Make me wanna holler,
throw up both my hands
Tales of the Great
Babes in toyland
R E Sammi
Red Rebel Song,
Nikki the Warrior, 5662
Working with children
and the snake
Talking to Tom
Cynicism and postmodernity
Homage to J G
These boots aren't
made for walking
Robert H King
Axis bold as brass
The Board of Directors and Trustees
of Axis have noted your article "Limited Axis" in your Autumn edition,
which will usefully contribute to our monitoring and review of our service.
We would point out however, that Axis remains committed to providing an
accessible and democratic service, delivered through a number of complementing
processes and mechanisms to provide information which is useful and beneficial
to both enquirer and artists. However, the growth of our outlets, and progress
towards our five year target of ten thousand artists cannot be achieved
overnight, and require considerable resources.
Our service is free, except where
printouts and contact sheets are required, which are charged at their minimum
production costs. It is wholly erroneous to suggest that that (sic) the
data supplied by artists 'is sold to drive' our business, which mainly
depends on core funding from grants, supplemented by sponsorship and project
income. The registration fee for artists is hardly excessive and, like
the criteria for defining professional practice, is founded on extensive
consultation with artists themselves. Our criteria is not elitist, but
practical, and we make no exclusive aesthetic of evaluative judgements,
believing that the information we provide should be rich enough to enable
users to make their own judgements by whatever criteria is applicable to
their individual needs.
We are also committed to developing
full interactive web access to the register, but there are issues of copyright
and protection of artists image which need addressing, and require more
careful consideration. However, it is naive to suggest that the web itself
is the democratic solution, and it is precisely because of the current
very class, race and gender exclusiveness of the web that we are committed
to a range of access platforms and mechanisms that together will ensure
a broader constituency of users.
The feedback we obtain from both
artists and users, along with our very thorough monitoring, provide a considerably
more positive picture than your reviewer suggests. Neither does your reviewer's
negative prediction for Axis match the rapidly increasing use of our service,
the regular success stories we receive from artists who have benefited
from being on the register, nor the enthusiasm and support we received
at the launch in December of our first London Axis point.
Chair of the Axis Board of Directors
Originally we had no intention of
printing the above 'response', but on Marshall Anderson's request we undertook
to publish it. Readers familiar with Anderson's article in Variant, issue
4 will have noticed that Sandle provides nothing to address or refute any
of its carefully argued points. Instead he just blabs away with all this
blatant hyperbole on his own organisation. The huge amounts of money seemingly
wasted on Axis have in our opinion still to be accounted for, this was
their chance to reply and they can't, or won't address any of the real
issues. Also, who is on the board of Axis and how did they get there?
Make me wanna
holler, throw up both my hands
I wanted to enjoy Tracy Emin's performance
on the Tate gallery after dinner 'round table chat', but I couldn't. Despite
my satisfaction at Roger Scruton's inability to disguise his misogynist
contempt for the worthless piece of seaside flotsam he took Tracy Emin
to be, it was impossible to suppress the thought that she had been set
up. Sure it was enjoyable to see the tedium of television's professionalism
ripped apart, to marvel at the drunken pomposity of David Sylvester, but
once Tracy Emin had staggered off, I couldn't help feeling her irritation,
frustration and anger had been expected and engineered.
The ensuring media/art world frenzy
over Emin's 'outrageous remarks and behavior' seemed indicative of an increasingly
dominant attitude towards her. Rapidly she is being maneuvered into the
role of official young British Art's bad girl. In much of the patronising
discussion surrounding her personae (rarely her work), there is more than
a whiff of her being labeled as representative of a new breed of noble
savage/idiot savant. While a lot of what Tracy Emin said on the Tate gallery
discussion and Will Self's Saturday night chit chat was drunken rubbish,
some of her objections to the misrepresentations of British Art rang true.
However as they were articulated illegitimately (i.e. they didn't observe
the dominant protocols of art discussion) they were either passed over
or blatantly ignored1.
Instead of considering why her remarks
aren't deemed worthy of 'serious discussion' what becomes valuable and
prized about Emin is her commitment to "getting everything out in the open"
in her "naive, intense, raw, honest, direct, powerful, true stories"2.
As the noble savage from the exotic hinterland of Margate, Emin is attractive
to those who find themselves simultaneously emotionally neutered, consumed
with a voyeuristic appetite for a bit of 'rough' and harboring a romantic
belief in the naturalness and truth of the "ordinary people". That her
experiences as one of "the ordinary people"3,
a not too atypically screwed up South coast misfit, who spent her formative
years butting her head against the oppressive conservatism and misogyny
of a seaside town the Germans forgot to bomb, is all well and good for
a London art world plagued by guilt about its privileges and accusations
The roots of the privileging of
Emin the artist, as solely a survivor, are multidimensional. As the embodiment
of one kind of nineties female artist, her qualities of resilience and
strength are highly valuable and important. By not giving a fuck about
the petty, polite protocols of small minded Britain, the insipid machismo
of the art world and particularly in setting up her own 'museum' she has,
to use the talk show jargon, set a positive role model. Similarly her "rude
aesthetic"5 detailing her experiences of abortion,
sexual violence and her various relationships may have undoubtedly gone
some way towards legitimising (again) areas of female experience previously
stigmatised and marginalised.
However it's also possible to see
the marketing and discussion of her as indicative of the return of an old
spectre, albeit in new clothes.
The art world was very fond of its
tortured, heroic male geniuses. Modernism's church was after all built
with the supernova life-force of its worshipped deities. Struggling away
in the garret, tortured by the likelihood of misunderstanding, such biographical
details of male artists' victories provided the grist to the mill of the
mythology of modernism. Artists had to be out of control, possibly slightly
insane; insanity was a trademark, a byword for authenticity, originality
and quality. A juicy life sold the monographs.
Then wave after wave of criticism
landed on modernism; feminism exposed the phallocentrism (exposure is always
the best method of ensuring deflation), post structuralism peeled back
the myth of originality and the conceptualists blew apart the lazy easy
going role of language in relation to art. Even the attempt in the 1980s
to claw back some of modernism's lost power, under the guise of the neo-expressionists'
oh so ironic and clever strategy of --'we make big paintings, with big brushes,
but we don't really mean it. Please make the cheque payable to...'--failed.
Even Saatchi had trouble selling their stuff!
Much of the discussion about Tracy
Emin highlights that for many she represents the return of the kind of
classic modernist artist neo-expressionism had tried to resurrect. It is
perverse that this incarnation of the artist as an "uncreated creator"6,
a primitive expressionist bestowed with a unique, special gift operating
in a sacred, separate space is exactly the kind the conceptualists and
feminists thought they had seen off. Except of course, this is the twist,
the point. This time the artist in question comes with the added bonus
of being a guilt free incarnation everyone can enjoy. After all she's a
woman. How could any of those old critiques of originality, authenticity
etc. apply to her?
However a quick glance at some of
her most prominent coverage highlights that for many she represents exactly
this kind of artist. Ranging from David Barrett's universalising: "We are
swept into acceptance by the sheer force of the personality", to his revealing
remark "it's not always what she says, but how she says it that is so powerful"7
and onwards to Stuart Morgan's impersonation of Claire Rayner "the first
time you had sex, was it against your will [luvvie]"8
it's impossible to escape the feeling that we are again in the presence
of the "charismatic power of the creator"9.
Such a collapsing of the distinction
between the artist and the work has powerful and worrying precedents. The
monolithic power Picasso wielded via the fusion of his personality and
art was so potent it was frequently impossible to get any critical perspective
on his work. Likewise I can't help but remember the tyranny of much 'critical
postmodernist' work. Frequently the work was so private in its mapping
of the symbolic and real violence handed out to those perceived as existing
on the margins, that any attempt to critique it was seen as a personal
attack. The free fall into all out subjectivity that resulted nullified
discussion, created a climate of intimidation and ultimately lead to the
stagnation of the work.
Now Tracy may not give a fuck, and
she may genuinely be telling the truth (whatever that means) but investing
in her personal biography as the best route to understanding is and always
has been only a partial truth in the casual construction of a piece of
work (it doesn't matter if she doesn't think of it as art, it's still exposed
to the same myriad of influences). For example whether she's conscious
of it or not, the role of the art world is impossible to shake. It doesn't
really matter if no one tells her not to make a text piece detailing an
abusive encounter with Jay Jopling, the inference will hover in the air,
subtle intonations towards making the drawings will float her way.
The truth of Emin's narratives,
their authenticity does not just explode supernova like from within; such
a perception of the sovereign autonomy of the self smothers any of the
conflicts, paradoxes and pressures that she finds herself in, making the
kind of work she does, in a particular artistic, cultural and social space.
Such an obsession with the utterances
of the artist is also deeply problematic. Are only those artists who give
good copy, worthy of attention?
While not wishing to position artists
as mute bystanders, inarticulate grunts who simply produce, there does
seem to be a need for mediation between their ideas about their work and
writers, curators and the public's responses. Reading a book about Martin
Scorsese recently I couldn't get past the point that my perception of Taxi
Driver and his, are completely at loggerheads with each other. I don't
see the film he thinks he made. But that doesn't invalidate the work or
our mutually incommensurable opinions.
While the "in yer face" persona
of Tracy Emin represents for many the good old fashioned, straight up and
down, uncomplicated pleasures of expressionist fervor, she also has become
the embodiment of a new culture of meritocracy, increasingly obsessed with
the cult of survivors.
Natural fact is I can't pay my
Tracy is a top class survivor, who
as David Barrett says is "a great story" because while "Andy [Warhol] never
recovered from his wounds, Tracy just gets stronger". The popular hook
of her work is that by sharing in her experiences via her cathartic outpourings
of pain and suffering, we too become spiritually, socially and emotionally
liberated. Emancipation through empathy. Tracy becomes a kind of Ricki
Lake guest for those who would never admit to watching TV.
Now pulling yer socks up, getting
on yer bike, doing it your way etc. have always been popular old chestnuts
in Britain. Rallying together woz wot saw us threw the war, weren't it?
Mmm. For the salt of the earth, the tarts with hearts and the all singing
all dancing miner's daughter, pulling yourself together and taking whatever
life threw at yer, was the best way of up and out. However in them days
the possibility of embarking on this route was at least mediated somewhat
by the simultaneous belief in a welfare state and some level of support
for those deemed at the bottom of the pile.
Then came Thatcher, who in the space
of a couple of years instigated the germs of a new meritocracy, which in
its brutal push to absolute self reliance did away with such "nursing".
Mortally wounding the traditional aristocracy, its previously unchallenged
power of natural and hereditary rights, Thatcher spawned a generation stamped
with the ethos of competitive go getting (at any costs) who were free to
plunder a massively deregulated and inflated private sector. Later Nick
Leeson revealed himself as her devil child; "the gentleman banker destroyed
by the crudest of yuppies, subverting old class with new money"10.
Leeson learnt fast and didn't stop in his hunger to make "shagloads of
If Leeson is one side of the legacy
of Thatcherism then the concentration and obsession with only those who
display the credentials of being survivors, of battlers, is the other.
In making a fetish of Tracy Emin as an ex-victim, there is the real danger
of forgetting and punishing the failure of those unable to pull themselves
together, for whom "the natural fact is they can't pay their taxes"12.
To paraphrase Spock: the success of the one outweighs the misery of the
many. Models of hope and resilience are one thing, but a hierarchy of suffering,
with only those who have really been through it being valued, is something
else entirely. That this attitude is not unique to life under Thatcher
is glaringly obvious, when Blair's bubble bath version of self reliance
and moral responsibility is looked at. Under New Labour there persists
the notion that the marker of a healthy society is one which provides ladders
of opportunity for minorities to climb. But as Andrew Adonis and Stephen
Pollard remark "the capability of individuals to climb the ladder at all
depends on them not being more than a ladder length from their destination"13.
I really feel I'm in mortal danger
of coming over all Elton John and Candle in the Wind about Tracy Emin.
Seeing her pissed on TV, being patronised and condescended to, I found
it hard to shake the memory of so many wild childs who've been before.
Only allowed to be one thing, defined by a caricature of themselves set
up by others to satisfy their own needs, there are a limited number of
moves they are permitted to make.
Lets face it once she's exhausted
her biography of all its really succulent cuts, once she finds that the
next batch of biography to be ploughed involves her relationship with Maureen
Paley, getting pissed on TV etc. then just how wonderful will her anecdotes,
her painful narratives, appear. What will she have survived then? What
will she be emancipating herself from then?
Critics, curators and many artists
like to perpetuate the notion that the art world is a special space freed
from the vicissitudes of the everyday, that it's a clean place, empty of
the abuses of power that ravage life outside. Enlightened, leading a moral
vanguard, artists, critics and curators are above racial and sexual discrimination,
sexual violence, class snobbery etc. Unfortunately the way Tracy Emin finds
herself being represented highlight that such behaviour is not the preserve
"The class which has dominated Cambridge
is given to describing itself as well mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually
contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it
turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its
sensibility; speaks of its pose and tone. If I then say that what I found
was an extraordinary, coarse, pushing, name ridden group, I shall be told
that I am showing class feeling, class envy, class resentment. That I showed
class feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody
fortunate enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well mannered
and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive
and deprived people. All I did not know then was how cold that class is.
That came with experience. "14
1 I know it could be argued her
drunkenness insured she wasn't taken seriously, but I think it's worth
asking what was it about both situations which prompted her to getting
pissed. As Pierre Bourdieu remarks in his essay "The Linguistic Market"
(Sociology in Question pub. Sage), the truth of plain talking is that ,
"when it is confronted with an official market, it breaks down".
2 All adjectives come from David
Barrets review of Tracy Emin's one person show at the South London Art
gallery in May 1997, in the May edition of Art Monthly.
3 The lumpen catchphrase, much used
by the BBC's Jenny Bond and ITV's John Suchet in the aftermath of Diana
Spencer's death, which has propelled them to the top of the hit list.
4 Gillian Wearing got rewarded for
providing some defence against such accusations of elitism with her pseudo
documentaries. However Gillian Wearing has always been smart enough to
jump camps when it suits. In one interview she's speaking the language
of an old fashioned documentary filmmaker, one who believes the camera
is a benign presence which objectively records the thoughts emotions of
its subjects, the next, well it's all just a big con, they're actors playing
a part and I wrote the text on the signs.
5 Paula Smithard "There's a tenuous
line between sincerity and sensationalism" Make June/ July 1997.
6 This is Pierre Bourdieu's phrase
from the essay "But Who Created the 'Creators'?" in Sociology in Question
7 David Barret review of Tracy Emin's
one person show South London Art Gallery in the June edition of Art Monthly.
8 Stuart Morgan's interview with
Tracy Emin in Frieze makes entertaining reading. It's hard to imagine anyone
else being asked the question "in your work you talk about anal sex a lot,
does it have to be pictured so violently?". Perhaps of course that is the
point; Tracy is unique and therefore deserves such treatment.
9 Pierre Bourdieu "Who created the
creators?" in Sociology in Question published Sage.
10 A Class Act--The Myth of Britain's
Classless Society Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard
11 Ibid. Pag 45
12 Marvin Gaye Inner City Blues
from the album Whats Going On. In many ways the fetish made of Tracy Emin's
suffering, and the incumbent problems, isn't a million miles away from
that afforded to many singers/ songwriters, artists such as Marvin Gaye
and Bob Dylan.
13 Ibid. page 15.
14 A Class Act--The Myth of Britain's
Classless Society Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard
Punk graphic design at the Festival
The rip-off riff's authentic ring
A singer who can't really sing
Can only mean one fucking thing
Punk rock revival
Affect the look of a man obsessed
Predisposed to the predistressed
Now you know you're properly dressed
Punk rock revival1
Following a stint of trouble-making
at Croydon Art School, Jamie Reid began production of the Suburban Press,
a publication which resulted from his disillusionment 'at how jargonistic
and non-committal left-wing policies had become'2
during the early '70s. It was while working on the Suburban Press that
Reid made his most significant attempts to break out of the mould of Situationist
artiness and the Left's agit-prop in-fighting. Four years later, his 'rip
off' graphics and Helen Wellington-Lloyd's 'ransom note' lettering were
the benchmarks of 'punk design'. Reid's graphic experiments did not occur
in isolation. In general, the 1970s saw a steady growth in 'radical amateurism'
as montage techniques were adopted by photoconceptualists, community photographers,
feminists, and anti-fascists alike. MINDA's photomontage designs for the
Campaign Against Racism and Fascism3 confronted
the rise of Fascism by drawing allusions between the images of the Conservative
Party, the National Front and the Nazis. Reid, meanwhile, was carrying
out an assault on the iconography of fascism. It would seem that for him,
MINDA's strategies were examples of the simplistic propaganda they opposed.
From placing a swastika in place of the Queen's eyes (God Save The Queen)
to forming a swastika from marijuana leaves (Never Trust a Hippy), Reid
ridiculed fascist iconography by striking at its very heart, de-centring
its power by problematising the meaning of its imagery.
The curators of Destroy: Punk Graphic
Design in Britain--an exhibition of 400 record sleeves, posters and fanzines
at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank--have made little concerted
effort to locate punk's contributions within a heterodox range of visual
practices. However, this exhibition isn't about punk. It's about 'punk
graphic design' and their histories are not necessarily identical. Writing
in 1980, Peter York noted that the 'main thing that punk introduced was
the idea of cut-ups, montage--a bit of Modern Artiness--to an audience who'd
never heard of eclecticism. Punk was about changing the meanings of things'4
a view which has been dusted down to champion the exhibits in Destroy.
A problem here might be that such blow-dried approval was clearly intended
to celebrate punk's recuperation into the spectacle against which--disciples
of its mythical origins cherish to enlighten us--it ought to have rebelled
against. Of course, as everyone is also advised, McLaren and Reid recognised
from the beginning that delinquent subcultures, since created through the
channels of the mass-media, could only simulate revolution.
Perhaps, then, it is reasonable
to claim that punk's anti-design stance had always made the whole enterprise
peculiarly arty. Not according to another popular myth currently being
rehashed, this being that punk designers were untrained, anonymous figures,
their designs raw and uncouth, using anything that came to hand--their aim
being to deface the designs of happy hippies trained at art school. It
is true to say that many designers remain anonymous while designated designers
such as Sabastian Conran, who produced promotional material for The Clash,
were self-taught. Yet many celebrated punk designers were trained at art
school, and for them plagiarism was more of a carnivalesque prank than
political art terrorism directed against Western property values. Malcolm
Garrett began designing sleeves for the Buzzcocks while still a student
at Manchester Polytechnic, where he had developed a taste for International
Constructivism: 'I began merging a number of things I liked, the pioneering
type of graphic experiments like Futurism and Bauhaus from earlier in the
century with stuff from pop art and Andy Warhol.'5
In the summer of 1977, Garrett's fellow student (and future Assorted Images
co-designer) Linder Sterling was finishing her dissertation on the sanitisation
of punk. Her photomontage for the Buzzcocks Orgasm Addict (1977), while
having obvious precedents in dada and surrealism, most closely mirrored
the kinds of anti-consumerist montage produced by mail artists and feminist
community photographers in the '70s, satirising imagery from magazines
such as Woman's Own. Certainly such punk 'designs' were formally chaotic,
irregular and harsh, while as 'cultural productions' they appeared subversive
in intent. All laudable credentials for any aspiring subculture, but wasn't
a very similar 'anti-aesthetic' to be found in the converse Hegelian logic
of grunge-formalism which had demarcated 'fine art' from 'design' in most
art schools since the late 1960s? Destroy is testament to such a view,
given that it was not organised by anarcho-syndicalist employees of the
Royal Festival Hall, but by Maria Beddoes and Paul Khera, a duet of sentimental
graphic designers who, as students, had been inspired by punk to cast aside
their airbrushes and set squares in revolutionary ferment: 'This is The
Evening Standard. This is Fiesta. This is a pair of scissors. Now form
an advertising Consultancy.'
'The idea that you can still go
out and do what you want is coming back at last', says Ben Kelly sleeve
designer for Godley & Creme, A Certain Ratio, and The Cure among others.
'I still count myself as one of the lucky generation', fortuitously suggesting
that some 'punk' designers were luckier than others.6
If anything, the cult of the individual designer was reinforced by punk's
'version of the credo quia absurdum est: you don't like it but you do it
anyway; you get used to it and you even like it in the end.'7
Copyright, an issue previously of little interest to graphic designers,
became the hot topic, (battles continue to take place over the attribution
of many Pistols graphics.) Who was the best designer outlaw; who was the
least individual? Generating such contradictions, of course, was the whole
point. However, given its pedigree, is it still possible to relish the
'irony' of such ambivalence? Adopting a visual vocabulary and style which
was entertaining, yet acidly absurd, Reid famously recorded attempts to
erase the Pistols from cultural history (Never Mind the Bans, 1977), before
interminably representing their demise in posters and merchandising, much
of which is represented in Destroy. Yet Reid's fear that 'the posters would
end up as decor for trendy lefties' bedroom walls'8,
was misplaced, for this is one of many times in which they have found their
legitimate home in a vinyl sleeved cube, the art-gallery-as-record-fair;
legitimate since, according to Reid's version of punk, assaulting the pop
scene head on, simply gave the Pistols a lot of publicity, enabling them
to make 'Cash out of Chaos'. Khera has an analogous incongruous fable:
'The Pistols were playing on a boat across the river and were banned from
coming ashore by the police. We knew that the show would get more of a
reaction here and it seems an ironic venue because of punk hating royalty.'9
One end product of this version of events is Saatchi art. Literally. New
Labour, New Danger (1996) saw Reid's Readers'-Wives style letterbox eyes
and rip-off-style-ripped-off by the Right. To complicate matters, New Labour
themselves appear to have heeded McLaren's 10 lessons in how to mask reaction
in the cloak of youth and revolt.
Like New Labour, Destroy is also
about what it excludes, reminding us that cultural history results from
a suppression of possibilities. It would have been interesting to have
seen Genesis P-Orridge's Paranoia Club business cards here ('E know you
don't write back because you hate us'), or perhaps a few posters such as
Gainsbourgh's Blue Movie Boy, and Gary Gilmore Memorial Society. It seems
unfortunate to have missed such an opportunity to have presented Throbbing
Gristle's proto-punk work as COUM Transmissions, much of which has far
greater appeal than Reid's numerous homages to the Motherfuckers. Unlike
many punks who were relatively new to such matters, TG/COUM had been practicing
for seven years as performance artists. They had also spent a great deal
of time developing punk's deliberately offensive fascination with murderers
and criminals, although in this, they were far from alone.10
TG were particularly adept at arousing an extreme response, leaving people
in a dialectical position where they could not switch the situation off
as a joke. Many of their record sleeves which are on display, on first
inspection seem bland, a banal photograph of an everyday location, but
to the initiated the spot is the scene of a crime, usually a rape or grisly
murder. Re-presenting the shock effects of sex crime, thought designer
Peter 'Sleazy' Christopherson, would provide an effective route to challenge
the hegemony of the mass-media's manipulative sensationalism. With a heady
mix of urban decay and accounts of the last murder and subsequent apprehension
of the Moors Murders,11 TG pushed sado-masochistic
performance to its limits: "Is it only legality that prevents the artist
from slaughter of human beings as performance? ... Ian Brady and Myra Hindley
photographed landscapes on the Moors in England where they had buried children
after sexually assaulting and killing them. Landscapes that only have meaning
when perceived through their eyes. Art is perception of the moment. Action.
Conscious. Brady as a conceptual performer? ...What separates crime from
art action? Is crime just unsophisticated or 'naive' performance art? Structurally
Brady's photos, Hindley's tapes, documentation."12
This 'investigation' into the links between art, sex, prostitution and
crime, provoked press malpractice and misinterpretation at a time when
most of their short attention span was focused on the Pistols.13
As a result, P-Orridge received a number of death threats. Satirically
exposing the hypocrisy of this situation, Death Threats appeared as a track
on Dead on Arrival: The Third and Final Report of Throbbing Gristle (1978).
The record sleeve dryly alludes to child pornography, involvement with
which P-Orridge was also being wrongly accused of at the time.
COUM's feud with the 'straight'
artworld was clear, as P-Orridge encouraged the use of text as purely graphic,
verbal abstraction, stating that: "In much contemporary art words are juxtaposed
with images and photographs. I do the same in a small exchangeable format.
(It amuses me to parody real world / art world).'14
As for many punk designers, radical amateurism demanded a humorous assault
on categorisation and intellectualisation. In many ways this served to
challenge the pretensions of semiotic art and rectify the solicitous nature
of educational photography by transforming them into humorous forms of
insubordination. Early punk graphics derided the vogue for appending abstruse
theoretical texts with fetishistic imagery: 'COUM have nothing to say and
they're saying it. Make your own theory. COUM have no game to play and
they're playing it.'15
However, by maintaining a contradictory
and absurd stance, much punk design refused to establish the wider contexts
in which it might retain a critical stance or challenge viewers to shift
the goalposts for themselves. The punk fascination with highly conventional
textual and visual cues of crime stories and pornography tended to disallow
the ability to manipulate words and images to suggest new meanings: 'To
suggest that the prerogative of art is simply to touch on possibilities
without comment surely shows an insufficient grasp of visual rhetoric.
...Surely he must see that no amount of manipulation of context can redeem
the use of the [Auschwitz] gas-chamber logo; in purely artistic terms,
which he cannot escape, there are such things as a sense of diminished
responsibility and a law of diminishing returns.'16
While the arbitrariness of verbal and visual language allowed for graphic
artist's manipulation, their control over what was ultimately signified
was tenuous at best. For better or worse, punk designers were unwilling
to fully manipulate their audience's conclusions, that is, the artist's
authority, once the work was in production, was ignored. Yet, even this
much was never quite certain with TG. As a riposte to their tarnished image,
TG appeared in Arran knit sweaters with Land Rover on an English coastal
hillside for 20 Jazz-Funk Greats, one of the highlights of Destroy.
Given that playing games is the
major design concern here, the emphasis in design of the later '70s and
early '80s shifts away from 'punk' bands, towards New Wave and New Romantic
bands. From the point of view of designers in 1976, such designs would
not be 'punk'. This, however, presupposes that punk graphic design was
primarily a question of form. It may seem absurd today to think that punk
imagery could still be valued for its 'subcultural' status, but it remains
clear that it contributed more than a little to changing the social, economic
and political topography of Britain. Nonetheless, for many in the late
1970s, regarding record sleeve designs as possible solutions to the problem
of the artist's contribution to the perpetuation of an oppressive system,
would have made them guilty of the egotism and elitism they deplored: 'If
they did anything, they made a lot of people content with being nothing.
They certainly didn't inspire the working classes.'17
Such New Wave sensibilities therefore tend to dominate a great deal of
the designs exhibited in Destroy.
In all, this seems to have been
particularly pressing given that Destroy is the third in an annual series
of exhibitions at the South Bank Centre entitled Towards the Millennium,
each of which aim to capture the 'zeitgeist' of a decade through its art
or design. Hence, we are are given the impression that, from 1978, a greater
number of sleeve designs became more absolute, while others look like baroque
creations fit to challenge the collection of souvenirs of art history that
inspired them. In most cases, however, the carnivalesque and agitational
side of punk seems to convert to an emphasis upon record-design-as-commodity.
Given that many sleeve designers had quickly abandoned the anti-aesthetic,
the emphasis on commodity fetishism was an ingenious means of ensuring
that records did not loose their newly acquired art status.
The sleeves selected for the later
section of the exhibition explore the ways in which designers sought to
correlate style and function when both were in an indeterminate context,
producing designs without being preoccupied with the appearance of making
or effacing art. The ironic 'Industrial' style which had been initiated
by TG in the lead up to the 'Winter of Discontent', was reformulated and
taken literally by technological determinists such as Cabaret Voltaire,
Brian Eno, and Ben Kelly. Ultra-elegant Industrial sleeves inspired a plethora
of designers to lovingly refine the utopian aspirations of ubiquitous modernist
schools of design. Drawing on Garrett's successful appropriation of International
Constructivist styles, Peter Saville turned his back on felt-tip and photomontage,
and injected a melodramatic sentiment of romantic disintegration into the
late 1970s by highjacking modernist design for a new generation of 'pale
boys' raised on Kraftwerk and Berlin Bowie. Saville elicited a busy abstract
sublime, activated by an engaging tension between a mass-produced look
and a painstakingly handworked feel to the finished products for Joy Division,
New Order and The Durutti Column. The operative tone of Factory designs
remained hopeful and visionary, but exuded a powerful lack of meaning and
place, creating an look which was neither critical nor nostalgic, but evolutionary.
Prophetically, Peter York once regarded
punk designers as a important guides to this new Leisure Class, a new moneyed
class which rejected the academic values of the middle-classes, replacing
the pedantic rationality of 'good taste' with 'a pluralism of pleasure.'18
Certainly, Thatcher's emphasis on self-fulfillment, authenticity, and freedom
of choice had an obvious appeal to participants in the sixties cultural
revolution, many of whom were impresarios. Hence, in liberal post punk
design, the consumer was king, driven by the desire to maximise pleasure.
New Romantic design was a part of the raw, uncouth, socially, psychologically
and sexually insecure new elite who were either unable or unwilling to
attain the 'academic values' associated with Old Labour, values which had
secured some members of the excluded a safe path to success since W.W.II.
Such designers were set to take the lead in the corporate image-centred
world of the 1980s. New Romantic sleeves openly celebrated the erasure
of historical claims to knowledge made by the academic estate, while maligning
of the nihilism and amateurism of Punk by re-establishing a perfectionist
emphasis on image and 'product'. BOW WOW WOW's sources are absurdly eclectic.
