Week 19 – Ruth Beale – 11-17 May

A fable inspired by Ruth Beale’s week at Fig-2

Young Penrose had reached his bottom. He was trying to write a book, but it wasn’t going well.  When he looked at the growing piles of notes he had amassed, he felt like crying, and he was crying now. The book was going to be called The Mythology of Keys. It was an attempt to reconstruct the underlying story common to all stories, to excavate the skeleton common to them all, to find the shared meaning that would make sense of all narratives from science to fantasy to homeopathy.

Having run out of cry tissues, he left his desk and went for another of his long walks to clear his head. On this occasion Penrose happened to take a wrong turning in between his garret study and the off licence, and he entered a street he had never seen before. The buildings seemed preternaturally outsized against Penrose’s small frame. He pushed up his spectacles.

He noticed with gothic curiosity that none of the buildings seemed to have doors. There seemed to be the pillars and steps of doorways but no means of entry within. He continued up the dimly lit street and at length found one building that did have a door. There was a brass plaque. He peered at the symbol of an acorn, beneath which were some words written in an unfamiliar alphabet, beneath which he read “THE LIBRARY OF EVERYTHING.”

Penrose started. He knew he had exhausted his own writerly resources in his garret with his smudged Routledge paperbacks and broken lipsticked coffee cups, and he wondered excitedly whether The Library of Everything could hold the key to his Mythology of Keys, which was, if nothing else, a book about everything.

He knocked on the door.

‘Go away!’

No two words are likely to have a more counterproductive effect in such a situation of rich curiosity than these, especially at the start of a story with the plot barely in motion. Penrose examined the huge wooden door for a viewing hole to indicate whether whoever was inside had even seen him coming. There wasn’t one, nor did the door have an apparent handle.

‘Hello,’ said Penrose to the door, ‘Sorry. I noticed your plaque. The Library of Everything. I’m a bit of a writer,’ adding ‘Trying to be.’

‘We’ve got enough books, thank you! Go away!’

‘Sorry.’

Penrose, pushing up his spectacles,  turned to go, ‘I could use some help is all. If this is a Library.’

A panel snapped open in the door, and an elderly face peeped through.

‘What do you mean, if this is a library? Course it’s a library, the plaque says so.’

‘I didn’t mean to be rude. It could be a library that’s closed down and become something else, like a bank or a shoe shop.’

‘A bank or a shoe shop? Does it look like a bank or a shoe shop?’

‘I don’t know what it looks like. It might have been resold.’

‘It’s not a bank, I’ll tell you that. Far from it. Oh the irony.’

‘I’ll be.. getting off then I suppose.’

The face in the door scrutinised Penrose.

‘It wasn’t you that wanted the Necronomicon was it?’

Penrose had never heard of it.

‘I’ve heard of it of course,’ he said, ‘But I’ve never read it, personally.’

‘Of course not. Why would you want to borrow it if you’d read it?’

‘I don’t know,’ Penrose reflected, ‘I might want to refer to it.’

‘Refer to it?’ The face groaned. ‘Writer are you?’

‘Trying to be.’

‘A lot of writers show up here. I always say to them they’d be better off getting some life experience. Then they come in and immediately look it up under ‘L’. Deplorable. So you write do you? What do you write?’

‘I’m writing a book. It’s called The Mythology of Keys. I saw your plaque that said The Library of Everything, and I thought that you might be able to help me out. See, that’s what my book’s about.’

‘What?’

‘Everything.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Yes, it’s not going very well.’

‘Look, I can’t —’ The face in the door frowned, thought for a second, then said, ‘The Mythology of Keys, you say?’ He sighed, ‘You’d better come in.’

***

The face clearly belonged to an elderly librarian. The half moon glasses, worn hands, the apron, the shambling gait, and the face itself with its canyon lines that might have needed periodic dusting along with the books, all clearly belonged to the librarians of fiction. Penrose, being a reader, recognised them instantly. Also, this being a library meant that it was in any case more than likely that whoever it was would naturally be a librarian. Penrose also had a gift for logical reasoning.

‘I’m Penrose,’ said Penrose.

