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…….

IMG_6018

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.

IMG_2008

 

Art in Gloucestershire – is it our turn? Drones in Cheltenham?

There was  a launch for ‘Surveillance’, a new work by Patrick Lowry, at the HardwIck Gallery in Cheltenham yesterday.  There was a great reading by Clare Thornton and talks by Chris Woods, author of Sudden Justice: America’s Secret Drone Wars and Theo Price of COBRA.

This is the second exhibition I’ve been to see in 2016 (I did sneak in Localism at MIMA on the cusp!). Both have been in Cheltenham  – the other was the Artist Rooms on Tour show of three works by Bill Viola at The Wilson, along with the Jerwood Drawing Show.

It’s tempting to present a critical review of these shows, they certainly merit one as they are excellent, but that’s not what motivates me to write today – I’m more interested in the rise of visual arts activity in my county. Gloucestershire has always been a poor neighbour to Bristol, Cardiff and Birmingham – stuck in the middle with poor rail networks and bridge crossing charges for the many that have to drive to get here.

So seeing Localism in Middlesbrough (5.5 hours on a train to get there!!!) prompted me to make more effort to see local work – whizzing off to Venice, London, Oxford, Bruton etc. is great, but it is even more special when things locally get exciting. And in the past year there’s definitely been a lift.

Is Gloucestershire finally getting a rich mix of input, layered on top of an already buzzing community of artists that often worked under the radar (probably because there were no places to see work so they show elsewhere- they have to)? Stroud has SVA, and Prema up in the Cotswolds is fab, but Gloucester, Forest of Dean and Cheltenham are poorly served in terms of venues.Last summer Blackrock rolled into town – a Matts Gallery show hosted in Lydney. Bruce Allen from Blakeney has been touring Difference Screen a fantastic mix of international films for 2 years, literally worldwide. There are many more individuals I could mention, this is the tip of the iceberg.

I live here, I want to see things happen within driving distance. Gloucester has always lacked visual arts presence, there are several  Open Studios happening around the county too – we need to join forces more, connect up, amplify big time.

So go and see what we have, celebrate it as I am doing , make living here just as exciting as the cities – rural is good too – I’d say better – we don’t need parking permits to visit and we get to breathe fresh air and peacefulness!

It is wonderful to see work that questions drone activity in war zones in the same city as GCHQ – why weren’t there more people there? This art is raising important conversations in a city that employs military specialists – how can we invite them to come?

Local MP’s, Councillors, human rights activists – PLEASE come and see this show.

And add Visual Arts South West (VASW) to your favourite websites, join their mailing list, find out what is happening here on your doorstep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 6pm performance artist Clare Thornton will be reading from drone operator transcripts.

 

 

 

Double Elephant Keynote: Redefining Print: 13th November 2015 Exeter Phoenix

The presentation began with:

Who am I? Artist, one-time printmaker, producer of exhibitions in non-gallery locations, writer, project Manager, consultant

Why am I here? I was contracted by Double Elephant to engage with the artists throughout their residency and observe the project as it evolved – writing as a commentary to the development of the final commissions. Also to critically and creatively evaluate the process of “Redefining Print”.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit to finding the experience of being in a print room again, after some 15 years out of one, seductive, emotional and slightly traumatic. I urgently wanted to do it – get messy, inhale, hang paper up in orderly lines, grab the wheel and roll the bed through.

What am I talking about? I’m starting with a series of questions, and will work through my thought processes during the talk. It’s not a straight line – just as the works shown here in the Phoenix are not hung in a straight line, as they are in the RAMM Café.

I will wander, move around, step backwards and forwards.

If we are to redefine print, we need to understand what we are redefining.

Printmakers make prints – but what happens if performers make prints?

Do performers make prints, or do they perform prints?

How can we talk about these things?

Does traditional print also involve performance?

How do viewers encounter print in exhibitions? Do they perform too?

The term ‘redefining print’ infers a change of direction, a shift in approach.

The original brief: A commission opportunity for artists working in visual arts, digital media and time-based media/performance.

Double Elephant Print Workshop is offering 4 artists the opportunity to explore the role of printmaking in relationship to practices of body/site/digitality. The invitation is to develop hybrid approaches and challenge traditional boundaries of printmaking, enabling audiences to see print in a new light through its relationship to your practice.

Body/site/digitality: Enabling audiences….challenging boundaries……these are the thing I wish to speak of….. Looking back at the applications submitted by the artists at the beginning, there is a powerful logic of language and body revealed……..

Body as sensing

Tapping my body

Organic and machine

The body opens up

Body, action, performance, document

The public act of performing

Body-site-text

Tacturiency – the desire to touch

Imagery that speaks of/to the body

The above phrases are from the initial artist’s application forms – even my own application for the role as writer stated: “The printmaking process is embedded in my memory and my body.

After a year of working together, the common thread of words and body are what bind their works together as a curatorial whole. The artists defined the keywords as SURFACE/CONTACT:

The slash mark between SURFACE and CONTACT in the show’s title allows for a range of operation between the two terms. The immediate sense of surface contact suggests a spark, or the transmission of a sensation, as one person’s skin is touched by another’s skin, as one material comes into contact with another. When a mark is made on paper, the intentional tool and the mark-making material come into contact with the receptive surface and material of the paper.