See Jungle.... (1981, RCA), Nick Egan's translation of Manet's Luncheon
on the Grass, made the pointed suggestion that style and content were both
subservient to the vagaries of fashion, stirring up a superficiality that
would often border on neurosis. Following a similar line of reasoning Steve
Strange, ex-frontman of punk outfit The Moors Murderers, formed the 'collective
studio project' Visage in 1979 with Blitz DJ Rusty Egan, Midge Ure and
Billy Currie of Ultravox, and John McGeoch, Dave Formula and Barry Adamson
from Magazine. Announcing it 'leisure time for the pleasure boys', they
quickly found themselves invited to all the right cosmopolitan parties
with rich high profile social termites so despised by punk, and henceforth
became the music press' whipping boy. Robotic beats, banks of varied synthesisers,
flattened vocals, and the message of terminally repeated choruses concealed
the void between dead-end daily jobs and night time fantasies of The New
Darlings of Decadence, who, deriding the conventionality of fashionable
outrage, heralded the new order of posing: "New styles, New shapes / New
modes, they're to roll my fashion tapes / Oh my visage / Visuals, magazines,
reflex styles / Past, future, in extreme / Oh my visage."19
Strange's desire to substantiate and enrich his own image by depicting
his own body as the source of his style was quintessentially New Romantic.
The 1982 retrospective album The Anvil (Polydor), named after New York's
infamous leather 'n' bondage dive, was launched at Strange's very own Paris
fashion show. The album cover saw Strange in a Luchino Visconti movie-still
photographed by the master of soft porn and presentation incarnate, Helmut
Newton. Inevitably, Saville was responsible for the ceremonial graphics.
Despite being responsible for the
slick consumer packaging of Public Image LTD's Public Image (1978), the
typewritten amateurism of punk fanzines such as South London Stinks (Anon.
1977) remained in the early issues of Terry Jones' iD. This magazine was
quickly transformed into a market leader, as the editorial emphasis switched
entirely to fashion, its punky credentials distancing it from advocates
of the heinous 'graphix' style found in late '70s fashion journals such
as VIZ: Art, Photography, Fashion. With Garrett occasionally helping out
with design, iD succeeded to switch the British Fashion Press' emphasis
away from prosaic interviews with 'Them' designers such Zandra Rhodes and
the Logan Brothers. Instead was lucid reportage of the outrageous fashions
being worn 'on the streets' and at venues such as Blitz, St. Moritz, Hell,
Le Kilt and Le Beetroot where nightclubbers had been turning up as living
works of art. Here was a sharp, timely contrast to the grubbiness of punk.
Theatrical get ups; swashbuckling pirate clothing, Kabuki masks, make-up,
and transvestites were all welcomed. There were sad Pierrot clowns, majorettes,
toy soldiers, puritans and Carmen Mirandas. VIZ went into receivership,
while Strange's Eighties Set took off. Following two entire editions of
The Face (English for Visage) devoted to them,20
The Now Crowd suddenly became an international movement, 'The Cult with
No Name', with an article in Time, and lavish spreads in Continental magazines
from Stern to Vogue.
Not all New Wave design was as slick
and polished as the airbrushed glam that punk rebelled against; nor was
it all obsessed with mannerism and the sound of commodities fucking. One
direction was the theatrical engagement with 'class' taken in designs such
as Barney Bubbles' numerous editions of Ian Dury and the Blockheads' Do-It-Yourself
(1979, Stiff). Far from being alienated youths, Dury and the Blockheads
were ex-art school students (Dury even taught at Canterbury and the RCA)
and greatly accomplished musicians. Consequently, Bubbles, another punk
designer who had been to art school, took this opportunity to make a humorous
jibe at the affected amateurism of de rigeur DIY punk graphics, designing
a number of sleeves which resembled school books covered in scraps of flock
wallpaper from the early '70s. Similarly, John Cooper Clarke, once heralded
as the New Wave George Formby, is a poet who, like Ian Dury, had been around
for some time but only started to come into his own with the advent of
the New Wave: 'You can look at things like Dada and Surrealism and reject
it for being a middle-class phenomenon. I think people in the New Wave
have done the smart thing and walked into those areas. Now you've got a
kind of working class vision of things. I don't think I've ever seen a
punk rock group that didn't have something very imaginative about it. It's
not being a traitor to your class to go into those areas. It only widens
your perspective.'21 Saville's sleeve for
Snap, Crackle & Bop (Epic, 1980) represents Clarke's trademark three-piece
suit complete with tab collar, shades and JCC punky lapel badges. The 'pocket'
comes with book of poetry styled like a Telephone Directory, the lyrics
overlaid on pages listing the names Cooper or Clarke. With music handled
by The Invisible Girls (experienced Mancunian hands Martin 'Zero' Hannett,
Pete Shelley, Bill Nelson, and Vinni Reilly) the New Romantic stance as
a parody of design, utilising theatrical breaks with 'straight' culture,
was both pointedly mocked and cherished: "Don't doubt your own identity
/ Dress down to cool anonymity / The Pierre Cardin line to infinity / Clothes
to climb in the meritocracy / The new age of benevolent bureaucracy."22
The intellectualisation of youth subculture was one of many targets of
Clarke's drollery: "Twin wheeled existentialists steeped in the sterile
excrement of a doomed democracy 'oose post-Nietszchian sensibilities reject
the bovine gregariousness of a senile oligarchy."23
While Destroy is warts and all--including
ABC and Duran Duran--it would be unfair to say that the 'punk artifice'
parable has been allowed to run unhindered. The curators, perhaps daunted
at the number of previous attempts to analyse punk, have settled with displaying
everything taxonometrically and in approximate chronological order. This
modernist hang was not entirely a contemptible suppression of contingency,
given that it gave scope for critical acknowledgment that cultural artifacts
are the products of competing value-systems. Hovering in their transparent
sleeves, 'punk' graphic designs are bracketed as open verdicts, allowing
full criticism to run as the final, unwritten chapter. Visitors can examine
stylistic shifts and provide monolithic theoretical justification for them,
or openly consider the indeterminate relationships between the different
factions involved without adopting the pretense that anything is capable
of resolution. When beginning to consider if Reid's work has been juxtaposed
with the first twelve felt-tip pen and typewriter script issues of Glasgow's
version of Sniffin' Glue to emphasise or undermine Punk professionalism,
tacit acknowledgment that the hang functions as a reminder that the culture
of our age is one that is never finished. Since rules change in accordance
with the needs of time and situational modalities, it would seem fair to
say that exhibitions such as Destroy are one of a series of games played
according to undetermined rules. The speculation never ends.
1 John Cooper Clarke, 'Punk Rock
Revival', Specially commissioned for The List in 1997.
2 Jamie Reid in Jon Savage, Up They
Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid, Faber & Faber, London, 1987,
3 Minda, "Minda", in T. Dennett,
D. Evans, S. Gohl, AND J. Spence, (eds.), Photography / Politics: One,
Photography Workshop, London, September 1979, p125.
4 Peter York, "The Clone Zone (Night
of the Living Dead)", Style Wars, Sidgewick & Jackson, London, 1980,
5 Malcolm Garrett, quoted in 'Graphics',
Creative Review, February 1998, p37.
6 Ben Kelly quoted in Domenic Cavendish,
'The Great Rock & Roll Exhibition', The Independent (Style), 31st January--6th
7 See footnote 10.
8 Jamie Reid in Jon Savage, Up They
Rise: The Incomplete Works of Jamie Reid, Faber & Faber, London, 1987,
9 Ben Khera quoted in Attitude,
10 'The passive nihilist compromises
with his own lucidity about the collapse of all values. Bandwagon after
bandwagon works out its own version of the credo quia absurdum est: you
don't like it but you do it anyway; you get used to it and you even like
it in the end. Passive nihilism is an overture to conformism. ...Between
the two poles stretches a no-mans-land, the waste land of the solitary
killer, of the criminal described so aptly by Bettina as the crime of the
state. Jack the Ripper is essentially inaccessible. The mechanisms of hierarchical
power cannot touch him; he cannot be touched by the revolutionary will.'
RAOUL VANEIGEM, 'Desolation Row' (1967), translated in King Mob Echo, No.
1, April 1968, Pygmalion Press, London, p7.
11 Throbbing Gristle, 'Introduction'
(1.01), 'Very Friendly' (15.54), Throbbing Gristle Live Volume One 1976-1978,
12 Genesis P-Orridge and Peter Christopherson,
'Annihilating Reality', Studio International, July/August 1976, p44.
13 Tony Roinson, 'Moors Murder 'Art'
Storm', Sunday Mirror, 15th August, 1976, p9.
14 Genesis P-Orridge, 'Statement
by Genesis P-Orridge to his Solicitor April 5th 1976', G.P.O. versus G.P-O:
A Chronicle of Mail Art on Trial Coumpiled by Genesis P-Orridge, Ecart,
15 COUM Transmissions, 'What Has
COUM to Mean? : Thee Theory Behind COUM', Typewritten Statement, Undated,
COUM Transmissions/Throbbing Gristle Archive, National Art Library, V&A,
16 Stuart Morgan, 'What the Papers
Say', Artscribe 18, July 1979, p18-19.
17 Ian Birch, 'In The Beginning',
The Book With No Name, Omnibus, London, 1981, p11.
18 Ian Chambers, 'Urban Soundscapes
1976-: The Paradoxes of Crisis', Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture,
Macmillan, Hampshire, 1985, p199.
19 Visage, 'Visage'.
20 The Face, Nos. 7-8.
21 John Cooper Clarke, New Musical
Express, January 28th, 1978.
22 John Cooper Clarke, 'Euro Communist
/ Gucci Socialist', Ten Years in an Open Neck Shirt, Arrow/Arena Books,
23 John Cooper Clarke, Psycle Sluts,
Part 1', Disguise in Love, Epic, 1978.
"We can achieve a sort of control
under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more
scrupulously than ever the case under the old system, now feel free."
B F Skinner
Gus MacDonald is announced as Corporate
Leader of the Year, Companion of the British Empire, Chairman of the Year.
The list seems endless as he rolls onto a game show type set. He is slapped
on the back by his old mate Billy Connolly who whispers sweet nothings
into his ear and they embrace in a manly fashion. Gus is given a "Lifetime
Achievement Award" live on the TV station he runs, by one of his employees,
while the rest of them form the audience. With tears of emotion welling
up in his eyes Gus approaches the microphone ...at that point the national
grid flinches like a wounded animal. The nation has put on the kettle.
Some of us are wondering while it boils: Was it Idi Amin who awarded himself
the Victoria Cross?
Personalising the issues is going
to be difficult to avoid, but he started it. Yes there is very little criticism
of Gus in the media these days, only words of sanctimonious sycophantic
praise. This is not entirely surprising because Scottish Television is
now the Scottish Media Group or SMG for short. It now (em...) kind of owns
the "independent" media in Scotland as the new name suggests. It owns Grampian
TV, the Herald and the Evening Times, its shareholders, The Daily Record/Sunday
Mail and Flextech run most of what's left. According to the Scotsman--one
of the few publishing houses not controlled by Gus--STV and Grampian alone
will reach 4.7 million out of a possible 5.1 million viewers in Scotland.
Somehow or other that does not constitute a monopoly or any breach of regulations
in the eyes of the regulators, the ITC. This is because they were set up
to de-regulate the market and have stood by while the whole independent
network has become monopolised. If you remember the Monopoly board game,
you don't have to literally own all the properties to control the game,
just some of them. Also, surely any decent monopoly would "influence" its
regulators, assuming that is, that they need influencing.
Last June the 3rd the Scotsman said
that the purchase of Grampian by SMG: "should be subject to the utmost
scrutiny," adding that: "this newspaper must comment, for who otherwise
can?" Left all out on their own they were getting a bit panicky, and their
analysis of the situation suffered, well, proved to be wishful thinking
to be precise. They stated that "the ITC said yesterday it would bow to
pressure and mount a public enquiry into the deal." Somebody was lying
there, because the ITC did no such thing. Let's have a look at what happened.
The boards of Grampian TV and SMG
only confirmed they had been talking together on the 6th of June. They
did this because someone leaked information to a Sunday paper not owned
by them and the stockmarket got wind of it. Four days later both parties
had agreed terms and SMG bought about 20% of Grampian on the open market.1
By July the 11th the ITC had "concluded that there will be no requirement
to conduct public interest test with regard to proposed merger with Grampian."
Let me run that past you one more time. While the deal was being done before
their eyes, the ITC decided that they would not even begin to look into
the matter, and it took them a mere couple of weeks to arrive at this conclusion.
They did not even detect a whiff of monopoly about it, despite the fact
that they had earlier said they would "bow to pressure" after the Scotsman
phoned them with what could easily have been a rumour of a takeover. SMG
went ahead buying bits of Grampian until by September the 3rd it was "entitled
now to acquire compulsorarly (sic) all [Grampian] Shares held by shareholders
who had not yet accepted the offer." A week earlier they had started another
deal, this time purchasing 18.2% of Ulster TV with a view to a takeover.
The ITC just ignored it.
The ITC's decision was also taken
in the light of the fact that they had not so long ago already deemed it
appropriate to investigate STV when it bought Caledonian Publishing, the
owners of the Herald and Evening Times. They found then that:
"the overlap between Caledonian's
circulation and Scottish Television's broadcasting area did not constitute
a threat to the public interest."2
If the Herald's own reporting is
to be believed on the matter, and it might be here, the reason the ITC
let the Grampian deal go through was because:
"The Herald and the Evening Times
were not deemed to be 'relevant local newspapers' in Grampian's broadcasting
That must have been a bit galling
for the Herald to print. A few years ago they had dropped the "Glasgow"
from their masthead in an attempt to convince advertisers that their circulation
was UK-wide and massive. Now it seems we have irrefutable evidence that
they are simply not read--are irrelevant in fact--in huge areas of the country.
So let's look at the ITC's logic. With the Herald/Evening Times all we
had was an 'overlap', nothing to worry about there, Gus may have Mayfair
but Park Lane is just "overlapping". With their second decision on Grampian
they simply did not even consider the position of STV, never mind the Daily
Record, and put the accent on "local" papers. So the SMG empire is thus
insignificant in Scotland because of the existence of the Aberdeen Evening
Express. And what if the ITC conceded that they were significant? Wouldn't
it just be another "overlap?" Some people will be wondering how exactly
the ITC found out what everyone in Scotland watches and reads in the space
of a few weeks. Others will be wondering what are they waiting for? Gus
MacDonald to proclaim himself Lord of Hell and stamp 666(TM) on everyone's
forehead? Then the ITC will perhaps 'consider an enquiry'.
It was left to the Office of Fair
Trading to "scrutinise" the deal in terms of "competition." That too was
passed, although few people could come up with a single name as a competitor
of SMG, maybe someone is secretly running an independent TV station from
their bedroom, who knows? The deal was also completed before the Devolution
referendum. Thus Gus can argue, with a fairly straight face, that SMG is
not a monopoly in the context of the UK; when it comes to an "independent
Scotland", well what are people going to do--write to the papers?
Nearly everyone in Scotland watches
the TV or reads a paper and yet we are all in almost complete ignorance
of who owns and runs what we're watching and for what reasons. Meanwhile,
our nicely anaesthetized minds are being delivered to SMG's advertisers.
Although Gus MacDonald is fairly well-known, a huge part of the public
façade of SMG is this constant portrayal of him is as some kind
of "nice-guy socialist, people's champion." But it is hard to see what
they were all celebrating in that awards ceremony; other than the creation
of another mini-media mogul, say in the mould of Axel Caesar Springer who
controlled 40% of all West German newspapers, 80% of regional newspapers,
90% of Sunday newspapers, 50% of weekly periodicals and two thirds of the
papers bought in most big German cities. He was considered something of
a despot by the German left in the '60s, but these figures are not far
off MacDonald's. Springer was hated because he created an unrivaled nation-wide
political platform which he obviously used. The Labour party are very popular
in Scotland although most people believe them to be corrupt and of having
betrayed them systematically3. It is a self-evident
truth that the promotion of the Labour party in the Scottish media has
had a lot to do with their "popularity". The Daily Record for instance
openly aligns itself as a party paper and donates thousands to the party.4
Editors may well assert their autonomy
in these situations, but they huddle together like sheep on the big issues.
Their collective viewpoint is increasingly based on a belief that vast
daily sales (largely to individuals whom they consider stupid) means mass
approval of what they offer. They see this as according them a political
mandate. While party politics are only one perhaps vague (in that the press
is biddable) influence on those who run the media: advertisers and shareholders
are another; and here we're talking the language of real politics: hard
cash. And the real language of newspapers is marketing: i.e. hard cash.
One of Gus MacDonald's letters (to
shareholders only) of the 9th of April stated that:
"Your Directors consider that employees
at all levels should be encouraged to identify their interests with those
of the Company's shareholders and that this objective can be furthered
by providing means for employees to become shareholders themselves."5
Is it not idiocy and bad business
practice that the editor of the Herald/Evening Times should identify his
interests with those of the Daily Record/Sunday Mail? "Yes", if they are
competing and "no", if they are working for the same ends. The "competition"
between them seems to be over: for is this not an instruction to ramify
the whole network?
Another point of this "objective"
is that SMG get back some of their employee's wages by acting like a bank.
Their employee's money is 'tied up' for three years and when optioned will
only pay out a limited dividend. But I am being all old socialist here.
Isn't Gus--our former shipyard fitter--not just being realistic in the Thatcher,
sorry Blair '90s? In fact isn't he just advocating a bit of profit sharing?
Sure, but he isn't sharing it with everyone. The next line in the letter
is straight out of Orwell:
"The proposed schemes are a sharesave
scheme and a profit sharing scheme (which will operate on an "all-employee"
basis) and two discretionary share option schemes for those key executives
who are most in a position to affect the fortunes of the Company."
For shit like this Gus MacDonald
gets an award?. The "Company scheme" has been "designed to be approved
by the Inland Revenue." The "Executive scheme" is completely "unapproved".
With this scheme the 'company' itself will decide "which individuals should
participate and the extent of their participation."
As ever the whole project must "satisfy
the guidelines of the institutional investors," the banks and other media
combines who own SMG6. Graciously (only) the
chairman will not participate. The scheme is patently open to abuses of
the worst kind, I would go as far to say it is abuse. It seems designed
as some form of carrot on a stick to socially engineer SMG's employees
towards cartoon levels of compliance and self censorship--one day, Smithers
you will get the key to the executive washroom. For the wealthy it will
create more wealth (an executive can invest four times their salary in
it). For others it must have seemed that SMG wanted their savings for some
kind of hidden agenda--and left them wondering what happens to my savings
if SMG's empire over-extends itself? It is too late for worries of that
And it is astonishing what is legal
these days. On January the 27th, a couple of months before Gus sent out
that letter, word got out that SMG planned to launch an issue of 200 million
fixed value bonds. Backed by the Hong Kong & Shanghai Banking Corporation
and UBS7. The net proceeds of this issue would
be used towards payment of a massive bank debt related to SMG's acquisition
of Southern Water and Manweb, two privatised utilities supplying water
and gas to the north of England, now only part owned by Scottish Power.
Could this be the same "advantageous share scheme" that is being forced
(the scheme if you remember operates on a "all-employee" basis) upon SMG
employees, who are already working harder for less money?
The average wage per year (as a
unit cost) has fallen like a stone: from £33,711 in '94 to £16,306
in '96. In the same period the profit per employee has gone up from £2,000
to £41,000. The return on the shareholders' funds has similarly jumped
from 4.37% to 67.11%. These figures relate to staff who have the impertinence
to request payment for their skills. Were it possible to take into account
those hopefuls who work for nothing, or on an expenses only basis, the
actual remuneration would plummet further.
But SMG workers have nothing to
fear, the people's champion is at hand. No, not Gus, but another old socialist:
Sir Gavin Henry Laird, board member of SMG and member of the Employment
Appeal Tribunal. Gavin has been looking after the worker's interests for
as long as anyone can remember, particularly in the big right-wing Union,
the AEU. Everyone must have wanted rid of him though, because he was kicked
upstairs till his fat arse landed on a seat on the board of the Bank of
England. The same year he joined STV, which seems to be acting like a bank
itself these days. Gavin also "works" for Britannia Life, an insurance
company, so it is unlikely that he is a big fan of the welfare state. He
also "works" for the Armed Forces Pay Review Body (who recently opted out
of the National Minimum Wage scheme) and GEC Scotland. So he decides what
soldiers get paid when they're getting killed by weapons sold to the enemy
by GEC. He also finds time to slave his guts out on the Edinburgh Investment
Trust where the top directors from The Securities Trust of Scotland, Flemings
Bank, Scottish Widows, Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Scotland and the Royal
Bank of Scotland, all pool their knowledge to make a killing on the Stock
Market8. So old Gavin can be forgiven for
not noticing what is happening to SMG employees. It could also be that
he knows fine well.
Aggrieved employees who for some
reason do not trust Gavin could try the Department of Trade and Industry
(DTI). They are a little busy right now, or at least they must be given
that they have been "working" on (some would say suppressing) the as yet
unpublished report on the £100m of profit that went missing when
that other old socialist, Robert Maxwell, did a bit of profit sharing himself.
The Mirror Group, who own the Daily Record/Sunday Mail who own 20% of SMG,
are technically still under investigation. Board members, such as Sir Robert
Clark, still sit on the same seats they used to when Maxwell was there.
As we all know nobody noticed a thing at the time, anyway nobody has been
found guilty of anything and that's the important thing. The hundred million
simply vanished. Nobody is overly worried about that DTI9
report because another old socialist, Helen Liddell, went from working
on the Daily Record to running the country in a few short months. She was
put into the Monklands constituency after the death of John Smith. Monklands
had more or less been designated a Labour Corruption Zone and some facts
were leaking out. As can be imagined the investigative journalism which
brought a lot of open secrets to light was done by one or two people on
a small local paper. The Daily Record did nothing. Liddell claims to have
been only remotely connected to Maxwell, but according to Private Eye 942:
"...she was renowned and feared
for her ruthless devotion to Cap'n Bob. Escorting him to a function in
Edinburgh City Chambers in 1988...she clung to him so closely that at one
point she even followed him into the gent's lavatory--a historic moment
that was recorded by a BBC TV documentary crew filming the event. In the
following two years she often accompanied Maxwell in his private plane
on trips abroad, including a sortie to Bulgaria to advise the new government
on how to run its elections. And in 1991 she was involved in the notorious
Mirror Group floatation, which was the subject of a DTI inquiry."
Oil, Polly Peck, Digital TV and
And what of Flextech, SMG's other
20% owner are they any more trustworthy? Although little known by the general
public they have grown to become the second largest provider of satellite
programmes in the UK: they are responsible for Playboy TV, UK Gold, Bravo,
Challenge TV (a game show channel) and a few other even worse channels.
Back in the early '90s they were an industrial holding company mostly engaged
in oil and gas services. Its companies mostly operated in the waters around
Cyprus, Norway and Malaysia, all sensitive military areas. Its deputy chairman
was Lawrence Tindale, chairman of countless off-shore Guernsey companies
and at the time also a director of Polly Peck International, the company
which crashed in 1990 at much the same time Maxwell went overboard. The
company was "supposedly making profits of £200m per year but collapsed
within weeks leaving shareholders with nothing and creditors who were owed
more than £1 billion with little more."10
Flextech moved into media in a big
way when they were taken over by the European business arm of TCI, the
biggest US cable TV operator, ultimately owned (35%) by United Artists,
the American multinational. The driving force behind the company is said
to be its chairman, Roger Luard, who is also on the board of SMG11.
One peculiar thing about Flextech is that although its shareprice has soared
since its early days, it has not made a profit in years. On the contrary
its accounts show it has made huge losses. It would seem that investors
are backing it on the strength of the United Artists connection and on
a promising deal with the BBC, which if you have ever paid your license
fee you have unknowingly contributed to yourself. Back in October '96 the
BBC chose Flextech as its 50/50 partner in the launch of an eight channel
subscription package using old BBC programmes. At one point the Mirror
Group's David Montgomery and Flextech's Adam Singer were in talks about
a joint venture with the big cable companies exploiting the BBC deal. Both
Singer and Montgomery are on the board of SMG, which is probably where
the planning began.
Flextech are also involved in the
chicanery that accompanied the licensing of terrestrial digital broadcasting.
It is predicted that digital will see pay-TV phase out the old analog transmissions.
The decisions were made last year but programmes will not start up till
later this year. At present preparation is in a "complete shambles". Two
competing consortia wanted the license from the ITC: British Digital Broadcasting
(BDB) who won, and Digital Terrestrial Network (DTN) who lost. A legal
challenge (by the losing consortium) ensued and the Office of Telecommunication
(Oftel) intervened, at first to advise that DTN was the better deal and
then to request the removal of BSkyB from the winning consortium. There
was nothing new in the winning bid, most of which is available on Sky.
What is on offer is primarily the Flextech/BBC package, indeed Roger Luard
of Flextech has been rumoured as a potential boss of BDB. Flextech's parent
TCI has also been involved with Microsoft to develop technology to enable
digital TV to link with the internet.
Although the ITC have on the surface
asked BSkyB to drop out of the BDB consortium (which is a 50/50 deal between
Granada and Carlton) Rupert Murdoch will not be shedding many tears. For
a start BSkyB are launching their own digital satellite system (threatening
some 200 channels) and they have been given the job of running the subscriber
management system for BDB, thus having contact with BDB customers. The
BSkyB company, News Datacom will still provide the encryption access and
it will not have to bear any of the start up costs. Most press reports
(in non-Murdoch newspapers) gave the impression that BSkyB had been written
out of the terrestrial deal thanks to the intervention of Oftel. On the
surface this is true, but Oftel have done nothing to 'regulate' on these
'hidden' involvements. But let us focus on the ITC
"Without detriment to programme
The ITC was formed to take over
from the IBA as a result of the White Paper Broadcasting in the '90s, written
in '89 by Douglas Hurd. This proposed a "radical reform of the TV framework
for broadcasting in the UK" for two principle identified reasons: "technological
and international developments"; and that the government wished "a much
wider range of programmes and types of broadcasting to be offered to viewers
and listeners." It was the usual Thatcher government lies about the free
market masking political patronage: "choice should be widened, competition
increased without detriment to programme standards and quality." Back in
1989 everyone was getting excited about Satellite TV. As Rupert Murdoch
himself said/lied: "Sky Television will bring competition, choice and quality
to British Television. The monopoly is broken ...television will begin
to develop the diversity it has lacked." Murdoch the "monopoly breaker".
Sky began with four channels: the flagship Sky Channel featured game shows,
including revivals of ITV shows such as the Sale of the Century and The
Price is Right, a magazine programme with Tony Blackburn and Jenny Handley,
an evening chat show hosted by Derek Jameson and American imports such
as the Lucy Show. Rupert has been a little bit slack in delivering the
The ITC have "requirements" from
ITV not regulations. These are that each franchise:
1 Show regional programmes (including
programmes produced in the region).
2 Show high quality news and current
affairs dealing with national and international news, in the main viewing
3 Provide a diverse programme schedule
calculated to appeal to a variety of tastes and interests.
4 Ensure that a minimum of 25% of
original programming comes from independent producers.
5 Ensure that a proper proportion
of programme material is of EC origin.
Obviously it is all a bit of a joke.
They don't deal with monopolies, that is the province of the Monopolies
and Mergers commission which was set up rather late in 1973. The ITC just
hands out licenses, it's the government's bagman. The ITC also has "responsibilities"
concerning Satellite TV whereby "steps will be taken to ensure that the
programme content of all such satellite services is supervised." Presumably
Bravo's "Stripping Italian Housewives" is there to fulfill category five.
Bravo (which is run by Flextech) has as its motto "Swearing, Sex and Violence,"
perhaps category three comes into play there. Although the ITC has some
vague code on advertising and sponsorship the government made it plain
that they favoured "liberalising the present restrictions" and then chucked
in the usual nod and a wink pretend proviso: "provided the editorial independence
and transparency for the viewer are adequately protected." This probably
means that we have a right to know the identity of the "News Bunny." (which
is someone in a bunny suit who "reacts" to the "news" on L!ve TV).
The government was also pretending
that it was determined to "impose limits on concentration of ownership
and on excessive cross-media ownership, in order to keep the market open
for newcomers and to prevent any tendency towards uniformity or domination
by a few groups." That statement typifies what the media has become. The
original fifteen franchises have been absorbed into only four groups. Most
of the power has been concentrated into the hands of three men, Lord Hollick
at United News and Media, Micheal Green at Carlton and Gerry Robinson at
Granada, all of which are rampantly involved in cross-media ownership.
So who are the ITC, why are they constantly described as "watchdogs" and
whose interests are they protecting?
Lord Snooty and his pals
Sadly it is all a bit predictable,
but frightfully British! Sir Robin Biggam is the ringleader and gets £65,580
for failing us miserably. He makes more money in the (guess what) arms
trade, working as the director of British Aerospace. He is also a money
seller with Foreign and Colonial Investments12.
Next up is the Earl of Dalkeith (real name Richard Scott), who is the heir
to the title of the Duke of Buccleuch (there are only 24 Dukes and it rates
just under Royal Dukes, such as the Duke of Edinburgh). Mr Scott seems
to do nothing. He was on the board of Border TV for a year in '89, he was
on the old IBA and seems to have been accidentally left behind. He is also
on the Millennium Fund Commission. He gets £12,630.
