Recently I was approached to conceive and run an outreach project to accompany a solo show of work by Eduardo Kac at Furtherfield Gallery in North London’s Finsbury Park.
Among the works on show was one of Kac’s Lagoogleglyphs, large scale stylised representations of rabbits (something of a signature obsession for him) painted in some sort of sportsground emulsion directly onto a section of the park and allegedly of a scale which make it harvestable by the satellites Google rents for its various mapping activities.
Being completely frank, I have to say I entertained a degree of scepticism about Kac’s work—some of it falling within, in my view, one or both of two entertainment based metaphors—the ‘one-liner’ and the ‘theme park’—neither particularly positive elements of my critical lexicon.
Be that as it may, some of the work, particularly the less grandiose pieces (that delicate bunny flag flapping above the gallery!) were touched enough with real poetry to make me want to take up the challenge.
I say ‘challenge’ advisedly for I’m only ever interested in doing anything which in some sense challenges me and I also felt that my ambivalence about Kac would result in anything I ended up making containing a return element of ‘challenge’ or, perhaps more gently put, practical critique.
The word challenge also described the sense I had of wanting to counterpose collaboration, the collective, the everyday, to the artist with a capital ‘A’; of going some way to claiming art as a way of seeing and feeling and thinking together for All ( also with a capital ‘A’).
Reaching back in memory I pondered two remix/homage projects from the noughties which somehow straddled, in a pleasantly clunky fashion, practices both cutting edge digital (at least in their original moment) and time honoured too.
Apposite and practical stimuli for my 2018 purposes, they suggested elegant pathways to both honour previous work and to gently…um… stress-test it.
Both evinced rich humour, a warmth and a concomitant refusal to take themselves too seriously, qualities lacking in much contemporary art and both had a kind of performative klutziness I found entirely engaging.
Both were made in the first years of this millennium when digital and particularly online art was a wild west with a few fragile homesteads scattered here and there and not the orderly space it is today colonised almost entirely by the mainstream art world or commerce or both.
I recalled first a project by Nathaniel Stern where he hired South African billboard sign writers to paint physical representations of various, mostly art related, web pages.
The second was artist duo MTAA’s remix of Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance project, an endurance piece where Hsieh had forced himself to punch a timeclock on the hour, every hour for a whole year.
Reversing the premise MTAA’s Whid and River posted a database of video clips of themselves sleeping, eating, inhabiting the space and left it to the online viewer to watch these being digitally assembled (by Flash—remember that?) into a simulacrum of the original over the assumedly continuous period of a year.
Armed, fortified, prepared thus, I set to work—but I still needed a concrete plan and methodology.
Being a keen runner and the project taking place in a London Park in which I had run a 10k not long before (and now having endurance floating near the top of my mind) I felt some kind of park related physical activity would be an element and this would be a way of coming closer to those who loved the park but for whom the art gallery might not be their first association.
But still I lacked the concrete rabbit themed activity which would offer genuine practical, meaningful and autonomous artistic engagement and creation to participants.
I did not want to control what those participants would do but give them a clearly defined (clearly defined enough that all inputs from three separate days of activity could be brought together into a final unified work) and interesting task within which they would need to deploy creativity, focus and skill.
The fad for exercise related GPS devices had previously passed me by but one day whilst running with my daughter, who uses her phone and GPS enabled software to document her running in data and map form, I had a small epiphany—here there (might) be rabbits.
Rabbits, giant GPS rabbits, first planned and sketched by participating teams in marker pen over a satellite image of the park—ears, eyes, paws, body, fluffy tails emergent within its various paths and trails and features and obstructions.
And then, using these maps, we would carefully and attentively walk-out each monster rabbit trapping and freezing it as a succession of data, a series of co-ordinates in the memory of the GPS watch I would wear, finally to be reconstitututed as a continuous line drawing in turn fed back into a fresh satellite view of the park.
But that succession of co-ordinates, actuated by the actual movements of the human body (like a giant pencil lead or nib or brush) will resolve itself into something ancient—line, preconceived and then drawn out by human beings.
Being, together, both the very oldest form of mark making and something blink-of-an-eye recent too (well, as recent as the noughties efflorescence of so-called locative media which I shamelessly pillaged here.)
Inaccuracy in some measure a feature of both ancient and modern—the error margin of even GPS and GLONASS together, two sets of four satellites working in concert; the mix of will and skill and the fallibility and triumph too of flesh and bone and sinew which is part of what thrills and moves us in the arts.
This is what I had in mind.
Repeatedly outlining then co-performing an activity which I learned to summarise simply and precisely, almost automatically, one might have thought boredom or a dozy, parroted, routine might threaten.
And how anxious I was each time as to whether and in what way each new team would engage with—buy into—adopt as theirs, as ours—the task.
But how striking the variation both in the simple, basic act of depicting in continuous line each new rabbit-of-the-imagination and the forty minutes lively sociability surrounding that initial sketching and subsequent walking-out.
Balancing the competing claims of making something serious, something with some kind of weight, some satisfying end product, whilst making space for others’ fun and dreams and and will and whimsy is neither easy nor is it trivial.
In the end people seemed to have a good time, they seemed at ease, went at it with a will and—it seems to me—something rich and affecting emerged.
Thanks to all at Furtherfield and thanks—no, not thanks, but credit—to my fellow artists: Alessandra, Anna, Candy, Chris, Elliot, Evgenia, Franc, George, Grace, Henry, Jade, Lenon, Léonie, Lucian, Luka, Martin, Matthew, Maya, Negev, Niyah, Pryle, Rémi, Rosalie, Sara, Shiri, Stefan, Thea and Tyler.
This is the third of three pieces on people who are posting work to the photography sharing site Flickr .
In this final article I look at the work of Karin Rudolph
. Rudolph is a Belgian photographer, currently living in Athens, where she works as a wedding and event photographer and raises two teenage sons. In addition to her work for pay she makes an ongoing series of ‘personal’ images which she regularly posts to the photo sharing site Flickr.
I ask her to send me some images from a wedding job and she does.
It is a job she is clearly good at—everything is beautifully shot, nicely framed, sharply in focus (when sharp focus might be thought necessary), but there is that extra something that comes with a good portrait photographer, which I can only describe as fellow feeling. A fellow feeling which elicits transparency and a willingness to risk vulnerability from the subject. I’ve never met Rudolph but it’s clear that her personality, her way of being, is a player here.
There’s also a sharp curiosity at work—a hunger for the way the world looks and with Rudolph this seems to become attached to particular objects, creatures (some human, some not) and roles. There was a dog at the wedding in the images she sent me. The wedding took place outdoors and the clearly much loved animal figures in a number of the shots. It’s as if at one point R becomes fascinated by it and we get shots where the all humans are cropped (in the shooting; she doesn’t crop after the fact) down to the waist and the dog becomes central (although a small child has a supporting role here too since he necessarily evades the crop/frame wholesale). We get a dog narrative. Then a bouquet catches her eye and we get a bouquet narrative, the wedding filtered through a non-human being or an object. Motion—a sense of the moment before and the moment after being necessary, if hidden, components of this still image—is a key underpinning of so many of these images, particularly in relation to these micro-narratives.
In a photographer less manifestly gripped by the facts of our fragile human being and ways in the world one might call some of her approaches formalist. It is certainly true that rhyme, echo, geometry, continuities and disruptions of line, shape and colour play a highly significant role in the structuring of her images but one of the driving forces of R’s work is that it constantly moves to dissolve any artificial divide between content and form. Yes, her eyes seek pattern; yes, this or that organising device might order an image but this never obscures our awareness of the facts, feelings and relationships portrayed or implicit there. Also—we humans are formalists, aren’t we? We’re pattern seekers. We play. Were you never fascinated as a child by mirrors, by the world turned upside down by hanging from your legs or by the cropping or heightening, or focus) achieved by looking through the cracks in your fingers? Of course you were. As we grow we perceive the whole world through a complex dialectic of what is presented to our senses on the one hand and our burgeoning sorting and structuring principles on the other. We are of necessity creatures of content and form together and one surmises that this is what makes us creatures of art too.
I’d been writing and thinking about this piece for a few months, on and off, and I’d got to a second or third draft when it hit me with a thud, a jolt, that hardly any of the recent images have titles.
The fact had just sailed under my radar, curiously, since I’ve argued and will again, that insofar as we can talk about meaning in a photo (or any visual artwork) this possibility lies in a network of references and comparisons which ineluctably involves talk, writing or both. Language. Further, that visual art is best seen as something humans do (emphasis on both words) than as the usual set of isolable ‘in and of themselves’ objects (which isolation is a fiction, at best an analytical convenience). And then it struck me ( I was being struck a lot that day) that there is something about these images that fights back against language—they’re often cross genre and resist categorisation and there’s a sense in which the easiest approach to what’s in them is simply to list it, and finally to say that this image had these things in it under this kind of light from that angle but, of course, this is far from satisfactory and at root there is something far transcending taxonomy or description going on. But –dammit! –I can’t help feeling it is as if the images (placed as they are in the sequence formed by Flickr) are calling out, hailing each other. I don’t know why, but forced rhubarb, a most unlikely image, is the one which springs to mind and persists, as if the absence of the immediately adjacent language of a title somehow forces the set of glorious but hitherto mute images to invent speech.
Anyone who has ever taken an un-posed image of a human being on a fast shutter speed will be cautious about ascribing emotions or characteristics to the subject on the basis of what is revealed. As in so many other ways, the very small, the very distant or unreachable, animal locomotion, the photograph reveals things beyond our normal ability to see or grasp them. One of these things is the curious plasticity of the human expression and how in our interactions we read this in sequence, in time, together with a host of other clues, aural and visual, to make sense of what is going on, to try to understand both what a person is doing and to surmise what they might be feeling . (Of course the opposite of this, the posed image, brings its own problems too.)
When we think hard and soberly we cannot but be convinced that the photograph alone, an impossibly small fragment of time, does not allow us enough evidence, that it is somehow unanchored in the world.
And yet, the desire to draw conclusions, to make comment, is certainly strong in us and each photographic image of a person, especially the striking and affecting ones, comes with a very strong sense that we are able to do so.
What can we actually say about the still photographic portrait, both in general and in particular cases?
One thing we might say is that the single image’s apparently complete account of a human being, based upon a fleeting expression (and perhaps the fleeting expressions in response of others and maybe also the presence of contextualising objects or other clues) suggests at best, a class of possibilities. This single image evokes a range of other possible images and moments in the world at least one of which must correspond to our strong intuitions about it. So even if we were able to establish the facts of the matter in this particular case and it made a lie of our emotional response , nevertheless that response represents a truth and somewhere, perhaps quite often, in the world, situations occur, have occurred, will occur, which correspond to this truth.
And it seems to me that it is this instinct for general human truth, allied to the particularity of light, line, composition, of other things depicted, which manifests in the eye-and-heart-catching-ness of the resulting final image.
A strong way of putting it would be that any portrait is just as much a work of fiction as a novel but that as we would not wish to deny something called ‘truth’ in the novel ( you might—I see no point to the thing otherwise) in the portrait we work our way back to truth.
And at least for me it is the photographer’s—and here, now ‘the photographer’s’ means R’s—capacity for empathy, for narrative, for understanding of the world and the wonder and the oddness of its inhabitants that makes her such a good portraitist (and let’s not forget, too, simply having done the thing a lot —this is often underrated nowadays.)
Do I know whether the Orthodox priest at the wedding table was a kind man? No. I don’t. I cannot. Is kindness manifest in the photo, is the possibility of kindness in the world reasonably asserted in it? Do I know more about kindness thereby? Absolutely.
There’s a black and white image, taken, I think, at the place where her teenage sons practice their footballing skills which feels like a short story or perhaps a collection of short stories, each cued by the various human presences which form at one and the same time a large (in how they capture our attention) and a small (in how much actual area of the image they occupy) part of the entire image.
It also has a most clearly defined geometry—three strips, the topmost being the practice field itself, the middle appearing to be a road like depression running between the photographer and this field and the lowest a pavement of some sort on the other side of that ‘road’. The almost bizarrely long evening shadows of R and a companion (and the horizontal distance between shadows is nicely ambiguous on the exact relationship between those shadowed) stretch forward into the image. The vertical grid adjacent to them, with a gap in the centre picked out in shadow too, suggests they are standing at a pedestrian gate to the place. I imagine the figure at the viewer’s right is R as the arms appear to be raised in a photo taking action.
(The image thumbs its nose at genre—it is oblique self-portrait, landscape, social history, portrait and exploration of geometry and structure all at the same time.)
Shadows aside, the figures which catch my eye (what about you, so much to choose from or are you constrained in a similar way to me by something in the way the image is structured?) are the short stocky man in motion, walking away from us at the image’s far right top strip foreground. There’s a delicious swagger and confident openness about him.
Has he passed through the gate where R stands? Did he greet her?
