Two Steps Back: a Critique of Today, a Dismissal of the Past and a Eulogy for the Future, as Presided over by Mark E. Smith and The Fall

“I had come to loathe my husband, Mr Harlax.  I mean, physically, be revolted by him.  I could look at him and think only of the functions.”

 

  • Artemis ‘81

 

Différance is the funeral held for the meta-narrative.

 

Memorex.  Manufacturer of computer peripherals and recordable media.  Established in 1961, Memorex were synonymous during the 1980s with home recording.

 

Kraken.  Legendary squid-like sea creature said to wrap its tentacles, once disturbed, around vessels and drag them to the bottom of the ocean.

 

The time of year I remember most distinctly from my childhood were those strange weeks when the nights drew in.  Halloween, Bonfire Night…the cheap masks at the shop at the end of the twitchel (because that’s what they were called in North Nottinghamshire), the divine aroma of potatoes being charred on the backyard fire which, in our age of ultra-safety, would never be bureaucratically tolerated.  Those cold, dark evenings carried their own gothic magic as a child.  One could quite easily imagine Spring-Heeled Jack bounding from the council estate roofs and the bizarrely-gnarled trees in the woods actually being science fiction organisms.  Renowned as one of the most haunted villages in England, the remains of an old Roman garrison sat atop the clay hill which hamletted the village on all sides.  There was always a spectral threat on the lips of our parents, and all of this has indelibly left a quasi-Victorian gothic impression on my recollections of the early eighties.

 

To begin, then, with the problematic word.  When we say “haunting,” we are tacitly referring to the ineffable: concepts which, when attempted to give form to or study, vaporise.  Something altogether apart from philosophical immanence, this is the run-out groove which carries the fading analogue vibrations of our specific pasts, and if words such as “haunting,” “ghosts,” “spectres,” (ad nauseum) are to characterise memory this is only because these terms serve best to outline a difference which cannot be described in binaries.  We may, if we are so inclined, steer off track and cite Bergson at this point though it serves just as well to propose that memories are recalled in units, rather than successive elements of time.  Were we to recall perfectly our entire lives in reverse beginning with the absolute present then we would doubtless pick up on subtle ideological or cosmetic shifts in our environs.  We would, however in all probability miss the greater shifts and distinctions, but given that this kind of recollection is impossible, we instead focus on the event.  These events, as unitary measures, are themselves “haunted,” as it were, by dead elements (be they cars which are no longer on the road, a foodstuff no longer manufactured or a television programme that nobody else remembers being aired).  We may then say that we are haunted by the event, or even the unit.

 

This is hinted at by Derrida, yet made explicit by the 21st Century permutation of Hauntology.  Our factually oblique and rose-tinted recollections of the past coupled with the present conundrum of  “already been done” has suspended Western culture in a temporal loop.  “Two Steps Back,” in fact.  The time-locked cultural blockage of an age after Postmodernism has rendered the “new” profoundly spectral: we are watching, listening and responding to ghosts.  These ghosts are the spectres of Modernism and pre-Modernism, the last cultural epochs where technological and biological growth were anywhere near in tandem with one another.  Indeed, the “new” is necessarily enshrouded with quotation marks – even visually, the word is spectral.  Unknown to me in the 1980s, the literal ghosts alluded to in local folklore were in fact the unconscious parental responses to a time which made more harmonious sense, when there were less technological leaps to bemoan.

 

Différance is the individuation between biological memory, political memory, cultural memory…it is how Proust’s memories distinguish themselves between Dostoyevsky’s, how Beckett’s memories are internalised whereas Joyce’s remain geographical.  Escape from Marienbad, indeed.  Différance is the temporal linguistic rift rent by dromology. Différance is the colloquial vapour trails left hanging in the air in the wake of cultural imperialism.

 

Différance is the family unit with lost unity.

 

Derrida likened the spectre of Marx (that phantasmagorical after-image which has haunted capitalism for over a century) to Hamlet’s father: literally and etymologically the root spectre at the feast.  Indeed, that crucial textual link was made early on by highlighting that Hamlet was “the Prince of a rotten state,” allegorically that same rotten state which was to be found in the wake of communism itself, its ectoplasmic remains congealed in the scattered debris of the Berlin Wall.  1980s Britain, or its working class communities, had more than it’s share of this rot: alcoholism, redundancy, solvent abuse, domestic violence, mass unemployability…all of these were to be found, as a child, beneath the superficial halcyon sheen of the nuclear family.

