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.

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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.

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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

Art Fund Curator Talk #3 – “Politics of Display” (16 April 2015)

The third of the eight part seminar series with the title Politics of Display will investigate the charged liminal space between a work of art and audience, and the art institution. Bringing forward Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine’s publication Exhibiting Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Display, the seminar will focus on the relationship of representation and the cultural relics within participation.

The term “politics of display” refers to how we can describe the considerations and decisions that motivate collectors and curators and museums and galleries when they come into contact with artefacts of non-native origin that they wish to present to the public. It addresses issues of cultural assumption, distortion versus representation, ideology versus impartiality and neutrality, how value systems are expressed through curatorial decisions.

In her third seminar for fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek led a discussion of politics of display starting with a number of conceptions that we find in Karp and Lavine’s 1991 volume of essays Exhibiting Culture, and exploring how these ideas have been developed in the intervening two decades. I’m going to dip between the texts, the seminar, and my own responses.

The introduction begins “Every museum exhibition, whatever its overt subject, inevitably draws on the cultural assumptions and resources of the people who make it. (p1)”; in dealing with artefacts taken from other cultures the challenge to museums is to present those cultures in a manner that doesn’t falsify or degrade them. This has not always been the case. At earlier points in history museums have deliberately set out to create ideologically programmatic narratives in their presentation of cultural artefacts.

Üstek describes museums as “post-Enlightenment examples of rational epistemology”; the way they construct the knowledge they present is guided by the principles of philosophical rationalism, as an expression of underlying truths apprehended via the intellect. This sounds laudable enough, but contains its own danger: it is explicitly ideological. It is a narrative, foregrounding reason, which risks overlooking messy, irrational and contradictory elements.

In Curationism David Balzer describes how in 1793 the Louvre was created as a symbolic part of the body politic, to showcase the values and aims of the emerging French Republic, under Napoleon becoming a propaganda display of spoils of war. After Waterloo the British adopted a similar model with the British Museum. To gallerist Karsen Schubert “The museums presented their political masters as custodians of world culture. In effect, the museum became the handmaiden of imperialism.” The actual qualities of the objects are subsumed by the narrative.

In “Objects of Ethnography” (Ch. 20) Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett makes a fascinating post-structuralist point about how ethnographic objects are not defined by their inherent properties but by their presentation. I’d like to quote it at length: “Ethnographic artifacts are objects of ethnography. They are artifacts created by ethnographers. Objects become ethnographic by virtue of being defined, segmented, detached, and carried away by ethnographers. Such objects are ethnographic not because they were found in a Hungarian peasant household, Kawkiutl village, or Rajasthani market rather than in Buckingham Palace or Michelangelo’s studio, but by virtue of the manner in which they have been detached, for disciplines make their objects and in the process make themselves. (p387)”

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett notes that ethnographic display is “guided by a poetics of detachment, in the sense not only of material fragments but also of a distanced attitude.” This refers not just to the process whereby displays are curated, but how the viewer is (or was) encouraged to read these displays. In the intervening twenty years since she wrote this we have seen much more effort on the part of museums and galleries to involve the viewer in what is presentated. This has been facilitated in part by technology (such as the interactive iPads scattered around the Grant Museum) and partly by a growing shift in emphasis regarding the relationship between the viewer and the viewed, a shift that began in the 1990s whereby artists began to be talked about as creators of situations rather than objects, and the audience not as the viewer or beholder but repositioned as a co-producer or participant.

