Fig-2 at Bicester Village – 29 October 2015

One cold October day a bunch of journalists and I and the whole of Gaggle were shipped off to the Baudrillardian Bicester Village where ’tis forever Christmas . . . 

12189644_10156188631880181_6023941664043227912_nFig-2 is a great project taking place at the Institute for Contemporary Arts (ICA). For fifty weeks in 2015 an artist is selected each week to create a new exhibition that is only in place for seven days. It’s a curatorial ultramarathon that has seen the ICA studio transformed into a dizzying range of different uses and appearances from a paint-splattered art studio to a gleaming white cube.

12187835_10156188631540181_5435690224447651839_nOne of Fig-2’s sponsors is Bicester Village, and part of the deal was that four ‘Fig-2 artists’ would be asked to respond to Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and produce site-specific work there. From the forty-some Fig-2 artists so far the four commissions were a performance on October 29 by Deborah Coughlin and Gaggle (from Week 9 of Fig-2), a film by Annika Ström (Week 10), an immersive animation by Shezad Dawood (Week 13) and a sound and light installation by Vesna Petresin (forthcoming Week 46).

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Bicester Village, Oxford

Bicester Village is a kind of open air shopping mall in the visual style of a village in a Christmas movie. When we arrived it was even snowing! (Courtesy of a snow machine). Regular villages have post-offices and pubs, or used to, but Bicester sells luxury goods, mainly designer clothes. Each of the major fashion brands has a house in the village but you can’t get a drink anywhere. It’s busy too. Aspirant Brits and affluent tourists flood in via the purposely built station, getting their Christmas shopping done early. They’re served by staff dressed like bellhops to mimic the American retail experience’s visual class distinctions. At 4pm the bellhops entertain the village in a dance performance.

120322WearingDance_5968452Dancing and shopping have been paired before in art. In Gillian Wearing’s classic video “Dancing in Peckham” the Turner Prize winner dances uninhibitedly by herself without music in a London shopping precinct. It’s hilarious, but very few of the shoppers walking past even turn their head to look. Noone points and laughs.  Everyone is very British about it and ignores her. Presumably they think she is a crazy lady. There is a disparity between the unabashedness of the dancing and the refusal of the shoppers to step away from their purposive walking and shopping. The video is from 1994 so perhaps today everyone would be filming her with their smartphones, as they were the bellhops at Bicester.

02212012_EDU_1998.1.709_LargeFashion and shopping have been a source of fascination for artists, as you can see at the current blockbuster show ‘The World Goes Pop’ at Tate Modern where pop artists like Andy Warhol both celebrate and satirize modern consumerism and its obsession with the latest thing. Art itself is subject to the vicissitudes of fashion and the reputations of artists often rise or fall in parallel with the prices their works command at the auction house.

Sylvain_Deleu_Fig-2_10.50_-14Annika Ström’s work explores encounters between people. Just as Gillian Wearing’s video worked by dropping her into a public space, Annika Strom likes to set actors out into public spaces to interact with people. For Week 10 of Fig-2 she directed six actors to act in a lovely manner toward everyone they came into contact with. Her friendly film ‘Changing Rooms’ depicts two women who only meet at Bicester Village. Their friendship is in a sense based on the act of shopping, which you might see as a devaluation of their friendship or as an ennoblement of shopping!

12195975_10156188631710181_5276000071257545234_nShezad Dawood created an animation that you view through eyeholes in a colourful shed-like circular structure in the centre of the Village. It depicts digitally generated characters from the animation he made during Week 13 of Fig-2 and in watching it the viewer enters a kind of virtual reality. Is shopping also a virtual reality?

CSe__jLWwAA_HedWe are looking forward to Vesna Petresin’s week at Fig-2 (from 16-22 November). Her sound and light installation at Bicester is playful and challenging. You enter a white phone box and are immersed in pink light with flashing lights running up and down like Willy Wonka’s Great Glass Elevator, soundtracked by a female voice sexily whispering. It was too much for a couple I saw who emerged after barely seconds slightly perplexed. Art can take you to another (virtual) world, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like that world.

CSgt-IxWEAAdJAvDeborah Coughlin’s work with her all-female choir GAGGLE is also challenging, with an explicit feminist purpose of female empowerment. In Week 9 of Fig-2 they performed in between readings of classic speeches by great women including Virginia Woolf. In Bicester each member of the choir carried a rock made out of paper and wire and sang ringing harmonies to her source of burden, “I wish my rock.. were you!” The choir carried their rocks through the crowds along the whole length of Bicester Village.

10178099_10156188632215181_2974744521471714333_nWe fell about when we saw a dad successfully goading his children. “Those women must be so strong!” he said, provoking their incredulous reply “It’s fake rocks, Dad!

Fig-2 continues until December at the Institute for Contemporary Arts.

AJ Dehany is blogging about every single week of Fig-2 at fig2loyaltycard.wordpress.com.

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I was bad & I bought a suit..

Week 22 – Marjolijn Dijkman – June 1-7 (by Alix Mortimer)

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A three century old ritual is reimagined by artist Marjolijn Dijkman in the form of a week long presentation of ideas and discussions called ‘LUNÄ Talks: Uncertainty Scenarios’.”

