Posted: October 17, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions, features | Tags: Censorship, Iranian Internet, Small Media
Maral Pourkazemi’s infographics
Upon entering Small media
‘s Euston offices, we are told we will need to have our ID’s photographed and that some internet sites will be filtered or blocked in accordance with the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
For one night only, the charity have turned their office into both an interactive exhibition and an Iranian internet cafe. They are asking us to imagine a country where you have tickets for Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler but the show is suddenly banned because the authorities deem it ‘vulgar’ and ‘hedonistic’; a world where you have no hope of publishing or distributing your work because it doesn’t espouse revolutionary or pro-government ideals and a place where you could be arrested, tortured or imprisoned for using gay websites.
In the small office, two Macs are connected to the Iranian internet and beside them sits a table full of post-it notes bearing the names of various websites. Our job is to find out which ones are filtered or blocked and hang them up above the computers. The connection is painfully slow and even the unblocked sites take a long time to load and show error messages. Most human rights and western news organisations are banned, yet so are the sites for things such as Barbie and American Idol. The results are often arbitrary; gaytimes.co.uk is available but many other smaller LGBT sites are not. Until a short while ago, Middlesex University, Sussex University and Breastcancer.org were also banned due to a filtering system that used letter combinations to decipher content.
After google, yahoo and wikipedia, this is the fourth most viewed site in Iran:
Welcome to Payvandahar.ir. Owing to a recent change in the governments censorship techniques, rather than a warning saying #403 forbidden, a blocked site now takes you this cheerful looking page. It recommends alternative options to the things you are looking for, invites you to post comments and is beginning to build up a community of people ready to write in and suggest other sites that should be banned or filtered.
Iran is a place of many fascinating statistics and Maral Pourkazemi usesInfographics to make such information accessible. Impressively designed, her infographics turn her research (and the contradictorary statistics she has uncovered) into patterns that are reminiscent of geometric Arabic tiles, incorporating Persian script and illustrations into the data.
One design shows the development of the National Internet Network or ‘halal’ internet. Said to have has has been in development since 2005, some sources say it will reach completion next year, leaving Iran cut off from all international websites. Other sources, however, dispute this and say the entire concept is simply scaremongering, used either to encourage people to use home-grown sites under national controll, or as a way for people in the west to damage the public perception of Iran. Whether talk of an entirely separate system is true or not, many people are now using the government controlled clone sites such as Ya-haq (literal translation: calling God) to replace google, and Iranian Web Mail will replace gmail.
Last week the Iranian government announced that Gmail and Google would be blocked (although an unsecured version – far easier to eavesdrop on – did remained unblocked), but this week the ban was lifted. The government seems to be caught in a difficult balancing act: it wants to restrict and control content but not impact negatively on the country’s economic or international relations. This balance is surely almost impossible to achieve and it is suggested that they are fighting a losing battle, as developers are finding more and more ways around such restrictions.
Small Media has invited Tor Project developer, Runa A. Sandvick and Briar‘s Michael Rogers to explain how such innovations work. The Tor project, originally designed to protect US Navy communications, is now used all over the world by activists, journalists and people who want to protect their privacy on the web. Briar is building a secure news and discussion platform that enables groups in authoritarian countries to communicate without government interference and in the event of an internet shut down.
As we leave, we are surreptitiously slipped a tiny USB stick. This contains the Tor software and copies of Small Media’s latest reports on cultural censorship and LGBT rights. This is how such software is likely to be be distributed among friends inside Iran and it is an effective finishing touch. With the continuing fight against legislation such as SOPA and PIPA in the US and UK, this illuminating evening in ‘Iran’ serves to remind us of the access to information we currently take for granted, and how important it is to fight to keep it free.
Written for Exeunt.
Posted: September 2, 2012 Filed under: exhibitions
Victoria Miro Gallery
Written for Exeunt
With these six enormous tapestries Grayson Perry – the country’s most loved transvestite potter – takes on class. He uses a highly traditional method to depict a hyper-modern world, exploring how upbringing can effect our sense of taste. Full of humour, intense detail and sumptuous colour the works are a modern take on William Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress. The rise and fall of Tom Rakewell in eighteenth century England becomes the trajectory of Tim Rakewell through the British social strata of today.
