People in a Landscape
Three Steps in
the Demise of Deconstruction
Me, Myself and
Tales of the Great
The Musa Anter
When Figures Become
of British Democracy
Why is there only
one Monopolies Commission?
Robert H. King
Shane Cullen's Fragmens Sur Les
Institutions Republicaines IV
CCA Glasgow 6 September to 18
Shane Cullen has filled ninety-six
eight by four feet boards with approximately thirty-five thousand words
of text, the wording meticulously copied from David Beresford's account
of the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Ten Men Dead (Grafton, 1987).
Cullen's act of textual transcription
focusses upon a series of letters produced by Republican prisoners during
the period of their politically-motivated refusal of food whist being held
in Long Kesh prison in 1981. These secret communications or "comms" were
inscribed in minuscule script upon cigarette papers in order to avoid the
texts' detection by the Long Kesh guards. Rolled or crushed into balls
and wrapped in cellophane, these tiny pellets of compressed text were then
smuggled out of the prison (hidden in the various orifices of the body)
and delivered to the IRA leadership.
Since the late 1960's there has
been an increase in the use of textual material within the visual arts.
One could point to a whole subsection of artworks made entirely of text,
including pieces by Ilya Kabakov, Tom Philips and Robert Smithson. In his
book The Responsibility of Forms (Basil Blackwell, 1985) Roland Barthes
suggests that from a certain perspective painting can be considered to
be a kind of writing. Cullen offers an interesting reversal of this observation.
Furthermore, it would be productive to compare Fragmens... to the visually
inventive works of poets such as Mallarme and Apollinaire, rather than
keeping one's comparisons strictly within the visual arts as conventionally
Fragmens... should also be considered
in relation to the increasingly popular gallery practice of installation,
each individual painted panel being but one distinct part of a larger work
designed to generate a single, coherent ambience rather than be seen as
a series of discrete paintings. Around this production of multiple units
hovers the ghost of Warhol's mechanically produced, serial works but also
that of the 'dumb' copying of the jobbing signwriter.
Cullen claims Fragmens... is a piece
of social research rather than a means of either celebrating or condemning
those parties--of whatever political persuasion--involved in the 1981 hunger
strike. One may look again to Barthes for a relevant observation. In his
book Writing Degree Zero (Hill and Wang, 1967) he notes that "...a history
of political modes of writing would...be the best of social phenomenologies."
(p. 25). It should go without saying, however, that no work of art is,
in the last analysis, politically neutral.
How are we to read Fragmens...?
What is the relationship between the text employed as 'subject matter'
and the surface of the support? Cullen has chosen to paint by hand ninety-six
panels of text. The consequences of such a decision are in no way trivial
for someone who is to actually take on this task. Nor should we, as viewers
or readers, ignore this aspect of Cullen's practice. Cullen has committed
himself to a not inconsiderable amount of labour by choosing to make these
paintings by hand. Indeed, had Cullen instead decided to utilise methods
conventionally employed in the reproduction of writing the resulting objects
would not be paintings at all, but merely yet more printed text. What might
be termed the 'slow intensity' implicit in Cullen's physical production
of Fragmens... should be borne in mind when considering the piece. The
painstaking manner of the work's production is of considerable importance
with respect to its interpretation.
The "comms" were produced as private
letters whose general status has, however, now been considerably altered,
by their general publication but also through Cullen's decision to use
them within his artistic practice. A double transformation has been enacted
upon what were initially written and transmitted as a clandestine correspondence
intended only for a select readership. When first published the "comms"
became pieces of public information. No longer 'mere' private messages,
they are now historical documents available for consultation by anyone
with an inclination to check them out. Cullen's painted version of the
texts gives their public presentation another twist. The artist would appear
to be simply quoting an already available source (Beresford's book), since
what is translated into painting is not the "comms" themselves but the
version of them provided in Ten Men Dead. Not only has Cullen not quoted
from the actual letters, but has also included within his transcription
from the book Beresford's editorial insertions. The panels have been transcribed
in the order that Beresford quotes the "comms" in his book. In both the
book and upon the painted boards these additions are indicated through
the use of square brackets. As Beresford comments in his "Author's Note":
"An important foundation to the book as a whole is the huge volume of "comms"
given in Ten Men Dead. Cullen is able to give only Beresford's selective
rendition of the texts. In some sense, then, Fragmens... is concerned not
so much with the 'first order' textual traces of ten Irish political prisoners
but with the subsequent interpretation of a loaded historical moment. There
is perhaps some intended commentary here--I mean on Cullen's part--concerning
the apparent impossibility of gaining unmediated access to a specific historical
The utilisation of historically
very 'heavy' textual material in Fragmens sur les Institutions Republicaines
IV raises complex questions about politics, art, secrecy and censorship.
I will end with a remark from Jacques Derrida's book The Post Card (University
of Chicago Press, 1987, p. 194); it seems strangely pertinent to Cullen's
work. "What cannot be said", writes Derrida, "above all must not be silenced
People in a Landscape
An analysis by Marshall Anderson
People In a Landscape--The New Highlanders,
published by Mainstream represents the final outcome, in soft-back book
form, of an extravagant and excessively indulgent propagandist project
staged as part of the first Highland Festival in 1996. This attractive
package of photographs by Craig Mackay with an introductory text by Magnus
Linklater and supported by interviews with the New Highlanders will, at
a penny short of £10, sell well to the many fans of the Scottish
Highlands from home and abroad. To understand the book, however, one must
turn away from its alluring glossiness for a moment and turn back the pages
It was the Rt. Hon William Ross
who, in March 1965, on the occasion of moving the Highland Development
Bill through Parliament, said: "For 200 years the Highlander has been the
man on Scotland's conscience." The resulting Highlands and Islands Development
Act, therefore, was some kind of delayed palliative for the acts of genocide
perpetrated by the State in the aftermath of Culloden and the greed-driven
desires condoned by the State to reap vast profits from the land by displacing
people in favour of sheep. Guilt, however, was a limp excuse for the Highlands
and Islands Development Board (HIDB) to initiate economic development on
a massive scale throughout its lifespan from 1965 to '90.
In the 1960s the Highlands, with
a population of 299,000 was perceived as a wilderness zone ripe for colonisation
and exploitation. The continuing emigration of its indigenous people had
to be replaced by an immigration policy and the apathetic remaining highlanders,
psychologically bruised by 200 years of cultural battering, had to be shown
how to improve and regenerate their valuable resources by entrepreneurial
Englishmen and women who would be offered generous cash incentives to settle
and develop industries. Between 1965 and 1988 an estimated total of £422,176
in financial assistance was handed out by HIDB creating thousands of new
jobs. This figure, taken from the Highlands and Islands--A Generation of
Progress, edited by Alistair Hetherington and published by "Aberdeen University
Press" (1990) does not take into consideration concealed costs such as
administration and further investments via other government agencies, nor
does it take into account the alleged millions lost in such schemes as
the aluminium smelter at Invergordon and the Wiggins Teape pulp mill at
One of the more outspoken critics
of Highland development is Iain Thomson whose comments in A Generation
of Progress reveal the kind of philosophy and attitude that was prevalent
at the time: "A labour force was also at hand--as one propaganda leaflet
put it 'most locals are used to handling small boats.'" Thomson's "propaganda
leaflets" were not so readily available on the home front. HIDB's advertising
campaign concentrated south of Hadrian's Wall. Thomson continues with respect
to fish farming: "Yet deep down some felt that another valuable resource
had been plucked from under their noses by entrepreneurial outsiders enjoying
privileged contacts and considerable support from the taxpayer." Any rancour
was probably best swallowed and the tongue best clenched between angry
teeth, for, as Hetherington says in his introductory essay: "The Highlands
and Islands are providing food, holidays, timber and craft products for
the whole of the UK, as well as strategic bases for offshore oil and the
Royal Navy, Army and RAF." This statement is now out of date: instead of
reading "the whole of the UK," it should read the whole of Europe.
With this in mind a further concentrated
series of investments by various government agencies combined with detailed
commissions, reports and feasibility studies focused on this region. Some
of the ensuing schemes were, unfortunately, destined to become expensive
failures as exemplified by Highland Craftpoint engineered by David Pirnie
who had conducted a year-long feasibility study in 1978 endorsing the idea
that training was required to raise standards within an industry that was
turning over £500,000 per year. During 79/80 Highland Craftpoint
gobbled £61,345 in funding from the Scottish Development Agency and
£123,230 from HIDB. A gravy train had been set in motion that would
continue to nourish a generation of bureaucrats. This level of funding
(85/86 SDA--£147,600, HIDB--£533,187) was not sustainable and
in an attempt to broaden its remit and spread its expenditure to the whole
of Scotland the agency dropped its Highland tag in 87 becoming Craftpoint.
Scotland's craftworkers were truly astonished when Ian Lang, then Secretary
of State, pulled the plug on it in 1990, for Craftpoint had provided a
valuable resource and training facility through well-equipped workshops
and a specialist library. Craftpoint's closure indicated that governments
are quite prepared to sacrifice investments on a disproportionate scale
in order to drive yet another non-sustainable vision.
Ian Lang recognised the link between
arts, crafts and tourism so he initiated the Scottish Tourism Co-ordinating
Group who promised in their Development Strategy to meet "the prime objective
of increasing arts tourism in Scotland" for it had been identified that:
"Arts and cultural tourists spend more per trip than average tourists,
partly because they stay longer." More, obviously, had to be done to encourage
these big spenders to come and buy 'art product'. This philosophy has,
in part, encouraged a culture of commercialism within the Highland and
Islands arts community with the majority of artists working in traditional
ways and aspiring to sell their work to a burgeoning middle-class home
market, and tourists. Any commentary upon Highland life is accordingly
historic--leading to Romantic imagery. There appears to be no radical polemic
and no debate around the development of art and its conceptual language
and how this may reflect upon current issues.
Against this backdrop of top heavy
investment and a squandering of public resources condoned by a concentrated
political will and strong-arm cultural muscle, the notion of an Inverness
Festival was discussed at committee level and chaired by Lady Cowan, the
wife of Sir Robert Cowan the fifth and final chairman of HIDB. Lady Cowan
and her team of stalwarts representing various vested interests believed
it was their duty to import Culture. In themselves the Festival Committee
had little clout but the concept was taken up and driven forward on the
crest of yet another feasibility study, commissioned this time from Burntisland-based
Bonar Keenlyside Ltd. Surprisingly this document convinced no one for everyone
was already convinced that such an event was more than possible. The feasibility
study therefore further constituted a flagrant waste of public money.
A year long festival-cum-celebration
called Hi Lite, marking the end of the HIDB appeared to have no real budget
to mount events but did have a lot of cash to produce an extraordinary
mountain of 1.5 million print units announcing events that would mostly
have gone on regardless of its umbrella tactic to incorporate everything
within its logo. In 1995 the first Highland Festival with Ian Ritchie in
the post as Director trumpeted into view being propped up by £19,225
from the Scottish Arts Council and £10,000 from the Scottish Tourist
There was a confusing array of philosophies
and expectations at play with regard to the Festival itself and also underpinning
the planning of its events. These are best illustrated by a 24 hour project
which finally culminated in its quasi catalogue, People In A Landscape.
In order to establish itself, in
part at least, as a people's festival a project based, I am told on a community
photographic project in Glasgow, and called 24 Hours in the Life of the
Highlands and Islands was planned to focus on Saturday 30th March 1996
with an intention "to involve everyone." "The entire population of the
Highlands and Islands of Scotland irrespective of experience, skill, age
or status" was described as the project's Client Group in a 6-page brief.
The rhetoric herein was strongly advocating an open event: "To encourage
anyone who has an interest in the arts to 'have a go' within the stated
24 hour period." It continued with the statement of intent: "To publish
and promote selected fruits of the whole experience in a book" thereby
contradicting its democratic language with a suggestion that elitist values
would be maintained through a selection team of four chosen celebrities:
Harriet Buchan, Richard Demarco, Archie Fisher and Magnus Linklater, the
latter further contracted to write the introduction to the book/catalogue.
From the outset then, this adventurous large scale endeavour was flawed
as it sought to make an open gesture emphasising the notion that anyone
could be an artist while maintaining an overriding belief in the principles
of selection. With its top-heavy level of staffing and the inclusion of
media personalities (including Robbie Coltrane whose job it was to set
The Day in motion) the event was destined to become an over-extravagant
waste of money, swallowing £92,000 of resources.
On the next day, Sunday, everyone
who had made something was requested to deliver it to the nearest of 6
collection points. It was then felt necessary to helicopter the four judges
plus Gordon Brown, the exhibition co-ordinator, round the places in one
day to make their selection of which works they deemed good enough to be
framed and exhibited in six entirely different venues throughout the Highlands
and Islands. I was told they got a ridiculously cheap deal on the chopper--£600.
But to date no figures are available to provide details on other costs
such as individual fees and expenses, accommodation and the like. Gordon
Brown, Director/owner of Brown's Gallery in Tain was awarded the contract
to frame the works at a cost of £16,000. Such was the enormity of
the task within the condensed 'time frame' that Brown farmed out some of
the work to his close friend, Craig Macay's business, Pictili, up in Brora.
The gravy train mentality and an
uncontrollable lust to spend money was evidently being perpetrated in an
area where the precedent to do so had been so obviously set from the halcyon
days of HIDB onwards. Fundamentally such extravagances stick in the gullets
of ordinary Scots whose personal backgrounds are scarred by memories of
stringent economies and poverty. Alastair MacDonald, the new Director of
the Highland Festival, says he was "appalled" at the grossness of the 24
Hour Project's budget but qualified his sentiments by saying that the management
team had done well to raise so much cash through sponsorship. Surely such
a statement further endorses a habit of wastage. Money was spent for the
sake of spending. MacDonald, however, decided to pull in the reins on a
project he had inherited from his predecessor, Ian Ritchie, dismissed from
the post for his unsympathetic performance. MacDonald cut the book's budget
by 40% to £17,000 but was obliged to proceed with its planned outline.
Photographer, Craig Mackay, whose
estimated fee for the work was £5,000, has produced a series of excellent
portraits to accompany Marietta Little's short interviews with those Highland
residents selected from the 24 Hour Project. There is another blatant contradiction
here: if the people were selected to appear in the book on the strength
of their artwork, much of it produced by semi-professional artists and
obviously taking longer than 24 hours to make (hinting at disingenuous
desires to muscle in on an exhibition opportunity), why is it the artwork
has been reduced to such a small visual fragment permitting the photography
to become the major illustrative component? Surely the cult of the personality
and the photographer's ego have been allowed to overwhelm the original
concept of the book, "highlighting the beauty, quality and diversity of
talent and character of the whole area." Obviously the artwork in itself
was not strong enough to endorse the project and not therefore strong enough
to sell the Highlands and Islands, so personalities were called upon to
do both. Consequently the book has become a showcase for the photographic
mastery of Craig Mackay who has treated his task with a wide variety of
techniques employing medium and large format cameras loaded with film stock
donated by Fugi. This simple book has been spoilt, however, by over-indulgent
designing. Photographic overlays have been done unnecessarily, again emphasising
that money has been further wasted designing for the sake of designing.
Alastair MacDonald is of the opinion
that People In A Landscape is informative because it shows what life is
really like in the Highlands. The somewhat anodyne introductory text by
Magnus Linklater typifies the viewpoint of an outsider who has been hired
to give an uncontroversial impression supporting the State's ideal image
which is fed to potential settlers, tourists and developers. The truth
is underplayed and any opportunity to reveal what life is really like is
lost. There are social ailments in the Highlands and Islands community,
such as Anglophobia, that are taboo and not accorded space here. Linklater
only hints at community unrest and ignores the kind of social problems
that arise from the type of colonisation programme that continually gathers
momentum throughout the region. Children not born into Highland and Islands
communities have a hard time settling into schools where historically bullying
has gone unchecked. As communities expand urban ills pervade. Alcohol and
other drug use is more prevalent among the young and domestic theft, once
unknown, is becoming more commonplace. Currently the Highlands and Islands
are being sold on the quality of life, the scenery and the friendliness
of the people, but the more the region becomes populated the more these
alluring assets are tainted and eroded.
Linklater's text begins on a note
of incredulity: "It is hard to put a finger on it, to explain just what
has happened over the past 20 or 30 years to transform the picture", but
as I have shown, and it is no secret, the investment since 1965 has been
disproportionate per capita. The one-time editor of the Scotsman does go
on to pull the kind of statistics out of his hat that he should have access
to. He informs us that the current population is 373,000 and that the number
"who were born in England has increased over the past decade from 9.5%
to 11.9% of the total population while the proportion of Scots has dropped
from 86.4% to 83.9%. That is an influx of nearly 11,000 English people."
In order to allay fears and accusations that these "white settlers" are
taking a livelihood out of the mouths of locals, Linklater informs us that
"if anything, the incomers are creating work not grabbing other people's."
This may be due to the following factors: incomers from the south have
money to invest in the purchase and development of land and property thereby
creating work in the building and tourism sectors. Many of these properties
are small hotels, guest houses and B & Bs. When many of these amenities
appear on the market they are invariably bought by the English who have
similarly moved into the arts and crafts industry, opening galleries and
shops which sell locally produced products to the rising population of
middle-class New Highlanders and, of course, tourists. Linklater does not
try to assess just when an incomer becomes recognised statistically as
a native but if the New Highlanders are considered to be locals then it
follows that if they employ themselves before employing more indigenous
natives they cannot be accused of grabbing other people's work. If there
is any discrimination in the jobs market Linklater ducks the question and
continues on a more mundane level best suited to his current role as chairman
of the Scottish Arts Council.
Linklater continues by making an
assessment of the remarkable cultural renaissance throughout the Highlands
and Islands saying: "The evidence suggests that this is essentially a native
phenomenon from which everyone, including outsiders, have benefited." He
states quite correctly that "the arts have thrived on the back of economic
improvement, drawing on a deep well of tradition." The resurgence of interest
in history and language is not just a native one for the New Highlanders
have "acquired a genuine devotion to their adopted homeland." Having then
laid the foundation Linklater proceeds by describing the tide of entries
that flowed into the 24 Hour Project. Craig Mackay suggested to me that
the greater majority came from incomers and this is borne out in People
In A Landscape. Out of 39 profiles the majority are of new Highlanders.
The "native phenomenon" may be a psychological response based on a perceived
threat from the army of incomers which threatens to subsume the locals
altogether. The majority of people working in the Highland and Islands
service sector now speak with English accents. Only in the Gaidhealtachd,
where Gaelic is the first language and where Gaelic is a prerequisite of
any job, can the influx of foreign "white settlers" be checked and the
local workforce protected fully. Linklater devotes a paragraph to the Feisean
Movement, a purely Gaelic expression bent upon strengthening the true native
culture. There is a sense that this door is closed to non-Gaelic speaking
Highland and Islanders but is not entirely locked. Anyone can participate
as long as they speak Gaelic and indeed many New Highlanders do endeavour
to learn the native language. There is a suggestion in this book, however,
that such open events as the 24 Hour Project and its follow-up attract
the participation of new Highlanders while the truer native renaissance
is more exclusive.
Through the 24 Hour Project the
first Highland Festival had set a crude precedent that its second Director,
Alastair MacDonald, a theatre designer, would have to follow. Vociferously
critical of the 24 Hour Project and its extravagances, MacDonald gained
the help of his brother-in-law, Gordon Davidson, whose personal photo-montage
technique was applied on a grand scale to create the Big Picture/An Dealabh
Mòr. The result of this £60,000 public relations exercise
can be seen touring the Highlands and Islands later this year after the
installation has appeared at the Edinburgh Festival. I doubt if it will
have much impact outside of its area of origin for it comprises of 25 photo-montages
from 14 separate areas where the community created paste-ups were over-seen
by one, or sometimes two, locally-based artists. All of the colour photos
used are pertinent to the localised human experience. The project's selling
point is perhaps its scale: 8-foot high, free standing letters spelling
out An MOR and The BIG were covered on one face with laser copies of the
photo-montages, stood in a circle redolent of Neolithic stones. This was
accompanied by "a specially commissioned soundscape by Andy Thornburn",
a musician who lives in Eventon, Easter Ross.
The success of the 24 Hour Project
and the Big Picture lies in the indelible mock-utopian Highland image that
both large scale community actions offer to future (and present) settlers,
tourists and developers alike. Developers, who are neither Highlanders
nor Islanders, require the confidence that such a rosy community image
instils. The improvements they provide to roads and public services, including
shopping malls, are not for the indigenous population alone (who are left
to pay the bill through taxes and tolls) but for the greater majority of
incomers and tourists. This small paperback volume of People In A Landscape
is, therefore, representative of a greater picture, and one that demands
more incisive scrutiny.
An Exercise In Social Sculpture
Electricity was needed to operate
an electric saw but there were no power points around, only the wires that
ran along the ground at the edge of the dirt road pirating electricity
from nearby power lines. To Marc Antonio it was no problem. He located
a taped over junction, uncoupled it and attached the wires to the leads
for the saw. Water was needed but there were no water pipes, taps or standpipes.
A water truck was called and a barrel filled up. There were no paved roads,
drains or sewage system. This is Maclovio Rojas, an illegal squatter settlement
of almost 1,000 households on a dusty hillside surrounded by treeless,
desert hills some seven miles from Tijuana, Mexico. This is not an unusual
place--settlements like it are a well documented phenomena in Latin America.
Barrios, favelas and colonias, built of the ubiquitous packing case, wooden
pallets and corrugated iron, cluster around many cities as the poor, the
unemployed and migrant workers strive to share in the scraps of urban consumer
culture. Tijuana, one of the fastest growing Mexican cities situated, as
it is, hard against the US border, has expanded explosively in the last
ten years with numerous squatter settlements eventually becoming regulated
suburban areas. Not so Maclovio where the government wants to clear the
land so that the vast adjacent Hyundai container plant can expand. The
elected leader of the community, Hortensia Mendoza, who has been imprisoned
three times on account of her opposition to government action, says: "The
only way I leave is dead."
The plight of the people of Maclovio
has attracted much support from sympathetic organisations, trade unions,
including university and teaching unions, across the border in San Diego;
and funds have been gathered to enable things like a school and community
centre to be built. One group, the Border Arts Workshop (BAW), has been
organising art projects since 1984 addressing the biggest political issue
in the area, that of the border itself. Every day at the US border-crossing
bus-loads of illegal Mexican immigrants can be seen being deported. In
1993 the US government decided on a huge increase in the Border Patrol
Service and to build a border fence. For this they used redundant metal
landing strips from the Gulf War, placed on edge, and concreted into the
ground. The fence goes 'Christo-like' right down the beach and into the
Pacific Ocean. At this point it becomes a row of six-inch diameter steel
columns set apart such that a child or thin adult can squeeze through.
When I visited it the US side of the beach was deserted save for a 'legal'
Mexican family picnicking up against the fence, with relatives on the other
side. The US is experimenting with new fence constructions and with the
aim of covering the whole 2,000 odd miles of the border.
BAW has gained international recognition
for its work including exhibiting at recent Venice and Sydney Bienales.
Last year, surfing on the Internet, writer, musician and member of the
group, Manuel Mancillas, came across a reference to Maclovio Rojas. What
interested him was that he knew of another place of the same name near
San Quintin, in Baja California. It had taken the name of Maclovio from
that of the 24 year-old leader of the farm workers union who had been killed
on a contract allegedly issued by local farm bosses. BAW decided to make
a visit to this other Maclovio Rojas. Along with artist Michael Schnorr,
a founding member of BAW, a visit was paid to meet the leaders of the community.
A protest march to Mexicali, the state capital 120 miles away, was to take
place and BAW was invited to make a film of it. It was at this point that
BAW decided to commit itself to working with the people of Maclovio.
IN-SITE 97 is a bi-national collaborative
project of art institutions in Mexico and the USA "focused on artistic
investigation and activation of public space in the transnational context
of Tijuana/San Diego. The heart of IN-SITE 97 is a probing of places of
meeting and interchange in this unique juncture of two cities and two nations...through
an exhibition of approximately 40 new works created during residencies
in the region by artists (from) throughout the Americas and a sustained
rhythm of community engagement programs spearheaded by artists from San
Diego and Tijuana." Laurie Anderson opened the projects with a performance
entitled 'The Speed of Darkness' on September 26th and a programme of events
will continue until the end of November. Other artists making work include
Vito Acconci, David Avalos, Judith Barry, Helen Escobedo and Allan Sekula.
BAW had exhibited in IN-SITE 94 and a submission, for their Maclovio proposal,
was again selected for funding. The title of the project is 'Twin Plant:
Forms of Resistance: Corridors of Power'. Under NAFTA (North American Free
Trade Agreement) multinationals can set up plants at the border as long
as one is in the USA and one is in Mexico. In effect, while the US plant
might employ 50 people the Mexican one employs several hundreds. With wages
in Mexico for factory workers running at a tenth of those in the US, the
economic advantages are obvious. Samsung and Coca Cola sit alongside Hyundai
and the people of Maclovio, many of whom work in these plants, are also
fighting for union recognition, improved health and safety conditions in
the 'maquiladoras' (literally machine shops) and wage increases.
