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..
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Week 35 – Amy Stephens – August 31-September 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Week 23 – Eva Rothschild & Joe Moran – 8-14 June

A fiction inspired by Eva Rothschild’s film “Boys and Sculpture” (2012) shown as part of Week 23 of fig-2

ONE

All the way there the eleven boys sang and threw crisps at each other over the seats on the coach. The stuffing had long ago been ripped out by the older lads from the big school, and the seats were hard as church pews. As the coach came into the town the boys sang Bun’ Dem Batty Man, a catchy homophobic dancehall number Bene’s older brother had taught them over a shared cigarette round the back of the school.

“What’s a batty man?” asked one of the younger boys.

As the coach neared the art gallery, Mr Beuchar tore his attention away from his colleague Miss Eldon for long enough to give the boys a pep talk before the Big Event.

“Now boys, boys! Lads, this is a really important day. Don’t forget you’ve been personally selected for this. It’s a great privilege for both you and for the school. What I mean is: don’t screw up.”

The boys booed.

“When we get to the gallery I want you all on your best behaviour. On no account are you to be yourselves. Be absolutely anyone other than yourself. If I can tell who you are while we’re in there and I don’t see a complete transformation into a perfect ambassador for the school, you will have double detention every week until you are grandparents.”

The boys booed and blew raspberries.

“And I can’t believe I have to say this but we will not have any and there will be no, I repeat there will be no turdboxing. Right?”

The boys erupted into unbridled mirth.

“Any turdboxing today and you will all go to jail. I mean it. Jail!”

The bus bucked on its 1970s axels, throwing everyone into the air like a fairground spectacular.

“I feel sick. I’m gonna chun.”

“Sir, Bene says he’s gonna chun!”

“Nobody is going to chun. Bene, what’s wrong?”

“He accidentally ate some poop!”

“Some what!?”

“I didn’t know it was poop!”

“I bet he did. His brother drank a pint of piss for a bet. I saw it! I had to give him a quid for it.”

“My life! Twenty years for murder and I get you lot.”

There was a pause while Mr Beuchar’s life sentence settled in the bus.

“Sir, Mister Chocksy says you’re a bender, are you a bender?”

Callum was a tough one. Good as gold, but a bloody nightmare. He’d been expelled because he had cut a chicken’s head off and put it in another boy’s lunchbox. When the kid opened the box and saw the chicken’s head in there on top of his sandwich bag eyes open he screamed and the older boy had filmed the whole thing on his phone. It was pretty funny.

He had a face that only a mother could love, except she didn’t. Not really. Not like lifting-up-a-car love, not even Heinz Spaghetti Hoops love really. He fended for himself and to be honest he was better off.

Sandwiches.

“I’ll swap you.”

“What have you got?”

“Cheese sanwich. What have you got?”

“Ham. I don’t like cheese.”

“You’ve got salmon and phil!”

“You can have my ham.”

“I don’t want your ham, Ty wants your ham, I like salmon and phil.”

“Charlie give the cheese to the Callum and then Ty can have the ham.”

“No! I won’t!”

Sandwich diplomacy usually ended like this.

“Mister Bewker, how do you spell cup?”

“C-U-P.”

“Well you shouldn’t be looking!”

The boys who get the boy’s funny joke laugh, both of them.

“Very droll, Callum.”

The teacher thinks Pretty clever really. He makes a mental note to think about whether they could build on the boy’s apparent comic lexical facility for academic purposes. Maybe get him to do an Ofsted report or something.

“This is boring.”

“Boys, did you ever consider that it is you who might in fact sometimes be boring?”

There was no answer.

Callum sucked at his straw and cola fizzed down his throat. He looked round at the other boys and released a commanding burp.

Noone seemed that bothered, and Mr Beuchar had interested himself in some big small talk with Miss Eldon. Mr Beuchar was keen to push his opportunity, having heard a certain rumourette about her relationship status. She was probably crazy, that could work in his favour definitely.

“Sir, Bene ate all my caramel cups.”

Mr Beuchar gave a distracted response, his hand still next to but not quite on Miss Eldon’s thigh, “Is that true? Bene, did you eat all of Callum’s caramel cups?”

Miss Eldon caught his eye and both teachers blushed slightly.

“Mister Bewker, have you ever been in love?”

“No.”

