Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Birth on Google Street View

In Germany the introduction of Google Street View has provoked an interesting response. As in other countries there are many people not happy about it. Numerous complaints have been made concerning the internet giants’ invasion into the German peoples’ public space. Some, however, have seen it as an artistic opportunity. As reported in the Observer on 28th November (Birth on Google Street View) some very striking images have been appearing on the German streets.

On Hubertusallee in the Berlin suburb of Wilmersdorf a live birth can be witnessed. A woman in a purple dress lies on the pavement, her parted legs, knees up, angled away from the camera, a woman in black cradling her head while a man kneels in front of her holding a small baby aloft. Another man stands a little way off, his left arm raised, right hand to his ear speaking animatedly into a mobile phone. The image looks too clean and carefully composed to be real. The story informs us that no birth was ever reported on this street indicating that this is probably an elaborate piece of street theatre.

To me this looks like a new form of artistic intervention, the clever utilisation of a new tool to create memorable images and disseminate them to as wide an audience as possible. Apparently this is not an isolated incident. Many such scenes have been appearing all over Germany. This is another example of how the internet is changing the creative industries in ways which its designers could not possibly have foreseen. It is also an example of how artists (because I consider the anonymous culprits to be artists) continue to respond to new technologies in imaginative and unexpected ways in order to create new forms of expression and new forms of art.

This is one of those moments where, as one interested in issues of contemporary art, I can only look on in admiration at the intelligence and subversive wit of these performances and say humbly: I wish I had thought of that.

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Journey...part two

Upon his return to Paris Ferdinand Bardamu trains to become a doctor and his life after years of restless wandering settles into a mundane routine. As a doctor in a poor suburb Bardamu continues to see the most hopeless and desperate of humanity, the impoverished, the sick and the dying. Death is ever present, lurking always throughout the entire narrative, death and the fear of living. Journey… is a classically French existential novel.

One other character besides the narrator is in attendance throughout the book, appearing uncannily wherever the narrator goes. He is Leon Robinson. Celine hides his apparent honesty behind several layers of pretence: first there is the pen name Celine, the authors’ real name being Dr. Louis-Ferdinand Destouches; secondly the narrator Ferdinand Bardamu; and finally Leon Robinson. Robinson is Bardamu’s alter ego, the Hyde to his Jeckyl. Through Robinson Celine can act out the fantasies his narrator is too restrained, by class or social standing, to act out. He (Bardamu) despises all that Robinson is, even though he is his closest ally and clearly recognises himself in the character, but he is jealous of Robinson’s freedom. He speaks and acts as the narrator would like to, but is afraid to, and he suffers for him.

Once Bardamu has escaped the war the book begins proper with him as an inmate in an asylum, and it ends with Bardamu running a very similar asylum. This is the cycle of inescapable madness the narrative depicts. Celine is saying, like many writers who experienced the First World War, that the world is mad, as are all those who don’t see this inevitable fact.

The second half of the book centres round a murder plot, first bungled with consequences (Robinson is blinded by his own explosive device as he sets a trap to kill an old woman. He then has to live with the woman running an ossuary as a tourist attraction. Robinson’s only motive for the attempted crime is money) and then opportunistically successful (the second murder attempt has nothing to do with money, more to assuage Robinson’s wounded pride at his initial failure and for the love of a woman) with, eventually, consequences even more dire (he is hounded and shot by his lover). With this we have finally reached the end of the night, and as dawn breaks on the bloody corpse of a man murdered by love, the journey ends.

(Post Script: there is of course a crucial difference between Celine and Henry Miller, a writer who shares similarities of style and language. Whereas Celine’s writing is full of bile and disgust at humanity, Miller’s is full of exuberant joy. Celine is revolted by life whereas Miller embraces all, especially those parts literature had previously tended to avoid.)