As does the aptly named Micheal
Checkland. He used to be the Director General of the BBC and before that
also worked on (guess what) an arms company, Thorn Electronics. It was
Checkland who complied wholesale with the lunacies of Thatcher and supervised
the censorship of the eleven Republican and Loyalist groups. During his
tenure we also saw the censorship of Duncan Cambell's programme on Zircon,
where the Police actually raided the BBC, poisoning the air for future
investigative journalism. So much for category two of the ITC's "regulations".
It was Checkland who made the assertion back in 1990 that he "was keen
to work alongside the new TV channels as a programme provider," which was
put into practice in deals with British Satellite Broadcasting, paving
the way for the Flextech deal and the rampant commercialisation of the
But by far and away the most interesting
character on the ITC is Dr Micheal Shea who works for Caledonian Newspaper
Publishing, a subsidiary of Gus MacDonald's SMG. Shea has a long history
of duplicitous activity i.e. telling lies for a living. It is also transparently
obvious that he has intimate connections with the Secret Intelligence Service
(MI6). He joined the Foreign Office (which claims to oversee MI6) in 1963,
serving first in Ghana and then in Bonn in '66 where he was also seconded
to the Cabinet office, then Bucharest in '73, then New York in '76 where
he headed an outfit called "British Information Services"13.
He then became the Press Secretary of the Queen for ten years.
On the filthy lucre side of things
he sits on Scotland's premier Unit Trust, Murray International. Fellow
board members here include George Younger and Angus Grossart, the latter
being a recent ex-STV board member. The Grampian buy-out was put together
by Noble Grossart Merchant Bank and the Royal Bank of Scotland , both run
by Grossart. Shea is an independent advisor to Grossart's wing of Arthur
Anderson, the second largest Insurance Broker in the World. Shea is also
the head of "political and government affairs" at Hanson plc. In between
finding time to eat, sleep and go to the lavatory he is on the boards of
Strathclyde University, the National Gallery, Edinburgh University and
Gordonstouns. He joined Caledonia in '93. Shea should not be on the board
of an "Independent" Commission; there should be an independent commission
watching Shea. The notion of characters like this being paid to lord it
over us, deciding what we see or do not see is repulsive and as stupid
as the belief that they are in any way "watchdogs" for the public good.
Even a scant look at their activities offers convincing evidence that they
do not give a toss for the public and consider themselves above and aristocratically
superior. But it is these people who control who gets the license to broadcast.
Despite all the smirking lies masquerading as legality of the White Paper,
the ITC are actively encouraging monopoly.
In 1990 when the ITC were set up,
15,000 people were employed in ITV. As the companies in the network rushed
to 'rationalise' in the run up to the franchise auction two years later,
the number fell to about 10,500. In 1996 according to the ITC's own figures,
the number fell to just over 8,200. The familiar pattern of mergers being
justified on the basis of cost-saving and resource-pooling will be of little
consolation to those skilled workers who were faced with the choice of
either becoming "freelance" (a euphemism for unemployed-but-waiting-in-the-wings)
or giving up altogether. The casualisation of the work-force has seen an
explosion in the activities of "independent" production companies--the "stars"
of the media all have their own and corner the market. With over 1,000
"indies" competing for work largely based in London, those freelancing
are forced to follow in the hope of picking up some scraps. An "anonymous
senior industry source", quoted by Jamie Doward in his Observer article
of September 28th '97 said: "One strength of the old system was its commitment
to regional programming. But the industry is in danger of moving away from
that." This observation contrasts with Gus MacDonald's patriotic optimism
of '93 when, in the STV annual report for '92, he made much of STV's "Scottishness"
claiming it as a major asset which would help ensure future success. His
robust confidence in Scotland's indigenous talent seems curious given that
in the following years he and the rest of the board have reduced the number
and wages of employees. In the accounts they seem to have doubled their
employees but this is only because of all the mergers.
In 1996 the ITV network had an income
of £2.2 billion, none of which came from license fees. It was generated
by advertising. Where do the advertisers get the money? From us, via the
products we buy. Hence, the actual cost per person for the right to have
advertisers in the livingroom becomes a matter of guesswork. An average
family shopping trolley will be full of products, all of which carry a
built-in cost to recover the promotion of the product. Banks Building Societies
and the big companies who simply have to tell us how nice they are, all
pass those advertising costs on to us. In effect we are all paying the
network to sell us what we have already bought. The more we buy it, the
more successful it becomes, the greater the need (and cost) for us to confirm
that we do indeed buy it. In other words, pay over the odds for it now,
pay again later.
The (digital) Revolution will
not be televised
In a country which has rejected
right-wing parliamentary politics so completely, it is essential to remember
that the non-parliamentary right are entrenched to such an extent that
they will always elude democratic attempts at change. They are simultaneously
a coherent and incoherent force in that they are both destructive or allied
to one another at any given time. The alliances in the media, even on this
scant evidence, reveal a complicity with big business with SMG branching
out to own privatised utilities. We must always remember that our local
independent Television Station provides us with an education, an outlook.
Consider the words of another Scotsman who worked his way up to the top
to become an award winning mogul:
"...Andrew Carnegie wrote eleven
essays called The Gospel of Wealth. In it he said that capitalism--free
enterprise--was stone cold dead in the United States. It had been killed
off by its own success. That men like himself, Mr. Morgan, and Mr. Rockefeller
now owned everything, they owned the government. Competition was impossible
unless they allowed it... Carnegie said that this was a very dangerous
situation, because eventually young people will become aware of this and
form clandestine organisations to work against it...Carnegie proposed that
men of wealth re-establish a synthetic free enterprise system (since the
real one was no longer possible) based on cradle to grave schooling. The
people who advanced most successfully in the schooling that was available
to everyone would be given licenses to lead profitable lives, they would
be given jobs and promotions and that a large part of the economy had to
be tied directly to schooling..."14
While this applies (indeed is an
antecedent) to compulsory education it also echos the illusion provided
by the media, particularly television which is akin to the notions behind
B. F. Skinner's "learning machines". As the creepy Skinner quote at the
beginning of the article suggests there are people out there who, through
rampant megalomania or some darkness of the mind, seek complete control.
MacDonald and Laird represent an extremely generous and tolerant form of
socialism, so much so that they can encompass its polar opposite. As for
their motives, well they have both gained vast amounts of money and power.
But they're trying too hard, they're trying now, to fool all of the people
all of the time.
Future developments in digital TV
should bring with them a feeling of optimism, access to TV. We must remember
that not every one has the ability or resources to even contemplate this
and that the power of TV is such that the Advertisers/distribution companies
and providers will move further toward a cartel. We will wait a long time
for the software which will provide everyone with TV station-like access
via the internet.
Scottish culture has been represented
on STV in perhaps the most insipid and erroneous ways imaginable. The arts
(whether literature, drama, music or art) have provided some differing
forms of "education" which has tried to counterbalance this situation.
We can wave goodbye to all that in a few years. TV culture ( the voice,
the agenda, the outlook, the people) has always been at a remove from the
reality and evidence of our senses. To understand why requires investigation
not just of the talent for impoverishment broadcast on the programmes,
but investigation of who is running the thing and why. It is seldom attempted.
Scottish Television has reduced
itself to news and sport: the news will have all the formality of the classroom,
sport, all the "freedom" of playtime. We will never be informed that the
news is manufactured or its agenda limited (for instance that by some co-incidence
the exact stories will appear on the other side), or the limitations of
that agenda. STV and now SMG has preached the big lie. And the big lie
is that there is a criminal underworld and an honest overworld and that
they do not interpenetrate. SMG's agenda is fast becoming one which serves
as a cover for the legalised crime which big business engages in every
MacDonald used to be an "investigative
reporter." What was it he found out back in the '70s that made him pretend
to promote free speech in Scotland while working for those who seek to
deny it to us? Perhaps he now feels free. as Skinner would put it; and
glad that he has been given such a "profitable license" as Carnegie would
1 Somewhere along the line the Chase
Manhattan Bank started acquiring more SMG shares, at the same time the
BBC Pension Trust sold theirs.
2 Glasgow Herald July 12
3 And they would be right.
4 This has been complicated slightly
by the attempts to weed out embarrassments among "old Labour" in Scotland,
whether through their corruption or left-wing views, and replace them with
Blairites (i.e. opportunists). This has been portrayed (read 'news managed')
particularly in the Herald, with allusions to a secret group called the
"Network" thus propelling it into the ambit of conspiracy theory. The purge
is real enough, but somewhat ineffectual.
5 SMG's main shareholders are Flextech
(19.95%), Daily Record/Sunday Mail (19.93%), FMR Corporation(7.38%), Chase
Nominees (5.31%), Mercury Asset Management (3.43%). Someone could fairly
easily buy up 40% of SMG which would be a controlling shareholding.
6 They of the Blue Arrow affair.
7 Directors of most Investment trusts
interpenetrate like this.
8 A kind of political ornament
9 Private Eye 808. It collapsed
when money was pumped in by bankers and shareholders, Private Eye 832 states
that a dealer who boosted Polly Peck ended up working for Mercury Asset
Management, who also own about 4% of SMG. Polly Pecks more famous director,
Asil Nadir ran off around May 93 in the wake of court charges, a secret
Scotland Yard investigation, all the Micheal Mates lunacy, connections
to Micheal Hesletine and with £440,000 of Polly Peck money ending
up in the Tory party coffers. A bit of a mess.
10 See Investors Chronicle May 30/97
for background on Luard and Flextech. The Observer of 15/3/98 sttes that
the Mirror Group and the Chase Manhattan Bank have been in close discussion
with Flextech's owners TCI, the Mirror group wants to join with them in
a Cable TV deal.
11 Probably the premium British
12 This more than likely had connections
to the IRD (the Foreign Office's black propaganda outfit) but I have no
13 An Interview with John Taylor
Gatto (Flatland No. 11)
Amar and his friends spent most of
the summer hassled by police. A few minutes after the shopkeepers' shutters
were down a patrol car invariably pulled up on the corner where they swapped
stories to keep themselves going. Two officers told them it was an offence
to be brown and think you owned the streets.
PC McKenna loved these moments.
He got a real buzz out of it. He would brag to his wife after they made
love, smoothing his hand across her throat, and then snap his fingers--Like
that!--after he spun the air with a restraint technique tacit in standard
police training manuals.
Each night Amar came home his parents
turned to him from two, low, wooden stools in the kitchen; they cut loose
threads and made final adjustments to garments for a local manufacturer.
Cloth dust filled the air and weakened the light. Amar thought they looked
like the two people in a painting in the local museum: solemn and sullen
and still working after a poor dinner. He couldn't handle it and went straight
back out after he finished eating.
His mates practiced dance steps
to the music coming out of the late night record shop, totally skint bar
a few cans of lager placed in one of the open doorways. If the owner was
out they would go in and request a medley of made-to-measure grooves. Then
they would dance as pair, trio, quartet, full tilt, right up on the beat.
McKenna watched them on a monitor
at the station. He would study their mouths for a pulsing tirade or a self-incriminating
rhyming couplet about cops. Often he got confused as they mixed Punjabi
and English. It was enough to make him snatch his fags off the desk and
take out his truncheon and thwack it against his palm before he slid it
back into the holster.
The boys were really going for it.
The late sun was still strong and happy sweat poured out of their faces.
One of them suggested they regularly practice, he reckoned they could make
it as an outfit dancing at birthdays and weddings. Suddenly everyone agreed
and started talking quickly about what they could achieve. It was great
to be alive.
McKenna brushed his trousers as
he stepped out of the car. He was six four and proud of his body. He used
to have a partner but now did the rounds alone--back up was only a gesture
away. In meetings with local community leaders and liaison officers he
would stiffen to the word multicultural, thinking, how did it get this
far: these black cunts with their halting English and local clout; their
grandfathers, who used to polish his one's boots, obedient to all non-verbal
commands under the Indian sun. In spite of the changes this was his patch
and his people before him: the clubs, the pubs, the market, the boys brigade.
Now there was a temple, restaurants, women in orange silk. When was the
last time he'd seen hopscotch.
McKenna approached the dancers.
A few people stopped and watched from the other side of the street. He
put his foot on the kerb and tapped almost to the music, just stopping
himself in time. He balled his fists and kneaded them into his sides, smiled
and shook his head.
Amar stood in the dark of a doorway
blowing smoke out into the street. He watched McKenna pick up the glow
of the cigarette. One of his mates carried on dancing. The others clapped
in unison and nodded to the beat. The lone dancer stopped mid move, arms
extended up past his head, fingers splayed, swivelled and turned to his
friends. Ar-ee-pa! The boys threw back their heads and laughed, lapping
it up for all it was worth. McKenna was old hat, a knackered emissary from
some totalising, racially fucked up confederacy.
Another song, another remix. A different
dancer veered towards McKenna and came to a halt a foot or so, frozen in
dance. He looked at the boy's face: pouted lips and dilated eyes. A knowing
smile slithered into his head and he began to work out which bones he could
Amar stepped out of the doorway
with a can in his hand and took a long swig. The lone dancer collapsed
his arms and asked for a drink. He took it out of the back of Amar's hand
while Amar simultaneously took a can out of the hand of another, a swift,
cool, balletic move dazzling audiences around the world. McKenna licked
the inside of his mouth. He hoped to sit in front of a cool pint as soon
as all this was in the shade. He looked straight ahead and pointed at Amar's
You: put that in the bin.
An old Punjabi folk song played
in the record shop. Amar's father hummed it as a dirge about farm hands
pushed off the land where they ate and sang at the end of the working day,
lightened by some home-made brew.
Amar lobbed the can at a bin attached
to a lampost. It bounced off the edge and a gush of lager splashed McKenna's
upper body. One of the boys was about to rejoice but another pulled him
down and told him to cool it.
McKenna didn't even flinch. He stood
still with his hands on his hips, legs at ease. He ignored the lager on
his arm and shirt and rolled the can with the sole of his foot towards
Pick it up--now!
Amar clicked his tongue in his mouth.
For months McKenna had pushed him around, stopped and searched his dad's
car umpteen times--makin him go down to the station to show his documents,
waitin at the front desk and slappin him down and showin him the front
door and tellin him to sort out his boy in front of other officers.
McKenna dabbed himself with a hanky
and wiped his sunglasses. He might just let it go this time until he got
him on his own: a couple of strategic blows between chest and navel--where
there would be no marking. Nothing that would show up in court. C'mon junior,
let's do it, right now. Jesus! I don't know what's worse: you, or a bad
meal in a restaurant.
The can stopped two thirds of the
way to Amar. It was cheap shit and he didn't like the taste. McKenna was
ready--the colour of a dark bruise. He wanted a knock out in the fifth and
a briefcase of broken bones.
Amar eyed the can and stepped towards
it. He swung back his right foot, making sure he got his toes right underneath,
and smacked it as hard as he could. It sped through the air and hit McKenna
full in the face.
Later that night a doctor announced
the death of Amar Singh Dhillon. His parents shared a mug of hot milk to
help them sleep. They were not waiting for the telephone to ring.
on Politics and Pleasure
Regarded by many as one of Britain's
leading experimental theatre companies, Forced Entertainment devise theatre
that questions issues concerning contemporary life. Based in Sheffield,
the company has toured nationally and abroad with diverse shows for small
scale theatres, installation works for galleries, site-specific performances,
digital media pieces and most recently films. Formed in 1984 by a group
of six graduates from the University of Exeter, the ensemble are a rare
breed for having stayed intact through Arts Council cuts and a volatile
arts environment. Perhaps the secret of their success is an ability to
operate within the media culture of the late 20th century - firmly placing
themselves in a society of changing cultural forms, TV politics and consumerism.
I met with Robin Arthur, Claire Marshall and Cathy Naden to discuss the
processes of their understated work.
Michelle McGuire: Is Forced
Entertainment a reflection of the times and therefore a product of Postmodernism?
Robin Arthur: I think the
short answer to that is yes, probably. As people, as artists, we've always
been consciously trying to make work that is contemporary. There are quite
a lot of artists that are trying to make work that isalmost like classical
work. And I don't just mean people who, in theatre for example, go back
and approach the classics. But, there are a lot of writers who think about
their work being in the high modernist classic tradition almost outside
of the time who would almost regard the notion that their work emerged
out of the time that they write it in, as being a kind of insult, a kind
of cheapening of what they do. But I don't think that is true for us at
all. I think we've always tried to make work that is contemporary and arises
out of the moment.
Claire Marshall: So it's
always been influenced by music, by film, by videos, by other aspects of
RA: When we first started
making work, I didn't know what Postmodernism was. But when I found out
what it meant, it did seem like quite a good way of describing some of
things that we were doing. I think that our relationship with that term
or that set of conceptions has gone rather more cynical of late. But, I
think it would be stupid to deny that it is something that describes quite
well a lot of what we do.
Cathy Naden: Tim [Etchells
- Artistic Director] always used to put this quote on publicity that was
around, might have been as early as 200% & Bloody Thirsty, which was
a show that we did in 1989. He used to say that the work was always understandable
by anybody, "who was brought up in a house where the TV was always on".
And I think that in a way, we are kind of filters for everyday experience
and that can be things we've seen on television, or things we've seen on
the news. And it is not a conscious process of looking out for those things.
I think it is like an expression of what it's like to be alive now. Because
things kind of filter through accidentally, like the Gulf War happening
around the time we were making Marina & Lee. And it crept into the
text and little parts of the show. But that was never an overtly political
statement we were making. It was just one part of an experience that was
creeping into the work. And also, I think that the way you can use the
high culture and low culture that you get in Postmodernism, is something
that we use a lot. The sort of putting together things that shouldn't go
together, trash things and crap things and making something new out of
CM: I think Postmodernism
has become a bit of a dirty word sometimes, that suggests that everything
is very ironic, very cynical and very removed. Although it's a word that
describes some of what we do, it is just a describing word. You don't set
out to make a Postmodernist piece of work. Sometimes it feels like it's
not a good description because a lot of what we do contains a lot of cynicism,
a lot of anger and there is also a lot of naivete and hope and innocence
in the things that we want to make happen on stage.
RA: I think that is a really
good point. Critical terms like Postmodernism are interesting at the point
where they arise from an observation of work that is taking place. So,
when the term was created, I think it was an observational term, it was
a term that detected something that was present in work. One of the problems
is that as soon as the word became in vogue, people tried to make Postmodern
work. Those critical terms, it seems to me, should always be subsidiary
to the creative process rather than in control of it or dictating it. I
wouldn't like to think that we attempted to make Postmodernist work or
that that was in the back of our minds. Or that we were trying to conform
to some critical formula, it's a word that has, at various times in the
work that we have been making, been a relatively useful description. But
it is not a formula that we attempt to fulfil when we make work.
MM: Much of Live Art has
a political social awareness. How does Forced Entertainment fit into that
RA: Again, the fundamental
part of what we do that makes it political or socially involved is to do
with the form. It's to do with things that we've discovered about what
we do in live performance over the last ten years or so. Working out about
five years ago that we didn't want to go and play in huge theatres in front
of 600 people. Being involved in a form that's about small scale and about
a kind of intimacy with people, is for me, one of the biggest political
parts of what we do because it's a rejection of all those notions about
'up-scaling' and 'size is important' and mass communication being incredibly
important. I mean, I'm not saying that we are totally opposed to those
things and I don't even think we've worked out for ourselves how or why
that it is important to us. But it always comes back down to the fact that
when we make performances, it's for small auditoria, it's for small numbers
of people. At the top range of our touring circuit where you are dealing
with venues that will hold two hundred people, you get in there and it's
horrible, you don't like playing those places. You don't like the lack
of communication or the lack of contact. So, that kind of smallness, not
conceptually, but just the very gut-level instinctive rejection of the
notion of commercial success or commercial concerns is very political.
It is that kind of decision which is perhaps less overt than you might
be talking about with regard to the whole live art thing. But I think it's
there in that whole live art agenda, almost at root, because of the medium
that people are dealing with.
CN: I think we tried to find
our own way through the funding maze. We haven't followed the normal career
path for a small scale company because we haven't moved from project funding
to revenue funding. But three or four years ago, we made this decision
to diversify. So, we tried to keep the creative process by making pieces
that weren't with theatre and diversifying into other things like digital
media. So in that sense, those sorts of projects that have been happening
within live arts have really been tapped into. And that is also about getting
to different audiences and reaching the fine art world or digital media
MM: So is that how you see
Forced Entertainment progressing in the next few years? This kind of diversification?
CN: Yeah, I think we will
still continue to make the live work. Certainly economically, it makes
sense to diversify. I think it's really good when you can have work out
there that's doing the job for you without having to involve other people.
The thing about touring shows is that you always have to go to where they
are going. A project like Frozen Palaces (CD ROM) could be out there in
the world doing the work for you.
MM: And you do all your work
in one day.
CM: Yeah, but there is something
about that which in a way is at odds with what Robin was talking about
because for all of us, it is a political act to commit so much time and
so much hands-on work to make these shows. Everything is still to do with
us all cleaning the buildings, us all being responsible for doing the little
jobs that happen. I don't think it will ever come to the stage where Richard
[Lowdon - company member] sits down, designs a set and hands it over to
someone and they build it. I just can't see, not completely, him not wanting
to see what materials are being used on the set and having to work with
the performance as it grows. So, keeping the hands-on approach is really
quite important. And then, sit that beside the idea that you can write
Frozen Palaces and send it out in the world.
MM: And that is going back
to that kind of multiplicity that we were talking about before. Where you
then reflect back into that mass multi-media.
CM: And I think both of those
things have to exist for us to exist. Sometimes, I think that in ten years
time, Forced Entertainment will just be this name under which different
RA: I think that what Claire
was saying there comes back down to the other aspect of it that is - God,
I don't really know if we really constitute as a co-operative anymore,
but effectively that has always been the way that the company has worked.
It is a strange kind of pragmatic socialism that takes place for us in
our work environment a lot of the time. It is changing a little bit but
at root, I think it is still there and I've not liked to think about us
getting down to the point where the division of labour was so specialised
that I only ever just turned up and did a show. At root level there is,
in terms of the choice of media, in terms of the way that we work, a collaborative
way that we work which, as I go on, think it is an increasingly rare to
encounter. It does happen, it rarely happens for a very long time.
CM: I think it is almost
unique given the longevity. Other companies that have been going a long
time generally have about two original members. People like Natural Theatre
Company, I think, are two creative directors with different performers
each show sometimes. Having your little space in the middle of the city
and all being centred around that and essentially nobody having major commitments
outside of that is very unusual.
RA: Having established those
two crux points to go back to, the political or social agendas that are
more normal in live art. I think that, in a way, when we then embark on
making work we don't carry that mental baggage with us. I'm sure that actually,
because of the nature of the process and because of the nature of the business,
that the work that we make is actually political, but for me it's political
in a naturally evolved way rather than a formulistic way. I think the work
has political and social concerns that emerge from the process and from
the way that we work rather than political and social concerns that are
bolted on. If you look at a lot of theatre as opposed to live art, because
live art is a very different category, but if you look at the most overtly
social or politically social theatre work that has come out of this country
in the last twenty or thirty years, most of it has been made in the context
of an incredibly, perniciously, nasty, not just capitalist system but a
kind of really strange world. Where notions of democracy or commitment
are utterly out of the window. If you think about the great political playwrights,
their relationship with the means of production of their work is well,
dictatorial. It has no democratic credentials at all. They write the damn
thing, hand it over to a director who directs the damn thing. And I don't
understand how you can think about making political or social work if you
haven't sorted out your own means of production to start with. It's utterly
ludicrous for someone to claim that they are writing left-wing, social
critiques when the mechanism that they use for bringing that stuff out
into the world is highly suspect, by anybody's standards.
CM: I can remember thinking
when that play, Blasted was on at the Royal Court which was all horrible
ultra violence, buggery and terrible swearing on stage. I remember reading
about it and thinking, well we've done all that, we just didn't make a
fuss about it and we didn't pretend that our blood was real. We said it
was fake and you could see the squirter but we covered ourselves in it
and we died. The way that Tim and Cathy write, is a language full of obscenity
that is just kind of casual. We use violence all the time by talking about
it or not doing it or sort of pretending to do it. There are tons of angry
political statements in a lot of our work, it's just that instead of making
a play about 'the poor homeless people', or the problem of homelessness,
you get a card board sign that refers to that or you get a little bit of
text that talks about the people all around being 'just a bunch of fucking
cunts'. I think it is very angry, especially with all the Thatcher years
and the Major years. It doesn't start off that we are going to make a show
about this, it's just if you're angry and political with a small 'p', that's
going to be in the work.
RA: I think that is very
true. There is always a belief that the world is more complicated than
Disney or the Communist Manifesto. The world is a more complicated place
than either of those things would like you to believe it is. And our politics
are rather more amorphous, even romanticised. That results usually in a
kind of general pissed-offness! It's more to do with punk than it is to
do with structuralism. It is not about having an intellectual overview
about what is wrong with society, it's about saying, 'I saw this thing
and that made me fucking puke and then I saw this thing and that was rather
sweet'. And how those things actually work for you now in the world. And
that is where our politics and our social agenda comes from and where it
makes itself apparent. The work always dictates its own politics rather
than politics dictating the work. It is less common now, but in the early
eighties, there was this Marxist critique that said that politics and political
and economic underpinning of society dictates everything, which means that
when you're an artist, you should be concerned with those things primarily
and your art should in some way reflect that. And we've always had the
attitude at root, that that is a very skewed way of looking at the world.
And that the artistic way of looking at the world is a valid one. If it
occasionally takes swipes at various economic or social political things
on route, then for sure it's going to do that because it lives in the same
world as those things.
MM: Is Pleasure [touring
show 97/98] representing the mood of the company?
CM: Pleasure must have come
out of the mood of the company. I mean, I think we were exhausted making
it, we got really stuck making it. It was an incredibly difficult show
to make and we went down a lot of blind alleys to make it. And when we
were touring it before Christmas we were still changing it. I don't think
we are going to change it anymore now, as you have to put a stop to it
at some point. But it does reflect something. The last show, [Showtime]
was such a show about making work, it was such a show about being a performer,
it was a show about being away so much and being dislocated. Making Pleasure
is kind of a reaction against that. It's like, what have I got? What do
you want to see? What can I do for you? And I think a lot of the mood of
Pleasure is about that. I think it is a very strong reaction to a very
mixed and difficult and busy year.
RA: I think another thing
to say about Pleasure is, when we started work on Pleasure, I think we
all thought it was going to be a very different show from all of the other
shows that we have made. And, one of the interesting things is that it
turned out to be not such a very different show. I think it exposed a difficulty,
within the company which is that the work is always a compromise, a complicated
and difficult compromise between lots of people whose quite idiosyncratic
desires and wants form a piece of theatre. I think it has been a good learning
process for us to know that you can't just suddenly launch off into something
entirely different and just expect it to just to be this radically different
thing. We are always going to advance in tiny little grandmother-like footsteps,
I think. Rather than in big jumps. It is not in our nature as a group of
people to do that.
CM: Because you are some
kind of democracy. You can only do those big leaps if you brought in a
new director and you did what they said. And we wouldn't!
RA: And I do think it is how we
make things as well, and you can't get away from it. It sure is a hell
of a lot different than Showtime.
Tales of The
The Great Unwashed depends on daytime
custom to survive. Big-spending youths on stag or hen nights are few and
far between, and the clientele holds no benevolent lottery-winners or locals-made-good.
The folk who pay the bills are the old ones who use the pub as a second
For the most part the regulars are
men, and for the most part they are poor. But they move in numbers, and
between them are capable of consuming impressive amounts of drink.
There is a myth which holds that
the aged are privy to some little-known wisdom. The nostalgic and naive
can sometimes be seen plying the old-timers with drink in the hope that
this may part them from some pearly advice. It is never forthcoming, or
else takes the form of such banalities as could be read in any daily paper's
horoscope. We once had a student from one of the city's leafier suburbs
who came in with a tape-recorder and a note-pad. He claimed to be a social
anthropology student, and was collecting oral history for his project.
He pestered one and all for a full afternoon, bought drink for anyone who
could tell him a story, but made the mistake of asking Sippy Pat for her
recollections of the war. Pat wasn't born until the mid-fifties, so was
none too pleased. She quietly hailed her cousin who, with a couple of friends,
escorted the tiddly historian to the lane by the car-park where any remaining
curiosity was kicked out of him.
Of course the old ones do have their
stories, but they keep them close and quiet. What stories they have that
would interest others don't always involve the teller as hero, and so many
of the best come from others, second and third hand.
I can tell you about Sammy the Biter,
who was well into his sixties when he decided that he wanted to be taller
than the five foot two nature had allowed him. He purchased, by mail-order,
a special pair of shoes which would make him three inches taller. I recall
the dreich Autumn day when he came in, soaked and shifty, and much taller
than he should be.
What's happened to you Sammy?
I asked, and he put a forefinger to lip and leaned closer.
It's the special shoes. It's
a miracle. Just like it said in the ad so it is, three inches on you and
no-one will notice anything untowards at all.
The astonishment on the faces of
those seated proved that the improvement had been noted, and had inspired
a stunned silence.
How can they not notice Sammy?
I whispered, you're too tall now.
Sammy made for the toilet in slow,
careful steps. The shoes, for everyone was now looking at them, seemed
unusually short, almost square, and the movement of Sammy's legs suggested
he was walking on tippy-toes, causing terrible distortion of his upper
legs and hips. It occurred to me that perhaps he had become a devil, and
the black shinies contained not feet, but cloven horntrotters. Sammy emerged
from the toilet, went sadly home, and the shoes have never been seen since.
