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 email@example.com / 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.
WRITING AS OCCUPATION
And what of durations and time limits? Could any of this correspond to a foreseeable residency period?
The glass in the windows is frosted but enough light gets through to reveal that this is a workshop. There are tools hung on hooks, and there are benches. The colours and smells make of the place one surface, our presence a danger to its integrity. True, we can be seen as hostiles for more obvious reasons given that we have broken in. But already we consider ourselves guardians, even against those who might yet come to commence their instrument-making.
Step carefully. Don’t disturb the dust.
It is as well to remain quiet. Events on the street have taken an ugly turn. We have sympathy with the cause but any demand to use this place for the insurrection’s purposes will split our loyalties. If some needing sanctuary are permitted, the doors will close swiftly behind them. At all costs the interior’s neutrality will be preserved.
Writing as Occupation names a superimposition of spaces. The room that was a workshop is now a laboratory – J-Spur, a science wing abandoned after its supposed ‘contamination’ now itself the agent of impurity. We have come to write, to ask what it takes for a place to house the production of writing and nothing else.
A marvellous dictate is strewn and the Spur becomes a snow globe. Isn’t it wonderful that paper can be pinched at the middle, that it can be cupped to capture liquid? The scattered sheets are chased, caught and pinched into sphincters – grips through which writing can whistle. There are numerous break-flows throughout the body, most of which can be trained to speak. Make a fist of it.
COME QUICK AND BARRICADE THE WRITERS
A campaign is somehow secured against the institution. The Spur shakes with a motion that might never be compressed into stillness. ATTEND THE CASE. What is this – the brave and the bold? There’s not one fucker fit to curse, nor to pick the stitch. Writing is now formed from casings, even in its runoffs, fit only to trim, its threads of matter thrown from the spinning edge of the cylinder press. Writing a skull as soft as a dub plate.
BUST OUT YOUR DEFENCES. BUILD YOUR REDOUBTS AND YOUR PHALANX. GET DICTATED TO. THIS IS THE ONLY WAY OF MAINTAINING YOUR REVETMENTS. GET SANDBAGGING. EVERY SURFACE IS TO BE SET AS A RECEIVER OF WRITING.
Room in Widow M’cormack’s House Barricaded, engraving, 1848; approximate size 6.5 x 7.5cm, 2.5 x 3 inches.
Meantime welcomes Neil Chapman and David Stent and their proposed project of writing, eloquently set out in their initial statement, this project will take place over the next three weeks that takes up their residency and has been entitled ‘Writing as Occupation’. From the very outset it would seem as if in following their initial statement, a need has arisen that compels them to question the very notion of what a residency with its durations and time limits might entail. Asking ‘how’ a writing might extend itself and unfold through time rather than the more familiar question of ‘why’ or ‘what’ writing means in its relation with art, we, whoever we are but who make up their potential audience, might already be forgiven for wandering whether they in fact believe it possible to produce a body of work with sufficient reason within such a familiar institutional framework that goes by the name of ‘artist residency’. As a response to such a doubt, a doubt doubtlessly the inevitable product of their creative and philosophical minds, they have felt it necessary to already distance themselves from ‘us’. As their audience we pose a grave and potential threat to their whole project and what they have described as its absolute necessity to maintain a space of neutrality. Roland Barthes perhaps gives us some clues as to what this means when he describes the neutral as that that, ‘outplays the paradigm’….as, ‘everything that baffles the paradigm’. For Barthes the neutral is all that escapes or undoes the paradigmatic binary oppositions that structure and produce meaning in Western thought and discourse. The binaries are found in all aspects of human society, ranging from language to sexuality to politics, and have the effect of restricting thought to a mere supervision of ‘what is’ regarding the picture we have of ourselves and the world we inhabit, rather than contributing to any further understanding of what we might collectively be capable of in both thought and action. Thus to escape these binaries necessarily leads us into unchartered territory and whether this is read as the infinite value of man (Marx) or that excess of man over himself (Pascal), venturing into the unknown therefore cannot fail to have profound ethical, philosophical and linguistic implications.
