Friday, 19 August 2011

Just Do It

Just Do It: a Tale of Modern Day Outlaws, a new documentary by Emily James is one of those films which leaves you in turn feeling inspired, fired-up, angry, ready for action, and then guilty that you are not doing enough in your own life to address the issues it raises, realising you do not have the courage of the young people it depicts to do battle with the unfair and unsustainable capitalist system they are fighting. The film follows for a year a group of people (mostly young although one of the most amazing characters is the middle aged Marina whose personal revolution began with a desire to serve everyone tea) involved with the environmental direct action groups Climate Camp and Plane Stupid. Emily’s camera follows her protagonists to the G20 summit in London, to attempts to shut down a coal fired power station, to setting up a camp on a roundabout outside a wind turbine factory in which the workers, threatened with redundancy due to a lack of government funding for sustainable energy, are staging a sit-in, to a suburban village threatened by the expansion of Heathrow, and to the COP15 climate change summit in Copenhagen. It is unashamedly sympathetic to its subjects and their cause.
I guess the reason I felt guilty was that I used to be involved in the protest movement back in the mid-to-late 1990’s, and the film made me realise how far I had travelled from that idealistic anarchist of my youth, who thought nothing of hitching the length and breadth of the country to attend demonstrations and Reclaim the Streets parties. I can’t say I was ever as involved and committed as the people depicted in James’ film, but I believed in it and wanted to do something about it. I truly believed I was part of a generation that was going to change the world.
I want to mention two questions raised during the viewing of this film: one was in the film itself, and one was in the Q and A session held after the screening with the director. The question in the film was put to Marina. She was asked: ‘Do you think what you are doing is futile?’ To which there was a very long pause while she thought about it, struggling deep within herself to come up with an honest answer, which was eventually: ‘well I can’t do nothing. It may be ultimately futile, but I have to do something.’ And it was clear over the course of the film the vast difference in scale between the two sides in this battle: huge global corporations, banks, governments and police forces against a rag-tag (though well organised) fleet of colourful, carnivalesque pacifists. I know who is right. But I also know who is winning.
The second question was put to the director after the showing: ‘how did the arrests and subsequent legal proceedings affect the protesters and did any of them regret getting involved?’ The director replied that one of our heroes, Paul, was arrested five times over the course of the film and spent the following year and a half attending court dealing with the legal ramifications, the result being an increased reluctance to place himself in the line of fire and a dropping off in his activism. She also stated that she thought the way protesters were dealt with in court was specifically designed to demoralise them in just this way. This is the tragic truth when these noble courageous young people challenge the system.
Which brings me back to my own experiences. A number of things led to my own retreat from activism, other than getting older and settling in to a ‘real’ job. I was arrested at a Reclaim the Streets party in Bristol in 1997, which in itself was no terrible thing, I was held in a cell for a few hours until the party dispersed and released without charge, but it did make me a little more cautious. It was at the G8 summit in Cologne in 1999 where the size of the foe became apparent. There were snipers on roofs listening in to conversations amongst the crowd with high powered directional microphones attached to their rifles and huge numbers of police on the streets armed to the teeth. I became quite paranoid. But the final nail was the march against the war in Iraq in 2003, when between one and two million people marched in protest at an unjust and illegal war. The realisation that so many people could say no to something and be completely ignored led I think to the so called apathy many people felt in the next few years towards politics. I justified my retreat as a change of tactic, making the changes in my own life rather than actively going onto the street to protest, I told myself. But really I just became more cowardly.
I understand, as I have experienced it, the feeling one gets in a crowd of people all shouting at the same enemy. It is a constructed situationist moment of authentic life, where the reality of the spectacle is temporarily exposed, yet remains ultimately futile, and it stands in stark contrast to the riots which so recently manifested on the streets of several cities in England, which were of a more spontaneous and ugly spectacular nature. Although I can empathise with the hopelessness of the perpetrators of those riots, I cannot agree with the nihilism of them. Whereas the direct action movement is a positive and life affirming howl against the crimes of global capitalism, the riots which so recently scarred our streets are a direct and logical result of the greed and despair caused by it.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Constellations - Gathering Dust

Constellations, an exhibition on at the Cornerhouse in Manchester until 11th September, brings together four artists who all deal with the ephemeral and the transitory. The exhibition is split over two galleries with two artists in each gallery. The first gallery shows the work of Kitty Kraus and Takahiro Iwasaki. Kitty Kraus shows one piece and Takahiro Iwasaki shows four.

