Tigress Walking (.075 second)
Animals in Motion, the photographic examination of animal movement by Eadweard Muybridge, contains a female tigress sequentially captured in plate136. According to the anatomical details, the tigress is walking for .075 second, one-half stride in 9 phases. The minute action shown over twelve images evokes predatory sensibilities. Her motion is dissected for acute analysis, both revealing and disarming her, for scientific purposes. Trickery and a sniff of covert manoeuvres ensured the tigress, borrowed from Philadelphia Zoo, paced in front of the multiple lenses as Muybridge’s revolutionary experimental images, deconstructed her movements and those of a variety of animals familiar to us, whose flight or gallop had eluded the human eye.
Muybridge who in 1872 was directing photographic surveys for the US Government on the Pacific Coast became aware of a debate about animal locomotion rearing its head in San Francisco. It is unclear why Muybridge suddenly began a serious investigation into this mysterious subject that had perplexed humanity and created fierce debate but he articulated an intense quest for the truth. This truth was within reach; the emergent photographic technologies, bespoke exposing apparatus and ‘a motor clock for making and breaking electric circuits’ that was critical in regulating the timings of the automatic exposures provided the means for the task. The human, who had for so long been mystified and disarmed by patchy knowledge was suddenly on the edge of revelation about the mechanics of animals. Through persistence and enquiry, these mysteries puzzled over and articulated by ancient artists, became understood in the body of a mechanical box with a lens. A beady eye to scour and consume images akin to the telescreen of Orwell’s 1984. Like the revealing of Pip’s benefactor in Great Expectations, the truth, however, momentarily satisfies the lust for answers but in its capacity to reveal it soon deflates the original fable.
Muybridge’s tigress is a curio whose exact placement of her paws is noted through each phase of the camera sequence. She is monitored, inhabits the frame of the image against a white backdrop, a reductive action that renders her both fascinating and laboured. We are aware that her motion is stilted and presented in a makeshift studio with additional earth floor. We have no idea if it is inside or out. We are as disorientated as her, watching as the tigress enters stage left, like an unrehearsed actor in front of a hungry audience. A reversal of the Roman pastime of being thrown to the lions. She is ‘performing’ for the lens under punishments, threats or rewards.
As I gaze at the images, however, my fascination is with the head of the animal. Soaked in a white light, head positioned forward in plate 1, we struggle to see the full physiognomy of the animal but by plate 3 we can clearly make out her facial characteristics, her ‘beauty’. Through the plates, she reveals the full aspect of her head, from profile to full on frontal image. There is such an aching sadness about this sequence that dissipates off of the page. Something appears broken; unmendable that in its simplest terms can be applied to the fate of the tigress but in a wider context, says much about humanity. For all our sophisticated attempts to overcome the adversity and harsh demeanour of the earth, there is a bereavement for the passing of latent, inherited knowledge. Instead of revelatory findings that triumph over nature’s own classified information what Muybridge’s plates might actually reveal in a mutual conflation are both the blueprint for animal motion in a static progression and the loss of instinctiveness, of animal intelligence that we once had in abundance to survive in the harsh environments of the earth. One is superseded by another. Trading the old in for new, the old rapidly dissipates like the details of a dream on waking.
Rather poignantly though is the fact that birds eluded Muybridge who ‘could not control his subjects..’ and subsequently deleted content in the section on birds due to the unsatisfactory nature of them. Somehow this raises a ripple of admiration to know that there was a failure in compliance of the bird population, a resistance to being pinned down in photographic plates for human consumption. (Their fates were sealed in other ways, largely through millinery decorations or shot and stuffed in glass cases).
Muybridge’s collection of images, presents a complexity of issues that go beyond mere image making for scientific endeavour. The reading of a subject presented in a photographic format is a dichotomy between illusion and truth. Susan Sontag in her seminal work On Photography offers another reading on this issue in the form of ‘..the persistent effort of photographers to feature the benevolent character of picture-taking and discount its predatory implications.’ She notes that photographers cannot be seen as either but are implicit in both of these characteristics when they take a photograph. It is she notes ‘an inherently equivocal connection between self and world. There is a disclosure and intimacy that occurs between photographer and subject (both animate and inanimate) that happens in a very momentary way in the action of the shutter consuming the image. Either side of that moment may be slow, considered and to paraphrase Sontag, a predatory action.
