‘We are treating the Occupy movement as a landscape, and October as a representation of it, particularly of its global nature’, Thomson & Craighead tell me about their commission for the 2012 Brighton Photo Biennial. Since they are working in Scotland and I am in London, our conversation takes place on a sunny morning through Skype. Their voices break at some moments, their faces becoming briefly pixelated, evoking the precarious intimacy constructed by technology. This is, fittingly, one of the cornerstones of their artistic practice, through which they have been exploring the behavioural and communication shifts produced by the irruption of the internet on a social scale since the early 1990s. ‘We are not trying to provide any sort of interpretation and we certainly are not aiming at being “objective”, whatever that might mean … October could be perhaps best described as encouraging a specific mode of attention.’
October, a 13-minute double-channel video, has a circular structure playing on an endless loop. It depicts two distinct phases of the Occupy movement. The first part gathers footage of what was dubbed the Global Day of Action, when the number of protests scattered around the world peaked on 15 October 2011. The second part gathers documentation of the eviction of hundreds of Occupy camps from all over the planet, which took place the following month. The second screen shows a digital compass that reflects the exact location and distance to the artwork of each of the images that we see, thanks to complex software. The compass, projected on the floor, places the viewer at the centre of the action, providing a powerful element to convey the global nature of the event. This sense of (dis)location is perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of the work.
Every image that we see in the piece has been found by Thomson & Craighead on the internet, uploaded by the people that recorded them. The material that Thomson & Craighead use is called, in technological jargon, ‘user-generated content’ or UGC. Their amateurish quality is the best token of its subversive potential: with the means to broadcast information now available to most individuals, the roles of the witness and the participant, of testimony and activism, have become increasingly intertwined, offering a kaleidoscopic vantage point from which to look at major-scale events. What we see in October is the Occupy of the ‘occupiers’, not the Occupy of the BBC, CNN or The International Herald Tribune. Has the act of recording become one with that of protesting? Is image-making the new method of uprising? These are only some of the questions that October throws at the viewer. With the majority of images currently coming out of Syria being recorded and made available by the rebels themselves, such questions are only going to become more pressing in years to come.
Technology remains the core concern here. Not just on a formal level but on a metaphysical one too. In October, Thomson & Craighead represent two types of transversal, or rhizomatic, flows. On the one hand, the artists mimic the key strategies used daily by millions of web users. By repurposing online found material, they are replicating actions such as sharing (YouTube, Facebook), re-blogging (Tumblr) or re-tweeting (Twitter): engaging in the endless circulation of information within the internet, where authorship, attribution and crediting are burdens, ghosts from a bygone past. On another level—as Alison Craighead explains—they are also representing how the Occupy movement itself mimics the particular structure of the web: ‘When you send a message through the internet, you can redirect it to and from different IPs to make it very difficult for the enemy to track and locate you. In Occupy they rotate their leaders constantly and they communicate their messages to far away points through various types of codes, so they are actually adopting the way the network works, its structure. By being so undetermined, the movement becomes really difficult to supress.’
October shares some similarities with a group of previous works by Thomson & Craighead, particularly the trilogy of ‘desktop documentaries’ formed by Flat Earth (2007), A Short Film about War (2009/2010) and Belief (2012). These works all seem to illustrate the human transformation from consumer to prosumer, fostered by technological progress and its increasingly all-available tools (the web, the camera phone, the blog). In that sense, they embody a rather recently found sense of empowerment, of agency. Instead of being swallowed by the deluge of information, prosumers contribute, and by this gesture place themselves outside the traditionally passive sphere of information consumerism. Interestingly, October depicts not only the Occupy revolution but also ways in which technology itself—the very tool by which capitalism managed to metastatically grow and to conquer the world—has also been the catalyst of its (potential, perhaps eventual) downfall.
October is a compelling watch, and sends one on an emotional rollercoaster ride of sorts. The first part oozes optimism and enthusiasm. There is a free-floating sense of hope and energy towards political change. But this is literally crushed in its second part, when we see the eviction of the camps, a set of images which definitely possess dramatic overtones. Thomson & Craighead have already expressed their interest in the documentary genre, especially the style known as ‘cinema verité’, in which the camera is always acknowledged as a means to capture the truth is its very essence. Although Thomson & Craighead reject the idea of using the work to send a subjective message, they are aware that the very structure of the piece contains a bias in itself.
October is about the early stages of an important protest movement and the technology that made it possible to happen and to spread to the global world. But it is also about the ocean of images that resulted from it. In 1977, Susan Sontag coined the term ‘image world’ to explore the rise in the production and consumption of images, and how this was in fact supplanting the three-dimensional world due to what she perceived as a weakening of reality. Thirty-five years later, Thomson & Craighead show us how a large group of people have reclaimed agency in constructing and inhabiting this reality by means of image-making, combined with other strategies. This is yet another twist to the politics and ethics of the image, but it is one that at least appears to give us a much needed sense of hope.
This text was originally published on the issue #19 of Photoworks, with occasion of the 5th Brighton Photo Biennial Agents of Change: Photography and the Politics of Space. October-November 2012
All images courtesy of Thomson & Craighead.
Quotation might very well have become one of the prevalent strategies for many contemporary artists since the dawn of Postmodern times. This is not the place to elaborate yet another list of usual suspects and I certainly wouldn´t want to dwell on the obvious, but let’s intimate here that the appropriation and détournement of ideas, texts and artefacts of previous creators by subsequent generations into an endless loop of influence has become so mundane there seems to be little interest left in discussing any further the concepts of authorship or originality, those bygone Modern myths which we now look back to with a strange mixture of nostalgia and contempt. There is, though, still much to be said about the question of editorship, about the artist-as-editor of references and research avenues, he who approaches historical cultural production as if it were a malleable material, like an intangible clay of sorts.
One may well wonder why. Why approach art making by way of preexisting works, making objects informed by other objects, instead of working ex nihilo? This mode of production is certainly a constant fixture in Karlos Gil’s oeuvre, which for several years now has explored art making as the selection and reinsertion of myriad past references into a rhizomatic configuration of the now, where the present time expands to the point of conquering and obliterating any sense of linear history. The Intervals points at this boundless “nowness”, by presenting a constellation of artefacts from scattered moments in time that can either baffle or seduce the viewer by its refusal to reveal the principles behind its own systematisation.
