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

fig-2_43_50_9

“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.

fig-2_43_50_2

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.

25834f8

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.

IMG_1670

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.

905598_10156151169690181_288549216011358301_o

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.

fig-2_35_50_2

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 33 – El Ultimo Grito – August 17-23

“Genius is an error in the system” – Paul Klee

photographs by benjamin cosomo westoby

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe Birth of the User is two inflatable sculptures in one: a figure, called the User, within an outer womb: a space within a space (within a space). As the outside structure inflates with air from the machine the pressure of the environment compresses the User and a struggle occurs between them which is only resolved when the mechanical air inflow switches and the structure within starts to inflate, which causes his uterine environment to start to collapse around him. This creates a glitchy ecosystem of one against the other: fighting for air, or fighting because of the air. Balance is not consistently maintained.

People going into the gallery can’t help but touch it, which adds another feedback loop. You can feel the inflatable structure resist your hand as the air pushes back against your fingers or when it bucks and yields to your prodding.

Fig-2_33_50_1Design duo El Ultimo Grito is Rosario Hurtado and Roberto Feo, who have created this sculpture The Birth of the User during Week 33 of Fig-2. Rather than displaying finished works at the start of the seven day show, they set the ICA studio space up as a workshop in which to improvise and develop ideas and create a unique Open House setting in which the public could interact with a production environment.

ultimo_mexico_04A fantastic illustration of their working methods is their account of creating a public seating installation in Mexico City. It’s fascinating to see the skeleton-and-muscle structure made of bubblewrap and foam taped over plywood that looks like junk (“when we left the first day [they asked] ‘are you going to leave this here? for how long? what is this for?’”) transformed by the addition of a skin of circular stickers into something bright and brilliant.

ultimo_mexico_03Their spidery fantastical sculptures are colourful and tangly and semi-organic looking and are often designed to be sat upon and interacted with in public spaces. The use of ‘packing materials’ comes from a decision they made to create a design and manufacturing system free from “traditional methods of production” using their hands and bodies and readily available inexpensive materials: a DIY aesthetic or rather a design aesthetic with a DIY implementation.

File 17-10-2015, 18 41 39‘El Ultimo Grito’ apparently means ‘all the rage’. Literally translated it’s ‘the last cry’ which I think is from the phrase ‘the last cry of fashion’ which makes ‘all the rage’ make sense: this season’s show-stopping be-all-and-end-all (until next season). Their use of ‘El Ultimo Grito’ as a moniker is clearly an ironic comment on the transience of fashion.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westoby“It was a week of work in progress. Mainly to develop ideas and works that explore the idea of glitch, glitch as a malfunction in the system that allows you to see the structure in the system, how the system works,” El Ultimo Grito explain in their audio interview with Fig-2. There is a day-by-day written account by El Ultimo Grito on the designboom website.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe show included a number of digital prints developed from images created by encountering ‘glitches’ in Apple Maps while walking around London. This is similar to Clement Valla’s project documenting ruptures in Google’s Universal Texture mapping system: those images of melting bridges when the texture mapping has gone wrong. We encountered this in Fig-2 Week 12 (part 6) and one of Valla’s ‘Postcards from Google Earth‘ was on show in Week 29. The phenomenon has clearly struck a nerve.

valla-5In Clement Valla’s work ‘glitch’ exposes the algorithmic principles involved in how our digital realities are constructed. El Ultimo Grito are more interested in the political and social factors exposed by ‘glitch’: the historicity of glitch. We are in the middle of both a housing crisis (caused by our rich keeping supply of housing down to boost what they can charge us to buy or rent) and a migration crisis (caused by our rich selling weapons to indiscriminately arm every side of every conflict worldwide, which leads to people trying to flee these places to survive).

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe construction and reconstruction of our cities is a document of political will. There’s no social housing, but ugly cheesegraters keep springing up in the city. Estates are knocked down, and spring up again as megastructures of gentrification. Sometimes our maps won’t update in time, and we will experience ‘glitch’: an uncanny sense of displacement, walking through two different realities at once, two different periods of history.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyWith the accretion of vernacular building in a city we in fact find countless levels of periodicity simultaneously. A new glass structure bolted to a medieval wall dominated by a prefab made of ugly. Each layer reveals the ‘ultimo grito’ of its period. Currently everything is glass that is largely flat, the next fashion will probably find this bending and twisting as new technologies develop, and then there’ll probably be some rage for sixties style stone cladding.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThese architectural paradigms (fashions) are temporal but internationally uniform, and part of El Ultimo Grito’s method in their week was to render a number of different but recognisable styles together to create the forms and surfaces of a single United Estates conflated from images of London’s ‘iconic’ Brutalist housing block Trellick Tower, other buildings in Montevideo, and London housing estates. The United Estates sprang up over the week as a number of structures representing a glitched dystopic city that you can’t live in, just as you can’t live in a city without housing or a country refusing to accept immigrants.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyEl Ultimo Grito‘s fictional character The User is intended to represent “when the consumer becomes a citizen”. The sculpture’s rise and fall that dramatizes the pressure of an environment over the individual. El Ultimo Grito developed their DIY approach to the construction as well as just the design of their works. If each of us is ‘The User’ it is up to each of us to try to take a more active role in it, becoming a citizen rather than a consumer Otherwise the larger structure will crush us all.

The Fig-2 website gives a day-by-day photographic account of the work in progress, in which you see the elements of plastic and wood used to make the nascent sculptures. When I visited on Friday night there was a smell of paint so strong that even I could smell it, Rosario and Roberto working and another guy making things in the fire escape. They had just about finished making a camera obscura, which they demonstrated to me.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe camera obscura projects an image upside down on a screen. Vermeer probably used one when he painted and there’s a good one in Bristol that let’s you look at the Avon Gorge and Clifton Suspension Bridge without having to go to the effort of looking directly at them (you have to go to Bristol though). It’s another form of mapping, another way of projecting a 3D reality onto a flat screen.

photographs by benjamin cosomo westobyThe camera obscura is a kind of ‘real time cinema’ in which a moving image is antique Chinese erotic porcelain depicting a couple rutting, which doesn’t look dissimilar to the Birth of the User sculpture. In the logic of the show it bridges between the scale of the third day’s large inflatable sculpture and the comic strips they made on the final day in which they synthesised all of the glitch mapping of the digital prints and the three-dimensional sculptural forms of the United Estates, with the User character ultimately triumphing and creating a new reality: “If you control the glitch, you control reality itself” — el ultimo grito!

In Iain Sinclair’s lecture Blake’s London: The Topographic Sublime the earnest psychogeographer describes how there is “a love of the fabric of this multidimensional city and also a cynical despair at the changes now being wrought … New enclosures, blue fences and razor wire topped with surveillance cameras, have sealed off enormous tracts of terrain along the eastern margin. We see the dominance of the virtual over the actual, the computer-generated version over the particulars of locality … What you are creating, in effect, is an electronic Golgonooza. A system predicated on affectless gazing. Therefore Los stands in London building Golgonooza,

Compelling his Spectre to labours mighty; trembling in fear / The Spectre weeps, but Los unmov’d by tears or threats remains. “I must create a System or be enslav’d by another Man’s. / “I will not Reason & Compare: my business is to Create.”

File 17-10-2015, 15 20 37

POSTSCRIPT: I made a mistake and accidentally posted this while I was tagging it with “glitch” with the result that the title came up as Week 33 – August 17-23 – El Ultimo Gritoglitch, — a meta-glitch I’m tempted to reinstate.

Week 26 – Anne Hardy – June 29-July 5

IMG_1308

Scraping. Crackling. Rainbow sound. Filter. Whoosh and whoop and russsh of air. Brush. Breath. Sea, but not sea. Unsean. Trickle. Cloudburst. Broop, rustle. Rumble, scrapple: track fork. Nkrkrkrkr. Drum bung. Dong. Gung. Budda budda. Begin!

That’s what I hear: a Joycean overture coming from the speakers of Anne Hardy’s installation for Week 26 of Fig-2. She herself has “rrmmmph, huoooghg, op, mmmuuow, ip” which is just as good. Orthography (how we write down the spoken word as text) is an arbitrary, personal art. Joyce himself to great acclaim had Bloom’s cat in Ulysses say not “Meow” but “Mkgnao!”

Anne Hardy Fig-2 26/50 2015You can listen to an excerpt of this soundtrack “rrmmmph, huoooghg, op, mmmuuow, ip” and imagine having it going on at full volume all day long, as the fig-2 team do. Over 45 minutes I found it oddly reassuring, even friendly, but then I like controlled noise. I’m not sure I’d like it nine to five, though to be honest I have exactly that myself: a constant soundtrack of uncontrolled asymmetrical noise, chatter, smoking, sirens, and an alarm that constantly goes off when someone constantly opens the gate constantly all day. Jessie says the Hardy soundtrack isn’t so bad but that you’d then go out and a car could crash behind you and wouldn’t notice to turn around.