Householders across the USA, for
security and convenience, are in the process of fitting automatic, aluminium,
double garage doors replacing their old wooden ones which have, in turn,
become a major item in the construction of squatter homes. In January of
this year, on one day's trawl around builders' yards in San Diego, we picked
up eleven of them. These and succeeding collections of garage doors, re-cycled
play equipment and other goods have been taken across the border as 'art
materials' under the aegis of IN-SITE 97 thus avoiding duty and the interest
of an often difficult customs post. The garage doors, measuring 16' x 8'
were to be at the core of the art project for they were to be used to construct
buildings which, after the exhibitions, could be used by the community
as it felt fit. As Josef Beuys would have described it, this was 'Social
Sculpture' in action. Any contribution to community development, to expanding
facilities and developing the infrastructure of Maclovio, might just help
to prevent the forcible eviction of the people. 1997 is the tenth year
of their occupation and, under the Mexican constitution, that would normally
result in their ownership of the land. The government counters that this
will not be the case, so the stand-off continues.
Manual's surfing not only revealed
the existence of Maclovio, but also its links to the Zapatista National
Liberation Army and its charismatic and mysterious leader Sub-Commandante
Marcos. Many of the people who live in Maclovio are from the southern states,
including Chiapas, the centre of the insurgent activity. The seventy year
hegemony in Mexico of the ruling PRI party is beginning to show some cracks
with the successes of the opposition, the PRD, in this year's elections
including gaining the powerful mayorship of Mexico City. This has not been
without a price. Four hundred members of the opposition party have been
killed since 1989. Marcos conducts his rebellion on the Internet and by
fax, as well as by military engagements, attempting to complete the revolution
begun by Zapata and Pancho Villa. In Maclovio streets have been named after
them and their photographs and painted images (along with that of Che Guevara)
decorate the walls of the community centre. Marcos has exhorted every community
in Mexico to build a cultural centre as a forum for democratic conventions
"to discuss and agree on a civil, peaceful, popular and national organisation
in the struggle for freedom and justice." He has called these meeting places
'Aguascalientes' (hot springs) after the Mexican city which hosted Zapata's
first democratic convention. The construction of an 'Aguascalientes' became
central to BAW's project in Maclovio.
Working with the elected leaders
of the community a group of young people was formed to work on the planning
and execution of the project. For this and other voluntary work in and
for the community they would each receive, in return, a plot of land on
which, in time, they could build their own houses. The project proposed
to construct buildings to house exhibitions of installations, photography,
video and audio work and to paint murals.
Unlike Britain, in Chicano and Afro-American
neighbourhoods throughout the USA, political mural painting remains a thriving
art practice. In my first visit to BAW, in 1984, I documented its work
with the Chicano people of Barrio Logan in San Diego. The soaring Coronado
Bridge had been built across the bay and the city council was planning
to develop industrial sites on the land under the bridge. Many Chicano
homes had been demolished to make way for the bridge but the people weren't
having any of it. They simply occupied the land and eventually succeeded
in turning it into a park. Now it is well-known as Chicano Park in which
every bridge support is painted with murals of Chicano history, symbols
This involvement in direct action/
political art has been a common characteristic of my visits to the USA.
It may be the people and artists I mix with but I am soon deeply involved
in politics in a way seldom equalled in my experience of life in Britain.
I have often ruminated on why this should be so. On this visit my host,
Michael Schnorr, had a pile of back issues of 'The Nation'. This is a high
quality, left-leaning, literary magazine and reading through these I began,
I think, to discern what could be the reasons for this. The US government,
whether Democrat or Republican, is essentially conservative and is elected
by a much smaller percentage of the population than is the case in Britain.
The level of government corruption seems high compared with which our own
disgraced politicians have been guilty of mere peccadilloes. Business corruption
and organised crime emasculate large sectors of life and work. The CIA
and the FBI are regularly shown to have seriously contravened the basic
principles of human rights. The history of US intervention in Latin America
and other ill-fated places across the world is strewn with tragic consequences.
In the face of this what can liberal Americans do about it? Artists and
writers do what they can do best--make critical art about it and write for
magazines like 'The Nation'.
In Mexico mural painting remains,
for obvious historical reasons, the main and most familiar public art form
and one that can involve large groups of people in its execution. It was
natural therefore that it should be one of the means whereby the people
of Maclovio could become involved in contributing to the buildings to be
constructed. BAW led painting workshops involving people of all ages, including
the very young and old. A Women's Centre was built and murals were painted
on the exterior walls. A dozen or so garage doors were painted using themes
relating to the community's struggle for survival and were erected to form
part of the boundary fence marking out the alfresco area of the 'Aguascalientes'.
A large stage area with a backdrop was painted and, when I left, the main
building was halfway to completion. This would house part of the exhibitions.
I visited Maclovio in January of
this year with members of BAW and returned to work for five weeks during
July and August. The other members of the group are three young Chicano
women, Bernice Badillo and sisters Lorenza and Rebecca Rivero. Their commitment
to the project was impressive. Whether it was digging holes in the iron-hard
ground for posts, mixing concrete for foundations, moving heavy loads,
priming surfaces or drawing and painting murals, for eight to ten hours
a day, they just got on and did it. In temperatures sometimes reaching
100 degrees and little shelter from the searing heat and hot wind that
constantly blew, the conditions were, to say the least, trying. Several
other artists visited for short periods leading and directing parts of
the mural painting. Among these were Ken Wolverton and Chrissie Orr who
live in New Mexico. They were well-known in Scotland in the 70s and 80s
for their work with Edinburgh Theatre Workshop, on Arran and in France
Much of the kind of work that is
going on in Maclovio is familiar to many artists who have worked in similar
projects here. The difference, I suppose, lies in the direct political
action that is at the heart of the Maclovio project. Here there is a chance
that art practice could contribute to social and political change. Here
the 'local' is pre-eminent. In her recent, excellent book, 'The Lure of
the Local', Lucy Lippard writes: "The potential of an activist art practice
that raises consciousness about land, history, culture and place and is
a catalyst for social change cannot be underestimated, even though this
promise has yet to be fulfilled." Here Lippard, whose writings often display
an inspired optimism, is rightly cautious not to claim too much for activist
art. No great, wide-ranging social or political change can be discerned
from the activities of artists working in this field. However, at the point
of the 'local,' change has and continues to take place. The very engagement
of people in collaborative art practice changes the perceptions of individuals
to such an extent that their life can become transformed. This is a well-attested
fact. It is happening in Maclovio right now. Recently BAW received a letter
from the 'US--Mexico Fund for Culture' stating that it had been awarded
a grant of $18,000 to continue its work in Maclovio.
Three steps in
the demise of deconstruction
Deconstruction has been around for
a long time. It is the buzzword which encapsulates a legacy of shared opinions
and assumptions about our culture. Nobody any longer needs to be told what
it means, deconstruction is a daily activity, to ask what deconstruction
is, as Derrida told us, is to make unreasonable demands of the deconstructive
project, is to posit essence where there is deferral, to look for truth
where there is a play of meanings.
Contemporary art practice is unimaginable
without deconstruction. So called Neo-conceptualist art is a distillation
of deconstructive method, and the status afforded neo-conceptualists within
state institutions such as the Tate gallery is a testament to the growing
status of deconstruction as a now recognised method. Artists who use deconstructive
methods such as Douglas Gordon and Christine Borland, and their recognition
through the Turner prize, point to the common acceptability of this practice.
Not only is its influence widespread
within art practice but also within art education. Since the mid 80's its
position has grown within the UK's art institutions, through the status
afforded to it as the legitimate opposition to the dominant conservative
hierarchies. Glasgow School of Art, The Slade and Goldsmiths are names
synonymous with the 'infiltration' of deconstructive theory and indeed
the high status of these institutions now is testament to certain victories
in its history. Students who were the first generation to absorb deconstructive
theory are now working within those institutions, Borland and Gordon now
lecture and work on assessment periodically within the Glasgow School of
Art. It is not an exaggeration to speak of a second generation of deconstructionists,
and of deconstruction as a now institutionally recognised practice. One
could even claim that it is impossible to make art in the 90's without
a firm grasp of the basic tenets of deconstructive method.
As the method reaches maturity,
however, we are at a transitional point in time where deconstruction is
no longer the opposition but the dominant practice. It is possible at this
point to conceive of an entire generation of young artists who are engaged
in deconstruction, without being aware of the theoretical concerns upon
which their method is based. A generation for whom, deconstruction needs
no justification or critique. The danger here is that deconstruction becomes
a style, a routine or system, an unquestioning and self reflexive exercise:
What is at stake is the redundancy of the method itself. It is at this
point that we are forced to question what claims are being made in the
name of deconstruction. A revision is due, or it would be, if only deconstruction
could or would allow such a revision to take place. In many ways deconstructive
practice has placed itself beyond criticism and as a result has become
reduced to a set of formula and truisms which inevitably compromise or
undermine its entire project. As such the need to chart possible grounds
from which such a critique might occur is urgent.
The ubiquity of deconstructive method
can be shown by looking at the common connections between a number of artists
work. There could be said to be a basic model or schema which artists use
which is both rigid and homogeneous--a "three step guide" to making a deconstructive
artwork which is commonly used and accepted. The following discussion centres
around three artworks by three artists, and is an attempt to, through their
work, situate a critique of deconstruction.
Three artworks three artists
Christine Borland L'homme Double
Lisson Gallery, London
Jeremy Deller The Uses of Literacy
Kerri Scharlin Diary
Wooster Gardens, New York
These three artists have each been
situated in previous writings within the frame of reference of deconstruction,
and their work has been critiqued using the deconstructive vocabulary.
Whether this influence is within the artists' work or within the reading
of their work is of little consequence. The following model could equally
well be applied to many of their contemporaries whose work exists through
The schema or 'deconstructive equation'
proposed here has been culled from a number of secondary sources most specifically
Against Deconstruction by John. M.Ellis. As any supporters of deconstructive
theory will know the following attempt to characterise a method for deconstructive
practise in art, runs counter to, the spirit of deconstruction itself.
The arguement being that deconstruction is 'descriptive and analytical,
not prescriptive or programmatic' (1). I would
argue however that the use of deconstruction in art has become programmatic,
and at that this point it is necessary to clarify what the terms of that
programme are. The following schema is intended, not to reduce each artists'
work to a single reading, but to show the ways in which their work is already
based upon an existant theoretical model.
The deconstructive equation:
one method in three stages
Before a deconstructive project
can be inititated 'the artist' (author) must be removed to divest the creative
act of the illusion of authenticity, and to question the status of the
artist as metaphysical originator of meaning. Any possibility of the artist
'making a statement' or of 'self expression' must be denied. The artists
role is shifted then towards that of curator and fascilitator. Thus the
use of other people to make the work on the behalf of the artist. The artist
formulates the equation, and supervises its execution. The artwork is the
gradual working through of the elements that the equation has set in motion
and the presentation of the results.
The first step is to find a dominant
term. This could be a respected tradition of representation, a concrete
identity, a metaphysical assertion, or a claim to truth. e.g. The artist,
objectivity, the original artefact.
The second step is to set it up
against its opposite, e.g. the non-artist, subjectivity, the fake. Thus
the traditional binary opposition between two terms has been set up: Good/evil,
form/content, inside/outside, objectivity/subjectivity.
These first two steps are essentially
the same as that used in traditional metaphysics however it is the third
steps that characterises the deconstructive shift.
The third step is to swap the order
of the terms, to reverse the supremacy of the first term with the second,
to show that they are mutually dependent upon the other for their meaning.
This is usually done by placing the second term within the same context
as the first term, from which it is necessarily excluded. Thus in Glas,
Derrida, set Hegel and Genet side by side and let the two texts infect
and disrupt each other. And in Duchamp, the ready made is placed within
the context of the gallery.
Thus the authority, and autonomy,
of either opposite is deconstructed. The two terms are seen as being mutually
dependent on each other for their self definition. The possibility of any
'originary' meaning, or of true presense is rendered 'problematic'. Everything
Within a successful work, the two
terms will cancel each other out in a mutual self referencing. Thus all
traditional oppositions are destabilised: good/bad, black/white, male/female,
original/fake. The final outcome is a destabilised text (or work) which
takes no sides in the equation which it has set up and which will ambiguously
float between meanings. It will be 'undecided', 'unfixed'. The unfixing
of these terms, it is claimed, is the unfixing of the metaphysics of opposition,
the destabilising of heirarchy. The destabilising of hierarchy has been
seen by many critics as being a politicised project, it follows then that
work which uses deconstructive method has been variously described as:
'radical', 'subversive', 'strategic' and 'challenging'.
Applying the method: 3 Examples
1. Jeremy Deller The uses of
The uses of literacy is a work by
Deller which takes as its source the 'artwork' of fans of Manic Street
Preachers. In the deconstructive schema he takes as his first term 'art'
and his second term 'pop culture'.
The work is a collation of drawings,
poems, and dedications to the Manic Street Preachers which the artist has
'curated' and also includes documentation of the artist's correspondences
to fans. The Manic Street Preachers are themselves of little importance
to the artwork and are no more than a ruse, for Deller's highly effective
deconstruction of 'personal expression'. Deller does not express himself,
but sets the mechanism in motion that will deconstruct personal expression
by itself. By choosing to curate the works of other 'amateur' artists he
has already set up an opposition to the notion of the professional artist.
and has reversed the hierarchical order of the terms by placing the amateur
art within the gallery.
By showing amateur drawings and
poems by fans of the band, Deller on the one hand deconstructs the idea
of the authenticity of the professional artist. This device doubles back
on itself when the 'authenticity' of the pop culture which is opposed to
high art turns out to be little more than imitative: Most of the fans drawings
are copies taken from the pages of magazines and fanzines. This act of
copying undermines the authenticity of the sentiments expressed. This is
cross referenced by the fact that the Manic Street Preachers are themselves
the self proclaimed "fans band"--their own originality is placed in question.
In the work all 'personal expression' refers back to something else, is
rendered relative, and hence inauthentic.
The bookshelf of one fan is also
exhibited, showing a predictable assortment of the tomes of teenage enlightenment,
Catcher in the Rye, Ecce Homo, Nausea. The angst of the suffering existential
hero, is viewed in the light of adolescant hero worship. The philosophy
of individualism is laid bare. The expressive is suddenly seen as being
a fallacy. The artist, the human subject, is no more original than a posturing
Through their art the fans yearning
for real experience is apparent, but their reliance on copying reveals
the poverty of their own imaginations and the impossibility of transcendence.
Their idols are a copy, of a copy of a copy, and their acts of self expression
are copies also. However while 'authenticity' may be discredited, the feelings
aroused by the yearning for authenticity, cannot be discounted. Unlike
many deconstructive artists there is the possibility that Deller appreciates
the dilemma of his subjects.What Derrida termed:
"The saddened, nostalgic guilty
response which dreams of deciphering a truth or an origin which escapes
play and the order of the sign." (2)
Deller exhibits the fans longing
for authentic experience without participating in it. A gesture which can
be read as either one of empathy or of detached condesension. This is not
however just a formal exercise in pure method, the sense of homage in the
work by the fans and perhaps even by the artist imbues the deconstructive
act with a sense of loss. An ironic nostalgia for the very things that
the work itself undoes.
2. Kerri Scharlin
In Diary American artist Kerri Scharlin
takes the persona of the artist as her first term and the celebrity as
the second. As with Deller, Sharlin has employed other people to make the
work for her. In this instance Hollywood scriptwriters have been hired
to write a fictionalised account of a trip she made to LA, and professional
actresses to act out the role of herself: 'the artist'. The scripts are
exhibited, along with the video taped auditions by the actresses.
Scharlin's work like Deller's sets
up an opposition between the 'real' and the 'fake', between the individuality
of the artist, and fabricated identity of the celebrity. The persona of
the artist is split up into representations which have been transformed,
misinterpreted and reinterpreted through an impersonal communications industry,
(TV script writing, casting and acting). The original persona of the artist
is lost, and we can only begin to doubt whether or not it ever existed.
The two terms, artist and celebrity,
are reversed, both are thrown into question. This seems at once a critique
of the status of artist as celebrity, and at the same time a complete undermining
of any possibility of a true artistic statement. Traditionally we conceive
of the integrity of the artist as being compromised by the media. Scharlin
has reversed this hierarchy and so deliberately constructed an exercise
in complicity which destroys any notion of true, original meaning, and
hence of integrity. There can be no compromise because there is no authenticity.
One can read the work as a critique of the commercialisation of contemprary
art practice, only at one's own expense as Scharlin undermines the possibility
of a valid artistic project or an un-mediated critical space. The ambivallence
of the gesture sits uncomfortably as the difference between corporate media
and contemporary art is abolished with so slick a slight of hand. If any
irony is intended it is lost as Scharlin's use of deconstruction is so
well honed that she undermines the possibility of any artistic project
other than deconstruction itself.
Scharlin's deconstruction ends up
lapsing into what Hal Foster termed "the duplicity of cynical reason" where
a radical critique of the role of the artist is seen to be taking place,
while the status of art is re-instated as "deconstructive art". With Scharlin
there is no sense of the problem posed by deconstruction, the loss of critical
perspective. Instead there is the proffessional illustration of deconstruction
as a positive project in itself. Ambivallence as a message. Duplicity as
the truth of our time.
3. Christine Borland
Christine Borland's L'Homme Double,
is commonly perceived to be a deconstructive artwork. An Artwork which
questions the nature of representation, truth and presense, an artwork
which focuses on "the forms and machineries of interpretation themselves."
(3) In L'Homme Double, Borland toohas contracted
other 'professionals' to make the physical elements of the work for her.
She employed six sculptors from different technical backgrounds to make
portrait busts of Nazi scientist Josef Mengele, from a pair of photographs
and a set of contradictory descriptions. The resulting sculptural busts
were displayed alongside the documentation and letters of invitation.
Borland has used 'the original'
as her first term, and taken 'the reconstruction' as her second. She has
set the notion original and authentic identity against interpretation,
and set expression through material in sculpture, against the notion of
In deconstructive procedure the
terms are reversible, thus we can also read from Borland's work the notion
that objectivity cannot completely divest itself of creativity, that its
objectivity is in fact infected with vestiges of creative interpretation,
and is therefore flawed. The six busts do not and cannot show Mengele as
he really was.
The form has resonances with the
content as we find that the notion of 'copies from an original' has associations
with cloning, and the scientific experiments which Mengele was involved
in during his life. The fact that each copy is different, goes some way
towards, poetically, disproving some of the so called 'scientific' theories
upon which Mengele's experiments were based. Metaphorically, each bust
is a failed clone. An injection of difference at the heat of a fascistic
L'Homme Double throws up the heartening
thought that although the author is dead, and there is no such thing as
innate creativity or self expression, we are all in some way different--there
is something which escapes systems of understanding--and herein lies our
As the death of the author gave
rise to the birth of the reader, so too the death of the artist gave rise
to the birth of the viewer. That 'something' which escapes in this deconstruction
of identity, is none other than the viewer's subjectivity--the possible
multiplicity of interpretation, the sheer benevolent magnitude of pluralism.
As Borland has said in interview, she hopes that the work "asks a million
questions about the human condition."
Thus the death of the author is
conflated with a critique of hierarchical power structures. A typical deconstructive
side shift which associates self expression and representation (metaphorically)
with fascistic structures. All attempts at tying down meaning are seen
as logocentric, and thus inherently hierarchical and oppressive. This destruction
of the singular truth through the multiplicity of interpretation takes
on political meaning in the context of the political persuasion of those
who in this instance saught to enforce their truth.
L'Homme Double can be read as an
anti-fascist work. According to deconstructive theory it could and should
also be able to be read as a pro-fascist work: as both left and right and
neither left nor right. But how can we interpret the role of deconstructive
ambiguity in the context of an issue as important as fascism? In reading
L'homme Double we can say that the work problematises a politics of binary
opposition, or conversely that it is irresponsibly ambivalent in its politic.
What could it possibly mean to say that both readings in this case are
equally valid? Does Borland's work here not point to a problem within deconstructive
theory? Borland's work is interesting here in that there is something questionable
in her use of deconstructive method. In addressing such a loaded subjects
as cloning and fascism, Borland has 'cheated' the ways in which the artwork
can be interpreted. She has not allowed the deconstructive equation to
operate unhindered. She has stacked the odds against a particular set of
readings which she does not want viewers to make.
As has already been pointed out
by David Barret (4) Borland has given her
own game away in her letters to the invited sculptors by stating "this
information and these photographs can be interpreted as freely as you wish".
The work would have been more academically correct in deconstructive terms
if 'objectivity' had been required: allowing the incongruous and contradictory
interruption of multiple objectivities to deconstruct the notion of singular
and universal objectivity.
Borland's attempts to rig the results
are an attempt to smooth over the ethical issues which surround the work.
She has made each of the sculptors come up with a different Mengele. In
so doing they 'un-do' the presence of the real person, they disperse Mengele
though representations of Mengele. The work shows that there is no such
thing as 'real' or true identity, true identity is equated with fascism,
with the search for the defining Aryan specimen. Instead of fixed identity,
we have the free play of interpretations. The work, through its method,
shows that deferral of identity can be used as a weapon against those who
would define and confine meaning, enforce a single truth.
It is interesting here to speculate
on Borland's intent in her 'cheated' use of deconstruction. Could it be
that she never wanted to risk the possibility of her sculptors delivering
similar busts and hence creating a singular objective representation of
Mengele? If she had, as in previous work, employed exclusively forensic
sculptors, this might have been the end result. She had instead stacked
the odds in favour of multiple interpretations. Had she not done this the
work would have had very different associations. The deconstructive equation
could had yielded something approximating a single true image of Mengele.
Thus identity would be fixed, Mengele's bust would become a representation
of 'evil' and we would end up reading the man's ethics from his physiogamy.
This is exactly what Mengele himself did.
We can only assume that Borland
was aware of the dangers of this posible outcome. Her 'cheating' is then
understandable. This cheating with deconstructive method however throws
up some very important questions about the assumptions that exponents of
deconstructive practice hold on the implicit politics of deconstruction.
Deconstruction and the problem
of value judgement
In his book, Against Deconstruction
John.M. Ellis points out what he sees as the "heavy emphasis on moral terminology"
in deconstructive discourse.
Deconstruction is described as "disturbing",
"disruptive", it "unmasks", "subverts", "dismantles", "exposes" and "challenges".
This observation seems at first
seems inaccurate. Are not these words deliberately used within deconstructive
discourse precisely to question the moral certainties of any one fixed
position. Is not the whole deconstructive enterprise based upon throwing
the certitude of the oppositions good/bad, right/wrong, into question,
of rendering them 'problematic'? Are words such as 'subverts' and 'challenges'
not used precisely because they are ambiguous enough to avoid being fixed
to one position.
But Ellis' point has validity. These
particular words are both emotive and imply a politic, they have a history,
a tone. It is undeniable that there is a set of value judgements behind
the choice of these words. But where could this 'moral tone' possibly come
from if there is no possible ground for 'moral codes' within deconstruction?
From what ground is the 'subversion' or the 'challenge' coming from? Certainly
not from the left or the right, or from a humanist base.
"The main weight of Derrida's idea
lies very much in their being an antidote to logocentrism. Its positive
aspect derives from the thing that it sets itself up against." (6)
Deconstruction cannot claim to have
a grounded position, however it is often assumed by its exponents that
the hierarchies it undoes tend to be rigid right wing authoritative structures.
There is an inference then that deconstruction is inherently radical and
inherently of value to the left. In doing deconstruction one undoes the
opponent through subjecting them to the destabilising influence of relativism,
one un-does the right through being pluralist.
It is from this use of relativism,
that the (implicit) moral tone that Ellis pinpointed arises. Deconstruction
expounds the questioning of all fixed values. Multiplicity, ambiguity,
and ambivallence, were initially used as tools, but when they soldify into
a project and become self justifying exercises the project of deconstruction
then inevitably becomes relativism for its own sake.
There is however a name for relativism
elevated to the status of a moral imperative. It is otherwise known as
liberalism. It becomes apparent then that the 'subversive', 'challenging'
nature of deconstruction arises from nothing more radical than liberal
The deconstructive dictum that all
interpretation is misinterpretation, that meaning cannot be tied down,
fits very comfortably with the liberal belief that 'every interpretation
is valid'. The now commonly accepted claim that meaning is relative, and
that there are 'as many interpretations of a work as their are viewers'
inevitably results in a situation where value judgements become entirely
relative, and tolerance of plurality, acceptance and encouragement of other
readings, becomes elevated to the status of a moral imperative.
The danger here is that under the
sheer magnitude of multiple interpretations, every reading becomes equally
valid. Not only can no singular reading be seen as any more valid than
any other, but any singular reading becomes criticised for its lack of
pluralism, its 'closure'. Inevitably under such conditions any value judgement
at all becomes impossible. This problem with deconstructive reading is
the same contradiction which lies at the heart of liberalism. Liberalism
expounds a moral relativism which:
"...gives a special support to toleration
as a moral attitude to codes which diverge from one's own. Paradoxically
however, if that were accepted as a universal (and universally morally
approvable) attitude, it would contradict the relativism which disallows
any authorative principles." (7)
Herein lies the contradiction which
upsets deconstruction. There is an implicit agenda behind the use of the
deconstructive vocabulary--an agenda which cannot admit to itself without
undermining the entire deconstructive project. As soon as it can be shown
that deconstruction operates from a fixed position, or requires grounded
values, that cannot by definition be deconstructed then deconstruction
collapses. Deconstruction then is caught in the same impasse as liberalism:
The inability to tolerate any system that has fixed values, the inability
to tolerate anything other than itself, the inability to confront its own
groundlessness and its inevitable expounding of its groundlessness as its
Relativism can be useful as a tool
for destabilising hierarchies and established power structures, but when
it becomes a self-justifying project in itself, an end in itself, its lack
of any founding values makes its operation questionable. Deconstruction,
as we know, is not tied to a project, and can be used to undermine the
left as well as the right. It is after all just as easy to deconstruct
moral codes as it is oppressive hierarchical structures.