The second key (perhaps because nearest?) figure is the young man, top strip, viewer’s far left, again in movement, this time almost certainly certainly sports related. Is he pursuing a stray ball? Running to greet a friend? Engaged in some sort of running warm up/exercise? As we strain to see, our relationship to the image’s scale shifts and we begin to realise just how many other figures he opens up to us—there are at least six either standing or seated in those little sheds at the field’s side between him and the left edge of the nearest goal net—each an enigma of a small but definite kind—and when we move rightwards from them we realise (and we have to move closer in, look differently, at the image to see this) just how many people there are in some sort of action here. As we move out again we are stuck by the contrast between the contemplative calm of the giant shadows and the anthill busyness of the young men. And here’s another thing. This is such a male photo. (With the exception of the photographer and I think it’s only because I know she is female that I read her as such. Then even as I write this I notice the slight head-cocked-to-one-side quality of aficionado-like attention in the head of the left shadow—and why do I think that might clue maleness? What does that say about me?) Oh! Layers and layers of fact, of presence, of things to enumerate and puzzle over. So much! And this before we take the thing as a totality—geometry, inhabitants, shadows, activity, motivation, time of day, distant trees, weeds and barren ground, a sky whose colour we can only guess from the fact we know there is evening sun. And that totality is the hardest thing to compass in any way other than an intake of breath or shiver down the spine. Enumerating the contents helps (although it’s not essential to the immediate affective apprehension of the whole—that just happens) but it’s the inexplicable (not a value judgement—literally inexplicable—simply, ‘This is what R did’) decision to frame those contents in that way—the bit of the process which defies words—that makes this and so many other pieces by her so powerful.
A ravenous eye.
She has a ravenous eye, constantly tracking the scene in front of her and hungry for detail. This hunger does not distinguish between content and form. Whatever is human, whatever stirs affect or curiosity—whether pattern, rhyme or echo, or ethics, or suggested human warmth or frailty, this is swallowed up and processed by heart and mind in turn
The resulting images bear the strong feel of certain, almost objective, structuring principles—that following of object or creature within a scene, the use of rhyme and echo. Two further categories are geometry and colour (and nothing here is pure, there are no essences, sometimes blocks of colour impose an extra, parallel geometry upon a scene whose first order sense—whether it be human beings in action or traces of interpretable human activity; buildings, signs, the street —apparently lies elsewhere.) The key thing about all these structuring principles is that they are found, excavated, discovered, seen—not made. They happen in parallel with, arise out of the actions and feelings of, human beings in this world, the only one we have.
Because she is someone who has lived, fully, in that world, for a fair time, because her hunger extends beyond the visual (she always has a book on the go and the range of these is impressive), because she has a number of languages and is at home in at least three cultures, she makes images which are connected and re-connected by hundreds of threads to things we ourselves might have read and thought or experienced and talked about. Further, it is impossible to imagine that the fact she is a woman living in a country not of her birth, where she has learned a different script, different ways of talking and being, where she works in part as an image maker for hire and constantly both connects and holds separate that work for pay from own ‘own’ work, at the same time as raising children by herself, that these facts are not also somehow foundational.
For a long time I have struggled with how to attach the word meaning to image. It is too easily and glibly used. An image never ‘means’ a single thing (unless it is the poorest of images and even then the human capacity for/delight in ambiguity sets to work to disrupt this) What is evident in Rudolph’s work is networks of evoked meaning, memories, feelings.
Her way of being in the world, this following her eye and nose, means that there is a kind of metonymy purged of any attempt at system—here is a dog or child or chair or window. Here are the things which necessarily were near it at a moment in time and this is how they were disposed. There was reason and there was randomness. Parts of the disposition were beautiful. (What do I mean by beautiful? They move me, they fill me with a joy that cannot be reduced to words though it perhaps can be limned by various combinations of words, combinations potentially infinite which always nearly but not completely fail.) Parts of the disposition were stark or threatening or at least worrisome. The bringing together of all these parts—worry, beauty, pattern, action—into an image framed, bounded, lit, by the laws of the heart and the laws of the intellect now pulling one way, now the other. The work about the world is itself part of the world. We are not alone. No person is an island. We can read each other’s thoughts. We can feel each other’s feelings.
The words and the image and human heart and human history dance ever outwards and outwards. What does an artist do but always start to write the whole history of humanity in the world?
Alan Sondheim has been ploughing a very singular furrow through art, music, writing, philosophy and much else since the late sixties. On the occasion of his participation in the Children of Prometheus exhibition at Furtherfield Gallery we present here an interview conducted by the artist and writer Michael Szpakowski in which Sondheim gives a broad overview of his artistic formation, practice and philosophy.
Michael Szpakowski: I first came across your work through the Webartery mailing list in 2001. I remember being knocked out by your productivity, a productivity that seemed to be allied to an incredible intellectual curiosity and restlessness, resulting in in words, images, movies, music – I remember once you started making little programs in some variant of Visual Basic… All of these posted day in, day out, come rain or shine, to the list… And, obviously I preferred some to others and for anyone to follow every piece of work you made would mean doing little else with their lives, but the quality, the variety, of what you made was ( and remains) staggering.
I found this compulsion to make work both admirable and invigorating and I’ve followed your work ever since. I think I even once compared you to Picasso on DVblog because I couldn’t think of anyone working in art for the net (and every such description is problematic, I’ll ask something more specific later) who seemed to come anywhere near to that fecundity allied to quality too…
I think of this interview as a general introduction to your work for someone who maybe has only happened across it for the first time in the exhibition at Furtherfield so I’d like to ask, first of all, for you to give us a sketch of your intellectual and artistic formation and the milieu(x) in which you have worked (I mean right from the beginning – tell us what makes you, you!):
Alan Sondheim: Of course this is difficult to answer; I began with writing and around the age of 19, started making music as well, but I was always restless. The compulsion has personal roots, but also a desire to move into an environment, habitus, and explore its limitations and promises; in all of this, I’m concerned with the interplay of the somatic and consciousness on one hand, and abstraction, the inertness of the real, mathesis (the mathematization, structuring of the world) on the other. So there’s this dialog at the limits. My first production was a book of experimental writing, An,ode ; around the same time I made three recordings, two for ESP-Disk; this was around the late 60s. Clark Coolidge, the poet, was very important to me early on; I met him at Brown; he introduced me to Vito Acconci and shortly after, early 70s, I moved to NY, eventually SoHo in its heyday. I’ve never been a traditional artist/writer/musician/etc. but move among these areas; I’m concerned with what for me are fundamental issues of philosophy, body, and the world. I want to explore at the limits of what I’m capable of doing. How is consciousness in relation to the world? How is the world?
I’m driven to create daily; while teaching at UCLA, I made a sound film (16mm for the most part) a week for 37 weeks; they ranged from a minute to an hour in length and were forms of deconstructed narrative. Now online, I try to make a work daily in whatever medium, including virtual worlds of all sorts; I continue to try to push limits – what I call ‘edgespace,’ – the space where gamespaces/worlds begin to break down, and what then? (By ‘gamespace,’ I mean, literally the space of a game, where rules hold – for example chess or football. The rules may be consensual or enforced, etc.) This is deeply involved with the politics and somatics of these spaces of course, and on the political spectrum, I’m leftist and deeply pessimistic; I don’t see internet or social media as salvation of any sort, but as fundamentally neutral, extraordinarily adaptable to any number of usages. I’ve written on the differences at the finest levels between the analog and digital, areas like that usually taken for granted; what emerges is a kind of granularity situated within an obdurate real world whose biosphere is faltering deeply.
M: Although you are included in an exhibition in a physical space here the vast majority of your output has been presented on the net, usually in the context of one or more mailing lists. Could you say a bit about this. Was this a conscious choice or pragmatism or somehow both? Is there anything you particularly prize about the rhythm of work and presentation that comes with this kind of platform and has the eclipse of many of the old mailing lists with the rise of social media caused problems for you – have you tried to adapt to/utilise these newer modes?
A: It’s pragmatism combined with a desire to explore; edgespace teeters uneasily and tends towards what I call blankspace, where the imaginary exists – for example, the ‘heere bee dragonnes’ in unknown areas of early maps (I haven’t actually seen the expression, but it serves here). I present my work on Facebook and G+; I also used YouTube for a long time until I was banned from it.
M: Banned from it?
A: A long story that would take this too far afield…
I work well in presentation/talk/performance mode online and off. I believe in the depth of email lists of course. I do think my avatar work is really well suited to gallery spaces; I’ve had up to seven projections going at the same time. I’ve also performed live in virtual worlds or mixed-reality situations which are projected/presenced directly, and for a long time Azure Carter, my partner, and I worked with the dancer/performer/choreographer Foofwa d’Imobilite; the physicality of the work was amazing. And another aspect of what I do – what grounds me – is playing musical instruments, mostly difficult (for me) non-western ones; the instruments require tending and close attention. I tend to play fast. Most of them are strings, bowed or plucked; the music is improvisation. Recently I’ve been focusing on the sarangi, for example. And I’ve had something like 17 tapes, lps, and cds issued; the most recent is LIMIT, which was done in collaboration with Azure and Luke Damrosch, who did Supercollider programming based on concepts I’ve had about time reversal in real time – an impossibility in gamespace, but the edgespace is fascinating. The music products excite me; they’re out there in a way that my other work isn’t.
M: I remember when I first discovered internet art or whatever we want to call it (and there have been numerous quasi theological arguments about this) that there was an intense debate about whether the internet was a conduit or a medium – so many artist-scripters/programmer tended to rather look down on those who simply took advantage of the network’s distribution and dialogical properties (although I have to say that my view is that it was in this massive extension of connectivity that the real force of the thing resided – I remember being told in 2001 that moving image was not internet idiomatic which is amusing given the rise of YouTube &c.) Your work, certainly of the last 17 years or so, strikes me as being intimately tied up with the network and with the unfolding possibilities of new media but not necessarily in the sense that you work with the network itself to make objects, works and more in the second sense of the conduit…
A: It depends; for example one of the projects I initiated through the trAce online writing community in 1999-2000 – over the hinge of the millennium in other words – was asking a world-wide group of artists, IT folk, etc., to map traceroute paths and times from the night of 12/31 to the afternoon of 1/1; the internet was supposed to run into difficulties – over timing etc. – and I wanted to create a picture of what was happening world-wide. A second project somewhat later was using the linux-based multi-conferencing Access Grid system to send sounds/images/&c. from one computer to another in the Virtual Environments Lab at West Virginia University – but these images would travel through notes, much like the old bang!paths, around the entire world. So, for example, Azure would turn her head in what seemed like a typical feedback situation – the camera aimed at a screen, she’s in front of it, the result’s projected on the screen, &c. – but each layer of the feedback had independently circled the globe (through Queensland to be specific), creating time lags that also showed the ‘health’ of the circuit, much like traceroute itself. It was exciting to watch the results, which were videoed, put up online with texts &c.
Part of the difficulty I have is being deeply unaffiliated; I need others to give me access to technology. For example, I’ve used motion capture in three different places, thanks to Frances van Scoy and Sandy Baldwin at WVU; Patrick Lichty at Columbia College, Chicago; and Mark Skwarek at NYU. I also did some augmented reality with Mark, and with Will Pappenheimer. To paraphrase, I’m dependent on the kindness of others; I have no lab or academic community to work among in Providence; what I do is on my own. John Cayley gave me access to the Cave at Brown; Eyebeam in NY (I had a residency there) gave me space and equipment to work with, and in both places I was able to create mixed reality (virtual world/real bodies) pieces – those also bounced through the network…
M: Could you talk, then, a bit about the motion capture/avatar work that seems to have been central to what you are doing over the last ten years or so. I also don’t think I’m mistaken in detecting a very decided move back to music making of late (I know this has always been there but it feels foregrounded again)
A: The mocap work has been ‘deep’ for me; it involves distorting the entire process, in other words distorting the somatic world we live in. There are numerous ways to do this; the most sophisticated was through Gary Manes at WVU, who literally rewrote the mocap software for the unit they had. I wanted to create ‘behavioral filters’ that would operate similarly to, say, Photoshop filters; in other words, a performer’s movement would be encoded in a mocap file – but the encoding itself during the movement itself, would be mathematically altered. Everything was done at the command line (which I’m comfortable with). The results were/are fantastic. A second way to alter mocap is by physically altering the mapping – placing the head node for example on a foot. But I worked more complexly, distributing, for example, the nodes for a single performer among four performers who had to act together, creating a ‘hive creature.’ All of this is more complicated than it might sound, but the results took me somewhere entirely new, new images of what it means to inhabit or be a body, what it means to be an organism, identified as an organism. This is fundamental. I’m interested in the ‘alien’ which isn’t such of course, which is blankspace. (The alien is always defined within edgespaces and projections; we project into the unknown and return with a name and our fears and desires.)
Most of what I do, for me all of what I do, is grounded in philosophy – ranging from phenomenology to current philosophy of mathematics to my own writing. So these explorations are also artefactual; I think philosophy is far too grounded in writing as gamespace; writing for me, when it’s touched by the abject, the tawdry, the sleazy, the inconceivable, opens itself up.
As far as music goes, I touched on it above in regard to LIMIT. One thing that concerns me is speed, playing as fast as possible, so that the body and mind move on de/rails that are at my limits; I think of this as shape-riding and the results and internal time dilations involved keep me alive…
M: You are genre/practice/technique promiscuous and you have a high level of skill in all –you could equally (and have been) styled Alan Sondheim ‘writer’ , Alan Sondheim ‘musician’, Alan Sondheim ‘maker of moving image work’ (with a marvellous sub-category ‘Alan Sondheim ‘maker of dance related video works’, for a while). Is one of these, in your heart of hearts, central, and, whether this is so or not, how do you place yourself in respect to the various traditions around these areas of work. How do you fit into the art world, into literature or the experimental film tradition? How do you relate to net art/networked art/new media &c.?