The Adoration of the Cage Fighters and The Agony in the Car Park show Tim’s mother and father in working class Sunderland. Referencing traditional religious paintings in their composition, they depict a workingmen’s club singer, a meat raffle and a girls night out, quotidian rituals taking on the significance of ancient allegorical art. Tim’s gentrification via education and a new girlfriend move us onto the next section, where the symbols of the chattering classes are dissected. In the accompanying television series – all in the best possible taste – Perry says that it is between the tribes of this middle class majority that style choices are most fraught and selfconcious. This anxiety is beautifully expressed by a woman moving into a ready furnished showhome on the aspirational King’s Hill Estate in order to avoid having to navigate the pitfalls of taste.
In Expulsion from Number 8 Eden Close, Tim moves from his lower middle class upbringing – a new build estate with a shiny Range Rover in every immaculate driveway- to the “sunlit uplands of the upper middle classes.” Here, abstract art on the wall depicts a cubist cafetiere, while the books on the bookcase have spines reading Art: A Force for Good and Jamie Oliver – the new God of social mobility – beams down from the heavens.
The Annunciation of the Virgin Deal - in which Tim becomes rich by selling his digital start up company to Virgin – lays out the trappings and “knick-knackery” of the upper middle classes. Casually displaying cultural capital, muddy organic vegetables lie on a page of The Guardian. Recycling containers and drying terry-cloth nappies show off- as a woman Perry meets at a Tumbridge Wells dinner party puts it – “Green Bling,” Cath Kidson, Le Creuset and William Morris wallpaper provide the necessary subtle branding and a Penguin Classics mug reads Class Traitor by Chip E Prole.
Exposing the effort that goes into the effortlessness assemblage of a shabby chic aesthetic makes for great art. Perry’s eye for the details of how we display our status are spot on. When we move onto The Upper Class at Bay, the endangered tribe are shown in all their the disheveled grandeur, stately pilescrumbling down around them. The final scene has Tim killed in a car crash, surrounded by super-model wife, smashed up Ferrari and Hello expose. Behind him, the silhouette of a shopping centre rises up, signs for Toys ‘R’ us and Next like beacons in the darkness.
Like an anthropologist collecting clay pots and flint, he interrogates the trivial trappings of our lifestyles to find out who we really are. Utterly nonjudgmental but with scathing powers of observation, by his thread the signifiers we trade in but so carefully pretend not to notice are cleverly laid bare.
Posted: June 20, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions | Tags: Burtynsky, Photographers Gallery, Photography
The Photographer’s gallery: 19 May- 1st July 2012
We are being shown our world from another perspective; viewing it as visitors from another planet or perhaps the Heavens.
Burtynsky’s high resolution 50 x 60” photographs fill the walls of the top two floors of the newly renovated Photographes’ Gallery, many taken from aboard a helicopter. The sense of scale achieved by the distant viewpoint gives an epic quality to everyday industrial processes and these vast vistas of man-made landscape chart the narrative of oil on planet Earth- its extraction, use, waste and future.
His previous collections were also taken from this vantage, studying quarries and nickel mines to create works that were more like abstract paintings than documentary photographs. Open pits and dredged moats become markings on the canvas, the scars of human action on the land reading like brush strokes.
Born in Ontario, Canada, these landscapes are the ones Burtynsky grew up with. Before studying photography he worked in heavy industry and labored in the gold mines of Red lake, Naniamo. Motivated by a sense of awe at the ambition and progress they represented, he began documenting these industries until he had what he calls an ‘oil epiphany’ five years ago -“It occurred to me that all the vast, human altered landscapes I had pursued and photographed for the last twenty years were only made possible by the discovery of oil.” Now, using oil production as a lens through which to see the world, he is telling our story back to us, but it no longer looks like one of progress.
Oil Fields #19a and b are a diptych of just that, in Belridge, California. As far as the eye can see, on dusty, desert-like terrain, metal creatures appear to graze. These drilling machines are livestock on a parallel planet and we, the alien visitors wonder what such animals might do and what they are for.