By inference a leftist bias is read
into L'Homme Double, simply by the fact that it sets itself up against
the right. There is however no guarantee of this reading of the work, and
as with all deconstructive method it could easily have doubled back on
As an experiment in deconstruction,
L'Homme Double could have gone terribly wrong. Without the request to the
sculptors to interpret "as freely as you wish", we may have seen six heads
of Mengele, which were horribly similar. Given the possibility of the sculptors
doing their own research on a larger archive, we may have ended up with
something approximating the real presence of a real person. If this had
been the case then, the results would have been very different, and the
'uncommon handsomeness' of Mengele captured in sculptural form could have
had disastrous implications. We could have had: the fetishism of pure (Aryan)
form, the nostalgic longing for origin and essence read through national
identity, worse still, the reading of individual character traits through
facial structure ( a now condemned pseudo science once practised by Mengele
himself). Even more questionable would be the opening up of a very specific
moment of history, to a multiplicity of interpretations, in short to revisionism,
with all of its attendant right wing connotations. Can we question that
the Nazi's were wrong? What does it mean to deconstruct the opposition
right/wrong in the context of fascism.
In rigging the results, Borland
has exposed her own distrust of deconstructive method and revealled her
own leftist agenda. As such she points out that there is something dangerously
missing in deconstructive method proper.
Borland wants it both ways. She
wants to give the impression of remaining open to interpretation, and at
the same time she wants the moral certainty of ensuring that no-one reads
the work as a valorisation of fascism. This contradiction is unresolvable.
This is not to accuse Borland of misunderstanding deconstructive method.
On the contrary her loading of the odds in favour of a particular reading
pinpoints a need for 'correction' in deconstructive theory. A correction
which nonetheless undermines the theory entirely. Her courage or foolhardiness
in tackling such a loaded subject pinpoints the blind spot at which deconstruction
ceases to function effectively. That blind spot is: its inability to deal
with ethical questions.
It is around the issue of ethics
that Deconstruction derails itself, or rather it is around the issue of
ethics that deconstruction always retracts, backtracks and obfuscates its
own movements. For, to acknowledge the existence of ethics at all would
undermine the anti-ontological impulse of deconstruction. How can a set
of grounded values possibly exist, if all values are in play. When we start
to deconstruct question of ethics, we find ourselves really getting into
trouble--A relativist ethics--how could this be possible? If we accept, and
expound, relativism in ethics then we can draw the inevitable Nietzschean
conclusion that moral values are determined by those with power and that
this is both inevitable and acceptable.
Attacks on deconstruction are usually
dismissed as being either 'reductive' or 'distorting'. The accusation being
that the critic has reduced deconstruction to an ontological statement,
to a set of truisms or claims to truth. The common reaction being 'to ask
what is...of deconstruction' is to perpetuate a system based upon the notion
of presence. To attempt a critique from outside of the terrain of deconstruction
leads immediately to the above accusations--deconstruction just does not
recognise the legitimacy of conventional logic.
To attempt a critique of deconstruction
from within, is equally impossible as any attempt to tie down meaning,
to formulate a critical position is just not recognised as a legitimate
There is however a third and ironic
position, and that the irresponsible or 'cheated' use of deconstructive
method, by artists can actually point to a weakness within deconstructive
theory. That is that deconstructive theory is based upon certain criteria
which it will not and cannot admit to. To do deconstruction, to cheat at
it, to make the mechanisms too apparent, and the results too foregone,
is to expose certain assumptions that we harbour about the implicit politics
and ethics of deconstruction.
Deller, Scharlin and Borland each
seperately beg questions of deconstructive method.
They here represent three very different
interpretations of deconstructive method, which, respectively, could be
termed playful, illustrative and ethical.
Deller's works pushes the playfulness
of intertextuality to its limit, without making any grandiose claims to
its own importance. As Derrida is often portrayed as a joker, so too Deller's
work is challenging through its playfulness. This is both its success and
its limit. Perhaps deconstructive practice can go no further than to admit
to Deller's' form of tragi-comic humility. Deller's form of playful popular
deconstruction carries with it the nostalgia for the myths of creativity
that deconstruction itself tears down. By placing deconstruction within
popular culture he shows the ways in which deconstruction is a negative
force, a destroyer of cultural values, a leveller. His work in some way
measures the human cost of what is lost when we deconstruct our own culure.
Scherlin's work is at the forefront
of American deconstructive art, but is deconstruction gone text book. It
seems consciously constructed to illustrate deconstructive method, to even
teach the viewer 'how to do deconstruction'. Scherlin's work announces
deconstruction as an art methodology which illustrates theory, and goes
to great lengths to get it to get its message across (it is done professionally
and expensively--all scriptwriters and actresses were paid for their work
as 'makers' of her work). As such it is based upon a misreading; it does
not take deconstruction as a tool to, but as a message to be expressed.
As soon as deconstruction becomes 'the truth of our time' then it becomes
redundant. Her work shows the degree to which artists and critics have
come to accept deconstruction not as a tool, but as a set of truisms, almost
a belief system. If this is the case then Scharlins' work signals the demise
of decontruction as a critical tool, and the solidifying of deconstruction
into a form of liberal pluralism.
In pushing deconstruction into direct
confrontation with important ethical issues and 'cheating' with the viewer's
reading of the work Christine Borland is forcing us to question, the appropriateness
of deconstructive method in such contexts. It could be that by overstepping
the mark, by going into terrain where 'openness to interpretation' is not
enough, Borland has exposed the fact that there are certain boundaries
which deconstruction cannot cross, certain issues which it cannot address,
certain questions it cannot ask without completely undermining itself.
Ethical deconstruction? A contradiction in terms.
(1) Just be yourself . Logocentrism
and differance in performance theory. Philip Auslander.
(3) Against Deconstruction John.M.Ellis.
(A text concerning the impact of deconstructive criticism on literary theory
in the USA.)
(4) The woman in possession Make
76. June July 97.
(5) David Barret. Review. Christine
Borland Lisson Gallery. Freize magazine. Issue 35.
(6) Against Deconstruction John
Me, Myself and
"Our general culture is... permeated
with ideas about the individual nature of creativity, how genius will always
overcome social obstacles, that art is an inexplicable, almost magical
sphere to be venerated but not analysed. These myths are produced in ideologies
of art history and are then dispersed throughout the channels of TV documentaries,
popular art books, biographic romances about artists' lives..."
Arts History and Hegemony, Jon Bird,
Block, Issue 12, 1986/7,
available in The Block Reader In
Visual Culture (Routledge)
STOPSTOP is a Glasgow based publication
of "contemporary art and writing" and as an artists' initiated project.
It is being developed by Caroline Woodley and Chris Evans. It consists
of work from 33 artists, some work specifically made for the context of
the book, photo, text based works and the documentation of work existing
elsewhere. The writing consists of 7 short pieces, including fiction, articles
and an interview, predominantly from artist/writers. The artists -run/
membership-driven spaces: Transmission Gallery, Glasgow; the Collective
Gallery, Edinburgh; Wilkes, Glasgow; Three Month Gallery, Liverpool, are
either directly represented through this writing or associated via accreditation.
A number of the artists and writers in the publication are, or were, directly
involved in the curating and running of these spaces.
The book appears to be propelled
out of the interest generated by the recent Live/Life exhibition at Musée
d' Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 1997, more particularly, the accompanying
catalogues. The catalogues took the form of two books. They acted as both
an index of UK based artists' run spaces and arts publications that participated
in the show, and, through artists' pages, catalogued the spotlighted younger
generation of artists individually invited to show by Live/Life's curators
Laurence Bossé and Hans Ulrich Obrist. This overview of contemporary
practice in the UK, while being well researched and inclusive of particular
styles of artists' led/driven initiatives, had at its heart a specific
curatorial focus most conspicuous through those individuals invited to
exhibit. This exhibition was not an objective overview of artist led activity
in the UK displayed in Paris, though it might have been presented as such,
but more, part of a display of the internationalism of the market place,
its stars and accompanying curators.
STOPSTOP is not a census of broad
artistic activity. It is described in the introduction as "an exhibition
in a book". It is produced by specific artists about and concerning themselves
and their (self)interests. In some ways STOPSTOP documents activity and
loose or temporary associations; in other ways it is the catalyst for activity
and these associations. In this sense, while it may include the recording
of artists' led activities outwith the book project itself, other artist
run projects and spaces, thereby associating itself with such activity,
it is predominantly engaged in circulating a specific set of values and
meanings of and for itself.
The differences between the participants
within STOPSTOP are displaced. As with other festivals, slack associations
are formed in a pact of visibility. A neat simplicity of apparent interdependence
and communication is constructed. This disinterested togetherness, however,
is an illusion. Behind the benign facade paranoid careerism and information
retention is epidemic in what passes, and is accepted as, an everyday condition
of existence. Here a sense of identity is implicitly reinforced by the
hidden agenda of macho self-reliance and aggression. This exists in, and
is directly effected by, a false economy induced by a public funding system
desiring an apparent market structure.
Not to place myself in a position
outside of this activity but to acknowledge my participation within the
field, my frustrations have been in encouraging the younger generation
of Scottish based artists/writers to write on anything other than themselves.
By themselves I don't mean any range of interests/concerns or the problematics
of 'speaking for others', but anything apart from what may be perceived
as directly benefiting their careers in the gaze of a particular market.
However, what I see as being restrictive forms the very foundation stones
The general difficulty here is for
artists' groups to facilitate social potentially discursive communities
while intrinsically operating via a competitive individualism. The resulting
representative structure is reductive: which individual best expresses
the gallery's, so-essential-to-public-funding, pluralism--that is, as being
representative of a type or stand in for a group or movement. For these
reasons I have to challenge both Angela Kingston's Artists Newsletter bubbly
editorial of April 97, where she praised the artist/writer activity in
Glasgow as being part of an administrative exercise in courting those-in-power,
and the support structures that actually encourage sycophancy. I must stress
this is not the case for all the texts in STOPSTOP, nor all the artist/writers.
STOPSTOP is but one in a line of
recent artists' publications produced in Scotland. In Scotland, as Sarah
Munro stresses in her article Go Left at the Lights, the number of contemporary
showing spaces are limited for a younger generation of artists due to an
excluding municipal gallery ideology. This has been compounded in recent
years by the growth of the educational structure and the mythologising
of Glasgow, (Angela Kingston's editorial being but one example) leading
to an increase in the number of young resident practitioners. A great number
of these artists often exhibit in artist-run galleries or self initiated
projects in temporary spaces on little, if any, funding. Just as artistic
practices have evolved which bypass an ongoing work-ethic-driven, studio-based
practice (a legacy of conceptualism and prohibitive cost) to ones where
work is made for the site or a specific opportunity/event, so now we see
the artists' catalogue/book becoming a familiar site/cause of the work
and a self-conscious form of display and international dissemination.
The artists' document has also to
be viewed from a UK wide perspective where catalogues exist only for the
professionals, produced to accompany shows in those public/commercial spaces
sufficiently endowed to afford publications. The catalogue has a symbolic
capital all of its own. For those who desire it, it is a marker of success,
recognition and acceptance--inclusion. Compare this with Europe where catalogues
are, perhaps banally, more often expected documentation of a show. Though
this is not to say that the dynamics of the systems are necessarily any
Historically, many artists' publications
have been tools of empowerment, engagements in the politics of representation,
sites for the questioning of how historical narratives are constructed.
In many cases the intentions of this recent rash of publications (often
born of a full stop due to an encounter with Scotland's artistic glass
ceiling, and wondering where to go next) are actually to cajole the market
into recognition, operating as springboards into the sanctified waters.
Rather than challenge the homogeneity of the circus of the exhibition circuit,
the form is used to market oneself to those very institutions: An inflated
CV operating at a base level of such distribution-equals-exposure with
a desire for recognition from a few elevated sites. This often has little
to do with the work; the work is at best an aside, and everything to do
with maximum exposure of the personality, of the name. Implicitly, for
many of these candidates-for-celebration there is an underlying desire
for regulation of their production and their reputation from these institutions;
a zeal for packaged stardom which John Beagles goes some way to questioning
in his StopStop article I cannot be arsed to spend all my time and money
on art, there are more important things.
STOPSTOP, published by 1/L 83 Hill
Street, Glasgow G3 6NZ, pb,138 pages, £4.50
Tales of the
--This blessed shop lies on the bright
side of the road, Da would say.
Right enough, The Great Unwashed
does face South, but I could never fathom why this should be held as a
promise of health and prosperity for his offspring. But I know that he
was never happier than when the light came bright and morning-fresh upon
the gantry, telling him that opening time was round again.
But to be able to smile all the
time ? To offer warmth and welcome to those I knew he privately dismissed
as 'bad lots' and 'shitehawks'? Any cynicism I might have harboured regarding
his friendliness was swept away in the final years. Heavy smoking robbed
him of both legs. He was getting used to the wheelchair when a whole regiment
of cancers invaded what remained of him, reducing his once mighty arms
to freckled stick-bags. But hospital was not for him, and he insisted on
being taken into the shop every day, where he would lie in an old pram
by the end of the bar and partake of his beloved stout via a three-foot
long straw which was taped to a pint measure glued to the bar.
--Folk like to gather in the sun,
he would also say.
That is surely true, but why we
have had (all of us, patrons or otherwise) always to make do with second-hand
daylight has also embittered me. Most hours of my working life have been
spent in sobriety watching others making the most of a smokey, man-made
purgatory. Good friends fallen on hard times have now to stay home with
their bottles and cans--that they can no longer afford to enjoy the company
of their peers has become intolerable, criminal. They get the best deal
possible for a fiver, head home, replay the highlights of friendships,
resuscitating jokes and conjure faces with only a flickering box or tinny
tape to simulate company.
His passing hit me hard. For more
than a year there was not a day passed when I didn't lock that office door
and weep snottily into folded arms, and even now, the unexpected mention
of him summons cold fingers which claw at my chest and nip at my eyes.
It's all the worse because I know I'll never be him. Here are knuckles
gnarled; eyebrows ridged and heavy scars all over to prove that I was never
one to suffer the ignorant or the offensive in silence. I don't think Da
ever raised a hand to anyone, but there is no debating who was the stronger,
The Great Unwashed sits atop one
of the city's drumlins. A drumlin is a glacier's jobby, and the pub is
perched on one of the biggest. The road leading down to the city-centre
is steep, and from the office I watch locals coming up the hill very slowly,
others descending it at thrice the speed, knees buckling under their own
Being so close to the night-clubs
and the exotic eating-houses which cater for the beer-addled of the night,
the streets are always busy at dark, but few souls venture up the hill
in sobriety without good reason. When they are drunk they get lost, and
imagine they are taking short-cuts. They wander about the hill's orange
streets, dropping food from greasy wrappers, or evacuating it in garish
gushes along the gutter. In the early hours, before the sun has touched
the horizon, great flocks of seagulls come swooping in from the coast to
see what they can find. I've always liked to watch birds, but these gulls
are a menace. They swarm threateningly above the pavements, crawking claims
before dropping heavily onto pieces of pakora, fish-batter, filth-encrusted
jumbo sausages, hardened vomit and whatever else they can find to cram
into their steel-lined gullets. As I sit alone at the bar at the shift's
end, I see their shadows reel upon the window, and curse them. Parasites.
They invade even my sleep, and will not retreat until the city itself is
up and about.
So I go to work this day, baggy-eyed
and hateful. An audit is looming, the stock is bad, there has been pilferage
of late, the new beers I brought in have not been shifting. And it is Autumn
now, that point when, almost without warning, there will be a shifting
of clock-hands and we must face another six months in the Twilight Zone.
And those effing gulls will bolster their numbers as the sea roughens.
--A late night was it then, asks
Joe 'Doghead' Ryan, but I ignore him.
I watch Frankie, the new barman,
as he wipes down the sink-boards. Nice lad. Has he been passing twenties
over the bar, or maybe leaving forty-gillers outside by the bins for friends
to collect ? I can't see it, don't want to, but someone is at it and I'm
right in the mood to catch them today.
A metallic clank from the cellar
betrays the presence of Halfpint Fraser. He was a friend of the old man's,
and is still on the books as cellar-man. He is in his late seventies. I'm
still watching Frankie when the steely echo from downstairs becomes a sudden
roaring gush beneath which Halfpint's screams can be faintly heard. I race
to the head of the stairs. The cellar appears to be filling up with foam.
In the midst of the dull kegs, Halfpint lies, bunnet still intact, surrounded
by dozens of soaked bread rolls, an angry ejaculation of lager battering
onto the ceiling from the keg beside him.
Ten minutes later, Halfpint stands
in a puddle of warm lager in the office as I hand him his week's pay and
tell him not to come back. A tear or two mingle with the sweet beer as
he accepts the notes without a word, then turns sadly for the door. I quell
the pang of regret. Business is business. Eighty pints or more lost. Truth
be told, it was just the excuse I'd been waiting for.
And that is but the start. The afternoon
is dull and unusually warm. We get busy for no reason I can see. There
is a large crowd of lads doing a rehearsal for a stag-night, and they've
clearly taken up where they left-off the night before. Frankie takes objection
to the manner of one of them. Threats are exchanged. Joe helps me to escort
the lads to the door. Then I get Frankie into the office and tear a strip
off him. The customer comes first. You might be a Ned in your own time,
but not in here. Da's stock phrases come from nowhere, but I can't say
them with that same tone, that understanding. I warn him, and he is ashen
when he gets behind the bar.
--You're run-down and that's a fact,
--And you're a doctor now? I reply,
Doghead thrusts stodgy fingers into
his waistcoat pocket and draws out a small pinkish pellet.
--Get this down you, he says.
I take the pill from him. The coating
crumbles slightly as I roll it between my fingers. There is a faint impression
of the letter 'S' upon it.
--Supervitamin pill, and a mighty
cure for the stress and the hangovers so it is, says Joe.
There seems no harm. I throw it
down with a swally of watered lime juice. Maybe I do need a pick-me-up,
but I've never been one for pills and that. I get back into the office
and spend the mid-afternoon lull trying to get the papers ready for the
accountant. They make no sense. Well, they don't really matter any more.
In fact, by five or so they are as good as a joke book, and I leaf slowly
through them, laughing aloud at VAT numbers and profit projections.
--So that's perked you up I see,
He is well-gone now is Doghead,
but I offer him my hand and shake his long and hard.
--Thanks Joe, you're a pal. There's
one in the tap for you.
I watch Frankie battering away,
pouring three pints at once, chatting to a regular. He hasn't had a break
all day. I get behind the bar and help. I feel great. I get him at the
--Sorry about earlier son, I say.
Go get some grub and take yourself a pint.
He eyes me suspiciously, as I was
watching him that morning.
--We all have off-days lad. Don't
be taking it personal.
I whistle 'Dirty Old Town' and stay
behind the bar until the evening shift come on. I never normally work day-time
but I feel strong, keen, even cheerful. Some of the regular boys ask me
if my numbers have come up.
--This place is on the bright side
of the road, I say, and those of them who don't remember Da look confused.
By seven I'm as happy as I've ever
been. It's almost as if I can feel Da still in the place, the smell of
him, the sound of his loaded breathing, the waft of his tobacco. I could
never have worked anywhere else, my life could never have been any other
way, and I wouldn't want it different anyroad. Every customer is a friend,
and even those with stern faces and short manners are my bread and butter
and I love them all. I get among them, shaking every hand within reach,
embracing those I've known for years but never spoken to. It feels like
New Year, the favourite child's eighteenth, a perfect wedding bash all
rolled into one. But then there is a pang and I rush back to the office.
It takes but a second to locate
Halfpint's phone number, but I have to organise myself before calling.
I'm almost in tears as I ask him to come back tomorrow. He is quiet. I
beg, apologise, cite Da as our common link. He grunts consent.
Midnight comes. I am not in The
Great Unwashed. They can close up themselves, and even if they don't they'll
take care of it no bother. I'm in the Spring, laughing so hard I can hardly
breathe. There is Jacko the Wobbler I haven't seen for twenty years, Sammy
the Biter, Mickoleen and sundry others. Someone has been married, they're
all suited and well-oiled. It's a lock-in, and it's maybe two or three
when I leave, shirt unbuttoned and tie lost.
A cab drops me. There are words
with the driver, and I throw a handful of change at him. The chippie is
closing, but they have some fritters left, and aye, put that pie in there
I fall at some point going back
up the hill to the work. Suddenly cold, I try to work out where my jacket
is. I cannot raise my head from the pavement. I start to slide down the
hill, back towards the main drag, where I can hear gigantic frogs slapping
their way to the West End, and worms like drainpipes wrestling in the gutters.
A smell bears down, and it is sheer foulness--burned garlic, bean-filled
ash-trays and toenails made of old cheese. The smell becomes a wave of
filthy air, and then I know that something is above me. I manage to raise
myself and face the sky. A plane-sized gull is hovering high, eyeing me.
I bury my face in my arms and cry out as I smell the bastard lower. It
lands astride me with feet like deflated dingys. With its beak it flips
me over. On the end of this beak there is a splintering of orange bony
fingers. It ties my shoelaces together, hooks them over the lower bill,
rises from the road and soon we are high above the city.
There is light rain falling as the
thing flies backwards across the town. I am upside-down, limp and helpless
as landmarks skite by above me. I retch and boak but nothing emerges. The
screeching of the traffic on the motorway becomes the laugh of the bird
as it drops towards the riverside by the old docks. It stands high above,
watching me. It lowers the beak, lifts me up for a second, then lets me
drop and tears off my legs with one great snap.
There is no pain. It swallows my
legs, raises its head and cries to whatever giant may be about. And then
it leaves, heading back to the sea.
So I was released from the jail about
mid-day. Charges might be brought. Drunk and Disorderly. Placing people
in a state of fear and alarm. I threw up outside the station but there
was nothing but bileish spit. A cab got me back to The Great Unwashed.
Joe was slumped in the corner by
the juke-box, soaked in his own fluids and covered with empty crisp-bags.
A dozen or so others, including Frankie, occupied the Snug in various states
of slumber, only one being full awake.
--It's yourself, said Sippy Pat.
A far-off gull cried. The juke-box
was playing Van the Man's Bright Side of the Road. I walked unsteadily
over to the power point, ripped the plug from he socket, then went to the
office and sobbed until the accountant arrived.
The Musa Anter
Joking about how we had just become
multi-millionaires through changing our money, we stepped out of Istanbul's
Ataturk Airport into the heat. Violently the centre of the crowd opened
apart while a man seemed to dance and jerk horribly. Throwing himself with
all his weight onto the jagged concrete he split open his head, ripping
his eye with his broken glasses . He was having an epileptic fit. He was
not breathing and his teeth were jammed tight shut and impossible to open.
Blood was pouring from his mouth and pooling on the ground from his eye
and head. Eventually we got him breathing and he lay on his side gurgling.
Taking them away from his head my hands were scarlet with blood. The others
looking after him put him in the rescue position. Welcome to Istanbul.
After that things got worse.
When we got to the hotel MIM we
turned on the TV in one of the bigger rooms. The channel was HBB, soon
renamed fascist TV. They had footage of the airport, five or six camera
crews had appeared instantly; they had been waiting for something to happen.
Although HBB is complete propaganda it still affected us with its barking
declarations that we were all 'terrorists' and that one of us, the man
who had the epileptic fit, was 'drunk': and that it was obvious what happens
when you let terrorists into the country--bloodshed, see that blood well
there's going to be more of it if they try to go to Diyarbakir. And we
sat there while they made other thinly veiled threats.
The Musa Anter Peace Train was an
initiative by Hanover Appeal, a German human rights organisation. The largest
immigrant population of Kurds live in Germany, where they contend with
a similar oppression to that experienced in South East Turkey. The original
idea was that a train would travel from Brussels through most of Europe
and eventually end up in Diyarbakir in the heart of Kurdistan, where we
would all attend a Peace Festival. The German government, seemingly on
their own initiative, decided to ban it going through their territory and
cancelled the railway contract, action which is possibly illegal on a number
of points. They did this over the weekend--one or two days before the train
was due to set off. The organisers decided to proceed, flying us from Brussels
to Istanbul and then travelling by a convoy of buses to Diyarbakir, a journey
taking well over 24 hours each way.
Most European countries were represented
with around 150 people, including MPs, camera crews, human rights activists,
journalists and just seemingly normal people of a range of ages from about
18 to 70. The British contingent was comparatively small, consisting of
Joe Cooper and Paul Delahunty, from Liverpool, who planed to video the
journey for a future TV film; Arti Dillon and Alan Brooke who are members
of Socialist parties; Julia Guest who is a freelance photographer; Hüseyin
Çakar who was our illustrious interpreter (and who bears an astonishing
resemblance to Al Pachino) and Miranda Watson from the Kurdistan Information
Centre in London. That was the kind of 'core group' but we were also invaluably
joined for the journey by Andy Keefe (whom I would describe as a political
activist--but was here as an interpreter/co-ordinator) and Francis D' Souza
of Article XIX. Bruce Kent and Christine Blower (of the NUT) joined us
briefly at the Hotel, Lord Rea I never laid eyes on.