Steven Lavine proposes that museums have a moral responsibility to promote conversation rather than their own monologue. This is to address the ideological narrativization of display, but also the problem of aestheticization: that by taking an object away from its origin and resituating it in a gallery it becomes, to Svetlana Alpers in “The Museum as a Way of Seeing” (Ch. 1) “an object of visual interest” (p25) – that it becomes an art object. This is a double detachment, not only in terms of taking objects away but also via that distanced attitude: this is the key to what a “poetics of detachment” means.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett goes even further in drawing an implicit comparison between pre- and post-Enlightenment display in the example of showing people as living rarities. In 1501 live Eskimos were exhibited in Bristol (p402), kicking off five centuries of audiences flocking to displays of ethnic groupings from Aztecs to Zulus. The nineteenth century is famed for ethnographic displays staged and billed as theatre, often dramatising an Imperial duality about its ethnic subjects: their Otherness is framed by the twist-in-the-tale that they also demonstrate familiar attributes of humanity. Today we marvel at the ability of chimps to do human things like communicate or mourn, but in these displays the Victorians were marvelling at human beings appearing human. In the twentieth century, emboldened by Victorian hierarchies of savagery and civilisation, eugenics arrived as “the self-direction of human evolution” applying Enlightenment approaches to the ‘improvement’ of the human, with horrifying consequences.

Fatoş Üstek finds that contemporary display practice is, or should be, concerned with the way that audiences produce knowledge rather than how curators do this for them. The previous fig-2 curator seminar discussed this at length, where in the context of ‘meaning making’ there are the didactic and pedagogical approaches, as well as what Roland Barthes calls “mothering” where learning is supported but not imposed: the analogy is learning to ride a bike; someone can steady you but only you can be on the bike.

I don’t know how persuasive this is in the context of ‘politics of display.’ Surely at some point there has to be an authority when an audience is looking at an unfamiliar object? Otherwise how do we learn what it is? The problem is, as Svetlana Alpers says “we know that any order we place on material is ours and not necessarily theirs [the people who made it]” (p7). Best practice would seem to be to address this directly by, as Üstek argues, creating responsive communities rather than passive audiences. It is a question of engagement.

Society is more hybridised than it used to be, and following the postmodern displacement of grand narratives, we are more informed by a multiplicity of responses to the world and ways of being. Museums nonetheless embody certain assumptions of culture – such as that culture exists at all, and furthermore that there are a multitude of cultures that are different from each other. The act of display recontextualizes the nature of what is displayed – it becomes an art object, it becomes part of a narrative, it is taken away from its maker and given to the viewer. Who is the insider and who the outsider here? If an artefact is taken from a specific country or continent and re-presented in England, are you as someone from that country or continent, or with that background, looking at it in England, on the inside or the outside? Both the object and the viewer have been subject to distance, in both relocation and re-presentation, and the representation of the relocated culture is subject to the implicit or explicit narrative imposed by its display.

The question for an artist is how to relate to the production of your work of art within the assumptions of its recontextualisation by curators in a space and how to regard its new identity – is it yours or not? From the point of view of the organiser/exhibitor, how do you respond to this while producing a ‘spectacle’ and accepting the fact it is a re/-presentation. For an audience, the encounter is situated in a context that you know is not real but is given. Old-fashioned folkloric displays are passé, and the Disneyland-esque spectacle of the recent Bjork show at MoMA has been universally panned. Kirshenblatt-Gimblett concludes “The question is not whether or not an object is of visual interest, but rather how interest of any kind is created. All interest is vested. (p434)”

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Postscript: On crypto-relics and universalism

Matthew Bown in a recent article ‘Traces of the holy’ in the TLS traces a compelling analogy between the trade in saints’ relics in the past and art in the contemporary world. Despite the dominance of the Duchampian model of conceptualism, that supposedly defies aura and authenticity, aura and authenticity are what is sought by audiences and collectors alike. If an individual work loses its attribution to an artist it’s still the same work, but it isn’t: it’s not just its value that will plummet, but it will lose that special magic that comes via its association with a name.

There is a ‘holiness’ of the objects that are displayed and sought and bought. In ‘Resonance and Wonder’ (Ch 3) Stephen Greenblatt examines two related concepts: resonance, where a work evokes a larger world to the viewer, and wonder, where the object has a sense of uniqueness to evoke an exalted attention.

