Friday, 13 May 2016

Hands Off

My contribution to Roger Ackling: Between the Lines, edited by Emma Kalkhoven, published by Occasional Papers, November 2015. Buy the book here.
Roger Ackling was awed by contingency. All that was required to capture things, things occurring in spite of himself, were the right tools. Later it would be the magnifying glass; very early on it was the film camera. If both were conduits for light, they were also tools for scrutinizing. One of the interesting things about film,Ackling told an interviewer in 2007, was that you have this thing in your hand purring away and you end up with something that is projected some feet away from you.’1 Trailing plumes of cigarette smoke between the projection box and the screen, he recalls, taught him something important about space, and demonstrated a principle of hands off
Ive always felt that hands off is a practice of allowance, everything is occupied, and if you step back something else occurs. Its like physics or chemistry really: you set up the procedure, an experiment, and then things happen.2 

It was probably in the early noughties, not long into the new millennium, when Acklings only remaining film in public circulation was pulled from the LUX collection. Boot Film, shot in 1967 while a second year Fine Art student at Saint Martins College of Art, hadnt once been hired in the previous three decades. Ackling made the decision to pull it himself. And yet today, despite Acklings efforts, Boot Film continues to circulate, via online FTP sites, an illicit scan moving between fansdownload folders; other known films, including Petes Film and documentation of a number of performances, for example when he kicked a tin can ten miles across Salisbury Plain in one his line experiments, are lost. 

Ackling enrolled at Saint Martins in 1966, joining a single Fine Art programme, combining painting and sculpture, devised a year earlier by Peter Atkins (later Kardia). Along with Atkins and Phillip Fraser, Ackling had regular contact with the experimental filmmaker Malcolm Le Grice, who had joined Atkinsstaff in 1965 and, two years later, started an experimental film unit at the college. Le Grice first met Ackling in 1963 in his first part-time teaching job at Ealing College; it was he who encouraged Ackling to apply to Saint Martins (I was so impressed with Ackling,Le Grice told me, I persuaded him to apply to St Martins and he, of course, was accepted).3 

Ackling, along with three or four other peers soon began making films, but, as he later recalled, few students at the time were interested. Initially, Ackling had been casting objects in clear resin, visiting the Royal College of Art to use their facilities. Hed already cast several boots when he decided to cast one in Boot Film. Shot, according to Acklings contemporary Martin Cook, in a Saint Martins toilet, the silent black-and-white 16mm film begins with a soft focus, closely-framed shot of the side of a boot to the right of the frame. As the camera finds focus, the boot begins to slowly rotate on an unseen podium (presumably a potters wheel). Lilting, rhythmic cuts, alternating between close-ups, scrutinize its surface texture. The pace is gentle,reads the London FilmmakersCo-op catalogue description, the result is sad and comic.Viewing the film now, it seems the comedy arises not so much from its pace, but its literalism, its zero-degree artlessness; the result is a meditation on the thing-nessof the boot: its obdurate materiality (if we see the boot as commodity, it reminds of Rachel Reupke's Containing Matters of no very peaceable Colour (2009) or Mark Leckeys refrigerator).  

Next, Ackling made another tautologically titled work, Petes Film. Petewas Pete Ellison, a contemporary at Saint Martins who, along with Ron Parsons and Andy Milne, Ackling shared a studio with. Although undated, and now lost, it must have been shot in 67 or 68. The London FilmmakersCo-op catalogue describes it thus: 

This film is shown upside down and in reverse. It is unedited, the three main sections are in the order in which the Labs chose to print them. It has been shown in conjunction with a tape sound-track but any number of transistor radios at any station may be used instead. 

As Le Grice recalls, the two alternating images of this film were the face of Pete Ellison, frontally and in profile. Although the film historian David Curtis has claimed how the work of Le Grices students at the time show little direct influence, including Fred Drummond, Mike Dunford and Ackling, Petes Film demonstrates a burgeoning formal and technical experimentation familiar to  Structural film that, for better or worse, would define a generation.4 It was Le Grice who encouraged Ackling to submit two films to the London FilmmakersCo-op distribution. One of Acklings earliest exhibitions, while still a student, was Boot Film in Avantgarde Film at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Dover Street; later that year he was programmed in Four European Film Makers, also at the ICA, and Young Contemporaries/Film.

Even if Acklings films are now largely forgotten, he is, in fact, writ large in one of the defining films of that period, Malcolm Le Grices Little Dog for Roger (1967), a 9.5mm home movie fragment featuring Le Grice, his dog, his brother and mother. Roger, however, is Roger Ackling. The link,Le Grice told me, is a quotation that Roger offered me I think from H.G. Wellss The History of Mr Polly (1910)where Polly, in order to escape a chance meeting in the street, would point in another direction, exclaiming little dogand run off.’5 

Much has been made of the photographic quality of Acklings light-seared objects (photo+graphy: light writing), but, arguably, he never completely left filmmaking behind. Para-cinematic, capturing light and duration, Acklings later objects make sense alongside the works of avant-garde landscape filmmakers such as William RabanRaban began at Saint Martins the year Ackling finished who used time-lapse to condense cosmological durations marked by the moon, sun and tides.  