The emerging photographer Vicky Hodgson, whose work is predominantly concerned with exploring the position of the older woman in our society, may be seen in this paradigmatic context both as a kind of huntress and a chronicler. Her lens captures the nuances of her subject, almost in a collapsed version of Muybridge’s sequential panoramas of motion. Whilst Muybridge shows step by step, the diagrammatical animal postures, Hodgson brings a condensed body of characteristics into one single shot of each woman. Like a visual interview that occurs through the lens, photographer and subject present their silent dialogue in the photographic format. This potent singular record of each individual woman negates the superfluous and strips back to reveal the intricacies of the subjects, which resonates, with the tigress of Muybridge’s plates.
Hodgson’s residency at Meantime continues the thread of her exploration into the subject of women but with a different set of parameters to previous projects such as ‘Still Working’ that focused purely on the re-presentation of older women in a workplace setting. During the residency, Hodgson has lingered around the side streets of Meantime’s studio in Cheltenham, finding women willing to be photographed and documented in both a studio setting and in workplaces and living rooms. The project has continued the thread of investigation into the visibility of women but has also unveiled issues around where the work sits in terms of portraiture or situational documentary portraits. Perhaps Hodgson must resist the readiness to find slots for arranging our knowledge that Muybridge engaged in through his animal locomotion explorations. Her female subject matter has historically been enshrouded in the chatter of social expectations and demands. The work of photographers and artists like Hodgson destabilizes and renders them redundant.
Let me share with you my experience of a recent performance by the artist Kathryn Ashill. I had arrived at the crowded basement gallery space some time before, and was waiting for an opportunity to get into a separate tented area, set out to resemble a fairground fortune teller’s tent. I was aware that I wasn’t entirely sure of how to approach the situation. Kathryn, who was inside the tent, is a very good friend of mine, whom I was looking forward to catching up with. She was also mid-way in to a piece devised for one audience member at a time. I didn’t want to disrespect the conventions that she had set up, but I didn’t want to pre-empt them either. Once I knew the tent was empty, I pushed through the purple curtain and made my greeting. We quickly established a ‘normal’ conversation, but quite soon she made it clear that we were going to shift our interaction into encompassing the pre-determined exchanges of the performance. I was very impressed by the way in which she did this – a subtle but firm switch in atmosphere. We read each other’s palms, using a printed palmistry guide sheet augmented by Kathryn’s own knowledge and experience. There was no pressure to accept the resulting guidance, in the same way that there was no pressure to follow a script. Rather, the piece seemed to exist as a relatively indefinable sense of delineated exchange. Some of what our palms apparently indicated had a certain poignancy, since they rang true, and since we both knew they rang true for each other. The experience was something between a conversation, a folkloristic ritual, and a confession.
Many of Kathryn’s past projects have focussed on the commemoration of historical characters or scenarios. Consequently, I do not find it surprising that she should have chosen fortune telling as her most recent subject of artistic enquiry – since what is fortune telling, but a mirroring of the way we continually tell ourselves stories about the past as a benchmark to understand ourselves within the present? I am particularly interested in the unlikely parallels between her work and the medieval Welsh bardic tradition: within this poets were employed by aristocratic patrons to praise their ancestral lineage, to justify claims to power through emphasising hereditary connections (however tenuous) to noble forbears; the transmission of prophetic poetry (canu brud) was another aspect of their role. While her commitment to the Welsh language is certainly very strong, her frame of reference is generally more cheap and cheerful than courtly (though she sees the dignity as well as the escapism in things often dismissed by cultural critics for being populist or sentimental). Nevertheless, Kathryn’s work resonates strongly with the bards’ function within a society that understood the cohesive power of narrative, whether it concerned the past or the future, to its identity.
Contemporary culture tends to devalue the role of myth, while insisting, unrealistically, on the inviolable truth of its own stories (news reporting, political rhetoric, advertising, not to mention the popular presentation of science). Instead, in this project, Kathryn Ashill highlights an on-going manifestation of the need for people to take solace in a predicted version of events, whether or not they really, truly, believe in them. The psychic readings she has commissioned are shared with us, their discrepancies and contradictions undermining their claims to accuracy. They are not discounted however, Kathryn’s interest goes beyond whether or not the predictions will come true, to encompass the reasons why people want to be told. The specialness of being spoken to in confidence and acceptance; the reassurance of being presented with a certainty – they are presented as a quite unique format for intimate exchange within an isolating society that Kathryn has drawn on, both as a precedent for one-one performances, and then as an informing quality that feeds out into the developing project more broadly.
