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.  

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

The Raft of the Medusa, BBC Radio 4

Click here to listen to a short radio programme I wrote and presented on the filmmaker Derek Jarman as a painter, broadcast on BBC Radio 4, Saturday 18 April 2015. It features interviews with the artist Tacita Dean, artist and art historian Tim Hyman, composer Simon Fisher Turner, filmmaker Richard Heslop, film curator William Fowler and art dealer Richard Salmon. The programme frames a newly commissioned 'film for radio' by the poet Simon Armitage. The idea is that you can watch a film by Richard Heslop on the iplayer and listen to the radio play simultaneously. Armitage's play has been inspired by Theodore Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa (1818-19) – a painting Jarman imagined developing a film around before he died in 1994.

Noon 03 – SS15

With contributions from:

Adrian Henri

Alice Hattrick
Alice Neale
Brett Lloyd
Charlie Engman
Clunie Reid
David Raymond Conroy
Erica Scourti
Hannah Barton
Jack Borkett
Jonathan P Watts
Kate O'Brien
Ken Hollings
Leigh Johnson
Lyson Marchessault
Max Farago
Mel Bles
Orion Facey
Sean & Seng
Tamara Rothstein
Wu Tsang
Xavier Poultney
Zoë Ghertner

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Hannah Sawtell: Focal Point Gallery, October 2014

Tilbury Port, 1967: the design critic Reyner Banham noted vast shed-lined landscapes of single, unbroken ten-acre tracts. The shed, a stiff tentmade of hi-tech materials, found its form around the increased import of containerized goods in standardized steel containers. An early Modernist ideal made manifest, these sheds could be perfectly designed by engineers without architectsinterference. At Tilbury, Banham diagnosed a new kind of space: a decentralized flatscape with unpredictability designed out an expression of capitalist expediency.

Global shipping, containerization and oil in Tilbury, London Gateway and Thames Oil Port provided the backdrop for Hannah Sawtells recent exhibition, #STANDARDISER, at Focal Point Gallery, a little further up the Thames Estuary in Southend-on-Sea. They suggest materials, motifs and themes, which collide in the show with objects of the New Industrial Revolution said to be underway right-now-any-place-wherever-with-connectivity, facilitated by peer-to-peer currency such as Bitcoin, 3D printing and open source soft- and hardware on the internet.

Docks have always been nodes: a point at which lines in a global network intersect. Are these comparable to nodes in digital networks? What new forms of standardization have occurred or are occurring online? These were a few questions implied by an exhibition that itself wanted to be considered a network. The eponymously titled installation #STANDARDISER (all works 2014), in Gallery 1, is a node, with all other works, in the window gallery, reception and Gallery 2, individually titled as extensions of this root hashtag. Navigating this network, a proxy for others, we were confronted by philosophical questions of value and exchange, labour and creativity, personal freedom, the state, standardization and ownership.

In Gallery 1 a parabolic acoustic wall screens the view but not the pervasive, low-frequency beat. The wall pushes you out to the edges of the space and then gathers you back between it, a corresponding video projection and two MDF speakers and sub woofer. Apart from the grounded sub woofer, these elements hang from a luminous orange steel frame. This modular acoustic display systemworked with the wall to concentrate sound waves in one area of the room. Diedrich Diederichsen has called this affective field within physical space Sawtells industrial psychedelia. At Focal Point, Sawtells intention was to produce a dense digital situationas a condition for viewing the video suggesting we consider the low-frequency beats and the rests between them as a fluid binary stream. 

Sawtell has described her audiovisual works as decelerated repetition. If, for Hito Steyerl in Liquidity Inc. (2014), waves symbolize the forceful liquidity and speed of corporate capital, for Sawtell the most apt decelerationist liquid is oil. In the animated HD video, produced using freeware on a tablet device, oil drips, coagulated, over a proposal for a luxury Norwegian hotel in the shape of a floating glass snowflake. (I think of oil-rich Norway: Oslos waterfront redevelopment, home to the countrys most expensive property and the privately funded Astrup Fearnley Museums new, super-slick Renzo Piano-designed HQ.) Paired with this was a slow aerial tracking shot that circles a computer-generated cooling tower. Beyond the tower, a single wind turbine loops in and out of shot, in sync with the ten-minute loop of these videos. Sawtell projects them onto a bullet-proof polycarbonate plastic sheet, as if to repel the cliché of camera-as-gun: CGI, after all, is camera-less.

In #STANDARDISER_SQUATTER (2014) steel security screens partially covered a brightly lit display cabinet containing a large tub of 3D-printed Bitcoins of the artist’s speculative design. Normally used to prevent access to vacant properties, the screens’ function here was ambiguous. One thing’s for sure: it was not to guard the loot. Bitcoin is an entirely virtual currency that only has online value in relation to other users on a peer-to-peer system, without recourse to a central reserve or banks. This decentralized vehicle of exchange has caused great excitement since its launch in 2009. Identities are hidden in transactions, shielding users from data mining, but at the same time raising fears among the sensationalist press about its potential criminal use.

Bitcoins, this time loose, were heaped alongside a litany of CNCd and 3D printed objects in Gallery 2. A tooth, Google glass, the ebola virus, a drone propellor, the British Standards logo and a router, among other things, were arranged in a quasi-anthropological table-top display. Designs for these objects were downloaded from free open source user-created files available online. Here, Sawtells mediation was felt least. These items are curiously indifferent, like high street 3D print shop novelties.

