Fig-2 at Bicester Village – 29 October 2015

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

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

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

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Bicester Village, Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I was bad & I bought a suit..

Week 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.”

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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 16 – Jacopo Miliani – 20-26 April

11157432_806467892757538_4163445423355068377_oEach morning during Jacopo Miliani’s week at fig-2 he rearranged the presentation of the light blue fabric rolls suspended from the skylights, and added another bunch of flowers. The idea was to create “a choreographic score as exhibition.” A choreographic score is a set of instructions for dancers. How can an exhibition, a presentation of ‘things’, function as a score? There are incredibly wacky examples of musical scores that rely wholly on the interpretation of the musician. A dancer entering a space could interpret the space, but it relies on a very loose definition of what a score is. It’s a prompt really.

Marketa Uhlirova’s Birds of Paradise is a beautiful book that documents costume in 1920s and gay 1960s film as a production of spectacle for its own sake rather than as is more usual an expression of character in narrative. The cover image is a still from dancer and choreographer Loie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance, and this might be the sort of thing that Miliani was trying to ‘choreograph’ by repeatedly installing the fabric and flowers.


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The exhibition was lovely to look at, light and airy, but I’m not sure it really presented “the triumph of the spectacle” in the way that Louie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance does. In the Thursday evening talk ‘Uttering the Spectacle’ (the title following the fashion for verbing the abstract noun), it was hard to understand what he was trying to do. His ideas seemed impossibly quirky and hard to share. It seemed to make sense to him but I felt I was missing certain connections about the processes and symbolism in fashion and dance that seem to be assumed: the changes in the show’s arrangement, and in the play of light during the day, the creases in the fabric that “memorise tensions”, the purported symbolism whereby fragility is expressed through the fabric and flowers. The absence of any dancers from the choreography was intended to represent (unpresent?) an absence at the heart of the exhibition. Having an absence at the heart of your presence is very fashionable.

“There is nothing in the room because God is dead”, says mummy.

“Oh dear,” says Peter.

1926298_806467849424209_9142822375522577561_oIt’s know what to make of an attempt to “bring temporality and introduce impossibility to understand choreography in the setting for the audience, or for an aftermath as in film and image” and to evoke Japanese Noh Theatre’s precision with an admittedly impossible “movement of the space” (thinking of space as space rather than as an architectural property). I love the quirkiness and impenetrability of his thought – so overspecified, arising from a lifetime of thought and work I’m not party to. In that sense the real absence at the centre of the installation is a reflection of that disconnect, which resonates with fashionable artistic practice more widely and the inability to access someone else’s thought process. It’s impossible to enter in another’s subjectivity but isn’t this why we have art? To communicate something unknown? An unfashionable idea, I suppose.

11077778_806467766090884_2731059377912460545_oFabric has fragile qualities, but fragility is not its defining characteristic. In fact fabric is pretty robust, robust enough to make clothes out of. So to base a show on the fragile quality of fabric is a mistake, because that fragility is neither inherent (and therefore obvious) nor transmitted to the viewer. In this sense there really is an absence at the heart of the show, because the meaning that is sought is not apprehended by the show itself, never mind its viewer. The flowers don’t have water, so they’re dying, but you can’t see the water to know that. He describes himself as “sadistic”, a murder of flowers, but, mate, they’re just flowers.

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I kind of get it, but it’s kind of nonsense. This sort of missing semantic connection has been analysed as a criticism of conceptualism. Works themselves frequently don’t include the necessary information required to understand how they function as meaningful art works. Necessary biographical information is explained on sheets of A4 or on wall commentary which without having read you would almost certainly be none the wiser. This is true of so much YBA art.

It contrasts with so much great art where there’s a transformation that occurs somewhere between the deeply personal circumstances underpinning its creation, and the independence of what is created, where it takes on a life of its own independent of its creator. I’m not saying Mandy by Barry Manilow (whose name it amuses me to pronounce like ‘manilla’) is a great song, but how many of his audience realize it was written about a dog? Or am I thinking of the Rolling Stones ‘Mandy’? To think about it, most of the great songs of all-consuming love are actually about dogs.

Communication is impossible. There’s always too much or too little of yourself, of form, of content, of meaning, and everyone wants something new but what we really want is something old, that we already understand. You don’t read a sonnet to see how well they can write a sonnet, you read it to see how cunningly they vary the sonnet form while profoundly retaining it. You demand sameness with a twist of personality, not just personality. Personality is boring. Personality is interviews, not form, not art. There’s no world record for running 85 metres, even if you’re faster than Mo Farah over 85 metres but then slow down over the last 15. We value mavericks like Harry Partch (who invented a 43-note musical scale and built his own instruments) who create their own 85 metre sprints or 15 mile marathons, but there isn’t a sense of ‘achievement’ in just doing what you feel. Anyone can pass their own exam paper. There’s a Peter Cook character who proudly boasts “I speak thirty-seven languages – thirty-six of my own invention!”

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