The selected artists all hail from non-printmaking backgrounds. The artists have responded well to the brief – they have achieved all of these things in their work, and carried the challenge through to the audience in the gallery. For them, working in the print studio meant learning a new language, of materials, of process and protocols of space, all of which draw attention to the body.

There are protocols to working in the print room….. of behaviour in the print workshop – bodies in the workspace

I’ve been thinking a lot about how we act and behave in specific places, and the protocols of working in a print studio. Everywhere we go and everything we do involves some form of framed behaviour. We usually know how to act in a particular space. Not just in the arts – but anywhere – you behave in a particular way when you go into a restaurant, or a shop, a cinema orenter someone’s private house.

I hope I am correct in presuming that many people here today, if not all, will be aware of how we act in a printmaking studio. We understand how people move through the spaces, how fast they might move, how they navigate around machines, or between the sink and the work table.

The machines are often very large and the space around them quite small. There are giant wheels that we physically need to rotate, we use our bodies to stretch and bend and move the large print bed through the rollers. We also respect each other within that space.

I haven’t worked in a print room myself for some years, so for me, on returning to the space, these behaviours were very evident. I’d forgotten the order of things – so what hit me was the way the gloves were hung in rows on the wall, the way the rollers were neatly positioned in racks, and the way the paper was hung by that wonderful structure of wooden frames with glass marbles. The marbles allow the paper to slip into place and be held firmly by their gravity. I made me smile to see Clare use this method as a form of display in the gallery, just as I smile when I think about the ‘clean fingers’ kept in the drawer near to the printing beds.

These things say so much about how meticulous and precise it is when we work in the print room.

So……the history of the project is that it all began in May 2014 when the artists got together for a week. On the Tuesday and Wednesday during the first week of the project, the artists spent time in the print room with Suzanne Ross and the Double Elephant team, learning about the processes, playing with materials. On the Thursday I joined them in the Drama department of Exeter University for a ‘collaborative workshop’ with drama tutor Fiona Macbeth.

It was the first time I had met all of the artists and the Double Elephant team. Together we explored how we held our bodies, how we spoke, then went outside to sharpen our senses and record, note, document our experience of being in the world. We then split into groups and made ‘objects’ or ‘sculptures’ for want of a better word.

I don’t recall doing ever doing these things in a print room before!

During the following months we met regularly at different locations – mostly here at the Phoenix in the print room, but also at Spike Island in Bristol, who was a partner to the project. Since that day in the drama department, I think we have all held the notion of the body at the centre of the journey. All forward motion was propelled by the conversations we had, the thoughts that were shared. I was primarily witness to this process. An onlooker. I made notes. I listed words.

The words I witnessed played large in the process, because they were a little different to what I had expected. The first text I wrote for the project flagged this up:

To me, these overheard words are the foundation of Redefining Print.

And the artworks in the show are the outcome.

We talked about conditions: subordination; obsolescence; permanence; utopia and inconsistency

We talked about actions: controlling; drooping; draping; folding; gesticulating; embracing; rolling-up and collaborating

We talked about sound: swish-swish; of fixing speech; the visualisation of speech and dialect

The artists selected for the commissions & their titles:

Katy Connor – UntitledForce

Bryony Gillard – On Frottage

Mark Leahy – Communicating Object; Ellipsis Gill Sans Regular 442pt & Parenthisis Cochin Bold 222pt

Clare Thornton – Triadic Croquet; Untitled

 

Working with the core Double Elephant team:

Simon Ripley

Catherine Cartwright

 

The research period evolved into a fascinating dialogue between the artists, the Double Elephant team – and the medium. What the artists share in common is that they all have varying levels of academic background and they arrived with little or no experience of printmaking methods and practices. They are also established artists in their fields with substantial experience of making works. This residency aimed to bring contemporary sculptural, digital and performance based practice together with the processes, facilities and expertise of the print workshop, offering the four artists the opportunity to explore these in relation to their own practice.

My own focus has been on

Words

Body

And behaviours

The descriptions of the artists works to follow are from the gallery handout, summarising their practice. All of the 4 artists commissioned for redefining print have made works that explore their bodies in some way. I am going to share some brief film clips with you, some made by the artists prior to taking their commissions, others closely related to the development of the work you see here. They reveal inspirations and processes, external influences and actions. I have elected to show movies because their work is rarely static in its presence.

[film clip of Katys video work]

Katy Connor uses cutting edge data visualization based on microscopic samples of her own blood to generate works that operate across video, sculpture, print and installation. Her animated fly-through video renders this sub-atomic data as navigable landscapes reminiscent of early video game graphics while a series of 3D printed objects draw out the aesthetic and experiential flow between digital and physical forms and modes of representation, also highlighted by the breakdown in print quality in her massively enlarged, wall sized print.

Katy refers to a comment by Laura U. Marks: “by engaging with an object in a haptic way, I come to the surface of myself”.