Anne Hardy Fig-2 26/50 2015The soundtrack is heavily edited and processed audio from recordings of Anne Hardy installing and creating sculptural work in her studio, leftovers from physical work, just as the space is strewn with physical leftovers of this other work that is absent. Plasterboard shapes being cut, scrunched up tape, big scrapes of smashed up concrete: your brain tries to connect the sounds to the objects, but both aspects resist each other.

Anne Hardy Fig-2 26/50 2015The speaker system by Flare Audio uses waves or something instead of compressing air so it can be much louder than conventional speakers. It is a remarkable technical advance and Flare’s technology to have been taken seriously by sound engineers and audio nutjobs. The sound is vivid and punchy, and I know this is how I experienced the sound and it wasn’t an illusion caused by having been told about the special sound system because in my notes I wrote “Very vividly recorded sounds. Very punchy sound.” (though admittedly my notes on things are mostly a higher form of complete drivel).

The carpet is the glorious “process blue” of pure cyan. A darkish inscrutable blue that makes objects a buoyancy in an alien visual field that invites the eye in and projects the objects back out.

Anne Hardy Fig-2 26/50 2015In such an environment with this vocabulary of sounds you do start to not so much hallucinate but question the origin of the noises. Was that noises off or did it come from the speaker? Irene steps through and kicks the bin, Jessie’s heels scrape, I blow my nose then sniff.  I think that motorbike was outside. You forget what’s inside and what outside, start hearing things, imagining you hear things. The sounds pile up on themselves and create little narratives.

Think of the opening of Beethoven’s Fifth – du-du-du-DUH. Most sound you hear is just du-du-du or DUH. Joining them together, however, you can create pattern. In Anne Hardy’s soundtrack I hear the long swelling sound of water followed by a weird click edited and juxtaposed to punctuate and create a phrase which is essentially musical.

Anne Hardy Fig-2 26/50 2015It’s a terrific use for ‘found sounds’. Years ago I went to a Wire Salon (a Q&A organised by the fiercely mandarin music magazine Wire) about field recordings, and one of the big questions raised was ‘After you’ve recorded all this stuff, what do you do with it?’ We sound recordists have hours and hours of birdsong and crowd noise and trains going out and coming in and beaches. I genuinely have a recording of complete silence (from an anechoic chamber – it sounds really odd).

The economy of Anne Hardy using discarded parts of sculptural processes in exhibiting them and soundtracking them makes her the green champion of fine art practice.  Throughout her work she has also scoured the streets of Hackney for objects that she can introduce into her work.

MP_210907_1

She made her name constructing weird spaces of which she would then take a single photo which would be all that remained of it (she wasn’t always a green champion). They’re completely amazing. Her practice later took her into creating these spaces so that not one but several photos would be needed to capture them, and to not to be so rigidly ephemeral but so that people could enter them, adding a third dimension. Her Fig-2 show takes this even further by allowing us into the process of the making of these spaces, and seems very much intended to be viewed as transitional. It will be interesting to see next month in her show FIELD, at Modern Art Oxford, how far along on her trajectory she has gone in moving away from photography and integrating sculptural installation and audio.

anne-hardy-reference-3Opening up spaces and exposing processes, and centring on the process of making, is a functional kind of art. It’s art about art. Which is fine and modern but doesn’t invoke the sublime or the uncanny. The photos have a perfection. They are pure art. They don’t encode or include their own making except that inasmuch as there is no attempt to disguise the artificiality of the scene. This is what gives the photos their hyperreality. They’re so unreal they seem more real than reality.  Jessica Lack says Hardy is “one of a number of contemporary photographers well aware that the documentary look is best recreated by using stage sets.”

2-hardy700The extreme shortness of the depth of field adds to the effect, making the spaces harder to understand and interpret, harder to read. The process of “reading a space” is psychologically charged, and in a sense you project yourself onto it. The ghost in a haunted house is actually just the spectre of your fear. Hardy’s photographic spaces are difficult, and so foreground your own response. It might not be something you are even aware of.  The isle is full of noises. You might just feel a bit weird, a bit edgy, start imagining things. . .

FullSizeRender_1_1

ADDITIONAL LINKS

Fig-2 interview with Anne Hardy: https://soundcloud.com/fig2/2650-fatos-ustek-interviews-anne-hardy

The world’s largest natural sound archive just went up online – The Macaulay Library uploaded 150,000 recordings documenting the sounds of 9,000 species. It’s fully listenable and fully searchable: http://www.chartattack.com/news/2015/08/06/worlds-largest-natural-sound-archive/

Week 40 – Una Knox – October 5-11

fig-2_40_50_12

fig-2_40_50_2When you enter the room the first thing you see is that all of the walls have been drawn into the centre of the space and bound together. The Fig-2 mobile wall structures and book shelves that usually delineate a space within the room have been wrapped up together, and there is nowhere to hide.

fig-2_40_50_4Whether deliberately or intuitively Sylvain Deleu’s photos don’t zoom in on the the central structure but show it surrounded by the exposed space of the studio — balancing the tight compression at the centre with the openness around it. This arrangement has an unsettling effect. Artist Una Knox notes that in drawing things together you illustrate the potential for, or the inevitability of, the opposite: all things will break apart.

unaknoxpvThis is the context of coming to Fig-2: these shows are brought together for seven days and then blown apart. For Week 40 of Fig-2 Una Knox has bound together elements of film, photos and sketches within a specific spatial configuration that introduces specific tensions into how you perceive the work.

“In previous works the question has come up: how does a particular architecture have the potential to dictate a conversation?”

Una_Knox_fig-2_teaser_image_2015Whether it’s an elevator shaft or a small room full of tape and paint like the ICA studio, depth of field (the distance between the nearest and furthest objects you can perceive) has a profound effect on you. In cities we can get wound up and depressed by the closeness of everything, and feel relief and elation at emerging into a wider perspective like a park. Conversely, in the countryside we can feel overwhelmed by the distance of everything and long for our homely corners.

fig-2_40_50_6In Una Knox’s Fig-2 installation the objects are brought into intimate relation with each other through proximity, and looking at them all cramped together feel like we’re clambering through them, unearthing them like old manuscripts in a library.

fig-2_40_50_7The small monitor screens play video archives of the artist’s father David Knox, himself an artist, at work in the 1980s. He’s making ‘surface studies’ in which he introduces cuts to large pieces of paper. This work doesn’t survive except in these grainy flickering video documents.

There is also a notebook hidden away that contains preparatory work from both father and daughter, work you wouldn’t normally see when looking at a final work. It presents us with one dynamic of a relationship we can only imagine, and sketches for works that might or might not exist. If there’s a depth field of meaning we’re coming towards a wall here.

CQkwUroWEAMYwXwExploding the plane is the most colourful part of the exhibition, the three large trichromatic images, semi-abstract photos of Una’s own absent cutouts. You see these from the outside, from the open space of the room, whereas with the other works you have to almost clamber into the central structure. These large photos are made using pre-colour photography processes, with three sequences shot one after another and different tones of grey creating different densities of red, green and blue.

fig-2_40_50_2This paradoxically creates much more vibrant colours out of gray than using colour does. You’ve seen films shot in Technicolor. Their rich saturated image palette comes from using three separate film cameras each with a different filter to capture red, green and blue. It’s nostalgic and also, such complex methods of image creation are akin to the workmanlike methods of artists. So there’s another connection between the processes of Una’s photos and David’s physically cutting into paper.

fig-2_40_50_8It’s about “history and how things taken from the past are modified and reshaped and retain something of what they were and become something else and how two things that are the same can become unique.”

Cutting into paper breaks the two-dimensional plane, which is quite a radical act in artistic terms. It’s violent. Interplay between two and three dimensions is an abiding feature of op art, which creates three-dimensional effects through manipulating and tricking the cognitive processes that read the information of the world: optical illusions. The vase keeps popping into a face.

“I was interested in the way that we look back in history and what we see through these different layers of media, these practices of artists who we can only see through documentation and what happens in that filter, so I wanted to bring those filters to the foreground, in accentuating the quality of this old video but also in the photographs splitting apart the materiality of photography but also of vision and how these things come together, sequences in time collapsing in and becoming dense. So you see that in the structures and also in the materiality asking you to look through the shelves.”

There’s nothing on the internet about David Knox. The show is about someone we as strangers can’t hope to know about. When you click on @UnaKnox in @fig2london’s tweets it says “Account suspended” — the correct handle @unannox has protected tweets. In the absence of the internet, or getting to know Una Knox, all we can know about the relationship between the two is mediated through the work.

