Fig-2 at Bicester Village – 29 October 2015

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

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

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

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Bicester Village, Oxford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I was bad & I bought a suit..

Week 19 – Ruth Beale – 11-17 May

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

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

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

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

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

He knocked on the door.

‘Go away!’

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

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

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

‘Sorry.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The face in the door scrutinised Penrose.

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

Penrose had never heard of it.

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

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

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

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

‘Trying to be.’

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

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

‘What?’

‘Everything.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Yes, it’s not going very well.’

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

***

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

‘I’m Penrose,’ said Penrose.

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

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

‘Sorry.’

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

Penrose was puzzled.

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

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

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

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

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

The Librarian grew expansive.

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

‘Is the universe not just one possibility?’

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

‘So what’s the problem?’

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

‘Can anything be done?’

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

‘In the universe?’

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

Penrose balked, ‘Outside of the universe?’

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

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

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

‘What’s the Digitization Project?’

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

‘All of it?’

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

‘And how long will that take?’

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

‘That soon, huh?’

***

‘Are there any lavatories in this infinite library?’

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

***

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

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

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

***

‘And how are we today young master Penrose?’

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

‘You’ve changed the reference?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

‘Phew. Hot in here.’

‘Air conditioning’s broken again.’

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

‘What? What’s wrong?’ asked Penrose.

‘What’s printed on that rock?’

‘What rock?’

‘That rock.’

‘Thats a paperweight.’

‘What’s printed on it?’

‘Nothing. It’s a paperweight.’

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

‘It says I Love Gibraltar.’

‘Is there a reference?’

‘A reference?’

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

***

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

***

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

***

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

‘What? What is it?’

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

‘So what’s the problem?’

‘I’m starting to forget. Look.’

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

‘Everyone forgets things!’ protested Penrose.

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

Penrose thought.

‘Excluding me?’

‘Yes’

‘And you?’

‘Obviously me.’

‘And the cleaners?’

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

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

‘And reshelvers, do they count?”

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

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

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

‘But that counts. That validates the Library.’

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

‘Is that important? The popularity?’

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

‘I thought the Library was publicly funded.’

The Librarian snorted.

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

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

‘But it’s the Library of Everything.’

‘Not any more.’

***

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

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

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

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

‘I’m writing a book.’

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

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

‘It’s a Library.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘But it’s a Library.’

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

***

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

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

***

‘There must be something we can do!’

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

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

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

‘Follow me,’ said the Librarian.

***

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

***

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

‘How would I know? It’s secret.’

‘You must know.’

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

‘But they’re all blind.’

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

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

‘Obviously they dictate it.’

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

***

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

‘About what?’

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

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

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

‘I haven’t written it yet!’

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

‘Because the Library is infinite?’

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

‘The Library is dying?’

‘Yes.’

‘Because the people in the books are dying?’

‘Yes.’

‘We can save them. Can’t we?’

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

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

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

‘But you helped me. We were so near!’

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

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

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

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

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Week 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 30 – Anna Barham – 27 July-2 August

Fig-2_30_50_16Don’t be evil.

In 2007 Google (the well-known lunar landings provider who did the search engine thingy) introduced a free directory inquiry service in the US called GOOG-411. Your call was digitally parsed by the ‘robot operator’ who then offered to connect your call to its top results. It wasn’t clear what Google was getting out of providing this generous free service, which they even promoted on billboards.

Three years after its introduction the service was suddenly dropped. Google had already released its search-by-voice service in Android, and so the penny.. dropped. GOOG-411, as Google has admitted, had been a covert phoneme-gathering operation intended to create a huge database to improve voice recognition technology for Google’s search products.

Google had amassed thousands of hours of requests for plumbers and pizza delivery and connections to confusingly named places like Schenectady spoken in every accent from every state of the US. The free GOOG-411 service enabled the technology and techniques that activated the speech recognition software which was and is now amassing a vast repository of spoken words in every language on earth, improving itself in a perfect feedback learning loop every time the user corrects a faulty transcription.

Open the pod bay doors, Siri.

Fig-2_30_50_7Anna Barham’s video “The Squid That Hid” outlines the difficulties speech presents to speech recognition software, from accent pronunciation and articulation to background noise. The big problem is that spoken words just run on from each other. It’s hard for humans too. Without visual punctuation it can be hard or impossible to arrange the string of syllables into words into sentences. To the untrained ear Polish sounds like English recorded to tape and played backwards. Yiddish sounds like someone cheating at Scrabble. English sounds like a sarcastic Swede reading words at random from a car manual (see also “Prisencolinensinainciusol”).

Ambiguity over the beginnings and endings of words is the basis of the Four candles/ fork handles sketch, and ambiguity about punctuation gives rise to the Eats shoots & leaves joke.

In the first line of Finnegans Wake we find “past Eve and Adam’s” which can also be read “Pa, Stephen: Adams” which deliberately equates Joyce’s father Stanislaus and his fictional portrait of the artist as a young man and archetypal Son Stephen Daedalus with the Bible’s archetypal Father figure Adam.

Seemingly Fleshed Inside

It all begins with this passage from Image Machine by Bridget Crone (2013). Anna Barham used it as the starting point for the film Double Screen (not quite tonight jellylike) which presents variations on Crone’s text as reworked and mangled by voice recognition software. I say “it all begins” but Crone’s text is itself a response to Amanda Beech’s Fi nal Mac hi ne. I daren’t look whether this also derives from something else for fear we’ll end up in some bottomless pit of recursion and influence.

