inspirational TED talk – Simon Anholt – being good is more important than being best

Today I saw the TED talk by Simon Anholt for the first time, and now I’ve watched it 3 times. It’s brilliant thinking. What he talks about makes absolute sense to me and is  a coming together of other interesting speakers on globalisation, empathy and  collaboration.

John Lennon and ‘Imagine’; ‘Outrospection’ by Roman Krznaric; Flow by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi and Brene Brown come to mind.

Anholt has devised a database that can measure how ‘good’ countries are. It’s important to understand how he defines the term ‘good’.  He believes countries that can be defined as ‘good’ are safer, richer and fairer. Being ‘good’ is about behaving and collaborating, it is the opposite of selfish. He measures the levels by how much a country gives to the world, how much it contributes to humanity. Brilliant.

According to the results, Ireland is the top country. (I am not sure what year he collated his data – I doubt all Irish residents would agree their country is ‘good’ to them at present, since the Celtic tiger scenario……….)

Good is about making a contribution to the rest of humanity, not economy – though those who do contrbute most are more likely to have a stable economy, they come hand-in-hand.

Good as the opposite of selfish.

He refers to ‘a culture of goodness’

This model could be developed to suit all scales, from the individual, to the company, the sector, the country, the world.

It could work.

I would love to promote a culture of goodness – without any religious or moralist judgement – just about humanity.

Anholt suggests that we are, without realising, on some level, cultural sociopaths.  And that is our biggest problem – we treat people from other cultures as cardboard cutouts – we dehumanize them.

One could have a policy of goodness
A goodness strategy
A department of goodness


review of Mycophilia by Louise Short at Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth

Please share this with others, it’s such a wonderful show.

Mycophilia is the first of two shows being presented in the Ceredigion Museum temporary gallery space by Short&Forward and runs from April 17 to May 31st 2014. Alice Forward’s exhibition Swarm Society will run from June 12th till 2nd August and her works resonate well with those of Louise. Both make work that explores our relationship with the natural world and expresses their passion for protecting and conserving it for future generations. They share a love of film, mushrooms, bees and life.

Louise Short’s exhibition, Mycophilia, exhibits exquisite casts of fungi and spore prints as filmic objects. In a temporary space next to the Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth, she has presented a constellation of 3D snapshots of moments in time and place, captured and recorded in plaster, bronze, paper, paint and spore-dust on paper. The title of the installation, Mycophilia, means the love of mushrooms, likewise filmophilia means a love of films. Spore-dust is an evocative phrase that whispers the story of their process in your ear. On entering the gallery to experience Mycophilia viewers are transported into another world. The prints on paper are trapped underneath glasses, lest they should escape like spiders or wasps, and the science-fiction presence of a constellation of plaster casts suspended in a deep blue universe spans the whole back wall. Ian Banks meets Richard Mabey meets Thoreaux. This installation is both 2D and 3D – filmic and sculptural. It hints at mass fields of growth and microscopic detail. Each trace of fungi reveals its own intricacy and uniqueness – together they are a cosmos.

A love of the process of film and a deep understanding of nature is present in all of Louise’s artworks, but not always in an obvious, cinematic way. Mothshadowmovie (1999, 2000) turned an everyday office overhead projector into a screening device in a woodland – attracting and amplifying the ghostly visits of fluttering moths and slimy snails. For Something Else, her one person show at Arnolfini, Bristol in 1997, Louise cast the tender insides of daffodil trumpets, fixing the voids in plaster. In 2001, in the basement of what is now the Exchange Gallery in Penzance, she filmed the walls of the redundant telephone exchange then re-projected the 8mm footage back onto their surface. The projectors shuddered and rattled, returning life to the abandoned architecture. Feeling Faint created a gentle echo on the walls, the images quivered softly like Narcissus’s reflection on water. In Louise’s work solid things are made ephemeral and transient moments solid. Casting is like a 3D camera, the imprint of the brief moment that the fungus manifests itself above ground as solid matter is caught and made tangible.

