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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)

 

 

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

15 Oct

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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

Shell-Ears and Tin-Ears (from ‘An Imaginary History of Musical Polynesia’, 2015)

19 Dec

 

Shell-Ears and Tin-Ears

(after ‘War Between Short-Eared and Long-Eared Tribes’, Easter Island)

The tin-eared people were the rulers and they inhabited the big skyscrapers, gated estates and apartment blocks in the most expensive suburbs and cities.

The shell-eared people lived on the poorest land in the small overlooked places, or in the cold shadows cast by the big buildings that belonged to the tin-eared people.

One day, the tin-eared people wanted to build another big skyscraper for themselves on shell-eared people’s land, so they put out a call:

“Come and help us clear these poor lands and make them better,” the tin-eared people said. “If you do this, the land will be improved and the shell-eared people can live there more comfortably.”

But the shell-eared people knew the tin-eared people’s tricks. They knew that the moment their lands were no longer poor they would be taken from them and they refused to do the work.

Then the tin-eared people cleared the land themselves and, angry at having to labour even for a day like shell-eared people do for all their lives, the tin-eared people now said they were building a big complex of luxury apartments for themselves on that land which belonged to the shell-eared people.

And the tin-eared people took the land from the shell-eared people, and built their big complex of luxury apartments there, and then they left them all empty, for the tin-eared people already had apartments and houses and could not live in them all.

While the tin-eared people were building the luxury apartments that no-one needed, they heard the shell-eared people singing and playing on musical instruments in their cramped huts while sitting around their fires, and before throwing them from the land, the tin-eared people said to each-other:

“These sounds will make lots of money for us if we can take them from the shell-ears and sell them to our own kind to play in their cars and offices.”

So before they drove the shell-eared people from their land and away from even the cold shadows of that empty luxury apartment block, they sneaked inside all the shell-eared people’s huts and took away their drums and guitars, their marimbas and flutes.

Only when the tin-eared people had done all this did they drive the bulldozers over the huts and pour the concrete over the places where those shell-eared people’s huts had once stood to erase all trace of them and make it appear they were never there, as they always did.

There was one woman who was very unusual in this story, for though she was born shell-eared she had married one of the tin-eared people in her youth. Now she was full of regrets, for she had found her husband could not respect her because she lacked a tin-ear.

But this same woman had also once been known among the shell-eared people as a great musician, so some of the business associates of her tin-eared husband came to her with all those stolen musical instruments and asked her to play them, as no tin-ear can ever be a true musician.

This woman now knew what the tin-eared people had done to the shell-eared people’s huts, but she played a short song on each of the instruments her husband and his associates handed to her anyway, hoping that the tin-ears she lived among would one day listen and hear something other than the sound of money rattling in every part of the world.

For the truth, as this woman knew to her heart’s cost, was that where shell-ears can hear music, tin-ears can hear nothing but the sound of money rattling in every part of the world, alive or inanimate.

When birds sing, shell-eared people hear the conflicts and courtships of wild nature or a promise of dawn, but tin-eared people hear only the money rattling in their feathers and meat or locked away inside all the timber of the trees those birds make their nests in.

When there is conversation, shell-eared people listen and hear the voices speaking and the words being said, but tin-eared people listen for nothing but the money rattling in a person’s business connections and appearance or locked away in their personal possessions and bank accounts.

When there is music playing, shell-eared people hear its sounds and textures, its harmonies and rhythms, its meanings and shifting atmospherics, but tin-eared people hear only the money rattling about in the infinite numbers of ways it can be wedged into slots on radio and TV or make terrible adverts for things not even other tin-eared people want 4% more effective with some demographics.

This was what this woman’s husband now proved, for hearing his wife play one beautiful song, he only heard money rattling in its slow and languid movements, thinking that it might be made simpler and more cheaply then sold to help other tin-eared people relax after they had spent their days listening for more things to get money rattling out of, which was indeed exhausting.

And hearing his wife play a song full of all the suggestive and snaking rhythms that no shell-eared person could possibly hear without remembering fleshy pleasures and dancing to it until they sweated and became delirious, the tin-eared husband could only hear the money rattling in the possibility of making a cheaper version and putting it on a keep-fit CD to sell at garages.

It is the way of this world that for tin-eared people, who can only ever hear money rattling in everything in this world, alive or inanimate, there is only one distinction that counts among all the sounds, the only subtlety a tin-ear can distinguish that a shell-ear will rarely notice.

For a tin-eared person, money rattles in different directions, so if a tin-ear hears money rattling into his tin, he is pleased and delighted, and he will congratulate himself endlessly. But if he hears money rattling out of his tin, he grows quickly resentful and his mood becomes dark and vicious.

Even so, after all this, or perhaps because of all this, the tin-eared people are still the rulers, and they still live in the biggest skyscrapers and office blocks of the most expensive cities, and the shell-eared people still live on the poorest land in the small and overlooked places, among all the cold shadows cast by the big buildings made for tin-eared people by other tin-eared people.

