Anticipation, expectation and delivery – a post-referendum interpretation of the visitor experience of the Berlin Biennial 2016

I recently attended the 2016 Berlin Bienniale, alongside ten other arts professionals from the region, with the support of a bursary provided by Visual Arts South West. Prior to going we read some of the reviews of the Biennial which were not very promising. The article in the Guardian by Jason Farago had the headline “In the hands of New York fashion collective DIS, one of Europe’s biggest exhibitions is now a feeble blancmange of ads and avatars – where is the art?” Written on 13th June, following the opening, Farago began with a reference to drowning refugees, before stating “this show does not argue for a better art world; it argues for giving up on art entirely.”

Despite the negative review, as someone who has a history of interest in the virtual world and wrote my MA Fine Art thesis about the Virtual Body, I looked forward to making up my own  mind. I set off in anticipation of enjoying some of the works and was not disappointed. But I’d be lying if I said his comments hadn’t impacted on my expectations. I sought to keep my attention on an exploration of the visitor experience, in this case, my own, in the company others to discuss it with. The conversations were, as anticipated, very informative and revealed some useful learning.

Our visit to Berlin was only one month after Farago wrote his piece, during which time a referendum was held to decide whether the UK would remain in the European Union, or not. The result was to leave. As was one of the 48% that voted to remain, I arrived feeling like giving up, not just on art, but on the UK too. I was not alone. Since Brexit, the world seems to have become untethered, not only might the UK split from the EU, but it too has come under threat of collapse. A country divided. With no-one holding the reins, those responsible walked away, leaving no forward plan in sight. So the Bienniale was experienced through the lens of Brexit and shrouded by the emotional sensitivity that it had aroused. We entered a world that no curators could have predicted. The science fiction novel Bold As Love by Gwyneth Jones, written in 2011, is a book about that very possibility, but I haven’t finished reading it yet. I can’t help wondering whether the DIS team had.

When we had our meeting with two of the DIS curators, Lauren Boyle and Marco Rosso, they began their talk by making reference to the Guardian article. It was still a sore point for them, but I already felt that Farago’s diatribe was no longer relevant because the context for the exhibition had shifted so far since he wrote it. He experienced the show in a different world, the old world. The curators explained that the Bienniale had evolved around the concept of an ‘incomprehensible present’. Many of the works connected across the showing spaces as part of a hyperlinked landscape, bridging the city and the locations. The works themselves were mostly very fast, very virtual, very surreal, yet oddly a little bit like retro sci-fi. The now we are confronted with is not looking good, the present we are living in is, or should I say was, because it moves so very fast, both incomprehensible and unimaginable.

When DIS initially set out to provide a mix of contemporary works that would represent, and illustrate, a sense of loss of future, it was a good premise to work towards, as a theory. Three years ago when they took up post as the curatorial team, no-one could have imagined the impact of Brexit. Little did they anticipate that a sense of loss of future would become the norm for millions of people.

The ‘futures’ they shared were pretty tame and unimaginative, based mostly on 1960’s/70’s science fiction narratives which didn‘t get close to foreseeing the events of the present. The world that they imagined as so intangible has proved to be real. No artworks could hold up through a period of such a constantly-shifting timeline of daily unanticipated change. When DIS planned their show they did not know that a referendum would be called, nor that Brexit could occur; or that the refugee crisis would be as damaging to the world as it is now; the devastation of the war in Syria or, while we were present in Berlin, a truck ploughing down people in Nice and a military coup in Turkey.  Every day brings more twists and turns which flash up daily on my iPad. Every morning brought something more shocking than the previous one. Racism, violence, suicide attacks, mass slaughtering. A little like what science fiction films are made of.

So, returning to my intention to write about the visitor experience, I will reference just one work that encapsulated the overall sense of disorientation that the Berlin experience evoked in me. And I believe in others too. And it sums up how anticipation, expectation and delivery can impact on our experience of art, and can be very different for each visitor, depending on their own unique encounter.

The work that sticks in my head most is View of Pariser Platz, 2016 by Jon Rafman, which involved wearing an Oculus Rift headset.IMG_6015

As a group, following the curators talk, we were excited to try out this new experience and only one of us had ever worn an Oculus Rift headset before. Being English, we politely queued (see above) in an orderly line to await our turn (see above). From the balcony of the Akademie der Kunste, we looked out at the Brandenburg Gate to the left and across to the French Embassy, on the other side of Pariser Platz. It was the morning after the truck drove through people on the streets of Nice. To don an Oculus Rift headset that merged the virtual and the real was more potent due to the events of the previous night. On the balcony were placed some strange, monstrous creatures and the white tent-like structures (see photo) were outside the Embassy where people were leaving flowers, and high security surrounded the area.