TWO

Mr Beuchar remembered when he was about their age or slightly younger and he had tripped over the back step going out of the kitchen and broken his nose. He remembered being in hospital and seeing himself in the hospital bed with his nose strapped up. Except it had been his brother in the bed who had tripped over the back step and broken his nose and gone to hospital. He remembered it as if it had happened to him but it hadn’t. He felt like most of the things that happened to him in his life actually happened to someone else. Here he was taking eleven six to twelve year old boys to participate in a glorified corporate presentation in an art gallery, probably contributing to the destruction of the public education system.

“Don’t touch anything.”

“This is boring. I’m bored.”

“Booooooooring!”

“Can I touch the dolphin?”

“Don’t touch the dolphin! What if it breaks?”

“It won’t break. It’s a dolphin.”

“It doesn’t look like one.”

“Yeah it does.”

They looked at the dolphin sculpture. It didn’t look either like or unlike a dolphin. But you couldn’t really describe it as anything other than a dolphin. So maybe it did look like a dolphin. The lads had seen dolphins on telly, presumably.

Ty hadn’t been to an art gallery before. He gawped around at the huge brightly lit clean space, the gallery, gleaming and clean and expensive. So much space! He kind of needed to go to the toilet but he felt it would be better to wait until later. He couldn’t go here.

The white gallery reminded him of the morgue in Police Copter, when the one in the metal suit wakes up because he isn’t really dead, and he cuts off the hand of the dead guy so he can use the fingerprints to open the master vault. Except in the morgue there was more silvery metal and dead corpses.

The boys gawped up at the sparkling dustless vallances and gleaming white fixtures of the gallery. Outside the chimneys’ black smoke drew the city into its darkness.

“Where’s Ty gone?”

“He’s talking to a woman with hair in her mouth.”

The eleven boys dawdled around glancing at the sculptures in the main space of the gallery. The pieces varied in size and approach, some solid and squat, some spidery and long, some delicate and frail, some chunkily robust. A mixture of plastics and metals and plaster painted in all colours, the varied work had garnered reasonable reviews. The boys regarded the work, without engagement.

“Miss, are you having your period?”

“That is not a question you ask a lady. If there’s any more of that…”

The boys sniggered. Callum whispered “I bet she is.”

“How d’you know?”

“I can smell it. It smells like the ribs at chicken cottage.”

Miss Eldon hadn’t always wanted to be a teacher. She used to write, and now she barely had time to do the quick crossword in the Metro. Performance targets, monitoring, appraisals, reporting, Tier 4 engagement, league tables, frameworks. Why is it that on the incredibly rare occasion that teachers (or anyone) went on strike they stopped services of benefit to the kids rather than refusing to do the bullshit admin foisted on them by Management? Even the mistargeted action of striking was seemingly set up to benefit Management rather than the teachers or God help us the kids. It really angered her and she was still outspoken about it, at a palpable cost to her career. She could feel the fire burning less brightly, her sharp corners being worn down. She looked on as the kid Ty tried to slide up the banister from the toilets. She didn’t feel like telling him not to.

Charlie bitch-slapped Ty. It was pretty funny. Not hard. Ty protested, “What’s your damage spack-monkey?”

Callum gazed into space. It didn’t seem to matter, art. Even at his age Callum was already unsure of whether it meant anything. Whether it was important, but in a different way to the other boys, who might have found it boring or incomprehensible. It just lacked reality. He couldn’t put it into words, but felt it. You know. That little baby in the pram. It felt like years ago. He had watched while the two women talked and watched as the pram started to roll, unnoticed by the two women, slowly at first then picking up speed on the incline toward the main road. The traffic was roaring and busy with the rush hour. Trucks and lorries used this route, and the air was grey with their smoke. The pram raced toward the open road and at no time while the two women talked heedless of what was happening did the boy open his mouth to alert them, if he could have alerted them, if there was anything he could have said, if there had been time.

“Look at that one” said Mr Beuchar, the teacher pointing at the hamburger sculpture. “What do you think of that?”

“What’s it supposed to be?”

“It doesn’t look like anything.”

“It’s stupid.”

“Boys, it’s abstract. It’s not supposed to look like anything except itself.”

The boys weren’t having it.  “It doesn’t look like that either.”

“Lads, come on. Look at the artwork please. Concentrate.”

