Olivia Hernaïz and Ruth Waters: takedown of the caring corporates

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© Ruth Waters -still from film Emotion over Raisin (2019) 

There is an apocalyptic aura emanating from late capitalism. As a descriptive term it simply defines the transformation of capitalism in the modern era. Perhaps more depressingly it implies that corporate culture, as framed by Marx, has adapted to survive into a post modern world despite the threat of implosion from its inherent absurdities. Marx did not predict that Thatcher-Blairism would dissolve the public/private sector divide. He would be horrified that social media now has the potential to transform us all into entrepreneurs, desperate to promote ourselves as brands. He would perhaps not be surprised by the emergence of the gig economy, led by missionary enterprises like Uber masquerading as liberators while tethering its freelancers to a precarious treadmill.  

This infiltration of capitalist values into the interpersonal realm was foreseen by French Marxist philosopher Guy Debord in the 1960s and this trend has accelerated as our lives have migrated to the internet. To remedy these injustices we have mostly rejected collective insurrection in favour of alternative routes to salvation including individualised “self-care”. At Koppel Project Hive’s exhibition All About You,  two MI artworks from Ruth Waters and Olivia Hernaiz are refreshingly direct and timely reminders of the way that the interpersonal values have been hijacked by our newborn capitalist masters. These artists consider how “care” has entered the corporate lexicon either through stress relieving programmes for their employees (Waters) or through romanticising their relationship with consumers (Hernaiz).    

Ruth Waters is her usual incisive self, gently mocking the mindfulness industry through a subtle and cleverly crafted film that alternates between the anodyne spiel of the trainer and the vividly realised thoughts of the participants as they fail to “live in the moment.” As so often in these types of session they have to follow bizarre instructions, in this case requiring them to relate in various ways to a raisin they have been handed. The impact of the film is ramped up by its rather spooky immersive installation. You sit in a semi-circle of padded office chairs with other carefully chosen props (a vase of flowers on an office cabinet, a functional wall clock) mirroring the film’s setting in the kind of hermetically sealed training room that I mercifully no longer have to experience since my escape from the corporate life.  After enduring such sessions someone tends to vent with the well-worn cliché:

“Well… that’s an hour/an afternoon/ a day of my life that I am never going to get back”

This sense of time spooling away pervades the film. A steady tick-tock marks time on the film’s soundtrack. Death is slyly referenced though a participant’s thoughts that the passing of her cat would at least give her “something to post on instagram”. The vase of flowers seems an anomaly. In this setting it might indicate the mindfulness of sensory focussing. But it also reeks of decay and loss. I’m left with the uneasy sense that mindfulness is an inadequate antidote offered by corporate culture to anaesthetise us, a post-Marxist version of “opium of the people”. Waters’ film is spiced liberally with her signature dry humour – even the title Emotion over Raisin seems to play on the Romantic poets’ valuing of Emotion over Reason, an idea also at the heart of mindfulness culture.

In her video installation All About You (2017) Olivia Hernaïz has allowed corporate advertising culture enough rope to hang itself with only minimal intervention from herself. As the major banks close local branches and move online they have become more impersonal yet with unconscious irony their slogans continue to convey the opposite by evoking a personal caring relationship of mutual respect. The Bank of America’s “Think  what we can do for you” sounds like it is a branch of social work. They might as well be promoting the lie: “It’s you we care about, not your money”.

Hernaiz has composed a romantic swoon of a song with a charming violin and piano accompaniment and deeply ironic lyrics patched together from the taglines of international banks. My favourite is “The more we know about you, the more we can give you”  which seems like a good summary of late capitalism and a frank admission that exploitation of your personal data is integral to their business model. Her video slide show of the banks’ logos and taglines is projected onto the gallery ceiling as we lounge back in the care of a fluffy beanbag. We feel like willing suckers in this sentimental, romantic quest for a financial saviour. Amusing, hard-hitting and thought-provoking take on the insidious nature of personalised marketing strategies.

The exhibition continues until 3 May 2019 at the The Koppel Project Hive at 26 Holborn Viaduct.

The strangled shriek

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© Aimee Neat – still from 104 Million (2018) courtesy of the artist

Immolation, self harm, masochism: these are all behaviours that have been ascribed to Brexit. One Brexit supporter declared: “I don’t think we’ll be poorer out, but if you told me my family would have to eat grass, I’d still have voted to leave.” Why are we all so hell-bent on self-destruction? Are we all screaming inside but  trying to hold it together so what emerges is a strangled shriek?

As you enter Ballpark Collective’s inaugural show that strangled shriek intermittently pierces the air. It is emanating from Aimee Neat’s looped 4 minute video 104 million (referencing Justin Bieber’s twitter following). Is the shriek coming from a besotted Belieber or is it from Bieber himself, strangled by his meteoric ascension. Perhaps its origin doesn’t really matter as he is just an avatar for the feted YouTube influencer that any one of them or us can become. But do we really  crave that poisoned chalice?

So many seem to crash and burn after their  time in the sun. The desperate hunt for likes and followers eventually consumes their identity leaving an exhausted, burnt out shell. Neat gives an alarmingly accurate Cindy Shermanesque recreation of the Bieber shell in a succession of subtly different static poses complete with a goofy cat face baseball cap and hoodie. This outfit comically undermines the James Dean scowl and we cannot help wondering if Bieber is fated to be yet another celebrity Icarus. His trademark pursed lips and resistance to smiling is telling us something – maybe he rejects it as a signifier of falsity? The manufactured inscrutability must be hiding something – disdain or despair maybe?  Or do we just project those emotions to protect us from our own repressed shrieks of envy? Fellow Goldsmiths alumna Ruth Waters has pastiched the facial tropes of female Youtube influencers in an equally hilarious video, Outtakes and Bloopers ♥Again,  viewable at https://vimeo.com/255754921. It is no coincidence this video climaxes in suppressed shrieks of giggling.