The realm of what is already meaningful
Socially engaged practice was originally intended to operate outside of the boundaries of the art establishment and of established art practice. It was an attempt to democratise arts practice (which was/is seen as elitist) and in many cases to restore and reinvigorate communities that were ravaged by the after effects of the Second World War and economic decline. Socially engaged projects generally contain an activist edge and are motivated to address a particular issue or achieve a particular end. It seems however that artists have painted themselves into a corner with current attempts by government to achieve measurable benefit-outcomes for the arts. The arts have been adopted as a method by which to drive urban regeneration, to build communities and offset bad planning. With this co-option of what was formally a kind of counter-cultural critique of the establishment, artists are now adopting the anti-aesthetic language of socially engaged practice as a funding tool to pursue an internalised and personal agenda.
In my view where this approach is most successful is when the newly formed community/entity can engage with that agenda, but do so armed with tools and mechanisms provided by the artist to interpret the project from a position of empowerment.
“The artist directs the audience’s attention towards a given view, and provides the means to examine it in a particular way, but does not prescribe specific meaning that should be bought to bear on it. Instead the audience experiences the work and searches for new meanings from within the realm of what is already meaningful.” Stephen Willats in his introduction to Art and Social Function (2000)
I would suggest that Kate Ogley’s practice sits in this developing area. Kate Ogley is involved in data gathering similar in some way to the Mass Observation Project – the songs of migrant or itinerant workers, the lost (or found) spaces of a town centre, the view from a train window. This data could be used by her to define a territory, but this territory need not be geographical but personal.
The process of documentation could be understood as an expression of a subjective intent to map a personal terrain of dislocation, to locate a place in the world. Purpose defines the map, geography becomes incidental. Environments are mapped according to need. The local council could provide you with a street map with all the sewers marked or a town map with housing stock or social grouping, water or electricity mains. Ecologists could provide a map of the distribution of the flora and fauna of the same area.
Artists can provide you with a map with all this information but change the street names to those of a Scandinavian city. At some level all maps are the same/all maps are different.
Within the realm of the socially engaged art project I feel artists have a moral obligation towards the participants: those people who are active in the development of the project. Jordan Baseman, in a recent Q&A, talked about this in relation to the subjects of his films. In his case the works are “creative non-fictions” but there is still a demand to maintain the friendships that arise. People lay themselves on the line and, to greater or lesser degrees, are making themselves vulnerable in so much as they feed truths and commitment into an entity determined by the artist. This in itself is not problematic but it does induce an anxiety within me that their openness must be reciprocated by the artist. An appreciation that through the investment of the people, a new community is manifested, and the artist places themselves as pivotal to this community. This role comes with responsibilities: not merely to behave ethically and in the best interests of that community, but also as a figure head in whom that community have invested their faith.
Kate Ogley is reaching out towards our unacknowledged other selves, a society of talent we are yet to fully embrace and understand. What is important here is the directness of the communication – human to human. The voice, the sound, the timbre, the acoustics, the setting, the occasion, the volume, the meaning, the bond. This is one moment, when it’s taken a lifetime to get here. Then what? How to preserve this moment and capture some small segment or facsimile of the shared experience? That poignant fragment that sat unknowing, unrecognised until it was captured (tamed), later to be referenced as a truth? But it is only a rendering – a half-truth devoid of the air that was breathed at the time, the news of that day, the birds, the time, the place and where you, we went after. What Walter Benjamin termed the optical unconscious, a new realm of experience made accessible by the camera – one sees the other for the first time. The camera presents us with a second, virtual world that contains more (too much) information. As viewers of this rendering are we compelled to learn its new language, to become translators of the visual? A search for signs or signifier?
Are the lens, the aperture, the view finder in fact distancing elements to separate Kate from the reality (pain) as it really exists. Is this removal enough? Although only half a step back it remains just that – distancing. It is not a safe distance like at a firework display. The artist makes her presence felt as a marginal and passing influence, but distant as distinct from dispassionate, far enough back not to be able to project or feel any body warmth.
Kate described how Iranian refugees would stay at the family home en route to permanent housing, relocation, and how one young man became like a brother. In the case of her father Kate described a childhood in the shadow of an eminent male academic involved with Amnesty International; to him his work was not simply an academic research project but a way of life.