John the Midden has a good stock
of fighting tales, but in all he is cast as the victor. They are mostly
true it seems, but he omits his few losses which are of far more interest
to those of us who are less than enamored with the big fellow. His ignominious
hammering at the hands of tiny Finny MacAteer and Pakky, at the end of
which he was taken under police escort to the hospital with a big aubergine
stuck in his throat, is the stuff of local legend. But that's another one
Personally, I don't care to listen
to too much talk from the old ones. I find that few can be honest about
their own failings and mistakes, are too ready to blame spouses or offspring
for their own weaknesses, and there is a sizable minority who have no stories
at all, but are simply reaching the end of their span as they lived it,
in total boredom, only slower than before.
But there was one whose story stuck
with me, and has for thirty years or more.
Guilt keeps the memory of Poppy
Laggan alive. My guilt. He had been a regular as long as Da could remember
at the time I met him. I was still young then, and with my own team of
children just a couple of decades behind me, I was full of life and wanted
more. I absorbed stories and characters, sure that the remainder of my
span would be taken up with visiting fantastic places when I'd made my
fortune, telling my sons and daughters about all the world-wide wonders
awaiting them, becoming then a grandfather, a contented slipper-bound sage
smoking exotic tobaccos and surrounded by enigmatic souvenirs.
Poppy Laggan was not remarkable
to look at. Fifty-something, prematurely gray like all his four older brothers,
much smaller than the others. The runt I suppose. He would come in on the
way back from his job at the printing works, have two pints of stout and
a glass of red-eye, then head home for his dinner. Very occasionally he
would come in of a Saturday evening with his brother Sean, but even then
he would hold his silence, content to let the older man speak. Poppy was
seldom obvious in his drunkenness, could hold his own with the others.
He never gambled, and had an almost phobic aversion to horses and any talk
of them. But he was well-liked by all.
It was a Thursday night when he
came in at his appointed time, and he gave no indication that anything
was amiss. I hadn't noticed he was wearing a collared white shirt, and
it was only when he removed the black tie from beneath the scarf that I
realised he must have been to a funeral. I didn't dare to enquire, and
left him in peace. The radio was on that night, and the place was busy,
listening to some European game whose participants and outcome have escaped
When we closed, Da moved to the
end of the bar and sat with Poppy. They didn't say much, but I could tell
something was up. I cleared out the cellar and settled the cash, settled
the optics and poured them another. They had moved to the snug below the
gas mantle. Da beckoned me over.
Poppy was worse than I'd ever seen
him, but for all he poured in the drink it seemed not to worsen his state.
His eyes, red and tired, would close for several seconds, then he would
shake himself awake, drink more, and mumble something to Da. I could see
Da was more than worried - he was frightened. I got more drinks. And more.
And Poppy's story slowly came out.
Sean had died. Heart attack. The
first one, and a big one, it had finished him at fifty-eight. Poppy had
been the closest to him.
See, thing is, I know what's
happening now, said Poppy, and Da nodded and I watched.
It's alright, said Da.
Ma told me from early I had
a gift, that I had the sight and all that. It's like being locked in the
picture-house, not knowing what's coming on. I can't stop it. Closing my
eyes makes it clearer, opening them just makes it fade.
I thought I caught a movement, Da
making a tiny sign of the cross with his forefinger.
How's the difference 'tween
a curse and a gift, carried on Poppy, when you get to see them things no-one
should see? Sean's back again now. I don't know if it's behind or ahead,
and that's no matter. I don't even know where. But he's back in it again
when he thought he must've been out. He was happy being out, I know that
Poppy drank deep and long again,
eyes closed. Da lit their cigarettes.
There's a to-do before he's
born, a ceremony on the shoreline. It's a clear sky and cold as hell, and
the stars have something to do with it. It's the women in charge, the men
are settled about the fire and they bring him in with the music and animals
on leads, kids dancing about. What a terrible smell of fish all about there
is. It's happy, and he's lifted up and there's a cheering, then silence.
They look like us these folk, just the same. But it's not his Ma that's
holding him. She's dead. A figure comes out from the dunes, all covered
with hairy things and not a face on it you can see, and it's chanting over
and over and the cheering gets back up and there's an almighty party. He
soon knows he's special. Other weans get taken out on the boats to fish,
or else help their mammies about the house. There's always work to be done.
But not for Sean. Not that that's his name now you understand. I can't
say his name. I can hear it, but it makes no sense. But it means The Deer
or The Stag or something like that. It's a special name. He does as he
pleases. If he wants to eat when the others are working, he eats. If he
chooses to sleep all day, so be it. There is never an angry word against
him, no child dares near him. Angry dogs get their tails between their
legs when they smell him coming. He has a fight with a simple lad from
a nearby village. Maybe they're about ten or eleven. The bigger lad gives
him a fair old thumping and Sean goes back to his village with bruises
and burst lips. There's a real to-do over it. The women all get together
and stroke his hair and make him lie down and give him special mixtures
and foul drinks, even though he's fine and just wants to get back out and
about. The men come in that evening and there are angry shouts. Next day,
before the sun, the men leave with weapons clanging, and return before
mid-day with the head of the boy impaled on a lance. It is taken to the
shore. There is another ritual, quiet and serious. The head is left atop
the lance, and even when the birds have stripped it clean it stays. Sean
has his own house, deep-set in the low flat stone, and everything he needs.
Every woman in the village is his mother and sister, every man his father
and brother. But he has no family. Everyone is his friend but he never
has a visitor at his comfortable home. He takes to wandering further and
further from the village, climbing the cliffs, hunting alone for the men
will not allow him to join them on land or sea, and he meets travellers
who are happy to talk until they find out who he is. He has no sense of
being famous or fearsome, but it seems that he is. He grows tall and broad.
The girls start to gather within view of his home. He is in the angry years,
and takes it out on his own. He fights with anyone, daring them to fight
properly, though he knows they will always go down eventually. He takes
a girl back one night, and the following day there is a lot of talk but
nothing done. Her parents smile and allow her to bring him some food. He
takes another girl, and another. No harm comes to him. The men let him
come out on the boats, the great low long boats, and he retches and heaves
for days on end. He feels like life has started for him with this voyaging,
albeit little more than bartering trips across the bay. And then it all
comes so fast. I don't know how old he is, but not much over twenty. A
rider comes and talks to the village men and right away you can see there's
something up. The women start crying, the children start running about,
fighting each other. They're going to war it seems. Sean's watching from
his house. He feels fear now. First time. Real fear. A great ship arrives
the next day, and together with their own smaller ship they prepare. Food
salted, kegs of beer, weapons greased and wrapped against the brine, furs
piled high in the wide base of the ship. They leave at daybreak. The women
and children watch from the shore as the ships move away and head South.
Some of the older children run alongside the clifftops and wave and watch
and wave until they cannot be seen. The voyage is unlike anything Sean
could have imagined. He had heard the men talk of high seas and monsters,
but nothing had prepared him for such terror. He cannot eat, cannot sleep.
He alone takes no shift at the oars. After weeks, they beach at midnight
on moonlit sand. The land they have found is low and quiet, and not a tree
to be seen. The sea washes calm, carries a warm wind from the West. Sean
in half-sleep, the men discuss the attack. The chiefs debate long into
the night, consulting hide-etched maps. Tonight is their last before the
assault. The last of the beer is consumed, the beef soaked and eaten. The
priests of all the villages represented come together and invoke whoever's
favour. The music is muted and serious, but grows stronger and faster as
the night goes on. With the light at its weakest, for it never really gets
dark now in the Summer, the priests become frenzied. Sean joins the others
in the dance about the fire but he is roughly subdued, made to spectate
from the centre. Then the dance stops. The prayers continue as the men
fall upon him, and they pull at his hair and face, two men to each limb,
they rip him apart. His being alive seems to be important. He screams.
But with no mouth and no tongue there is no sound. He can see tears in
the eyes of some, but others are laughing and frothing. Leathered fingers
pop his eyeballs, and he hears the excitement mount as one of the priests
takes a small knife to Sean's belly and slices space enough to get a hand
in. Out with his guts and heart, but it's something else they want. Maybe
his liver. Whatever, the warm meat is pulled from him, hacked off and raised.
Sean listens, dying. The meat is squeezed, its juice added to the bucket
which the men will drain as their last and most important protection. Sean
dies again, and the last faces in his mind's eye are those of the only
folk he'd ever known and loved, berserk with fear and rage.
It's not for me to say if Poppy
was simply drunk and gibbering. It doesn't matter if his story was true
or not, and no-one can ever say it was or wasn't, except maybe Sean. What
matters is that I, in my excitement and stupidity, repeated the story to
the others the next day. Poppy is a seer, I told them. He has the gift,
I said. Da cracked up when he heard I'd been talking, but it was too late.
Poppy was forced to wander even
further afield in search of a pub where he would not be pestered for racing
forecasts and bombarded with selfish medical enquiries. People would go
to his door at all times of the day and night, and there was even talk
of some film crew wanting to make a documentary with him in it. He eventually
moved away, and none of us even know if he's still alive.
Sometimes I wonder if he sees his
own next life, or had seen mine, and then try to imagine what he may have
seen. And then I see my own life for myself, and wonder what that means
at all. Not as exciting as Sean The Stag's, that's for sure. Then I look
about here of a daytime, at the shaky old crumblers who pay my bills and
my wages, and I wonder whether I'd rather my guts torn from me at the peak
of an adventure, or be left to fossilise in peace. And I truly don't know.
Babes in Toyland
becks new contemporaries '97
Cornerhouse, Manchester, 31 May20
Camden Arts Centre, London,
1 August21 September '97
CCA, Glasgow, 12 December '9731
I suppose I started thinking, not
unlike the Turner Prize, another year, another newcontemporaries exhibition.
Reading through the catalogue my initial feeling was that this year there
at least appeared to be an attempt to address the parameters of the New
contemporaries exhibition ethos. This is currently situated as 'a' highly
publicised (as regards the art world) selected exhibition of newly graduated
and soon to be graduating artists. Parallel to this, there seemed to be
an inquiry into the purposes and conditions of the art educational institution
within a European context today. The catalogue consists of discussions
between the selectors of the exhibition: Sarat Maharaj, Hans Ulrich Obrist
and Gillian Wearing, and responses (invited letters) to the selectors'
statement: "The art school closes in 1997; imagine its reinvention". These
are by students, critics, artists and educationalists, based predominantly
However, this feeling of optimism
was short lived. The amount of actual examination appeared a flippant gesture.
There are deep rooted issues concerning the intertwining relationships
of how 'culture' is defined and affirmed through the processes of education,
together with the consecrating power of 'commercial' publicity. To represent
this with a simplistic 'survey'--where nearly all the reproduced invited
responses cover one A4 sheet or less--all for 'nothing more than' reproduction
in a catalogue with little intended follow up, is tokenistic. This criticism
had some presence within the pages of the catalogue. In a reply to the
requested response to the possibility of the reinvention of the art school,
Stephan Dillemuth replied "...as if it were possible to reinvent the art
school just for the sake of a funny curatorial mood...it becomes issue
surfing as diversion".
The selectors' actions, through
concentrating the catalogue 'deliberation' not on the individual artists
and their works but in a limited way on the systems and structures that
led them to be exhibited, could be interpreted as a means of distancing
themselves from being individually identified with the specific artists
and works chosen. As suggested by Sarat Maharaj in the catalogue discussion,
reasons for taking this approach may be because the means by which the
participating newcontemporaries artists are selected have led in recent
years to an 'outright', unquestioned endorsement of their work by our ever
vigilant cultural commissars. A quick and easy celebration of this year's
new model, the 'only' qualitative judgment undertaken being grounded on
the artists' 'natural' inclusion in the 'hallowed halls' in the first place.
The accusation is that this 'phenomenon' not only forecloses on the possibilities
of a more expansive dialogue to exist around the 'presentation' of artists'
'work', but also on what forms/strategies the production of 'work' may
take and what a relationship to an 'audience' may be.
Over the newcontemporaries' various
incarnations, from the Young Contemporaries through to corporate sponsorship
with BT and now Becks, it has ossified into a template of patronage. The
artists/critics/curators on the selectors' panel over the years, perhaps
through the expression of their own particular 'tastes' within a group
dynamic, have appeared, sometimes blatantly, to select applicants who best
reflect their own practices and positions--a legitimising, 'naturalised',
historic linearity the result.
"The establishment of a canon in
the guise of a universally valued cultural inheritance or patrimony constitutes
an act of 'symbolic violence'...in that it gains legitimacy by misrecognising
the underlying power relations which serve, in part, to guarantee the continued
reproduction of the legitimacy of those who produce or defend the canon."
Where has this left the spaces within
newcontemporaries for 'anything else' to happen when there appears to be
no challenge to the circus of the myopic exhibition circuit?
Within the catalogue there is a
challenge to the newcontemporaries' applicants' belief in a 'formula for
success' (that belief being interpreted as the apparent mimicking of recent
work and approaches by 'leading' contemporary artists), and the college
and market encouraged 'artistic practice of repetition' (the artist emerging
from college with a 'whole', 'complete' practice, their years spent in
education in perfection of it and continued thereafter in the production
of easily quantifiable and advertised commodities). Instead of this, Sarat
Maharaj desires work that is "eccentric", "erratic", "obsessive", "quirky",
and "plain daft". This in itself has no escape velocity, if that is the
intention. Given the product placement of 'the' young-british-artists,
such work (if we see it as "eccentric" etc.) has been consolidated in just
such a formulaic way. Hasn't the 'unique artist genius' been reinvested
under the guise of the 'integrity of the individual'? In a market that
values originality as an expression of authenticity isn't novelty 'the'
prime trading point? The same fetishism of originality, originality for
There is also the feeling from the
newcontemporaries catalogue discussion that a shifting, dynamic practice
is 'just' that of the student in search of 'their own' voice, implying
that they will find this most perfect and personal means of expression,
in time--the value of the process only being legitimised by the evidence
of the final product in 'the' marketplace. However 'understated' in presentation,
this is re-enforced by Gillian Wearing's confession that she was rejected
four times from the newcontemporaries: from not fitting in, somehow her
aspirations and newcontemporaries' seem to have magically converged.
Perhaps in some quarters there is
also a backlash against what appear to have been acceptable, not unadvantageous,
distortions of an '80s critique of 'masculine' 'originality' (a critique
perhaps 'typified' by Sherrie Levine) and Roland Barthes' 'Death of the
Author' (where the 'viewer' is seen as an active reader of the work, integral
in constructing meaning). The distortions being "everything's been done,
therefore..." and "it's a free-for-all" 'respectively', saw the lines of
individualism redrawn, the specificity of history evacuated, and the 'empty'
husks treated as nothing more than entries into a visual backcatalogue
for re-use, ready to be 'personalised' with a new 'charisma'. But perhaps
far from being a 'fad', a blip, this is the culmination of the contradictory
constitution of UK arts education: of socialised learning, still not overtly
dissimilar to the apprenticeship tradition; of the therapy session reinforcement
of the imperative for 'unique' individual expression--which together 'happen'
to reflect the markets' requirements for peculiarity while maintaining
The apparent distancing by the selectors
from the actual act of selecting this year is perhaps also an attempt to
generate precisely a space in which to 'entertain' the thoughts of 'other'
artistic practices and activities, other than what is presently 'encouraged'
symbiotically through newcontemporaries and 'the' educational system: to
'explore' other forms of 'exhibition' strategy that don't 'just' lead to
a validation of the international-bright-young-thing, quick sale mentality.
Sarat Maharaj's comments in the catalogue best pursue this, for example,
on the changing role of the tutor, the critic, the visiting artist and
the historian he states: "It seems to have become less easy to distinguish
their ideal function of offering critical challenge and debate, of raising
difficult, sticky issues from the rather more narrow business of promotion",
and his view that newcontemporaries should not become, "...simply a site
for high-speed endorsement of work with an eye to market trends", which
I take as a polite suggestion that he feels it already has. Unfortunately
this year's show does little to counter this. In at least raising the spectre
of art education, the catalogue starts to bring to the fore the questioning
of the specific process of cultural transmission and training, and "the
process by which the realisation of culture becomes 'natural'." 2
There appears to be a presumption in the catalogue, though, that all discourses
in art schools (within the UK) are the same. That presumption is the universalism
of 'the' London experience, an ignoring of geographical specificity. However
spurred on by the government through a replacement funding system based
on prescriptive research assessment (where colleges are attributed points
primarily on the grounds of staff 'performance' through exhibiting and
publishing, and, in a game show manner, these points converted to cash)
and art colleges half-hearted attempts at imitating a mythologised 'London'
model of 'success', this is 'simply' not the case.
Gillian Wearing states that "...the
show should function as a kind of snap shot-transcript of art activity,
making and thinking about art in the late 1990s...a show which is saying
'this is the state of play among a sizable swathe of young practitioners
in the country today'". This though is also not the case. It is a selection
by a selected panel of four individuals of work by finishing and recently
graduated students who decided to apply. Newcontemporaries may actually
provide an opportunity to focus attention on selected activity within this
designated slice of producers throughout the UK, as opposed to just the
familiar focus on London psychoses. Whether in the resulting collating
of work it does or not is up to the selected selectors' tastes, particular
interests and relations to teaching establishments and students, and the
desired participation by those who are deemed eligible (both selectors
and students alike). All of which is overseen by the exhibition strategy,
where the artists' work still has to be both 'transportable' and 'transposable'.
While questioning the lack of idiosyncrasy
in practices within the applications to the show, what is left out of the
discussion within the catalogue is the actual questioning of what effects
the social, economic and political barriers erected over the past 15 years
have had on art school/college intake. It is problematic for the newcontemporaries'
selectors to query the range of the work represented in the applications
without also querying the racial, social, sexual, geographical and gender
representation within art schools. Undoubtedly, the government 'imposed'
changes to the financing of Higher Education have further resulted in the
privileging of education to those who can afford it.
Underscoring the 'entertaining'
of the possibility of change in art education within the catalogue is the
rash premise that the principles and purposes of education are removed
from state authority and its interests--free floating in a utopian bubble.
That production is socially determined, the result of a long and complex
historical process, is jettisoned, for the ease and simplicity of ... 'discussion'?
The prime obstacle in any shift within the educational system as a whole
are the institutions' immersion in the broader ideological state apparatus.
The late '80s closing down and merging
(or is that downsizing) of art schools within London were the outcomes
of the Conservative government's 'vocational education' drive, presently
being expanded upon by the 'new Labour' government. This includes the privatisation
of Further Education funding and the advancing of competition, rather than
communication, between institutions through the research point funding
mechanism, amongst other things. This competition is just as strongly reflected
in the internal struggles between departments within those very institutions
in the annual pillar to post pursuit of funds and studio space.
Within the schools and colleges
full time staff are increasingly having to take over greater administrative
functions, the result of imposed structural changes, bizarre course assessment
procedures, increasing financial pressures, intensifying student numbers
in relation to staff student ratios and available studio space. The resulting
outcome is all too often makeshift or makedo.
Part time staff have been 'drafted
in' in an attempt to shore up the 'teaching' shortfall, partly as a cheaper
alternative to full time staff and partly in response to the institutions'
need for research qualifications--these predominantly 'young' artists through
their own activity in the areas of exhibiting and publishing and their
relative numbers 'produce' more convertible research points.
The employing of part time staff
and visiting lecturers is not new. It is a commonplace activity within
arts educational institutions, but perhaps some of the emphasis for their
inclusion in a course has shifted. This is not to undermine the potential
of such relationships and the benefits to those artists/critics in having
'employment', however sporadically, and access to the 'zest of youth'.
Part time staff and visiting lecturers may allow for a broader representation
of interests and practices within schools/colleges, being either a balance
to the 'dead wood' or to supplant the student contact time of the actual
educational full time staff. However, with part time staff often being
on 'fragile' contracts, they have little leverage to create concrete changes
within the educational environment. But they are able to make small inroads
in raising the expectations of students and encouraging 'other' ways of
working. The student, though, is still left to challenge the institutional
monoliths alone. And let's not forget, part time staff, as with full time,
can also be drafted in to support 'the Department's position', effectively
foreclosing on any 'other' activity.
In the most cynical regimes, specifically
employed 'research members' may not necessarily be intended to have any
contact or execution over the college's existing day to day educational
activities, being there simply to concoct the research points, annexed
in relative isolation.
In the UK art education system students
are at an institution for between 2 and 4 years (undergraduate, postgraduate),
once understanding the system within which you are enveloped and delineated
by, there is only so much time in tenure for students to attempt to affect
the actual educational institution itself, perhaps unintentionally through
trying to cross departmental boundaries in the processes of experimentation.
The continued fanciful pigeon-holing of 'legitimate' practices into separate
compartments within art schools, painting, sculpture etc.--despite broader
institutional acceptance of a diversification in what constitutes a practice--may
well serve the interests of departmental jerry-mandering but do nothing
to encourage such exploratory multiform work.
Once in the school/college door,
there are also specific funding difficulties for students in challenging
the institution, in whatever way, especially today. As individual schools/colleges
have the financial responsibilities of students previously undertaken by
government and local government dumped on them, and as the student 'grant'
rapidly vanishes, internal school/college grants and bursaries become an
ever more essential aspect of day to day survival for students. The expectation
that students are going to demand a better 'service' for the education
they 'purchase' doesn't reflect the continuing disproportionate power structures
within academic institutions. The National Union of Students (NUS), the
supposed watchdog for students, was ineffectual in defending its members'
interests against the last government and has shown little backbone in
doing so in the face of the present one. Hardly surprising when the NUS
seldom looks more than a grooming parlor for the 'official' left. Any student
within, and wanting to continue in, Further Education is ultimately reliant
on the institution for endorsed qualifications as those qualifications
are the bureaucratic bench marks within the present and proposed Further
Education funding systems, not to mention private bursaries and grants.
These qualifications may actually take on even more of an importance within
this circuit, from foundation level and its equivalents onwards, as the
financing of the Further Education system is progressively privatised and
private funders look for some form of guarantee of return on their investment,
sanctioned qualifications acting as just that.
Not to conflate the 'relatively'
independent existence of newcontemporaries and the state subject educational
system, but problems that arise for transitory staff in effecting change
within the educational system in some ways parallel any one newcontemporaries
panel attempting to effect change within its exhibition structure, as perhaps
this years did. Newcontemporaries' selectors are only there for a short
period (one show), and they also effectively reflect the broad tastes of
the overseeing panel who selected them. In this instance the onus for change
within the newcontemporaries lies with having a progressive directorship/management.
(Newcontemporaries' 'personnel' are faintly listed within the opening pages
of the catalogue as: chair--Sacha Craddock; Vice Chair--Jill Ritblat; directors--John
Huntingford, Rebecca King-Lassman, Dez Lawrence, Andrea Schlieker, Mark
Wallinger; company secretary--Tony Paterson; administrators--Bev Bytheway,
Andrew Critchley.) And as Gillian Wearing suggested in the catalogue regarding
art schools/colleges at the present time, one way of removing some of the
barriers to allow for more experimentation by those already in college
is in having good flexible relations between defined departments, or in
removing the regulatory departmental fences altogether. This, though, does
nothing to breach the widening financial moat surrounding access to education
in the first instance.
While the newcontemporaries catalogue
serves to raise questions of both art education's and newcontemporaries'
broader involvement in the placement of young artists in the market, the
underlying managerial structure of newcontemporaries is left intact and
the selectors' own authority within this system of consecration remains
largely unquestioned, if not tactically sidestepped. This year's newcontemporaries
exhibition suffers from the very same annual ills supposedly under question.
The difference being this year that the exhibition reveals the symptoms,
the catalogue readily diagnoses, suggested cures are sought, the body lurches
The changing panel of selectors
for the newcontemporaries, as chosen by the management committee, this
year allows for a range of individual artist's, critic's, curator's diversities
of tastes. But the newcontemporaries' annual shifting public face, within
a general field of practice, has gone without any real questioning of its
present day purposes, and still has a limited ability to 'represent' due
to its exhibition structure and continuing constraints on practice. It
currently appears to be unable to challenge the assumptions of what an
'artistic' practice could be. At least the dialogue and responses within
the catalogue may begin this process, something more than is tolerated,
never mind generated, within the present 'backs to the wall' educational
environment. One question arising is how willing and able are educational
establishments to critique these 'competitions' when they are so heavily
involved and reliant on them as markers of 'their own' success and endorsement
within the vocational framework--how many students from their courses get
chosen for newcontemporaries, or how may newcontemporaries artists apply,
and get on, to postgraduate courses. The education system at present is,
after all, based on a system of competition (there are winners and losers
in games of college and departmental 'profiling' and 'suitability') which
the newcontemporaries is itself an active participant in. Any questioning
of one is implicitly a questioning of the other.
The panel made its choice of artists
and work and effected the few events and discussions that surrounded the
exhibitions. But perhaps it is acceptable to vaguely discuss the reinvention
of the art school precisely because it is insubstantial and because next
year it will be a different issue surrounding the newcontemporaries, given
the change in the selectors, a new tail to pin on the donkey, more grist
for the mill.
Within the catalogue it is suggested
that possibilities for an expanded framework of participation (by both
practitioners and public) may lie in the inclusion of 'new technologies',
CD ROM and Web work. The newcontemporaries' application form for this year
(1998) includes such media. Hopefully this is not the stuff of technological
utopianism as the technology itself does not necessarily escape the dynamics
of the systems supposedly under question. 'New Media' is now able to be
brought into the fold in this way precisely because it is able to "...overturn
the hierarchy of the field without disturbing the principles on which the
field is based. Thus [the] revolutions are only ever partial ones, which
displace the censorships and transgress the conventions but do so in the
name of the same underlying principles".3
1 The field of Cultural Production,
Pierre Bordieu; Editors Introduction, Randal Johnson: Polity Press 1993
2 The field of Cultural Production,
Pierre Bordieu: Polity Press 1993
The BLOCK Reader in Visual Culture
As we rapidly head towards the impending
millennial deadline of the year 2000 all sorts of people, in all kinds
of contexts are, it would appear, bec oming increasingly addicted to the
characteristically nebulous notions of the 'spiritual' and of the 'soul'.
1 The sphere of the arts has, predicta bly,
more than its fair share of such subscribers to vagueness and to the unexplained.
In the art schools, metaphysical patterns of perception and i deologies
of self-expression hold stronger-than-ever positions of influence, gullible
clusters of students being more than keen to swallow as 'gospel ' the ravings
of certain mindlessly inspired teaching staff. What might be referred to
as the long-term nonsense of the pious and priestly image of the artist
has been, in recent years, further supplemented with the equally pernicious
'mindset' promoted by glossy potboilers such as Matthew Collings' "Blimey!",
a book that is in many ways the practical antithesis of "The BLOCK Reader".
2 Both works exist as examples of writings
produced in int imate relation to the art school environment but this is
just about where the similarities begin and end. Whilst Collings' terse
and lackadaisical tr act acts to reinforce mainstream, often unconvincing
ideas about artworks and those who produce them "The BLOCK Reader" offers,
in contrast, an entirely different 'take' on the context, attitudes and
strategies found to be operating in art and design institutions today.
For one thing, Collings' contribution is an intended easy read, a short
and slimy account of the London 'scene', supportive of its central trends,
antagonistic to theory, whic h it presents as the enemy of art practice
as such. Whilst trying to don the mask of an up-to-the-minute intimacy
with Brit art's increasingly-punge nt dumbness, Collings' croaky prose
poses, no doubt without intending to do so, the question of its own inadequacy
as a fashionable guide to current a rty fashions. It is already the case
that within the Fine Art department of London's Goldsmiths College, a key
site in Brit art mythology, the abbreviation 'yBa' has taken on the resonance
of (italic) 'yesterday's British art'. 3 Fashion,
by definition, contains its own near-instant disintegrati on of values:
what was, only a moment before, pertinent and true becomes, inevitably,
that which is passé and bland, having lost the vigour, presence,
glitter and pitch of its previously unproblematic qualitative distinction.
"Blimey!", first published in 1997, has now been issued in a second edi
tion but its cutting edge image is already blunted and broken. Furthermore,
the prominent themes of the book looked from the start somewhat 'old hat
', its author scratching around for evidence of the novelty of his chosen
corner of the scene when little of genuine novelty was there to be had.
The same old naive musings on the extra-linguistic nature of art, the same
stupid mutterings about how art 'speaks' for itself: it was really these
clichés and cracked beliefs that Brit art had attached itself to
all along, its plug-in 'punky' inanity popping up as a defense claim whenever
it had to deal with anything approaching a serious critique of its credentials
as interesting art.
So much, then, for the novelty of
the 'new'. The paradox of this comparison between "Blimey!" and "The BLOCK
Reader" is that the latter publication is in many ways the more timely
of the two books, emphasising as it does an interrogative approach to art
and design practice that is not a little needful in today's narrow-minded,
tightly-clannish climate. Making its first appearance in 1979 and, ten
years later, closing its run with its fifteen th issue, "BLOCK" was, as
the opening sentence of the book's general introduction indicates, "...an
initiative that was very much of its time and place: a manifestation of
the cultural logic of a newly self-conscious, historicised, and politi
cised initiative in the cultural realm; and a simultaneous allergic reaction
to the idealism of academic art history." 4
The irony is that, notwithstanding
the point about the chronological and geographical specificity of their
production, the essays comprising this anthology mark out, and by their
re-publication, reassert, the relevance of certain key theoretical, critical
and methodological concerns which have, it is true, been somewhat marginalised
by recent art-world trends.