There is a moment in most pub conversations when I test the water. The talk has been flowing for perhaps thirty-five minutes, second pints have been purchased and a couple of proper belly laughs successfully banked. We are all looking each other in the eye. This is officially a successful evening. The stage is set. Pubs are becomingly like stage sets these days – all moody dark walls and 70s oxblood leather Chesterfields. The topic might be lucid dreaming, Neolithic henges, Prime Minister’s Questions or someone’s psychometric test results. Anything reasonably educated, informed people might be commenting on in a pub. Then after three serious comments, two counter-arguments and a leavening joke, there’s a pause. This is the moment the conversation could go either way. There’s a sort of dodge and feint in what follows, because this is when the people round the table establish the level. Are these just a few more pub topics to be sandwiched in between lighter material, funny stories or news of mutual acquaintances? Or are we having this conversation for real.

1280px-Sohohouse1In the eighteenth century, the Lunar Society, a dining club of industrialists, scientists, reformers, thinkers, talkers and futurologists, presumably suffered from no such preliminary constraints. Time is short enough for busy people to really talk to each other about the past and the future, so a meeting held once a month – on the Monday nearest the full moon – between (mostly though not exclusively) men such as Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgewood, presumably did not spare time on introductions, because they all loosely knew each other and all probably took themselves unashamedly seriously.

NL_Project_LUNATalks_2But week 22 of fig 2 brought together 10 collections of people, of whom 2 to 4 at a time would be speakers and the rest observers and contributors, most of whom had probably not met before, so introductory speeches, for want of a better word, were necessary.

CGqYg-qW0AAJvlgThis week’s artist, Marjolijn Dijkman, was inspired by the Lunar Society to create a clean-lined modern version of the table round which the original protagonists met. Among her interests seem to be science fiction, representations of the future, and deep time. But her involvement really ended there apart from some commendably relaxed chairing of the meetings – what she has created, in the re-imagined lunar table, is a conversation piece, in the sense of something that fosters conversation rather than something which draws its attention.

I attended two of these talks but I was more interested in and lastingly affected by the one in which I didn’t say anything (I didn’t realise until later that anyone could chip in) so make of that what you will.

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Changing prospects, Sat 6 June, 2pm-6pm

“Saturday’s session will concentrate on the notion of change in relation to the locus of collective imagination of the future. We will explore different approaches, which are utilised to motivate and trigger seismic shifts relating to the world around us.”

51oEjGD+juL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_It’s just as well I have that paragraph because while I was entranced by the whole thing I came away without the foggiest idea of what it all amounted to and I’d be surprised if any of the speakers did. Mark Fisher was having a good rant about capitalism, elite corruption and the utter cultural wasteland generated by the rich, all good stuff (the rich are boring and this is a profoundly important truth – go and look at the redevelopment around Tottenham Court Road if you don’t believe me) after which he segued somewhat less nobly into how put upon he is as an academic by all those terrible higher education administrators (of which I am one so, oh please, just answer my emails) and how culture is struggling to do its job as a means of drawing attention to things that are wrong because we no longer have time or capacity to enjoy shared attention (a profoundly important point). Someone else is touchingly obsessed with the moon and had many interesting reflections on the history of our collective obsession with it and I’m only sorry the John Lewis Christmas advert wasn’t out at the time. Ken Hollings is touchingly obsessed with sci-fi manga, Philip K Dick, Godzilla and human perceptions of robotic intelligence, and also provided the much needed reassuring humour that presumably someone provided in the original Lunar Society to stop everything going completely off the rails. There was a really interesting and grounded set of verbal notes from, I think, Caroline Edwards, which speaks to the impact of science fiction on our ways of thinking and perceiving at quite a neuro-mechanical level – she mentioned how preparing for the science fiction course she teaches to students causes her to have much more interesting dreams than normal, as if her brain is being exercised in some way.

It was all great fun, I just don’t think all that much of people’s special subjects necessarily got into the end product, if that is what four hours of conversation can be called. If things coalesced around any particular speaker it was Fisher, which is odd because he was the one person there without a specialism of some kind in science fiction which is one of the key themes all the talks of the week were supposed to turn on. So the three observations that follow are really just me picking out bits I liked, for lack of a better discriminating mechanism.

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One of the topics on which everyone’s specialisms briefly threatened to gel was the subject of shared attention. There was a lengthy and enthusiastic exchange about big cultural events, and it was proposed that big shifts in reality such as those that followed things like the release of a Beatles record just don’t occur any more. Our attention is split too many ways. Fisher proposed that the Beatles and Dylan were a form of consciousness raising that did in fact lead to change, or at least the possibility of change. The cultural history of the 60s remains a testament to the power of shared time spent together, and the self-actualisation and wider consciousness that ensue. The group discussed possible current outlets for shared attention, and in the context of music these were felt to be “underground” music of one sort or another at one extreme, and X Factor at the other, and neither really performs the same “cultural event” role entirely. I’m still unsure about this. I think we’re perilously close here to arguing that people were somehow purer, more aware individuals in the “old days”, and cleaved to these great cultural icons and events because they chose to experience shared attention, rather than because the television set just didn’t get any more channels. And it’s not as if there wasn’t underground music when the Beatles were around which absolutely defined the 60s experiences of an awful lot of people living in Britain at the time who one way or another were excluded from a lot of the conventional 60s shared experience. But even if we do concede that cultural events no longer focus shared attention on that scale, I don’t think that necessarily implies that massive cultural shifts do not and cannot occur. It just makes them harder to spot. And so more difficult to work into arty, well-informed think pieces about the history of popular music.

