Fig-2: the last stamp

Around the art-world in fifty weeks

bensleyHarry Bensley was an English rake and adventurer who in 1908 set out to circumnavigate the world on foot pushing a pram and wearing an iron mask.

A surreal successor to Jules Verne’s fictional Phileas Fogg, it’s said that he did it because he lost his whole fortune in a card game and accepted the extravagant wager of £21,000 as a forfeit, along with fifteen bizarre conditions including having to find a wife in spite of being married already.

These indecorous but hilarious terms suggest he did it not entirely for the money: the whole venture smacks of the most gamesome English eccentricity.

Nobody goes around the world in a metal mask like Harry Bensley, or in eighty days like Phileas Fogg, for anything so un-Romantic as a wager. An adventure must have drama, ambition, grandiosity, all for their own sake. There has to be a grand challenge to stir the senses. There has to be the strong likelihood of a spectacular and embarrassing failure.

I am pleased to announce that I am on the brink of a glorious, glittering, sensational failure!

cropped-photo-10.jpgFifty weeks ago on the 8th of January, one boring winter Thursday I messaged a friend saying I was going to swing by the ICA to check out this new project called Fig-2 that was going to put on a new art exhibition every week for fifty weeks:

“50 weeks. I’m going to *try* to go every week. I may even notate my thorts.”

The blog started off innocently, even hesitantly, with short-ish quite technical pieces in which I teased out the meanings of each week’s exhibition.

Contemporary art often presents you with a box of parts and no assembly manual. Whether you build a car or a sex sling says as much about you as it does about the work itself.

The blog rapidly got out of hand as my historical and theoretical sweep broadened, with the intellectual breadth of the exhibitions requiring hours of extra study in esoteric fields from anthropology to crypto-zoology.

fig2It took over my life, but I fell behind writing a long short story about an infinite library, though this made later writing a 600-line modernist poem about going blind seem easy. The pieces aren’t reviews, aren’t criticism. It’s experimental writing but it’s also documentary.

I’ve covered thirty-eight weeks (three ably helmed by Alix Mortimer) and four ancillary seminars, and today it’s Tuesday in the last week of Fig-2.  I have twelve write-ups to finish by Sunday. This is of course impossible. It was impossible from the start. Fig-2 is an intellectual banquet, and writing about each week takes weeks of research, thought and experiment.

fig2-finaltwelveI’m working on these last pieces all at the same time as if they were one monstrous dissertation, the last chapter in a terrible anti-thesis on Fig-2, the universe and everything. It’s taking up all my time, and I’m not even getting anywhere. People keep asking me if I’m going to things at the London Contemporary Music Festival but I just can’t.

I’ve got the usual chronic FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) but recently this has turned into a sanity-preserving energy-retaining JOMO — Joy Of Missing Overtiredness. JOMO is gonna be the big thing of 2016.

willy2At the end of every version of Verne’s Eighty Days there is a now ubiquitous cinematic trope. The heroes think they’ve won, everything seems brilliant, but then, no! It’s all gone wrong! There’s nothing that can be done, nothing. At least they tried. Everyone starts to disperse, but then, what’s this, wait! From the jaws of defeat is snatched the, I dunno, the salmon of victory. Joy, elation, and a happy ending for some reason.

It’s by no means certain whether this salmon will be forthcoming.

What is certain is that I have visited all fifty weeks. This blog is named after the Fig-2 loyalty card, which is a sheet of paper (pictured below) bearing the promise “Visit all 50 projects and endorse this loyalty card by each week’s unique artist’s stamp. Upon completion, you will be granted a copy of the fig-2 publication.”

There’s a small bunch of us with all fifty of these stamps, winners of the Fig-2 wager, each due one of these documentary books that will commemorate the year.

Set-of-50-stampsThe publication is currently being crowdfunded (check it out!) with rewards including personalised postcards, posters, VIP drinks, prints, tea with Bruce McLean, and the apotheotic grand prize of a box containing all fifty of the actual loyalty card stamps (pictured). The crowdfunder is unlikely to achieve great failure. The team already pulled off the fifty weeks with only mild onset chronic alcoholism and then only toward the end, and I imagine the book will fly (if books could fly).

The £995 box of stamps is obviously beyond my means but I have never wanted it so much as now, now that I’ve found out that someone else has actually gone ahead and bought it.

Perhaps we could discuss some kind of deal, maybe some arrangement by way of a wager…

FIFTY

 

With special thanks to Fatoş Üstek, Jessica Temple, Irene Altaió, Yves Blais, Alix Mortimer, Huston Gilmore, Adam and the other loyalty card heroes.

 

 

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The Fable of Yellow Black and White

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I used to know an artist who only worked in yellow. Yellow paintings and yellow sculptures, all in grades of yellow and made in a yellow studio.

