Artists talk about creative practice, so I guess I could call my involvement with the art world critical practice? Then I’d say it’s about evolving forms of critical engagement with the arts. So this is part of that critical practice then. Here’s a short documentary I produced and finally published this week.
This was a great chance to catch up with the artist, Hollis who I’d only spoken to via Facebook and email before, and who I knew through some shared music interests. We had a great day together filming and chatting about everything in general. For me, what was nice about this video is that it became a good collaboration piece, where we shared ideas back and forth. For example, I couldn’t get copyright clearance on my first choice for the soundtrack, so we tried some options. Firstly mine, then this final track by Hollis himself. What made the process work was that we were both comfortable telling each other what we did or didn’t like about each other’s choices. Anyway, hope you enjoy the video.
Art, as we all know, attempts to reflect our universe back to us, through a (hopefully) shattered mirror. Superimposed over that mirror, is of course, also a reflection of the artist. In what we can only assume is a pastiche/homage to the blighted concept of artist genius, from the late 19th, early 20th Century, they have their finger on the mystic pulse of modern life. Don’t they?
That’s why we have to honour them and give them freedom to pursue ideas and challenge the status quo, free of the constraints that hold the rest of us plebs in check. Why can’t we all be given an arts council funding for one project, at least? Maybe it should be like maternity/paternity cover? Granting creative freedom to everyone beyond the art world may well result in chaos and utter anarchy – keep up the good work, Arts Council. Implicit in that gift of freedom to artists is of course the unspoken promise that they’ll continue to point out that the world is exactly how we imagined it all along, while we all pretend they’re upsetting the Tory apple cart. Who ever left a gallery or performance and really felt they’d had their world view changed? Exhibitions are nothing more than Trump rallies, riling up the already indoctrinated.
In an era when even COUM are considered worthy of Hull City of Culture support and appear on the BBC News (celebrated, this time, rather than vilified – take that, avant-garde), it seems the only person capable of truly winding people up continues to be old punks like John Lydon, who in a recent interview declared Trump was a good guy. How rude!
“What I dislike is the left-wing media in America are trying to smear the bloke as a racist and that’s completely not true.
“There are many, many problems with him as a human being but he’s not that and there just might be a chance something good will come out of that situation because he terrifies politicians.” – John Lydon
Lydon doesn’t play the accepted narrative we’ve assigned to him, the wanker! Somewhere along the way, we’ve assumed he’s a liberal, Guardian reading, pinko arts lover like the rest of us. He’s the Kate Bush of the 70s. But so is Kate Bush, come to think of it. Why do we struggle so much when artists don’t do as we demand of them, and yet we ask them to think outside of the box and strategise beyond our generic, corporate lives. No wonder they’re confused and struggling to apply for grants.
The art world isn’t nearly full of enough wankers right now: but remember, you get the artists your times deserve. Welcome to your new conservatism.
There are no uplifting, emotional highpoints in Mica Levi’s soundtrack for director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie. As you might imagine from the composer of Jonathan Glazer’s Under The Skin (2013), Mica Levi’s compositions are as much about the unseen, unspoken, as they are about those gleaming gravity wells of emotion that filmmakers work so hard to draw us towards. In Jackie, Levi finds space to further explore those spaces and the subject matter gives over to it so well.
As with Jackie Kennedy’s own, post-assasination life, there’s no release from the existential pain of loss here, and even Tears, at, 54 seconds, refuses to give in to the weight of human suffering. As though it would be too human to reveal emotions for too long. On Walk to the Capital, s the strings suggest a nation sobbing around Jackie, even as she refuses to release her grip on her stoicism under public scrutiny.
The stageplay of Camelot (by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe), starring Richard Burton, was a favourite of the Kennedys. They often played it at the end of the day and in many ways it became a symbol of the Kennedy era. As the only other music in the film, this 1960s soundtrack should feel at odds with the contemporary Mica Levi: yet it feels appropriately juxtaposed with her drone-like compositions. Perhaps this is because there is a subtle hint of the strings from that musical echoed in Empty White House track. The final track on the album, Credits, has short xylophone motifs running through it, hinting again at the Camelot references.