The Librarian sniffed, and indicated for Penrose to follow him. He tramped down among the bookless shelves of this corridor whose lighting seemed to have gone out. In pursuit of the Librarian through the dark Penrose tripped and splayed across the wooden floor with a resounding crash.

‘Shhhhhh. Do come along. The Library is this way.’

‘Sorry.’

***

The Library of Everything is so called because it contains every book that has ever been written and that ever will be written. In the Library of Everything, everything that has ever happened or that ever will happen or even that ever could happen, every tiny possibility is documented among its theoretically infinite volumes and stacks of shelves.

Library historians have marvelled that the reference system used to interrogate and navigate the Library is significantly advanced from the humble old Dewey indexing of the libraries of the past. Unfortunately for scholars the complexity of there being every possible history of everything means that the referencing system is as long as the actual volumes it references. It is in effect a 1:1 map and therefore of no use as a map at all because it is simply a life size replica of a reality. To previous generations of librarians this was the only way to chart the tiny differences between all the different documented realities, but librarianship has moved on.

Scholars have noted that a single ‘reality’ can in all respects be the same as another except that at some point, for example, a deuterium atom undergoes a radioactive decay slightly earlier than its counterpart in another reality. It has been noted in more recent discussions of modern librarianship that the most effective and simplest method of referencing would be an internal relative system – so for example the reference would be ‘the same basic universe as that other universe except that a deuterium atom deteriorates slightly earlier in this one’.

This saves having to replicate the entire universe in order to create a 1:1 reference for that universe. Another argument counters that this system of ‘relative referencing’ would set the reader off on an endless wild goose chase in pursuit of original references that the closer references are referring to, and that by the time you got to the reference you’d have forgotten what you were looking for anyway.

***

In 1941 the Argentinian fabulist Jorge Luis Borges published a short semi-fictional account of the Library of Everything, renaming it ‘The Library of Babel’ and generally misrepresenting the fundamental workings of the Library, presenting a fanciful history quite obviously intended to draw attention away from the machinations of the Hermetic Orders, the shady groups who preside over the running of the Library. Since its publication Borges’s piece has tended to be viewed as definitive, a scandalous act of history being rewritten.

***

‘A scandalous act of history being rewritten,’ said the Librarian to Penrose. ‘As I already told you, it is quite impossible that an Infinite Library of Everything should be so shoddily constructed as Mr Borges makes out. Hexagonal rooms, he says! He even conflates the Library with the Universe, which is balderdash – the library is many times bigger than the universe.’

Penrose was puzzled.

‘How can the library be bigger than the universe? Surely the universe is all there is?’

‘Technically. But really what you’re thinking of is called the multiverse. All of the possible universes.’

‘Wouldnt it be simpler to just call the multiverse the universe?’

‘I hadn’t thought of that. Let me raise it as an Agenda item at the next Learning Technologies Committee meeting.’

The Librarian made a note. Penrose noticed that the Librarian also gave the note a reference, which he then made another note of, before stamping it with a stamp that printed the outline of an acorn.

The Librarian grew expansive.

‘The fact that the Library includes every possible book that could ever possibly be written would be fine, but there is a growing problem. The universe itself only includes some of the possibilities.’

‘Is the universe not just one possibility?’

‘No, you see you’re up against  have the Uncertainty Principle. Some parts of a universe comprise several possibilities all at once, you see. According to the Uncertainty Principle it’s not until you measure it, look at it, that the decision is made. At that point the universe branches off from all the others, but for a while it’s like several universes share the same space and matter, like a great cosmic timeshare.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘The problem is that because the Library documents every possible reality in all possible universes it is exponentially larger than the universe. Compared to the vast size of the Library the universe itself looks like a speck of dust, an atom, the amount of a goodness in a politician.’

‘Can anything be done?’

The Librarian looked tired. ‘The main problem is that we can’t afford to house the main library any more on site.’

‘In the universe?’

‘Just so. We’ve had to put together a business case for housing most of the library’s volumes elsewhere.’

Penrose balked, ‘Outside of the universe?’

