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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Nottingham Contemporary (April 26, 2018)

7 May

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For the third meeting of our Introduction to Art Writing group, a series of four exploratory workshops jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio, we were delighted to have Sam Thorne, Nottingham Contemporary‘s director, lead us in a ‘mobile discussion’ of the role played by writing in the making of the gallery’s current exhibition, Linder’s The House of Fame. With a group of around 25 participants gathered at the Nottingham Contemporary reception, a mix of both regulars and first-time attendees, we set off into the galleries to explore the exhibits and hear from Thorne about the role played by written correspondence in the process of curating the show and the many literary influences and connections on view in the works themselves.

We began in 1981, the date (then 25 years into the future) represented by Alison and Peter Smithson’s House of the Future, a theoretical design made for the Ideal Home Exhibition in March 1956 and installed at the Olympia Exhibition Centre for the duration of the show that month. Thorne noted that the Smithsons’ proposal had interested Linder for many reasons, not least the coincidence of its theoretical future with the importance of 1981 as a date in her own life and career, this being the time when her collage and performance works – ranging from record sleeve designs, photographs and the wearing of a meat dress while performing with her own post-punk band Ludus – were all laying the foundations of her subsequent career. That the Smithsons’ speculative future and Linder’s actual past converged on the same date had given the exhibition a suitably layered starting point for its overview of Linder’s work and influences.

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Thorne also noted that the connections between the art-works that interested Linder, which she wanted to include alongside examples drawn from her own extensive 40-year body of material, and the evolution of her own works since the 1970s, were explored in a very extensive, wide-ranging and ‘in-depth’ email correspondence, a few excerpts from which featured in the exhibition’s broadsheet newspaper format publication. Even before their first formal meeting in 2017, he and Linder had, he explained, exchanged a large number of emails – so many, in fact, that there were around a hundred pages of them already printed out by the time their first face-to-face meeting to discuss the potential exhibition and residency at Chatsworth House came about.

The stage set feel of the Smithsons’ House of the Future display was echoed by other representations of Linder’s interest in performance and shifting identity, from Linder’s own 1970s photographs of men presenting as women in Manchester nightclubs to Madame Yevonde‘s 1930s images of aristocrats and debutantes posing as mythical Goddesses. The presence of Inigo Jones set and costume designs for Ben Jonson’s Jacobean masque The House of Fame had given the exhibition its title, grounding Linder’s own activity in a long tradition of work in which visuals, costumes, music and text were combined. As Thorne pointed out, one of the touchstone phrases that arose in the correspondence was Moki Cherry‘s comment, “The stage as a home and the home as a stage”, hinting at the intentional transformation of everyday living into art.

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In other galleries, this was refracted through Linder’s interest in spiritualist photography, seances and other occult and memorial practices, ranging from mid-twentieth century archival photographs of mediums generating ectoplasm (often using lace, collaged faces and double exposures to achieve their effects) to Mike Kelley’s tongue-in-cheek re-enactments of these same images in his Ectoplasm series made around 1977/8. Thorne noted that lace-making had been another ‘thread’ in the correspondence, with the structure of the exhibition devised around an idea of ‘weaving together’ many elements to create a whole pattern. This had, in its turn, brought in many images and objects that touched on these ideas, such as the pioneering museum photography of Isabel A Cowper at the V&A in the mid nineteenth century, an example of which featured here – naturally presenting a specimen of lace.

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We also touched on the ways that text shadowed much of the other work on display, from Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration for Lucian’s second century satire on outlandish travellers’ tales The True History and Max Ernst’s ‘collage novel’ Une semaine de bonté, to such substantial presences as Ithell Colquhoun, an English writer, artist and occultist responsible for such literary works as The Goose of Hermogenes and The Living Stones, and Penny Slinger, whose own ‘psychosexual feminist autobiography’ An Exorcism appeared in 1978. These were all obliquely represented in the various rooms of Linder’s exhibition with small gatherings of paintings, prints and collages by the artists.

The intimate connections between the visual and literary aspects of the exhibition were clear enough, though Thorne revealed that one omission had been a reconstructed model of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, partly conceived and designed by Lord Byron’s daughter Ada Lovelace. This was a machine that could have made a direct connection between the card-programmed machinery of 19th century lace-making and the punch-card systems of 1950s corporate and scientific computers. Its absence hinted at the complexities behind putting together exhibitions, where curators and artists are not always able to get everything they wish to show. The process, as Thorne noted of Linder’s approach to the curatorial task as an extension of her collage work, could often be as intuitive, surprising and rewarding as the making of artworks themselves.

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Following this tour of the galleries, we moved on to one of Nottingham Contemporary’s meeting rooms, where Thorne had agreed to answer some questions about his own route from studying English Literature at university, to writing for magazines about art and music, and eventually taking up an associate editorship at Frieze and beginning his curatorial career. Subjects ranging from the commissioning process to editors’ interest in writing from regions outside the main (London, New York, Berlin) centres of the art world were discussed, and members of the group spoke briefly about their own interests, confidence levels in terms of writing, and current activities.

Once again, these covered a broad range, from specialisms in fashion and social practice to current activity runnning small scale curatorial and exhibition projects in the city. Several participants spoke about the difficulty of moving away from academic styles and approaches in their more personal writing, and others wondered whether their particular specialist interests should or shouldn’t be made clear in the context of a review. The general feeling was that such specialisation can be a limitation, ensuring writers might be sought only to cover the niches their particular interests suited, but where relevant and appropriate this could also generate its own opportunities. Thorne mentioned that one of his own specialisms at Frieze had been the developing art scenes of the Middle East, so being identified with a specialism was not in itself a bad thing.