This seems to echo a psychological truth that sets up an unresolved ambiguity in the work. Sometimes we can fail to understand something because we are ‘too involved’ as well as too far away: ‘clinical distance’ is another kind of knowledge. It’s a problem of perspective, of depth of field: everything is either too far away, in time or space, or so close up to you that you can’t see it. Art breaks the surface plane so we can try to peer through.

File 15-10-2015, 21 42 18

All quotations from Una Knox are taken from her audio interview with Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek.

POSTSCRIPT

The Sipsmith gins at the show opening were apparently a “Trichromaticism mix” but I have a photo in which it’s distinctly referred to as “Smoke & mirrors”. Smoke and mirrors: certainly I’m now beyond confused not only about David Knox, but also Una Knox, and even the drinks.

One artist bio of Una Knox says “She is inspired by instances where an absence defines a presence” which we certainly encounter, or don’t encounter, or do we, through her work. It’s also a central idea in contemporary art practice that I’ve had hours of fun mocking. For once I’ll just leave off the jokes and think about Jazz. Simpsons did it:

PUNTER: Sounds like she’s hitting a baby with a cat.
LISA: You have to listen to the notes she’s not playing.
PUNTER: I can do that at home.

Week 38 – Josh Wright and Guillaume Vandame – 21-27 September

photo by steph wilsonIt is not emptying your mind. The instructor explains to the class,

Meditation has got nothing to do with blanking your mind. My favourite quote on yoga is “If you want your mind to go blank, get your best friend to give you a healthy blow on the head.”

Oh God, but my mind is blank. Should it not be? Think about things. Concentrate. I mean, meditate. So it’s not just emptying your mind then?

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?

CQAqK9TWIAAvx5oDidn’t Houdini slow his heart down or his breathing so he could escape from padlocks under water? No matter. Some gentle stretches. She asks us to move our hands in front of us, and to project an imaginary ball of light in our hands. Oh wow! I can see it, right there in my hands, a big imaginary ball of love or cosmic libido. My body and I are one! Meditating is pretty far out.

We are going to be practicing slow movement, controlled movement, to match our breath, so that our awareness can follow.

I like the stretches and the breathing and the ball of light, and the lying down. I could lie down all day, all night even, just breathing. She tells us to touch one nostril with your thumb and the other with your finger and breathe in through the left nostril and out through the right. But I can’t. I can’t breathe through my nose. This is agony. This is excruciating. I have never been so frustrated. This is not relaxing. Meditation is sheer hell.

What we are trying to achieve through meditation, a sense of stillness, a sense of peace, tap into that sense of stillness and peace within us, something that you carry with you all the time wherever you go.

Seriously, how do they get away with it, the Bedroom Tax and the Welfare Bill, the death of Bdehoobby Sands and parking tickets. I definitely did not ask to be born. This is cruel. My body has dissolved into feelings. At that moment I notice that the ball of light in my hands is a horrendous flaming ball of pure hate.

We are not looking for achieving something unattainable, we are tapping into something that is within – sense of stillness, sense of peace, sense that everything is well.

Everything is not well. The meditation session was not cathartic. After it’s over the guy next to me says, with a bovine docility, that he found it peaceful. In my mind a menagerie of Boschian monsters commit grave acts of bestial cruelty to each other in a landscape of flames and death.

In case you came here with the expectation of blanking your mind, it is not what we are looking for.

NewTimetable

fig-2_38_50_14In Week 38 of Fig-2 Josh Wright and Guillaume Vandame turned the ICA studio space into a participatory art gym. The idea was to invite artists as well as exercise instructors, and encourage people to try new things and to promote healthy living as opposed to the impossible ideals of body image, with a social platform to discuss issues inspired by Marjolijn Dijkman’s Salon sessions held in Week 22 of Fig-2 which used the space as an open forum for discussion.

fig-2_38_50_15During the week there were sessions of Pilates, Zumba, Chi Kung, meditation, and eight types of yoga- Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Hatha, Meditation, Yin, Dru, as well as the mysterious “Everlasting Yoga” sessions run by artist Karimah Ashadu, the movement and meditation session that so severely stressed me out, and VOGA, an ungodly but logical mashup of Yoga and Voguing, the ‘strike a pose’ semi-static dance style that Madonna stole off the New York gay scene; logical because yoga is also a kind of semi-static dance of held poses, and ungodly because oh God just Madonna.

victoria-beckham_784x0[1]Vandame and Wright are strongly influenced by Vanessa Beecroft, and their week was in a sense an application of her sculptural use of actual human bodies. The participants in the classes become part of the human sculpture, as well as integral to what are in effect participatory performances. Guillaume says “the classes work within this framework about body image, gender, sexuality, etc. but are also much about chance encounters and possibility — what can happen in these situations and questioning expectations of both performance art and traditional exercise classes.”

TeaserFB-IMAGEIn the sessions from three invited artists, the idea of a performance and exercise class as participatory performance were mixed up so an exercise class that is instructive becomes a participatory art event. Visitors are in a sense objectified, becoming sculptures within the installation. Objectification is a dangerous subject, beginning with how people are perceived and then defined and then repressed according to single objectified aspects of the their sex, gender, race, culture. Tellingly, the doors to the space stayed open, to foreground the aim of inclusivity. So the show’s repurposing of objectification takes issues or representation of the female body as a starting point and extends it to issues of race, sexuality, and so on through the whole list of ‘Tory low priorities’. It addresses perceived alienating effects of performance art (and indeed exercise) by inviting people into the performance.

what-happens-when-a-turner-prize-nominated-artist-leads-an-insanity-workout-body-image-1443199006Zing Tsjeng has written in Vice about “This is insanity!” the class/art performance led by Turner nominee Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, giving such a vivid and amazing account that it made me wonder if I was even at the same event.

INSANITY® is a provocatively competitive workout – the hardest ever! says the promo material. Chetwynd explained the hideous beast and took the class through some of its moves. It involves high-intensity one-minute bursts of strenuous activity (we did thirty seconds) followed by relative chill. This I guess means the body can’t become adjusted to either, which makes it work harder. It’s obviously stupid, but I suppose some idiots want to give themselves heart attacks.

adhamAdham Faramawy’s “Post Rave Sweat Fatigue Workshop” was a high-intensity session combining the dance moves of rave with standard aerobics. I enjoyed this very much, but it’s hard to dance. An hour of rave anthems was pretty tiring. How the hell did we do this all night long in the nineties? Oh, drugs. Drugs were pretty good, right? I’m glad we got those tattoos.

tumblr_l8brdwNFqL1qdazefo1_500[1]High-intensity exercise is one thing, but nothing compared to what artists and bodybuilders have put themselves through. Francesca Steele is a kind of case study for pushing the limits of body modification as both an art and personal project. She was featured in the Superhuman exhibition at the Wellcome Collection, a show about body modification, and in the first salon discussion session at Fig-2 she spoke about her lifestyle and being a bodybuilder as an art project she did in 2008, physically changing her body and how that changed her identity, particularly regarding gender. Her diet was so rigorous and extreme, full of eggs and spinach and drugs, that upon being invited to dinner with art legend Marina Abramovic she declined because she didn’t want to deviate from her diet. It caused such a personal strain to the extent that she ended up divorced from her husband.

Screenshot 2015-10-05 21.46.42At the second salon session Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek theorized that the week invites a “critical framework” in which we discuss what forces are at play in “subjectivity and socially engaged art, how we define what is a healthy body and how art deals with this modern subject”. The mirrors along the side of the ‘gym’ were intentionally fragmented, as a visual comment on body image, which was pretty neat.

Developing this theme, three TVs showed one-hour edits of exercise and dance routines taken from movies and videos from the 1970s-80s. Guillaume explains “The exercise videos formally deal more with wider issues of representation and identity in terms of nationality and race — how these identities are constructed and formed across various cultures at various points in time. As well the issues of beauty, normality and difference on display – what it means to be masculine or feminine or the assumption that the individuals are heterosexual because they conform to a heteronormative ideology/society.”

That sounds very theory heavy, but it really resonates. I’ve always had a problem with these kinds of videos. They’re just so sexy. I can’t desexualise them, if anyone can. Can you? The lines of the body, particularly the crotch, are emphasised by the tight-fitting lycra gymwear. It brings out my inner prude. It’s something about the screen, whereas in real life nothing is at all sexy. Rhythmic movements of the pelvis are inherently embarrassing.

toolsAppropriately, therefore, one sculptural aspect of the show was along one wall tools wrapped in lycra. Tools, wrapped in lycra. But seriously, ahem, it’s emblematic of the show’s mixing up of high and low culture to present the hard utilitarian teleology of hammers and saws wrapped up in the soft gaudy kitsch of spandex.

hannah_omshanti_20secsThe classes and events I went to over the week involved me in physical activities that were well out of my comfort zone. What you’re reading now is in a sense a sequel to my piece for Week 27 of Fig-2 in which I dwelt on the chance encounter of my misanthropy and self-hatred with the spiritual and physical rhapsodies of Kundalini Yoga. With hilarious consequences, of course.

