New York City, present day. Emilio Estevez is Edgar Anchoa, celebrity chef, famous as much for his short-temper as for his high-end cuisine, who, upon hearing of his family’s grisly demise in a freak friendly fire incident during a Long Island laser tag excursion, involving somehow-live lasers and near-radioactive neon paint imported illegally from Guttenberg, NJ, begins to nervously breakdown. Returning to work from compassionate leave, Anchoa is visited by the vision of his teenage daughter (Drew Barrymore), her face appearing amid a pan of bubbling fondue. Spurred on by the face and it’s demand to “kill them, daddy, kill them all,” Anchoa vows violent revenge and sets about this murderous mission by poisoning several diners at his up-scale Mid-town eatery, using a homemade concoction with horrific, delayed effect, wherein said dinners, days after consumption, begin to swell in alarming ways, leading their bodies to eventually explode. When the next victim happens to be goateed Sunday-supplement food critic Marcus D’Ancona (Bruce Willis), his distraught widower hubby Gabriel (Tobey Maguire) teams up with hard-bitten NYPD detective Renee Hallgarten (Linda Hamilton), who thinks fine dining is licking the grease from her tie, and the two go undercover in the seedy world of big city gastro-politics. Gaining access as sous chefs to Anchoa’s kitchen, they hatch a plan to catch the master-killer-chef before more innocent people die. Things go tits up when the chef’s new chica, Elena (Charisma Carpenter), discovers Hallgarten’s police-issue glock while washing the staff’s kitchen whites and, assuming her to be an assassin sent from a rival restaurateur or possibly an undercover operative from New York City’s fearsome Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, traps the unexpecting detective in the walk-in meat freezer. Gabriel, becoming unhinged with grief and rage in Hallgarten’s absence, corners Anchoa after the daily early-evening cosmic-ordering team building session and forces at knife-point him to admit the extent of his crimes. Sparing with words, then knives, they commence a fight to the death while the other kitchen staff, fully acclimatised to a high-pressure working environment, continue to prepare the night’s food. Meanwhile, Elena, dawning on who is the idea that her hot new boyf is in fact what the Post has dubbed ‘The Panna Cotta Peril’, owing to said desert being found in the exploded remains of all the victims thus far, frees from the freeze Hallgarten, who has by now climbed inside a hung-up cow carcass in an attempt to stay alive. Thawed out and out to get her man, Hallgarten grabs her glock and storms into the knife fight just in time to see Gabriel lose the best part of a hand and blast Anchoa non-fatally in the dick, looking as he does remarkably like her scumbag ex-hub. Anchoa is again visited by his dead daughter’s ghost, her face floating in the pool of his crotch-born blood, his lovely little girl this time transformed into a demon, red face, horns and all, laughing maniacally with a voice like James Earl Jones. Unable to live with what he’s done, Anchoa gathers enough strength to stand and dunk his head in a vat of boiling jus. Cut to Gabriel sniffing the air, mad glint in his eye, snarling, “What’s cookin’, mannnnn?” and in kicks Def Leppard’s ‘Pour Some Sugar On Me’. Freeze-frame, fade-out, the credits roll.
*** Shortlisted for The White Review Short Story Prize 2015 ***
It is a two lane road somewhere in North America. The car is pulled onto the shoulder with the brake lights on; a grey midrange sedan from twenty years ago. The road is edged on both sides by thin half bare trees. It is winter, autumn, or spring. The day is blank, covered in high cloud. Now and then another vehicle goes by. A police officer walks forward, gun drawn, towards the driverside door of the midrange sedan. He is state police and wears the felt hat and the uniform with the thick dark stripe on the outside trouser leg, the hat pinched at the top with the wide flat brim. The shirt is tucked and tight round his paunch. He is thick-bodied, heavyset. He takes small steps, in a strong shooting stance. There is someone inside the midrange sedan. Through the back window there is a head, unclear, in silhouette. They have not deserted the vehicle or fled the scene. At least one person sat in the front. Black dot birds scatter from the tops of the trees, and now and then another vehicle goes by. The trooper is pointing with his right hand the gun at the window, and with his left hand he his reaching for the handle, going for the arrest. He is shouting, has been shouting the whole time. He pulls open the door and shouts at the driver. He is pointing the gun and shouting at the driver. He tells them get out of the car now. He says get out of the fucking car. He holsters the gun and pulls the driver from the sedan to the road. The driver is female, Caucasian, middle-aged, and overweight. She is facedown on the asphalt in her black slacks and baggy jumper, with the trooper on top of her, his knee on her back. He hits her on the back of the head and unclips the handcuffs from his belt. He is shouting, has been shouting the whole time. He says get on the floor, get on the floor, I’ll cut your clothes off, get on the floor. The driver is very overweight and does not put up a fight. The woman facedown on the floor with her hands in cuffs behind her back, the trooper standing up still shouting, telling her to get on the floor, do not fucking move. Other vehicles go by. Police means do not stop, do not get involved. It is police harassment, police violence, official police business. Police means do not get involved. The image fades to black. A voiceover says the woman sustained bruises and cuts and pleaded guilty to speeding. The voiceover says the trooper, a seven year patrol veteran, has been fired and is expected to appeal. For a few seconds it is solid black and silent.
The event repeats, but quicker this time. The trooper moves quicker, the cars go by quicker. The shouting, the pulling, the punching, the shouting is all quicker. And the event is done, over slightly quicker. The screen fades to black. The event repeats and the screen fades to black. The event repeats and repeats, each occurrence getting quicker, shorter, the action rushed and hurried, the voices higher in pitch, higher until they sound like some helium cartoon, higher until just noise, just squeal, the image just noise, just blur. The moment is compressed out of shape, a moulded thing. It seems to reach a critical point, an aesthetic threshold or some technological limit, and the screen fades to black and is black for longer than before. This is credit space in any other film, the vast list of rolling names. Instead it is black, just black, silent, until it starts again, at normal speed, on that North American two lane road.
There’s a couple next to you, also watching, a young woman and a man you guess is slightly older, faces washed with projected light. They came in around the same time as you. The guy is telling the girl how funny it is. He’s not laughing, but he’s telling her about how the whole thing is so funny, how he’s getting such a kick watching the fat woman get it. He says the best part is knowing that the cop gets fired. He says this is the icing on the cake. The girl is nodding, not saying much. She looks sort of spaced out, or bored, or thinking about something else. They each have a beer in both hands. They are good-looking in a wrecked sort of way. Her in a heavy sweater and drainpipe jeans, he entirely in black—trench, trousers, big clunking boots. You decide that maybe they’re not a couple after all. It’s awkward, stunted. They don’t seem close in that way. There’s a perceptible layer of performance, at least in the girl. The smile she gives you as you walk past. A faint thing, half-bothered, half-formed. Not half-bothered in that she doesn’t care to smile, but half-bothered in that she almost doesn’t care to not smile, that she can barely keep herself from smiling, barely has the energy or will to maintain the presentation, the unmoved unbroken unsmiling face. She can barely be bothered to keep the pretence intact, whatever the pretence might be. You remember being like that, finding pleasure in games and half-reality. You remember inventing and testing and teasing, pushing outward, new things, forms, external conditions, the discovery each day of a new way to be. The smile admits the act without defining it. The question is why admit the act at all, and why admit the act to you.