Other questions followed, such as a discussion of markets for art writing and reviews outside the core art magazine markets; the changes in publishing’s economics that meant there were more high quality publications but these were generally more narrowly distrubuted than in the past; the influence of fashion cycles on the reputations of particular artists and the coverage given to them by editors; and the desirability, or otherwise, of writers’ opinions being potentially swayed by meetings with artists at openings and events. Was this something to embrace or avoid? This latter point was considered something of an inevitable problem in a relatively small social world like the art scene, where the paths of writers and artists are always likely to cross at some point.

Thorne mentioned press reviewers visiting previews of Linder’s show at Nottingham Contemporary who, during its opening weekend, had sometimes avoided Linder herself as they navigated the galleries, sometimes sought her out. It was probably inevitable that attaching an actual human being’s presence and feelings to the work might influence a writer’s opinion, but this was never going to be easy to escape. And the flipside of this, that a chat with the artist might open up fresh perspectives and deepen or complicate a writer’s viewpoint on the work, was also worth bearing in mind. In the end, though, Thorne noted that he wrote much less since embarking on his current job at Nottingham Contemporary, partly due to time constraints, but perhaps also because his dual roles, as independent writer and director of a public organisation committed to supporting artists, might be seen to clash even where they didn’t.

Next Introduction to Art Writing session takes place on May 17 from 6.30 – 9pm at New Art Exchange (39-41 Gregory Boulevard, NG7 6BE). We will convene for curator Renee Mussai’s talk and walk through of Zanele Muhole’s exhibition Somnyama Ngonyama, Hail the Dark Lioness from 6.30pm, then at 7.30pm will be joined by NAE’s Programme Director Melanie Kidd for a discussion. Booking is free and all are welcome.

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Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Primary (April 14, 2018)

5 May

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The second session bringing together our Introduction to Art Writing group, a series of four exploratory workshops jointly organised by Backlit Gallery and Nottingham Writers’ Studio, met at Primary on the afternoon of April 14, with the sunny spring weather in the playground outside the former school building making for something of a contrast with the blizzards and heavy snow that had accompanied our first session at Backlit in March. Some familiar and a few new faces gathered to hear from Niki Russell, curator of the public programme at Primary, and to see and discuss Deeper in the Pyramid by Melanie Jackson, a multimedia project designed to unfold across three different venues and take a variety of forms, including an illustrated publication.

For the work’s first presentation at Grand Union, Birmingham, Jackson had presented a sculptural installation with embedded digital video works; at Primary, Nottingham, the same research and text (written by Jackson in collaboration with Esther Leslie, and available in published form as an illustrated book) had been reconfigured as a performance lecture and oblique documentary-style video. A third incarnation of Deeper in the Pyramid is set to be installed at Banner Repeater, London, later in the year. While taking many different forms as it moves between sites, however, Jackson’s project is also an artwork with text, storytelling and the collaboration between visual, literary and performative elements built into its DNA.

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Before hearing from Niki and viewing Deeper in the Pyramid, we first had a round of introductions and talked a little about the range of motivations for attending this new group. Interest in collaboration ranked high, with several participants already involved in collaborative activity, and several people expressed interest in exploring ways of bringing the kinds of informal writing they were doing already into a variety of public contexts, ranging from incorporating interviews with photographic subjects alongside their documentary portraits to finding uses for informal notes on exhibitions or exploring new approaches to making artworks accessible through the creative use of interpretative  labels and text panels in galleries and museums. A few also noted that they had experience of writing at university but expressed interest in developing their writing outside these kinds of academic contexts.

Niki Russell spoke about the role of commissioned texts in expanding the reach of Primary’s programme of residencies and exhibitions, with one or more written responses to each new commission published in the venue’s Programme Notes as a means of ‘creating a legacy’ for the often ephemeral work taking place in the building itself. Writers like Jamie Sutcliffe had written essays in response to Guillaume Pilet’s Dream A Little Drama performances, Padraic E Moore responded with a letter to the installation that resulted from Shana Moulton‘s residency, while Niru Ratnam constructed an oblique fiction in response to Sahej Rahal’s Dry Salvages. Russell noted that sometimes these commissions had led to ongoing collaborations, as when Emma Hart’s response to Jonathan Baldock’s work had led to the two artists developing exhibitions and other work together in the years that followed.

He also talked about his own role as an occasional art critic, reviewing exhibitions and events, and noted how this activity overlapped with his curatorial work at Primary and elsewhere, and fed into his ongoing work with the artists’ collective Reactor, a project developing films, performances and other platforms through inherently collaborative processes. The practicalities of reviewing – from writing with fixed article lengths to tight deadlines and occasional pressures to offer strong opinions even when the work under review might not necessarily inspire them, were also touched on – though ultimately reviewing and writing were felt to open a way of thinking about artworks in depth, giving shape to thoughts that might otherwise remain less well defined, and generally offered a positive way of exploring the works encountered in galleries. The results may not always be the final word, but the texts were part of a process and added a layer of reflection and substance to the fleeting encounters we often have with particular works and the artists who make them.