Still, Ackling has an artists page on the LUX website, devoid of information. Where a film clip ought to be is a delicate, black outline of a rectangle. This placeholder, ironically a very Ackling-ish motif, is a broken hyperlink, an index with its object displaced, that needs repairing. Boot Films withdrawal mirrored Acklings own earlier withdrawal from filmmaking, coinciding with his first use of a magnifying glass in 1974, when, conceivably, the cinemas apparatus seemed, in a more literal sense, too hands off, too indirect an encounter between himself and the world.

2. Ibid.
3. Personal email correspondence with Malcolm Le Grice, 14/08/15.
4. David Curtis, A History of ArtistsFilm and Video in Britain, BFI, 2007, p.209.
5. Personal email correspondence with Malcolm Le Grice, 14/08/15.

Poser Punks

It’s been a baffling week. But then when is it not? On Friday evening my friends (lesbians, feminists too) and I joined a memorial service at King’s College Chapel on the Strand to commemorate what would have been Derek Jarman’s 72nd birthday. Gilded twin arches of the George Gilbert Scott interior framed a bed sheet suspended centrally in the transept. Emerging from the twilight a creased sheet – splayed open, a poignant image of vulnerability – bore a projection of Jarman’s old-fashioned signature, and later a 24-hour looped screening of his 1985 film The Angelic Conversation. 

To further frame the screening, artist Neil Barlett was joined by Simon Watney, a tireless AIDS activist and art historian, to remember Jarman. The creased sheet belonged to Barlett: in the late ’80s, as ‘Mistress of Ceremonies’ of the National Review of Live Art in Glasgow, Barlett commissioned a new work by Jarman. They discussed the project on the phone, before Jarman threw himself into the project with typical vitality. In the centre of the gallery space, Jarman displayed a bed zoned off by barbed wire; tarred mattresses edged the gallery walls; on an unmade bed (made between, of course, Yoko Ono’s and John Lennon’s bed-in and Tracey Emin’s un-made bed) young gay men – and apparently Tilda Swinton – took it in turn to lounge among the paraphernalia of gay sex, such as KY jelly, poppers, and so on. Watney – whose absence from New Year’s Honours lists and lack, even, of academic tenure is egregiously symptomatic of Britain’s attitude to its intellectuals  – was here because, among other reasons, he publicly defended Jarman when the tabloids peddled ‘plague’ trash and divine retribution for ‘homosexuality’. In the late ’80s, with friends dying in his wake, Watney shuttled back and forth between London and New York to learn newest developments in HIV and AIDS medicine. Watney met Jarman back in the ‘70s. They shared a love for Elizabethan houses, as well as London’s churches and museums. He was, Watney told us, a reliable sounding board for Jarman to test feature film ideas. When Jarman laid dying of AIDS-related illness in St Bart’s Hospital, Watney would read quietly to this husk of a man. Barlett’s and Watney’s remembrances were, frustratingly, only glancing, necessarily limited to the hour before the 7pm screening. Watney repeated the same (no less affecting) familiar stories. A few particular comments lodged in my mind. 

Had Derek been alive, many of us, Barlett noted, would be partying, drinking, dancing and listening to his gregarious stories. Jarman was outlived by many of his contemporaries. Consequently, audiences at Jarman exhibitions, screenings and events in London are attended by many who knew him: it’s a fascinating glimpse at living history. (‘When you reach 50,’ Barlett said to Watney in their conversation, ‘you become history’.) Yet, increasingly, such events are curiously divided, between those who knew him personally, and younger people who, although may not have not met him, feel tremendous affection for, ownership of, this public figure. At the recent opening of the exhibition of Jarman’s notebooks, also at King’s College, this older generation looked confused by youth’s presence. (I recently experienced something like the paranoiac reproach of the older generation when I wrote about Jarman’s paintings for Wilkinson Gallery late last year. After all, I reasoned with the commissioner, others still alive who knew him could do it, others who were also gay: the great learning from Watney is the violence of speaking for others; from Jarman it’s the vital importance of speaking for oneself.) 

In Scott’s chapel, the old familiar intergenerational rift rose again. We must remember, we must not forget our struggles of the 1980s, our history, Barlett insisted. That much I agree with. But when he we went on to say the following I couldn’t help feeling – well – alienated and condescended to (I paraphrase):  

One thing that annoys me about my students is that they think the ’80s was so glamorous. It wasn’t. It was horrible. We were victimized all the time. They also envy how we knew who the enemy was, whereas they don’t today.

Not to mention the silencing of absent students who couldn’t speak for themselves, why deny the distortions of nostalgia, distortions that might lead to deeper understanding? No one who wasn’t there can get it right all the time, but at least give us a chance. Allow us to learn from the past in order to understand our present and move forward. This over-vigilant gatekeeping carries internecine effects. 

At the end of the conversation, Watney read two very moving texts. The first was the last poem he read to Jarman before his death; the second was Tory legislation on the policing of mobility for Romanians seeking asylum in the UK: those with Hep B and those HIV+ – ‘That’s me,’ Barlett said of the former; ‘That’s me,’ Watney said of the latter – would automatically not be granted asylum. The legislation, by isolating what the two men agreed were gay diseases, evidenced continued prejudice against gays. 

On the Sunday of the same weekend – shortly after, I suppose, The Angelic Conversation looped itself out on the Strand – I walked to the Chisenhale Gallery in East London for the last day of New York artist Jordan Wolfson’s video installation ‘Raspberry Poser’. At the desk I was instructed to leave my shoes at the gallery door before entering. For some reason separation from my shoes always causes me some anxiety. Besides, my socks, wet from the dew of Victoria Park, looked sweaty and smelly. Perhaps I was immune to their smell? I felt vulnerable. 