The spore-dust deposits fine footprints of the mushrooms reproductive potential, they multiply generously but few will survive the process. Their lives are brief, like stars they appear unexpectedly and disappear suddenly, as if by magic. They are indeed other-worldly without consumption – you don’t need to eat them to be enchanted and drawn in by their hallucinatory nature. In the scale of things humans are similarly short-lived. We make art, we write, we create, we procreate, and every moment is to be noted, considered and experienced in our short lifetime. This exhibition of fungi prompts us to be mindful of this and the artwork is the outcome of a very thoughtful and considered process of walking, meandering and being in the moment.

During Louise’s regular forays through the beautiful Welsh landscape, where she lives and works, she was able to immerse herself in her thoughts of the ephemeral, returning with a record of her journey, on that day, of that place. I must let my senses wander as my thought, my eyes see without looking…Be not preoccupied with looking. Go not to the object; let it come to you…What I need is not to look at all, but a true sauntering of the eye. (Thoreau Journal 4:351) Solitude, silence, no signage, wandering aimlessly, like the rhizome of mycelia that appear as fairy-circles below the surface of meadow grass, Louise reflected upon her roots and relationships, walking random routes through the landscape, meandering, thinking and casting her gaze as she foraged, capturing her fragile trophies to keep.

Fungi is corporeal in nature, soft like flesh, but cold to the touch. Love, tenderness, fragility, vulnerability, the human condition are all here in this exhibition.


20140427-195422.jpg 20140427-195403.jpg 20140427-195345.jpg 20140427-195332.jpg © Carolyn Black 2014

last chance to see artSOUTH as it comes to an end – full text of my review

In case you missed it, below is the full text for an article that is featured on Nom de Strip‘s website, where you can also see supporting images. artSOUTH closes soon, do check their website to see the remainder of the programme.

Witnessing artSOUTH, uncovering the narratives

Before artSOUTH opened, I discussed the exhibition in the context of cultural tourism and discovery, which some disagreed with, partly due to an embedded belief in the contemporary visual arts sector that if work relates to tourism, then it is unlikely to be good art. At the time of writing, artSOUTH is open and available for people to draw their own conclusions, so do see it if you can.

The quality of the artworks certainly qualifies as good art and the concepts behind them runs deep and warm. I make no apology for referring to warmth here – many of the artworks are so engaged with the human condition that they are almost visceral in sensibility.

The act of finally seeing these works has made me a witness, reinforced by the very character of the works, many of them about the artist (and subsequently the viewer) witnessing something. Writing this article has become about how to compile the evidence of that visitor experience, to tell the story by drawing out some of the underlying narratives.

I managed to see several of the works and also attended a couple of talks and events. Holding the concept of discovery in my mind, I visited Southampton City Art Gallery for the first time, to see Jeremy Millar and Bouke de Vries’ works. I saw Mel Brimfield’s film-works installed in the John Hansard Gallery, and her live performance on the SS  Shieldhall. Graham Gussin showed in Winchester; Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva in Mottisfont and Jordan Baseman in Portsmouth. Of all those places, I had only previously been to the John Hansard Gallery, so the journey of discovery was heightened by visiting new cities.

Mel Brimfield’s works provide sweet humour peppered with deep irony, comedy and tragedy, laughter and toe-curling moments. Brimfield’s artworks demand a level of prior knowledge about art and humour from audiences and I am curious as to how audiences younger than myself might relate to it. Particularly the performance, An Audience with Willie Little, which depended upon the viewer recognizing the characters portrayed – well known comedians such as Morecambe and Wise, Tony Hancock, Frankie Howerd, Kenneth Williams and Harry Secombe. The video installations at John Hansard also made specific references to artists and theatre, including Lee Krasner, Jackson Pollock and Brecht. In comedy, humour and deep sadness nestle very close together and Brimfield’s work positions the viewer in an uncomfortable place alternating between laughter and empathy, creating just a slight edge of nervous anxiety. The tiny cinema on the boat where the performance took place was intimate, reminding the audience of how many comedians startup, and possibly end up, working on cruise ships. Leaving the performance at the end and looking back at the makeshift stage, the achievement of Dickie Beaux (aka Willie Little), the performer, was even more evident – his changing area the size of a phone box, just beyond the sight-line of the stage drapes.