One yellow day a critic came along and said ‘This is not yellow work. This is really about black and white. It uses colour as a dialectic of shade. This work is not yellow. This work is black and white!’

Everyone heard this, especially the artist, who carried on making the yellow works.

Some years later I went back to the yellow studio, and was surprised to see no yellow works anywhere.

‘What happened to yellow?’ I asked. ‘All these works are black and white.’

‘You’re wrong,’ said the artist, ‘the works that I used to make were black and white. These ones are yellow!’

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(Indirectly inspired by something in the discussion at Fatos Ustek’s seventh Fig-2 curatorial seminar)

Week 35 – Amy Stephens – August 31-September 6

12096235_10156151170120181_8789224296981707273_n“I left my heart in San Francisco,” crooned Tony Bennett. I once left my cashcard in Llandudno. There is also an artistic tradition of people deliberately leaving things in art galleries.

Duchamp perfected the objet trouvé, inventing the “ready-made” by exhibiting unaltered everyday objects designated as art. It’s less clear who if anyone invented the objet déposé, or objet abandonné, or whatever you might choose to call those works that are left in a gallery as a comment or as an intervention.

11700957_10156151169670181_469298560441831057_oBanksy has crept into the Tate and National Gallery in disguise and covertly stuck to the walls a number of satirical works. Another kind of intervention found Brian Eno peeing into Duchamp’s urinal, which seems much more sympathetic than the idiot who went to jail for defacing a Rothko in the name of his own ‘artistic movement’ Yellowism. Curiously, of these three instances it is Banksy’s that isn’t vandalistic, in spite of the larger part of his canonical stencil works being strictly speaking acts of vandalism.

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During Week 35 of Fig-2 someone left a postcard depicting “The Falls of Leny, Callander” though I’m still can’t quite convince myself it wasn’t actually part of the show. The rock formation within rushing water and an external overlaid shape left by a sticker perfectly matched the themes and techniques of the exhibition around it.

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Amy Stephens uses sculpture, drawing and photography to explore relations between geological, architectonic and sculpted forms. She plays with the intersections between objects and how we represent objects. In her show two-dimensional representations turn into three-dimensional objects and vice versa via interventions in the forms by introducing synthetic elements to organic forms and organic elements to synthetic objects.

fig-2_35_50_3The room had been split into two exhibition spaces: one large and a smaller one in the corner which at first I missed. It was lucky they told me it was there because without the second room the show didn’t seem to work. Together the whole show suddenly came to life as the totality of the pieces resonated. The two-dimensional forms first encountered in the large space suddenly spring off the wall into full sculptural form in this second semi-hidden room. Considering all the works together let them ring out together like an orchestra. It was literally an object lesson in curation, and proof that the ‘art of curation’ isn’t just an amusing turn of phrase.

fig-2_35_50_8I loved the slippage between media, the way that a geometric shape would be presented in the big space on a photographic surface and then you’d find yourself confronting the same shape turned into a sculpture, the way the colours yellow, cyan and red would pass between sculptural objects, photographs and across the walls of the room.

fig-2_35_50_4Solid and outline shapes in yellow overlaid the two silkscreens “Freeze-Thaw I & II”. A yellow line led along the length of a wall and continued inside a picture frame as if it had thrown itself off the wall, and finally found itself embodied in the yellow perspex lozenge of the spindly-legged sculpture teasingly entitled Silence.

fig-2_35_50_9The same thing happened with the blue waterfall roll of heat transfer foil “The First Dive” spilling back into the blue shape digitally overlaid over the rock form photography in the c-prints “Rock-fall I & II”.

12138351_10156151169685181_8429118969511032606_oThe digitally overlaid blue shape then turns white and emerges as the flock-covered lozenge-on-legs sculpture “Tethered Object”, and the heat transfer foil reminds us through artificial means of the great violence of slow geological processes to shape valleys and mountains from solid rock.

fig-2_35_50_6The rocks emerge from the flat plane of photography into the gallery in the form of “something. anything. everything. I, II & III” in which there are three rocks. I tell a lie, they’re minerals. Jesus, Marie! They’re minerals! Specifically the mineral ilmenite, a weakly magnetic black and grey ore of titanium. These minerals have been wrapped in red tape: line interacting with shape, then the line wanders off and finds itself as a red flocked fabric line going up through clear Perspex in the large sculpture “Unicorn”, where it looks like either the broadly ascending line of a rising company or the descending fortunes of a failing one. What it is in fact is not dissimilar: it is a representation of the Palio horse race in Siena, Italy created through extreme simplification of a horse or a person stripped to essential forms and motifs.