I do have a cosmic streak, so I wondered if my broadly positive reaction to Kundalini was more about that rather than the exercise side, and whether Week 38 would answer this. In the case of me getting so stressed out in the meditation class, clearly not.

CPtKVwsXAAA4XVSThe yoga session on Sunday morning was a classic straight-man funny-man double act with Josh (literally straight) performing standard yoga moves, while Guillaume (literally funny) plugged into his iPod and singing along to a playlist of pop songs themed around breathing. The Daniel Johnston-like tuneless strangling of Taylor Swift and Sting was a disruptive art intervention into yoga. It actually made it easier for me to concentrate on the yoga; a sort of focusing distraction. I’m the sort of ADHD guy who generally has two TVs and a radio on while I’m writing while I’m driving while I’m on the tube while I’m on the phone, masturbating and making charcoal sketches.  

File 04-10-2015, 21 03 08The session was nothing like my previous yoga session. It definitely felt like art, art as sustained wind-up, the neo-Dadaism of Fluxus and Naim June Paik. One of the other participants was sustainedly wound up and began ignoring Josh and performing her own yoga shapes, before finally leaving the room for a few minutes, then returning, resuming her own thing, and finally getting so frustrated with Guillaume’s off-key singing that she exploded “Shut up!

In the process of turning the studio space into an ‘art gym’ one of the interesting references that came up in the salons was to Marc Augé’s concept of ‘non-places’, those liminal spaces that are both or neither somewhere or nowhere – airports, shopping malls, motorways, supermarkets – and, why not, the gym. “The art of supermarkets, convenience stores, and so on have been explored,” Guillaume says, “but no one’s really explored the art of going to the gym. There have been references to the body throughout modern art and art history, but this context especially is unique.”

timthumb.php_1[1]In Non-places: An Introduction to Supermodernity Marc Augé draws a distinction between “anthropological places” formed by social bonds and collective history, and “non-places” of atomized, individual travel and consumption: “If a place can be defined as relational, historical and concerned with identity, then a space which cannot be defined as relational, or historical, or concerned with identity will be a non-place.” (p63).

CMI2LGAVAAASOZM“Clearly the word ‘non-place’ designates two complementary but distinct realities: spaces formed in relation to certain ends (transport, transit, commerce, leisure), and the relations that individuals have with these spaces […] As anthropological places create the organically social, so non-places create solitary contractuality. Try to imagine a Durkheimian analysis of a transit lounge at Roissy!” (p76)

It is not that the gym does not have a culture or that it’s not concerned with identity. For many the gym is active in the development and expression of their identity. It’s a hot-house for growing bodies. However, that phrase “solitary contractuality” crashes down upon it. Most people in the gym are alone. Nobody talks to each other, or exchanges are limited to a few technical reflections on abs or nutrition. It’s like being on the tube, another arena within which one is profoundly solitary not least because one is crammed into a tin with countless other people, none of whom you may interact with, not in conversation, not even making eye contact.

spaceGyms can be sterile, dehumanized environments that can be alienating or estranging, fuelling the suspicion of the exercise shy that it’s not for us, or that it’s for someone else, a body of people from which we are excluded just as ‘homeless spikes’ are not intended to promote a nicer society. “The non-place is the opposite of Utopia: it exists, and it does not contain any organic society.” (p90).

CP6SbfkWUAAzBHySolitary contractuality even extends to communal activities: exercise classes such as yoga or aerobics. Everyone is performing the same acts together, but all mediated through the class leader and each without reference to any other person in the room. It’s not a band, where if the drums stop you’ll notice, it’s not even like an orchestra where you could afford to have a few viola players pass out before anyone noticed anything was up. In these classes you are completely interchangeable, not even a cog in a machine for generating exercise, and if the gym is a non-place, then in the gym class you’re a non-person.

2000px-RegisteredTM.svg[1]I was surprised but not surprised to learn that Zumba® is a registered trademark. So is INSANITY®. I have kind of respect for the holistic integrity of Kundalini Yoga but you do have to wonder if the highly invented and marketed Zumba – never mentioned without its ® – isn’t blatantly like the Scientology of exercise regimes. It’s a huge turnoff, that ®, a reminder of the strongly capitalistic impetus of exercise regimes. That your body is a product that you sell to make you a better machine to generate revenue for the capitalist machine.

61b5ee51cbea456667138efaa4892292.image.435x431[1]By reclaiming the gym in an art context, Vandame and Wright perhaps suggested some ways in which we can go beyond the depressing eighties elements of exercise culture and really grow ourselves.

What I’d like to see is more of these free outdoor gyms. I walk past one in Anerley several times a week, and always think that’s bloody brilliant that is. Obviously I’m too lazy to actually use it, but I’d like to see these things everywhere, because proper gyms are expensive and terrifying. There is a massive moral panic about the burgeoning obesity crisis, so why don’t we build public gyms? Healthy living shouldn’t just be the preserve of the middle classes and the rich.

IMG_1221

Week 30 – Anna Barham – 27 July-2 August

Fig-2_30_50_16Don’t be evil.

In 2007 Google (the well-known lunar landings provider who did the search engine thingy) introduced a free directory inquiry service in the US called GOOG-411. Your call was digitally parsed by the ‘robot operator’ who then offered to connect your call to its top results. It wasn’t clear what Google was getting out of providing this generous free service, which they even promoted on billboards.

Three years after its introduction the service was suddenly dropped. Google had already released its search-by-voice service in Android, and so the penny.. dropped. GOOG-411, as Google has admitted, had been a covert phoneme-gathering operation intended to create a huge database to improve voice recognition technology for Google’s search products.

Google had amassed thousands of hours of requests for plumbers and pizza delivery and connections to confusingly named places like Schenectady spoken in every accent from every state of the US. The free GOOG-411 service enabled the technology and techniques that activated the speech recognition software which was and is now amassing a vast repository of spoken words in every language on earth, improving itself in a perfect feedback learning loop every time the user corrects a faulty transcription.

Open the pod bay doors, Siri.

Fig-2_30_50_7Anna Barham’s video “The Squid That Hid” outlines the difficulties speech presents to speech recognition software, from accent pronunciation and articulation to background noise. The big problem is that spoken words just run on from each other. It’s hard for humans too. Without visual punctuation it can be hard or impossible to arrange the string of syllables into words into sentences. To the untrained ear Polish sounds like English recorded to tape and played backwards. Yiddish sounds like someone cheating at Scrabble. English sounds like a sarcastic Swede reading words at random from a car manual (see also “Prisencolinensinainciusol”).

Ambiguity over the beginnings and endings of words is the basis of the Four candles/ fork handles sketch, and ambiguity about punctuation gives rise to the Eats shoots & leaves joke.

In the first line of Finnegans Wake we find “past Eve and Adam’s” which can also be read “Pa, Stephen: Adams” which deliberately equates Joyce’s father Stanislaus and his fictional portrait of the artist as a young man and archetypal Son Stephen Daedalus with the Bible’s archetypal Father figure Adam.

Seemingly Fleshed Inside

It all begins with this passage from Image Machine by Bridget Crone (2013). Anna Barham used it as the starting point for the film Double Screen (not quite tonight jellylike) which presents variations on Crone’s text as reworked and mangled by voice recognition software. I say “it all begins” but Crone’s text is itself a response to Amanda Beech’s Fi nal Mac hi ne. I daren’t look whether this also derives from something else for fear we’ll end up in some bottomless pit of recursion and influence.

Barham’s use of the text next went into Penetrating Squid, an ongoing novel whose third chapter forms the basis of the text that was the basis of her week at Fig-2. The text was generated in live reading groups where readers take it in turns to read a text into transcription software. Barham has apparently generated over a hundred versions of Crone’s text. Barham then went on to read short sections over and over again through the software to generate more radical disruptions and the three chapters of Penetrating Squid, which are audible on Soundcloud.

BridgetCrone-PassageFromImageMachine
click image to embiggen

Crone’s text starts with a description of cleaning a squid and as bits fall onto newspaper the words distort and the text itself distorts and falls into associative chains of sounds and images. In the original we find “Tight pieces of sinewy flesh inside the squid try to hold onto this gooey mess” which is one of the short phrases whose variations form the bulk of the text Barham uses, which start off recognizably: “tried to hold onto the screen pieces of silver reflections cybersquaring trying to hold onto the screen” and get further “trying to hold onto the discreet/discrete maths inside the square” and further out: “listening in the pool pieces of seemingly flesh inside”.