“How long do we have to do this, sir?”

“Yeah, when do we get to do the thing?”

“After the art.”

“Art’s boring though! It’s like watching dry paint.”

Mr Beuchar paused, and smiled. “Yes, I suppose it is. Callum, what do you think people did before they had video games?”

“I don’t know.”

“They made things.”

“Boring things.”

“They made them though.”

“They must have been really bored.”

“Maybe. Do you think they would have been bored while they were making them?”

“Probably.”

“But maybe they wanted to make the things because there was something they wanted to say, and making the things allowed them to say it.”

Time passed in the gallery. The boys dawdled. The boys got bored.

Following on from a remarkable conversation Mr Beuchar and Miss Eldon had just exchanged, Mr Beuchar directed an eyebrow from Miss Eldon towards the exit sign, and slinked toward the door. She followed in such a way as to look like she wasn’t following. He exited, and a moment later she joined him. The oldest person in the main space of the gallery was now twelve years old.

THREE

Charlie gives the stacked heads an exploratory nudge. They wobble against each other and straighten out again. He punches the stack experimentally. They bend to the side and wobble and straighten. He looks round to see who is looking, and then smacks the stack while looking in the opposite direction. The stack bends off to the side then smarts back and knocks his head. This angers Charlie and he punches the stack again, this time intently. It stretches back and returns across itself, only missing Charlie’s head because he ducks to the side in time. The stack wobbles back and straightens again.

He wondered what it felt like, whether the metal was cool or warm, and wanted to touch it to find out. He noticed that Charlie was already caressing the football shaped bit of sculpture.

“Don’t touch it! What if Mr Buchar comes back?”

“He’ll be ages. Anyway, it’s already broken so what does it matter.”

“You broke it!”

“I didn’t break it!”

“Jack! Gimme my chewy you twat.”

Jack threw the last pad of chewing gum at the younger boy’s forehead. The gum was idly thrown but it hit its mark because in trying to duck out of the way the lad ducked into the way of it. Jack didn’t see this but Charlie did and sprayed cola out of his mouth.

On the other side of the space an argument started.

“Yeah but your neighbours are chavs.”

“They are not chavs. You can’t afford to be a chav.”

“They threw dogshit over the fence during the barbecue.”

“That was cos the outside pipe burst all over their kitchen extension. It wasn’t the barbecue.”

“They’re still chavs.”

Forgetting it was part of an exhibit, Ty picked up the length of metal by his feet and raised it before him like a sword, or a rather a fencing iron.

“Sword fight!”

Jimmy had taken to spinning round and smashed into the older boy’s back and, while Ty was whirling round to whack Jimmy, Bene picked up another sword and thwacked him across the arse.

“Hey! That’s not fair! You have to hit the sword.”

“Why?”

“Cos that’s what they do.”

“How do you kill anyone?”

“Oi fatboy, kick it to me, to me!!”

“Not like that you butt-wonder.”

Bene fell backwards onto his bum and the fibreglass cheese string carried on into the air, then shattered against the wall.

“It’s okay, they’re not real!”

“I didn’t touch them, I only pushed the ball cos otherwise it would have broke.”

The balls scatter in all directions, bouncing with hefty thwacks. The boy hits the cheese sculpture and skittles it.

“Haha! He’s wet himself. Oof, I think he’s followed through.”

The boys are in stitches, crying with laughter. So much crying. I should have gone earlier, he thinks. Now it was too late. He runs full speed into the remains of the Indian and it crashes to the ground, flattening under his feet, reforming into a misshapen jumble of metal. There is no paper.

Charlie is wearing the red spaghetti. Three of the boys are constructing new pieces from the pieces of the pieces. The others are still chucking things around. Bene comes over to Charlie.

“What’s that?”

“I’m making a new one. If you stick this to that, then, you see? It looks like a helicopter.”

“You spazz.”

Bene pulls at part of the spaghetti sculpture. Charlie cries out.

The space echoes with the crack of bone and the kid’s head splits just above the temple. His body crumples flat into the floor.

“Hey Charlie, look!” says Ty, pinching the air so from the right angle it would look like the banana sculpture was in his hand. Like a nob. Charlie didn’t respond.

“Charlie, catch the ball!” The ball sailed past him unregarded and bounced off one wall then another before coming to rest underneath the green triangle.