You take your coat from reception and say to the staff, yes, thank you, interesting, goodnight. Outside, people hurry with umbrellas and collars turned up against the rain. You take two aspirin and walk onto the street.
* * * * *
Marie thought it was rude that Johnny still had on his boots. Her shoes were by the door. She sat crossed legged on the floor holding her bare ankles. It was his place so she didn’t say anything, but she was entitled to her opinion and her opinion was it was rude. He’d left big footprints all over. And in the kitchen, where it was tile not carpet, she had to step around several pools to keep her socks from getting wet. Now he had them up on the table, not far from her face, as he leaned back on the couch, waving his arms as he talked. He would splay his hands or jab a finger at the air, and sometimes clap or rub both together like it was cold—which it wasn’t, so Marie figured it to be the cocaine. He tilted his head to face the ceiling. Heavy traffic noise washed up from the street.
“The way they drive here,” she said.
“The Iranians are worse. Way worse.”
“And when were you in Iran?”
“You know, never. I read it someplace. Or I heard it. Yeah,” he said, pointing. “I heard it on TV.”
“I’m serious. The Iranians can’t drive. It’s a thing. Like, they’re crazy fucking people. Suicidal, homicidal. We’re talking major death wish.”
“I’m serious,” he said.
“I know. I’m not laughing. This is smiling, it’s different.”
Marie watched him put his feet on the floor and lean forward.
“The talk is always New York.”
Marie nodded. “Los Angeles.”
“New York, oh sure. But Los Angeles.”
He thought about this for a while, scraping his credit card back and forth, tapping it on the table top glass, staring at the white, the plains and heaps and dusty bounds.
“It’s bigger,” he said. “I suppose.”
“It exists for the car.”
“Is it bigger?”
“They were made for each other. It’s the natural habitat, really, the pure expression. What other city has this? The pure expression.”
“I think the Italians would disagree.”
“And the Swiss,” he said, carving the air with a hand. “In the Alps the roads are ribbon thin and winding.”
“In Los Angeles they drive one block to buy milk.”
They did the lines and went silent for a while, Johnny rotating the bottom of his glass against the table, watching the remaining rum tip and swill in the bowl, Marie lighting a cigarette, blowing smoke rings and Irish waterfalls, enjoying herself getting high and watching him think. Johnny finished his drink and squinted at her.
“Is that a car thing or a people thing, one block to buy milk?”
She said, “They’re inseparable. That’s the point.” It wasn’t like her to speak this way. She was trying not to laugh or talk about her dad.
“You know,” he said, “in Rome the car is like a second language. In some areas they speak more car than Italian. Celebrations, condolences, disputes. There are phrases, meanings, ways of meaning, things that can’t be translated because there isn’t any other, other way to say it. It doesn’t translate. Large sections of life discussed only in car horn.”
“ ‘The talk is always New York.’ ”
“And not only the horn. The headlamps, the brake lights, the way you take a turn or how you park. The skilled reader knows whether you’re married with children just by how you overtake. Speed, proximity, the context of the street. The skilled reader sees you approach the Colosseum and knows, instantly, who you are and what you’re about. Near intimate details of life at that point.”
Marie sat back on her elbows and unfolded her legs, peeling each out straight and stretching.
Johnny said, “They see you coming.”
She lifted one leg higher than was required, drawing it down, crossed at the knee over the other.
“You know, that’s the car, you know, when it reaches that point, that level of intuition and understanding. The skilled reader sees and knows, speaks and sees and reads and knows.”
Marie didn’t know him very well, in fact for only a few hours, but she guessed he talked like this most of the time. It was how they’d met, earlier in the night. Johnny talking to some people and her close by, listening, thinking, thinking who is this guy. Marie had stood next to him getting a beer and now it was his apartment at midnight. A musician, he’d said. And that made some kind of sense. He’d said, let’s go to mine, I live like four blocks from here. She lived a train ride away and had missed her last train. This fact seemed somehow essential, an element the experience required. You didn’t go to a stranger’s place and take the last train home.
They talked and smoked and finished the coke and Johnny got up and went out to buy more. Marie lay on her back on the floor a while, listening to the street and tapping her foot to whatever song it was on the radio. She let her gaze fall loose over the objects in the room. The TV was on without sound. Some show with people dressed up as animals running an assault course or the like. They kept falling, these people, over and off things, down things, into things, as things, things that kept falling while trying to run and climb in the costumes and the mud. A dog collided with a chicken on the downhill tyre slope. The camera cut to disappointed loved ones watching from a bleacher to the side. There was a wine bottle holding a candle on top of the TV. There were wine bottles all over, upright, on their side, huddled in dimness in corners, under furniture, by the skirting. She counted five shoes from her position, each without their other. She got up to go to the bathroom, pausing on her way back in the doorway, leaning against the frame. A TV, a couch, some mismatched wooden chairs. She moved into the centre of the room. A low table, a desk lamp on the floor. She went to the hallside wall and took small steps clockwise round the room. Peeling paper, odd stains and small burns, smudges and finger marks near the switches that didn’t switch, near the pinned up photos and cuttings and magazine pages, one mainly unused shelving unit, books in floor-stacks and piles, half-burned candles, one fitted closet, mainly unused, a tall window and battered aircon box, plant pot full of dry soil on the ledge, cigarette butts stuffed into several brimming trays, stuffed into any container that could serve the same purpose, in mugs and glasses, on plates and in one shoe, the main door with three locks on it, three locks and a chain. She went quickly to the kitchen and then back to the bathroom, basically a toilet and a shower, a sink with taps that twisted for an age before the water dribbled out. She went through the livingroom to the bedroom and opened the wardrobe, the drawers, the drawers in the desk, the bedside cabinet, the large chest with the cushion on top, the three shoe boxes at the end of the bed, the plastic storage crate in the bottom of the wardrobe, the plastic storage crate beneath the bed. Beneath the bed she found an acoustic guitar, generic, light brown, missing three stings.
Johnny had been gone a full hour. She thought about going to look from the window, but it seemed wrong somehow, in some way against her idea of the event, that she might be seen from outside standing within that glowing frame—the woman at the window waiting for the man.
