Wednesday, 24 August 2016

HIGH AROUSAL: Choreographs and Works
29, 30, 31 August 2016

Monday 29 August 2016
Erica Scourti, As long as whatever you are not true, 2016

Andrew Hardwidge, Stupid Pony, 2016

Mike Saunders, Thank You For Being A Member of Our Global Community: Airbnb as Shallow Grave, 2016


Tuesday 30 August 2016
Adam Linder, Perched but not provided for, 2016

Mary Hurrell, EROTIC MECHANICS, 2016


Wednesday 31 August 2016
Paul Maheke, Seeking After the Fully Grown Dancer *deep within*, 2016

ARD, live ambient music set, 2016


Live and improvised ambient drone performed with digital and analog instruments.

ARD is Jack Elgar and Ed Chivers. Active on the Brighton techno scene, their upcoming release, Tintagel, will be released on Shimmering Moods Records.  


Andrew Hardwidge
Andrew Hardwidge. Sophist desire and grey goods alchemy. With, by and for: Peers and Employers.


Mary Hurrell
Erotic Machines, performed with Kitty Fedorec, remixes a choreography of sound, text and body, originally created for Hurrell’s studio at 10 Martello Street in London. Formerly the studio of Throbbing Gristle, the work makes use of cut-up and submergence techniques to explore the site’s history.

Mary Hurrell lives and works in London. Hurrell works across performance and sculpture to explore choreography of the body, space, sound and objects. Recent exhibitions and performances include Tarantallegra, HESTER, New York (2016); EROTIC MECHANICS, 10 Martello Street, London (2016); Left Hand To Back Of Head, Bluecoat, Liverpool (2016) and London Open 2015, Whitechapel Gallery (2015). Later this year, in October, she will present work at An Evening of Performances, The David Roberts Arts Foundation.


Adam Linder
Perched but not provided for is wordful smoke and mirrors. A distracted debrief rebodied. The what’s what from a performer taking a pause from being seen. A slate cleaning kind of moan. A great face for radio.

Adam Linder trained as a dancer at the Royal Ballet School in London. Linder has choreographed stage works, including Auto Ficto Reflexo (2015), Parade (2013), Cult to the Built on What (2013), and Choreographic Services 1, 2, 3 and 4: Some Cleaning (2013), Some Proximity (2014), Some Riding (2015) and Some Strands of Support (2016). Linder has worked with choreographers, dance companies, and visual artists, including Michael Clark, Shahryar Nashat, the Royal Ballet, and Meg Stuart / Damaged Goods.


Paul Maheke
‘When starting, participant set in a comfortable position, eyes closed to sense their inner body-mind processes. They then wait for stimuli to arise within them, and follow each impulse expressing movement or sound. The individual move through the space entirely free from any direction or expectation.’ – ‘Authentic Movement’, Wikipedia

Paul Maheke lives and works in London. His practice focuses – through video, installation and sculpture – on the body as both an archive and a territory. With particular attention to dance, he proposes to defuse the power relations that shape Western imaginations. His solo shows I Lost of The Swarm and Green Ray Turns Out To Be Mauve were on show this spring at the South London Gallery and Green Ray. Selected upcoming events include: Zong, Turner Contemporary, Margate (Nov. 2016); Saturday Talks, The Serpentine Galleries (Dec.2016); Take the Weight, SixtyEight Art Institute, Copenhagen (2017); and De-Centering, Lafayette Foundation, Paris (2017).


Mike Saunders
Thank You For Being A Member of Our Global Community: Airbnb as Shallow Grave is about people who have died in airbnb rentals. The play is structured around two choruses – one chorus representing Airbnb hosts, the other Airbnb guests – whose song-dialogue is lifted verbatim from the website airbnbHELL, where hosts and guests complain about each other while, crucially, ignoring the role that Airbnb has in the process.

Mike Saunders lives and works in Edinburgh. His poems have been featured in various journals, most recently Gutter, Valve, Datableed and Blackbox Manifold. A pamphlet, george clooney will always be handsome: towards a phenomenology of George Clooney, was published this year with If a Leaf Falls Press, and a book, Dark Pool Ripple, was published with Gatehouse. Thank You for Being a Member of Our Global Community: Airbnb as Shallow Grave was first performed with Poets' Theatre at Hidden Door festival, and as part of the 2016 Edinburgh Annuale.


