Artistic collaboration across cultural and gender divides

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Maeve Brennan, The Drift (2017) Produced by Chisenhale gallery, Londonand Spike Island, Bristol. Courtesy of the srtist

Understanding  artistic collaboration means gingerly navigating a minefield of arcane terminology.  Following a screening of their brilliant film trilogy, Finding Fanon at Tate Modern last week, reviewed in an earlier blog, the culture-busting partners Larry Achiampong and David Blandy were quizzed about how this worked for them. The discussion moderator referred to the “mannikin” nature of their collaboration, at least this is what I thought she said. I was building on an earlier association with the “avatars” they adopt in the film’s CGI sequences. I was still a bit puzzled when it kept cropping up like a mantra but then realised she was in fact using the term “Manichean”. This exemplifies the kind of opaque academic artspeak that is alienating the “uneducated” public from contemporary art. How much of the audience were bamboozled by this usage? Although it was familiar I had to check after the talk. It simply means “contrasting pairs” .

Well that is something I am interested in: black /white, East /West, male/ female, rich/ poor. Where could that lead? Finding Fanon involved collaboration across genders as women take the roles of the artistic director and the narrator. I feel this balance adds to this work’s humane sensitivity. Maeve Brennan, an emerging talent in moving image art, also works across cultural and gender divides. Her latest film, The Drift (2017) is a meditative study of masculinity in the Lebanon. As a woman film-maker she found that she could use the “gender dynamic” to create “generous encounters” where men are more open with their expertise. She collaborated with several Lebanese men whose occupations all require the care and restoration of different types of broken material: car wrecks, ruined archaeological sites and ancient pottery fragments.

Underlying this reconstruction, but only refered to tangentially,  is the repair of both their war ravaged county and the psychological damage that it has caused. Their generosity extends to an emotional honesty that reveals a deep identification with their work. At one point the gatekeeper of one of the Roman temples in the Beqaar Valley had tears in his eyes describing how the ruins he guards have become part of him. Others in the region have lost their lives doing the same.

Mohammed Zaytoun is part of the salvage economy rebuilding car crash remnants and selling them on, a magpie whose loot is plentiful in  this war-torn country. Brennan’s shot of his wreckers yard has the same presentiment of death evoked by Paul Nash’s graveyard of World War Two fighter aircraft casualties in Totes Meer (Dead Sea), 1941. A lone detached dashboard fascia has the poignancy of  a severed limb.  The armed conflict is not directly mentioned until the closing scenes when we are shown the BMW once owned by a Hezbollah commander killed by a car bomb. This shell is now a monument or a temple of remembrance but to Mohammed’s eagle eyes it is a potential source of spares. The car has brand new alloy wheels.

Totes Meer (Dead Sea) 1940-1 by Paul Nash 1889-1946
Paul Nash, Totes Meer (Dead sea) 1941

There is a stunning array of eloquent images in this film. The “drift” is a boyracer stunt worthy of any macho Essex petrolhead involving the raising of a dust storm by a frantic, angry, circular manoeuvre like a cat chasing its tail. The visual and aural mayhem seems to sum up the desperation and frustration many young males feel about making a mark on the world. At intervals we look over the shoulder of a conservator painstakingly reconstructing a shattered vase. We share the satisfaction of two shards aligning neatly but finally we face the poignancy of a piece that does not seem to fit no matter which angle it is presented at. We reflect on what this might signify in terms of our own desire for psychological completeness. I’m reminded of William Kentridge’s similar sequence involving the tearing and repairing of a self-portrait.

The world of ruins and car wrecks are kept separate for most of the film until Mohammed parks up his BMW alongside one and proceeds to replace the pristine car door with a dusty salvaged one he has brought in the boot. The amplified clinks of his tools in this sequence are typical of the care taken with the film’s sound design. The reversal of his usual mind-set this absurd procedure represents might be seen as a comment on the restoration of the Roman ruins he is surrounded by.

I was gripped for all 51 minutes thanks to Brennan’s sensitive and humane approach to her subjects. This film gives an insight into the real Lebanon that counters the stereotyped nightmarish media portayal of a failed Middle East state and is showing at Chisenhale Gallery until 4 June before touring the country.