Wonder seems very like what Matthew Bown describes: “[Simon] Schama’s test for Rembrandt – you stand in front of a painting and just feel its miraculousness” which is no more plausible than the tests employed in the Middle Ages to gauge the ‘miraculousness’ of an artefact.

Resonance on the other hand I would see as something that the curator can manage by good display practices. Toward the end of the seminar one member of the audience gave an example of a work that she saw that was one erased wall. It resonated with her directly as speaking to the occupation in Istanbul, and the reason she mentioned it was because she acknowledged that it would not have such a resonance to anyone without that experience. As we have discussed, this is not unique to such examples from contemporary art practice, but it is a factor in considering the ethnographic object too (that they are defined relationally rather than by inherent qualities).

Fatos Üstek asked whether in order to engage with other ways of seeing, we would need to reclaim the notion of resonance. I would ask if this is not a mechanism by which we universalize the precise experience of otherness. If we look at an object we find strange, we understand it by recognizing aspects of it that correspond to our experience. In western culture there is a universalizing impetus that assesses the aesthetic value of work, but what does it mean to be universal?

As Bown notes, it is the Mona Lisa’s blandness that has made it iconic. Vasari didn’t see any resonance, wonder or miraculousness in la Giaconda. Furthermore “from the point of view of discourse, the more impoverished, inarticulate, or mysterious – the more rubbishy – the art-object, the better.” Saints’ relics are rubbishy – foreskins, fingernails. The most precious ethnographic objects are not those which have been attributed value in their day, that have not been deliberately preserved; instead the more commonplace and quotidian objects tend to perish and vanish from history, and whatever survives achieves value through its scarcity centuries later.

Value is relational and applied from without. The auction house, the blockbuster big name brand museum or art institution, the individual curator, the artist or maker of objects, all pursue their own notions of value, and, in conclusion, it is this relativism that defines the workings of a ‘politics of display.’ What we find more than ever today is that ethnographic display and art curation are being influenced by the revision of western points of view to include a wider world on a more level playing field: art from China, Russia, Africa, are viewed through the contemporary mirror. But what is the contemporary mirror? Art might aspire to the universal, but whose universal?

Week 9 – Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle – 2-8 March

This week in Kabul, Afghan artist Kubra Khademi was forced into hiding after publicly wearing a metal suit featuring exaggerated breasts and buttocks. The suit was so designed because “this is all that men see of women”, to highlight the sexual harassment of women. After only eight minutes a mob of men shut her down.  On the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality, a new United Nations report finds that violence against women around the world “persists at alarmingly high levels.”

On Sunday 8 March civilization celebrated International Women’s Day while a depressingly familiar male sub-class complained about it. Sunday was also the last day of fig-2 Week 9, in which Deborah Coughlin with Gaggle (her all-female experimental choir and performance group founded in 2009) presented Yap! Yap! Yap! — “a celebration of women’s voices. Uncovering the great things that women have said throughout history and also saying new things, now, very loudly, with a roster of incredibly special guests. It’s like the Vagina Monologues only not just about fannies.”

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In the same week that Gaggle were in residence at fig-2 I went to a number of different shows that made me aware of the diversity of approaches within fine art and performance that are concerned with gender, or explicitly feminist in theme or intent, or that made me think about the unprecedented number of female artists working today in the UK.

Are there more women involved in and interested in fine art than ever before? The group show Eccentric Spaces (selections from Deptford’s Bearspace Gallery, curated by FutureCity, exhibited at Foyles) featured eight women to four men. Similar ratios seem to apply with the artists chosen for fig-2, and at the Eccentric Spaces private view (perhaps the Yap! Yap! Yap! opening too) there were more women than men.