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow

One of the advantages of living in a city is its occasional cultural events. One of these has been the recent film festival, a highlight of which was the showing of Sophie Fiennes new documentary on the German artist Anselm Kiefer, Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow, with the added bonus of a discussion with the director after the viewing. For the past ten years Kiefer has been working on a massive sculptural project in the land surrounding his studio in Barjac in the South of France. The film shows Barjac to be a hermetically sealed woodland in which Kiefer has constructed a house, workshops and galleries in which to house his particular obsessions. The film begins with long slow tracking shots taking us into the labyrinth of tunnels Kiefer and his minions have dug out underneath the buildings. Materials and motifs familiar to anyone who has seen Kiefer’s paintings lie seemingly scattered all around: twisted reinforced concrete rubble, folds of lead in the shape of books or lumps of meteorite, broken glass, smashed ceramic pots, mud, dark and earthy colours of red, black, grey broken by beams of natural light filtered through skylights, and on occasional surfaces the scratchy scrawl in chalk or charcoal of words written in the artists’ hand.

For much of this first section the film remains silent other than an evocative musical score allowing the mysterious work to speak for itself. After the meanderings underground the camera takes us up carefully constructed stairs leading outside where towers of concrete and lead stand sentinel, guarding the entrance. We then enter some of the buildings where more paintings and sculptures are housed. Some are large glass houses, bubbles protecting the sculptures from the encroaching landscape of trees and shrubland, others primitive breeze block shacks barely big enough to house the large scale canvases. One is a white room resembling a hospital ward lined with beds whose covers are drapes of lead in the centre of which are indentations filled with water. Above the beds the words “les femmes de la revolucion” and names such as “Cornelia” and “Charlotte Corday”. Are these victims of war? Is this a hospital or an asylum? There are obvious connotations to concentration camps but, as with so much of Kiefer’s oeuvre, this is an over simplification.

The middle section of the film abruptly switches to the artist at work. Kiefer stomps around a canvas laid on the floor slapping glue on it, workers standing by watching, one of whom follows with powdered cement flinging it at the glued surface. Then the artist holding a mechanical switch in his hands attached to chains and a pulley yanks the canvas upright demanding that someone shake the canvas from behind. The cement falls to the floor to expose a beautiful rendition of light breaking through trees. Kiefer implements industrial processes to replicate natural scenes. The roughness of his approach belies the care of his vision. One is reminded of scenes of Jackson Pollock ‘performing’ his action paintings, the difference being Kiefer isn’t performing for the camera, he works with intent and purpose oblivious to Fiennes cinematic intrusion. Kiefer’s work is no artist’s trick. It is real. After watching him work for a while, attaching metal models of battleships to canvases depicting seascapes, we are treated to witness an interview between Kiefer and a respected German art critic. This is the only explanation for the work the film offers, and it is as enigmatic as the work itself. We learn Kiefer’s interest in the sea results from the fact that the chemical composition of blood is the same as that of the ocean, and that an inspiration for his work is boredom, quoting an essay by Heidegger on the subject, “in boredom you are at the base of existence”, and “one becomes conscious of one’s existence when bored.” We also learn that the buildings housing the paintings are a means of stopping the viewer from being able to step back from the work, forcing one to have an intimate relationship with it

After this insight we then switch back to the work itself, and watch Kiefer constructing teetering concrete towers outside. At Barjac Kiefer is constructing a city, a civilisation, but it is an abandoned civilisation of destruction and ruins. The only thing missing from this city are the inhabitants. Who was this civilisation and what happened to them? What is the significance of these idols (the paintings and sculptures) left amongst the ruins? Wandering around these ruins through the eye of Fiennes’ camera lens is a privilege on a par with those first explorers to stumble on the ruins of Mayan cities in the jungles of Central America. If there is one thing we can learn from this film and the work of Anselm Kiefer it is the strength and wonder of the singular human vision. We see what can be achieved by one man with the time, space and resources to pursue this vision. And if anyone dares to ask: what is the point of Kiefer’s work, I answer, you may as well ask: what is the point of anything?