According to the Bienniale website the programme offered a situation whereby “The intangible becomes real, and the real becomes incomprehensible”. The experience of the Rafman work would need reframing, it is more a case of the real becomes intangible and the intangible becomes placebo. The film we all experienced was, to my knowledge, the same one. It began by locating us where we actually stood or sat, on that balcony. Then the surreal imagery was layered over the ‘real’ place and became immersive. From conversations after the event, it soon became clear that we all had different experiences, so much so that we began to wonder whether there were various versions of the film, not just one.

What intrigued me was to what degree our place in the queue, near the front or the back, and the conversations we had with those before us, influenced our reception of the experience, not just emotionally, but physically too.

When the first people wore the headset they mostly decided to stand up. Some stood stock still and gently turned their head around, as if watching quietly, whilst others became very animated, twisting their bodies, leaping back as, we later understood, images approached them or threatened them. The more active the early experiencers became, the more nervous those of us queuing felt. When people took off the headset they often looked disorientated, confused, startled and a little dizzy. At first we asked people about their visual experience, but we soon became increasingly concerned with the physical impacts. The steward was asked if anyone had thrown up during the experience. “Yes, several people have done so” was the reply. Therefore those of us who suffer from vertigo decided to sit in a chair rather than stand. The longer we queued, the more anxious we became.

The thought of public vomiting did not appeal to me. I sat down, as did Sara Bowden, seen in the photograph above. The presence and absence of the people on the balcony was punctuated by people reading their mobile phones, snatching the wifi moment. Even the steward read hers while each person took their turn. We were physically a group together, but were worlds apart in our heads. It is slighly ironic to consider that the player here is not looking at the people, who are looking a their phones, but at something else entirely, quite possibly a virtual rendering of the rhino-creature behind him swimming past…….

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Later conversations revealed that those who enjoyed gaming were more animated, those of us who don’t were more likely to take a seat. There were varying levels of comfort with the virtual experience. But the truth is, the biggest discomfort from my perspective was the horror of the real world unravelling outside. The massive development of the area, the new buildings on the horizon, the private mourning of the families that had been devastated the night before in Nice. All those things, alongside my fear of feeling sick or dizzy, prevented me from immersing myself fully in the experience. I was distracted by the world. It appears that those were most fulfilled by the experience were those that succumbed to it fully – mind and body.

Going to the Bienniale in the middle of Brexit created a fracture, indeed a rift, in my body and my thinking. It has informed the way I experience art and life. With a raised awareness of the impact of prior knowledge and experience of audiences and the thinking about the present speed of social change, it raises challenges for curators and producers in terms of time. These huge, scattered site shows take years to plan and prepare. What I learnt is that you cannot foresee a future, so to deliver against a futuristic agenda is to make oneself vulnerable to failure. Just as the experience of the Oculus Rift disappointed these that had time to build up an emotional armour, likewise Biennials will always put themselves in the firing line unless they choose their theme wisely. Preferably one that won’t disappear down a black hole of social instability.

Another critique of the delivery of the exhibition is that the content of the 9th Berlin Bienniale was so heavily dependent on the virtual it was destined to be defunct even before it was installed. Because that is the nature of the virtual, it can over-ride the real. On this occasion, it was upstaged by it.

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ABC(D) 123 where do we start and where do we go? my art life and Prema

Interesting to re-read this in the light of living in the Forest of Dean for the past ten years. There are Prema-equivalents here for people, I suspect Cinderford ARTspace is one of them. I’m more than a little interested in thinking about all of this and using it as a way of working here in the Forest. Would love to hear from other artists in the forest what their thoughts might be? What other groups were influential? FAN? BigArtWeb? Any others?

encounters with art in unusual places

ABC(D)

Watch this video and smile, and think about how easy ABC is – then think about the D in brackets…..

I will explain – yesterday I heard the term ABCD for the first time. Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) is a community development approach that is:

  • broad in scope
  • solution-focused
  • strength based
  • community driven

Like the Jacksons, we all understand ABC – it’s linear, sequential and is finite, ending with Z.