Barham’s use of the text next went into Penetrating Squid, an ongoing novel whose third chapter forms the basis of the text that was the basis of her week at Fig-2. The text was generated in live reading groups where readers take it in turns to read a text into transcription software. Barham has apparently generated over a hundred versions of Crone’s text. Barham then went on to read short sections over and over again through the software to generate more radical disruptions and the three chapters of Penetrating Squid, which are audible on Soundcloud.

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Crone’s text starts with a description of cleaning a squid and as bits fall onto newspaper the words distort and the text itself distorts and falls into associative chains of sounds and images. In the original we find “Tight pieces of sinewy flesh inside the squid try to hold onto this gooey mess” which is one of the short phrases whose variations form the bulk of the text Barham uses, which start off recognizably: “tried to hold onto the screen pieces of silver reflections cybersquaring trying to hold onto the screen” and get further “trying to hold onto the discreet/discrete maths inside the square” and further out: “listening in the pool pieces of seemingly flesh inside”.

IMG_0299In the ICA studio space for Week 30 of fig-2 Barham set up a microphone plugged into a Mac running OS X dictation software with a printer, plus a screen displaying the text as it was generated by the visitors reading. Visitors to the space were encouraged to read from the printouts they found, producing new printouts for the next visitors. As you’d expect over the course of a week the text bore little recognition to chapter three of Penetrating Squid.

Even over the course of successive readers the changes are considerable. In four steps we find, in no particular order, “Hello all this time”, “Hello I’m Harry”, “Okay hello and hurry”, “Okay hello unhurried”. It’s the old game of Chinese Whispers in electronic form.

IMG_0312The OS X software has real-time correction routines that try to identify the meaning of what is being said and retrospectively correcting it, so for example identifying whether you were ‘being discreet’ or rather talking about ‘discrete forms of meaning’.

Intriguingly, this illustrates aspects of Wittgenstein’s theory of language, that we create meaning not via the relation of individual words to the things we associate with them necessarily but via the relation of the words between themselves. The noun ‘Good’ stands for something different thing to the good of ‘good game’. Going on, Wittgenstein challenges us to come up with a meaning for the word “game”. We can’t agree, but we all know what it means in use. Meaning is use. This is the principle that Google Translate and OS X Dictation use: context.

It is awesomely powerful, but incomplete. While the machine understands to an extent meaning as generated by use, there’s still a step missing here, perhaps even missing from Wittgenstein’s theory, that would explain why we can’t agree on our game but still know what it means. It’s a cognitive next step that people working in voice recognition software are struggling with, entering the realm of Artificial Intelligence to seek the breakthrough.

Even with such clever tech and with the rich amount of phoneme data that has been gathered in exercises such as GOOG-411, it is still remarkable how hard it is for machines to transcribe speech, as Anna Barham’s work amusingly demonstrates. Never ask a robot to sell you fork handles.

TRYING TO HOLD ONTO THE SCREEN

In Week 29 of Fig-2 I said that “You are an internet” and imagined inhabiting posthuman cyberspace having transcended physical form. In an act of direct regression, this week I have experimented with subverting this in real time to explore who is The Best: machines or humans? So please put your hands together for this my experiment with manually performing voice recognition transcription. You might think the transcriptions of software are laughable, but wait until you see mine.

I typed out all seven minutes of “Penetrating Squid / Chapter 3 / Seemingly Fleshed Inside” from the soundcloud, first with stops to type, and then typing straight through trying to keep up as best I could. Both attempts are viewable in this googledoc.

In the first pass, which took about forty-five minutes, I couldn’t decide between certain homonyms (discreet/discrete, you’re/your, onto/on too), made harder by the lack of conventional running sense. My ears are pretty good but I wasn’t sure if I heard lightly or likely. I typed silly instead of city.

The second pass, in real time, was of course a trainwreck. Certain omissions and conflations occur near the start and everything is mis-spelled, and then it just gets worse as I miss more, and at some point I knock CAPS LOCK on without realizing. By this point words have bled into each other and are half formed and in the wrong order, the text obliterated, repetitious. I enjoyed afterwards finding an example of spontaneous creative accident: a Joyce-style portmanteau word QWEAKNESS. At a couple of points I froze completely and I remember typing the letter ‘i’ about six times in a row, utterly defeated.

Insight is quick / inside the squid

mutant lisp generatorThe texts created from accidents can be beautiful and poetic. Is Anna Barham a poet? This is a kind of suggestive poetry, certainly if the meaningless syllables of dada poetry can be said to be poetry. The poetry creates kinds of sense because each word has a meaning, and new meanings are being created and found by the strange aleatory juxtapositions of the words. A clash of meanings is set up where there was no conscious intention. It is created anew by use and association, which brings us back to Wittgenstein’s notions of meaning as use.

Random associations and meanings can also occur in the physical dimension, or our perception thereof. Whenever I see or think about Anna Barham’s (amazing) anagrammatic Twitter handle “Banana_Harm” I have the sensation that I can smell foam banana sweets. For Mmm: by Anna’s tweaks.

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I am indebted to Daniel Soar’s LRB article “It knows” for the Google knowledge, and Fig-2 curator Fatoş Üstek’s interview with Anna Barham.