The "Reader" contains seventeen
essays, placed under the three distinct categories of "Art history", "Design
history" and "Cultural theory", each section being introduced by a short,
unsigned, editorial text. These section introductions contain a number
of noteworthy remarks and encourage the view that the anthology has been
assembled not only in order to bring to a broader audience material first
published within the journal, but also in an attempt to intervene in present-day
institutional structures and beliefs, in, that is, "the institutions of
knowledge and their increasing capitulati on to the logic of the corporate
mentality...." 5 The individual essays in
each section are presented in order of their first publication. The book
opens with Lucy Lippard's "Hot Potatoes: Art and Politics in 1980", from
"BLOCK" 4, 1981; and concludes with Judith Williamson's interview with
Jean B audrillard, "BLOCK" 15, 1989. There is an appendix listing the contents
of all fifteen issues of the journal and an excellent index. Twenty-four
black and white reproductions are employed within the text. Physically
the book is well-made, sewn with only the minimum of printing errors. The
cover carries a colourful grid of closely-photographed closed-circuit TV
cameras, signifying spectacular society's rage for surveillance and self-policing,
whist recalling too the quirky diversity to be found amongst the products
of industrial design. Warhol, appropriately, is also suggested.
In the introduction to the second
section of the "Reader" 6 we are told that
"BLOCK" evolved in an art school where the majority of students were eng
aged in design practices...", and also that the journal "set out to treat
design, like art, as an ideologically encoded commodity, the value and
significance of which were dependent on dominant modes of consumption."
"This approach", the text continues, "was in opposition to prevailing versions
of design writing which adopted untransformed art historical notions of
univocal authorship, inherent meaning and received hierarchies of value."
"Critical perspectives", it is also proposed, "acquired an early relevance
in the drive to provide a social context for various components of everyday
These remarks comprise but one example
of the editor's attempt to give an account, however briefly, of the founding
of and approach utilised within BLOCK, as well as highlighting the current
relevance of the material chosen for inclusion, and perhaps, by implication,
those writings carried by the journal but not reproduced here. (Of the
approximately one hundred essays included in "BLOCK" some eighty remain
available exclusively by accessing back issues of the journal). They also
point up a recurring theme, that of the position of design history as a
supposedly coherent discipline, one claiming independence from that of
art history. This is not a matter of merely academic dispute so much as
the raising of a question about the relationship of design to broader societal
factors. It further suggests a welcome recognition that knowledge produced
within academic institutions can be used to criticise and reformulate prevalent
capitalist trends. Now that academic institutions are at the mercy of managers
whose chief interest is i n the production of company profits (their self-image
as 'barons' of industry being one of the more laughable, though also most
alarming aspects of recent changes in the education sector), this awareness
needs to be most vigorously asserted. As Fred Orton notes in his essay
on Jasper Johns: "The production of meaning is social and institutional,
differential and dispersed, contestable and continually renewed." 8
It is a virtue of many of the essays in "The Block Reader" that they address
how it is that meanings and values are fabricated and distributed through
the particular physicality of a given project or design strategy, as well
as much as by individual works of art and design. The articles by Fran
Hannah and Tim Putman, and by Necdet Teymur do this directly, through an
examination of prevalent design-world attitudes and corresponding forms
of teaching practice, whilst the pieces by Kathy Myers and by Philippa
Goodall attend to matters of object commodification and to gender-connected
values inscribed within individual designs, as well as to the contexts
of their consumption.
A recognition of how important it
is to attend to the rampantly ideological nonsense promoted within the
confines of fine art education is displayed in Griselda Pollock's essay
on "Art, Art School, Culture". Pollock observes that: "Bourgeois concepts
of art celebrate individualism by means of the idea of the self-motivating
and self-creating artist who makes things which embody that peculiarly
heightened and highly valued subjectivity. It is fundamentally a romantic
idea of the artist as the feeling being whose works expre ss both a personal
sensibility and a universal condition. What art schools today actively
propose or promote any other concept of the artist, for in stance, as producer,
worker, practitioner?" 9 The implied negative
response to the question closing this extract might well be similarly negative
if again raised today, a dozen years after this e ssay was first published.
Brit art's boastful dumbing down is the jewel in the crown of the art school
establishment's pro-stupid stance. In what o ther educational framework
would one find so many participants proposing that to be informed about
the history and parameters of one's practice was anathema to the further
development of that practice? Similarly, several of the issues examined
in Jon Bird's analytically astute discussion of "Art History and Hegemony"
remain of considerable relevance. Amongst other things Bird touches upon
definitions of the public and the private (often found in a muddled form
within the art schools but here clearly and concisely expressed), the supporting
of 'blockbuster' art shows by 'blockbuster' beer s such as Beck's, the
radical potential of Foucault's ideas as tools of critique, the inescapable
nature of language (art students please note!), Virilo's reading of the
nuclear age as one in which a sense of the sublime has resurfaced through
a recognition of the potential extinction of the human species, and the
spurious claims made for the autonomy of aesthetic value judgments. Bird
is, furthermore, perceptive enough to be aware that not o nly are certain
conservative ideas well-entrenched within capitalist social life, but that
there are other dangerous frames of reference, action and aspiration, equally
demanding of vigilant consideration: "It is easy to forget, outside of
Left-intellectual art historical circles, just how fixed, particularly
in relation of questions of gender and race, are the terms "art", "artist",
"history", "society", etc... in the broader context of the dissemination
of high culture. On the other hand, in street-wise, post-structuralist,
post-modernist deconstructive circles, questions of truth, political morality,
cognition, etc. are dumped as outmoded referents in the celebration of
image, spectacle and surface." 10 This passage
displays a complex and intelligent relation to the academic world, which
can easily be, even today in the 'age' of modules, learning con tracts
and money-motivated research interests, a context that is relatively isolated
from the vicissitudes of the marketplace, at least insofar as intellectual
fashions are concerned. Following fashions of any sort is a way of rescinding
responsibility, the examples given by Bird being especially problematic,
since they have an ambiance of political correctness about them, notwithstanding
the fact that they may involve a moving away from values of greater political
The structure of "The BLOCK Reader"
is such that it can be easily read as either a series of discrete essays
or as a more extended and interconnected panoply of issues. It is clear
that the editing work has been assiduously carried out, the selection working
well as a whole, with themes appearing in individual papers and then being
again, later on in the book, further developed. Individual essays do not
appear to have been altered since their first publication in "BLOCK", with
the single exception of Teymur's article, which is a "revised version"
of the piece published in 1981. The sect ion introductions emphasise recurring
themes without distorting the emphases made within individual contributions,
and it is not difficult to see why the book is divided up into three distinct,
if interlocking parts. Since one of the issues under discussion in several
places within the Reader is the debt owed to art history by the (still
insubstantial) 'discipline' of design history, and another involves debate
about the reading of more extensive, less discipline-restricted fields
of cultural production, the gradual move from an examination of art and
the artist to 'culture' via analyses of what exactly 'design' and 'design
history' might be is convincing and to the point.
This double act of division and,
in effect resolution, is all the more impressive for the diversity of contributions.
This is not to suggest that the pieces of the jigsaw always neatly interlock,
or that the book is entirely lacking in points with which one would disagree.
But given the nature of the project, which is at one and the same time
an act of historical documentation and an attempt at assembling a work
of some contemporary relevance (irrespective of whatever changes have occurred
within our culture since the texts collected here were first published),
given these conditions, the value of this work is considerable. "The BLOCK
Reader" is not an easy, quick or shallow read but it is an interesting
and informative one. I take it that t he febrile aficionados of "Blimey!"
and of Brit art will disagree.
The BLOCK Reader in Visual Culture,
Ed. Jon Bird et al
Routledge, 1996 (ISBN 0-415-13989-9)
342 pp. £14.95 (paperback)
1 For a discussion of the analogous
late c.19th obsession with metaphysical matters see James Webb, "The Flight
From Reason", Macdonald, 1971.
2 Mathew Collings, "Blimey!", 21,
1997. See the October 1997 issue of "AN" for a review of this work by present
3 Simon Ford has examined the 'mythological'
aspects of 'young British art' in his essay "Myth Making", included in
Duncan McCorquodale, Naomi Sider fin and Julian Stallabrass (Eds.), "Occupational
Hazard", Black Dog Publications, 1998.
4 The BLOCK Reader in Visual Culture,
5 Ibid., p. xiv
6 Ibid., p. 131
8 Ibid., p. 109
9 Ibid., p.53
10 Ibid., p. 79
Red Rebel Song
dere's more to you
ya DaDa's fingers
from years of cleaning corners
where brush an dustpan couldn't
would tap ya shoulders
wid hope an Dreams
of some rainbow future.
Nikki the warrior
When all my stolen moments
from all the memories of
me and you
gather to form a shape...
your smile begins to appear
on a single soft sheet
I could almost taste ya kiss
if I put my lips on them
sheet of paper
I could scent ya smell,
And feel ya gaze
but be careful not to gaze too
long or your brown eyes
might start to water
I wanna be westernized
I'm Indian, I'm Chinese
Dominican Republic of
But I speak YOUR twang
I just wanna be accepted
I need not be protected
from my roots, cos
I'm sellin out 5662 years of
achieved by my nation
And will be one of you guys
with NO ties about,
your spiritual being
And that feelin'
Deep inside. needing to belong
to a culture
I'm a vulture
And I'll eat ya if ya
Don't give me my rights
I'll behave...Not like the
Slave my DaDa was
I'll hunt ya down.
Make ya see the Real me
An Arab, Polonese,
With mutilated thoughts
AND A MAGNUM 45:
the ones that never knock
Interviews with Matt Hale of
City Racing, David Crawford of Beaconsfield, and John Russell of Bank
More often than not, the opening
chapter on the history of the Avant Garde features a visit to Gustav Courbet's
bungalow. Courbet was horrified that the Exposition Universelle of 1855
displayed his paintings, dispersed among other paintings, in the same light
as common commodities and he removed his canvases from the Exposition to
a purpose built bungalow which he then opened to the public. Maintained
for five months, Courbet's bungalow was not a home for rejected art works,
unloved and unwanted by the Exposition's committee. Gustav's bungalow was
instead a gesture of defiance that signaled Courbet's attempt to control
the exhibition of his own work. It could be objected that Courbet is not
a bona fide member of the Avant Garde as he was not alienated from the
public reception of his work. The removal of art from institutional and
commercial settings to independent lodgings however, is a familiar story
throughout the history of the Avant Garde. In the 20th century the attempt
to occupy a space beyond the institution allowed artists to broaden the
field of artistic activity. The Bureau of the Surrealists, for instance,
was a place where the visitor could not only encounter surrealist objects
but the Surrealists themselves. The Avant Garde's occupation of territory
beyond the institution, which defines the social challenge of the Avant
Garde, is often accompanied by a second process in which the institution
accommodates such independent enterprises. The role as chronicler of culture
furnishes the institution with its power. In this process the museum is
not all-powerful of course. If institutions do not refresh themselves they
become dry and crumble. The institution always requires fresh bodies.
In London for instance the boundaries
between institutional, commercial and independent space are no longer so
clear, presuming that is, that they ever were. Britain's art scene is often
praised for the 'DIY' attitude of its artists, particularly in London and
Glasgow where the mythical rise of 'nBa' is intertwined with the lesser
known history of independent initiatives of the last ten years. In London,
Time Out have recently dropped the term 'Alternative' under which such
exhibitions were once listed. Time Out's new term, 'up-coming', was received
with derision by many but perhaps it is closer to the aspirations of artists
that organise their own shows. In the following interviews I discussed
the relevance of the term alternative with three members of artist run
spaces in London, City Racing, Beaconsfield and BANK, to see whether they
thought the term had any relevance to their own practice.
Matt Hale of City Racing
City Racing is situated in an old
betting shop adjacent to the Oval cricket ground in South London. A group
of five artists consisting of Matt Hale, John Burgess, Keith Coventry,
Peter Owen and Paul Noble, programme and organise the gallery. Since 1988
the group have exhibited their own work and, amongst others, the work of
Gillian Wearing, Lucy Gunning and Sarah Lucas.
David Burrows: I want to
ask, first of all, about the history of City Racing. Did City Racing show
work outside the interests of mainstream and commercial spaces in the beginning?
MH: I don't think I could
say that. But it was work that was not being shown and that was the reason
for City Racing existing.
DB: Why wasn't the work exhibited
at City Racing being shown in commercial venues.
MH: Usual reasons. People
didn't know you or what you did, nerves in approaching galleries, and if
you did approach commercial galleries there was a feeling that they wouldn't
be welcoming. So there was a feeling of exclusion.
DB: So in 1988, when City
Racing began, it was a very West End (of London) orientated art scene with
only artists of a certain age group showing and City Racing plugged the
MH: I think that's the feeling
I definitely had and I suspect that is what others felt. Keith Coventry
and Peter Owen organised the first show--they wanted to show their work.
But not as an alternative gesture saying we don't like West End galleries...
I have to say that in '88 there was one City Racing show and that I wasn't
involved. I went and Keith and Pete basically mailed out to their friends,
old tutors and a list rummaged out of Time Out and City Limits. I think
the opening was just friends, artists in the main.
DB: So, in one sense, City
Racing refused to be marginalised from the mainstream and had conventional
MH: Yes. The second show
in 1998, which I was in, was in a disused bookies, City racing, which was
really Keith's studio. We tried to make it as white-cube like as possible,
as gallery-like as possible. There was no high principle behind it, just
a desire to show...We were fed up of waiting to be offered a show, so we
thought show yourself, but we didn't discuss this at length, or at least
DB: And there was no shared
MH: No, not in that we read
this and believed that or understood the history of alternative spaces...
But I don't think we were totally naive and we were aware of how things
had been done. I saw shows that were curated by artists and I remember
that energy and it did seem different when you went to these shows.
DB: There's a claim made
about this period of activity ('88'90), and about independent shows
and spaces in general, that of a 'DIY' ethic coming from Punk. Neville
Wakefield suggested this in his essay for Brilliant but...
MH: Yeah. Well it was well
after Punk but maybe there was that energy. I applied to Chelsea Art School
because I was into Punk, I didn't give a shit about the college except
it was on the Kings Road, simple as that, pathetic really, but...
DB: But I find it hard to
believe that there is a direct link between artists organised exhibitions
in London in the late '80s and Punk.
MH: No I don't think you
can say that but I think it is interesting you should mention it as maybe
there was an idea that the best bands weren't from big record companies,
bollocks to them, the best bands were from little companies, small labels.
Maybe there is a link with independent labels.
DB: What about later on when
City Racing became more established.
MH: You mean the Karsten Schubert
thing... We had a benefit at Kartsen Schuberts'... I think his interest
was to do with street cred, commercial galleries were being questioned
by the press, saying that they were boring and that here was this better
alternative scene happening in London.
DB: Where did this idea come
MH: I can't say, other than
it's just a memory I have. A gradual change. An alternative art section
appeared in Time Out and City Limits and my memory is that I thought at
the time this is why Karsten made a link with us.
DB: It's interesting that
artists' activity affected listings. Were openings important, is that how
a scene developed?
MH: Yeah, I think so. The
social side of City Racing for us was important at the time. Artists weren't
meeting up to talk about things. After college you didn't know many people
and you wouldn't get invited to commercial galleries, so yeah, the openings
DB: City Racing showed Sarah
Lucas, which was a successful show. There is a view that City Racing became
seen as a feeder to commercial, more official galleries. Do you think that's
unfair to say that?
MH: No, I don't think that's
unfair. Some shows were like that and some weren't, but I remember thinking
that City Racing was there to show artists' work and they might get other
shows, some at galleries like Karsten Schuberts, if it was somewhere else
then fine. But it wasn't only that, we did a lot of installations which
weren't commercial in an obvious way. Quite a lot of work that wouldn't
have been seen as they were awkward buggers to show or sell. The shows
that I like are the ones that wouldn't have happened elsewhere.
DB: I want to talk now about
the way art associated with 'nBa' came out of small, localised scenes and
that something of the initial impulse behind some of the work disappears
when placed under the 'nBa' banner at an international level. Does City
Racing recognise itself in this image of London's swinging art scene?
MH: It's interesting you should
say that. We certainly recognise an international context, in other words
lots of people from abroad started to come to our shows. This is how we
did a show in Bremen, the guy from Bremen had heard of us as one thing
happening in London.
DB: I feel that independent
artists' ventures came out of specific circumstances, lack of experimental
spaces, economic situations, responses to local hierarchies. A lot of recent
British art has drawn on local culture. Like Bank using British tabloids,
or Sarah Lucas' use of slang. That's very different from Cragg's use of
found objects, Deacon's garden furniture sculpture and even Woodrow's use
of a washing machine. They all had more international outlooks.
MH: My memory is that in
the '80s, somehow people produced expensively made work. There was an idea
that there was an international debate and an international scene. And
there were people who aspired to that but I couldn't see myself in that
or that it was possible to be involved in that. Therefore it felt like
an exclusion took place. So the reaction was to look at your own navel
a bit more, and yeah, think in more local terms but not nationalistically.
I remember shows where everything was clean, expensive, lots of MDF and
sharp edges, glossy surfaces. This was something related not to the artists
but to some debate going on in Flash Art or Artforum and you just thought,
'why are you doing this, you're never going to be in those shows or magazines?'
I did see artists change, stop doing that and do other things entirely
in the late '80s and early '90s.
DB: There was a change?
MH: People made more quirky
things. I tread carefully when talking about City Racing but, for instance,
there was one show where Paul Noble hung toilet rolls from string and another
where Keith Coventry stuffed nylon stockings with cuddly toys and biscuit
DB: What did people think
they were doing?
MH: We were conscious of
not making museum art, that I can say. But people do things without always
knowing why. At the time I was making paintings and wrapped up with the
argument of what's original.
DB: After all the artist
run spaces that have sprung up over the last ten years, do you think they
failed to challenge existing power structures and hierarchies in London's
MH: I don't think City Racing
ever thought we could. I'm not trying to be clever after the event, but
I didn't think things would be different, but there has been a change,
there is a different kind of work about that wasn't being seen before.
Installation for instance.
DB: Where I teach I sense
that Sensation has created a pressure on some students.
MH: They think of Sensation
like we thought of Museum shows in the '80s. That the doors are shut and
that it's an exclusive club. Yeah, some people feel excluded in London
and I'm certain City Racing is seen as the establishment as we have certain
contacts, but again I don't think we thought we could change that.
David Crawford of Beaconsfield
Beaconsfield are a group consisting
of David Crawford, Naomi Siderfin and Angus Neill, which grew out of Nosepaint,
who organised art events and performances that took place at a range of
venues. Today, they have an impressive venue, formerly a school, in Vauxhall.
Beaconsfield show a broad range of work and are sympathetic to video, time-based
and non-object-based work.
David Burrows: Could you
first of all talk about the relationship of Nosepaint and Beaconsfield.
David Crawford: Nosepaint
was something Naomi and myself started about 1991. It was an idea about
having a dialogue between artists, writers, film-makers and musicians.
Our interests as artists was for people to join in from outside, so I suppose
it was idealistic.
DB: Were you tapping into
a localised scene, friends and acquaintances?
DC: Yeah. In a sense we wanted
to form a network rather than exploit a network which is more the case
today in London. If you have a scene like the one we have today then people
will exploit that, and that's sort of natural, but maybe in 1991 say, there
wasn't such a situation in London to exploit and it was about reacting
to all the negativity that was about... In 1990 or whatever there was a
dissatisfaction with things, the recession, but also a feeling that galleries
were dysfunctional and we wanted to take things down a peg or two, look
at the work and not where the work was. I don't know if you remember what
it was like to go to galleries in the '80s and feeling like a piece of
shit. The whole hierarchy that was apparent. I think people thought 'Fuck
that for a laugh' and combined with the recession you realised that there
had to be another possible route.
DB: The difference between
Beaconsfield and other artist run things that have occurred since 1993
say, is that you have remained informed by theory, conceptualism with a
small c. You have remained serious about what you do.
DC: Yeah, we are serious
but we don't take ourselves too seriously. What I'm trying to say is that
we are quite self-critical and have never been too seduced by the very
system we are operating in. Everyone probably feels that.
DB: You've resisted the dumbing
down of art.
DC: We could be criticised
for that... I think setting up Beaconsfield was a subversive act. It is
trying to make something that isn't exploiting a fashionable scene and
say 'Fuck you' at the ICA, and in a sense establish a confidence to work
with the best of what's around. We originally thought we would take the
best from the alternative, commercial and institutional spaces instead
of being in opposition or marginal. We thought we would exist inbetween
these things and create something new.
DB: It does sound like you
think of yourselves as an alternative, as an alternative to a lack of debate,
is that your proposition?
DC: Yeah maybe you're right,
but isn't it the case that we are at a point where we have to examine what's
happened and what artists can do? We like to think we give artists an opportunity
to do something that might not be possible. If you do a show at BANK I
would imagine that there is a tremendous pressure to keep up with them.
Here there isn't that attachment... Naomi and I know what we like... a
kind of critical curiosity which we feel is important.
DB: What do you think of
Sensation and the 'nBa'?
DC: When we went to Finland
we took the work of Tracy Emin and Mark Wallinger and we thought that it
might be problematic. You can't just say though that Saatchi owns these
artists and you have to break these hierarchies apart or you're fucked,
that would be an 'us and them' situation.
DB: So do you still think
you can change things?
DC: Yeah, I'd like to think
that, but if the result of this period of time ('91-'98) is the Sensation
show then we have failed.
John Russell of BANK
BANK currently operate from Galerie
Poo Poo (previously called DOG), in Shorditch. There are four members in
the group, John Russell, Milly Thompson, Simon Bedwell and Bill Williamson.
Their shows have included 'Fuck Off', 'God' and 'Winkle the Pot Bellied
Pig' and they work with a variety of artists from the established to unknown
and recent graduates. In the past, BANK shows have not been conventional
group shows but often look like large installations in which individuals
DB: The first BANK show was
in 1991 in a disused bank. Was it quite considered or was it a case of
'Yeah, let's do it'.
JR: Yeah, just do it. At the time
myself and Simon (Bedwell) sent out invites to shows that didn't happen.
Then we did group shows. We fell into various traps. Painting the space
white, site specificity, whatever that meant. Like Anya Gallachio put fruits
in an ex-fruit warehouse and that supposedly says something about something.
We did a swimming pool show at a swimming pool. But at the beginning it
was fun to get people to give you a building for free to do a show.
DB: This situation came out
of the recession as there was a lot of vacant buildings around. Also people
didn't do stuff for Museums and collectors to buy, which was what Freeze
and Building One was about.
JR: I suppose we weren't
that sussed, obviously, we didn't have the contacts or the money to compete
with Building One. We worked through different brands of idealism going
from reasonably stupid and so on.
DB: Tell me what these were?
JR: Some of them are embarrassing
and I can't speak as a group because it's not as if we have some party
line, even now, but from my point of view there was taking art to the people,
the democratisation of art.
DB: By doing shows in non
JR: Yeah. Then you get into
a fatalist idea where you think you'll never get any where so you think
you have nothing to lose and you might as well do things.
DB: Who do you aim the shows
JR: I went to an art school
where I accepted a lot of dumb things so it never got to the stage where
I asked who should we send invites to. The initial idea was that it should
all be like a party.
DB: But BANK has in a way
been successful as a lot of people come to BANK openings as it's a big
event like a party. People come from both in and outside the art scene.
You may have had naive ideas but they worked.
JR: Yeah, well you're always
going to be naive to start with and not being naive means knowing the score.
But if you claim to be doing anything alternative in the present climate
you are accused of being naive, dumb, hypocritical or just dull. The thing
is I don't see any other tactic. If you buy into the idea of a clever manipulator
you're already in a cul de sac. I think to be naive and to work more or
less instinctively is OK.
DB: Did you think BANK at
the time was alternative?
JR: Yeah, well I still think
we are. It depends what you mean by alternative... If there is one thing
I think about BANK it's the social side of things. What's it like for people
to be at the show. We tried to push things and make spectacles though we've
never had enough money to do it properly.
DB: Because galleries and
museums are places of entertainment though no one likes to admit that.
And there is always pressure to be responsible, serious and educational
and take a distanced position.
JR: Yeah, that's where I
say naive ideas are useful. When I went to the Berlin Art Fair you see
lots of art you like, like Donald Judd. You know from what you've read
in his writing that he had motives beyond making commodities. Seeing his
work in Berlin was a banal experience, for me it was depressing. But you
have to ask the question if art isn't just a commodity what is it? The
other thing is that there are no alternatives being offered at the moment.
If the ICA had a position which they had to argue for and defend then that
would be a good thing. But in terms of a position they don't have one.
It's the same with the Arts Council. I walked around the art fair and it's
incredible how stupid these gallery directors are. You have to be rich
before you can run a gallery. It's simplistic to say this but these people
and people like them control a large part of our culture. And not only
is it unfair but it's worrying that they're so stupid and this has been
replicated throughout the Arts Council and state funded arts. You have
a gang of morons running arts centres. You know the case when Nicholas
Serota's wife is running the Royal College of Arts curation course, and
you can say, 'ah I smell a fish, nepotism', but it makes perfect sense.
You can not accuse anyone in the art world of nepotism, the art world is
nepotism. Similarly you can not accuse any one of corruption, the art world
is bribery. You can respond by saying 'hey that's the way it is' or as
far as I can see, if the Arts Council and arts centres are getting public
money they should be trying to counter the effect of money on art.
DB: What about the content
of BANK shows? I'll approach this by saying that... a lot of BANK shows,
and the work that has been shown in various projects, draws upon popular
culture and everyday culture without valorising it. Do you think that BANK
treats 'high and low' culture equally?
JR: Yeah, I think it's true,
it's something we have been wary of, but on one level we've been interested
in a specific form of popular culture: that is film. We're interested in
lighting and the way narrative works in film, like jumps from normality
into horror. The way we make a show is like producing (film) sets.
DB: But there is also the
BANK tabloid newspapers, the playing of classical and rock music during
shows. All the stuff you appropriate or use is stuff the group actually
JR: Yeah, we don't distance
ourselves, we don't do that and that's partly because we don't have time.
I like the idea we do so many shows that on one level, we don't think about
things. We were trying to accelerate things. A couple of times we thought
it would all blow up, occasionally we have dreams about making it and villas
in Italy, but basically we're fucked and we know that we are not going
to make it at that level. The best stuff we've done is when we have realised
DB: But isn't it a case that
you've made a decision to enjoy yourself as well?
JR: Yeah, well that's what
it comes down to when you realised you're fucked. You don't have to do
anything you don't want to. In another way, part of the attraction of working
with other people is that things happen that you wouldn't have done yourself...
And I don't believe you're either a moron, like people think Tracy Emin
is, or clever like people think Art and Language are. Jake and Dinos Chapman
do rock 'n' roll stuff but they're clever and informed. You can't do good
stuff unless you are informed. We are mostly thought of as idiots by most
DB: All this is about the
way artists have to become professionals.
JR: It's about how you represent
yourself as intelligent and theoretically informed or not. I just felt
like reacting against all that bullshit, that's why we did shows like Zombie
children and the snake
Dundee-based artist Stephen French
began painting collaboratively with his son Max in 1995. French was 42,
Max 9. This project which has now attained a total of 73 small works began
quite accidentally. French had embarked upon a series of local landscape
studies intended as a commercial enterprise and while he was working in
his kitchen from a photograph of a cottage in Glen Prosen, he gave Max
the same photo to copy. He was immediately struck by his son's genuine
naiveté; made all the more quirky by his use of a strong black line.
At once French saw the possibility of creating an exciting image from a
combination of Max's naiveté and his own art school trained painterly
At first French was self-conscious
about working with an untutored nine year old and invented a pseudonym
which thinly disguised his own involvement. From Conor MacLeod, a name
taken from Highlander (the movie) and Stephen's mother's maiden name, and
his son's name, was born Max MacLeod. The resulting works had a distinctive
style not unwholly detached from French's own easily recognisable hand.
French draws with a black line and often employs a black ground in his
paintings with the result that his strong colour is separated by bits of
ground and/or line. Once his painting technique has been applied to Max's
drawings the works become distinctively French but on second glance appear
more off-beat and drunken; not quite right and a little inarticulate.
Stephen French has long been aware
of the commercial potential of his own art. His strong aesthetic married
to a choice of popular imagery makes his product readily marketable and
successful. His paintings result from a concept rather than a series of
haphazard experiments. In this respect he works like a designer and in
fact had his own design business for some years. He saw immediately the
commercial advantages of working with his son and moved from a rural subject
matter to instantly recognisable architectural features in Dundee, thereby
tapping into a bigger market and capitalising on people's affections for
popular landmarks. The H. Samuel Clock on the corner of Reform Street being
one such place where Dundonians habitually rendezvous.
Max never goes on location with
Stephen, who prefers instead to take a snap-shot for his son to work from.
Max works fluidly on the kitchen table, his concentration varying and not
becoming over-concerned with details. He abstracts and invents within the
framework of reference, imbuing his picture with a characteristic charm
and personality. Max works on A5 pieces of card with a Staedtler pigment
liner, preferring a point 07. Stephen then works on the drawings alone
giving them a wash of base colour before filling in with acrylic.
Max MacLeod's originals are colour
xeroxed and sold in editions of 100 for £5 each. Max receives 20%
and appears to be driven by this financial incentive. He has no ambition
to be an artist wanting instead to design computer games. To date three
different publishing agencies in Dundee have reproduced Max MacLeods as
postcards and there is now talk of a larger commissioned work featuring
the university's new Welcome Building on the Hawkhill. For larger scale
works Max will continue to work on A5 which Stephen will then blow-up on
a photocopier and trace, using carbon paper, onto board. Now that Max MacLeod
has become a commercial success and Stephen French has lost his initial
reservation, the works are attributed to Stephen and Max French.