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This impression is what always returns when one hears The Fall.  The oblique, rumbling production on Dragnet, the keyboard trail on Frightened, the choppy vaudeville of City Hobgoblins.  And those words…like tapping into long-forgotten truths which revealed themselves in layers the more one could discern them.  Listening to any Fall record was worth a dozen trips to the library and provided a far more comprehensive (albeit labyrinthine) education than one could hope to gain in those Thatcherite penal colonies we were forced to attend during the week: instant psychic Cinerama of a world made up of grotesque (ha!) dog-breeders, phantom stalkers, Disneyland beheadings and strange conjugations of literary figures.  Mark E. Smith saw himself as a writer above all else, and it is indeed within those wordscapes that one is ensnared once those primitive, repetitive rhythms and snarling Northern barks have either enchanted or repelled you.  One reads The Fall as one reads Deleuze – in layers and multiplicity; the libido in despair, castrated by its own production.  Listen to Room to Live, or Tempo House and you have a Deleuzian machine absorbing as it creates.  One can almost hear the ideas forming in Smith’s mind just before he contorts them, the rhythm section in endless repetition as time strangles the pleasure principle.

 

Once one hears The Fall (either as a joyous or attritional experience) one is at once haunted by The Fall: like Marxism, the time between first contact and present time is rotten with phantoms.  The “ghosting” effect on an old television broadcast is merely the ghost of multiplicity, information forced down a tube which is continuously caught up with itself in a cathode Möbius.  The “captured” cultural elements of the past, ensnared by Smith, become distorted in much the same way as Francis Bacon would pervert his subjects and, like Bacon, Smith froze his subjects at their most primal as though intuition led him to their animal state: Terry Waite, Alan Minter, MR James, Lou Reed and Doug Yule (in an instant fused into the one chimeric state) – all in a state of “…becoming Fall.”  The industrial landscapes sonically conjured by a superficially grotesque rumble are another “becoming,” for in that instantly primal cacophony lay not only the bleak Conservative wasteland of late-70s and early 80s, but also admitted to the industry of Blake’s Jerusalem – a bleakness far sootier and rooted in diaspora than anything suggested by Kraftwerk or Joy Division.  Here was (and is, captured in essentia) an industry transcending political trend: if Marxism is the spectre haunting Europe (macro), then The Fall conjure the specificity of a Britain enslaved to a Marxist ontology, or rather the phantom of differance which manifested itself in a typically Northern blue-collar attitude which eternally defies translation.

 

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This was the Britain one would experience if one watched Coronation Street on through a lens in any way similar to Smith’s – the Barlows’ crepuscular killing sprees, Kevin Webster copulating with Jack Duckworth’s pigeons in the outhouse to produce a malformed beak/moustache hybrid, all in those lurid cathode reds and blues of early colour television, yet with shadows darker than a Castiglione monoprint.  And we respond to those grotesqueries knowing full well that we – the working class with our fathers risking life and limb daily at the colliery – are the grotesque products of a perverted society.  Smith took the narrative experimentation of The Velvet Underground and twisted it to his own vision, throwing in all manner of literary, cultural and political allusion along with it – the mystical autodidact Roman Totale XVIII his early prosopopoeial alter-ego emerging from the song lyrics to commandeer the sleeve notes.  So within, so without.

 

Shane Meadows’ 1999 drama A Room for Romeo Brass was filmed in the same village alluded to in the first paragraph.  Shot nine years after I left the village, there is a marked difference in the landscape of my childhood and that recreated on the screen, a difference which went beyond representation.  Seeing the village in Meadows’ film, I felt no nostalgia, no sudden desire to return there.  Indeed, aside from the novelty of recognition, there was nothing to link the me in the present to the me who recalled playing in the exact locations now being used as a stage for Paddy Considine.  Partially, this can be attributed to simple displacement and the passage of time, but more crucially the topography had altered to such an extent over those nine short years that my very conception of the village had become the recollection of a ghost, or at the very least an erasure.  My childhood existed only in my memory, and no amount of old photographs (of which there are very few) could ever amount to anything more than a multiplicity of reflection.  Time is no longer a thing which can be measured by temporality alone – of all the images and zeitgeists left to us by the Twentieth Century, a sense of echoing pastiche is likely the dominant sensation which has only increased with massive exponentiality to the present day.  Which decade is this year in the 1990s emulating?  To what extent do the purveyors of culture in 2012 understand the forms and aesthetics they are aping from 1969?