Jordan Baseman’s films offer two different viewpoints on the ‘character’ of criminals by drawing on the perspectives of people who commit crimes and people who are victims of crime. The first film, True Crime, is narrated Dr Diana Bretherick, Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, University of Portsmouth, offering her perspective as reportage – scientific, factual, unemotional, stating that there is not a stereotype of what a criminal ‘looks like’. But the accompanying images – portraits of criminals – evidence that to be untrue. Whilst the voice affirms that you cannot recognise a criminal by their appearance – that they often appear ‘normal’ – the faces in the mugshots, taken on arrival at the prison, look both haunting and haunted. The second film, Skin Colored Chairs, features the voice of writer and ex-con, Simon Bennett, who tells his own story. The visuals are random and abstracted, giving no further clues to the narrative. Bennett was a lifelong criminal that learnt to write poetry in prison and eventually became a writing tutor in the prison service, helping others to find alternate ways of thinking and living. There is a very poignant moment in the film when Bennett reports that the action of having keys to enter the prison as opposed to being locked in for most of his life, was hard to get his head around. Shown in the Omega Centre in Portsmouth, the context was right for the work. This community centre lies south of Portsmouth, serving residents of a large housing estate with high unemployment and social problems. The centre staff were really helpful and were clearly very pleased to be hosting the film, that may well have resonance with local communities. The contrasting narratives provoke the viewer to consider whose story is closest to the truth. The one that presents scientific evidence, or the one that is derived from personal experience? For me, Skin Coloured Chairs provided a more powerful experience. Bennett’s stroy draws on human empathy and reminds me that research can make general assumptions, but we are all individuals. Human beings are not easy to label and redemption is within reach for anyone who dares to go for it.

In a small darkened room upstairs in the Southampton City Art Gallery, Jeremy Millar’s long, slow-paced meditation is screened on a three-hour loop. It focuses upon an act of slowness, revealing the process of book-binding by hand. Father Nicholas Spencer, the head of the bindery and Oblate Master at Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight is filmed binding a first edition copy of Joris-Karl Huysmans’ 1903 novel, L’Oblat. this book was set in the Benedictine Order at Solesmes, from where the monks were exiled to the Isle of Wight in the early twentieth century. The film is entirely about the gaze – the detail, the scrutiny, seeing the previously unseen and unknown, the camera as witness. Millar could have opted to cut the film to make it shorter, but then some of the evidence would be missing. The restored, re-covered book can be seen in the same room as the film on a plinth encased in glass, we know it was finished satisfactorily. The tiny details shown in the film are seen by the naked eye, the indentations created by the punches evident, the labour of love complete.

Graham Gussin’s three-screen film, Night Vision, in Winchester was different again – Gussin collaborated with dance troupe New Movement Collective and Corporal Andy Reddy, British Army Combat Camera Crew to create an intriguing visual document of a staged performance in a military traning centre. Filmed over two nights, from dusk to dawn, the dancers moved with stealth and scrambled over walls and down dark alleyways in the stage-set of the inner city housing estate.  Whilst the night cameras documented the night-time performances, the aesthetic confounded what we think we ‘know’, confusing the visual senses. In the film footage, as dusk fell the sky got brighter, as dawn arrived it became darker. Gussin’s films remind us of undercover activity – subversive behavior, surveillance, encounters in cities – and evoke in the viewer a sense of the ominous, the nocturnal. Might it be that that we associate this visual language with ‘animal’ or ‘criminal’ because we see it, most often, in TV programmes about nature?

Bouke de Vries’ fascinating reconstructions of broken museum artefacts from the Southampton City Art Gallery & Museum collection created a renovation of meaning associated with the value of precious objects. This was achieved by collaborating with a glass blower, who created blown-glass cradles that supported the fragments of the broken ceramics, providing sufficient clues for the viewer to re-imagine the original ceramic forms and how they might look if they were complete. Even though only a small part of each object had been reconstructed, the ghost of overall form of the original was represented by the glass shell.