12108055_10156151169350181_6377449736809568949_n“Unicorn” seems at first a curious title for it. Just like “Tethered Object”, it isn’t tethered, just as a unicorn can’t be tethered. Being mythical it either doesn’t exist or it exists as an absence (like silence, maybe even the yellow lozenge sculpture “Silence”). A unicorn is strong, being a beast, and fragile, in terms of its mythical rarity. Similarly the sculptures all possess this simultaneous stability and fragility. Untethered, you could knock them over easily, and people always walk into things.

tumblr_inline_moaej6xV3d1qz4rgpUnicorn (Leocarno) is actually one of the seventeen contrade (city wards) that compete in the Palio di Siena, so we even find here slippage between language and form: the name unicorn becomes a thing unicorn (just as James Joyce had made a cork frame for a photo of Cork city). The emblems of the district are the same reddy-orange as the lines of “Unicorn” and “something. anything. everything”.

Mention of Palio reminds me of a point raised by Douglas Hofstadter: Chi dice Siena dice Palio — to mention Siena is to bring up its famous horse race. Which would go for Wimbledon too: you think of tennis (or wombles?). In any word, many concepts are sous-entendus: there, but whispered. Inherent. A tethered object.

10350629_10156151170070181_7459507364983449044_nEven the striking rock and mineral forms in the photographs have been created by the eroding action of water: stable and fragile, hard and soft. “Tethered Object” looks inscrutable and monolithic, but its hardness is balanced by its spindly legs and its covering of flock, the lustrous velvety fabric that is Amy Stephens’s signature material. Flock draws the eye and light in: it’s soft but it’s also highly synthetic. Black flock is used like bark to wrap a piece of wood, giving it a synthetic but somehow warm edge.

AS26In “Birch In Space” we encounter a branch of Icelandic birch wood that has been cast in eight pieces and welded together and suspended from the ceiling: the shape is organic and natural but the material is metallic and synthetic and the suspension gives it a lightness that offsets the weight of the metal. The pitching of the one against the other characterises all of the work. The shape of the cast birch also echoes “Unicorn”.

12107094_10156151170370181_6704806387226526579_n“Pulpit” shows a photo of a clifftop, a famous Norwegian tourist destination formed of ilmenite and rock. You can imagine Moses standing at the top and declaiming his fifteen ten commandments, telling us how to live our lives. The Tetragrammaton YHWH (Yahweh) is derived from the verb that means “to be”, “exist”, “become” or “come to pass”: another slippage between language and form, another unicorn: words cast in stone.

12122856_10156151169695181_5496369759480006322_n“The First Dive” is inspired by David Lynch’s book “Catching the big fish: meditation, consciousness and creativity” and the idea of diving in when creativity takes over: jumping in at the deep end and submerging oneself in that danger rather than remaining sat in the shallow end.  You need to take risks to move on. Any act of life worth living is a naturally occurring artificial intervention.

I found Amy Stephens’s work thrilling in the way it exchanged colours and shapes between natural and synthetic forms and between two- and three-dimensional realms. It’s like a daytime Nights At The Museum, as if the non-living things all come out and cause trouble in real life.

Causing trouble in real life is what artists tend to be good at, from Banksy’s interventions to Stephens’s more personal artistic challenges in developing her play with forms and materials, and so on to that troubling and mysterious postcard The Falls of Leny, Callander” . . .

File 17-10-2015, 15 21 19

You can listen to the Fig-2 audio interview with Amy Stephens on Soundcloud

Week 41 – FOS – October 12-18

ART WORLD BLAG
lets get drunk and trash the mallPeter Duggan's Artoons (Guardian)

IMG_1314“Do you wanna go in?” he asks.

“Yeah, I haven’t got a wristband though.”

The big guy clocks the worky lanyard round my neck and the notebook and pen in my hands, and leads me back to the ICA box office.

“Jessie was telling me,” I say to him, “There are two bands on separate stages facing each other playing simultaneously really loud.”

“Yeah it’s pretty loud.”

I’ve already had a word with the box office, who told me it was sold out. I’d gone back before unsuccessfully and was squinting through the doors at the event in the theatre space, which is when this fella noticed me.

“Can we have one guest list please,” he doesn’t so much ask. I’m given a red ICA wristband. What is going on here?

IMG_1331I wish someone had told me Bo Ningen were playing, the psychedelic noise rock favourites I’d seen headlining before at Raw Power when I was so ill with that ear infection. This was not a conventional gig, but it was substantially their characteristic onslaught, if dipped in art installation production values.

Lights flickering all over, on one side Bo Ningen jammed on a stage behind three huge revolving mirrors obscuring and revealing them. On the other side turntable artist Powell simultaneously scratched and spliced. Artist Zhang Ding has designed the space as a “mutating sound sculpture”. Sightlines are broken by the revolving mirrors, lights scattering all over like a walk-in mirrorball. The stage sound undulated through the spaces between the revolving mirrors while the bulk of the volume came from the overhead sound system.