 

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Identity and performance

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Copyright Ferhat Ozgur, still from video Metamorphosis Chat, 2009 courtesy of the artist

Previous blogposts  have alluded to the complex relationship between performance and identity. The idea that projected identity is distinct from the persons’ real identity has been boosted by the rise of social media which requires the careful selection of images to represent the self to others. This binary opposition was the starting point for the exhibition One and Other at the Zabludovic Collection back in February 2017 astutely curated by a team of students from MA Curating  courses at London art schools. Much of this selection was moving image art and included one of my all time favourite MI artworks, David Blandy’s The White and Black Minstrel Show, 2007 which blurs the cultural identity of soul music with a humorous light touch. Others worthy of comment were:

Ferhat Ozgur, Metamorphosis Chat, 2009

This benefits from an engaging narrative and Ozgur’s respectful and sensitive rapport with his Turkish subjects. Two women in their sixties are seen discussing their contrasting life histories and the way this is reflected in their personal clothing and grooming styles which culminates in them swapping their outfits and makeup amid much giggling. Their lives have taken very different directions, one more westernised, the other traditional who says at one point  ” I will neither wear tights or remarry”. This is a very compassionate and insightful work on cultural change.

Ed Atkins, No one is more WORK than me, 2014

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Copyright Ed Atkins. still from video, No one is more WORK than me, 2014

Atkins metamorphoses into a brutal alter ego through video capture animation. I was hypnotised  by the constant outpourings of this disembodied head expressing a  range of emotions alternately sneering, aggressive, ingratiating and self-pitying through a set of songs, insults (“who are you lookin’ at”) and pithy asides.  There is a limited set of clips which replay over eight hours in a randomised sequence but the repetition is compelling. It was difficult to tear myself away from this visceral expression of the insecurity that fuels performative masculinity.

Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections, 2014

This performance art project, conned thousands who followed her concocted social media journey from innocence to debauchery to redemption. Its ethical implications make me rather queasy. Is she adding unwittingly to the paranoia of “fake news” or satirising it?

“The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet,” she explains, “rather than trying to adapt old media to the internet, as has been done with mini-series on Youtube.” Her innovation is not the documentation of female representation in a new format but the co-opting of her duped social media followers whose responses form an integral part of the completed artwork. We can see this as a democratisation of art but it also raises the sticky problem of exploitation. But I guess no one trusts the reality of Instagram feeds, do they?

Resolving racial conflict with kid power

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Still from Finding Fanon, Part Three, Prologue (2016) a film by David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  Image courtesy of Claire Barrett

Amid all the current journalistic talk of whitelash and the attempt to discredit identity politics following Trump’s election success, the ideas of Frantz Fanon, the black Martinque post-colonial thinker and psychiatrist who died in 1961, could not be more urgent or prescient. His insights into the link between colonial oppression and psychopathology provides the springboard for the Finding Fanon trilogy.  These fine films are carefully crafted meditations produced over the last two years by the “culture-busting” partnership of David Blandy and Larry Achiampong.  The interim version of Finding Fanon Part Three (which in fact looked highly polished) premiered on December 6 at Tate Modern as a live performance with a hypnotic musical accompaniment on cello, synth and percussion. Rich in powerful images and with a gently delivered but hardhitting text, it kindles hope that though our malaise is deeply rooted, our children may point the way towards a more tolerant and cooperative world.

The problems they try to grapple with are huge and difficult but crucial. They point out that the world has shrunk and social media can reduce us to icons and totems.  Essentially they are probing the dilemma of how a personal identity can be forged in a world where the internet has transformed our view of the world and our past.  Are we going to allow the internet to reduce us to data networks which either perpetuate or ignore our colonial legacy? The two artists appear as a dapper, besuited, somewhat querulous duo, reminiscent of the notorious Gilbert and George or the absurd Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But the thrust of the text is encouraging us to see them as avatars diminishing their individuality but acting as coathangers for the film’s ideas. Their worsted wool three piece suits and their steam punk goggles are subtly different as if to say : “We strive for commonality but the colonial legacy still sets us up as unequal associates”

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Still from Finding Fanon-  Part Three Prologue (2016) courtesy of artistic director, Claire Barrett

Iconic images are beautifully captured in HD – the sea, the sky, a forest canopy, flaming sticks – but the commentary is pushing us to examine what new meanings they might have acquired in our current political and environmental crisis. Are the oceans now seen as a threatening no-man’s-land  claiming migrant lives rather than in the Windrush days when it provided safe passage to the  mother country? Will our landscape be degraded by climate change? The Blandy and Achiampong broods feature as signs of hope. When the children work together to build a shelter from discarded branches is their ability to cooperate a model that the world can follow in its mission to stop global warming? But could their wooden teepee just as easily be a bonfire? Social psychology research on US children in the 1970’s confirmed that we will always create outgroups unless there is a bigger problem that requires collaboration to resolve. Will it take the threat of extinction for us to recognise our common humanity?