She walked round the living room, mindful now of her place among things. She picked up her shoes and put them on an empty shelf. She took one shoe off the shelf and put it behind the TV. She pushed the table round ninety degrees. She dragged the couch to the opposite wall. A song she liked came on the radio and Marie moved quickly about the apartment, picking up things and putting them somewhere else, sometimes trying three or four places before it felt right, sometimes putting an object back where it was found, citing lack of inspiration or some other wrong kind of vibe. It was an impulsive activity, one that worked with haste or did not work at all. She didn’t know exactly what it meant, but the more she moved things the better it felt. The gesture was total, made sense within itself.
She removed her clothes down to her underwear. This would lessen the impact of the image whenever he got back. You go out and come back and she’s there in her underwear moving the furniture around. The half-naked woman run amok; a funny thing to tell his friends. And, only a half-step from sex—talking, laughing, fucking on the floor. She picked up her clothes and put them in the fridge. She sat on the couch and lit her last cigarette. The early weather report came on, promising strong northerlies and angular rain. Marie lay sideways with a blanket and her legs tucked up to her body.
It was early afternoon and light hung stale in the apartment. Marie woke up and tried to think about the night. She said his name, Johnny. She said it more than once. She went saying his name from room to room. She said his name and thought his name, hoping some form of the word might make it true.
She went to the window and looked for him a while. The traffic was there, as ever, blaring and blurred in the rain-streak of the glass. Car light, light from the street-level stores, from the offices and apartments above, light in long pools and streaming chasers, in glittering dabs and smears and flecks, light the city’s underflesh, shimmering and exposed. Marie watched the street fade as the window fogged with breath. She drew a small rectangle lengthways on the glass. Closing one eye, she aligned the shape with a busy section of the street. Cars went through it, enlivened for a moment before dulled again by fog, and slowly the rectangle began to steam and cloud and rejoin the larger patch.
Marie remembered to take her clothes from the fridge before she left.
[Note: this version is slightly different from the version shortlisted by The White Review]
*** Shortlisted by Dazed & Confused in their ‘Surveillance Stories’ competition ***
You sense the threat before you see it. You sense that there is a threat before you think about what you’re seeing, before you’ve actually seen what you’re now thinking about. The threat, you sense, is imminent, but it hasn’t occurred, you’re not yet actually watching it, thank God, on the foggy monitor in front of your face. The monitor makes a sound, not unlike air-conditioning, a low hum, atonal, constant, casually oppressive. You’re rapping your fingers on the desk, staring at the monitor, trying to make sense of it, willing it one way or the other. You’ve followed procedure and now you’re waiting for the callback, willing that, too, hoping they take their time, the time you need to think.
In front of you is the perceived threat, frozen in time, hazy and glowing. The image is a low quality zoom from a live video delay. You’re looking at two minutes ago. But, given the delay, that was already seven seconds into the past. It was two minutes ago when you perceived the threat, two minutes seven seconds since the threat went live.
You reach to the playback controller and rewind the recording. The image jerks in rhythmic lines, like waves crawling up a beach or a long train passing slow. You click resume and the jerking stops and the familiar arrhythmic motions of life return. In front of you, a rush-hour inner city transport terminal, the threat currently out of frame. Men and women in suits are talking, laughing, frowning on the concourse. Others, suited and unsuited, are on phones or not on phones, with or without bags or luggage, alone or with friends or with people who look like friends, reading or pretending to read newspapers, books, magazines, walking by or stood looking, some looking at the departures board, also out of frame.
This is only the second time you’ve watched it through, you realise, having paused sometime during the original stream, when the threat was perceived and the follow-up procedure began. Paused, the moment seemed to throb, the threat moving in micro-measurements that don’t actually exist, curious gestures that are fictions of the machine. You remember that glitch comes from the German word for slippery, but you can’t remember the German word. All the machines in the room make a sound – the monitor, the computer, the digital recorder, the relay equipment and motion analyzer, the command system, the control system, the wall-clock and the lighting overhead. The sounds rise and fill the surrounding atmosphere – the machines speaking their language of claustrophobia.
Paused, it seemed all options were possible, the threat made more viable, more real. It seemed entirely possible, likely perhaps, that anything would happen, especially the kind of anything that you’re supposed to prevent. The still, hovering image implanted menace in the threat. But now, now the video is moving and you’re watching it move, you can’t see where the threat, the perceived threat, could appear. It seems impossible in this everyday vision, this world where people read newspapers and hustle for space near the doors.
You’re watching and making connections between the strangers in the scene, seeing patterns in coincidence, momentary alignments across the entire visual field. You see current trends in clothing style, haircuts moving in and out of fashion, white-collar women in merciful sport shoes, men in two button mohair of grey, charcoal, navy, ink. Drawing imaginary lines between colours creates wild, confused abstractions. There is music here, you say to yourself, in a range beyond the human ear. The frozen image dared you to make sense of it. But in motion it makes only sense. It sweeps into and over you, easy and irresistible.
You’re looking for you don’t know how long and the phone rings and you spasm and hit your knees under the desk and put your left hand into the remains of your lunch, on a plate beside the keyboard. Grabbing the phone with your clean right hand, you hear a woman’s voice right away, on the other end of the phone.
‘Asset Monitoring?’ asks the voice.
You pause, gulp, then say, ‘Yes.’
‘Do you perceive a threat?’ asks the voice.
‘Yes,’ you say, ‘Yes, I perceive a threat.’
‘Asset Monitoring, can you confirm the threat?’
‘No,’ you say, unsteady, ‘I . . . don’t think I can.’
There is a long pause and you notice the threat has entered the frame, must have been in frame for half a minute or so and you’re past the moment when you first froze the scene. What are they doing? They’re moving against the flow, making their way from one edge of your screen to the other, edging and dodging among the crowd, mildly frustrated. They match the description, as far as you can tell. Their movements are unusual; their behaviour is unusual. There is a deep incoherence, you sense, in this person and their activities. But now you notice other irregularities, other misshapen movements on the concourse of the transport terminal. Either something is going on, or nothing is, and this is what life looks like – loose and shaggy, open to apophenic abuse.
‘Can you,’ the voice returns, ‘confirm the threat?’
You begin to describe the scene, speaking quickly, going into great detail, listing the aesthetic qualities and also your sensory reactions and impressions, your analysis of the world as contained within that frame. You’re saying all this and trying to ignore all else, looking carefully at the monitor, talking to the woman and waiting for her voice, clear, on the phone.
‘Asset Monitoring, can you confirm the threat?’
Can you confirm the threat? The words crest and break inside your head, meaning pitching like a troubled ship – question, accusation, declaration, demand – and it’s making you dizzy, you think, no, it’s making you feel trapped, trapped in your own skull, like you’re a person within a person, hidden and captive within your body, and you say something, because you have to say something, because, really, there’s nothing else you can do.