Katy states: There is something to be spoken of here that undoes any notion of ‘techno- progress’ and simply talks in terms of a (sensual) bodily engagement with the materials / process / time

This footage is created digitally with point cloud data. It is of Katy’s blood, which takes centre stage to all her work in SURFACE/CONTACT.

Katy’s work reminds me of Helen Chadwick, who made a very intense work , Blood Hyphen made in 1998/2004 with her blood, which was an enquiry in to the cells taken from a cervical smear test. Chadwicks work was very visceral, of body, of flesh, yet somehow uncannily beautiful.

Katy’s work does something similar but in a different way. The digitisation of the microscopic image of her blood is amplified by process – providing emotional distance.

Or Mona Hartoums exploration with a camera of her body interior. Mona Hartoum , ‘Corps étranger’ (1994), was a video installation that depicted endoscopic journeys through the interior landscape of the artist’s own body. Again, the flesh-body, but distanced through technology. Using the notion of the technology and logic to remove emotional attachment. But not quite body as machine.

[film clip by Bryony of frottage]

Bryony Gillard presents new works from ‘On Frottage’, an ongoing body of work exploring the medium of frottage — whether as a means of artistic production or as a sexual act, and its conceptual links to other practices, objects and times. Her large, frottaged fabric panels are layered with sound, projected concrete poetry and performance.

I have thought a lot during the RD-print residency about the similarities between frottage (or the act of making a rubbing) and print making. Both have to do with the making of an image from a matrix, but involve a kind of moment of blindness, a contact of surfaces.

Bryony makes reference to Paxton’s theory relating to ‘contact improvisation’:   Paxton was influenced by the experimental arts and performance scene in New York in the 1960s and 1970s, and he was interested in how the body could create a physical playground. Contact Improvisation developed out of an exploration of the human body and under the supervision of Paxton

In terms of the works connection to contact improvisation – both rely on the contact of surfaces – the transference of one thing to another ………..With the larger frottage pieces in the show, these have an even more direct relationship to C.I – made with friends, they became almost dances, contortions and manipulations of bodies working together to hold the fabric over the stone and make the rubbing. Working with and against the wind, rain, the angles and gravity of the rocks.

Her process requires that her own body, and those of others under instruction, necessarily stretch around huge stones and rub up against them. The imprint of that intimacy of body against stone is captured by her mark-making on huge lengths of flowing, fabric that folds and ripples. Whereas Katy looks deep inside molecular structures of body, Bryony makes the viewer very conscious of the external layers of the body – the skin, the surface.

On Frottage is an ongoing body of work exploring the medium of frottage  as a means of artistic production, a sexual act and the conceptual links that this process might have to other practices, objects and times.

This statement reminded me of a recent work by Katrina Palmer….

Extract from End Matter by Katrina Palmer: “It was like he was riveting us all into place and we were coming together, fixed in that contorted arrangement, in relief. There were sharp hard edges of cold stone against my naked backside. The island under my feet was pressing into me and scratching me from behind.”

Palmers investigation into the landscape as having agency reminds me very much of Bryony’s approach to her work.

[film clip – link]

This film is a precursor to the work Mark has done for his commission. It is performance. It is language. He will explain much more about it when he speaks. His work is about the action of speaking:

These works examine questions of language, speech, gesture and body across a 3-channel video piece where speech and gesture are isolated from each other, in a set of posters that play with the task of describing a voice in text and image, and in wearable paper objects that prevent or disturb speech.

Mark Leahy presents works that examine questions of language, speech, gesture and body. He is interested in pedagogical modes of display such as teaching aids, instructional videos or examination situations and explores relationships between the spoken word and the speaker, between the body speaking and the body of speech. In his 3-channel video piece, speech and gesture are isolated from each other, while a set of posters play with the task of describing voice in text and image. A further edition of wearable paper objects have been designed to prevent or disturb speech and are made available to try out and take away.

Marks work relating to gesture and performance bring to mind two very different works…..

[film clip – link]

Film by Yuri Ancarani made in marble quarry in Italy.

This connection comes from my experience of working on-site with heavy plant and drivers – the notion of the banks man. The banks man is trained in using specific hand gestures – like these:. To guide huge machines within tiny parameters of movement. Like a dance.

[film clip – link]

And Ceal Floyer’s nail biting performance: Nail Biting Performance (2001) in Birmingham before an audience of classical music devotees.

Ceal Floyer took to the stage of Birmingham’s Symphony Hall on the evening of 7 February 2001, prior to performances of Beethoven’s Overture: Leonore No. 2and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, performed by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Her ‘nail biting performance’ took stage-fright as its subject, as the artist bit her fingernails into a microphone for five minutes. The sight of her alone amongst the musicians’ empty chairs, accompanied by the amplified sound of nervousness, was affecting and tense.

These examples of how we use our bodies in particular ways, to convey emotional states, to direct people, to communicate, are endlessly fascinating. Few people don’t have some sort of behaviour that we can relate too. It’s the universal body.

Mark Leahys work is not dissimilar in approach to that of Clare Thornton’s – but the inspiration behind the works is very different.