 

I have, since an age too far back in my memory to place with any exactitude, been in a state of mourning.  This is no silly Freudian claim of being desirous of a return to the womb: personally, I frequently refer to that oft-repeated Smiths lyric whenever I encounter Freud – “it says nothing to me about my life.”  The mourning I claim is the mourning for a childhood half received, or indeed a deferral of childhood which was felt just as (if not more than) keenly during my infancy.  Betraying the above claim, I must nonetheless turn to Freud for his unheimlich to describe that jarring notion as a child that there was always something wrong, something awry or missing.  Unheimlich is perversely the most fitting term for my domestic childhood situation, for the home was sporadically and decidedly unhomely.  Growing up with alcoholism from an extremely early age means that there has been no chance for the child to know anything other than a home run through with alcoholism, and that home being in a relatively (by today’s standards) tight-knit community means that any social comparisons must be drawn from other homes which are in some way complicit with alcoholism (few could have not known that our house was the one with the parent who lapsed wildly into stupors lasting days and, sometimes, weeks.  Yet very little was ever done to circumvent the vicious circle of dependency: in fact, the reverse was so often the case).  In such circumstances, one lives in a microcosm of Other: there is nothing wrong with this picture…and everyone who knows precisely what is not wrong with the picture knows how to mind their own business about what is not wrong – at least until their front door is closed.

 

When an infant encounters an adult who is drunk, the first instinct is to think of the adult as “unwell,” which is conveniently confirmed by other adults and becomes the official euphemism. “Unwell” also means “absent” in such cases, even if the unwell person is in the same room, because the sober parent has been purged of all parental virtues, such as responsibility, kindness, indulgence or accommodation.  The entire architecture of home life is dismantled to such an extent that the very state of childhood is placed in suspension.  If a parent is too drunk to collect their child from nursery, then that child ceases being a child in the eyes of nursery staff and becomes a problem.  If a child is not in school because of parental alcoholism, then that child is now a “case.”

 

But what is perhaps the most destructive of all are those periods when the parent is sober: life is less complicated, certainly, and the parent/child bond is soldered together once more, but there is always the dread – which can occur at any time, with or without warning or cause – that the unwell will return, rendering the moments of sobriety something to fear just as much as the periods of chaos.  This, then, is the mourning I have felt since infancy.  Petite morts in the most literal sense: mourning the death of the home, the death of a childhood being allowed to live itself out, the small, staggered death of a parent.

 

I was six years old in 1984, the year forever burned into scholarly discourse as the official death of the blue-collar worker in Great Britain.  My father worked in the mines, though ours was a colliery who outlasted many others in Nottinghamshire.

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I was twenty-five when my mother died, just one week after her sixtieth birthday.  Those small, staggered periods of mourning I had undergone all throughout my life until that point returned, massively intensified and furiously indignant at the torment I had lived through.  To have my mother’s death played out in front of me so many countless times, whereby the person who should have been a constant in my life mockingly replaced by something so animalistic finally and so swiftly taken from me at a point in my own life when I should have been adjusting and reacting to the vicissitudes of my own adulthood felt like the most vicious betrayal of all.  Depression had been a factor in my life since the age of twelve (if I have to give an age to the time when it was finally recognised that the sense of “wrongness” at home had finally been absorbed by my own psyche to become an unwellness in its own right), and by the time of my mother’s death I had already made no less than six attempts at my own life.  Any attempts at academia up to that point were offset or sabotaged by personal feelings of insufficiency and I had tellingly fallen into catering – a vocation frequently associated with verbal abuse and physical suffering.  All relationships I had were a priori doomed to failure, though that only served to exacerbate the pain when this inevitably became the case.  Again, the protracted mourning period playing itself out.

 

A Memorex, then, for the Krakens.  These memories remain buried, submerged beneath countless quotidian events waiting to be re-activated by sensory stimuli.  The stimuli, though, must be of the time of the memory in order to function.  The Memorex must be a pure recording.

