Monthly Archives: May 2015

Art, and Science, and ……?

I was in London yesterday to give one of five short talks at Central St Martins as part of the London LASER series. (Our Chair was Barbara Hawkins, who organised the evening, her partner and co-founder of Project Dialogue the scientist Brett Wilson, together with four artists – Helen Pynor, Simon ReadShelley James and myself).  This was part of an international series of informal talks at the intersection of art, science and technology in association with Leonardo ISAST.

Apparently Initial feedback has been really positive. To our presenting a collection of talks covering a range of disciplinary perspectives and practices. (There was some tweeting, so if you use twitter search under the hashtag #LondonLASER to find comments and pictures). The event was recorded on video and the videos will go online in a week or two. I will let you know when they go live. They will be available in the archive section at http://londonlaser.net

Going through my email this morning I noticed links to a couple of short films that struck me as resonating with the presiding spirit of our presentations the evening before. The first is a little talk: Blood sweat and ears: Musical pathways | Laura Veirs and Tucker Martine. I’ve been a bit of a fan of these two for years, hooked initially by Laura’s geologically informed songs on Carbon Glacier and Year of Meteors and Tucker’s work with her using unorthodox (from a folk/blues perspective) musicians and production work. 

The second film relates to the work of my friends Harriet Tarlo (poet and university teacher) and Judy Tucker (painter and university teacher). The filmmaker Annabel Court has made a short film about a place where they’ve been working together, which gives a context to their collaboration. This can be found at https://vimeo.com/84864272

Enjoy.

Some thoughts on multiple lifeworlds: identity, culture & politics (2nd version)

Shortly after I’d posted this I opened today’s Guardian and found Neal Ascherson’s article Independence day has already dawnedSince it relates to much of what I’d written, it seems sensible to amend what I’d written earlier so as to take account of some of Ascherson’s comments. 

I find it a bit odd when someone gives themselves a monolithic identity – as in ‘I’m English’.  This may be because I was born in London, had a Scottish grandmother, spent my childhood in Kent, Dorset, and Inverness-shire, took my degrees in Leeds and London, now live in Bristol (while spending part of each summer in County Durham), have working links to Europe (the Netherlands and the Irish Republic recently), carry a British passport, and am close to good friends in the USA and Australia. Or it may be because I understand myself as inhabiting a polyverse, one in which it makes no more sense to think reductively about identity than to try to configure my lifeworld as a monolithic ‘life-as’.

Whatever the the case, I wonder if I’m the only person to sense something weirdly indicative about Sarah Lucas representing Britain at the Venice Biennale, given the political situation in Britain following the election?

It seems to me that Lucas, along with Tracy Emin, has always been a poster girl for a particular cultural position – the knowing metropolitan ‘bohemianism’ of the YBAs if you like –  that is highly specific to London and the South East, while presenting itself as something much more ‘representative’. (If that seems too big a generalisation, think about what might have been if their cultural sensibilities reflected the urban worlds of, say, Cardiff, Glasgow, or even Newcastle. If they’d been working in those cities – famous for their Hen Nights and heavy drinking, in-your-face party girls – their work would almost certainly had other elements in the mix, other specific cultural and historical traces entirely absence from the bland literalism that signifies so much of the YBA’s work).

But why place Lucas in the political context thrown up by the British election, given that the critic Laura Cumming writes that at the Biennale her work “stands out purely by having no political content whatsoever”? Because, as Ascherson points out, the question of ‘Great Britain’, of “how to save the union” is now quite simply meaningless because “the 1707 union between England and Scotland is already dead. As a piece of architecture, it was abandoned in 1999, when the devolved Scottish parliament met” … “Today, what exists instead is a constantly changing set of relationships between London and Edinburgh, confused by feeble constitutional wheezes that arrive too late”. So what exactly is this notion of a cultural ‘British-ness’ that Sarah Lucas is supposed to be in some sense representing? In my view it’s a political slight-of-hand we’d do well to dispense with.