In this way Kate’s personal story is inextricably tied to her film works, and the focus on migrant populations, the unrooted. My concern is that within the poignancy of her actions is a grief, and unless this is allowed to express itself the work will be incomplete, missing an entire chapter of detail, complexity and motivation. That it should be present is not a flippant, sensationalist, macabre request. It is because it is a core truth that unites us all, loss is something that we all will face one way or another.
By holding a single unmoving shot for five or more minutes the image tells us little but asks the viewer to focus in, beyond the frame of the screen to imagine the thoughts of the worker or dining car attendant. Kate asks us to join her in this place for a moment and see it how she saw it, hear it how she heard it. This is not the everyday elevated to stardom, this is just the everyday “Offering back to us different perceptions and connections with what is familiar” as Kate says. Kate’s subjects know that the camera is on them but they do not perform. They cut the scallops from their shells. They wash the floor, they close the door.
In her newer film works Kate Ogley focuses on the voice as if we might bear witness to these individuals. Exploring the tonality, expression and breadth of sung images and imagination from other cultures.The songs come from other lives that were lived before and elsewhere. Their presence here and now is to do with a dislocation, a kind of fracture in a continuum for those individuals. Sonic depth is to experience the unmediated sound as it resonates through the performer’s body to yours. An unreproducible sensation and human bond that extends from the performer directly to you as, simultaneously, an individual and as part of an audience – the work becomes a tool for communication between our ordinary lives and those that accompany us unnoticed, unknown and unheard.
Gavin McClafferty, May 2013
A response by Elisabetta Fabrizi to From Purgatory to Paradise: an indulgence, by Ali Kayley and Dan GlaisterPosted: April 16, 2013
‘Memory fogs, so does film’
Entering the upstairs gallery at Meantime Project Space we are suddenly propelled into two identical landscapes. An installation comprising two looped 16mm film projections, Figure in Landscape consists of two scenes projected almost floor to ceiling, side by side. On the right a solitary, eerie landscape – a small copse; on the left, within the same landscape, a jittering ghost-like figure, barely distinguishable, disappearing at times, dwarfed by nature, running along the copse’s edge, falling, struggling to find a way to enter it. The small copse filmed in the piece is certainly an intriguing and challenging starting point to Ali Kayley & Dan Glaister’s residency and exhibition at Meantime, in Cheltenham. Said copse is in fact called Purgatory and is situated east of Slad, near Stroud, three miles to the south of a hamlet called Paradise, not far from where the artists live and from the gallery. The project started with a word on a map, they tell us; and as death as way of life had been a central point to some of their recent work, coming across Purgatory offered them the perfect opportunity to develop their practice and current concerns. Importantly, the artists have chosen not to research the history of Purgatory, and leave the many questions (and answers) such a name prompts to the gallery visitors. What they do tell us though is that Purgatory is a real place, a real trace in the English landscape, in so doing striking the gallery visitors with a direct reference to the real; but fully aware that, inevitably, the viewers must also tune in to the iconography of purgatory – both visual and literary – as well as their own (present or absent) religious beliefs.