None of which is to say that Levi has merely paid homage to another soundtrack. This is music very much rooted in the performances of the film and echo so much of the underplayed emotional range that Natalie Portman uses in the title role. As has been hinted at elsewhere, as much as the soundtrack is an emotion guide to the film, in the mode of more traditional soundtracks, this one is very definitely a character with a protagonist’s in the film.
It would come as no surprise if Levi’s next soundtrack was for a film set in outer space, (but perhaps one directed by Cronenberg?) Her sliding, drone-esque work marks out the spaces and distances that exist between ourselves and every other human being. The gulf that means we’ll never truly connect, just as Jackie Kennedy in the film never truly connects with anyone else: children, friends or otherwise. Despite there being an intellectual pleasure to be taken from enjoying the Jackie soundtrack, there’s no easy answers for anyone looking for escapism. If Jackie seems to hint at the dying light of one brief moment that was Camelot, it’s hard to imagine a more relevant film and soundtrack for the rise of fascism in Trump’s current Presidency. While some old rockers look to guitar heroes for songs of rebellion, maybe Mica Levi’s strings are the better accompaniment to our dying light of contemporary dreams?
Anders Lustgarten’s Seven Acts of Mercy at the RSC, plays on so many contemporary issues that it’s hard to know where to break them down, weigh their value and place them either as the central tenet of the play, or one of the side issues.
The play, set in present day Bootle and 1606 Naples, draws a line directly from one era to the other. The strongest reading and perhaps the only one possible in contemporary Britain, is that the poor are still being fucked over by the rich and aspirational. A dying grandfather teaches his grandson the value of art, and why it shows us who we really are, while Caravaggio, working on his commission to paint the Seven Acts of Mercy, deals with his own demons and finds friends in unexpected places.
It would be easy enough to place Caravaggio in the role of tortured, great artist. But this Caravaggio is more than a stereotype. He’s also an avatar for Lustgarten, who has his own love/hate relationship with theatre and theatre audiences. (Two typical quotes: “Most people who go to the theatre are sort of beyond salvation.” and “80% of theatre was bourgeois wank.” [Source: Guardian].) Patrick O’Kane’s portrayal brings a strength and desperation to the role that does the writer justice: hitting the dark notes of a gay artist struggling with his demons (or the church’s demons, more accurately). And besides, who doesn’t love a camp scouse accent?
It’s the scouse accent that draws that connecting line to the present day Bootle, where Leon (Tom Georgeson) is trying to teach his grandson the values of being a kind, caring human being, through close study of Caravaggio’s Seven Acts of Mercy. TJ Jones as his grandson Mickey gives a strong, understated performance that manages to hint at an suppressed innocence ready to explode at the injustices at the world.
Georgeson’s Leon is (literally) a dying breed of man that is fast disappearing from Britain. Or at least, being denied any public face in our media. Our current anti-intellectual, anti-expert society seems to have lost pride in the desire for knowledge as an end in itself. Perhaps because we started to think of going to University as an aspirational objective, along with getting our own house and getting that middle-management, white collar job? When Leon and Mickey sit down to look at Van Gough’s The Sower, it isn’t the figure that Leon wants Mickey to understand, it’s the soil that has been turned by hard work and an honest day’s work. Time spent creating and committing to achieving something in the world.
There’s a scene in a food bank that hits hard and, reflecting back a character’s early statement on the virtues of Christianity, you have to wonder how any country or politician that claims to have Christian values would allow such a place to even exist in 2017. And so it must be with older members of the cast. To paraphrase a banner from the Women’s March recently; “I can’t believe I still have to protest about this shit.”