Beyoncé’s song Sweet Dreams blasted at half-speed as I passed through the double row of black-out curtains, forcefully engulfing me as I continued into the gallery. Inside, a cream pile carpet covered the floor. A vast suspended screen – an image of excess – on which Wolfson’s film was projected, bisected the gallery, illuminating a viewing area in front, while casting the empty space behind into darkness. All around bodies reclined and luxuriated in front of the screen, transforming the gallery into some kind of gigantic home cinema set-up. Sweet Dreams’s pitch-shift lent Beyoncé a demonic male voice and drew attention to the lyrics. ‘You could be a sweet dream or a beautiful nightmare either way I don’t want to wake up from you ...’, sings B, accompanied by distant restrains of ‘Come alive’. Animations, of course, do come alive, and the intoxicated refusal to wake, whatever may come, is emblematic of the kinds of mad trysts we experience everyday in various ways. Sweet Dreams has a dark, mesmerizing power. When this was followed by Sweet Dreams played out at normal speed it made me want to dance, it made me want to run outside, thrust my arms out, vogue, and shake my hips – exactly the effect it has when when I hear it in a nightclub. Its affective power – or whatever the expression is – couldn’t be contained by Wolfson’s framing of it in this installation. I watched it four times. After I’d ceased feeling giddy about Sweet Dreams I began concentrating on the images. 

A cartoon boy self-eviscerates while returning the gaze; several times he literally cuts himself open to neatly unpack his entrails, like those schematized medical models. This cartoon boy unpacks his body augmented into ‘actual’ shots of sunny street scenes of SoHo in New York. Urbane, cosmopolitan, wealthy, sexy, confident, knowing SoHo. Formerly marginal SoHo. In a plush anonymous hallway, the boy contorts backwards and begins strangling himself. The strangling causes his body to concertina outward from the waist, describing a growing arc. Then he speaks – the only dialogue in the entire work: ‘Are you rich?’ the boy asks. ‘Yes,’ comes his response in a different voice. ‘Are you homosexual?’ he asks. ‘No,’ comes his response, again in a different voice. Is this Wolfson’s voice? Is it the assumed voice of us, the viewer, pruriently speculating on Wolfson? Perhaps this, the only dialogue, concedes that it’s easier to admit to being rich than it is to being ‘homosexual’? 

Sunny SoHo scenes are augmented too by wafting condoms filled with a fluid consisting of small hearts. Animated HIV virus cells bounce whimsically in unison on yuppy apartment sofas. As I watched I imagined a certain idiotic art director I know who would see in Wolfson’s work a fresh look – fresh looks are what fashion people who spend thousands of pounds on books just for the pictures want. With this visual style, I thought, Wolfson could even direct a music video. At a certain point we join a punk, with severe skinhead, ‘Iggy Pop’ Tippex’d on his leather jacket lapels and spiky Doc Martens, wandering through Paris (it evokes the disaffected youth of Robert Bresson’s L’Argent, 1983). The punk performs disconnection and alienation. He drifts in reverie, running his hand along walls in naive wonderment. He squats in flower beds. Is he a sad punk? He eats a salad in an outdoor seating area – one of those sparse rip-off tourist trap salads that costs €20. Is he a rich punk? Is he even a punk? Towards the end of the loop is a low, sidewards shot of the punk squat on a lawn with his trousers down; he bares his naked, prone arse high in the air. I think of Courbet’s Origin of the World, queered. A non sequitur. Slowly, inevitably, the shot zooms towards his arse and I find myself thinking of Leo Bersani’s ‘Is the Rectum a Grave?’ (1987). A foundational text, written by a gay scholar, on gay promiscuity, promiscuity, Bersani observes, in spite of the HIV virus. 

At the end of Raspberry Poser, the sad punk smiles, looks to the side of the camera, then meets its gaze directly, in effect returning our gaze. The punk – for the sake of giving it a name – smiles. The only other who has returned our gaze is the animated boy who can’t help self-eviscerate. 

The punk, to give him his proper name, is Jordan Wolfson. Wolfson is mindful of flirting with a gay aesthetic. In Interview magazine recently the sculptor Helen Marten observed how his series of lobster claws adorned with hardcore gay porn are emptied of tactile pleasure. ‘I’m just making these things,’ Wolfson replies. ‘But it’s funny because people will assume that I’m gay or that I’m secretly gay’. Eddie Peake is another artist, among others, who, similarly, wants to act up this gay aesthetic. (Note here also Justin Bieber’s recent sporting of an ACT UP T-shirt – the same Bieber who believes Anne Frank would have been a ‘Beleiber’ had she not been murdered by Nazis.) In the Chisenhale’s press material Wolfson describes HIV as a poser. In the interview with Marten he characterises it as floating ‘joyfully around, spinning and expanding and contracting’ in Raspberry Poser. Actually this harbinger moves with insipid joylessness through now gentrified neighbourhoods that were once scenes of SoHo’s AIDs pandemic. Wolfson is not a punk, nor is he gay. So is what we see here some post-identity dispatch from New York? Are we in a post-identity, anything-goes world? Only three weeks ago, a young black feminist spoke on London radio about how it was never, ever acceptable for a white person to use the N-word, even if they love black music and have black friends. Before Christmas I argued – for the sake of argument – with a young lesbian critic who chided a straight male curator at the ICA, talking openly about a post-gay aesthetic. ‘Yeah,’ I goaded, ‘but isn’t this the fall-out from queer studies? The great lesson is that identities are never final. Besides, queer is not the exclusive reserve of the LGBT community. And art and the culture industry will instrumentalize it whoever objects.’ This curator was at the King’s College Jarman screening. One of my group of friends had arranged to meet her there. We were reintroduced and I apologized for being argumentative. 


