Fig-2: the last stamp

Around the art-world in fifty weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIFTY

 

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

 

 

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The Fable of Yellow Black and White

yellow

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screenshot 2015-10-22 22.00.57

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

Week 41 – FOS – October 12-18

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah it’s pretty loud.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

IMG_1379

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.

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Week 25 – Cecilia Bengolea, Celia Hempton and Prem Sahib

Part 4: The Part About Me, Me, Me

IMG_0312Nell mezzo del cammin di nostra vita... This here is the twenty-fifth piece I’ve posted about a week at Fig-2, the curatorial ultramarathon that’s putting on a new art show at the ICA every single week for fifty weeks and which I am in my own special way documenting on wordpress, aiming to do all fifty.

As I write, it’s week 34/50, so you see I have some catching up to do before the end. It’s not easy. I have a slightly academic bent as well as a fundamentally artistic temperament, so each piece tends to go way beyond the minimum required to just tick the week off. I’m also permanently zoned out because the openings are on Zombie Mondays. I used to just go to bed with a bottle of cava and Jazz on 3 but now I have to talk to people.

photo (15)By Week 29 I realized I hadn’t got beyond an ever-lengthening Borgesian short story about libraries for Week 19, and that I would have to reboot the blog. I’d have to work in two directions at once to fill the hole in the middle, while also trying to keep up with the present. Basically, in order to get through the rest of this year (or the rest of my life, whichever comes first) I’m going to have to learn to eat breakfast.

Since I re-upped the blog I’ve been posting out of chronological sequence — and hey! that’s art (loftily invoking Matthew Barney’s five Cremaster films made in the order 4, 1, 5, 2, 3). There are still gaps, but this very late 25th post (not counting curatorial seminars) neatly coincides with Fig-2 Week 25. Half way! It’s almost as if this were not a completely random coincidence after all.

It might yet all turn out okay, but at the time it was terrible. I drafted a kind of interim mission statement that I didn’t show you before.

FullSizeRender (6)

Part 1: Fig-2 loyalty card [Reboot at Week 29]

Flann O’Brien’s classic comic anti-novel At Swim-Two-Birds opens with “CHAPTER ONE” and rattles through until it stops. There is no Chapter Two. This makes me laugh. I’m sure it has irritated many readers, which is probably part of the joke. What’s the joke? I’m not sure. Life doesn’t seem to have clearly defined chapters. Except it does. This year it has fifty.

I’ve been writing about each week of Fig-2, the project at the ICA studio curating a new art show each week for fifty weeks in 2015, but I’ve fallen behind. Every week is a chapter and the book is burning up faster than I can write it. At the moment, in Week 29 of Fig-2, having posted a piece for each week up to Week 18, I’m looking at a great burning hole in the middle of the book. There is no book, is part of the joke. Just fifty holes – 18 written and burned, 11 burning, and 21 unknown and yet to burn. Naturally it’s the ones we haven’t burned yet that burn the brightest.

imgresThis fifty-week project isn’t a book, it’s a movie. It has a three act structure. The ‘Three Act Structure’ has dominated screenwriting ever since Aristotle shot his first features on 8mm. In Act One you establish your characters and principles and set up the big dramatic question that demands action. Act Two is where it gets dark. Act Two finds our hero (usually a hero, I’m afraid) trying to resolve the big problem, but everything is turning to shit. Hamlet loses his mind (or pretends to), Luke Skywalker loses his hand OR PRETENDS TO, and everything is hopeless.

How have I got so far behind?

I’m rebooting this damn blog.

Part 5: Oh, oh, we’re half way there. Whoa-oh.

Fig-2_25_50_37Sculptor and installation artist Prem Sahib has generated a lot of art-world buzz. He has a major solo show coming up at the ICA. An article in London’s Evening Standard reveals that he is about to become a new entry in their “Progress 1000” list of London’s “most influential people”. He nonetheless somewhat rebuts a notion that he and his chums like Eddie Peake, George Henry Longly, and fig-2 collaborator Celia Hempton, are “his generation’s YBAs”. Where the YBAs fixated on shock and solipsism, if this bunch shares a special area of interest you might say it is in mixed media encounters between the eroticised human body and our public and personal spaces.

Fig-2_25_50_11For Week 25 of Fig-2 Prem Sahib and Celia Hempton worked together with choreographer Cecilia Bengolea. Influenced by construction sites, the ICA studio space was fitted out with coloured perspex screens and floor lamps and a layout of plywood floorboards, cheap underlay and industrial rubber, with an industrial ambient soundtrack. Two dance performances took place involving three dancers (one naked, one semi-naked, one leotarded). They pulled some hard moves, and were on point most of the time. Their feet must look like mincemeat. It’s not just an interaction between harsh human-made environments and human notions of beauty (dance, dancers) but sets up each realm against itself, so there is beauty in the strange studio environment, and harshness in the body struggling against itself to create beauty in motion.