‘Indeed.’ The Librarian waved his hands indicatively and mumbled, ‘There’s some very competitive non-Euclidean spacetime out beyond the northeastern arc of the universe that we’ve been discussing relocating part or all of the library’s contents to.’ More waving, ‘Several tenders are currently being prepared that look very promising indeed, and by promising I’m afraid I mean cheap.’

Penrose was having trouble following all this but nodded. The Librarian continued.

‘But I’m afraid we’re going to have to face facts at some point. The library is it was originally conceived was a Utopian project. It belongs to another world, I mean, another universe. In this day and age we simply can’t sustain that kind of data management, even with the great advances that have been made in bureaucratization. The Fines Service itself is now three times the size of the universe and the Digitization Project is simply unsustainable.’

‘What’s the Digitization Project?’

‘The complete scanning and digitization of all of the books in the library to make them into an accessible electronic format.’

‘All of it?’

‘The whole library is to be completely electronically searchable.’

‘And how long will that take?’

‘At current estimates and with the current deployment of resources and assuming there isn’t a major funding cut coming up, which,’ he sniffed ‘there most certainly will be, the whole library should be scanned, digitized and electronically searchable in approximately 10^100-1 times the total age of the universe from its beginning to its end.

‘That soon, huh?’

***

‘Are there any lavatories in this infinite library?’

‘This is a library, Penrose. It’s not Star Trek.’

***

Over several months, having been installed at his own desk in the Library of Everything, Penrose looked again at The Mythology of Keys. He had been working on the Semiotic Interoperability of Vs and Ws but he’d got stuck at V and his head was aching. He was beyond crying even. He stared wearily down at the figures on the page but the Vs would not resolve themselves into Ws. His mind vandered. Not to vorry, thought Penrose.

Penrose sat down for the thousandth time to resume work but the words wouldn’t come out. Here he was in the Library of Everything, bereft of words. Dictionary swallowing tends to constipate the flow of writing, which is annoying (troublesome, vexatious).

Penrose decided to work on the structure instead. The referencing was spiralling out of control. Footnotes of footnotes with endnotes, hyperlinks and nested references. At one point he realized he had misquoted himself, and he silently indexed it under “Errata”.

***

‘And how are we today young master Penrose?’

‘I’ve got a referencing problem. I rehearse a thought and then judiciously reference it, but then when I go back to check the reference, the reference has changed.’

‘You’ve changed the reference?’

‘No, the source of the reference has itself changed. It’s been rewritten. Every time, when I check in the Library, it says almost exactly the opposite of what I had it referenced for. It’s like every time I look away all of the texts I am using make a reversal, a shift from black to white or white to black. The sources keep changing and I have to keep finding new ones to replace the ones that have changed but then they change as well.’

‘You’re doing it all wrong,’ advised the Librarian, “Never write notes. Write full paragraphs, with repetitions and lacunae and whatever you need just to empty your brain onto the page. It doesn’t take much longer to develop the thought on the spot, but if you leave it you’ll spend eternities trying to remember what your thought was. Maybe you should just write what you feel. What you think.’

‘Noone is interested in what I feel or think. I need these references or noone will believe I have anything to say.’

‘But all you’re saying is what they say, boy.’

‘Admittedly I’m only saying what they say but I’m saying it in my own way.’ His face darkened. ‘Or trying to.’

‘Referencing is a canard, that’s for sure,” said the Librarian, “But don’t quote me on that.’

He paused to consider his wit. ‘Too clever by half’ said the Librarian.

‘What does that idiom actually mean, etymologically?’ asked the ever-curious Penrose.

‘It means,’ the Librarian sighed, ‘Llareggub.’

***

One of the quirks of infinity and infinite numerically irrational probability is that you can never find anything you’re looking for. It’s like a handbag. Every arrangement of letters and numbers, all language and literature and everything should in theory be there somewhere. Pi should contain every book every written — only it doesn’t. When you toss a coin, in theory you could get thirty or thirty thousand consecutive heads, but it never happens. There’s some kind of Law of Probabilistic Gravity whereby just because something can happen in theory it doesn’t mean it will. Except in the case of a miracle, but the universe isn’t that keen on miracles, and they almost never happen.