Anders Lustgarten’s The Seven Acts of Mercy is on at the Swan Theatre, in Stratford until 10th February 2017
Wrangler’s new album, White Glue, delivers a refreshing, clean slice of contemporary electronica with lyrics that show musicians are still capable of engaging with contemporary social issues.
From the whip, snap of Stupid, to the robot-voiced Stop, the new Wrangler album, White Glue, is a return to a joyful pulse of electronic beats that you may not have even realised you’ve been missing in synth-based music the past few years.
There’s a clarity and precision to the sounds on this album that suggests the hours of playing live in the studio have allowed the trio to hit their mark and prove what the collaboration between three top musicians (Stephen Mallinder, Benge and Phil Winter) sounds like. Where previous album, LA Spark was a deep dive into the frayed edges of the synthesiser bank, White Glue is purer and even more playful. And it’s this clarity and enjoyment that really defines the whole of White Glue. Even in the name-calling, sweary lyrics of Stupid (with it’s excellent video from Chris Turner & Tash Tung shot at Dungeness) there’s still a pleasure to be gotten from the music.
Tracks like Stop, with its curving bass line and Mal’s breathless call to reduce personal consumerism feels somewhat like a plea to the converted though. Thankfully you won’t hear Wrangler banging out of soundsystems across sun-kissed beaches. Lyrics like, “Stop buying shit that you don’t need,” is less an anthem for a new generation than a reminder that there’s more than one way to live in this society. Where some bands might have gone for the heavy-handed obvious route, Wrangler place the lyrics under a coat of vocoder-treatment. If you want them, they’re there, but they won’t bother you if you don’t want them to. This isn’t a band that goes for the obvious route.
And so it is with Alpha Omega. From the plinking water-droplet-like opening that suggests a track going in one direction to the bass line that kicks in and the robot-voiced lyrics, bringing a low level menace from the speakers, taking it in another direction completely. Alpha Omega feels like the closest to a dance track on the album, appearing in DJ sets in the better quality clubs in the coming months? Hopefully.
Colliding is hypnotic repetition with just a hint of Jean Michel Jarre in there, but played loud is a pleasure at the end of the album. If like me, you’ve got it on random play, it’s worth making sure you set this as the last track. Like a nice cool drink of sparkling water after a bottle of heavy red wine, it clears the palate perfectly. Hopefully preparing your ears for the album of remixes like the recently released Sparked: Modular Remix Project.
Sleaford Mods have always, in their short career, precariously walked the line between fresh, new perspectives on the current music scene and lad culture nostalgia. Their stripped down electronic beats not really fitting in snugly alongside the other pop culture references of many of their 40s something (mostly male) audience (Paul Weller on the next Sleaford Mods track?), but at the same time, there’s obviously more going on than a lukewarm Britannia looking back in anger towards the 90s. Of course, this is part of their appeal. There’s something for the middle-class agit-pop intellectual and the chippy with a chip on his shoulder. But what Sleaford Mods aren’t is anyone’s fools.
If you think you’ve nailed down their schtick, you’ll find they’re already one step ahead of you. With lyrics like those of new single TCR (Total control racing), taking in everything from pregnant mothers, Ena Sharples and the dangers of being a wine connoisseur in a working class world (rioja, fact fans) and the cod-nostalgia of the Scalextrix game TCR of the title and what it means to be a real man, there’s something for everyone.
All of this presented in a deceptively simple video from Simon Parframent, that, like the bands’ lyrics, is more complex and stylish than a first cursory viewing would suggest.
Everyone loves a good blockbuster. And Ai Weiwei at the Royal Academy of Arts from 19 September — 13 December, with a broad and evocative selection of works by the artist, does the job nicely. The curators have selected and presented the exhibition with a fine sense of the ebb and flow of emotions that the works provoke in visitors.