All in all, the important thing is to see the works – no review can replicate the real experience. Make your own discoveries, because each is unique. I enjoyed the other local findings – the uncanny link between Bouke de Vries’ work and the reconstructed stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral from Cromwellian times; the joys of discussing Mel Brimfield’s performance on the boat with volunteers and hearing their stories about why they love the SS Shieldhall so much.

Of course, going to new places is always enjoyable, but it can be made less comfortable if you can’t find the places. artSOUTH had good signposting and signage, so that was very helpful and much appreciated. The diversity of locations provided a rich mix of contexts – galleries, museums, stately homes, ships and community centres – each appropriate for the works they exhibited. Having now seen many, but not all, of the locations and the works installed, I have more questions to ask. I’d like to cross-examine the collaborators. I’d like to ask Father Nicholas how he feels about having his private practice being exposed to the public gaze. Or speak to the gardener at Mottisfont about how he feels about some of his trees being turned upside down by Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva and decorated with gold leaf. What was the relationship between Bouke de Vries and the glass blower? In Jordan Baseman’s work, where does the collaboration lie? What impact did the artists have on their collaborators – and vice-versa?

artSOUTH provided several artists’ talks, discussions and walks to inform their audiences – and they were all well-attended. Personally, I found the travel between the locations quite onerous, not to mention expensive. Being open over several months, hopefully some visitors will be able to spread their visits more than I could. Plan your route well and check the opening times too – they do vary. I’d be very interested to see the postcode data to see how audiences navigated between the venues and how many were local compared with from outside the Hampshire region.

I still question the overall viability of geographically spread connected exhibitions from an audience perspective – too far apart to constitute a ‘festival’ sensibility, yet close enough to take in one or two works in a day. Whilst the concept behind the project is ‘collaboration’, there is no other common thread between the commissioned artworks. Last year in Dorset, following the removal of the ExLab works from their installation sites, a selection of pieces were brought together in a review show at Bridport Art Centre. That coming together was a fitting conclusion to the scattered-site show and the connection all of the works had with the Jurassic Coast was very evident. When the artSOUTH catalogue is available we will see all of the works brought together in a publication – I am intrigued to see how that will interpret the show as a body of works. For those that present these complex exhibitions with multiple partners I have nothing but admiration. I know how challenging it is and how much is learnt along the way – resilient practice on the ground is a very different thing to resilient practice in theory. While the arts sector in the region explores questions about Biennials and Festivals, these things are hot potatoes. Go and see the work, get involved, see what happens in action, enjoy.

Carolyn Black

20 October 2013

©  by Carolyn Black  All rights reserved

Visited Spike Island yesterday to have a look at the Bloomberg New Contemporaries

Good to see Bloomberg at Spike Island – fresh ideas and works that reflect what’s happening in our art colleges today. My overall response is mixed – the show almost divides into two distinct camps, one which I enjoy more than the other. The camps are primarily the physical, material presence of the objects/sculptures, (which appear to be rather similar in their nature and concept) and the other lens-based media. An overriding memory of both camps is one of a light, enquiring humour, often ironic.

The physical-object works were mostly a little bit messy, a little bit playful, and some no doubt intellectually fascinating concepts, if I could see them. Some are lost on me.  What wasn’t lost on me was smell – the show as a whole hammered my senses into action  – joss sticks burning, pepper and mustard used as a painting medium, video soundtracks overlaying each other, permeating the spaces.

The works in the object group that grabbed my attention the most are definitely the knitted portraits on the jumpers by Hardeep Pandhal. The strange, knitted protrusions that were literally attached to the jumpers, neither 2D or 3D, were head portraits of Tupac Shakur and Bruce Parry. At first sight, my mind immediately drew parallel to something in the news at present – that of the Chinese man who has had a new nose grown on his forehead.

Hardeep Pandhal bloomberg 2013

The mans face hosting his nose, but in a different place to usual, is not unlike a sweater hosting a face that would normally be seen above the sweater, as opposed to attached to it. Facial slippage and misalignment. I understood the reference to 2pac in the title of one of the garments, but had to do a bit of home research to find out about Bruce Parry. Apparently he is a tv presenter on a programme about Tribes. I’m still wondering what is going on there, can anyone help me out?