Stephen French believed his father
and son creative collaboration was entirely unique. He was totally unaware
of the vibrant history of artists working directly with children throughout
the 20th century. Ironically, Stephen French's painting has always referred
to Hockney's uniquely playful naiveté in the 60s which in turn invokes
child art. French, however, claims that since art school he has relied
upon creative instincts. These instincts, it would appear, can direct an
artist without knowledge of history so that a short cut is taken. It is
possible therefore for someone like French to emulate child art via Hockney
without knowing why Hockney adopted that style in the first place and accordingly
be oblivious of the whole tradition of child art inspiring artists of the
modern movement. It would be interesting to pursue whether these instincts
derive from culture or somewhere deeper.
To Stephen French it is coincidental
that Keith Haring collaborated with kids during the '80s. Once with a 9
year old boy, Sean Kalish, in a suite of etchings and again with a teenager
known as LA2. Another New Yorker, Jean-Michel Basquiat, also collaborated
with children and actually paid 8 year old Jasper Lack $20 per drawing
that he worked on. This information is taken from a thoroughly researched
book, 'The Innocent Eye", by Jonathan Fineberg (Princeton University Press
ISBN 0-691-01685-2) charting the history of the modern artists'relationship
with child art from the 19th century to present day. In the final chapter,
'Mainstreaming Childhood', Fineberg relates how Basquiat introduced Jasper
Lack to Andy Warhol in 1986 as "the best painter in New York", failing,
unfortunately, to credit Basquiat with any sense of tongue-in-cheek humour
or irony. Nor does he do so when recounting another Basquiat comment that
he (Basquiat) would prefer the art of a 3 year old to that of any contemporary
artist. One is aware of an intelligence that is not empathising with that
of the artist whose is more intuitive, emotional, idealistic, and at times
naive. Fineberg's approach throughout this lavishly illustrated volume
is academic and linear in structure. He takes no risks either in his historical
or logical construct but does offer us a work of importance that reproduces
for the first time art by children from the collections of 20th century
masters who were directly influenced by them often to the point of plagiarism.
Fineberg, Professor of Art History
at the University of Illinois, commences in Chapter 1 with the romantics
of the 19th century who espoused the idea that children, being less "civilised",
were more a part of nature. This implied, to the romantics at least, that
children were also closer to the meaning of nature. And it was through
nature that the romantics attained a closeness to God. In the 18th century,
Fineberg informs us, "The wish to return to nature through the child was
new intellectual territory" and that "The romantics allied the child's
naiveté with genius." There was then a nonsecular attitude towards
child art and a sense that self-improvement might be attained through a
study of it. Charles Baudelaire claimed that "the genius was someone who
could regain childhood at will." It was Radolphe Topffer, a Swiss artist
and educator, who was the first in 1848 to study children's drawings in
any detail and to emphasize "the centrality of ideas in art over technical
execution." Public awareness of child art was assisted by the new science
of psychology and by the 1890s there was a growing body of studies and
public exhibitions of it. In 1890 Alexander Koch began his publication
'Kind und Kunst', a journal of art for and by children, which in turn led
Franz Cizek to offer juvenile art classes providing children with "creative
As one century gave way to the next,
important collections of children's art were established and the Expressionists,
Cubists, Futurists and Russian neo-primitives all hung the artworks of
children alongside their own. This overwhelming interest in children's
art was not confined to Europe and Russia. Alfred Stieglitz was the first
New Yorker to organise exhibitions of children's art in his 291 Gallery
in 1912 and in 1917; and in 1919 Roger Fry exhibited child art at the Omega
Workshops in London. Fineberg concludes his first chapter by stating that
"virtually every major artist in the first generation after the Second
World War became involved with psychoanalysis and existentialism, which
in turn led them back to childhood through personal introspection." The
following chapters are devoted to Mikhail Larionov, Vasily Kandinsky and
Gabriele Münter, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, Jean
Dubuffet, Cobra, and finally a contemporary round up of the usual suspects
given an American bias.
Professor Fineberg's failure to
acknowledge humour and irony as a contributing factor is undoubtedly established
in Chapter 2 when discussing the art of Larionov who, he tells us, "painted
a number of compositions on the theme of soldiers in 1909 and 1910 (coincidental
with his experience in the military reserves)". 'Soldier on a Horse, ca
1911' is reproduced and described graphically by the author, "the boxlike
rendering of the muzzle of the horse and the oddly stuck-on look of the
legs on the animal's far side." Added to this, its rich primary colour
scheme and very bold composition made up of three elements makes this a
classic example of plagiarised child art but it is far more than that.
It is a comic mockery of the cavalry. A satire that goes unnoticed by Fineberg
whose analysis probes no further than the obvious childlike drawing. As
an avant-garde neo-primitive who espoused the art of the people Larionov
was non-conformist and a dissident with Bolshevik sympathies. His visual
language, therefore, not only reflected his political stance but was also
carefully chosen to have the maximum effect. Larionov was one of the first
painters to use the child's visual vocabulary for political satire. Fineberg
does say that Larionov influenced the Russian futurists but his only comment
on their politics is summed up by saying: "the irretrievably dissident
attitude of the futurists went out of favour after the revolution and they
largely disappeared too." Larionov had left Russia in 1915 well before
the October Revolution of 1917 (unmentioned by Fineberg) but we are not
told why nor where he went.
Throughout this important work Fineberg
adopts a noticeable non-political stance often failing to acknowledge any
political influences on these major artists who he would have us believe
were motivated only by philosophical, existential, and aesthetic concerns
which challenged the perameters of acceptable traditional art. By focusing
so narrowly upon his area of interest, he fails to acknowledge those other
influences, such as political and social, which combine with artistic,
aesthetic, and intellectual ones to form the artist's visual product. This
approach is continued in Fineberg's treatment of Kandinsky in chapter three.
Without giving any background details,
Fineberg introduces Kandinsky and his lover Gabriele Münter through
a series of richly illustrated pages that show how the couple's collection
of child art directly influenced their painting and the works of fellow
artists in the Blaue Reiter circle. In his approach Fineberg implies that
Kandinsky introduced Münter to child art but neglects to inform us
that prior to the couple's meeting at the Phalanx School of art in Munich
in 1903, Kandinsky was more specifically influenced by folk art, legend
and Bavarian glass painting. I think it very possible that Professor Fineberg
has given way to male chauvinism by failing to credit Münter (described
as 'the amazon of abstract art'by Constance Naubert-Riser) who surely encouraged
Kandinsky's appreciation of child art, something he had not considered
prior to their relationship. It is clear from the evidence supplied by
Fineberg that Münter was more directly influenced by child art than
Kandinsky, who used it as "a source of vocabulary" and a way of freeing
up his illustrative style. Ulrike Becks-Malorny in her book on Kandinsky
(Taschen 1994) tells us that Kandinsky found displays of personal emotion
embarrassing and had no time for German Expressionism and that his abstractionism
was a way of hiding feelings. Fineberg says, "Kandinsky seems to have been
more intent on analyzing and exploiting the general characteristics that
made the children's renderings 'childlike'." Münter, he says, "approached
the child art in a more visceral and less metaphysical way." What mattered
most to Kandinsky about children's art "was that it offered an entrance
to the deeper, spiritual meaning of things through which humankind as a
whole might grow." Kandinsky, an independently wealthy son of a tea merchant,
was an intellectual who placed emphasis upon the spiritual rather than
the political. When he and Münter went their separate ways in 1914
Kandinsky ceased to have any interest in child art until his reacquaintance
with Paul Klee at the Bauhaus in 1921.
Again in the following chapter on
Paul Klee, Fineberg infers that it was Kandinsky who directly influenced
Klee's reference to child art. But it was Klee himself who had kept his
own childhood drawings and carefully documented his own son Felix's artworks
from the age of four. Throughout his painting career Klee referred to child
art, primitive art and the art of the insane in ways that Kandinsky never
did and in ways that pre-empted Cobra. Klee began teaching at the Bauhaus
in January 1921 giving Friday evening lectures on composition illustrated
by child art. The radical teaching practice of the Bauhaus at Dessau under
Walter Gropius was opposed by the Nazis who closed it in 1933. A politically
and culturally monumental event that Fineberg casually and discretely alludes
to - "1933 when the political conditions in Germany forced him (Klee) into
the isolation of Bern," This convenient short-cut reveals nothing of the
political machinations within the Bauhaus that led a disenchanted Klee
to leave in April 1931 for a post in the School of Fine Art in Dusseldorf
from which he was dismissed and from where he actually returned to Bern
in December 1933.
Chapter 7 manages to deal in part
with the century's greatest promoter of "Outsider Art", Jean Dubuffet,
who coined and patented the term "Art Brut" which referred to his significant
collection of art of the insane, visionary, primitive and child art now
housed in the Château de Beaulieu in Lausanne. However none of that
is mentioned here while Fineberg concentrates solely on the way children's
art influenced Dubuffet's raw and visceral painting style. He studied at
the Académie Julien in Paris from 1918 and continued painting until
1925 when he was forced to return to Le Harve and run the family wine business
which he eventually leased out in 1942 to return to Paris and painting.
He was 41 and the Nazis were occupying the French capital. A strange time
to return perhaps but Fineberg doesn't seem to think so. Nor does he comment
upon the coincidental return to a very anti-establishment mode of painting
loaded with political criticism.
Dubuffet's, 'View of Paris: Life
of Pleasure, February 1944', is a crudely painted street scene with a row
of black stick figures across the bottom foreground. Fineberg describes
them as being "like duckpins", an obscure reference to figures in a shooting
gallery, but he misses the obvious caricature in the goose-stepping posture
of the two mustachioed men exiting stage right, their out-stretched arms
mimicking a Nazi salute. "Dubuffet's assault on accepted standards in art
belong to a larger repudiation of traditional values in the context of
the grim reality of World War Two (WWII);" says Fineberg. He continues
by quoting Michel Tapié, a friend of Dubuffet who wrote, "One needed
temperaments ready to break up everything, whose works were disturbing,
stupefying, full of magic and violence to reroute the public." Presumably
to reroute them from Nazism as well as from, "a misplaced geometric abstraction,
and a limited Puritanism which above anything else blocks the way to any
possible, authentically fertile future."
Between 1946 and '47 Dubuffet painted
a series of 150 portraits which he described as "anti-psychological, anti-individualistic"
but which are also very satirical. Dubuffet's infantile style permits mockery,
derision and possibly loathing, revealing more than the artist was prepared
to admit to. Dubuffet continued his vehement attack on bourgeoisie culture
and in 1951 delivered a lecture in Chicago entitled 'Anti-Cultural Positions'during
which he said, "the values celebrated by our culture do not strike me as
corresponding to the true dynamics of our minds."
If Fineberg has deliberately ducked
shy of political resonances in the first seven chapters, he is compelled
to acknowledge them with reference to Cobra in his eighth. There is irrefutable
evidence to support the thesis that the expressionistic style of the Danish
avant-garde not only evolved from the existential visual language of European
dissident art but also came about as a direct opposition to right-wing
fascist values as promoted by the Nazis. I quote here from 'Danish Abstract
Art'by Robert Dahlmann Olsen (1964): "The strange thing was that the tenseness
of the situation (occupation of the country by the Wehrmacht, and sabotage
activity in connection herewith, in which many artists took part), caused
an increase in activities in the sphere of artistic development and made
them rich and exciting." Surely there was a connection between the kind
of visual language that artists of the resistance adopted and their political
Cobra's lineage is radical, politicised,
loaded with symbolism and charged with an anti-art/anti-bourgeoisie/anti-establishment
rhetoric. Briefly, Cobra's growth began in the house of Elise Johansen
in Copenhagen's red light district where, from 1932, painters, poets and
sculptors of the Danish avant-garde met to discuss ideas. It is said that
the head of the snake formed in this house. Four seminal magazines emerged
from this background: Linien (The Line), Helhesten (Hell Horse), Spiralen
(The Spiral published in Charlottenborg) which acted as a transition between
Helhesten and Cobra (which ran to ten issues from 1948 to 1951), all of
which were financed by subscription and which carried the ideas beyond
Copenhagen. Of the band of young art hooligans who terrorised the Danish
establishment of their day, Asger Jorn is the most prominent and visionary.
His relentless energy charged from Copenhagen to Paris where along with
Karel Appel, Constant Nieuwenhuys, Corneille Hannoset, Joseph Noiret, and
Christian Dotremont he signed the original Cobra manifesto in the back
café of the Notre Dame Hotel on November 8th 1948. It was the Belgian
writer, Dotremont, who coined the acronym from the group's cities of residence:
COpenhagen, BRussels, Amsterdam. WWII was over but the cultural war raged
on with the suggestion that the snake would paralyse the bourgeoisie establishment
with its venom.
Fineberg provides something of this
essential political background information to Cobra but one has the distinct
impression that a kind of historical sterilisation process operates when
art is analysed academically. He mentions Linien (1933 to 1939) and Helhesten
(1941) published by the Høst group "spearheaded" by Jorn which collided
with Reflex (1948) founded by the Dutch avant-garde - Appel, Constant and
Corneille. Their unifying characteristic, Fineberg tells us, "was their
desire for a liberated expression of the self." He goes on to say that
"Cobra artists'general rebellion against the strictures of convention were
in part a reaction against the grim years of war and German occupation.
He does not, however, mention that Cobra was opposed to the way cubism
was stifling European art and that they were against the type of formal
abstraction of artists like Kandinsky. In this context one must examine
the avant-garde's agenda which is to confront the established culture's
values and taste, whether abstract or naturalistic, and one does not achieve
this through a genteel painting style. To paint like a child or a madman
had a disturbing effect. An effect that shocked. And a shock tactic that
is still employed by artists seeking recognition of their opposing views
and a tactic that goes unacknowledged by Fineberg. It was probably this
confrontational approach that led Jorn to refuse Andre Breton's call for
"a pure psychic automatism" in his final break with surrealism. Jorn said
that one could not express oneself in a purely psychic way - "The mere
act of expression", he said, "is physical." Fineberg continues: "This intervention
of imagination in the apprehension of events also had an explicit political
implication to some of the Cobra artists," he proceeds by quoting Constant
in Reflex (1948), "The general social impotence, the passivity of the masses
are an indication of the brakes that cultural norms apply to the natural
expression of the forces of life....Art recognizes only the norms of expressivity,
spontaneously directed by its own intuition."
Cobra had a short tempestuous life
from November 1948 to November 1951 when its death was marked by an exhibition
in Liège organised by Pierre Alechinsky who had joined in March
1949 at the age of 21. 'The Innocent Eye'does not reproduce many paintings
from the Cobra years but does illustrate how Cobra's manifesto continued
to live through the art of Jorn, Appel and Alechinsky. Nowhere in his chapter
on Cobra does Fineberg make reference to William Gear, so it is all the
more surprising to find his name associated with this explosive renegade
art group in an exhibition originated by Aberdeen Art Gallery in collaboration
with Edinburgh-based composer James Coxson.
William Gear was born in Methil,
Fife, in 1915 into the hardships of a poor mining community, instilling
in him a particular working-class ethic which may have been hostile to
art. However, his father, a face-worker, was a creative man who experimented
with photography and grew flowers where his peers cultivated vegetables.
In his own contributing essay to the catalogue Gear's son, David, implies
that fate and a lack of opportunities suppressed his grandfather's talents
but that his father's generation was able, "through luck and greater opportunities,"
to blossom artistically. William Gear studied at Edinburgh College of Art
where he won a traveling scholarship taking him to Paris in 1937 where
he decided to enroll in the small academy run by Léger who was passionately
opposed to surrealism. It was Léger's intolerant attitude to surrealism
that drove away another of his students, Asger Jorn. It is most likely
that Jorn and the young Scot met in Paris at this time. Whether Gear shared
Jorn's communist convictions or not has never been recorded and it is unclear
what ideological commonalities Gear actually shared with Cobra. His artistic
background was certainly very different from that of the Danish avant garde
whose education was charged with polemic and a sense of political purpose.
One might imagine that Gear, having been brought up in a mining community,
would have had communist sympathies but according to his life-long friend,
Neil Russel, Gear was only "a bit left-wing". As art students together
they had talked about joining the Spanish Civil War but never did. Russel
went on to tell me that as far as he knew Gear was not politically inclined.
Towards the end of his life, Russel said, Gear was a conservative with
a small 'c'and wouldn't take the Guardian but preferred instead to read
the Daily Telegraph or The Times. Gear, by all accounts was, like Kandinsky,
an academic abstractionist rather than an expressionistic one.
When WWII broke out Gear was teaching
art in Dumfries. He was conscripted and served as an officer in the Royal
Corps of Signals. In 1946 he was transferred to the Monuments, Fine Arts
and Archives Section of the Central Control Commission in Germany. Throughout
this period he continued to exhibit and visit Amsterdam, Brussels and Paris
during leaves. His rank afforded him the opportunity to discover artists,
one being Karl Otto Götz who he later introduced to Cobra. During
one of his leaves to Paris in 1947 he was introduced to Constant by a fellow
Fifer, Stephen Gilbert, born in Wormit in 1910. At least socially Gear
was in with the avant-garde prior to the formation of Cobra and when he
demobbed he returned to Paris to enlist in their ranks.
Of the 39 works on paper on show
in 'William Gear and Cobra'at Aberdeen Art Gallery, 22 are by Gear. These
are hung chronologically commencing with 'Olive Grove, Italy September
1944', a watercolour in the style of William Gillies. Next to this hangs
a poem which first appeared in Meta No 5, March 1951, a magazine published
To the wretched square waiting to
Foetus-like but having yet no heart.
At light speed to the card indexed
Of the visual memory where the answer
Never before consulted, which will
To the foetus, animate the square.
The process is essentially psychological,
No one has a special pair of eyes,
As had a labourer a Sunday suit,
To put on when he looks at pictures.
Not only do these two stanzas recognise
his Calvinistic roots but they also pay allegiance to Cobra who believed
that anyone could make art. Any sympathies that Gear may have shared with
Cobra are not transparently obvious in the works, only six of which were
painted between November 1948 and '51. A striking gouache, 'Landscape,
Yellow Feature November 1948', executed in vibrant primaries is very close
in style to the work of Asger Jorn at this time. Both artists using a fractured
black line to separate colour and break up space. In 'Winter Landscape
1949'Gear's fractured black line suggests a crazy gathering of gyrating
sprites and spiky zoomorphs, the closest he comes here to emulating Cobra's
potent mythical beasts.
In an accompanying video made at
Emscote School, Warwick, in 1994 Gear speaks about his exhibition there
of 20 paintings dating from 1947 to '73. It is difficult to associate this
avuncular, bald man in a grey suit, white shirt and tie with one's image
of a renegade band of art hooligans and when he is asked about his Cobra
mates he refers to them as "they". "They got to know my work", he says,
"which was similar." Nowhere does he mention having the same influences
but instead speaks about being inspired by Fifeshire harbours, pit heads,
naked trees and hedgerows reminding us that he is essentially a landscape
artist whose use of solid, black lines refers to Léger, the Forth
Railway Bridge, and medieval stained glass windows (a common reference
among Cobra artists). It is most likely that Gear was dragooned into the
ranks of Cobra to help boost numbers and to give the first Stedelijk exhibition
in Amsterdam an enhanced international flavour. According to the thorough
catalogue essay by Peter Shields, Gear exhibited with Cobra on three occasions
but by the time Alechinsky organised the final show in Liege, Gear was
already living in England having taken little of the snake's spirit with
Gear's later works retain the black
line which becomes more structural referring to designs for sculptures
that were never made. His abandonment of any Cobra principles he might
have had is obvious but the other works in the exhibition clearly demonstrate
that hard-core Cobras held on to their beliefs. The King Cobra, Asger Jorn,
is represented by only three, fairly minor, works - two of which relate
to the Cobra period. Of these 'Composition with Two Figures 1951', ink
and watercolour, refers to his later more visceral, large scale paintings
populated with metamorphic man-beasts. It provides an apposite accompaniment
to Karel Appel's solitary contribution, 'Twee Figuren en een Vogel'which
similarly marries humour to a naked savagery. This is the most distinctive
Cobra trait, intended to disturb and shock. Both Constant's works demonstrate
this tactic. His suite of eight lithos, 'Huit fois la Guerre 1951'succeeds
in monochrome only while his coloured drawing pays homage to either the
child's unconscious hand or the schizophrenic's, or both. Complementing
the child-like gestural drawing style is the artist's use of his first
name only reminding us how we tend to refer to children, informally and
with fondness. His close associate, Corneille, likewise uses this method
along with a child-like drawing style. In 'Compositie met Figuren 1949'Corneille
employs an automatic schizophrenic hand but his other two works from 1965
and 1989 show that, like Constant, his most venomous imagery came from
the heart and soul of the snake.
The youngest Cobra member, Pierre
Alechinsky, is represented by three works of 1950 vintage but Carl-Henning
Pederson, an old campaigner from the days of Linien and Helhesten is poorly
represented by two later works from 1978 and '79. Stephen Gilbert, that
other Fifer, shows two works, the smaller of which, a pen and ink drawing
from 1945, most ably demonstrates his early influences which collide with
those of the other snakes in a way that Gear's do not. Documentation shows
that Gilbert collaborated in the painting of a mural during the first Cobra
congress and was also included in the first Cobra journal (Spring 1949).
Gear makes an appearance in the fifth journal but there is no documentary
evidence to show that he participated in the collaborative mural events
that were central to the two Cobra congresses - Bregnerød, August
1949, and Amsterdam, November 1949. These large scale collaborations also
involved the participation of the Cobra's children and very likely any
William Gear and Cobra tours from
Aberdeen Art Gallery to The Towner Gallery, Eastbourne (where Gear was
the curator from 1958 to '64) January 24th to April 26th; The City Art
Centre, Edinburgh, May 2nd to June 20th; The MacLaurin Gallery, Ayr, June
27th to July 26th 1998.
A response to issues of Rape
and Sexual Abuse
Hilary Gilligan & Lorna Healy
A Critical Access Project, ArtHouse,
Temple Bar, Dublin. February 16th21st
Jane Kelly in a recent discussion
of the work of Stephen Willats has pointed to a generalised nexus of critical
concerns in respect of community arts, issue-based work and alternative
critical art-practices in general.1 Citing
the work of Hal Foster (who in turn cites the 1930s polemics of Walter
Benjamin) Kelly identifies certain key aspects to Willats' methodology.
Importance is attached to the fact that the "ideas framing the work, the
choice of sites, the imagery, are co-ordinated, in negotiation". This dimension
of negotiation is presented as multifaceted and includes "individuals in
the area where the project takes place, the gallery and its curators, the
city and its elected representatives" and also what is loosely described
as "local community involvement" and the "responses of participants". The
project ARTICULATE was initially conceived as a modest intervention into
the larger problematic of issue-based work which sought to consider the
resources of negotiation in relation to the project of a socially engaged
Initially artists were invited to
submit expressions of interest and/or proposals in respect of a weekend
residential dialogue and exchange centred on a specific subject area. The
other participants in this exchange would be a small group of non-artists
with diverse and particularised relationships and engagements with the
specific subject area. Thus for the first phase of ARTICULATE the subject
area identified was Rape and Sexual Abuse. The participants in the weekend
long exchange were invited from different agencies and constituencies with
a specific engagement with the topic - Rape Crisis Workers, Survivors,
Law-workers etc. The intense and intimate exchange was facilitated in such
a way as to ensure safe and responsible dialogue. The artists' brief was
to enter into this dialogue as participants with the objective of realising
sometime afterwards, a project which in someway furthered, or was informed
by, the open-ended exchange established by the residential weekend. That
is to say, they were asked to develop not to document the exchange. They
had no brief to represent or to speak for the other participants, but they
were requested to listen and in someway respond to the multiple voices
present. The artists' were not obliged to realise this practical outcome
necessarily as a conventional and discrete artwork. The form of their productive
activity was to be at their discretion.
This process culminated recently
in the presentation of two art works in Arthouse, a centre for Digital
Arts in the trendy Temple Bar area of Dublin. The works were by the artists
Hilary Gilligan and Lorna Healy. Hilary Gilligan's work Articulate Exhibit
B involved a performance embedded in an audio-slide projection installation.
Lorna Healy presented The Dancing Subject, a short video projection with
accompanying audio track featuring the voice of an actor reading a theoretical
text intercut with the sounds of young girls laughing and singing.
In Gilligan's work the viewer sat
and watched a series of slide dissolves in a darkened room while the artist
stood back in a darkened corner of the space, just behind the viewer's
preferred position. The slide images began with representations of hair
which became bound up with the notion of forensic evidence and inspection.
This reading was promoted both by the narrative drift of the accompanying
audio-track but also by the presentation of images of evidence-bags and
a disposable speculum. There were two particular vectors to the narrative.
Firstly, and overidingly, a story was proposed around the construction
of legalistic representations of rape and sexual assault. Secondly, and
imbricated in this first story, there was a story about the crude and abrupt
cutting of the artist's own long hair. This overdetermined and ambiguous
sign of shame / guilt / defiance / refusal / self-negation / self-transformation,
finally resolves into a playful acting out of various roles implicated
in the legal narrative. Thus the artist appears in a series of slide images
goofily playing out the roles of doctor, police officer, barrister and
so forth. The central position occupied by images of the artist in the
work imputes the status of survivor to her and suggests an autobiographical
dimension. The central slide-dissolve presentation is interrupted at several
points by an askew lateral projection of varied images of the speculum.
Upon the conclusion of the slide-sequence and the audio track, the artist
steps forward a little and speaks several short phrases in a contrived
and performative manner. Her intonation is suggestive of poetry or formal
theatre and abruptly terminates with an alarmingly forceful though not
overidingly emotive injunction: "articulate!"
In Healy's work the image of a relatively
neutral green open-space with an ambiguous, distant, and vaguely urban
horizon-line is projected onto the gallery wall. The camera does not change
position or focus. However, there are a number of rhythmically paced edits
(cuts and dissolves) which mark off various phases of activity in this
open space. Two young girls are shown variously running into, through,
and around this space, playing, spinning, singing, laughing, and dancing.
The tone of their activity is in part defined by the snippets of a Spice
Girls' song discernible in their repertoire. At various points their play
converges on the camera which they address directly by blowing raspberries
and laughing. This also interacts with the theoretical text being read
aloud on the audio-track which is derived from a text by Luce Irigaray
and describes the eponymous "dancing subject".
Rather than engage in an explicative
reading or a critical evaluation of these two works, these short descriptions
may serve as points of departure for a consideration of the larger problematic
of issue-based work. However, before pursuing such a direction for discussion
it is necessary to provide some preliminary remarks about the general terms
of this discussion. It might be argued that the ethnographic paradigm as
employed by Hal Foster to describe a general area of practice is perhaps
overly focused on the specifics of a North American art scene. Therefore
it should not be unproblematically generalised to define the broad remit
of socially-engaged practice. The North American cultural debates in respect
of cultural pedagogy and critical practice which underpin Foster's discussion
have foregrounded throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s the paradigm
of identity politics. Issue-based work has recently most often been construed
as a question of constituency, alterity and identity, most often understood
through the nodal terms of race, gender, sexuality, class, and biography.
There is of course a clear historical premis for this manouvre. The universalist
claims of modernism and the autonomous-aesthetic project both concealed
a specific set of interests to do with gender (male) ethnicity (white)
and class (privileged). They also both operated to make illegitimate the
locating of aesthetic practice in relationship with these very same concerns.
(A typical instance of this was the controversy around the 1993 Whitney
Biennial.) It is in dialectical tension with these conditions that the
issue-based arena has been discursively constructed in North America. Foster's
work reproduces this discursive frame hence he draws on the notion of a
revision of the Benjaminian formula Artist As Producer in the positing
of the Artist as Ethnographer. The central terms of this discussion are
"difference" and the "other". The central terms of post-60s oppositional
politics in North America have been those of identity and difference.
It is important to register that
issue-based work can be construed in terms other than alterity. The term
"issue-based" implies a privileging of the discursive and the unresolved
as the supporting structure for art practice. Articulate attempted in its
programme structure to privilege precisely the polyvocal and open-ended
discursive dimension. However, in privileging the artists' take on this
dialogue it did run the risk of producing the "Aesthetic Evangelist" scenario
which proposes the artist as some kind of ideal subject capable of accommodating
and transcending the particularised positions of non-artists.2
In this sense the ethnographic paradigm might be applicable however, this
would involve ignoring the specific programme pursued in the project. There
is a further dilemma thrown up by the particular space of exhibition. Arthouse
and Temple Bar in general are ideologically loaded sites where a boomtime
Irish bourgeoisie is busily reinventing itself as culturally progressive
and vital. That the work is consumed in this context is inevitably problematic
as it contributes to the myth of reinvention. On the other hand, this is
possibly a productive intervention in as much as it attempts to position
the issues of rape and sexual abuse in an arena other than moral panic
and/or sanitising entertainment. It must be underlined here that both works
under discussion employed devices which attempted to interrupt any simple
co-option of the work.