Part 2: Fig-2: fifty shows in fifty weeks

SylvainDeleuTwenty five weeks into the fifty, the Fig-2 team had put on 25 Monday night openings, held 54 events, and Sipsmith’s had served 5000 Gin & Tonics. Each week the ICA studio space has been completely reimagined. There have been all kinds of installations, films, sculpture, debates, dance, rock, roll, sex and death.

To mark these heady achievements and the half-way point the Fig-2 team appeared on George Lionel Barker’s Make Your Own Damn Music radio show. Curator Fatoş Üstek was particularly good with bons mots that memorably describe the project, describing it as being about “Improvisation. Experimentation. Unleashing Desires.”

“Theoretically it is a whole big house that has fifty rooms, and each room opens to another with a door with different characteristics, features, sizes, colours, tonalities, sensualities.”

fig-2-curator-1One of the contradictions of Fig-2 being composed of fifty projects is that it naturally coalesces in the mind into one large project. It’s inevitable. This is not a criticism. On the contrary, Fatoş Üstek conceives of a “Giant Picture — not one thing — it’s squares with intersection points, trying to capture the critical and aesthetic currency of our times. With source information from different disciplines and positions.”

child-houseA house, a giant picture! I think of it that way too. My project for this year is writing fifty pieces, one for each week of Fig-2. These have varying degrees of engagement with each week’s work, and varying levels of digressive interest in themes that I draw out of the work. I’m teasing out themes and exploring my own obsessions on the way toward Act Three, building my own ‘whole big house’ — in my Week 18 room there’s the music room, Week 10 the dining room, Week 19 is the exquisitely furnished (but so far unfinished) library. A kind of meta-art.

Izzy-McEvoy-still-from-Linear-A-2015-video.-Image-courtesy-the-artistI’m not an art critic, obviously, but sometimes writing conventional criticism is not the best way to engage with art. Sometimes more art is the most appropriate response. This is why I’ve written short stories for Week 10 and Week 23, a set of minutes for Week 12, used symphonic structure for Week 18, turned myself into an internet for Week 29 and back into a human for Week 30. But all of the fig-2 loyalty card nonetheless fulfils the function of ‘criticism’ and is therefore totally dispensable: since modern art is typically already a comment on itself, subsequent criticism, and especially my fifty week blogging project, is completely redundant. Like art itself, it is quite useless.

yapyapyap

Part 3: The critical and aesthetic currency of our times

Katryn_Elkin_Fig2_17_50_-11Experiencing as much art as I am this year inevitably makes you think about the classic and totally trite question: What is art?

The word ‘Art’ to you might mean the pictures and things in the big galleries (National, Tate, Whitechapel, Saatchi) but artists don’t tend to use the word art. Instead they talk about their ‘practice’ and ‘the work’. This reflects the diversity of approaches and makes it much easier to talk about what it is that artists do, particularly when the ‘work’ shades into sociology – for example, Leah Capaldi doused herself in strong perfumes and took herself onto the tube at rush hour, purposing to record the reactions of the other people to the whiff. Is this art, or just annoying?

FIG2-02 (4)Fig-2 naturally reflects ‘practice’ rather than ‘art’, and I can feel this hair splitting so finely I can barely see what I’m getting at. I’m kind of used to this stuff and forget that to most people it’s total bullshit, though I’m aware of it enough to want to address it here. If Prem Sahib’s forthcoming ICA show means he’s going to become more known outside of the ‘art world’ he could even become popular? One school of thought states that people love going to art museums but the art itself has become irrelevant, even as it seems more popular than ever. But what does ‘popular’ mean?

9678966-largeLast weekend I went to Grayson Perry’s Provincial Punk show at Turner Contemporary in Margate. Perry’s work is increasingly conscious of and concerned with his popularity and celebrity status with regard to being an art world insider now, but as a reflection or expression of the social marginalisation of “ordinary” people in the provinces, and how we live among brands and trends that we buy into but don’t control. Is he popular because he makes mainstream TV programmes, or because he won the Turner Prize in 2001, or because he wears dresses, or because he takes an old-fashioned level of solid craft, filling his pots with contemporary concerns (ie. swearing, celebrity culture, brands)?

p02z0vk0Popular art needn’t be populist, though it is often accused of being so. In the run-up to the latest blockbuster show at Tate Modern, the BBC is battering us with a season about pop art. The BBC programmes are pretty nostalgic, and it remains to see whether the Tate show will be the same, though the Tate looks as if it might draw a bit of attention to overlooked international pop artists. Whether it be nostalgia or historical reclamation, either way we can conclude that whatever art is saturating the media and big galleries is in this case not ‘current’ at all except as a demonstration of the fact that we will never be free of the Sixties.