Essay to accompany the group exhibition
at Blip Blip Blip, Leeds, March 2013
LIBERAL democracy functions on a balance of assumptions and assurances. Out on the street, it is assumed that we, the public, will behave decently to one-another and within the rule of law. In return, we are assured that certain measures are in place so as to safeguard us from the wayward actions of others, and punish the perpetrators of such actions should these safeguards fail. Transparency and accountability are central to this operation, the former being a prerequisite for the successful enacting of the latter. Democratic life is public life, and vice versa. If too many things go unsaid, and if people are not held accountable for their actions, then we have bad democracy. Putting on an exhibition is no different.
SHOOT THE WORKS is not an exhaustive or comprehensive study of its subject: the vandalism and intentional damage of works of art by independent citizens, be they artists or civilians. It does not include actions by governments or mainstream political and religious bodies, such as the Protestant iconoclasts of the mid-16th century, or the destruction of public monuments in the former Soviet Union (a subject interestingly explored by Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis in the film Disgraced Monuments, 1993); to cover these events would take a much larger exhibition. It also does not include damage to artworks that seem calculatedly provocative and, therefore, engender outrage and the possibility of violent reaction almost as part of their design (Marcus Harvey’s Myra, 1995, for example). I chose instead to include damage done to works that the majority of people seem to have little or no issue with, where the motive for the attack feels less a reflection of public consensus or a flexing of ideological power, and more the expression of an acute, intimate compulsion. The artists were chosen because I feel their works reflect the different aspects of this issue, each work offering a distinct and important take. The historical examples were chosen for the same reason, and because they looked right. That is to say: one, an image relating to the incident was available; and two, the available image works – that, in lieu of the original object, it successfully documents the result of the action, and conveys the visceral and physical reality of the act. These images, I think, still carry some of the power, potency, and vigour of the deed; stabbing a knife through a painting is not like stabbing a person, but it’s not like spreading butter either.
FOR the sake of ease, I will cover the unaffiliated actions of this motley gang of strays under the umbrella term participation – a word both consistent with art-speak parlance and imbued with suitable euphemistic blur; it allows us to talk about multiple things at once. SHOOT THE WORKS is a record of personal responses to art works, responses deemed improper and, on occasion, immoral by the institutional powers-that-be. SHOOT THE WORKS is not an attempt to somehow legitimize or validate the actions and events that it records – they don’t need validation, they need airtime. All these events occurred in the public realm, so there is a democratic responsibility to open them to public scrutiny or, at least, scrutinize them in public. Exposure is not absolution, and a little creeping daylight does not promise the perpetual glare of publicity and promotion. With evidence comes examination and critical evaluation, private readings and public hearings, disagreement or accord. We shouldn’t talk about things we know nothing about – that’s bad democracy.
ABOUT violence against artworks I have three questions. First, what actions constitute as violence, as in: how far does physical participation need to go for it to be deemed violent? Second, in what ways can we think about the perpetrators of such participation, given that we’re talking about violence against objects and materials, not people, but things? And third, is there a pre-existing lexicon that can be appropriated in order to discus these matters, without resorting to moral judgements and while avoiding the calculatedly amoral language of aesthetics, or can a new specialised vocabulary be fashioned so as to operate ethically between the consensus of the masses and the impulsive needs of the individual? In short: what’s happening, who’s doing it, and how can we talk about it? Like any good crime story, it’s the what, the who, and the how.
THERE is a great book out there called ‘The Destruction of Art: Iconoclasm and Vandalism since the French Revolution.’ Its author, Dario Gamboni, attempts to answer these questions and more, examining with what he calls the “heuristic value” of “aggression directed against art”: “If one considers the autonomy of art not as an atemporal essence but as a historical and historiographical construct . . . Then it follows that attacks represent a break in the intended communication or a departure from the ‘normal’ attitude shown towards them.” It almost goes without saying that I am with Gamboni on this. ‘Almost’ because what he’s suggesting isn’t easy to acknowledge, and to agree means to denounce completely the idea of the innate sanctity of art, that its (non-monetary) value is intrinsic, and its contribution to culture and society irrefutable. Even in a time when the public seem quick to accuse the artworld of shysterism, seeing it as the refuge of greedy, elitist, self-involved frauds, even then the animosity is seldom aimed at a universal target. If one person hates contemporary art, they may find value in Renaissance art. If Johnny hates ‘fine’ art, he may find value in fashion or design. If Susanne hates painting, she might like the movies. And so on and so on. Rarely is it a blanket condemnation of all visual practises, there is perceived to be some value, somewhere, always. This is one reason – an important one – why you hear people say they don’t ‘get’ art. Because regardless of the quality of the art work in front of them, and regardless of whether they actually like it or not, the perceived value is such that it can only be their fault as ‘uneducated’ or ‘ignorant’ viewers. Art’s value is fact; an audience’s intelligence is not. (Some people just don’t give a shit, and, well, that’s just cool.) So if Susanne or Johnny want to express their frustrations, of course they’re going to do it in an ignorant, uneducated manner. And if they’re extraordinarily troglodyte, this might mean walking into a museum and literally attacking the art, their insufficient intellect causing them to resort to blunt brute force. Shocking and ultimately meaningless, such things are the actions of criminals and madmen. Well, that’s how the theory goes.
MOSCOW, 1913: Abram Balashov enters the Tretyakov Gallery and uses a knife to attack Ilya Repin’s painting Ivan the Terrible and his Son Ivan, cutting three deep scars down the face of the elder Tsar. Balashov is immediately declared insane and so does not stand trial. A year later, Mary Richardson attacks Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery in London, again with a knife. The Times prints the headline, ‘Deranged Suffragette Attacks the Rokeby Venus’; the story runs across two whole pages. Richardson gets six months jail time, the maximum sentence for an offence of its kind. Beyond the portico outside the Cleveland Museum of Art, stands the last Thinker statue cast by Rodin himself. In 1970, it’s bombed with dynamite by the left-wing militant group The Weathermen. Due to Rodin’s involvement in the making, the work is not fully restored and still bears the damage from the attack to this day. No-one is arrested or questioned about the bombing. New York, 1974: a young Iranian artist called Tony Shafrazi spray paints the phrase ‘KILL LIES ALL’ directly onto Pablo Picasso’s painting Geurnica, then on show at the Museum of Modern Art. The painting is heavily varnished and thus easily resorted. Shafrazi is arrested and charged with criminal mischief. Despite witness reports to the contrary, the New York Times describes him as “enraged.” This whistle-stop historical tour visits some of the main cultural centres of the 20th century, and maps, albeit very loosely, an interesting route through the complex convergence of private intention, public action, legal consequence, and social reaction. Although the actions were varied in design and approach, a cursory look at the targeted art works reveals some interesting commonalities: all were well known and more-or-less popular; all depict human figures; and all were on display at state-funded institutions when the attacks took place. These three details are important.
