Fig-2: the last stamp

Around the art-world in fifty weeks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FIFTY

 

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

 

 

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Week 24 – Ben Judd – June 15-21 – “Apart, we are together”

A story in verse inspired by Week 24 of fig-2. As the days pass he is losing his sight, going blind, alone. At night in his dreams she and he are together but when he wakes he can’t remember her. As the days and nights pass they grow together, apart. I hope that you will find it beautiful. Original artwork “Sleepwalker” by Tess Cunningham.

Apart, we are together

“Goodnight Irene, Goodnight Irene,
I’ll see you in my dreams…”

First day (Monday, January) – The hospital
First night (Monday-Tuesday, February) – The ballroom and the masque

Second day (Tuesday, March) – The funeral
Second night (Tuesday-Wednesday, April) – The mountains and the sea and the sky

Third day (Wednesday, May) – The city
Third night (Wednesday-Thursday, June) – The magic lantern cinema

Fourth day (Thursday, July) – Summers
Fourth night (Thursday-Friday, August) – Dream within dream

Fifth day (Friday, September) – Pain
Fifth night (Friday-Saturday, October) – The marriage in the moonlight

Sixth day (Saturday, November) – Home
Sixth night (Sunday, December) –  Dream without dream

Sleepwalker (Tess Cunningham)

First day (Monday, January) – The hospital

I’m going blind.
Like my father and his
I’m going to go blind.

In the bright morning
with birdsong
I was happy as an egg;

then the auld tune,
      I’ll see you in my dreams

Just the TV, mute flickering
in the corner of the kitchen;
lonely night in spring —
tapes of old shipping forecasts,
     occasional rain.

I’m scared that when I lose my sight
I’ll lose my memories too —
it’s irrational — or I’ll have nothing
but memory to live in, a haunted
house full of ghosts
    and noone living to remember.

Then the screen
    goes white —                   

                — you are dreaming

First night (Monday-Tuesday, February) – The ballroom and the masque

you are dreaming – in the dream we are lovers.
we have always been lovers.

we waltz in the blue ballroom, a masque dance
of faces without faces and figures
without form.
the chandelier is made of rain,
sparrows and ravens.
when the music stops
we lose each other and you don’t remember me —

remember these words

“apart, we are together”

then you would remember everything
    and the day would be night
        and the night would be day

the masks lift from our eyes
and rise as black birds into the sky —
the eyes of a black bird,
a blue dog yelps, chases in a tight circle
the flailing thing,
chase and flail, the jaws champ,
growl and banter, bark, tramp
and jump, jump and bite.

remember me

i will carry you
the waters will bear you
 to sleep

if you could only remember the words
when you wake up from the dream

“apart, we are together”

our faces were unknown. we met, but not —

dreaming a sky
       a raven
               at nightfall

in the first night of the dream
you will dream of me,
but we will never meet:
each morning you will wake;
i will have gone from you
and you from me.

apart, we are together —
the lightning blast and the world off its blood axis. begging,
hungry for a dream. together
in the dream we are apart,
apart, we are together.

remember these words

Second day (Tuesday, March) – The funeral

“Lilies, the flowers
of sorrow,” she said, long ago.
And today, lilies.

My father and grandfather
died blind, and both for a time
lived blind.

Grandad was a poacher turned gamekeeper,
literally. He used to hunt on Croydon Common
and make ‘rook pie’.

                                       “No-one makes rook pie,
do they any more?” said my grandmother.
I’ve never heard of rook pie before or since.

My father’s funeral.
The night before they slapped his body
down to dust:

    radio static
    crackling; my mother singing
    to herself nearby.

Two black horses
leading the hearse
to the house of the dead.

My poor father and his emerald knife
scratching and squinting his eyes away
chipping away into the night for pennies.
Sometimes the money wouldn’t come,
he wasn’t the sort to question things;
gleaming white plates, a bit of gravy,
roast and duck fat,
the slave and the bones in chains.

Il pape, not the pope, it’s what we used to call him –
Ill pappay – the fathering flower of a Tuscan vine.
At least it wasn’t Il Duce, Dad – the dome of your head,
richly tanned, it looked more boiled, a kipper
pumped with hot Neapolitan air and microwaved.

He squinted away his eyes,
those bulging applejohns on summer stalks –
winter hospital glass, the breath condensing,
I traced his face with my pinkie —
one of my first memories and the whiteness
of the wild as the snow fell at the end
of a cold decade. They buried the debts and lots,
filled every bed, holes in the light,
blank spots, blank stoppages,
every patch and face
blurring and peeling into smoke. The drake’s lantern:
cold sympathy served as warmed through
remains of a wastrel day –
a terminus, bus-light, trapped agents.

The clock stopped at 12.09,
the moment at which, it is said, he died.

Maybe the two men are actually ghosts in the graveyard.
The gravestone looks white
when you break it open,
like coconut ice.