02212012_EDU_1998.1.709_LargePopular art, populist art, pop art, these are three discrete things, though obviously they are connected. Classic pop art, not to mention personal concern with celebrity and blockbuster economics, seems removed from the areas that Fig-2 has been exploring. In China Xu Zhen prefers to think of his studio as a business venture as much an artistic practice. His and pop art’s concept that “Good art is the best business” is the kind of idea that Fig-2 artists have not pursued. The Warholian Paradigm is exhausted, perhaps because Money and Economics has so permeated everything that we are completely blind to it. Today money is everything. The cheeky frisson in Warhol of applying dollar values to a realm traditionally thought to be concerned with higher things is not shocking any more.

MBW-Madonna-CoverLook at Thierry Guetta (aka Mr Brainwash) in Exit Through The Gift Shop and you really see how pop art’s time has gone. Or have a yawn at the economics of the original YBAs especially Damien Hirst for a demonstration of the the artistic exhaustion of the interesting ‘business as art’ idea that was genuinely interesting when Warhol was interesting.

CF4YRRVWoAEUTj-Fig-2 has so far largely had a fiercely mandarin interest in higher things, where it aims to capture the “critical and aesthetic currency of the times” while the Warhols and Hirsts just capture the literal dollar currency. So is Fig-2 the barometer of the times? Or the laboratory? The barometer of the laboratory sounds right. Many of the weeks are playful, but some are extremely cerebral, which I feel reflects certain curatorial predilections as much as what goes on in the art world. I mean, Fig-2 would make you wonder if anyone still painted (an accusation usually leveled at the Turner Prize). But then, painting is perennially dead, so fuck it, and fuck all forms of pop art, popular, populist, pointillist, pacifist, pugilist.

ICAIn pop art’s defence regarding intellectual art practice, we note that the important proto-pop-art bunch the Independent Group, who put on a famous show at Whitechapel in 1955, were more interested in exchanging ideas than in art. The group included Eduardo Paolozzi, whose public sculptures and murals seem to be disappearing from Oligarchal London, and Richard Hamilton, whose popularity and importance are said to be have been diminished by his being ‘too clever by half’. The group met in 1952 at the ICA, so here we are again. [Fanfare]

IMG_0341Art is intellectual though, niche, even when ‘popular’, and it’s also implicated in business. You might or might not find it contradictory when the popular artist Grayson Perry says “Contemporary art is the research and development department for capitalism. We come up with new ideas that the rest of the culture will kind of latch onto and sell. That’s our job, deal with it.”

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I also wrote a piece at a quarter way through for the Art Fund: http://www.artfund.org/news/2015/04/01/blogging-fig-2-from-start-to-finish

Someone else wrote a half way review as well: https://www.ica.org.uk/blog/embracing-the-unpredictable

And this: http://www.artfund.org/news/2015/06/22/five-things-you-need-to-know-halfway-through-fig-2

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.

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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 20 – D.Cheeseman, O.Hagen, R.Trotta – 18-24 May (by Alix Mortimer)

CFTY6MPWEAED2XYThis is week twenty, and once more we are in the white room drinking a sticky drink. This is where the truth/beauty-makers show their pictures and other made-things. You will have seen that AJ has already written about week twenty-one and put it up in its own word-pocket before this one. That’s because sometimes space and time are wavy, dark and confusing, and wind around in ways you would never expect! That’s exactly what the truth-beauty makers of week twenty-one wanted to show us, and also exactly what week twenty is about to show.

But all that is in the not-yet-tomorrow, and this is now. Probably. Today there are black shadows in the white room, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars. There are coloured lights which you can turn on by pressing something several feet away. The big black shadows are like the walls teachers used to write on. One of the black wall shadows is wavy and cut three ways, and on either side of it stand Ole Hagan, a truth/beauty-maker and Dr Roberto Trotta, a student-person who loves space and the stars. They are going to tell us about their different understandings – as a truth/beauty-maker and a student-person – of the all-there-is.

black shadows, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars
black shadows, mirrors of space, which like space are turned in on themselves and covered with stars