I suspect that it is the case that at a lower profile women abound but as you go higher up the women disappear, and men predominate. There are some Emins but few. There is a similar case with acting, I believe, with many female actors and few female roles, and I see it in science with many female postgraduates but few female professors. This might chime with examples we find in sociology of the feminization of the workplace in which initially spaces such as the workplace (or by extension fine art practice) are proletarianised at a low level and the work devalued; following on from this devaluation women are suddenly allowed to permeate. I cross my fingers that this analysis is just me being cynical, and that the increased numbers of women creating work at this level will be replicated in time higher up.

One theme that seemed to predominate in the shows I went to this week was space, and spaces, in which women in particular can be, perform, and collaboratively imagine new worlds.

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The Eccentric Spaces show seemed to take off from architectural imaginings of space. Similarly, at Mirrorcity at the Southbank in December 2014, Tai Shani’s Dark Continent was an installation and three-part performance taking the structure of an allegorical city of women, exploring feminine subjectivity and experience, complete with a commissioned theme song.

Best of all though, in the same week as Gaggle, was Fannying On, a weekend of installation and collaboration in a reclaimed office space off Chancery Lane. Kayleigh O’Keefe has founded an imaginary country called Gash Land (of which I am a Citizen – apply here!), or imaginary cuntry, that is also a real ongoing collaboratively generated art project, a “Utopian Cunt Wonderland”. Fannying On included Psychedelic Menstrual Huts (where men can learn about what it’s like) and a strongly in-your-face emphasis on female physicality, which, in keeping with the prevailing paradigm of inclusivity, was welcoming of everyone. Radical feminism’s ‘Angry Snatch’ has become the ‘Laughing Gash’. Kayleigh O’Keefe’s videos about flab, fisting, big labia, queefing, pissjaculation, and menstruation, are hilarious. And very NSFW.

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What Gash Land, Dark Continent, Eccentric Spaces, Yap! Yap! Yap! have in common is a concern with creating new spaces for female engagement. This relates back to Woolf’s ‘Room of One’s Own’ and female self-determination, and forward to the notion of ‘safe-space’ where gender and sexuality can be freely expressed, but also has a uniquely modern performative element that spins metaphor into reality without ever losing its ideality or its applied real world seriousness: it is ideally political.

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This duality was well captured by Deborah Coughlin. Over the week the ICA studio space was used to create a “collage of pop and ideas, great nobodies and brilliant nobodies, clever words and weird noise” with performances and installations. When I arrived for the opening night the space felt the most excitement I’d experienced there yet. The bulbs had all been changed to pink and green, and the space very quickly filled up with people (a queue remained all the way up the ramp until the end). On the walls were quotes from feminist writers from Mary Wollstonecraft and Virginia Woolf to Andrea Dworkin and bell hooks. Speakers blasted riotgrrl bands and anthems, such as the Raincoats’ version of the Kinks’ classic transgender anthem Lola. A drum kit had been set up, and mini stages made ready for the twenty-piece choral force of Gaggle.

It felt like something subversive could actually happen in a gallery space, which was unusual. Perhaps it was the club vibe and my age, or the effects of the free gin cocktail, which this week was called LADY PETROL, and which was INSANE (it involved triple sec, angostura bitters, London dry gin, lemon peel, and, for all I know, petrol).

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Across the space the imagery had a hipstery edge to it, garish and a bit gross, familiar from the look pioneered by political-conceptual-theoretical-performative-musical duo The Knife, who must be a touchstone in the intellectual background to Gaggle. The open-mouthed motif that was scattered around Yap! Yap! Yap! is familiar as the Rolling Stones logo from when they had some counter-cultural cachet, as well as having been co-opted by the 1980s kids TV programme ‘Your Mother Wouldn’t Like It’ and is broadly symbolic of freedom of expression and the rebellious speech act.  The hooded members of Gaggle rolled in wearing thick black lip makeup that seemed a defiant reclamation of makeup and dress from traditional uses of these to service and please the male gaze.