What is increasingly clear about the rise of the SNP is that, while in one sense it can be said to represent a ‘Nationalist’ politics (although not, I would suggest, in the narrow sense that Plaid Cymru does because of the issue of the Welsh language). Rather it is intended to deliberately evoke an alternative set of social values. In short, the SNP is in large part about contesting the assumptions of the two traditional mainstream parties, for whom both the Westminster status quo and the economics of austerity are simply taken as given. My feeling then is that Sarah Lucas represents ‘Britain’ in very much the same way that the recently elected Tory Government does. That Government, as Ascherson notes, is now working from the presupposition that: “Westminster is well on the way to becoming an English parliament anyway. As Michael Kenny writes in his book The Politics of English Nationhood, ‘As an unintended consequence of devolution … an increasingly Anglicised polity has quietly emerged as an incubus at the heart of the UK state … the Westminster parliament is gradually evolving into an English-focused one'”. And an England that, increasingly, is identified by those in power with the City of London and the South East.

I’m suggesting then that both Lucas’ art and the Tory party ideology are, in their different ways, inseparable from a tacit understanding of an anachronistic and exclusive ‘English-ness’ dominated by a particular (and particularly arrogant), set of parochial cultural and economic presuppositions that regard London and the South East as ‘the heart of Britain’. (As Lucy Lippard observed in The Lure of the Local (1997): “The urban ego is in fact parochial; New Yorkers (like Parisians or Bostonians) are among the most provincial people in the world” I would argue that this is equally true of the London art world). I see just that kind of provincialism reflected in much work by the YBAs (now not so young, of course), and by the fact that Lucas was one of 200 public figures who signed a letter to The Guardian opposing Scottish independence in the run-up to the referendum. That stance, after all, was really little more than a reactionary denial of the different values that let those living in Scotland to reject Tory ideology.

Whether my view is justifiable depends, in no small part, on whether you think the SNP is primarily motivated by the nationalism that socialism still tends to reject out of hand. (Notwithstanding that it is capitalism, and not socialism, that dominates the global stage). Personally, and as Nicola Sturgeon has made very plain post-referendum, I see the SNP as first and foremost an anti-austerity party that, in the name of those living in Scotland, rejects a political and cultural status quo that sees the term ‘Britain’ as largely referring to an ‘England’ that presupposes the superiority of the South east – of London and the Home Counties. (Ascherson appears to share this view, writing that Sturgeon’s “nationalism is instrumental rather than existential: independence as the means to social justice and prosperity, not the end”).

Acknowledging other lifeworlds

I first came across Lois Williams when she was studying to be a teacher at Goldsmiths College in 1975-6. (My wife studied there the same year). However, I only really registered her work when it was included in the New North exhibition at Tate Liverpool in 1990. Later I read the exchange between Williams and Iwan Bala in his Certain Welsh Artists: Custodial Aesthetics in Contemporary Welsh Art (1999). My interest in her work is part and parcel of a wider interest in the cultural mechanisms that ignore and suppress lifeworlds that do not conform to the presuppositions of the status quo; that reduce them to monolithic identities or a ‘life-as’. Cultural work that opposes those mechanisms is what animates my interest in the Irish artist Deirdre O’Mahony and the farmer and and performer artist Ffion Jones, both of who I mentioned in my last post, and in projects like Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s The Event Of The Thread

It is sometimes said that ‘comparisons are odious’ but, thinking about social tensions as articulated in contemporary politics and culture in the UK recently, I can’t help ponder the differences between Williams’ A Living Position (1997), Lucas’ Au Naturel (1994), and Tracy Emin’s My Bed (1998) – all of which use found objects located within a bed-like space.

Williams’ contribution to the chapter co-authored with Iwan Bala seems to me to set her apart from the values of the ‘British’ (in actuality ‘South Eastern English’) art world of which I’m suggesting Sarah Lucas’ work is indicative. In that chapter Williams writes: “I have always been interested in the parallels between art and farming” (Bala p. 142), something I cannot imagine a contemporary ‘English’ artist saying. Equally ‘un-English’ (in the reductive sense I’ve indicated) is Williams’ willingness to teach for many years in a secondary school in Sheffield while practicing as an artist, part of her clear sense of the importance of maintaining her links with Cefn, St Asaph.