The matter of fact title of Figure in Landscape, representing an apparently rather simple scene, hides complex, universal themes. What comes across – beyond the metaphor of universal human struggle – is the mixture of familiarity and mystery established within the piece. This psychological landscape is created through a series of artistic decisions: the careful composition of the scene, clearly divided into three horizontal areas (the grass, the copse, the sky) together with the non descriptive figure give the scene a look of unreality; the undefined light in which the film was shot, creating an atmosphere of Dantesque memory; the format chosen (16mm film) and the way it is installed in the gallery space, which, as the artists put it, ‘deliberately reflects the constraints of film medium in the theme’. The simple and powerful framework of Figure in Landscape – both compositional and thematic – acts as a vessel for the gallery visitor to bring together and explore universal, existential questions at whatever level they choose. The project successfully combines the human, the everyday and the eerie using the specific language of film installation to create meaning. Reading the captions, we find out that the term used to define this work is diptych (as opposed to double-projection), a telling choice on behalf of the artists – a word which takes us back to a religious painterly tradition. Yet the artists are fully aware not only of the intrinsic ontological realism of film, which they exploit by filming a carefully framed and composed ‘nature’ open air, but this installation demonstrates their specific interest in what the format of film installation has to offer. 16mm film contributes to creating an environment which feels poetic as opposed to technological, acting, one could say, as a spotlight on memory. The intricate, very personal and almost corset-like way in which the artists have the installed the film strips which travel along the gallery ceiling before reaching the projectors, create a sense of alchemy, fragility and constraint which fills the exhibition space. This brings us to another distinct feature of film itself: the fact that it decays, ‘it fogs, just like memory’, to cite the artists again. The look and feel of the piece would be drastically different if it had been shot and installed on digital. This element is crucial to Ali Kayley & Dan Glaister work: film’s limitations, its technical difficulty, cost, and fragility – aging, almost – is what attracts the artists to this format. Interestingly, in Figure in Landscape, what appear to be two different 2 min reels are in reality one 4 min reel, cut precisely in two. This is achieved through careful storyboarding and in-camera editing. The artists also use the loop to create meaning. On the one hand the looped films: every two minutes the scene is repeated, over and over again, a cyclical passing of time resulting in a timeless space, and in an ‘absent’ time, a limbo of impossibility and struggle in which the indistinct figure in landscape, walking along the edge, appears stuck. On the other hand, the characteristic sound of the 16mm reels passing through the cogs of the projectors becomes a sound loop. As the actual piece is silent, this monotonous soundtrack creates a mantra-like score which acts as a conduit to reflection.
The size of the projection, the level of darkness of the room, the specific framing of the image – with an overwhelming sky, copse and miniscule spirit-like figure – all contribute to the viewer instinctively being catapulted into the scene, despite the lack of narrative. Due to the nature of the installation and the position of the projectors, our physical exploration of the gallery space often results in our shadow becoming part of the work. We could say, quoting Dante – the first to envisage purgatory as a place of suffering as opposed to a temporary condition, and to imagine it as ‘a divine forest, dense and alive’ – that if in hell we act as judges, and in paradise we feel reverence, in purgatory we feel directly involved. Like Dante in Purgatory, the second Cantica of the Divine Comedy, we feel empathy, as we are in a landscape with a figure who is our equal, psychologically and physically.
In the downstairs gallery we find another film installation, titled Flight Arrested, a single super 16mm film loop, intimate in scale and content. The mysterious (yet familiar) copse of its companion installation gives space to a thicket of exile and sequestration. The openness of the landscape of Figure in Landscape is also gone, replaced by details of a figure – seemingly inside Purgatory – desperately trying to escape it: hands, arms, chest, and some direct religious iconographic references such as a drop of blood and thorny branches. If Figure in Landscape looks at Jeff Wall’s work for its clarity of language, intent and staging, Flight Arrested seems to aim at transforming the personal – the detail indeed – into universal value, beyond literal meaning, specific historical backgrounds and cultural references. In this, as well as in its austere and precise style of filming, the piece seems to reference the work of French director Robert Bresson – often called the dark Catholic of French cinema – famed for his use of authentic details in order to transcend them and inspire metaphysical meditation.
Flight Arrested is installed in a room with two works on paper, beautiful letterpress prints on charcoal. One is based on the map of the area from Purgatory to Paradise, a distance the artists will walk on 1st June, bringing an ulterior element of reality into their chosen metaphysical theme. The other is an example of a new series of works which refer to the tradition of Indulgences – popularly envisioned during the Middle Ages as decreasing the duration of time the dead spend in purgatory. Pre-Reformation England was not immune to the belief in purgatory and the redeeming powers of indulgences, quite the contrary. To cite one widely known example, in The Canterbury Tales Chaucer tells us how a Pardoner abuses his position by selling indulgences for a very high price. Ali Kayley and Dan Glaister recuperate this forgotten tool, writing their own indulgence; narrating their story which perhaps aspires to become an epigram, a disclosure of intent: ‘The bearer of this Indulgence [….] shall be guided directly and without diversion [from Purgatory] to Paradise, […] traversing its neglected track of centuries past and shall be delivered thus untainted and free of guilt or knowledge [….] in that sweet home of pure oblivion’.
There is a duality at play in this project: on the one hand we have the ‘real’ image and the ‘constructed’ image (a resurrection of the seen and of the lived); on the other, through a series of religious iconographical cross-references, the artists take a welcome and multifaceted stand on the meaning and use of contemporary art.