IMG_0299In the ICA studio space for Week 30 of fig-2 Barham set up a microphone plugged into a Mac running OS X dictation software with a printer, plus a screen displaying the text as it was generated by the visitors reading. Visitors to the space were encouraged to read from the printouts they found, producing new printouts for the next visitors. As you’d expect over the course of a week the text bore little recognition to chapter three of Penetrating Squid.

Even over the course of successive readers the changes are considerable. In four steps we find, in no particular order, “Hello all this time”, “Hello I’m Harry”, “Okay hello and hurry”, “Okay hello unhurried”. It’s the old game of Chinese Whispers in electronic form.

IMG_0312The OS X software has real-time correction routines that try to identify the meaning of what is being said and retrospectively correcting it, so for example identifying whether you were ‘being discreet’ or rather talking about ‘discrete forms of meaning’.

Intriguingly, this illustrates aspects of Wittgenstein’s theory of language, that we create meaning not via the relation of individual words to the things we associate with them necessarily but via the relation of the words between themselves. The noun ‘Good’ stands for something different thing to the good of ‘good game’. Going on, Wittgenstein challenges us to come up with a meaning for the word “game”. We can’t agree, but we all know what it means in use. Meaning is use. This is the principle that Google Translate and OS X Dictation use: context.

It is awesomely powerful, but incomplete. While the machine understands to an extent meaning as generated by use, there’s still a step missing here, perhaps even missing from Wittgenstein’s theory, that would explain why we can’t agree on our game but still know what it means. It’s a cognitive next step that people working in voice recognition software are struggling with, entering the realm of Artificial Intelligence to seek the breakthrough.

Even with such clever tech and with the rich amount of phoneme data that has been gathered in exercises such as GOOG-411, it is still remarkable how hard it is for machines to transcribe speech, as Anna Barham’s work amusingly demonstrates. Never ask a robot to sell you fork handles.

TRYING TO HOLD ONTO THE SCREEN

In Week 29 of Fig-2 I said that “You are an internet” and imagined inhabiting posthuman cyberspace having transcended physical form. In an act of direct regression, this week I have experimented with subverting this in real time to explore who is The Best: machines or humans? So please put your hands together for this my experiment with manually performing voice recognition transcription. You might think the transcriptions of software are laughable, but wait until you see mine.

I typed out all seven minutes of “Penetrating Squid / Chapter 3 / Seemingly Fleshed Inside” from the soundcloud, first with stops to type, and then typing straight through trying to keep up as best I could. Both attempts are viewable in this googledoc.

In the first pass, which took about forty-five minutes, I couldn’t decide between certain homonyms (discreet/discrete, you’re/your, onto/on too), made harder by the lack of conventional running sense. My ears are pretty good but I wasn’t sure if I heard lightly or likely. I typed silly instead of city.

The second pass, in real time, was of course a trainwreck. Certain omissions and conflations occur near the start and everything is mis-spelled, and then it just gets worse as I miss more, and at some point I knock CAPS LOCK on without realizing. By this point words have bled into each other and are half formed and in the wrong order, the text obliterated, repetitious. I enjoyed afterwards finding an example of spontaneous creative accident: a Joyce-style portmanteau word QWEAKNESS. At a couple of points I froze completely and I remember typing the letter ‘i’ about six times in a row, utterly defeated.

Insight is quick / inside the squid

mutant lisp generatorThe texts created from accidents can be beautiful and poetic. Is Anna Barham a poet? This is a kind of suggestive poetry, certainly if the meaningless syllables of dada poetry can be said to be poetry. The poetry creates kinds of sense because each word has a meaning, and new meanings are being created and found by the strange aleatory juxtapositions of the words. A clash of meanings is set up where there was no conscious intention. It is created anew by use and association, which brings us back to Wittgenstein’s notions of meaning as use.

Random associations and meanings can also occur in the physical dimension, or our perception thereof. Whenever I see or think about Anna Barham’s (amazing) anagrammatic Twitter handle “Banana_Harm” I have the sensation that I can smell foam banana sweets. For Mmm: by Anna’s tweaks.

IMG_0363

I am indebted to Daniel Soar’s LRB article “It knows” for the Google knowledge, and Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek’s interview with Anna Barham.

Week 29 – POSTmatter – 20-26 July

DANIEL ROURKE 22 JULY LIVE WRITING http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-daniel-rourke

Hello cruel wwworld. I have abandoned my physical form and its inky fingers and terrible headaches. I now inhabit a googledoc with fifty other anonymous avatars, mostly the more anthropomorphised animals: Anonymous Beaver, Anonymous Fox, Anonymous Monkey and Anonymous Panda; and their exotic cousins Anonymous Axolotl, Anonymous Liger, Anonymous Ifrit and Anonymous Quagga. Everyone’s having a good time. There is no trouble, just good-natured exchanges and the sense of a vibrant community. I love everything. 10

EMMA CHARLES, 'THE STRAIGHTEST PATH ALLOWED BY LAW', 2015
EMMA CHARLES, ‘THE STRAIGHTEST PATH ALLOWED BY LAW’, 2015 – http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-x-emma-charles

In the studio an ancient slide projector clicks through twenty-four images then rattles rapidly through the slide magazine and returns to the first image. GOTO 10

The googledoc empties and during the night one of the anonymous anthropomorphised animal avatars deletes all the text leaving justbyewhich three days later becomespoer.combye”.

http://postmatter.com/#/currents/postmatter-x-fig-2
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/postmatter-x-fig-2

The magazine is digital, and called POSTmatter because it has transcended the need for the physical form, just as I have done. Its overly anthropomorphised animal avatar would, I think, be an Anonymous Platypus. But while the platypus is a semi-aquatic egg-laying mammal from eastern Australia, the Anonymous Platypus is a digital magazine that originally began as a trapezoid egg on an iPad in 2010 then hatched into this growing cross-platform monotreme. Its staple diet is editorial pieces, exhibitions, and art commissions that sit at the convergence of the digital and physical. It uses its curious but versatile duck-bill to drill into organic matter and physical space and deposit mindbombs from the web superbrain.

POSTmatter’s fig-2 show has two thematic components,

  • the natural landscape and how it can be presented digitally;
  • the process of writing and publishing a magazine;

intersecting with two realms:

  • the ICA studio space;
  • the digital online publishing space.
JACOB KIERKEGAARD, ‘STIGMA’, 2014
JACOB KIERKEGAARD, ‘STIGMA’, 2014

There’s a certain parallelism across these that broadly echoes dichotomies of real-unreal, natural-artifical, present-absent, and so on. All of the work presented both physically and online is about the intersection of physical and virtual. This is an area of contemporary importance in art practice. Even Gilbert and George have embraced digital, making those weird symmetrical images of themselves. Grumpy stalwart and militant smoker, the one guy left who still paints, you know, paints paintings with paint, even David Hockney has taken to ‘painting’ on an iPad.

Five creative artists are presenting work in the studio space. A further five write live, broadcasting the process of composition online via the viewable googledoc, each writing for an hour (the psychoanalytic hour). There are live webcasts between artists all over the world, streaming in the ICA studio space.

fig-2_29_50_17-EmmaCharles-ThestraightestpathallowedbylawThe layout of the space itself is a quote: Jardin d’hiver by Marcel Broodthaers, from whose work was borrowed the original moniker fig-1 and the present fig-2 – this is why it’s dressed like a greenhouse. It’s not winter, and it’s not Broodthaers. This is what the show is really about, or springs from.  There are allusions to Broodthaers’ first Italian retrospective, ‘L’espace de l’écriture’ (The Space of Writing). This is a space in which writing is written. An hour a day, in the googledoc. Five writers. Countless anonymous anthropomorphised animal avatars. In his words “writing (poetry), object (something three-dimensional), and image (film)”: these three elements are those of the fig2 show. Tracing a line from Broodthaers to fig-1 to fig-2 and then exploring the line as a literal artefact as a mark on the page or a string of text, this is a fig-2 theme. We discussed it in Week 3 and have traced it through subsequent weeks. Emma Charles “The Straightest Path Allowed by Law” traces the fibre-optic cabling between New York and Chicago, photos from the route flash up on the carousel.

Emma Charles’s carousel slide projection leads me to discover her film “Fragments on machines” in which we see servers and wiring and all the physical infrastructure that underpins the supposedly virtual space.

“My muscle has been replaced by flex and copper, my brain a server, 1s and 0s my voice. I exist as a phantom under iridescent colour. I speak in shimmering tones to the hidden construction of the form. I desire to become data and will be mobile, moving to provide. I will become the information flow. I am your personal relationship to the source. I become more and more. I move in and out of positions several times a day to adapt. I adjust by fractions to adapt to my surroundings. I collect, I discard, I seek positive results, then the purge at the end of the day. I refresh, renew, liquidate and realign my entire self.”