What I haven’t said that I wanted to say — Dad
wanted to say, said he should have written a book,
but where was the book under the pram wheels,
the paycheque and rent demands,
so where was the book – he lived as he lived  
and he died, blind –

he gave away his time
and in time he gave away
his health – his body
falling apart as his mind
crumbled – the body follows —

When I’m old, before I die
The colour will flood back into my eyes
and the skies will fill up with tears
raining back as colours
to brighten my death.

Second night (Tuesday-Wednesday, April) – The mountains and the sea and the sky

in the second dream, the second night,
when you can’t see a metre in front of you
you make up stories about things you can’t see

the rock shook
and the mouse swallowed the mountain.
the mountain gives birth to a mouse:
an unseen promise – promise of a promise:
it’s not the silence of your blindness

river of ghosts
    water lanterns
              printed on the wind

i was looking for you
before i found you
in my dream. you were my dream
then one day i woke
and you were still there
lying beside me.

i kissed you, lightly,
so as not to wake you.

Third day (Wednesday, May) – The city

I remember this one.

She served me a shot glass of carrot soup and I pretended it was delicious.
We went into a salty backroom and did monkey impressions together
and I licked the sweat off the back of her shoulders.

Spermbank alley
a wishbone noose
         & red flashes
“this machine charges”

Sleep without dreams
night without stars
darling come back to me

I walked home in the rain
past what’s her name
and why did I never ask,
she’s there in a blanket
with a tin cup for money,
smoking a roll-up.

She ‘says’ with her hands
like hailing a cab to nowhere,
“No man is a traffic island.”
Her laugh
                     like a magnet
                                                 to a magnet.

The city’s cancer – this,
in the light of lost things
the list of never agains,
never anothers,
I get a cab to the edge of the city
and ride in obnoxious frippery
one last time.

In the morning,
     a wineglass full of rainwater.

The list of things I’ll miss seeing
when I can’t see:

              dropped where a conker
cleaves beneath my boot, an old
           yellow tennis ball.

I’ve kicked at the pricks
with their selfie sticks,
the white peal of a rock drill
burrowing into the hard ground
at Hoxton tea-lights,
that bloody squealing,
the screeching opera harpy, heavy machinery
creeching, mechanical lurch
of an Anglican brooch,
a junk gaberdine,
so much, the links’ punch
in the morning, the dread thump,
clump and me, grinch, and then

a tin
     can
         clatters
                 down
                      the steps
                                      it
                                          hits the tracks
                                                            & becomes a train

Third night (Wednesday-Thursday, June) – The magic lantern cinema

i want to tell you, if I could tell you,
all that you forget when you wake, all
your body remembers, the night’s
enchantment and the day’s rough course.

my love is death to you
my love for you is death
it will choke and smother you
wrap you and leach
the air from your lungs
the love from your heart
the sight from your eyes
and I will hold you as a dead doll
and you will be mine

i watch you while you sleep;
i know every curve of your body,
the childish perfection
of your skin,
the crown of your soft
angry eyebrows and your
hollowed eyes.
i know every mole
and turn of muscle
but you remain mysterious.

my love is you
my love is death
my love is you, death
my love is death

Fourth day (Thursday, July) – Summers

It was summer and her hair was spring
buds and hollyhocks
and yellow straw.
We loved in the lengthless day
and held each other in the evening,
red light for cherry lips
and sticky finger tips,
blood heat and beautiful
pumpkinseed and snowdrop.
She fell in the summer
and the apples in the orchard
withered overnight and all
fell rotten among the rows
in which we’d run.
She fell and the sun
never rose again.

                                  You are dreaming.

Vision of something I’ll never see again.
List the things I’ll never see,

  a chill in the air —
  the imprint of a body
  in the empty bed.

In the light of lost things,
the list of never agains
and never anothers:

      the rain,
the baby boy held in the lad’s arms
and the leaves’ rich green.

The bugsplat on the windshield:
“Why don’t you bloody clean it” she said.
“Clean what.”
“It’s filthy!”
“Looks all right to me,” I said.
It looked all right to me.

The sun is only setting
but it feels like 4am.

The list of things I’ll miss seeing
when I can’t see:

                   the puddle i jump into
                        & the splash it makes
                             twenty years before.

How perfect to live
at this moment – at dusk,
with the light fading.

I’m trying to make myself sad –
to make myself the saddest I can be, the saddest anyone
has ever been. So sad that finally
when I rise panting from the plunge,
starved for breath and gasping, when the sadness breaks
all over me and splashes back into itself in blue,
I’ll be less sad, even happy.
Sad happy or happy sad. I will stare into my life
and make myself the saddest I can ever be,
because finally
when I am the saddest anyone has ever been
I will be happy.