Elisabetta Fabrizi studied Art History and Film at the University of Bologna, Italy, graduating with distinction on the subject of Art and Film. While at university, she worked on several exhibitions and film projects, and as a music and arts journalist. In 1998 she moved to London, where she went on to complete a Masters degree in Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art, London, continuing her investigation of the moving image in a gallery context. She was Head of Exhibitions at the British Film Institute, London and has held positions at Milton Keynes Gallery and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead. She has extensive experience of curating and commissioning contemporary art projects, including by Jane & Louise Wilson, Deimantas Narkevicious, Mat Collishaw, Patrick Keiller, Michael Snow, Peter Campus, Pierre Bismuth, Erwin Wurm, and Carol Rama amongst others.
FROM PURGATORY TO PARADISE: AN INDULGENCE was developed during a four-week residency at MEANTIME from February to March 2013 and chronicles the flight from Purgatory on 16mm film. The works will be shown at SITE 2013 in Stroud, Gloucestershire on Thursday 30th – Friday 31st May 4-9pm; Saturday 1st June 11-4pm at the Goods Shed, Stroud GL5 3AP (Stroud station) and at Knapp House Barn, Slad, Stroud GL6 7JZ on Friday 31st May – Saturday 1st June 11-4pm.
The Walk from Purgatory to Paradise will take place on Saturday 1st June, 2pm commencing from Knapp House Barn, Slad, Stroud GL6 7JZ. Enquiries contact firstname.lastname@example.org / 01435 759520. More information and full programme of SITE 2013 events here.
It started with a word on a map. One of those places you hear of but never visit: Purgatory. We’d read about it, seen it in pictures, in art galleries, in the movies, though it had never been real. But there it was, just up the hill from our studio, marked on the OS map in that fine roman script. We don’t know why it is there, and we don’t want to know. We prefer to make up our own story, to imagine the stories that lie behind it. It’s a creepy place, although that might just be because of its name. It’s always windy up on the top of the hill, inside the copse that is Purgatory. And you can hear the cattle moaning, and sometimes the farm dogs howling, and the trees creaking. And it seems to have had some sort of devastation wrought upon it: it really is a place of gnarled trunks and fallen boughs, of tangles and thickets and marshy ground. And like all the best depictions of Purgatory, it is circular.
So there was Purgatory. And then some time later we noticed the other place: Paradise. It’s not far, a few miles, easy to walk to, but there it is. Why this coincidence? Which one came first? Do they always go around in pairs like this? So then we thought maybe there are lots of them, all over the country, Purgatories, maybe there should be an inventory of Purgatories. But there aren’t. We found one, in Cumbria, and a Purgatory Pool near Wolverhampton, which sounded fairly grisly, but that was it. So this was unique? A unique occurrence? Probably not, but it felt good, the sort of stuff artists thrive on.
Our previous project, Conquistador (2011) was about immigration and death in California and Mexico. It had taken us to fruit farms in California’s Central Valley and to depopulated villages in southern Mexico where death is a way of life. Not the narco death we hear so much about but the waiting for the dead, the ushering past of the newly departed, the easing of their journey. And now here we were, on the other side of this world, with Purgatory. The dead play such a vivid part in life in Mexico and Mexican culture, it was easy to exoticize it. But what happened here? Why would there be a place called Purgatory here?
Indulgences. Google indulgence and it will tell you about chocolate and celebrity perfume. But there was a more sane, more rational time: it was called the Middle Ages, a time of fervent belief, of doubt, of uncertainty, and, it seems, of a desperate attempt to cater for all eventualities in the great unknown. Fire and brimstone? Probably, literally, true. Hell and damnation? Ditto. Purgatory and the cleansing of sin by fire? A certainty. Escape? Almost impossible, although….
There was an answer. For while a literal belief in Purgatory was the norm in medieval Britain. That widespread belief spawned a relief: the Indulgence, or pardon, sold or exchanged for goods or money, promises or piety. The money went to the church’s coffers, to good works, to finance the building of hospitals, harbours, all sorts. Think of the National Lottery with a particularly nasty consequence should you not buy a ticket. These pardons were, in the early Middle Ages, hand-written, sometimes sold by travelling pardoners – Chaucer’s The Pardoner’s Tale (written in the late 14th century) is the best-known literary example – and sometimes available at churches. They promised remission, relief from time in Purgatory in very specific ways: perform a particular penance or religious duty – from killing Turks on a crusade to going to church and saying prayers – and you could earn tens, hundreds or thousands of years off your time in Purgatory. This was managed by the church, but gradually it was farmed out to sellers, pardoners, who might be religiously endorsed, or might have obtained a seal from the Pope, or might be sporting a religious artefact, possibly an old leg of lamb, or possibly the leg of the lamb of God. You could never be too sure.