Are you rich? Yes. Are you homosexual? No. If Wolfson has anxieties about his own private wealth, his own tendency for posturing, his own megalomaniac neuroses, the legacy of the AIDS crisis should not be a vehicle for this. 

With thanks to Laura E. Guy for discussing aspects of this article with me. 

Dicontents Capitalised (published as Happiness Inc.)

First published in Art Monthly 391: November 2015
Listen to me discussing this piece with Chris McCormack here.

Rachel Mclean’s new video installation in the British Art Show 8, Feed Me, Scene 1 (2015), is a dystopian vision of a city where consensual surveillance, based on visual and consumptive evidence, is used by the corporate director of Smile, Inc. to quantify, optimise and sell happiness and productivity to its youth. Children complete customer satisfaction forms – here a gleeful leisure – written semi-literately in web acronyms rendered in Comic Sans font. The required response to questions such as ‘Do U trust d company 2 take care of u?’ or ‘Based on ur awareness of d product, iz it cuter thn othr brands?’ is a click on either a smiley emoticon or a sad emoticon – abstractions of emotional states indexed against patterns of consumption and trust.

After the hour-long work looped out I staggered out of the installation, pawing the luxurious pink carpet pile, assaulted by its sonic-visual forcefulness, distressed and destabilised by the manic polarities hammered out by Mclean, killed by cuteness. Cuteness, critic Sianne Ngai has suggested, is a pastoral aesthetic that indexes our desire for simpler relations to commodities. In Mclean’s Feed Me, Scene 1 terminal cuteness of a kind with happiness blunts feelings, finally raizing the city. Like all great dystopias, the seeds of a plausible future are already all around us in our day-to-day life. You will, no doubt, have seen the Coca-Cola advertisements on buses: #ChooseHappiness reads the tagline beneath an image of a tin of carbonated soft drink – a sickly confluence of product, brand, choice, emotional state and data curation. As the nation watched The Great British Bake Off, a programme by Love Productions which invites you to ‘bake yourself into happiness’, the Office for National Statistics published its biannual autumn report on national well-being. While 40.9% of people rated their anxiety yesterday as very low, 34.1% rated their happiness yesterday as very high – an improvement on last year. Coca-Cola, now registered owners of the slogan ‘Choose Happiness’, recently inaugurated annual Happiness Week, employing vloggers across YouTube channels to – in hippy-ish parlance – ‘spread good vibes’. On the website an infographic showing what makes parents and teens happy eclipses the product; you would be forgiven for thinking that you had rerouted to the charity Mind or to NHS Choices. Here, the conventional product as we know it, a can of Coca-Cola, is entirely eclipsed by happiness, but this, of course, is the product. Depression is more serious than a sugar slump: many can’t #ChooseHappiness. These days I tell every bus I see to fuck off, despite its cheerful message. Mclean’s video accelerates this unwelcome breaching into the biopolitical, hypertrophying it – it is a plea for complexity.

Happiness is not simply the benign concern of the state. Nor is it, William Davies writes in his recently published book The Happiness Industry, ‘some pleasant add-on to the more important business of making money, or some new age concern for those with enough time to sit around baking their own bread’. As a measurable, visible, improvable entity, happiness, he continues, has penetrated practices of global economic management. As such, techniques, measures and technologies for combatting stress, misery and illness now permeate the workplace, the high street, the home and the human body. Happy, healthy people = productive, profitable people. Symptomatic of this, for Davies, was when, last year, Matthieu Richard, the French translator of the Dalai Lama, began daily sessions at the World Economic Forum in Davos with workshops on mindfulness and meditation. Indeed, only last month the Dalai Lama himself backed Action for Happiness, a London-based organisation, funded by Kickstart donations, offering eight-week courses on happiness.

NOT HAPPY (2014), by Benedict Drew, signposts a seething nihilistic misanthropy familiar to many of his video installations. Nearing the end of NOT HAPPY (2014), his characteristically hallucinatory video work, screened at the Serpentine’s ‘Extinction Marathon: Visions of The Future’ last year, a morphed refix of Pharrell Williams’s neo-soul track Happy (2014) blears over stock images of a clean kitchen. ‘WHY ARE YOU SO HAPPY PHARRELL?’ reads an intertitle superimposed over a rubberised mask. It’s followed by another, graver: ‘WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE.’ Drew recently told me that the track’s pervasiveness seemed as though some sort of law had been passed that meant all the loudspeakers in the land had to play the song on a loop all day, every day. The video implicates viewers in an ecological crisis by re-presenting liberal sanctimonious platitudes of ‘not me’: landfills brim with plastic, but you and I are all right. The waste of consuming our way to individual happiness, of having everything, is a problem for everyone. ‘Happiness,’ said the Dalai Lama, ‘is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.’ If you clap along enough with Pharrell you might just find happiness. What structural violence, Drew’s video asks, are being obscured when the imperative for happiness lies with the individual rather than the collective? 