It isn’t black, blindness —
I don’t see black
but live a miasma of colour,
yellow, blue, green. I see
not red, not black. It’s like
swimming in a dream.

Fourth night (Thursday-Friday, August) – Dream within dream

i dreamed you were dying, i
dreamed you’d died
alone, at night, without me
and i was a ghost beside you,
absent and there, and you
cried out but i wasn’t there.

then i dreamed you were dying
in a bed below me
and my love couldn’t save you.

i did nothing, didn’t help, watched, held
your skin as the sickness emptied itself out,
the violence of the choked air rocked by screaming,
the shaking apart of the soul in anguish,
molt of angelwing, flake and fleck of bile, blood —
i did nothing.

you held me then in the morning
but I couldn’t tell you.

and dreams are real.

i dreamed in the dream you’d died.
you were blind and passed at night
from the unseeing to unseen shades —

blindness is a truer kind of vision.

as we pass into the unseen,

the sleepwalker
at the edge of the cliff
 leaps out of the dream.

Fifth day (Friday, September) – Pain

Dream of falling
blossoms — I wake
clutching a flower;

it reminds me of something i can’t remember
but know I’ve forgotten.
If I could not touch it
it would come back to me.

Outside in that weird light,
the last whistle of the guard —
the season’s snapped and it seems later than it is.
Everyone’s knocked off early.

They turned off the lights,
those fifties brights on brutalism,
halls, halls and halls and halls. Maybe I have dementia.
I bruised my knee. Crack, it caught on the corner –
more bloody painful than the old, you-know,
sight thing.

The slowness of the end,
how the spine seems like a cross
                      on which to hang flesh.

“I will drop you like an egg,” she said.
“You did,” I said.

Just the TV, mute flickering
in the corner of the kitchen;
the sun is only setting
but it feels like 4am.

Pain. That pain.
Pain of loss, pain of losing.
Pain of this, pain of choosing you,
Pain of drawing the moon down and burning up its flame to this
charred remnant, char
and smoking petrichor.

Pain of these eyes, these fading eyes,
the world dissolving into grey
and blue lights, a flood and cloud
of shimmering snailtracks and spiderdances.

The photograph is blurring, like film caught in the projector tearing into flame, black and yellow – the image of you in my mind is burning away, resolving into flames, into ashes, into night and nothing.

Pain of these joints, robot bolts
rusted with brown scars and tight spasms,
bend and warp.
Pain of you – I never meant for this.

Pain of the sunset when the paint has peeled off,
Pain of the dream that flies at morning —
I open my eyes
in the remnant of their light
and stare back at myself,
blank, finished, forgotten.
I am hollow. What remains
of a man when what makes him
has collapsed – a shrunken thing,
a beast, a ghost, sightless and sorry.

What is there left to want?
The ostrich flew.
Rook pie.

My head hurts. My eyes,
blood pressure, bad stories and failed
resolutions. There’s nothing inside me
but broken organs playing the wrong notes of forgotten tunes
tunelessly, voicelessly, in resounding silence,
as if nothing were not beautiful
     as empty as fullness
      as full as emptiness.

Pain of the laboured breath, rasp and pant;
Pain of the pint’s last third I can’t finish, I’m too weak to drink;
Pain of the empty table
stretching in front of me
as I drink alone.

Loss
Desire
Despair

Pain of that autumn morning
white with winter snow
Pain of

Pain and waste
Waste of

Fifth night (Friday-Saturday, October) – The marriage in the moonlight

what does midnight taste like?
a kiss without lips. you were sleeping.
do you remember our wedding,
when we were married in moonlight?

tender me
laid as carved in
lies on a cold slab of stone
shaken awake and peeling off skin
finger by finger
pretty white fingers
from my throat.

only love can end these tears
only death can open these eyes,
only blind —
these fragments
and movements
will perish
and fly from us
and become
what never was.

our love is not like love.
remember, we met in the dream,
two souls, unalike
in ways, the fracture of one mirror.

we shared our souls. what is the soul
if not desire? you are
my soul. what else could that be?

form the words. form the words
at the apex of the palette,
say the words, please, the sleep
still crumbly and crinkly in your eyes
before you remember you are yourself,
before you open your eyes to whatever’s left,
remember the words, say them,
say eternity, say
together, say
“apart, we are together”
and we will never be apart.

but when you wake
i know you won’t remember.

Sixth day (Saturday, November) – Home

Radio static
Crackling. My mother singing
To herself nearby.

Alone. Utterly alone.

I’m scared that when I lose my sight
I’ll lose my memories too —
It’s irrational — or I’ll have nothing
but memory to live in, a haunted
house full of ghosts
and noone living to remember.

The fable of the man who remembered,
the man who couldn’t forget —

  skating on Lake Empty;
the darkness is coming in
       the dark is inside.