Gil’s intentions, thus, remain unclear. Is it a historical homage or an exercise in cultural criticism? Whatever the answer might be, it is clear that this opacity calls for an activation of the viewer. Although sensuously appealing, there is no easy intellectual pleasure to be gained from this harmonious arrangement of elements unless one engages in Gil’s visual roman á clef. This methodology turns both the artist and his audience into semionauts, who invent pathways between signs, carving new meaning from old signifiers.
This text first appeared in the catalogue published to accompany Karlos Gil’s exhibition ‘The Intervals’, on view from the 1st of March to the 2nd of June 2013 at Sala d’Arcs, Fundación Chirivella Soriano, Valencia, Spain.
(This review was originally published on www.frieze.com in August 2012)
Our Work is Never Over at Matadero, Madrid, Spain
‘Our Work is Never Over’ comprises work by ten artists exploring the challenges of making a living. The exhibition operates on two levels. On one, it delves into so-called cognitive or immaterial labour, whose theoretical underpinnings include the work of André Gorz, Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi and Maurizio Lazzarato amongst many others. On the other, it plays with a group of clichés still associated with the artist indulging in loose morals, relaxed schedules and self-obsessed narratives.
In the works of Mladen Stilinović and Pilvi Takala resistance to the exploitation intrinsic to immaterial labour is articulated around an absolute refusal of productivity. Stilinović’s seminal The Artist At Work (1978) shows him lying in bed, sleeping, dozing off and contemplating life. This Bartleby strategy is not only a negative politics of work, but also seems to play with the hackneyed idea that artists don’t even work. For Takala’s The Trainee (2008) – a couple of videos, a slide show and text-based documentation – the artist assumed the identity of a trainee who joins the marketing department of a large company. During the first days she seems to engage in the job but, as time goes by, she ultimately withdraws, sitting at an empty desk staring into the ether or riding the elevator for eight hours. Her passive-aggressive sabotage wreaks havoc in the polite and functional office environment; we are made privy to a string of shocked emails between colleagues as they try to find ways to solve ‘the situation’. Takala’s piece materializes a fantasy we’ve all had at some point: what would happen if instead of working, one simply stopped.
The video As If I Don’t Fit There (2006) by Mounira Al Solh presents the fictional life stories of four women – all former artists who gave up art in pursuit of more satisfying or better paid jobs – played by Al Solh herself. One of them, a troubled painter, becomes a lawyer specializing in helping immigrant artists – as she once was. Another one, a successful video artist, finds happiness when she becomes the art director of a TV station. What’s most beguiling in Al Solh’s work is that she deals with an art world taboo: struggling artists who give up their art practice are perceived as losers and good artists who give up successful careers are simply mad. That these women appear so poised, confident in their choice and still authentic shatters the notion that a life devoted to art and creativity is, by default, a superior one.
For Actors at Work (2006), David Levine legally turned a group of actors day jobs into performances and their workplaces into theatres, thus confusing their artistic activities with their less appealing (but necessary) work. This entanglement questions what makes our artistic aspirations so important to us, and what do we deem as being successful. Is it receiving money in exchange or is it the social acknowledgment? The Portuguese artist Joana Bastos offered a more light-hearted reflection on the multitasking aspect of artists’ lives. Next Money Income? (2007) consists of four large photographic portraits of the artist in the various outfits she had to wear in jobs she’s had, including visitor’s assistant in a museum, estate agent and baby sitter. The last frame is blank, embodying her anxiety about not knowing what job she will have to do next to support herself and her practice.
For Guy Ben-Ner the key to survival seems to lie in subverting the power of the art institutions that subsidise his work. His videoDrop the Monkey (2009) shows the Tel Aviv-based artist having a rhymed telephone conversation with a friend in which he unveils his machinations to get funding to do a project in Berlin so he can visit his lover there. Also playing with a brazen attitude, Ahmet Ögüt’s Send Him Your Money (2010) is a re-enactment of Chris Burden’s emblematic performance Send Me Your Money (1979), a live radio intervention in which the American artist tried, during the space of an hour, to persuade his audience to send money to his personal address. Ögüt’s piece might pose the question of how necessary (or interesting) the re-enactment of conceptual works by young contemporary artists is, but it does point to an important work made 23 years ago that retains its agency today. After all, what could be more pressing for artists than to address the stifling economic conditions in which their art is being made? As Hito Steyerl argued in her essay Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy (2010): ‘We could try to understand [art’s] space as a political one instead of trying to represent a politics that is always happening elsewhere.’
Images courtesy of Matadero
Some theoretical notes concerning the exhibition Desire Lines
Wayfarer, your footprints
are the way, and nothing else;
wayfarer, there is no path,
you make the path by walking.1
Antonio Machado, Campos de Castilla, 1912
Exactly one hundred years ago, in one of his most memorable poems, Antonio Machado exhorted us to become more conscious of our choices, to assume what is perhaps the most transcendental responsibility of our existence as individuals: forging our own path in life rather than being swept along by social pressure, fear or the paralysing shadow of apathy. In that poem, the path is a metaphor for life, a powerful image no less apt for being somewhat hackneyed. It is the perfect allegory for an existential journey, with all of its inherent forks, choices and decisions.
‘Desire lines’ is the name given to the alternative trails that emerge in a landscape— chosen itineraries eroded by wayfarers’ footprints, initially in an improvised manner that follows a transgressive urge, until they are consolidated and widened as a result of the kind of subversion that surpasses the individual to become collective. No path is ever made by one individual: it requires a group. It takes the repeated footsteps of many people to create these indelible marks.