***

‘Phew. Hot in here.’

‘Air conditioning’s broken again.’

Penrose was about to ask, but the Librarian was pointing with some agitation at the desk.

‘What? What’s wrong?’ asked Penrose.

‘What’s printed on that rock?’

‘What rock?’

‘That rock.’

‘Thats a paperweight.’

‘What’s printed on it?’

‘Nothing. It’s a paperweight.’

‘It’s got lettering on it. Underneath it. What does it say?’

‘It says I Love Gibraltar.’

‘Is there a reference?’

‘A reference?’

‘A catalogue reference! Why isn’t it catalogued? My God, we’re going to have to start again. Back to aardvarks and aeronautics, re-catalogue everything through to syzygy and zephyr. Start again! I Love Gibraltar! My God…’

***

Over the coming months the re-cataloguing of the library began to visit a heavy toll on the Librarian. He began to dribble while he chattered, always chattering and rubbing his hands, dabbing at the corner of his mouth with an ink stained handkerchief while holding a pen and pencil in each hand to scrawl notes simultaneously with the left and the right, notes that then had to be catalogued requiring the creation and documentation of a higher level cataloging system, which brought with it its own notes.

***

It wasn’t just the referencing that was taking a toll on the Librarian. For some months he had been going from gallery to gallery of the Library inspecting the shelves with a specific purpose and a growing realisation that, in the Library of Everything, the books were dying. The people in the books were starving and noone expected them to survive.

***

The Librarian was grimly explaining to Penrose ‘It’s not just that the people in the books are dying, or that the pages are filling up with silence, it’s….’

‘What? What is it?’

‘I’m a Librarian. It’s not just my job to know where the books are, or at least who to point to to find out where the books are if I don’t know, it’s also my job to know what’s in the books.’

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘I’m starting to forget. Look.’

He plucked a volume from the top of his desk at random. ‘This is On Memory And Forgetting. A first edition. Now, I know that I have read this, but I don’t know what it contains. And it’s not just this one, there are whole shelves I know I must have read but… Perhaps I’ve been working too hard. Perhaps I need some time off. I look at this book and stare at its binding and the little flecks in the lettering and I recognize it intimately as if I’d bound it myself, but I can’t remember what it says inside.’

‘Everyone forgets things!’ protested Penrose.

‘I suppose so. But I’m… but it’s my job to remember, and I’ve started to forget.’

***

It had become noticeable to Penrose too that the texts in the books he consulted were corrupted. This was why his and the Librarian’s referencing and indexing were breaking down. He feared the worst. As the words vanished in the Library whole swathes of history would be lost and it would be as if they had never happened. Without the Library the events would never have happened. If noone intervened, then soon nothing would ever have happened. Cause and effect would become untied and so the cause of the universe, whatever it is, would cease to lead to the effect, the universe itself. There would just be cause without effect, forever waiting for nothing. It would be like trying to catch a waiter’s eye in a French restaurant.

***

‘You can’t save the Library, I’m afraid, Penrose. It’s doomed.’ His face hollowed. ‘Just doomed.’

‘But someone has to. The Library needs protecting.’

‘What for? Noone is interested in libraries any more I’m afraid. Penrose, when did you last see an actual reader in the Library?’

Penrose thought.

‘Excluding me?’

‘Yes’

‘And you?’

‘Obviously me.’

‘And the cleaners?’

‘The cleaners were laid off. We’re expected to do our own cleaning now.’

Penrose counted his fingers, and opened his mouth, but didn’t speak, still thinking.

‘And reshelvers, do they count?”

‘We’re expected to do our own reshelving now.’

Penrose clicked his fingers, ‘I think I saw someone browsing the Necromonicon, as it happens. A few weeks ago. Certain of it.’

‘Goth festival. Local thing. Obviously someone browsing the Necromonicon. Anyone else?’

‘But that counts. That validates the Library.’

‘How does it validate the Library, this incredibly unlikely occurrence of a good-natured goth wishing to peruse the Unholy Book for a few minutes in that book’s otherwise undisturbed life?’

‘Is that important? The popularity?’