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Ruth Waters -still from video Outtakes and Bloopers ♥Again courtesy of the artist

Physical immolation features in two of the other videos on show and we start asking- why do we beat ourselves up? Why are we heading for a self harming Brexit? Why do artists debase and immolate themselves? Is gender relevant?  From Yoko Ono to Marina Abramovic and Mona Hatoum to Marianna Simnett, displaying, cutting, probing, contorting, injecting, even asphyxiating the female body have become performance art tropes so it is interesting to see the male take on this.  In Max Leach’s Flesh and Glass, a murky and unsettling 8 minute video with an intense and spooky binaural soundtrack, we see a Hatoumesque sequence of bodily penetration filling the screen with saturated pinky red tissue but with few clues as to what we are viewing. The remaining footage hints it might form part of a macho initiation cult that demands lonely, late-night vigils in vulnerable motors and bloody, self-harming rituals involving blunt pencils. For men, is immolation and masochism a validation of their masculinity?

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Max Leach – still from looped video Flesh and Glass courtesy of the artist

In Sarah Lewis’s Death by Blonde a female body appears trapped and cocooned inside a giant nest woven from straw-like blonde hair. With only her splayed thighs visible her sexual vulnerability is heightened by the superimposition of a clip from Lewis’s family video archive showing a child jumping on a trampoline.  The much debated controversial lyric from Paul Simon’s Graceland – “the girl  from New York City who called herself the human trampoline” – comes to mind. Blonde and yellow tones appear throughout so the film glows with sensuous warmth. But the double-edged impact of the stereotype is highlighted by the home movie footage of blonde female children who are bashful and confused as well as cheerful and bouncy.

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Sarah Lewis – Installation view of looped video Death by Blonde (2018) courtesy of the artist

Susanne Dietz’s What’s Yours is Mine provides some kind of resolution to the disturbing images in the rest of the show. Her 13 minute film investigates the conflict of self-doubt with self-love through the fictional biographical fragments of a woman who is in constant conversation with her alter-ego. She is not afraid to ask difficult questions. What happens when, not only God is dead, but the hippies and disco as well?  How to feel better? How to be in the World? What to do about an ex-lover’s name tattooed on her neck? Images of  beauty (blue sky seen from a train), comfort (pillows being plumped) and contentment (sleeping  babies)  give some hope. But hope is fragile and temporary. The babies are wax candles that slowly melt from the flame, the sky is fleeting and lacerated by powerlines, the pillows remain unslept on. The carefully edited ambient electronic soundtrack is alternately soothing and alarming.  The  film is gripping, concise, sometimes lighthearted and never portentous which is a triumph considering the weightiness of the questions it tackles. 

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Susanne Dietz -Installation view of looped video What’s Yours is Mine (2018) courtesy of the artist

Sun Park’s two short gem-like videos loop on tiny screens.  Looking up will only make you fall distorts a common trope of video art, the shopping mall, by shooting into reflective architectural surfaces. The camera is always moving and the shimmering, crazed, fragmented effect is original and disorienting. It is viewable at https://vimeo.com/manage/329739672/general

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Sun Park – still from  video installation Looking up will only make you fall (2019) courtesy of the artist

Sympathetic Magic is a playful comment on the trick photo beloved of tourists where the human figure appears to interact with a famous landmark. Here a finger appears to ping the Shard which resonates like a tuning fork before rotating by a quarter turn.  If only the global financial institutions  it houses were so easy to control! Viewable at https://vimeo.com/329739541

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Sun Park- still from Sympathetic magic (2019) courtesy of the artist 

Reality Sandwiches showcases the work of a group of moving image artists who graduated from Goldsmiths University in 2018 and is a model for the effective installation of several video artworks in a relatively confined space, in this case a disused warehouse in Bermondsey funded by the art organisation, SET Alscot Road. Remarkably, there is no sound leakage between the works with each granted sufficient territory to own. The electronic soundtrack from Dietz’s speakers creates a suitably ambiguous aural atmosphere in the gallery.

Like all worthwhile exhibitions this generated much thought. I now have a deeper sense of the psychological processes that underlie Brexit. If we are living in a failed world does that mean we are failures? If hipster London has turned its back, our failed lives will not improve whatever we do. If this means we are fundamentally worthless we deserve to be beaten up. But we prefer to immolate ourselves rather give the opportunity to someone else. Anger against ourselves is often turned outwards to the inchoate Other but in reality we are punishing our own failure to fulfil our uniquely human, conscious prosociality. All these contradictory emotions fighting for expression leave the body politic no choice but to emit a strangled shriek.  

 

Children vs. Brexit: sweet lessons from 1973

 

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Still from film Sweet Feast (2018) courtesy of Ulla von Brandenburg and Whitechapel Gallery

Can the next generation pick up the pieces of our broken world and work together to repair it? There are grounds for optimism with the disappearance of the Brexit majority as the predominantly anti-European elderly demographic shuffle off this mortal coil. Their replacement by optimistic and idealistic young voters could mean an inexorable growth in pro-Europe sentiment, assuming that a corrosive nationalism is not a default mechanism that comes with living through the inevitable instabilties of adulthood. This could not be better represented than in Ulla von Brandenburg’s Sweet Feast currently showing at the Whitechapel Gallery until the end of the month.