Funny, memory. The torturer
and the laughing blade,
hacking away the happy evenings,
twisting the screwblade
of black nights spent staring
blankly, blackly into bleachblack
despair, death at your fingertips
but denied that mercy.

        Haunting the ghosts,
   the last guest —
          Hotel Amnesia:

Memory Palace —
   a deposed King
       haunting the ghosts.

The house has grown cold
   and soon there will be no one
       left for ghosts to haunt.

                     I close the door.

I spent years trying to write a musical setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116. My grandmother had recited it to me while she was going blind.

I could never finish the music. I started to believe that if I ever finished the setting she would die, so I didn’t.

She died very alone and very scared, and I never finished the music.

I guess I never will.

It isn’t black, blindness —
I don’t see black
but live a miasma of colour,
yellow, blue, green, I see,
not red, not black. It’s like
swimming in a dream.

Sixth night (Sunday, December) –  Dream without dream

i will carry you
the waters will bear you
 to sleep

two worlds in time

you are declining
you will move into and become the night
and embrace that dark world in your depths.
you will bridle the moon and ride on the stars
away into peace, the peacefulness
of last things, the silence that ends the sentence.

i’m standing on the egde of you,
ready to dive with you, into you.

you are not blind.
without sight
we see the whatness of things,
trembling — the terror
of the real, when the lights blaze
at the words
at the tip of the tongue
and the end of every judgement —
the night’s judgement.

moths flit and dazzle.
life is short and art
so long to learn. love astounds,
then it slips away.

my love is death to you.
my love for you is death.
it will choke and smother you
wrap you and leach
the air from your lungs
and the love from your heart
and i will hold you like a doll
and you will be mine

your love establishes the death in me,
the life and death in things,
the wreck of all
the shame and hope
of ending and beginning.

in the lights’ sparkle
i dreamed i held you.
our father in emerald.

please don’t lose
the best thing that’s inside you,
don’t give away
the biggest thing that drives you.

as we pass into the unseen,

           the sleepwalker
on the edge of the cliff
 leaps out of the dream —

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Week 27 – July 6-12 – Karen Mirza – The Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism

“This is yoga. Lots of smart people do it instead of going to church.” – Stewie Griffin

Each Wednesday they announce the following week’s Fig-2 artist. Today they’ve announced that next week the ICA studio space is going to be given over to physical activities. Like zumba and yoga, and dancing. Sounds dreadful, I know. When I was at school the PE teachers gave up on me and just let me sit in the corner of the gym reading Ulysses. I used to go orienteering, which is running around a forest with a map and compass racing against other fans of sci-fi and fantasy, but even this physical activity counts against any claim I might have on any kind of sporty jock cachet.

Apart from a ten-kilometre ‘fun run’ I did two years ago I don’t get any exercise. I no longer go running. Seriously, I don’t even run for the bus. I didn’t do a stroke of training for the fun run and I did the run partly to raise money for charity but mainly just to be ironic. Several people refused to sponsor me because they didn’t believe for a second I was going to do it. But I done it, not only that but I dressed up as a fairy with wings and a pink codpiece. I even live-vlogged it as I done it, and I raised £240.

Fun. I started being physically sick after two kilometres and continued to chunder repeatedly while sweating out my whole pituitary gland for the next three kilometres. After that it was sort of okay. I finished within twenty-four hours and noone had to call out Mountain Rescue (the run (okay, jog, bit of walking too) was through central London).

I wouldn’t blame you if you were not entirely amazed, therefore, to learn that I have never participated in the activity known as yoga. Or rather, this was the case until Week 27 of Fig-2 when as part of her week at Fig-2 Karen Mirza organised a session of Kundalini Yoga. Of course I had to go along. Valerie Solanis said that a man will swim through an ocean of snot if he thinks there is a friendly pussy on the other side, but a writer will drink the same ocean of snot if they think there might be a good story at the end of the draught.

Fig-2 Week 27 was Karen Mirza’s first solo exhibition in two decades. I don’t mean she’d been coaxed out of retirement for one last mission like in a cop movie. She usually collaborates. In her Fig-2 interview with Fatoş Üstek she says her relationship with her collaborator is strong enough now that they can do their own things. That’s okay. In the film Coffee and Cigarettes Iggy Pop tells Tom Waits that ever since he quit smoking it’s you know okay and you know now he can smoke! Bam! No, I’m sure they’re fine.

The week was called “The Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism” and involved private and public conversations via astrology, occultism, radical politics and yoga. In this it bears a similarity of content to Suzanne Treister’s Week 14 in which we explored HEXEN 2.0’s cybernetic history of everything according to conceptual tarot cards. Similarly Karen Mirza employed a range of approaches to explore her themes: silkscreen print collages, collaboration, borrowings from the archive of the College of Psychic Studies, her own desk and using the space as an office, and of course the yoga session, which I’ll get to.