‘To the Hermetic Holy Orders that pay for it all, it is, yes.’

‘I thought the Library was publicly funded.’

The Librarian snorted.

Penrose waxed, ‘But then what’s a library for? If the Necromonicon was being sold on stands at train stations and being given away with the tabloid papers, that good-natured goth wouldn’t have been here.’

‘Young Penrose, what you need to realize about libraries is that the Powers That Be have decreed in their infinite wisdom — and I’m not knocking it — that the only titles available for perusal should be those which have a proven cachet with the General Public, that will be read and enjoyed. It’s important that the Library reflects these proclivities, and only stocks books that are freely available elsewhere — because general availability is a surefire indicator of their popularity. It’s not the business of libraries to stock books that noone wants to read.’

‘But it’s the Library of Everything.’

‘Not any more.’

***

For his continuing work on The Mythology of Keys, Penrose needed to consult the Fables and Allegory section of the library. This, he discovered, had been shifted to an under-basement of the Library in order to make space for more trashy novels and economics textbooks.

Penrose, squinting into the poor light of the basement’s cold stone, failed to notice the shadow that fell behind him. A hand fell on Penrose’s shoulder, and stayed there.

‘All right sunshine. What’s your business here?’

His shoulder had gone cold. His body froze, he couldn’t turn to see his undoubtedly hefty interlocutor. He fumbled for a response.

‘I’m writing a book.’

No no no, terrible, terrible. Never tell anyone you’re writing a book. If you tell them then you have to finish the book. And noone ever finished a book, he thought, remembering the heaving shelves of the Library.

‘I don’t care what you’re writing, sunshine. Why are you here?’

‘It’s a Library.’

‘Library’s for reading, not writing. Plenty of books here already, don’t need more.’

‘But I just —’ He paused. ‘Reasonable point. You’re right. I mean, I was just looking for Fable and Allegory.’

The cold hand remained on his shoulder and a laugh he not unreasonably assumed was in some way attached to it rang out in the hollows of the dripping catacombs.

‘You’re having a laugh,’ said the voice, with a laugh.

Penrose felt cry-y. ‘Heh,’ he ventured.

‘Now,’ the voice boomed, ‘Why are you here?’

An obvious pause, succeeded by ‘And don’t even think about answering why are any of us here, or any of that philosophical Camusian crap about the only purpose of life being death, I’ll bloody lamp you I will. I’m allowed to, it’s in me job description. Part of the job, see. I’m paid for this. I have to stand here and stop writers getting in to look at the books.’

‘But it’s a Library.’

‘Not any more. Now, if you’re not buying anything, clear off.’

***

Penrose was, it must be admitted, making some kind of progress. The way a woodpecker repeatedly headbutting a tree will eventually invent paracetamol, or millions of years of genetic variation will eventually give birth to the appendix. The main obstacle to his work on The Mythology of Keys was no longer himself, but whether there would still be a Library in which to write it.

I’m going to write this book, he thought. I’m really going to. I must have been brought here, not by accident, but for a reason. To write The Mythology of Keys. I have to save the Library.

***

‘There must be something we can do!’

The Librarian eyed Penrose for several moments, making a show of weighing up options.

‘Penrose,’ he said, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this.’

The Librarian reached under the desk and clicked a switch. One of the bookcases (Section A23071^279-1 HER on Hermetic Architecture) retracted into the wall and slid aside revealing an opening.

‘Follow me,’ said the Librarian.

***

Like the Universe itself, the Library is thought to be almost infinite. Scholars have not yet successfully proven the that these two entities the Library and the Universe are not the same thing (in spite of what the charlatan historian Borges suggests), so perhaps establishing whether one is so will prove the case for the other. Philosophy really. In any case, like the Universe itself, most of the Library is completely invisible not only to the naked eye but to measurement and calculation, guess-work, wish-fulfilment and spellcasting. Most of the Universe is thought to exist as ‘dark matter’. Similarly, most of the structure of the library exists as secret passageways, catacombs and tunnels, none of which are accessible to anyone except those involved with the Secret Orders that preside over the infrastructural and budgetary workings of the Library.

