virtual reality, reality virtual? Matt Collishaw at Lacock Abbey

Matt Collishaw VR work, Threshold, at Lacock Abbey, National Trust Estate, Wiltshire.

I’ve not felt compelled to write a review of any work lately, but today’s visit to Lacock Abbey fascinated me in many ways. I went specifically to see Matt Collishaw’s VR work about Talbot Fox, to inform my own learning about the potential of VR in contemporary artworks. I was not disappointed.

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I’ve seen a few in the past year – Bjork’s show at Somerset House; Rafman in Berlin Biennale and one in a Cotswolds barn, Corridor, by Helen Kincaid. All very different and satisfying in their own way. But I wish to consider context and the visceral experience and interactive qualities of Collishaw’s piece, not just in the space it was exhibited and experienced, but also in the wider location.

Firstly, you need to know that Fox Talbot was a pioneer of photography, so the medium is perfect shown here. Secondly, you need to know that the VR offer was in a tent in a courtyard within the Abbey walls, which enhances the circus-coming-into-town feel. After all, technology is contemporary snake oil, isn’t it?

What you also need to know is the ‘the village’ of Lacock is used regularly as a film set, so is designed to be easily adaptable for that purpose. It too is a VR environment, with all trappings of contemporary living removed from sight – no satellite dishes, no telephone cables, no PVC doors or modern trappings. Flip-flap – the street conceals the real, yet pretends it is real; the VR artwork presents a seemingly real experience that is virtual, by overlaying onto museum display simulations.

Photography was terrifying for many, and Talbot’s first ‘photos’ were made with real objects, such as plants and pieces of lace, on light sensitised papers to capture virtual images.  Contact prints. Touch.

This touch thing is important to our experience of place. What works extremely well with Collishaw’s work is the way you can hold onto the display cases, and even lean on them, (they are naked white blocks, like CAD designs of the wooden ones they are modelled from). Being able to touch the surfaces of the cabinets locates your own body in VR space and time. The virtual fire emanates real warmth and the images in the cases can be extracted and expanded by your hand movements. I even played with a virtual spider which was walking across a portrait on the wall (sadly it only had six legs so wasn’t very convincing!). When rioting chartists are heard outside, you can look through the window and see them shouting below you.

Outside the grounds of the Abbey, in the ‘real’ village, life felt more virtual than it did in the headset. It was more theme park than a theme park. It all messed with my head and really made me consider, yet again, about this merging of real and virtual, and what it means to us and how we experience this world we live in, and create. It all reminds me of Benjamin and Baudrillard, about how a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Somehow the street reverses that phenomena, and Collishaw exemplifies it.

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an early plate camera on a shelf projects a digital presentation onto the wall, with the concealed projector – Plato eat your heart out

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Film set, BBC website

 

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The main street in Lacock

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just a great shot of the big hall with the sculptures in!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Flow Contemporary Arts is now a company!

I’m delighted to announce that Flow Contemporary Arts is now a registered company. And we’re open for business!!

This development will mean we can expand our offer and deliver contracts for others as well as initiate our own. Starting off with a small, but perfectly formed, Board of Directors, Flow will be in a better position for fundraising and available to clients to lead on a range of projects. The Directors – namely Grace Davies and Claire Gulliver – will inform and support the development of the Company.

They bring an excellent range of experience, knowledge and skills to the table – Grace as ex-director of Visual Arts South West and now Contemporary Arts Programme Manager, National Trust; and Claire as a founder member of New Expressions and co-producer of the Bideford Black Project.

Exciting times ahead – if you want to discuss any new projects with us get in touch – we look forward to working on new things together.

Flow Contemporary Arts Registered company no. 10498277

Blackrock 2016 US & THEM

US & THEM is one of the artworks by Patrick Goddard.

Residency artists:
Patrick Goddard
Sally O’Reilly
Alison Turnbull

In the newly converted gallery at Lydney Park Estate, Matt’s Gallery + BLACKROCK is also showing the work of Willie Doherty

Last year Blackrock launched at Lydney Park in the Forest of Dean, so this years second offer was something to look forward to. I wrote about it from a personal perspective last year. This year the project feels more consolidating, more like  Harvest Festival, whereby the artists have gathered their thinking from the land and its history and shared it with others on the Estate . More mapped. More grounded in place.

That’s not to say the artworks last year weren’t grounded in place – indeed they were, very much so. That’s the good thing about residencies, the artists have time…..something very important when expecting artists to work in somewhere so far from a city.

As Robin Klassnik, of Matt’s Gallery said “Blackrock is national and international”, and is emphatic that it shouldn’t “pander to the locals”. It doesn’t, but it does bring excellent art to the area to be enjoyed at a local level for those that are interested, as I am.

And this year I have time to assimilate, to think and reflect, to consider what these artworks are collectively sharing with the viewers. And what they say about both Blackrock and the wider world.

Thankfully, there is another weekend coming up when the artworks can be revisited to inform my thinking. That’s on 24th & 25th September. Look out for information online, Facebook , or visit their website.

The first weekend included a performance by, or written by, Sally O’Reilly, which will not be repeated the second weekend. It was absolutely brilliant and what she refers to in her introduction speaks of the core curatorial concepts that all the artists have investigated and, duly,  responded too. A harvest festival with rich pickings and excellent produce.

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. 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 others. 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 who 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 those that possibly had time, by queuing, 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 override the real. On this occasion, it was upstaged by it.

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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

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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

 

 

 

 

Call for host venues for The Story of Objects – the next phase – workshops

 

SOO yellow bar logo longJust a quick note to get you thinking over the weekend – I’m looking for hosts for the next phase of the Story of Objects – maybe it’s you?

The Story of Objects to date has very much been about ‘show and tell’ sessions, for research purposes.  The overarching vision – to create a social media network for things – is still underpinning all activity. However, the encounters have been rich and rewarding for many people.

One set of themes that came up again and again were inherited objects from family members that  relate to making or creating something. All sorts of tools and materials, artefacts and childhood memories.

I’ve been exploring how to work with the stories you’ve shared with me – there are the 30second shorts on Youtube; the Flash Fiction pieces on Medium and even a Story of Cake! The Facebook page shares news about the projects and also about other interesting object-stories from around the world – all food for thought.

The next phase will involve workshops – and I invite you to contact me if you’d like to discuss this for your organisation. I’m shaping the programme now and have some great ideas developing from the conversations so far. Each partner/collaborator is welcome to get in touch now to explore how the framework can work for you and your audiences. It is currently flexible and adaptable, which is another of features and benefits of the programme structure.

If appropriate, where a making activity is not right for the object theme, there will be an option to book a talk/presentation by a practitioner or specialist for the subject area.

I’d love to hear from arts organisations, museums, heritage organisations, material culture people, ethnographers, archaeologists and historians. Also, studios for woodworking, metal working, potteries, forges, printmaking studios, musical instrument workshops, anyone who makes – oo, and I may need a chef too!

Get in touch by email (carolyn@fkowprojects.org.uk), phone or message me via the Facebook page.

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