The piece by Kraus, Untitled, is a repetition of a previous work first shown in Berlin in 2008. It comprises of a light bulb encased in ink filled ice which over the course of the exhibition melts to leave a black inky trail on the floor. It sits somewhere between sculpture, intervention, installation and drawing, where the artist controls the initial parameters and leaves the work over time to make itself. Although in itself quite pleasing and fitting the mood of the exhibition it is the least interesting piece on show.

The works of Iwasaki are all mini landscapes constructed from everyday objects. In Out of Disorder (three of Iwasaki’s works are so named) tiny towers and buildings rise out of landscapes of socks, towels, dust and hair utilising the threads and fibres of each material. And in Differential/Integral Calculus the landscape is made up from carved erasers and electrical tape while it is filled with telegraph poles made from technical pencil lead. The works in their materials and subject matter are a metaphor for the human struggle to construct solid objects of permanence in an ever changing natural wilderness. But the fragility of the works and their towers is a reminder that nothing human beings will construct is ever going to last forever, except for maybe the detritus, the socks, the towels, the dust and hair. Just consider the attacks on the Twin Towers in New York, an incident which the work of Iwasaki rather abstractly and unexpectedly brought to my thoughts.

It is in the second gallery of Constellations that, to my mind, the best work is contained: two works by Katie Paterson and one by the best known artist in the show, Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In Earth-Moon-Earth an automated piano plays an altered version of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. For this work Paterson translated a portion of the Sonata into Morse code and transmitted this translation to the moon. The signal was then reflected by the moon back to earth losing some of the information on the way. The version of the Sonata played by the piano in the gallery is the result of this process, with gaps where the information is missing. With this process of reduction Paterson has composed a new piece of music. Watching the ghostly player-piano I found myself wondering: where did the missing notes go? Is there somewhere individual musical notes floating through space waiting to be intercepted by someone or something? How far will they travel? Our picture of the universe is incomplete, just like Paterson’s Moonlight Sonata.

In 100 Billion Suns Patterson replicates a Gamma Ray explosion with a confetti canon and thousands of small coloured circles of paper that look like the residue of a hole-punch. The array of paper on the floor of the gallery resembles a star map with a mixture of dense and thinly distributed patches of colour. The precise physical force of the canon results in a random dissipation of matter resembling the seemingly random dissipation of stars in our galaxy. Paterson succeeds in her use of simple recognisable objects to make us consider the cosmic.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ posthumous contribution to Constellations is a re-showing of his 1991 Untitled paper stack, large scale reproductions of a photograph of the surface of water, an ephemeral moment captured and mass produced, which visitors to the gallery are invited to take away. This work balances perfectly with Paterson’s with its uses of reduction and again random dissemination. The paper is disseminated depending on who goes to the gallery, where they live or choose to exhibit it - if they exhibit it at all. There could be many copies of this image rolled up, sitting in corners, gathering dust. For those that take one, the image is a physical embodiment of memory, a reminder of their visit to this exhibition.

Other than Iwasaki’s all the works on display are the result of some random process instigated by the artist. Choosing the initial parameters and the process, the artists have all taken a step back from the work, allowing the process to unfold of its own accord, thus distancing themselves from the result. Only Paterson’s work directly relates to the title of the exhibition, Constellations, although Kraus’ work could be seen as a drawing of the inky black night sky, but the curators Karen Gaskill and Michelle Kasprzak have succeeded in creating a quietly contemplative exhibition from the work of artists who use the small and the everyday to provoke thoughts of the grand and the cosmic.