This metaphor, which evokes both real and imaginary paths, is the starting point for the exhibition, which features the work of eleven international artists who explore subversive ways of navigating, using and living the city. The eleven works selected for Desire Lines take the urban fabric to be a complex, contradictory realm, brimming with possibilities. A broad stage with the capacity to both repress our deepest, destabilising desires and act as a catalyst for atavistic spirits of resistance that can trigger collective action. In this scenario the figure of the artist is key, as the embodiment of the metropolitan denizen. The artist is the city dweller par excellence, often roaming like a nomad from one metropolis to another, leading a type of existence that normally verges on the precarious—one of the many results of the gentrification process that the urban theorist and economist Richard Florida has been studying since the beginning of the 21st century2—and therefore being a privileged witness to the joys and miseries of life in the big city.
If the artist exemplifies the citizen, he is thus the hero of the urban odyssey that billions of us face every day. The influential essay The Practice of Everyday Life3 (1984) by the theorist and scholar Michel de Certeau is dedicated to the “ordinary man. To a common hero, an ubiquitous character, walking in countless thousands on the streets. […] This anonymous hero is very ancient. He is the murmuring voice of societies. […] We witness the advent of the number. It comes along with democracy, the large city, administrations, cybernetics. It is a flexible and continuous mass, woven tight like a fabric with no rips nor darned patches, a multitude of quantified heroes who lose names and faces as they become the ciphered river of the streets, a mobile language of computations and rationalities that belong to no one.” It is hard to think of a more eloquent and poignant way to express the loss of identity and agency that the individual endures within an oppressive urban context. The artists and works featured in this show attempt to incite resistance to this situation, to remind us that we can choose our own path; that sometimes empowerment is found in the most inconsequential and impromptu decisions and actions.
De Certeau described these activities, imbued with a tremendous subversive potential, as ‘tactics’, as opposed to ‘strategies’ –the institutional processes that establish the rules and conventions that govern societies. Tactics are the creative opportunities that operate between the gaps and slips of conventional thought and the patterns of everyday life. Of the contemporary philosophers who have promoted this type of liberating, playful, non-conformist behaviour, one of the most instrumental was undoubtedly Guy Debord, leader and founding member of the Situationist International (IS). This revolutionary group, created in 1957, reached its peak of influence with the publication of Society of the Spectacle (1967)4 and the subsequent May ’68 protests in Paris, a movement that borrowed both its ideas and most enduring slogans (such as the famous “Ne travaillez jamais!”). The group’s philosophy was based on the construction of ‘situations’ or environments in which one or more individuals were stimulated to critically analyse their everyday lives so they could identify and pursue their true desires. These ideas, developed by the artist Constant Nieuwenhuys alongside Debord, eventually crystallised into a fully fledged plan of action. Constant dedicated years to this project, entitled New Babylon, where he applied the concepts of what he called ‘unitary urbanism’. Because the Situationist critique of 20th-century urbanism questioned above all the degree of citizen participation, this “new Babylon” proposed a new form of urban planning based mostly on the concepts of mobility and play. Rather than a conventional urban development plan, this model fostered critical activities designed to promote participation in the city through a ‘mobile space of play’ and the construction of ‘situations’.
The idea of play, of understanding the city as a space in which to act out our most pressing desires, is central to this philosophy and is put into practice through the exercise of ‘drifting’ (dérive):
One of the basic Situationist practices is the ‘dérive’, a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. ‘Dérives’ involve playful, constructive behaviour and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll. In a ‘dérive’ one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. 5
Guy Debord, “Theory of the Dérive”
The notion of drifting as productive or constructive play is particularly relevant in the context of this exhibition: play in the sense in which Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga explored it in his controversial essay Homo Ludens6, written in 1938, a time of utter political and social turmoil when the idea of play seemed, at best, a far-fetched irony and, at worst, an inappropriate and rather sick joke. According to Huizinga, the notion of play is inherent to the human condition and even predates it, as evidenced by the fact that it is found in the vast majority of animal species. Huizinga argued that the intrinsic value of play, besides being essential to the generation of culture, is that it permeates archetypal activities of human society such as language, myths and rituals. Rejecting the notion of play as something that is “not serious”, Huizinga explained that play creates a transitory order (or a set of rules), a community of players and a feeling of tension or instability, thus generating collective situations and social exchanges that constitute the first step towards the creation of ‘cultures’.
For example, Looking Up (2001) by Francis Alÿs, a work present in this exhibition, is a video documentation of an action in which the artist walks into the middle of Mexico City’s busy Plaza del Zócalo and, standing impassively on the same spot, starts looking up at the sky. A group of passers-by, surprised and curious, gradually gather behind the artist, trying to see for themselves the elusive sight he is so keenly observing. Looking Up is, in many ways, a practical joke turned into an artwork, but it is a joke that unveils some distinctive human traits: for instance, the fact that groups tend to follow a leader like a herd of animals, often without the slightest guarantee of a worthwhile outcome. More positively, Looking Up examines curiosity and play as agents that mobilise groups, reassuring us of our capacity to respond to events collectively.
The need to overcome that passive ‘herd’ mentality was also staunchly advocated by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari in their seminal philosophical treatise Anti-Oedipus7 (1972), which denounced and challenged the human urge to repress oneself by means of ‘territories’ such as work, family, political parties or education: in short, any social construct born out of the exercise of power relations. To combat this drive and achieve what they called ‘deterritorialisation’, thereby triggering a chain reaction leading to change, it is necessary to forge ‘lines of flight’: brand-new paths in which one can break away from the material of the past.
That such ‘lines of flight’ seem to recall the concept of desire lines is no mere coincidence. For Deleuze and Guattari, desire (never in its strictly sexual sense) is the real force that can mobilise our freer and inevitably more transgressive impulses. This is why the aforementioned ‘territories’, from the workplace to the city, are such excellent machines for repressing our desires, making us docile and obedient as a result of the eternal battle between the social machines and us, the desiring-machines. As Deleuze and Guattari argue so eloquently throughout Anti-Oedipus, desire is socially repressed because any sign of uncontrolled behaviour has the capacity to destabilise the prescribed symbolic order. The lines that stem from desire can sabotage hegemony.