A: I don’t seem to fit into the artworld, net art, poetry world, music world &c. – it’s difficult for me to get my work around as a result. Nothing is central but a desire to see how systems form, coagulate, degenerate, collapse, become abject, &c. in relation to consciousness: How are we in the world? On a concrete level, finance enters into the picture; what can I do given a kind of lack of community around me? How can I push myself?
I’m not sure what ‘net art’ is, but certainly the Access Grid pieces &c. are of that, although not of Web-based protocols. There are so many ports out there to use! I do think of myself as a new media artist or someone burrowing into post-media. I’ve always had a few people who believe in what I do, who have helped or worked with me, and I’m really grateful for that. But in terms of institutions, I feel like an outsider artist and am treated like one. It came to a head for me years ago one day when I was living in Soho; I had a call from Vito who said he had realized that whatever I am, I’m not an artist; the same day Laurie Anderson spoke to me and said she realized that whatever I am, I am an artist. So my identity has been far more fluid than I’ve been comfortable with, and it’s affected my career. (There was that tape Kathy Acker and I made 1974, and I read an interview a few years ago, forget the source, with Edit Deak who said the tape wasn’t art at all; in the meantime, it continues to be shown at various venues.)
M: Finally, could you say a little about the work in this particular show?
A: The work in the show is a group of 3d-printed avatars distorted through the mocap process described above. For me they connect, deeply, with charred bodies, with anguish, with genocide and scorched earth. They appear also in number recent videos created in various virtual worlds, moving/performing etc. The anguish, so close to death and unutterable pain, is there. I’ve talked about the kinds of brutal killings occurring now worldwide, from Finsbury Park to the United States, the rise, not only of racisms, but violent nationalisms, in the U.S. certainly encouraged by the present regime. I’m sick of it. We all have nightmares. I want to understand this, this grounding in the blooded earth that shakes our very ability to speak, to think, to act.
And yet of course we must resist.
The work in the show is also critical, then, of technophilia, technological answers to the world, utopian dreaming. The top one percent benefit most from the results. I see utopian thinking as dangerous here. Our so-called president has his finger on 4000-5000 nuclear warheads. That’s the reality for me, and why I don’t sleep at night.
Michael Szpakowski: 聽琴圖 (listening to [Alan Sondheim playing] the qin), after Zhao Ji
// gravure, urushi lacquer & pigment on found wood // 30.5X7.5″
Featured image: The Refusal of Time, film still, courtesy William Kentridge, Marian Goodman Gallery, Goodman Gallery and Lia Rumma Gallery
There is a show of art by W K now in town. My friend, if you see but one show of art works this year or the next one or yet the next I beg of you see this one. The world of these works is both our world and not our world. The world of these works is thick and dense with rune and script and sign and light. And do you know the show is called THICK TIME and this seems as they say bang on for there is a sense in which the world and all that we are in it is here boiled down is made dense or thick. And it flows in front of us and we can see in what way and where from and where to it flows. Rune and script and sign and glyph and folk and things are drawn with ink or shown with torn or cut up scraps or light yes light much of it. And since light then dark too. Yes dark. This world flows yes and this world jumps and swells and shakes too.
And song and sound. There is song and there is sound of all kinds. There is a drum a big loud drum and a thing which marks time tick tock tick tock. There are sweet sounds and harsh sounds too. There is song. And there is change. Things change this way and that. This world will fill you with joy and at times it might make you sick at heart. It will make your head ache and pulse and spin. You might need to close your eyes. This world will speed your pulse and make you sweat. You start to dance when you see this world. You might smile. You might cry. You might have as they say a lump in your throat. W. K sees the world as we see it and knows our world as we know it and sees a world that we don’t see and we don’t know and shows it to us and now we think why did we not know this world it was there in front of us all that time.
Please note W K makes stuff with his hands. That is what he does and then he makes the stuff move. He makes things come and he makes things go and he makes things flow or stay still, he makes a world but he is not a God. He makes art. This is art. If you say to me what is art I would say art is a thing like this. The best of art is a thing like this. This is rich. This is not poor thin soup but a meal we can feast on for a long time and then come back for more. (And when we come back we will find things we did not see or taste the first time!)
He is like us and in this lies his strength. And I think he likes us and in this too lies his strength. Oh and did I say he does tricks with chairs.
I will tell you more. Let us as they say zoom in. In the first room is a pair of lungs or things that stand for lungs. Things made of wood and nail and screw and cloth which go back and forth as if they pump and move the air. And there are screens and on the screens is light and dark. Folk walk and dance. W K too is on the screens. He does tricks with chairs (and hats too) and he walks. I think I saw once he had a stick but I might be wrong. Once he bore a young girl round his neck and walked with her on the screen. He looks you might say sad but no more as if he is in deep thought. He looks at the world. And there are such sounds now here now there it is like a spell. It is a sweet pain. And there is print and type—there are words and there are sums. Now there now crossed out now smudged now clear to read but hard to grasp what it all means.
What does ‘means’ mean? What does it mean to say art, or a work of art, means? Hmm. Though not hard for sure to feel. Not thoughts but a way to feel. The strange words and the maths make you feel. The words and the dance and what you see on the screens make you sad and glad too (and your heart beats fast). And there are folk who come and go in a long line like in a march they come and go. They come in one end and walk and dance and march and then they go out. And you smile and you think hard and you see them there and then you are there and you are them. Oh a dream of life. Oh a real hard life. Oh a life of hard dream. All pass us by. King and queen and poor and knave and prince and thief and saint and the well and the sick those who live and those who will all too soon die and those who have died they pass by us, and show us the way things are and the way things might be, both the best and the worst of it. There is filth and dirt and there is joy and a bright light and there is dark and there is space. Look! It goes on and on dark and dark. The man ails—the girl does a dance. The man jigs a jig—the girl is sick. The bird flies. The old man lives—the young girl dies. A man is in a fat suit. He looks like a great white pea. She plays a tune on a thing of brass. The clock ticks. And ticks. Oh look now there is a flash. A flash of light. It is so bright. There is death. There is an end. But look now things flow once more. There is life. Here is a new start.
Things in a row. Things put in a row in a space, the right space. A space on a wall a space in a screen a screen in a space a space in a space. A gap. A pause. To look at— to put in the right space since this will help to make us feel and see what it might be like to be one who is not us.
I want to say W K is not cool. He dares much and this can make him trip and fall. (One piece I will not say which is not as good as the rest. What do you think?) He might fall on his face. At times he lacks grace. But so do we all. He does not fear this fact and this gives him strength. He does not seem to fear what folk might think. I like this. I do not like cool. I do not care for when art folk act as if they do not feel or they do not fear or hurt or love. As if this is not the stuff of our short life. And I do not like it when they claim this lack is good that to not feel is for them some sort of good thing.
There are six rooms in all I think and all will make you feel and make you think new thoughts and a warm shock will run down your spine now and then in all those rooms. (One just one is not so good I think. Which one do you think it might be?)
There comes a point where words cease to be of help. Where they lose their point or at least their edge. For just think if we could gloss the whole of a work of art why would she or he who made it want to make it—the art ? There comes a point where words must stop where we must look and feel and not say. And if we know when to stop it seems to me we are wise and we know how to live. And in a way I think this work might help us to know how to live.
Michael Szpakowski October 2016
In the second of three articles about the Web 2.0 photosharing service Flickr (the first is here), I continue to make a case for the quiet but profound innovations created by the sheer scale and ease of use, of these services – something which enables self defining artist, outsider artist, hobbyist & people who would run a mile from being called an artist to share and be mutually influenced by each others work. Here I offer some notes on the beautiful, funny and humane photography of London art teacher Joseph Cartwright, who operates under the Flickr name Noitsawasp.
Very few humans directly in these images but everywhere traces, evidence of human activity. Not cold. Full of humour.
Patterns of human activity, some accidental but capable of being invested with new meaning. Some straightforwardly meaningful, interpretable. Evidence of events and activities.
Always formally engaging.
A map of a world. A map of our world. A map of the world of work, of most of us, of the 99%.
Impossible to imagine these images made on streets of a town where less than 50 languages were spoken.
What we see when we look at these is what we see when we look at art.
An invitation to narrative.
Patterns on the one hand // traces of the wake that humans leave behind them in the world.
One of those humans is Joseph C––sometimes the images are records of his interventions in the world of images––those image fold-overs or blends. Sometimes the photos are a record of him as performer, actor, in the world ( but after he has left the stage). Sometimes they seem to place us directly behind his eyes.
I think he looks quizzically at the world. Do you know him––does he look quizzically at the world?
You imagine his eyes darting around––down, to the side, up occasionally, lighting on something, some congruence of objects, pausing to decide whether to make an image…(brows knotted, a sense of pressure, the need to seize the moment…)
look at this; see through this; look into that; make that out
grids; grids; patches of light; a dictionary of cowboy terms
People nail nails, people mend things, people bend things, people break things, people clean, people wash clothes, people read, people admonish, people alert, people have funny feelings––goose bumps, shivers or feelings it’s hard to explain somehow.
I saw a pattern! It was a message to me! It was a message to you. It made me feel…oh…I can’t say what…
This empty table here; those empty chairs there
The café/condiment photos––a series––eating––so basic––and we always remember that but we also think––‘we know this kind of café too’, ‘we go here on these occasions’––and we wonder what kind of a person this serial café goer is, is this an important routine in his life, does it define him amongst others, his friends, colleagues, what does he eat, are the condiments incidental or fundamental to his café visits, does he keep his distance from the condiments, use them with discretion, does he go to the café now only or mainly for his mission to image the condiments or do his meals and his art dovetail nicely, conveniently, pleasantly here. Do his companions laugh when he takes today’s photo? Or does he eat alone?
Cables, pipes, tangles––runes, ciphers, hieroglyphs.
The morning was sunny. It rained. The afternoon was still warm but muggy. There was a rainbow. The sky was blue. The fence was a different blue.
Shadows, folds, stripes, other repetitive patterns. Some there, pre-intended, functional. Some found, loaned, in the process of making the photo.
Objects that are (or have been) useful or functional removed from or seen out of their usual context. (Sometimes by human agency––dumped, temporarily abandoned, or simply cropped)
Estrangement––making us see the world anew // making us remember our world anew.
Found patterns, found juxtapositions.
A lively eye and a lively mind.
Joy in colour. Grace in handling, in apportioning that colour. It’s like he finds the best tidbits and, smiling, hands them to us.
It isn’t abstracting from the world // the function is often still evident so it’s like layer upon layer of meaning and affect and confusion // the original function or action…the strange pattern it makes… its removal from its usual context.
These images lend us Joseph C’s eyes. These images lend us another human’s mind and sensibility.
When you are a child and you’re walking along by the side of a grown-up and they have important things to do or say and so you are free to look around and feel and think and wonder and also you are half their height or less so you have both the utter freedom to look where you will and you lack preconceptions about what it is you see signifies or how it ought to make you feel and on top of that you see it from an angle that will never again be natural to you without a degree of contortion. And you are become magically a kind of still, observing, feeling centre of the world.
Joseph C gives us back some of that.
‘I love kitsch. I adore bad taste. I fall for the maladroit.‘ – Andrea Judit Tiringer
In a recent book ‘What Photography Is’ – and just what it is seems to be akin to the meaning of a word for Humpty Dumpty – “just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” – the critic and theorist James Elkins savagely lays into the users of the photography sharing site Flickr. There’s a page or so of magisterial denunciation delivered in a scornful tone not unlike Humpty Dumpty’s: “Nothing is more amazing than Flickr for the first half hour, then nothing is more tedious” and “…each group puts its favoured technology to the most kitschy imaginable uses”.
It’s not that Elkins hasn’t hit on something – all the sins he bemoans, and more, certainly exist on Flickr but his is a superficial, lazy and tendentious view which evinces a shocking lack of curiosity and imagination for one so exalted in art academia. (Indeed so incensed did Elkins’s tirade make me that I started a Flickr group entitled Bollocks to James Elkins: https://www.flickr.com/groups/bollocks_to_james_elkins/rules/ please consider joining if you’re active on Flickr.)
Flickr gets lambasted too, from the opposite perspective to Elkins, by the proponents of a kind of “bottom up”, “anti-elitist”, account of art, by those who dislike its corporate ownership and by those, too, who believe that one should build such communities with pure free and open source software. To be fair to them there is here, too, much to agree with; Yahoo, Flickr’s current owners, are clearly more interested in maximising advertising income than the welfare of their users.
And yet, and yet… a little looking, a little thought and, hardest of all it seems, a little intellectual humility reveal – perhaps only the embryonic stage of – something rather marvellous too. The sheer scale of the network of users (which one must point out here could only be a utopian hope for an alternative network, at least under the current social and economic system), the fact that it is impossible that the art world as it currently exists can (or might want to) present to us every piece (or even a small percentage) of work worthy of our attention and, further, that there are many people for whom the impetus to make work is a stronger imperative than getting on in life, or becoming celebrities or making money – akin to Marx’s “Milton [who] produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature” – means that careful sifting reveals artists every bit as worthy of our attention as those who please the art-world gatekeepers.
I’ve found hanging out on Flickr enormously nourishing both in terms of intelligent feedback on my own work but also in terms of the diversity of interesting and engaging work by others, some of whom even employ the “favoured technologies” – which largely seems to mean software manipulation – Elkins finds so risible, but in such a way that any honest accounting would find far from such.