Ty remembers when his dad took him to see the chalk pits. They’d gone under the ground in a metal wagon, he had to sit on his knees to see out properly, and looking down at the line into the gorge he had been afraid. How would the wagon get back out again? He felt like that now, rolling faster into a gorge and how would he get back out again?

Bene kicked. He kicked, and kicked again. It felt good. He kept kicking, and it felt better, each kick felt better than the previous one, and so did he. The meat sculpture didn’t want to break. His trainies scuffed and discoloured with the black acrylic paint, but kicking wouldn’t break anything. He knew it wasn’t bad. Just fun.

The meat sculpture had cracked. Along the concealed rivets on its upsided underside a line cracked open and then the two parts split and fell apart.

“I dont want to do this. I dont want to.”

As he said it his fingers drew themselves closer to the metal frames.

“Go oN!” urged the older boy, “Throw it! Lob it!”

“I don’t want to.”

“Throw it you pussy.”

The boy sat on the floor and held the two pieces in his hands and examined them. They were largely intact but he noticed that if he turned them through ninety degrees they could fit together and make a new shape, a new sculpture. It was like magic! Things that without themselves even changing could become something new just by putting them together a bit differently. It seemed amazing.

“What’s that, gaywad?”

He scooped it out of the boy’s hands and carried it above his head, weaving between the boys.

“Give it back!”

He chased Charlie and tried to wrestle the piece from him. The two boys lost grip and it fell to the ground, splitting again.

He didn’t know why but when it hit the floor he burst into tears. Nothing ever happened. Just things, things breaking. The plant pot in the fireplace, the spaghetti and the kitchen wall. He didn’t want to be seen crying, so he pulled off the big red pepper sculpture off its long spindly legs and placed it over his head like a mask.

Immediately one of the other boys started tapping on the boy’s red pepper head with a long spindly metal stick, producing a pleasing clang. Another boy grabbed one and joined them. Inside the red pepper his ears were ringing but he didn’t want to take the thing off so they’d see him crying. He flailed his arms about blindly trying to stop his abusers.

Why are you doing this?

He saw his father’s face in the ball. He screamed and raised it above his head. Time slowed as he first crouched slightly before stretching up, mounting on the balls of his feet, extending his torso and stretching out of his arms so his hands were as high as they could possibly be. Clasping the ball tightly between his hands he then brought his hands down with all of his strength to smash the ball into the ground with furious force. As he brought it down a vehement syllable escaped his mouth, primal and unknowable. The ball smashed apart into countless pieces. He saw his father’s face again and then he clutched at his eyes, blinded by the cloud of tiny pieces. Clutching he sank to his knees, and rolled over.

Why did you push the spider sculpture over? He could hear the voice in his head. What did you do to the hamburger sculpture? You’re going to pay for this. We’re going to send you to the oil rigs. The oil men will chop your head off like they did your older brother. And all the blood will spray up into the sky.

Callum was chasing Ty with a snake made of one of the long metal juts from the coil sculpture on which he had put one of the balls like a head. He shouted for Mr Beuchar but the kids were alone in the space and noone was coming, whether they could hear the rising racket or not. There should have been a guard but there wasn’t one, whether it was short-staffing or something more pressing than the wholesale wanton destruction of a bunch of expensive art objects. It’s all insured.

He fell on top of the boy and now the two were wrestling, the younger boy biting and pulling the hair of the older boy pummelling his chest with his fists. He managed to get some purchase with his feet and sprang on top of the other boy, reaching out and finding something like a plant pot, black and hollow and metal, and he grabbed at it, then raised it above his head, above the other boy’s head, ready to bring it down with some force as the boy pushed to unbalance him. In the air, it took on extra weight, different possibilities, good and bad futures. In that split second this was clear intuitively. He sees the pram rolling toward the road and he doesn’t know if anyone will stop it.

Mr Beauchar burst through the fire escape, shirt-tails flapping over his open belt. He stands there open-mouthed, stops, beholding the carnage, the wreckage of every single sculpture in the room, and the boys chasing around after each other and fighting.

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON.”

The boys freeze. Each boy looked around at each of the other boys, each boy suddenly sprung dazed as if wrenched out of a dream, each boy looks at each of the other boys, frozen in the white space of the ruined gallery. For a long time noone speaks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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

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