Desire lines—the real and imaginary ones—are an unmistakable symptom of the transgressive capacity of an individual desire that becomes a collective impulse. They symbolise the small acts of urban resistance that emerge from a strong impulse to deviate from the paths created and imposed by others. Regardless of the form these disruptions might take within the symbolic order—games, poetic acts, jokes, minor sabotages or a revolutionary and violent explosion—such transgressions can and should be extrapolated onto the field of human existential behaviour. They should be valued for what they are worth and used as tools for reviving the sensation, buried beneath layers of bureaucracy and social norms, that every life, every fate, is unique and worth fighting for, from the smallest routine struggle to the most pyrrhic battle. When disobedience leaves such a tangible mark, one must acknowledge it and take notice, rather than turning a blind eye, as evidenced by the protests that have shaken the world over these last two years, 2011 and 2012, from the 15 May Movement to the worldwide demonstrations of Occupy.
The works featured in Desire Lines represent different spirits of insurgence as well as tactics for appropriating and celebrating the city’s latent creative potential. We are honoured that artists as inspiring as Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Mark Aerial Waller, Francis Alÿs, Francisca Benítez, Mircea Cantor, Filipa César, Cyprien Gaillard, Regina de Miguel, Laura Oldfield Ford, Alejandra Salinas and Aeron Bergman, and John Smith have accepted our invitation to participate in this project and allowed us to exhibit their stimulating works, lending consistency to a set of enthusiastic ideas. It’s the turn of the audience now. We hope this journey is as enriching for them as it has been for the two curators.
This essay is part of the catalogue of the exhibition Desire Lines, curated by Lorena Muñoz-Alonso & Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz.
The exhibition will open on the 21st of November 2012 at the Espai Cultural Caja Madrid in Barcelona and will run until the 13t of January 2012.
Catalogue design by David G. Uzquiza.
1. This poem belongs to the anthology Campos de Castilla which Antonio Machado first published in 1912. Campos de Castilla, Madrid,Cátedra, 1992. Translation by the author of the essay.
2. Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, New York, Basic Books, 2002.
3. Michel de Certeau, L’invention du quotidien, tome 1: Arts de faire, Paris, Gallimard, 1990. (Published in English as The Practice of Everyday Life.)
4. Guy Debord, La sociéte du spectacle, Paris, Buchet-Chastel, 1967. (Published in English as The Society of the Spectacle.)
5. Théorie de la dérive was originally published in Internationale Situationniste no. 2 (Paris, December 1958). A slightly different version had appeared in 1956 in the Belgian Surrealist magazine Les Lèvres Nues no. 9. (Published in English as “Theory of the Dérive”.)
6. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens, Boston, Beacon Press, 1955.
7. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, Capitalisme et schizophrénie. L’anti-Œdipe, Paris, Les Éditions de Minuit, 1972. (Published in English as Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.)
This review was originally published on Art-Agenda in May 2012
Contingency and probability are long-standing conceptual interests for Mexican artist Gabriel Kuri. His 2011 exhibition at South London Gallery was titled “Before Contingency After the Fact,” for example. His current show at Sadie Coles is titled “Classical Symmetry, Historical Data, Subjective Judgement,” which, according to statistician David Spiegelhalter, are the three essential considerations for calculating the probability of an event. Still, the contingencies Kuri might be concerned with remain elusive and unspecified here, and the sculptures gathered in this show successfully convey that sense of impermanence and open-endedness.
In the room upstairs, six wall sculptures made of gilded insulating foam form a sequence of self-portraits where genre is also mutable or provisional. Some of them remind me of Hannah Wilke’s famous vaginal sculptures from the 1970s, made of chewing gum folded onto itself. Kuri’s larger and brighter sculptures, however, depart from Wilke’s feminist politics to revel in their own theatricality. In Recurring Flat Line Chart (all works 2012), for example, a plastic bag containing liquid bearing an uncanny likeness to urine hangs from what looks like the torso and upper legs of an overweight creature. In Double Self Portrait (Two Point Crossed Section Chart) that same shape becomes a face by way of two bent beverage cans placed like a pair of eyes. Despite their precarity, these shapes—like contorted yoga mats pressed to the wall by string and nails—hold dear to something unusually tantalizing. They are sensual, shiny, and full of anthropomorphic humor. Although their titles allude to typologies of charts and diagrams, what the specific subject of those diagrams might be is never mentioned or hinted at. Kuri, thus, waggishly turns the use of mathematical nomenclature into a formal fetish.
On the adjacent wall, the installation Waiting, Giving, Spent comprises six steel paper towel dispensers of different sizes and a group of giant wooden matchsticks lingering underneath them, similar to the ones he showed as part of “Shelter” (2011) at the South London Gallery. Recurring motifs are essential in Kuri’s mise en scène; like fugues in which themes re-surface when least expected. This also happens downstairs, where two metallic floor sculptures bring to mind the monochrome outdoor “ashtrays” he presented at Frieze Projects in 2010, which were soiled and thus “completed” by the cigarette stubs of the fairgoers. At Sadie Coles, what disrupts the sculptures’ immaculately lacquered metal is the chunky material of concrete. In a work called rr, a lump of cement is sandwiched between the folded angles of two blue disks, frustrating its smooth surfaces. Nearby, a pair of red and yellow overlapping circles resemble a badly finished Mastercard logo.
The last three pieces belong to a series he calls “platforms”: floor sculptures made of found panes of glass, concrete, and plywood slotted on wooden pallets and interspersed with mundane objects such as kitchen utensils. Of the three,Platforms III (bean black void) is probably the most beguiling. The bean is another symbol that Kuri has employed before, and a “bean counter” is, intriguingly enough, a fastidious type of accountant, concerned with quantification and reluctant to let go of any money. But who is the bean counter in Kuri’s work? Is he addressing those responsible for the current global financial crisis perhaps, or is it more about his own fascination with numbers and formulas?