Nothing could be further from the cultural presuppositions that inform Tracy Emin’s My Bed that, with its overwhelming emphasis on the artist as isolated individual – the stained bed sheets and litter of condoms, period stained pair of knickers and personal everyday objects. That work seems to me to stand as an embodiment of the preoccupations of those YBAs who evoked the reductive hedonism and consequent anxieties of the culture of possessive individualism. A culture predicated on the consumption of a  ‘quasi-bohemianism’ as fundamental to the ad-man’s focus on consumption, sex, and identity conceived in terms of money as a route to a rampant individualistic exceptionalism (to celebrity, to put it at its simplest). Both Tory politics and the art world that sends Lucas to ‘represent Britain’ in Venice can only maintain power and status by ignoring or marginalising alternative, less reductive, values.

What in my view links the work of Lois Williams and Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s The Event Of The Thread is precisely what is absent in the work of Sarah Lucas and Tracy Emin. Both Williams and Leighton-Boyce are, it seems to me, centrally concerned with the specificity of community and place as these are constellated in and through a particular taskscape. In short, they understand that working relationships, rather than leisure and consumption, as the formative element in social identity. In Williams’ case the relationship  of the Welsh farmer to the land farmed and those whom it feeds, and in Leighton-Boyce’s the traditional relationship between cloth manufacture, place, weather, the act of stretching woollen cloth on tenter frames, and their resilient trace in language despite massive social change in areas such as the Rossendale Valley (also known as the Forest of Rossendale) in Lancashire. To work out of that understanding is already to act politically – not as a metropolitan provincial but as someone conscious of being placed in the multiplicity of relationships that Felix Guattari characterises as constituting ecosophy. Which is why just how we approach creative work has everything to do with issues of multiple lifeworlds, identity, culture, and politics.

In Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s book documenting and celebrating The Event Of The Thread, there are two photographs of her spinning wool (one publicly, outside the Robin Hood pub in Helmshore, the other on the great wheel at Helmshore Mills Textile Museum). For me these are extraordinarily resonant in a variety of ways with elements in both Ffion Jones’ performance Dear Mike Jagger – in which she span wool in order to enwrap a ram’s skull – and with Lois Williams use of wadding in works like Journey (1989) and A Living Position (1997). These acts and traces of acts, taken together, evoke the constitution of a weave of resonances that speaks of the interdependence of social, individual, and animal tasks capes; of a mycelial mesh of place, activity and identity, that in turn evoke a sense of cultural – and ultimately political – value utterly at odds with both a reductive Tory ideology predicated on the global economic bottom line and the maintenance of existing wealth and power, and with the values of the London-based cultural mandarinate that sent Sarah Lucas to represent ‘Britain’ at Venice.

 

 

 

Some creative work currently on my mind …

There are a lot of worthwhile ongoing projects that people are pursuing out there. For me these include work by:

Reiko Goto and Tim Collins, environmental artists who have been working together since 1985. They are currently taking the Black Wood of Rannoch, the most significant Caledonian pinewood in the southern highlands, as the focal point for a creative inquiry. Working from within the tradition of environmental art research, they are working to contribute ideas to our understanding of cultural ecology and the value of native forests by developing: “artworks and narratives that reflect the experience and understanding of the visual/sensual and the social/cultural aspects of an ancient semi-natural forest. What has emerged during a deep reading of that place and its history is an understanding that historic land use and political conflict have shaped an ancient forest, resulting in an ecologically robust yet semi-natural current condition. However the cultural content and public interest one would expect to find in relationship to a historically important remnant native forest of Scotland is largely missing. The recovery of that content and interest was the focus of this research. This work contributes to ongoing discussions abut cultural ecology and cultural ecosystems services and their assessment”.