The centrepiece of  this magnificent installation is her moving and hilarious film  featuring children from a local primary school  who reenact the bizarre events  inspired by the exhibition held at the Whitechapel in January 1973.  Its purpose was to celebrate the diversity of the confectionary cultures of the European countries we were about to join hands with by displaying a vast collection of exotic sweets on nationally badged stands. There was a party atmosphere heralding our new future in the Common Market and a jumbled message from the Whitechapel Gallery PR led to a rumour that on the exhibition’s closing day all sweets would be given away to local children. Five hundred of them turned up and stormed the exhibits in a frenzy of sugar intoxication.  

Extensive press coverage from the archives including a cutting headlined EXHIBITION EATEN AS KIDS RUN AMOK is reproduced in the evocative broadsheet newspaper issued to gallery visitors. The prevailing positive attitudes to our new partners are revealed in all the coverage with one exception. Redolent with Farage and Rees-Mogg bigotry is a condescending and bitter article printed in the January 1973 edition of Arts Review. It is worth going just to get hold of this!

DNA, faces, race and Michael Jackson

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Installation view of David Blandy and Larry Achiampong film component of Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst courtesy of readsreads.info

David Blandy’s and Larry Achiampong’s most recent moving image artwork, Genetic Automata at Arts Catalyst, Adam Rutherford’s exposition on the confusion caused by DNA ancestry analysis at the same venue, Edith Wharton’s 1905 best-selling novel exposing the darker side of fashionable New York society, The House of Mirth and Anna Washburn’s dissection of the ongoing US political crisis in her play Shipwrecked at the Almeida Theatre, have stirred up a heady brew of thoughts about race which this post will attempt to analyse.

In The House of Mirth, Wharton attributes a Jewish character’s attraction to the beautiful heroine Lily Bart to “that mixture of artistic sensibility and business astuteness that characterises his race”. But she also uses “race” when refering to the stereotyped behaviour of both women and the “lower classes” suggesting that in the early 20th Century the term is a catch-all for any group that is thought to possess an inherent or innate character. Even today the conflation of race with nationality, ethnicity, genetic variability and/or religion  demonstrates that it remains a powerful metaphor for human difference that clearly has an attraction for us. Unless we can separate out these conflicting categories, race will continue to be misused in political discourse leading the human species into all manner of dangerous dead-ends.

Inexpensive DNA tests have now become immensely popular allowing individuals to tease out the different “races”  hidden in their genetic ancestry.  Although the results are based on scientifically invalid assumptions about human evolution and racial identity, they seem to provide a personal narrative for some people who then try to integrate it into their existing identity. The reason the ethnic breakdown is invalid is because it take no account of the massive migratory movements around the world that are a distinguishing feature of our species and that make us all mongrels. As Rutherford explained at the Arts Catalyst presentation it means nothing to say you are 20 % German when we cannot define what the German gene pool looks like. Genes flow with little regard for arbitrary human borders. The striking visual counterpoint to this in Genetic Automata is a screen displaying a world map animation digitally representing the current global flow of migrants to and from the UK.

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Installation view of Genetic Automata-showing monitor of migration animation map

Another screen presents Youtube footage from a promotional gimmick dreamed up by the internet travel company, monmodo, who filmed selected consumers responding to the ethnic breakdown of their DNA test results. Muted and slightly slowed down, the facial expressions are our only clue: shock, surprise, incredulity, scepticism and delight compete for dominance as long-held assumptions about their identity are thrown into the air.  I remember a similar sequence on a TV documentary that showed a  rabid English nationalist seriously discombobulated by his previously unsuspected Turkish and Romany ancestors.

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Installation view of Genetic Automata- monitor showing still taken from Youtube clip of reactions to DNA ancestry results

When I put it to Rutherford that alt-right racists faced with DNA evidence of their own diverse origins might change their rigid perception of race, he countered with a nostrum of Voltaire’s paraphrased as: “Rational argument cannot challenge the beliefs of a man whose believes them to be founded on rational argument”. He says the phrase “If you were offered a solution of 80% water and 20% cyanide would you drink it?” seems to be a standard response of the racist community to DNA results demonstrating a mixed racial origin. Rutherford’s pessimistic response is probably not that far from the truth but as an ex-teacher I cannot help feeling that if we get in early enough minds can be opened.

Michael Jackson’s demise was partly attributable to the crushing of his personal identity between the forces of an avaricious music industry and the adulation of his fans. His legacy as a case study in celebrity disintegration is bound up with the blurring of his own racial identity through skin whiteners, depigmentation due to vitiligo and cosmetic surgery to de-Africanise his face.  Massive irony then that this image is reinforced by John Landis’s  groundbreaking music video for “Black or White”, shown muted as part of the Genetic Automata installation, released 30 years ago and accruing 270M  Youtube views. It can be read either as an appeal for universal love or a whitewash of US post-colonial colour-blindness or a cynical globally targeted marketing  stunt. For me it comes into the category of a hugely sentimental clarion call that one is suckered into unwillingly. Yet again we focus on the diversity of  human faces. They lip-synch the song morphing between races and genders, foreshadowing the current epidemic of body image enhancement that Instagram and apps like Facetune are promoting. Perhaps body fascism needs to be located in the wider historical context of the growth of racism, anti-semitism and authoritarian politics. The Third Reich was not the only society that idolised the “body beautiful”. In Wharton’s Gilded Age New York the elevated purchasing power of female beauty was symptomatic of a deeper social malaise.

An update of the digitally manipulated face features prominently in the 12 minute film included in the installation. An array of faces do not morph but stand alone as fully realised idiosyncratic personalities with indeterminate racial origin. Unlike the Landis version we get no clear codification of racial archetypes and we left pondering where they might have come from. Close ups of human skin and feathers from Darwin’s stuffed finches reinforce the feeling that our perceptions are always literally superficial.

