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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/

 

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…

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(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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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.

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

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

Portrait of Maya Deren (c.1950s)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

Jayne Cortez: Everywhere Drums

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

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

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

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

Eva Svankmajerova: Illustration from Baradla Cave

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

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