For those of us involved in north London grass roots politics in the 1980s, the “loony left” tag was an irritating and pervasive insult that we had to tolerate. Since then “identity politics” has become the popular buzzword to berate political activists protecting the rights of oppressed groups. For many commentators the backlash to this trend is the reason for Trump’s electoral success. Ironically Trump himself exploited identity politics by galvanising a range of special interest groups and by conflating all “Us vs. Them” conflicts to the overarching battle of “The U.S vs The World”. This was evident in the Trump rally so tellingly filmed in Cornelia Parker’s recent video installation American Gothic. I find it rather depressing that the “personal is the political” battle cry from the 1960’s that should have transformed politics has become so devalued.
Art is an important force to push back against this trend and this blog has championed many contemporary moving image artists that are successfully pursuing this goal. Among them Alice May Williams has the key quality that they all share – an acute sense of history – and this has greatly enhanced her recently opened exhibition, And Now… Grants for Irish Lesbians! It is showing at Tintype until July 15 and is inspired by the outraged Evening Standard reporting of the Islington council funding decision in 1983. It includes her punchy and engaging video, On the 73, which creates a heartfelt and amusing narrative of a doomed lesbian flirtation from a sequence of iconic still media images compiled from the last 25 years. I gave a rave review to it in December when it was shown as part of Tintype’s Xmas window screening. She has also applied her facility with language to compose a typically rye and poignant “text work”, Grants for Irish Lesbians, 2017, painted onto the gallery wall from which I have quoted in the title to this blogpost:
What’s left? what’s left? of the loony left?/ Where’s Islington now, that was here, was then?/ We dream of grants for lesbians.
Well, part of the answer is that the “loony left” and “identity politics” have been painted into a corner by a prevailing orthodoxy that tries to link them with ideas of victimhood and bleeding heart liberalism. It is heartwarming to see the term “loony left” treated with such nostalgia. The Corbyn surge may yet breathe life into this 1980’s idealism and restore the idea that politics is all about finding our group identities and resolving conflicts of interest by working out how we can all rub along. The lightness of touch that Williams brings to these heavy political issues gives the lie to the dour, po-faced stereotype of the “loony left”. I look forward to her next film at Knole House in Kent next year in a group show that includes Lindsay Seers.
Also included in the Tintype show are a number of her delicately executed paintings.
Tintype have bucked the trend for gallery closures in the Xmas week yet they can still luxuriate in a well-earned break by screening films as their window display. Is it worth braving the cold, standing on the pavement for 45 minutes to watch the eight short films from different contemporary artists all inspired by Essex Road in Islington? Three of them have outstanding narrative drive and one of them is “interesting”. All have some merit. Wrap up and pick a time when there will be fewer revellers/commuters to interrupt your viewing pleasure.
The multi-talented Alice May Williams has shown her mastery of wit and timing yet again in her subtitled story of unrequited love, told against a montage of iconic media lesbian couples. MI artists rarely have the skills to produce their own text, images and music that complement each other so neatly. The synchrony of these three elements was as hypnotic as in her Jerwood/FVU award-winning film, Dream City. MI artists that rely on others to provide words and/or sound track (and that means the vast majority of them, William Kentridge comes most recently to mind ) cannot hope to achieve this level of aesthetically pleasing coherence. Among the many chuckle-inducing touches was the use of different buses (the 38 and 73!!) to represent the incompatible romantic destinations of the film’s two protagonists.
Lynne Marsh was fortunate to discover that the 1930’s Carlton Cinema on Essex Road was the common habitat for two contrasting species; restoration workers and evangelical worshippers, hence the title of her apparently simple yet highly effective film Resurrection /Restoration. The subtle edit switched rhythmically from the fervent gospel singers to the buzzsaws of the builders and the closing shot was a revelation as we see the coming glory of the refound theatre auditorium in its entirety. Heritage and recycling are both “good things” to hang onto in this disposable era.
Andrea Luka Zimmerman’s atmospheric and gripping film presents a nightmarish impressionistic portrait of the gritty and depressing life of the homeless on the streets of Islington through the eyes of an archetypal “black dog”. The parallel perils of being a stray dog and a street sleeper reinforce the degradation they both suffer. Very moving.
Amikam Toren’s minimal and subversive art has always appealed to me. In Going Nowhere two coordinated looped images on a split screen spark some thoughts. A helicopter (air ambulance?) repeatedly approaches its rooftop landing pad but then goes into reverse. In the adjoining image a young man paces aimlessly up and down a row of shops whirling a chain around his finger. Are we are just going round in circles making the most of our lives until we run out of rope?
ESSEX ROAD III is showing at Tintype daily from 4-11pm until 14 January. Worth a look if it’s not too chilly.
I visited Tintype gallery in Islington for the first time last Wednesday and chatted with its director, Teresa Grimes. I had just left Tate Britain feeling vaguely disheartened by the predominantly anaemic installation artworks of the Turner Prize nominees. I was pleased that Teresa did not feel that moving image art was in decline given that this is the first year in a long time that an MI artist has not been among the nominees. We also agreed how fruitful the cooperation of artists and scientists could be. This is brilliantly exemplified in Suki Chan’s three channel interactive film installation, Lucida on show at Tintype until October 22.
Neuroscientists have concluded that we see with our brain not our eyes. So, for example, our brain acts as an image stabiliser smoothing out the tiny staccato movements (saccades) that the eyeball must make as the retinal receptors will stop firing if they do not experience a change of input. Chan has worked with engineers and software programmers to open up this unconscious process. Seated in front of tracking sensors each saccade is converted into a click. We get the startling audible verification of the research finding that they average three a second. Our iris and surrounding capillaries are also projected onto the screen in front of us taking audience involvement in art to a new level of intimacy. Those gross blood vessels made me feel like I was inside one of Philip Guston’s lurid late period “Heads”.
Inspired by her thoughts on the psychology of perception, Chan’s installation consists of a pair of screens, one projecting her film upside down. This provides a constant reminder that the image projected onto the retina is similarly inverted and that the brain must process this input so that we can navigate the “real world”. I was reminded of the psychology experiment where participants wear goggles that invert the visual field. Initially disorientated they soon find that the brain corrects this misinformation so that they see the world the right way up. When the main screen shows a room in which the inverted image of the exterior world is projected via a camera obscura, the paired screen likewise corrects the orientation.
The gallery helpfully provides visitors with an introductory video where the artist gives some background on the work’s genesis and includes the testimony of Colin Blakemore, the renowned neuroscientist. He was modest enough to praise her for raising issues of perception that he had not previously considered. So what is it that art can offer that science cannot? Essentially, art can demonstrate that on one level scientific explanation is an elaborate metaphor. The second half of her film consists of an extended tracking shot through the London University Senate House library, the underground bookstack and the murky subterranean service tunnels. This is an apposite image for the convoluted journey our visual input must make before it is processed into a form that registers on our consciousness. On the journey we hear experts commenting on the importance of retrieved memory and projected meaning in structuring our perceived world. It culminates in a wild, fizzing representation of neurochemical activity in brain synapses that fills the screen perhaps alluding to the gestalt nature of visual processing that has so far eluded reductionist scientific explanations.
As an ex-psychology teacher who is a bit sceptical of the more hubristic claims of the neurosciences about the nature of consciousness, I am encouraged to see an artist like Chan shed some poetic light on this most fundamental of issues while consulting with a wide range of scientific opinion and even providing a demonstration of a physiological phenomenon as part of her work. It would be great to see more work in this challenging vein. The varieties of memory impairment in dementia might be a fertile field.