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Fisayo Akinade -publicity still for Anna Washburn’s Shipwrecked  © Almeida Theatre

The complexities of racial stereotyping are neatly highlighted by one of the characters in the play Shipwrecked, played movingly by the brilliant Fisayo Akinade. He is a young African orphaned in Kenya and adopted by evangelical Christians and Trump supporters living in redneck country. His main complaint is that his blackness is used by his classmates to place him in the indigenous African-American category whose heritage of slavery and civil rights abuse he does not share. “But I’m African, it is not the same!”

In one sense the human face could be a route out of our current mess. The universality of human non-verbal facial expressions means that we can look beyond the surface when interacting with each other, connecting to a common ancestry and consciousness. Once the glamour of online interaction starts to pall, perhaps we will realise that face to face communication and direct eye contact has evolved to bring the human species together rather than to divide it.

Three hours, three Turner Prize nominees; three more hours to see

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© Forensic Architecture, video still from Killing in Umm al–Hiran 18 January 2017 (2018)

The Turner Prize is the contemporary art world’s annual opportunity to widen its customer base. However asking the punters to devote six hours to take in the artworks of all four nominees is not going to help popularise contemporary art. I managed three nominees in three hours so Naeem Mohaimen’s intriguing sounding films will have to wait for another time.  Last year I was bemoaning the total lack of MI art among the nominees. This year I should be celebrating, given all four are using this form. I was delighted that Forensic Architecture had been nominated as their campaigning work is admirable. They are giving renewed hope to what art can achieve and they deserve to win although they have said they would prefer to win a case than a prize. Unfortunately Charlotte Prodger and Luke Willis Thomson’s films look passé in comparison suggesting the judges’ ignorance of current trends in MI art.

In court, forensic scientists are routinely called as expert witnesses.  Can artworks also take on this role? This is one of the many questions that have been asked of Forensic Architecture. The group’s purpose is tell the stories of the unheard voices in the unbalanced media war against state and military oppression. Their clinical investigations which have included a drone strike in Afghanistan and a possible racist murder in Germany, uncover the obfuscation that often clouds the “official” accounts.  They have then actively sought to present their findings in a wide range of forums including courts, tribunals and art galleries.  So does this mean that they are a political rather than an artistic organisation? It can be argued that as their case studies are communicated with such stunning visual clarity and persuasiveness, they can be appreciated both as aesthetic works as well as political advocacy.

At the Tate they have chosen to focus on two ongoing investigations from the Middle East conflict that relate to the appropriation of traditional Bedouin settlements in the Negev Desert by the Israeli government. In the first we are introduced to the drama of an Israeli dawn raid on a Bedouin village intended to drive out the inhabitants through  footage shot by a campaigning video journalist. This is totally gripping. The erratically filmed sequences are then analysed through synchronising them with thermal imaging police helicopter footage of the same events. A realistic reenactment of the events neatly demonstrates how the physical laws of motion undermine the security forces version of their shooting of one of the villagers in his car.

Inevitably Forensic Architecture will face the charge of fetishising suffering for artistic ends. The group’s founder, Eyal Weizman, has explored this issue in his treatise The Least of all Possible Evils. There he examines the long history of fetishising objects, in the sense of granting them agency, as in the common phrase: “the evidence will speak for itself”. In reality, the interpretation of what the evidence is saying comes down to those like himself who act as rhetoricians, using theatricality, narrative and the technologies of demonstration in a practice he describes as “forensic aesthetics”. If they were just artworks it would be worrying but as they also have a political function they exist in a different moral universe. The audience are not required to sit in judgement, we can simply admire the clarity of the analysis. It is up to those in power to absorb the detail and arrive at just decisions concerning the protagonists.

Watching the famous three channel video work 77sqm_9:26min when I first saw this group’s work at the ICA in March 2018, I was struck by the compassion and empathy they display while still remaining detached. The work presents a detailed analysis of the events surrounding the murder of a young Muslim in a German internet cafe including the tracking of the movements of all those present. Listening to the Turkish narrator on headphones, I was immediately struck by the dignity that this confers on the community. They are no longer victims. We the audience are outside their grief. In the closing minutes of the video the English translation came on through a loudspeaker but if this was a technical glitch it only reinforced the sense that the work was tied in intimately to those directed affected. The Forensic Architecture team act as scientists but allow the evidence to move us. So in this work, the movements of the protagonists in the internet cafe are tracked and displayed as timelines of different colours. In the final frame of the video we are jolted as the red timeline of the murdered man comes to an abrupt halt while the onlookers’ timelines continue.

The New Zealand artist, Luke Willis Thompson has also been accused of fetishising suffering for artistic gain. His work shown here includes two short black and white silent 16mm minimalist films, autoportrait and Cemetery for Uniforms and Liveries identical in format to the Andy Warhol Screen Tests from the early 1960s. Because they are portraits of the relatives of black victims of police killings, he has inspired protests that he (and the complicit galleries) are part of the white media establishment exploiting black pain for personal gain. Some of the debate has focused on the whether he can claim black heritage being descended from an indigenous Fijian. I am left pondering what would be gained from stopping white artists like David Blandy from exposing the destructive legacy of colonialism as in the brilliant Finding Fanon trilogy?