Erica Scourti
As long as whatever you are not true is an experiment in automated advice and confessional fragment generation, combining personal diaries and divinatory texts including tarot, horoscopes and oracles.

Erica Scourti is a London-based, Gringlish artist working across media, platforms and language. Her work has been shown internationally at institutions and galleries like Microscope Gallery, New York, Somerset House, The Photographers’ Gallery, Munich Kunstverein, EMST Athens, and South London Gallery. She is currently finalising a commission for Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond at the Wellcome Collection.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

William Raban: About Now

Last year, in April 2015, I programmed three screenings of the filmmaker William Raban's work at the 61st Oberhausen International Short Film Festival. Each screening was followed by William and I in conversation. Here is an unedited version of a text I wrote for the catalogue. 

When William Raban first screened work at Oberhausen in 1975 the Frankfurter Rundschan newspaper’s film critic singled it out as ‘one of the most fascinating contributions to the festival’, noting its continuity with, and departure from, abstract film of the 1920s. Raban’s three-screen film, Diagonal, takes as its subject the most basic unit of cinema: the projector gate and shutter. By adapting his camera with extension tubes to lengthen the focus, Raban was able to capture the scene where the film frame is animated in the projected light beam. Screened in a cinema, a single strip of celluloid passes through three projectors simultaneously, beaming images of projected light. The viewer becomes conscious of the frame (whether gate, shutter, film or screen) as a space where edges contain and divide the projected illusion from the darkened present of the auditorium. 

Perhaps it seems amiss to open this essay by discussing another’s view of a film absent from this profile of Raban? For me, the Rundschan critic’s voice was instructive in several important ways. In anticipation of this profile, it’s a register, a trace in the archive, of Raban’s enduring engagement with experimental cinema. This remarkable span reminded me too of – freed me from – the undesirability of a retrospective for diverse work that advances its own complex temporalities and presences (there was no theory underlying the making of Diagonal, Raban explained to me, rather the theory is the film itself). Finally, to begin with an absence evokes the many films that remain absent in this profile. 

Raban discourages generic labels attributed to his work – structural, landscape or expanded film, poetic documentary – because of the way it implies a disconnect across the different phases of his career. If we attend to what the films propose, considering their relations as belonging to a continuum, what might emerge? Preoccupations with spatial and temporal displacements present in Diagonal seem apparent already in one of Raban’s earliest film, View (1970), which emerge, transformed, in 72–82 (2014) or About Now MMX (2010). What emerges, too, is an intense political engagement, whether arising from the cinema’s apparatus – a politics of spectatorship, or from the everyday rhythms of the neoliberal city. Each concerns duration. 

The first programme of this profile, which might be titled ‘People, Places, Histories: Fallibility of Memory’, features Raban’s most recent work, 72–82. The following two programmes, ‘Mapping Place: Views From Home’ andContinuous Time: All About Now’, attempt to delineate preoccupations that achieve a remarkable synthesis in 72–82. If the former programme explores the changing physical and human geography of Raban’s long-term home of east London, the latter poses questions about eventhood, history and the cinematic and experiential intangibility of ‘now’.        

72–82 –
at Oberhausen, the film’s world premiere outside of the U.K. – is a film about the first decade of the London arts organisation Acme. Layering music, printed matter, letters, documentation of performances, and recent oral testimony, it reconstructs two interrelated aspects of Acme’s activity: the provision of affordable short-life houses and ex-industrial buildings to create living and studio space for artists in and around East London and the radical art scene centred on Acme gallery in Covent Garden. If the transient, ad hoc inhabitation of derelict properties led to a lack of proper documentation, the gallery, an important platform for Acme artists, became a site of relative visibility. In the film, Raban supplements the title with ‘fallibility of memory?’, pointing to the plurality of possible histories, while questioning the legibility and permanence of what constitutes the historical record. As an Acme house tenant, an exhibiting artist at Acme gallery, and a documenter of events, Raban waivers ambiguously between modes of bearing witness. The documentary value of his film of pyrotechnics artist Stephen Cripps – the only in circulation – features alongside film works, Time Stepping (1974) and Autumn Scenes (1978). For the first time Raban samples his oeuvre as an informational archive to be released into the service of narrative.  