The thousand most commonly used words in the English language are surprisingly impractical. How often are you called upon to use the words “aunt”, “chairman” and “tomato”? Have you ever “smirked” at the “police”? Does your “dog” have “glass” “eyebrows”? And do we really drink so much more “coffee” than… the other common hot drink? The common words are short on Latinate higher register entries, obviously, but they are also short on conceptual language of any origin. I settled for “wavy” in the passage above and it isn’t doing a very good job – of course I never expected to find  “concertina’d”, even if I did work out how to spell it, but I thought I could rely on “crunched” or “folded” – nope. And hard cheese, or hard white bar of animal-water-food, if you have to count anything that numbers between seven and ten.

edgeofthesky

Roberto Trotta’s The Edge of the Sky is a book about the universe written in these thousand most commonly used words, and among the words it cannot use is universe, hence “all-there-is”. He gets round the numbers problem with word-sums, and the terminology problem with charming coinages – “star-crowd” for galaxy, “big-seer” for large telescope. But on the basis of my tortuous ten minutes composing the above I imagine his real problem was the lack of common conceptual words. Think of all the words you use to describe any concept – whether in particle physics, art or any other theory field, and you will be struck by how many of them are lumpy old Anglo-Saxon words used metaphorically. Common (but clearly not that common) words used to uncommon purposes. We “crunch” numbers as well as crisps, the universe in some conceptions is “folded up” and so is the ironing board, and all new theories or works “build” on previous ones. And in the biggest metaphorical catch-alls imaginable we talk about the “stuff” the universe is “made of”. In fact, public intellectual discourse is in the grip of a bit of a pride movement with the words “stuff” and “things” right now, and academics below a certain age are right there in it.

CFUcuUzWoAA7gWPAs such, The Edge of the Sky doesn’t actually make its subject matter any simpler. Leaving aside technical jargon which is easily unpicked with a glossary, we use simple words to talk about this big fundamental stuff already, and it’s still difficult. You’d be hard pushed, even in this elegant little book, to find a more pure and childlike coinage than the respectable jargon term “space-time” but that doesn’t make it any easier for me to get my stupid great ape brain round. Trotta describes his special subject, dark matter (both words which make the top ten hundred) as a metaphor for the bits of the universe that… well, frankly, we don’t have a damn clue what they are or what they’re made of. Really most of particle physics reasoning takes place on such a theoretical plain that the whole discussion is made of pure metaphor.

CFxBsGOWYAAyGysAnd what else is made of pure metaphor? Art. Art is as logical a way as any to represent the theoretical realities that particle physics seeks to describe. It certainly lends itself to depicting what dark matter might be. Trotta understands all this, because in the accompanying interview he doesn’t talk about his science communication work in terms of simplifying as such. You can’t simplify this, er, stuff, it’s just complicated. Instead he is concerned with “speaking to people’s hearts”, a subtly different proposition, and this is why he is interested in collaborating with artists.

CFxBpMKXIAAHTWDThis has happy potential, but I feel it all needs to gel a bit more before it can produce anything genuinely collaborative and new. I read the book as a result of going to the exhibition and I think I now understand – in a WTF way – dark matter. So that’s a result. And I liked David Cheeseman’s scrunchy, glittering blackboard sculptures and I understood instinctively that they were post-Newtonian models of the universe and were going to do as well as anything else at helping me conceive of what the universe is. But I didn’t really understand anything from Trotta and Hagan’s performative conversation (see if you can do better here), other than that they like collaborating with people from other fields. The conversation is not itself the exhibit, it’s just the happening that draws your attention to all the ideas underlying the exhibits. And at the moment I think the participants are still figuring out how these ideas fit together and how they can help each other.

CFhWDW3WEAAm6nMThere’s a point in their interview when Cheeseman discusses the parallels between the tools of the most advanced astronomy and physics and the perception-bending props of the magician. And you can hear Trotta demurring slightly, insofar as people of such charm and positivity ever demur. Perhaps this isn’t a useful parallel to him in terms of his mission. He wants to show – and find new ways of showing – what the all-there-is is, with the most direct and simply constructed metaphors he can find (whether made out of words or other artistic media). So maybe metaphors that wilfully introduce further confusion and baggage, like the intersection between science and magic, are unhelpful. On the night Trotta spoke engagingly about the history of particle physics and how the whole enterprise had been conducted for a number of decades in a spirit of “shut up and compute”. The twentieth century was the age of the pointless and sterile science/arts standoff, and the discipline of physics did not entertain the idea of collaborating with philosophy and the arts to find ways of describing reality. The next age of physics may well unfold differently, but only if all cross-field collaborators strip back everything they think they understand about each other and create a very basic new discourse in which to communicate. Possibly this is what Trotta was grasping towards by writing The Edge of the Sky.

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Alix Mortimer writes at https://fabulousblueporcupine.wordpress.com/, tweets at @alixmortimer, and has previously written here about Week 7.