Having started my working life teaching painting, I don’t see the hardline division between ‘traditional’ and ‘new’ art forms on which so many critics, curators and art historians have built careers.  So I still have a very real interest in certain ways in which the tradition of painting continues to be adapted so as to meet the needs of understanding our contemporary world. One such adaptor is Samira Abassy, who has been producing highly original and telling work for many years, including her recent series CONFLICTING NARRATIVES: SERIES OF ETERNAL WAR. She will have an exhibition entitled LOVE & AMMUNITION at the Rossi & Rossi gallery in London from June 4th – July 10th.

Over the past few months I’ve been having regular conversations with Luci Gorell Barns. Luci writes, and makes paintings, books, maps, and animations that revolve around ideas of connection and belonging. She often collaborates,  seeing her work as located in a community of practice that extends across disciplines. A fascinating current collaboration with her sisters – called THE STINGING NETTLE GANG – is both typical of her work and an interesting counter-point to the work she does ‘alongside others’ – for example CARTOGRAPHERS OF COMPASSION: COMMUNITY MAPPING OF HUMAN KINDNESS.

At present I’m acting as an initiator/consultant on a project being developed with an old family  friend – Sandy Schott – who recently moved to Simonsbath (located pretty much in the heart of the Exmoor National Park) – and two young artists Miriam Mallalieu and Liam McLaughlin. I first met Miriam and Liam when they were studied with Mary Modeen at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design and we reconnected when they moved south recently. I’ll report back on this as it develops

Other highly creative people I’m been in dialogue with and whose work I’ve been talking about in recent presentations at conferences include the farmer and performer Ffion Jone (based in mid-Wales); the environmental artist Jethro Brice (who is about to start a PhD with Bristol University); the West of Ireland artist Deirdre O’Mahony (who has recently started a new SPUD residency at The Workhouse Union, Callan County Kilkenny; the ethno-musicologist, folk singer,maker Lucy Wright (based in Manchester), who is also a member of the Nest Collective; and the Sarah Rhys, who is currently artist in residence at the Joseph Herman Art Foundation, Cymru (see below).

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I have discussed Deirdre’s work, and some of the concerns that I would see as linking all the people I’ve mentioned here, in an article to be published shortly by the Canadian Journal of Irish Studies.

 

‘When Dracula is put in change of the blood banks….’

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OK, so maybe it’s overstating things to suggest that putting Michael Gove in change of the British Justice system is like putting Dracula in change of blood banks. But then again maybe not by very much.

This is, after all, the man whose ideological interventions into the school system were the most blatantly reactionary and ill-informed imaginable. If we needed one single clear indication that Britain is now an ideologically-driven and increasingly authoritarian State, having Gove in charge of Justice is just that. More soberly, there are of course hard facts that support the claim that we are moving towards an undemocratic and increasingly authoritarian State. We now know from the Electoral Reform Society that the UK 2015 election has just delivered the least democratic electoral result in British history (at least since universal franchise), with almost 25% of elected MPs holding seats that they would not be eligible to occupy if we had a properly democratic system that genuinely represented the views of British voters.

So genuine Democrats in our increasingly undemocratic State now need to work for proportional representation. (Like 1.15 million others who voted Green, I am represented in Westminster by just one MP, despite the fact that in Great Britain Green voters represent about 10% of the total population eligible to vote). I have been following the debates on Facebook about this question of representation, but I would still argue that having to live with BMP or UKIP MPs in a government elected by a system of proportional representation is preferable to the politically numbing anachronism that is the current status quo.

However, as numerous observers have already noted, getting the entrenched political parties to agree to proportional representation (or, for that matter, newspaper proprietors to accept limits to their political influence) will be like getting turkeys to endorse Christmas. So the question each of us faces is obviously “What else can we do”? And, given my own interests and concerns, I have to ask what can those of us with high investment in cultural capital do?

