at least, a memory of ourselves as children).

As a footnote, we looked at an example of the inverse of objectification, where a human consciousness strives to decode the intentions and meaning of an actual mute object. The French poet and essayist Francis Ponge (1899 – 1988) was a master of this and his quest to give objects a language of their own, to find what strange, non-human meanings hid in that ‘language of objects’, meant Karen Volkman’s translation of The Trees Delete Themselves Inside A Fog Sphere offered a neat full-stop to our discussion.

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Gisela Gottschlich: Illustration from Grimm’s Fairy Tales [Hansel Und Gretel II]

Writing Objects (Session two: on text as incantation and ritual) is at Primary on 21 May (7 – 9pm).

Writing Objects (Session three: on masks and unstable identities) is at Primary on 4 June (7 – 9pm).

Free booking may still be available for these sessions via the Primary eventbrite link.

Jack Bilbo: “A Modernist Fighter for Humanity” (1948)

3 May
Jack Bilbo's One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s One-Man show at the Museum of Modern Art, Weybridge, 1946.

Jack Bilbo’s autobiography, very lavishly published by his own imprint, The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, in 1948, carries a subtitle that sums up the man and his life: “Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo: The first forty years of the complete and intimate life-story of an Artist, Author, Sculptor, Art Dealer, Philosopher, Psychologist, Traveller and a Modernist Fighter for Humanity”. As self declarations go this takes some beating, and the autobiography itself (the resemblance of much of which to adventure fiction is probably not entirely coincidental) is nothing if not readable. Whether all or even much of it is true is a question that crops up continually while you read it, but even if only a small fraction of its material closely matches what might be called an authentic account of the real Jack Bilbo’s life and times – Jack Bilbo being, anyway, a persona that had been created by Jack Bilbo himself in order to escape his original identity as a German Jew born Hugo Cyrill Kulp Baruch in 1907, the son of the owner of a successful theatrical props and costumes empire in Berlin – you’d still have to admit that the man led a pretty remarkable existence.

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Good Samaritan (1944)

The 1948 autobiography certainly has its share of exaggerations, but the parts that are actually documented seem extraordinary enough. Bilbo travelled a lot, was involved with anti-fascist organisations through the 1930s, ran a bar in Sitges, Spain, aiding Republicans during the Civil War, and wound up in charge of one of the few Modern Art Galleries to remain active in war-time London, where he gave Kurt Schwitters his most comprehensive and significant exhibition in England, much of which was back on view in Tate’s Schwitters in Britain exhibition during 2013. Whether, between these escapades, he was also touring China with revolutionaries, working with smugglers in Mallorca, found his way to his father’s house in a ‘White’ district of Berlin during the Spartacist uprising with an escort of Red Army soldiers, whose lives he’d saved, got involved in an assassination attempt, met Sigmund Freud after a suicide attempt at the age of 18, or lost his virginity to and very nearly married a 21 year-old mixed race woman in the American South while en route to Hollywood when he was only 14 (but passing as 19 to get work on the ships that took him to America in the first place) is all possibly (or possibly not) more questionable.

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Inner World (1944)

At times, Jack Bilbo’s memoir reads more like Hemingway on steroids than any kind of factual account (or, perhaps more accurately, Jack London, his admiration for whose writings was, by his own account, the source of the ‘Jack’ in ‘Jack Bilbo’). But Bilbo himself is disarmingly open about his own tendency to distort the record when it suits him. During the 1930s, finding himself back in Berlin from America and desperate for money, he wrote a pulp crime book that his memoir explains was initially intended as a money-making fiction (he called it I Carried a Gun For Al Capone) but found it more marketable when chance misunderstandings with a German newspaper led to its serialisation as a factual account, which was later picked up by a British publisher. Never one to miss an opportunity, Bilbo seems to have shrugged and played the part required of him, acting out the role of an ex-gangster for anyone who fancied listening. A notable raconteur and charismatic storyteller, his 1946 collection of short stories, published under the deliberately double-edged title Out Of My Mind, apparently resulted from nights he put on at his gallery in London where guests listened to Bilbo’s grisly, strange and unlikely tales and had to guess which were true, which false, and which neither, because even Bilbo himself wasn’t entirely sure.