Charlotte Prodger’s selected work, BRIDGIT, inhabits the densely populated genre of moving image art that I tend to dub “Who am I?”  a question commonly used as an induction assignment for A level Art students. This can get dangerously close to self-indulgence if we cannot discern the wider implications of the autobiographical incidents recorded. I came away with no new insights into the gender/queer identity issues she explores. Although she does not feature on-screen (apart from her feet!) her narration puts us inside her head, looking out for much of the time at some admittedly beautiful, but in MI art terms, commonplace landscapes.

Seeing this exhibition I am of course reminded of all the brilliant MI work I have seen recently and wonder why my judgement seems so out of kilter with the judges of the Turner Prize. However if Forensic Architecture win I will be happy: the most impressive work I have seen all year.

 

Abu Hamdan explores “truth” through earwitness testimony

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Still of a spectrogram from video Rubber Coated Steel (2016). © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

“There are different types of truth: scientific truth, legal truth and artistic truth amongst them”

This was Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s response when I questioned whether his film might contribute to our increasingly insecure grasp on the “truth” engendered by Trump-era “fake news”. He was addressing an audience at a Whitechapel Gallery event I attended a year ago showcasing the Jarman Award 2017 nominees. His response seemed entirely cogent to me. His nominated film, Rubber Coated Bullets (2016), an artistic extrapolation of his work as an acoustic analyst for the human rights research group, Forensic Architecture, navigates a route between these three “truths” using material from their investigation into the shooting of two Palestinian youths by Israeli soldiers in 2014. He makes it clear that his work is has a different aim, a less explicitly advocatory one than the original investigation, which is to raise the problems of defining reality when indistinct perceptual inputs have been filtered through our inbuilt unconscious prejudices.

Much of the film is set in a concrete shooting gallery where ominous streaks mark the walls. We are put in the position of the shooter with the spectrograms (visual representations of the frequency and duration of gunshots recorded by Abu Hamdan) replacing the silhouettes of bodies that are the marksman’s usual targets. An unseen, unheard but gripping courtroom drama unfolds through subtitled text. The spectrograms provide convincing evidence that the boys were shot by live ammunition, not rubber bullets as originally claimed by the authorities. The text of the legal and forensic arguments are fictionalised as the hearing that investigated the killing did not admit the forensic evidence which suggested that the replacement of rubber bullets with live rounds was intentional. The police officer who fired the fatal shot entered a manslaughter plea and was sentenced to nine months for  “causing death by negligence.” Abu Hamdan’s text neatly exposes the conflicts between political pressures and scientific evidence playing out in a legal setting.

Abu Hamdan’s originality and flair has already been recognised by winning a number of international art prizes. Although he did not win the Jarman Award I felt he was robbed: he was the strongest nominee by miles. His groundbreaking work has recently been recognised by a showcase performance at the Tate Modern and at a solo exhibition, Ear Witness Theatre at Chisenhale Gallery which runs until December 9th.  This is a really exciting time for art as he has invented a fascinating new sub-genre that combines acoustic science, aesthetics, cognitive psychology and politics.

Walled  Unwalled (2018) shown at Tate Modern in early October is a film inspired by Abu Hamdan’s interviews with ex-political prisoners as part of an Amnesty International investigation. They had endured incarceration in the notorious Saydnaya torture/interrogation centre of the Syrian regime in which an estimated 13,000 people have been executed since 2011.  He found that since they were held in almost complete darkness their memories were encoded entirely in auditory form. As with the blind, their sense of hearing became markedly more acute and they were able to build up an accurate auditory map of the prison. As Abu Hamdan explains ” Hearing things meant making images in the mind…it really is cross-sensory”  The starvation diet they suffered led to distorted memories so their acute hunger massively attenuated the relevant sounds such as the thud of bread hitting the floor outside their cell doors. In the 20 minute film a wide range of examples illustrate the symbolic nature of walls  and the unreliable nature of auditory testimony collected through them. He also reaches the astonishing conclusion that the latest sub-atomic detection technology means that all walls are penetrable so now there is literally nowhere to hide.

The performance that followed was build around 95 objects that were associated with sounds generated by his investigation.  So for example a punch does not sound like we expect it to because the cinema foley artist substitutes a simulation for the real thing. These objects were named but unseen at the Tate. At Chisenhale the same text is used but here all the objects are on show as an installation, Earwitness Inventory (2018).

At Chisenhale his audio work, Saydnaya (the missing 19db)  is a powerful and moving experience. You listen in a darkened chamber recalling a prison cell with two narrow slits to allow us to see out into the gallery. It is filled with tense periods of silence highlighting the gruesome testimony of the prisoners whispered reenactments and their interview statements. Whispering was the only way to communicate with fellow prisoners. The 19 decibels refers to the drop in the typical whispering volume recalled by those prisoners who were detained after 2011 compared to the ordinary prison regime prior to his time.  It is a chilling physical manifestation of the degree of terror imposed.

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Still from video Walled Unwalled (2018) © Lawrence Abu Hamdan

Forensic Architecture’s investigations and the spin-off work by artists like Abu Hamdan give hope to those of us who are keen to see the dissolution of the art/science divide and the blurring  of the boundary between art and advocacy.

 

 

 

Pilvi Takala “The Stroker” resolving intimacy and control?

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© Pilvi Takala – still from two channel video, The Stroker (2017), courtesy of the artist

I once had a boss who, like the protagonist in Pilvi Takala’s film, The Stroker, would invariably touch you on the upper arm whenever he encountered you. Initially this signifier of his “touchy-feely” management style was comforting. Here was someone trying to develop  a different kind of boss/worker relationship while conferring a sense of fellow-feeling with his subordinates. Simultaneously I and my colleagues experienced an uneasy dissonance of the blurred lines between intimacy and control.