[film clip – link]

Clare Thorntons work begins with dance performances, not of her own body, but the bodies of others – the Bauhaus Ballet Dancers. This work is about rhythm, pattern and systems, but it’s still very much of the body. Her quasi-figurative croquet hoops make reference to costumes designed by Bauhaus artist and designer Oskar Schlemmer for his avant-garde, Triadic Ballet. Using processes of computer aided design and more traditional printing techniques Thornton has flattened and miniaturised his geometric, abstracted human forms back into two dimensional planes. Between these anthropomorphic forms, and the implication of sharp contact between mallet, ball and hoop, it is unclear what the rules of engagement may be and where boundaries of play might lie.

Clare’s work is playful, she has taken three-dimensional imagery from the ballet as a starting point and flattened them into simple childlike slot and stand systems. The designs are available open-source over the Internet to create reproductions. Print has been employed as a process of production, reminding us of dress me dolls that you can cut out of books. And the croquet set looks like it has leapt out of Alice in Wonderland with it’s fantastical colours.

The audience encounter in the gallery spaces: So we have had a brief look at the artists work, which they wull tell much more about after this presentation. The other key people to talk about are the audiences that visit the exhibition. Maybe that is where the outcomes of Redefining Print present the challenge …..

Protocols of visiting an exhibition of prints – this is a diagram of how we usually approach an exhibition where pictures are hung on walls in frames. It’d how the show is hung in RAMM.

The show in the gallery at Phoenix may not be what you expected to see in a print show. If you visit the two different destinations in Exeter – the prints in the RAMM café and here, you will spot the difference, as a visitor/viewer.

walking gallery 1

In the cafe gallery the prints are hung on the walls, like this. They are framed and hung in a line, in a row, and as visitors to that space we read the information on the left, and then we move across and around the space. Our bodies trace the line around the wall of the images and we conduct small actions of of gesture as we look at the art works. We stand back and step closer, to read the name of the artist. We spend some time with each work, we may look at different angles and then we move onto the next one, we move in a clockwise direction. The exhibition has been laid out to respond to this habitual behaviour. Then there is the scale of the works. They could be said to be of a domestic scale. We understand them easily and can imagine them and them on our walls. If we buy the prints in their frames, we understand what we will be getting, we are comfortable with the scale of boundaries.

I left RAMM and went next to the Phoenix, where the show was in the process of being hung. I had of course had an insight into what to expect of the show and had become intrigued by the fact that the artists had approached Matt Burrows, the gallery curator, and asked if they could work together collaboratively to decide on how the show was going to be hung. I think you’ll agree with me that the work in the gallery in Phoenix presents a strong dialogue between the works by each artist. There is definitely a relationship there and I propose that relationship has evolved through the dialogue and the exchange of the artists within the physical space.

During the residency the artists had sought to develop their own individual practice, but they’ve also developed a collective practice. And navigating those dynamics involves the audience to some extent.

 

walking gallery 2

Here’s my scribbly diagram of the layout of the show in the Phoenix gallery.

It’s different to the one in the RAMM

The works aren’t framed, are rarely hung on the walls in lines, they protrude into the room, they make you walk around them.

 

They are not at the same height – they make you work to see them, look behind things, underneath things, through them.

In short, they are demanding that you physically perform in the space, you are actively choreographed around it.

You become an active agent in the work, you are welcomed into the work, not as a passive viewer but as a collaborator. If you wish to, you can download the open source data for Clare’s work and make your own copy of the work. No edition numbers.

Maybe this is what redefining print is? Matt Burrows said he got a real pleasure from hanging the show…thinking about navigation and encounter. I identify with that, because my work as a producer considers how audiences, and/or participants, enter a work in an open space.

The little nuances in the SURFACE/CONTACT show seem to relate to each other through coincidence – and Matt enjoyed negotiating the placing of the works with the artists.

There is the very shiny reflective black Perspex used on the plinth on which Katy’s 3D print sits. Nearby is a disk, like a dark moon leaning on the floor and that is a mirror is the same material, which kind of throws you back to yourself and your own body. This in turn is echoed in the black shiny ball in the next space, of Clare’s croquet ball.

Marks body language reminds me of the gestures used by the dancers in the Bauhaus ballet.

The scale of the drapes that Bryony has printed onto remind us of huge standing stones, we look up at them, we are made small.

The projected text is poetic, as is the fact that Clare’s geometric cutouts are suspended by the marbles of a print drying rack. Words and dance, bending bodies, stretching viewpoints, the action of navigating the exhibition is physical.

Does print need redefining? Some questions…….The mode of presentation in the Phoenix is slightly corrupting and disruptive – is it a challenge for the print audience?

Are we happy to accept these works as what we know as ‘print practice?

If not, why not?

Printmakers make prints – but what happens if performers make prints?

Do performers make prints, or do they perform prints?

How can we talk about these things?

Does traditional print also involve performance?

How do viewers encounter print in exhibitions? Do they perform too?

This text is taken from a presentation and adapted slightly for the page.