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In the discussion that followed, we considered questions such as whether the views expressed in published responses were ever revisited and changed (quite often, though less so as the length of time allowed to reflect on the work’s more lasting effect was extended by deadlines), and how magazines and newspapers decided what to cover and what to omit from their reviews and feature sections (a complicated process which venues’ marketing budgets, artists’ public profiles, topicality, fashionability and the relative weight of particular writers’ enthusiasms could all play parts in shaping). Experience of working with editors could vary widely, too, with some editors offering extensive suggestions for revision, others printing texts exactly as submitted – which puts the onus very much on writers themselves to ensure all the information in their copy is accurate at the time it goes to press.

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We concluded the session with a viewing and discussion of Jackson’s Deeper in the Pyramid, in its Primary incarnation a 40m film drawing on documentary and more oblique, fictionalised material to explore the social, cultural and psychological contexts and meanings that surround our relationships with milk. Exploring themes ranging from the mythological significance of milk in Ancient Egypt and Greece, its association with the maternal, its transformations into cheese, cream and butter, its role as a substance inspiring strange dreams in early twentieth century comic strips, its industrial production and packaging in pyramid-shaped ‘tetrapacks’ for sale in Africa and India, its role in sexualising fashion and advertising photography – the film offered a richly layered journey through the hidden meanings of a substance we often take for granted.

Other References:

Art Writing Blog at Nottingham City of Literature

Plastique Fantastique (cited by Niki during his talk)

Kaleidoscope (cited by Niki during his talk)

 

 

Introduction to Art Writing Workshop at Backlit (March 17, 2018)

24 Mar

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The first Introduction to Art Writing session took place on the afternoon of Saturday 17 March, and despite the day’s heavy snow and blizzards drew around twenty five people to Backlit.

Matthew Chesney, Backlit director, introduced the session and touched on some of the host gallery’s activities, including his own experience of putting together a publication, House of the Flying Wheel, that explored the history of the building (once part of the textile empire of Samuel Morley and the Morley textiles company) and the evolution of Backlit itself as a place for artists’ studios and a venue for performances and exhibitions, currently Strike Site, a group exhibition based on ideas and experiences of migration, displacement and borders curated by the writer Sacha Craddock.

Following this, Wayne Burrows introduced some samples from the wide range of outlets for different types of art writing, noting the ways that each has its own particular approaches: an article in an academic journal will take a different form to a review in a specialist contemporary art magazine, while newspapers and more general interest magazines covering art, but not exclusively about art, will make very different assumptions about the reader’s knowledge and potential interest in the subject. Looking at journals as diverse as Frieze and Art Review, Nottingham Visual Arts and LeftLion, and a variety of artists’ books, catalogues, press releases and other publications, we touched on how each makes its own distinctive demands on the writer.

Wayne also discussed the development of his own work, from working mainly with poetry and journalism to projects that use collage, exhibitions, films and performances alongside publications as vehicles for fiction and the building of alternate realities:

Wayne Burrows links: https://wayneburrows.wordpress.com/links/

Beyond the more straightforward field of critical writing, where the standard formats might be reviews, essays and interviews, we looked briefly at those points where writing about art blurs into writing as art, and it was here that the most creative approaches seemed to be found. Whether the more hybrid kinds of poetic essay, artists’ text – or even in works where the artwork itself employs characterisation and narrative, or constructs a fictional world or history – there were forms that art-writing could take that pushed through the confines of the kind of prose found in press releases, exhibition information panels and catalogue essays.

With this range of possibilities and potential responses in mind, participants spent time in the Strike Site exhibition and were invited to write down (or simply think about) a few lines that might embody a response reflecting a particular viewpoint, rooted in the participants’ own interests and reasons for attending the workshop. During the discussion that followed, there turned out to be no standard angle, but rather a range of individual concerns: some focused on the issues raised, others on aesthetics; some were positive, some critical; some considered the forms of the works included, others paid closer attention to their positioning, relationships or content.

In exploring these responses we also discussed some future possibilities for the group, with developing writing skills, sharing work, making connections between people, creating a group to discuss exhibitions on a ‘book club’ model and building a network all mentioned at one point or another. After resolving an earlier technical hitch, we concluded with a short screening featuring three short films, chosen to illustrate the points made earlier about the more creative, ‘expanded’ aspects of how thinking about writing – in the form of both text and strategies of fiction-making or world-building – can apply in relation to particular art-works.

Shana Moulton Whispering Pines II 2007

These films included Shana Moulton discussing her Twin Peaks-inspired Whispering Pines series of artist films featuring an alter ego named Cynthia; footage from a live text-based performance by Sophie Jung; and a short film in which the artists Tai Shani and Florence Peake introduce the fictional archaeological and political ideas that informed their collaborative installation Andromedan Sad Girl at Wysing Arts Centre last year. Links to all three films are included here for those who missed them:

Shana Moulton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Z1kow40WGY

Sophie Jung: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f2TwYQ6bcF4

Tai Shani & Florence Peake: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hv4bavXUV_c

Tai Shani & Florence Peake Andromedan Sad Girl (2017)

As a final note, here are some of the comments written during the day on the pages put up around the workshop space to collect suggestions and thoughts from participants. These will be used, along with the comments made during discussions, to shape future sessions.

Ideas/ suggestions

Mini biogs – ‘As much as I hate them, introduction circle helps my social anxiety to be over ridden. So to intro and bio is easier when everyone does it together’

Facebook page – ‘I need to meet in person to do anything productive. Social media feels too impersonal and lacks accountability sometimes‘ (perhaps we can look at alternative online platforms?)