It is no surprise that such an intelligent and subversive artist as Takala would be drawn to this messy social quagmire, where the mantras of “breaking down the boundaries between life and work” and “fermenting interactions that will boost creativity” are gospel. This has to be one of the most gripping and thought-provoking works I have seen in a while. Thanks to DJB for the tip-off! I urge you to get down to Carlos/Ishikawa at 88 Mile End Road before the show closes on 18 August.

Takala’s 14 minute two-channel video installation derives from her ten-day undercover placement in the futuristic offices of Second Home in Spitalfields. This gargantuan workspace venture is in essence a scaled-up, luxury version of the internet cafe. Instead of coffee and cake you get a well-being programme including high spec restaurants and cultural events. But you just can’t just roll up and book a slot. You can hire a desk for £375 a month but expect to be vetted for your entrepreneurialism and creativity. Second Home companies or “members” have been “curated” by its owners to create the optimum vibe by including cool creative start-ups as well as multinationals like the management consultants Ernst and Young looking for some street cred.

Thanks to a fruitful chat with Regina Lazarenko, the gallery’s Assistant Director, I gained valuable insight into the artwork’s genesis.  Takala planned what, on first sight, is a standard social psychology experiment – a covert observational study into non verbal communication.  With the consent of the Second Home management, she adopted the role of a well-being consultant. She walked through the workplace greeting her co-workers with a touch on the shoulder and a “how is it  going?” greeting.   Inevitably the responses to this approach from a stranger varied widely from hostility and anxiety to avoidance and wary appreciation. A hidden camera and sound recorder helped to capture her interventions.

However in a move reminiscent of Jeremy Deller, another leading artist who places major importance on respect for  participants in his artworks, she transformed her observations into re-enactments of the interactions. The result is a compelling micro-analysis of our ambivalence to touch. She carefully exposes the way our feelings of discomfort visibly leak through our non-verbal gestures. But more fundamentally Takala is opening up a debate on the business ethics of conflating workplace and personal relationship modes.  In a memo to all the Second Home members she partly reveals her subterfuge by announcing that “the stroker”  is the founder of the well-being organisation, Personnel Touch, a company title that is a masterful linguistic melding of the commercial and the intimate. The ultimate irony is that Takala’s work as a performance artist is now showcased on the cultural events page of the Second Home website as an example of their tagline: “More than just a workspace, almost a way of living.” Among the many telling moments in her film is a scene which reveals the “co-worker” with the most positive reaction to the stranger’s touch of recognition – the office cleaner.

Takala combines the chutzpah and bravery of the prankster with the compassion and acute eye of the social critic. Her takedown of Disney’s hegonomy of the manufactured image in Real Snow White (2006) – https://vimeo.com/11757111 – is another brilliant exposé of the absurd world we now live in. Guy Debord (The Society of the Spectacle, 1967) is again proven to be so prescient: the commodity has sucessfully colonised all social life.

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© Pilvi Takala – still from video, Real Snow White (2009), courtesy of the artist

 

 

 

 

 

Moved and startled by Goldsmiths’ postgraduate artists

 

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Still from VR video Don’t they ever stop migrating (2018) ©Anna Mikkola

This is the third of my annual encounters with the artists at the Goldsmiths’ Degree Show and the impact they have on me is still startling. This year there was less of the controlled anger on display but many of the works seemed to get to me at an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. I started with the artists graduating from the new MFA in Artist’s Film and Moving Image.

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Still from video Now and There, Here and Then (2018) ©Sun Park

For me, Now and There, Here and Then (2018)  was one of the most moving works on show. It is a sensitive, intelligent, concise and sharply observed work seemingly inspired by the Korean artist Sun Park’s sense of alienation at being so far from her home and family. It is presented as an enlarged phone screen projected into the centre of a phoneshaped screen set on the floor at an angle. We are immediately confronted with the ubiquity of video recording  and how it mediates and distances our experience of the world. We hear a conversation  between a mother who lives in Korea and her daughter who is a student artist in the UK relaying their experience of their environment to each other by video footage (a neat reversal of the face-focussed video call!) Their own video clips, mostly of the sky, create a sense of intimacy and the topics they discuss include  the daughter’s insecurities as an artist, the mother’s disillusionment with her life choices,  the nature of art and the limitations of the video image. Among the highlights was the comment when a vapour trail  is recorded and the mother says: “Look, the aeroplane has made you an artwork.” At one point we hear the comment about a shot of the dawn: “You can only see the half of it through the camera” –  a vital warning to all moving image artists. This was a highly original work that had much to say on the emotional side-effects of globalisation and technology.

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Still from Bunker on Kummerstraße (Grief Street) 2018, two-channel video installation           © Susanne Dietz

Susanne Dietz, originally from Germany, also uses mother-daughter relationships as a springboard in her films. One film comprises handheld footage as she follows her mother around a graveyard incidentally passing by the distinctive and beautiful grave stones. (Maybe stonemasons in Germany are given a freer hand in designing exotic monuments for the dead.)  Her mother is looking for her chosen plot and final resting place but she is stymied by her failing memory. Dietz’s complementary film Bunker on Kummerstrasse (Grief Street), 2018 is a carefully controlled and gripping meditation on a disused building, home to memories we might wish to let go.  The stately progress of the camera as it ascends and descends through the seven stories of an aboveground bunker still standing from the Nazi era gives a sense that a home can be conjured even out of concrete bleakness. The drum solo that accompanies much of the film adds an urgency to the atmosphere but also homeliness when we eventually reach the floor where we fleetingly view the drummer himself. Fluffy bedpillows also get star billing. As Dietz explains: “We just want something soft to fit between our heads and the earth”. On reflection, this is as significant as Anselm Keifer’s work on Germany’s past.