BALASHOV was an icon painter and an Old Believer, a Christian denomination founded after the Russian Orthodox Church made several major reforms between 1652-66. Ivan the Terrible, Balashov’s pictorial victim, had died in 1584, and there is no connection between the infamous Tsar and the church reforms that so angered the Old Believers. Religious fervour seems an unlikely motive. Repin’s painting depicts a distraught Ivan having just brutally, but accidentally, beaten his eldest son to death. He cradles the young man’s body and stares hauntingly out of frame, his eyes as blank as they are mad, his son’s blood pouring over his hands. The palette is rich and heavy, using mostly varying shades of red. Witnesses to Balashov’s crime say he screamed, “Too much blood!” as he began to slash the painting. (Was this a clear sign of insanity? Or was the whole thing one painter’s scathing critique of another?) As Balashov never saw a courtroom, there is little written about him or the events surrounding his participatory action. A black and white photograph is all that survives, showing the three cut marks in severe close-up. The ripped canvas gapes like deeply torn skin, powerfully foregrounding the surface of the painting. The original narrative of the work is irrevocably disrupted; the characters remain, but the illusion is lost. The photograph recalls and pre-empts certain contemporary works: Miro’s burnt canvases from the 1970s; the cut and bunt photographs of celebrities in Douglas Gordon’s Self Portrait of You + Me series; and the punctured paintings of Lucio Fontana. The image of Balashov’s attack seems to somehow foretell these works and many others that followed.
RICHARDSON’S Rokeby… has a similar effect; the viewer jolted by the deep scars hacked into the back of this quintessential reclining nude. Unlike Balashov, her action was undoubtedly premeditated, fitting into a wider programme of suffragette civil disobedience. In advance of the attack, she drafted an explanatory statement outlining her intentions with great clarity and intelligence. “I have tried to destroy the picture of the most beautiful woman in mythological history,” she writes, “as a protest against the Government for destroying [Emmeline] Pankhurst, who is the most beautiful character in modern history . . . If there is an outcry against my deed, let everyone remember that such an outcry is an hypocrisy so long as they allow the destruction of Mrs Pankhurst and other beautiful living women.” Pankhurst was the founder of the Suffrage movement and was on hunger and thirst strike in Holloway Prison at the time. As her imprisonment and maltreatment continued, so the suffragette campaign escalated, becoming wider in scope and more ferocious in method, but always avoiding what Pankhurst described as “men’s blood-shedding militancy.” Property became the main focus of attack, and the Rokeby Venus was an exceptional target. The National Gallery had acquired the painting in 1906, for forty-five thousand pounds, making headlines across the country. Newspapers ran several reports on the work and its perceived cultural, social, and, of course, monetary value. The coverage became a kind of hubristic clamour, entirely disproportionate to the artwork itself, and leaning uncomfortably toward pervy fascination. In this light, Richardson’s wrath seems warranted, and her choice of target inspired. The “outcry” she predicted did indeed follow and some of the more upset journalists christened her with nicknames like ‘the Ripper’ and ‘Slasher Mary,’ in crude, exaggerated reference to murderers and serial killers. Significantly, it proved the suffragettes right: in certain circumstances, against the right target, attacks on property can create the same reaction as attacks on people; violent protest needn’t cause blood-shed or cost lives; and a campaign of aggressive action can be conducted without giving up one’s morals. This was an important lesson, but perhaps not a new one – the Suffragette campaign forming a kind of sectarian iconoclasm.
ANOTHER great book out there is ‘Crowds and Power’ by Elias Canetti. This quote comes from it: “The destruction of representational images is the destruction of a hierarchy which is no longer recognized. It is the violation of generally established and universally visible and valid distances.” Canetti’s ‘distances’ are physical and metaphorical, and mutually contingent; action in one realm has consequences in the other. So when a physical boundary is crossed, a mental boundary is weakened; and repeated transgressions may wear down all resistance entirely. Museums cite this as the main reason so many acts of vandalism go unreported. They don’t want to encourage copycat attacks, so keep things in-house as often as possible. (This argument remains questionable, as museums are primarily trying to save face. As custodians of cultural property – owned by the public or on loan from wealthy donors – any attack on property under their care severely damages their all-important prestige.) But some participatory actions are too remarkable, and some targets too important, for the successful application of these strategies of containment.
AFTER Tony Shafrazi spray-painted Geurnica, MoMA had hoped to keep the event quiet, away from the press and out of the public eye. Shafrazi saw his action in political terms, turning to one of the greatest anti-war paintings in order to protest against the then-current war in Vietnam. As he said in 1980, “I wanted to bring the art absolutely up to date, to retrieve it from art history and give it life . . . encourage the individual viewer to challenge it, deal with it and thus see it in its dynamic raw state as it was being made, not as a piece of history.” (This probably isn’t what Picasso had in mind when he said, “an image is the sum of its destructions.”) Of course, this attempt to “retrieve” Picasso’s work “from art history” made the New York papers the next day. Conversation then shifted from the sheets to the studios, with various factions and figures chiming in. The Guerrilla Art Action Group commended Shafrazi for “freeing” the painting “from the chains of property,” and returning it to its “true revolutionary nature.” While an anonymous group of ‘art workers’ argued Shafrazi had “attempted to supress the artistic freedom of Picasso by infringing on the artist’s inviolate right to make a statement without censorship or parasitic ‘joining.’” MoMA kept its collective mouth shut and restored the painting – a simple job thanks to several layers of protective varnish. Shafrazi’s apparent naivety is disarming (and somewhat dubious), but he’s kept to the same story in all the years since, recently telling Interview Magazine, “The critical factor is to realize that [in 1974] the burning, the rage, the inhumanity, and the hatred that is rampant in American culture was really coming to the surface. In a climate like that, nobody pays attention to pretty paintings. The role of art was, I felt, very important and being neglected.” Shafrazi’s was a conscious attempt to contemporize a pre-existing work of art, which implies two things: one, that a work of art can lose its contemporary relevance, its ‘now-ness’; and two, that such ‘now-ness’ can be intentionally re-inscribed by contemporary figures. Both points are slippery and subjective (like all the best things are), as the first point neglects the fact that ‘contemporary relevance’ is, by definition, an ever-changing condition, and the latter point certainly sets a potentially dangerous precedent. But perhaps there is some validity to the idea of a contemporized artwork.