Since the mid-1970s Raban has lived in an Acme house in east London’s Bow, a district in the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. Throughout much of the 19th and 20 century its economic fortune hung on London ports and docks, which, at their peak in the 1930s, gave employment to a hundred thousand people. When containerisation, rapid handling of goods and the relocation of docks upriver began to occur from 1960s onwards, many docks closed, including The Millwall Dock on the Isle of Dogs, close to Raban’s home, leading to widespread unemployment throughout the East End. In its wake, in the late 1980s, came the Conservative leader Margaret Thatcher’s plan to develop a financial centre far exceeding the docks in scale. Gathered around One Canada Square, a symbol of power and commerce, came office, retail and residential development, and transport infrastructure. 

This is the setting, beneath One Canada Square’s shadow, of Raban’s Under the Tower Trilogy, which observes the rhythms of everyday life, from car, on foot and children’s push chair, of food produce markets, gangland leader funerals, nationalistic celebrations, and gentrification. With an astute formal eye, he plots the occultish tower, suspiciously surveilling it as it, he implies, surveils those who live within its shadow. The tower comes to symbolise sublime separation: between ‘the people’ and the neoliberal administration (an administration of financialisation, privatisation and deregulation). From Civil Disobedience, a time-lapse film journey from the Houses of Parliament to Dover, soundtracked by David Cunningham’s mix of Thatcher’s Belgrano speech, to the finality of the Iron Lady’s funeral in Time and the Wave, the spectre of Thatcher hangs over this programme. Finishing with Time and the Wave is an act of remembrance. Raban’s filmic mapping his sites, as well as sights, repeated throughout these films – is a stratified, textural remembrance of a political figure’s enduring legacy in place.

View (1970) opens the third programme, which might be called ‘Continuous Time: All About Now’. Not screened for over twenty years, it’s something of an outlier within the programme, but as one of Raban’s earliest films it announces an enduring concern with temporality – actuality, potential, and the permanent and changeable – explored in About Now MMX or The Houseless Shadow. In the former, Raban spent three months filming from the 21st floor of Ernö Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower in London’s East End (overlooking the wards of Under the Tower Trilogy). It shows Canary Wharf, the City of London beyond, and the streets, shot in close-up with a long lens and time-lapse photography, during the height of the financial crisis. Its fragmentary nature resonates with View: ‘Reductively,’ Raban writes, ‘About Now MMX can be seen as the accumulation of the 39,350 still frames that were exposed over a period of 3 months. Each one of those frames can be understood as the present moment from that time of filming – all the frames going before, are locked into a past tense and all those yet to be exposed are mere speculations about a future time that hasn’t yet happened.’ Implicit in this is the synchronicity of the film as a chronicle and optimistic seer (capitalism’s death). In the Houseless Shadow Raban allows a recitative of Charles Dickens’ ‘Night Walks’ essay to sound over contemporary nighttime street-level views of London described 150 years earlier. As with Time and the Wave (which uses Dickens’ account of the Duke of Wellington’s State Funeral from ‘Trading in Death’), Houseless Shadow powerfully captures a sense of the historical record’s re-evocation of what is happening right now, suggesting a more poetic, yet perhaps pessimistic, sense of continuous time.   

In the philosopher of urbanism Henri Lefebvre’s notations on ‘rhythmanalysis’, written towards the end of his life, he observes how ‘in order to grasp and analyse rhythms,’ particularly those of the street, ‘it is necessary to get outside them, but not completely: be it through an illness or a technique.’ Lefebvre continues: ‘A certain exteriority enables the analytic intellect to function,’ however, he cautions, ‘to grasp a rhythm it is necessary to have been grasped by it; one must let oneself go, give oneself over, abandon oneself to its duration’. Certainly Raban is an analytic filmmaker. Whether giving attention to cinema’s apparatus or the street, we feel he is a filmmaker who has been – indeed is – also grasped by his subjects.

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’?