The shared attention conversation led on into something else, which exemplifies one of the problems with being a futurologist; sometimes you just sound like a Grumpy Old Man (whatever your gender), and sometimes that is precisely what you are (ditto). I have had this experience listening to David Graeber and Brian Eno in conversation and it is disappointing.

isolation

Yes, inevitably people started talking about social media. And hence the atomised life of cities and segregation and alienation and of course someone ended up mentioning how you go into a café and everyone is plugged into their headphones working on laptops in a way that undermined genuine sociability with the “illusion” of human connection, yada yada yada.

CGfgi8nU8AE2BtBMy science fiction reading may be pitiful but I studied archaeology so I do know something about sociability and cities which is how I know all this is faux-nostalgic wibble. The “illusion” of sociability inherent in sitting alone in a café is only an illusion insofar as any socialising is perforce an illusion (it rests on effective theory of mind, after all, and what is that if not the ability to conjure and sustain an illusion about the other person’s viewpoint.) Socialising is socialising. There are certainly people I exclusively interact with face-to-face where genuine exchanges of understanding are pretty bloody illusory. Furthermore, it makes no sense to regard cities as a sort of alien imposition driving the poor little humans apart. We made the bloody things. That’s not to say they don’t have emergent properties, but their emergent properties are unlikely to be on average more uniquely damaging and disturbing than any other complex form of social organisation we have evolved, such as companies, nation states, nuclear families and orchestras. The cities-are-bad-for-us schtick comes from a naïve and pessimistic view of human evolutionary capability, in the face of several dozen thousands of years of the most astounding counter-evidence you could find. You might as well say we’re profoundly damaging our wellbeing because we’re not “evolved” to drive cars. It’s the same kind of just-so logic which causes people to advocate certain diets with extremely precise rules about crops that half the world successfully survives on (and not the fatter half at that) because of what we “naturally” evolved to eat as “hunter-gatherers” (when? where?).

hqdefaultThat’s not to say there are not trite truths in play here – we are probably less fit than we would be without cars, and we probably shouldn’t have normalised the consumption of small sugar-drenched pieces of cardboard as a healthy morning choice. But these unfortunate tendencies, along with the real or perceived ill effects of social media, the dislocation that can send people in large communities spiralling down the cracks etc, are just the unremarkable bad cards we have drawn in this particular gameplay of modern civilisation. The fact that people work on laptops in cafes and have headphones is not a sign that things have gone Horribly Wrong and there isn’t a clear and obvious utopian alternative in which Everyone Is Friends.

So you can lay off cities. Cities appear to be this monolithic parasitical bad thing because we are not good at thinking about complexity, randomness and large numbers of people. But that does not mean that cities aren’t human. They’re incredibly human and therein lies the big reveal. The reason I know that cities are not the chosen mechanism of cackling omniscient capitalist oppressors to engineer our segregation and isolation is because the capitalist elite oppressors are just as shit at thinking about this stuff as the rest of us. Possibly worse.

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Point three was really a collection of ideas about social organisation and social norms, and how people cling to them or resist them, culminating in an interesting insight into said capitalist elite oppressors. A discussion about robot intelligence threw up a neat point about practice (in the sociological sense) and what it signifies, as follows. One solution to the problem of an ageing population is to use robots as carers for the elderly. People tend to have an icky response to this – on some instinctive level it doesn’t feel right to us to have a machine that does not care doing these sorts of tasks for human beings. Yet the real live humans who do these jobs also ape the motions of caring at times, perhaps most of the time. They do things as if they love and care for the people in their charge, but this is not really true. They may well be naturally caring people, they may be absolutely fulfilled in working in a caring profession, they may form strong bonds at work like a lot of people do. But they are not actually required to love their charges like a family member. If we accept this happily, we have to accept that it is the practice of caring that really matters to us, not the feelings it derives from. In which case, the company concluded, why shouldn’t a robot carry out the practice.

7f84c85474c8b2a61de9d99db433f171Fisher’s students apparently have a similarly ick response to his attempts to deconstruct the family as a “natural” and inevitably correct phenomenon, despite the fact as he pointed out that this is a relatively disadvantaged group of young people. Their demographic does not enjoy a particularly good experience of family, yet they are loth to see the concept reduced. I think this is probably a perfectly natural heuristic bias of some kind – if you experience a version of something (an event, a social construct, a job, anything) which is self-evidently non-optimal, it is easy to believe that an optimal version (a) exists at all and (b) would vastly improve your life. You haven’t experienced the reality of having a pretty-good family upbringing and yet still encountering mental health problems, or disadvantage in the workplace, or whatever it might be. So you remain able to enshrine the family as a panacea for all these sorts of things. The other interesting point is that another group who fetishize the family are of course the traditional boarding-school educated elite, and I think it is this similarity that some Tories have in mind when they claim to really understand The People in a way lefties or liberals cannot. Of course, the proximate explanation for the similarity is that the elite too, perhaps, are less likely than the rest of us to have experienced the modern idea of a healthy, functional family unit.

And that was our Saturday afternoon.

mini-150x150Of course, the thing about the original Lunar Society is that it was a meeting of elite people – in the power and money sense. Whatever it was they talked about, they presumably had the capacity to translate the outcomes into real world action, and this action would be played out in science, industry, technology and social reform at near-parliamentary level. In other words, in some pretty momentous fields which would substantially affect the lives of large numbers of people (in this context, I note that one of the homage societies is a collection of entrepreneurs and software developers in Australia, who are probably one of the nearer things to a modern equivalent). A lot of the people speaking at the Luna talks at fig 2 were intellectually or artistically exciting but I would guess few have the capacity to make immediate impacts like that. This was after all a “re-imagining” of a “ritual”, a word that implies practice but also implies relic, tradition for its own sake, an act carried out without engagement. The whole thing does speak slightly to the limitations of this style of head-on verbal critique as a mechanism for identifying problems with society. We all know that ranting in a pub or on a blog, unless you are an influential person, or talking to them, doesn’t actually change anything very fast. This is why a lot of people look for engines of cultural change in, haha, more traditional avant-garde art.