I have written elsewhere in this blog about the importance of George Lakoff’s work. My thoughts there, and indeed in many other entries, amount to what I hope are real indications of what the arts need to do in order to contribute to the creation of a more ecosophical, more democratic, society. Like many others, I suspect, all I can do is keep working along these lines, with and for others, even when this requires living with the increasingly uncomfortable cognitive dissonances that are the inevitable consequence of accepting that we live in an unstable and often uncomfortable  polyverse. Given the consequences of the reaffirmation of the current order, particularly for those without their health, or the social and cultural capital to resist the tide of authoritarianism that is increasingly engulfing them, that’s maybe not too much to ask.

As if to round out this post, my friend David Walker-Barker has just added the image below to his Facebook page.

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Winner takes all? Re-greening democracy to overcome the culture of possessive individualism

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It’s hard to write anything positive in the wake of the election results this morning.

Although the final results were not all in as I write this post it’s very clear that, once again, a tired and morally bankrupt status quo has managed to perpetuate itself by playing on the fear and manufactured ignorance of a large part of the electorate. It no longer matters whether this manifests itself via the Conservative mainstream, its supposedly ‘down-to-earth’ UKIP shadow, or a Labour Party that has become little more than Conservativelite. What is very clear is that we are seeing the triumph of the culture of possessive individualism epitomised by Margaret Thatcher’s “there’s no such thing as society” – an ideology that has managed to play on a multitude of fears to ensure that the rich will continue to get richer and the sick, poor, and the majority of young people will suffer further as a result.

To put this in perspective, it’s worth looking at the Executive Summary of a report published by Church Action on Poverty, The Trussell Trust and Oxfam in June 2014. This points out that, while the UK is the seventh richest country in the world it is increasingly deeply unequal. The richest 1% owns the same amount of wealth as 54% of the population. Furthermore the 1,000 richest people in the country saw a 100% increase in their wealth in the past five years and, of course, are now set to see this growth continue while the millions of families in the UK living below the breadline see their situation worsen. The report notes that Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty calculate that in excess of 20,247,042 meals were given to people in food poverty in 2013/14, a 54% increase on 2012/13. Add to this that “more than half a million children in the UK are now living in families who are unable to provide a minimally acceptable diet” and you get a very clear sense of just what Margaret Thatcher’s much vaunted “return to Victorian values” has meant in practice.

In the run up to the election the Tories have argued that they have increased jobs, yet “despite their best efforts, many people cannot earn enough to live on”. The report points out that:

“UK food prices have increased by 43.5 per cent in the eight years to July 2013 and food expenditure as a proportion of total household expenditure has continued to rise. The UK has one of the highest levels of housing costs in Europe, while between 2010 and 2013 energy prices for households rose by 37 per cent. At the same time, low and stagnant wages, insecure and zero-hours contracts mean that for many low-income households, the money they are bringing home is less every month than their essential outgoings”.

The summary adds: “Evidence shows that changes to the social security system are a driver of food poverty. Cuts to social security since April 2013 have had a severe impact on poor and vulnerable families across the UK. These cuts have been coupled with an increasingly strict and often misapplied sanctions regime – 58% of sanctions decisions are successfully challenged”. This is both evidence of the punitive ideology driving Tory policy, and indicative of the fact that “many people needlessly suffer a loss of income through no fault of their own. The abolition of the Social Fund has prevented thousands of households from being able to access crisis loans. The Trussell Trust, the largest food bank network in the UK, estimates that 49 percent of people referred to food banks are there due to problems with social security payments or because they have been refused a crisis loan”.

And the ideologically-driven war on the poor, sick, and marginalised that these facts and figures represent will now be intensified.

On the positive side, however, the election has meant that the Liberal Democrats have quite properly been wiped out as a credible political party. They have paid the price for the cynical betrayal of their electoral pledge on education last time round and for propping up of a Tory Government hell-bent on delivering a punitive austerity programme that is as unethical as it is unnecessary. As I write the Liberal Democrats have received just 1% of the total vote – in contrast to, for example, the anti-austerity Scottish National Party’s 9%. In this context it’s worth reflecting on comments made by Caroline Lucas, who won Brighton Pavilion for the Greens on an increased majority.  Ironically, in noting that “almost a million people voting Green” she is echoing UKIP’s Mark Reckless in pointing out that the results have shown “the political system in this country is broken”. She adds: “it’s ever clearer tonight that the time for electoral reform is long overdue, and it’s only proportional representation that will deliver a Parliament that is truly legitimate and better reflects the people it is meant to represent.”