Orange vinyl British Standard Kitemark logos repeated in diamond patterns on the gallery window. The motif, introduced in 1903 to identify products that meet British manufacturing standards, may be the key to understanding the exhibitions ambivalent title. British Standards directives have real restrictive consequences for industrial design, but a standardizer is also one who can set new norms; who can innovate rather than regulate. Here, Sawtell is the #STANDARDISER, decelerating hi-tech materials designed for expediency.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Reading Out Loud

‘We were running flat out. The opening was dazzling. The middle was dazzling. The ending was dazzling. It was like a steeplechase composed entirely of hurdles.’ 

1. Renata Adler, Pitch Dark, NYRB Classics (1983/2013)

Saturday 13th December 
10am - whenever it ends 

A series of public group readings of novels begins with Renata Adlers Pitch Dark. One copy of the book, passed between as many as are willing to read, for as long as it takes to finish. Dress for warmth. Bring food and drink. Vegetarian soup will be served. 

Piper Keys, Unit 2a, 10 Greatorex Street, London E1 5NF

Monday, 17 November 2014

Beginning of Worlds Beats

Many in grime claim to be ‘going on legendary’, as if we’re to remember them among the annals of Sainthood. Not that, probably, that is what they mean. If, as Flirta D claims of DJ Trends is true, that ‘he’s legendary’, can you imagine a monument atop a plinth nearby Westminster? ‘DJ Trends: known for slaying dragons at 140 beats per minute.’ Unlikely. Today, the gravity of legendary deeds are lessened, as is the time span required for such deeds to mature and become the stuff of myth. Today, ‘legendary’ operates on folded time, diminished attention spans; a shorthand for deep time, often ill-afforded.1 

Earlier this year, a dusky near-solstice evening, in the eager months before London summer really happens, smoke settling low from barbecues, drinking Žywiec on the stoop, streaming radio, I experienced that rare recognition of something legendary occurring. DJ Slimzee, co-founder of Rinse FM, founder-member of Pay As You Go Cartel, Dizzee Rascal’s former DJ, among other things, had given over his slot on NTS radio to a young grime instrumental crew called Boxed. Slimzee, ask any au fait grime or garage head, was legendary. But like all good old-fashioned legends he disappeared. From what I can deduce from Rollo Jackon’s recent documentary on Slimzee, around the time of grime’s second coming, ’06-07, he fell into exhaustion-induced depression, going low-key.

Slimzee had only recently started playing out again, taking residency at NTS radio with his monthly show, Slimzos Sessions, in April 2014. The previous year I’d seen him in Birthdays, Dalston playing mostly instrumentals from before ’05, tracks Dizzee once called ‘end of the world beats’. (Not recognising him, I asked him if he knew when Slimzee was on.) Following his hiatus, Slimzee fitted back into a genre that had changed, as it had seemingly not changed at all. Periodically, someone — who?— officiously announces grime’s death. Certainly vocal grime had been streamlined, simplified, had what Kano called its ‘fucked’ complexity disassembled. Slimzee’s End of the World Beats, indeed more widely that world he pioneered and represented, signposted what had been lost along the way. Dizzee’s ‘Strings Hoe’, Bigshot’s ‘Glitch’, DJ Virus’s ‘Rude Sting’ or DJ Marsta’s ‘Hollow’ sound today as alienating as they ever did. Wiley’s Eski beat just as haunting. (Each are important events in the Grand Narrative of instrumental electronic music, not mere marginalia.) 

In 2013, Boxed took up residency in Birthdays, hosting monthly line-ups of variations around a core crew of five or six producers and DJs, including Mr Mitch, Slackk, Dark0, JT the Goon, Murlo, Logos and Oil Gang. Accompanying this, Boxed released regular free download mixes by associated producers. Boxed had captured and hybridised aspects of these earlier sounds, not just faltered in repetition. It follows that the young MC Novelist, who spits ‘let’s get back to the realness, back to the art… back to foundation, back to the start,’ has embraced Boxed’s beats. People were going to Boxed nights: grime enthusiasts, meow-meow’d students, ironic hipsters, hooded, one-gloved skengmen, Open University anthropologists, but also fellow producers, DJs and MCs. In the same week I saw Spyro play to a floor of three at Alibi, Boxed filled Birthdays. Something was happening. (I found this in my iPhone notebook, probably drunkenly written walking home: Boxd — usually come by myself. Not because I'm anti-social but to dance. Chatted to Big Narstie out on the street. Turns out his mate holidayed in Great Yarmouth, where I'm from. Dullah on stage throwing up gun fingers.)

Boxed’s collective organisation nurtures and sustains a network of influence, friendships and group identification. Among these producers is a web of connection and citation that provides logic for a grouping — appearing in one another’s mixes, collaborating on tracks, sampling, refixing and versioning one another’s tracks. These allegiances exist within a crew that, despite producing a generic sound, ‘grime’, produce music that is not easy to link formally. Within Boxed is a remarkable number of singular sounds. 