JOHN GERRARD, ‘WORKING DRAWING FOR INFINITE FREEDOM EXERCISE (NEAR ABADAN, IRAN)’, 2011
JOHN GERRARD, ‘WORKING DRAWING FOR INFINITE FREEDOM EXERCISE (NEAR ABADAN, IRAN)’, 2011

Fig-2 is kind of an ‘acoustic’ venture – rearranging an actual physical space every week. But even here, each week is completed by its archival documentation on the fig-2 website, and the soundcloud artist interviews, and the social media presences. Each week isn’t complete without these glosses and reflections and the establishment of interconnections and themes between each of the fifty shows. Themes recur, and only when it’s all done will the full picture be visible.

I think fig-2 is London’s last gasp for a funded relatively low audience experimental art-led venture. The arts are facing a 40% funding cut and while this won’t change much for most of us- musicians don’t get a penny from anyone- it’s a kick in the balls for fine art: installations cost a fortune. Already the art scene is distracted by big blockbuster shows; this will get worse. Arte Povera will be more widespread. Stuff like fig-2 won’t happen. No middle-budget edgy but accessible work. It’ll be punk and prog. Guerrilla gigs and grand opera. An expression of the class warfare the rich are waging on not just the poor but the middle classes too. Already more art is happening on the internet because as a space it is accessible in a way that galleries just aren’t.

The notion of ‘digital publishing’ seems of a different character to ‘pure’ ‘digital art’ – it is mediated by a publisher, the digital magazine. There are digital curation platforms such as sedition but these are different not just because they’re selling videos or apps or other media that can be differentiated from prose or even hypertext. They’re selling limited editions. It’s a retail marketplace for individual works, following the model established by photography. The work is in theory infinitely reproducible but it is limited because the economics still obey the formula ‘scarcity = value’.

Whereas a magazine is a work in itself, from which its contents can’t be detached except to be republished in another magazine or in a book. Except this sounds like print publishing talking; a digital magazine doesn’t have ‘editions’ it’s just one constantly rolling edition. There’s no bumper christmas issue, no summer special with four different collectable covers.

MARK DORF, //_PATH, 'UNTITLED72' AND 'UNTITLED56', 2012
MARK DORF, //_PATH, ‘UNTITLED72’ AND ‘UNTITLED56’, 2012

The economics of digital art are weird. Buying mp3s still seems weird to a lot of us because you don’t physically have anything for your money. But you might listen to an mp3 hundreds of times. How many times will you watch a digital artwork? New media art. Internet art is a category discrete from digital art. One advantage of digital art is that if a museum host it on their servers then it can be permanently on display rather than only when an exhibition is mounted.

We learn from a piece in vice magazine of all places that MoMA’s digital collection is currently about 90 terabytes in size, but the museum expects that to grow to 1.2 petabytes (1.2 million gigabytes) by 2025. That archive will soon be stockpiled on Linear Tape-Open (LTO), a magnetic tape storage system developed in the 1990s. This is one solution to the storage problem of digital media, but doesn’t really address the problems of obsolescence: that the technology and software to maker older work visible doesn’t exist any more. In the Uncube x POSTmatter webchat editor Louise Benson noted that the original issue of POSTmatter as it was released on the iPad is no longer supported.

CLEMENT VALLA, ‘POSTCARDS FROM GOOGLE EARTH’, 2010
CLEMENT VALLA, ‘POSTCARDS FROM GOOGLE EARTH’, 2010

It’s interesting that POSTmatter chose ‘landscape’ as one of the big themes for their week. Landscape doesn’t exist. It has been supplanted by Google’s Universal Texture, which we encountered in Week 12. This is the rather terrifyingly named Google patent for mapping textures onto a 3D model of the entire globe. Sometimes this goes wrong, and for a moment the workings of the Universal Texture are exposed, and it’s like being Neo seeing the Matrix, or a glimpse of the Mind of God. Clement Valla has a wonderful project documenting examples of these surreal/cubist mistakes in Google Earth when large structures are reconstructed wrongly.

Writing live at the ICA studio Orit Gat produced “Travels in Google Maps” further exploring these problems of how our real and digital environments have become one and the same. When navigating with google maps, who has not been confronted by some weird glitch and assumed that it is not google but reality itself that is at fault?

Uncube editor Sophie Lovell says “I don’t see any difference really between things and the “web”.” Big communication wallahs like Professor Joseph Turow have argued for the decapitalization of the word ‘internet’ for a decade. This process is pretty much complete except among those people who would still list ‘the Internet’ as a hobby. To everyone else it’s just where we spend most of our time now. It’s the internet, not the Internet, just as we don’t usually refer to the Town Centre or the Park or the Bath.

This is one reason why it is true to say that The Internet Does Not Exist. It has become the water in the fishbowl, which we can’t even see any more while we’re swimming through it. Intersections between digital and traditional media alert us to the nature of the media, reminding us that this is water. You are an internet.

FullSizeRender (5)

POSTscript: At time of writing, POSTmatter is still publishing work generated during its week at fig-2. Here is a list of works they published. It was impossible to represent these in any detail in a short piece, even one in a fragmented style. But if you want to get into the themes above, these are explored in dynamic ways in the individual works.

http://postmatter.com/#/currents/postmatter-x-fig-2
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-larissa-sansour
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-sam-jacob
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-daniel-rourke
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-jacob-kirkegaard
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-iain-ball
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-lawrence-lek
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-uncube-x-postmatter
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-tyler-coburn
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-orit-gat
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-x-emma-charles
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-alice-butler
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-mark-dorf
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-rachel-pimm
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-milika-muritu
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-matthew-flintham
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-michael-newman
http://postmatter.com/#/currents/fig-2-john-gerrard

alterego
https://fig2loyaltycard.wordpress.com/2015/07/28/week-20-18-24-may-d-cheeseman-o-hagen-r-trotta-by-alix-mortimer/

POST POSTscript:

Week 21 – The Rot of the Stars – 25-31 May

CGHQHSTW8AAo7Kd“Rot of the stars” is one name given to ‘star jelly’ – the gelatinous substance found on grass and branches that folklore records as having been deposited by meteor showers or shooting stars or formed from the inedible bits of frogs and toads. Whether it’s bird vomit or extra-terrestrial star-slubber, it’s a fascinating example of a substance whose explanation seems to elude science.

“Rot of the Stars” is also the name of Week 21/50 of fig-2’s collaboration between visual and performance artist Jo Fisher Roberts and experimental musician, Strange Attractor founder and writer Mark O Pilkington. We met Mark back in Week 14 when he led a ‘world tarot’ reading using Suzanne Trister’s HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck which seemed to accurately predict the outcome of the UK election.

Fig-2_Rot_of_the_Stars_21_50_-install-12He’s a far out guy, and their fig-2 installation was pretty cosmic. The ICA studio space was set out with the minimum of light. In the corner a crawl-in fungal mycelium, a space like Shelob’s Lair hung with strands of silky crap that left you picking star jelly out of your clothes and hair. Hung charcoal drawings depicted cell structures at once beautiful and grotesque, depicting scales at once infinitely small and infinitely large.

CGP4_3EU8AE99oMThe performance itself was commendably weird, involving Jo draped in black crawling around a silk wigwam in the middle of the completely darkened performance space, splashing perfume and drawing a large circle around it with rock salt. Mark created feedback loops of sound that he manipulated electronically. A peculiar revery was set up by the strangeness and the darkness.

The handout at the show was a 1991 paper published in the Journal of Scientific Exploration Conditions That Appear to Favor Extrasensory Interactions Between Homo Sapiens and Microbes” (C.M. Pleass & N. Dean Dey). The authors attempted to study the possibility of extrasensory interactions between humans and unicellular microbes (actual ones, I don’t mean Daily Mail readers) through three series’ of experiments, concluding that it didn’t work but going on to blame science for not usefully understanding anomalous phenomena.

The Society for Scientific Exploration is “a professional scientific society” that publishes “peer reviewed research” into unconventional subjects including “consciousness, physics, alternative energy, healing”, that sort of thing. Crypto-zoology and that fun mindbending Fortean stuff. I’m sure they’re awesome but I must admit their name rings the same alarm bells as when you hear of a “Democratic Republic of…” – a moniker that instantly alerts one to the absence of any democratic republicanism in that country. Scientific exploration, that’s a methodology rather than an object in itself, unless your object is to apply scientific methodology to subjects that stubbornly resist such approaches. Arguably this is what Freud did in ‘making scientific’ the study of the unconscious, but we have been less successful in studying ghosts and UFOs.