 

Ti West’s 2007 film The House of the Devil goes further than pastiche: it wants you to believe that it was made in the early 1980s, down to the camera tints, synth-heavy soundtrack, dialogue and content (devil worshippers here deliberately chosen to harken back to the Satanic Panic in the wake of the Richard Ramirez killings).  Most tellingly, however, is the film’s title shot.  Filling half the screen in garish yellow, the title reeks of cheap exploitation horror though the inclusion of the film’s date in Roman numerals gives pause: the tradition of placing the film’s title with it’s production date directly underneath with All Rights Reserved is something which died out in the late 1970s, thus creating not only a jarring anachronism but also – perhaps most poignantly – turning the charade in on itself.  What we are left with is not a reference to the past, but rather an atemporal, half-remembered throwback which forfeits historical exactitude in favour of nostalgia for a time which never happened as it exists in collective memory.  The House of the Devil is by no means alone in this stylised misappropriation: It Follows, Beyond the Black Rainbow, The Neon Demon, Nightcrawler, Under the Skin and Amer are but a small selection from the hundreds of motion pictures made with an eye to providing the viewer with that most ultra-postmodern thrill of experiencing the past as they have always remembered it: not factually, but mnemonically via associations and cultural connection.  The danger of this, of course, is in the potential for collective memory to wipe out the historical fact.  A Twenty-One-year-old watching these films today has no first-hand experience of 1984, therefore leaving them with nothing to distinguish between the two oppositions.  Reason concludes that the result of this phenomena will be an entirely muddled collective memory in 40-50 years whereby the Twentieth Century will eventually be remembered amorphously and atemporally.

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Though the above may be a peculiarly altermodernist symptom, its eventual effect is, to all intents and purposes, what one is listening to on And This Day, Hex Enduction Hour’s cataclysmic denouement.  Time crashes in on the listener all at once, the preceding fifty-three minutes of the album serving as individual elements while And This Day serves them all up at once.

 

In 2018, we are still in the process of mourning (a deferred mourning, but a mourning nonetheless). We mourn the failed promises of modernism while we adjust constantly to the increasing pressures of a neoliberal world.  For the working classes, we mourn ourselves as we struggle to ward off the demands of abstract capital.  Our ongoing mental and psychic collapse is as much the product of Victorian Dad ideology as it is lagging concentration in an age of advanced dromology.  “Pull your socks up” is scandalously still being uttered by mental health workers who themselves cannot ever hope to reach the bottom of the piles of cases stacking up every day.  Those children lucky enough to be dealt with in timely fashion are furnished with ADHD statements as readily as birth certificates, while other children less fortunate (mine included) wait years to be granted a cursory inspection, before an inevitable non-conclusive conclusion.  The fault lies squarely with the parents, so the official party line goes.  Parents, however, are sinking under ever-increasing debt just to stay above water.  For the working classes, the very concept of a meritocracy is not as ludicrous as it is offensive. Perhaps this penchant (yearning, even) for the relics of the past – albeit reformatted to fit in with our collective memory – is nothing less than a coping strategy: there was a time when those in need would be accommodated, when the poor were dealt with sympathetically rather than with scorn.  And as much as we know this to be far from the truth, it is a falsehood far more comfortable than today’s crushing truths.  Mark E. Smith was the ever-present rage against the horrors of neoliberalism: fiercely opposed to the fol-de-rol of social media and distrusting to the end of a system which streamlines cultural endeavour to fit the device, Smith took The Fall and made it rougher as the rest of the world became sleeker.  The grotesque salmagundi of sound sculpted in the 1980s, consisting as it did of harsh Germanic repetition, quasi-Jamaican barked ad-libbing, Velvet Underground drone and a brash form of working class country music (country and northern, if you will [and he did]) had, over the last decade, become a feral beast of unrelenting curmudgeonly fury, primed and aimed at any and all facet of a West so utterly surrendered to the growing weight of capital.

Mon coure et je suis d'accord

As amusing as it may be to recall Smith’s innumerable bon mots, jibes and drunken slurs collected over the decades, it is nonetheless to miss the point – Samuel Beckett was no less the caustic wit when in his frequent cups and Jackson Pollock could just as easily clear a dinner party as Smith could a pub.  Yes, I frequently return to YouTube for my regular fix of Smith’s brusque humour in interviews yet, for the proper stuff, I delve feet-first into Grotesque and Hex Enduction Hour.  These albums weren’t joking.  They meant every rancorous syllable.  While Morrissey was regaling us with upturned bicycles and Oscar Wilde throwbacks, Smith gave us the world red in tooth and claw, only redder and toothier.  And while the former produced countless soundalikes throughout the eighties, nineties and to this day, nobody has ever managed to sound like The Fall.  Quite right, too.