Seeds to grow, to create a network of writers, creatives and like-minded souls

I love writing in response to visual stimulus/ art in poetic form. Also love overlap of forms – eg: photography, theatre, performance. Would love to hear more about others’ backgrounds and interests…

What is everyone reading? I’m struggling to find new authors…

A ‘bookclub’ but for exhibitions? Go and see it, than have a chat later?

I’d love to see/read other people’s writing

Practical discussion and critique of each others’ own artwork

Thanks! worth coming, maybe fragmentation into sub-groups, also convening to re-connect would be helpful.

Great to be in a room with a dynamic range of people with a variety of reasons for having an interest in writing about the art.

The day has been amazing, informative, great content and brilliant opportunity to network.

Interesting to think about writing with a mix of participants/ fresh views.

Melanie Jackson - Deeper in the Pyramid (2018)

Next Session:

Saturday 14th April, 1 – 4pm at Primary, 33 Seely Road, Nottingham NG7 1NU. Please book your place via the Eventbrite link at: https://bit.ly/2ua96mk

Primary are also hosting an event on Thursday 12th April at 7pm with Melanie Jackson’s performance lecture and exhibition opening, free to attend and no booking required: http://www.weareprimary.org/2018/02/melanie-jackson/

 

A Metaphor Backed By Law (Brittle Star #40, June 2017)

14 Jun

 

Brittle Star (Issue 40)

Since the middle of last year, I’ve been writing a column for Brittle Star magazine, mainly using it as a space for thinking aloud about writing in general. Full Spectrum Poetry (issue #38) argued for a definition of poetry that doesn’t bind it solely to a specialist sub-category of writing called ‘poems’ while The Lyric Mode (issue #39) picked up on the arguments about the exact relationship between poetry and songwriting triggered by Bob Dylan’s Nobel laureateship: might it be Dylan’s very literariness that made his award problematic as a recognition of songwriting on its own terms?

Both these issues are still available.

The latest issue, #40, features a consideration of the fictional, highly poetic nature of money – or at least, the fictional, poetic and ultimately irrational belief systems required to sustain a sense of reality around this chimeric substance we grant so much sway over our own and others’ lives. Tracing a line from an off-hand remark by Robert Graves through Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market to “The Magic Money Tree” of recent election debate notoriety, A Metaphor Backed By Law appears in issue #40, which launches at Barbican Library on June 28.

Brittle Star – launch for Issue 40
Wednesday 28 June, 6.30 for 7pm
Barbican Music Library, Silk St, London EC2Y 8DS.
Nearest tube: Barbican or Old Street.
FREE event but space is limited: book on 020 7638 0569

Brittle Star (Issue 38)
“Even so, [Philip Larkin’s] way of looking at finance still fits neatly into our standard idea of money as a practical tool, something that exists in the world, even if we do fail to use it well or acquire its promised blessing. The actual relationship between poetry and money turns out to lie in stranger, much deeper territory. In Christina Rossetti’s ‘Goblin Market’, for example, money is glimpsed in its true, chimeric and phantasmagorical forms. Rossetti’s poem shows us money’s seductive evanescence and changeability, its connections to our wishes and desires made literal flesh in the goblins’ fruit:

“I have no copper in my purse,
I have no silver either,
And all my gold is on the furze
That shakes in windy weather
Above the rusty heather.”
“You have much gold upon your head,”
[The goblins] answer’d all together
“Buy from us with a golden curl.”

She clipp’d a precious golden lock,
She dropp’d a tear more rare than pearl,
Then suck’d their fruit globes fair or red:
Sweeter than honey from the rock…

Christina Rossetti (1859)

As Christina Rossetti’s heroine soon discovers, the cost of her transaction is paid in more than money – and if a golden curl can be used as a coin, it’s because the coin itself is only an arbitrary token. Yet we do still insist on thinking of money as a solid and practical thing, almost the opposite of poetry. When Amber Rudd and Theresa May invoke the undoubtedly poetic image of ‘The Magic Money Tree’ during an election debate, the phrase is plainly meant to be dismissive, derisive and wounding – who could be so naive as to imagine such a thing exists? – even as it turns out to offer a perfectly accurate image of what money is and how it has been produced…”

[Extract from: A Metaphor Backed By Law (Brittle Star #40)]

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“Planet Claire has pink air.
All the trees are red.
No-one ever dies there.
No-one has a head…

The B52s: Planet Claire, 1979

Memorable and effective as they are, songs like these aren’t operating by the rules we expect when approaching the canons that define our sense of how contemporary poetry might be written. Their antecedents lie in those traditions represented by Mother Goose and Lewis Carroll, by the nursery rhyme, nonsense poem and anonymously authored folk air. Modernism’s antipathy to its own late-Victorian lyrical inheritance may partly explain why this approach is undervalued in the poetry of our own time, but remains a live concern in the popular song. A good deal of nonsense verse can be found in the catalogue of The Residents, for example, whose 1978 Duck Stab/Buster & Glen recordings amount to a fairly direct, if musically unsettling, reinvention of Edward Lear:

Skinny was born in a bathtub
and grew so incredibly thin
that even the end of an eye-dropper sucked him in.

Skinny never knew any questions,
Skinny never looked at lights
but Skinny sold something every single night…

The Residents: Hello Skinny, 1978

Eighteenth century literary fashions for ballads, children’s rhymes and commonplace verses of the kind collected in Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) stirred disputes not unlike those seen since the Nobel committee made its announcement a few weeks ago. They were deeply concerned with questions about what was true and authentic art, what merely artifice and kitsch, in ways that are evidently still with us. Breaches of literary decorum, like the apparently superfluous but musical phrase, can be disapproved of but may also be where much of the song’s appeal lies: “We can refute Hegel, but not the Saint or The Song of Sixpence” as Yeats once put it.”

