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/