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Alix Mortimer posts at https://fabulousblueporcupine.wordpress.com/ and has written here for Week 7 and Week 20.

Week 24 – Ben Judd – June 15-21 – “Apart, we are together”

A story in verse inspired by Week 24 of fig-2. As the days pass he is losing his sight, going blind, alone. At night in his dreams she and he are together but when he wakes he can’t remember her. As the days and nights pass they grow together, apart. I hope that you will find it beautiful. Original artwork “Sleepwalker” by Tess Cunningham.

Apart, we are together

“Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams…”

First day (Monday, January) – The hospital
First night (Monday-Tuesday, February) – The ballroom and the masque

Second day (Tuesday, March) – The funeral
Second night (Tuesday-Wednesday, April) – The mountains and the sea and the sky

Third day (Wednesday, May) – The city
Third night (Wednesday-Thursday, June) – The magic lantern cinema

Fourth day (Thursday, July) – Summers
Fourth night (Thursday-Friday, August) – Dream within dream

Fifth day (Friday, September) – Pain
Fifth night (Friday-Saturday, October) – The marriage in the moonlight

Sixth day (Saturday, November) – Home
Sixth night (Sunday, December) –  Dream without dream

Sleepwalker (Tess Cunningham)

First day (Monday, January) – The hospital

I’m going blind.
Like my father and his
I’m going to go blind.

In the bright morning
with birdsong
I was happy as an egg;

then the auld tune,
      I’ll see you in my dreams

Just the TV, mute flickering
in the corner of the kitchen;
lonely night in spring —
tapes of old shipping forecasts,
     occasional rain.

I’m scared that when I lose my sight
I’ll lose my memories too —
it’s irrational — or I’ll have nothing
but memory to live in, a haunted
house full of ghosts
    and noone living to remember.

Then the screen
    goes white —                   

                — you are dreaming

First night (Monday-Tuesday, February) – The ballroom and the masque

you are dreaming – in the dream we are lovers.
we have always been lovers.

we waltz in the blue ballroom, a masque dance
of faces without faces and figures
without form.
the chandelier is made of rain,
sparrows and ravens.
when the music stops
we lose each other and you don’t remember me —

remember these words

“apart, we are together”

then you would remember everything
    and the day would be night
        and the night would be day

the masks lift from our eyes
and rise as black birds into the sky —
the eyes of a black bird,
a blue dog yelps, chases in a tight circle
the flailing thing,
chase and flail, the jaws champ,
growl and banter, bark, tramp
and jump, jump and bite.

remember me

i will carry you
the waters will bear you
 to sleep

if you could only remember the words
when you wake up from the dream

“apart, we are together”

our faces were unknown. we met, but not —

dreaming a sky
       a raven
               at nightfall

in the first night of the dream
you will dream of me,
but we will never meet:
each morning you will wake;
i will have gone from you
and you from me.

apart, we are together —
the lightning blast and the world off its blood axis. begging,
hungry for a dream. together
in the dream we are apart,
apart, we are together.

remember these words

Second day (Tuesday, March) – The funeral

“Lilies, the flowers
of sorrow,” she said, long ago.
And today, lilies.

My father and grandfather
died blind, and both for a time
lived blind.

Grandad was a poacher turned gamekeeper,
literally. He used to hunt on Croydon Common
and make ‘rook pie’.

                                       “No-one makes rook pie,
do they any more?” said my grandmother.
I’ve never heard of rook pie before or since.

My father’s funeral.
The night before they slapped his body
down to dust:

    radio static
    crackling; my mother singing
    to herself nearby.

Two black horses
leading the hearse
to the house of the dead.

My poor father and his emerald knife
scratching and squinting his eyes away
chipping away into the night for pennies.
Sometimes the money wouldn’t come,
he wasn’t the sort to question things;
gleaming white plates, a bit of gravy,
roast and duck fat,
the slave and the bones in chains.

Il pape, not the pope, it’s what we used to call him –
Ill pappay – the fathering flower of a Tuscan vine.
At least it wasn’t Il Duce, Dad – the dome of your head,
richly tanned, it looked more boiled, a kipper
pumped with hot Neapolitan air and microwaved.

He squinted away his eyes,
those bulging applejohns on summer stalks –
winter hospital glass, the breath condensing,
I traced his face with my pinkie —
one of my first memories and the whiteness
of the wild as the snow fell at the end
of a cold decade. They buried the debts and lots,
filled every bed, holes in the light,
blank spots, blank stoppages,
every patch and face
blurring and peeling into smoke. The drake’s lantern:
cold sympathy served as warmed through
remains of a wastrel day –
a terminus, bus-light, trapped agents.

The clock stopped at 12.09,
the moment at which, it is said, he died.

Maybe the two men are actually ghosts in the graveyard.
The gravestone looks white
when you break it open,
like coconut ice.

What I haven’t said that I wanted to say — Dad
wanted to say, said he should have written a book,
but where was the book under the pram wheels,
the paycheque and rent demands,
so where was the book – he lived as he lived  
and he died, blind –

he gave away his time
and in time he gave away
his health – his body
falling apart as his mind
crumbled – the body follows —

When I’m old, before I die
The colour will flood back into my eyes
and the skies will fill up with tears
raining back as colours
to brighten my death.