Compare that with 123 – which is infinite

Both are about learning and we are taught how to know our limits, and by doing so learn our deficits. We then set out to make good those deficits, maybe on a personal basis or in terms of community, or business or skills – whatever. We do this because we seek D = development.

Why do we always start with a negative and try to turn it around? Why don’t we…

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Jonathan Jones talks about reassuring rubbish – I think the objects we own tell wonderful stories about people & places

Jonathan Jones has written a piece about an exhibition in New York about collections and collectors. It looks fascinating. The headline for his text is “New York art show The Keeper celebrates our poetic obsession with objects, but how many of us simply surround ourselves with familiar, reassuring rubbish?”

I beg to differ. It all depends on the context. If the context is a high profile art exhibition of objects that have been curated with quirkiness and value in mind, then maybe he is right. But if the context is a genuine investigation into how we relate to some of the objects we choose to keep, and the stories they tell of our personal history, our family’s and lives, then the objects we keep are far more than reassuring rubbish. They map our genealogy.

My research into the Story of Objects is revealing some fascinating insights into what these talismanic objects can hold for people.  They speak of our past and they also possess a future, which interestingly, few refer to unless asked. Yet people often leave objects in their wills to their loved ones, but do they tell their story to the recipients? Often, without the associated narrative, those precious things become yet another orphaned object, to be dropped off at the local charity shop as soon as the funeral is over.

In doing workshops with young and old, rarely does anyone struggle to think of a special object they own. Never have they refused to tell me why it is important to them and when they do tell me it is often the first time they have articulated that story, to anyone, ever.

I’m looking deeper into this phenomena and one of the things I’m exploring is how to capture the elements of those stories visually – not as art, not as catalogue, but as a visual record of their narrative. I’m piloting the thinga.me app and below is my first try at storyboarding with it. It is quite limited, but efficient. I’m inclined to more pared-down with my visuals, as my own graphic identity suggests. But it’s worth exploring and testing it.

This board is about something I have used for many things, a found object retrieved from a burnt out garage of a house that became my parents much-loved home. A glass bowl that has, in its lifetime, lived on a dressing table, held screws in a garage, contained earrings and now holds coconut cream.  It is a beautiful thing and a pleasure to handle – the glass is fine, the bevelled edges delicate. The silver top is dented yet still clips onto the rim securely.

It may literally hold things as a vessel, for utilitarian purposes, but it also holds memories of my parents favourite home. My parents bought it following a serious house fire and the old lady that had lived there was taken to a safer place to live.  My father died in Clematis Cottage and it was right that he should. My mother stayed for as long as she could, until she moved out just as the previous owner had.

This little pot is not just a memory of my parents home, it is also a connection to my past. It is a conduit for emotions.

I’ve tried to connect both people and places in the storyboard – am not sure it says as much as it should. I’d appreciate feedback if anyone has any.

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Garden Cafe Open Studio exhibition-try something different!

Artists Rob Olins and Carina Greenwood talked on BBC Radio Gloucester last week about the Commodity exhibition at the garden Cafe, Lydbrook.

Have a listen to the conversation, because this is a first for the Forest and Valleys Open Studio’s – a curated show installed, may I say it myself, very sensitively, in a rural cafe tucked away in Lydbrook. It’s well worth a visit this weekend – it ends on Sunday at 4pm.

I’m going to write reflexively about it in due course, but encourage you to come and see it now, before it closes. It’s the last shout !! And what better than a weekend in the Forest when the sun is shining. And I plan to pop in to see the new work by Henry Castle at the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trail too, why don’t you?

FANDVOS OPEN STUDIOS 2016 Brochure- full trail programme – and there are some real gems – don’t miss Mollie Meager or Chris Waygood….there are some other fab ones too….but I don’t have time to list them all here.

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above: work by Novvy Allan

The Forest of Dean, the rural & the arts

I’m delighted to hear that Arts Council England and The Forestry Commission have signed an MOU to work together to support contemporary arts in woodland areas. Some of you may be aware I worked for the Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust for several years as their Project Director – I enjoyed every minute of it. At the time, whilst there were already many art projects hosted on Forestry Commission land, they weren’t particularly regarded as an important part of the FC offer. Don’t get me wrong, FC were incredibly supportive, but their visitor surveys didn’t even ask about whether or not people came to see the art at their sites. But that’s all changed now.