The answer is found in bird’s-eye views of LA and Shanghai’s highways. The futuristic scenes from our past, these concrete roller coasters lead to places like the scene ofBreezewood, Pennsylvania, where everything in sight is a fast-food drive thru or a petrol station concourse; a city built for cars, not people. A landscape made for and from the use of oil.
We are then taken far from the roar of the city, to the silence of enormous still reservoirs; a clouded sky and line of mountains are reflected perfectly in a lake of oil like a gentle Magrittesque joke. Another is reminiscent of Dali; something like an old Singer sewing machine stitching along a doubled up landscape of mountains and pines. A series showing the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is more surreal still; the sea is on fire, a rainbow rising up from the flames and fumes, the natural order turned completely upside down.
Beneath Burtynsky’s gaze waste becomes sculptural; crushed cars and jet engines fill entire photographs, miles of land covered with strange artifacts. Where is this land? As on entering a world devised by Ridley Scott, we must ask ourselves, what kind of beings live here and why did they unendingly make, discard and recollect such objects?
In an industry founded on destruction, Bangladeshi ship breakers take apart once powerful naval vessels. Beached and rusted, these elephantine structures stand like the remains of an unknown city and a long departed civilisation. As the sun sets behind them, the landscape feels like one of Turner’s; hazed sunlit shapes depict the contest between the man made and the natural, showing the sublime and terrifying power of both.
How does this narrative end- do these topographies foretell the post apocalyptic planet we will leave behind? Burtynsky’s photographs force us to step outside of the world we are creating and view it as History one day will; drawn in steel, fire and sand, we are looking at our legacy.
Posted: May 11, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions, features | Tags: ICA, Jaques Peretti, John Cussans, Remote Control, Simon Denny, Television
To coincide with the UK’s digital switch over, the ICA presents Remote Control, an exhibition looking at artist engagement with the TV and its changing cultural impact. In the first event in a season of talks to accompany the exhibition, John Cussans chairs a discussion assessing the place of television in a world where Google makes more in advertising than Channel 4 and asks what the move from analogue to digital will bring. He is joined by documentary presenter and television producer, Jaques Peretti and Emeritus Professor of Film and Television at the University of Glasgow, Christine Garaghty.
Peretti is full of fascinating insider gossip and feels that TV, as a medium and an industry, sees itself as being in crisis. The internet is more immediate and responsive than television has ever been and as witnessed during the Arab spring, areas such as news are also becoming unable to compete with Twitter and You Tube. In a highlight of the exhibition, Simon Denny fills the gallery with the remnants of London’s decommissioned broadcasting equipment; a bank of monitors, wires, leads and gaffer tape foregrounds a wall sized diagram that tries to explain how it all works. These once crucial pieces of equipment are now comedic in size and startling in how completely anachronistic they are now.
In the face of the super -fast reaction speed and inclusivity of the web, what can TV now provide? The answer might be the very thing we condemn it for; escapism. TV can provide a respite from the tyranny of choice and this is obviously something still very much sought after, as on average Britons are still watching the box for four hours a day. Peretti speaks of the ‘funnel effect’ as something that acts as a counterfoil to the myriad of perspectives on offer via the internet. As the Murdoch Empire faces investigation our particular funneling choice may be questionable but our interest in having our world view selected and deciphered for us is not declining.
The growth of the second screening phenomenon produces an interesting mix of the two media and recently, for the last episode of Sherlock BBC ran live tweets along bottom of the screen- He is gorgeous (@juliefromColchester), being one of the highlights. This idea of a community of viewers is one that Cussan’s is very interested in. He speaks of TV as having a ‘spectacular immanence’ that we can’t get with any other medium. We are ‘immersed in a collective sense of the immediate moment’. This communality offers us a different kind of live-ness; it is not the event being watched that is live, but the nationwide watching experience itself.
Garghty speaks of the need we still have for TV. As the world around us transforms we want to watch soaps where such change appears to have a logic- we need to see the familiar moving in predictable ways. We still want Coronation Street and Dr Who after all these years because we look to TV for comfort; to repackage and re-tell us the myths we crave. Where the internet offers more and more options, TV’s simplified but graspable sense of certainty can offer respite from the eternally relative.
In some ways, TV seems to know that this is where its strengths lie. Peretti relates the response given by a commissioner at an unnamed channel following a new documentary proposal: “That’s all very well,” he said. “But will a woman ironing with the sound off be able to follow it?”