It was an interesting week but sadly I missed the crucial event for the last day, the “Workshop of Ideas” that would have explained everything about what was going on and what the “Ectoplazm of Neoliberalism” is all about. Karen Mirza says it will take her two years to unpack what happened during the week. But I don’t know what happened because I missed this bloody key workshop.

Why did I miss it? I was volunteering at a soup kitchen after driving a school bus full of orphans to a children’s opera. In which I was singing. To raise money for charity. In drag. Okay, I went on my friend’s stag do and got trashed on a canal-boat resulting in Sunday being devoted to a £90 hangover, if you know what I mean. I’m definitely too old for this stuff. Who gets married in their mid-thirties anyway? You should get it out of the way in your early twenties for the sake of the physical health of your mates.

I did make it to the yoga session on the Thursday though, remarkably. Remarkable not only because it was in the morning at some horrendous hour like nine after a boozy band rehearsal the night before, but because this was during a tube strike. A sign on the door said noone would be admitted after 9.15am. It was.. oh dear.. or was it? The door opened. I was in. For however briefly, I was now a yoga bear.

Siri Sadhana Kaur encourages others to experience themselves as joyful instruments of expression and transformation.”

Now, I am not naturally a joyful instrument of anything. When my batterie of phone alarms and clock radios prises open my eyes in the morning, I force them shut again for as long as I can take of Hell’s bells and overly entitled twats being twats on the Today programme. I get up with complete loathing of self and world to swallow the bitter dose of hemlock that is another day of the futile slow death that is existence. From that moment on it gets worse until I can take no more of it and go to work, where my brain is slowly petrified in ennui and incompetence until I can take no more of that either and go home, whereupon I drink a litre of whisky neat from a Doc Marten boot and take prescription drugs and crystal meth until I can’t feel my feelings any more and then I strangle myself with my own hands until I pass out, then next day when the Alarm Chorus goes off I do it all again. At weekends I do the same but in high heels.

“Come back to the breath, come back to your inner experience. Just listen to your breath. Kundalini yoga is not yoga without munthra (mind, cut across) – cutting across the frequency of our mind against those thoughts that block us. Munthra cuts through it and creates a different space.”

Yoga leader Siri Sadhana Kaur was leading a chant when I crept in to become the tenth yogist. I peeled off my skinny jeans, put on some baggy pants I’d borrowed from a competitive eater, and lay down on the floor. For the next three hours or days, Siri led us on a journey into our own mind-body, releasing mental and physical blocks with a combination of soft speaking, guitar, breathing exercises, lying down, and a massive gong.

“Through the repetition we don’t understand the world, it takes us out of the logical explanation of things, puts us into a different space. Training the mind to come into a different frequency rather than did I do the washing how was the traffic this morning. The invitation right now coming into a place, the frequency of another state of consciousness. Through munthra calling in that, we implode to explode. The frequency that we put out is the intention that we create and set within. To tune myself to the bigger aspect of who I am, that capacity, potential ultimately. That’s all kundalini energy is, our destiny, our gift, why are we here, are we an ant, or do we have something greater.”

Kundalini Yoga is a Raj/Royal Yoga that was brought out of secrecy in the sixties by Yogi Bhajan (the famous cartoon picnic basket whisperer from Jellystone Park). It’s one of the more far out forms of yoga. Bikram in its American bastardization is a kind of group boil-in-the-bag intended to make you look and feel like a kipper on steroids. Kundalini is philosophical. It’s holistic and uses cardiovascular exercises that seem gentle but are cumulatively tiring: stretching postures, and lots of lying down that relaxes you after all the cardio, and breathing and meditation to calm your special little insane mind. These together with the channeling of the kundalini energy through mantra give many people a sense of greater physical and mental clarity, energy and focus.

The word yoga means union, and the philosophical and mental elements of the practice are often overlooked and the whole thing reduced to a bit of rolling around on mats during your lunch break to make you feel a bit less worse about having ordered takeaway again the previous night while finishing off the last season of Dexter.

“In yogic and spiritual traditions we each have a unique and spiritual gift. Are we gonna direct and traject our lives and align with that greater aspect or are we gonna get caught up with our own agenda? Through the sound journey you allow that frequency of consciousness and bigger vibration of consciousness to come into play. So we’ll take a deep breath now. We come into sound, making noise, just vibrating. A sigh. Sighs. It’s just nature’s way of detoxing and releasing.”

Life. I sigh all the time. The deep wearied sighing of a boy-man who knows he is wasting his time. My sense of futility is so overwhelming that in order to distract myself from it I fill up my life with as much crap as I can possibly take. A gig or a show or an event every night, crazy projects like writing a haiku a day for two years or an essay for every single week of Fig-2, a couple of bottles of wine a night, a full-time job, learning Italian on Duolingo, books, films, music, being in two bands, constant commuting and never stopping for a minute, just to block out the abiding awfulness of it all — an ironically joyous and life-embracing response to an emotionally crippling inner nihilism.