Drew’s ‘Onesie Cycle’ and ‘Onesie Cycle VIP’, exhibited simultaneously at 2 Queens and the Phoenix cinema, Leicester, in 2013, ingested the viewer into the high street’s toxified interior: Primark, payday loan companies and KFC chicken, PPI call centre staffs’ compassion finessed. ‘Self Help’, reads cheerful glowing text on a screen. In the Phoenix, posters scrawled with nebulous self-help guidance read as if generated by an ‘intelligent’ corporate twitterbot. Drew returns all this to the body. The onesie referred to in the title is not just an infantilising garment, it is the skin of the body, the largest human sensory organ. Skin onesies, flayed bodies, hang from the gallery walls like pelts. Lumps of flesh spin on rotating platforms around a frail, malnourished figure barely even there. ‘In XTC’, projected on the greasy base of a KFC bargain bucket, suggests a euphoric loss of self, not through ritualistic transcendence, not even through popping happy pills, but addiction to high-fat/high-sugar foods such as chicken and Coca-Cola, and a real-time feed of social media. Euphoria nonetheless, but what does it do to the body? To what extent is this loss of self a loss of political agency?    

In his long out-of-print book Mind Fuckers: A Source Book on the Rise of Acid Fascism in America, 1972, David Felton sensed the vibes turning nasty in the wake of the hoped-for acid revolution, where boredom, loneliness and intense spiritual hunger nurtured a burgeoning cult problem in the US. In 1978 the Jonestown massacre brought mind control into the public consciousness. For Drew the vibes got nasty in the UK when counterculture’s lessons were learned by neoliberal capitalists. CEO-hippy hybrids, such as Richard Branson, the subject of Drew’s recent exhibition ‘KAPUT’ at Derby QUAD this summer (Reviews AM390), supplemented corporate speak with good vibrations. As an undergraduate student Branson had already interviewed the doyen of anti-psychiatry, RD Laing. 

Today, the growing adoption of alternative models of mindfulness and meditation in the workplace is, I would argue, an expression of Silicon Valley’s global tech export. Such alternative models are the bedrock of the West Coast lifestyle. Google’s appointment, for instance, of the office ‘jolly good fellow’ or corporate in-office mindfulness stress reduction clinics at Capitol Hill have a genealogy that can be traced back to at least the 1960s, between The New Age Movement and The Human Potential Movement. Whereas the latter, according to Suzanne Snider in her Believer essay ‘EST, Werner Erhard, And the Corporatization of Self-Help’, repeated the individual as the sole determiner of his or her own experiences, NAM explored spiritual, metaphysical, and extraterrestrial realms as forces guiding and even determining a person’s life. 

In 2012, when massage and yoga was briefly poised in the practice of contemporary artists, from Oscar Murillo to Nicole Morris, it was as much an expression of its growing popularity as a leisure activity in gentrified neighbourhoods as its application in corporate management styles. Yoga bends both ways: leisure and work. On the continent, new management styles and certain cliches of Silicon Valley innovators have fascinated artists such as Simon Denny and Daniel Keller. Earlier this summer, on the US West Coast, Karl Holmqvist and Ei Arakawa’s Y.O.Y.O.G.A.L.A.N.D. at Overduin & Co explored the relation between counter cultural utopianism and contemporary new ageism. Almost contemporaneously, Drew Heitzler’s ‘Pacific Palisades’ at Blum & Poe unearthed the degrees of separation between bad acid trips, visionary thinking and technological innovation in that region of the West Coast during the 1960s. In the UK, I would argue this has manifested in a growing interest in the question of happiness, the occult and corporate group dynamics. Last year at FACT, Liverpool, Vanessa Bartlett co-curated ‘Group Therapy: Mental Distress in a Digital Age’ at FACT, Liverpool; in the accompanying publication of the same title Bartlett writes that the show was conceived as a response to issues specific to late capitalism and our technologically driven society. ‘We,’ she goes on, ‘live in a society that prioritises political objectives over the thoughts and feelings of individuals who suffer the consequences of policy and economic objectives.’ 

The teachings of HPM inform the dramaturgy of Lucy Beech and Edward Thomasson’s collaborative performances (Reviews AM389) and video works such as Holding it Together, 2011, Left Behind Together, 2013, Open House, 2012, and Passive Aggressive 2, 2014. Casting a wry eye over the neo-liberal prerogative to ‘be who you are’, in mind, body and spirit, their individual and collaborative work evokes exactly the incorporation of alternative and counter cultural ways of being together into corporate management styles and institutional mental health and wellbeing. For the past three years, Beech’s own video works, such as Results that Move You, 2015, have developed out of embedded research into franchised well-being workshops and pyramid schemes, emotional labour and the internal mechanics of affective economies, such as contemporary funeral custom. 

Thomasson’s works, which draw heavily upon musical theatre – a synthesis of acting, composition and choreography – are constructed fictional narratives which nonetheless sample familiar situations and themes such as anti-social behaviour, sexual intimacy or consumer focus groups. His video work The Present Tense, 2014, shown last year at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, layers three seemingly disparate stories: an art therapist’s sessions with a young boy; police officers singing about stop-and-search to a sniggering group of teenagers; and a woman’s attempts at mindfulness. 