***

As they passed through the secret guts of the Library, Penrose asked ‘Are these the Hermetic Order’s tunnels? Are you a member of the Secret Societies? The Acorn Order? Or the Secret Order of the Members of Secret Societies That Are Not Members Of Themselves? Are you?’

‘How would I know? It’s secret.’

‘You must know.’

‘Logically I might be, but I haven’t been told. If I knew, then it wouldn’t be a secret.’

‘You must be if you know how to get into the tunnels.’

‘Yes, I suppose I must be. I wonder when I joined.’

‘So,’ said Penrose excitedly, ‘Finally we can confront the Hermetic Orders and give them a piece of our mind about what they’re doing to the Library, how they’re killing the Library of Everything.’

‘Yes,’ said the Librarian, with a slight queasiness. ‘As you say.’

***

‘These are the Poets,’ said the Librarian. They were in one of the Secret Libraries in which they kept the writers. This room of the Library was devoted to the Poets.

‘But they’re all blind.’

‘All the Great poets are blind. Homer, Milton, Borges…’

‘But how do they write poetry if they’re blind?’

‘Obviously they dictate it.’

‘I mean how do they see all the poetic things – daffodils and such – You can’t dictate daffodils from touch alone, can you?’

‘I’m a Librarian not a literary historian. I don’t know how poets write. They probably just listen to radio documentaries and steal the most salient lines.’

***

There has been a great deal of speculation about the precise meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn Order, and a great deal more about the imprecise vague notional and conspiratorial meanings of the Acorn symbolism. Scholars don’t know, and are not convinced that anyone really knows, least of all anyone in the Acorn Order itself. To the members of the Acorn Order, the Acorn is as far away as Christ is to Christian Fundamentalists. All that remains is a symbol emptied of meaning, a totem stretching off into nothing. A tattoo of a pictogram that you think means “love forever” but really means “stupid tourist”.

These ruminations on the meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn Order are in some way relevant at this point because Penrose and the Librarian have just arrived at an intimidating pair of solid oak doors that bear the largest iteration or permutation we have so far found in the Library of Everything of the frequent Acorn symbol.

‘What’s the precise meaning of the Acorn symbolism of the Acorn order?’ asked Penrose.

‘How on earth would I know?’ replied the Librarian.

***

‘Penrose, I’m afraid I haven’t been completely honest with you.’

‘About what?’

‘You think you discovered the Library by accident one dark and misty night. That’s what everyone thinks. That’s what the Orders want everyone to think, because it gives each individual some sense of ‘agency’. Well that’s the theory  — and I’m not knocking it. It’s supposed to make you more productive. And you, Penrose, have been so very productive. In this case the Orders might have been quite right about you.’

‘How could they know? I mean, I don’t even know. Know what?’ Penrose was extremely confused.

‘The Library contains everything that could ever happen. It has all been foreseen. Your book is already housed in a faraway annexe of the Library. It always has been. The Orders have read it, and I understand they don’t like it one bit.’

‘I haven’t written it yet!’

‘You have, Penrose. That’s the problem, you see.’

‘Because the Library is infinite?’

‘The Library isn’t really infinite, Penrose. It isn’t even unknowably vast. It isn’t even as big as the universe. The Library is dying.’

‘The Library is dying?’

‘Yes.’

‘Because the people in the books are dying?’

‘Yes.’

‘We can save them. Can’t we?’

‘I’m sorry about this, Penrose. You see…’

A central spotlight switched on, theatrically. It was dazzling. Penrose’s eyes adjusted to fix on a large machine in the centre of the room. Along the walls he could discern a circle of hooded figures. Their faces were invisible and on their long cloaks each one bore the symbol of the Acorn.

‘It’s just that you can’t be allowed to finish your book. The Orders say so. They’ve read it in the Library of Everything, and they say it’s very bad news. It could cause no end of problems for the Orders. And, please understand, Penrose,’ admitted the Librarian, ‘If I let you finish your book then I’m going to lose my job. There aren’t any librarians any more, you see. They’ve promised I can keep the Library if I submit to their demands. Which are really not unreasonable.’

‘But you helped me. We were so near!’

