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

 

 

 

 

 

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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 my next 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.