[Extract from: The Lyric Mode (Brittle Star #39)]

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Brittle Star also has a Patreon if you do that sort of thing.

 

Two Excerpts from ‘Shrapnel’ (c.1998 – 2007)

17 Nov

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(xxxii)

“The genius of the free market idea is to have us blame ourselves for the inequalities built into the system. Imagine a hundred-meter sprint where some had to do a marathon or 10,000 meters before anyone started the stopwatch, some started six inches from the finish, and all the medals were already, anyway, sent to the same guys who won them every year without even needing to turn up at the track. It wouldn’t be credible as athletics, but it’s pretty much exactly how the economy works…”

William Sterling Everett: Signs of the Times (1997)

Careless Talk Costs Lives, the old wartime propaganda posters used to insist, a cartoon Nazi spy gleefully eavesdropping on Mavis and Hilda – or at least, on two ladies in hair-rollers and spotted headscarves who might as well have been named Mavis and Hilda – as they blithely gossip about their husbands’ postings and other matters of use to any passing Nazi spies who may have been lurking on the street-corners where they passed the time in their utility coats. They hold baskets amply but modestly furnished with rationed eggs, cheese and milk and, according to the poster, anyway, threaten to lose the war as surely as any active enemy saboteur.

Perhaps this was some early premonition of Chaos Theory, intimating the vast potential consequences of minute actions as their barely perceptible resonances multiplied in the world: the low hum of insect wings building in the air, slowly unfastening the stitches that hold some wind-current to its known course and changing the entire weather system. Or maybe it’s the appearance of a dropped penny on a pavement that magnetises itself to a hundred other orphan pennies and builds slowly towards a one pound coin, a ten pound note, perhaps the full multi-million pound jackpot of a lottery win on a £1 ticket.

Isn’t this how markets are assumed to function, as the unfathomable result of millions of barely perceptible individual purchase decisions as they generate vast sprawling factories and refineries in the desert sands, plant crops inside glistening perspex Savannah greenhouses, lay down entire networks of roads and red-brick housing estates with pocket gardens and tarmac cul-de-sacs and parking spaces to meet all the millions of freely-chosen individual desires that spawned them? As we desire it, so things shall be.

Except, desire as we may, nothing much seems to change. We throw out one government and acquire another that will at best pursue much the same policies with minor tweaks to the packaging and presentation, at worst do something it hardly bears thinking about that wasn’t even in the manifesto. We’d prefer to live our lives without being defined and shaped by money; we’d like to disentangle ourselves from the nine-to-five and the long-distance commute but find we need to spend ever more of our lives chasing money to achieve this goal in any meaningful way, to stack up enough to get out of the rat race, or at least, we do if we haven’t got the money to start with. We seek equilibrium while the prospect of achieving it recedes ever further into the realms of fantasy: even a moderately secure paid job and a place to live becomes the stuff of daydreams and fairy tales.

If this is the case, it must be because we lacked the necessary talent and drive. The thickets of mystique that grow around social connections and blind chance, like thorns around Sleeping Beauty’s castle, or the endless inflation that lifts entry-level doors beyond the reach of those who used to do the jobs, like the windows in Rapunzel’s tower. Besides, give someone the place and the role itself, the confidence inspired by acceptance, will tend to produce an approxiation of competence, enough to confirm the initial choice as right and justified, at least. Once the investment is made, and you’re on the inside, it might take years to expose your shortcomings even when this doesn’t apply.

Turn someone down, and maybe they’ll find themselves in debt, confidence shattered, slide from that crucial lost chance into apathy or worse. This is confirmation bias as a social and economic system, a lottery with delusions of meaningful decision-making. Every interview with someone successful you’ve ever read mentions the moment when something clicked: the job that led to everything that followed, the support that made the rest easy, the random draw that raised this one individual from the aspirant horde and planted those particular feet firmly on the sprung rubber surface of the fast track, where white lines curved on their clear path to the finish line. The rest remain outside, groping in the darkness for even the semblance of an entrance to the stadium.

Those who make it are the ones worthy of the rewards; the rest have fallen short. Anyone can see the natural justice at work in this.

Time passes. Small change turns up in the street from time to time. There is another story to be told, where we might glimpse details otherwise deemed insignificant: moments of clarity, peculiar unravellings of the fabrics we live by as the mind turns in on itself between one distraction and the next, each small paid job only tenuously connected to the last. Here’s one of those stories now, the beginnings of a prose elegy sketched out among the slogans and images that pierce the rain-soaked urban fabric with the fantastic promises of a dozen billboards along the route I’m walking:

It’s been eighty years since the armistice of the Great War, more or less. Vast posters appear in the streets showing the dark centres of scarlet poppies, as though Georgia O’Keefe has become confused with More O’Ferrall, the content stolen for the pasted image seamlessly merged with the interests profiting from the billboard itself. Lime green posters, possibly florescent, are slapped on top, unofficial fly posters showing a large disembodied phallus in black marker-pen. A train is beating over the iron railway-bridge, its wheels and carriages throbbing through the brickwork and girders above us with a close approximation of the rhythm in a migraine headache, right behind the eyes. A car takes a tight corner on a mountain road while the sun rises, or sets, it isn’t clear. Love and acceptance is promised to all by the mascaras and lipsticks worn by women so exceptional in appearance they are paid in multiples of your annual salary for a handful of photographs, a few seconds of film footage. There are four landscapes, sited at angles to one another above a junction, each one dramatic, beautiful and entirely free of advertising, all trying to entice us to travel into them by luxury car, cruise-liner or air…