Download the entire document, with images:

summary of redefining print presentation carolyn black 2015

 Carolyn Black works as Flow Contemporary Arts as a producer, writer, consultant and mentor. She has a post-grad diploma in printmaking; an MA in Fine art and won an Arts Council Award for critical writing.

http://www.flowprojects.org.uk

 

 

The art commissioning journey from the inside – research-led works developed for The Burton Art Gallery & Museum – getting to grips with Bideford Black pigment

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film still by Liberty Smith

The Burton Art Gallery & Museum began the commissioning process for the Bideford Black: Next Generation show in 2014, when we – Carolyn Black of Flow Contemporary Arts and independent arts consultant Claire Gulliver – were appointed to project manage the process. Between the selection of the artists in the autumn of 2014 and the launch on Saturday 3rd October, the journey has been both fascinating and intriguing, with all of the team taking on their roles with gusto and passion.

The brief given to the artists was to make new works for the collection and develop ways of using Bideford Black as a medium or an inspiration – an expanded field of this black earth pigment. The film maker was tasked with documenting the project process and outcomes. This project was not the first, and will not be the last, to have Bideford Black at it’s heart.

The commissioning process was new to the Burton Gallery – never before had they commissioned contemporary art from scratch – so we were all aware there would be challenges along the way. And there were, starting with the huge response to our call for applications, with over 165 expressions of interest for only 8 artist commissions and one film maker contract.

It was a hard decision to make but the selected artists are: Tabatha Andrews, ATOI, Luce Choules, Corinne Felgate, Neville and Joan Gabie in collaboration with Dr. Ian Cook, Littlewhitehead, Lizzie Ridout, Sam Treadaway and Liberty Smith. And what they have produced is like a 360 degree survey of the pigment and its history.

As more and more museums begin the process of commissioning contemporary art, sometimes for the very first time in their history, the learning curve is sometimes a bit twisty and wobbly. There is still much work to be done in creating a model for good practice so sharing the process is a useful thing to do. It’s not easy for organisations that have historically been guardians of wonderful things that are in their possession, to also consider commissioning new items for their archives that will continue the cycle of making and collecting. New becomes old, past becomes present and indeed future. Acorns –> oak trees.

As the only purpose-built venue in the area, on the north coast between Bristol and St Ives, the Burton is an accredited museum and art gallery, making it a leading cultural venue in SW England. It collects, safeguards and displays artefacts of cultural, historical and industrial significance, in particular related to the North Devon area and Bideford specifically. It also initiates and brings exhibitions and artists of national and international standing to the region, working with national institutions including Tate, The Royal Academy, Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), The Barbican, alongside community or heritage focus exhibitions. And it now commissions new work too.

So the research process began a year ago, with a getting-to-know everyone session. With most of the artists in attendance, alongside other interested parties – notably the National Trust and Ian Cook, a cultural geographer from Exeter University – we shared our own histories and interests. A field trip to the beach where the pigment is found was the introduction to both the material and to each other. Stomping along cliff paths, wobbling along rocky beaches in wellies, grinding sticky black stuff between our fingertips, we were a picture to behold! Few left the beach without black smudges on their face, as they wiped their hair from their faces in the wild wind and salty spume.

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So, to keep Bideford Black, this rich black earth pigment, at the centre of this narrative, what happened over the coming months was that each of the artists entered their own private explorations. Like the miners that went before them, they manipulated the clay, mixed it with others things, sniffed it, cast it, crushed it and even listened to it. Some locked themselves in their studios to grind and mould it, others returned again and again to the beach or to the museum while they tried to find their own relationship with the black clay through time and place.

During that time Liberty Smith, the film maker, was despatched around the country to film them. She documented their early enquiries, listened to their stories of excitement and joy, fascination and frustration. Liberty was tenacious; she even travelled to Scotland, France and Spain to conduct her filming. Her footage, as rushes were shared, were clearly going to be an important part of the process. Indeed they were so wonderful we asked Liberty to create a trailer for the main exhibition and film, which you can see here – it is beautifully filmed, capturing the research far better than words could ever do.

At the time of writing, she is editing the final film, which will share the entire journey with audiences and be shown in the gallery when it opens at 2pm on 3rd October 2015. From the rushes I’ve seen to date, the film gives visitors privileged access to the artists studios and thought processes – a very valuable document for the archive.

Whilst Liberty caught developments on film, Claire, me and the gallery curator Warren Collum, had conversations and made notes. Due to the dispersed nature of the artists geographically, updates were often by phone, email or Skype. We had staged reviews, to make sure the artists had what they needed from the right people.

The film trailer gives you some flavour of that journey. This text explores the record keeping – the recorded notes on the development of the artists thinking. Being a private journey, I have collated some anonymous comments recorded during the artists’ process of discovery, relating to what they were finding out about Bideford Black:

The comments below were in response to the question “how will this [your work] relate to Bideford Black?” I’ve blocked them together, because as a whole they feel like an image of the pigment – considered from every perspective, touched in every way possible.