Second night (Tuesday-Wednesday, April) – The mountains and the sea and the sky

in the second dream, the second night,
when you can’t see a metre in front of you
you make up stories about things you can’t see

the rock shook
and the mouse swallowed the mountain.
the mountain gives birth to a mouse:
an unseen promise – promise of a promise:
it’s not the silence of your blindness

river of ghosts
    water lanterns
              printed on the wind

i was looking for you
before i found you
in my dream. you were my dream
then one day i woke
and you were still there
lying beside me.

i kissed you, lightly,
so as not to wake you.

Third day (Wednesday, May) – The city

I remember this one.

She served me a shot glass of carrot soup and I pretended it was delicious.
We went into a salty backroom and did monkey impressions together
and I licked the sweat off the back of her shoulders.

Spermbank alley
a wishbone noose
         & red flashes
“this machine charges”

Sleep without dreams
night without stars
darling come back to me

I walked home in the rain
past what’s her name
and why did I never ask,
she’s there in a blanket
with a tin cup for money,
smoking a roll-up.

She ‘says’ with her hands
like hailing a cab to nowhere,
“No man is a traffic island.”
Her laugh
                     like a magnet
                                                 to a magnet.

The city’s cancer – this,
in the light of lost things
the list of never agains,
never anothers,
I get a cab to the edge of the city
and ride in obnoxious frippery
one last time.

In the morning,
     a wineglass full of rainwater.

The list of things I’ll miss seeing
when I can’t see:

              dropped where a conker
cleaves beneath my boot, an old
           yellow tennis ball.

I’ve kicked at the pricks
with their selfie sticks,
the white peal of a rock drill
burrowing into the hard ground
at Hoxton tea-lights,
that bloody squealing,
the screeching opera harpy, heavy machinery
creeching, mechanical lurch
of an Anglican brooch,
a junk gaberdine,
so much, the links’ punch
in the morning, the dread thump,
clump and me, grinch, and then

a tin
     can
         clatters
                 down
                      the steps
                                      it
                                          hits the tracks
                                                            & becomes a train

Third night (Wednesday-Thursday, June) – The magic lantern cinema

i want to tell you, if I could tell you,
all that you forget when you wake, all
your body remembers, the night’s
enchantment and the day’s rough course.

my love is death to you
my love for you is death
it will choke and smother you
wrap you and leach
the air from your lungs
the love from your heart
the sight from your eyes
and I will hold you as a dead doll
and you will be mine

i watch you while you sleep;
i know every curve of your body,
the childish perfection
of your skin,
the crown of your soft
angry eyebrows and your
hollowed eyes.
i know every mole
and turn of muscle
but you remain mysterious.

my love is you
my love is death
my love is you, death
my love is death

Fourth day (Thursday, July) – Summers

It was summer and her hair was spring
buds and hollyhocks
and yellow straw.
We loved in the lengthless day
and held each other in the evening,
red light for cherry lips
and sticky finger tips,
blood heat and beautiful
pumpkinseed and snowdrop.
She fell in the summer
and the apples in the orchard
withered overnight and all
fell rotten among the rows
in which we’d run.
She fell and the sun
never rose again.

                                  You are dreaming.

Vision of something I’ll never see again.
List the things I’ll never see,

  a chill in the air —
  the imprint of a body
  in the empty bed.

In the light of lost things,
the list of never agains
and never anothers:

      the rain,
the baby boy held in the lad’s arms
and the leaves’ rich green.

The bugsplat on the windshield:
“Why don’t you bloody clean it” she said.
“Clean what.”
“It’s filthy!”
“Looks all right to me,” I said.
It looked all right to me.

The sun is only setting
but it feels like 4am.

The list of things I’ll miss seeing
when I can’t see:

                   the puddle i jump into
                        & the splash it makes
                             twenty years before.

How perfect to live
at this moment – at dusk,
with the light fading.

I’m trying to make myself sad –
to make myself the saddest I can be, the saddest anyone
has ever been. So sad that finally
when I rise panting from the plunge,
starved for breath and gasping, when the sadness breaks
all over me and splashes back into itself in blue,
I’ll be less sad, even happy.
Sad happy or happy sad. I will stare into my life
and make myself the saddest I can ever be,
because finally
when I am the saddest anyone has ever been
I will be happy.

It isn’t black, blindness —
I don’t see black
but live a miasma of colour,
yellow, blue, green. I see
not red, not black. It’s like
swimming in a dream.

Fourth night (Thursday-Friday, August) – Dream within dream

i dreamed you were dying, i
dreamed you’d died
alone, at night, without me
and i was a ghost beside you,
absent and there, and you
cried out but i wasn’t there.

then i dreamed you were dying
in a bed below me
and my love couldn’t save you.

i did nothing, didn’t help, watched, held
your skin as the sickness emptied itself out,
the violence of the choked air rocked by screaming,
the shaking apart of the soul in anguish,
molt of angelwing, flake and fleck of bile, blood —
i did nothing.

you held me then in the morning
but I couldn’t tell you.

and dreams are real.

i dreamed in the dream you’d died.
you were blind and passed at night
from the unseeing to unseen shades —

blindness is a truer kind of vision.

as we pass into the unseen,

the sleepwalker
at the edge of the cliff
 leaps out of the dream.

Fifth day (Friday, September) – Pain

Dream of falling
blossoms — I wake
clutching a flower;

it reminds me of something i can’t remember
but know I’ve forgotten.
If I could not touch it
it would come back to me.