With its pre-chosen reruns and bite sized simplifications, television’s value is perhaps as an antidote. In its failure to be cutting edge, it fills a hole much like Radio 4’s shipping news followed by the national anthem. It doesn’t really matter what is being said, for it is increasingly meaningless in the modern world. What matters is the conjuring up a picture or a mood; a feeling of a common ground and an idea of an ‘us’ that is still listening and watching together.
Read the Exeunt review of Remote Control at the ICA.
Posted: May 11, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions | Tags: Gillian Wearing, Photography, Video Art, Whitechapel Gallery
If you found an advert in Time Out saying ‘Confess all on video. Don’t worry you will be in disguise. Intrigued? Call Gillian’ – would you? Remember, this is back in the early nineties; before Big Brother and the reality TV takeover, before Facebook or YouTube. Way back when it was still possible to be intrigued by such a proposal.
Videos of the people who did respond to Gillian Wearing are now looped in a row of booths in Whitechapel Gallery. In these confessional boxes, with the viewer acting as the unseen priest, the volunteers wear latex masks that, while realistic, are unable to hint at the turmoil within. As ill-fitting voices reveal secrets – a woman who killed her abusive husband; a girl who is no longer in love with her boyfriend; a man who fantasies about cutting off his penis – the eyes of the confessor can be seen through the mask’s eye holes; their lips occasionally glimpsed inside its rubber lips. There is someone inside begging you to save them.
In 2004′s ‘Self Portrait as…’ series, large photos show Wearing in another series of perfect masks, posing as herself at three and seventeen years old, and also as her mother, father and brother. While exploring ideas of transformation and influence these also feel like a meditation on our idea of ‘other people.’ As they are filtered through social media, our memories and knowledge of other people take the form of edited content; people become wittily captioned, glossy masks of airbrushed pixels. Questions about the complexities hidden behind such manipulated images run throughout the show. The most famous example being the frequently replicated ‘Signs that say what you want to say not Signs that say what someone else wants you to say’ showing ordinary people photographed holding handwritten and often unexpected signs.
While some of the stories on offer are extreme, much of the fear people express is about the normal; difficulties in negotiating the everyday and the terror in its contradictions. In a film of two drunk but ordinary couples coming home after a night out, an overlaid soundtrack of desperation and need expresses this contradiction between the felt and the seen perfectly. The words I love you are distorted and repeated, allowing hidden emotions to seep through into the mundane surface of events. In 10-16 adults lip-sync to children’s voices as they reveal their anxieties. The effect is often horribly moving; the child trapped inside the grown up speaking out about their confusion and fear.
While reality TV, cheap parody and copycat advertising campaigns have almost completely re-contextualised the areas Wearing is trying to explore, her work still has a great power to disturb and resonate. Her strikingly simple methods clear a space for us to really see and listen. Insisting on the complex, painful fact that other people are just as real as we are and staging our psychological realities in an almost comical way, she forces us to do a double take. We are made to look at where the obvious and the desperately ignored collide; the place where we perform our lives and our lies.
The Gillian Wearing exhibition is at the Whitechapel Gallery until 17th June 2012. Visit the website for further information.
Posted: May 11, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions | Tags: Freud Museum, Louise Bourgeois, psychoanalysis, sculpture
Written for Exeunt
In his study, Freud’s glasses lie on an open book as if he has just popped out to make a cup of tea and was just a moment ago sitting at his desk as a patient free associated. Ghostly and fascinating, the room has been carefully preserved by his daughter, Anna. Hanging over the patient’s couch is a heavy, undifferentiated, organ shaped sculpture, a blob of bronze and steel that is neither abstract nor figurative, but seems like an unformed thought made into a thing. It hovers over the empty couch; a haunting lump that must be deciphered and decoded.
This is Bourgeois’ Janus Fleuri, one of her most famous works. Yet on first entering the room it is almost unnoticeable. The consulting room is the very opposite of the white cube; it is a already very full of objects. From 1890 until his death Freud collected around 2000 artifacts from ancient Egypt, classical Rome and Greece, the Near East and the Orient (including over 20 Phallus’). He called them his ‘old grubby Gods’ and these were, and still are, displayed in vitrines and cabinets in his study and consulting room and in a thick row along the front of the desk where he worked.