This might be important. It’s just unedited notes, a few scraps of evidence, but you’ll probably have guessed already where it’s going, what the point will be. This isn’t subtle. There are some kinds of knowledge that we all share but somehow never quite rise into full consciousness for long enough to come into focus, mirages we aren’t sure are really there at all: am I seeing my mind work from a long way off or am I going mad? We know, instinctively, that the only place we’ll ever see a landscape entirely free of advertising is in the landscape depicted in an advertisement. It’s one of these things we know and witness continually but that no longer seems unnatural. Of course there are adverts everywhere, except in adverts. How else could things be?

Perhaps one day our shared observations will magnetize to one-another, gather weight and form, their collective gravity suddenly become sufficient to jolt entire fixed weather systems from their default courses. Would what ensued be chaos or liberation? Until then, I can indulge the dream of travelling among landscapes free of advertising while walking through a half-mile long canyon of shops and offices flanked by billboards, all the way from the Holloway Road to the gates of Finsbury Park. Perhaps if I can prove I’m worthy, start earning and save some money now, it might even happen. If I can just put my head down against all this rain and keep going…

p1240680

(lxiii)

“We work to maintain our chains of our own free will. We keep them safe with the clocks and the coins inside our own homes and fret ourselves ceaselessly about losing even a single link.”

Henry Sutton (1886)

The sun strains through the clouds like weak tea through muslin. Neon signs flicker high on the walls as I pass the Ethiopian crafts and clothes shop with its white door and window-frames, the grocer and halal  butcher, the steel shutters unrolled for an afternoon trade that seems to barely exist. On the pavement gangs of youths in leather jackets with gelled hair and strong after-shave hang around, maybe Greek, Cypriot or Turkish, maybe Albanian or Italian, but wherever they’re from I think I don’t recognise the language until I do, suddenly, finally catching a slangy, heavily accented English spoken at three times normal speed. A group of Somali women thread between them, while two elderly Jamaican men with grey hair and beards stand aside to let them pass, one doffing his tweed hat with a smile then moving on.

At the bus-stop a line of people moves forward to board a red Routemaster whose conductor hangs from the back step, one arm outstretched to signal that only the first four can get on, the rest must wait. There are murmurs and shufflings, but the line quickly falls back and returns to its paperbacks, newspapers and magazines. I am behind them, pausing by a litter-bin to pick up the shiny bronze penny that leans at a forty-five degree angle in the space between two paving-stones. As I stand, I notice the sky darkening, a large cloud moving through the light like a shadow over water. I can hear the distant rumbling of thunder, feel a vague electric charge hanging on the air like a veil.

The shadow throws the neon lights and office windows into sharper relief, and a blue and red sign shaped like a telephone flashes over a painted board that reads: Cheap Rate International Phone Calls and Travel Specialists. A man sits behind a wooden desk inside, a computer in front of him as he turns a ball-point pen over and over between his fingers, tapping it on the desk and staring into space. On the walls around him are posters in full colour showing scenes from Guyana, Jamaica, Cyprus, places where lurid pink and orange sunsets spread themselves behind silhouetted palm trees, where improbably blue skies luxuriate above sapphire oceans and white sand beaches, while natives in colourful clothes hold out baskets of fruit that seem to ripen in the warmth of exaggeratedly contented smiles, wide as the clean horizons that surround them.

He continues to stare into space, his gaze following a fly as it batters itself against a flickering florescent tube spotted with dust. He has the flight details and dialling codes of every point on the globe at his fingertips, but he is going nowhere and talking to no-one.

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‘Kumulipo Variations’ & Otobong Nkanga’s ‘Taste of a Stone’ (Oct – Dec 2016)

15 Oct

otobong-nkanga-taste-of-a-stone

As part of Otobong Nkanga’s exhibition The Encounter That Took a Part of Me at Nottingham Contemporary (Oct 15 – Jan 15) I’ll be performing a series of readings from the Kumulipo Variations, as featured in both the book and audio versions of Exotica Suite in 2015. The performances are scheduled on October 16 and October 23 at 3pm, on November 2 at 5pm, and on December 14 at 5pm. They take place in Gallery 1 at Nottingham Contemporary, where Nkanga’s Taste of a Stone is installed. (A programme of other responses to Nkanga’s work, from artists including Rebecca Lee, Panya Banjoko, Michael Pinchbeck and Nathaniel Mann, is set to thread through the full run of the exhibition).

Kumulipo Variations is grounded in the folklore of a parallel history where Hawaiians established a settlement in London during the 1780s and many Britons converted to Polynesian religious beliefs. Within this fictional context, the text suggests a hypothetical English translation of The Kumulipo made at some point during the first half of the 1800s. The Kumulipo itself is an epic Hawaiian creation myth, an oral account of the formation and history of both the natural and human worlds. The text as we know it today is usually credited to a figure named Keaulumoku, a near-contemporary of Kamehameha I. This known version is also dated to the few decades immediately preceding first European contact, when James Cook’s ships arrived in Hawaii during a festival dedicated to the god Lono in 1777, but much of the content is almost certainly older.