“BUT is it not even a more significant work, damaged as it is? No one can pass the shattered green man without asking himself what it tells us about the violent climate of the U.S.A. in the year 1970. It is more than just a work of art now.” These are the words of Sherman Lee, then-director of the Cleveland Museum of Art. He was talking about one of the museum’s sculptures, an original cast of Rodin’s Thinker, which had just been heavily damaged by a bomb attributed to the radical left-wing group The Weathermen. Immediately after the event, Lee and other senior museum staff had hoped to restore the stature to its former state, perhaps shipping it Paris so the Musée Rodin could attend to it, or producing an entirely new version from the original casts. The Thinker exists as a multiple; there are thought to be around twenty-eight original castings, with many more unofficial, posthumous, or physically-variant versions around. The one at Cleveland was the last casting overseen by the artist, and Rodin’s direct presence in the object’s history made Lee’s situation much more problematic – either option would result in an irrevocable loss of aura, and did he want to be the man who essentially destroyed Rodin’s final Thinker? The decision was made to accept the damage as constitutive to the sculpture’s contemporary reality, and concede that art cannot always exist protected from, or impervious to, the violence of the culture in which it is kept. David Franklin, a subsequent director of the museum, goes as far as to take conceptual ownership of the action, claiming it as “part of the piece, part of its history, part of the history of Cleveland.” And he’s right to do so. Unlike its brothers, the Cleveland Thinker bears the scares of its age, its dismembered form a troublesome image. The things that once made the body look strong – the powerful musculature of the torso and arms, the swelled veins and oversized hands – now make the figure look fleshy, grotesque, helpless. There is an additional darkness to the figure’s contemplations, a newer, more modern sense of dread. Built in 1902 and bombed in 1970, it has become a powerful representation of those turbulent years in-between. It’s hard to think what the bombing meant, what the perpetrators had hoped to achieve, and why the Thinker was targeted. It was high profile, sure, but hardly a symbol of autocratic or imperialist repression, and, unlike Guernica, a seemingly apolitical piece of art. Maybe that was the reason: its apparent apathy, its lack of commitment, its quiet contemplation in the face of rampant social injustice; was this the motivating factor or was it more mindless or impulsive or simply a good-idea-at-the-time? We don’t and won’t know. Whether intentional or not, the Cleveland bomb has written a new narrative into the history of the Thinker, adding further complexity to the original proposition. This can be appreciated guilt-free, because there are still Thinkers that remain intact.
THESE various participatory actions can be labelled as what Michel de Certeau calls tactics – small, individual actions, which occur in opposition to large-scale, bureaucratic and corporate strategies. As de Certeau sees it, strategies create institutional space – which are ideological and social, as well as physical – while tactics respond to such space: “Strategies are able to produce, tabulate, and impose these spaces . . . whereas tactics can only use, manipulate, and divert these spaces.” The individual, incapable of constructing his or her own space, must improvise, developing and employing short-term alternatives and counter-measures. The small, unaffiliated group of perpetrators in this essay are not the wild human herds Canetti writes of in ‘Crowds and Power’, maddened by a group lust for destruction, intoxicated by a moment where “the individual feels that he is transcending the limits of his own person.” No-one I’ve written about here is transcending or trying to, and if there is madness, then it only appears as madness because it is driven by a strong, deeply personal logic, not a sense of agentic solidarity. This is the opposite motion to the one Canetti outlines: these actions isolate and marginalize the perpetrator, furthering the distance between him- or herself and society at large. There will always be those who do not consent with common norms and social conventions. And there will always be rogue constituencies that despise parts of society with an intense, sometimes pathological, hatred. If art is worth anything, then in art they’ll find what they despise.
*** First appeared on the creators project, December 2012 ***
Manfred Mohr’s first solo exhibition in the UK, one and zero gathers together works from over forty years of the German-born, New York-based artist’s practice. Influenced early in his career by the philosopher Max Bense and his call for a “rational aesthetic”, Mohr abandoned the AbEx mania of the time, turning to an algorithmic painting process, using set rules and restrictions to make abstract geometries in stark black and white. These works from the late 1960s offer the appearance of rationality, but Mohr knew it was still his own subjectivity driving the aesthetic decisions. Rather than rational art, he says, he was painting “romantic geometry.” To satisfy Bense’s philosophy there had to be rationality in all areas of the artistic activity, from conception to reception, through production and execution, logic imbued in each part of the process.
Mohr began using early-computers and plotting machines to create intricate drawings, again based upon algorithms of his own devising. This technology was highly specialist at the time, expensive, unwieldy, and not available to the public, so Mohr struck a deal with the Meteorological Institute in Paris, allowing him to moonlight with their hardware outside of office hours. On these long nights a lifetime’s professional relationship began, and Manfred Mohr had found his medium.
The plotting machine, or plotter, interprets the algorithmic script as simple operating commands – place pen on paper, lift pen from paper, move pen from here to there – turning a mathematical proposition into a drawing, what Mohr calls a “visual result”; setting the machine in motion is the only way to test the proof and see the work. Sometimes he’ll tweak an algorithm to get a different outcome, applying an aesthete’s eye. Sometimes he’ll add a cadenza of sorts, freeing the procedure from deterministic predictability, giving space to chance within the limits of the proposition. What’s important is the visual result; the math and the machine are the means to that end. He invokes techno-sage Marshall McLuhan and the idea that machines are in our service, offering humanity a prosthetic extension of body and mind, making possible that which we cannot think or execute: “The wheel is an extension of the foot, the book is an extension of the eye; clothing an extension of the skin, electric circuitry, an extension of the central nervous system.” Computer processing is an extension of mind function, and allows Mohr to explore somewhat virgin conceptual territory for a visual artist: in his words, that which is “inconceivable, but computable.”
The machine also produces a distinct visual quality, the plotter providing a character of line unlike print or human hand. There’s a regularity to the distribution of ink, a severe flatness to the finished plane; the lines are evidently drawn, but such is the precision and purpose of the mark, with no clear beginning or end, point of entry or departure, that it appears as a trick of instant becoming. This completeness within each work acts in harmony with the mathematical process behind their making: a set of finite functions with a fixed eventual end, by definition an algorithm is always complete within itself. Despite there being a visual similarity between many of the plotter drawings – and later pieces also – the works don’t allude to, or suggest, each other; it’s a relationship, not a dependence. At the heart of this relationship is the cube, the familiar geometric shape that has been the artist’s muse for the majority of his career.
A sax man in his youth, Mohr now refers to the cube as his “instrument”, the algorithm his means by which to “play” it, and the result “visual music”. Like a composer or player extemporizing upon a musical theme, he has expanded the materiality of his work, going back to painted canvas, using lacquered and painted laser cut steel, digital monitors and customized computers. While all the time, sculpting the script, finessing the code, adding aleatoric passages, making it meet his needs. One thinks of Steve Reich or Terry Riley, using tape loops and primitive electronics to explore rhythm and repetition, re-adopting traditional instruments when required, following the thought through the form. Over time, Manfred Mohr has followed the cube into six and eleven dimensions – what are termed hypercubes – interrogating their structures and systems, the resulting works two-dimensional expressions of these multi-dimensional objects.