Sumptous abstract digital animation simulating a vortical maelstrom is inserted to dramatise thoughts of black holes and the loss of identity. A strange fantasy sequence of the digitally rendered artists swimming gracefully in the ocean depths undercuts the usual Mediterranean migrant narrative of the sea as a potential killer. They have begun to develop the use of gaming tropes and graphics software to generate stories from the struggles of other oppressed groups such as ex-prisoners under the banner of Finding Fanon Gaiden.

The problem with the current  permanent Tate Modern collection is that it is not nimble enough to be truly reflective of our current concerns. They need to show works like this that are immediate responses to our rollercoaster world. There is no better illustration of this than Finding Fanon’s commentary comparing the racist imagery of Enoch Powell and Donald Trump:

“They were wrong. There were no rivers of blood.  Instead there are walls in people’s minds wishing for boundaries from “the other”… trying to contain something that does not exist”

The mere fact of two artists from different sides of the post-colonial divide coming together to explore the personal and historical implications of that troubled relationship and the image of their offspring forming a harmonious group to pursue a common purpose is what makes this such a moving and thought-provoking artwork.

Performance credits. Camera and artistic director: Claire Barrett. Cellist: Yoanna Prodanova. Synthesiser: James A. Holland. Percussion: Shepherd Manyika. Speakers: Ima-Abasi Okon and Nicola Thomas

Blandy and the Brexit apocalypse

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Still from How to make a short video about Extinction (2014) courtesy of David Blandy

The disturbing hum of duplicity is the subliminal sound track of our lives. When politicians play games with our destinies while claiming to be our protectors and assert that saving the world entails the threat to destroy it in a nuclear holocaust, we feel like spectators trapped in poker game with no cards to play. When a politician fights for a cause he does not believe in and then runs away from the consequences we are left with an uneasy feeling that we live in a world of artifice. With the Brexit vote leaving us with a bitter sense of the end of the world as we know it,  David Blandy’s 2014 video  How to make a Short  Video about Extinction (http://davidblandy.co.uk/how-to-make-a-short-video-about-extinction) could not be more current. But like all profound artworks it has universal significance much wider than the political. It reminds us of the dishonesty we are all prone to in our social media world.

There are truly shocking moments of realisation in this video. The seemingly off-the-cuff conversational tone that opens the video is revealed as carefully scripted. We feel cheated, like Dorothy discovering the Wizard of  Oz is a little old man or the UK electorate realising that Brexit is not the nirvana that Boris promised. We reflect that political and media images that appear authentic are craftily confected. And then we have to sadly admit that it is our collusion with these representations that  preserves this deception.

Thinking about this I realised that a deeper layer of irony is being exposed. Maybe the “script” we see in the video is in fact a transcript of Blandy’s improvised chat. This sense of disequilibrium, our lack of traction on reality and the feeling of “wheels within wheels” is what many of us are experiencing in the current national crisis.

After the introductory tutorial there is a hilarious and telling moment when Blandy switches from his relaxed teacherly voice to the portentous tones of the documentary narrator as the apocalyptic video he has constructed begins. The experience of finding digital images of the apocalypse so pleasurable is not so shocking. Art has often relied on this rubbernecking tendency. Bosch always painted the damned being tortured in hell with more relish than the saved floating heavenwards. We seem to have an atavistic need to have our fears represented. At present the fear of the unknown, the fear of foreigners and the fear of  death all seem to be conflated. I’m reminded of Hamlet’s description of death as “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns” and Farage’s notorious Brexit poster referencing an apocalyptic vision of being drowned in a river of migrants.

The text  is derived  entirely from TED talks.  The standard apocalyptic threats – asteroids, plagues and global warning – are illustrated with glorious found footage from Youtube animations. Then we get a more outlandish possibility. Could a global depression epidemic be the cause of our extinction…what a depressing thought.

The sequel to this video, Tutorial: how to make a short video about ideas has just been screened as part of the Random Acts series on Channel 4. As if to rescue us from our anxieties about our impending doom, Blandy now explores an intriguing form of digital immortality where the artist and his audience can form connections long after their physical demise. He also links the artist/audience connection with Bertolt Brecht’s  idea of the “fourth wall”. John Smith cites him as having a crucial influence on his films (see my earlier blogpost). If the audience is directly addressed by the performer they are confronted with the artificial nature of the artistic experience and so their engagement with the ideas it presents is more complex and thought through.