The first space that really resonates at an emotional level is the hall with Straight in it. If you’re unsure of the reason for Ai’s troubled relationship with the Chinese government, then this room’s video and installation explicitly lays that open for you. The twisted rebars (Ai and his team purchased over 200 tons of them, clandestinely) are the remnants of steel used in of sub-standard buildings that totally failed to do their job during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They’re laid out in the hall (in fact, it’s just over 90 tons of them – the RA floors aren’t that strong). The video documentary that accompanies the work is about the earthquake and the corruption in local government that led to the deaths of so many people, including children in government built schools. There are images shown that will stay with you for a long time afterwards.
Elsewhere, A ton of tea* displays Weiwei’s more subtle nuances and his appreciation of texture and sensory playfulness. It smelled beautiful and I couldn’t help nosing in for a good whiff. Which got one of the already twitchy guards on his heels. But frankly I always have that affect on guardians of the gallery.
The range of materials is a joy throughout the well curated show, and there’s plenty of humour (sex toys!) along with the serious work. Each work serves its purpose well, and there’s never any doubt that the material and the form are serving the purpose of the message.
But then again, you could never accuse Ai Weiwei of a hidden agenda. Or subtlety. The videos and the installations (particularly the maquettes portraying his time in jail, under 24 hour surveillance) lay out the troubled relationship of communism and human rights violations in China, while his commentary on contemporary and traditional arts can provoke controversy for, frankly not always the best reasons.
Perhaps we get the contemporary artists that we deserve? Weiwei’s often ham-fisted commentaries have something of the 90s YBA about them: a single punchline that delivers a clear message to even the most jaded (jade: China –geddit?) gallery visitor. But it could be that we need our art to be this blatant and clear cut. We can all get behind his message and nod our heads, stroke our chins and really feel like we’re on the right side of moral outrage. Perhaps Ai Weiwei is art for people who don’t like Banksy.
*Fact fans: At ton of tea is in fact a ton of compressed Pur Er tea with dimensions: 100 x 100 x 100 cm and Art Fund grant of£132,896 [source: Art Fund website ]
Festivals can be lonely events. Whether you’re knee deep in the back end of a tight crowd of music lovers, or sitting listening to a band twisting electronics and drawing out notes that have no right to exist in someone’s throat. Ultimately, all you have are your own thoughts reflected back at you. So it’s important to make sure you find the right stimulation to trigger those thoughts. Resonate does the job, taking place in Belgrade, Serbia: a city with enough architectural glitches and emerging potential to please any digital creative with a passing interest in the haunted spaces of the future past.
Mixing hands-on workshops with talks and live music events in the evenings, it can feel like a hack-fest or hipster party at times. Like many parties, this one is often a slightly shambolic affair. A point that can both endear and infuriate attendees.
All that aside, this year’s festival showed some real signs of leaping forward and getting to grips with its place in the media arts landscape. For one thing, there’s the first official festival exhibition.
The workshops are the thing which gives the festival its focus on creators, rather than, say, curators or critics. Hands on opportunities to work with a range of the more well known figures in the digital world.
Joanie Lemercier and Juliette Bibasse’s workshop on manipulating light to transform reality, took attendees on a journey to discover the mechanisms of our visual perception, coupled with the possibilities of using coding to manipulate reality. In other words, transforming “physical 3D and 2D objects into canvases with an artistic approach.” Elsewhere in the elegant, slick architectural space of Belgrade’s Kinoteka, Andreas Müller was hosting his brilliantly named, “I am a one trick pony, come and learn my trick!” workshop. The blurb promised: “This workshop consists of concrete examples of how to use noise to achieve your dreams, or failing that, make things real pretty.” More power to humour in the digital arts.
Anything that name-checks Guy Debord wins my support, and so it goes with James George and Alexander Porter, with their Exquisite City workshop lasting a full three days. Students captured 3D data scans of buildings using photogrammetry. This information was then joined together to create an virtual city block. The Exquisite City idea, building from the ideas of psychogeography and the practice of Dérive to create a digital exquisite corpse ( an idea originally devised by the surrealists). The final result was like Heironymus Bosch had discovered World of Warcraft.