It is true that one is tempted on occasion to conceptualise some of this work in terms of “outsiderdom” and this can be a helpful starting point; but there is a quantity/quality dialectic at work in the sheer size of the Flickr database and in the dialogues between the highly focussed outsider, the odd art world figure who doesn’t fear to rub shoulders with those not in the charmed circle, the family snapshot taker and even, though admittedly rarely, the amateur photographer who takes “well-made” photos but doesn’t forget to make them interesting too. There is a wider point contra Elkins here which can be expressed succinctly as – no form, no technique is in and of itself ruled out from the process of making art. Indeed the greatest artists have often taken the lowly, despised and out of fashion and given it a magic twist to create previously undreamed of possibilities.
I venture to suggest that the beginnings of something qualitatively new are here stirring.
That’s a long preamble to some showing, rather than telling. I want to look at a single and in my view very interesting participant on Flickr. First to introduce her work and then talk to her about what it means to her to make and post it.
nem sáℜa (Hungarian – ‘not Sara’ – the odd typography for the ‘R’ is a personal quirk and not a language feature ) is the name under which Andrea Judit Tiringer posts work to Flickr. Her body of work is at the same time highly consistent and extraordinarily varied. There are, at the time of writing, 252 images on her Flickr stream – all of them are 444 pixel squares (although I gather she retains larger versions offline). Of the images the vast majority feature a face or figure and this is usually Tiringer herself, a strikingly good-looking but usually (only three or four of the self portraits have smiles) melancholy presence. The focus of the images is variable and the colours are largely muted and pastel. A number of the images feature text, mostly in Hungarian (and occasionally other eastern and central European languages and once or twice even English) and most of them are clearly the product of some process of collaging. What is striking about these images is how sophisticated the use of the space is – there is no sense whatsoever of any “algorithmic” approach to the making of these works – no recipe – each one feels thought through from the beginning and one can linger on each and find new and interesting content (by which I also mean marks, variations of focus or colour, absences, difficult to decipher sections) and relationships within it.
Some are funny (or perhaps lugubrious is a better word) with the kind of tinder dry poker faced humour I particularly associate with Eastern Europe (Nikolai Gogol… Jaroslav Hašek… István Örkény) and which seems to have further fermented as a regional characteristic during the period 1945 to 89. A number of the images either appear to be entirely drawn from albums of snapshots (maybe family, I’m not sure) or to feature components drawn from this kind of source.
A number of the images have drawings or written text added either by superimposition or in a separate space. Sometimes this takes the form of ink stamps or documents such as receipts or other official formats. Many images are divided into sections; sometimes of the same, repeated proportions, at others into something less structured. The sense of internal barriers marking off distinct sections is a strong one. These barriers are created in a number of ways – repetition, addition and the use of drawn or printed line.
The meaning of the texts, as much as I can make out the non-English ones, seems at least on the surface completely unrelated to the image content but, of course, the viewer naturally seeks such connections.
Many pieces employ “traditional” symbols of femininity – flowers, dolls, a killer dress sense. This also seems tied up with a summoning of the experience of growing up – we see a number of images of young girls. Again I’m unsure whether these are of a young Tiringer or simply found images. What does seem clear is that they carry some autobiographical charge. They are never twee (or if they do tread close, the surrounding work pulls them back from the brink and they become “about” tweeness – and if I can put it that way, the “whyness of tweeness” rather than exemplars of it). Equally the femininity cited above is certainly not inconsistent with strength and confidence. A number of the images allow us an intimacy which many self-portraitists would baulk at. Older women appear with relative frequency and are treated with tenderness and respect, as are images of daily household routines, of “women’s work”. Men appear in only two of the 252 images.
This image series is complex, subtle, sophisticated, mysterious and very beautiful. It is structured with a high level of intentionality by someone who is technically clearly completely in control of the visual language they are using but also open sudden dispatches from the unconscious. Whilst I’m always chary of ascribing “meaning” to works one can clearly delineate here a central set of concerns/hauntings/ pleasures/what-have-you which crop up repeatedly. Femininity, ageing and transition, female solidarity, day-dreaming and play, humour, storytelling, dressing-up (both the childish and the older sort) forming a kind of core around which other rarer, more peripheral themes appear and disperse.
This is not minor work.
I interviewed Andrea Tiringer in English by e-mail over a couple of weeks in late August and early September 2014. Her responses appear largely in the order she sent them although I have interpolated some purely factual responses from an earlier exchange for clarity and I also corrected any (very few) errors of English usage. She checked the final interview text to ensure I had not altered the sense of any of her comments.
Could you tell us a bit about how you came to start making this very distinctive body of work and what you feel you are trying to accomplish with it?
I prefer to exist unrecorded. I take comfort in the temporary nature of things. I am always impatiently anticipating the new…. everything, I never want to hold the moment, yet somehow this photographic urge crawled into my life, without me taking notice.
The first step must have been years ago when I suddenly wanted to capture my grandma’s life. We had weekly sessions: her, me and my tape recorder. She was indecipherable. I tried to capture her essence. I needed her stories to be mine forever, figure out how to have a little ‘Róza mama’ transplanted into me. She expected me to be impossibly glamorous, the way she never could be. As far as she was concerned, that was my task. I was born at a time when girls could be scientists, astronauts, writers, but she did not want me to be a scientist, astronaut or writer, or only maybe as a side project to the grand life. She would look at my shoes and ask: were they expensive? The only acceptable response was: very.
Fast forward to about 2010 when for some reason I found myself chasing a nun on the street because I wanted to take her picture with my cell-phone. I have no idea why. I had no camera to my name, I had never before taken a photo on a whim. I caught up with her (she stopped to look at a shop window, my favourite kind of nun behaviour!) and at home I turned the poor thing, with the help of some online editing tool, into an unsightly shade of purple. I was pleased.
Some weeks later I threw a camera I found at home into my handbag, thinking, ‘Maybe I will run into something that I can take a picture of’. I saw a shabby garden through a ramshackle door. It was obvious right from the start that reality does not circumscribe me in any way.
I love kitsch. I adore bad taste. I fall for the maladroit.
So how did the very singular topics and imagery in the photos you post to Flickr came about? I’m particularly thinking of the repeated self portraiture which must be a feature of 90% of the pieces…
When I was a little girl I was convinced that just as we watch the people on TV someone somewhere is watching us, so we always have to show our best side. In my mind it worked like this: the interesting and good looking are on the telly, the rest on the radio. I would dress up to the nines and sing, because I figured if you did not have a good voice you only got to give the weather report,.
These auto-portraits are quickies. Passport photos, accessorized. Captures of what I am not but maybe could be. They are like a colourful puzzle. I never plan anything. (Actually I have planned to stop for about the last 100 images yet still I keep taking another one. I like them for a couple of days, even weeks sometimes, then forget about them, or they start to annoy me. I am a happy deleter.)
About a year ago I made an air freshener out of one. I adored that! I decided that if they are ever to materialize they will be just that: fake cherry scented tiny fake me’s dangling away in a cube shaped space and challenging visitors’ olfactory and visual endurance.
You say: “Captures of what I am not but maybe could be. They are like a colourful puzzle.”
Could you expand on both of these points? Could you say something about how the other content in any particular self portrait relates to the portrait itself and also what is happening in the pieces that don’t include a self portrait?
It’s extremely hard to describe a scheme as to how they are conceived. When I first started to create these images I haven’t taken a self-image for years. I did not even consider it, I captured what I liked, added my touch, altered them to the best of my abilities. I was getting familiar with the editing software through the process on my own, meaning there were many, many mishaps. Those were always welcome.
At some point the first auto-portrait must have happened, and of course I had all those traditional expectations: look good, appear interesting etc.
I started to think about scenes, but my goal was to create something that cannot be named, that is not easy to place, to find a category for. I avoided obvious symbols. No hearts, no crosses, no stars, nothing that could serve as a clue to the… who knows what?
When I choose the constituent elements, my decision is based only on the colour and geometry of each. This includes my attire and surroundings. For example, I look at the front of my blouse and it reminds me of ovaries; this leads me to a vintage anatomical model I printed the image of weeks ago, the colour of which somehow reminds me of a tiny burn I had on my skin at that time, so I took pictures of these and assembled an image from them..
Each has such individual stories, I never premeditate, it is such a quick process. As for the words, it amazes me the way sentences, taken out of their original context, suddenly stand bare: the absentminded cruelty in the prim cookbooks for proper ladies, the description of a slip-up from a madcap novel for teens that suddenly reads like major romantic poetry. I always photograph texts that catch my attention and if I find a loose connection I may add them to an image. Again, each one’s story is so unique, it’s hard to describe any rule or pattern.
I think there is no difference between the photos with me and the ones without me. I just haven’t found my place in each of them yet …
You’ve described quite lyrically and also humorously some of the personal sources and feelings behind the work. What I’d like you to do now is to talk us more clinically through the way, technically, that you set about making each image. Do you have, after so many, any set approach? What software do you use? How long does it take to make an image and do you make sketches or drafts before settling on the final version? Is there anything else about your approach you think is distinctive?
I use a point and shoot Nikon Coolpix, a simple, simple people-camera, I am not even sure of the exact make. I use GIMP to edit/composite.I have never made a sketch, I do not plan and plot. Something happens and I register that and this results in an image. I am presented with a pear and I casually place it beside me and notice it could belong to the pattern of the dress I am wearing. I look at items from a past exhibition at the medical museum in Budapest and as I catch sight of my reflection on the screen I perceive a concordance between me and the disfigured fetus in formaldehyde. If in those situations I can reach my camera I take a quick photo and it may become part of one of my squares. I try to avoid any set method, the only rule being the square shape.
I love taking photos of strangers. I love happening upon strangers that I want to take photos of. I love happening upon anything at all that I want to take photos of but I noticed that I got pickier over the years.
The found images come from everywhere and anywhere. Family photos, my huge box of vintage snapshots, movie stills, random Google Earth takes. My only rule regarding these is that I have to take a photo of them. No scans, no screen caps… This enables me to add my own mishaps, to “destroy” the originals with my technical shortcomings.
Of course there are schemes I could use. If you tell me to create a photo I will tell you to come back in half an hour and I’ll have it. To you it will look like the rest of them. But if I wait for my moment it can be in ten minutes or never (and I do not care, this way it is extremely personal, diary-like).
The reason I feel like stopping after each one is because their increasing number makes it a challenge to make new things, not to find myself in a rut.
So finally, given the fact that you post your work to Flickr I want to know how you view yourself? An artist? Someone with art as a hobby? An outsider artist? Some completely other category? And I want to ask too, if you had the chance to show this work in an art world context – galleries &c – would this interest you? Who is the work for? Do have any thoughts on Flickr as a place to show your work?
Leaving you to chew all that over that I’d like to say a big thank-you for your time & for the care with which you have considered and answered these questions!
I absolutely adore this time, the now. Flickr and other interactive/social media sites, in my view, are like any non-virtual public space. Similarly to our sartorial choices and general behaviour, it is a place for quick exchange of personal information, the possibility of sending perceptible signals about who we are, how we see everything and how we ourselves are related to that everything, so this is a very natural extension of my presence.
I do not really seek a label to describe my relation to the pictures. Definitions provide reassurance and security, but they also mean restriction and responsibility and it is such a relief to have tiny spaces in my life without those.
Who are they for? Hard to tell. At one point I was thinking ‘How wonderful, my son will look at them and think, great, my mum so enjoyed being.’ At the moment this looks quite unlikely, I am too alive. I get the quick attentive glance, the like on Facebook and I am happy and then he heads right back to his world of scalpels and detached limbs in formaldehyde. It is kind of reassuring that nothing about them worries a young doctor.
I will happily display them in any context where they match (or clash) perfectly, and of course that includes the art world and any other world too…
Pencil / Line / Eraser, the current exhibition at Carroll/Fletcher, spanning both the main Eastcastle Street gallery and their nearby Riding House Street project space, is well worth a visit. It’s never less than engaging and there are several pieces that lodge, linger and ferment in the mind long after the bus or train ride home.
They describe the show as “surveying recent works in expanded drawing which use paper and line as a point of departure” and, let me say again, whatever I have to say that is critical you won’t waste your time there. Far from it.
This review will be in two parts – first, & with an innocent(ish) eye, I’ll sing the praises of the work that itself sang to me during my visit and then I’ll vent about the things that irritated me, more a question of contextualisation and commentary than of the work itself, although in today’s text ridden and intention trumpeting artworld it’s sometimes a little difficult to unpick one from the other. Since the artists cannot completely escape responsibility this has consequence for any assessment of some of the work.
In a space of their own, a little into the main gallery, there are three pieces by the Portuguese artist Diogo Pimentão and they are delicious – large pieces of heavyish paper covered with graphite and folded, draped and rolled. Two are delicately attached to the wall so they appear to float there and the third sits up on the floor like a long fierce graphite flue.
The works capture superbly paperishness: its particular foldiness, rolliness and drapiness and its ability to suck up pigment in large quantities (fields rather than lines here) Indeed the graphite covering softens the folds and creases so what we experience is a kind of Platonic report on the qualities of paper. The urge to touch this gorgeousness is almost irresistible.