Journey to the End of the Night: part 1

I am writing this about a book I am barely half way through. The book is Louis Ferdinand Celine’s Journey to the Centre of the Night. It is a modern masterpiece, and, although I am new to Celine, it is in many ways very familiar. In it can be plainly seen amongst others Henry Miller, and William Burroughs. Celine is the opposite of Miller who as a citizen of Brooklyn, New York, was drawn to the romance and decadence of bohemian Paris. Journey... (as far as I have read) is the story of a Parisian drawn to the romance of bohemian New York. Miller and Celine were contemporaries. Their paths could easily have crossed on the Atlantic heading in opposite directions. (This is a romantic image and unlikely, but maybe their ships did cross paths and Miller and Celine, stood on their respective decks, saw each other and recognised a fellow traveller, a kindred spirit.) With Burroughs, who admitted to being a fan, Celine delights in creating appalling characters, drawing out the worst traits of humanity: officers, generals, diplomatic attaches, doctors, all of the professional classes on the make, weak people who, having established themselves positions of authority within the cultural hierarchy, are all out for their own selfish ends. Their characters share a lack of sentiment, seeing the naked nature of the human beast.

In the first half of Journey… we have so far five settings: the trenches of the First World War, a mental asylum in Paris, the jungles of colonial Africa, New York, and Detroit. All five are the same, filled with a sprawling alienated mass fighting for survival in hostile surroundings. It is the same battle but with different enemies: mud, madness, disease, poverty, and mechanisation. It is an unflinching take on the fine line between life and death, where the fragile former is maintained only by the fear and inevitability of the latter. And, I have to say, it is all such terribly good fun.

Saturday, 6 November 2010

California Uber Alles

Now, if there is one place on this earth where one can avoid the authentic, California is it. It is the single most unreal place on the planet. I was recently reading about some interesting new developments in gaming technology being developed in Silicon Valley. It appears that the next step in the evolution of 3D entertainment is fully interactive projections. In the ‘90’s the talk was of Virtual Reality, the fully immersive experience whereby the ‘viewer’ enters a computer simulated world. Well, now all the talk is of digital simulacra entering the ‘real’ world of physical reality. Imagine if you will sitting outside a coffee shop with a friend, maybe in the Mission district of San Francisco, when a character from a game you have been playing walks up to you on the street, to all intents and purposes ‘real’. Your reaction to this intrusion depends upon the game. The character could be an agent sent to assassinate you, in which case you dive under the table and shoot him before he shoots you - similarly if it is a war game. On the other hand it could be a mystery game and your task is to discourse with this character to learn a clue which could lead you to the next level of the game. The character could even be an avatar controlled by a rival game player living perhaps in Beijing.

The possibilities for this kind of technology are, like much of California, literally mind-bending. Taken to its logical conclusion we could well find ourselves in a world where all boundaries between physical and digital reality are removed. We won’t know who we are talking to, working for, living with, sleeping with, whether they are ‘real’, digitally programmed, or the avatar of another. If we are to believe Californian software developers our future could be the realisation of a mass schizophrenic delusion. Could be fun.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

Nothing Lasts Forever

Sometime last year I was asked by a colleague to write a short piece to accompany an exhibition she was curating. The exhibition, Not Here Not Now, reflected perfectly everything that winds me up most about contemporary art. It was a vacuous concept that thought itself to be cleverer than it actually was, an empty idea based around the mistaken premise that the title was a double negative, and the exhibition itself contained the kind of work that makes audiences think 'well, I don't get it, so it must be clever', when in fact there is simply nothing to get. So I responded by writing the following piece, intentionally taking a psuedo-philosophical stance, gently mocking myself whilst heartlessly ripping to shreds my colleagues lazily thought through 'concept'. After writing it, and showing it to a couple of friends (who found it hugely entertaining), I decided against presenting it to my colleague for fear of upsetting her, and so it remained unpublished, lying forgotten on my laptop, until now. I do not publish it here to be cruel to my (now ex-) colleague, I publish it as I feel it adds something to the slowly gathering self portrait emerging from this blog.