Curated by Nora O’ Murchú, the exhibition at G12 Hub gallery, The New Black presented pieces from Alexander Porter, Eva Papamargariti, FIELD, Isabella Streffen, NORMALS in collaboration with V3GA, Rick Silva and Sabrina Ratté. The work was a response to a narrative written by O’ Murchú, looking at the alienation of the worker, particularly in the creative industries, where there can often be a blurring of the line between work time and non-work time, when the tools for both are the same artefact. Some of the work in The New Black explores this potential psychosis. A thoughtfully curated exhibition, where the subtlety of work such as Kim Asendorf’s piece is a reminder that the digital doesn’t have to overwhelm and bombard the viewer, to have meaning.
On the official opening night, the music comes from, amongst others Lichen. Ricocheting his sonic sweeps and zen-like audio compositions across the cavern-like ceiling of Drugstore. One of the delights of Resonate is their ability to find the most obscure location for gigs. Drugstore is a seemingly abandoned venue, above what may have been a warehouse or a market place (the outside was almost pitch black on the night) entered up a long metal staircase on the outside. Senyawa deliver what could only be described as an invocation of demons from some obscure hell portal via Rully Shabara’s throat.
Dom Omladine, the city’s most formal music location, seemed incredibly tame by comparison on the other nights. Olga Bell and Emika taking up the cause for women in electronic music (is that even a thing worth mentioning still?). Both of whom also gave talks during the festival.
If you’ve heard Blixa Bargeld’s adverts for the German DIY company Hornbach knows the man has gravitas and vocal scope equal to any German actor (let’s not mention Klaus Kinski). So it’s no surprise that, as the headline act on closing night, the only instrument he has is his voice and a delay machine, and excellent sound man. Taking us out from Earth, across the solar system in a gradual building of Bargeld-made sounds, the result was impressive to say the least.
Fennesz & Lillevan, by comparison, felt like such a mainstream performance, despite the guitar work, electronics and impressive visuals. There’s a lot there but at times, and this is true of much electronica that makes use of guitars, it borders occasionally on prog-rock tropes. Lenhart Tapes, with a mixture of loops, muslim chants and again heavy-metal guitar tropes, is more fun and free, attempting to crash everything together and see what comes out.
Resonate’s development is also the growth and expansion of the digital arts scene. At times chaotically organised and under-funded, it still maintains an air of enthusiasm and self-awareness, always willing to embrace newcomers.
Resonate takes place every year during April, in Belgrade, Serbia.
How do we begin to discuss the black experience in Britain? Sometimes, there doesn’t seem to be a suitable, non-judgemental entry point. Does the discussion begin with racism? Or migration and the loss of homes in countries left behind? And so, we can sweep it aside and deal with it as an historical experience, father than contemporary one. Besides, aren’t other nations doing racism far better than we ever could hope to do? We can point and judge them while blanking out our own concerns.
Perhaps this is a side-effect of the American issues around racism occupying so much of our media awareness? We’re distracted and led to assume that modern day racism is a by-product of the ‘otherness’ we assign to American culture? Something in the post-empire arrogance of Britain that we can look across the water, feeling bemused at those oddities in such a familiar/foreign culture? It allows us to consider modern black culture and racism as something that happens to other people. Maybe the focus has shifted towards radicalism. Racism is always the outburst of confusion when dealing with otherness. And radicalism lends itself so well to that, as it stands outside of nearly all of our social constructs and we can all find something worth despising to justify this new, background hum of racism.
So what’s does Vanley Burke’s ethnographic exploration of British culture at the intersection of Black culture offer? If you want to make work that appeals to everyone, make work that is as personal as possible. It reminds you that we aren’t the unique snowflakes we’d like to be. It also brings a deeper connection between the artist and the observer of the work. By allowing the personal space of his Nechells flat in Birmingham to come into the public space of the gallery, Vanley Burke shares his personal obsessions and observations of several decades of Black/British history.