The works strongly recall Richard Serra (though what I perceive as his machismo is entirely absent) – his early large scale drawings using a single dark medium, ink or oil stick, but also the torque and defiance of gravity that is so much part of the steel pieces. I’ve no idea whether this is a conscious borrowing but to point it out is not to criticise the work in any way because it feels like a commonality of subject matter –the stuffness of stuff – rather than technique, despite deceptive (and magically so) similarities of appearance. (It takes a couple of beats to fully realise that Pimentão’s work is work on paper and not something else.)
Further along to the left in the stairwell is one of a number of films by Wood and Harrison. Some of their work strikes me as a tad glib – smart but somehow too undemanding of thought and which tickles the viewer’s tummy (and amour propre) a bit too readily. And I apply this to their other pieces in this show – the paper which moves (conveyor belt?) beneath hands holding both a pencil and then an electric eraser makes me want to shout “I get it, OK , I get it! I get Rauschenberg, I get updating pieces to the digital era, I get a certain fashionable emptiness…”
The piece in the stairwell, though, is a different kettle of fish. Entitled ‘Fan/Paper/Fan’ it does what it says on the tin. A pair of hands places a piece of paper between two fans blowing towards each other in such a manner that the paper temporarily defies gravity and stands on its edge on its shorter side. Well, not so much stands as staggers like a gleeful drunk, manic ballerina or even someone just desperate for a pee. Then it falls and the hands re-position it, and maybe it’s just me (and even if, I offer it to you as an affective pathway to the work) but here, rather than a closing off or a patness, there is a tremendous opening out – the metaphor of the paper’s embodiment resonates with the human figure who intervenes and helps (or tasks) it. It’s difficult to resist anthropomorphising the fans, too, as windheads in map corners or Tweedles Dum & Dee. I’m going to use the artworld kiss of death term “moving” to sum it up.
The second two artists I want to hymn are to be found in the project space. The first is Sam Messenger who makes large scale abstract drawings on dense paper which is subjected to some sort of weathering process – hence, I assume, the mysterious listing of saltwater in the description of one. The net or skein of white pigment which floats upon a dark and varied but subtly modulated wash is applied according to some sort of Fibonacci based algorithm (as per usual with artists and maths the actual detail is elusive). Much play is made of the ceding of control which goes with this, together with the, therefore somewhat surprising, point that this algorithm doesn’t permit a prediction of the drawing’s final state at any point before this is reached. I get it, though, I think – the set of conditions must be firm enough to follow straightforwardly and to yield visually coherent results but at the same time there must be some choices, forks, within the procedure. What this yields is a complex detail nothing short of exquisite. Particularly lovely is the way that the drawings bulge away from the wall and also just how lost in their surfaces one soon finds oneself. It took me a little while to believe that the white “surface” network was not applied in some mechanical way (especially given the prevalence of mechanical /digital assistance/participation in the work of some other artists in the show) but close and detailed examination reveals uncertainties in marking that could come only from a human hand.
The final piece in this tour of highlights and, on a best till last basis, the one which affected me the most is a single piece by Christine Sun Kim, about whom more after I describe both the work and my first response to it. We see a drawing of a text, of three systems of horizontal lines resembling music manuscript staves (though in each case one or more lines short of the usual five) and smudges. The largest of the smudges and one which suggests it contains some colour – it’s curiously difficult to tell, I think it does – sits athwart the middle system of lines. Elsewhere there are much smaller patches which presumably arise out of a loose way of working with the charcoal of the lines. These lines themselves are gorgeous, varying markedly in width (but remaining lines, not shapes) and performing a similar balancing act with their relation to the horizontal, from which they depart but never enough to threaten our reading of them as such. Above the top left of the system of lines there is a text in clear and deliberate but slightly spidery sober brown capitals which reads FEEDBACK AFTERMATH. “Sounds like the name of a heavy metal band,” I remarked to my companion, who laughed gamely. But there is something bold and mysterious about it. After the band name, motivated in part by the horizontality of staves, their wavering might conjure a seismographic recording, or simply (and especially in the context of this show) some kind of algorithm at work. All this far from exhausts the visual pleasures of the piece. The central positioning of the marks, the feeling of a space divided into mark and void but at the same time a void graduated from nothingness up through a series of increasingly visible smudges. The palpable sense of the performative in a drawing like this. Oh it’s great! I wish you could see it! You can! (until Sept 13th 2014) Go.
On reading the handout we discover that
Christine Sun Kim, who has been deaf since birth, explores the materiality of sound in work that connects sound to drawing, painting, and performance. Her performances are often the starting point for works on paper that display witty evocations of powerful sounds or loaded silences.
I quote it not to flaunt my perceptiveness but to observe how vigorous and alive the work is even without contextualizing info. It wouldn’t matter a two-penny damn if read the “wrong” way either, it’s the sheer power, variety and beauty of the mark-making and its appeal across a whole range of things from cultural codes such as music and language, through graphs and charts through to the facts of our embodiment – our perception of dark and light, our manual dexterity or surrender to chance, the need to play, the right to say ‘fuck it!’ and leave that mark there; to own it.
So what is my beef? Part of it lies in the curatorial notion of “expanded” drawing, a conceptual movable feast. It implies some kind of comprehensible set of practices which make drawing –what? –more expressive, more up to date, capable of things that were previously not possible… I don’t know, neither do you and neither does anyone. At its most straightforward one could read it as works made which are somehow adjacent in some way to drawing –so a number of works involve moving image works of drawings or the act of drawing. But hold on –there’s a perfectly respectable word for this which is animation or, if this is stretching it, moving image work with drawing as its topic. I would be reluctant to call these works themselves drawings, expanded or no, with the exception of Fan/Paper/Fan where a path is drawn by the jittering paper. Likewise much play is made of the uses over the last forty years of mechanical means of ..er..drawing. Except one feels the weight of history and usage would fall more appropriately behind the simple print.
It probably wouldn’t be worth losing any sleep over it all except this comes to a head for me in two large scale works, one at each site. The first is a piece by Raphael Lozano Hemmer whose
Seismoscope device detects vibration around it, from footsteps to tectonic shifts, and records this vibration on paper using an automated XYplotter. As the Seismoscope registers a seismic wave, it is programmed to draw an illustration of a single 11th Century Sceptical philosopher, over and over again. The actual traces of the drawing follow a random path, while staying within the portrait image that has been burned into the memory of the device, thus each drawing emerges unique.
And each of these drawings to date is pinned up on the adjacent wall on a daily basis (although in a move that doesn’t exactly bespeak confidence a “completed” version is retained in the “out” hopper of Lozano Hemmer’s machine so that we can see what it’s like.) What one sees on the wall is a series of drawings which appear to have stopped at various points in the process of being plotted out. It looks as though something about the software tends to create a blotch of ink at that stopping point. Otherwise the images are hard to distinguish. The descriptive text is evasive about how the tremor detection feeds into the plotting process. Does an initial tremor start it or is it merely that the tremors alter the manner of laying on pigment within the template that is already programmed into the installation so the lines go on in different ways within the bounds laid down? The words sledgehammer and nut occur when such a fetishisation of the digital and mechanical is applied to results which are..well… kind of OK-ish but contain, even conceptually (lest I’m accused of being unduly optical) little to move or amaze.
There’s a similar mountain labouring to bring forth mouse situation with Julius von Bismarck & Benjamin Maus’s (ha! Just noticed!) Perpetual Storytelling Apparatus which, in truth, is a beautiful thing to behold –a wall mounted plotter which spews forth a seemingly endless scroll of printed paper, populated, the notes tell us with that hubristic gigantism that so often afflicts such documents, by drawings from “seven million patents – linked by over 22 million references”. The mechanism is easily explained (and perhaps this itself is significant). There is a root text (for one showing it was, apparently, Alice in Wonderland) and by the miracle of software and data equivalence the text is translated into a set of illustrations comprising drawings drawn from the previously mentioned patent database which are then printed out onto the scroll of paper. The artists don’t reveal the source text until after the close of the show. As noted, it’s a handsome process to watch and the drawings have the strange surreal beauty of the technical drawing uprooted from its context but there is an implicit claim made by the artists with their title (supported explicity by the curatorial “New visual connections and narrative layers emerge within the telling of this story through the graphical depiction of technical advancements”) that something resembling a narrative emerges from all this hoo-ha. To put it bluntly – it so does not. You would have to strain your imaginative faculties enormously and do some heavy duty cultural forgetting to even begin to find narrative here, because the images on which the thing piggybacks are so distinctive, strange and beautiful in and of themselves. It’s instructive to compare this rather polished and curator friendly but ultimately disappointing piece with the wonderful and messy anarchy of its distant ancestor, MTAA’s Endnode (aka Printer Tree) of 2002 where a cheap and cheerful plywood tree with printers in its branches dispensed prints of posts to a created-for-the-occasion e mail list. (Images: http://www.endnode.net/install.html background: http://www.endnode.net/index.html)
So I want to finish by saying, once again, this is a great show. There’s a lot of good stuff I haven’t even mentioned, some of Evan Roth’s work in particular. But its basis bothers me a lot – I’m certainly very far from wanting to exclude the digital, the mechanical and the procedural from an as yet to be really seriously defined expanded drawing practice but at the moment it is still drawing’s appeal to and demands on the artist’s embodiment and our embodied imagination that give rise to by far the most engaging work here.
Pencil / Line / Eraser
1 August – 13 September 2014
First off, some claims, some general, some particular. I’m going to use these to speak about the work under consideration and in turn call upon that work to support the claims. A kind of virtuous critical circle.
General: works of art are not messages but objects. They don’t say things nor ask questions, nor assert, nor investigate. Neither do they as objects have messages somehow encoded or embedded within them. To assert otherwise is a massive category error.
As objects they may of course be brought in evidence, copied, become conversation pieces, be described well, be described badly, be described perversely, be seen, be half seen, be missed, be lost, be found, be written about, point to things, be compared and many other things, some of which have not yet been imagined.
Further, artworks are fuzzily-bordered and not necessarily of a physical or temporal piece – the object is not simply the object (and ‘the object’ might not be physical but words, a concept, a sound recording, a protocol) but everything that accretes as a result of it – commentary, jokes, other artworks made in response. If mathematical terminology wasn’t so regularly and toe-curlingly abused in the arts, we might refer to them as manifolds, not necessarily connected.
Even the historical is not immune. There’s a reaching back in time where an established work is transformed retrospectively by homage – ‘Las Meninas’ an obvious case in point.
Also: the work of art is finite – it was born and it will, one day, cease to exist (and it will be forgotten, or there will be no-one to remember it). Everything changes, everything dies.
This implies, too, that although the individual author matters, as product of a unique formation and a unique set of locations in time and space, every artwork is socially authored.
Particular: Abraham’s work represents a new conjunction of technology, collaboration and performance as a generator of moving image. It has precursors (freely acknowledged, indeed celebrated) but it is qualitatively new. The moving image work comes in two flavours, fresh and preserved, both with their own particular and delicious savour. Abrahams conducts live performances on the internet. These performances occur singly, as pieces in themselves, or form part of the programme of events accompanying exhibitions. The moving image pieces in this show are all derivations of this kind of performative event. Except derivation has an air of the hierarchical and the types of piece form no hierarchy any more than fresh or smoked salmon do.
A final general claim: writing about art is not a science but itself an art. Sometimes the brush will be delicate and sometimes broad. There is no recipe or rules or template. One can be too delicate – sometimes confusion is good, particularly in the matter of the affective. Crude thinking sometimes gets us further, paralleling, not dissecting, the richnesses of work. There are some mysteries one should leave as such.
OK. Onwards and upwards…
Performative is currently a much used, some might say overused, word. One quite common usage is to suggest that a work contains visible or at least trackable traces of its own making, a kind of archaeological or sedimentary record, and that perhaps this might have been to varying degrees intentional.
Of course it’s arguable any work of art is performative in this way and that it’s quite hard to erase the trail behind you whether what you make is time based or photographic, sculpted or made with hand applied pigment of one sort or another. Continuous looking and thinking about art for any length of time, especially allied to making stuff oneself, whether dabbling or something more serious, hones an increasing sensitivity to these questions. And this matters; particularly when it comes to over-nice distinctions between close relatives such as the still and moving photographic image and esoteric arguments about how time is differently present or presented in each of these and in other further flung practices too. The new scholasticism feeds on ever finer such distinctions.
So it’s a relief to come across work, which is genuinely performative, enough so that even someone undrenched in theory can see it, can get it and can be delighted and exalted by it. Furthermore work that smells unmistakably of the human, that abuts the high and the low, the crude and subtle, that blurs boundaries, that borrows and echoes the work of others not with the pinched expression of someone with a theoretical framework but in a spirit of ‘why?’ and ‘let’s play’ – the two childish precursors of grown up science and art.
Annie Abrahams’ show at the Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Languedoc-Roussillon in Sète is a graceful and elegant dog’s dinner of a show. Physically it’s odd, exiled to the upper floor (still a generous space) whilst Catherine Gfeller, someone altogether more easily glossed and hence exhausted (though not without merit) gets the more conventional downstairs galleries (and attracted the lion’s share of the press on the opening night.)
Said upper floor comes in two instalments – a lovely hangar type space, where a game of golf seems distinctly possible, with a kind of tail leading off it, a long thin corridor which fattens a little towards its farther end maybe 100 metres away.
The layout of the show utilises this peculiarity nicely. In the big room a very large two projection installation, Angry Women, spans one corner and takes up a considerable portion of the two adjacent walls.
In the far corner, diagonally opposite, a monitor, with two chairs and two sets of headphones, of which more later.
