The ties that bind…a lesson from Ballpark Collective

Interdependence is the theme for this year’s Art Licks Weekend programme and we could certainly do with more of that in our divided world. Before she was assassinated by a man raving “Britain First!”, the M.P Jo Cox voiced the opposing slogan: “What we have in common is greater than that which divides us.” So it is heartening to see the five artists in Ballpark Collective living this unifying ideal by carefully attending and responding to each others work to create a unique and absorbing film.

Short Straw is the moving image art equivalent of ‘Chinese Whispers’ a game which teaches us, at an early age, some of the key principles of communication. When the person at the end of line speaks out loud what they think they heard everyone can compare it to the phrase started at the other end. We learn about the fallibility of perception and that the cause of this failure is more to do with our personal biases than faulty hearing. It is fascinating to see this process at work in a visual dimension.

Aimee Neat pulled the short straw and kicked off the series of five sections with a performance piece recasting gender relationships as a competitive sport. We spectate a furious domestic as a couple hurl wads of wet J-clothes at each other. The woman is angry, her male opponent mildly amused. (How relevant to the exchanges in the current gender role debate!) They are confined like aggressive squash players in blue walled space. We winch at the amplified squeaks and slaps of the action. A tranquil soundtrack provides an ironic contrast. What is uncanny is that reverberations of this piece lasts through to Sarah Lewis’s fifth film which gives another take on the same theme. This is despite the fact that each artist is responding to the previous work filtered through their own conceptual and perceptual screens with no discussion between them outside the ritual of passing their work on.

Sarah Lewis offers some wry juxtapositions: archive clips of womans’ relay races and footage of a woman fondling her pet snake. This subtle undermining of the phallic symbolism of snakes and batons returns them to the hands of women. The hilarious clip of a child relay runner taking the baton and setting off in the opposite direction of her opponents to the consternation of the adult coach says something about the absurdity of a competitive worldview.

The three segments linking these two neatly reference the futility of conflict and competition. In her thoughtful and beautifully paced section, Sun Park introduces us to the Korean adage that pointless conflict is like trying to “cut water with a knife.” Susanne Dietz, in a section paralleling human culture with the physical earth, references the Goya painting, Fight with Cudgels which portrays two men bludgeoning each other oblivious to the quicksand into which they are sinking. Max Leach in his continued exploration of machismo digitally manipulates an image of the Frederic Leighton sculpture, An Athlete Wrestling with a Python, highlighting its frenzied melodrama.

When an artist submerges their ego in a collaborative work the result can often lack focus. Yet the format of this film allows individual visions to shine through while creating a unity of shared meanings. Faced with the divisiveness encouraged by Brexit and Trump, surely a lesson in there for us all.

David Hall: can art engage with industry?

Copyright- David Hall (1937-2014) Still from Tap Piece ( 1971) courtesy of artist estate

It was fascinating to to sift through the written and video archives of David Hall (1937-2014) , one of the unsung pioneers of British video art, at an open session held earlier this month at the Tate Archive. The terrifying onward march of inflation was evidenced by Hall’s carefully conserved £6.60 bill for six diners from an Edinburgh Indian restaurant in 1971. He was there filming as part of an inspired project to insert unannounced 60 second art videos into the BBC Scotland output. These ten works, known as T.V Interruptions (1971), are little gems each one a masterclass in economy and punchiness. One of them, the conceptually intriguing and mesmerising Tap piece, looks achingly innocent to our eyes but the project was so controversial that it was never repeated.

Also redolent of an innocent radicalism are the written materials documenting the group meetings of the Artist Placement Group (APG) which was founded in 1966 by John Latham to get artists out of the studio into the “real world” and onto the payroll of business organisations like British Steel and Esso Petroleum. The group worked on the premise that “art could help resolve problems inherent in industrial societies”. An archive document revealed to my surprise that my first boss, Tom Batho, the Head of Employee Relations at Esso was a director at the APG. He states:

” artists…are not asking for patronage …they are asking Industry to allow the artist to make a contribution”

In the current era of oil industry boycotts artists might be reluctant to establish such engagement. Mark Rylance broke his links with the RSC asserting that Shakespeare would not have taken money from BP. (I am not so sure; he was always desperate for finance for his productions). As consumers if we rein in our reliance on oil, BP would have to stop supplying it. It is two sides of the same equation. Overturning our current expectations of a reasonable living standard is the only way forward. Closing the opportunities for debate by separating us into artificially generated echo chambers is what both the xenophobic Brexiteers and the boycotting environmentalists have in common.