IMG_1312Technically this was unique, but the aim behind placing two acts in such a confrontational cagefighting scene is, it says here, “to be cooperative, improvisational, experimental and self-reflective rather than competitive.” Hugely enjoyable, it was nonetheless hard to work out how to interact with the two stages. The confusion in itself was enjoyable too.

IMG_1317Zhang Ding has programmed two weeks of these pairings of artists and musicians playing against each other. I used to say that all poets want to be musicians and all musicians want to be poets, but the more contemporary interaction is between musicians and artists. This is like the return of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable and all those art-music mashups that used to be so frequent before the milk-snatchers took everyone’s dole money away. Nowadays these intersections seem to occur more in sanctioned bankrolled fine art gallery contexts, but at least someone is doing it.

IMG_1323Zhang Ding’s ICA experience Bruce Lee-inspired Enter The Dragon is on from now until 25 October and looks like a hot ticket. It’s, as I say, inspired by Bruce Lee. Whether or not it reflects the philosophies that Bruce Lee sought to embody in his film work is an intriguing reflection. The beauty and popularity of martial arts films seems to owe more to the physical aesthetic of movement and incredibly fit blokes kicking each other than to the Eastern philosophies that underpin the martial arts as they are slowly practiced away from the frenzies of the silver screen. Perhaps the fracturing effects of the revolving silver screens of Zhang Ding’s ongoing installation indirectly reflect that ambivalence.

IMG_1366I know,  I’m supposed to be telling you about what’s going on at Week 41 of Fig-2, which was and is happening upstairs at the ICA studio. I’d been talking to Jessie and had a few gins and went into the main ICA to see what was going on. It’s Frieze London this week, the thirteenth year of the $Big$Art$Event$ that makes rich people get their knickers in a twist for five days once a year, and Art London has gone crazy.

It costs a fortune to get into the Frieze art-market-cum-pop-up circlejerk, but is easy to get into if you’re rich and buying, or if you’re writing. I’m not rich, but I write a bit. Typically, Frieze has crept up on me and I’ve missed my chance to attend as a scribbler or on one of the 5-7pm cheap tickets or to just pretend I’m a student. I could pay fifty thousand quid for a ticket, but really Frieze is like Pizza Express — you’d be mad to go without the vouchers.

IMG_1369Fig-2, however (the curatorial ultramarathon installing a completely new show every week throughout 2015), is gloriously free, with a continuing spirit of art for art’s sake without an outward reference to commerce. Germane to that, the continuing spirit of my free pieces about Fig-2 is the spirit of not writing about what it is I’m writing about. This is the spirit of modern critical engagement. Contemporary art is not supposed to be about what it is about. We love absence as presence, and art that doesn’t look like what it looks like. This is a post-cubist notion fostered by fashionable drugs.

Seriously this week London is insane. Tonight there was a Bill Viola private view in a car park, another one revisiting Gerhard Richter’s Colour Charts, Andy Beckett and Mark Fisher at Goldsmiths talking about the bloody eighties, hours of other shit I’ve forgotten, and of course the opening of Fig-2 Week 41, my first encounter with the Danish artist known as FOS.

IMG_1346His name is Thomas Poulson. His name is Thomas Poulson. FOS has interlinked practices in art and design. Finland seems to have traditionally had the edge on cutting edge design, ie. arty chairs. Sweden gave us IKEA, which ain’t bad. But Denmark gave us LEGO, that beautiful intersection of colourful playfulness and pedagogic utility. Denmark also gave us FOS.

IMG_1350At what point does design become art? When it is impractical. As Oscar says, all art is quite useless. Design has always been the blue-collar aspirant less-regarded younger sibling to art that actually improves our lives rather than just takes the piss out of it. But there is a long conversation about art that has tried to go the other way (from art to design) and become useful.

IMG_1349Carsten Höller’s Hayward show Decision recently sold itself on the practical application of interactive elements including helter skelter slides and 3D goggles. Which isn’t that useful, but it’s part of the interactivity zeitgeist. In Brian Eno’s John Peel lecture last week he vindicated the Thatcherite view that the arts should produce a financial proof of its worth while at the same time locking it down that art is anything we do that we don’t have to.

IMG_1360Maybe it’s not that poets want to be musicians and musicians poets, but that designers want to be artists and artists want to be designers. Steve Coogan points out in 24 Hour Party People in role as Tony Wilson, he says to designer Peter Saville who has produced a typically immaculate poster too late for the gig it was supposed to be advertising, “It looks fucking great actually – yeah, really nice. It’s beautiful – but useless. And as William Morris once said: “Nothing useless can be truly beautiful.””