Leaving the larger space, two more monitor based pieces at junctions where it’s possible for an individual to sit and others to pass. Five chairs arranged in a circle with copies of two books of interviews on each (one with Abrahams, and one with a selection of other cultural figures) and highlighter pens. In the middle of the circle, a pile of blankets. A larger wall piece of rough and ready cardboard placards with texts (“mutuellement vulnérable”, “euphorie communicative”, many others) in various hands.
At the far end, a number of framed photo and images based pieces plus a work consisting of a single photograph and headphone delivered audio (it’s a snapshot – snapshot size, snapshot aesthetic – of husband and wife volunteer fire fighters. The audio is manipulated audio of texts on the subject of fear read by them. Let’s not try and place all this into any sort of context yet. Let’s set out our stall, enumerate, account, describe.)
A final deft touch is the symbolic linking of the two areas by a ribbon of text occupying the 15 or so centimetres above the floor, skirting board height, the topic of which appears to be mental illness (and all elegantly lettered except for one point where a letter had been omitted and is inserted with a caret symbol.)
The vast majority of the pieces employ texts or performances – both gestural and textual – by others – often created according to some seed question or protocol. The texts often come from questions posed on the internet but sometimes from workshop or outreach type (type –this is just to tentatively and provisionally locate the thing – it’s outreach Jim, but not as we know it) activity.
The performers in the moving image pieces are geographically dispersed but brought together at a single time by webcams and some custom software that Abrahams has used on a number of occasions where the web-cammed-in participants occupy a space in a rectangular grid (aficionados of seventies UK quiz shows such as Blankety Blank will get it immediately).
There’s a fragility, a delicacy, a tentative hold on existence, a testing of our belief, about these works that so many works of fine art – as opposed to design – have. The sense that what we have incorporates the idiosyncrasies, indeed the weaknesses of the support materials and media, into a final object (the same sense as when an artist wilfully uses something manifestly not intended for art, or allows mistakes to stand, or omits, or makes all too evident repairs; this is not new. Think pentimenti, or the hasty addition of an extra panel of canvas or paper to take account of expanding ambition or vision, or the aestheticized unevenness of Japanese tea-ware.) This sense of object-hood rather than message or statement is key. An objecthood which in retrospect could not have been other, but equally could not have been proposed, foreseen, except in its protocols of playfulness.
The pixellation, dropout, glitching, concomitant upon the pushing of the current state of the network to its limits in the multi participant pieces (and this reminds one of how flicker and roll and a general fuzziness become now part of the Acconci piece Abrahams draws upon in her Theme Song After Acconci – which reasons of space preclude too much detail about here – suffice it to say Abrahams honours, compresses, feminizes, satirises and intensifies the original. If Acconci could have had access to a “better” technology, one where the speed was constant, where no flicker or roll appeared, would he have then felt it served his purpose better? Did what he saw even look fuzzy or worn to him? Probably yes, compared with the film standards of the day, as does Abraham’s work compared with high end digital video [and even the current, rather good, quality of You Tube].)
To offer participants a protocol is paradoxically both to assert and to cede control, to know and to not know how things will turn out (an analogy is the use of chance in the works of Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, where the mechanisms make the generality of the sound, its broad texture, predictable but any particular instance impossible to predict or even fully imagine [but all, please note, a matter of degree because the finer the grain, the greater the level of magnification, the more we can find such uncertainty in anything unfolding over time – it’s a question of our norms – what is the difference between the Stockhausen piano pieces where the performer can choose the order of segments and a Mozart sonata where the tempo may be quite widely varied? – in principle, none])
The piece Pourquoi avons-nous des difficultés à ouvrir un ordinateur et en changer le disque dur? plays on a single monitor with the screen divided into two areas. In each we see, sometimes with difficulty and ambiguously, parts of a computer, screws, connections and hands.
We hear two voices, one that of Abrahams and the other her co-performer, discussant, what have you, Eliza Fantozzi, speaking in French. In the version at Sète there are English subtitles which even for non English speakers provide a kind of functionality, meaning, in that the words tend to be positioned on a line from left to right according to who is speaking. When both speak suggestive gaps appear, though these cannot be read definitively).
The subtitles are in a strange (for a native English speaker) near-English (the title, for example, is translated as “Why do we have difficulties to open a computer and change its hard disk?”).
This is, it must be said, cute, amusing and engaging and it underscores the altogether naughty childlike quality of the entire interchange. The characters (for I think one should mistrust the assumption, however tempting, that we have here unmediated access to the actual participants) are playful – amused and amusing. At the same time they ruthlessly anatomise the roots of their difficulties with technology (but the performativity avoids being on–message in any sense and makes for something strange, complex and even uncomfortable. At one point Fantozzi complains of the lack of colour variety inside the machine and starts painting the components with nail varnish to “create a much merrier circuit” – Je crée un circuit beaucoup plus gai).
Later Abrahams lays into a ribbon connector with a pair of scissors and then starts apparently fringing it with regular cuts half way across … There is an association of the decorative, the playful and a rejection of the serious which is somewhat too close to many gender stereotypes to be entirely comfortable. (The piece was originally performed on international women’s day 2011) And yet, and yet – the end result is complex, for there is a steeliness to the play and a self respect and assertiveness. Perhaps (I don’t know. I don’t think there is a definitive answer. I don’t think close reading or theory can bring us it either) it is the very truthfulness, the richness of the incorporation of the world as it is and not as we might like it to be from which this springs.
Before we get to the physically largest and most imposing presence in the show we’ll look at its neighbour, comprising two chairs, a monitor and two sets of headphones.
Double Blind (Love) is a record of a 264 minute telematic performance by Annie Abrahams and the US artist Curt Cloninger which took place on November the 29th 2009. Annie Abrahams was in the Living Room (Espace de création contemporaine) Montpellier, France and Cloninger in the Black Mountain College Museum and Arts Center, Asheville, North Carolina, US.
Both wore blindfolds for the entire duration of the performance, which was a joint telematic musical (and I use the word advisedly; though Abrahams describes Cloninger as a musician she appears to reject the description for herself. I think she is mistaken) performance taking the form of an improvisation, largely vocal but with some keyboard input from Cloninger, around a short musical cell from the track Until the End of the World by U2. The section in question has a repetition of the word “love” for its sole lyrical content and occurs just over midway through the song. It would perhaps ordinarily be described as a chorus but in fact appears only once in the song (although it continues as a backing vocal throughout the next verse), one of the first of many tiny idiosyncrasies on our pathway, peculiarities which add cumulative spice and interest to the project. I’d always found U2 banal and full of bombast but going to the song, under the circumstances of researching this piece, with necessarily open eyes and ears was a small epiphany, one of a number occasioned by a systematic engagement with Abraham’s work.
It’s worth noting that much of the structure of this piece came originally from Cloninger. In the previous year he had performed a number of pieces under the title “pop mantra” where in a live situation he repeated a similar pop music cell for a period of hours (“usually blindfolded”).
Cloninger had also video documented these performances though at this point this is documentation and lives no independent life of its own.
Let’s take a look at these proto ‘Double Blinds’. There is as yet no suggestion of interchange, of development. Although this is clearly a more obvious option with two performers, conscious development is not impossible in a solo performance. It does however appear to be consciously excluded. In an echo of the process or systems driven works of the seventies, Cloninger sets something in motion and allows it to unfold. He attempts to repeat the phrase many times. Presumably his arms start to ache and his voice to tire. This trial of endurance becomes a principal motor of the pieces. What does this evoke? For me, and you might share this, there are the dance marathons of the twenties, the notion of sport, especially individual sport, of pitting oneself against oneself; there is ritual repetition – Sufi whirling, or that carrying out of repetitive, gruelling and apparently pointless tasks sanctified in some Buddhist traditions; the pilgrimage; there is a kind of practical prayer through ritual, suffering or self-abnegation.
The motoric unwinding and associated characteristics obtain in Double Blind, too. What is new, what comes from Abrahams, is the telematic – the fact of separation by an ocean and the fact of collaboration. Indeed there is an inbuilt sharper contradiction as the collaboration separated by so much physical distance is of the peculiar intimacy that attends musical partnership, improvisatory or not. (A couple of years before Abrahams had performed a telematic kiss for three hours with the US artist Mark River.)
Despite Abraham’s denial the finished performance falls entirely within the established parameters of the musical. Precedents such as the work of Meredith Monk could be cited for Abraham’s compelling vocalisations – song, whisper, shout, scream, cry of pleasure, cry of pain – whose musico-dramatic logic and sensitivity to her performing partner, this listener at least, finds totally satisfying. It’s a touching partnership, with both performers bringing a fierce commitment to the task in hand but also each bearing different gifts – Cloninger, a formed musical sensibility supported by conventional skills and Abrahams a kind of discovery/invention of improvisation (indeed of music) ab ovo.
Thousands of years in 4 and half hours.
There is a formal challenge and satisfaction too, common to both Abraham’s and Cloninger’s concerns – how much transcendence can be mined, discovered, invented, from the small, the insignificant? Can it be exhausted before we are exhausted and what does the transfiguration brought about by the attempt suggest about us as human beings?
Two performers. Two chairs for two spectators only. Likewise, two sets of headphones.
Opposite, stretching luxuriantly out, is the exhibition’s jewel in the crown – Angry Women, created by Abrahams and twenty two other women of many nationalities, speaking about anger; acting out, demonstrating, reflecting, on anger, on webcams from their different individual locations and in their native tongues, with the images being sent to the 3X4 grid, in a format that Abrahams has made her own. Because of the limits of even current streaming technology it was necessary to conduct two separate performances (separated by an interval of a couple of months). The length of each performance was determined by a protocol where a minute’s silence by all participants signalled the end. This resulted in pieces of differing lengths which lack of synchronisation adds another layer of fragile grace to the final projections, projected large on adjacent walls around the corner joining them with sound from the left images fed to the right speaker and vice versa.
The effect is visceral – we face what feels like a wave of humanity, not so much in numbers, although 23 is impressive, but in the infinite malleability of the face, hands and of gesture and expression and of how these things can occupy the frame. Sometimes that frame will resemble a Giacometti portrait, with the subject appearing to recede into what seems to be endlessly deep space. At others red lips or an open mouth, sensual and terrifying by turns, occupy the whole of the space – and furthermore each cell is constantly in flux (because these are living, breathing unpredictable human beings). There is something both of portraiture and of the dance at work, and a species of found poetry too, which the moving image work has in common with the collaborative texts at the other end of the exhibition. The combination of iron control, planning, foresight (the grid, the protocols) with a letting go and a trust elsewhere – the phased lengths, the blank space for the person who didn’t turn up, the performative possibilities – makes for something of great richness.
Additionally it’s clear that those of the performers who have previous experience are consciously playing with and against their fellows – gestures are mirrored, sounds echoed, the fiction of looking elsewhere (to the side, or above) in the grid is impressively deployed.
The angry women turn out to be at one and the same time very particular –unique – women and women in general too; the women in general turn out to be human beings in general (and general en masse because each so particular) and the human beings in general turn out to live in this, one, our, very particular, world – that mysterious, frightening and wonderful place.
In keeping with the cheering on of lack of clarity, of mess, of crudity I’ve espoused so far in this piece (and will continue so to do, here and elsewhere) I want to say we need to take the exhibition (and the world) as a whole. Offering us the video and the still image pieces and audio means we cannot but think of them together (we can choose to artificially isolate pieces but we cannot undo our knowledge of that whole). So to the extent that I have selected topics here I have done violence to Abraham’s art, which has no message, is not confined to any one medium, collaborates in multiple ways, borrows, steals (and gives) and presents us with a set of marvellous and mysterious objects which afford us a spectrum of entirely new pathways to the world, to seeing it, talking and thinking about it, ourselves, after we have gone to the bar or got on the train north to Paris and thence homewards, happy and somehow a little changed.
Training for a Better World – Annie Abrahams
Centre Régional d’Art Contemporain Languedoc-Roussillon, Sète, France
28/10/2011 to 01/01/2012
Sam Renseiw and Philip Sanderson’s Lumière & Son project is a near perfect and altogether exhilarating sequence of moving image lyric poetry (though lyric here does not exclude humour or the grotesque) and a demonstration of how seriality and fragment – an unfolding over time, the diaristic – has quietly become one of the fundamental modes brought stage centre by the network (so much more than the rather dull ‘interactive’ which has so quickly become the standby of the monetised digital). Impossible to watch one of these pieces without the desire to watch just one more.
The set (which lives online but has been shown offline in whole and part) and its component pieces, moreover, are studies in various interesting things: the liberating effects of constraint and collaboration and what those both demand and imply; also of randomness, or perhaps better, the loose, the dashed off, differing degrees of accuracy in such collaboration (also the apparently dashed off, the apparently loose [also the apparently synchronised or ordered]).
To start with, a little history. In 2007 two young members of the digerati, Andreas Haugstrup Pedersen and Brittany Shoot, invented a form and threw down a gauntlet. The form, in fairness, was not exactly new – over 100 years old, actually – but its re-contextualisation within the digital realm and more particularly on the network was, without exaggeration, a stroke of genius. It involved taking precisely the constraints affecting the films of the cinema pioneers, the Lumière brothers, and applying these to contemporary online video work. Films or videos of exactly one minute, fixed camera, no sound, no zoom, no edits. Such videos dubbed, naturally, ‘Lumières’. There was clear recent precedent in the constraints of the Dogme movement of Von Trier and others but the project also drew on the various little-bit-art-little-bit-geek, young, playful cultures which abutted and intersected the more formal area which we called, for a while, ‘net-art’, and which thrived on a sparky and often competitive and showy overcoming of the early net’s limitations of file size and bandwidth – projects like 5k.org, 10secondfilm.com spring to mind.