In their collaborative performance Open House, 2013, an estate agent leads a group around a flat to a soundtrack of ‘chill out’ music until, finally, it is revealed that this music is performed by an all-dancing, all-singing group of estate agents concealed in the living room. These estate agents, we imagine, have broadened their skillset to become the ‘new artisans’ of our capitalist economy that places a premium on personal interaction, flexibility and adaptability in order to offer services which are uniquely human. It is an economy which social psychologist Philip Boxer describes as, ‘liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterised by strong private property rights, free marketers, and free trade’. Today, a generally aestheticised lifestyle is the new norm, it is the way in which we begin to see what our new artisanal tech economy has not only learned from new ageism or HPM, but also from contemporary art. 

A critique levelled at relational aesthetics was that it operated within, perhaps augured, what Isabelle Graw called the communication imperative of contemporary post-capitalism. Dissatisfaction with the consensual surveillance of network capitalism, coupled with despair at the power of the market to commodify our discontent, have understandably led artists back to the human body. But what of the mind in an age increasingly oriented to mindfulness? In ‘The Mindfulness Racket’, published last year in The New Republic, Evgeny Morozov wrote of how mindfulness is becoming the ‘new sustainability’ among the accelerationist-distractionist complex that is Silicon Valley. 

If, however, Morozov argues, we must disconnect to re-energise, it must not be to re-invest with renewed vigour in yet more distraction. If healthy bodies and minds equals healthy profit, is it an option to become unhealthy – eat the shit that Drew is both repulsed and fascinated by? How do we click the unhappy emoticon – in other words, #ChooseNotToChooseHappiness? In an age of entrepreneurialism of the self, where happiness promotes increased productivity, perhaps it is time to adopt what I’ve heard the artist Richard Sides call the ‘new un-professionalism’?

Charmed Abstraction

‘Charmed,’ Pierre Boulez wrote to John Cage in 1950, ‘…I’m with you all the way.’ 

‘The only thing, forgive me, which I’m not happy with is the method of absolute chance (by tossing the coins). On the contrary, I believe that chance must be extremely controlled: by using tables in general… I believe that it would be possible to direct the phenomenon of the automatism of chance…’ 

Which was tantamount to not being with Cage at all. His drift from the European tradition began with Music of Changes, devised using the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes).

‘There’s already quite enough of the unknown,’ Boulez concludes his letter of 1950. 

In the Cold War hothouse America did an unpredictable dance. Uncertain times required certainty of expression, certainty of meaning, responsibility.

Charmed, as in to have a jocular, vaguely interested response. To be charmed is also to be affected with a magic spell, so as to possess occult powers. As in, witches ply their charms and potions. Or to be charmed is to be fortified, protected, rendered invulnerable. In 1964 ‘charm’ was the name given to one of six types of quark, the elementary particles that make up every atom and the fundamental building blocks of matter.

Who am I and what is my debt to John Cage? What is John Cage’s gift to some of us who make art? Why so silent, John Cage?

Later, after the Cage-Boulez correspondence ended, the latter accused his peers of being charmed by chance. To the best of Boulez’s knowledge, chance had never been adopted as a device in ‘Occidental’ (i.e. Western) music before the period following the second word war. ‘The most elementary form of the transmutation of chance,’ Boulez claimed: 

would lye in the adoption of a philosophy tinged with Orientalism that masks a basic weakness in compositional technique; it would be a protection against the asphyxia of invention, the resort to a more subtle poison that destroys every last embryo of craftsmanship; I would willingly call this experiment … chance through inadvertence.

He names no names, but has Cage in mind, at least by 1964 already regarded as an American Zen master, leader of an artistic and intellectual turn to the ‘Orient’ (i.e. East) as an alternative to Western thought and compositional technique.

The use of chance, Boulez continues, to objectively determine ‘composition’ – if indeed it can be called composition – belies an unadmitted weakness, confusion and ‘temporary assuagement into puerile magic’ in which the composer gives up choice, intention and responsibility

Employing an orientalist metaphor of witchery, Boulez writes that the composer displaces responsibility to the interpreter-medium who becomes ‘high priest of this intellectual devilry’. The composer remains protected – ‘camouflaged’ – behind their absence of choice, finally disappearing entirely as the destruction of craftsmanship that chance represents threatens to kill the Artist (with a capital ‘A’). But doesn’t Cage bestow agency on his performers?

Who am I and what is my debt to John Cage? What is John Cage’s gift to some of us who make art? Why so silent, John Cage?

Using the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes), a text for divining order in chaos, Cage substituted modulations of musical composition – pitch, duration, amplitude and timbre – for a chart system of determinations based on the number 64. The toss of a coin at the beginning of each major part of the piece determined which charts to use: on odd number designates change and an even number a continuation of the present state.

He devised his silent piece, 4’33, at the same time.

Tired all the time? Constantly stressed? Lacking in inspiration? Try an alternative. Western thought is European thought. What if America shared more with Asia?

Chance operations and external sounds displaced the mind, displaced subjectivity, as a ruling factor in composition. It freed sounds as autonomous events, effecting a collapse of distinctions between the musical and non-musical. Say goodbye to self-expression. 

‘I was led to non-acting and disorder by the Orientals,’ Cage said in 1981. Performance becomes a conduit for the thrilling veridicality of sound: silence is non-mediation between objects in the world and their sounding. It is the absence of signification. Things in themselves.