The performative dimension to Gilligan's
work rendered the viewer's encounter with an instance of representation
("here is something to do with rape") reflexive: "here is something to
do with rape, which is to do with me, but also to do with you". The implication
is that responsibility in respect of questions of rape are not simply to
do with victims and offenders but to do with all who participate in the
circulation of representations of rape. The issue of rape is not identified
with an identity or a position but with a multifaceted network of relationships
and discursive exchanges. This does not dissolve the experiential density
of rape into an endless relay of signifiers but it does interrupt the assumption
of an essential truth of rape which can be known from an objective and
In a different but related mode
Lorna Healy's work also implicates the viewer in the questions of rape
and subjectivity. The critical moment of the presentation when the young
actresses address the camera, and (medially) the viewer, by blowing raspberries,
operates to disrupt the safe-distance of viewing. It is a theatricalised
interruption of theatricality. This combined with the modified Iragarayan
text definitively challenges the construction of identity through representations
of rape. The raspberry blowing interrupts the authoritative masculine voice
reading feminist analysis/theory thus:
The dancing or whirling subject
offers a line of enquiry which isn't led by the finished art object / art
fetish ...allowing for a consideration of the performative aspect of art
making ...it also allows for considerations of where and how work is made
public. [Raspberries blown.] ...Within Western art, since the Renaissance,
rapist and rape have become objects of the artistic narrative. [Raspberries
blown] Culture's recurrent representations of brutal victimisation through
sexual violence is not only seen within histories of fine art but also
across a range of representations within literature, the press, pornography,
film, TV, etc. Images are controlled by key institutions i.e. the church,
state, art world, social work, counseling and the legal system. ...We are
what we can talk about. ...The dominant imagery of the entertainment industry
...persists in portraying the victim as narcissistic, taboo, sensational
and/or eroticised. Cape Fear. Pulp Fiction. Last Exit to Brooklyn. Innocence
as sexual commodity. [Laughter].
Clearly, the issue of rape is here
construed again as relational and situated within an economy of representation.
In arguing to problematise Foster's analysis in its wider application outside
his highly localised frame of concerns. I am not proposing to disavow the
wealth of critical insight presented within his analysis. Rather I wish
to challenge the overall drift of his analysis whereby the terms of alterity
are privileged as the defining characteristics of issue-based work (which
is variously in opposition to aestheticism / formalism / uncritical pluralism.)
Martha Rosler and Grant Kester have also drawn on a specifically North
American context to elaborate critical analyses of socially engaged practice
but have done so in a way that does not prioritise the logic of othering
Returning to the specific case of
Articulate there is a good deal to be gained by applying some of Foster's
insights in this instance. He has pointed out that the "deconstructive
ethnographic approach can become a gambit, an insider game that renders"
the art encounter "not more open and public but more hermetic and narcissistic,
a place for initiates only where a contemptuous criticality is rehearsed."
This is clearly a possible criticism in respect of elements of Articulate,
although it might be seen to underestimate the experiential texture of
the actual encounter with the work. An important aspect of that encounter
was the sense that there is a gap in knowledge which cannot be bridged
by appeal to experts, and yet, this gap in knowledge implicates the viewer
in some way. A further factor requiring consideration is that the art world
continues to demand the discrete artwork product and privilege the moment
of exhibition. It is therefore necessary to strategically foreground the
methodological and procedural specificity of a project like Articulate.
Thus the weekend residency and the fact that the enabling organisation
is a voluntary collaboration of artsworkers (Critical Access) who are displacing
their own direct art production in favour of a facilitative role in respect
of the discursive and productive activities of others needed to be underlined.
It is not trivial either that this is also a process of self-education
and self-enabling on the part of the group. Furthermore the manner in which
the Articulate show is discursively followed up will be of central importance
in displacing the model of the Art "Statement" in favour of an emergent
model of ongoing art-dialogue.
Finally, it needs to be remarked,
in respect of the issue-based initiative in general, that there is a wide
constituency for whom to challenge their investment in the art object,
the transcendent artist, and the autonomous aesthetic as ideological (with
the inevitable ideological-unmasking), is quite simply redundant. If we
are to engage in issue-based work we must also then be engaged by this
issue and by/with this broad constituency. This matter is of course inflected
by (but not reducible to) the political terms "left" and "right" or the
terms of "identity."
1 Variant, Autumn 1997.
2 See Grant Kester's essay in AfterImage,
3 See Kester, AfterImage Vol. 20.
No. 6; Rosler in Becker (Ed.) The Subversive Imagination, Routledge, 199.
Amidst the recent hype surrounding
young British art, the pundits promoting this scam overlooked a number
of cultural forms that might have provided a more solid platform from which
to promote their rather dubious agenda. Early in 1997 the Norton Museum
of Art in Florida hosted a major exhibition entitled An Amazing Art: Contemporary
Labyrinths by Adrian Fisher. Portsmouth based Fisher has been designing
labyrinths for donkey's years and played a major role in organising The
Year of the Maze in 1991, a celebration of the 300th anniversary of Hampton
Court, the oldest surviving hedge maze in England.
Many new mazes were built as part
of the 1991 celebrations and Fisher bagged the prime spot in Blenheim Palace,
Oxfordshire. Blemheim occupies the site of the legendary Rosamund's Bower,
an architectural labyrinth with heavy defences in which Henry II is said
to have installed his mistress Fair Rosamund. According to the story propagated
by various popular ballads, when Queen Eleanor finally penetrated the maze
in 1176, she forced her rival to drink poison. Blenheim Palace replaced
the ruined medieval buildings in the eighteenth century and was given to
the First Duke of Marlborough in recognition of his many military victories.
The Marlborough family's other famous military scion, Winston Churchill,
was born at Blenheim in 1874.
Fisher based his Marlborough Maze
design on Grinling Gibbons' Blenheim Palace roof carvings depicting the
Panoply of Victory. Seen from above, the lines of yew hedges that make
up the labyrinth portray pyramids of cannonballs, a cannon firing, and
the air filled with banners, flags and bugles. The maze has entrances on
the left and right with a central exit. Two wooden bridges add an exciting
additional aspect to the puzzle element of the maze, while simultaneously
providing viewing points from which to survey the work. One of Fisher's
colour mazes can also be found at Blenheim. This labyrinth consists of
nodes connected by coloured paths, the choice of path at each node being
determined by the colour of the path previously taken.
Mums and dads stop on the bridges
of the main maze to view a piece of symbolism that makes Sarah Lucas look
subtle. Children race around the labyrinth enjoying the three dimensionality
of the work in the same way that they might relish Tracy Emin's Everyone
I Ever Slept With tent. The Marlborough Maze isn't difficult to solve,
the first time I went in it took about twelve minutes to get out again.
Alongside the aesthetic frisson of the mock pompous symbolism, the twists
and turns of the labyrinth cause the maze to echo with the noise of laughter
and wonderment. The crowds flocking to Blenheim are very different to the
audience attracted by young British art. On the surface those using the
labyrinth may appear less sophisticated than gallery groupies, but beneath
this superficial appearance their aesthetic tastes are actually far more
The institutional defeat of modernism
has resulted in an increasing assimilation of art into representational
categories of popular culture. The Marlborough Maze is a perfect example
of an art that does not have to justify such pleasures to its audience.
This has generated a certain amount of confusion in the interpretation
of Fisher's work and while his mazes have received coverage everywhere
from Scientific American to Der Spiegal , they are largely ignored by the
art press. Art critics generally view Fisher as politically conformist,
intellectually timid and an aesthetic revisionist. Such views are extremely
parochial since they are based on the surface appearances of Fisher's work
at the expense of the wider cultural context.
While young British art has been
justified as a demotically voiced assault on politically correct post-modernism,
the Marlborough Maze attacks something infinitely more sacrosanct. Woodstock
Park in which Blenheim Palace is situated was landscaped by Capability
Brown, whose naturalistic aesthetic resulted in the destruction of many
mazes and the formal gardens of which they constituted a part. Hampton
Court maze only survives today because Brown was told not to touch it.
This must have irritated the Royal Gardener, since he lived in the house
next to the maze for twenty years!
The Marlborough Maze is much more
than simply a slap in the face for aesthetically 'educated' taste or a
simple parody that sets ghosts walking. Despite Fisher's unqualified regard
for the voluptuous pleasures of popular culture, he does not seek to assimilate
himself to popular culture in fazed admiration, as if his only ambition
was an anti-intellectual release of libidinal energy. Rather, he treats
the aesthetically despised pleasures of maze making and walking as something
that is first nature and commonplace and mutually defining of subjectivity.
The labyrinth is a vibrant cultural form precisely because it has avoided
the aesthetic hype of the contemporary art market. As such, Fisher and
maze walking represent the future direction of visual culture.
Talking to Tom
Tom Leonard recently visited the
University of Colorado, Boulder, at the invitation of the university's
writer-in-residence, the poet Ed Dorn. While there, he was interviewed
by history student Dan Stephen for the creative writing department magazine
'Sniper Logic', edited by Ed Dorn's partner Jenny Dunbar. The following
is a transcript of the interview with introduction.
When I was given the opportunity
to interview Tom Leonard I jumped. After all, Leonard, a native of Glasgow,
is not only a leading British poet who had never before travelled to the
United States, but is a representative of a literary tradition that is
distinctively, even defiantly working class and rooted in local language
and experience. Leonard is hardly known in the United States though his
work has attracted considerable attention in Britain. He occupies a particular
position in the culture of western Scotland, as a contemporary spokesperson
for a poetical tradition that, at its best, is willing to defy authority
and convention to speak with an authentic voice. Born in 1944, Leonard
is an accomplished popular writer and poet whose work is wholly his own,
without being overly personal or eccentric. The Glaswegian dialect that
structures a significant part of his work is the vernacular of his childhood
and locality. The subjects of his poetry, while often political, are the
result of his ongoing engagement with that local culture.
For Leonard, politics is part of
living, it is as inevitable as breathing. He told me, "Although obviously
there is a way in which my work is political, that's because the language
itself in Britain is a political issue. It's not that politics is something
that I take down from a shelf and do, politics is just part of the process
of being. To get through the day is political." Part of the key to Leonard's
politics is Glasgow's former position as Britain's "second city of empire"
and the paradoxical position of its working class Catholic and Protestant
citizens as colonised subjects within a broader imperial culture. In Britain,
dialects are markers of relative status and power, and the speech cultivated
in elite schools has been a marker of status. While the climate has begun
to change, it is still possible for working class speech to draw laughter,
or to be a source of discrimination. In a satirical passage in a Leonard
poem, a BBC news announcer is given a Glasgow working-class accent to announce
bluntly why the BBC avoids working-class accents in its newsbulletins:
lik wanna yoo
it wuz troo...
yooz doant no
yi canny talk
right. this is
the six a clock
nyooz. belt up.
Leonard's contrary position, that
as one speaker in a poem puts it, "all livin language is sacred", has not
alway been an easy one to maintain in a British culture that privileges
certain dialects, or in that tourist Scotland that in the past has created
an industry out of sentimentality. Fake clan tartans and Brigadoon views
of history are pleasing to tourists but in overabundance are poisonous
to a genuine culture. A large part of Leonard's life has been spent trying
to explore and to interpret for himself what is vital and essential about
the culture of his own region of western Scotland.
He spent several years during the
1980's as "Writer in Residence" at Paisley Central Library, just west of
Glasgow. There he had access to the library's substantial collection of
local regional books and pamphlets. Between items of news and religous
or political disputation there was a lot of poetry, most of which had been
out of print for over a century. The authors were not professional writers
but ordinary people: farmers, bakers, mothers, and workers, many of whose
poems crackle with wit and bite that still hits home, even after a hundred
and fifty years. These Renfrewhire poets were largely self-educated, and
they wrote not for a school, academy or publishing house, but for themselves
and their neighbours. While working at the Paisley library, Leonard read
through this time capsule from A to Z, then made a selection of poems,
published in 1990 as Radical Renfrew.
Though more than sixty poets were
brought back into print after a century of neglect, Leonard insists that
the selection process was nothing to do with "levelling down" or suspending
criteria. "I rejected a hell of a lot," Leonard told me. "The ones I rejected
were often writers who put on a kind of salon-pastoral suit in their writing,
using grand-toned language because that was the language they thought poetry
should be in. The poems I responded to had in some measure language that
was alive, and engaged."
Renfrewshire is the county immediately
north of Robert Burn's Ayrshire, and a number of the anthology's poems
show the influence of Scotland's best-known poet in terms of poetic form
and the writing about everyday things. Political themes evident in the
book include work and unemployment, trade unionism, democratic reform,
feminism, and republicanism. But the poetry is not all radical in the political
sense, and the title Radical Renfrew was chosen for a more fundamental
reason. "Part of the meaning was to do with the Latin 'radix', or 'root',"
Leonard explained. "It was a statement about the root of poetry in this
area, using the word root in the various resonances it can have. What are
the roots of the culture we are in, 'we' meaning the people in the west
of Scotland. Also, here is a poetry that is rooted in the culture of which
it is a part."
During his presentation at the British
Studies Center, Leonard talked about Alexander Wilson, poet and pioneer
ornithologist who left Paisley for America in the 1790s, and there brought
out before his death the 9-volume Birds of America. "In fact Wilson didn't
leave for America", Leonard adds, "he fled." Charged among other things
with distributing Paine's The Rights of Man, Wilson for one satiric attack
on a local employer was jailed and forced publicly to burn his satire at
Paisley Cross. Like some others in Radical Renfrew, he wrote under risk.
Paine's The Rights of Man was popular
in Scotland, and Leonard argues that the exclusive nature of the literature
and language allowed in British schools was part of the process which counteracted
such as Paine's egalitarian ideals. "In fact the spread of the right to
vote in Britain paralleled the right to literacy, in that both were allowed
within formal codes whose names acknowledge the supremacy of the status
quo which must not be challenged: Her Majesty's Government, Her Majesty's
Inspectorate for Schools, the Queen's English. The rights and values of
the monarch and aristocracy were sown into the definitions of what the
people's new entitlements to personal expression actually were."
The language and culture of Renfewshire
itself became devalued and marginalised. By the end of the nineteenth century
the intellectual and linguistic range of the published local poetry had
narrowed, often being limited to the sentimental and safe, in spite of
continued working class oppression.
Leonard's views have drawn criticism
from some in Scotland who accuse him of attacking Literature teachers just
for doing their job, a view he dismisses as "utter rubbish". He puts it
that literature teaching is valid insofar as it can avoid functioning as
the representative of institutional authority, which "tends to make it
into an arm of government." He recognises "the inspirational effect a single
teacher can have as a human being offering knowledge and personal engagement
with specific works of literature from their own life. This is something
I don't denigrate nor would want to." But away from that personal interaction,
the structural institution, the competition for grades, prizes or scholarships
by students writing essays on literature for examiners, is all opposed
to the very nature of what literature actually is. Such practice, says
the introduction to Radical Renfrew, "turns the living dialogue between
writer and reader into a thing, a commodity to be offered in return for
a bill of exchange, the certificate or 'mark'. But no caste has the right
to possess bills of exchange on the dialogue between one human being and
This argument is of a piece with
the anti-clerical stance of some of the poets in the anthology itself,
who take the view that they do not need any clergyman to judge the quality
of their own dialogue with their Maker. Leonard remarks, "When I go to
a university library and see yard upon yard of the institution-generated
litcrit industry, I see it largely as the byproduct of another clericism."
Leonard's language concerns have
led him into broader politics, and at one time or another he has written
in support of leftwing causes. During the Gulf War he produced a pamphlet
On the Mass Bombing of Iraq and Kuwait, Commonly known as "The Gulf War"
published by the anarchist AK Press of San Francisco and Edinburgh. This
analysed and satirised media control and inconsistencies in reporting of
the events, and complained in plain, standard English about the extent
of Iraqi deaths due to the bombing and set to continue as a result of the
destruction of the country's infrastructure, and the continuing embargo
on the import of medical and food supplies. The booklet went to three printings,
and Leonard recalled how moved he was when at an Edinburgh Festival poetry
reading in 1991 at which he read some of the satire, a woman approached
him from the audience afterwards and said, "Thanks a lot for writing that.
My son was over in the thing."
As it happened, Leonard arrived
in Boulder in November at a time when tensions between Iraq and America
were again building, following President Hussein's expulsion of American
weapons inspectors. A renewed American and British bombing campaign seemed
likely. Leonard connected the prospect of the bombing once more with control
of public language, citing the always-repeated description of Iraq's alleged
stockpile of "weapons of mass-destruction". "Ironic," he says, "given that
I live in Glasgow thirty minutes' drive from the Trident nuclear missile
base with a stock of nuclear warheads sufficent to wipe Scotland from the
face of the earth many times over."
Leonard gave two public presentations
at Colorado University. At the English Department he gave a talk on the
Scottish poet James Thomson (1834-82), author of "The City of Dreadful
Night". Thomson, who spent nine months as secretary to a mining company
in Central City in 1872, is the subject of Leonard's biography Places of
the Mind. The same evening at the British Studies Center, Leonard read
poems from Radical Renfrew together with a selection of his own poetry.
I met him on the Pearl Street Mall
on a cold Saturday morning the next day. We wandered around looking for
a place to meet and talk, and ended up at the Penny Lane coffee house.
Even though Leonard spoke clearly and slowly, there were times when my
unfamiliarity with Scottish accents caused me to miss a word or two. He
agreed to talk only on condition that he himself could ask me whatever
he wanted, saying that for the dialogue to have value both parties had
to be on equal ground. I had prepared questions in advance, which I showed
to Leonard and to which he referred occasionally, though our conversation
wandered far from this prepared list.
Stephen: Do you believe,
as you seem to be saying in the introduction to Radical Renfrew, that the
growth of institutions has tended to cut off dialogue?
Leonard: What I say there
among other things is that state institutions in nineteenth century Scotland
cut off and controlled the dialogue between the indigenous culture and
the people--and therefore more crucially, sought to control the critical
dialogue taking place between the people and the state. I don't think that
sort of phenomenon rare, nor has it been confined to Scotland.
Stephen: Is it harder to
express dissenting opinions today? Even when there seems to be little opposition
to dissent, people are not writing--
Leonard: Could you elaborate
on that? I don't really think it's true, but I'd like to hear what you
Stephen: Well, for example,
since 1989, it's hard to dissent to the free market. People think capitalism
fought some sort of ideological war with the Soviet Union and won. The
last ten years or so have been capitalism running amok.
Leonard: In the former Soviet
bloc welfare has been confused with communism, and therefore totalitarianism,
and all the rest, and scrapped with the asset-stripping. The waves of that
are really hitting Britain and America now, all this crap about welfare
being a sign of moral degeneracy. It's about underfunding public services,
the political system supposedly directed to the notion that people pay
less and less taxes, because people who don't pay taxes are negative entities,
society's anti-matter. But dissent takes place as it always has done, in
Stephen: Our culture is being
taken over by advertising and corporations. It's difficult to express an
opinion that goes against the grain of that. I don't mean that people are
being driven out of the country or thrown in jail, but if you dissent to
what everybody supposedly thinks at some level you are assuming some kind
of immediate risk. That situation is helped along by newspapers and everything
else that often repeat the same opinions over and over again. There's a
huge industry connected to corporations that does nothing but generate
Leonard: The important phrase
there is "what everybody supposedly thinks". The mass newspapers and endless
media newsbulletins are as much about marketing a specific sense of phatic
communion as about information. Which doesn't generate dissent or critical
dialogue. Phatic communion comforts people. You watch the game then go
home to read about it.
Stephen: What do you mean
by that phatic communion?
Leonard: The phrase is from
the linguist Malinowski, it means that level of discourse which is a bonding
device, mutual reassurance about shared givens. When somebody says for
instance, "Cold, isn't it?" and the other says "Yeh, it's freezing," etcetera.
It's not a real question, it would be unsociable in a blizzard to reply
you felt warm, you would be thought off your head. The Crucible remains
a fine play.
The situation can parallel the nineteenth
century Scottish education phenomen, in that the gates seem all opened
but what gets through is in certain essentials reduced. That gets very
obvious in times like the Gulf War, or in Britain recently after the death
of Diana, where unbelievably the BBC merged its channels into one on radio
and tv, in case you got away from showing your respect. The language everywhere
on the British media that week was appalling, obsequious and self-indulgent
hysteria, the Gulf War all over again with a madonna in place of the Devil.
It was like if you didn't show yourself stricken with grief you should
be strung from a lamp-post. As I said last night, I gave up on newspapers
and newsbulletins totally for more than two months afterwards. That was
actually quite liberating.
Stephen: In the nineteenth
century, people did not face an opinion industry.
Leonard: They did when they
went to church and school, radical culture survived largely despite these,
not because of them. Also if you look at the established newspapers you
get the establishment line. My local city newspaper the Glasgow Herald
for instance, is just one of the many that consistently opposed democratic
progress in Ireland and working class advances in Britain. That was standard.
Stephen: But how many people
read those newspapers? Their circulation was much smaller.
Leonard: So was the electorate.
But then as now there were other narratives, other publications. Dissent
is always going on, and always will. You're showing dissent in the basis
of your questions.
Stephen: I'd like to wrap
things up with something that is just my own personal interest. Somewhere
I've heard that you're a fan of the writer and poet Hugh MacDiarmid, who's
come under a lot of fire recently. Do you have anything you wish to say
Leonard: MacDiarmid is a
major figure in Scotland, the key figure in the attempt to establish a
literary form of the Scots language as part of a counter-colonial nationalist
strategy. Some of the attack on him you refer to is from those people dismissing
everything and anything to do with the Left. One way I fundamentally differ
from him is in wanting to use a language descriptive of what actually is
linguistically, rather than prescriptive of what ought to be, or historically
was: the difference between us is a common one between writers in a colonial
or post-colonial state. American writers such as [William Carlos] Williams
helped me to my own mode, and MacDiarmid's intellectual breadth, whatever
the differences between he and I, is such that it was no surprise to me
coming recently on an essay of his in an Edinburgh University magazine
from the early sixties in which he was welcoming the publication in the
magazine of the then young Allen Ginsberg, and Black Mountain writers like
Charles Olson and Robert Creeley.
Stephen: Thanks very much
for your time and patience.
Verso ISBN 1-85984-196-1
Woody Allen put it rather clearly
when he exclaimed "Marxism is dead, feminism is dead, humanism is dead
and frankly, I don't feel so good myself." We all know, and have for some
time, that the grand narratives have collapsed, we all know that cynicism
is the inevitable result of a loss of faith, and that a certain ironic
wit and negativity is the only way to survive on groundless terrain. The
only problem is that cynicism has gone from being a survival tactic towards
becoming an end in itself. We have grown used to it and cannot let a political
event, an artwork, a novel or even a relationship pass without a sneer
of self-conscious irony.
Cynicism and Postmodernity marks
the next turn in the spiraling tale of self-conscious postmodernity: the
condemnation of cynicism and the rather contradictory project of subsequently
trying to find a position from which such a criticism could take place.
A kind of cultural criticism in reverse. A burst of well intended frustration
and anger followed by confusion.
In this Timothy Bewes' first published
work, his focus is on politics, the arena in which, he claims, postmodern
cynicism has had the greatest impact and the most damaging effects. It
sets out ambitiously to assess the impasse of postmodern thought and to
re-orientate contemporary theory towards an active politics beyond cynicism
and apathy. As such it is one of the many new publications in what is fast
turning into a backlash against postmodernity.
Cynicism and Postmodernity characterises
"post modern cynicism" as "a melancholic, self pitying reaction to the
apparent disintegration of political reality," -- a period of disillusionment
with Grand Narratives and totalising ideologies. Postmodernism is seen
by Bewes as a cynical reaction to the aims of enlightenment thought and
For Bewes, as for postmodernity's
time served critics, Habermas and Norris and Eagleton; the postmodern is
a temporal historic blip, a small upset or period of cowardice in the face
of the difficult ascent of the enlightenment project. Postmodernity, in
this view, is already pre-staged by Hegel, as a part of modernity: "the
reification of a certain panic in the face of psychical violence and epistemological
According to Bewes, postmodernity
is pre-staged and therefore dismissed in The Phenomenology, in which Hegel
describes the possible responses to the violence of consciousness during
its progression towards knowledge. Paraphrasing Hegwl, Bewes diagnoses
three distinct types of response to the fear of knowledge. These are characterised
as "decadence, relativism and irony."
According to Bewes: "Hegel introduces
and dismisses the intellectual credibility of these recognizably postmodern
states of mind, symptoms of a crisis in the thoroughgoing skepticism of
the healthy philosophical sensibility."
Postmodernity is then, seen as a
period of inactivity, in which indulgence in metaphysical introspection
and critique stands in for any real activity, in particular political activity.
The postmodernist is cynical of the Grand Narratives of modernity, and
instead revels in doubt, nihilism and apathy. The postmodernist, lacking
a foundation for ethics, or a scientific basis for social analysis, has
no other terms to assess anything on, other than subjective impressions
and existing cultural values. Hence so much post-modern theory is taken
up by the relatively apolitical study of "aesthetics." Applying his three
tools of decadence, relativism and irony, the postmodern aesthete becomes
either decadent, reactionary or nihilistic.
Following through on his claim that
postmodernity is a historical blip, Bewes attacks the foundations upon
which the epistemological break with modernity occurred: Auschwitz and
the implication of modernist rationalism in the rise of totalitarianism.
"To equate such logic [national
socialism] with reason, as Gillian Rose or indeed Hegel or Kant, or Arendt
variously conceive it, is a postmodern fallacy."
From Bewes' perspective postmodern
thought has turned against reason because it has mis-conceived rationality.
Bewes goes on to characterise postmodernity as a fear of reason. Quoting
Zygmunt Bauman and his cautionary relativism, as an example of the fear
of risk inherent in postmodernity; Bewes shows how this fear of exercising
reason can lead to a liberalist political philosophy which elevates the
tolerance of confusion, to its prime principle. Bauman, like most postmodern
relativists, justifies his position by a severe mistrust of the connection
between reason and totalitarianism.
"This condition of uncertainty,
of over-riding caution in the face of impasse or irresolution, is to all
intents what Bauman prescribes for the postmodern ethical subject: embrace
your bafflement, and live accordingly."
In the face of ethical choice, claims
Bauman, it is better to err on the side of caution. Against this Bewes
defines modernist reason as "risk", and Bauman's ethical caution as "fear
of risk." The fear of violence which Hegel characterised as the lack of
courage in facing the challenge of enlightened knowledge.
What is at stake is an important
point, and this is the heart of the debate from which Bewes himself, somewhat
disappointingly, retracts. The question is: is modernist rationalism as
profoundly implicated in totalitarianism as many post-modernists would
claim, or has rationalism been mis-conceived by postmodernism? In short,
is it possible, in any way, to return to the modernist project of enlightened
To address this question Bewes looks
at a number of positions expounded by postmodern theorists on the subject
of Auschwitz and Nazi general Eichmann's use of Kant's categorical imperative,
as part of his defense at the Nürnberg trials. However, the weight
of evidence he brings up against his own claim, far outweighs his own side
of the argument, however boldly he states his case. "Auschwitz is a corollary
not of reason, but of the fear of reason."
Disappointingly Bewes does not follow
through the logic of his own argument to make a case for re-instating the
modernist project; or to denounce postmodernism, as Habermas and Eagleton
and Norris have done from their different positions. When faced with the
immensity of the project before him he simply falls back on a rhetoric
of exclamation: "[Postmodernity is] a dangerous rhetorical sophistry, a
pervasive counter Enlightenment and relativistic drive to abandon ideas
of truth, and the possibility of social progress." While he acknowledges
the work done by anti-postmodern theorists he does not endorse their un-shaking
belief in the reinstatement of the enlightenment project, or acknowledge
the difficult work that is still to be done on supporting and developing
such an argument. Nor does Bewes pay respect to their work or develop any
of their arguments.
Bewes does not follow through in
support of the initial quotation by Hegel upon which such an argument could
be based. Instead Bewes heads off into the realms of contemporary politics,
cultural criticism and literature in the attempt to find some real substance
to grapple with. Believing as he does in some vague notion of "political
engagement" and "risk" in the face of so much postmodern apathy. As he
leaves the work of other theorists behind however, he also steps off the
track that might have led him to a position which could legitimate the
claims he makes.
Bewes about-turns on the importance
of answering the question (the complicity of rationalism with totalitarianism)
dismissing it as mere metaphysics. In a chapter Energy vs. Depth: The Lure
of Banality, he develops the claim that we cannot apply metaphysics to
politics; as the former is based upon notions of depth and the latter upon
energy: the former on universal concepts and the latter upon cultural variables,
contingent historic facts and localised pragmatics.
"Postmodern politics is therefore
founded on a fundamental confusion between the affairs of politics and
those of metaphysics. Its aims are all too apparent: to put a hold on the
hazardous exercise of political rationality in the quest for metaphysical
stability. This end necessitates that the political temperament, which
is essentially one of instability, risk and perpetual uprooting, be divested
of its credibility."
It is at this point that Postmodernity
and Cynicism loses its credibility as a critique of postmodernity. In his
exoneration of energy, temperament and force, Bewes starts to sound like
his critique of rationality is coming from the perspective of an irrationalist:
Nietzsche, and the proto-Neitzscheans, Deleuze and Foucault, as we all
know, use the same language, and are well known postmodernists.
In attempting to find a basis for
political action, through "passion, energy and force," Bewes steps out
of philosophy, historical analysis and even politics, into the realm of
the irrational, into the realm of fiction. It is not surprising then that
he abandons the difficult work of theorists and philosophers to address
the person of a fictional character (as a metaphor for the point he is
trying to make): in the charismatic character of Rameau, in La Neveu de
Rameau, by Diderot: a character whose existence is "to all appearances
, the preference for energetic thoughtlessness, over the philosophers profundity...
Rameau's position is one of resolute indifference to all 'higher things'...freedom,
truth, genius, wisdom, posterity, truth or dignity." He is characterised
as: "'The destructive character' an agent of unsanctioned lawmaking violence...the
catalyst of history..."