First causes are notoriously contested. Last year, DJ Spooky (not the American one) marked grime’s tenth anniversary on his Dejavu radio show Grimey Mondays. Similarly, this summer Rinse FM’s 20th anniversary celebrations, at a pop-up shop in Shoreditch, acknowledged grime’s anniversary. Boxed has become a phenomenon approximately a decade after grime’s birth. The evening that something legendary occurred, when Slimzee went back to back with Boxed, he symbolically passed the mantle on, balancing a ten-year cycle of grime on an equinoctial peak. If you listen closely to the mix, between the commentary on England’s ignominious defeat against Uruguay at the Brazilian World Cup, you can hear Slimzee meeting Boxed crew members for the first time, chatting away. It’s legendary.   

Listen to Slimzos x Boxed (19/06/14, NTS) here

1. An older friend who skipped Germany in 1940 warned me once never to trust anyone who tells you they’re making history while in the act of whatever it is they are doing that is supposedly historical. She was talking of Nazi hubris, and the surprising effects of positive, powerful statements, which the music industry no doubt has learnt from. Few think on such universal scales these days. Relativists, we accept that things have their own orbits, their own temporalities, their own logics that warrant distinction. But that doesn’t mean you don’t sometimes know when something is important or, indeed, legendary. Maybe it’s a hunch. Always it comes from historical knowledge.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Collaboration: 'Some proximity', Adam Linder

At this year's Frieze art fair a programme of live works were presented for the first time. I was invited by the choreographer Adam Linder to collaborate with him and Justin Kennedy on a new work called 'Some Proximity' as part of Linder's ongoing Choreographic Service series. 
Throughout Frieze I wrote on-the-fly art criticism and observation, which were were writ large on single sheets and returned to Silberkuppe's booth (Adam's gallery) where Adam and Justin danced in response, according to a number of modalities. To view a slideshow of photographs by Polly Braden click here. To read Charlotte Higgins on 'Some Proximity' in the Guardian click here. I'm currently writing a long contextual text on this work — watch this space.  

Into the Light: Turner and Film

An article I wrote on JMW Turner's influence on cinematographers, filmmakers and artists working with film features in Tate Etc. issue 32 to coincide with the exhibition 'Late Turner - Painting Set Free' at Tate Britain. To read the article on Tate's website click here

The Image Atlas in Motion, Noon

Issue 2 of Noon magazine launched a couple of weeks ago at the ICA. It features contributions from Alasdair McLellan, Jason Evans, Charlie Engman, Gareth McConnell and Neil Beloufa, among others. I wrote an article, titled 'The Image Atlas in Motion', on Taryn Simon's 'Image Atlas', a web-based project Simon collaborated on with the programmer Aaron Swartz. I'll post the article in full next month.    

Stuart Brisley, State of Denmark, Modern Art Oxford

My review of Stuart Brisley's select retrospective at Modern Art Oxford, 'State of Denmark', features in the back pages of Frieze issue 167. 

Celebrated as one of Britain’s most compelling post-war performance artists, Stuart Brisley had, by the early 1980s, begun to suspect performance’s limitations, seeking to expand it by incorporating sculpture, photography, film and painting. At the turn of the millennium, Brisley instituted the Museum of Ordure – ordure: shit, trash, dirt, entropy – to build a collection of scatological objects. Its mission statement: firstly, to examine ‘the cultural value of ordure, shit, rubbish’, and, secondly, ‘the waste of human resources through various ownership, production, and management regimes’. ‘What is shit for some,’ the Museum reminds us, ‘has value for others.’

‘State of Denmark’, a selected survey of Brisley’s work, which includes a new, eponymously-titled installation, is a collaboration between independent curator David Thorp (Modern Art Oxford’s interim director before Paul Hobson) and the Museum of Ordure. The partnership thematizes (and puns on) the relationship between ordure and curating as form of order and evaluation. Brisley’s 2003 novel Beyond Reason: Ordure, published by Bookworks, tells the story of the Museum of Ordure’s establishment, which is at once a rumination on ordure’s intimations. According to the narrator, ordure has its own organic continuum, primitive and humbling. The body’s processes of ordure enable life but are also symptomatic of its passage. The body is nourished; shit is flushed away. Bodies age. ‘State of Denmark’ reflects on the degradation of the ageing performer’s body, and the more impersonal forces of history that bear upon it. 

The earliest work on display here, Hille Fellowship Poly Wheel (1970/2014), was produced by Brisley while contracted, via the Artist Placement Group’s agency, to work at the Hille furniture factory at Haverhill in Suffolk. In line with his left-leaning politics, Brisley joined the shop floor, befriending workers in the metal-polishing room – an approach Claire Bishop has suggested anticipated many subsequent approaches to site-specific art. Brisley painted the polishing machinery in the colours of the workers’ football teams and introduced mobile noticeboards by means of which colleagues could communicate openly with one another. Finally, he produced Poly Wheel, a four-metre-diameter sculpture consisting of 212 Robin Day chair bases stacked to form a closed circular structure. Originally displayed vertically for a temporary period outside the factory, for Brisley Poly Wheel symbolized closed labour – work without end. At MAO, toppled, laid horizontally, abstracted from its original site, it has a commanding sculptural presence in the upper gallery. The date ‘1970/2014’ bequests the work to today, making it a live proposal and an ambiguous symbol for the workforce for our times. Brisley’s work at Hille, he believed, confused his identity as an artist, shifting him away from art ‘more into a kind of potentially collective situation’. 