Another work that haunts me is the short film, ‘Blessed are you who come’ by Fatma Bucak. It was both beautiful and intriguing. Subtitled a ‘Conversation on the Turkish Armenian border 2012’, visually it drew me in. The colours are rich, the rugged landscape framing the ancient ruined architecture, maybe from the Ottoman empire (my knowledge of this history is sketchy) provided a filmic stage for the ‘performers’. A group of about 12 or 15 old men (apart from one child that was probably a great grandson), probably 70+ years old, mostly having walking sticks, stand as a group as if posed for a photo, looking forward at the camera, which is static. The subtitles reveal that they have been asked to behave like this “by the Italian”. The narrative is revealed by the comments the men make about why they are there, what brought them there, and snarky little cultural digs, all with humour but clearly very loaded. Whilst these men are not consciously performing, a barefoot woman dressed in a black is – she has a dramatic presence as she moves between them, they mutter about her when she passes, but do not follow her with their eyes, they do their best to keep looking forward at the camera. One or two get a bit irritated, clearly baffled as to why they have been asked to stand there. I empathise. And like them, I am curious enough to stay and watch this film play out. I wonder why, what historical references do I not know about? Are these men veterans of a battle between Turkey and Armenia? The woman shares bread them, but it is Ramadan, the men don’t eat it. So we know they are Muslims. And of course there is the biblical breaking of bread. And maybe she is Muslim too – she prostrates herself, but doesn’t wear a veil, though her hair hides her face. She is timeless in appearance. This work was powerful in many ways and even as I write this, I realise I need to know more. Or maybe I don’t. I watched it three times, it held my attention and I felt both inquisitive about it and charmed by its visual presence.

spike island bloomberg Fatma Bucak

There were two other works that stay with me. The documentary styled film, ‘Purleus Tales’ by Simon Senn and the photographs by Joanna Piotrowska. Senn’s film challenges both the artist (camera person) and the viewer with the same dilemma – is it appropriate to use documentary film to frame people and provoke and challenge the subjects? It highlights the ethics of that approach, is it an inhumane manner to get the material needed?

Piotrowska provides a wonderful, aesthetic experience – huge black and white photos, mostly of pairs of people, that use clothes as binding signifiers, merging like conjoined twins. Brilliant.

The Barbican, Welcome Trust, Helen Chadwick & sunshine

Some days you just have to go and see some art. When a friend asked me what would I recommend he saw when in London I decided to join him, and it was fab.

The main show at Barbican is Cage, Johns, Rauschenburg, Duchamp and Cunningham, which was enjoyable, though the atmosphere there is always a bit dark and dungeony. But that worked quite well with the theatrical sense of the show.

The highlight for me though was the Geoffrey Farmer in the Curve Gallery – what a wonderful piece of work. I first saw Farmer at Documenta last year, when he showed Leaves of Grass, and this one was equally as mesmerising. The Surgeon and the Photographer was poetic, picasso-esque, python-esque (as in Monty!), Dali-esque and the narrative like a strange detective-esque experience.

It was wonderful, and I found myself reading it like a book, considering how some of the puppets were on pedestals addressing groups of people, some engaged with nature, balancing butterflies on their fingers whilst cut-out birds flew overhead. Some carried weapons, so looked like military rows of soldiers, some seemed free of hierarchy or order. Multi-cultural, the film element morphed people heads from one into another, or showed sequences of stills of war, of clothing etc.

After that, a quick dash around Welcome Trust – outside art from Japan, well worth a visit, some real gems in there. Then a whizz to catch Helen Chadwick before it closed. Piss Flowers in the window alongside an evocative text were pleasing, but the majority of work didn’t excite me the way it used to. But it did make me think of Next Nature and how she juxtaposed flowers and flesh together and played around the edges of the erotic by alluding to genitals. She was a very special artist and the way she portrayed meat and flesh as equal is carried on by contemporary artists like Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva. Elpida is representing Macedonia at Venice this year, so check it out and see if you can see the relationship.