Bewes pits the energy of Rameau
against the impotent depth of the postmodern theorist (whom he characterises
as "the metaphysical philosopher"), Rameau is seen by Bewes as "the enemy
of ...the pervasive fear of violence in 'late' postmodernity." Bewes quotes
Hegel's references to Diderot's Rameau as an example of the negative movement
of dialectic thought. Rameau is then built up through the rest of the book,
as a metaphoric example of the energetic power of Hegel's dialectic between
philosophy and action.
Bewes attempts to build up an emotive
argument for some kind of political action, and spirit of risk, not by
analysing the reason for "postmodern apathy", but by stockpiling examples,
and attempting to create a sense of frustration with it. Cynicism and Postmodernity
is filled with impatience and frustration but never gets beyond the limits
that are causing the frustration. Inevitably, what Bewes is looking for
is not a realpolitick or politics based upon methodological analysis, but
instead a spirit of political engagement, a temperament even. A new kind
of energy with which to sweep away cynicism. A passionate "risk".
Until he has answered the much bigger
question, this notion of "risk" within the political arena seems unformed,
and un-informed: a call to arms without a cause to fight for, energy without
direction. Bewes, it seems, is almost willing to risk another Auschwitz
in the name of the creative violence of reason.
The book should be heralded for
its detailed diagnosis of the intellectual impasse of postmodernity, through
all aspects of contemporary culture, quoting as it does, from a breath-taking
array of sources in literature, theory, sociology, media studies and contemporary
politics. The pluralistic and eclectic nature of Bewes' references, however,
serve to confuse and defer the difficult argument that was initially intended.
Thus Bewes' mixing of references to the K Foundation, Tony Blair, Derrida,
Rorty, Death Brand Cigarettes, Auschwitz and Dazed and Confused magazine,
serves only to dilute his argument.
It is exactly this attempt to pull
together so many reference points and to jump between genres and disciplines
in a flurry of intellectual activity, which nonetheless obscures the very
clear issue at its core. Having diagnosed the problems of postmodernity,
Bewes is unable to find a direction or methodology which might lead to
a solution. His method is itself, irrational and eclectic. The subject
areas he attempts to span are too broad, and we have no grounds in either
metaphysics, empirical fact or political theory upon which to judge any
of his statements. The form of the book itself, is a product of postmodern
pluralism in academia, the breaking down of boundaries between disciplines.
The book partakes of the same retreat from method and discipline into subjectivity,
that it attempts to condemn. Bewes is interested in the notion of re-instating
reason without actually exercising reason in the form of a rationally structured
Ironically, the postmodern culture
of cynical self-awareness and apathy is only added to by this book. As
a culture, our cynicism exists not because we are unaware of what is wrong
with postmodernism, but because we are only too aware of our inability
to get out of the impasse, our inability to take a risk, to commit to a
cause. Cynicism and Postmodernity is then another attempted critique of
our cynical postmodern culture which inevitably adds to the canon of self-consciousness
but impotent knowledge. All diagnosis and no cure. Knowing that we are
cynical, just makes our cynicism all the more profound.
Homage to JG
Cours Albert, Paris: Sunday August
The conceptual artist Diana, "Our
Lady of the Media," at last unveiled her latest music action piece to a
public positively salivating with eagerness and anticipation. Earlier works
by this former pupil of Wolf Vostell and one time member of Negativland
had been criticised as being guache, self-indulgent and politically inept.
Under the canopy of a starlit Parisian night, Homage to JG Ballard for
four voices, Mercedes Benz and motorcycle cavalcade once and for all silenced
even her sternest critics--that fawning ratpack whose presence she so often
It was a stroke of marketing genius,
if not of aesthetics, to employ some of this parasitic entourage to serve
as the chorus in her most mature and considered piece of urban theatre.
Detractors will carp that she had merely noted the grilling received by
Guardian critics when they directed plays at a recent BAC season, and cynically
sought to turn the media on itself, but those of us who count ourselves
her fans see a more profound and original mind at work.
A small but select band of Diana's
most ardent followers gathered at midnight to witness this crucial benchmark
of late '90s art. The piece would be in three parts, the press release
told us, starting at the fabulous Ritz Hotel, lit by one thousand chandeliers
and emblematic of all that is tasteful about contemporary life, and ending
at the rather more gloomy but undoubtedly hip underpass of the Cours Albert.
Specuation was rife as to the myriad influences that this penetratingly
perceptive, even cheeky, mistress of postmodernism would absorb, reconfigure
and claim as her own. Some saw hints of Hans-Peter Kuhn; others argued
that Diana was "the original Spice Girl". Others still protested that she
was first and foremost the high priestess of post-kitsch, while a few cynics
sneered that she just provided "Virilio for lounge lizards."
When you look into the void for
too long, said Nietzche, the void starts looking into you. Diana was saying
much the same in this elegant and powerfully visceral meditation on the
trappings of power, fame and her own role as a creature of the media. The
performance began with the quartet entering their vehicle, moving off at
a steady pace, joined--with a clear nod to Fellini--by the drove of paparazzi.
So far, so much traditional modern opera, the socialist realism of the
outside environment alone hinting at anything radically new, but still
within spitting distance of Jonathan Miller or Robert Le Page. Gradually,
subtly, the pace shifted and the audience settled into watching, enraptured
and absorbed, a kind of flight and pursuit as first one figure, then another,
drew towards the artist, then withdrew, in a teasing foreplay that for
some spectators was more than a little risque. The simple elegance of this
opening movement, delicately bathed in the soft light from half a dozen
car headlamps, did not, however, offer more than a hint of what was to
The second and penultimate movement
was surely the culmination of a life's work by this gifted young artist
(who has been compared favourably to Tracy Emin and even humorously dubbed
"Scanner in drag"), at once calling to mind the Lettrist notions of derive,
contemporary chaos theory, and wickedly--in the kind of whimsical gesture
that has made her the "Queen of the people's hearts"--the famous Papa/Nicole
car advertisements (allegedly scripted by one of Diana's mentors, Raoul
Vaneigem). The almost balletic grace which the Mercedes Benz (deployed
in reference, no doubt, to Diana's favourite Japanese noisecore group Merzbow's
notorious edition-of-one CD, sealed into a car of the very same model)
leapt and bounded across the Cours Albert literally took the breath of
this critic away. The sense of abnegation on the part of the players, akin
to the vertiginous feeling of oblivion encountered in the work of the most
extreme of today's isolationists, was (it was generally agreed) singularly
impressive. A chorus of delighted mews of appreciation rose from the spellbound
audience. Who could fault Diana's biting critique of bourgeois mores, her
mercurial speed-reading of the contemporary urban landscape, her quicksilver
deliniation of neo-classical hubris in the figures represented (the artist
herself daringly foregrounded) in this most alluring and, it must be said,
It was only with the so-called Epilogue
that Diana could be accused of letting her fanbase down. Nowadays who among
us has not grown bored of the endless screenings of so many interchangeable
hospital dramas, the tedious Casualtys and ERs, chocabloc with cliches--the
alcoholic surgeon, the wounded eccentric, the inevitable hackneyed recourse
to (one one thousand, two one thousand) cardiac machines? Diana's attempt
at a supra-ironic positioning of the artist (a la Orlan) at the centre
of the operating space came across merely as inapposite and pandering to
the demands of hoi polloi. The smorgasbord of mangled metal, the heady
cocktail of petrol and bodily fluids, the positively electrifying incorporation
of police and ambulance sirens--son et lumiere sans pareil, indeed!--was
already more than enough, and this over-long and frankly dull conclusion
to the music, until then so full of futurist sound and fury, was a major
miscalculation. Nevertheless, the critical response was overwhelmingly
positive, and both public and professional scribes agreed that this would
be right at the top of their Hits of '97 lists. So much for the "Silly
Although a repeat performance seems
out of the question--Diana insists on the aesthetic priority of public art
performed in real time and is barely interested in documentation, dissing
it as at best a halfway house--the rave reviews that this new work has already
attracted seem destined to keep it in the public mind for some considerable
time to come.
aren't made for walking
Style, fetishism and the 'will
Bowling Green State University,
Ohio July 25-28, 1997
The Style conference provided the
first cross-disciplinary forum for a range of issues and ideas that fuse
the traditionally discrete territories of design, art and fashion theory
and history, and the more permeable fields of queer theory, gender, women's
and cultural and black studies to be aired and debated where they interrogated
the meanings of style.
Meanwhile, Bowling Green style;
Big Boys, Buckeye Budget Inns, tractor-pulling championships, 'Elizabethan'
jousting on the campus lawns all went untheorised. Bowling Green jocks
hollering 'lesbians' at women delegates with an almost nostalgic unselfconsciousness,
as news of the Dean lost in the Puerto Rican jungle broke, provided a poignant
backdrop for the proceedings.
Papers of cringing banality and
searing relevance to theory were delivered by speakers who seemed either
daunted or encouraged by the interconnectedness of research in disciplines
remote from their own and the onus (inferred by the conference organisers
in their introductory remarks) to situate their own bodies in the debates.
Organisers Ellen Berry and Laura Stempel-Mumford made the bald observation
that narcissism and the critique of the clothes, hair and style of other
delegates are inherent in the planning and hosting of most conferences,
and shared with us the fact that getting tattooed and e-mailing make-up
tips had been critical in theirs.
Valerie Steele's keynote lecture
was a promo for "Fetish: fashion, sex and power", and set a radical sex
agenda. Her exhaustive (fetishistic?) rehearsal of the history of (male)
fetishism from 'margins to mainstream' was unproblematised by any rigorous
contextualising of her survey in relation to issues of class, gender politics
and ethnicity. Steele asserted the Foucauldian pervasiveness of the fetish,
iterated by the work of Krafft-Ebbing, Gianni Versace, second-wave feminists
(in their stereotyped anathemisation/promotion of corset-wearing and high
heels), through the agony pages of 19th century popular journals and the
'agency' of Emma Peel.
Foucault was also deployed by Christine
Braunberger in her paper "The tattoos post-modern performance of art";
interpreting tattooing as (an appropriate) response to an 'internal panopticon'.
Braunberger rejected Jameson's claim that postmodernism is all surface,
acknowledging the complexity of surface play in body modifications and
was at her most emphatic and earnest in her analysis of tattoos as the
abject avant-garde. For Braunberger the body is a site of production where
the things that cannot be said are inscribed. In a move not conclusively
made, such inscriptions become art that: by-passes the gallery-system,
cannot be stolen or sold, is a compensation for assimilation and that can
be taken with you when you die. (Body) Art is thus within everyone's grasp.
It is palpably transaesthetic--even the aesthetically literate probably
cannot name a great tattoo artist. Here, the 'low brow assaults high brow'
paradigm was invoked. I remained unconvinced that tattooed bodies 'play
games with capitalism' and that tattoos (more than clothes, make-up and
other forms of self-fashioning) are more likely to express corporeal subjectivity.
My reservations were confirmed by Braunberger's 'revelation' that despite
her 'conventional' appearance she too was a 'tattooed lady'. How is the
low brow assaulting the high brow when corporeal transgressive art remains
invisible (or its existence is called into question) and when being tattooed
is merely a (further) measure of 'cultural competence' for academics? Karmen
MacKendrick, although undeniably corseted for her paper "Technoflesh (or
didn't that hurt?)", provoked my return to this concern when she described
the frisson of excitement she experienced in an academic gathering knowing
that although she 'passed' in this context, underneath she had a modified
body. Neither speaker addressed the analogous ways that markers of ethnicity
express corporeal subjectivity that troubles the academy. 'Race' however,
may not be so easily played with or hidden. MacKendrick's paper was illustrated
with many slides culled from internet new primitives/body modification
sites of (white) bodies modified by various means. An image of full-face
tattooing provoked a palpable audience response. Just as much popular body-modification
literature tends to avoid discussions of ethnicity and 'race' preferring
to restore 'otherness' as an anachronistic, anthropological well-spring
or source book of the decorative, so the image of the indelibly 'coloured'
face, the stigmatised face that cannot be hidden, provokes the white circus
audience's response to the grotesque 'other' in the contemporary (overwhelmingly)
white conference audience. The liberatory potential of the 'technologies
of the body' expressed through modification ('delight in the body') were
posed by MacKendrick in rather rabidly couched opposition to Andrea Dworkin.
Dworkin's infamous diagram of the female body, modified by patriarchal
demands, was used to raise a self-conscious, post-feminist belly-laugh
from the audience. Whilst MacKendrick and others welcomed the development
of 'ugliness' as a subcultural, surgically-achieved radicalism, Dworkin's
'ugliness' would seem to remain beyond recuperation (mis-read as a sign
of feminist Puritanism).
MacKendrick's charges against the
pathologising of modification (and her persuasive demonstration of the
inextricable tension of modification with medicine) were fruitful and illuminating
(e.g. hygiene/dirt dichotomy). MacKendrick correlated the body and cyber
technology, suggesting that both systems are the ultimate in rejections
of our mortal destinies. (i.e. Transcendental Modification).
In her paper "Highbrow/Lowbrow cosmetic
surgery" Mary Thompson critiqued the relationship between Orlan and the
'living Barbie', Cindy Jackson. Jackson has Barbified herself in an ironic
quest to avoid mediocrity. In a move reminiscent of Orlan's surgery documentation,
Jackson has had (even more widespread) coverage of her surgical morphing
in the US tabloids. In the light of Jackson's performances (and self parody),
Thompson's questions 'Is Orlan a feminist? Is her work art?' seemed rather
delimiting. Modifications of the body whether they are performed by Cindy
Jackson or Michael Jackson, and whether they are enacted for an art or
popular audience are ultimately socially, historically and culturally determined.
A number of papers were delivered
that managed to fuse the methodological approaches of cultural studies
and social science research, offering satisfactorily grounded readings
of the body/text in specific (but contingent) contexts. Denise Witzig,
in her paper, "Young and natural: California youth culture and the anti-aesthetic"
demonstrated the uniformity of counter-cultural fashion, (US commodity
fetishism meets counter-cultural connoisseurship), exemplified by jeans.
Witzig discussed the notion of 'back-to nature' and related fashions that
produce a moral religiosity in young women's (anti) beauty regimes, and
critiqued the proliferation of the mantra of real, and (consumer)' freedom'
in post-war US advertising aimed at youth. Ironically, Witzig suggested
that 'Heroin style' has been misread--'clammy and sweaty are what 'real'
people look like'.
An 'ethnomethodological' research
paper by Catherine Egley Waggoner and Lynn O'Brien Hallstein "Boys have
penises and girls have party shoes: the ambivalent relationship between
feminists and fashion", explored the complex relationship traversing the
expressive, repressive and liberatory in the texts 'Fashion' and 'Feminism'.
These were usefully theorised through research with white female academic
feminists. Analysis of these 'constrained agents' resulted in the identification
of four rhetorical strategies (two performative, two 'piecemealing') used
by women to assert agency. Through their use of e.g. incongruity, interruption,
and appropriation of the texts of fashion and feminism, women were interpreted
in this study as superseding objectivity. Through a knowledge of their
own subjectivity and a reworking of these historically oppositional texts,
women are shown to grant themselves a kind of authorship. The limitations
of this study in terms of ethnicity were accepted by the speakers. Jasmine
Lambert in her paper "The relationship of women of colour to the 'exotic
other' in fashion" accounted for the lack of visibility within fashion
(and, historically, feminist?) texts of women of colour and detailed the
pleasures for white women of supplanting the potential role of black women
in such texts in their identification and performance of the fictional
exotic. Further ironies of cross-identification were raised by Lambert's
own identification (as a young blackwoman) with Liz Taylor's portrayal
of (the black?) Cleopatra.
A further example of white Western
occlusion, fanaticism for, and appropriation of, 'otherness' was provided
in Bill Osgerby's paper, "Beach Bound: Exotica, Leisure Style and Popular
Culture in post-war America, from 'South Pacific' to Jan and Dean" The
popularity of the leisure-vogue for South Seas kitsch was read by Osgerby
as both symbolic of liberatory potential (where Polynesian becomes a byword
for hedonism) in the rise of the habitus of mass consumption and a widespread
rejection of the (middle-class) veneration of work, embodied in the popularity
of surfing counter-culture.
Given that the tastes and pleasures
of (working class) women are rarely addressed at a theoretical level, Mary
Anne Beecher's "Good things: the role of nostalgia and ritual in Martha
Stewart's Style of Living" provided a memorable example of the richness
and relevance of research in this field. Stewart's cult appeal was thoughtfully
addressed in a paper that admirably eschewed a 'queer' ironising in favour
of conceptualising her popularity as evidence of the importance of ritual,
detail and nostalgic longing.
Equally enjoyable were two papers
that focused on Dolly Parton's appeal for women. Melissa Jane Hardie's,
"Camp quality: Dolly Parton's Country Style" interrogated the 'colonial'
ideology of country and Parton's varied simulation, throughout her career,
of the country way of life. The theme of transformation (e.g. in Parton's
use of fetishised prosthetics) was identified as critical to her practice
and was usefully contextualised (according to Hardie, Trump and Dallas
changed the valance of big hair from low to high class 'from Jacqueline
Suzanne to Onassis'). Importantly, Hardie demonstrated that 'Kitsch is
always class contingent'. In her paper "Dolly-izin': Dolly Parton, singing
as a woman" Jeannie Ludlow utilised Luce Iragaray's theories of disruptive
laughter, irruption and disruption of femininity and Mary Russo's 'Female
Grotesque', to assert that Parton is never merely subjected by her performance
of feminine excess but manages to 'recover the place of her exploitation'
through making sounds from underneath her encrusted femininity. 'The dumb
blonde has a drag voice'.
Disruptive hair identities and the
notion of 'fugitive fashion' expressed by Afro-Americans was explored in
a paper entitled "Hair Dramas: bodies, style and African-American Identity".
Here, Noliwe Rooks critiqued the paucity of theories and methods available
in current (fashion) theory to discuss Afro-American identity other than
where 'whiteness gets troubled'. Productively drawing together Zora Neale
Hurston's belief in the 'the will to adorn' in Afro-American culture and
Susan Bordo's conceptualisation of 'embattled bodies', Rooks asked what
adorned (black) bodies mean in specific cultural contexts, resisting the
tendency, that Kobena Mercer has critiqued, of essentialising black (and
'white') bodies, In her examination of recent cases where the hair identities
of young black women were deemed 'unacceptable' by white school administrators,
she suggested that the culturally utopian production of braided hair in
the Afro-American life and literature are routinely 'misunderstood' (e.g.
where hair can be correlated with gang activity) and concludes 'Hairstyles
have meaning, they frighten white people'. In a context where white women
can appropriate black hair identity without being read as disruptive Rooks
asked what theories of fashion have to offer this contradiction? The British
theorist Grace Akuba, in her paper "Coming to voice through dreadlocks:
hair signification and women of African descent" usefully charted the history
of theorising hair, adopting Mercer's view that 'hair is never a biological
fact'. Akuba reported on her qualitative research with black British women
and amongst other interesting analyses concluded that contrary to historical
notions of 'good' and 'bad' hair, and the anthropological consensus that
people with different hair have different ideologies, blackwomen with dreadlocks
make up a heterogeneous group.
Both Penelope J Engelbrecht, and
Shiva Subberraman demonstrated the appropriateness of using their own bodies
as a site for interrogating style and the constructedness of our gendered
and 'racialised' subjectivity (as women who have 'passed' as heterosexual/lesbian,
Indian/American respectively), and expanded knowledge of the cultural performance
of identity through the use of clothes.
Corey Creekmur provided further
persuasive evidence that in the oft-quoted words of Ru Paul, 'We're born
naked and everything else is drag' in his fascinating survey "Boots, Buckskin,
Buttons, and Bows: Cowboy Drag in American Culture". The fact that the
British have been just as absurdly and improbably keen to drag-up as cowboys
from the 19th century was amply illustrated (e.g. by Oscar Wilde, Julian
and Sandy, the Pet Shop Boys, and ubiquitous jeans and cowboy-boot wearing
from the 1960s onwards) Creekmur's encyclopedic knowledge of the field
was deliciously detailed but the critical relevance of the invention of
the West 'where men are men' to histories of sexuality was intriguingly
developed through a comparative reading of two studio portraits of Wilde
and Buffalo Bill Cody taken during Wilde's first promotional tour of America.
Wilde's image was created in the process of homosexuality being invented;
Cody's cowboy image as heterosexuality was encoded. But as Creekmur suggested
it required no 'reading against the grain' in these portraits to see that,
even at this moment, the categories are unstable, as cowboy images would
continue to be.
A strong contingent of black theorists
based in Middlesex, (including Akuba cited above) addressed a diverse range
of issues concerning 'race' and ethnicity in Black British contexts. It
was exciting to see the results of large-scale empirical work (including
video documentations) mapping Asian audiences tastes and cross-cultural
consumption discussed by Bilkis Malek in "Hollywood meets 'Bollywood':
diasporic consumer styles and the politics of identity". Elaine Pennicott
is also engaged in vital work exploring the construction of the black man
in the urban landscapes of Britain ("Masculinity as Masquerade"), drawing
on Fanon, Baudelaire and Benjamin to construct less fixed, pathologised
The burgeoning of interdisciplinary
work on British style, tastes and fashion would seem to demand a British
venue for the next Style gathering--however painful this might be.
Video documentation of the above
papers and those listed below were made for Glasgow School of Art, Historical
and Critical Studies Department and Glasgow Women's Library.
Alex Seago, "Burning the Box of beautiful
the origins of art school pop style
in London 1959-1965"
Laura Stempel Mumford, "Drawing
Julie Haught, "I know who you are
, but what am I?:
lesbian style and lesbian identity"
"Genre and Generation: rock style
and the older woman"
Timothy Yap, "Transgressive style;
death of the male supermodel"
Lola Young, "Thoughts on female
Joanna Frueh, "Dressing Aphrodite"
Experimental electronica on-line
and off-line reviewed
Robert H. King
Time Machines (Eskaton 010CD)
For the past fourteen years Coil
have managed to remain fresh, innovative and miles ahead of their contemporaries.
Emerging out of the confines of Psychic TV they set themselves apart from
the so called 'Industrial' scene and set new ground with Scatology, entranced
us with the divine grooves of Windowpane and confused many with the droning
eloquence of Coil vs Elph. Never ones to sit too long in one place they
move forward with Time Machines, a series of electronically instilled hallucinogenic
tones that owes as much to the work of La Monte Young as it does to the
likes of Faust. Coil have always had a fascination with drugs and their
effect on the users perception of time and place and indeed it is this
state that they are attempting to harness and induce with the pieces contained
here. Used in conjunction with the visual experiment of staring at the
black oval of the CD cover and closing your eyes, the listener should then
be able to visualise a 'gateway' to other times and possibilities. This
technique is derived from methods used by The (in)famous Golden Dawn. It
is an extremely subjective idea and a deeply personal one and whether you
can attain this state or not should not take away from what is still a
compelling work that induces a strong sense of relaxation and calm with
its floating, soaring sea of sound.
Klangfarbenmelodie (D.O.R, ador2311)
Martin Lee-Stephenson (aka Doppler
20:20) has surpassed the dub induced electro of last year's phenomenal
Art Electriqué with his latest offering of symphonic collage experimentation.
Klangfarbenmelodie is a collection of ethnically tinged smooth grooves,
enchanting minimalism and haunting melodics all suffused with Stephenson's
unique take on breakbeats and drum'n'bass. Many club and DJ magazines are
bemused with Doppler 20:20's approach and even confused as to what 'review
section' to file it under. Such single mindedness epitomises all that is
wrong with this country's so called 'experimental dance scene' in that
it misses or is too blinkered to see the bigger picture. 1998 is a very
exciting time for electronica/electronic music as the majority of those
participating and creating refuse to be grounded in any hampering genre
tagging. Within the eleven tracks of Klangfarbenmelodie we have a perfect
example of this refreshing approach to embrace and cultivate all musical
fields. Thus Stephenson shifts with ease from the serene keyboard wash
and ecstatic rhythms of 'Weird goin' down' to the Gamelan inspired loops
of 'Different waves for a paved beach'. Skip buying the fashion centric
club mags for one week and buy this instead. You won't regret it.
Digital Mantras (D.O.R, ador409)
On a recent trip to London I was
fortunate enough to meet visual artist, website coordinator and sound designer
Richard Gallon. He was in the middle of preparing some of his new work
for a show at a London exhibition space and upon leading me into his Kings
Cross apartment I was confronted with large sheets of photographic paper
attached to practically every surface in the front room, all in varying
stages of development. Gallon is obsessed with expanding and exploiting
the minutiae of his surroundings both audio and visual and his latest visual
project centres around creating a negative (in the photographic sense)
of chosen sites or objects and rebuilding these within another location.
A strangely captivating construct that leaves you feeling uneasy and disorientated.
'Urban Mantras' has that same effect on the listener and as Gallon's soundwork
is an attempt to capture the state of mind between sleep and waking, subtle
ambient tones and textures punched through with sharp stabs of electronic
breakbeats. We've all woken up at some point and had to lie still for a
few moments to reorientate ourselves within our surroundings and Richard
manages perfectly to capture this feeling here. Just as you're relaxed
with the soothing calm, half buried tape loops and analog bullroarer swirls
of 'Shimmer' a disembodied voice utters an incoherent phrase in your ear
leading you into the menacing sub terra drum loops of 'Call Sign' with
its undertow of a lone child's chant. Urban Mantras is a very fluid virtual
narrative reminiscent of Aphex Twin's more tenebrous atmospherics which
is mirrored well in the 12 page photographic documentation that accompanies
the CD. Blurred imagery, ghost-like doorways and hazy horizons lead you
through a night in the mind of Gallon, low frequency pulse loops, strains
of electronic insect drones and claustrophobic rhythms steadily speeding
up as on 'Fragile' which somehow captures that waking moment when you know
you've had an uneasy night and hastily try to recall your mind's wanderings
before they're gone forever. A soundtrack for your own sleep experiments.
0098 (Time Recordings, em:t 0098)
Another numerical entry in the impeccable
digital diary of Nottingham's Time Recordings, Natural Language is the
emit alter ego of British composer Hywel Davies previously heard on Russell
Mills' audio adventure Undark. Davies exists in a world of electro-acoustics
but is (thankfully) free of the shackles of mathematics and academic theories
that so often bog down otherwise invigorating experimentation. The opening
timbres of becalming electro ambience and temple bowls that is 'We are
learning about blue' quickly gives way to a group of jazz assassins in
'At the White House'. It's raining outside as I listen to the rainfall
on 'I am not part of Nature' which results in some strange audio anomalies
in that what I am hearing is akin to subtle tones of white noise interspersed
with echoic rumblings. Davies' forte is the cello and its arrangement (his
main contribution to Undark) and this shines through on 'La repos du sable'
a cogent nine and a half minutes of haunting, sweeping panoramic brilliance.
The instrumentation on this album is so richly varied and complimentary
that you cannot fail to be impressed by how Davies moves from the delightful
chiming of delicate bells, sharp piano interludes and searing saxophones
to the grinding rhythms of a concrete mixer all manipulated into sharp
bursts of colour permeated with strategically placed moments of silence.
Natural Language insists on your attention, it refuses to be background
music. It is an album of deep contemplation that goes a long way to defining
soothing new shades of sound.
Contacts / Distribution
D.O.R distributed by Sony/3MV.
Label contact: P.O. Box 1797, London
Eskaton distributed by World Serpent.
Coil info: BCM Codex, London WC1N
Time Recordings distributed by Pinnacle.
For more info on the em:t series
send a SAE to Time Recordings, 389394 Alfred St North, Nottingham
Pirate Radio on The Net
Back at the start of the nineties
I was a DJ with Scotland's first pirate radio station. Radio Mercury was
run from a series of locations in and around Glasgow and it broadcast (using
a two turntables and a DAT machine) to the city and outlying areas. Its
renegade attitude helped it run for several years, garnered much praise
and set a few DJ's on the track to bigger things before the accumulative
effect of raids by the DTI and subsequent loss of equipment brought about
its demise. So it was with my pulse racing and memories flooding back that
I logged onto my first taste of pirate radio on the Net.
Radio on the Internet is a brilliant
concept, at a basic level (and in theory) all you need is a computer, a
modem, a phone line, a couple of turntables, a CD player and a mixer and
the world can tune in to whatever you decide to broadcast. Several large
stations already have Net broadcasts (I refuse to give them publicity by
telling you who they are) sending out countless hours of vacuous MOR rock
ballads and third rate sports commentary, so the idea of maverick DJ's
mixing up a storm via the Net fills me with some hope. Just think--no more
sitting in cold flats waiting for the inevitable DTI raids!
In fact one of the UK's first regular
stations is broadcasting for the world to see from The Global Internet
Cafe at the heart of Soho in London. www.pirate-radio.co.uk goes out every
night from 6pm (GMT) and has already featured blistering sets from the
likes of Irdial Discs, Mixmaster Morris, Tony Thorpe's highly recommended
Language Recordings imprint, Tom Middleton (The Jedi Knights, Global Communication)
and the crew of Ambient Soho to name just a few of an increasingly impressive
Don't be misled at the thought of
broken links and slow jittery sound coming at you down the phone line.
To the contrary, via a small application called RealAudio (available for
free downloading via a link on the website) that works in tandem with your
chosen browser the sets you hear are fed into your computer and updated
by the second making for a smooth streaming broadcast. In an ideal world
it should be this easy to do, but for the present such vanguard endeavours
manage to survive thanks to the support of companies like RealAudio and
the DJ's playing for free. Let's hope regulations don't interfere and that
you can continue to tune in and hear cutting edge music that you would
doubtless not otherwise get to hear. You can access the site at any time
for an updated list of what's scheduled for broadcast. Log on, listen,
then email your words of support. http://www.pirate-radio.co.uk