Artist Project Peterlee/Within Living History 1976–1977 displayed in the middle galleries represents an early attempt to expand performance into the social through a continuous engagement with the everyday. With Peterlee inhabitants, who populated the new town from surrounding mining communities, Brisley built an archive of historical photographs and oral testimony over a period of 18 months. The intention was to create a sense of shared working class identity that would cohere a community and nurture agency and participation amongst its members. It is impossible to know the legacy of Brisley’s activities – allegedly the project was curtailed because considered too radical – but a digitized archive is now preserved at the Durham County Record Office. At MAO the bureaucratic display of these type-written documents and photographs in vitrines – an ‘aesthetic of administration’ – is somehow antithetical to the dynamic aspirations of the project. Nevertheless, it remains fascinating nonetheless for its relation to pioneers of post-war oral history, in particular George Ewart Evans, and subsequent archival artistic practices. 

By Poly Wheel in the upper gallery was the exhibition’s titular piece, State of Denmark. An iron crown was suspended above a partially clad lumber structure of perpendicular joining walls on a low platform. Each wall is partially covered by removable panels, one side demarcated as open/republican, the other closed/monarchic. Inside is a portrait of a boy prince, apparently caught between these two opposing systems of governance. Yet the simplistic oppositions set up by the installation seem deceptive: if the structure is open and moveable, might it not also be reconstructed, reconsolidated? 

Down in the basement was undoubtedly the highlight of this exhibition: a four-hour loop of Brisley’s films, including Incidents in Transit (1992-2014), Black Red and White (1997-2009), and his remarkable collaboration with Ken McMullen on the preindustrial origins of performance, titled Being and Doing (1984). Many of these durational pieces, including 10 Days (1978) and Before The Mast (2013-14) are utterly beguiling, foregrounding the body, Brisley’s enduring medium. It gives us what is strangely absent upstairs: a harrowing sense of the corporeal. In each of these films, two obdurate concerns of ordure arise: the body’s shit and the body’s entropy. In the former Brisley starves himself for ten days; in the latter Brisley is an elderly man, rolling in waste.

The Influence of Furniture on Love, Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge

My review of 'The Influence of Furniture on Love' group show at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridgeshire features in November's issue of Art Monthly

‘The Influence of Furniture on Love’, along with the exhibition ‘Hey, I’m Mr Poetic’, staged at Wysing Arts Centre between April and June this year, are both pauses to reflect on the institution’s 35-year history. Although Wysing has an exhibitions and events programme coordinated by in-house curators, and on-site studios and specialist workshops, over the decades a remarkable tally of artists – a veritable who’s who – have passed through the retreats and residencies programmes. Wysing’s institutional remit of process and production lends it a refreshing autonomy that distinguishes it from other exhibition-oriented venues across the UK. That it is loved and appreciated by artists both regionally and nationally is unsurprising.

Together, these exhibitions represent a selective survey of those who have stayed at the rural Cambridgeshire site over the years. ‘Hey, I’m Mr Poetic’ was presented in the public gallery, while ‘The Influence of Furniture on Love’ was staged in Wysing residency artists’ lodgings, a 17th-century farmhouse – the first time it has opened to the public. Making the private public, and how to live and work together, are among themes addressed by ‘The Influence of Furniture on Love’, a title taken by Wysing curator Lotte Juul Peterson and artist-curator Giles Round from an unpublished essay by the economist John Maynard Keynes. In this essay, held by the University of Cambridge, Keynes discusses whether it is possible for the rooms in which we live to ‘suggest to us thoughts and feelings and occupations’.

The farmhouse is an intelligent setting for this exhibition, returning the domestic living place, a scene of sociality – albeit temporary – with the manifest place of work: the gallery. It implies a sinuous network of relations beyond Wysing itself, and that somehow the exhibition’s absences, its partiality, linger on. (Concealed at the end of the farmhouse, a house within a house, is the caretaker’s residence.) Included among the 19 exhibiting artists in ‘The Influence of Furniture on Love’ is co-curator Round, Céline Condorelli, Gil Leung, Neal White, Philomene Pirecki, Phil Root and Mark Aerial Waller, along with two Turner Prize winners: Laure Prouvost and Elizabeth Price. While there is no pretence to representativeness, the selection is weighted towards already-visible, mainly London-based artists, leading me to speculate about those who are absent. 

So this speculation on the affective influence of rooms, inhabitants and their objects is a prescient imponderable for viewers of this exhibition. It is also prescient, although I doubt they would couch it in such language, for the Cambridgeshire ghost hunters who, since the exhibition opened to the public, have harried Wysing to spend the night in the farmhouse which, rumour has it, is haunted. Timbers used to build the house’s frame are reputedly from ships salvaged following the sinking of the Spanish Armada. 

To enter a house is to start on an enforced choreography. At the kitchen entrance, works by four artists – Round, Provost, Condorelli and The Grantchester Pottery – frame the continued movement through wonky corridors, modern bathrooms, an 18th-century porch, and five bedrooms, offset by black beams and white wattle-and-daub panels. Upon entry, placed proudly on the kitchen table are Grantchester Pottery glazed stoneware objects  – cloying, too-tasteful coffee pots, not for handling. But surrounding them are counterpoint works that add complexity to the somewhat fatigued art-craft-design conversation. On a shelf above the stove a small dipped porcelain bowl by Condorelli accompanies a copy of, and a reproduced page from, James Langdon’s book A School for Design Fiction, an entreaty for speculative objects, ‘in the same register as science fiction’, that cannot presently be made. 