It quickly became apparent that
we should carefully follow whatever advice might be given us by HADEP the
Kurdish organisation giving us assistance. They were very brave and kind
people, but it was difficult to grasp their advice at all times, what with
the fog of our own reactions, conflicting opinion and the general confusion
of events and language. So (even at the worst of times) we only had an
abstract notion of what was ahead: possibly a lot of people had not fully
grasped how 'serious' the situation is in Kurdistan: I know I didn't.
Because of the change of plan we
had a few extra days in Istanbul within which various visits, events and
meetings were arranged, most of which I took no part in because of sudden
severe illness. Julia suggested food poisoning, at the time I thought I
was dying and lay for a day in a delirious soaking sweats having the most
disgusting weird nightmares.
Around about midnight, after trying
to get to sleep with the entire football supporting Turkish nation driving
through the streets honking their horns (including the one that plays 'Dixie'),
Miranda skulked up to our room. The plans had apparently been changed.
The Hanover people had decided in the foyer that the main and over-riding
objective was to arrive at Diyarbakir, thus, they determined, in an effort
to reach that goal a small amount from each 'delegation' would fly there
early tomorrow. The others would follow on by bus as planned. According
to Miranda the situation in Diyarbakir would be a "heavy bitch". There
seemed to be no plans for getting back--a minor point I stumbled on out
of curiosity. As it stood it looked like Alan, Arti, Julia and myself were
being offered the chance to go. Joe was at the meeting and according to
Miranda seemed "worried about losing all their camera gear". The fact that
Joe didn't like it struck me as somewhat backing up 'rule number one':
that we should all stick together. Alan had joined us by this point, sheets
over his head like a pretend messiah. We agreed to discuss it early in
the morning, and we called it a night. The distinct impression that this
was some late-night spontaneous meeting in the hotel foyer led by organisation
junkies easily circulated round by throbbing brain amongst the other assorted
In the morning the plan turned to
nothing. Only a couple of people from the German delegation had been actually
pushing for it while the French and Swiss delegations had pressed heavily
for the convoy sticking together: "Bang on!" I said. Joe, leaning over
into my breakfast laughs with me into my ear: "Beware of Germans preaching
Stalinism." We are more optimistic than we were after the paranoia of last
night. We have very little on our side: solidarity--i.e. staying together
and watching over each other; a message of 'peace'--i.e. non provocative
action and organisation--i.e. listening to the people who know the territory.
The future would rely on instinct, split second reactions in difficult
irrational situations. Trying to pretend to be relaxed I have a word about
the "decision making procedure" with Julia. "This is luxury, this is clockwork
compared to some of the delegations I've been on. I just want to get on
with my work."
Most of the delegations attended
their respective Embassies to inform the consulates of what we planned
to do. Press reports seemed to have mellowed slightly, as in this example
from The Turkish Daily News, August 28th : "Foreign Minister, Sermet Atacanli...
made it clear that the travellers who were going on to Diyarbakir would
not meet with any difficulty and those who are not forbidden by law to
enter Turkey would be met with tolerance." We asked Neil Frape, the Vice-Consul
for Press and Public affairs, whom we would later become better acquainted
with, what he thought of this and what his impression of the climate was.
There was very little he could tell us. Owen Jenkins, another Embassy man,
had reported the situation in Diyarbakir as being 'very tense', the 'State
of Emergency' being of course very much in place. Mr. Frape provided us
with a letter on Embassy note paper, which we imagined would somehow help
us in a difficult situation. It did strike me as peculiar that a bunch
of 'activists' like ourselves should go crawling to the State for help.
Well, using the Civil Service for what it is intended--for any prospective
advantage--seemed like a good idea at the time. The photographers amongst
us were also worried about getting their material out of the country and
were hoping for the old diplomatic bag. Mr. Frape seemed honestly sympathetic:
it must be something of an insight into the smooth running of a democracy
to work as a press officer in Turkey, where journalists go missing, papers
are closed down in the night and lies and corruption go rampantly unchecked.
Earlier that day Joe and Paul had
caught something of possible future significance when they filmed an interview
with Mr. Imam Gassan Solomon, a South African ANC Member of Parliament
(Justice and Foreign Affairs), this is worth quoting at length:
"We thank the Turkish Government
and the Turkish people for their sympathy towards our struggle, but we
would also like to offer our assistance to the Turkish Government and the
Turkish people to assist in the problem which they have with the people
of Kurdistan. And I might as well tell the Turkish people and maybe the
rest of the World Community that President Mandela has given an indication
that he is going to step down in 1999, that we have a very short time in
order to make use of his good offices. And he will be available to assist,
and I think he would be the best person to assist, to solve this problem
peacefully in Kurdistan."
Still ill I didn't make it to the
visit of The Mothers of The Disappeared the next day. It is some indication
of our times that a term such as that will be understood by most readers
without further explanation. They meet every Saturday (and are also known
as the Saturday Mothers) and are treated with inhuman, disgusting, violent
contempt by the police--constant harassment and beatings. This is a perfect
indication of how far out of control the slide is in Turkey. The eventual
repercussion of 'counter-insurgency' is that young men in uniform are made
to turn on old women; women who could easily be their own mothers, who
themselves are forced to go begging on the streets for information on other
young men and women who could easily be the young cop wiping the blood
off his truncheon. Another of the South African MPs put it quite well later
on that evening, this was Mr. Ahmed Gara Ebrahim who said: "Attending the
Saturday Mothers demonstration in Istanbul today reminded me of the anguish
of the Mothers, Sisters, Brothers and Fathers went through in our own liberation
struggle. One of the fundamentals of human rights is the right to live
and the right to feel secure. As long as these Mothers, Sisters and Brothers
do not know what happened to their relatives and loved ones, basic human
rights in Turkey will remain violated."
At breakfast, on the morning we
planed to set off, we were visited by top Istanbul secret policeman, who
gave out some 'final warnings about any form of protest' to Miranda and
Francis D' Souza, who had the stomach to listen to him. As we gathered
to leave, the Italian barmy army1 of Communist
Party MPs and members began to noisily sing their full repertoire of anti-fascist
songs, eventually they are weakly told to shut up by one of the Hotel fat
boys. Just two buses took us to our first stop. With all the crush I ended
up at the big window at the front as we wove out of the vastness of Istanbul
and its homicidal traffic. We gradually picked up a bit of a police escort
but they knew were we were going: Kadaköy. On its outskirts the police
presence grew to enormous proportions, armoured vehicles and the extensive
apparatus of 'crowd control': they became too many to count. Halting in
the middle of all this we got out and walked in more or less single file
through the police lines and machine guns into an even more astonishing
sight--a massive rally of thousands of Kurds who were risking life, limb
and liberty to welcome us and see us off.
The organisers estimated that about
10,000 people who had tried to travel on every conceivable form of transport
had been turned back. As we walked in we were hugged and kissed like long
lost Sons and Daughters, we shook and held hands and just looked into the
eyes of everyone we passed--so many people. In utter emotional dizziness
we walked into the huge body of Kurds. Joe, Paul and Julia snapped into
action with their cameras while I mumbled inanities into my tape recorder.
Standing on a car bonnet when we lost someone I got to see the enormity
of it: furious speeches were still being pounded out of the P.A. by Union
leaders to be met with deafening responses from the crowd. One uncomfortable
memory is accidentally looking up at our 'special guests' as Miranda kept
calling them, who had climbed on top of a van which was acting as a platform
for the speakers. They went up there presumably to be cheered. Seeing Bruce
Kent's fat chubby face and cringing at what buffoons they seemed, taking
all that applause with silly paper 'Peace Train' hats on their heads--far
better, I thought, to be down here and try to talk to some people. But
we had started to be directed towards the seven buses which would take
us to Diyarbakir and we moved off through the waving crowd and extremely
What the hell was I doing in this
country, what the hell did I understand about what it was like to live
here? All anyone could do was look people in the eye and show them some
respect: we would soon zoom off, but these people were staying; to soon
be battered senseless for turning up. At least, I thought, with all its
failings, the Peace Train might, in some small way, bring some international
attention and recognition of the reality of the Kurdish situation. Undoubtedly
the Kurds were more than happy to applaud our efforts. I could not help
feeling that we imported something of the class system within the British
contingent, which is our problem; but there is something peculiar about
a member of an un-elected upper House of Lords, Lord Rea, lecturing a country
like Turkey on 'Democracy'.
Up in the mountains, well out of
Kadaköy, we were stopped at about six in the evening on the pretext
of a passport check, although we hadn't left the country. At the checkpoint
people began to get off--those with video cameras and so forth gathering
round any potential disturbance, but we were only delayed for about two
hours. Paul later let slip that he had been told by a soldier that if he
didn't stop filming he would be shot.
The journey was long but our spirits
were kept up by Yasmien--the Mother of the Bus--who would perfume us with
rose water and at one point when the darkness outside was creeping in,
actually went round kissing us all. She also led the singing. Kurdish songs
are quite similar to Bulgarian folk songs with that open throat, which
becomes so charged with emotion. We also had a Kurdish band on board one
of the buses who would start up playing practically anywhere and at any
time. Their pounding slapping drums and strange reed instruments sprung
into action among the flashing blue lights in several God forsaken service
stations, where one could obtain the worst food in the World. Food so bad
in fact that Julia and I couldn't eat it for laughing about how we had
jumped the massive queue, to get at it first.
I think most people were sleeping
when we came into Kurdistan. High Mountains were to the left and right
of us with a low mist filling the desert ground of the valley. Higher and
higher into the mountains and about eight in the morning we were stopped
at a military check point at Gazi Antep2,
near the Syrian border. Previously we had heard of deportations from Diyarbakir
including Musa Anter's widow and daughter, several HADEP party members
and our 'special guests'. They had also stopped us entering Ankara and
driven away the people who had gathered to meet us, so there was no telling
how things would go: from here on in we were in the Emergency Zone, under
Martial Law. At the checkpoint, the soldiers start to take off one of the
'Musa Anter Peace Train' banners and set fire to it in front of all our
cameras and all of us, obviously in an effort to get some kind of reaction
thus 'justifying' some bloodshed. Eventually after they have had their
fun they let us proceed.
As the people along the way, in
greater and greater numbers, wave us on with peace signs; we could also
on occasion see them being harassed by the police. At about ten thirty
we are escorted into a large and notorious military compound at Urfa and
more or less held under arrest. The organisers and MPs and so forth start
to negotiate with the Army while the rest of us wander around the compound
trying to find shade from the radioactive sun. It is beginning to look
like a dead end, but I arrange a bet with Francis D' Souza of 1,000,000
Turkish Lira that we get to Diyarbakir, just for the sheer hell of it.
A few moments previously Francis told Joe she was going to find out if
we were free to go out of the compound by slowly walking out the main entrance
and seeing what happened. He agreed to film her. No sooner had she set
one foot in the open space when the click of machine guns signalled that
this was a bad move and she quickly turned back. Inadvertently Paul and
I began talking to one of the Turkish soldiers, a huge guy obviously in
Special forces or something: he is armed with about ten fragmentation grenades,
a powerful machine gun with a grenade launcher attached. I notice a little
Turkish flag on the butt of his automatic hand gun--nice to see a bit of
individualism flourishing, but it turns out to be quite common. He looks
down at us and quietly asks us why we have come to Turkey: "Why not Bosnia
or Palestine or..." "Ireland," I interject. "Yes Ireland" he murmurs, "why
don't you go there?" "I've been" I reply. "All we want is peace" Paul tells
him, and gradually the conversation tails off. It is a bit tricky talking
to man who is equipped to annihilate all of us without breaking into a
Mr Solomon informed us that what
they were doing here was the oldest trick in the book, he had seen it many
times in South Africa. The purpose of this stop was to enable them to set
up men and machinery down the way. Eventually after two and a half hours
we are let back on the buses and move slowly towards Diyarbakir An announcement
on the bus tannoy tells us that "the Governor of Diyarbakir said the buses
could not come in due to a public safety law. He advised the organising
committee to turn back but will allow us to proceed into Diyarbakir Province."
Joe and Paul are running out of film and batteries. Standing up and looking
at the numbers of the Army, Paul turns to Joe : "Looks like we're going
to need another two Scousers."
I don't know what time it was--I
was asleep; possibly about four--but we abruptly stopped and an urgent call
came out for all press to get up the front. The road to Diyarbakir is a
mere two lonely lanes, and as far as the eye can see everything is wilderness
and the odd animal skull. No cover, no nothing. Our bus was number five
so we couldn't see very much till we got to the head of the convoy on foot.
Two huge tanks blocked our path, a huge semi-circle of soldiers at a three
metre spread surrounded us, fondling their machine guns. We can see what
looks like Diyarbakir about a mile away in the distance but all that long
way was lined by hundreds of soldiers and more tanks.3
Everyone is off the buses now sittingt
down in front of them and in front of the tanks. Chanting and singing began
with "Peace" in Kurdish accompanied by a furious hand clap. Two Kurdish
women from within the circle of protesters made a passionate speech to
the soldiers, until fraught with emotion one of them threw the bouquet
of roses she was carrying up into the air and crashed to her knees weeping.
I later found out she was the widow of an MP who was murdered--kicked to
death--in Diyarbakir, the flowers were perhaps intended for his grave. People
started singing the Kurdish National anthem (a frail but relentlessly determined
song and no doubt illegal), and 'Ciao Bella' an old Italian anti-fascist
Partisan song, together with chants of "Internationalé Solidarité!"
The soldiers were beginning to look pretty edgy as people put some of the
scattered flowers on the tanks.
There was some confusion as the
organisers debated with the military what would be the next move. A huddle
of press people developed around them, whatever was been decided was in
Turkish and then in German, off to the side I eventually found a translator
who was making an announcement in English, looking understandably dazed
and confused he said: "you see we are stopped here, they don't let us to
finish our peace ...eh...trip. So we decided to turn back here. Now we
sit down here for a while and we sing some songs but now it's time to turn
back. We are going to Sali Urfa and we'll have a rest there, then we'll
speak about what we'll do and how we'll do it. Now please everybody get
on the buses, thankyou." I knew there had been a bit more to it than that,
from what I could pick up from everyone else but we all slowly drifted
back towards the buses. The sun was on its way down as a military helicopter
landed in the field and then took off again after instructions
I wandered past the Kurdish band
who were out playing alongside their bus and tried to talk into my tape
recorder while I gathered a handful of pebbles. I was still curious as
to what was happening and bumped into Miranda, I still had the tape running
as she tried to speak over the noise of the helicopter:
"There's been about 1,000 arrests
[in Diyarbakir] because of us going in. HADEP, IHD--and the organisers of
the Peace Train, just now in a coach meeting said that, well, it was suggested
that the Europeans take some kind of action--because the worst that could
happen was a detention or deportation or maybe a ban. That might cripple
solidarity work in the future--with no return to the country; that's something
to be considered. On the other hand for our Turkish and Kurdish friends:
they said they're willing to die for they're political beliefs, so therefore
any action we take, they take the consequences. Now the most serious thing
which was suggested--and of course is not a possibility--is that everybody
walks en masse to these barricades. There would be overhead firing, they'd
fire into the crowd and then there would be mass arrests. That's not an
option for anyone, also it would be damage to the whole process." The italics
here express a tone which I think came into her voice due to the look of
abject horror on my face. Miranda carried on: "Other suggestions are to
go to Urfa and protest the arrests, then possibly just the Europeans go
back here to the barricades. The problem is this area belongs to a Tribal
Warlord. You know that car accident we talked about--the Beauty Queen was
killed, an MP and a Police Chief and a Mafia guy wanted by Interpol? Well
the one who survived has a Contra-guerrilla army and this is his territory,
his jurisdiction. So the Germans think it enough to go back and have a
'something', the Italians want something more." I did not like the sound
of what Miranda was saying, and started to imagine what this place would
be like if we came back here in the middle of the night. The buses moved
It is becoming obvious, once we
can judge the size of the police/military escort we are picking up, that
we will not be allowed to stop. The convoy is travelling very fast and
through red lights. As we pass various small towns the police and army
in large numbers seem to be lining the route . When the buses stop at a
junction or a roadblock, riot police immediately run alongside the bus.
This is by no means over. We are told to keep our seats by Yasmien. We
can barely travel one hundred yards without seeing massive groups of soldiers.
It is about seven thirty, and there
is an announcement over the bus tannoy: "everyone who tries to enter Diyarbakir
the way we went will probably be killed." To be honest I was quite happy
to be run out of country, and I mention this to Andy who is sitting next
to me. He tells me that the police escort will probably diminish once we
have been put out of the Emergency Zone. Miranda is on the phone to the
British Embassy trying to find out what happened to Bruce Kent and the
others who flew into Diyarbakir; where--the latest news tells us--about 2,000
people have been arrested and they are using the schools as temporary prisons.
At about 11 o'clock another announcement suggests that we try a sit down
protest at the next stop: "The purpose of this association is to provide
support for the mass of refugees--the mass that wants peace the most--they
are the victims of the war and they want peace the most. In Turkey it's
one of the most dangerous things to strive for: peace. Thankyou."
The confusion and paranoia reached
a crescendo when they let us stop at a service station for petrol. As far
as we knew we would be ran all the way to Istanbul and people were tired,
hungry and thirsty, so there was something of a mad scramble. This was
complicated by the organisers telling us not to buy anything because this
was a fascist place. Somewhere in all this I heard that a Kurdish guy got
his arm broke by the police for attempting to get on the bus, I think he
was trying to join the convoy, we could also see some kind of disturbance
at the Italian bus. Things almost get completely out of hand, but we manage
somehow to get back on the road.
Most of the police escort must have
left us at some time in the night as there are only two or three police
cars, but we have also lost the rest of the convoy. We join up again at
about ten o' clock. The headlines in the Turkish press are calling us "Peace
Terrorists" which causes a bit of laughter on our part. As the day proceeds
it looks like the authorities are trying to force us on to the road to
Istanbul rather than Ankara, where we plan to hold a press conference and
meet up with Embassy officials from each country. The buses are forcibly
stopped at the Motorway turn-off for Ankara and we all get out and up front
A sit down protest in front of the
buses in the middle of the Motorway is already in progress as we arrived
with the press gathering. To one side of the buses it is a quiet little
wood with birds chirping, on the other side the police are bringing up
heavy reinforcements and redirecting the chaos of the traffic. Two water
cannon tanks come rolling through all the police cars and a helicopter
circles in the sky. A Military General and the First Secretary of the Police
Section and the leader of the Jandarma are putting their heads together
and barking out the orders, off at the back of the convoy I notice the
riot squad vans pulling up and the men getting out with their shields,
helmets and batons glistening in the sun. All the delegations get on their
mobile phones to their Ambassadors in Ankara. The German Embassy "declined"
to attend and told them to "piss off" in German, the Belgian said that
"it was all their own fault and they shouldn't have come." One of the South
African Ambassadors talked to one of the top Secret Policeman, protesting
about being blocked access to his Embassy, the policeman replied that "he
didn't care who he was". Things are beginning to look bleak, when our own
Ambassador, John Benjamin arrives. He is not what we expected: long curly
hair, about five foot two and obviously only wearing a black suit and tie
for his job. He immediately asked us if we want to be evacuated out of
the situation, an offer we decline. Once appraised of the situation he
begins to talk with the Secret Policeman--who refused to give his name to
anyone--apparently directing operations. I could see the exasperation on
Benjamin's face as he tried to be 'diplomatic', but through his and the
negotiations of the others the situation turned in our favour. I noticed
the riot police get back in their vans and we return to our buses. Despite
the precarious nature of the situation there is a little man out there
who has turned up to sell Turkish doughnuts, and people are buying them.
Although the organisers agreed to
abandon our plans to go to Ankara, and we are now proceeding (with our
police escort) to Istanbul, this felt like a slight victory in that we
had averted a beating and who knows what else. Yasmien makes an announcement
to the bus: "We are always ready to welcome you here, even if Turkey isn't.
One day we'll welcome you in Kurdistan." She then asks us if we will come
At another, uneventful stop later
in the afternoon we are able to buy some of the Turkish press. The Interior
Minister is stating that we never met with any disruption and that anybody
could go anywhere in Turkey. According to him the Turkish Authorities "didn't
tell us we could not go, it was [us] who didn't want to go." According
to the Justice Minister: "nothing happened." And this little nugget: "Anybody
who is for peace is able to drive over anybody who is against it." We will
never know how many arrests were made in Diyarbakir, nor the horror each
individual went through. To my knowledge, no 'International' press were
in attendance, but we were very close and our information was good. And
the many reprisals will go un-noticed: it took a potential 'international
incident' to draw out Reuters and AP, who turned out for the Ankara turn-off.
The Kurds would have held the festival in Diyarbakir anyway, it is difficult
at this stage to assess what, if anything, we have achieved.
With Andy interpreting I spoke to
a Kurdish man who is involved in an organisation which aids refugees, I
asked him if he had anything to say to Kurds living in exile in the UK
and Scotland in particular:
"We understood oppression would
go on during International Peace Day--important for us--it could make a more
important demonstration. I want you to come back. The importance of the
delegations is that they put pressure on the state. Kurdistan is under
fire, we're suffering under oppression. Wherever there are Kurds in the
World--our solidarity and salvation depends on them. We're expecting help
and support from them. Without help from the rest of the world the problem
will not be solved. Wherever in the World there are Kurds they can be involved
in the struggle--it's international." Looking around, his voice tailed off
as we ran into a roadblock at a motorway toll.
Here they split the buses up with
a mobile roadblock. Mostly it was plain clothes policemen running around
and alongside the buses with the Jandarma hanging back in the wings. Standing
up at the back it is difficult to find out what is happening without eyeballing
the cops outside the window, but we watch one guy getting dragged off and
beaten up. It looks like people on one of the buses (probably the Italians)
are getting off and fighting back, here I think two Swiss MPs were arrested.
Some idiot suggested that we all get off the bus. Francis D'Souza makes
a speech to try to quieten everybody down, people are understandably becoming
increasingly panicky as it becomes evident the police are coming on the
buses with a view to arresting people, mostly the Kurds and anyone who
reacts. Yasmien was arrested and dragged off at the front of the bus on
the pretext of having phone numbers on a napkin. People are ripping up
cards and pieces of paper they do not want to be caught with as the police
move up the aisle of the bus. We had sat our Kurdish friends up the back
of the bus with us on the outside seat. When they got to us foolishly I
caught the eye of the secret policeman and kept staring. He was nervous
and asked to see my passport. As I handed it over he mumbled something
about Turkey being a democratic country and that he was just doing his
job and all that. Meanwhile I could see out the window behind him that
his colleagues were kicking the shit out of someone. They started to collect
all Peace Train material, plucking paper rosettes off people's lapels.
After what seemed like hours the buses carried on (with a heavy escort)
and we ended up back in the Hotel MIM.
We decided to contact the Embassy
to inform them of what had happened to us. This is a transcription of some
the conversation we all had in one of the hotel rooms with Shane Cambell,
the Vice Consul involved with British people in distress. He told us he
"was not involved with the political situation."
Miranda Watson: "We've got to explode
the myth of what exactly is going on here--where is the rule of law?"
Shane Cambell: "I live here I have
an intuitive feel of what the Turk thinks I'm not surprised...This is Turkey."
Francis D'Souza: "Well we've got
to inform the group with the European Parliament..."
Cambell: "It seems paradoxical--they
want in the EU but..."
D'Souza: "The government are not
in control, we need to uncover this--the Turkish Ambassador in London said
'we're not in control.'"
Cambell: " I'm meeting the Prison
Governor and the Chief Prosecutor--they're in control."
D'Souza: "But not when disappearances
occur, not with forces working by proxy."
Joe Cooper: "Journalists are still
Cambell: "If they want to be difficult
they can be, if they want to stop stuff they can."
There was not much point in carrying
on with our conversation with Mr. Cambell. Rumours were flying around the
hotel as indeed were members of the Turkish Secret Service (who all seem
to drive Renaults for some peculiar reason). We heard that the police had
arrested most of the bus staff, which was a private company. There was
no news of Yasmien and the Swiss MPs are being held "in isolation" at some
political prison. Exhausted we drift off to bed.
In the morning we discuss plans
for leaving early, but the organisers seem to want us to stay. Francis
D'Souza and Andy Keefe flew out because their tickets were booked, while
the rest of us will stay for the next few days. We are somewhat trapped
in the hotel and seem to have been informed that all press conferences
have been banned. We are under complete surveillance with countless weird
individuals creeping around the hotel. We learn of the publicity in the
European press which is all front page news: the Luxembourg Government
have already protested about Turkey's possible inclusion in the EU. It
is not making much impact in the UK because of the overwhelming press coverage
of "The Death of the Century."
The delegations felt that it was
necessary to make an announcement clarifying that the Peace Train was not
organised by the Kurds in HADEP who were arrested; as was the assertion
of the authorities in their charges against all those arrested, which could
easily mean long prison sentences or worse. An announcement of this was
planned for three o' clock and we contacted Neil Frape, the press officer
at the Embassy. Julia, Joe and Paul also planned to give him their film
The announcement, which of course
would be viewed as a press conference by the Turkish authorities, took
place in the hotel bar, which curiously enough, considering what was about
to happen, was decked out in a Mexican style with Wild West type wooden
swinging saloon doors. Neil Frape turned up about 3 o'clock and he had
heard all about the journey. The representatives from the delegations had
assembled themselves on the platform of the bar and began introducing themselves,
the biggest applause going to Mr. Soloman from the ANC. Julia was upstairs
sorting out her camera equipment when I went up to tell her things had
started, I left her to it and walked back into the bar. When she arrived
she told me that she thought the place was about to be busted and asked
whether she should inform Neil Frape, who by this time had all their film.