When the University of Art at the State University of New York exhibited these artifacts, the show was reviewed by Bourgeois herself in an essay entitled ‘Freud’s Toys.’ She compared them to a collection of pebbles that her father kept on his desk, telling her that “Every time I have a beautiful moment, it proves to me that life is worth living and in gratitude I put a pebble in a box.”
She speaks of Freud’s collection of sculptures also providing him with reassurance and a sense of control. Like her own 1950′s semi-figurative sculptures- Personages- they are reminiscent of African fetish figures, totems to ward off evil spirits. With the hysterical, the psychotic and the returning repressed frequently visiting his at home, Freud’s room must have, indeed been filled with many dark and dangerous energies.
While pebbles, figurines and theories form of defense against the inexplicable, Bourgeois uses thread, pins, fabric and steel machinery to re-create the shapes of her emotions. Literal as well as metaphorical representation of her memories- her parents owned a tapestry studio- she sculpts and arranges these objects to find a way for her raw impulses and subconscious wishes to be expressed. Confessional and autobiographical till the end, at 98 years old Bourgeois was still obsessively re-enacting childhood trauma through her art.
This exhibition came about, in part, due to the discovery of four boxes of Bourgeois’ writings, found after her death. These were notes and diary entries written as a response to her own psychoanalysis in 2004 and 2010. Many are framed; lists of wants and fears, most discussing her father and mother, the language heavy with psychoanalytical jargon.
Among the writings are soft cloth figures, many with multiple breasts and mirrors showing strange mutating faces. Caged sculptures- part of her series entitled Cells- illustrate the repression of these fragile subconscious images. The words themselves also seem to have a caging effect; the repetition, petrified and obsessive, relating everything back through the prism of the Oedipal triangle traps and deadens.
When the objects stand alone- un-indexed to psychoanalytical theory- the beauty of Bourgeois art is its familiar strangeness. Intricate torn towel bound by tight thread is juxtaposed with lumpily welded steel and scratched, brittle half shapes are interrupted by rounded rubber. The joins are visible while the meanings remain opaque and there is something in the forms that we recognise. Deep within us we understand this alphabet, this is the language of thought before thought; the confused texture of our feelings.
As we stand in his study, we imagine Freud moving his toys around while patients like Bourgeois attempt to arrange their minds. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein’s theories of play technique suggest that a child moving toys about can have a symbolic meaning analogous to that of speech. Yet she, like Freud, begins with a pre-designed board on which the child and his toy truck must crawl. Displayed in his house, curated among Freud’s sacred objects and theories, it feels as if the cages, vitrines and grids that contain Bourgeois’ strange thought-objects are psychoanalysis itself.
Quoted as saying that the reason she originally studied mathematics and geometry, rather than art, is because she could only find ‘peace of mind through the study of rules nobody could change,’ Bourgeois and Freud seem to share a need for strict systemic order and when their ideas are arranged together the flaws in this concept become apparent. Her sculptures, so idiosyncratic and enigmatic, are stripped of their power by their rigid adherence to his schema and when faced with her work Freud’s theories seem reductive. The overt explanation of every gesture leaves no space for the viewer and no possibility for the evocative shapes to be a point of departure.
So let us try to follow the artist’s wild and wandering dream sequence somewhere else. Through the window we can see a garden and in it, a giant metal spider. Maman is balanced precariously on eight spindly legs and hanging from her underside is a basket-womb carrying a polished white egg. Away from the crowded rooms where all meaning is in the past, the air is fresher. The egg cannot be reduced to a pebble in a box and the spider is poised to jump.
Louise Bourgeois: The Return of the Repressed is curated by Philip Larratt-Smith and is on at the Freud Museum until 27th May.
Posted: March 28, 2012 Filed under: books, exhibitions, features
To coincide with Dissonance and Disturbance, a retrospective of Lis Rhodes’ films, the ICA held a short talk entitled The Trouble With Image Politics. Speakers were Iain Boal, a social historian of what he refers to as ‘The Technics and the Commons’ and Astra Taylor, co-editor of an anthology about the Occupy Movement- Occupy! Scenes from Occupied America- and director of the films Zizek! And Examined Life.