One might think that Kuri is more comfortable with the subtlety of visual metaphors than with grand gestures and explicit statements. But it is after observing the repetition and juxtaposition of the formal and conceptual devices that punctuate his oeuvre that a political position transpires. In the thematic repertoire of the Mexican artist, the most ubiquitous concern seems to be the implication of waste. And it is precisely through this continuous investigation of consumption where Kuri’s interest in mathematics and economics makes itself most concrete. His use of everyday, cheap materials prods at the manic cycles of production, excess, waste, and recycling typical of late capitalism. In Kuri’s sculptures, clashing materials co-exist—organic and artificial, found and purpose-made—pointing to the ultimate commodification of all human resources. But this engagement with materiality is neither cynical nor blasé. It is more akin to the Mono-ha or Arte Povera movements than, say, to Pop. Crucially, despite its critical undercurrents, Kuri’s work never feels preachy, which might be the reason why one feels so compelled to linger over it, watching it unravel.
Sadie Coles, London. 1 March–26 May, 2012.
All images courtesy of the gallery.
(This text was originally published at The White Review in June 2012)
The instability of an accent, its borrowed and hybridised phonetic form, is testimony not to someone’s origins but only to an unstable and migratory lifestyle, which is of course common in those fleeing from conflict and seeking asylum. Is it not more likely then, than a genuine asylum seeker’s accent would be an irregular and itinerant concoction of voices, a sort biography of a journey, rather than an immediately distinguishable voice, that owes its unshakable roots to a single place?
Lawrence Abu-Hamdan ‘The Freedom of Speech Itself’ (2012)
Some artworks reveal something you didn’t know before. They cast light on hitherto unknown facts that move you profoundly upon learning. This is a particularly successful art experience, one you part with an anxious, perhaps even nervous, sense of awareness. And what I learned, on a very cold London morning last January at The Showroom, after listening to Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘The Freedom of Speech Itself’ is that for the past two decades a methodology called forensic speech analysis has been used by several border agencies throughout the West as a means to determine the national identities and geopolitical origins of suspicious prospective immigrants or political refugees. On a practical level that means that asylum seekers might be denied access to safer ground on the basis of their accents or pronunciation of certain vowels, according to the field’s experts phonetic atlas.
The piece, considered by its author to be a documentary, offers abundant facts. A North-American sociolinguist for example, clearly worried about the extent to which this method has been adopted, tells us how forensic speech analysis was developed in the early and mid 1990’s in the Scandinavian countries, particularly Sweden, by linguistic experts working within their asylum and immigration bureaus. A few years later, he continues, these experts span off and created independent companies, selling their expertise back to their governments and eventually to other countries. These days the border agencies of UK or Australia, for example, might record a 10-15 minute interview with their suspicious asylum seekers and send the tape to the companies they work with, meaning that a verdict on a person is emitted upon a recorded voice, without the candidate having ever been seen by the expert. Thus, decisions are made peripherally by people with no access whatsoever to visual cues or body language, which one would believe essential to the task.
The crux of ‘The Freedom of Speech Itself’, the immateriality and political ramifications of a voiceprint, is sensuously evocative and conceptually suggestive. One tends to think of identifying devices as material stuff: a fingerprint, a teeth print, a photograph… Something we can touch or something that we can see. Learning that the human voice and its ghostly, disembodied recorded version carry such legal consequences is puzzling and uncanny. The opening quote of this text nails the very essence of the forensic speech analysis paradox: our borders are relentlessly dissolving due to technological and economical reasons. Ours is a world where half of its population enjoys a globe trotting existence and the other half is subjected to wars, geopolitical conflicts and the nomadic implications of flight. In an increasingly deterritorialised geographical context where hybrid identities are rife and the former pure categories in the throes of extinction, how can a legal verdict be based on an accent, quite possibly the most porous and unstable human trait? What this artwork exposes is decision making at its most impersonal, cunningly revealing the absurd nature of bureaucracy and how technology might sometimes simplify matters technically while complicating them morally, in bypassing some unique reservoir pertaining the human condition. Could this work be suggesting that perhaps it is time we examine the moral debris expelled by those machines more closely?
While the currency of the subject makes the piece, the strength of ‘The Freedom of Speech Itself’ lies undoubtedly in its medium. It is its formal quality that activates so powerfully the message: a bare sound piece, presented as four speakers on a simple table, surrounded by plastic chairs. For over thirty minutes the listener (as one can’t be called a “viewer” here) just sits and listens, like in the old radio days. Myriad voices succeed one another, from forensic speech experts to a rejected Palestinian refugee. The careful editing threads a fragmented narrative in which the characters disappear and recur, becoming oddly familiar. Despite its length, the piece doesn’t feel monotonous at any point. Minutes pass by as one attentively listens to these voices talking about voices. People imitate accents, repeat syllables, and for a moment I am reminded of French lessons in school, how the teacher would try to teach us a phoneme, emitting a sound and pulling a funny face.
In the March 2011 issue of frieze magazine, the senior editor of Bidoun, Negar Azimi, published an article titled ‘Good Intentions’ where she astutely problematised the question of contemporary political art, arguing that despite its currency and availability, it was “difficult not to recognise in this sea of political shows the art of the token gesture”. A mention to the novel ‘Radical Chic’ by Tom Wolfe gave further idea of what she was aiming at: “[…] Something has changed when it comes to contemporary’s art preoccupation with the political – especially when it is produced in the West. It is more topically driven, more blithely anti-hegemonic and more consensus driven. It is often borne of an idea rather than a lived reality. […] This has managed to create a comfortable distance between politics as manifest in social relations involving authority and power – as a site of real, live action – and politics as a site of performance.”
While I unfortunately have to agree with her statement, I believe there is room for hope; that there are ways to surpass the “distance” that Azimi refers to and that I have often experienced –a failure to engage, a easily dismissed sense of déjà vu, an intense but short-lived burst of empathy. If ‘The Freedom of Speech Itself’ manages to get its highly political message across, it is because it is a rather understated sound piece operating in a world plunged into a visual exhaustion, where images, whether real or fictional, have become a cheap currency, devaluated by over exposure and saturation. Sound, on the other hand, remains a rather virgin territory in terms of political art, its agency still to be reclaimed. While it’s been a staple of experimental and cross-disciplinary artistic practices like the ones seen in Fluxus, New Media or Minimalism –which can take the form of durational works, performances or music–, bare sound pieces hardly figure in the annals of political art. One can think of Susan Hiller’s beguiling “The Last Silent Movie” (2007), where voices of dead people speak dead languages. But this work is accompanied by a projection with subtitles, to help us understand what these aural ruins are saying, and it seems to probe at more anthropological questions such as the metaphysical riddle “where do languages go when they die”?