So the choice is clear. If anything like a representative democracy is to be restored to these Isles, the unrepresentative system that sustains the current toxic status quo must be dismantled. But of course I’m hardly neutral in all this. My daughter – subject to a long-term chronic illness and denied medicines that would help her – is in the front line of the Tory’s ideological war.

For her and her friends the results of this election are not simply profoundly depressing, they are potentially lethal.

The party ‘for working people’?

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In the run-up to the British election today, the Tory party has been frantically presenting itself as the party for ‘working people’. The image above helps to demonstrate exactly who the Tories are really ‘for’!

“Global Crisis – War, Climate Change And Catastrophe In The C17th”

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Perhaps as an unconscious way of preparing myself for the UK’s pending General Election – we vote on Thursday of this week – I have just started reading Geoffrey Parker’s monumental book Global Crisis – War, Climate Change And Catastrophe In The Seventeenth Century (2013). And I’m not using the term ‘monumental’ loosely since the main body of the text alone is 708 pages long.

This is a history of genuinely global scope, and one based on an astonishingly detailed and wide-ranging reading of human and natural archival material from across Europe, Asia, Central America, and the Far East. In addition to the many and diverse elements that make up the human historical archive – Parker lists oral histories, written texts, reported numerical information, pictorial representations, epigraphic or archaeological information, and instrumental data –  he draws on the ‘nature archive’ of ice cores and glaciology, palynology (pollen and spore deposits), dendrochronology (growth rings in trees),  and speleothems (deposits formed by groundwater as stalactites). It’s not easy to summarise this book’s various aims, but put very simply it challenges the presupposition of generations of historians who, like Emanuel Le Roy Ladurie, have dismissed the consequences of climate change on human affairs as ‘slight, perhaps negligible’. That’s to say it sets out “to link the climatologists’ Little Ice Age [1640s – 1690s] with the historians’ General Crisis” that occurred during the C17th.

So for anyone interested in encouraging the formation of ‘hydro-citizens’ today (as I am currently signed up to be, although the term ‘hydro-citizen’ already seems an unnecessary limitation on the more appropriate notion of eco-citizenship), then I can see that this is going to be an important book.

Long and detailed this book may be but, even before I’ve finished the Prologue, it has me completely hooked. In addition to the interest of its argument itself, it is clearly going to be a book that anyone who understands the epistemological implications of Felix Guattari’s notion of ecosophy for the explanatory power of narrowly discipline-based approaches such as ‘economic history’ (and, of course, has the necessary time) should be sure to read. Although I’m only twenty pages in I’m already aware of the many ways the global situation during the Seventeenth Century bristles with ominous resonances with our own current situation.

Some visual work under way …

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I’ve not been adding much to this blog for quite a while because, apart from the usual stuff noted in the last post, I’ve been trying to pull together some visual work that I began about three years ago. The sense of this project has been slow to emerge, and at present it’s provisionally called: Remembrance (Debatable Lands) and may finally turn out to be the conclusion of the Debatable Lands project that I began in 1999.

To date the material consists of a sequence of initial images – many based on on a series of drawings/installations made in the studio – along some of my landscape photographs from the Borders. Each of these square images is then given a ‘heading made up of an additional pair of images. These have been made from a combination of ‘found’ and my own photographic images. I’ve now got to the point where these have all been brought together as a series of thirty two digital collages. Each of these composite collaged images (see examples) will be digitally printed, worked over in various ways, scanned and, when this process of alteration and re-scanning is completed, “bagged” in some way – perhaps with other small objects – to form a sequence of object/images.

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