The talk opens with a quote from Jorge Borges: ‘Control over the image is now the key to social power’ and social historian Iain Boal, speaks of the changing status of truth in a world saturated with visual and information data. He claims we can no longer believe in the ‘old enlightenment idea’ that the ‘unmasking of power’ is all that is needed to bring about change. He asks us to consider whether building slaughter houses with glass walls would still be enough to make vegetarians of us all today or whether the image has lost the power it may once have had to reveal truths and alter behavior.
This is part of the dilemma facing Astra Taylor and the other documenters in the Occupy! anthology and a problematic issue for the Occuy movement itself. The book is in part a collection of writing from the OWS gazette and the diary style of many entries both questions and assumes that truth can be found in personal, subjective accounts. Occupy is a theatrical movement: it is a dramatisation that makes a narrative by putting private lives in a public space. At its General Assemblies it makes participants thoughts audible through the A Capella of the Human Mic- comments, questions and ideas are repeated by a chorus and performed for an audience. Costumes – the zombie, Guy Fawkes via Alan Moore, or the evil banker being the most common- feature heavily. It is also a televised movement; Zuccotti Park in New York had a constant You Tube live-stream for 24 hours a day.
Like Borges’ story of the cartographers who “struck a Map of the Empire whose size was that of the Empire, and which coincided point for point with it” – does this 24 hour real-time image stream also create a distorting 1:1 to cover and replace the uncapturable real of unfolding events?
Guy Debord claimed that any radical action must create what he called a ‘disruption of the realm of images…a break in the seamless fabric of spectacle.’ But does this footage, documenting the attempt to disrupt the capitalist spectacle, disrupt the spectacle- or become a spectacle in itself?
Taylor speaks of what it might be to create an Ethical Spectacle: in her documentary about the philosopher Slavoj Zizek, she says she felt the truth of the man would not be found in following his every move so that an off-guard – and so possibly more authentic – moment might be caught, but in creating an encounter where a ‘privileged moment’ could be glimpsed. A ‘privileged moment’ is what Proust was describing when the eating of a particular cake invoked an ‘involuntary memory,’ creating an intense feeling in the present that belonged to his past. It has also been described as a ‘moment of enigmatic ecstasy resulting from direct contact by means of one or more of the senses’ or ‘felt knowledge’. Is it possible for such a moment be captured or documented in any faithful way?
Earlier this month at LSE’s annual literary festival Dr Alex Gillespie spoke on Traveling the known and unknown: How literature and photography change the world we see.Part of his research involved questioning tourists traveling in India and asking them how they chose where they wanted to go and how they felt when they got there. Many spoke of the pictures they had seen in guide books or National Geographic and Gillespie suggests that a big part of going to these unknown places was to find this image. On encountering, say, the Taj Mahal, they were prone to gasp and exclaim- “it’s just like in the National Geographic.” It was at this moment, standing in front of the image’s reality, that they felt they had arrived. As Gillespie puts it ‘They see the fiction and feel it as the truth.”
This idea that entering an image of a place or a way of life can be the key to feeling something is real or meaningful is interesting when thinking about Occupy. The history of protest is a nostalgic and romanticized one; in ideas of what authentic and meaningful, the fictions of the sixties lie heavily. Is the invigorating feeling of being part of something ‘real’ and ‘actually happening,’ described by almost all the writers inScenes from…. in part also a recognising of a story or image from the past and feeling this recognition as a sign of truth? Has a ‘privileged moment’ now become a bit like that feeling that feels somehow more authentic when you recognise it as something you’ve seen people experience in a film?
Rhodes’ later montages are filmed and projected on DV, yet their colouring is reminiscent of Super 8 film and they look like the mixing monitor of an old analogue editing suite. This grading creates a nostalgic mood despite the contemporary content and the old-style double exposures lend it the weight and drama of the historical. A Cold Draft (1988) is looped on one screen while In the Kettle (2010) followed by Whitehall(2012) loop on a screen beside, showing footage of protesters, police brutality and kettling at recent London protests and in Gaza. All three films share the same soundtrack of Rhodes’ reading her tangential and poetic essay- “Fragments of eye sight bought and sold… can warning warn when there is no place to go…”
The whirring of the projector in use for the eighties film adds to the uncertainty of what we are watching and how it was created, as does the digital re-creation of an end-of-reel spin and of the bulbs piercing light just before the film strip bursts into flame. The tools effect the meaning; the medium has become part of the message.