The Kumulipo‘s actual first full translation into English was made several decades after the entirely fictional one included in Exotica Suite. It has a very particular importance in the history of Hawaii’s colonisation, having been made by Queen Liliuokalani during the 1890s while under house arrest for her opposition to the coup that imposed a new constitution, disenfranchised native Hawaiians and annexed the islands into a territory of the United States under the control of an oligarchy of American landowners and merchants. Liliuokalani’s translation appeared in 1897, around a year before this formal annexation was finalised, and her intention was to reassert Hawaii’s political autonomy by presenting The Kumulipo, an account of her culture’s origins, to the wider world. Another, more scholarly, English edition was published by Martha Warren Beckwith in 1951.

While the 23 paragraphs of the Kumulipo Variations exist in an entirely fictional parallel history, then, and are also both partial (focusing on the earliest sections of the oral text) and at times divergent from their source, they are purposefully grounded in these earlier real translations, and hopefully draw some additional layers of potential meaning from their oblique relationship to the actual historical record. Not the least point of interest in writing these variations, for me, lay in the weaving of a potentially rich new perspective through the fabric of British folklore at a time when historically illiterate propaganda against immigration and cultural exchange was (and remains) dangerously influential.

The ecological vision found in the Hawaiian Kumulipo, with its proposal that all life begins in the sea and is interdependent, strikingly pre-dates and anticipates modern scientific and evolutionary perspectives, placing the wider issues the text hopefully raises into a useful dialogue with the botanical, geological and colonial themes explored by Otobong Nkanga‘s work. It’s also good to have this opportunity to perform the complete 20 – 30 minute cycle of Kumulipo Variations, as it is a text designed to be heard as well as read. The form adopted for this fictional translation merges Biblical cadences, the assonance and repetitions of Hawaiian chant, and perhaps the occasional hint of some particularly idiosyncratic David Attenborough nature documentary voice-over.

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions

From: Robert Holcombe’s Telekinesis (c.1954 – 1957)

6 Jul

Telekinesis II (1955)

“The game begins when the children, in whatever numbers are available when the desire to play takes hold, form a circle and focus their collective attention on a point in the ground at the dead-centre of their gathering. Each child then imagines the ground opening, mentally invoking a wound or vulva, a mouth or eye at that single point in space. Once the correct degree of focus is achieved each child in turn joins with the song that will slowly grow in volume and force as it passes repeatedly around their human circle, sometimes in the form of an elaborate but instinctively formed round, sometimes as a massed single chant as all the voices present merge into one:

Open, open, turn this earth to mouth,
Show coral lips and ivory teeth,
Cleave this ground to bring forth life,
Slice this stone with a surgeon’s knife.

When the required mass of vocalisation and psychic focus is accomplished a slowly expanding oval will appear in the air, its appearance not unlike a shadow’s penumbra surrounding a brighter central area. Witnesses have variously described this initial apparition as alike to a tiny nebula or cellular form hovering an inch above the ground, its circumference widening at an even rate. After a few moments this portal – for this, it is said, is what has been conjured – reaches its maximum dimensions, as determined by the numbers within the circle, then raises itself to conclude a smooth ascent somewhere around the average waist-height of those comprising the circle that has invoked it. It remains stabilised at this height for as long as the chant is sustained…”

 

Telekinesis [The Forest] (c.1954 - 1957)

‘Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History!’ (Nottingham Contemporary documentation by Andy Keate, 2016)

5 May
Salome (1953)

Robert Holcombe: Salome (1953)

Вот! Свободный рынок ликвидирует нашу!, 1973, is a book of collages by Robert Holcombe, a fictional British artist. Presenting evidence from a range of hidden, fabricated and authentic Cold War histories, the exhibition documented here takes its overall title from this work. The specific copy of the book used has its provenance in the library of Sir Frederick William (‘Bill’) Deakin (1913 – 2005), a former literary adviser to Churchill and active British liason officer with the Partisans of Josip Broz Tito in Yugoslavia between May and December 1943. While the image captions of Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! remain legible, allowing ghosts of the source material’s original purpose to show through, the historical content of the photographs themselves is cancelled by layers of advertising, technological and erotic imagery. The display, commissioned for the Small Collections Room at Nottingham Contemporary between January 16 and April 17 2016, was made in response to both Pablo Bronstein’s room design, featuring four antique cabinets, and themes suggested by Monuments Should Not Be Trusted, an exhibition of artworks and objects from Communist Yugoslavia curated by Lina Džuverović in the main galleries.

Cabinet 1: Works from the Robert Holcombe Archive

This cabinet presents a selection of works by Robert Holcombe (1923 – 2003). The display includes a selection from his series Krakow: pour Alina Szapocznikow, 1964, and The Holcombe Family Bible, 1967, alongside Study for Performing the Curtain Ritual, 1966, and the book work Вот! Свободный рынок ликвидирует нашу!. The cabinet also includes a number of undated photographic studies, such as Triceratops and Skegness Comet. Although undated, these studies were probably made at various times between 1951-63.

Cabinet 2: Works, Ephemera and Archive Materials

This cabinet includes source materials and other ephemera from the Holcombe archive alongside smaller works by Holcombe: Mask, c. 1952; The Lawn, 1966; and Argentina, 1976. A deck of Holcombe designed Tarot cards and their 1953 precursor, A Summary Of Contemporary Knowledge About Life And Its Possibilities, also feature. Archive materials include publications such as Youth in the GDR, scientific book club editions of The Drama of the Atom and LSD in Action, a set of 1940s film-star cigarette cards, a 1960 book of speculations by eminent Soviet Scientists on Life in the Twenty-First Century, and an eccentric hand-coloured photograph of a nuclear family.