Outside in that weird light,
the last whistle of the guard —
the season’s snapped and it seems later than it is.
Everyone’s knocked off early.

They turned off the lights,
those fifties brights on brutalism,
halls, halls and halls and halls. Maybe I have dementia.
I bruised my knee. Crack, it caught on the corner –
more bloody painful than the old, you-know,
sight thing.

The slowness of the end,
how the spine seems like a cross
                      on which to hang flesh.

“I will drop you like an egg,” she said.
“You did,” I said.

Just the TV, mute flickering
in the corner of the kitchen;
the sun is only setting
but it feels like 4am.

Pain. That pain.
Pain of loss, pain of losing.
Pain of this, pain of choosing you,
Pain of drawing the moon down and burning up its flame to this
charred remnant, char
and smoking petrichor.

Pain of these eyes, these fading eyes,
the world dissolving into grey
and blue lights, a flood and cloud
of shimmering snailtracks and spiderdances.

The photograph is blurring, like film caught in the projector tearing into flame, black and yellow – the image of you in my mind is burning away, resolving into flames, into ashes, into night and nothing.

Pain of these joints, robot bolts
rusted with brown scars and tight spasms,
bend and warp.
Pain of you – I never meant for this.

Pain of the sunset when the paint has peeled off,
Pain of the dream that flies at morning —
I open my eyes
in the remnant of their light
and stare back at myself,
blank, finished, forgotten.
I am hollow. What remains
of a man when what makes him
has collapsed – a shrunken thing,
a beast, a ghost, sightless and sorry.

What is there left to want?
The ostrich flew.
Rook pie.

My head hurts. My eyes,
blood pressure, bad stories and failed
resolutions. There’s nothing inside me
but broken organs playing the wrong notes of forgotten tunes
tunelessly, voicelessly, in resounding silence,
as if nothing were not beautiful
     as empty as fullness
      as full as emptiness.

Pain of the laboured breath, rasp and pant;
Pain of the pint’s last third I can’t finish, I’m too weak to drink;
Pain of the empty table
stretching in front of me
as I drink alone.

Loss
Desire
Despair

Pain of that autumn morning
white with winter snow
Pain of

Pain and waste
Waste of

Fifth night (Friday-Saturday, October) – The marriage in the moonlight

what does midnight taste like?
a kiss without lips. you were sleeping.
do you remember our wedding,
when we were married in moonlight?

tender me
laid as carved in
lies on a cold slab of stone
shaken awake and peeling off skin
finger by finger
pretty white fingers
from my throat.

only love can end these tears
only death can open these eyes,
only blind —
these fragments
and movements
will perish
and fly from us
and become
what never was.

our love is not like love.
remember, we met in the dream,
two souls, unalike
in ways, the fracture of one mirror.

we shared our souls. what is the soul
if not desire? you are
my soul. what else could that be?

form the words. form the words
at the apex of the palette,
say the words, please, the sleep
still crumbly and crinkly in your eyes
before you remember you are yourself,
before you open your eyes to whatever’s left,
remember the words, say them,
say eternity, say
together, say
“apart, we are together”
and we will never be apart.

but when you wake
i know you won’t remember.

Sixth day (Saturday, November) – Home

Radio static
Crackling. My mother singing
To herself nearby.

Alone. Utterly alone.

I’m scared that when I lose my sight
I’ll lose my memories too —
It’s irrational — or I’ll have nothing
but memory to live in, a haunted
house full of ghosts
and noone living to remember.

The fable of the man who remembered,
the man who couldn’t forget —

  skating on Lake Empty;
the darkness is coming in
       the dark is inside.

Funny, memory. The torturer
and the laughing blade,
hacking away the happy evenings,
twisting the screwblade
of black nights spent staring
blankly, blackly into bleachblack
despair, death at your fingertips
but denied that mercy.

        Haunting the ghosts,
   the last guest —
          Hotel Amnesia:

Memory Palace —
   a deposed King
       haunting the ghosts.

The house has grown cold
   and soon there will be no one
       left for ghosts to haunt.

                     I close the door.

I spent years trying to write a musical setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. My grandmother had recited it to me while she was going blind.

I could never finish the music. I started to believe that if I ever finished the setting she would die, so I didn’t.

She died very alone and very scared, and I never finished the music.

I guess I never will.

It isn’t black, blindness —
I don’t see black
but live a miasma of colour,
yellow, blue, green, I see,
not red, not black. It’s like
swimming in a dream.

Sixth night (Sunday, December) –  Dream without dream

i will carry you
the waters will bear you
 to sleep

two worlds in time

you are declining
you will move into and become the night
and embrace that dark world in your depths.
you will bridle the moon and ride on the stars
away into peace, the peacefulness
of last things, the silence that ends the sentence.

i’m standing on the egde of you,
ready to dive with you, into you.

you are not blind.
without sight
we see the whatness of things,
trembling — the terror
of the real, when the lights blaze
at the words
at the tip of the tongue
and the end of every judgement —
the night’s judgement.

moths flit and dazzle.
life is short and art
so long to learn. love astounds,
then it slips away.

my love is death to you.
my love for you is death.
it will choke and smother you
wrap you and leach
the air from your lungs
and the love from your heart
and i will hold you like a doll
and you will be mine

your love establishes the death in me,
the life and death in things,
the wreck of all
the shame and hope
of ending and beginning.

in the lights’ sparkle
i dreamed i held you.
our father in emerald.

please don’t lose
the best thing that’s inside you,
don’t give away
the biggest thing that drives you.

as we pass into the unseen,

           the sleepwalker
on the edge of the cliff
 leaps out of the dream —

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Week 43 – Kihlberg & Henry – October 26-November 1

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“Sit on the carpet!” Yves ordered me in a stage whisper. The crowd at the gallery opening was pressed along the walls in a thick uncomfortable crust around a carpet in the middle of the space, breathing in and watching a blue film.