This constant questioning of how meaning is formed and the idea of the process being part of the message is of enormous concern to the Occupy movement. In its every interaction, it is attempting to express its bigger intentions and live out what it wants to see and be. It is in no way always successful but, like Rhodes’ work, it is through this reflexivity- the continual awareness of how and the desire to make it transparent- that it finds its power.
The choice of which tools to use at Occupy’s nightly General Assembly was a very important one. Because of their adoption of consensus, democracy as their decision making process- a slow and complicated process that allows an active rejection of hierarchical power- the meetings often became more about working through this methodology than anything else. A major issue with the movement, as highlighted by various Scenes from… writers, was that it found itself focusing more on how to be, rather than what to do; the process was becoming the purpose.
Rhodes calls her films ‘The geography of disturbance’ but her map, far from becoming a hyperreal spectacle, draws attention to how this kind of reductive mapping occurs. Her images are not attempts to represent or explain, but layers of movement and repetition- the moment fragments begin to coalesce into an understandable picture (a protesters head on the concrete beside a policeman’s boot) they blur and re-frame. She re-creates the flaws that were visible in older media- the traces left by replication, manipulation and time- and shows their Chinese whisper-like distorting effect. In clearly displaying the potential for manipulation in both the poetic and observed attempts at documentation or representation she dispels a spell at the same time as creating one. Is it in this constant return to and awareness of form and method that both the Occupy-er’s and Rhodes can avoid becoming just another reel of the spectacle?
In the introduction to a new addition of Debord’s Society of the Spectacle- re- published in response to 2008 economic crisis- Mark Jenkins writes that “contesting the Spectacular society in quotidian matters is essential in fighting the false separation of society into what is properly ‘political’ and what is not.”
Debord’s spectacle is created and enforced by removing ‘the reality of (class) struggle in the arena of everyday life,’ but perhaps by being so resolutely involved in the everyday- in issues of sanitation, eating and sleeping; of who gets to speak first and for how long- the protesters are finding a way of resisting it.
Rhodes cuts her footage into parts to reveal how they form the whole and Occupy’s breaks its political action down into step by step moments of process and participation. In doing this, something is held still or disturbed for long enough for a kind of meaning to begin to grow. In its repetitive and constant oscillation, it’s re-framing and re-describing, Occupy is finding a way to put Rhodes’ aesthetic into action.
Posted: March 14, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions, film
Institute of Contemporary Arts
In a film showcasing contemporary Middle Eastern art, director Pia Getty invites artists to speak about their practice and shape the context in which it is seen. Etel Adnan is an eighty-two year old Lebanese philosopher, painter, poet and essayist undertaking what she calls ‘endless research in form’; her work is driven by a desire to transcend language barriers: this is something all eight artists in Axis of Light have in common and the film provides an intimate introduction to their work.
Form and themes recur and overlap: Adnan calls her abstract paintings ‘poems of colour’ and the visual properties of words are also crucial in the work of Algerian artist, Rachid Koraichi. He works with Sufi script, using traditional methods to create graphic prints. Iranian Shirin Neshat also uses ancient script in her critique of the representation of Arabic women. She covers their faces and hands with mystical writings until word and image blur; these women stare out at us, their expressions, like the inscriptions, unreadable. Egyptian Youssef Nabil is also a photographer. He uses the studio techniques of old Egyptian and Hollywood films, hand-painting film with pastel and watercolour; this stylised glamor creates a dreamlike mood through which he can explore notions of exile and longing.
Mona Saudi, from Jordan, reads her own poetry over footage of her stone sculptures. She speaks of how the details of stone formation are like a story; the markings revealing traces of our past. In Ayman Balbaaki’s paintings, stone and land are also used to reveal truths. He paints from photographs of Beirut, speaking of how the buildings of his city remember past events as bodies do. The cityscape is locked in a cycle of deconstruction and reconstruction and through thick, wild strokes of oil he mirrors this process, building up layers of paint like scar tissue. For his canvas he uses a traditional flowery material that reminds him of the mattresses and belongings carried by refugees as they escaped the city.