Responses January 2015:
It’s about transformation of material from one thing to another. The fighters [represent] tectonic plates grinding and marking. Locating the production of the work at Bucks Mills will transform the fabrication into a live event….become where a myriad of personal and collective histories are collaged over one another….drawing on the cabin as a site of both industrial and artistic production as well as a place of retreat. Drawing on the decline and resurrection of Bideford Black mining twice over the 20th century, the factory imagines a third and final revival of the industry that never was, as well as focusing on individual endeavours to work with Bideford black, outside of the mainstream industry like Mr G Philips’ Bideford soaps produced in his home laboratory, that reeked of carbolic in addition to using it to make all of his paint. BB will be the main material in the work. Words and texts will relate to it; ink will employ BB; Vanta could make comparisons to BB. We also discussed the possibility of a thesaurus of BB. It’s about dynamic movement. BB will always be the material and the concept at the centre. The scent itself will be created from the genus of Tree Fern most closely related to those existing in the South West of England 300 – 350 million years ago. The scent therefore references the origins of the mineral black material. Made with BB pastels, smeared onto paper, about immersion in dark places, how light is taken away, darkness and its emotional implications.

Responses June 2015:
We have pushed the past uses of BB in industry and warfare, the connotations of mining and all its associations, and we have also taken into account the geological and physical properties that were endured to create BB….we have brought the pigment into the future by playing on its raw associations of mined materials, by creating a polished finished product [a diamond]. We have employed the most advanced modern day technologies which nod to its history and the politics and poetics of working with this material. The ceramic slabs appear almost fossil like, becoming relics of Bideford Blacks Jurassic-esque history when it was mined out of the grounds as the mascara rods highlight our  disconnect from this in contemporary society. The mascara rods also have the initial appearance of tools used in early industry, paying homage to the miners and other industrial workers who worked in and around Bideford. Developing on from the mines, the Bidi Black make-up range draws on its history for commercial production and the swathes of industry and commodities that have come out of Bideford over the last millenuia, notably the cosmetics of Max Factor who adopted the pigment. We have used BB to try and tell its own story, by creating audio tracks. Black is inherent in the social, economic and cultural narrative of Bideford through the town’s connection with Bideford Black. A Polychromy in Black seeks to examine Bideford Black through an investigation into light, dark and colour via the use of tone and texture in archival material gathered in The Burton Art Gallery & Museum. It also cross-references Bideford Black within the broader cultural story of black by considering specifically ink and printing press production and the role of the engraver. It was the engraver’s role to translate colour, form, chiaroscuro and texture from real-life or paintings, through the use of line, cross-hatch and dot; regular/irregular, thick/thin, curved/straight, continuous/discontinuous, vertical/horizontal/diagonal, in multiple as bunches or alone. Based on an ongoing dialogue between artists and a geographer, we present parallel approaches to one material, based on our shared conversations, but with differing outcomes. Exploring the possibilities of the substance that is affectionately known as Biddiblack we are making a series of drawings and films to explore its nature – its unpredictabilitys – its uses and performance as a drawing tool. The dialogue will be central to the final outcome of the work. The artwork reinterprets Bideford Black via the medium of smell. Through its presentation the work also references the historical commodification of the Bideford Black material (and commodification, commercialisation and transportation of generic raw materials in general) with a contemporary twist. These works reverse western traditional representation – rather than being looked at, they come out at you, are looking at you, sensing you. It’s about experiencing in situ. BB looking at you.

The artists have given their consent for me to publish their comments, which reflects their generosity throughout the project. The words provide a glimpse into the minds of the artists and reflect their thinking processes, as well as their making. When we write about artists and their work we summarise, take little pieces, recontextualise their words, model their language to fit the readers expectations. By quoting the above, the reader gains access to private thinking. As Joseph Kosuth explored in his work “One and Three Chairs”:

But is this art? And which representation of the chair is most “accurate”? These open-ended questions are exactly what Kosuth wanted us to think about when he said that “art is making meaning.” By assembling these three alternative representations, Kosuth turns a simple wooden chair into an object of debate and even consternation, a platform for exploring new meanings.

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One and Three Chairs

Joseph Kosuth
(American, born 1945)

1965. Wood folding chair, mounted photograph of a chair, and mounted photographic enlargement of the dictionary definition of “chair”, Chair 32 3/8 x 14 7/8 x 20 7/8″ (82 x 37.8 x 53 cm), photographic panel 36 x 24 1/8″ (91.5 x 61.1 cm), text panel 24 x 30″ (61 x 76.2 cm)    (MOMA website)

Kosuth reminds us that art, photographs and texts are not the ‘real’ thing, they are alternative representations. I interpret that the ‘one’ chair he refers to as the one I have in my mind – but maybe he is referring to the thing itself. No matter, it is the fact that these works evoke debate and offer a platform for exploring new meanings that is the imperative.

Do come and see the real thing yourself and let us know if you agree. We’d love your feedback. Send comments to bidefordblackblog@gmail.com

*****

THE BURTON ART GALLERY & MUSEUM, Kingsley Road, Bideford EX39 2QQ, UK
(e) burtonartgallery@torridge.gov.uk   (t) 01237 471455 (w) www.burtonartgallery.co.uk

Opens 2pm on 3rd October – runs until 13th November 2015

Opening Hours:

Monday – Saturday, 10am – 4pm.