‘It’s impossible, Penrose. I’m sorry. You must see that. It’s the only way to save the Library. It’s really the only way. You can’t write that book. There can be no Mythology of Keys any more.’

As the Librarian carefully strapped Penrose into the machine, the hooded figures of the Hermetic Orders chanted, but unlike any chant. Arrhythmical, a babble, all languages and none. Cacophany. A chaos of sounds and sound from the hooded faceless figures.

‘Really, Penrose. A Mythology of Keys, did you really think so?’

As Penrose’s body was drawn round and round and round on the slowly turning wooden wheel of the machine, as his sinews were stretched and his bones cracked and his body was shaken apart, Penrose realized he knew how to finish the book, that he had found the key to his Mythology of Keys. It was simple after all.

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Week 29 – POSTmatter – 20-26 July

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

intersecting with two realms:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POST POSTscript:

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

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

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

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

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

edgeofthesky

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

yapyapyap

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.

photo (12)

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.

GLFO15

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.

photo 4 (1)

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).

photo 5 (1)

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.

fig2_installation_09-Deborah-Coughlin-with-Gaggle_10Sylvain_Deleu

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

fig2_installation_09-Deborah-Coughlin-with-Gaggle_04Sylvain_Deleu

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

photo 3 (1)

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.

fig2_installation_09-Deborah-Coughlin-with-Gaggle_22Sylvain_Deleu

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.

Week 7 – Claire Hooper & Maria Loboda – 16-22 February

This week, guest writer Alix Mortimer discusses art and archaeology.

I’m still not sure whether I should have gone to see this with two archaeologists (proper archaeologists, that is, as opposed to a dabbler like me). Possibly one can either approach art in an experiential sense or an analytical sense, and you don’t get to make the same approach twice (not for the first time, at least) and that night, the night of the sloe gin with warmed apple juice, we were all wearing analytical hard hats.

Week 7 was a collaboration between Claire Hooper and Maria Loboda, apparently originally titled “Atheism”, which seeks to “capture the atmosphere of the archaeological dig” and examine the relationship between objects, human interpretations and reinterpretations of them and the elusive movement of all these things through time. As Hooper points out in her accompanying interview, it is our extraordinarily structured brains that allow us to conceive of past and future – the only thing that actually exists in our direct experience is the “Now”. What this means is simply that we can have no firm idea about the meaning an object held even last year, never mind millennia ago in eras when writing either did not exist or was used solely for recording the delivery of sheepskins. The reality in which an object held a particular meaning no longer exists, and is at best only partially recorded. Our brains irresistibly tug us towards the desire to know what we cannot know: how other (dead) people feel about Things. Archaeology, and art that plays on and is inspired by archaeology, is the ultimate optimistic challenge to this troublesome limitation of our tediously locked-down space-time dimension.

Space can also be tricksy. Experiencing the space where ICA holds Fig 2 several times over now, I am slightly more accustomed to what is the Art and what is not, but my friends were seeing the space for the first time. It occurred to me that in approaching the thing as archaeologists we were in essence trying to decode a space from scratch, exactly as you would in the field. Part of field archaeology is about making decisions, often snap ones really. What am I looking at? What else does this look like? What are the things that matter here? Nothing comes out of the earth labelled, and fine art exhibitions generally aren’t labelled either. In archaeology and in art therefore, your ability to decode a space grows with practice.

photo 3The whole exhibition is built around a sort of temple, Claire Hooper’s evocation of a “god storage unit”, a place for storing old idols that was created in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Uruk when the great temple of Inanna was rebuilt with new statues and fixtures. Hooper’s re-imagination of the storage room is lined with watercolour wallpaper, elegant both artistically and archaeologically in that it is based on stratigraphic drawings from the site report, which have their own complex beauty. Hooper was intrigued by the idea of objects that were felt still to have some power, but which were no longer in active use. Nobody wanted to throw away these superseded objects which had once been so powerful. Against one outer wall of the God Storage Unit lean two paganistic-looking bound straw crooks. These are Inanna’s “Gates of the Underworld”, and to be precise one of them was leaning against the temple and the other was on its side, in a way I actually found faintly shocking once I realised what they represented. Is this the Gates of the Underworld “in storage” after a lifetime of use? What happens to the magic space between them, the entry to Underworld presumably, if one of them is lying on its side? Does the wave collapse? Is it dangerous? In this way, Hooper’s work gets elegantly at the idea of investing objects with power and narrative and then outgrowing that narrative and discarding the formerly powerful object, which is essentially what human beings have always done and what archaeologists seek to reconstruct.