The police were gathering round the saloon doors, as various delegates
introduced themselves. Frape went to leave then turned back nervously laughing
because when he had told them who he was and asked to leave, they had said
"no." So much for diplomatic status in Turkey. I tried to concentrate on
what was being said on the platform and as I went to tell Joe what had
happened there was a scream from the foyer and sounds of outrage and a
scuffle. Most people moved to see what was happening, Paul and Alan were
up ahead and when I ran out into the foyer, leaping over the couches, neither
Frape, Julia, Paul or Alan were there. The scream we heard was Julia. My
momentum took me right out to the front of the hotel and as I skidded to
a halt at the plate glass windows I realised I was inches away from who
knows how many riot police, whose buses were blocking the entrance outside.
At the revolving doors somebody shouted out "English journalist!", meaning
Julia and the rest had been arrested. I quickly turned and about half way
to the bar saw the riot police assembling for a charge. I shouted for everyone
to get back to the bar. As I walked backwards the snatch squads were grabbing
their targets and the riot police were coming in through the glass revolving
door, which they proceeded to smash to pieces.
I witnessed the bravery of the men
of the Turkish police: it takes three of them in full riot gear, with guns
as back up, to arrest an 18 year old, five foot nothing female, Maria from
They were arresting anyone and those
who defended them and dragging them out through the wrecked door and mountain
of glass. Most of us got into the bar, myself and Arti just making it.
A girl standing next to me was grabbed by her long hair and pulled out
screaming through the swing doors. I did nothing.
We sat in fear and loathing. I told
Joe and Miranda that there was no sign of Paul, Julia, Alan and Neil. It
seemed only seconds away from them coming in and finishing off the job.
But they had halted outside. In walked the Deputy Police Chief of Istanbul,
Mehmet Caglar, who told us in Turkish that we were all under arrest and
that press conferences were illegal in Turkey. He reminded us that he could
do more or less whatever he wanted with us, stating clearly that if we
tried anything even remotely resembling this kind of thing again; that
would be that.
Probably round about that time,
outside the hotel one of the ANC ambassadors arrived late. This was I think
Mr Ebrahim : a very large man who has obviously seen a thing or two in
his time. When the police grabbed him he turned around to them and said:
"If you arrest me, when you let me out I will fly back to Praetoria and
personally beat the shit out of the Turkish Ambassador." They let him go.
Mr Cagler left, seemingly satisfied,
and we tried to put the pieces together. Paul and Alan walked back into
the bar with big grins on their faces. They had seen Julia and Neil arrested
and quickly dived up the stairs to Paul's room. By an amazing co-incidence
Alan was phoned by BBC Radio Leeds and did a live interview when everything
happened, holding up the phone to let them hear all the glass smashing
and the mayhem. Neil had phoned the Embassy himself, while in the back
of the bus with Julia and all the others some of whom were very badly injured.
Two British Ambassadors arrived and we quickly filled them in.
We huddled up into one of the rooms.
Lists were being passed round of all the missing and the total came to
about 25 not counting the day before. It was HBB time and sure enough they
had footage of everyone being violently flung into the riot police buses.
This footage was brutally montaged with old library scenes of 'terrorists'
i.e. piles of machine guns and what looked like packets of Semtex, with
blindfolded culprits all handcuffed together. They just ran the two things
together time after time: Peace train/guns, bombs, terrorists, Peace Train/guns,
bombs, terrorists as our stomachs churned. We heard that all manner of
things were possibly being planted in our luggage by the police who were
wandering about the hotel, but there was no evidence of this. We were told
that the authorities had cancelled our reservations at the hotel and that
we had about half and hour before we would be removed. I should say that
humour kept us going here--at one point I laughed so much I thought I was
going insane: but it was black, black humour.
After a thorough inspection we gathered
our things and met in the bar with another man from the Embassy who offered
us another hotel. On hearing from the organisers that we were all being
moved together on a couple of buses we decided to stay with the group.
We walked out of the shattered MIM hotel through the gauntlet of two lines
of armed police, we had been given instructions not to make any symbols
or gestures. Under police escort we were driven to the tourist area and
a walled holiday camp in whose driveway we stopped. But they didn't want
us and we stood around outside the buses as the police blocked the entrance.
It was about midnight. It was here we met a journalist from one of Turkey's
better but no doubt soon to be short-lived papers4.
Arti knew her from a previous visit and told me she was a "mad bastard",
and she was right. One minute she was standing outside the gates with the
police, then she slinked inside like a cat, then she moved closer and closer,
then the quick sprint and she was on the bus with us, completely un-noticed.
She stayed a couple of nights with us when we eventually found a hotel,
although we got split up from Joe and Miranda in the confusion.
The next day we got information
on Julia. The prison was as bad as we imagined it to be. One woman nearly
bled to death. The first night must have been appalling: the men and women
were split up with the women being constantly tormented and sexually harassed
during the night, particularly Maria. They were also left without food
and water for most of the time. All those arrested were deported or given
"assisted passage" as it is called. Julia was last to leave and spent a
day there on her own. At one point they planned to put her into one cell
with about 100 prostitutes, but due to the huge Moslem demonstration every
Friday, and the huge amounts of arrests, the jail was getting to bursting
point and she was moved to an office upstairs. One Spanish Film crew were
taken to the airport with guns pointed to their heads.
We could do very little for Julia
but we were helped by Sanar Yurdatapan, a Turkish composer and activist,
who was also arrested in the hotel. I was interviewing him just after Caglar
had made his creepy announcement. As I tried to hide my tape recorder,
he just casually stood up with the policeman hovering over him and said
: "excuse me but I have to leave, they probably want me as an interpreter
or something." He has been arrested many times before.
For the remaining few days we were
instructed by the organisers to do nothing, "just act like tourists." The
Turkish press had come over to us and our work was finished, anything else
could easily become counter productive. We were reunited with Julia at
the airport and got the hell out of the country. This has obviously been
a personal account. This is the last entry in my notebook:
As tears well up in your eyes there
is a fleeting moment when, if you are as short sighted as I am, the tears
make a lens and you can see with perfect clarity, but it is difficult to
speak. Looking through tears and emotion--compassion--one sees clearly: but
only perhaps if the eyes you meet can feel; feel what you feel and see.
The Turkish authorities, the National Security Council, the small group
of men who run the country have lost all humanity, and I mean all. With
the Mothers of the Disappeared they profess willingness to look them in
the eye and still brutalise them. The sacrifice the Mothers of the Disappeared
make and will make this Saturday is for peace.
Is the struggle for peace in Kurdistan
about land? The possession of land? The Kurds are not a possessive people.
Astonishingly they bear no enmity towards their Brothers the Turks--this
is not a sectarian struggle. They are not separatists either: how could
they become separate from Turkey which has only existed in its present
'unchangable' form since the 1920s.
I have in my pocket some little
stones, stolen from the road to Diyarbakir, which mean something to me,
but I have given most of them away. Will the Turkish NSC prevail? As Ramos
Horta5 said: "The Kurdistan region is one
of the most important in the world with possibly the largest oil reserves
in the world...but empires built on armies and oppression will not prevail."
One point on the Peace Train. The
accusation was made in the Turkish press that the Peace Train was a front
for the PKK, and a tactic to cause redeployment of large numbers of armed
forces, while the PKK regrouped. This does not stand up to any analysis.
If the NSC knew this, why did they then so enthusiastically and overwhelmingly
fall for it. Am I smarter than the head of Turkish Intelligence? Seven
buses of minor political activists, teachers, students, MPs and (it must
be said) a few idiots somehow needed, what--20,000, 30,000 police, Jandarma,
army, secret police, special forces, tank crews, riot police etc.--to follow,
obstruct, intimidate, arrest, brutalise and attack them? And they do this
to avoid bad publicity; they arrest MPs and Ambassadors of a European delegation
as a sign of good faith towards their prospective joining of the European
Union? This is one simple lunacy amongst many and one cannot help feeling
that Turkey needs new leadership. The Kurds seem to me to be asking for
little more than I brought back in my pocket--a handful of stony arid land,
they probably don't even want the oil.
Peace in Kurdistan is far off. It
may require a solution for the whole Middle-East. Ramos Horta described
Kurdistan as "possibly the most strategic region in the world."
1 God bless them: and all Italian
Communists. But at times we cursed them mightily, they are obviously used
to fighting with armed police.
2 I would really have to question
my accuracy as to place names. The following is as near as I can get.
3 It transpires that this was not
Diyarbakir but a place called Severik, about 40 or 50 km away.
4 I won't mention her name.
5 Winner of the Nobel Prize for
Peace, Horta had spoken at a rally in Brussels Station the day before we
left: he is from East Timor.
The Dearing Report is the Government
commissioned white paper to advise them on the 'development of Higher Education'.
Cutting through the rhetoric of inclusive Higher Education and the cultivated
society, the accent of the commission was on finding ways in which the
financing of Higher Education could no longer count as Government 'public
spending' (as the present 50:50 loan and grant system does). The underlying
reason for this has been largely ignored, or accepted, by most reporting
on the subject. In rationalising the financing of Higher Education as 'private
spending' it is removed from the Government's books and is one way of cutting
public expenditure: a necessity in meeting the convergence criteria for
From the Report's findings it would
appear difficult to simply re-categorise the financing of Higher Education
from 'public' to 'private' spending if public money or public agencies
are involved. Ultimately, the complete privatisation of the financing of
Higher education lies down this slippery route. This would mean students
paying for their education via a private loans system, with private money
and the private collection of such debt. For the private sector to buy
the debt from the Government in the first place the system would have to
promise enough of a financial return. Students and parents would not only
end up paying for education they would also be paying for the private market's
profits. In the short term, however, the Higher Education financial 'shortfall'
(a cut of some 40% over the last 20 years) to patch up the neglected, decaying
system will have to be sought from somewhere. This 'shortfall' is compounded
with the white noise coming from Government over wanting to expand the
'sector' of Higher Education. The difficulty of course is that the Government
has made pledges not to increase public spending and, it would appear,
would like to see the financing of Higher Education struck from its books
altogether. Effectively the financial shortfall and costs of expansion
are being pushed onto the already impoverished Universities/Colleges and
all students/parents. This can only be seen as a continuation of the Tory
buck passing in the total privatisation of the state.
One strong recommendation of the
Dearing report is the introduction of a £1,000 'Tuition Fee' (being
around 25% of the 'present' average cost of Higher education tuition) levied
on 'graduates in work'. This fee would be a flat rate, for all students
across all subjects taken, through an "income contingent mechanism", that
is, it would be paid in relation to what a graduate is earning once in
work. It recommends that such a system be put in place by 1998/99. However,
money could not be collected by this method until the income of those 'graduates
in work' is assessed at the end of that financial year. For full time courses
this could be 4 or 5 years on from the implementation of such a scheme,
when the first round of students graduate and complete that first year
of work, and then only those earning above a 'threshold' would be additionally
taxed for the payment of fees.
Although the Dearing Report recommends
that a Central Agency be established to administer the 'Tuition Fees',
it is feared the Colleges/Universities would play a major role in administering
the scheme with no extra funding being available for them to do so. Under-resourcing
is already recognised as the major problem within Higher Education, this
would only exacerbate it. Not only that, but the exact destination for
all this money is unclear to say the least. This scheme also does nothing
to tackle the immediate financial crisis.
Recently, at the Labour Party's
conference, David Blunkett presented such student fee repayment proposals.
As similar events in Australia are testament, the scheme in reality is
the thin end of the wedge leading to the total privatisation of Higher
Education. Far from encouraging more participation in Higher Education,
the additional burden of debt will deter many potential students from less
financially well-off backgrounds entering Higher Education. For those who
do go through education this additional debt will have major implications
in gaining other forms of credit, e.g. mortgages. The Government's excuse
for this method of funding is that those going through Higher Education
have better earning potential and should therefore consider education as
a financial investment, as a return on what they have purchased, a continuation
of the Conservative's vocational education rhetoric. With racial and sexual
inequalities in employment, pay and promotional opportunities the proposed
system will present a disproportionately greater burden on women and people
from ethnic minorities. As the larger percentage of higher earners have
gone through Higher Education there is already a mechanism in place to
pay for the Higher Education system, income tax. Raising income tax for
those earning the most and able to contribute more to society seems to
have been lost in the fear of releasing the scorn of Labour's genie-in-the-bottle,
Although the Scottish Parliament,
when established in 2000, will have tax varying powers, it is questionable
if it will have the ability to legislate, or challenge legislation, on
the financing of Higher Education. The Dearing Report recommends that "the
proportion of a student/ parental contribution should not be increased
without an independent review and an affirmative resolution of both Houses
of Parliament" (which I take to mean House of Commons and House of Lords).
If the objective is to see the removal of Higher Education financing from
the Government's 'public spending', it will be interesting to see what
exchanges occur between it and the proportionally representative Scottish
Parliament on the principles of free education.
What follow are replies from a number
of Scottish based colleges and universities holding visual arts/media related
courses, invited to respond to the issue of tuition fees.
This £1,000 tuition contribution
is much talked about but I must say that I am far from Clear about it.
It certainly begs some questions and I do wonder about the vigour of its
proper consideration. So my response is brief and in the form of some of
the questions that it raises in my mind. The questions are not set in any
1 What is it going to cost to collect
this money and who does it? Is it done centrally, or by the institution?
If it is the institution, then it is yet another administrative burden.
2 Where does the money go?
3 It seems to further shift the
emphasis from education as a process to education as a means of production.
4 Can this tuition contribution
be seen as a barrier to Higher Education efforts to increase awareness
and recruit from areas of low, Higher Education aspirations and expectations.
Clearly how to fund Higher Education
is a major issue at this time and not just in the UK. The proposed tuition
contribution does not, for me, offer signs that a more fundamental and
long term look at this question is being fully investigated or discussed.
Globally there are a range of differing funding models to regard and learn
Ken Mitchell, Deputy Convenor,
School of Fine Art, Glasgow School
We view the imposition of yearly
£1,000 tuition fees as a retrograde step. Students at Scottish Universities
can already expect to graduate with debts of £4--5000. Fees can only
add to the disincentive effects of such debts.
If people enter education in order
to make themselves more employable they will, and our survey evidence has
already shown this to be the case, begin to reconsider that decision if
the debt they incur outweighs any financial benefit that arises from holding
a degree. This is to the loss of society as a whole and there is no need
for this as higher earning students contribute extra already through a
system of progressive taxation.
Unfortunately, the effects are likely
to be exacerbated by the Government's further plans to abolish the student
grant in favour of a loan system. Glasgow University Student Representative
Council and the majority of University Student Associations in Scotland
are opposed to this, unlike NUS Scotland.
We are generally concerned that
the four year honours degree will suffer because many students will be
required to pay an additional £1,000.
We are generally concerned that
the focus has exclusively been on tuition fees and consider the abolition
of the grant to be as, if not more, important.
Jonathan Wright, Senior Vice-President,
Student Representative Council,
University of Glasgow
Many students are already struggling
to get by financially and there can be no doubt that many are damaged academically
because of the time and effort they put in to that struggle. Some try to
use their 'part-time' job as an excuse, but most of those who say they
are in difficulty often really are, both ways.
At Glasgow Caledonian University
we are proud of the fact that a relatively high proportion of our students
come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and succeed, often as the first graduates
in their families, but these are precisely the people who have financial
problems now, and who will be further discouraged by any direct tax on
From the viewpoint of the institutions,
budget cuts put pressure on us to retain the increased numbers of students
we are expected to recruit, especially in the high fee areas which are
also the most difficult to recruit for.
It has been proposed that even the
£1,000 per student will not come to us, but be spent on administration,
so there is yet doubly-downward pressure on the quality that we can offer
and that our poor students can achieve.
I can therefore envisage a time
when only a small minority can afford, and value, what the rest cannot
afford and don't value anyway because what can be obtained is also impoverished.
Professor W T Scott, Head of Dept.
of Language and Media, Glasgow Caledonian University
Glasgow Caledonian University welcomes
many of the conclusions and recommendations of the Dearing Report--in particular
its commitments to maximum flexibility and the widest possible access,
its emphasis on quality and standards and the parity of importance it attaches
to teaching and learning alongside research. We also endorse the focus
on work experience and student placements as part of all educational programmes.
We also welcome the Report's call
for urgent action to tackle the funding crisis currently facing universities
and colleges. In the evidence we gave to the Inquiry we made clear that
we do not support either income-contingent loans being applied to fees
or the introduction of top-up fees. We accept, however, that graduate contribution
may be the only realistic solution to guarantee the provision of high quality
education into the millennium. We will be keeping a close eye on the funding
proposals to ensure that they help not hinder our efforts in wider access.
W J Laurie, Acting Principle, Glasgow
It is the view of Napier's Students'
Association that student contributions to tuition fees are alien to the
whole philosophy of education in this country, and contrary to the Government's
stated aim of increasing participation in Higher Education.
There is a great fear that students
from poorer backgrounds would be penalised and deterred from entering the
Higher Education sector by this proposal. Places at Universities in Britain
could be allocated not on academic ability but on ability to pay. This
could result in a two-tier system in Britain, much like the 'Ivy League"
in the US.
At present students face severe
financial hardship. The current system of grants and loans does not work,
failing as it does to provide a level of income on which students can survive.
Most students are without access to any kind of income support or state
benefits and currently live on, or below, the poverty line. The introduction
of fees will greatly increase this pressure.
We believe that such financial pressure
will result in able students being denied qualifications, and many areas
of life, such as the arts and media, therefore being denied talented contributors.
The present Government campaigned
on a platform of opposing the introduction of fees, and we feel that they
should have stuck to this position. It is interesting to note that at a
February rally in Edinburgh against student hardship, a notable Labour
MP, now a junior minister, and a (subsequently successful) Labour candidate
spoke out against fees and claimed that a Labour government was the best
way to avoid this threat.
Napier Students' Association are
fundamentally opposed to fees, and have been and will continue to be using
every means at their disposal to stop their introduction. We have written
to various MPs expressing our opposition, and will be active participants
in the NUS Day of Action on November 1st.
Bill MacDonald, President, Napier
Views of Indian architecture
Impressions Gallery, York, 15th
In a year that has seen the hand
over of Hong Kong to the Chinese people, Indian history celebrates its
first fifty years of Independence from British rule. The events of 1947
have been marked in many ways across the world. The horrors of Partition
that divided the country by religion and ethnicity created a multitude
of sub-cultures that launched a discourse into the role of public spaces
and ownership issues.
Divine Façades aims to critique
the effect of the last fifty years through the use of space within constructed
environments. For a civilisation revelling in a cultural history that stretches
over four thousand years, fifty years is a diminutive yet significant space
in time. This visual arts project consists of archive photographs from
the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA) and three views of Indian architecture
from contemporary artists Abul Kalam Azad, Dinesh Khanna and Ram Rahman.
Part one of the exhibition titled The Orientalist Gaze consists of twenty
pictures from the CCA. Photographers Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne and John
Murray amongst others travelled North India at the turn of the century
recording images to send back to Britain to be seen by armchair travellers
such as Queen Victoria. The photographs are almost completely devoid of
people, creating a vision of the 'empire' without referring to those who
lived there. The reproductions have been produced from original negatives
stored in the archives of the CCA.
In contrast to the seeming serenity
of the archive prints, Ram Rahman's After Ayodhya contested space exposes
modern India's continuing conflicts. The series of photographs were made
during a normal journey around Delhi charting the many ruined mosques and
the new temples which have sprung up next to them. Some of these new temples
have not been given permission to be built on public land and most are
facing litigation, yet officials are reluctant to approach these temples
as they fear the Tantric powers of the babas that worship Bhairon, a strong
aspect of Shiva there.
Divine Façades was originally
titled The Babri Mosque with reference to 6th December 1992 when 20, 000
people gathered at Ayodhya to tear down the mosque, reinforcing by example
the extreme cultural value placed on public spaces. The photographs have
a documentary element to them, witnessing the long term effects of Colonialism.
One photograph describes a desolate graveyard of British statues and other
figures from the Raj, including King George V which was planned to be dismantled
in order to construct a statue of Gandhi in time for the celebrations of
Independence. Rahman's photographs address the people who inhabit the public
spaces around Delhi and their continued struggle to live and worship within
the consequences of Colonialism. The consumption of space often leads to
conflict, however these photographs do not deliberately seek out sites
of conflict as they "are all around us in India today. And more than just
places of religious ritual, it is all space--of freedom of thought, belief,
artistic creativity--which is contested space."(1)
Dinesh Khanna's portfolio presents
a physical form of architecture photographed almost to the point of abstraction.
These pictures are very painterly in their construction with an aesthetic
use of colour. According to Khanna old buildings "store old stories. If
we break these buildings--the stories die with them."(2)
It seems to be Khanna's quest to document the old architectural landscape
of urban India before many of these beautiful buildings are torn down and
replaced with ugly modern structures.
All four corners of India have been
covered by Khanna recording the scenery and revisiting towns to note the
changes. A real sense of personality can be seen within these prints through
the charting of a family history, a cultural awareness through the choice
of materials and ultimately the decoration which represents a status in
society. All this is lost with the destruction of these buildings that
Khanna photographs, the heritage and a way of life unique to that particular
society. Khanna's photographs raise questions about personal identity and
personal political history.
One of Khanna's projects was to
photograph in Ayodhya and Varanasi at 'disputed' sites and places of conflict
where a new style of architecture is evolving in the form of barbed wire,
iron fences and police tents. This is a sign of the times which Khanna
touches on briefly to raise more questions about public ownership.
Throughout these prints there is
a very strong commentary concerning the complexity of architecture and
the links with culture and society, yet the most overwhelming element to
these photographs is the sheer beauty of composition and colour which captures
an essence of the Indian experience which is absent from the other photographs
in this exhibition.
The most experimental use of photography
is apparent in the work by Abul Kalam Azad. The photographs are large-scale,
printed with the entire negative exposed. Some of the principal characters
are out of focus, others with their heads chopped out of the frame. These
snapshots have a childlike quality to them which is reiterated by scratches
and pencil marks over the top of the prints. This results in an interruption
to the reality, a re-reading of history and a parody of the human experience
often misrepresented in beautiful pictures by tourist boards and Colonial
Azad places the people he photographs
in the foreground and the buildings sit almost insignificantly in the background.
They gaze out of the photographs and give an identity to the human beings
who live and work around these architectural structures. The buildings
themselves, represent the growth of civilisation just as they do all over
the world, yet ordinary people are constantly absent from this representation
of history. Azad redresses this by creating a common illustrative discourse
of history by comparing overpowering architecture with incidents of everyday
The use of photography in this exhibition
is an ideal medium to express the many different views and issues confronted
by each artist. The fact that the exhibition begins with Colonial photographs,
an expression by a medium monopolised by the West is an interesting irony
and sets the scene for the rest of the exhibition.
The agendas create a discourse within
a historical context and it is one which will not conclude at the end of
the celebrations. The children born after midnight that had "the genuine
gifts of conjuration and sorcery, the art which required no artifice"(3)
have played out over half their lives. It has been fifty years since that
ideological time after midnight on August 15th 1947 and it is now a time
for reflection, to understand the reality of contemporary Indian life.
This exhibition would seem to be a part of that introspective and is touring
around Britain, from York to London, Edinburgh and Nottingham. However,
I would be interested to see how it would be received if it were to show
in Delhi, in the mists of where many of these questions seek to be answered.
1 Ram Raham. Divine Façades
Views of Indian Architecture. Catalogue. Impressions Gallery, 1997.
2 Dinesh Khanna. Divine Façades
Views of Indian Architecture. Catalogue. Impressions Gallery, 1997.
3 Salman Rushdie. Midnight's Children.
Art, Ethnography and Social Change
Two recent exhibitions, one in London,
Street Talk, the other in Middlesbrough, Between You and Me, reveal the
breadth as well as the coherence and consistency of Stephen Willats' work,
developed over the last 30 years. At the same time the contrast between
the white cube space of the Victoria Miro Gallery, in Cork Street, home
of London's art scene, and the municipal Middlesbrough Art Gallery, in
a city wrestling with the traumatic changes wrought by de-industrialisation
and its aftermath, points to the problems faced by artists trying to develop
new practices outside traditional relationships and ideology.
Despite the differences in visual
appearance between the work in London and Middlesbrough, both exhibitions
are framed by a critique of dominant art practice, of the artist as sole
producer of the work, and of the artist/spectator relationship. The idea
that art is made by a lone genius, a remnant of late 19th century ideology,
has retained credence throughout this century. Despite some collaborative
projects, many developed by feminist artists in order to consciously undermine
the male creator syndrome, both popular mythology and dominant art ideology
has maintained this credo.
Willats' work, by contrast, is produced
with other people, sometimes in a specific environment inhabited by the
participants, as in The Transformer in Middlesbrough, sometimes in the
broader context of the city, as in the work at Victoria Miro's--Oxford Street
and the underground system from Bond Street. While the artist obviously
has a conception of what he is trying to accomplish, the role of the collaborators--in
choosing specific imagery or objects to photograph, in reinterpreting their
environment--powerfully grounds the work in everyday experience. These collaborations
with different groups and individuals give each work a strong sense of
identity, which no one person--artist or otherwise--could achieve.