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The City in Relation to, and the Artist Enslaved (Part One)

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The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the remnants of an age before subtopia, if one subscribes to the architectural nay-sayer Ian Nairn. Not his words, but more a miasmic conflux of Lefebvre, Foucault and…the latter-day artist who trawls the city streets knowing full well that he is, in fact, walking on all streets in gestalt. Without the frame of architecture, art can say little about its environs and more often than not carries an a la mode motif which is not merely influenced by trends in architectural norm, but is also governed by them.

Artists, like writers, are involuntary narcissists. Both fabricate worlds in which said artist’s ego has the dominant ideology, and both dictate life and death according to their whims. Every writer and every artist is God to their individual micro-disciplinary practice, a practice which we can perceive as a world, or sphere. If we were to create a model of the seemingly endless practices being engaged at any one time, we would see an actual world filled with these spheres orbiting one another, feeding off of a shared, reciprocal energy. To begin any kind of creative endeavour is to feed from and absorb the energies flowing from these multiplicitous bodies, and to negotiate the regulations governing these. The artist borrows and re-conditions: nothing is purely genius. In this sense art is always a collaborative process, allowing multiple voices to be heard to varying degrees of intensity. This process has previously been referred to as a constellation, though art practice in the 21st Century has become a thing decidedly more immanent, allowing literal connections, juxtapositions and collaborations to occur. The artist, we can argue, who does not engage culturally, socially or creatively with the spheres in orbit around them must either be an artist of the most profound genius, or no artist at all. We may also think of the artist as the zeitgeist of their particular field, in that an artist cannot help but be a vector in a specific chain of semiotic connections starting with obsessions and inspirations, contemporary osmosis and going on to include those works which the artist has necessarily inspired. Naturally, the number of “inspirational” vectors both before and after the artist’s own vector can be nigh-on infinite, and each prone to mutation – for the flow of creative energy goes backwards as well as forwards. We retrospectively attribute aspects culled from other sources to a piece of work after we have encountered the second pieces of work, altering and mutating the meanings and semiotic representations to both primary and secondary sources. Indeed, in this respect are there any longer primary or secondary pieces of work? The present is irreducible to any singularity. This is what Bergsonism teaches us, and what common sense forces us not to forget. The present can only ever exist in any quantifiable measure as a memory, in which case it is imbued with attributes gleaned from the fanciful whims of subjective recollection (an object observed by many people five minutes ago is already undergoing an erosion of reality whereby the individual recollections of these many people have themselves trailed off into the unstable areas of perception, association and interpretation). The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the consensual assemblage of memory and fantasy. The organic optic machine has gradually been superseded by the technological optic machine, which we are more prone to place our trust in, but this new optic machine is still slave to perception: holding a camera in one’s hands is still a subjective choice and remains dependant upon the whims of those hands’ owner: does the photographer stand or crouch?

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The homogenisation of Western culture has been so insidious in its multiplication that one struggles to attribute any one particular starting point to it. Certainly, it has become more noticeable since access to the internet, and yet more acutely its associated virtual cellular structure, became a global entitlement. The dominant economic patois of affected American doggerel has never, since the Second World War, loosened its grip on the remaining Anglosphere. On the contrary, we have collectively become increasingly enchanted by the two extremes of North American lexical orthodoxy: to wit, the disaffected dismissiveness of Generation X, and the hyperbolic enthusiasm of Disney-regulated plasticity. These two ends of an economic spectrum are doubtlessly also tied geographically – The West Coast, most typically associated with the American Dream, promotes the latter, whilst those areas hit by economic struggles (Michigan still being the primary exemplar of American civilisation in decline in the minds of Europeans) inspire the former. This gross generalistion notwithstanding, it barely scratches the surface of psychoanalysis to suggest that this is no accident. The myth of the city as archetype, and the illusion of genius loci are no more than the consensual assemblage of memory and fantasy, a virtual engine which powers an ideological zeitgeist machine of sorts, and this machine is constantly leaking non-standardised dialectical argot which Europe has long been (bafflingly) enchanted by. European Contemporary Art still heroically stands, here and there, against this inexorable tide of semantic slovenliness and does so with a clinical aloofness which has nothing to do with what might be called “pedantry.” I am here thinking of the kind of minimalist, precise sculptural works associated with the likes of Heimo Zobernig, Angela Bulloch or John McCracken – artists who, while certainly borrowing certain traits of American minimalist art, adhere more strictly to a Germanic aesthetic rather than the pop-infused work of, say, Sarah Morris. Understatement is still understood as being more intellectually keen than the peremptory vicissitudes of the great spectacle: it allows for contingent interpretations wherein lines of flight flow more rapidly, and with greater intensities.