Sisters on Saturday: Symposium at SVA, Stroud. Sue Thomas; Semiconductor: Squidsoup; Simon Ryder The New Natural

new nature

This Saturday 25th May is going to be a very interesting day. As part of the SITE Festival, artist Simon Ryder is hosting a symposium to consider the future of nature – what do we mean by ‘new nature’? Is nature only what we already know of, and some feel, have damaged irrepairably, or might it be something unimagined and unforeseen?

My sister, Professor Sue Thomas, and I, find nothing unusual in such conversations. When I look back at some of the weird discussions and debates we’ve had over the table in the past, I have rarely stopped to wonder whether this is usual family fare. It’s our normal – which is what matters to us.

Intense dialogues about when we are online, do we ‘feel’ we ‘reside’ online? Is virtuality another geography? Where does fact and fiction begin and end? Does it end? We mostly agree. But what do you think?

I’m taking a back seat on Saturday while others enter similar discussions, chaired by Rob la Frenais, of The Arts Catalyst. It will be an intriguing conversation as it unravels the different ways we might consider New Nature.

The New Natural Symposium
Semiconductor, Prof. Sue Thomas and Squidsoup
Saturday 25th May 10.30am-5pm
SVA, 4 John St, Stroud GL5 2HA
Installation Friday 24th-Sunday 26th May

11am-4pm Goods Shed, Stroud GL5 3AP

Book now:

The New Natural is presented by Heart of Wonder in collaboration with SVA, and supported by Alias.

Tickets £12 including lunch and refreshments £20 for weekend inclusive of evening events. See SVA website for more details, or give them a call.

Booking is essential as places are limited 01453 751440 or email

Is blogging like whittling a wooden spoon – using words to hone the form? or just stirring things up?

In a BBC video, woodcarver Barnaby Carder talks about his passion for whittling spoons. I love this video and have revisited it many times. Barnaby talks of ‘honing’ his skill and tells the story of how he came to be whittling in London; how he had travelled and then decided to settle into a shop, indeed a shop window, where he whittles his spoons and people watch him doing so.

 When people see you make it, they like that

He refers to people seeing him making spoons from passing buses and they crave what he is doing. And they buy the spoons too. He is highly aware of the fact that his personal story is the context of his work, that they are intertwined. The timber he uses is harvested from the nearby Tower Hamlets Cemetery Park and that local-ness is key to him, it is part of his process:

It’s important to be around living trees, you can’t separate them from the finished product

He’s really considered in the way he talks about what he does, how he lives, and refers to the act of whittling spoons in a shop window as a performance. He reflects upon to his previous simple life and how complex it has become. The way he discusses each spoon is beautiful, his relationship with the object, the feel of whittling the wood and how, whilst creating them, he may say to himself oh, I’m not sure about that spoon and then someone else comes along and says they love it.

So why might this be like blogging?

What if the blog = the shop window?

What if the whittling process = writing?

What if the wood = the content?

What if the spoon = words?

Imagine this blog is my shop window, it is where I share my ideas, experiences and reflections. It is where I hone my thoughts by writing them down, whittling them, shaping them, trying to hold onto the initial thing that made me think about them. Be it the local woods, or the art I see, or the books I read, the places I go. They are my timber.

Sometimes it all comes together, and I am happy with what I have made, and other times I think oh, I’m not sure about that spoon [art I have just seen]. Or the words I just wrote. Just as Barnaby might sand and smooth, and think back to the tree, the wood, the texture, the grain, and attempt to analyse why the spoon doesn’t feel right to him, I do that after seeing exhibitions, reading books, going places. And if I blog, that process is public, because I am doing it in my shop window. And maybe sometimes there are sharp bits, splinters, rough edges, that are uncomfortable for both me, and the end-user.

It happens, none of us can get it right every time. Honing is an ongoing thing, thinking and reflecting is cyclical, and there will always be a risk of splinters and rough edges. Material is like that.

Do watch the video, it is so fascinating.