CFeSmE0WIAANnLXThe ostensible purpose of the fig-2 show was to make an attempt to enter into an extrasensory interaction with the unicellular microbes that inhabit the plastisphere, an ecosystem inhabited by more than 1,000 species of bacteria and algae that have evolved to live on microplastic debris. This might even have been a serious attempt, given the precedent of the apparently serious experiments of the Society for Scientific Exploration.

As they explain in their interview with fig-2 curator Fatos Ustek, the idea of Jo and Mark’s collaboration and the Rot Of The Stars performances is to change your perceptions of space and time through plunging you into darkness. The ROTS performances chart an ongoing battle to black out spaces, in crypts under churches, in the Royal Academy, in studios in Berlin. They concede it would be easier to blindfold people rather than the space.

I can offer two experimental cases to illustrate the sensory deprivation in an art or entertainment context. Back in 2011 I attended “an evening of psychodramatic music” called “Disturbia”. The concert concluded with Luciano Berio’s long two-track tape piece Visage (1961), during which the audience was blindfolded with eye-masks. Something about sitting in an auditorium without the hallucinations of the imagination, the little flickers that think you see in darkness, demonstrated that sensory deprivation is not necessarily immersive and can be a bit boring.

_67505602_not-i-allan-titmussBetter was seeing Lisa Dwan in Samuel Beckett’s short play Not I for which the theatre actually switched off the Exit signs to present the spectacle of a disembodied mouth in otherwise almost complete darkness. The actor’s face was painted black with just the mouth showing, and the mouth seemed to move within the darkness, but this was an optical illusion: the actor was strapped in. A strange phenomenon and a unique theatrical experience.

Fig-2_Rot_of_the_Stars_21_50_-install-5In the Pleass/Dey paper they suggest (though can’t prove) that “the environment which an individual perceives may be a manifestation of their conscious and subconscious expectations”  which might give a clue as to why ROTS attempt to upset your perceptions. If the attempt to communicate with microbes is to be successful it might require stripping away other noise from the senses: to take away quotidian sense stimuli and replace them with suggestive images, sounds and smells to channel thought toward the object.

Maybe the illusions are more real than reality; in an atomic sense Lisa Dwan’s mouth speaking Beckett’s lines in the pitch black really was moving around. Our brains have to smooth out what we perceive because otherwise we’d go mad. What we experience as reality is in reality a simplification of noise.

CF7dFrgUMAAZnnBThere is plenty of anecdotal record of sensory deprivation as sensory immersion as sensory overload as sensory awareness, and its expressive and communicative potentiality. Jo and Mark connect it with the experience of epilepsy, and Dostoevsky describes the “amazing God-like God-visiting overwhelming feeling of connectedness to everything” that comes during an attack. It is at such moments that people go on about alpha waves and beta waves and how we move into different scales and non-rational modes of being. Out of body experiences would count among these, and the feeling that sometimes goes along with that (maybe while on drugs, who knows) of being able to talk to God.

Can we talk to the (micro)animals? We’d better hope that we can get in touch with these new microbes and try to chivvy them along to get stuck in and start eating up this plastisphere and turning it into something delicious. Plankton are eating plastic, meaning we are all eating plastic too, which is not delicious so much as incredibly toxic and harmful.

We need to literally sort out our shit as a species. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is almost bigger than Ed Sheeran, already six times the size of mainland Britain, a black hole of plastic waste sucking in hope, and growing, filling the sea, a continent of chemical disaster just below the surface of the water, a thick desert of death. Reports of sailing through it are pretty harrowing, and soon, when the sea finally congeals into Hello Kitty, there will be a place in history for the first person to walk on foot from San Francisco to Hawaii.

FullSizeRender

Week 18 – Kathryn Elkin – 4-11 May – The Elephants In The Room

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)
  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)
  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)
  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)
  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Death is love’s final form. The sexual climax, la petite mort, is the rehearsal. To die for love, what could be more beautiful? Silence, please.

  • First Movement: Trauermarsch (The Elkin in the Room)

The fig-2 project is generating a huge amount of new work. Most of its weekly shows have been created specifically for fig-2 by the commissioned artists. For Week 18/50 Kathryn Elkin presented “The Elephants in the Room” documenting her collaboration with cellist Okkyung Lee. They spent a day in the studio working through the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. The 22-minute film audio contained one complete solo cello take extemporised from the Mahler material, with the video taken from the conversations and experiments leading up to the take. In the fig-2 studio space the film was augmented by two performances entitled Mud, in which the artist and three volunteers read Elkin’s transcriptions of things she had said during the collaborative process: cringey, halting, nascent, funny moments.

11181329_812865015451159_167912332738088120_n

A style of modernistic fragmentation is often used and abused to represent cognition in action, and there’s plenty of sub-Beckett around as a result. Until I listened to her interview with fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek I didn’t realize the words were a transcription. It feels better to know that it was verbatim, but I didn’t realize it at the time. Perhaps I missed this because I’d been volunteered to be the third reader on the Sunday performance, so I was probably trying not to trip over the furniture, so to speak. The words have a music of their own that correlates with the deconstructive, reconstructive, improvisatory opacities of the music itself:

10351658_813880422016285_101759427499973172_nWell what I ummmmmmm
well what I propose
at this piece of music
together and
I thought that it would be tooooooooo

To explain what I think her title “The Elephants In The Room” means, we are going to have to go on a musical journey through Mahler’s Fifth and Beethoven’s Sixth, try to solve the mystery of the “Immortal Beloved”, think about the difference between composition and improvisation, and finally consider Bernstein’s lectures on ‘musical semantics’ and what happens when we listen to and think about music.

11107184_811855472218780_7375112481512390413_n

  • Second Movement: Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Mahler The Elephant)

Mahler’s Fifth Symphony has five movements. The fourth, the Adagietto, is famous as the theme to Visconti’s 1971 film Death in Venice, as well as for having been conducted by Leonard Bernstein during a memorial to John F. Kennedy. These associations can make it seem all about death and mourning, but really it about love, written for his wife Alma Schindler, who claimed that Mahler left a small poem that may be understood to be the ‘words’ to this “love song without words”:

Mahler-5AdagiettoGIFbijgesneden“Wie ich dich liebe, Du meine Sonne,
ich kann mit Worten Dir’s nicht sagen.
Nur meine Sehnsucht kann ich Dir klagen und meine Liebe.”

(How much I love you, you my sun,
I cannot tell you that with words.
I can only lament to you my longing and love.)

Mahler’s Fifth is the first of the central trilogy of works that abandon the use of voices and poetic texts, which were an important part of the previous four symphonies, whereas the fifth, sixth, and seventh, are thought of as ‘pure’ orchestral works. But how pure? Kelly Dean Hansen argues that it has “an inner programme” even if this programme is not explicit. The fifth in particular might be considered ‘transitional’ if we were to infer that the vocal elements of the earlier four might have existed in some sketch way before being transformed or cut – making the fifth less of a ‘pure orchestral work’ at least at the stage of composition. The existence of the poem to Alma and the fact that scholars have ‘reconstructed’ the song (see image) makes a strong case for but its absence from the symphony calls into question how much we can say that its attached resonances relating to Alma make it ‘about love’, just as how much as the listener’s associations of it with Death in Venice and John F. Kennedy make it ‘about death’.

In a nod to Beethoven’s ninth Mahler’s fifth has been called the “Funeral March to Joy” – it opens with a funeral march trumpet call followed by the orchestra’s opening which uses the same rhythmic motif from the start of Beethoven’s fifth. If Mahler’s fifth could therefore be said to be haunted by Beethoven’s, pity him the ninth. The ‘curse of the ninth’ is a common superstition among symphonic composers, because Beethoven never started a tenth. It affected Mahler to the extent that after his eighth his next three major symphonic works were each unperformed when he died. There’s an eighth-and-a-halfth Das Lied Von Den Erde which is a symphony disguised as a song cycle, then the actual Ninth and then a Tenth. Though perhaps he was right about the curse of the ninth – this tenth was thought incomplete until 1960 when the complete short score was discovered.

It’s understandable. From 1907 Mahler had been living under the shadow of death from a heart ailment, which did in turn lead to his death from a blood infection in May 1911, just eight months after conducting the first performance of his eighth. The Moebius strip of associated meanings is completed by our knowledge that the character of Aschenbach in Thomas Mann’s Death In Venice was actually based on Mahler. Mann’s Aschenbach was a writer, but when Visconti adapted the novella for the screen, he made Aschenbach a composer, who not only looks like Mahler but whose death is soundtracked by the Mahler Adagietto.

Beethovens-letters-to-his-Immortal-Beloved

  • Third Movement: Scherzo (Beethoven’s Elephant)

While Kathryn Elkin was researching Mahler and Visconti her neighbour was playing Beethoven until 2am every night. The music was affecting her and fed into her thoughts about extra-musical meaning and musical semantics surrounding the Adagietto and Death In Venice.