Two thoughts were illuminated by these video. Firstly, let’s forget about originality because that is just a mirage in the digital world. Anyway the Greeks probably got there first. There are so many great ideas and images already out there.  The artist’s craft is to select, edit and juxtapose them in a way that gives us something new to reflect on. Secondly, and more important, given that we are living under a a dark cloud of doom and division, let’s focus on  forming authentic connections with each another.

 

 

The holiday video subverted: Blandy and Conroy

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Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection until 17 July

When an artist turns the camera on themselves there is the risk of a narcissistic selfie. Gilbert and George assume that their personas are intrinsically interesting as human artworks and as a result their performance videos appear self-absorbed, cloying and flat. Self portraits can generate universal insights but this usually requires the artist to have a certain modesty and to locate themselves in a compelling context. David Blandy has managed to pull off this trick many times over the past twenty years and his refreshingly honest video Child of the Atom (2010) now showing as part of the exhibition Emotional Supply Chains at the Zabludowicz Collection is an example for other budding MI artists to follow.

Blandy’s starting point is a family holiday video with ultra high production values capturing beautiful views, a peaceful park, a homely cafe and a cute toddler clambering around. The normality of this scenario is in dissonant counterpoint to the horrific context of the film – the atomic destruction of Hiroshima. Blandy and his daughter  wander around the reconstructed city encountering newly built memorials and the poignant husks of buildings that remain from that fatal day in August 1945. The role of narrator is generously handed over to Blandy junior looking back on the trip. Her tentative musings on the morality of the military choices and their personal impact create a meditative mood. This is helped by the video’s installation on a raised platform with a traditional rush tatami mat to sit on which adds to the sense of intimacy. She tells us that her grandfather was a Japanese POW and by ending the war the bomb is said to have saved his own life and permitted her own arrival into the world:a puzzling and heartfelt moral dilemma.

Blandy  does not avoid the brutal truths of the attack but instead of using archive material which we all know too well he chooses to switch to home-grown anime clips. This serves to leaven the atmosphere with an absurdity that any consideration of nuclear warfare demands. The bomb personified as a superhero diving headfirst to ground zero is reminiscent of the iconic scene of a war crazed US major riding on a nuclear missile in Kubricks’s  dark satire, Doctor Strangelove illustrated above. Interleaving  animation with live film has been  a key feature of MI art in recent decades and has been developed by Blandy in many of his films. It reminds us of the fantasy/reality confusion that we are all emeshed in (including the nuclear Cold war strategists).  It has also been exploited to great effect in both this year’s Jerwood/ FVU Award films so its popularity is not waning.

Similarly gripping is David Raymond Conroy’s You (People) Are All The Same.  Also set in a city with a dark alterego, it also plays on holiday video tropes, opening with a blurry meander around his Las Vegas hotel bedroom.  The washed out footage undermines the stereotyped garishness we anticipate from the cityscape as we hear the artist’s gloomy prognosis of what sort of film he will eventually be able to concoct. Bravely, the lo-fi production values are maintained throughout but this is consonant with his mission to reveal the bleak underbelly of Las Vegas life.  The film is a mini thriller with dramatic turns as the artist desperately attempts to reconcile his twin goals of doing good to others while making an artwork. His altruism is pitted against the fear that he may be exploiting the homeless people he is trying to help. By alternating between his own story and that of his potential subjects he avoids charges of egotism and by handing over much of the commentary to others we get different takes on his struggle.

All the potential scenarios discussed involve divesting himself of the grant that he has been awarded but none of them get filmed. We assume that this is because of the artist’s moral squemishness but it may also be the result of his failure to identify or recruit genuine homeless subjects. Conroy has given us an original portrait of Las Vegas while interrogating the ambivalent relationship of the artist filmmaker to his subject. As with Blandy, the personal and the political are subtly entwined to give a powerful sense of artist’s convictions without descending into an egotistical diatribe.

Coincidentally Maria Eichhorn is exploring a similar issue in her latest work at the Chisenhale Gallery. She has closed the gallery and partly used her sponsorship money to pay the staff  to take a prolonged vacation.  Her subjects have no say in their involvement as without their cooperation there would be no artwork. Conroy’s film provokes some uncomfortable thoughts about this power imbalance. Jayson Musson has also produced a scabrously funny critique of this style of artwork, relational aesthetics,  which was one of the standout works at the Whitechapel Gallery exhibition Electronic Superhighway and  can be found on his Youtube channel presented by his alter-ego rapper art critic Hennessey Youngman. This is not to say that the audience cannot fruitfully be brought into the production of an artwork as the self-effacing Jeremy Deller has so elegantly demonstrated.