It is true that the shell-eared people still have drums and guitars, marimbas and flutes, and they are sometimes played, but even when silenced these sounds are suggested by all the noises of the world that made them and are still heard in that world by the shell-eared people, though their hearts might break at what the recognition of these noises conjures and stirs within their bodies.

Perhaps this war between the tin-eared people and the shell-eared people will continue indefinitely.

Or perhaps the shell-eared people will notice that they greatly outnumber the tin-eared people and turn on them, and after great bloodshed leave only one alive, as a reminder to themselves of the cost of inaction should the tin-eared ever again win the upper hand over the shell-eared.

Or perhaps, as that shell-eared woman married to a tin-eared husband hopes, the tin-eared people will learn to listen and hear again, for it is said that their ancestors once heard as the shell-eared people do, before this strange affliction that made them hear only money rattling in every part of this world, alive or inanimate, took them so far away from their own selves and senses that they came to consider any state other than their own an illness to be punished and cured.

Whatever comes next between the tin-eared people and the shell-eared people is not yet known, for the tale is now ended and my page falls silent as this world never will.

Buy Exotica Suite & Other Fictions (Shoestring Press, 2015)

 

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions (Launch at New Art Exchange, July 10, 2015)

20 Jun

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions will be out on July 10th, via Shoestring Press for the print publication, and as a full length album, also titled Exotica Suite, on CD from July and as a vinyl LP in 2016. The recordings feature some of the written texts sampled, remixed, re-edited and performed with music by Paul Isherwood, best known for four acclaimed albums made with The Soundcarriers, most recently Entropicalia (Ghost Box, 2014). The launch will also premiere a cycle of related short films to which the recordings act as soundtracks. It’s all scheduled to take place at at New Art Exchange on July 10, between 6 – 9pm, free but booking via Eventbrite is strongly recommended.

Exotica Suite & Other Fictions

BOOK PUBLICATION CONTENTS & BLURB:

Exotica Suite begins with an Easter Island creation chant in the style of William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell and an imaginary Polynesian colony in England in the 1780s then takes in a series of tall tales featuring Hawaiian musicians. Other Fictions fabricates occult histories in Nottingham caves and embarks on a labyrinthine sea voyage with the body of a late Hawaiian King. Now gathered in one place for the first time, the various forgeries, stories, false lectures, misleading anecdotes and other writings in Exotica Suite & Other Fictions are the flip-side to Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, also published by Shoestring.

Exotica Suite simultaneously exists as a vinyl LP and audio CD made in collaboration with the musician Paul Isherwood, best known for his work with The Soundcarriers.

“…spins a web that oscillates between the fictional and non fictional and encourages us to reflect on how we navigate the past and how this could affect all our futures.”

Katherine Wood on Marine (2013)

Book Contents:

Part One: Exotica Suite:
A Creation Fragment from Easter Island
An Account of the Hawaiian Colony in England (1790)
The Kumulipo Variations
Four Hula Songs for the Goddess Laka
The Sorceress
An Imaginary History of Musical Polynesia
(i) The First Musician
(ii) Joseph Kekuku Between Two Worlds
(iii) Sol Hoopii Finds A Sack Of Souls
(iv) Arthur Lyman’s Marimba Calms Pele’s Rage
(v) Shell-Ears And Tin-Ears
Invocation to Sun Ra (1914 – 1993)

Part Two: Other Fictions
Marine: A Story in Eight Objects
A Marriage of Styles
The Disappearances
The Peel Street Codex
The Nottingham Medlars
An Edible Alphabet
Fabricated Archives
Spirit Wrappings: Some Notes on the Rashleigh Jackson Family Collection
A Mandinka Song: Theme & Variations
Disturbances
The Enigma of Robert Holcombe
Convulsive Beauty: A Fabricated Lecture
Twelve Non-Specific Sites

The Sorceress (1955) Latino Graphics E

Exotica Suite LP/CD Tracklist:

Side 1:
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad I
Creation Fragment
Altar Prayer For Laka
A Hula for Laka (For Link Wray)
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad II
The Sorceress

Side 2:
Ankle Bracelet
Flute Interlude
Kumulipo Variation
The Hawaiian Colony Ballad III
Subliminal (Invocation to Sun Ra)

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 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 in 2001, and after several years focused on a day job in freelance journalism, compiling a fragmentary book about money called Shrapnel and developing 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 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 body of new work, including the sequence A Cycle Of Songs From The Body’s Interior, will feature in Black Glass: New & Selected Poems, which is forthcoming from Shoestring in March 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.

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 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  and, from 1955 until 1988, a planning officer in Leeds. 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 usual at the time. His works are marked by a fascination with consumerist excess, 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 in 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 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 still 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 at least 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, the exhibition accidentally coincided with a major Richard Hamilton retrospective at Tate Modern and 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 referenced work by both these neighbouring 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 gigantic chrome tap standing in a ruined abbey), The Purge (a burning rice field, suggestive of the late Vietnam War context in which the cards were made) and The Nest (a classical column protruding from a birds’ nest). Devised to appear meaningful, while remaining 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.

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.