There is a cult of busyness which a lot of clever modern people are members of. People who are seemingly too busy doing their job to do their job are just the tip of the human iceberg floating towards the shambling Titanic of collective mental health meltdown. We’re all so busy being busy. As Ferris Bueller says, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around for a while, you could miss it.” Only we’re far, far too busy to dream of taking the day off.

“With munthra you’re allowing space through the breath you create that capacity to release space and open up to the bigger you. A different ok this is who I am right now. Keep open to that invitation to yourself, through the munthra – truth is my reality – rather than all the other conversations, history, etc. Truth truth truth, I am truth, I identify with truth. That’s all you’re repeating, it’s called jaffa and through that we create a new reality. Take a deep breath. Exhale. Fill into those cavities, those spaces within. Soften, then exhale, let yourself go. Inner massage through the diaphragm, exhale, feeling that internal massage. You might start to already feel the tension in your body that’s ok. And exhale.”

I enjoy an internal massage myself, like any red-blooded male mammalian metrosexual. But the demands yoga makes of you in breathing and stretching are as strange as dancing when not completely plastered. Self-consciousness and the sense of ridiculousness have to be overcome, which is not just difficult in itself but because these things are crutches. Embarrassment is a way of avoiding having to do things at which you might be good. Noone wants to be good at anything because if you’re good at something you have to keep being good at it otherwise you fear everyone will be disappointed, though really it’s just you that’s disappointed. Noone else cares.

“Through the munthra, through the posture, the breath, align yourself to truth. To your inner wisdom. Throughout this session we’re gonna start to do some postures, transformative postures from a master, use the munthra and then go into relaxation and then have a gong. So you get to experience a greater sound that cuts through the mind and the mental habits. By the time we’ve done the physical postures they’re there to exhaust you to take you into a transformative space.”

I have no inner seriousness at all. This is why I’ll never win the Nobel Prize. That, and because I know nothing about Physics. My natural mode is ironic and tricksy, which is another defence mechanism that has experienced a resurgence among Millennials or Generation Y, or basically among all of us born into the howlingly absurd world of Reaganomics and reality television.

Millennials are often afraid to express a firm opinion on anything in case someone gainsays it and they feel embarrassed. Instead of saying you like the new Nob Jockey album you describe it a bit, and if someone says they hate it then you hate it too. Until then there is the Schrödinger’s Cat situation of ironically detached fence sitting. This is a natural mode of adolescence anyway, but it’s uniquely perpetuated by digital natives sitting on all of the information in the world and unable to comprehend it. Everything levels out, and as it is in Brecht and Weill’s dystopian protoprelapsarian sin city Mahagonny “everything is available.”

“The gong is a deeply powerful sound unlike any other sound. A guitar string is plucked, there’s a peak, there’s a sound maximum then decay of sound. Just as sound decays the gong has an overtone of harmonic that confuses the mind that gives the trans-spatial experience. Expansive self to come alive. Allowing the energy bodies. We’ve got ten energy bodies in philosophy and you’re allowing those energy bodies to really come alive. Whenever someone walks in the room you meet their aura. Nine seconds if you’re in an interview and it’s based on this meeting. This is what the gong means.”

The gong is genuinely sublime and transporting. I did kind of get into the mantras and the soothing spiritualism and idealism of Kundalini yoga, but not completely. This would be something to pursue in further sessions, to learn to basically get over yourself, which I suspect is what the whole activity is for. But the gong. For half an hour we lay on the ground in a group sensory deprivation experience, drifting away on the sustained ebb of the gong.

The sound gently laps over you, lapping the sides, oneiric and beyond time. It’s not like driving on the motorway on a long journey when you’re alone with your regret that you hadn’t done everything you’ve done differently, that you hadn’t fucked up everything that ever happened to you and pissed off everyone you’ve ever met. There’s no thought. The alpha and delta waves kick in, and there’s just you and the gong. There’s just me and the gong. For a moment it could seem as if I could even be happy.

“Inhale. Exhale. Close your eyes and look to the pituitary gland, the master gland of the endocrine system but also the third eye. Look to the pituitary and inhale, exhale – inhale forward, exhale back. Keep looking at the pituitary gland. Come into vibrating – come into the heart centre.”

[They start breathing in and out really fast and noisily…]

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Week 19 – Ruth Beale – 11-17 May

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

Young Penrose was at his lowest. 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 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

Week 11 – Beth Collar – 16-22 March

I must be obsessed with liminality. It follows me around like a fog, or I move through it like a ghost. Neither one thing nor another, everywhere and nowhere, I’m never sure what I’m supposed to be.