Likewise, despite attempts to change
the power relations between artist and spectator by Conceptual artists
of the 1970s, the inequality of this relationship still persists, the active/passive
opposition between maker and viewer underpinning much art practice. Even
work which opposes this redundant method--for example that which questions
gender identity, or racial stereotypes--while challenging the spectator's
preconceptions as well as societal norms, rarely activates or proposes
a situation in which the spectator becomes participant. Even where this
does take place, as in some work produced through computer programmes and
digital technology, the interaction is often undermined by the authority
of the artist who retains overall control of the technology. The apparent
autonomy given to the spectator is not real, but simply a product of digital
technology's ability to offer different, but controlled routes through
This is the second area in which
Stephen Willats' work has made inroads into dominant practice and ideas.
All his pieces demand an active and broad response. Sometimes this is built
into the work, as in Freezone shown at the London exhibition. Here the
work lies dormant until activated by spectator/participants. Two computer
screens, two sets of words as thesaurus and a single tall tower marked
with significant sites down Oxford Street, form the quiescent architecture
of the work (Fig. 1). It comes to 'life' when two participants, working
through the scenes visualised on the screens, try to come to an agreement
in describing them, and in so doing, progress down the street from Marble
Arch to Oxford Circus. This process is signified by the tower lighting
up along the significant places. This is not just the product of two or
three controlled possibilities, but a multiplicity of choices, which, as
you proceed, tells you something of your own unconscious preconceptions
and attitudes to society, as well as those of your partner.
The coherence and consistency of
Willats' work is also exemplified by Freezone. Its intellectual origins
go back to Meta Filter, made in 1973-4 and recently bought by the Museum
of Modern Art, in Paris. This was an early use of a computer to allow two
participants to work through a set of images about people's everyday lives
by collaborative agreement. But the differences between this piece of over
20 years ago and today's Freezone (apart from the flares of 1973 replaced
by today's fashion!), are instructive. While the figures used in Meta Filter
were models in environments orchestrated and photographed by the artist,
the images in Freezone, along with sounds of the street and notations of
weather conditions etc. were taken by a group of people walking down Oxford
Street, each given a brief as to which element of the environment to concentrate
on. This greater use of collaborative production gives the piece an identity,
a strong sense of place and time, but without the character of individual
expression. For those who took part in the construction of the imagery
and notations, the recognition on the computer screen of a footprint on
the pavement, the grating round a tree, a bench on which to rest (I was
asked to note the ground), is a reminder of how the work was made.
The second piece in the London show,
Going Home, (Fig. 2) was made by eight people with cine cameras boarding
a tube train at Bond Street and recording specific aspects of the journey,
such as people and objects, signs in the environment, spaces. Although
this is a flat wall-mounted piece of four panels, its construction from
a series of snapshots taken from the films, bounded by grids and framed
by short philosophical statements/questions, both reproduces the experience
of commuter journeys in the city--anonymity, crowds, alienation, noise (both
aural and visual)--and at the same time provides a way of seeking an understanding
of this typical late 20th century experience.
Going Home is characterised by an
immediacy, a sense of recognition, a common experience, but in a concentrated
form: the angry man glaring at someone's camera contrasts with the general
refusal of most to relate to others, characteristic of urban life--young
men, older women, children, concentrating on leaving this unpleasant environment
to reach the relative calm and safety of home. Simultaneously this concentrated
piece of 'life' is questioned by the statement/questions beneath each panel.While
not always as clear as they could be, these ask us to think about what
all this means: what it means about human relationships, not in the usual
form of blood and familial relations, but as groups living in a mass, late
capitalist society, after 18 years of Tory rule in which so much, work,
leisure, retirement, health, has changed.
The third piece, In Taking a Walk
is, unlike the other two, without human figure, yet human activity is everywhere.
The urban street, shop signs, adverts, pieces of rubbish on the pavement,
a scene without any green or natural growth is full of signs of human life,
evoking a strong sense of the experience of walking down an empty, rundown
city street. Of the three it is perhaps the most evocative, despite the
human absence, of late 20th century urban life.
No specific answers are given in
any of these works, for Willats' work has never been prescriptive; but
it does pose, in its theory and practice, a different kind of society,
one in which today's minority, counter-cultural propositions have become
the norm, where collaboration has replaced competition, where real democracy
is at work, and where art is removed from objecthood to become 'useful'.
In this way his work is also about artistic function. What role does art
play in the late 20th century and what role could it play in a different,
more socially egalitarian society?
In The Art Museum in Society, published
for the Middlesbrough exhibition, Willats has collected together some of
his writings on these issues. The text Transformers from 1988 expresses
clearly his intentions:
"I consider the act of 'transformation'
to be a fundamental creative act, basic to expression and survival....within
every person there lies the transformer and...the initiation of transformations
is essential to each individual...expressing their self-organisation, their
self identity. But while I can see...the... transformer...latent within
everyone, I also recognise its social inhibition--for the repression of
self-organisation...is implicit in the norms, rules and conventions of
what we are led to call normality."
Willats' work is structured through
the potential people have to change the meaning objects carry, a change
from expressions of social power by possession to tools of change, through
self activity and organisation:
"In the concept of counter consciousness
the object's status as an icon is replaced with the perception of the object
functioning as an agent or tool, that is integral to our relationships,
to the making of society. In my work the transformer is presented as a
symbolic person for the audience, not just any person, but an actual person
who has made transformations from the object-based determinism of our contemporary
culture to a counter consciousness of self-organisation based on people....[T]he
transformer expresses via those objects a corresponding change in his or
her own consciousness, assigning to the object a new, self-given function
which is other than its predetermined role."
Questioning the social function
of art has been a prevailing concern of Willats' work. His book Art and
Social Function, of 197 , looked at three projects, including Meta Filter,
as well as West London Social Resource Project and Edinburgh Project, both
of which developed artwork with groups of people in communities, while
his more recent book, Between Buildings and People, 1996, pursues the theme
of the relationships between people and their environment, showing how
people individualise their surroundings, while at the same time being prescribed
Of course the theme of social function
is one which has preoccupied 20th century artists, from the Dadaists to
today's heirs of that tradition. The history of these debates is well known,
from the Berlin Dadaists and Russian Constructivists grappling in revolutionary
situations with the question of art for a new society where the working
class might rule, to the disputes between Brecht, Benjamin and Lukacs on
questions of the appropriate forms of a new proletarian or revolutionary
art , to the feminist experiments of the 1970s, and Conceptualists of the
same decade: art in the 20th century has been preoccupied with finding
a role for itself. Sometimes it has accepted the role designated by capitalism
that everything within its grasp become a commodity in a marketplace; at
other times art and culture have been able to carve out a temporary hiding
place where experiments in prefigurative activities have taken place.
The election of the 'new' Labour
Government, while it has inherited not just the economic and social wasteland
that is late 20th century Britain, but also much of the Tories' political
baggage, has also opened up a space for the question of the role and function
of culture in the broadest and art in the narrower sense. Hence some of
the questions redolent of the 1970s are again on the agenda. The question
of art's function, of spectatorship and audience, of creating a situation
for art's production which can avoid the worst excesses of commodification,
the appropriate forms and techniques for a late 20th century, computerised
and digital culture, all these questions are being asked again, sometimes,
unfortunately in ignorance of their history, not just in the 1970s, but
in the 1920s and '30s too.
Partly because of this ignorance
and partly because of postmodernism's ability to confuse and relativise
ideas, (including ignoring history), today's debates on these questions
are often frustratingly unclear.
These ideas are also, of course,
rather unfashionable. Since the defeats of the 1980s, both in Britain and
globally, under Thatcher and Reagan, the 'S' word, as Judith Williamson
so aptly put it in The Guardian recently, 'Socialism', is unspoken and
unspeakable. Yet there is a clear change of mood in Britain, evident in
much popular as well as artistic culture, which says that the 'S' word
should be heard again, even if New Labour, is not the party to speak it.
It also means that the work of an artist like Willats, has come under the
spotlight again--though he continued to to work on his preoccupying themes
throughout the 1980s!
The work on show in Middlesbrough
is more closely linked to his projects developed within specific communities
with their residents. Best known are pieces such as Brentford Towers 1986,
where the residents of the West London tower block revealed the strength
of their ideas on how they would like to change their environment, and
had in many cases actually done so, despite the authoritarian nature of
their surroundings. Although this type of work is associated with council
estates and tower-block living, he has in fact worked in a variety of situations,
on waste ground such as The Lurky Place, in West London, 1981 and Taking
the Short Cut made in Roydon, Essex, 1994, in residential areas such as
Perivale in West London, From a Coded World, 1977, and both here and in
other European cities. But what unites all his work is his refusal to countenance
anything but the urban and the everyday.
The centrepiece of the Middlesbrough
show is 'The Transformer', made specifically for the exhibition and linking
together the gallery with sites around it such as a community centre, a
library, a cafe. Participants are asked to make a walk around a small,
concise area of the city, mostly made up of narrow terraced streets, with
a project book, The Book of Questions. Constructed from images and words
in collaboration with people from the area, it provides a series of photographed
objects and signs in the locality--mundane and ordinary things such as a
door knocker, a goal post painted roughly on a brick wall--along with short
statements and questions. The participant is asked to respond to these
images and words on a response sheet. Having completed the circuit, the
drawings and texts are brought back to the gallery to be pinned on a noticeboard,
thus becoming part of the exhibition, providing examples of others' interpretations
and reconstructions of the environment.
There is much in this work, and
other pieces in the Middlesbrough show that relates to ethnography and
anthropology. In The Artist as Ethnographer Hal Foster examines the way
in which avant-garde art has increasingly broadened its scope to include
such areas under the impact of social movements and cultural theory. Citing
civil rights campaigns and feminism as well as the influence of psychoanalysis,
and the writings of Gramsci, Althusser, Lacan, Foucault, Said, Spivak and
Bhabba, Foster says: "Thus did art pass into the expanded field of culture
that anthropology is thought to survey."
In tracing the path taken by some
contemporary North American and European art through the field of anthropology,
he warns of several pitfalls which are apposite in discussing Willats'
work. Foster questions whether perhaps the museum as patron may inoculate
itself by incorporating potential criticism of its role into the institution;
although at the same time:
"...in order to remap the museum
or to reconfigure its audience, [site-specific work] must operate within
Foster also warns of the dangers
facing artists who seek new ways of relating to spectators/participants.
Noting that much work based on aspects of anthropology, suffers from that
discipline's imperialist and colonial origins as the study of 'others'
(other societies, other cultures, other artifacts, other peoples, 'primitives'),
he notes the danger of the artist either standing 'in' the identity of
the community or being asked to stand 'for' this identity:"'to represent
it institutionally." Such an identification is less than useful, but he
is even more critical of its opposite: "Far worse ...is a murderous disidentification
from the other."
Foster begins the essay with a discussion
of Walter Benjamin's 1934 essay The Artist as Producer, where he calls
on the tendentious artist to go beyond a place "beside the proletariat"
which he attacks as "that of a benefactor, an ideological patron", to intervene
instead, like a worker, into the means of production, to change the technique
of traditional artistic production, to become a revolutionary worker--but
against bourgeois culture. This position seeks to overcome the identification
warned against by Foster, the artist is not in the same position as the
worker, but must develop an equally critical approach to her artistic means
of production, while directing her work in the interests of the working
Stephen Willats' work goes some
way towards this goal identified by Benjamin, although in this period of
quiescence, unlike the 1930s when Benjamin was writing, it is necessarily
more restricted in its aims. In The Transformer the artist does not just
"let the community speak for itself." The ideas framing the work, the choice
of sites, the imagery, are coordinated, in negotiation, by the artist.
These negotiations are multifaceted and include individuals in the area
where the project takes place, the gallery and its curators, the city and
its elected representatives. But the work is developed with local community
involvement and it changes and develops with the responses of participants
to the questions asked during the walk.
It also opens up the gallery/museum
to useful work. The inaccessible and elitist museum is rejected, while
the work done before and during the duration of the project, both by the
artist and his collaborators and by the spectator/participant, changes
the way those involved see their world.
Finally the most radical aspect
of this and much of Willats' other work, is the way that it quietly but
consistently asks us to move from observer/spectator to participant, raising
our awareness of the way society influences every aspect of our lives--from
the macro economic level experienced at work to human relationships at
home, from the press and media to the everyday objects we take for granted--all
of which express a repressive and authoritarian culture. His work also
undermines those twin pillars of refusal to engage with the possibility
of change: the totalising and seamless picture of ideology constructed
by Althusser in the late 1960s as well as the extreme relativism of most
postmodern writings since. For Willats' work is precisely about that, about
When AXIS--Visual Arts Information
Service, a company with charitable status, based in Leeds Metropolitan
university, came into being in 1991 it declared that "the database should
be free to artists." With a view to achieving a totally comprehensive register
its literature stated that "entry will be open to all professional visual
artists, crafts people and photographers." When I spoke to Yvonne Deane,
the Chief Executive, in '92 she appeared to espouse socialist and democratic
ideals underlining that the service would be free to artists and artists
would "receive reproduction fees" through copyright agreements. Computer
terminals would be sited in public places (libraries, galleries, museums)
implying anyone could freely access AXIS at any time. It all sounded too
good to be true, so much so that over 90% of artists questioned wanted
their work to be included.
At the time of writing (Aug '97)
there are two AXIS terminals in Scotland paid for by Lottery cash (£7,450)
sited in Bridge House, the home of Hi Arts in Inverness, and in Glasgow's
CCA. Both facilities are by appointment only although in Bridge House this
is not a hard-and-fast rule. The receptionist told me about 20 people have
come in to use the PC since it was installed about a year ago. She blames
poor publicity for this and says users are normally artists wanting to
view their own files.
In Glasgow the PC is less publicly
sited in the main office so they are strict about making an appointment.
Whereas in Inverness access is available 5 days a week, in the CCA time
is restricted to between 2 pm and 6 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays. Understandably
only 42 people have used the PC between April '97 and now. Chris Lord,
CCA's marketing manager, blamed staffing problems for this. CCA has applied
for Lottery money to improve its overall computer facilities and plans
to move AXIS into the more accessible foyer.
For reasons best known to itself
SAC originally set itself up in opposition to AXIS and spent approx. £40,000
developing its own IVAC electronic register which boasted 236 artists'
files. IVAC had, from the outset, been a dubious, ill-considered project
which allegedly ran with a software package that had been rejected by AXIS.
SAC hired a consultant in Broughty Ferry to redesign it and make it workable.
Artists' slides were collected in Edinburgh then carried to Broughty Ferry
for scanning at an estimated cost of £25 per slide. At the same time
Boots in Dundee was advertising this facility for 50p per slide.
SAC had borne the costs of registering
the 236 invited artists and when it abandoned IVAC officially in August
'95 it agreed to hand over an £88,000 three-year package to AXIS,
to cover the costs of bringing another 723 Scottish artists on board, plus
the costs of establishing another 4 AXIS points in Scotland. The first
of these are scheduled to come on stream in September this year: Gracefield
Arts Centre in Dumfries and Art In Partnership in Edinburgh.
Rebecca Coggins of Gracefield told
me that their AXIS facility was already in place and that it was located
in their resource room but in order to monitor usage the service will be
by appointment. AXIS will control the advertising of this facility. Gracefield
were asked to nominate 40 local artists, their fees paid by SAC.
A spokesperson for Art In Partnership,
a private public art agency in Edinburgh's Cowgate, said it was now more
likely to come on stream in October '97 because they were still trying
to finalise the package with AXIS. They too have applied for Lottery funding
to purchase the necessary hardware. The PC will be sited in their studio
gallery and will be advertised by AXIS. The facility will be available
by appointment only from 9 to 5, five days a week.
Up to now 426 Scottish artists (236
being transferred from IVAC) are registered on the AXIS database. AXIS
has decided to operate in partnership with various organisations and its
current Chief Executive, Kate Hainsworth, believes this system to be the
most effective way to progress. Up to now artists have been nominated and
paid for through these partnerships. SAC has borne the brunt of these fees
by paying £35 per artist. Local Enterprise Companies in Argyll, Western
Isles, Orkney and Shetland have paid the same with 39 artist in total nominated
by arts centres in their respective areas.
In future artists will be invited
to apply for self-funded registration at a cost of between £50 and
£60. This scheme is being introduced "as part of a wider strategy
to develop more comprehensive representation of artists." However, to qualify
for self-funded registration artists will have to meet the following criteria
set by AXIS's board of directors, a mix of professional artists, arts professionals
and business advisors.
The Artist must normally conform
with 3 of the following criteria including the first or with four of the
following criteria not including number one.
a) Had a degree or other appropriate
qualification in a relevant field
at least 2 public exhibitions or
at least 2 public performances or
at least 2 public installations
at least 1 public exhibition and
1 public performance or
at least 1 public exhibition and
1 public installation or
at least 1 public performance and
1 public installation
but not including a degree show
c) Received at least one prize,
award, bursary of professional practice
d) Received at least one public
body or corporate commission or at least 6 private commissions
e) Been engaged by contractual agreement
in an artist's placement scheme
f) Had work purchased for at least
one public or private collection
g) Had work available for sale through
one or more commercial galleries or agents within the last five years
h) Obtained membership of at least
one professional association or society
i) Had work reviewed or featured
in an art journal, magazine or newspaper
These Criteria and their application
will be reviewed at least annually by the AXIS Board.
Kate Hainsworth insists that AXIS
promotes an inclusive policy but within that 'Sunday Painters', i.e. art
club amateurs, are excluded. When I put the case for 'Outsider Artists',
i.e. self-taught, compulsively creative amateurs, she said that there was
no reason why someone like that could not meet their requirements for self-funded
registration. Her response indicated that AXIS's method of filtering applications
is suspiciously ill thought through and out-moded. It is obvious that AXIS
has not fulfilled its original remit to provide a free service to all professional
visual artists, crafts people and photographers. Further it now espouses
elitist principles that contradict those of 1991 which suggested AXIS would
be an educational aid to inform the public about contemporary art practice
in the UK as well as providing a service for commissioners and researchers.
Instead of setting up an open access
web-site that would be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, globally,
AXIS has run with a system of CD-Roms that are laboriously up dated every
3 months. Hainsworth believes that this control mechanism can assist accessibility
if CD-Roms are marketed commercially and insists that AXIS will persist
with the system. The most recent information states the AXIS web-site,
which up to now has been used for limited on-line exhibitions, is currently
under review and that further details will be available in Autumn 1997.
The CD-Rom software is very user-friendly.
The programme begins by offering a form to complete, then 3 choices: Search
Artwork Information, Search Artist Information, Finish Searching Register.
The first offers a range of artwork types from Architecture to Woodwork.
By highlighting Bookart one can click on Number of Hits--10. One can then
view each Hit, i.e. artist who exhibits 3 images of work plus CV etc. The
second choice allows one to scroll through all the artists' names. By highlighting
a name the programme offers 1 Hit and permits one to view the file. I found
a number of glitches which would suggest that the cross-reference system
is less than rigorously applied. For some reason 10% of artists on the
register have a text only entry. Other options such as gender, Disability
and Cultural Identity assist one in locating artists.
Scotland is divided into 29 Local
Authorities, some of which have no Hits. Edinburgh and Glasgow have over
90 each. Highland has only 58 and I know that there are more artists working
throughout the region than that. Neighbouring areas fare no better. At
this stage the register is woefully inadequate. Serious research by this
method is impossible.
It is, however, possible to have
a print-out of a CV for £1.50. Anyone requesting a copy of an artist's
CV and Contact Sheets via AXIS is charged £2.75. The artist receives
no copyright payment and AXIS says it has a "licence agreement with each
artist", defining how it can, and cannot, distribute digital and printed
images of the artist's work free of charge at access points and gives the
artist's consent to AXIS, providing reference quality illustrated print-outs
of images free of charge or at "cost to the artist".
Here we can see how the artist has
signed away any rights of reproduction to his/her work. This shift within
AXIS, from a 1991 philosophy that fully protected and honoured the artist's
right to financially benefit from AXIS, has in 1997 moved to one which
regards the artist as an unpaid supplier of data that is sold to drive
a so-called private business supported by State Money.
All things considered, it is not
difficult to comprehend the logic of continuing with an awkward marketing
tool like a CD-Rom, the continual updating of which is expensive and cumbersome.
It appears that AXIS want to control access to their database and, rather
than make it an integrated public service, operate it for a social and
cultural elite. This is borne out by their insistence that they control
the advertising of the service while further insisting that it be available
by appointment only.
At the present time AXIS is being
sold to artists as a professional service that will benefit their careers
through making their files accessible to those who have the power to launch
and assist careers through commissions and exhibitions etc. It is AXIS'
vain hope that they can advance their standing and credibility by becoming
an absolute necessity for artists and researchers and commissioners alike.
Successful artists have no need to register and knowledgeable researchers
and commissioners will use other more reliable contacts.
As an example of how AXIS is grabbing
at loose straws in its marketing campaign I quote from an open letter dated
4th August '97 and addressed, "Dear Artists...Your chances of getting work
through us are therefore increased with each new entry." This singular
argument for joining a fairly exclusive club is not an attractive one.
There are no added incentives, such as a totally free and totally accessible
service for everyone in the community to use. The letter continues, "We
want new artists to feel welcomed to AXIS. How can we do this?" and then
invites artists to attend a forum in Leeds on 20th August to air their
opinions. They can also do this by completing a questionnaire. The letter
ends on a revealing note--"PS. If you would like to be involved in the forum,
we can offer you a free update of your CV and new images of your artwork
Kate Hainsworth told me she is confident
of achieving a fully comprehensive register by the millennium. I would
suggest that in 28 months from now AXIS will be little further forward
after absorbing much more money and that many artist, artists-run organisations,
groups and galleries will have empowered themselves by setting up their
own free web-sites.
of British Democracy
A short one hundred and fifty years
ago Kennington Common, later to be renamed Kennington Park, was host to
a historic gathering which can now be seen as the birth of modern British
democracy. In reaction to this gathering, the great Chartist rally of the
10th of April 1848, the common was forcibly enclosed and the Victorian
Park was built to occupy the site.
History is not objective truth.
It is a selection of some facts from a mass of evidence to construct a
particular view which, inevitably, reflects the ideas of the historian.
The history most of us learned in school left out the stories of most of
the people who lived and made that history. If the design and artifacts
of the Royal Park mean anything they are a symbolic obliteration of such
a people's history: an enforced amnesia of what the real importance of
this space is all about. A history of life, popular discourse and collective
struggle for justice is replaced with a few antique objects and some noble
The significance of Kennington Park
goes back to its origins as a common. What is important about this site
is not the physical aspects of its layout but the traditions of its usage,
a usage which arises from its unique position in South London. It is here
that the road from Buckingham Palace to Dover crosses the older road from
the City of London to Portsmouth. It was the last common before the centres
of power to the North of the river, particularly parliament. It was first
recorded as a common on Rocque's 1746 map of London, but it must have been
crucial as a public meeting place long before that. The Southbound highways
date from pre-Roman times when a fork in a major road was considered to
have magical significance.
The importance of its position made
it a site of power struggles from an early time. From the 17th century,
if not before, the South Western corner of the common was selected as the
South London site of public execution. In the 18th century the country
was still dominated by an aristocracy; but the term gangster would be more
appropriate. But by the 17th century the unifying monarchical state had
transformed this naked violence into ordered spectacles of horror--public
The first execution recorded is
of Sarah Elston, who was burnt alive for murdering her husband in 1678.
"On the day of execution Sarah Elston
all dressed in white, with a vast multitude of people attending her. And
after very solemn prayers offered on the said occasion, the fire was kindled,
and giving two or three lamentable shrieks, she was deprived of both voice
and life, and so burnt to ashes."1
The most infamous of those terrible
spectacles was the execution for treason of nine members of the Manchester
Regiment, Jacobites, who were hung, drawn and quartered on Wednesday July
the 30th, 1746. Now that Scottish devolution has finally been achieved--with
somewhat less bloodshed--we might dedicate the fountain, which stands on
the site, to their memory. (The fountain is outside the park perimeter
railings to the South West, opposite the Oval Tube Station).
It continued as a place of execution
until the early years of the 19th century. The last person to be executed
was a fraudster from Camberwell Green, by the name of Badger.
The history books have portrayed
executions as popular entertainments; but it only takes a little sensitivity
and imagination to realise the trauma that any witness, not already emotionally
calloused would feel.
Children were hauled screaming onto
the gallows, to be 'wetted' by the sweat of the corpse, as this was supposed
to be a cure for scrofulous diseases. It is true that many took the day
off work and a 'carnival' atmosphere prevailed along the route that the
condemned travelled, but this was a way of resisting the morbid terror
that the state was hoping to induce.
The dawn of the 19th century brought
about many changes. The rising capitalist class was challenging aristocratic
power and the composition of the ruling classes changed. At the same time
the population was gradually becoming concentrated in cities. The density
of the urban population, with its intense social life, gave rise to new
political potentials. Consequently, the state required new forms of oppression.
The Peterloo massacre of 1819, in which 11 were killed and 600 badly injured,
taught the ruling class that overt violence could create martyrs and inflame
revolt. Their strategy was to sap the vital energies of the new urban population
by denying them cultural autonomy. This would be done by 'civilising' them
by training them 'to behave', making them outsiders in their own nation.