To posit a proposition is to put forward an idea. To negate a proposition is to step backward, not merely to question but to deny. It is to remove oneself with absolute certainty from the idea being propounded. To negate, it is not enough to question; the idea must be destroyed in a regenerative act of annihilation. There must be a clear cry of No! In order to destroy there must be a thing to destroy. There can be no negative without its corresponding positive; something needs to be to be taken away from. There is no Nothingness without Being.

The double negative does something else. If we take one negation from another we are not, as we may expect, left with a bigger cry of No! Curiously, we find ourselves (as in the case of -2 minus -2) with a double dose of zero. The double negative has the power to create nothing from less than nothing.

With Not Here Not Now we are asked to consider the temporality of an event. The works on display exist only in the gallery space for the duration of the exhibition. The title thrusts us unswervingly to the obvious response of Where?and When? If a work does not exist Here and Now, in my present, how am I to witness it? I could be experiencing a memory, or I may be viewing a mediation, either way these are not the works themselves and are anyway confined to the past. I have to be Here and Now to see and to feel, but no thing can exist in an instant. To exist implies a History. There is no Being without Time. Not Here Not Now is not a double negative, it is but a paradox.

The natural state of all things is to move inexorably toward higher entropy. Things fall apart. All systems break down to smaller and smaller component parts. All is decay. Consciousness is temporary. Awareness is fleeting. The universe contains a finite amount of matter, but the universe itself is infinite. Divide any finite number by infinity and the result is as close to zero as to make little difference. The only thing that lasts forever is Nothing.

Piercing the Membrane – Freedom and How to Cope With It

The veneer of civility holding society together is of a very thin membrane, one that is all too easily pierced, as anyone who has driven a car will recognise. We all know there are rules of the road, and we acknowledge they are there for a reason, and mostly we willingly follow them. But there are times when the rules break down, and our true, ugly animalist nature is revealed.

Imagine driving along a motorway. You see a sign stating there has been an accident and two of the three lanes will close in eight hundred yards. That’s all it takes. That’s all we need for the civilised veneer to disappear. We are suddenly rivals jostling for position, competing for space, stating our individual claim. The ego surges to the surface. I am more important than you. I must go first. The rules don’t apply to me for I am above them. In fact the rules only exist so that by breaking them I will be ahead of the game. Like the legendary captain in William Burroughs’ short story who steals a dress and a wig when his ship starts to sink and marches to the lifeboats shouting ‘women and children first’, we bend the rules to our own unique advantage.

Somewhere else this is wonderfully apparent is the Dartford Crossing. The road widens to ten, maybe twelve lanes for the toll booths where we all diligently queue, taking our civilised turn to expend capital for the privilege of travelling from one side of the Thames to the other. It’s on the other side of the booths, after we have spent our money that the fun happens. The road has to go back from ten or twelve lanes to it’s normal three, and it does this in maybe two or three hundred yards, but, and this is the important bit, there are no road markings telling us which way to go. For a couple of hundred metres we see freedom, and we panic. Normally careful and considerate drivers suddenly forget everything they were taught and raw instinct kicks in. We push our right foot down and race dangerously for the limited space. Three hundred yards of anarchy - a rare opportunity to be responsible for our own actions - and we don’t know how to deal with it. If it wasn’t so funny…it’d be a tragedy. If it wasn’t so tragic…it’d be hilarious.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Do You Know Kung Fu? No? Well, You Can in the Digital Realm

A recent article in the New York Times supplement published weekly with the Observer newspaper (No Budget, No Boundaries: It’s the Real You, Sunday 8th November 2009) discusses the consumer habits of people populating virtual worlds such as Second Life and There.com. The article discloses how during the recession people have continued spending real money on virtual luxury consumer goods such as designer clothes, shoes, and champagne through their avatars, or on-line personas. In fact, as spending in the real world has declined spending in these virtual worlds has increased, with more people looking to simulated universes to satisfy their consumer desires. This online behaviour raises a number of interesting questions, not least of which is: Why are people willing to spend real money on items that have no existence beyond their digital domain? Chief executive of There.com, Mike Wilson, is quoted as saying: “Everything fits; things don’t wear out. The virtual world represents a different value proposition.” (The virtual world is better than the real world?) Couple this with a quote from Mandy Cocke who, when discussing her avatar Vixie Rayna’s online shopping habits, says: “Vixie’s style is a better representation of my true self.”