Burke’s obsessions in this public space, allow for varied responses amongst all the Saturday visitors when I was in the space. In particular a group of middle aged black women and their children. “Your Nan had a radio like that.” Or “look at all those 45s, like grandad’s.”
One of the most interesting things about the exhibition is how very British it feels now, in 2015. Everything belongs to an era when black culture (Burke makes no differentiation between different origins of black migrants, as he wants to only deal with their arrival in this country), rubbed shoulders with British 70s and 80s, feeling at odds, yet in hindsight really sets the aesthetic parameters of that time.
It’s important to understand the context of Burke’s work, and to realise that he was documenting from within the culture he was a part of, rather than being an outsider. His experiences and his work is the natural extension of his own attempts to integrate cultures.
The problem of course, is that there are still moments of racist attrition. Points when the two cultures don’t work with each other. He has photographed anti-racist marches. And of course, the Handsworth riots of 1985. The photographs of children playing aren’t of mixed colours playing together, they’re black children. Burke isn’t a Benetton photographer, after all. He’s exploring reality and allowing the work to exist and let historians decide what the work means.
In presenting Vanley Burke’s work and his own immersion in ‘our’ culture ( which is in fact, a shared blending of many cultures) Ikon gallery reimburses the optimistic racist who might hope for a differentiation of the cultures and a sign-post to alienation and eventual expulsion of the other. The kind that helps recruit each new generation to the shoring up of narrow, irrational viewpoints. At Home With Vanley Burke signposts the differences, while reminding us that we’re all trying to find a way to mix what we already know and understand about our world with the new and foreboding future.
If John Cooper Clark and The Streets had a baby that was raised by Mark Fisher-reading anarcho-punks, it would probably grow up to form the Sleaford Mods.
Sleaford Mods at the Zephyr Lounge, Leamington Spa put on a great show. There’s two support acts with enough distance between their styles to remind you that we live in an era where it’s okay to choose your music references and go on to create your own sound, without having to first decide which counter-culture tribe you’re going to fit into. Anyway, the first support act work the growing crowd. Of which, there’s enough people to remind you that Leamington has some good underground music fans that can get there early enough to enjoy everything on offer. Either that or there were only early buses? The second act, Purple are something entirely different. In a good way (aside: jailbait).
In the same way that to try to understand the riots of a few years ago as purely outpouring of political unrest, is to miss the basic attraction of pure chaos, so it is that focussing on the swearing in the lyrics of Sleaford Mods is to miss the point that there’s also some clever social/political observation shenanigans going on. Both exist in comfortable co-existence. Not necessarily layered, which would suggest that one builds on the other but intertwined and building each other up. Additionally, the swearing feels like a welcome relief and counterpoints the arch observational irony of the lyrics. Of course, lead singer Jason Williamson, in stage persona at least, would argue against any kind of analysis of the band as a critic just trying too hard. Unfortunately, this also makes the band brilliantly perfect for the second decade of the 21st Century. Music wise, you can’t help but dance along. The sound is familiar, but not sampled, with beats but not quite dance music.
A Sleaford Mods gig feels like a riot about to happen. There’s a blokeish tension in the air and plenty of middle-aged, ex-punks who know how to kick off if it needs it. Except they (we?) need to be fit enough in the morning to get up and go to work. These gig tickets don’t pay for themselves you know. But that’s okay, it’s a relief to know that there’s new bands coming along that can inspire that emotion. And for all the Red Stripe drinking, cocaine chopping, fist pumping masculinity that fuels the air, on and off stage, (it’s a timely reminder that blokeish doesn’t mean Jeremy Clarkson), there’s something for everyone.
No matter what you hear about a Mods gig, and no matter how polarising the responses are, it’s important to remember that they’re also sweaty, clean fun. You’ll leave deaf, danced out and laughing. They’ve got more in common with One Direction than they realise.