Pardons were initially hand-written by scriveners, but when moveable type and the first printing presses arrived in England they began to be made using the new technology. Caxton and other early printers produced pardons on a scale previously unimaginable, helping to both fuel the business of indulgence production, and to propel the nascent business of printing. Arguably, Caxton was able to print Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, one of the first books printed in English, thanks to the trade in pardons.
For this project we have made a series of indulgences, borrowing in spirit from the indulgences of the Middle Ages, as well as working with letterpress printing, in the spirit of Caxton. We have printed our indulgences over charcoal drawings of Purgatory: in these indulgences the reality of Purgatory is plain to see; the metaphysical is given physical form.
For our film work, we propose to film the flight from Purgatory: a figure treading a path that is well-worn and ancient yet elusive, a path that is both mythical and material, leaving a trace in the landscape, a trace that is there but momentarily, persisting even after the film has moved on, a retinal memory. We like working with the transient medium of film, its unpredictability and its instability absorb and reflect the ethereal nature of the subjects that we are drawn to. The title of one section, ‘for stupid people love tales that are old’, is spoken by Chaucer’s Pardoner in Sheila Fisher’s translation of The Canterbury Tales.
A third element of the work is to walk from Purgatory to Paradise. In the same way that the film and the drawing reference and give flesh to myth and superstition, so the walk takes this handed-down notion and does it for real. We may even find out if it has any meaning.
From Purgatory to Paradise: an indulgence in 16mm film, drawing and print will be developed at Meantime, Cheltenham (www.meantime.org.uk), with work to date shown on 21-23 March. The final film will be shown at the end of May at the Site festival in Stroud. The walk from Purgatory to Paradise will take place on June 1.
Alpha #4 is part of a continuing project to investigate and retrace a drawing experiment. Hunched over a desk, studying publications gathered from the ‘withdrawn’ stock of libraries, the artist/researcher delves into the history of comparative psychology. The aim is to unearth the records of one particular test subject, a female chimpanzee named Alpha, born in the 1930s. During her life in captivity Alpha developed a drawing habit that became the topic of experiment, written up and published in 1951.
In this retrieval project, traces of Alpha including scientific texts, photographs, charts, diagrams and, strangest of all, reproductions of the marks drawn by the animal herself, are brought to light and re-examined. Alpha becomes a figure with which to investigate the liminal status, instrumental value and captive existence of generations of laboratory animals, bred and raised to serve as surrogates in the quest for human self-knowledge. The act of retracing Alpha’s marks becomes an obsessive labour of biography. At the end of the month visitors will be invited to enter the confined space of this private study and witness the visible results.
The Alpha blog is a key element of Juliet MacDonald’s residency project, Alpha #4, undertaken at MEANTIME in September 2012. Although the project was located at the MEANTIME building, the blog seems to be describing some other place: the images Juliet has selected makes the space appear strange, estranged, sterile and remote, unfamiliar, not hostile as such, but evoking an ambiguous abstracted violence. The laboratory is an emotionally complex space that at once allows Juliet to contain her subjectivity and the pathos in the work, and to scrutinise it. The residency timeframe and the space itself is a form of confinement, which further propels the work into an identification with the conditions that Alpha was subjected to, an amalgam of the domestic and clinical, creating a temporal, visceral connection between the retrieved narrative of an immaterial, unknowable test-subject, Alpha, and that of the present, accountable, human subject, Juliet.
It could be a laboratory anywhere. The conditions are set-up for observing, for objectivity, and the blog documents and records – we are invited to observe work-in-progress, experimentation and transient scenes from a detached viewpoint. Echoes of the documented histories of Alpha and the laboratory situations she inhabited unfold, and are here represented by found surrogates and proxy images, such as a patterned rug in the MEANTIME office (Alpha had herself “traced the designs in the rugs with her index fingers”), which themselves define Juliet’s environment. Blog posts are sent from the outside, from an exterior environment, when Juliet is able to escape her confinement. An abandoned coat becomes a recurring character, another mute specimen with its furry lining, arms and hood describing a human/primate physicality. The coat is photographed in an unidentifiable patch of nowhere in the dodgy, scrubby hinterland of a disused railway-track, a scenario who’s contingency couldn’t possibly be replicated in the lab, and Juliet’s repeated visits to the coat and her reports on its location and condition permit us to observe her determination to attend to her subject.