IMG_1358The pieces that FOS has displayed for Week 41 of Fig-2 are an abundantly semi-ruly positioning of objects at the intersection between beauty and utility. Yes, I’m going to talk about Fig-2 now. Strap in.

IMG_1336Totemistically, on a very hard bench in the corner there’s a blanket and a copy of the huge edition of Leonardo’s Complete Paintings and Drawings. Leonardo was and is the master of making unlikely beautiful objects that have real world application, if only hundreds of years later. His flying machine never really took off, but his ideas are still an evergreen resource and an inspiration to everyone in art, design and Leonardo was even better at being gay than man of the moment Prem Sahib (who also currently has a show, Side On, at the ICA). Leonardo is my favourite ninja turtle, period.

IMG_1343FOS’s installation is very welcoming: there’s a mixture of kitschy seventies furniture – the glorious yellow carpet, a dresser, a chair, a glass table, a black sculpture that could be a vase, an intimidating triffid in a comedy pot – that were once utilitarian but have become art objects in the age of retro without abandoning their utility. Though you feel that when hipsters buy these sorts of things they’re buying them for their friends to look at rather than sit on.

CQy7V0IWIAA9Sr5On the walls the art-as-pointless-thing is represented by six small bronzes and two really huge and beautiful (if useless) metal works that seem to generate their own planetary orbits. A red free-standing metal strip balances on a couple of magazines, presumably a statement in itself, including a sketch with the legend “RELIGION IS ABOUT SPEED.” God, I’m typing as fast as I can here, Thomas. The central bronze sculpture is pure art out of the Henry and Barbara mould. It works as a beautiful piece in itself and in the living-roomy set up of the space as a reminder that works of art that we might consider important or meaningful are usually deployed as a way of making your expensive maisonette a bit more expensive-looking after a nice shopping trip at Frieze.

IMG_1370FOS has done a great job of mixing up his day job in design with his cachet in fine art in this show. It’s excitingly overflowing with ideas and a palpable love of materials and design as something to enjoy both aesthetically and physically.

If you’re quick you can still chill out in FOS’s arty living room setup upstairs at the ICA until Sunday, and kick off to Zhang Deng’s Enter the Dragon shows downstairs until the 25th. But forget about Frieze. If you need to ask, you can’t afford it. Console yourself that nothing useless can be truly beautiful. Stick to IKEA. The hotdogs are a work of art.

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Week 15 – The White Review – 13-19 April

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The quarterly White Review publishes photography and art (decide for yourself what and means in that sentence) alongside the usual shorter literary forms from essay to poetry. It is named after and partly inspired by La Revue Blanche, the French art and literary magazine run between 1889 and 1903, which was strongly associated with Marcel Proust in the days before he became an ultra-marathon runner.

For Week 15 of fig-2 the editors Jacques, Ben, and Harry, wanted to think about how to present what they do as editors and commissioners of printed work transferred to a spatial setting. This is arguably more challenging than print because there are fewer limitations. Instead of printing costs, page size, ink, and a final printed form read by an imaginary reader, you have to interface with 3D people moving around through time. It’s much easier to present ideas in a magazine than in a space, and this is one of the problems of gallery presentation. It’s almost impossible not to either over-explain and sound pretentious or to under-explain and leave your audience baffled.

Their initial idea was to have writing going on in the space, which would have recalled Will Self’s week during fig-1 in which he wrote about the people going in and out of the Fragile House in Soho (now demolished and presumably coffeeshopped or oligarchised into a non-residential safety deposit box). Then they decided to start with Eduard Levé’s book Ouevres (Works), which is extracted in the thirteenth edition of the White Review.

Levé’s Works is my new favourite book. It’s a collection of unrealized ideas (works), the first of which explains: “1. A BOOK DESCRIBES WORKS THAT THE AUTHOR HAS CONCEIVED BUT NOT BROUGHT INTO BEING.” This is playfully self-referential and enacts a kind of Cretan paradox in that it is part of just such a book, and has therefore successfully been realized, meaning that the book it describes contains at least one work that the author has conceived and brought into being. Believe me, I’m lying.

Works has been called a lampoon of conceptual art. It includes some incredible imaginary projects, many of which are impossible, but naggingly possible. I really especially really want to make “15. A leather jacket made from a mad cow” or the Grayson Perry-esque “24. A house designed by a three-year-old is built.”

The White Review first approached film-maker Patrick Goddard about executing some of Levé’s works, and he freaked out. To him, realizing them would be merely illustrative. Reporters report, but artists in the contemporary mould are supposed to be foremost makers of ideas. Your Hirsts don’t sully their hands cashing their own cheques, they’re project managers. The Great Masters were the same, which is why we’re never sure which bits of a Rembrandt were actually painted by Rembrandt or his massive team of assistants on below minimum wage.