For the moment let us hold onto these implications as I hope to return to these lines of thought later and return to what is already quite clear. Neil and David have chosen to use their residency as a form of occupation with which to house their writing projects. Perhaps we can understand this action as expressing a need on their part to construct and fabricate a frame around their work, to demarcate a specific space in which to prevent all that is unnecessary from entering, for anyone or anything could potentially dissolve the required intensity of the writing and endanger the integrity of their mission. At a very basic level art has in some way to partition itself off, to make of itself something autonomous from the straightforward survival impulses of life, if it is to produce new ways of living. Yet today these impulses of intentionality, utility, production and instrumental reason have come to dictate the very rules of efficiency and social cohesion, becoming so pervasive as to diminish the scope of our horizons. Indeed, so pervasive has the incorporation of these life impulses within art been that we could well argue that this has produced its own aesthetic project, and has coincided with an overall aestheticization of politics. Art has occupied and completely invaded life, and in the process diminished what we take and understand to be life, and inevitably causing much art to be cut off from circulation. But if we look towards life’s bolder impulses such as the vagaries and intensifications posed by sexuality for instance, then we immediately gain an increased scope to move within, and potentially derange these captured and controlled impulses sufficiently to create a new order, a new practice in which to express ourselves and our art.
For Neil and David the importance of creating a space, a frame around their work is presumably built upon a necessity to delimit the objects of their writing, to unleash its material qualities through intensification and ultimately make the art possible. Yet if the frame itself is what is most in question today, as in the sense that it has become dematerialized, then the very conception we have of power and its ability to get things done has taken a considerable knock. Power has clearly begun to float, like capital it floats in the way it endlessly reproduces itself, and this we can see in the case of money serving the sole purpose of making more money. As an example of a perverted eros, power, no longer shackled by any kind of framing reveals itself as driven by a lack that becomes ever deeper the more it is satisfied. At such a historical juncture, might we not propose of art that it equally becomes a project that disjars, distends and transforms frames so that space becomes more than just a container of bodies and takes itself as a plane of pure potentiality, ready to engage with space topologically in the manner of a strategist asking, what are its holes, entrances, exits, how might it make this space inoperative as well as communize it. To this end Neil and David seem to point in this direction by having called their occupation a ‘superimposition of spaces’. If they have declared a need to delineate a space in all instances as paramount for the writing to take place, it now no longer becomes clear who is on the inside and who is on outside, for the spaces have the character of a Moebius strip leaving us to ponder who in fact might end up doing the barricading. Sometimes the threat seems to be coming from outside, “there is word that the streets have turned ugly”, and then at other times the threat seems to reside from within in the case of the J-spur laboratory with its “supposed ‘contamination’ now itself the agent of impurity”. As the nature of the imaginary spaces they inhabit changes it seems to be the case that sometimes we, their always already potential audience, are the grave threat, like the undifferentiated mass always threatening to overrun any carefully constructed space, and then at other times we become a whirling unpredictable movement of forces which they will have to draw upon if their work is to gain its required force. How they navigate these shifting relations is the fascinating part of their project, and whilst they have promised energy, an agency, an effort and perhaps some kind of resistance to the binaries floating out all around us, whether these strategies will be enough to impart new knowledge in how we divide and organize chaos to create, we must, with baited breath, clear our minds in the meantime and wait and see.