‘The Freedom of Speech Itself’ is about the politics of listening and of speech in their most prescriptive variety. It made me think of ‘Lost in Translation’, an exquisite novelisation of exile and of how to tackle a new life in an unknown language, where Eva Hoffman writes at length about speech as class signifier and of accents as stigmas to overcome. But Abu Hamdan’s work shows us what happens when our voices betray us even before we are allowed into that social realm, becoming legal artefacts to be used against our own will and interests. No longer confined to our bodies and beyond our control, our voices can become our downfall in the hands of unempathetic bureaucrats, whose faces we cannot even see. It all may sound like the perfect Philip K. Dick science fiction prophecy, but it is already happening at a border agency near you.
Images courtesy of the artist and The Showroom.
(This review was originally published on www.frieze.com in May 2012)
Gonzalo Lebrija ‘La vida no vale nada‘ at Travesía Cuatro, Madrid, Spain.
A hypnotizing sound overwhelmed the gallery, as if heralding an ominous event that never occurred. The source of the noise was a record player, looping in the final grooves of an old vinyl record by the famous Mexican folk singer José Alfredo Jiménez. With the Nietzchean title The Eternal Return (16 éxitos) (The Eternal Return, 16 Hits, 2012), this small, tight show by the Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija comprised four works that appeared so intricately linked they could have been read as a single installation.
The title of the exhibition, ‘La vida no vale nada’ (Life Isn’t Worth a Thing), was borrowed from one of the most memorable folk songs (or ‘rancheras’) that Jiménez wrote and sang in the 1950s. The song combines a nihilistic message (‘life isn’t worth a thing. It always begins with crying, and with crying it ends’) with an uplifting melody. In recent years, Lebrija has been concerned with the passing of time and the futility of life, but he examines them with a mixture of melancholy and humour that echoes the self-effacing and occasionally demotic tone of Jiménez’s song.
In front of the record player was a large black and white photograph of Mexican cowboy on a magnificent white horse, encircled by his lasso. As is usual in Lebrija’s work, the image, despite its depiction of action, is static, airless even. Although a moment is frozen in time you can somehow feel the dizzying movement of the lasso, its force surrounding both the human and the animal. The title of the work, Trou Noir (Black Hole, 2012), alludes to this sense of vertigo. The ghostly background of the scene – the ruins of a stone arcade – contributes to the detachment of the image from any particular moment in time.
The image of the entropic lasso was transubstantiated into a real rope next to the photograph (Lazo, 2012). It loomed ominously, and appeared to be mysteriously unsupported. At first I wondered how this thin rope could stand on its own but a closer look revealed it to be cast in iron.
At the far end of the gallery was a minimal wall clock, its hands like spider legs, so impossibly long and thin that they seemed to be on the brink of dematerialization. The clock – which was only visible thanks to a bright spotlight – again references Lebrija’s preoccupation with the slippage of time. With its Nietzschean chimes and anxiety over the inevitability of death, his treatment of the subject is rooted in the kind of bathos exemplified by Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986). In the film, the hypochondriac genius roams the streets of New York wondering about the meaning of life: ‘Millions of books written by all these great minds and, in the end, none of them know anything more about the big questions of life than I do… […] And then Nietzsche and his theory of eternal recurrence… He said that the life we live, we’re going to live over and over again the exact same way for eternity. Great… That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again. It’s not worth it.’
It’s not worth it, says Allen. And it might not be worth for Lebrija either, whose dark Mexican humour and metaphysical bent continues a great tradition of artists and writers. Bittersweet and lucid nihilists, who, despite the impending shadow of failure, never cease in their quest to find the answers to those questions.
Images courtesy of Travesía Cuatro
‘Mother 200’ might sound like the name of an archetypal android character in an Isaac Asimov novel, but the painting that shares this title with Paulina Olowska’s latest exhibition, which shows a middle-aged woman puffing on a cigarette with squinting eyes, is far from a futuristic image. This old woman looks at a lower point towards her right, somewhere outside the canvas. She seems lost in thought, almost preoccupied, its troubled atmosphere strongly evoked by the unfinished aspect of the painting, covered in brown drips that traverse vertically the full length of the canvas. Olowska has painted this portrait with a remarkable economy of brushstrokes and this novel austerity is one of the most evident signs of the artist’s new pictorial direction.
Another clear sign of said direction is the ubiquitous abstract backgrounds, as seen in many of the paintings in the show but particularly in ‘Mirrored and Pressed’, which shows a ghostly female figure trapped and obscured by a thick and texturised layer of abstraction in red, yellow and brown hues. This is quite a point of departure from previous paintings, from example the ‘Applied Fantastic’ series that she showed at Metro Pictures in late 2010. These were paintings heavily influenced by Polish fashion ads and spreads, flattened and precise in their figurative nature. They borrowed many traits and technical tricks from the realm of realist illustration and, with their blatant 80’s aesthetic, aptly embodied the retro fascination that underpins both Olowska’s individual work and her former collaborations with Glaswegian artist Lucy Mckenzie.
Admittedly, the paintings in this show (all works oil on canvas and made in 2012) are still focused on female imagery and retain Olowska’s nostalgic and ironic gaze. The romanticizing aspect, however, seems completely gone. These paintings are rawer, and show less sympathy towards their subjects. Sometimes, especially in her depictions of old age like ‘Granny’, ‘Untitled (for Ulrike Ottinger)’ or ‘Mother 200’, they are even a little cruel. Who this ‘Mother 200’ might be is never revealed, though. Her countenance, name and demeanour evoke something matriarchal indeed. I squint in front of the equally squinting face and for a moment I believe I recognise Zofia Rydet, the late Polish photographer and collage artist whose surrealist and Modern Gothic aesthetics have been an enduring influence for Olowska. But the gallery assistant can’t confirm it, so my guess remains uncertain, nagging in the back of my head as I walk the gallery space.