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Still from video Ducks Don’t drown (2018) ©Max Leach

Max Leach’s single channel film Ducks Don’t Drown (2018) has an unsettling aura magnified by being projected on a large linen sheet that gives a subtle and almost imperceptible wobble to the image as it is ruffled by drafts. The hyper-real CGI  of a homely interior contrasts with the disturbing, murky sound track derived from a series of interviews with male Dark Web users relishing their freedom to choose from a long shopping list of recreational drugs. It gives a rather bleak window onto the otherwise opaque landscape of the Dark Web. Leach’s short soundpiece that captures the violent energy of laddish banter provides an enjoyable counterpoint to his film. He has much to say on masculinity so I look forward to more in the same vein.

Ukrit Sa-nguanhai’s Enduring Body (2018) is a captivating and visually sumptuous exploration of the metaphorical power of cancer. It is inspired by a childhood memory of her rural Thai hometown when a number of her teachers died mysteriously one after another from the disease.  The film begins with a teacher’s funeral and ends with a death mask digitally reconstructed by 3D printer. In between she has created touching vignettes to illustrate the dark, anxious humour of our fears.  A writhing massed tangle of crocodiles emerges from the gloom like invading tumor cells. By superimposition of microscopic cell images the walls of a patient’s bedroom seem to undulate.  A cancer patient coyly begins a romance that leads to game of strip poker. I was gripped by the 25 minute film and would have happily stayed to view it again. It was a pleasure to be immersed in the quirky and beautiful world that Sa-nganhai has so carefully crafted. But I was determined to see as much MI art as possible so I moved on to the Fine Art MFA Show.

Many of the Fine Art graduates incorporated MI into their work including VR. I nearly toppled over inside the VR world constructed by Anna Mikkola.  You float above a vertiginous mountain landscape in the midst of a flock of black birds wheeling around you. Hitchcock would have loved VR. As part of her eclectic installation, Life is Necessarily Complex (2018) Mikkola is highlighting the increasingly synthetic and simplified versions of the natural world we are becoming inured to as technology begins to mould life processes and living organisms.

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Installation view of Bedroom, London 2025 (2018) © Alexa Phillips

VR is also the bogyman in the startling live scenario designed by Alexa Phillips. In Bedroom, London 2025 she illustrates the dystopian end point of isolation, withdrawal and listlessness that our self focussed screen based life might lead to with a seven level bunk bed where the occupants are held in stasis by their 1984-style utilitarian tin VR headsets.

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Still from video installation Bunkertown (2018) © Johanne Wort

I was determined to see Johanne Wort’s intriguingly titled Bunkertown (2018) so it was my last stop as the frenetic Preview came to a close. Appropriately sited in the gabled loft space of the converted church which is the latest addition to the Goldsmiths’ art buildings,  the two channel video installation did not disappoint. Here at last was the cutting satirical work I had been waiting for. We sit in an estate agent’s office with water cooler at hand to view a glossy CGI promo for their latest offer to the paranoid home seeker. Building on the current fashion for gated housing developments, she has skillfully envisioned a hermetically sealed  life/work/play “seven star luxury” bunker that owes something to the Eden Project. This type of fantasy world prevalent during the Cold War now seems uncomfortably close to reality as climate change threatens to wreck our environment and the rich head for the hills.

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Video still from installation A Sculpture of your Grief (2018) © Aimee Neat

With sixty artists to survey in one evening I am sure I missed some excellent work. I also enjoyed Aimee Neat’s observation of media performers being reduced to “happy” or “sad” emoticons in her installation A Sculpture of your Grief (2018) where she takes a satirical sideswipe at the rictus grin that hides the pain of living life on the revolving circus of the internet. Sheila Buckley’s Peepers (2018) was a disturbing and thrilling mash-up of explicit Celtic stone carvings with a vortical CGI and laser installation – a visceral and thought-provoking blast.

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Installation view of Peepers (2018) Sheila Buckley  Photo image ©Dave Andrews

For controlled anger I need only turn to the Goldsmiths academic and activist, Ayal Weisman. His Turner Prize nominated Forensic Architecture research group will be the focus of a future blogpost.

Unearthing the talent at Chelsea College Degree Shows

 

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Still from Love Birds (2018) Copyright Molly Burdett

I open a door and enter a darkened room. A screen across the room fills my visual field. I am standing on a thin carpet of soil. The mustiness of damp earth fills the darkness. I am looking at six sets of glazed earthenware bowls and plates perched on the  rim of  circular earth mound surrounding a bonfire that exudes a friendly warmth. But they do not need the heat as they are already fired. This anomalous narrative continues. The pots are buried carefully in the clayey soil and then disinterred and washed by hand in a stream and returned to the mound to dry.  This simple film, Chiara Gilmore’s From…to (2018) has the feel of a strange ritual and packs a sensual and intellectual punch. I am transfixed by the visual delights of flame reflecting on glaze and water dissolving earth. We feel the proximity of the natural material to the human artefact and are reminded that moulding and firing clay is an archetypal example of primordial human material culture. This meditation on the natural cycles that we are all subject to was one of the highlights of the Chelsea Fine Art Degree show this year.

I enter a small alcove with three TV screens on the walls. The atmospheric installation of polished wooden steps so reminiscent of school prizegiving and the type of  industrial carpet tiles and shuttered blinds that homogenise office life  captures the uneasy dissonance inherent in a traditional school  environment seeking to emulate  the corporate world. We feel the claustrophobic school ethos of testing, competition and rewards as it is played out through three dramatic narratives of the different ways to cheat the test. What is impressive is Rosie Abbey’s tight interlocking of the sound and visuals from the parallel  narratives so we feel caught up the midst of the pupil’s anxiety acted with conviction by young adults. The most improved (2018) is thoughtful and incisive. It nails the absurd and damaging  impact of testing on our education system.