At MEANTIME the installed works, in particular Cutting through from Harvard to Humanism, and to a greater extent the durational quotation drawing that expands around the entire lower space, a repetitious gesture of anger and despair, give clear indications of where Juliet’s subjective commitments lie. Through the Alpha blog the ghosts of this project are documented and revealed, strange apparitions of humanoid or primate forms, white-suited easels in flight, awkward looming tripods, are given form and released.
‘Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the message and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world […] (It is political) because of the type of space and time that it institutes, and the manner in which it frames its time and people in space’
Jacques Rancière , Aesthetics as Politics, 2004 [i]
Prior to her residency at Meantime in June 2012, Kate Lepper was invited to undertake a project at Site Festival in Stroud during the last week of May. Kate made ‘a tactile psuedo-protest banner’, a statement of intent, that read ‘There is a Cure for Capitalism Inside Your Imagination That Wants to Get Out’. It was made on-site, inside the Brunel Goods Shed next to the railway station, and this location naturally created opportunities for discussion between Kate and visitors to the space. As the work progressed, I listened to how skillfully Kate held conversations with people, whose political views all varied, and I realized that the bold, dogmatic message on the banner was producing something quite contrasting; a need for the artist to listen and respond with flexibility and sensitivity. It became clear that the project is more than simply the aestheticization of a political statement in colourful fabrics and seductive plastics; the ‘response-ability’ – an ability to respond – of both the artist and the audiences was itself evoked by the banner. The banner functioned as an affirmation of the artist’s political viewpoint, in relation to which differentiations of individual thoughts and opinions could be mapped.
What I am trying to allude to here is that the political radicality of this new body of work is not necessarily only contained in the banner’s statement. As Rancière describes, ‘Art is not, in the first instance, political because of the message and sentiments it conveys concerning the state of the world’. What seems as important as the content of the statement is the fact that the tensions within the tactile objects of Kate’s previous works, between intelligibility and sensuality, between the autonomous, isolated object and the relational, emancipated object, have shifted to become integrated. So how does this affect the relation between the object, the artist and the audience? To my question of why she was now using text in her work, her answer was to make her political view more explicit, and I wondered if this was not simply a desire to attempt to exert influence but equally to receive more charged and explicit responses from the audience. In this way she is demanding more from the audience than just to listen and observe; they are transformed from an indeterminate audience to a particular audience, expected to demonstrate the same measure of response-ability as Kate is, to speak their mind. According to Ranciere, this is a subtle, and yet a radical reconfiguration of social relations that touches upon the kernel of human politics: ‘Politics occurs when those who ‘have no’ time take the time necessary to front up as inhabitants of a common space and demonstrate that their mouths really do emit speech capable of making pronouncements on the common which cannot be reduced to voices signaling pain’[ii].
What makes art political is not its marriage with Politics, but its intervention with the condition and the context of Politics. This is the difference between the ‘staging’ of Politics and the ‘dismantling and reconfiguring ‘ of the staging of Politics. This is why I am not discussing the content of the statement at this stage, although it is not my intention to deny the importance of the affirmation of her political view without which the work could result in an utopian ‘conversational’ project. Rather I would like to raise the following questions concerning the engineering of the staging: what is the statement staged for, to whom is it directed, and where should it be performed? If the particularity of the audience is an important part of the project, then at what stage in her project does the particularity of the audience need to be specified? And how does the significance of tactility, or even the materiality, of an object situate itself within this configuration?
[i] Rancière, Jacques, ‘Aesthetics as Politics’, in Aesthetics and its Discontents, trans.
Steven Corcoran, Polity, Cambridge, 2009, pp. 19-44
[ii] Ibid, p24 – By “ those who ‘have no’ time”, Rancière is referring to Plato’s statement that artisans have time for nothing but their work. What Plato is alluding is that artists have no time to be at the people’s assembly but only to be at their studios. Artisans are not political subjects capable of making speeches. Rancière critiques that this ‘absence of time’ is actually a naturalized prohibition created by a particular framing of time and space.