Liminality in general usage is variously employed to mean ‘between two things’, kind of both and neither. The state between caterpillar and butterfly; the periods of adolescence and twilight; where you are during a spiritual vision or in an airport, in No Man’s Land or at a crossroads. Non-heteronormative sexualities and genders are liminal. Angels, centaurs; Lear’s wise fool, Lear himself; spies, ethnographic researchers; writers and artists. Consciousness itself seems to exhibit an ineffable liminality, existing between the past and the present, between rationality and instinct, between free will and determinism.

Liminality as a concept was originally developed in anthropology, specifically to describe ambiguities in the middle-stage of ritual activites such as initiation ceremonies, where participants stand at a threshold. It also came to refer to periods of cultural and political change during which social hierarchies are questioned, traditions ruptured, the future thrown into doubt. Basically: ENDTIMES… but thousands of years ago…

Over three hundred bodies have been found in bogs in Ireland. These ‘bog bodies’ date from as far back as the Bronze Age. The oldest is the Cashel Man from 2000BC. There is strong evidence to suggest that many of the bog bodies found in Ireland were ritually murdered. The Cashel Man may have been a Bronze Age king murdered by his tribe to appease the goddess of fertility, following the failure of crops. The inauguration of a king was a symbolic marriage to the land itself, with a responsibility toward the future of the tribe. So if a harvest failed, the tribe might replace him – through a ritual killing.

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What they couldn’t have known was that a climatic shift was happening during the Bronze Age, with increased rainfall and lowering temperatures. The increasing evidence of bog bodies from the period could stem from the fact that such conditions are ideal for the formation of bogs, but also because these conditions created a liminal period during which times became harder, and ritual tribal activity to appease the gods of the elements became more marked. What is theorized here is that the ritual killings evidenced by the prevalence of bog bodies were a prehistoric response to climate change. Which is an amazing thought. Imagine if we ritually sacrificed our oil-friendly climate-change-denying political leaders so we could cross the threshold into a greener period of history. Imagine bog-workers in four thousand years uncovering the immaculately preserved bodies of the leaders of the G8.

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Bog bodies are a beautiful collaboration between human ritual actions and natural processes. Following their very violent death and deposition, the bodies have been preserved because of the acidic composition of the bogs. There is water but not oxygen. This contrasts with the human efforts of cryogenics to remove the water from the body in order to preserve it (because water expands when frozen, destroying corporeal cells). The bogs themselves are of peat formed from the dead bodies of plants. The bog forms a record of history (not unlike the rings of a tree), both climatic and social. The stratified layers in a metre of peat can contain a millennium of history which can be ‘read’ in a laboratory: the presence of varieties of pollen can indicate farming activity; ash and birch are evidence of intensive human communities.

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Thus, the human is written into the landscape. This is literally the territory of Beth Collar’s work for Week 11 of fig-2, developing themes she began exploring during a 2014 residency in Bristol using not peat but mud as a starting point, making shaky videos of mud and water and silt — liminal substances — in the New Cut, a man-made cut through the River Avon in the middle of Bristol. In her interview with curator Fatoş Üstek she compares this to the Andes where she discovered similar landscapes that in the films (exhibited at fig-2) are seemingly devoid of the trace of the human. But are they?

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Theodor Adorno said that form is “sedimented content”. I think of this as I look at the work. Videos of tea and milk in water forming beautiful clouds, then the clouds over the Andes and the silt brought up into water as the tide comes in. The use of dehydrated turnips as part of the framing of the drawings on the walls, presenting pencil landscapes, one of which was actually a vagina, or rather labia. The human drawn into landscape or the other way round? The drawings presented with stratified layers of wood and paper, framing but also integrally part of the content: layered, suspended, sedimentary.

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The centrepiece of the exhibition was an uncanny water feature involving a disembodied head-like sculpture that degraded over the week owing to the action of the water being pumped back round from the pool. This mimics natural processes of erosion and decomposition, as well as reflecting the ephemerality of the installation itself. The show is over, the victim of water and time, whereas the destructive forces of nature have a paradoxical creativity: nothing is lost, only changed.

Beth Collar’s work for Week 11 forms a reflective exploration of liminality through transformations in matter and through substances that can evoke multiple states – like the undead status of the murdered bog bodies, discoloured by the peat but still distinguishable as themselves, the product of both ritual action and natural process. There is a compelling poetry in the connections between all of these substances and states, bodies and landscapes, that is both alien and familiar, profound and full of emptiness. Then the stratified layers of the bog revealing history, and the ‘sedimented content’ of the bog bodies: dead kings ruling over a kingdom of rain.

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I am indebted to this BBC Four documentary on ‘bog bodies’ http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03js0gf

Week 8 – Edmund Cook – 23 February-1 March – ‘Enumerators’

“The Lumière Brothers were a hundred and twenty years ago! Come on lads, step up..”