To the left and right of the work surface, hidden among other domestic appliances, are two ‘as found’ works by Round: a La Cupola espresso maker and an Ettore kettle. The former, titled oblique forgetfulness (For Aldo) (2014), and the latter, titled fill up forever on 4-star fuel… fill up my veins & set them alight (for Ettore) (2014), imply a reflexive generational influence, while recalling Ettore Sottsass’s responsiveness to the emotional and cultural states of objects he accorded to their functional requirements. The house itself, its structure on show, concertinas time in an ad hoc way that relays and returns between it and the objects on display. 

Discretely, to the side of the kitchen door, is the first of many of Prouvost’s ‘fake signs’ (2014) throughout the house, each with their own apparently site-specific text. ‘ideally this room would be loved’ reads the kitchen sign, painted in trompe l’oeil to give an illusion of wooden volume. The illusionism of these signs – paint pretends to be wood – is a fascinating counterpoint to the ‘as found’ literalism of Round’s appliances, and the tactile materiality of ceramics. It dramatises the relationship between the old and the new, depth and surface. 

This category confusion, one-thing-as-another, is played out to great effect throughout the exhibition, but nowhere more effectively than in Price’s G.U.N. (1993). Installed in a large, empty room upstairs, it consists of a blank-firing facsimile gun placed atop a chest of drawers stripped of handles. This is not a defunctionalised chest of drawers, but a hollow fabricated sculpture modelled upon a chest of drawers. Somehow this is more haunting than the implied macabre narrative. 

Throughout the farmhouse certain objects have selectively been allowed to remain. Juliette Blightman’s radio that periodically plays Sailing By (2010) in the bathroom is accompanied by a coffee cup that could feasibly just be there. I checked the toilet, half expecting it to be dry. In the front room a piano stands beneath framed sheet music in Cally Spooner’s Seven Thirty Till Nine (2012). At the exhibition’s opening a pianist performed the music, singing ‘labour’ in place of ‘love’ each time it occurred. Is the chair by a record player loaded with Seb Patane’s sound collage, Evening (Featuring James Beckett) (2014), to be sat on? While in one room, William Morris curtains hang unattributed among works by Ruth Beale, Ben Brierley, Root and Waller.  

Room 4 was charged with an oneiric quality. A television displaying Waller’s episodic dream narrative, Time Together (2013), gazed over a desolate room in which only a stripped wooden-framed bed remained, and, discretely, a mousetrap. At the head of the bed, Jessie Flood-Paddock’s enlarged objects and primitivist totems reigned; at the foot, Pirecki had partially painted the wall in machine-mixed and eye-mixed emulsions, as if in a state of un-paintedness.

Among such a quantity of things, a framed newspaper cutting from the Independent in 1987, by Beale, takes us back to Keynes’s question. The clipping shows a photograph of Edmund and Ruth Frow in their front room among 15,000 rare books. The couple, a former toolmaker and a retired teacher, are just weeks away from moving to a flat, with their library, to the then new labour movement library in Salford. With the library deposited in a purpose-built space, the couple would return to domestic order. It addresses the politics and aesthetics of placing the private in public display. Who knows what thoughts and feelings presented themselves to the elderly couple, separated from their library?

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Surrendering the OUTPOST

Today I revisited this text that I wrote in 2011 for Ryan Gander’s Night School 6, 6th April 2011 at the ICA, London. It will be included in a project OUTPOST has been asked to participate in called The Naked, a project run by five independent Dutch galleries - 1664, TAG, Heden, Nest and Billytown, which looks at building a global view of contemporary art from a broad range of local perspectives.

An idea of a centre and periphery underwrites the name of the contemporary art gallery ‘OUTPOST’. Geographically, it is an outpost located in the county of Norfolk, a county without motorways, close to the coast. It is at the edge, sure, but is also peripheral in relation to the metropolitan capital London. OUTPOST is a useful name because it enfolds these two central qualities of its identity as an organisation: separateness from the metropolitan art world and isolation in a predominantly rural county.

Norwich has effective transport links, communications, clean tap water... A linear contraposition between centre and periphery is a powerful idea that has historically shaped England’s social and economic identity. It is a legacy we are still very much with: an advanced centre that irradiates light and a periphery shadowed by backwardness; a plentiful centre and a lacking periphery; a dominant centre and a submissive periphery. Entangled among this are the powerful and enduring ideas of the periphery as ‘authentic’ (local, free from the pollutions of the global market) and the centre as global (fake, bent nonetheless on producing its own authenticities). If anybody has a neat encapsulation of ‘authenticity’ I would be interested to hear it. It is not possible, or indeed useful, to reduce the exchanges between centre and periphery in a linear fashion.