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part four): Neither For Nor Against Architecture, Yet Happy to Pit Wodiczko Against Bataille

Bataille and Foucault would have it that our day-to-day existence is governed by architecture: the tomb, the prison, the government office, etc. I have previously surmised that the 21st Century is a schizophrenic age, and what could be more schizophrenic (if we accept Foucault and Bataille) than a climate in which architecture is endlessly toppled and reconstructed? In my more languorous moments, I am myself guilty of making the connection between architecture and the human body (or, at any rate, the human psyche), in which social housing is issued on the merits of reproduction and death, educational institutions mirror the structural logic of the prison block (in this, one would be churlish to argue with Foucault) and the architecture of consumption – the supermarket, the fast-food outlet or the shopping complex – mimics the human digestive system, whereby consumers pass through the architectural “body” and experience change as they do so (the change in finance; the change in ownership; a re-balancing of symbolic power during the monetary exchange). The struggle to secure social housing, for the working classes, has produced an architecture of desire – or, indeed, a Deleuzian lack (regardless of the psychoanalytic attributes of the actual architecture, endlessly cycling back to the model of the panopticon).
Even in an age of site-specificity, art is still slave to architecture, as our constantly urbanised world endlessly re-interprets the metropolis in tandem with our fluctuating relationships with it. The lambent nature of semiotics within art is such that a work may not be removed from one location to another without there necessarily being a re-evaluation of its meaning – the removal and re-location itself may actually be the element which contains said meaning. Is the present-day work of art, then, an extension of architecture or is it (logically) a removable part of the architectural body itself? If we have already imbued distinct examples of architecture with psychic properties, does it not then follow that the art – created within one such property – is created with similar properties, and when we re-locate that art are creating a rift in the structural relationship between the architecture and the art?

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When studying the relationship between architecture and art, it is difficult not to cite Venturi’s model of the Duck and the Decorated Shed and share the analogy across the two disciplines.  Some art is as it is (just as the same is true in architecture), because its form is dictated by its functional meaning.  Cinematic Art is decidedly duck because its form and meaning are both historically linked to the Platonic shadow, which retains the basic outline of the archetype without projecting the regularly-perceived reality found outside the screen’s border.  Its meaning can be re-interpreted depending on the situation of the screen or the texture of the surface on which it is projected, yet it ever retains its integral nature of duck: it remains as it is due to its functionality.  Paintings can be either duck or decorated shed, as history has repeatedly proven – they are both functional and ornamental (depending upon the painter’s intention).  Sculpture is formally the closest artistic discipline to architecture, owing obviously to its dimensions, although that too carries a history of semiotic ambiguity.

One must then question why it is easier to apply the duck analogy to Video Art than it is to the other disciplines.  One trite answer would be that it is the newest, and therefore its meaning has not been afforded the time necessary to confuse.  Video Art has yet to be commodified as a soft furnishing – one can easily imagine a projection of (fittingly) three flying ducks on a living room wall and instantly mock the notion, yet there was a time when sculpture and objet d’art would not be found anywhere other than in the palace.  Though Video Art has already proven itself to be semantically malleable: the masterful way in which Krzysztof Wodiczko transforms architecture with projection alters both the video and the structural surface.

Fete de Montréal / Partenariat Quartier Des Spectacles

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part three): The Tension of Kafka’s Bureaucracy

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Why is Kafka so relevant ninety-three years after his death?  Simply because his milieu was one of pure bureaucratic tension: not only did his works comment on the bureaucracy of his age, they foreshadowed the docile bureaucracy of the decades to come.  Today’s bureaucracy is so sluggish and short-sighted that it needs the smiley-faced, epigrammatic lexicon and cheery-voiced affectations of the customer-service ideology to in any way placate a society so ground-down by its ineptitude that is has come to expect the tension of confrontation.  When K attempts to gain entrance to the castle he is met with bureaucratic underlings who embody the rusted cogs deliberately put in place in any system to deter the achievement of knowledge.  For, knowledge being power and power being the ultimate capitalist commodity (even greater than time itself), it must be doled out in microscopic measure and in predetermined quantities (and the predetermining always carried out in turn by those with a slightly greater measure of [again, predetermined) of knowledge).