This juxtaposition of the mundane and the traumatic is also evident in the work of Palestinian-Lebanese artist, Mona Hatoum. She subverts household objects to express a sense of Freud’s uncanny, the German word for which translates literally as unhomely,providing an understated description of her installations. The everyday is imbued and transformed by the memory of traumatic events; a child’s cot is made from metal but has cheese slicing wires instead of a mattress; graters and colanders become instruments of torture, humming with electric current. In Topographies of War, Iraqi Jananne Al-Ani makes what she calls cartographic images: photographs of Iraqi landscapes, that show the area from a drone’s-eye view. At such a distance the un-peopled villages form abstract patterns, the viewpoint distorting the content and imposing a false order on the destruction.
Al-Ani tells a story about where the idea for her piece came from. In Kosovo in the1990′s, forensic anthropologist Margaret Cox found herself inadvertently searching for a rare blue butterfly and the wild flower it fed on while looking for the victims of the Serbian massacres. Due to the recently disturbed and soil and nutrients provided by the decomposing bodies, it was clusters of flora and fauna that indicated where bodies were buried. It is this story that best sums up the essence of Getty’s film: from a place of struggle and pain, these artists are creating something beautiful and by investigating the past, they are finding new ways to move into the future.
Posted: March 14, 2012 Filed under: art, exhibitions
Looking over people’s heads to see the so-so one liners and crudely drawn pictures already glimpsed in the greetings card shop was perhaps always going to be a disappointing experience. Yet initially, once one negotiates an epic queue that stretches all the way out the gallery, things seem more promising. A pair of waders – waist high wellies with braces – stand filled with foam sealant, petrified in mid stride like someone who has just made a very big mistake. Opposite these, bent and twisted with evil intent, a ladder prepares to advance. An over-sized iron key and a Rich Tea biscuit are nailed up on the wall and beside them stands a life-sized headless ostrich, a giant tooth, riddled with decay and a long, thin brass stick. This sculptural state-of-the-nation is clever, but not too clever; it enables the viewer to feel good about themselves for piecing it all together. Only on closer inspection does a delicate finger nail at the top the pole reveal that we are being given the finger.
Cowboy constructions, determined obliviousness and impending doom announce themselves with a burst of momentum. Yet this momentary rush is familiar from the Saatchi Gallery’s irreverent fibreglass sensations. As with the Chapman brothers’ penis-nosed children or even Damien Hirst’s latest extravaganza, while the colour, the gloss and the immediacy of ‘getting it’ intoxicate at first, this feeling soon wanes.
If his absurd installations are fun, Shrigley’s photographs are far more random and only vaguely witty: a balloon with a face drawn on it tucked up in bed; a ‘Lost Pet’ sign in search of a nameless grey pigeon; a Barbie doll with the body of a pumpkin. There are also some rather arty-looking black and white photos of railings (caption: ‘bent railings’) and an alleyway (caption: ‘alleyway’). To say they are obvious is, obviously, stating the obvious (witness the dead dog wielding the sign proclaiming ‘I’m dead’). Screens show wobbly, roughly sketched animations, one of a headless man bashing away on a drum kit, another of a man sleeping and another that riffs on Martin Creed’s Turner Prize winning work: lights being switched on and off.
There are walls full of Shrigley’s now familiar folksy cartoons showing everyday objects with off-key platitudinous punchlines. It looks like art brut, but despite the idiosyncrasy of his doodling, Shrigley is a Glasgow School of Art alumnus whose illustrations regularly appear in The Guardian. Without the uneasy power endowed upon outsider art by its earnest naivety, these are just badly executed pictures of uninteresting things.
The show is nothing if not accessible, but it is unclear to what exactly this access is being provided. The mundane and the obvious are clearly the subject but, beyond that, what is being said? Despite the knowing tone, this lack of substance quickly becomes disheartening. Shrigley’s art is like a wacky image a friend uploads onto Facebook, it is shared by so many that any initial humour gets diluted. There’s only so much quirk one can take before it gets boring.