Sunday 10.30am – 4pm.

new project thanks to ACE G4A funding – connecting people, objects, memories, data

I am delighted to share with you the good news – I have been awarded an Arts council England Grant for the Arts to enable me to immerse myself for a while in deep research and development of an exciting new project. It’s a bit different to what I usually do – but it draws together my personal passion for objects, art, people and technology.

You can read  more about it here (apologies if you see a few ads – it’s a temporary site and a temporary name)

It is early days and I’ll be consulting with people from various sectors over the coming months – watch out for updates and please subscribe to my website if you don’t already – I’ll be letting you know how you can become involved in the near future.

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The Story of Objects – new research, partners needed, contact me to discuss

For the last year or so I have been developing a framework for a very special project, The Story of Objects.

It’s about orphaned objects, curating and an online repository. It’s social and cultural geography, art and genealogy.

Do you work in any of these fields? I’m seeking partners to make this happen…….

Would you like to have a confidential conversation about joining me on this?

If so, get in touch – there is a funding deadline looming…..

carolyn@flowprojects.org.uk

 

 

 

 

 

 

Article about The Promise and PARADISE in new edition of CCQ

CCQ is an arts journal published in Wales. My first article is in this edition, available from all good gallery bookstores. It’s a quality publication and a great read.

My piece is a preview of Arnolfini show The Promise and Trust New Art show at Tyntesfield, called PARADISE.

More next month too.

See http://ccqmagazine.com/

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b-side at the seaside

b-side runs until 14th September, do go to Portland and see it, it’s the best year ever.

Going to the b-side Festival in Portland, Dorset, was a real treat. It was launched by the peal of the bells in the lovely old St. George Church next to Tout Quarry, followed by a soundwork by Duncan Whitley. As the soundwork crescendoes from quiet birdsong to the loud hammering sounds of rock being shaped, the audience became grounded as to why they had come – b-side Festival is all about Portland and the people that live there.

A brief stroll down to the local community hall and there was a real sense of gathering. The artists, the curatorial team, local people, volunteers and those who had travelled especially all enjoyed what was on offer. There was Talkaoki (film clip) for those who wished to voice their thoughts loudly on art – which went down very well – and an Arts Confessional for those that had more intimate words to share. As the sun went down, families began to gather outside to have themselves and their bikes dressed with LED lights and soundboxes. As they moved off together as a group, led by Luke Jerram and his team, Lullaby (film clip) floated out into the street and up to children’s bedroom windows. People waved, watched and even cried – a simple idea turns into a moving experience when it is shared. I caught a little movie on my iPhone as they returned, one of those unexpected events that was more magical because it was a surprise.

Alex Hartley @ b-side
Portland Erratic by Alex Hartley

Saturday morning I went on a tour with other b-side supporters to view some of the works. There simply wasn’t time to see them all, so when you go, do make sure you plan things well. We began with Alex Hartley’s work Portland Erratic near Portland Castle. Sited on the harbourside looking out to sea, the work emerged from a sea-mist and seemed to be part of the place already. With it’s window frames painted as white as the fog and the stones it displayed seemingly the material of Portland, it was a surprise to hear that these objects were alien to Portland – had arrived as ballast, or were dumped during industrial works. In the distance, on the headland behind the sculpture, my eye kept travelling to view the dome at the Verne Prison. Another place that will be soon be processing unwanted arrivals on the shores of the UK, when it becomes a holding centre for asylum seekers, following the closure of the prison. The domestic scale and the use of up-cycled window frames made the experience of viewing the works through the windows, and beyond to the sea, a melancholic experience. A longing for a lost home.

A drive up to the Verne followed, where we were welcomed by Simon Ryder and shown his various works, which make up Passage, within the prison walls. Simon weaves stories with objects and histories and creates previously unconsidered links between seemingly disparate behaviours. Struck by a Pathe film he saw online of prisoners wearing masks to conceal their identity while they talked about keeping birds in the prison, Simons mind saw a relationship between the hoods that birds of prey wear and those donned by the men in the film. Another parallel discovery was that the game of squash was invented in prisons and was once a lowly game made by men locked-up and surrounded by high walls. It is now a game played by people with higher social status and is no longer allowed within the prison. The film Simon made, using infrared cameras, re-enacts men inside the prison playing squash, with resounding echoes of the balls as they thrashed against the walls. Confinement and freedom, leisure and echoes of history are all captured by a series of works installed within the rocks of the island.

Later the same day I witnessed an underground movie collaged from a historical collection of films that have featured rabbits. One must not mention the word rabbit on the Isle of Portland, because of its implications. Artist Alistair Gentry has been wandering around dressed as one – this snippet of a serious discussion observed by the underground dweller shows him infiltrating the Talkaoke. The films, powered by bicyclists behind the seasons due to the lack of electricity, revealed spoke peculiarities about rabbits in films – especially that they attack people, wear bow ties and are rather fond of white glove and time.