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Between the Gaggle choir’s songs, Ruth Barnes introduced readings. Charlotte Church read from Mary Wollstonecraft a passage part of which was excerpted on the wall: “My own sex, I hope, will excuse me, if I treat them like rational creatures, instead of flattering their fascinating graces.” Paula Varjack read from Virginia Woolf’s essay in which Woolf discusses ‘killing the Angel in the House,’ that tormenting self-sacrificing phantom coming between her and her writing.

Ama Josephine Budge and Dana Jade performed two recent dialogues between transfemale actor Laverne Cox and feminist thinker bell hooks, discussing “liberatory images” in the Normativeheteronormativeimperialistwhitesupremacistcapitalistpatriarchy and whether Beyoncé is a feminist; and the notion of ‘safe space versus risk’ in terms of (trans)gender and love.

Wollstonecraft and Woolf are both pioneering figures of First-wave Feminism, which is concerned with the basic emancipation of women, while Cox and hooks’ concerns are more those of Third-wave Feminism’s focus on queer theory and ethnic experience.

In Week 5 of fig-2, Rebecca Birch’s ‘Lichen hunting in the Hebrides’ studied a women’s community choir who preserve Gaelic women’s work songs. In Week 6 Young In Hong’s ‘In Her Dream’ referenced Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979), a classic work of rediscovery of female artists from history. Such acts of rediscovery of historical female figures and practices are familiar as a process of late Second-wave Feminism.

While Young In Hong used these references, the work itself centred on a more third-wavy exploration of the intersection between Western and Korean female experience. Similarly, Deborah Coughlin’s work Yap! Yap! Yap! seems to telescope generations of feminist thought, but with an emphasis on the performative, the socially constructed nature of women through images, that is associated with postmodern feminism, such as you find in the work of Cindy Sherman, where female images are deconstructed but there is also a certain joy in ‘dress-up’.

Too many isms? Too much theory? Near the gin, across one wall the following lines were painted up:

Timing…
When can I stop
on the wave?
Different place might
be the right time

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Overly rigid historically overdetermined delineations of feminism in the arts, such as I’ve employed in separating various impulses out into First-, Second-, Third-wave and Postmodernism Feminisms, don’t seem as helpful as they have been in the past. Structuring the discourse may have hardened it. Perhaps we are moving into a different place, a new space, a kind of feminism in art that includes all the best of the previous waves: emancipatory, historical, multicultural, queer, militant, dadaist, absurd, imaginary, real… This would make it a more postmodern (that is, decentred) kind of feminism than postmodern feminism itself, but with a renewed militancy. Fourth wave feminism? Post-wave feminism?

On another wall, Coughlin spelled it out:

Speeches

Past – forensic
Present – ceremonial
Future – political

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The struggle for equality varies wildly across the world, and we can’t describe one simultaneous female experience, other than a broad inequality with men, which is still a universal truth.  Much of the Middle East area still practices sexual apartheid in 2015, which means that feminism occupies a complex position there, directly suppressed but also, where possible, informed by conceptual advances imported from places where human rights have made greater advances, or where they have not been pushed back to the middle ages.

In certain areas, what this simultaneity of intellectual experience and disparity of political position between women across the globe means is that in some places feminist activity and activism has skipped a few steps; if you can imagine the Suffragettes in England over a century ago employing the imagery and means of Pussy Riot. Perhaps the next steps in developing feminism in the arts are characterised by not just the Third-wave’s “ceremonial” inclusiveness and congruence with respect to gender and ethnicity, but also to the First- and Second-wave’s “forensic” means, theories and strategies we employ to move humankind forward: perhaps even, however problematically, a new “political” unifying feminist modernism.

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The last word goes to Ruth Barnes: “Let’s have a dance — set yourselves free!”

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POSTSCRIPT: One of the Gaggle opening evening’s special guests, Dana Jade, is the founder of Clit Rock, created to raise awareness and funds to combat FGM. The next fundraiser is on March 27.