Jerwood/FVU Awards 2019: life inside Fortress UK

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Still from film The Lost Ones (2019) copyright Richard Whitby

My most memorable encounter with bureaucracy was in 1976 when a British Rail official embargoed the loading of my moped onto a train at Penzance station after a holiday in Cornwall. This was possible back then, when trains had a guard’s van. The realisation hit me how your life could be held hostage by a zealous stranger brandishing a rulebook. The tank had petrol in it, an apparent fire risk. I was so grateful to his colleagues who helped me to persuade him to let it on. 

State officials all have rulebooks to work to. By imposing these rules they can consign people to poverty, detention or deportation. Those with a cruel edge to their personality will revel in their work. More humane officials will take some comfort from bending the rules. But the real culprits are the people who make the rules. This is a consolation for the official enforcing them and a frustration for those having to conform to them. When tempers flare in such encounters the simple way to mollify the subject is to politely refer to the rules. I was once advised by a boss to counter every complaint from clients by saying: “It is the organisation’s policy”. This may appear robotic but it provides a carapace against the complainant’s anger. These bland, stonewalling guardians of state control were termed “soft cops” by Caryl Churchill in her play of the same name and included  teachers and social workers as well as law enforcers and immigration officers.  She drew on Foucault’s idea of “gentle punishment” and Bentham’s utopian omniscient prison design, the Panopticon, to warn that the threat of state surveillance is enough to maintain a controlled society.

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Modern visualisation of Bentham’s design for the Panopticon

The latest edition of this approach is the nudge theory of state intervention where  non-punitive measures are used to influence the climate of opinion and ultimately people’s behaviour. Banning smoking in offices led to pariah status for smokers and a rapid decline in tobacco consumption. The “hostile environment” approach to immigration and repatriation uses the same strategy. The “Go Home” billboards in suspected London hot spots were intended to nudge illegal immigrants into jumping before they were pushed. A soft survelliance operation, co-opting landlords, employers and health workers as immigration officers stoked a climate of fear and suspicion. How ironic that Amber Rudd, the politician responsible for the policy, resigned as Home Secretary blaming her officials for its over-enthusiastic implementation. 

The threatening, gratuitously offensive interviewer whose disembodied voice is a constant presence in Richard Whitby’s gripping film, The Lost Ones (2019), might represent one such official. This script decision by Whitby and his co-writer Alistair Beaton has two consequences. Firstly, the cruelty of the interrogator becomes conflated with the cruelty of the interrogation policy. This puts the focus on the official rather than the politician as the bogeyman.  Secondly, it downplays the unfazed rationality that is often the scariest aspect of any confrontation with a state official, their blank emotional expression leaving you seething. In contrast the hectoring official in Whitby’s film is a necessary device to shock the interviewees into retaliation. The actors playing them had no script so their improvised responses to the provocation of the often absurd questions are genuine and idiosyncratic. 

The Brexit mindset is herding us into a corral of shared national pride. By using questions from the citizenship test and benefit screening, Whitby’s film demonstrates that the barriers built by Border Control and the DWP are symptomatic of the state’s wider goals: the creation of pariah groupings and the enforcement of patriotic conformity. His choice of actors of diverse age and ethnicity reinforces that we can all be threatened with scapegoating. The minimalist setting in an anonymous waiting room with bucket chairs and a credit card reader to accept payments is the contemporary equivalent of the Circumlocution Office from Dickens’ Bleak House where you might spent a lifetime trapped in a bureaucratic circle of hell. The grating soundtrack, the intermittent views of the room shot from behind a ventilation grille and the looped screening generate an uncomfortable sense of claustrophobia and paranoia. I felt relieved when the familiarity of the on-screen confrontation indicated my entry point in the loop and I could make my escape. The film’s interviewees were not so lucky, condemned to replay their imprisonment ad infimtum.

The most worrying Panopticon-style use of the internet comes from China where your status as a citizen can be downgraded by your online expressed views. Whitby’s film is adding to the body of art warning that it is not only in authoritarian states that bad things can happen. Good things, like the happy ending to my moped story, need more of us to challenge the surveillance-enforced rulebook that threatens to turn the country into an embattled fortress like the one pictured on the back wall of the The Lost Ones’  interrogation room.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 instagram followers). 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 pursed lips trademark is telling us something – maybe he rejects smiling 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!