My companion was not impressed. For Week 8 of fig-2 we’d watched Edmund Cook record a live soundtrack to his short film ‘Enumerators’ in which there is a fictional technology to record people’s thoughts in public space, but it doesn’t work as intended; the video allows us to access fragments from the thought-stream. These were voiced by the artist live, setting up ambiguities and interactions between its fixed text and improvisation and uncertainty in delivery; and between the image and the sound, so for example, it becomes unclear whether the little stones are talking to the man or vice versa, or whether the voiceover can in fact be attributed to either. Guitar pedals were employed to make a suitably atonal sound-based soundtrack.

My companion argued that it “could have been done by anyone over the past fifty years – some noodly sound, non-sequential images and abstract words that don’t make any sense”. I enjoyed his rejection of the work; it seemed a good foil for my tendency to buy into any old thing. Yet I wonder… Is he right, or is he missing the point because he just doesn’t like video art? Does anyone like video art?

Today we’re going to take a look at some of the more irritating characteristics of video art, or to put it another way, some of the characteristics of video art.

Some Typical Characteristics of Video Art

Nothing Happens Nothing quite captures the essence of the nothingness of existence better than nothing, and nothing captures the nothingness of a third of our existence better than Andy Warhol’s Sleep (1963), which is six hours of the camera fixed on someone while they are asleep. You can say video art provides a space in which to dream, by which you might mean it is inspirational, or that it causes you to nod off.

Technical Experimentation – You know when a roadie taps the end of a microphone to see whether it’s on or not? That’s technical experimentation. Video art has taken such humble technological beginnings — Is it switched on? — and expanded them into a vast corpus of work documenting the switched-on-edness of different technologies. A new type of lens filter demands a ten minute demonstration. This is edgy and vital experimental cinema. Jacob Nelson’s Double Vision is a fine example, using combined video signals from two Sony Portapaks through a mixer to provide a stirring insight into combined video signals.

Graininess – The most obvious quality of video as a medium is its lack of visual resolution. While film must be sent to a lab and developed, video is instantly available, though this makes it endearingly crappy; compare the difference between still photos in a silver gelatine print and a polaroid. This instant availability made it possible for Nam June Paik in 1963 to film Pope Paul VI in New York and relay the footage the same day in a Greenwich Village cafe; one contender for the ‘birth of video art‘. In the intervening fifty years, technology has advanced and we have instant access to digital video, which can reveal breathtaking resolution, but, because we’re just using our smart-phones, is just as crappy as ever.

Nonsequentiality/NonlinearityIn an interview for fig-2 Edmund Cook has said “I’ve tried to do narrative loads of times but every time I try and write a story it just kind of falls apart because I’m not interested enough and I don’t want to create emotional characters for people to empathise with and their journey, I’m not really interested in that. its more about a certain situation or a certain tension or a certain set of textures.“

Video art is typically distinguished from narrative/theatrical cinema by avoiding many of the conventions that make even the most hackneyed Hollywood guff watchable: plot, character – even actors and dialogue are mostly abjured. Examples abound, but perhaps interesting is how over the course of his Cremaster Cycle (trailer) Matthew Barney moves away from this and toward both the production values and some of the sequentiality of Hollywood cinema, even if it necessarily remains disrupted in order to maintain his Artistic Credibility.

Selling Out – Many video artists are frustrated movie directors. The budgets, the glamour… if only it weren’t for that pesky storytelling business. Steve McQueen‘s 1993 film Bear, in which two naked black men wrestle-cum-dance in a sexy way and in which nothing is resolved (they don’t even fuck), curiously prefigures all of his more recent output such as Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years A Slave, if not his raft of Oscars.

Contrastingly, it is quite incalculable the damage that Sam Taylor-Johnson (née Taylor-Wood) may have done to her YBA credibility in making froth like Nowhere Boy and Fifty Shades of Grey, though we admire her commitment to turning her back on video art. Let’s face it, most video art is as boring as watching a woman with a fringe being spanked by a man in a grey suit to a soundtrack of Snow Patrol. Hmm, maybe she’s not travelled so far after all.

Gross shit – This is video art’s special contribution to the philosophical category of Abjection, whereby, in Kristevan thought, taboo elements are presented and confronted as a disruption of social reason and the symbolic order. The video work of Paul McCarthy takes a special relish in chocolate sauce, weird liminal characters with obnoxious protuberances, and general unfathomability; his film Painter (1995) is family viewing every bit as fantastic and harrowing as Frozen. For those who like their gross shit more real, there’s Martin Creed‘s Work No 600, which is just unspeakable, but beautifully shot in 35mm.

Drunkenness From Neolithic potters in the Orkneys to Tracey Emin stomping off from the Turner Prize, no artist has ever dazzled us with their moderation. Gillian Wearing’s Drunk (1997-99) has a sobering documentary impetus, and we prefer the commendable dipsomaniac pointlessness of Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (1972) in which Gilbert & George get gamely plastered on the iconic juniper-based spirit.

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