Patrick Goddard didn’t actually end up making any work for the fig-2 show, apart from his film A Reverse Gun Shoot, which is hilarious and consists of video footage of his conversations with The White Review about his problems with what they’d asked him to do. It’s kind of like the fine art equivalent of Stewart Lee’s radical deconstructions of comedy as comedy. After an idea is raised of “digging up Margaret Thatcher” and making the aforementioned leather jacket from a mad cow, they discuss leather, one of them realizing that “I can’t tan! The exhibition is in ten days, we can’t do that!” with a detour via The Silence of the Lambs whereupon Goddard notes that it was in fact Buffalo Bill who did the tanning in that film (NB), before announcing that this is all “Not curatorially relevant.” I intend to use this phrase at every opportunity. Salt an vinegar on the chips? Thanks. That would not be curatorially relevant.

If I weren’t going to Warsaw on a jazz junket next month I’d be looking forward to Cally Spooner’s forthcoming Whitechapel event discussing “art that adopts the language of its own production as its content.” This probably means stuff like Singing in the rain, but it made me think of Patrick Goddard. The product of the film is its process. This sort of thing is why people hate contemporary art, but I thought it was a blast. Well, I’m a twat, innit, and every bit as white as the White Review. Around the ICA studio space, they’d already pre-empted us on this, fixing texts in unlikely locations, including “The sound of my own voice narrating aloud the sounds I can hear. (annoying)” which is presumably a comment on criticism (hai guys!), and then at length the final inevitable FML printed on the wall above the fire exit:

The sound of the middle classes applauding their own guilt distantly echoing from somewhere in the ICA.

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Art Fund Curator Talk #2 – “On Responsibility” (19 February 2015)

The second of this eight part seminar series with the title On Responsibility will concentrate on Roland Barthes’ seminal text entitled To the Seminar, investigating the contents and discontents of the current cultural production of art institutions and their modes of audience engagement.

Text of Barthes’ “To The Seminar”: http://www.betalocal.org/pdfs/barthes-totheseminar.pdf

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I have a favourite nerdy joke in which a mathematician, upon being challenged to use the smallest possible amount of fence to enclose a herd of sheep, encloses himself in a small fence and declares “I define myself to be on the outside!”

In her second Curator Talk, “On Responsbility”, Fatoş Üstek led an attempt to apply the ideas raised in Roland Barthes’ 1974 text “To The Seminar” in a discussion of how curators approach their responsibilities to the artists they work with, the artworks themselves, and the audience that experiences these works.

This is important because the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. Bad curation can result in the distortion of meaning via the imposition or implication of an order that is misleading, which has been described as being “comparable to a teacher in the classroom using outdated secondary sources for a lecture on physics.”

Barthes’ work tends to embody and perform its ideas, rather than simply framing and explaining them. This makes it, depending on your view, enigmatic and rich in possibilities for discussion, or just hard to follow. “To the seminar” opens “Is this a real site or an imaginary one? Neither. An institution is treated in the utopian mode: I outline a space and call it: seminar.” — I declare myself to be on the outside!

I’d like to ask, even if the answers are neither real nor imaginary, what we can learn from Üstek’s attempt in her seminar to apply the notions embodied by and expressed through Barthes’ text to the realm of curation, with particular regard to curatorial responsibility, and to ask: was she successful?

Seminars are necessarily small, intimate. To Barthes this safeguards the seminar’s complexity, its potentiality or capacity to generate ideas and discussion. This is a kind of Bolshevik notion that cuts against certain popularising notions that have seemingly held sway over the way that art is curated by institutions like the Tate, who lay on blockbusters of over-familiar work, ostensibly as part of their public service remit but at the cost of not bringing the unfamiliar to a popular audience. This is often seen as deeply cynical, money-grabbing, but also conversely as a demotic and democratic impulse.

In a 2001 symposium, Kathy Halbreich expressed concern that “the popular is the most significant sign of our [curatorial] success. I’m happy when our numbers are good, but I’m happier when the engagement is repeated and deep.” Critic Dave Hickey (ibid.) went on “Let’s get smaller places with better art. […] Small is always okay. In a puritan republic like this one, where there is little interest in the visible arts, it’s perfectly rational.”

This is arguably why seminars are important: as forums for discussing at a specialist level issues that can be expanded at a larger level to work toward managing the conflict between the mandarin and the demotic in art. Does this matter? Were I to be glib (and, believe me, glibness is my default mode) I could say that when an event happens, it doesn’t matter if only two people turn up as long as one of them doesn’t know what’s going on and the other one writes about it. This is one peculiar form of elitism, familiar from such formulations as are applied to the first Sex Pistols gig or the Velvet Underground, that only x people were there but they all went and formed a band. Blockbusters don’t produce anything new; it’s the niche, the cutting edge, the mandarin that generates new directions. Or is this view elitist and pretentious?