What does Ms. Cocke mean by ‘true’ self? She seems to be suggesting that one’s sense of self is distinct and separate from the self one projects into the real world, the self seen by others; that one’s true self is not encumbered by economics, or health, or even physical reality. But when one looks at the avatars which populate these virtual realms one sees nothing but tall, muscular men, leggy and curvaceous women, all dressed in designer clothes and draped in expensive looking jewellery, all beautiful and young. The more one looks the more one recognises this world of ‘true’ selves as the world of fakery that is the world of celebrity. Anyone can be a chat show host, or a fashion designer, or a nightclub dj in the ‘true’ world. Everyone is successful and rich. If it is the case that virtual worlds are a better representation of our true selves then our true selves must be greedy and superficial egoists who are suffering from a serious bout of rampant self-denial. Unfortunately, if I was feeling cynical, I might well agree.

Of course, the obvious repost is that the people who populate these virtual worlds do not reflect humanity as a whole. After all, what is the point of a virtual charity, or a virtual literature? (Interestingly, there are virtual artists selling virtual artworks for real money in these worlds, but that’s another essay.) And this is true. But it does suggest that those who are drawn to the fakery of digital universes are those same people drawn to the construct that is Hollywood, as well as the obvious fact that they exist mainly in the affluent nations of the world, are all on some level unhappy with their ‘real’ selves and their ‘real’ lives, and rather than changing these they would rather hide away living blindly in a fake world fooling only themselves. (Oh my god, don’t you see, it’s just like the Matrix!)

A Real Warhol Controversy

Last month the Guardian newspaper reported that Nicholas Serota of the Tate Modern had recently declined to buy a self-portrait of Andy Warhol due to questions over the works’ authenticity (Is this a $2m Warhol, or a fake? Art world sees red over self-portraits, The Guardian, Saturday 5th December 2009). The story proves fascinating reading, providing as it does an insight into the convoluted self-regulation and artificial construction of value within the art world. The work in question is one of a set of ten Red Portraits, screen prints taken from an automatic photobooth head and shoulders shot of Warhol’s instantly recognisable visage. It transpires that an unnamed (in the article) shadowy ‘board’ based in New York have taken it upon themselves to pronounce with authority on the authenticity or otherwise of questionable Warhol works. The board, through its president Joel Wachs, claims to exist in order to protect the legacy of one of the twentieth century’s most famous, and it has to be said valuable, artists from dubious dealers.

The controversy really kicks in however once we learn that the board itself, and the Warhol Foundation to which it is linked, own a large number of Warhol works, and the claim, led by businessman and art collector David Mearns (who owns one of the ten Red Portraits) and art critic Richard Dorment, is that by denying the authenticity of these works the board and the Foundation increase the value of their own cache of ‘real’ Warhols. To be fair to the board they say they are a charitable organisation funding grants for the visual arts through sales of their Warhols, but this does not detract from my interest in the story.

Through his work Warhol challenges the concept of value with regards the work of art. He purposefully blurs the lines of authenticity by delegating production to employees of his Factory as well as using methods of mechanical reproduction. With regard to the Red Portraits, the story of these is known. They were made from an already existing acetate which Warhol gave to an associate, who then outsourced the production of the screen prints to an outside firm. Warhol is said to have approved the finished works, and they do indeed carry his signature. I find myself agreeing with the critics mentioned in the article who are said to find “the idea of a ‘fake’ or ‘genuine’ Warhol to be almost meaningless.” This is perhaps Warhol’s most important artistic legacy.