The appointment of Hayley Skipper up at Grizedale a few years ago marked a wind-change for FC and their relationship with art. Since then, Hayley has worked very effectively towards this moment, which is very exciting to see. Excellent leadership and patience has paid off. And Cathy Mager on a local level is doing some great work too.

This MOU is a turning point for arts in the Forest of Dean too. I’ve blogged before about how things are happening here – Blackrock last year; new works on the Sculpture Trail; a selected show for Forest of Dean and Valleys Open Studios group; and artists migrating to live here. New groups are forming too, Forest Arts Action Group, around the Postcard Exhibitions which fundraise for refugee projects.

One thing about the Forest is the reliance on word of mouth to spread the news. Facebook is increasingly used and is cheaper than setting up web pages, and easier to update and share. Checkout a few of these links and find out what is going on (or has recently):

Forest of Dean and Wye Valleys Open Studios

Cinderford Artspace

Forest of Dean Sculpture Trust

Taurus Crafts

Blackrock (last year) review

Difference Screen (last year, continuing)

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Story of Objects as a learning tool – changing the way we think about ‘things’

The recent research I have done has revealed that talking about objects we love, shared within a small group of people in a safe environment, can be life-changing (at its best) and very enjoyable (at its least).

It is a great way to develop storytelling techniques and to express our feelings and intellectual approach to understanding the objects we encounter in life. Most particularly, for my own practice in the arts sector, it is a way of talking about things, including art, in a new way.

Sometimes it’s hard to explain to another person why we keep something close to us forever. Sometimes it’s equally difficult to understand why we fall in love with a painting, or feel engaged by an artwork that we don’t think we even understand. Some art shuts us out in some way – we can’t even find an opening to approach it. It leaves us cold. We walk away without trying to understand it.

How can we develop tools that can help us to pursue the curiosity that art so often stimulates?

How can we see things differently?

As an adult education tutor many years ago my greatest achievement was to know that some people felt I had helped them ‘to see the world differently’.

It still makes me smile to type that.

The Story of Objects can help to do that too.

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Commodity Exhibition: part of Forest & Wye Valley Open Studios 

I was invited to select work made by the Forest and Valleys Open Studio membership on the theme of ‘Commodity’. I’ve lived here for ten years and in that time I have learned more and more about how many artists live here. And there are a lot of them, understandably, because it’s a very beautiful place that has inspired writers and artists and musicians for many years. It also has a long history of commoners rights and anarchic behaviour, and that political fervour has contributed to the feisty behaviour of people here, who love this unique landscape and defend it to the hilt. Recent threats include being sold off, and now there’s the threat of fracking.

‘Commodity’ seeks to reveal both sides of the coin – the beauty and the beast – by suggesting artists share work that explores the natural resources through the lens of landownership and the natural resources. Those industrial materials – timber, stone, coal, ochre and iron ore, were the backbone of local industries. There were also wire works, brick works and Rank Xerox. Those industries have been replaced by tourism.

Come to see the Commodity Exhibition in the Garden Cafe, nestled next to the River Wye in Lower Lydbrook, and you will witness both the beauty of the place and the demise of the industrial heritage.  Wander to the river side and walk a little way and you will see redundant manufacturing plants and warehouses. A disused railway line. There used to be a viaduct that ran over the Cafe rooftops, long gone.

The artworks in the exhibition may, at first sight, be yet another mixed show of works with no connecting thread. But they are deeply linked, they each respond to the forest in some way, whether in terms of environmental threat; the history of hunting that shaped the landscape (and continues to do so with boar in the forest); traditional fishing methods that are disappearing; free roaming sheep; soundscapes and meditations on the fragility of this place.

11am – 4pm Saturday 9th July 2016 – Sunday 24th July (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)

Private view 6-9pm Friday 8th July

DOWNLOAD FULL OPEN STUDIOS PROGRAMME BELOW

FANDVOS OPEN STUDIOS 2016 Brochure

There’ll be another blogpost over the coming days, looking more deeply into our relationship with art in rural places, including what we mean, or presume, by the term rural.

But firstly, there’s a show to install!

 

Novvy Allan
Tom Cousins
Lizzie Godden
Rob Olins
Kathy Priddis
Claire Robinson
Sally Stafford
Frances Warren