If Fatoş Üstek is right, then reading Barthes can help us formulate a response to such controversies. Let’s go into his writing a bit more. In Image, Music, Text (1968) Barthes wrote “We now know that a text is not a line of words releasing a single “theological” meaning (the “message” of an Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash”. This is a formulation of Barthes’ notion of ‘the death of the author’ but let’s see what happens if we think of a literal multi-dimensional space (the seminar, the exhibition space) as a text in which a variety of ideas blend and clash. This could be useful in interpreting “To the Seminar”, and indeed it corresponds to Barthes’ third formulation of space, the three being institutional, transferential, and textual. Textual not just because it produces a text, but because “it regards its own—non-functional—practice as already constituting a text: the rarest text, one which does not appear in writing.”

What is this nonsense, a text that is not written? A text that is textual by virtue of just being, or being performed, even if it finds no final form? We can look to oral poetry for confirmation that such texts can indeed exist, though they differ from the modern trope of the text in their lack of final form. This is a fruitful comparison for the seminar or curated space where the conversation (to which Barthes devotes a passage), the discussion, rarely produces a final ‘text’ but embodies textuality by virtue of its discursiveness.

The curatorial conversation results in an exhibition, a show, which is essentially the text that is produced. But it is ephemeral; its documentation is another text discrete from the text itself, which is the show, which must end (even the achingly long blockbuster shows at the Tate eventually end, even if they seem to go on forever). Barthes talks about the production of knowledge from the seminar, but, similarly, notes that “Knowledge, like delight, dies with each body.”

Barthes’ essay then moves from discussion of knowledge and on to teaching it, the transmission of knowledge. But how can that happen if knowledge dies with the body? Clearly some knowledge is transmitted, even if it is a facsimile like the documentation of an exhibition. Barthes revels in the paradox: “To teach what occurs only once—what a contradiction in terms!”

Üstek concluded with a quotation of Barthes’ quotation from Michelet, “I have always been careful to teach only what I did not know,” and in a sense she was right, not in terms of her understanding of the Barthes text or the discipline of curacy, but in her quite brave decision to apply the one to the other. In a Barthean act of incompletion, foregrounding meaning-making as a process rather than an end, she installed in this seminar a conversation as a space for discussion, without resolving it into a final meaning, a final decision or ultimate morality of curation.

It is a fruitful analogy: curating as seminar, as a space for discussion involving multiple competing perspectives and decisions, given that, as I said above, the role of the curator is to mediate between the artist, the work, and the audience, while at the same time negotiating her own predilections, history, the future, and formal, financial, temporal and spatial constraints. While the show must end, and the seminar must end, the questions raised in the specific context of a show will continue through all other subsequent shows.

This is why the curator is like Barthes’ first educational roleplayer, the teacher, with the teacher’s responsibilities to making meaning accessible, even if it is not final. Üstek shares Barthes’ implied view that the master-apprenticeship relationship attempts to transmit such finalised meanings, which is impossible, and finds in Barthes’ third educational practice, mothering, a more valuable way of thinking about the curator’s role: to support rather than transmit individual meaning-making. The Tate tells us what is canonical in art historical terms: to say ‘this is what art is’. Art dealers tell us what is canonical in financial terms: to say ‘this is what is valuable’. The curator is not like an art dealer, but more like a carer, whose responsibility ultimately lies in making a space available in which we as an audience can experience Barthes’ notion of jouissance, where we can find gratification but also experience the danger of disappointment, allowing us to find our own meaningfulness and turn against “an aggressive destiny.”

Further reading

On Barthes: http://jsheelmusiced.pressible.org/jsheel/roland-barthes-%E2%80%9Cto-the-seminar%E2%80%9Dhttp://sweb.uky.edu/~jri236/pleasure/syllabus/https://www.academia.edu/224463/_The_Paideia_of_the_Greeks_On_the_Methodology_of_Roland_Barthess_Comment_Vivre_Ensemblehttp://www.frieze.com/issue/article/barthes-after-barthes/

On curation: http://www2.tate.org.uk/nauman/themes_4.htm http://www.giarts.org/article/curating-now-imaginative-practicepublic-responsibility

Art Fund Curator Talk #1 at fig-2: Instituting the Social (22 January)

Instituting the social

Curator Fatoş Üstek held the first of eight seminars intended to explore curation and curation as an artistic expression, and to develop the themes of the fifty-week fig-2 project as they emerge through the course of its fifty one-week installations.