fig2_installation_07-Claire-Hooper--Maria-Loboda_08Sylvain_DeleuAround the God Storage Unit, other artefacts littered the space. The lustrous brown plait peeping tragically and tantalisingly from under one of the shelving units was one of the objects that spoke most directly to archaeology – something half-hidden, newly exposed, waiting to tell a story, or rather have stories imposed upon it. The artists apparently spent eight hours wandering the British Museum in preparation for this exhibition and got a shock from the beautifully preserved hair of a young woman buried in the great death pits at Uruk. At intervals in the walls around the space and away from the God Storage Unit itself, Maria Loboda had set tiny dabs of gold, a reference to the gems set into the walls of the Alhambra palace apparently with the specific purpose of impressing distant future generations should the unthinkable happen and the Empire collapse. This is a ruler reaching forward in time, trying to avoid the fate of Ozymandias by facing the probability of collapse head-on. Loboda in her interview points out that there the actual physical works she has created are in some ways superfluous to the art itself – the story of the gems is what matters. Another piece that is pure story were her Samurai swords on a distant wall – stored as they were in Japanese households “for an uncertain future”. This is an evocation of what you might call living archaeology (or anthropology, as an anthropologist would put it), the study of objects that are used in a particular way contemporaneously. As archaeologists we can watch modern spaces and actually see objects being deployed to create meaning, and the fond idea is that this informs our practice in the field, where the deployment occurred millennia ago and is no longer visible.

10954581_614674401966352_1335988916_nOne of the things that blows your mind very early on as an archaeology student is the realisation that you find objects where they ended up. And that might be “in use”, captured in the act of being deployed so that interpretation seems deceptively simple – Pompeii is the classic example – but it might also be after several lifetimes of other use. It might be repurposed, and in fact I am being disingenuous about Pompeii, because plenty of the material and objects there will have known multiple lives. It might be curated – there is at least one example I remember of an Upper Palaeolithic “antiquarian” who collected and curated a set of objects dozens or hundreds of years old and stored them together, where they were found. It might be rubbish, and you might find it in a midden, in a context that says little about the life of the potsherd, or coin, or discarded tablet before it became rubbish. Or, like the objects in Uruk’s original God Storage Unit, it might occupy a space somewhere between rubbish, repurposing and curation.

In the sense that the works referenced all these possibilities, I felt the exhibition was a success. The artists’ point was that Things can (figuratively) outlast their own lives and (literally) those of their owners. People, and their views about their Things, are really pretty ephemeral. Recalculation and reinterpretation occur continuously and come up with new temples, new gods, new meanings. As such it was fitting that one outer wall of the God Storage Unit was painted with the Colour of the Universe (Erratum), the rather jolly turquoise blue that enjoyed the distinction of being the distilled colour of the universe for a whole week, before it was realised that there had been an error in the calculations, and the colour of the universe was reset tragically to a beigy off-white.

photo 2Hooper and Loboda have thought deeply about archaeology and become immersed not just in individual stories and sites, glittering and alluring though these are, but in the theoretical context. Being aware of the pitfalls of interpretation and the difficulty of reconstructing meaning is a core concept in post-processual (by which I mean, oh, the bit after 1982) archaeology. Did it teach us anything we didn’t know in theoretical terms, or prompt us to think differently about the things we did know? Nope. I wouldn’t have said so. If anything it was rather comfily reinforcing. And this is where the analytical hard hats come in, because I suppose what I was hoping for was to be shown something new. There is a whole seam of co-operation between art and archaeology which can be very fruitful and spark new approaches to “doing” archaeology. This exhibition didn’t make it into that category. Maybe it wasn’t quite for us.

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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