That Zofia Rydet comes to mind, however, is not mere coincidence. Downstairs I find a painting titled ‘Retro (for Alice Neel and Zofia Rydet)’, which shows a girl and dog. Their sphix-like poses remind me of Rydet’s ‘Landscapes’ collage while the expressionistic brushstrokes do resemble Alice Neel’s. What is shocking about this work, however, and also about the work in the opposite wall, ‘Gypsy Girl with a Child’, is their patterned backgrounds. Dark floral motifs cover both pictures, which have been painted in sombre palettes with metallic, almost graffiti-like accents. The result, compared with Olowska’s previous production, is puzzling, almost a naughty flirt with bad taste. Further camp inclinations are found upstairs, in the form of two flowery and rather impressionistic still-lifes titled ‘Pansy Bunch’ and ‘Silver Case’. I am not quite sure why I find these four paintings camp but I unequivocally do. Susan Sontag’s treatise on camp, however, sheds some light: “[…] Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface and style at the expense of content”, she wrote in 1964. I can’t help but thinking this might be a sort of mildly perverse game that Olowska has engaged in when producing these paintings, supressing a laugh in her studio while being completely absorbed in their execution.
Amongst the still lifes, more female characters emerge. ‘Granny’ is a portrait of an old woman whose colours and textures are most hypnotising. The pattern of the woman’s dress and the pattern of the sofa she’s sitting on are a collision of blues, oranges, reds and yellows that is difficult to stop looking at. ‘L’introvertie’ picks up Olowska’s penchant for fashion themes, depicting a pensive young woman in fashionable 70’s clothes sitting in what looks like Parisian café. ‘The Rite’, an oval canvas in yellow undertones is an endlessly fascinating work. In what looks like a pencil-drawn, barely suggested scene, we see four girls in pagan dresses sitting on a forest, holding hands and engaging in ritual we are not privy to. Part an all-female version of a ‘Dejeneur sur l’herbe’, part a haxan gathering, ‘The Rite’ exudes a similar atmosphere to the Czech cult film ‘Valerie and Her Week of Wonders’ (1970), full of sexual innuendo, addressing that moment when young beauty and innocence meet the eroticism of the supernatural.
In the end, what seems to emerge in this show is a female atlas of sorts, comprising clashing but complementary Western archetypes: the sophisticated Parisian girl, the tender Polish granny, the snobbish art collector, the young dreamer, the burn out intellectual… Olowska’s might have altered her painterly techniques, but the content remains the same: the multifaceted aspects of being a creative female, warts and all. In ‘Mother 200’ more than ever before in fact, it is the contradictions and imperfections that are most interesting and endearing. It is in this rejection of any idealism, I find, that women are best portrayed, and celebrated.
Paulina Olowska’s ‘Mother 200′. Simon Lee Gallery, London, 13 April – 26 May 2012.
All images courtesy of the artist and Simon Lee Gallery, London
(This review was originally published in frieze magazine, issue 145 March 2012)
Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain.
The bilingual title of Antoni Muntadas’s retrospective, ‘Entre/Between’, is apt. The Barcelona-born, New York-based artist has spent most of his 45-year career hopping between continents, languages and media, as well as exploring the social space that emerges between the production of information and its interpretation.
The exhibition organized Muntadas’s vast oeuvre around nine thematic ‘constellations’; it kicked off with written documentation and videos of his 1971 Fluxus-esque performances, which employed the physical body as a metaphor for the body politic that could not be discussed during General Franco’s dictatorship. In the same year, Muntadas relocated to New York, where freedom of speech allowed him to express his ideas about the burgeoning ‘information age’ that Marshall McLuhan theorized in his 1964 essay ‘Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man’.
Perception remains a key concern of Muntadas’s practice and some of the best installations in the show emphasized the shift in collective subjectivity aroused by what the artist termed the new ‘media landscape’. A particularly effective piece, Mirar Ver Percibir (To Look, To See, To Perceive, 2009), comprises three small, cheap table lamps, each illuminating a verb written on the wall. Nearby was his 1980 commission for The Kitchen in New York, Public/Private, an installation that requires the visitor to sit on a chair in front of a clock and a calendar that registers their arrival time; and two monitors, one of which screens a mix of soap operas and various other TV entertainments while the other shows an image of the viewer, captured by a hidden video camera. While reminiscent of seminal early works by Dan Graham and Bruce Nauman, there is something unique about Muntadas’s take on the closed-circuit installation that stems from his relentless investigation of mass media and the distorted mirror-image it casts on society. Years before the explosion of reality TV and ‘prosumer’ culture, Muntadas heralded the breakdown between the once distinct public and private spheres.
Other themes in ‘Entre/Between’ focus on the construction of social power, and of fear as its most useful tool. The ominous installation The Board Room (1987), the video Portrait (1994) and the screenprint series ‘Portraits’ (1995) all feature images of public figures and how the media transforms them into religious-like icons. Muntadas is, however, a clever enough artist to introduce elements that signal de-mystification or banalization. For example, the triptych On Translation: El Aplauso (The Applause, 1999) illustrates the passive way in which information can come to be trivialized and consumed: two videos of clapping hands flank streamed images of violent events – drug cartels, torture, police repression – in Colombia.
Muntadas’s critique of mass media is mostly constructed from a sociological point of view. It is both an informed research on and a challenge to the established roles of the (institutional/corporate) broadcaster and the (mass) receiver. This is why the several calls for action that crop up throughout exhibition are so powerful. Towards the end of the journey is the room that hosts On Translation: La mesa de negociación (On Translation: The Negotiation Table, 2005), which was presented in the Spanish Pavilion at the 51st Venice Biennale. It consists of a large round table, covered with piles of books about power, telecommunications struggles and maps of the global distribution of wealth. The walls of the room were filled with panels in which red bright signs declare: ‘Warning: Perception requires involvement’. At this point, the weight of individual responsibility returned like a slap in the face. What to do about it is another question.
All images courtesy of Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, Madrid, Spain.