She began with a note that the same work becomes a different or new work in a different display context. Thus the curator has a significant role in the recontextualisation of art. I think this could be an interesting theme for fig-2 in that some of the works will be existing works recontextualised for this show, or new or unfinished works created for fig-2 at the ICA studio space which will later be recontextualised or even reimagined. There is a good example of this from fig-1 where “Anish Kapoor tried out some things he knew he couldn’t show in a regular gallery. It wasn’t until over a decade later that he developed some of those ideas into the huge inflatable pieces he exhibited at the Grand Palais in Paris a few years ago.”

Questions: What is an institution as a denominator of society? What is an art institution? What is a social imaginary? What are the imaginative forces in a society?

Üstek discussed how the production of the symbolic and the experience of the symbolic are a function of the artistic imagination, existing as a “sum of functions” and a “society beyond that sum” with artistic languages creating a universe of realms. Her dizzying example of “language creating a universe of realms” was the example of ‘the example’ – whereby the example stands for a real thing but is not itself real. Yes, her example was the example of the example. 

She moved from this discussion of the symbolic order and how artistic production and curation contribute to it, and answered a question about how this related to fig-2. One of her curatorial aims is to explore what the currencies are that we are being fed by, and whether there is a different relation to object/image/etc today than there was during fig-1 fifteen years ago. This first theme concerns the nature of artistic creation, and the latter the phenomenology of perception. But there is a key interest in the connection between the two, that as well as perception there is the motivation of gestures that go into the production of meaning.

Questions: London is a finance capital, fast and protean. Pop-up shops are very current, but are they particular to London? Could fig-2 take place in a slower city? Given the apparent immutability of certain institutions such as the law or religion, could fig-2 be an institution that could speed up the development of art?

Üstek noted that fig-2 is not the first pop-up model in art. Indeed, since the fig-1 the pop-up model has become widespread and much imitated. Üstek herself even curated an artist-run space in Istanbul that showed five artists an evening in 15-minute slots. The one-week turnaround is comparatively sedate.

The influence of institutions, she noted, is that these spaces, take Tate Modern for example, they legitimise what is defined in society as art. I had a thought about ascription and acceptance. Ascription can define what is art at the level of practice, for example in taking an objet trouvee and saying it is an artwork it becomes art (Duchamp’s urinal, say), but acceptance only comes once this ascription has been accepted by an institution, such as when a gallery has put it on display. Just ascription is not enough for ‘work’ to become ‘art’.

This, however, is in a sense what fig-2 is cutting against with its experimental approach and rapid turnover of work. Üstek made a point about functionality and seriousness. Freedom from ‘seriousness’ and ‘functionality’ without the need to legitimise ‘what is art’ is what gives artistic creation its vibrancy. In my own experience the greatest frisson has come from those works where we are not entirely sure if what we are experiencing is ‘art’ or not. Established institutions are more beholden to existing notions, so their power to legitimise what is art is delimited by the problems of their size and their need to represent for the most part existing notions, with only a small (but important) remit for completely new defintions of art. Perhaps more critical at an early stage of an idea or movement or work’s development is the “non institutional institution” such as ad hoc spaces.

Hiraki Sawa was present and noted that exhibiting or creating work for fig-2 is quite different to a group show, which is the more familiar curatorial format for most artists given the opportunity to exhibit work. In fig-2 there is linear movement,a constant changing in the space resulting in a different focus of attention to a group show. The artist is given complete attention but for a short time, rather than divided attention for a longer period.

Üstek accepted this and expanded on it, noting that she expected there to be a “continuum” over the course of the 50 weeks, giving a “subliminal constellation of meaning” with threads continuing through the whole year, like in Salman Rushdie’s Haroun & The Sea of Stories. She is “interested in stretching a line” and referred to Hiraki Sawa’s work for Week 3 in which there is literally a line going through the whole film (string, thread is a key symbol in the work) which is cyclical and changes and modifies dimensions. We have also seen that in Week 2 where Charles Avery plays lines against each other to spill over between 1-, 2- and 3-dimensional space. In Week 4 there will be the poet Simon Welsh and, in poetry, a quite different conceptualisation of the ‘line’. We look forward to a “composite picture in my head; each project stands for itself but also for the whole.” Üstek concluded with a reminiscence about Douglas Coupland’s comments on Translit, that we live in a time that contains all styles of all times at one time. I look forward to returning to this idea in greater depth over the coming year as the continuum takes shape.

Questions: How are you documenting the (fig-2) project?

The fig-2 website has interviews, photos, links, and a live archive. There will be a book at the end, which will not just document fig-2 but will expand on what happened, and become another mode of encounter with the works.

Next time: Seminar #2 on responsibility, date tbc.