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Sea Harvest (1945)

He seems, in short, to have treated his own life as a fiction, to be rewritten as he went along on whatever terms he liked: a kind of archetypal Modernist position if ever there was one. You could say that he often seems to have operated as a paradoxically honest confidence trickster, with interesting results. There’s no evidence whatsoever that he had any interest in art, or any training in it, before his arrival in London in 1939, but at some point after that arrival he appears to have decided to become an artist, working furiously to create a series of 34 canvases, which he then touted around galleries. According to his memoir, having been laughed at and refused an exhibition everywhere, he simply set up his own: The Modern Art Gallery, which eventually settled at 24 Charles II Street. His German nationality led to a period of internment, where he met many other Jewish and Leftist intellectuals, collectors and artists forced to flee the Nazi regime, including Kurt Schwitters, so on his eventual release found he had a ready-made stable of contacts with internationally important figures who were not only available but in need of his help to continue their own work. By 1942 he was a genuine artist, curator and dealer, showing Picasso at his own gallery and his own curious works with David Zwemmer, among others. By 1944 he was a feature on Pathé newsreels.

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Jack Bilbo: The Entrance (1944)

Were his paintings good? Not by most standard measures, for which Bilbo himself had nothing but contempt anyway, but they have something that is hard to dismiss, at least at their best (he is not, shall we say, a very consistent painter). An uncensored strangeness, an ahead-of-its-time absurdist black humour, a makeshift aesthetic that transcends Bilbo’s own technical limitations more often than it plausibly should, all allied with an imagination that paints whatever passes through it, disregarding most conventional criteria of taste and aesthetics. It’s no wonder that he struck up a quick rapport with Schwitters. Perhaps the best way to think about Bilbo’s own artworks is as those of a ‘bad’ painter with an inconsistent, largely accidental originality, but an originality nonetheless. He’s not a deliberate ‘bad’ painter like Picabia, not an innocent like Henri Rousseau, and clearly not an ‘outsider artist’ in any meaningful sense either. It turns out that he may have been weirdly, if subliminally, influential, too: many of his paintings look disconcertingly current, with a sensibility more common in 2014 than in the 1940s. If so, this must have been mediated in indirect ways. For example: some of Bilbo’s paintings (and certainly the concrete garden sculptures he made in Weybridge after 1945, which are no longer extant) seem to have been reference points for Tony Hancock and his writers when they devised their feature-length art world satire The Rebel (1960).

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

Jack Bilbo: Evadne In Green Dimension (1945)

More intriguingly, especially from the perspective of the Robert Holcombe project, Jack Bilbo’s memoir has a physical but slightly phantom presence in Eduardo Paolozzi’s Bunk! series of collages, projected at the ICA in 1952 and later made into a series of prints at the time of Paolozzi’s Tate Gallery retrospective exhibition in 1971 (it also transpires that the story of the Bunk! collages may itself be as fabricated as anything in Bilbo’s memoir, but that’s another story). For whatever reason, the image that contains the Bunk! of the Bunk! series is properly known by one of Bilbo’s titles, built as it is on the page containing Evadne In Green Dimension (1945) as a tipped-in colour plate in the 1948 autobiography. That Bilbo was also present in London and Weybridge until 1949, the year after Holcombe arrived at the Slade (where he also, fictionally, met Eduardo Paolozzi) therefore positions Hugo Baruch, aka Jack Bilbo himself, a man deeply enamoured of self-fictionalisation, at the epicentre of Holcombe’s own formative fictional milieu, which opens up some interesting possibilities. Besides, Bilbo retains his own presence, his estate now represented by England & Co gallery, with whom the artist Aaron Angell recently collaborated to put his own work alongside some of Bilbo’s drawings. He has also made several cameo appearances in the convoluted narrative of Dutch artist Marcel van Eeden‘s ongoing series of noir-inspired historical drawings. In the face of all this, if Bilbo was a fantasist, as seems at least partly the case, he was a fantasist with an uncanny knack of bringing his fabrications into reality.

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

Jack Bilbo: Out of My Mind (1946)

All images are scanned from the pages of Jack Bilbo by Jack Bilbo (The Modern Art Gallery Ltd, London, 1948). The book is currently out of print.

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