Kafka is referred to time and again in contemporary art, because his fictions achieved what contemporary art always strives for, which is to tabulate a social or cultural atmosphere and trim away the bureaucratic fat which obscures the fact of a thing from the view of the populace.  In order for any member of a populace to attain a greater standing or position of merit they must first use their predetermined measure of knowledge (granted [again, generally-speaking] on the basis of their social standing) and figure out a way to interpret the climate they live in with the power they are given.  Sometimes this measure of power is out-of-balance with a person’s social standing: for instance, poor communities with little educational clout produce fiercely intelligent individuals who have not the bureaucratic means with which to harness that intelligence.  Conversely, and this is more often the case [or so I have found], upper-middle class communities tend to award the dullest, most docile of its citizens with intellectual power which said individual has no way of yielding responsibly.

So, when speaking of bureaucratic tensions, the artist opens up a vast area for exploration.  And, like Kafka before him or her, has to trim away the fat put in place by the very bureaucracy they seek to expose.

Fresh Fruit from Rotten Vegetables (part two)

The word tension is probably old-hat these days (for, as Mr Virilio would no doubt point out, once a concept or term has been applied to any discipline it is already old-hat, ready for supersession).  But tension is without doubt the cultural vernacular of the Twenty-First Century: our Western, capitalist existence is based on myriad tensions, all applying pressure upon one another.  We have bureaucratic tensions (which are particularly relevant to me at the moment, and govern all of our daily lives), dialectical tensions (created when cultures, beliefs or political leanings co-exist) and – perhaps the greatest tension of all – the tension created when a sublimely fascist government manipulates a society into fighting amongst itself for individual endurance.

When dealing with dialectical tensions the burden is at once upon the artist to identify which dialectical oppositions are in conflict (or, as is often the case, should be made to be in conflict).  Heraclitus postulated that nature and society were a unity of opposites (one relying on the other to exist), but since Heraclitus’ day society has fragmented and re-unified itself so many times that it has created new dialectical unities (patois being an obvious example).  Nature, in the meantime, has carried on regardless, thus giving the lie to the old Greek.  Certainly, using Heraclitus in this manner is to simplify matters to a stultifying degree, and it is the critical theorist’s job to join the dots between the ancient Greeks and what remains of our post-Postructuralist reasoning, not the artist’s.  But finding these tensions (wherever these tensions are elusive enough to require any efforted search) is one of the first tasks when creating work in an environment which thrives on these dialectics.  Most artists – if I am being general – use material tensions to convey the dialectical tensions found in everyday life: steel, plaster, MDF, glass…these are all materials which have their tensions, and the most obvious way of reflecting these tensions is to manipulate said materials.  Find their weak spots, identify the precise area where they are most likely to buckle, etc.  For somebody who largely eschews the usage of materials (although there have been occasions when they have been incredibly useful), these tensions must be found dialectically.

Hence the artist as cultural renovator, manipulator or (and I have long preferred this term) magpie.  What shines in a pre-existing cultural climate must be made to stand in opposition with other things in either the same or a separate cultural climate (whether they be shiny or otherwise): only then do we find the inherent meanings, encoding and – worryingly enough – discriminations, perspicacities and intellectual failings (or, similarly, triumphs) in a given society.

Ryan Gander – Night in the Museum @ Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

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There is an infamous scene during John McNaughton’s Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer in which the film’s two protagonists are seen torturing and ultimately murdering an innocent family, which is disturbing enough in and of itself, until we then cut away from the scene to find that we have actually – and chillingly – been watching the killers watching themselves perform these deeds. It is in this detached act of voyeurism that we find the most human of truths: we habitual third-party observers, even in the face of injustice, intolerance and iniquity. This framing device is a trope which has been used so often in popular culture that we barely register its recurrences, and has been used across the board (in one form or another) by Coleridge, Shelley, Robert Wiene and The Simpsons. Ryan Gander, at Night in the Museum, uses a similar framing device in the form of Degas’ Little Dancer of Fourteen Years, ostensibly to focus on the act of looking (we encounter, throughout the exhibition, examples of sculptural works “looking” at two-dimensional artefacts from the Arts Council Collection). However, the vaguest familiarity with Degas’ sculpture discloses an historical truth: at the time of its creation, Little Dancer represented the face of the underclass which art criticism balked at. Rendered in beeswax, as opposed to the more traditional bronze, and lacking in grace, she was stuffed away in Degas’ cupboard for more than half-a-century until she emerged somewhat serendipitously, in 1956, to a slightly more enlightened age.