Abstraction’s problem is not dissimilar to generalisation’s: its action occurs without reference to peculiar properties of particular instances. Silence for the American Zen Master.

Tired all the time? Constantly stressed? Lacking in inspiration? Zen strengthen us. Zen revitalise us.

Yet Cage never explored pre-existent, non-Western tuning systems. Even with pieces that used Eastern instruments, for example the gamelan piece Haikai, he sought to make them strange, flipping the gamelan over. Perhaps we should distinguish between Cage’s ‘conceptual orientalism’ and a Western musical tradition of ‘decorative orientalism’ that marks the Other out by caricaturing and ornamenting their music?

Ornament, to echo the Islamic scholar Oleg Grabar, is a ‘demonic intermediary’ that prohibits direct access to the object. In search of a pure aesthetic, ornament is what is stripped away in modernity to reveal the utile object. With Cage’s veridicality of sound, a consequence of conceptual orientalism, it could be said there is minimal ornamentation to mediate between the object and its listener – the mask Boulez speaks of is off. Silence is a purging of ornament. Isn’t ornament the messiness of existence? 

Silence for the American Zen Master. 

Why so silent, John Cage? Who, asked Yvonne Rainer in 1981, am I and what is my debt to John Cage? What is John Cage’s gift to some of us who make art?

‘This: the relaying of conceptual precedents for methods of nonhierarchical, indeterminate organization which can be used with critical intelligence, that is, selectively and productively’. Not, Rainer writes, calling out on Cage’s ‘goofy naiveté, so we can awaken to what Cage referred to as ‘this excellent life’. On the contrary: we must ‘awaken to the ways in which we have been led to believe that this life is so excellent, just, and right’.

Abstracting Cage from a Zen framework, Rainer makes a psychoanalytic-Marxist reading – i.e. a Western reading – of Cage’s indeterminacy, chance operations and silence. Indeterminacy and slipperiness of meaning might amount to a denial and suppression of meaning. What is this, she asks, but an attempt to deny the very function of language and, by extension, the signifying subject? 

What if Cage’s silence amounted to a suppression of the subject and a suppression of the politics that arises from interpretation and commentary? Cage’s formalist adoption, then, of Orientalism would be a kind of opting out of transforming domestic politics. Not mere presence, bodies signify.

Without a signifying subject there could be no modifications in discourse. If there are no heterogeneous and contradictory subject positions formed in relationships of identity and difference, replaced by good life Zen equanimity, there can be no challenges to power. ‘Trying to operate outside of these processes, Rainer writes’: 

a Cagean ‘non-signifying practice’ sees itself as existing in a realm of pure idea, anterior to language – without mind, without desire, without differentiation, without finitude. In a word, the realm of idealism which so much of our capricious, wavering, flawed, lurching twentieth-century art has similarly failed – while being so committed – to violate.

The violence of abstraction: the action of considering something independently of its associations or attributes; the process of isolating properties or characteristics common to a number of diverse objects, events, etc., without reference to the peculiar properties of particular examples or instances. Also: the state of being considered in this way; abstractness.


Charmed abstraction.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Roger Ackling, Kestle Barton, Cornwall


Here's a review, first featured in frieze 172, of Kestle Barton's Roger Ackling show in Cornwall, which coincided with a survey at Annely Juda Fine Art, London.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Longing for the Future


The consideration of the future makes us take responsibility for our nostalgic tales.’ – Svetlana Boym

I no longer remember how I related to Blackstreets exorbitant display of emotion in Dont Leave Me Girl when it charted in 1997. Between school and shooting hoops up the field, as an 11 year-old I spent as much time as humanly possible at either of two best friendshouses, mainlining on Nickelodeon or MTV. This had its localised effects: at that age I imagined myself into music videos so, as well as reciting lyrics, I could mimic dance routines, and had specific gestures and affectations mastered that entered my daily life. Small towns like mine became Transatlantic intersections between cable-televisual African-American culture and tepid Cool Britannia. 

Dont Leave…’ belonged to a continuum, of sensitive, strong men displaying heartfelt sentiment (the year before, 2Pac rapped introspectively, in a white suit in heaven, over the same melody about lost friendships on I aint mad at cha), aggy-for-the-sake-of-it bearded geezers, and Girl Powered high kicks. If the Spice Girls felt new and affirmative it had little conscious effect on refashioning my relations with women (I credit others around me for that). I didnt need Oasisemotional invalidity. But Dont Leave’… ‘Dont Leave soundtracked all kinds of melodramatic fantasies of secret crushes announcing their departure, or me announcing my own. Its effect was entirely solipsistic. Dont Leave gave solace to and simultaneously validated the navel-gazing emotional clamour of my 11 year-old self (I despise that person, as I hope my 40 year-old self will my current 28 year-old self). It seems curious now, as with so much pop music, the generational separation between those consuming it and those making it.  

I was reminded of all this towards the end of last year when the Catford-born producer Mr. Mitch preceded his acclaimed first LP, Parallel Memories, with the release of a four-track EP titled Dont Leave. The eponymous first track, included on Parallel Memories, opens like Blackstreets track, as if from the middle, with the syncopated refrain: if you take your love away from me Ill go crazy, Ill go insane.Except Mitch had pitched down the tempo, retaining the morphed key, like a Walkman just before the batteries drained. But the energy never fully drains. Minimal melodic progressions of bass and kick drum accent steady pitched-down loops of dont leave me girl. Around it, a rapid, repetitious ditty flurries over layers of deteriorated plinks and sustained wavering tones. They rise and fall, with and against, in and out of one another.   