Additionally, because the start of modernism still does not really seem all that far away, early film was a natural reference point for many wrangling the early internet as art tool and channel both.
We responded viscerally to the sheer, almost willed-into-being, expressivity of the ad hoc devices and solutions of early film and this fitted snugly with the bodges we ourselves were employing. It gave us confidence, too, that our ducking and diving too could be expressive but also it confirmed a certain tendency to lo-fi-ness there in the zeitgeist. (I speculate – a lo-fi-ness which helped to define and declare art – useless, beautiful and human – as against the slickness of corporate design, communication and advertising… This has persisted remarkably – note the thriving on-going cult of the animated gif)
That was the form. The challenge – make some. Embrace that 100+ year old limitation and do something engaging with it. Push the form as far as it will go.
Pedersen and Shoot set up a web site where all contributions would be aggregated and indexed (in retrospect, somewhat unfortunately, by links rather than copies held on their server – much work of historical significance has already vanished. Shoot and Pedersen themselves have moved on and the site has a Marie Celeste feel). In addition to the site itself, there was a Lumière manifesto which, personally, I found a little narrowly focussed. Shoot and Pedersen seemed to invoke a near ethical dimension to the return to first principles and in their own moving image practice confined themselves to work (much of it very good) entirely within this discipline. It was clear from the huge response of other artists and film-makers though that the form clearly answered a diverse set of pressing needs. For some it was a cleansing activity, for some a sketchbook, for others a spur to invention and for others still, a challenge in the sense of “How can I observe the spirit of the rules whilst actually driving a coach and horses through them?”
Although the Lumière made next to no impression on the ‘official’ world of art video (one speculates – cynically, perhaps – too democratic and available to anyone with a cheap camera, too ontologically opposed to the expensive grandeur of high concept, too hands-dirty in a world where artists aspire to hire videographers and editors to realise their art; in short, too lacking in the conspicuous consumption that validates much contemporary work), it was enthusiastically taken up by a mixed bag of videobloggers and artists excited by the idea of video specifically made for the net.
An immediate adopter and one of the most enthusiastic and prolific makers of Lumières was the Danish architect, educator and thinker, Thomas Wiesner, who operates in online video as Sam Renseiw and maintains a quirky and engaging site called Spacetwo: Patalab. Renseiw (as he prefers to be known in a video context) is a maker of numerous very singular small video works, which evince his keen interest in space and movement within spaces. (He teaches not only architecture but also a course for dancers involving approaches to conceptualising movement in space). I’m not sure Renseiw completely understands how original his work is. It is characterised by a joy in careful, quizzical looking (and a spontaneity in finding or being gifted subjects for such looking, assisted enormously by the continual development of more portable and discreet video cameras). It is, in terms of the formal art world deeply unfashionable. Personal and diaristic, it eschews the grand concept and extravagant and expensive execution and is all the better for this.
Renseiw has a profound sensitivity to space and to how people and objects move along variously restricted and open trajectories but he is mindful too of what the ‘actors’ in these found scenarios, set out to do and in fact achieve as human beings. The gap between aim and reality provides fertile ground for Renseiw’s dry and humane sense of humour, which is never far distant.
Significantly his prolific Lumière making (337 at the time of writing) sits side by side with longer (though still lapidary) works with music, editing and the other things the Lumière eschews.
Renseiw’s Lumières are characterised by a number of quite distinctive things. Something that unites them all is a quite extraordinarily heightened sensitivity to both colour and composition, which formal feature hits us forcefully in the moments even before we begin to decode any content or action. Formally striking too is the way in which a number of the pieces are composed so to as to allow for action in the near, middle and far distance, sometimes in different sectors of the frame, sometimes simultaneously in a kind of layered visual counterpoint and sometimes spread out temporally. My imputed intentionality here is somewhat problematic, though Renseiw confirmed to me that he shoots much more material than he uses and that he will select a particular minutes worth of material from longer sequences so on two counts there is a rudimentary (though nominally forbidden) editing process occurring. A quick comparison with Lumières by other film-makers will however confirm that Rensiew’s singular vision distinguishes each of his pieces from the off.
Other signatures are extremely low, oblique or occluded camera positions, into the fields of which parts of human bodies mysteriously intrude. This sounds clinical. Curiously it is the opposite. Redeeming it is a genial humour which allows the part to stand for the whole – we perforce imagine the entire human being whilst smiling at the V-effekt with which we are presented – for example a pas de deux for a pair of woman’s black leather boots (on the ends of beyond-the- frame legs) and the four paws of a black dog – randomness, clumsiness, near misses, narrow escapes and – we just know because we are human – purposeful activity. Human life, in short.
Another defining stamp is a musician’s sensitivity to rhythm and tempo – rhythm as manifested both as near metronomic regularity – someone’s gait, traffic flow, a hammer, for example, with either disruptions – slowings down, speedings up, pauses, stutterings – to that regular pattern, or polyrhythms created by other simultaneous independent near regularities and variations therefrom.
There are three loose categories into which Renseiw’s Lumière work could be said to fall (of course they’re by no means entirely mutually exclusive) – we’ll call them the loop-able, the documentary and the performative. The loop-ables are kin to the still photograph, are often of natural phenomena or repetitive but irregular human engendered activity where one could imagine the minute’s imaging infinitely, hypnotically extended – the flashing light patterns in Belisha Code for example. The documentary tag applies where the topic itself might be assumed to have some independent interest, for example the workers transporting away in a sling Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid for a trip to Shanghai’s 2010 expo in Speaking Voice or Michelle Obama’s motorcade in Rite of Passage. In what I’ve called the performative, richest of all in my view, an amazing amount of stuff happens. And everyday stuff happening and rendered vital by keen eye, framing and selection rather than something we might have known to look out for, is key. The differently distanced layers referred to earlier partition the frame physically or the piece temporally and unexpected things happen against and within them. We participate in these dynamically as viewers – we view this strange jigsaw world and complete it mentally; sketch a world beyond which is not simply our lived world but that world somehow leavened with Renseiw’s odd and warm sensibility.
I’ve written pretty glowingly about these Lumières – constrained, silent but surprisingly un-austere and you could well think that to add sound, music or both and several layers of these to boot might be over-egging it all somewhat. So one would think, but I have complimentary things yet to say about skill, tact, panache, flair and sensitivity and they are heading the way of Philip Sanderson, Renseiw’s musical/sound collaborator in the extended Lumière and Son project.
Renseiw’s Lumières are, I hope I’ve established, rich, dense, multi-layered but remarkably uncluttered works. A number of these pieces approach as closely as possibly the condition of music whilst remaining wholly without sound. It might seem superfluous or an act of hubris to add sound to them, the consequence of which could be to render leaden, stiff and fixed what is light, playful, complex and turns on a sixpence.
With the exception of a couple of near misses Philip Sanderson’s sound and music additions triumphantly avoid this trap and indeed deepen those rich and quicksilver qualities.
It’s important to note that what Sanderson contributes is all found or appropriated material – it’s possible he’s added original material in, I don’t know, but it’s not a significant chunk if he has – he certainly reworks much of it intensively, usually in the form of a mix of several layers of sound, some musical, some textual. (And we should note that Sanderson’s wit and deftness is literary as well as musical).
The deployment of sound gains enormously from Sanderson’s huge and eclectic range of knowledge, reference and enthusiasms. There’s a cooking metaphor in here – mixing the ingredients, finding just the right, perhaps almost imperceptibly present flavourings, knowing the qualities of things and how to combine them well…
Elsewhere I have asserted that the key feature of the most successful short form video work is a combination of intense poetic compression with a huge range of suggestion. I called this opening-out – a universe from a speck of dust. An ability to evoke the range of connectedness of many disparate things by well-chosen images, sounds, texts, whatever can pertain to moving image. Certainly Renseiw’s work has this in spades. Sanderson’s sound opens-out the movies still further. It adds, almost literally, an extra dimension, as if enabling new angles of view. It provides paths, bridges, vistas, tunnels, maps, balloons, telescopes, and sonar.
The guiding methodological principle seems to be a species of metonymy and one moreover which suggests an, in practice entirely non-existent, explanatory or illustrative dimension. The flashing beacons in Belisha Code are accompanied by a recording of a numbers station where one’s immediate impulse is to construct entirely absent meaning in the correspondence of the binary on-off of the four beacons and the German numbers from zero to nine heard on the soundtrack. Let’s be clear that this is not a criticism – a rigorous correspondence would be leaden – closed-in – but what we do have is a rich package of suggestion and affect. The correspondence that does exist is formal and temporal, between the flashes of the beacons and the articulation of the words and where the same sort of rickety polyrhythms that we’ve observed within the original Lumières themselves ensue.
Although comparison of some of Sanderson’s sources with their use in the pieces evidences, on occasion, some quite detailed cutting, mending and buffing-up there is an inescapable sense in his deployment of sound of the somewhat aristocratic tradition of the modestly dashed off. It’s partly his clearly extensive knowledge of his sources and his evident skill with a huge variety of genres but it’s also to do with a certain ambiguity in how the sounds are placed – not four square upon, but athwart the images, the sound often only fading or vanishing well after we’re into Renseiw’s end titles. Sometimes the sound is clearly not cut to shape in the way one might at first expect – an introduction, for example proper only to the original sound itself and not to any clear visual motivation might be left standing. The imperfections, noise, oddities and glitches contained within each block of appropriated sound intensify this sense of informality as does the slightly culinary air referred to previously. On the other hand, often enough to matter, the sound directly lines up in a spine tingling way with a particular action. It’s a master class in expressive ambiguity.
Renseiw – physical poetry, the occlusion, constraint. The careful choice of footage (variety and kind of motion within a narrowish range). Humanism: we don’t see faces, we don’t hear voices, we are amused but we recognise ourselves, youth and age &c.
Sanderson: The music found but could have been composed. The artfulness of placing it just thus. We will never know whether the way it ends with the action, the running off, taking place just after the repose of the final minor chord was deliberated or found. For me this placement implies a universe beyond the letterbox. It has a commonality with the treatment of time in many photographs and paintings – this is an instant, a fragment, but there was a before and an after.
Note that there are four beacons. The sound (a numbers station, one can almost track the archaeology of impulse!) draws on the numbers 0-9, in German. It’s worth noting there is no obvious mathematical mapping between the pattern of the beacons and the numbers but the character in sound of the numbers is close to that of the beacons in light. Suggestion, metonymy.
This forces our attention very strongly on that area of the screen, with the concomitant effect that when we force our attention away it is as if our eyes have been suddenly opened. There is a world out there.
There is a hint of the transcendent in the title – how is this realized? Unless we know Denmark it takes a few moments to realize we are on a train rather than a boat or plane – we are clued into this by the close objects we clearly pass at speed and the reflection of passengers and seating in the windows. One speculates that the sound track is comprised of two elements – one the rhythmic and metallic pulse which somehow rhymes with the passing object (a kind of pseudo-diegesis) and the second an (Open University?) lecture on relativity.
Here, not exactly metonymy but something more fragile, delicate chains of suggestion and subtle resonance. No argument (to see an argument in any of this would be to commit a category error) but a complex and suggestive …um…thing. One should also note that this piece (in both its silent and extended versions) is extremely beautiful.
Let’s talk about the sensibility and taste of the makers. Renseiw offers something simple, a kind of tour de force – we perceive it as such although given the fixed camera constraint any virtuosity belongs to the seagull.
A banal seasoning of music would involve simply the seven note modal motif which hails, I’m almost certain, from American popular song of the 70s big country type – Wichita Linesman, you know the sort of thing. (I checked with Sanderson –it’s Bobby Goldsboro’s Summer The First Time) By itself it would be too perfect, too parallel to the floating bird (it seems to give way to a crashing wave sound in its looped form; interestingly the Goldsboro video I found on YouTube begins with a shot of gliding seagulls). With too much parallelism nothing extra arises but Sanderson spices the mixture by the addition of dialogue from what sounds like an American film of the forties or early fifties. It disrupts the idyll but only so as to make us more aware of it. There is a kind of musical V-effekt here (which could have been so badly handled and so isn’t). This is its ‘meaning’ – these things! Here, now!
There is something of the dance about this. The music beautifully picks up both the nervous, sudden gestures of the cook but also suggests the process of cooking itself. The music has a funk component. One might say that it cooks.
Visually – the low angle, the fragmented view of the body, the person here and not here. The focus on that person which permits and invites its opposite, in particular the framing of the sky and trees. The rhyme between the black-booted two legs of the woman and the black four legs of the dog. Their pas de deux. The music here subordinate, properly so. Ambient sounds, on the one hand, with odd vocal snatches on top. The strangeness doesn’t demand our attention because we are so focused on the visual.