To spend time in one and zero is really to spend time with the cube and its manifold aesthetic possibilities; to spend time with a philosophy that says art and expression can be converted into numerals and statistics – a philosophy Mohr has in many ways critiqued; and with the complex calculations that tie the two together. If anything, he has challenged the limits of objectivity, restoring some humanity to Bense’s original mandate, while avoiding the creator-genius-man-myth so rampant across art history. And beyond the rationalist philosophy and esoteric mathematics, are striking and seductive art objects, abstract geometric images on paper, canvas, metal, and monitor, warmer than LeWitt, more rigorous than Riley, distinct visions of discipline and delight.
The Institute of Jamais Vu, London
People react in extreme ways when contained and restrained by forces outside of their own control. Agitated captives throw themselves hard against the walls. Political prisoners effect demeaning dirty protests. Ingenious inmates burrow with rusty cutlery, a soiled spoon becoming an agent of freedom. All want a way out, to be past the walls, past the containment, through to some other life. To paraphrase and pervert Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punishment, the purpose of prison is “the isolation of the subject from the external world, from everything that motivated the offence, from the complicities that facilitated it.” He goes on, “Lastly, and perhaps above all, the isolation of the subjects guarantees that it is possible to exercise over them, with maximum intensity, a power that will not be overthrown by any other influence; solitude is the condition of total submission.” Let’s allow ‘subject’ to define both the artwork and the viewer, and by some abstraction the artist too. All three are in some way present between the gallery walls, all move inside then out, outside then in, the idea of all three fluctuates, flutters, and flitters from seeing to sightless, unseen to seen. The walls fight to contain such motion, control it and put it in position; “the condition of total submission.” Foucault’s ‘submission’ comes alive here, in this context, realizing the word’s multitude of meanings: surrender and compliance, but also to present and propose, to suggest and make argument. Gallery walls are not prison walls, but the things they contain do lack some control. Walls figure in much of what LU have done and continue to do: they’ve sanded and drilled them (during more conventional moments) revealing the history of hangings hidden beneath blankets of paint; they’ve cut and hacked into them, a structural disturbance both physical and metaphorical; they’ve pissed on them, quoting art history and re-interpreting institutional critique; and they’ve carried one around with them, the ‘MOMA window’ (Delay, 2001) being a wall-substitute, see-through, but a partition all the same. The gallery walls symbolize the confines of the art world, a microcosmic world, separate yet entirely within. To use the walls so often is to draw attention to such blatant artifice. To attack them is to wish the whole enterprise tumble down; that world of assimilation, which blots up one’s woes and puts them back out on display.
Art can offer the viewer a re-framing of the world. Images and objects can become art by being re-framed through art, within an art context. Art, to quote Charles Avery, “is a qualitative attribute, assigned to particular objects and actions at a particular moment in time.” Not every painting is art; some are merely paintings, reduced to their objective objecthood. Some things lose their art status, vigour decayed via time. Other things are rehabilitated through the same processes, reincarnated as objects of authority and import. What makes one thing not the other, what makes the other thing not the one, is the idea of art. It’s an area of high dispute, where perception is key and whatever adds influence over perception – namely context, be it physical, social, ideological, or financial – can bear as much strength as the thing itself being perceived. The Museum of Modern Art in New York City (MoMA) is one of the largest of the contemporary influences over perception; its power is colossal in all four of the aforementioned contextual categories. Recent Acquisitions (2001–present) pushes MoMA’s immense strength into metaphor: power-absolute becoming absolution-through-power. Seen through the glass, everyday views are reclaimed, preserved, made art, made sacred; LU’s two men Crusading out in the world, righteous behavior sans religious sanction. Is a child’s playground art? Sure, ask Carsten Höller. And those plants? Those too, right Broodthaers. That agricultural pasture? Richard Long. And on it goes. Each picture in Recent Acquisitions recalls another artwork, possibly more than just one, possibly some that don’t yet exist. Even the installation evokes other works, diagrammatic photo-studies and meticulous conceptualist stratagems. Sol Lewitt’s On the Walls of the Lower East Side (1979), itself a study of art and authority, comes to mind. Lewitt took hundreds of photographs documenting the nascent graffiti appearing in Manhattan’s LES. Graffiti was about staking a claim, rising above political, social, and financial disenfranchisement to assert one’s right to art and expression, property and prominence. City walls become prison walls become gallery walls, while all the time staying all things at all times. LU’s is guerrilla cultural action, both protest and parade.
Look what art does!
Look what art can do
WORLD OF WORK
‘There’s a piece of work in that’ – a phrase familiar to many art makers in our everything-as-art, art-as-everything time period; scrawled onto napkins in cafés and restaurants; blotted onto beermats in pubs, clubs, and drinking dens; ink leaking through the weave of whichever material is close enough to hand. A spreading of ink, but a fixing of inspiration; semi-permeable paper-substitute better than the untrustworthy transience of ideas in sodden synapses; spit-and-sawdust dreamcatchers for clasping at abstractions. Here, in the work Through and Through (2012), the words themselves are given gravitas, cut in-to and out-of the gallery’s typically white wooden walls. The wall, which like blank paper to the pen’s play of language, acts to host art and artistic gesture. Ostensibly neutral and allegedly free of association, the walls are mute scaffold, not really seen and certainly not heard, an absence, present only by necessity, keeping one world away from the other, an architectural prophylactic guarding against adulteration. The work hacks away at both forms of fabrication: this established pretense scored and splintered, thrown out with the shavings of wood. Geographically, the Institute of Jamais Vu makes this demystification even more abrupt; the gallery having been built in what is essentially a communal living space, looking through (and through) the holes in the wall one instantly sees not art, but life, domestic life, everyday life, ‘real life’ (whatever that may mean). As with Recent Acquisitions, Angle of Incidence (1997), and Trite and Vulgar (1998), the artists claim the work is not the object, or the excavated object in this case, but what can be seen through it and seen within it. Angle of Incidence is a mirror installed in a Leeds pub, engraved with the legend, “Lifelike”, then underneath “100% proof.” Also a mirror, Trite and Vulgar is engraved eponymously, in elegant swirling serif typeface. If the work isn’t these objects – the mirrors, the windows, the punctures in the wall – but what can be seen in them, then what, exactly, is the work? What are we seeing. Who can be seen. Where is this place that exists within and beyond these limits. These concentric mental movements are all part of the work, chasing an image, an image chasing you; intricate helices built into its physically metaphysical structure. Through and Through: thoroughly tiring, tirelessly thorough.