Talking was a key feature in two other works. Ellie Harrison shared a beautiful and moving set of personal stories from The Grief Series. Presented in a local home these works allow the viewer/listener to empathise with the storytellers as they responded to a number of questions written on cue cards. They got to choose which questions they would answer and the outcome was very emotional for as visitors sat in a chair opposite a photo of the speakers and listened carefully and privately on headphones.

Inside the cinema performance artist Tom Marshman presented a heartwarming set of stories in Everbody’s Auditiorium. Tom enacted charming conversations with local residents that told stories of their lives, with minimal props and subtle lighting and sound Tom warmed the cockles of anyone visiting this seaside cinema. Not to be missed.

I also heard and experienced the sound installation, Variable 4, by Jones and Bulley on Portland Bill, lovely resonance and mixing of pre-recorded and responsive sounds, melding in the mist with the deep tone of the fog-horn. Enchanting.

There is more, much more, to talk about. But I want you to read this NOW and go and see it SOON. There’s not long and you really do need to go and see for yourself. The support and engagement of the local community s absolutely fantastic – what every socially engaged organisation aims for. B-side Festival is not In Portland – it IS Portland.

Canal & River Trust, waterways, people, passion and museums

I attended the Canal & River Trust AGM on Friday in Birmingham’s beautiful new library. The Trust is only two years old, so very early days for them. Whilst their key business is about public engagement they have had a huge number of maintenance works to do as well. It is remarkable what they have achieved in this short time and there was a very positive feeling in the room. I’m very pleased I went because being surrounded by people with a passion for something makes life worthwhile.

Laurence Newman, Chair of the Museums & Attractions Partnership said: “Think about the outside of the museums, not just the inside”.

This was the first sentence that really took my attention – probably because whilst I work with Museums, I am very drawn by working beyond them too. That social history and landscape use is not only archive material but continues to be out there, in the streets, the architecture, in the fields and waterways.

Museums are not only about conservation, preservation and collection, but also about the future. Professor John Hume, giving his retiring address, commented that “we need to find a better term than heritage, it’s awful”. He also voiced disdain for the term ‘attractions’, declaring them to be rubbish. I couldn’t agree more, I thought John Hume was an inspiration. He was vociferous about the need to generate history, not just look back at the heritage.  “We’ve been living in the past…too romantic”. Everyone spoke passionately about his or her roles within in the Trust. John more than anyone was keen to keep the focus on the social history. The image below is of one of John’s slides, showing the protests about the possible closure of sections of the Grand Union Canal in 1960’s. I think this image is very reflective of the tensions in the room about how to move forward:

 canal protest

The image of the 1960’s protesters floats above the orderly speakers table. Earlier this year there was another protest about the Grand Union Canal in Milton Keynes – which just shows how much people care about access these waterways. The view out to the city of Birmingham beyond is framed by the distinctive circular motifs of the New Library.

In the room we discussed the function of the canal and waterway network – past, present and future. Indeed Birmingham is built around the canal system – yet there is no Waterway Museum there. The Gloucester Waterways Museum is much loved, but is being crowded out by the Peel Development at Gloucester Quays. Someone mentioned it should relocate – but without the canal network it would be dislocated and stripped of meaning.

Time does not – cannot – stand still. The whole canal system is a museum – but it must also record and document current things, or it will have a huge legacy gap and be frozen in time. I love the way that the waterways are like arteries in the landscape – they carry things and people, connecting places together across time. Art projects could be used to join places up, by commissioning artists to explore each place and share their findings in other places.

Occasionally there were terms used that I questioned. There was talk about the Trust being ‘the experts’ and that visitors and the public are ‘customers’. So archiving knowledge is about sharing ‘their’ knowledge. But surely we should be thinking about collaborating with our membership, learning from them just as much as they learn from us? Living the Wikipedia principle both online and off. We are all the public. Defining people as experts and membership as ‘the public’ or ‘customers’ it sets up a mindset of there being a trading transaction, rather than sharing a genuine passion for the rivers and waterways.

Whilst the concept of the expert is, of course important, I’m not sure whether it is a useful way to bring people on board to support the Trust. Knowledge exchange, sharing learning and engendering generosity will help to feed the economic machine. I suspect that we are becoming immune to the hard-sell approach. Better to engage with enthusiasts and feed their passion as collaborators, rather than take a service provider role.

And that applies to the digitisation of the archives. The archives conserve everyday things that were made by, and belonged to, ordinary people. And living ordinary people can add to the knowledge about those things through storytelling. There was talk about educating and informing people – knowledge belongs to everyone, because everyone has a story to tell.

Artists can help in that process. And I hope that I can too. I thrive on these discussions and spend hours of my life considering new ways of thinking about them. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the flush of delight when someone I mentor is awarded a grant warms the cockles!

I have to share this news, but confidentiality won’t allow me to say who it is – but well done you!

It’s an absolute privilege to mentor the people I do – they are committed and serious about their practice and work really hard to survive, despite all odds these days…..

I know how it feels to be an artist and face endless applications, constant rejections and still try to keep positive, keep going, believe in what you do. Anyone who thinks artists have it easy has evidently not tried it.

I often wonder why I do what I do, but the truth is, it’s because I care. Simple.