Yesterday I asked OUTPOST founder-member Kaavous Clayton if for him disinterest in London was part of the initial design of the gallery: ‘Yes,’ he replied, ‘at first it was an aggressive stance. I didn’t want to get bogged down by the relationship between the gallery and London. As I saw it London drained the activity away from Norwich once students left the art school. It felt like domination. OUTPOST gave it a focus and a community. I was keen to ignore London.’ There were important examples and precedents elsewhere. Transmission Gallery in Glasgow, for example, provided an organisational model. If regional work were to be relevant and engaged in current critical debates it had to be seen amid a bigger context; for Kaavous this too could be provided by peripheral examples. I asked whether the anti-London position was an ideology shared across all of the committee. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘we realised it was possibly not a good approach, a realistic approach, to ignore London. It didn’t last very long’. OUTPOST was born out of a relationship of difference to London, through frustration and aggressive distancing.

Some years before in Norwich Phil Gardner ran a contemporary art space called ‘Frontier’ in his flat. Frontier, OUTPOST — for some reason the artist’s identity in Norwich seems couched in the language of attack, geo-political boundary, terms of colonial occupation. Put like that it makes OUTPOST sound like a settlement of metropolitan advanced art within the regions, an envoi from the Capital. Yet, an important characteristic of the settlement community is that despite maintaining ties to its homeland, it is not actually under the home state’s system of government. Does it represent the centre? Become native? Get attacked by locals? Literature and film of Western modernity is populated by eccentrics, egoists and demigods permitted to thrive in these geographical margins. Forgive me for emptying the following examples of their political meaning... Think of Mr. Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the Belgian ivory trader who uses his influence over African natives to prosper; or Fitzcarraldo, the visionary who drags a paddleboat over a mountain in Werner Herzog’s film of the same title. In the humanities liminal spaces have been celebrated for their state of potential; bell hooks, with a clear political agenda, valorises peripheries as places for hybrid forms to develop away from the centre. These are only a few examples they suggest that all kinds of fascinating hybridizations and maverick things happen at the peripheries. How and why might this relate to galleries operating in peripheries? Distance from London might afford the opportunity to develop independent ideas, to move beyond boundaries? Perhaps intense working groups form more easily in small regional towns and cities in ways that are harder in the capital? Their exoticism can be attractive.

I recall reading a short sentence by the critic and chair of the New Contemporaries Sasha Craddock. ‘If you want to be an artist essentially,’ it went something like, ‘you must move to London.’ Probably it stayed with me because this essentialist statement came from a very visible agent of taste in the contemporary art world. I was a little taken back by its centralist attitude. Rather than paraphrase it, remember it through my own wonts and mores, and because by serendipity Craddock might be here tonight, I ran through search engines in order to be precise. Athens, e-flux, Frieze, Art Monthly... then I found it in my inbox, in an email from Standpoint Gallery in Hoxton via OUTPOST. It read: ‘Artists from say, Liverpool, Newcastle or the countryside, can be more cut off than artists from Europe; and years of decentralization has tended to hide the essential value of London to regional artists.’

This is a specious comment. It must be said that Liverpool and ‘the countryside’ — I’m guessing the British countryside (where thousands of Londoners go at the weekend to get away from the city — it could be anywhere as long as it is not London) — are part of Europe. Otherwise I do not dispute that London might be of importance to regional artists. Though to fix the echo of the imperialist logic of dominance and dependence I insist on swapping ‘London’ with ‘regional arts’ and ‘de-centralisation’ with ‘centralisation’, maybe editing it a little too. To rephrase: ‘centralisation has tended to hide the essential value of regional arts to London.’ The question is are these regional arts compatible with London?

Jonathan P Watts, East Norfolk / London, April 2011

Monday, 29 September 2014

Gratuitous Grime

I was into grime before I was into writing. I've wanted to write about grime since, well, I had the confidence to write. Grime's recent hybridisations—particularly those represented at Boxed grime nights in East London—have inspired me to start writing about it. When grafik magazine invited me to compile my 'top five' list it seemed a timely opportunity to begin. More writing on grime to come. To see my top five grime album/mix covers click here

Spastic Stuttering Pluriverse

Ryan Gander's new book Culturefield launches Thursday 16th October on the Koenig books stand at Frieze, Regents Park. It features a text I wrote called 'Spastic Stuttering Pluriverse' that surveys the last ten years of Gander's work.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Mechanical Garden and Other Long Encores

A conversation, in car and by foot, between the filmmaker William Raban and Jonathan P Watts. Proceeding from Bow, where he has lived for over forty years, Raban shares his Tower Hamlets, a borough of visionary social housing, gentrified docks, BNP pubs, Kray Twins nostalgia, and marijuana macaroons. To view the exhibition website, including the exhibition soundtrack, click here

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Spinning Out: Samara Scott

The artist is the medium of her medium; her part is limited to selecting aesthetically acceptable affects from the purely accidental behavior of her color. — Harold Rosenberg on Helen Frankenthaler, ‘Art and Words’ in The Re-Definition of Art, 1972.  

Google search ‘Helen Frankenthaler’. To the right of the cascading results, Google’s ‘Knowledge Graph’ displays a thumbnail cluster of reproductions, a textured swatch, a compact if you will, of Frankenthaler paintings. Beneath is a cursory description (‘Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract expressionist painter. She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting), her achievements flattened into datasets: 

Born: December 12, 1928

Spouse: Stephen M. DuBrul Jr., Robert Motherwell

Periods: Lyrical abstraction, Post-painterly abstraction, Color Field...