Over the coming weeks I hope to further a conversation in this space that will concentrate on the material Neil and David have disclosed to us regarding their past projects and the nature of their collaboration. Of particular importance, since it feels central to their inquiry, is their work exploring images and their relation with writing. The more we think around this issue the more I think our sensitivity will widen in its scope and so enable us to listen with greater attention to their growing production of words, forming a body of words as material, as spirit, as shape, all being produced in hard times. David and Neil have given us a sense of danger, both from within the institution in which access to these spaces have increasingly been invisibly filtered and privately controlled, and from without in the impending sense that there grows a new wave of barbarism, summed up neatly in the word ‘austerity’, of which the implications lie in wait, becoming ever more dangerous the more we fail to frame power to work for and not against our lives. For Neil and David, writing itself has a resisting potential with its uncanny ability to create magical lines that fold the whole body in its complicated coils and is thereby able to create something like a dissensual fictional ontology where nothing potentially separates what belongs to art and what belongs to everyday life. Here, writing is taken as that which allows and enables all matter to become expressive, to not just satisfy but also to intensify, to resonate and become more than itself. But this requires the proper space and as the painter Malevich long ago made clear, we cannot be made properly aware of this space unless we break away from the earth. It is necessary that we conjure an escape, find fractures, elevation, excitation and the nothingness lurking behind things so that it becomes possible to break from words that have become all too well-behaved materials. Yet the body and the particular space with which to inhabit it seems more elusive than ever and as images proliferate endlessly, today they assail us from every direction. They themselves no longer seem necessarily linked to a ‘whole’, to any kind of scenario within which they may resonate as something more than themselves. If we follow the thought of Agamben then we come to understand the extent to which we have entered a new topological space, a peculiarly modern zone of indetermination in which, situated in a place between law and life, body and image, public and private, everything rises in visibility while all the time there is less and less to see. As the invisible inevitably gains in potency it is perhaps necessary that we use our eyes to hear what is beginning to appear on the horizon, even if this is just a new wave of dangerous dreaming, as Foucault warns when in response to the thought of Blanchot, he says of fiction, ‘it risks setting down ready-made meanings that stitch the old fabric of interiority back together in the form of an imagined outside’. Let us remain vigilant to all those who continue to warn,
‘’The problem is that a dissonance is now manifesting itself: images are scrambling the functioning of language, which must operate out of the imaginary in order to function optimally. Images are parasitical noises upon language at first- then supplant it: it must be recalled that the technology of images operates at the speed of light, as does the world. Language could slow down the world, thanks to the tremendous negative capability, but it cannot slow down images, for they operate out of the very imaginary that language would have to be able to organize in the first place. Indeed, the question for us is one of dissonance: can language bring the speed of images under control, that is, turn images into a kind of language (but the failure of the various visual semiotics is not reassuring on this score), or are we to see a world, images of this world, all travelling at the speed of light in a universe without logos, as a logical universe? Such would seem to be the postmodern predicament.’’ 
 Wlad Godzich, Images, Language and the Postmodern predicament, Materialities of Communication p370
Sunday 1st April 2012
As a part of the introduction of her works to new audiences in Cheltenham, Joanne Masding, the artist-in-residence at Meantime during January 2012, was asked to choose a film to screen. Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus, directed by Andrew Douglas, follows musician Jim White on a road-trip across the American Deep South. In the trunk of his car is a statue of Jesus. Throughout the trip, White meets people and listens to their life stories, travelling from churches to prison, coalmines to juke joints. What this assemblage of different human stories reveals is the impossibility to grasp a total picture of the American South; the standard image, of the Civil War and racial antagonism, is broken down into micro-views of stories unique to each individual. In perceiving the beauty, and the tragedy, in each individual’s life, the presence of Jesus begins to appear not unreachable, but unnecessary. The statue of Jesus in White’s car never finds the perfect human-being; nobody is good enough. He gives up hope of finding one.
The choice of this film by Joanne was an enjoyable addition to her introduction. The film and Joanne’s works are both fundamentally concerned with the same thing; the filtering system of human perception. I am talking of two different filtering systems here: one is Christianity, in the film, the social filtering system that separates what is good or evil. The other, that Joanne is concerned with, is the medium of film itself; how our perception of the world is constructed with images framed and mediated by camera lenses. These mediated and reproduced images create images of what the world should look like rather than how it actually is. Through constant exposure to mediated imagery, our minds have become saturated with, and expect, images of how the world should look. And if things contradict our expectation, we either ignore, reject, or try to fix them. The people who White met in the film were either included, ignored, rejected or being fixed by a social ordering system that is ruled by the goodness of Christianity, replacing the world as it is with the world how it should be.