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In 2008, Heimo Zobernig unveiled his curatorial intervention – titled Heimo Zobernig and the Tate Collection in his characteristic detachment – which brought together artefacts from the Tate’s collection and arranged them with a certain dialogical tension alongside the Austrian artist’s stripped-down, aloof (yet, for all that, playful) works.  Zobernig, with tongue-in-cheek, obstructed the view from the gallery of the Cornish coastline with a red chroma-key curtain.  One can read this is a pointed suspension of the relationship between art and leisure, or indeed the preoccupation with the aesthetic balance – a thing which even today is all-too-British.  It was in such disruptions that Zobernig’s exhibition succeeded dialectically, whereas Ryan Gander’s decision to use The Little Dancer in the aforesaid prosopopoeial manner (ostensibly to exemplify a notion of formal liberation) is little more than a cynical attempt to bring the family back into a modernised version of that very thing which Zobernig disrupted.

In this sense, the Gas Hall is an ideal parallel of both the Little Dancer’s story and the present-day state of Government funding of The Arts: until privatisation, this hall was used by Birmingham’s populace to make their gas payments and, although we no longer queue in our serried bureaucratic misery, we are still nonetheless paying a debt. Today’s debt in the Gas Hall is our collective tribute towards a threat of “use it or lose it,” and this re-imagining by Gander of the Little Dancer, as she surveys Modern and Contemporary Art and its indifference to proletariat ballet enthusiasts, finds her in an age in which Britain is happy to pat itself on the back for its obedience to the tribute. Not only is Britain retentive of an holistic understanding of its own cultural heritage, but has also fostered an appreciation of the historical imparity of others’.  One sees art-world rhetoric scattered throughout the exhibition, designed – one imagines – to encourage the family away from Ikea and into the museum:

 “The reason why being an artist is one of the greatest jobs in the world is that you get to see what intangible ideas look like in the real world – the fallout of thinking is never quite as you imagined it.”

 One such magniloquently declarative soundbite boasts in yellow-on-spruce, in its congruent nestling among other such quotes which only ever belong either on a Sky Arts ident or, like here, as a congratulatory punch on the arm to the “family what arts.”  A municipal enterprise such as the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, forever chasing next year’s pot of municipal gold, is terminally enslaved to such bombastic cultural jingoism.

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Gander’s curatorial choices (my cynical take on the exhibition notwithstanding) are well-chosen, given the theme of a crepuscular, after-hours museum.  The paintings, impressively supplied by Robyn Denny, Patrick Caulfield et al, are all of a deep-blue, evening hue.  Though it is the sculptural work which is truly meant to attract visitors.  Sirs Jacob Epstein and Henry Moore, solidified within the cultural lexicon of the Twenty-and-Twenty-First Centuries, give the Arts Council the greatest opportunity to flex its muscle, whilst more subdued works by such contemporary figures as Angela Bulloch are arranged as conversation pieces for the uninitiated.  As ever, though, with such municipal ventures, the focus is always upon education – not to mention the implicit condescension that the age of advanced technology has somehow made the populace more beastly and torpid towards its own culture.

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Curiously, the museum elevator is out of order, and given my present cynicism I am forced to entertain the notion that Gander has engineered a false breakage.  My suspicions are leant further buoyancy when a mother with a pram arrives in exasperation of this situation, and as I help her up the stairs towards the museum’s main body I cannot help but feel as though I have been caught up in some elaborate postmodern rouse.  Promotional material for Julia Donaldson’s timely half-term exhibition promises more prams and pushchairs in pursuit of the Gruffalo – a beast whose ferocity in outweighed only by his own credulity.  As we part the exhibition, this updated morality tale feels like the most pernicious indictment of Night in the Museum of all.

“Thomas the Obscure” (Print Proof)

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Thomas the Obscure (1941), Maurice Blanchot’s “ultimate post-modern fiction” re-framed in an old Dandy cartoon strip. Nothing new, this, but old habits…

In an ideal world, this will be screen printed directly onto a gallery wall, although oftentimes the ideal world is quite separate to the actual world.