LU works have appeared, smuggled in with cunning chicanery and the misuse of relative financial excess, in the international art press. With Review (1998), the artists took out a full page of advertising space in Art Monthly magazine, using it as a means to display and distribute their work far and wide. Less an intervention, more an insertion, Review didn’t intend to obstruct or disrupt the accommodating periodical, but exist within it, as part of it, inoperable shrapnel still irritant to the host’s body. ‘Insertions’ comes from the artist Cildo Miereles, whose Insertions into Ideological Circuits saw him inscribing political messages onto banknotes and recycled Coke-a-Cola bottles, which would then be washed, re-filled, and put back into the commercial system, this new disfigurement well disguised. Review presents itself as both a review of a work and as the work also, operating in constant oscillation between the two. Dualisms are diluted within one-another and a complex critical concoction poured forth. Here, the disfigurement is the disguise, and the disguise the disfigurement; one thing is disguised as another thing disguised as the original thing, and so on; the disfigurement is mutual, the movement unending. Perpetually circular and judiciously disobedient, the piece generates such a haze of hypotheses that, against LU’s wishes, the editors of Art Monthly were compelled to provided the viewer with an anchor of blatant reference: the word ADVERTISEMENT, alone and emboldened, capitalized in the bottom left corner of the page.
LU works have not appeared in Frieze magazine, some insertions didn’t make it to print. Mid-Atlantic (1999) is an ad for a fictional exhibition at the exact geographical point between New York City and Leeds. It depicts three significant New York art dealers – Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone, and Mary Boone – who are involved with the show. Only it’s not that Goodman, Gladstone, and Boone, but their apparent namesakes: three Northern broads, each throwing a get-together in their home, each awaiting guests, well-stocked with glasses of red wine. You can imagine the parley, in the studio one overcast day –
Barbara Gladstone. That’s a nice Northern name.
Don’t she live cross road?
Nah mate, that’s Mary.
Aye, y’know, Mary Boone.
‘Mary’ and her baggy polo shirt, her too-tungstenized kitchen; ‘Marian’ and the upcoming loft-conversion, Velux already fitted, halfway there; salutary ‘Barbara’ with kid’s toys strewn askew and her homely redbrick frontage; so unglamorous, so not New York, so sodding British. So-sodding-something in fact, that Frieze didn’t run the ad, finding it too bellicose or risqué, and instead censoring it at the last minute. LU have responded with Adrift, an exact replica of that issue of Frieze, with everything save their original ad censored out. The white pages flicker by and by, full of nothing, a heavy nothing; it’s strange. The paper feels right, each sheet between the fingers; strange and uncanny. Then the shipwreck lurches out of the depths one’s daze, and Mid-Atlantic appears, at last, a forgotten image suddenly the only thing in sight. It’s there, in front of you. Three faces and three places, or six of both if you really think about it (they are what they’re not, and also what they are). Disguise becomes demystification, creating an anti-mythology of mimicry, resemblance, and dissemblance. Then it’s gone again, the ad that is, and all we’re left with is the white between our fingers, ever bright inside our eyes.
THE MODERNIST FAMILY
Men in disguise, two men, disguised as more men, disguised as an institution, disguised as parents and progenitors, mummy and daddy dressed up in drag. A counter-cultural art movement and corporate art institution re-interpreted as down-and-dirty prison tattoos, marks of manhood, identity as injury; keep it in the family, even if you’ve long been disowned. Family Values (2003); I’m reminded of an old playground chant, less a song, more an invocation of juvenescent trauma – “Yer dad’s yer mum. Yer mum’s yer dad.” Repeated without end, until tears, teacher, or the appearance of said parents. Dada (the movement) and MoMA (the museum), limbs of the same unknowable body (art), extremities punched out of darkness. Art witticisms played out as prison tat’. Fists are for brawling and bruising, making marks on other human beings; Art is for . . . (don’t go there), and making marks on other human beings. Art and fists; form and force; ideas and the body: tumorous thoughts that need removing, handling, taking away to be looked at. There’s a brawl in the brig, big boys causing a ruckus.
*** First appeared in The White Review (online), December 2011 ***
Artist James Richards appropriates audio-visual material gathered from a range of sources, which he then edits into elaborate, fragmented collages. But whereas his art-historical forefathers favoured a conceptually-driven, emotionally-distanced approach – in the case of materialist film artists like Hollis Frampton and those of the London Filmmakers’ Co-op – or followed an overtly political agenda – like the ‘Scratch’ filmmakers of the 1980s – Richards’ video works are more personal endeavours, seemingly steered by feeling rather than theoretical argument or point-proving. Intentionally insular, his works disrupt narrative conventions, offering little that can be straightforwardly understood. The disparity of his sources betrays an aggressively curious mind – obscure TV clips, scenes from famous films, advertising segments, internet memes and CGI animations are accumulated and redeployed with great precision. The content seesaws relentlessly from the oblique to the clichéd, the mystifying to the mundane. Meaning is generated through abundance, by way of allusion, ellipsis and unity of tone; the lack of legibility counterbalanced by a strong sense of mood.
His recent work at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, Not Blacking Out, Just Turning the Lights Off, sees him add his own material to this characteristic medley of found-footage. In these passages, Richards’ camerawork is deliberately amateur, the camera handled with a lustful belligerence. Whether using cheap in-camera effects or shoving the lens hysterically close to the subject of his regard, the result is a fevered fanaticism, Richards’ desire to capture becoming an assault on the image, the camera akin to a crude prosthetic extension of his body. Sound is used in a similar way, with songs, poems, and spoken segments seeming to verbalise on the artist’s behalf. The volume is shockingly loud in parts, climaxing with the poem ‘Slowly: a plainsong from an older woman to a younger woman’ by American writer and activist Judy Grahn. A curdled lament conducted by the same women at different ages, unable to understand one another across the generations, it is a deeply moving rendition.
A two-channel projection shown on opposing screens and separated by rows of backless benches, Not Blacking Out… shows an astute sensitivity to the sculptural concerns of displaying video works in a gallery. As the video switches from one screen to the other and back again in hypnotic sequence, viewers are forced to turn an awkward one-hundred-and-eighty degrees. This gesture seems confrontational at first, demanding that the audience feel self-conscious and unsettled. But the embarrassment leads to laughter and then camaraderie. The about-turn becomes a communal activity, disturbing the familiar intimacy between a viewer and a film, replacing it with audience rapport.
The gesture is typical of Richards, who uses shared anxiety as a means to stimulate empathy, offering a moment of emotional convergence and exorcising collective fears through vulnerable disclosure. There is a sense of earnest self-discovery in the works, as though he his trying to situate himself, and to some extent his body, within the ceaseless succession of images that overwhelm modern living. They are mantras made public, private petitions to an ever-loudening world. Rather than raise his voice, Richards speaks his mind through the mouths and actions of others; a suitably mediated approach to twenty-first century art making.