In this sense, Joanne’s work is also located in the gaps between our expectation and the truth. Overblown Gesture (keep your lid on) is a looped film projected onto a wall and a lid on the wall. The lid is slotted between the wall and a pipe. The film shows the image of the exact same wall, but without the lid. A hand appears holding the lid and places it where the real lid is. The lid now has a projected image of itself projected onto it. The installation resembles how we unconsciously project preconceived images onto the space even before seeing it; we think we already know what we are looking at.
Joanne’s work can be interpreted as compositional representations of the spatial relations of elements composing human perception; a body, an object, and the distance in between. By reducing the visual materials to the bare minimum, her work reveals the mechanism of a phenomenological double-bind. We possess a body, therefore we can be neither everywhere nor nowhere. A body has a singular, subject-centred perception rather than total perception, and therefore can never perceive the world as it truly is.
Another work that caught my eye was an animation Joanne produced during a residency at Curfew Tower in Northern Ireland, at the end of last year. It is an animation of a stool photographed from above; the artist moves around the stool 360 degrees, photographing it from different angles, at the same height. What intrigued me was the ghostly image of a donkey engraved on the surface of the seat. If you are familiar with other works by the artist, one might ask, “Why didn’t she find another stool that doesn’t have the absurd image of the donkey on it?” One possible answer is that the specificity of the object became important for the artist. In other works the specificity of the object was an obstacle that revealed the mechanism of human perception, which constitutes composition rather than content.
So, if my assumption is correct, why has the specificity of the object become important? The answer can perhaps be found when we identify exactly what the artist is referring to when she describes her work as a response to site and spaces. As well as the site-specificity of the work, the sites themselves are specific; they are re-purposed for the viewing of art. Therefore, when the artist refers to the site-specificity of her work, she is referring to a response to architectural form and fabric, rather than historical or political specificities. The reason why the formation of each room is important is because, as described earlier, her work is concerned with the spatial relations of elements composing human perception; a body, an object and the distance in between. Each time the artist positions herself in a new space, she responds to the architectural framework and composes the spatial relation accordingly.
In this context, the engraved image of a donkey suggests the artist’s gradual shift from formal site-specificity to a historical one. The image of the donkey indicates the history of the stool, the surface engraved by somebody’s hand, or machine-tool. And our perception of this stool traverses between two images of it; our eyes try to perceive the stool how we think it should look, but the donkey resists this expectation. This conflict between our expectation and the historical specificity of this stool disturbs our knowledge of a stool, the stool in our head. It becomes apparent that the expectation of what a stool should look like has been historically constructed, it is not universal and can never be perfect, just as Jim White could find no-one that lives up to Jesus’s standard.
There is also a clear distinction between Joanna’s work and Searching For The Wrong-Eyed Jesus; the former is the creation of a singular autonomous space of art (contained in an art space, or a room); the latter is an open-ended journey of assembling. The journey from one place to another is a necessity for the latter to assemble different stories, and break down preconceptions of the American Deep South. Accordingly, I am curious to see how Joanne’s move from Birmingham to Cheltenham may affect her usual way of creating a singular autonomous space of art – where the state of antagonism experienced by the artist displacing herself from her everyday life would be absorbed into the content of her work, so that it is no longer something that we experience through an occupation of time and space, and is compressed into an object that offers a view of a state of antagonism. If this singularity is a fundamentally important element of her work and is unaffected, perhaps we can explore further the significance of the aesthetics of such a formation in the current socio-political context at a later stage of the residency. And if the image of a donkey on a stool suggests a shift from site-specificity towards object-specificity, we need to look carefully at the kind of specificity the artist will be exploring during her residency at Meantime. When Joanne speaks of her intention to explore the town of Cheltenham to find the material for her work, what specifically is she pointing at?
Joanne Masding’s website: http://www.joannemasding.com/