As in the new colonies, violent
conquest was followed by cultural repression. The enclosure of Kennington
Common marks a point at which class oppression changed gear; replacing
external violence with more cultural and psychological mechanisms of social
The Common on the site of the current
park had been a meeting place since the early 18th century, if not earlier.
It belonged to people communally and it was the South London Speaker's
Corner. It seems as if there was a mound at this time, perhaps an ancient
Tumulus, from which the orators could stir their thoughts. What were the
issues of the day that were broadcast from this site?
Earlier Times: Methodism
Large crowds were attracted to many
brilliant orators. The most famous of these may have been John Wesley,
the founder of Methodism, who addressed as many as 50,000 people on Kennington
common around 1739. This was a church with a stern morality which also
stood firm against slavery. Inevitably, anti-establishment and without
hierarchy, almost anyone could become a preacher. Methodist preachers could
interpret scripture in ways which linked Plebeian magical beliefs with
primitive Christian egalitarianism.
Robert Wedderburn was one such preacher
who operated in this area. He was born to Rosanna, an African born house
slave in Kingston, Jamaica, who was sold by her owner, Robert's father,
before he was born. He arrived in England aged 17 in 1778, and was in the
Gordon Riots of 1780. In 1786 he fell under the thrall of a Methodist street
preacher and experienced an instantaneous conversion. Intoxicated on the
power of grace and inspired by Wesley's stance against slavery, he soon
obtained a dissenting preacher's license. At the same time he stayed firmly
a part of the 'underclass' and its vulgar culture.
By 1813 he had become a follower
of Thomas Spence, who linked opposition to slavery with opposition to the
enclosures of the commons in England. This talismanic interpretation of
scripture led to milleniarism, free thought and political radicalism. Spence
was a prolific publisher and distributor of handbills, broadsheets, songs,
tracts, pamphlets and periodicals. He also issued token coinage to publicise
This was a period of intense popular
political discourse and self-education amongst the new urban classes. Radical
debating organisations became active but were then made illegal and had
to operate covertly or on a smaller scale. One of the most famous was the
London Corresponding Society, formed in January 1792 by Thomas Hardy, a
Free 'n' easies were one form of
social gathering in which radical toasting contests and political sing-songs
would alternate with heated debates. The Green Man and Horns, on the corner
of Kennington Road and Kennington Park road, was a likely venue. It was
later to become known simply as The Horns. More on this later...
The most popular text that arose
from these radical undercurrents was written by Thomas Paine, a good friend
of William Blake. Blake lived near the Common so Paine would have been
familiar with the area. His book 'Rights of Man': "Met with a response
that was unique in English publishing history ...Like an underground manifesto,
it was passed from hand to hand, even when it became a crime to be found
with Rights of Man in one's possession...extracts were printed in pamphlet
Tom Paine believed that: "Conquest
and tyranny, at some early period, dispossessed man of his rights, and
he is now recovering them...Whatever the apparent causes of any riot might
be, the real one is always want of happiness. It shows that something is
wrong in the system of government that injures the felicity by which society
is to be preserved."3
Chartism: The World's first national
From these feverish debates came
an agreement on the need for Republicanism and universal suffrage--for an
all inclusive democracy. In 1832 a voting Reform Act gave the middle class
the vote but left the working class, who had agitated in favour of the
bill, still entirely disenfranchised. The basic political demands, which
had been the elements of radical discourse for some time, were drawn up
as a six point 'Charter.' Presented as a new Magna Carta, by 1838 it was
supported by almost every working class group across Britain and rapidly
became the World's first national labour movement.
The people who supported it were
Chartists. Not a small active party with a large passive membership but
a movement which deeply affected every aspect of people's lives. It was
an inclusive organisation with popular leaders who were Catholic, Protestant
and Freethinkers, and who included Irish, West Indian and Asian people
in the membership. There were also women's groups. Chartist meetings had
a carnival like atmosphere, probably something like a contemporary free
festival. There was a Chartist culture which had its own christening and
funeral rituals and its own music. It was a counter cultural experience
that changed people's perception of themselves--they became conscious of
a unifying class identity.
The main political strategies of
Chartism became the petition and the monster rally. The petition was big
enough to have the force of an unofficial referendum. The monster rallies
were a show of strength which also gave the participants a direct sense
of community. By 1848 Chartism had built up a head of steam. The petition
for the Charter had grown huge, by then it had between three and six million
signatures. A carriage, bedecked with garlands, was needed to transport
it. Parliament was to be presented with this petition, for the third time,
after a monster rally on Kennington Common on the 10th of April 1848.
Icon of Modernity
This moment in the struggle for
democracy was recorded in a historic photograph. William Kilburn, an early
photographer, took Daguerreotype plates of the rally from a vantage point
from the top of The Horns. These were the first ever photographic representation
of a large crowd. Considering the cultural importance that photography
was to assume in the next 100 years it is perhaps not surprising that the
negatives of this iconic image are held in the Royal Archives at Windsor
castle, which retains a strict copyright control.
The fact that the events of the
10th of April 1848 did not herald a British Revolution or immediate voting
reforms has been held up by official historians as the 'failure' of Chartism.
But the success of Chartism should not be measured in such terms, but rather
in the profound qualitative effects it had on the millions who took part.
This is something historians have found difficult to register. There was
a real democratic culture and sense of social justice behind the Charter
which remains unrealised to this day.
The stand-off on Kennington Common
that day had shaken the arrogant complacency of the British ruling class.
from then on a unique alliance, between the waning aristocracy and the
burgeoning capitalist 'middle' class, was forged. This newly united ruling
block determined to crush or commercialise urban popular culture. From
then on there was an uneven but constant pressure to undermine and destroy
the unity, vigour and autonomy of the new urban lower class.
Enclosure of the common
The first step was to symbolically
annihilate the common land that had become such a focus of the Chartist
struggle. The Commons have symbolic roots going back to before the Norman
conquest. They stand for the right of every human to have access to the
fruits of our Earth: In stark contrast to the predatory individualism promoted
by the 'enlightened' imperialist. This individualism was calloused to any
sense of communality, unfeeling of the humanity and intelligence of the
crowd, and incapable of a non-exploitative relation to the Earth. This
lack of feeling was a necessary precondition of a class of men who were
destined to lead the conquest and exploitation of people across the globe.
The spirit of the commons was the
antithesis of this dominating cult of individualism and private ownership.
It was the spirit that had inspired the Diggers in April of 1649.
"For though you and your ancestors
got your Propriety by murther and theft, and you keep it by the same power
from us, that have an equal right to the Land with you, by the righteous
Law of Creation, yet we shall have no occasion of quarrelling (as you do)
about that disturbing devil, called Particular Propriety: For the Earth,
with all her Fruits of Corn, cattle, and such like, was made to be a common
Store-house of Livelihood to all Mankinds, friend, and foe, without exception."4
The ruling class united in the face
of this new threat to their power and the individual diversity of the working
classes was erased and replaced with a bland and ugly concept of 'the masses.'
The image of the masses as an irrational and potentially savage mob can
be traced through Carlyle and Dickens to Hollywood--it is a manufactured
Soon after the rally a committee
of local worthies was set up and soon found support from the Prince of
Wales. By 1852 they had already got the requisite bill through Parliament
and Kennington Common was 'enclosed'--its status as an ancient common was
reduced to that of a Royal Park. The planting and construction of the park
which forms the familiar pattern we know today was largely completed by
1854. This was a symbolic and real colonisation of working class political
The Common was occupied, fenced
and closely guarded. Not only was the perimeter fenced but so was the grass
and the shrubberies. The remaining paths were patrolled by guards administered
by H. M. Royal Commissioners. It stayed under the direct control of the
Royals until it was taken over by the Metropolitan Board of Works (later
to become the London County Council) in 1887.
During the early period of occupation
the use of the park was limited to an annual meeting of The Temperance
Societies of South London starting in the summer of 1861. It was also used
for local schools' sports. It is not clear what other sorts of public meetings
may have been allowed. Park Superintendents filed six monthly reports from
1893 to 1911 but they may have omitted to report on meetings which were
spontaneous or political. Certainly we know the park was used during the
General Strike of 1926.
This was just the beginning of a
period in which the new urban working class culture was attacked, undermined
or commercialised in all its forms. The Unions and socialist parties either
considered culture a distraction or encouraged their members to follow
the middle class programme of 'rational recreation.'
In the late 19th century this area
of South London was a theatre land, with vibrant theatres, assembly rooms,
dancehalls and musichalls. In 1889 the London County Council (LCC), later
to become the GLC, provided the park with an elegant bandstand and between
1900 and 1950 there were concerts of military bands for a paying seated
audience on Sundays, Wednesdays and Bank Holidays. These 'rational recreations'
were seen to offer a civilising alternative to the 'vulgar' musichall culture
which hemmed in on all sides.
But the theatres gradually declined
because of the gentrification in the area and because of the growing popularity
of the new cinemas. The beautiful Kennington Theatre, facing the northwest
corner of the park opened in 1898 as the Princess of Wales Theatre. It
was on of the most sumptuous in London. In 1921 it was showing 'cine-variety.'
It closed in 1934, failing to get its licence renewed for the 1935 season--perhaps
a victim of the depression. It was finally demolished in the 1950s to make
way for Kennington Park House, a block of flats built by the LCC, now run
by a Tenants Co-op.
Everywhere it was the same: Working
class pastimes were replaced with commercialised forms, 'rational recreations'
or erased altogether, leaving acres of public housing which had been culturally
sterilised. The active, autonomous anarchic culture of the crowd was replaced
with an increasingly passive, commodified and privatised 'popular' culture
of the 'masses'.
The Horns had been a favourite haunt
of Charlie Chaplin's profligate father. At one time the young Charlie lived
in poor lodgings overlooking the north of the park in Kennington Park Place.
The park may have been where he and his friends would imitate their musichall
heroes and practice their silly walks. In his autobiography he tells us
that he met his first girlfriend in the park.
The Horns, a key social centre whose
life would have flowed naturally into the park and energised it, was partly
destroyed by a bomb in World War II. The remains were demolished in the
1960s and replaced with the formidable dark concrete of the Social Security
block designed by Colonel Siefert, architect-in-the-pocket of many notorious
60s developers. Since the original tavern was destroyed, the bawdy spirit
of the Horns seems to have migrated north to the White Bear with its theatre
club and bohemian/crusty reputation.
In the Second World War the park
was the site of communal shallow trench-style air-raid shelters. On the
15th October 1941 these suffered a direct hit and at least 46 bodies were
recovered. The chaos of war along with the need to keep up morale meant
that no official toll of those dead and missing was taken. From the flimsy
evidence in the Lambeth Archives it seems as if the remains of between
seven and seventeen or more bodies may have been left unrecovered when
the site was levelled around the 19th of October. Many people must have
been blown to pieces and the south field of the park is their unmarked
grave to this day.
The park had passed from the LCC
(by then the GLC) to Lambeth Council in 1971. This was the Conservative
led Council which launched John Major on his career. In January 1977 the
squatters in St. Agnes Place, situated between the old park and the newer
extension, precipitated the fall of the Conservative Council in the most
Councillor Stimpson, called in a
demolition firm to knock down the squatters houses, whilst the squatters
were living in them. But he ignored necessary legal procedures and a few
of the squatters were able to get a last minute High Court injunction and
call a sudden halt to the demolition. The squatters in the area, who were
quite numerous at this time, were elated by this victory and spontaneously
set off down Brixton Road to march on Lambeth Town hall. Arriving at the
Town Hall they knocked on the front door and, to their amazement, someone
let them in. Angry squatters then teemed through the hallowed halls of
the Council, occupied offices and called vociferously for Stimpson's resignation.
Stimpson's blundering led to the fall of the Conservative Council and the
start of 'Red Ted' Knight.
The new Socialist Council started
the annual fireworks displays in the Park the following year. By 1984 the
park was again being used for political gatherings. The demonstrators on
the Anti-Apartheid Rally of that year used the park as an assembly point.
In subsequent years the park has hasted many important political gatherings
including: Gay Pride (Starting 1986), National Union of Students (1986),
Irish Solidarity Movement (1986), Vietnamese Community Event (1989), Anti-Poll
Tax march (1990), Kurdistan Rally (1991), Integration Alliance (1993),
TUC (1993), Nigerian Rallies (1993), Campaign Against Militarism (1993)
and Reclaim the Streets (1997). These events often reflect key moments
in the political history of the time and are an important part of the democratic
What's happening now
In 1996 Lambeth Council set up a
Park Management Advisory Committee (MAC). At the inaugural meeting a local
estate agent, lawyer and priest took up the key posts and plans for a 'Victorian
Restoration' of the park were quickly put into motion. The powers of Lambeth
Council to give permission for use of the park is to be limited--all future
applications are to be monitored by the MAC. This conservative committee
of local residents may have an influence on the park which does not take
account of its wider significance and use in the democratic politics of
Claire Asquith, a student of landscape
design, was commissioned to produce a public exhibition to promote the
restoration programme. This began by dismissing the Common as a place which
was "notorious" and whose ditches were "the cemeteries of all dead puppies
and kittens of the vicinity" and into which "raw sewage was discharged
from adjacent cottages." She omits to point out that there were many open
sewers in London at this time.
She writes of the erection of St.
Marks church in 1824, on enclosed common land, as "the salvation of the
common." But the building of the church was the first step in the occupation
of the site by the ruling classes. It was the Vicar of St. Marks, the Reverend
Charlton Lane, who led the committee for the enclosure of the common. A
recent paper from the Church, oddly reminiscent of a tract by Robert Wedderburn,
tells us that at that time it "unfortunately became a church for the rich,
who alone could afford the price of a pew."
The Victorian monuments that survive
in the park do not seem to symbolise or commemorate anything--other than
Victoriana. They do not deserve or receive any great respect and have been
progressively wrecked and vandalised. The War memorial, however, dating
from 1924, has an important function, it is regularly honoured with wreathes
and poppies and rarely defaced.
An application has been made for
Lottery funding for a major facelift. Anyone wishing to see the plans should
contact the Regeneration Department, Lambeth Council.
Friday the 10th of April 1998, the
150th anniversary of the birth of modern British democracy, the anniversary
of the most important date of the Chartist movement, the first national
labour movement in the World. An important site for anyone who values democracy--at
the time of writing there isn't even a commemorative stone. Kennington
Park still needs to be put on the map as a site of International significance.
1. H.H. Montgomery, The History
of Kennington, 1889, p.32
2. Howard Fast, Thomas Paine, 1948.
3. Rights of man Vol 2, 1792.
4. Gerrard Winstanley, Declaration
from the Poor oppressed People of England to Lords of Manors. 1649.
Why is there
only one Monopolies Commission?
Early in February 1976 an article
written by Colin Simpson appeared in The Sunday Times Business News which
suggested that Treasury eyebrows had been raised at the use of Government
funds to acquire works of art which included a "stack of 120 firebricks."
The story sparked an eruption in the popular Press which would make Carl
Andre's Equivalent VIII the best known work of contemporary art in Britain.
The populist assault on contemporary art that followed, constituted a Machiavellian
manoeuvre designed to favour monetarist policies introduced that January
by Chancellor Denis Healy. On the one hand it underlined an area desperately
in need of disciplinary cuts in public expenditure. On the other hand,
it created a temporary spectacle to divert the healthy, employed sections
of the populace from the effects that cuts have on those who rely on the
Welfare State. Given that the implication of monetarist policies resulted
in a substantial rise in unemployment, it is hardly surprising to find
that art scandals played an increasingly important part in tabloid politics
following 1976. An important part of the success of such tactical manoeuvres
by the Labour Right lay in their capacity to separate any perceived negative
effects of monetarist policy (such as rising unemployment) from apparent
successes (such as putting a stop to inflation and the public funding of
'rubbish' art). The art world provided an ideal scapegoat since it is administered
by quasi-autonomous governmental organisations. This means that popular
arts supported by arts funding bodies can be seen to benefit from monetarist
policy, since they are Governmental organisations. Simultaneously arts
councils could be held responsible for unpopular, modern art since they
are, after all, (quasi)autonomous. Of course, ending public subsidy would
have forced artists to behave, but Governments and Councils knew that this
would leave them without their pawns.
Following the Second-World-War,
a newly professionalised culturalist intelligentsia had opted for state
education as the mechanism by which its culture might be preserved and
extended as the centre of resistance to the driving imperatives of an increasingly
materialist civilisation. The ideology and lifestyle of culturalist academics
and the 'civilised ruling classes' who were their associates, were central
to the post-war Labour Government's conception of a new society. Individualism
and Socialism were to be developed in tandem by democratising intellectual
privilege. Labour Governments had aimed to use collective wealth to invest
in a programme of education, and so, in the long run, replace the 'manual'
industrial economy of low wages and long hours with an 'intellectual' post-industrial
economy of short hours and high wages (Harold Wilson's 'white heat of technology').
In this, Labour culturalists heralded a society not bound together by economic
market contracts, but by citizenship. Rational citizens would be educated
enough to understand that their high quality of life was dependent on supporting
a generous level of public provision, allowing the gradual ascendancy the
Labour Party's vision of democratic socialism while ensuring that existing
power structures remained unaltered.
Gaining secure, intellectual employment
from public bureaucracies due to improved subsidised opportunity, arts
administrators were good examples of what was expected of culturalist 'citizens.'
As such, British arts administrations generally accepted that the 'knowledgeable
will to form' had to be publicly legitimated and controlled in order to
ensure its social benefits. This sensibility, however, had become increasingly
incompatible with much state sponsored art in the mid-seventies. The question
arises as to whether or not it was deliberately incompatible. Could the
lower instruments of human depravity also be a guarantee of public good?
On the 18th of October 1976, COUM Transmissions' Prostitution opened at
the ICA, a retrospective guaranteed to dislocate human cultivation and
public order. The infamous exhibition, which featured pornography, used
tampons and maggots, was met with a furious attack by veteran right-winger
Nicholas Fairbairn in language that echoed the Arts Council's defence of
'cultural value.'1 That Fairbairn should have
mimicked some of the Arts Council's rhetoric while criticising the activities
it endorsed should come as no surprise. Fairbairn, like the Arts Council,
clearly endorsed the notion of art as the cultural activity of the educated
class to which he belonged. However, even such incongruous work could be
defended on Fairbairn's grounds in that it offered the culturalist cognoscenti
a brief, well-charted escapade into anarchism. Indeed, this was precisely
the ICA's position.2 Confronted with such
liberal curatorial practices, it became customary for 'new' art historians
to argue that art since the mid-1970s does not force a new set of critics
to adopt a new way of seeing since it is always already publicly legitimated
by educated figures: "...the objections raised by columnists in the popular
Press are quite irrelevant, because the critical and curatorial success
of [Andre's] work as modern art was achieved quite independently of such
reservations (where originally, as in the case of [Manet's] Olympia, [...]
a sense of the modern was constructed, to a certain extent, out of the
commentaries of critics)."3 While this comprehensive
claim might elucidate one possible difference between 'modernist' and 'postmodernist'
art worlds, its wider implications remain to be judged against the specific
cultural and political contradictions which took place in Britain around
the question of cultural and economic paternalism during the 1970s.
It might be argued that much of
the late modernist cognoscenti of the mid-1970s had deliberately effected
a reversal of the Arts Council's culturalist aims, using public money and
the media with the specific intent of offending, as opposed to 'altering',
the public sensibility. This could be countered by the fact that COUM Transmissions
had consistently aimed to make art popular by seeking more 'direct' forms
of experience. Yet any critical potential of COUM's work was in turn eroded
by the common understanding fabricated by cultural administrators and the
press, that the opposing face of the culturalist status quo was a monetarist
mirror image. COUM's assault on culturalist mystification, therefore, inadvertently
aided the cause of monetarist 'modernisers' of the Labour Right who were,
after all, the producers of the powerful media sensationalism which COUM
rallied against. The assault on culturalism rapidly become a vast graveyard
where the Left and the institutionalised avant-garde went to die. Both
were forced into an impossible position whereby they could not have their
negations and their politics too. One of the few groups of avant-guardists
to recognise this were COUM, who used the opening night of the Prostitution
exhibition to abruptly abandon the art world, re-launching themselves as
the industrial band Throbbing Gristle. With the art world's ideals scarred
by the 'failure' of the 70s late-avant-garde, new art historian T.J. Clark
was soon able to 'convincingly' proclaim that "the moment at which negation
and refutation becomes simply too complete; they [the late avant-garde]
erase what they meant to negate, and therefore no negation takes place;
they refute their prototypes to effectively and the old dispositions are--sometimes
literally--painted out; they 'no longer apply'."4
The relationship between an intellectually
demanding culture, museums as institutions which legitimise this difficulty,
and the corresponding industry of explanation, was quickly identified by
a large number of producers and administrators of British art as the matter
for practical and critical engagement. To remain independent of popular
reservations was deemed suicidal, as the threat to their secure, intellectual
employment now came from the State. Citizens who feared an end to their
privileged status were therefore forced to contrive an impetus for the
initial rejection of modernism in Britain. As the New Right's populism
gained in audibility, critics and artists who had professed an affinity
with the political avant-garde pretended to jump from their sinking Arts
Council ship. What they were in fact doing was ensuring that their status
became both the object and content of their work, thereby guaranteeing
their positions at the locus of high popular visual culture. Given that
former advocates of modernist culture did not have to deviate from their
usual practice of incessantly describing their own activities, it might
appear futile to argue that any cultural shift took place at all. Yet contrary
to the claims of new art historians, (who were major benefactors of this
subtle 'shift'), it might be alleged that the sense of the post-modern
in Britain was constructed out of the commentaries of its critics. Such
a claim rests on determining the extent to which the New Right were unwittingly
aided by the coterie of ex-modernist cultural administrators who re-emerged
in 1976 as neo-Marxist ambassadors of cultural change. Although they pronounced
their indignation at the fecklessness of art under capitalism, and promulgated
a crisis in contemporary art, the 'Crisis Critics' primary task was to
question paternalistic attitudes towards the visual arts while ensuring
lucrative future careers for themselves with the British Arts Council.
In 1976 Richard Cork published a
themed issue of Studio International on 'Art and Social Purpose' in which
he first began referring to himself as a "committed socialist." For the
next two years, Cork was perpetually at pains to state that the British
art world's lofty modernist ideals were arrogant myths. Following Raymond
Williams' lead, he argued that high art's 'objective standards' could only
available to the elite (of which he was a member). Since high art was the
culture of the elite, the general public could only ever understand or
appreciate high art if they adopted the ideology of the elite (a fact which
the Arts Council never disputed).5 In order
to remedy this situation, Cork proposed "to restore a sense of purpose,
to accept that artists cannot afford for a moment longer to operate in
a vacuum of specialised discourse without considering their function in
wider and more utilitarian terms."6 Despite
his allegedly radical intent, Cork's dual emphasis on the need for art
to play a utilitarian role while 'exposing' social depravation (caused
by bad government) played into the hands of the New Right.
A man of many contradictions, Cork
spent 1978 organising Art For Whom? and Art for Society, a series of gallery
exhibitions intended to persuade artists to forgo the gallery system in
order to make art for 'ordinary people'. In May 1978, Art & Language7
strongly criticised Art for Society for having "become a rallying point
of the self-promotional activities of the soi-disant left typified by the
'socialist artist' Conrad Atkinson's fearless expose of the Queen Mother
as an aristocrat."8 As the correspondence
pages of arts magazines were filled once more with letters criticising
another series of Arts Council debacles, the issues raised specifically
by 'social artists' were obscured by the main narcissistic theme of practice
and debate during the late 1970s: who ran the art world? Atkinson's analysis
of the situation was fairly accurate:
"...the Arts Council of Great Britain
is attempting to move into a dominating and decisive role (e.g. 'inescapable
editorial responsibility') in the arts in preparation for the eighties.
This will, I believe, see a 'tightening up' of the 'problematic' areas
of art practice, particularly, though not exclusively, in the visual arts.
Thus the work funded will be more populist (towards a visual arts 'Cross-roads').
In my opinion this will affect work in all media but most vulnerable will
be documentation, work with socio-political content, performance work and
work which is contentious and moves outside the accepted norms."9
Clarification of the shift towards
a safe "visual arts Cross-roads" had already emerged in the form of Andrew
Brighton and Lynda Morris' exhibition Towards Another Picture, which took
place at the end of 1977. Conspicuous inclusions were works by academic
and populist painters such as Terence Cuneo who depicted Lord Mayors and
steam trains, and David Shepherd, who specialised in African wildlife--especially
elephants. In stressing the show's 'grass-roots appeal' with such inclusions,
the organisers were attempting to claim a non art world audience and thereby
create a 'radical' alternative to the Tate Gallery and Arts Council perspective
on British art. Remarkably envisioning that this positioned the museum
institution under scrutiny while attacking the "intellectual vacuity, indolence,
corruption and self-perpetuating mediocrity of the art world".10
Brighton wrote of how "art history, properly practised, is part of cultural
history. The task of those constructing a history of own times is to examine
and understand the uses of art in our culture, not to reinforce the evaluation
of one section of the art market by giving them doubtful historical lineage.11
The form of critical culture envisaged in Brighton's brand of crisis criticism
was impossible to achieve since, in the present political circumstances,
the very concept of an educated culture implied limits on accessibility.
Brighton, luckily enough, was there, at the centre of the new omnidirectional,
postmodern art world, ready to explain all. The use of art in his culture
was to perpetuate this situation. Brighton refused to recognise an old-chestnuts,
namely, why might anyone wish to "question the unilinear account of twentieth-century
art"12 without first learning of it through
the form of paternalistic education once provided by the Arts Council?