Samples are portals to far-away times and places. I laboured over the context of my Blackstreet listening because its where I was first involuntarily transported when I heard Mitchs Dont Leavein a Dalston club, as I suspect others were too, in their individual ways, of a generation with shared cable-televisual experiences. In the music press, consensus quickly grew that Mitch was grimes most melancholy man. Masculine displays of emotion were confused with melancholy, melancholy with nostalgia. His music was labeled emo grime. Was he even making grime?

Someones always announcing grimes death in some internet forum. In its own way, emo grime was understood as a death knell (some called it white grimein spite of Mitchs skin colour). 2014, yet another terminal year for grimes short life, was also the year journos announced itd never been more alive. What did become apparent last year was that for the first time the genre had become fully self-referential, with new producers recycling early grime productions, or signature characteristics, in order to make new material. That, Mr. Mitch explained to me, was something that had never happened before. Early producers couldn't reference the genre they had outside influences and outside genres they used.Following Dizzee Rascals Boy in Da Corner, Mitch argues, grime became more formulaic with producers sticking to 140bpm: It is weird how that album was really quite experimental. That album had tempos all over the place and sounds in weird places. Grimes messy origins seem to have been rediscovered only recently. 

Mitchs pitched down, spacious remakes are baffles amid the intensity of grime sets. His sets begin like seizures. Mitch understands Ive seen him glancing, measuring up the dance floor how the energy drain might be as intensely felt as the famous energy flash. His contrasts pronounce the dispersion of one kind of intensity for another: when it begins the body is still moving with the physical memory of the previous set a frenetic, warm-down bob. You become aware of listening, of other peoples conversations taking place all around you. Like when the lights come on at the end of the night. For Mitch, its all about the vibe. He sculpts it with tenacity. 

Nostalgia, Svetlana Boym has written, is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with ones own fantasy.Nostalgia comes from the Greek roots nostos meaning return homeand algia meaning longing. Why is music always charged with transporting us to far-flung places? If music exists in the moment of its listening, samples, envelopes of affects, deliver the past to us now, for today. Mitchs Blackstreet sample doesnt arrive intact because today love songs are different. Emotion is different. With Mitch, nostalgia is just the hook that stages how things are different. And although delicate, his Dont Leavefills the ears by force, soon erasing any residual memory of Blackstreets verse or chorus, overdubbing nostalgic longing. In this way he pushes longing into the future, makes an optimistic thing of it.

At the turn of this year Mr. Mitch began to refer to himself as eski goth. I wondered whether it was a way of reclaiming grime from emo, but he told me it was more a comment on everyone wearing black sportswear today.’ ‘Growing up in working class London that was the way people dressed anyway. And we used to listen to grime and wear black tracksuits. Eski goth is a reclamation of that.Eski, a proto-grime music East London producer Wiley made when nothing else satisfied, combined iciness with the force of an avalanche to produce a defining sound of grime: the sonic, textual and visual equivalent of a frozen flow. Mitchs biggest influence within grime as a producer was Wiley. It sounded so futuristic,he tells me. Goth replaces another exorbitant display of emotion emo for a more sombre, British sensibility.

Mitch is not the only grime producer to have sampled R nB of recent. Finns Keep Callingphrases Ginuwine and Aaliyahs Final Warning. Spooky Bizzle uses, among others, Jodeci or Teedra Moses as sources. DJ Milktrays Hotelchops up R Kelly & Cassidys Hotel. These are not rare record crate dig finds. Theyre commonplace songs of sensuality and authentic heartfelt desire. At the same time last year London-based producer Dark0s Sweetboy Pose(which Mitch mixes with Az Yets Last Nighton Parallel Memories) raised the spectre of early grime made by Gs being sweet boys, and with it the subgenre of rhythm ngrime, which, back then, was dismissed for being too American and, well, pussy. 

Mitch credits producers such as PC Music Collective with clearing a way for other producers to examine emotions. By hypertrophying pop sentimentproducing a sort of manic Tumblr soundtrack anything else feels alright in contrast. He also argues that a new generation of instrumental producers, sat behind computer screens, who havent been supplying expedient backing tracks for MCs in the dance or on radio, have innovated new spaces in the music, as well as an introspectiveness. (Mitch’s label, Gobstopper, is the go-to for innovative new music.)

As a society, social media has transformed boundaries between privacy and publicity, intimacy and distance. I point out to Mitch the coincidence of grime sampling R nB, with its heightened displays of emotional authenticity, and suggest it might be a response to questions of intimacy, frankness and authenticity posed by social media. To speak whatever comes to mind is too honest,Mitch explains. There are some that take it too far and try to present this false image of themselves.But what was R nB if not about the manipulated image? Mr Mitchs transformation of Blackstreets Dont Leave Me Girl, expressed through an imploring negative, scrutinises masculine longing and sensuality. Grimes new emotionalism, which operates in the context of a hyper-masculine music, is not simply a nostalgia for that moment of heartfelt sincerity because it recognises it already was stage-managed. Ironically, grimes new emotionalism marks a variation on masculinism of the kind that allows a grown man to cry.