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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
Another lecture on Holcombe’s work was improvised at a closing event for the fictional retrospective exhibition, The 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.”
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.