The datasets inconspicuously shorthand concrete histories: for instance, Frankenthaler is no longer merely the wife of Robert Motherwell but a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Google magnanimously wills us to ‘go deeper and broader’ with our researches: a click on the cluster of reproductions opens a richly dynamic mood board of colours and forms. What has risen to the top of this archive-in-motion are a series of photographs by Gordon Parks, shot in 1956 for LIFE magazine, of Frankenthaler kneeling — awkwardly, demurely — on her work. 

‘Samara Scott’s work,’ a friend suggested at the weekend, ‘always puts me in mind of that photograph of Frankenthaler in her studio.’ I’d looked at the very image earlier that morning. It’s not as much about her pose as it is her palette: ripe blushes of pastels, pinks, and blues swirl into one another, bruising at the overlaps. Translucent washes express the loose fronds of canvas. These canvases cover the floor and, stretched on boards, vertically meet at right angles to produce space, physical and psychological. The quasi-functionally repurposed paintings, as architectural structure and interior décor, are stage set for Frankenthaler’s portrait, and an ambient image of mind and body. The sliver of a view onto the room to the edge of the frame is a glitch.

It was a relation half lodged at the edge of my consciousness. Besides obvious formal resemblances, many shared themes productively appear, however relayed, in Samara Scott’s work.1 Exhibitions such as Open Heart Surgery (2013) at The moving Museum, London or Cascading Style Sheets (2013) at the Palazzo Peckham, Venice, staged work to enable a spatialised ambient effect.2 The addition of a low coffee table in Still Life (2013), The Sunday Painter’s solo presentation at London Art Fair 2013, ramped up the functional-decorative complex. Where the domestic appears as glitch at the edge of Parks’ frame, for Scott it enters fully into the frame. Sponges, toilet paper, and used blankets are grounds for visible and invisible stains, dyes, and bleeds of fragrance, pigment, and ink.   

Scott’s writings are unruly attempts at organising thought on her own work without enervating its propensity for meaning. Abstract, unresolved, her associative prose agglomerations return again and again to ripe metaphors of pungent bodies, metabolic transformations, and synaesthethic confusions: she seeks ‘juicy effects and bruised saturation’; ‘olfactory and gustatory sensation’; and surroundings that ‘curdle’ and sculptures that ‘ooze’.

For E.C. Goossen, writing in Art International in 1961, Frankenthaler’s single contribution to the history of Western painting was to ‘add a new candidate for the dictionary of plastic forms: the stain’. ‘Frankenthaler’s painting,’ he writes: 

is manifestly that of a woman... What she took from [Pollock] was masculine; the almost hard-edge, linear splashes of duco enamel. What she made with it was distinctly feminine, the broad, bleeding-edged stain on raw linen. 

Frankenthaler did more than pour paint onto the canvas. She bled on the raw linen. She stained the sheets. Through slippages of language, Goossen codifies stained paint as menstruation, so now, before Parks’ camera, Frankenthaler kneels surrounded by fluids that signify residue of involuntary bodily function, ‘an index of a thwarted or ineffectual creative process... not creative inception or biological conception, but their refusal, the flushing of an empty womb’.3  Where Frankenthaler’s male peers actively, intentionally impregnated the canvas, she passively stained it with the seep and ooze of bodily fluids. 

Today, bodily seeps, stains, and oozes are just as likely to appear in the work of male artists, such as Benedict Drew or Ed Atkins, as they are female artists, such as Lucy Clout, Kate Owens, or, indeed, Samara Scott. This is perhaps an effect of the post-human recognition of the inexorably embodied nature of experiences. And their biopolitical dimensions. Does this sameness of bodies elide biological-social difference, thus furthering the dismantling of gender inequality?4 

Why are certain qualities in art aligned to or with the ‘feminine’ or the ‘masculine’? In the journal n.paradoxa’s 12 Step Guide to Feminist Art, Art History and Criticism (2010), feminist critic Katy Deepwell asks whether this is consequence of the artists being male or female or a critic’s evaluation or value judgement about a feminine sensibility in the work. In the case of Frankenthaler, for Lisa Saltzman it is resolutely the latter: her stains were linked to menstruation by male critics at a more or less identifiable moment. In the work of Samara Scott, along with other female contemporaries, these questions are rendered complex by their own complicit and duplicitous — (in)authentic — performance of femininity through culture at large. Particularly in Scott’s work, this includes aspects of feminist art history itself, such as the stereotypical historical domain of the decorative arts, the amateurism of craft, and, of course, the gendered stain.5

Despite the rhetoric of individuality and personal freedom, intuition and expression, attached to gestural abstract painting, Frankenthaler was dumbly tied to her biology. Today, these sensual freedoms are stock in trade imperatives of neoliberal capitalism. Scott lives these myths as female consumer, not as autonomous artist; and yet she is granted distinction by virtue of being embedded within an institutional apparatus that grants art its autonomy. To parrot Rosenberg: the artist is, indeed, the medium of her medium, selecting aesthetic affects from the forces that bare down on her embodied experiences. 