Again, Brighton would administrate the case against cultural administration.
Julian Spalding missed the Crisis
Critic vogue, a letter to Art Monthly in 1979 criticising Conservative
cuts in funding to the V&A leaving no impression.13
By 1984, the Director of Sheffield's City Council's Arts Department had
learned how to capitalise on the many of the motifs manufactured by the
Crisis Critics towards the end of the 70s, combining them with Peter Fuller's
parochialism and the ruthless commercial exploitation of the New Image:
"The tide has now turned on the
New York School, and the art capital has swung back, not to Paris, but
to Germany, home of Expressionism. We are now witnessing a revival of figurative
expressionism hallmarked by its large scale and bold brushwork. [...] Many
young artists are tackling once again the problem of figurative composition
and are beginning to rediscover the potential of oil paint, a technique
virtually outlawed for more than two decades. It is timely, then, to mount
an exhibition of works by the last artists in Britain who painted figuratively
on a large scale in oil and who also absorbed some expressionist influences
from the continent. In the process they created a school of painting that
was original, rich, powerful and impressive and deserves to be re-instated
into the history of British art".14
The Forgotten Fifties, an exhibition
of the Kitchen Sink School, gained Spalding a greater measure of publicity,
touring from Sheffield, to Norwich, Coventry, and Camden. Opportunist criticism
came from John Roberts, who admonished that there "is no 'straight' road
through to the social as was reflected in '50s painting, because realism
as such can no longer capture the world so openly, so saguinely; realism
must come--and has come--under new auspices."15
(Roberts'/Terry Atkinson's auspices). Despite Spalding's relationship with
Sheffield's populace being like that of an anthropologist to a remote tribe,
Roberts at the time declined to reproach this as a revival of crisis criticism,
perhaps fearing that his critical career was too heavily reliant on the
perpetuation of customary refutation. As with Cork and Brighton, Spalding's
motivation was clearly "the belief that the public, as a valid subculture,
has a valid folk art which it creates and sustains but which is submerged
and undervalued beneath the more sophisticated art strata that, with official
backing, has tended to dominate the intelligentsia of the day."16
On taking over as director of Glasgow
Museums and Art Galleries in April 1989, Spalding simply continued to map
an anthropological model onto the civic art collection, while gaining greater
publicity for himself. Following his inauguration, Glasgow's Great British
Art Show was hurriedly conceived as a riposte to the 1990 British Art Show,
organised by the South Bank Centre. Conveniently, the public row that took
place between Spalding and the South Bank Centre attracted more attention
to Spalding's ideas than to his exhibition, (20,000 paying visitors, a
typical week's non-paying attendance at Kelvingrove). His prompt endorsement
of Beryl Cook and Peter Howson's paintings was essentially Neo-Classical,
a reductivist search for a never-never land populated by picturesque clowns
whose allegedly unaffected behaviour guaranteed that 'quality of life'
was not distorted by the impact of culturalist civilisation.
Spalding's primitivist/crisis critical
model has easily found a central niche in official Scottish culture, which
has a long tradition of being unduly concerned with 'folk'. In the early
18th century, members of the Neo-Classical Society of Dilettante initially
looked to ancient Greece for 'noble simplicity.' Genre painters soon turned
to home-grown primitives, depicting mythical peasant folk who were said
to have populated Scotland prior to the enclosure movement. The fashion
for the genre paintings which drench the basement of the National Gallery
of Scotland was nurtured by the main myth-makers of official Scottish cultural
identity, Rabbie Burns's sonsie verse and the 'imaginative reconstruction'
of history found in Walter Scott's tartan fantasias.17
The nostalgic shortbread couture used to promote Edinburgh today is essentially
no different from Spalding's anthropological obsession with Glaswegiana.
Both animate myths of Scottishness for promotional ends; both construct
a theatrical image of the people from Neo-Classical principles, and in
their aim to de-historicise culture, push 'executive skills' to the forefront
of cultural existence. The dramatised fantasy of the highland clans imposed
long ago on Scotland by novelists and romantic tourists, has also become
highly lucrative for artists and administrators who have successfully re-marketed
the great tradition as nostalgia for the late 70s crisis mode:
"Fanciful combinations of warm,
brooding heroin chic, and the mysterious, rugged qualities of Central-Belt
housing-estates, and Tiswas are not merely pleasurable but come with a
sublime sense of danger and excitement. Various camcorder activists will
'eat chips' like cultural constructs, providing a taster for the first
ever deep fried subversive voice for those women exploited by installation
artists for their own ends."18
Where populists such as Spalding
are much maligned for adopting an unsophisticated style to reach an 'unsophisticated
audience', many remain at liberty to cultivate the older ploy of presenting
'lack of sophistication' as desirable to sophisticated audiences. Will
Scotland continue to be a victim of its own propaganda, its official culture
an amateur theatrical production? Even if its entire populace comes to
understand and accept the values upon which populist artists and arts administrators
proceed to shape them, they can play no part in the creation of those values
or the decisions that flow from them. Following devolution, the official
culture might grow in strength as power is further devolved to the 'New'
generation of Labour monetarists who have duped themselves into believing
that it is Scottish Culture.
In a devolved Scotland, such greatly
empowered cultural emassaries may be unable to achieve true productiveness,
to break out of the vicious circle of their fate. If they fail to become
agents of history for themselves, they will remain blissfully isolated
from the historical conditions that have determined their destiny, their
actions relating only to the promotional structures of the art world, which
will therefore remain the very fabric of their perceived history. As strangers
in a world we have not made, we will continually find that our world is
made in their image: Pat Lally appears at civic building, there is a vast
picture of a stocky grinning character attached to its facade. Can Scottish
culture be regenerated if the ossified cliches that dominate it are merely
ridiculed? 'Scottishness' has already faced numerous forms of aesthetic
de-legitimisation. Attempts to redress the myths of official Scottish culture
are inexorably pervaded with its romanticism, transfixed as they are by
a culture they imagine they can successfully overmaster simply by unmasking
it. Often enough, the urge to unmask the duplicitous kilted culture is
itself a mask for an urge to partake, to enjoy the apparent rewards it
pretends to despise by further hypnotising an already bored and hypnotised
audience. Since mystification is inevitably entailed by cultural practice,
gestures opposed to official Scottish culture must rest parallel to its
surface, and therefore cannot be produced through the fissures that they
are often imagined to inhabit. Whether conscious or not, the objective
will always be to preserve a model of a culture that is never more than
the sum of its parts, to accept these rules in order to play the militant
1. Nicholas Fairbairn, "Prostitution",
Daily Telegraph, October 19th 1976. Reprinted in Caroline Tisdall, "Art
Controversies of the Seventies", British Art in the 20th Century, Royal
2. Director General Roy Shaw, on
the other hand, later condemned the exhibition: "It is my personal view
that this is not the kind of thing which public money should be used for".
Roy Shaw in Richard Cork "Richard Cork's 1976 Art Review", Evening Standard,
30th December 1976.
3. Briony Fer, "The modern in fragments",
Modernity and Modernism: French Painting in the Nineteenth Century, Yale
University Press, 1993, p43.
4. T. J. Clark, "Preliminaries to
a Possible Treatment of Olympia in 1865", Screen, Spring 1980, p27.
5. As a barometer of British aesthetics
in 1978 see Roger Taylor, Art: an Enemy of the People, Routledge &
Kegan Paul, 1978, and Sue Braden, Artists and People, Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1978, both of whom elaborate the view that art is a partisan concept
distinguished by certain associations which link it irrevocably with the
6. Richard Cork, 'Art and Social
Purpose', Studio International, 1976.
7. Art & Language, "Art for
Society?", Art-Language Vol.4 No.4, June 1980. It remains to be seen how
far Art & Language's 'Black Propaganda' (c.1978) differed from the
critics and artists they disparaged, given that they also made their cultural
capital out of the rise of crisis criticism.
8. Charles Harrison & Fred Orton,
A Provisional History of Art & Language, Editions E. Fabre, Paris,
April 1982, p61.
9. Conrad Atkinson, "Correspondence:
'Lives' Lives", Art Monthly, No. 27, 1979, p28.
10. Andrew Brighton, interview with
Adrian Searle, Review: "Towards Another Picture", Artscribe No. 10, January
11. Andrew Brighton replies to John
McEwen, Art Monthly No. 16, 1978, p20.
12. Andrew Brighton, "Artnotes",
Art Monthly, No. 15, 1978, p32.
13. Julian Spalding, "Withdrawal
of Government Support for the Arts", Art Monthly, No.26, 1979, p24.
14. Julian Spalding, "The Forgotten
Fifties", The Forgotten Fifties, Mappin Gallery, Sheffield, 1984, p6.
15. John Roberts, "The Forgotten
Fifties", Art Monthly, No. 77, June 1984, p16.
16. David Sweet, "Artists v. The
Rest: The New Philistines", Artscribe 11, April 1978, p38.
17. See The Lamp of Memory: Scott
and the Artist, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, July 30--August 25, 1979.
18. Prof. Plum, "Exhibition Information",
The City is No Longer Safe, Largs Central Institution of Contemporary Cultural
Productions and Non-Psychic Arse for the Encouragement of Active Nihilism
and/or Critical Consumption, June--July 1997; a themed exhibition from the
Auditorium for Critical Attitudes to Self-identification with the Definition
'Cultural Producer' as a Sufficient Response to Cultural Issues, near Stirling.
Jean Baudrillard's smug grin greeted
me as I walked into 'Assuming Positions', the ICA's summer show that offered
a speculative glance at the 'renewed romance between art and mainstream
media'. The position assumed by the exhibition's curators was designed
to be provocative and consisted of selecting work for its delight 'in the
immediacy, accessibility and impact of the "pop" image'. The French sociologist's
bulky figure, sheltering in the ICA to avoid the storm outside, vibrated
with stifled, uncontrollable mirth and I remembered the heady conferences
and exhibitions that announced the arrival of Post-Modernism, staged regularly
at the ICA throughout the previous decade. I watched the Blackcurrent Tango
St George ad, one of the shows star exhibits with its impossible 90 second
tracking shot, and contemplated the question posed by the show's curator
Gregor Muir, 'just what defines art as being "different"...' Baudrillard's
eyes twinkled with Gaelic charm and I remembered his essay 'Beyond the
vanishing point of art', an image that once fascinated me simply because
it was an event I was unable to visualise. The spectre of Baudrillard's
now forgotten thesis, that artists following Warhol's acceptance of 'absolute
merchandise' should work to affect art's disappearance, was being raised
by 'Assuming Positions', though the writer was never referenced by name.
Baudrillard's admiration of Warhol is built on a crude misinterpretation
but the question -- is the uneasy relationship between art and mainstream
culture disappearing -- posed by the exhibition echoes Baudrillard's lines
of thought. Through my naive, 'received idea' of Post-Modernism I thought
that any artwork moving beyond a 'vanishing point' would have some strange,
electronically-produced aura. Artworks that were 'pure signs', I thought,
would be like the complex neon signs at the Kentucky Fried Chicken shop
that made my eyes smart. Now I understand that art's disappearance, that
is the collapse of the distance between art and mainstream culture and
consumerism, could be a far less spectacular affair. So these were the
issues I debated as I wandered around 'Assuming Positions' to kill time
while I waited for the rain to stop.
'Assuming Positions' was a polite
exhibition despite claiming its agenda was influenced by Dada. References
to Haim Steinbach could be found in Tobias Rehburger's vases which were
exhibited on plinths and completed with flowers. Rehburger suggests that
the vases, made from a hollowed tree-trunk, ceramics and glass, embody
the personalities of colleagues in the art world. They resemble Steinbach's
displays, though Rehberger's sentimentalism is far removed from Steinbach's
Duchampian analysis. In Rehberger's displays there seems to be little irony
of the kind found in the work of Steinbach, Jeff Koons and the Neo-Geo
artists such as Peter Halley. Supporters of these artists firmly believed
in the 'Vanishing Point'. Neo-Geo, through its repeated mantra that nothing,
not even abstraction, could escape capitalism's system of commodity / sign
exchange, was an attempt to resist the 'Vanishing Point'. This brave front
could not be maintained forever and, retrospectively, Neo-Geo art practices
appear as a way of keeping the corpse of a Modernism warm, with its distinction
between high and low culture intact. Was 'Assuming Positions' proof that
this distinction was invalid or not worth making?
On the top floor of the ICA, Sarah
Lucas' The Great Flood, a toilet in full working order but not much used,
was placed in a central space in a room of its own. The toilet challenged
visitors to publicly bare their toilet habits and made the 'fun slot' on
several news programmes. News at Ten forgot to report that the piece parodied
Francis Bacon's angst-ridden representations of men on lavatories and Duchamp's
celebrated, non-functioning urinal. Opposite Lucas' toilet, in the adjacent
room, a cinematic projection of Jarvis Cocker performing a spoken version
of Babies, directed by Pedro Romhany, flickered across the gallery wall.
Comfy jute-covered poufs by Tobias Rehberger were provided in the same
room. Not only could visitors sit down to watch Jarvis Cocker's antics,
they could ponder whether their arses were supported by works of art or
furniture at the same time. The question posed by the exhibition, however,
was not, 'can you tell the difference between art and pop music, design
and the Blackcurrent Tango ad?' Specialist disciplines are not undergoing
a crisis; Lucas is unmistakably the artist and Cocker the pop star. 'Assuming
Positions' instead asked, albeit through crude juxtapositions, whether
the status of art as the estranged other of the twentieth century culture
has disappeared, at least for some contemporary practitioners who show
no signs of distress at being seen as just another branch of the culture
industry. This would be hard to argue as Sarah Lucas' position but perhaps
artists don't always have a choice in their relationship with the mainstream
media which has learned not only to love art, but also value its current
photogenic image. Further still, perhaps the admiration is mutual: maybe
there is a love affair going on and it is not just a case of a mainstream
media screwing contemporary art for quick gratification. As one-dimensional
and as banal as 'Assuming Positions' often was, it is one of the few recent
exhibitions to address this question. The show posed one further question
too: 'Is this "romance" between art and mainstream culture a bad thing?'
In current circumstances, the positioning of art in relation to 'popular
culture' and a spectacular mass media remains one of the most important
questions facing any practitioner. Art has of course not disappeared and
many artists would not recognise the agenda of 'Assuming Positions' to
be worthy of comment. However, a widespread questioning of the distance
demanded by critical Modernism and Post-Modernism in relation to mass culture
has occurred. In that sense 'Assuming Positions' was a missed opportunity.
The dilemmas faced and new departures undertaken by artists who have collapsed
or narrowed this 'distance' was not acknowledged in the show.
It was important that 'Assuming
Positions' was international in its selection and by drawing on artists
from Western Europe and America, rather than just from London, the exhibition
implied that the 'romance' between art and mainstream media was a phenomenon
common throughout the Western art world. Whether this is the case is hard
to ascertain but certainly in Britain, style and fashion magazines and
quality newspapers have been desperate for a bit of art to feature in their
pages. In return, the exhibition's curator included a collaboration between
fashion photographer Phil Poynter, whose work often appears in Dazed and
Confused, and Katy England. The resulting collaboration, a series of photographs
of a model taking her clothes off and then lighting her farts with a match
in a darkened room, aspires to be art and begs the question why do some
fashion designers / photographers desire to be recognised as artists? The
motives behind magazines like Dazed and Confused featuring art might be
less romantic: contemporary art can be utilised as a legitimising burst
of serious or high culture.
Rather than choose between fidelity
to the traditions of a critical Avant-Garde of the past or the embracing
of mainstream and everyday culture, it might be possible to argue that
some position occupying the tensions of this relationship is possible.
This was the position occupied by the most engaging work in the show by
Hillary Lloyd who exhibited a tiny video monitor that played a documentary
/ portrait of a woman having her hair cut entitled Nuala and Rodney. Another
documentary / portrait, Dominic, displayed on two monitors, presented the
journey of a DJ to and from the club Heaven. The artist's concerns are
similar to that of ID magazine but there is also an interest in chance.
Lloyd appears to be a contemporary flâneur, finding her subjects
through chance encounters in clubs and night-time London. Like some others
of her generation, Lloyd occupies a position which does not place itself
above everyday and popular culture (both her own and other people's) but,
at the same time, is not entirely affirmative of that culture either. There
is no need to write a manifesto on this position as this is what many artists
have done and are doing anyway.
If for the present moment we accept
some kind of shift has occurred in the discourse about art's relationship
to mainstream media and consequently the critical distance demanded by
Conceptual and Post-Conceptual Art in the 70s and 80s appears, due to a
number of circumstances, less and less feasible, perhaps one aspect of
Conceptualism can be drawn upon. Conceptual Art can claim a significant
intervention in the relationship between an audience and an artwork. By
challenging a 'Modernist Protocol' conceptual artists created new conditions
of audienceship by turning modernism's passive viewers into readers and
interpreters of an artwork's contingencies. What was lacking in the curation
of 'Assuming Positions' was a challenge to Post-Modern protocol and a consideration
of new conditions of audienceship for our contemporary situation.
Recent experimental CD releases
Robert H. King
A Small, Good Thing: Block
The genre hopping ASGT release that
has to be their finest and most accomplished work to date. Block sees them
leaving behind their 'Ry Cooder on skunkweed' excursions for some serious
funked up drifting Dictaphone laden groove narrative, sort of John Barry
and A Certain Ratio meeting head on in a soundtrack for a low budget (but
bags of style) detective movie, Harry Palmer meets Raymond Chandler. The
cool flowing breezy keyboard intro suffused with a lone trumpet on 'Cooling
System' sets the mood and pace for nine chapters in the life of someone
you'll never meet but whose diary you've read. The distant thunderstorm
on 'Moving Heat Source' soon makes way for some clean brisk drum loops
and weather system percussion blowing its way to 'The Horn' and a voice
snatched from the aether, providing the backdrop for some wonderfully bright
basslines. But don't despair its not all clean livin', Block has its fair
share of dirty treats and there are moments of raw genius here. On first
listening it appears straightforward enough, but press the endless repeat
function on your CD player and it gradually seeps into your psyche and
like the stunning artwork that wraps this release up there are hidden storylines
inside just waiting to be discovered. Block is like nothing else you'll
hear this year. Fresh and up but with a sting in its tail.
Beat System: 2297
Time Recordings, em:t 2297, CD
"Invade areas where nothing's definite".
The phrase (spoken by John Cage) that starts this latest emission from
the impeccable Nottingham based label is an apt description of their output
to date. Never being quite sure what to expect from the em:t series is
part of the attraction. Never repeating themselves in terms of musical
output is an admirable stance, many would be tempted to 'milk the winning
formula dry', but Time Recordings continue to release innovative debut
work. Beat System is an oddly deceptive name as the sounds on this disc
don't adhere to any ideas of techno or ballistic junglism, instead it weaves
its way majestically through voice experiments, binaural and electronic
recordings of fireworks, soaring guitar treatments in the vein of Sylvian/Czukay/Brook/Eno,
musique concrete re-appraisals and seductive weightless minimalism that
pays homage to Glass, Reich, Riley and La Monte Young. Acknowledging and
exploiting such diverse influences could so easily fall flat on its digital
face but Beat Systems Derek Pierce pulls it off big time easily producing
one of the most impressive releases in this em:t series to date.
Benge: I, Computor
Expanding Records, ECD497, CD
A shift in geographical location
and a shift in dynamics sees the digital Benge hitting the road with a
frenetic display of rhythmic acrobatics. This, his fourth release, takes
a hyper-stylised route to greater things, as previous releases, impressive
though they were, merely threw us glimpses of what Benge is capable of
and with I, Computor he seems to have found the right path. A rattle and
drum machine trip departure from his more soothing style (see Variant 3)
takes him on the road to a more 'Detroit' approach, but still maintaining
an appealing mix of gentle pulses and high end scrapes and scratches interspersed
with haunting synth lines. This adventurous departure will no doubt see
comparisons being made to the acclaimed Richie Hawtin (Plastikman, and
that's no bad thing). Given better distribution Benge will be destined
for bigger things, but at present his self produced material is developing
at a welcome pace.
Adam Bohman: Last Orders
Mycophile, Spor03, CD
As a member of Morphogenesis Adam
provided prepared violin and strings but what he presents us with here
is an intriguing array of sound sources: wine glasses, balalaika, wire
brush on tiles, toy telephone, muted trumpet and self built string instruments,
to name but a few. Gradually unfolding gentle and soothing textures at
first delicate and intricate, steadily build into moments of intense abrasiveness
only to slip back into the depths of meditative calm. Last Orders has been
skilfully crafted with the attention to detail of a watchmaker, making
for a work of true electronic experimentation.
Nocturnal Emissions: Sunspot Activity
(Soleilmoon, Sol52, CD)
For almost two decades Nigel Ayers
as Nocturnal Emissions has maintained a singular iconoclastic vision, to
produce music that is innovative and challenging. He has survived the 'Industrial
era' that produced a spate of visceral recordings (no doubt leaving many
listeners with hearing impairments), been sampled by Afrika Bambatta and
The Soul Sonic Force, moved to the solitude of the Derbyshire countryside
and composed moments of sheer beauty and reflection and has been embraced
by performance dance troupes. Each album has broken new ground and Sunspot
Activity is no exception. Ayers makes no attempts to disguise the unashamedly
lo-tech conception of the sound sources used: the crackle and distorted
drift of a vinyl run-out groove, bursts of reverse loop bells and chimes,
fractured electronic layers of the analogue kind and snatches of cosmic
radio frequencies all merge seemlessly to create a hypnotic and tangibly
coherent night-time soundtrack.
Michael Prime: Cellular Radar
Mycophile, Spor01, CD
Michael Prime is an ecologist/conservationist
and like Adam Bohman (see above) was a member of Morphogenesis providing
electronics and sound projections. Since the age of 12 he has developed
an interest in electronics that has more recently grown into a fascination
with the hidden sounds that are all around us but for which we don't have
the sensory organs to perceive. Using a bio-activity translator he records
the electrical activity of living things (plants and fungi etc.) turning
them into an audible signal, weaving them into acoustic environmental sounds
and incorporating electronics to produce stunning sonic landscapes that
ebb and flow with an at once graceful and violent fluidity. Listening to
these recordings on headphones leaves one reeling with their spatial dynamics,
phase shifts and snatches of the human voice speeding from the back of
your head out to either ear before spinning round to be enveloped in a
wall of processed sound.
Paul Schütze: Second Site
27° 37' 35" N 77° 13' 05" E
Virgin, AMBT23, CD
For me Schütze is a true innovator,
constantly shifting his axis but never losing sight of his ultimate musical
goals, his skill lies is envisioning the end work and absorbing the mastery
of his chosen musical partners. This is possibly one of the few genuine
'ambient' releases available in that it aurally describes the sound of
a space, an environment, in this instance a sound documentation of an 18th
Century astronomical garden located in the city of Jaipur, India. Over
its 100 minutes (102 sections) a calming female voice narrates descriptions
of the sites pillars, spheres and stairs and their interaction with the
sun and how an individual can affect them, "To move through these structures
is to set them in motion...". One is ineluctably drawn into this immense
work and that it was produced with a minimum of instrumentation: flute,
percussion and sound processing combined with the voice it could almost
be said that it is approaching a state of musical geomancy.
Noise Museum, NM009, CD
This wins the award for packaging
of the year. The disc has a miniature bicycle tyre around the rim and is
sealed between two sheets of card screen printed to look like wheels and
held together with a miniature wing nut, just brilliant. The material (recorded
live at the 'Musiques Ultimes' Festival in France last year) is 41 minutes
of seamless percussive brilliance. The bastard offspring of the mighty
23 Skidoo play searing basslines over dirt track drums and mountain bikes
all interspersed with some unique samples, "..becoming cyclonic.." from
the shipping forecast is a stroke of genius. The live sound is cavernous,
natural reverb adding to the echoing drum loops and deployed wheel rattles
create a mesmeric, heady mix of percussive improvisation and meditative
David Toop: Spirit World
Virgin, AMBT22, CD
For Spirit World Toop assumes the
role of virtual traveller, lucid dreamer and shamanic storyteller. The
opening moments of 'Ceremony viewed through iron slit' with bursts of aether
static and fragmented narrative open up the minds' eye to an inner world
of shifting images of exotica and roads yet untravelled. Snapshots of electric
trumpet gracefully drift over charged soundscapes (courtesy of Scanner)
whilst guitar and cymbal drones (supplied by Robert Hampson of Main), shakers,
tablas, flute and e-bow blend effortlessly with Max Eastley's inflatable
percussion. Toops' list of collaborators which extends to include the Hip
Hop/ Junglist Witchman, Michael Prime (bat recordings) and Toshinori Kondo
perfectly exemplifies the current state of experimental music in that it
embraces the notion of an embarcation point where many disciplines converge
continually providing new and exciting paths to tread. Toops' (highly recommended)
book 'Ocean of Sound' revived my interest in experimental music, Spirit
World re-affirms that interest.
Contacts / Distribution:
Robert H. King: email@example.com
Em:t / Time Recordings distributed
P.O. Box 130, Loughton, Essex IG10
Leaf distributed by Vital.
30 Petten Grove, Orpington, Kent
BR5 4PU UK
distributed by Vital or contact:
P.O. Box 83296
Portland, OR 97283 USA.
Virgin releases should be available
from any good record store.