“Oh thank God for that,” I broke for the breathing space of the carpet and sat down with my bags and my gin cocktail. Other people followed, but more stayed. This is crowd dynamics.

It was busy and the sound of the microphone overloading wasn’t conventionally pretty but for me being in a wholly aesthetic intellectualised environment is a good relief of or distraction from stress. I feel I can breathe easier in these places.

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Karin Kihlberg & Reuben Henry’s “This Building, This Breath” is a new film-stroke-performance, which they presented for Week 43 of Fig-2.

fig-2_43_50_14You don’t know when you go in that the voiceover is being performed live. It sounds a bit distorted and unpolished because it hasn’t been filtered or produced. Watching the film as just a film is enjoyable in itself. It is a wide-ranging meditation on breathing referring to culture, biology and martial arts and it develops through an engagement with the buildings and spaces we inhabit to establish a poetic proposition that the room itself is breathing.

You might notice after a few times through the film that the sound seems to be changing, or that some of the utterances don’t seem to come from the speakers but a cappella, or someone might just tell you. I was astonished, and had a cheeky peek round the corner of the back of the screen that delineated the viewing room, and there he was, Reuben Henry hidden away behind a computer and microphones, performing in camera. It was a Wizard of Oz moment. The curtain drops away and ecce homo. More Latin, sorry! I only used in camera  (‘in private’) because I enjoy the fact that in camera means off camera.

fig-2_43_50_8It seems relevant here, because another clue would have been that above the screen was a camera pointed at us through which Reuben could view us and sometimes respond to us. When the studio space was empty in the week he would be able to see, and rest until someone came in, but he essentially performed the film all day every day for the whole of Kihlberg & Henry’s week at Fig-2. This makes it a durational performance, like Marina Abramovic or sitting through The Hobbit.

fig-2_43_50_5It’s especially extraordinary given many viewers would not have known it was a live performance at all. There are of course other instances of performances taking place in camera or unbeknownst to an audience. Examples of the latter usually have an element of anthropological study, such as when Leah Capaldi doused herself in strong perfumes and took herself onto the tube at rush hour, recording the reactions of the other people to the whiff.

Acconci1The classic example of invisible performance is Vito Acconci’s Seedbed (1972) in which a ramp was installed in the gallery underneath which Acconci reputedly lay masturbating for eight hours a day. The work is simultaneously private and public. I also recall reading that there is an ambiguity as to what he was really doing down there, about the truth value of it. Reuben Henry could have set a backing tape off and sat back and we’d have been for the most part none the wiser.

Piss_Christ_by_Serrano_Andres_(1987)We have to accept that the piss in Andras Serrano’s photo Piss Christ is piss when it could be lemonade, and some still believe that Piero Manzoni (I seem to be really into Latin and Italians today), that Manzoni’s cans of Artist’s Shit actually contain gummi bears rather than the artist’s waste. This reveals that there is a contract that occurs between the artist and the viewer when they come in contact, an element of trust, faith in the work, like the suspension of disbelief you experience while watching a story. In a sense, the Wizard of Oz moment is a disruption of that. You thought this was a film? It’s a man!

fig-2_43_50_1The exhibition will be touring to Plymouth Arts Centre and Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool in 2016. These spaces are totally different to the ICA Studio. Even if the script and images remain largely the same, the work will be different, both because of the nature of live performance as unrepeatable and because the film draws attention to rooms and spaces so the viewer will be more aware of the space they’re in, which will be different in each case. I wonder what the Wizard of Oz moment will be like elsewhere.

The voiceover begins soothingly explaining what is about to happen: “The images will cease. There will be blackness. Like the room, you will be weightless. In ten minutes there will be nothing but images.”

We are encouraged to “Breathe deeper, breathe slower.”

“The breath you took – did you mean it?” This is a interesting little kōan. How can you ‘mean’ a breath? We think of breath as involuntary and don’t notice it until we choke on a pretzel and momentarily lose the knack. Learning to control our breath can have a real effect on our wellbeing. In a moment of stress, you take a deep breath to calm down. In exercises like yoga and meditation breathing is one of the basic techniques you use to improve all-round physical and mental health.

urlThe film lists symptoms of unbalanced deep breathing (UDB) patterns that can lead to “almost all maladies including excessive stress, anxiety, panic, phobias, depression, high blood pressure, allergy, fatigue, poor sleep, speech or singing issues, emotional imbalances, personality distortions, excessive body weight, heart problems and may forms of cancer.”

pete_doherty-350x307In my yoga session in Fig-2 Week 27 Siri Sadhana Kaur told us “Through the munthra, through the posture, the breath, align yourself to truth. To your inner wisdom.” The breath is the key unit. A breath is to yoga what a word is to a poem. Though you haven’t heard me wheezing at night. Not quite what Graham Coxon said about Pete Doherty’s lungs, “they sound like a bag of crisps” (what with all the crack) which isn’t that great for a happy meditation experience, but then neither is being on crack. Crack just makes you want to make loads of phone calls.

 photo by josh cardale“Breath cleans the mind of images,” said Reuben’s voiceover, “Think of nothing..” This is not at all what meditation is about, as I learned at a meditation session here during Fig-2 Week 38 when the instructor explained that meditation is not about emptying the mind: “You wouldn’t want to encourage your mind to be blank, because your mind is designed in a way that is supposed to connect you with the world around you. So why would you ask your heart to stop beating, why would you ask your digestive system to stop working? If you want your mind to go blank, get your best friend to give you a healthy blow on the head.”