Just as Mahler’s poem to Alma might be considered an extra-musical layer of meaning, there is similar speculation in Beethoven’s oeuvre. We’ll discuss the programmatic elements of his Sixth Symphony later, but let’s take a little scherzo into the matter of the “Immortal Beloved”.

Countess Josephine von Brunsvik might be considered the most important woman in Beethoven’s life. There’s little evidence of his having loved any other, and he wrote at least fifteen letters to her in which he called her his “only beloved” . She died in 1821, aged 42. During this year, Beethoven composed his very last Piano Sonatas Op. 110 and Op. 111, which are like requiems, with discernible reminiscences to the earlier Andante favori Josephine’s Theme“.

In Teplitz on 6/7 July 1812 Beethoven wrote a love letter that he didn’t send. The location and date of the letter were only established by scholars in the 1950s and it is addressed to an unknown recipient whom he refers to as “Immortal Beloved”.

Beethoven scholarship has a puzzling resistance to the most logical theories, and knowledge about Beethoven and his “Only Beloved” Justine was somehow suppressed for 150 years. There is still stuff coming out. In cases of cover-ups, there’s usually an elephant in the room, and so we find. Justine and he had separated two years before but it is possible that they met again at the time of the “Immortal Beloved” letters; the suppression of the Justine theory may be because almost exactly nine months later she gave birth to her seventh child.

According to her diary entries in June 1812 Josephine intended to go to Prague. At this stage, however, her and her sister Therese’s diaries end abruptly and do not continue until about two months later. Meanwhile, Beethoven traveled to Teplitz via Prague, where, on 3 July 1812, he must have met a woman he subsequently called his Immortal Beloved.

Steblin writes in 2007 “All of the puzzling aspects about Beethoven’s affair with the ‘Immortal Beloved,’ including his various cryptic comments, can be explained in terms of his one known beloved – Josephine. Why do we doubt his word that there was only one woman who had captured his heart?” The most recent decade of European scholarship seems to have been ignored in America, and the mystery remains unsolved.

11193358_811858318885162_7654964190347898098_n

  • Fourth Movement: Adagietto (Okkyung Lee: Improvisation and Composition)

Okkyung Lee’s music was developed through improvisation with loose instructions from Kathryn Elkin and the impetus of the Mahler score. The video doesn’t show her playing the ‘final’ take, which we hear, and we only see them working toward it. It’s somehow both improvised and composed. What is the difference? Chris Dobrian’s essay “Thoughts on Composition and Improvisation” draws the following conclusions:

  1. Composition is written. Improvisation is not.
  2. Improvisation takes place in real time. Composition does not.
  3. Improvisation is often a group activity. Composition is rarely a group activity.

The act of making a recording in a studio produces a ‘final form’ – so you could argue that the improvising musician is a composer as much as the traditional composer putting black notes down on paper. But improvisation isn’t quite the same as composition. It foregrounds the circumstances of creation at the expense of composition in a more formal sense.

By including the discussions she had with Okkyung, Elkins makes the video’s accompanying performance piece ‘Mud’ centrally about itself, about the process of creating and transforming meanings. Ordinarily we would not be party to all the thoughts or discussions that went into the creation of a work, but here they are presented as part of the work itself. These are transcribed, so in a sense the work is as much documentary as artistic, though the art comes with the selection and chopping and reordering of these thoughts, leading up to Elkin’s explanation of why the work is going to be called ‘Mud’. Just as Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu concludes with the author, another Aschenbach type character in both life and art, just setting off on the writing of A la recherche du temps perdu.

  • Fifth Movement: Rondo-Finale (Bernstein: Killing An Elephant)

Elkin’s fig-2 show was crucially informed by Leonard Bernstein’s lectures on musical semantics, in which he frames musical meaning-making in the context of Chomskian structural linguistics. Bernstein argues that “music has intrinsic meanings of its own which are not to be confused with specific feelings or moods, and certainly not with pictorial impressions or stories. These intrinsic meanings are generated by a constant stream of metaphors which are all forms of poetic transformations.”

Artistotle puts metaphor mid-way between the unintelligible and the commonplace – it is metaphor which most produces knowledge. In metaphor an imaginative leap occurs in which ‘this’ is said to be ‘that’. Bernstein gives the example of “Juliet is the sun” We know she isn’t literally, but we understand that something has been expressed that might be inexpressible. This is how music conveys meaning and enables us to experience ‘this’ and/as ‘that’ at once like no other art form does. When music expresses something by recourse to individual feeling we feel “passion, glory, misty, something”. But we can’t report our precise feelings in scientific forms, only subjectively. Our descriptions of music vary wildly. One listener hears a sunset, another a bird. Similarly, Rossini’s William Tell Overture is the Lone Ranger Theme to several generations of listeners, just as the Mahler Adagietto is the theme from Visconti’s Death In Venice.

Regarding this associative personal dimension, Bernstein asks if there a transference of affect from the composer to the notes to the listener? “Did Beethoven feel like that or did I make it up? Or had the feelings been transferred? We’ll never know. The probability is that both are true.” This gives music a beautiful semantic ambiguity. It possesses the power of an expressivity that we can respond to, but it is a metalanguage that can “name the unnameable and communicate the unknowable”.

Bernstein demonstrates the ways in which music communicates specifically musical meaning by analogy to metaphor, demonstrating rhetorical tropes, figures of speech, that he can find in music that are transformed in the Chomskyan sense to produce meaning. Anaphora, the repeating a sequence of words at the beginnings of neighboring clauses, he finds right there in Mahler’s Fifth. (He even explores chiasmus, which I wrote about at some length in Week 17). Music is constantly transformative of material and it is here rather than in our subjectivity that he challenges us to find the  the ‘meanings of music’.

To illustrate this, Bernstein takes us in some detail through Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony, which bears a great deal of ‘extra-musical’ material. It is subtitled ‘Pastorale’ and each movement has yet another title. This is distracting enough if you’re trying to concentrate on the music as music, but Beethoven even adds bird calls and village bands and lightning and thunder, making the work as close to program music as he ever came. Bernstein asks if it’s possible to clarify between intrinsic and extrinsic metaphors. Is it possible to listen to it as pure music?

Beethoven’s subtitles are perhaps “suggestions” with the music not meant to be interpreted as “tone painting” but those extra-musical references are there and are hard to ignore, just as it’s hard to forget about Aschenbach or William Tell or the Immortal Beloved. They form a visual curtain of nonmusical ideas that interposes between the music and the listener. Bernstein at the conclusion of his lecture presents us with the challenge of ridding ourselves of all this rustic ‘Pastorale’ material and hearing the music as music. The Sixth is an extraordinary catalogue of variations of transformed elements of the first four bars, which are a simple bass motif in the chords F and C which forms a motto of whole symphony, just as the immortal opening bars of the Fifth underpin it and are similarly transformed throughout.

10846196_813547002049627_3720868295181635872_nThis explanation that the meaningfulness of music lies in its musical transformations chimes with Okkyung Lee’s development of the Mahler material and her radically transforming it. The experimental cellist’s use of improvisation and fractured syntax and modernistic harmonies and language takes it away from the familiar world of Death In Venice but it is not methodologically differently in what Beethoven does, or what Mahler has already done in the original Adagietto in transforming the basic material in the course of the piece. Those are mahler’s transformations, these are Okkyung Lee’s, not to mention Kathryn Elkin’s as a de facto co-composer, with the listener’s own semantic contribution by recourse to our subjective listening act.

“While I count to five, try not to think of an elephant” says Bernstein at the end of the lecture. It’s a classic thought paradox: as soon as you try not to think about something you are necessarily thinking about it. He asks that we abandon all extra-musical material (the programmatic elements) and just listen to music as transformations.

Katryn_Elkin_Fig2_17_50_-11The title of Kathryn Elkin’s week at Fig-2 “The Elephants In The Room” is nowhere explained, which might make it itself another ‘elephant in the room’ in addition to those I’ve outlined. I take it that the title comes from Bernstein’s lectures, and have used it to try and explore the presences and absences that go into how we find and transmit meaning through music (and indeed any art form). Bernstein concedes “I doubt that anyone succeeded in avoiding the elephant”. But next time you hear Mahler’s Adagietto, the one from Death In Venice, try Bernstein’s experiment: see if you can avoid the elephant.

FullSizeRender (2)

Bernstein lectures on musical semantics, different ways of translating musical ideas in terms of linguistics etc: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Unanswered_Question_%28lecture_series%29

Musical phonology https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ntmTQ8J7m5Y
Musical syntax https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlaeEJ6ASJw
Musical semantics https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V82aqyG1k5M
The Delights & Dangers of Ambiguity https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gw7nVMx7zrk
The Xxth Crisishttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cAuDrnkN080
The Poetry of Earth https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=034GXOyVbjg