Cabinet 3: 723 Variations on the Same Theme

The 723 found texts layered inside the drawers of this cabinet are cut from a wide range of consumer, technical and other publications from the 1940s to early 1980s. These cut outs are intended as both a typographic survey and an exploration of the everyday presence of propaganda in Western printed media during the Cold War period. They focus particularly on texts revealing prevailing insecurities and aspirations. The arbitrary number 723, which determines the size of the collection, was originally fixed by the addition to the series of a 1964 strap-line advertising a range of Hasselblad cameras.

Cabinet 4: Eastern Bloc Songs

This cabinet gathers a selection of 7” and 10” record sleeves produced between 1964 and 1981 by official state labels in Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary to give a brief visual introduction to the prolific and politically complex popular music cultures of European communist states during the Cold War period. The display is accompanied by a looped audio soundtrack featuring 11 songs by some of the artists featured, including Filipinki, Klan, Marta Kubišová, Czesław Niemen, Hana Zagorová, Sarolta Zalatnay, Olympic, Petr Ulrych, Josipa Lisac, Tadeusz Woźniak and Izabela Trojanowska. A small sampler publication introducing loose English translations of these 11 songs is also available.

Wall: Other Works by Robert Holcombe

Above Cabinet 1: Salome, 1953
Above Cabinet 2: Triptych (Marine Geology, The Sandstorm, The Brocken Spectre), 1955
Above Cabinets 3 & 4: The Modern Interior I & II, 1967

Robert Holcombe’s ‘A Summary of Contemporary Knowledge About Life and Its Possibilities’ [c.1953]

4 May

Drummer, from A Summary of Contemporary Knowledge About Life and Its Possibilities  [c.1953]

Drummer

A set of 40 images adapted from 1920s medical books and a small woodcut publication of the 1640s, retooled as a set of cards. Perhaps within the Robert Holcombe timeline, these can be seen as precursors of the later Tarot Series of 1971 – 1973 in that they appear to serve a similar function, presenting a set of Major Arcana figures and symbols with little to no actual connection with traditional Tarot (or conventional playing card) symbolism beyond a few passing tropes – in this case, the King, Queen and Swords cards. The originals are around 12 x 16cm in size and each of the images is backed with a seemingly random page from a medical dictionary where various terms, only obliquely or tentatively related to the images themselves, are defined: diagnosis, oxygen, antitoxin, anxiety, lymphatic system, morphia, transposition, contraception, breast, head, rigor, adrenal cortex, tobacco, cramp, oestragen, oesophagus, placenta, coma, bursa, strangulation, stomach, transfusion, enzyme, bruise, torniquet, Sigmund Freud, pneumonia, electroconvulsive therapy, sterile, protein, stress, fatigue, blood pressure, curare, culture, doctor, tropical diseases, modified response, and so on. The set was featured (with only one card visible) among the archival materials displayed in Cabinet 2 during the exhibition Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! at Nottingham Contemporary (Jan 16 – April 17, 2016).

Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan to 17 April 2016)

6 Jan

Eastern Bloc Songs Sampler

Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! (Small Collections Room, Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016 – 17 Apr 2016)

Drawing together strands from a number of ongoing projects, including 723 Variations On The Same Theme, Eastern Bloc Songs and the fictional archives of the British artist Robert Holcombe, Wayne Burrows presents a display spanning both sides of the Cold War. Curated by Irene Aristizábal, Behold! The Markets Shall Erase Our History! takes in typographic consumer propaganda, erased partisan histories, fabricated Independent Group artworks and artifacts from the histories of popular music in Communist Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Eastern Bloc Songs: A Sampler, introducing loose English translations from the Polish, Czech, Hungarian and Croatian lyrics of 11 songs featured in the exhibition – all recorded between 1964 and 1981 by Filipinki, Klan, Marta Kubišová, Czesław Niemen, Hana Zagorová, Sarolta Zalatnay, Olympic, Hana & Petr Ulrychovi, Josipa Lisac, Tadeusz Woźniak and Izabela Trojanowska – is published by Nottingham Contemporary to accompany and contextualise the display and will be available at the gallery shop and elsewhere from January 15th.

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Eastern Bloc Disco with UrBororo (Nottingham Contemporary, 16 Jan 2016, 8.30pm to 11pm, free).

To celebrate the opening weekend of Monuments Should Not Be Trusted and expand on the display of Eastern Bloc 7” records in his exhibition in the Small Collections Room, Wayne Burrows will be playing soul, rock, psychedelia, pop, folk and jazz, all drawn from the surprisingly diverse output of the official state record labels of Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Romania, East Germany and the USSR between the 1960s and early 1980s.

The session will also include a live set from UrBororo, Pil & Galia Kollectiv’s new venture into “skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening” – an “objectively boring” band whose songs are made from an unlikely merger between the sounds of surf, grunge and punk and whose lyrics are all borrowed from a 1970s Management Self-Help guide.

“UrBororo are objectively boring. They also view themselves as boring. UrBororo actually refer to themselves with typically irritating self-deprecation as ‘The People Who You Wouldn’t Like to be Cornered by at a Party’. They regard most of what they do as a waste of time. Based on a managerial help book, the songs they play propose a skewed filing cabinet swamp blues for corporate inflight listening.”Pil & Galia Kollectiv (2015)

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