060711-fw-prince80“What does nothing look like?” asks the voice, another kōan to accompany the one about the meaning of breath. I’m reminded of a Prince song except I remember the lyric wrong; it’s similar but actually it’s “We’ll try to imagine what silence looks like,” which seems even harder than imagining nothing. To me nothing looks like an eye (a camera is a pale imitation) and silence would have been preferable to Prince’s records after 1994.

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While Week 38 explored how if you better inhabit and use your own body you will benefit – through breathing and exercise – this week explored some of the same themes by thinking about the buildings we inhabit, imagining that the building itself is breathing. The film describes “a room with an unbalanced breathing pattern” while we view film of buildings being earthquake tested. “The room expands” making the proposition that the room itself is breathing.

CSfJzkVWsAAvy7fSick Building Syndrome is an acknowledged condition that affects the health and comfort of building occupants that appears linked to time spent in the building but without identifying a specific illness or cause. Most of the suggested causes are interestingly linked to breathing: poor indoor air quality, poor heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, contaminants such as aerosols and gases, molds, ozone exhaust and poor air filtration.

This-Building-This-Breath_Kihlberg-Henry-1These are all how a building ‘breathes’. It sounds odd to say a building breathes, but think of it in the way we describe how a food tastes. The food isn’t doing the tasting, it’s being tasted. A book might read well, but it can’t itself read (unless Google has already invented some kind of self-reading book, which wouldn’t surprise me). A building might breathe well.. or ill.

I hope this feat of linguistics doesn’t spoil the poetry of imagining a building breathing. Truth is beauty and all that. Speaking of linguistics . .

mutant lisp generatorAt one point in the voiceover Reuben read the textual punctuation, the way you would if you were dictating to an amanuensis. Full stop. New sentence. A text’s punctuation indicates when you’re supposed to breathe. I don’t mean that you’re at risk of dying if you read the unpunctuated text of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy in Ulysses or took a gamble on Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable, though the film does state “Breath is the punctuation of your death.” You’ll still breathe, though there are those suspenseful Silence of the Lambs moments when you suddenly become aware you haven’t breathed for the past two minutes.

IMG_0363If written punctuation is there to tell us when to breathe, the opposite is true in speech, where our breathing may be one of the ways in which we punctuate our speech to clarify what we’re saying. In Fig-2 Week 30 we discussed punctuation in Anna Barham’s work with voice transcription software.

click to make it big!
click to make it big!

When we listen to someone speaking we hear a stream of unpunctuated syllables to which we have to apply our own punctuation to understand, deciding between whether we hear ‘four candles’ or ‘fork handles’. If you wanted to be really clear you might take a little breath between four and candles to spell it out. So breathing can be a kind of punctuation, making it in the context of speaking a linguistic act, which is another way of answering the question “The breath you took – did you mean it?”

The room becomes a living thing, a character. We say that something – an environment, a person, an expression, an idea – ‘takes on a certain character’ sometimes when it comes into contact with a new thing or when we think of it in a new way. This curiously points toward a notion that these things are not discrete entities that are complete and immutable but are in fact a sum of sensations and definitions subject to change when their context alters.

CSfJzatWUAAZUmUThe film concludes with these words “Do you feel C-A-L-M? Breathe this breath. 30 seconds. This building.” then he whistles, and concludes with the injunction “Hold your breath indefinitely, room.” Roy Orbison’s song “House Without Windows” strikes up and we see a slideshow of buildings whose windows have been covered up in diverse ways. These are choked buildings that can no longer breathe.

“He’ll have it memorised by the end of the week” said Fatoş at the Monday opening. Reading it all day for a week, that’s what you’d expect, but by the end of Sunday Reuben hadn’t memorised it. He still had to read the words. After a few days mistakes had started to creep in. In the last performance on Sunday he stumbled over a “comma” (luckily he didn’t fall into a coma, ahaha).

Everyone is familiar with having a job that they soon learn how to do perfectly and which they subsequently start doing perfectly badly.

theoffice_davidbrent_tvThere should be a name for that. There’s the Peter principle, but that’s a bit different, that’s when people are promoted for their competence in their current role rather than the intended role, so they stop rising when they can no longer perform effectively, having risen to the level of their incompetence. This is why you always think you can do your boss’s job better than them.

It’s different to the Peter Principle though: it’s about repetition, in a job, or a performance, or making a film. It’s not even boredom, it’s just entropy. Seeing or doing the same identical thing a hundred times makes you notice the tiny details of difference between these supposedly identical things, and they become destabilised.

fig-2_43_50_7As Stanley Kubrick’s endless takes of a scene progressed, film would spool out of cameras, actors would forget lines they had said a hundred times. It’s a curious quirk of repetition. Maybe it makes our brains unravel, sometimes in a good way. During the yoga weeks ago Siri Sadhana Kaur said “Through repetition we don’t understand the world, it takes us out of the logical explanation of things, puts us into a different space.”

Essentially, during the week while Reuben had been hidden away in a tiny cell behind a screen he had been exploring space. Far out.

Now breathe.

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