Scott’s work to date is difficult to disentangle: individual works provide backdrops for others, they bleed over. Her work is an intimate and confused collision between her self, she became teen in the MTV-hyper-sexualised nineties — light even tones of DiCaprio’s barely pubescent face, Salt-N-Peppa’s midriffs, sweet-sticky lip gloss (I remember the taste of K.B.’s) — and the emotional resonances of contemporary consumerism. This collision achieves, Scott writes, ‘the tenor of burning teenage dreams while prodding the crass mass-marketing through which they are shaped in a plasticised urban spirituality’. It’s as if the latex web of the work Making Out, reminiscent of Faith Wilding’s crocheted environments, has returned from Scott’s past to display a trawl of universal ‘girly matter’ coloured by personal significance. ‘Everything,’ Scott told me, ‘begins with a sort of sentimental material investigation; a slow digestion of cosmetic, edible and chemical cultural debris which rise from a practice formed from an impatience, haptic greed and a patchy logic.’ 

Frankethaler’s stain, stripped of its thematic, is a material-technical choice. Applied to absorbent unprimed canvases wet oil blooms into translucent washes. Like watercolour, these oils necessitate precision and certainty in mark making. The economy lends a particular rhythmic expediency familiar to Scott’s work. Her absorbent felt, towel, and foam grounds draw-in moisture, unevenly depositing watercolour or eyeshadow pigments in blotches, softly — au naturel. In contrast, or apparently in contrast, glossy grounds, such as the Argos catalogue, and waxy, oily water-resistant materials make the material sweat. As real as walking down the street and going to the grocery store, installed at Rowing in 2013, is a gold-lined cavity, a picked scab, retaining a toxic cocktail of body products. The wall-mounted work Private, exhibited at Almanac Projects, is a foam camping mattress, shot through with incense sticks, fruit, breadsticks, and Argos pens. 

For an earlier generation of women artists — Tracey Emin is exemplary — intimate biographical details and the presence of the body gave the impression that true subjectivity was on offer.6 Scott’s is an experimental body, a conduit for twenty-first century experience, succumbed to the synthetic, that is netted by product, expressing how she is sold, seduced and hypnotised by matter. ‘I’m discussing my vulnerability to this hyper-superficiality,’ she writes. ‘Why am I attracted? To get deeper with the superficiality.’ 

Femininity is not necessarily feminist. Maybe Scott does have a ‘conventional Pop practice’, as she put it to me in her studio, a studio stuffed with materials, colours, and textures. Pop was an experiment in mass-marketed surfaces — an extension of the Modernists’ moral imperative of flatness into advertising and taste. Pop music, Jon Savage memorably put it, ‘hits the head, the heart, the soul and the feet.’ Pop, he writes, stands by default: 

at the intersection between two quite separate perceptions — the public world of news, current affairs and media chat, and the private word of life as it is lived. In this, pop’s perennial concentration on love is only the most obvious sign of its intention to make the private public. Hence also its flagrant concerns with sex and gender.7 

It is difficult to penetrate something that spins, that wants to ‘get deeper with its superficiality’. Scott’s toxic-positive works hypertrophy postmodernism’s indiscriminate cultural appropriation to excess. By succumbing to what she calls ‘the overpowering pseudo-romance of 21st century commodification’ she is able to ‘spin out its absurdities’. She starts from no distance and accepts the imperative to remake herself into a thing. 
1 ‘Historical knowledge,’ writes George Kubler in The Shape of Things, ‘consists of transmissions which the sender, the signal, and the receiver are all variable elements affecting the stability of the message.’ He goes on: ‘Since the receiver of a signal becomes its sender in the normal course of historical transmission (e.g. the discoverer of a document usually is its editor), we may treat receivers and senders together under the heading of relays. Each relay is the occasion of some deformation in the original signal.’ — George Kubler, (1962/2008) The Shape of Things: Remarks on the History of Things, Yale University Press, p.19.

2. Scented products, such as toothpaste, hair gel and shampoo, and particularly perfume, are other means by which Scott’s work becomes spatialised. As the critic Alice Hattrick recently argued: ‘Perfume speaks the body. Wearing perfume you can be more than yourself. You can exceed your limits.’ See/listen to CAR podcast All Over You (2014): https://soundcloud.com/car_rca/car-15-all-over-you. 

3. Lisa Saltzman, ‘Reconsidering the Stain: On Gender and Body in Helen Frankenthaler’s Painting’ in Reclaiming Female Agency: Feminist Art History After Postmodernism, Eds. Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard (2005) Berkeley: University of California Press, p.376. 

4. The curator Shama Khanna proposes ‘flatness’ as a general rubric for the dehierarchising of political and social life, ushered in by screens plus network culture. 

5. In 2008 Annie Fletcher and others co-authored Cooling-Out: On The Paradox of Feminism, a book that addressed a perceived disinterest of young women toward the ideas and forms of Feminism, ‘resulting from a lack of palpable aims on the one hand and the acceptance of existing structures on the other’. I see less evidence of this today within my own East London artistic community. There are many feminist artist reading groups in East London (which I acknowledge is a very specific context), while feminism has a very visible presence in the mainstream media.  

6. See ‘Abject Craft: Mike Kelley and Tracey Emin’ in Glenn Adamson (2007) Thinking Through Craft, Berg. 

7. Jon Savage, ‘The simple things you see are all complicated’ in The Faber Book of Pop, Eds. Hanif Kureishi and Jon Savage (1995) Faber & Faber, p. xxxii.