Until the last moments we simply hear a fitting (slightly arch) accompaniment to the skating – we surmise that it is intended to pastiche the kind of accompaniments used in professional skating. At the last moment we realize this is exactly what it is, as the commentator’s voice breaks through. There is also a ‘skate’, ‘friction’ or ‘traveling’ noise which exactly underpins the final move we see, just before the humour of the juxtaposed text, which continues after the movie has gone to black, strikes us: “Delightful, skating of the highest quality” delivered in classic plummy BBC tones…
A hugely rich piece: visually there are a number of layers – the far left street background where distant people and vehicles process. The game of Petanque: – the actual participants (although glimpsed corporeally only twice: fleetingly at the very end and as one set of typical Renseiw-y legs) and the balls themselves (and the metonymic link between these and the planets). Thirdly, the large shadows. (And the apparent size of each of these layers allows for very clear visual interaction). Sound – the ‘light’, jokey, playful music. The University Challenge soundtrack, here unusually clearly cut up – questions – astronomy; replies – painters. A risk for Sanderson, but one that works.
A little detective work indicates the level of detailed truffling about by Sanderson – part of the sound, the text, is grabbed from a YouTube video about French patisseries in London and cut up considerably – in particularly yielding the repeated incantation “cream cakes, tarts, macarons” the latter word in a considerably overheated French accent following the sloaney first three, to deeply comic effect. Comic maybe but, repeated, as in a dream; this mood is reinforced by a rather beautiful waltz time solo piano loop of the opening line of The Associates’ Party Fears Too. Here’s another piece where the visuals, here also dreamy and wistful, set in a looking glass Copenhagen (and the disjuncture between the London-location heavy narrative and the visuals is simply ignored, taken for granted, part of the deal), support quite a complex sound assemblage. Utterly haunting and quite difficult to say exactly why.
If one didn’t know it wasn’t one would surely assume this was carefully planned, and our knowledge it was not adds to our pleasure in it. Visually the rhyme between the woman and the near foreground statue is perfect – at one point she seems to mirror it exactly. Maybe she knows the area well and there is some unconscious mental echoing…we’ll never know. The other sharp visual pleasure is the smallness of the area of focussed distant activity, which again feels like a sort of directorial chutzpah, except, except…
Sanderson’s contribution is razor-sharp – the pseudo dialogue hits the mark precisely but doesn’t outstay it’s welcome – or at least there’s other stuff going on to detain us, not least the way the model’s preliminary warm-up shimmy becomes a perfect piece of minimal dance when set against the music.
I wonder if when the content has it’s own ‘documentary’ interest, when the filming becomes a case of “Look at this remarkable thing not because of its intrinsic interest but because it happened”, the final result is somehow less engaging?
Again a dance related piece – the regular beat of the calling of the numbers one to eight sets up an aural grid against with which the implicit rhythms of the movement in, out and across frame interact in a sophisticated but subtle polyrhythm. Part two of the sound, with actual step instructions, ups the tension and the effect (especially the late entering ‘spinning’ man). Note how often in these pieces the sound fades out slightly later than the visuals, over Renseiw’s titles, thus emphasising its separate existence in an independent channel or dimension.
Beautiful found synthesis. Funny. Funny and truthful and touching.
The moving image is packed with incident at both different spatial levels and at different points in the piece. The Portsmouth Sinfonia version of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy underpins like a grid, as with Square Dance but in a more complex way, the visual rhythms of the film. Enough coincidence of rhythm to feel planned, enough ‘pull outwards’ to feel open… Again humour… Why does the Portsmouth Sinfonia track, in particular, work so well – atmosphere? the conjuring of a sort of raggedy clockwork ? – can we imagine in its place a more conventional rendering of the Tchaikovsky? Yes, but…
Prime example of Sanderson mind set – metonymy, suggestion – the trees are hair, the water appears exactly on cue (worked? Hmm – the audio appears to be cut to make the word ‘rinsing’ and the water jet coincide)
A one liner, but, given its place in the sequence, none the worse for it.
*The pieces loosely divide into ones where either sound or vision predominate and some where they have equal roles.
* Not only does dance appear a couple of times explicitly as a subject but the spirit of dance pervades the project.
*The question of the success of individual pieces and of the sequence – a piece that seems less effective in isolation can well form an effective point of relaxation or reflection in the sequence as a whole…
*There are three pieces which, if one ‘re-removed’ the sound, would not strictly be Lumières – Check Out Art Fairs (speeded up), A Beauty Overblown (slowed down) & Sucked In (reversed). Sanderson performed the first two operations for reasons he felt the sound he used demanded. (To which one can only say: yes, this is right, a constraint is there for the sake of art, not art to be constrained.) Sucked In remains a mystery.
*The titles matter (note the re-titling of the composite works). They provide yet another dimension and illumination too.
*The prevailing tone is light, warm and playful. The darker side of life is largely absent, at least explicitly (though there are trails we could pick up to find it). Humour is everywhere. Only a philistine or fool would judge the work as a consequence to be less ambitious, significant or universal.
There’s a splendid exhibition currently on at Manchester’s Cornerhouse. Entitled Subversion, it presents a selection of artworks, a good number of which are moving image pieces, from various artists who are united by a strong connection to the Arabic speaking world. We’re already in loaded territory, for all sorts of obvious reasons. Those reasons could give rise to a long discussion which I’m not going to approach directly here, instead simply quoting a programmatic statement from Glaswegian Egyptian-Turkish writer Omar Kholeif, the show’s curator:
‘Like many of the artists I was looking at, I felt that collectively curators and writers associated with the politically unstable Arab world were being asked to step up and perform to an identity that the world wanted us to play. With Subversion my aim was to do just the opposite. I worked with artists who referenced this very language but who wanted to dissent, poke fun, critique and re-define themselves as artists of the imagination, and not of any specific social or political condition.’
And, in case you’re wondering, he succeeds richly in this aim and, I think, more.
If you can get to Manchester with at least a couple of hours to spare before 5th June your life will be enriched thereby.
I’ve already written a short piece on the show, with a couple of video clips, on DVblog and I’ll be writing a longer review, including consideration of some of the thornier question alluded to above, for MIRAJ 4, out in June 2013.
What I’d like to do here is to look in some detail at one particular piece from the show, a short video by Khaled Hafez. I don’t mean to suggest that it is somehow best in show although I do love it – the show is too diverse for that kind of simple-mindedness. I do think a careful examination of it will yield support for Kholeif’s position. What we have here is a complex work of art, which bears repeated viewing, which doesn’t bend or break but thrives under that hard scrutiny and which, although inevitably stamped with the experiences, background, the moment in time, the physical location of its creator – what isn’t! – is universal (Problematic term! Of course we can’t know what 100 years will make of it but we can assert its current universality and adduce evidence that it is a work which promises to be of some long-term interest too.)
Hafez is probably better known as a painter of striking mash-ups of ancient Egyptian gods, comic book heroes, bodybuilders and models set against richly textured, feverishly beautiful and largely non-perspectival landscapes of the imagination. His paintings are characterised not only by this content (and of course what we lose in a run down of content is the aftermath of the act of painting, facture’s narrative, the play of line, geometry and colour. I’ve seen none of his pieces ‘in the paint’ but I’d bet money they’re good enough to eat.)
Furthermore, series, numbers, line-ups, multiples and queues of those Gods, comic book figures, bodybuilders and hybrids thereof seem to be important to him (and I don’t think I’m wrong in perceiving an echo of hieroglyphs and their implied grid and of pre-Arabic Egyptian art too).
There’s a strong sense of directionality and of motion arising from these lines and groupings and even if one knew none of the background it wouldn’t be surprising to learn of Hafez’s deep interest in moving image.
OK – to the piece itself. Let’s stay zoomed-out for a while and point out first that it was made in 2009, two years prior to the revolution which brought down Hosni Mubarak, exemplifying the ‘storm petrel’ effect whereby artists, who can often be infuriatingly ditzy as politicos, nonetheless, in virtue of their trade – their looking, their seeing, their empathy, empathy often of a strangely disinterested variety except for the can-I-make-art-from-it question, which question perhaps even makes their antennae the sharper, their sensitivity to society’s emotional weather, their readiness to make apparently random or intuitive connections – can be uncannily prescient about impending social change. Artists often ‘get it’ before the key actors begin to have the confidence to move.
So, you need to know that the piece contains so much reference to social conflict that, at first sight, to the outsider at least, it could have been made in the last year.
We start in darkness. Titles: “Anubis productions presents”. A number of soundtracks sewn together in a kind of faux short wave radio polyphony which resolves to a solo piano playing something doomily romantic which I don’t recognise (on subsequent listening it appears to be of a piece with the up-tempo stuff that follows, so I assume it’s especially composed). Over this we hear an extract from the resignation speech given by General Gamal Abdel Nasser in the immediate aftermath of the defeat in the six day war against Israel in June 1967. (He resigned for a day, coming back to office surfing a wave of popular support and grief and then ruling until his death in 1970).
I presume that to quote Nasser is a potent gesture in Egypt. I assume, despite any criticisms anyone might make of him he carries a ‘father of the nation’ type weight and that an allegorical comparison between him and Mubarak would come naturally – here is a flawed but somehow heroic figure, indubitably at the least a genuine anti-imperialist – offering his resignation, but, now, in stark contrast, his pale epigone, his inheritor as dictator but not as hero, clings grimly on by force and brutality and mired in sleaze.
The audio continues and we see more titles:
“The A77A Project (On Presidents and Superheroes)”
Hmm – presidents. In the plural.
Also: you don’t strictly need to know this, but it was gleefully explained to me by the artist that A77A is Egyptian blogger ‘slang’ in that it represents Arabic characters difficult to transliterate directly to Roman for the Arabic word for ‘Fuck’. Of which more soon.
The next thing we see is a detail of the lower centre of a painting by Hafez from the previous year, “Outside Temples”. We focus in on three figures seen in profile. They are almost identical except that whereas the two outer ones have the jackal heads of Anubis the central one wears… a Batman mask. They stand in profile, in body builder pose, right arms raised above and in front of the head forming a sinuous S curve to mirroring left arms behind the lower back.
We zoom into these figures as music changes to a metronomically regular disco drum and cymbal rhythm and the two rightmost figures ‘detach’ themselves from their background and walk forward out of frame to the right.
This detaching happens five times – series in time as well as space.
Three sets only of the figures then parade past us with the arms that had been set in the raised arm pose pumping up and down (crudely animated by pivoting at the shoulder, a similar device setting the legs in motion) in what I surmise is an offensive gesture. It is certainly charged with a raw and vulgar vigour. At this point the figures march against a plain white field – slowing the piece down reveals stray blocks of pixels generated in the animation process. This lack of polish, the retention of rougher edges, feels like a Brechtian distancing. It certainly helped to sharpen my attention as well as endowing the piece with a kind of elephantine grace.
We move to a landscape, I’m guessing a poorer or outlying area of Cairo, with a building site before us. Two of the figures continue their rightwards motion across the frame. They loom large against the background and even allowing for distance, dwarf the human figures behind them. Interestingly the background imagery appears to have been shot from a vehicle moving across the frame to the left, which further cranks up the energy level.
We cut to a 3D software generated mannequin walking in the same direction in a similar landscape. The two painted figures catch up and merge with it – by the somewhat clunky use of a split screen – giving birth to a single Anubis headed mannequin who is our protagonist for the rest of the piece.
The figure continues into a landscape dominated by a still of the Sphinx of Giza, ( Abū al Hūl, in Arabic, translating into English as The Terrifying One) which, in a move straight from Terry Gilliam, picks up the next words of the Nasser speech, ‘mouthing’ with a detached and hinged lower jaw . In the background, the ‘sky’ – in fact simply the background where the image has been cut out in Photoshop – cycles through various colours from a fierce red through multiple greys to black. As you might have surmised realism is not the key term here… except…except …there is a kind of higher realism going on… A pastiche of the stuttering effect so overused in popular music in the early days of sampling is applied to the ends of words in the speech – and here, in Nasser’s Arabic translated as ‘I decided to step down’, the bloggers’ A77A appears, repeated and repeated, a splendidly childish and satisfying equivalent to shouting ‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’
From now to the end every background image is a still and our Anubis – visitor from another realm, mostly an observer, bemused God in a world gone insane, who intervenes only once and then as a kind of trickster, stepping backwards to change a banner in English reading “Presidential Elections” to “Presidential Erections” ( and then the Arabic banner too – Hafez told me that, strangely, a small change will accomplish precsely the same transformation in both languages) but who pauses politely to allow a photographer to snap five women with cheesy shutter noise and all – processes inexorably rightwards through a number of frames of varying character: some, surreal collage: a man on a bike with a wheelbarrow on his head; some whose strangeness arises from a sophisticated deployment of the warped perspective arising from the lo-fi animation technique – another man-on-bike whose movement at an apparent 70 degrees ‘through’ the frame emphatically underlines the constructed nature of what we are watching followed by a subtle but delicious section where the background image is smaller than full frame size and Anubis steps decorously up into and then down out of it; some, more serious – confrontations between demonstrators and riot police, with the arm-pivot device once again deployed to enable a middle aged women make our putative vulgar gesture repeatedly to the cops.
Anubis finally vanishes into what I take to be a polling booth.
This is such a rich work. It is both enormously local and particular and at the same time hugely general. It is full of ‘content’ but at the same time driven by smart, knowing and dextrously deployed formal devices, which reside not in the background but near to the surface and greatly add to the pleasures of the piece, which presents weighty and serious matters, but does so with great geniality, a geniality and humanity I for one wish to firmly identify with the awakening oppressed as they genially, but definitively and unsentimentally, sweep aside and settle accounts with their former oppressors.
This review is a collaboration between Furtherfield and DVBlog.
Watch the film on the DVBlog website