The exhibition ‘Entre/Between’ took place between November 2011 and March 2012
This review was originally published on Art-Agenda in February 2012
This year’s edition of ARCOmadrid Art Fair was having none of the doom and gloom that usually accompany the fair. The Spanish art scene has tended to berate its most important and oldest art fair, a feeling which intensified when it was subject to management disagreements and ensuing conflicts with the galleries a couple of years ago. But the new team has honed an edition this year that people felt optimistic about. Whether in the national press or at the parties and events that heralded the fair’s openings, the mood was cautious but bright, even after ten hours of parading on a gray carpet and enduring the neon lights.
As I walked into the fair on a cold and sunny Wednesday morning, I was instantly reminded, with a sense of dread, of its colossal size. Inhaling deeply, map in hand, I headed directly to the Opening section on Hall 10, featuring twenty-five young galleries from all over Europe, carefully handpicked by Manuel Segade. The independent curator expressed his interest in showing underrepresented scenes, hence the inclusion of Eastern Europe’s gem Plan B and Ivan Gallery from Bucharest, or the Oslo-based gallery Imo. One pleasant surprise was the discovery of Figge von Rosen, a gallery based in Berlin. Caligari and the Sleepwalker (2008), a video projection by Venezuelan artist Javier Téllez anchored me there for the entire duration of the work: 27 minutes. Nearby, Tanya Leighton shed light on the intriguing collaboration between Dan Rees and David Keating. Titled Chuzpah (all works 2011), it featured monochrome canvases on which pairs of the traditional Iberian peasant shoes known as “alpargatas” (or “espadrilles” in French) were fixed. A precarious metal shelf on the floor displayed pottery sculptures with what looked like clay balloons coming out of them, all in beautiful earthy colors. Like a post-Povera take on Mediterranean culture, it was a collaboration that showed an appealing new side of Rees’s work to me. But what’s “chutzpah” about this restrained and sensuous combination of colors and materials? Wondering, I moved on, catching a glimpse of Iris Van Dongen’s addictive pastel and charcoal drawings that blend the aesthetics of fashion and gothic imagery, of the pre-Raphaelite with metal rock, hanging at Luis Adelantado.
On my way to Hall 8, I bumped into yet another section called Solo Projects, where twenty-three galleries from Latin America have been invited to do solo presentations. The Argentinean artist Cecilia Szalkowicz’s delicate installation has occupied the stand of Galeria Alberto Sendrós with a modernist feel, whose different elements intermingle and pose questions about representation, the original and the copy.
Every year a guest country is invited to ARCOmadrid and a gallery selection representing its national scene is made. This year fourteen top Dutch galleries curated by Xander Karskens were scattered all over the fair. Fons Welters showed Renzo Martens’s Enjoy Poverty (2009), a feature-length film that many have a strange love-hate relationship with. When I first saw it as part of the 2010 Berlin Biennale I was quick to berate Martens’s Herzogian and egomaniac self-portrait of the artist as politically and morally engaged actor. Two years later, I am no longer sure I fully understand Martens’s moral stance towards this piece, nor mine. Ellen de Bruijne Projects was also part of this Focus section, with a wonderful presentation of Falke Pisano and the Spanish-born Amsterdam-based Lara Almárcegui. But it was the work of Dina Danish at Jeanine Hofland’s stand that provided a much-needed comic relief: Type Sonata (2011) is a video where two hands play the keys of two typewriters creating a monotone tune about the absurdity or failure that can undermine (or revitalize?) the artistic gesture.
It seemed that this year’s ARCOmadrid was markedly more international, but two Spanish galleries stood out for me in the general section. Nogueras Blanchard showed a relevant roster of young Spanish artists, with works by Rubén Grilo, Fran Meana and Ignacio Uriarte, whose artistic practice-as-office-routine breeds delightful monochromes manically executed with biro pens and other kinds of office paraphernalia. At the stand of Elba Benítez an exciting meeting of generations was taking place. The performative exploration of the body in space undertaken by Catalan artist Francesc Torres in the 70s (Descriptive Analysis of the Three Dimensions. Three Points of View, 1973) shared space with a recent project by Joachim Koester or Fernanda Fragateiro’s astute See Part 2. I’ve had enough of this, Don Judd, “Complaints part1″ in Studio International, p.182-185(2012), which objectifies the historical magazine duel between Donald Judd and the writer of the essay “Art and Objecthood,” Michel Fried.
But in general, it seemed as if the Dutch had invaded the entirety of Madrid. At dusk I crossed the city towards La Casa Encendida, where a Dutch-themed group show opened recently. Curated by the art critic Javier Hontoria, “A Dutch Landscape” gathers twelve artists, drawing parallels between seminal figures like Bas Jan Ader or Jan Dibbets with members of the younger generation, including Gwenneth Boelens, Feiko Beckers, Martin in ‘t Veld and Navid Nuur. I walked around the show in sheer delight. Needless to say, there weren’t any landscapes there but an overarching and very Dutch exploration of the small gesture, slapstick, and futility that seems to resonate strongly with the current climate of culture cuts that have abounded both in The Netherlands and Spain during the past year. Or at least that’s the way I read it in my exhausted daze….
Navid Nuur is indeed having a field day this week, not only at the fair and at La Casa Encendida but also because of his first solo show in Spain at the nearby Matadero (Spanish for “slaughterhouse,” which it was until the 80s). Since it opens until 11pm, I fittingly dragged my body to the slaughterhouse to see the exhibition of the Tehran-born, Hague-based Nuur. Fourteen pieces were gathered under the title “Hocus Focus,” tackling an alchemy whereby pedestrian material is transformed into art, and in which light plays a predominant role. Favorites here include Ours (2012) a large-scale slide projection of a dried tear, whose components form the most incredible floral shapes, looking like a flowery snow flake under the microscope; or The Eyecodec of the Monochrome (2012), in which a simple reflective sheet, made with the same material as traffic signs, illuminates brightly like a low-cost Olafur Eliasson when reaching a point in the exhibition space next to a tiny spotlight pointed at it. Making a mental note to visit the new Hans Haacke retrospective at Museo Reina Sofía first thing the following morning, I set off for home, avoiding Madrid’s infamous nightlife, which I can hear thriving not too far away.