Two films from the Graphic Design Communication Degree Show particularly impressed me. Molly Burdett’s accomplished film, Love Birds (2018), is a concise and moving portrait of the dying sport of pigeon racing, showing empathy and respect to all involved. Its emotional significance for the pigeon owners is referenced throughout by visual allusions to the quasi-parental bonds with their birds. Her apposite choice of interview clips highlighted women’s unsung roles in the sport, one woman commenting that pigeons need caring during the day while husbands are out at work.  Burdett’s mini documentary was a carefully crafted masterclass in economy and impact – a talent to watch.

Not many laughs were on offer but La Rupture (2018), Léna le Rigoleur’s hilarious, whipsmart riposte to the etiquette failures in digitally mediated relationships made up for that. It opens with a quickfire satirising of the panoply of romcom break up tropes following the heroine’s receipt of the annoying justification from her boyfriend: “It’s over. Sorry it’s not u, it’s me  xx” As this is a text rather than direct speech the dumpees only recourse is to fire back digitally, directly addressing the dumper in the form of a video tutorial dissecting the gross rudeness of his breakup method. This coolly delivered “revenge art” is a welcome antidote to the self-indulgent art of despair so often provoked by this situation. You can have a chortle as it is posted online at  https://player.vimeo.com/video/274659168.

Many other neat ideas popped up in the shows including Reece Higham’s film being shown simultaneously on multiple screens of different vintages going back to cathode ray tubes to demonstrate the way advances in technology change our perception of narrative.

Overall a really worthwhile day at Chelsea even though much digging was required to unearth these gems. I will be back next summer as the ongoing search is addictive.

How weird is the RA Schools Show 2018?

 

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Model of Karel Vogel’s Draped Woman with bunch of dahlias and Ribena Mini (2018). Courtesy of the artist, Charlie Fegan

“It’s all a bit weird” said a middle-aged man as he hurried past me at the RA Schools show last week. As a fellow middle-aged male he might have expected me to agree but he did not wait for my reply. Having thought about it since, the overall weirdness quotient of this show was in fact quite low but the two artists that struck me as the most and the least weird were my particular favourites. British-Chinese/Vietnamese artist Will Pham’s film An Viet (Well Settled) was a touching insight into a staple subject of mainstream documentary TV: the fate of migrant communities in the UK. The weird ambiance of Charlie Fegan’s video installation matched the weirdness of his sources: an obscure political/mystical tract on unemployment by the notorious artist, Eric Gill, better known for his erotic art was allied with an unloved, deteriorating public sculpture, Draped Woman, cast in concrete by an obscure Czech artist, Karel Vogel. It languishes on the verge of the A4 Great West Road in West London but is now listed.

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Installation view of An Viet (Well Settled), 2018 – video by Will Pham. Photo credit Andy Keate

Will Pham evidently possesses the key gift required by documentary makers: he can get his interviewees to be uninhibited under the scrutiny of his camera. The highlight of his 20 minute film are two people talking to camera who seem to be relaxed by Will’s reassuring off-camera presence. One is the son of the Vietnamese exile, Vu Thanh Khanh, the founder of the An Viet community centre in Hackney serving refugees from the aftermath of the Vietnam War. He reads passages from his father’s autobiography occasionally choking with the emotion and eventually leaving the room in distress. Another is a young woman who describes her work with the centre and her feelings about culture and personhood. As a Scandinavian who reads French, working with the UK Vietnamese community she has come to realise that being a person is more significant than being a member of a cultural group. Pham takes the deliberate decision not edit out an interrupting mobile call  but allows us to see her all too human flash of excitement at the received message.

In the closing sequence a young Vietnamese couple make hesitant moves as they attempt ballroom dance steps together. As their movements become more fluent we are implicitly asked to ponder the balance between the migrant’s competing need to assimilate into the host culture while honouring their own cultural hinterland.

Inevitably your appreciation of an artwork is enhanced if you have some personal connection to its content. I own a copy of the obscure 1933 Eric Gill pamphlet Unemployment quoted at length in Fegan’s three minute video NO BLACK MAGIC? so I was probably a step ahead of most visitors to this workGill’s diatribe against the advent of a future dominated by “machinery” highlights the idea, now commonplace, that the leisure time it generates might be available for life enhancing cultural pursuits (HIGHER THINGS  according to Gill’s emphasis). As if to illustrate the location of the sublime in the everyday grind, Fegan’s video is a reverse tracking shot through an A4 pedestrian underpass. In the closing frame we emerge onto the opposite side of the dual carriageway with the erotically charged Draped Woman sculpture just visible in the dusk as the rush hour traffic roars past her. We are given a better impression of the sculpture as Fegan has produced a scale replica adorned with discarded flowers and a drink carton. Gill’s  grooming of his teenage daughters by using them as life models and his subsequent sexual abuse is well-known and both his misogyny as well as his anti capitalism is apparent in Unemployment.

So many questions are thrown up by this atmospheric and unsettling artwork. What is the legacy of an artist with such a disturbing biograph? Can an artist be both enlightening and antedeluvian? How should we treat his work? Would we be right to censor it? Do we value public art? Can concrete be a sensuous medium? Why are some public sculptures valued and others left to languish?

Hopefully more people will read Unemployment and visit the Draped Woman as a result of the exposure they have gained through Fegan’s work.