The Event was an arts festival organized by a committee of local artist groups that took place in early November around the Eastside area of Birmingham. Rather than run through what the festival comprised of or give an impression of the city’s arts community represented by it – this can be found on the website http://the-event.org/ – the following will try to articulate what The Event said about artist-led initiatives and which of its disparate parts seemed most effective during the writer’s brief visit.
The primary significance of The Event lay in it being artist-led. But what does ‘artist-led’ mean, and what’s so good about it? In order to know it might help to define when festivals are not artist-led. Firstly, it is when they are curated, like Jan Verwoert’s Art Sheffield 08. This is when a well known curator is flown in to fashion a city’s art in their own image, which is fine if you want to know what Jan Verwoert thinks, but not so good if you want to know what kind of art is being made in the city, or if you want your artworks to have some independent criticality. Art Sheffield 08 took Verwoert’s essay ‘as its foundation’(1), functionalising most of the art into illustrating his thesis. Other non-artist-led events are commercial art fairs like last month’s Frieze. This is art in the entrepreneurial spirit: the galleries aren’t too bothered about how the work is presented or the aesthetic experience of the visitor because the artworks aren’t really there as artworks but as commodities. Thus the artworks do have a certain uncontexualised autonomy, but they function all the same. Of course, having made these comparisons, it must be said that artist-led initiatives are always to some degree curated and for sale. And despite the commercialism of large-scale exhibitions like Frieze, they are increasingly geared to a non-collecting visitor.
But at heart the good thing about The Event being artist-led is that the art is more or less art and not something else, not an item to be exchanged and not an illustration of some demiurge’s grand theory. One result of this ground-up working is a happy heterogeneity of the festival’s parts that resists totalizing concepts and forces things to be seen on their own terms. Another is the possibility for artists to try things out and make mistakes because works are not curatorially rejected or curtailed by commercial demands before they reach presentation; as we will see, however, this did not happen at The Event as much as it could have done. Although they don’t need to argue for their work’s inclusion, we find that the often awkwardly-written texts by the artists do just that; without curatorial commendation they seem to have to ‘cure’ themselves. Boris Groys:
‘It is obvious that an individual artwork cannot assert its presence by itself, forcing the viewer to take a look at it. It lacks the vitality, energy, and health to do so. In its origin, it seems, the work of art is sick, helpless; in order to see it, viewers must be brought to it as visitors are brought to a bed-ridden patient by hospital staff. It is no coincidence that the word “curator” is etymologically related to “cure”: to curate is to cure. Curating cures the powerlessness of the image, its inability to show itself by itself.’(2)
The artist-led initiative should be an opportunity to correct this, to present art that does indeed self-sufficiently ‘show itself by itself’. But it often seems, to continue Groys’ metaphor, that the bed-ridden patient will say they’re feeling better – making up something in artspeak – so they can get discharged and go back to work. Ideally, shouldn’t they say nothing and smash their way out like Chief Bromden?
John Hammersly’s contribution to The Event could be seen as working with this problem (art and its publics, not schizophrenia). It consisted of advertising himself via posters that read ‘This is an invitation to dialogue’, then standing at a pedestrian crossing of a dual carriage way, in the wind and rain, from 9 until 5 on Friday, waiting for people to take up the invitation.
The performance appealed for two reasons: because the discourse usually employed to justify artwork, in Hammersly’s piece, is the work, blurring theory and practice; and because of where it takes place, that is, the middle of a busy road, which has multiple semantic effects. Being one of the least conducive places for a conversation – although to be heard above the traffic noise forced some intimacy – meant that the content of speech was sometimes lost. This in turn adumbrated the image of dialogue and went some way to undermining the portentious conceptual conversations of someone like Ian Wilson, the work’s most clear antecedent.
Moreover, this was talk in what could be called a non-place as Marc Augé defines them (3), somewhere that inhabitants normally pass through, without territorial allegiances, in which they locate themselves ‘primarily through relations with words’, where texts take the form of ‘signs conveying instructions for use’; the critical difference here being that the imperative functionalism is swapped for the speculative.
Another kind of non-place, a virtual one, was the original locale of an exhibition curated by the artist Mona Casey. For The Event, what she had put together to appear digitally on the Axis website was put together as a real exhibition in the corner of an empty warehouse. Apparently this was ‘an attempt to re-address and question the mode through which the original exhibition was chosen’(4), but I couldn’t see why that was significant, or how the move from virtual to actual space related to the stated curatorial sentiments of the ‘political’ with respect to ‘deterioration’.
The works selected were indeed (generally) representative of the sentiment, and some were internally rich enough to survive it, like the large relief print of a riot outside an Ikea store by Ryan McCelland. This was arresting partly because heavily-worked traditional technique was used to depict the traditional critical equation between mass consumerism and societal breakdown: what was this saying about the (un)timeliness of the position? It also seemed to make no reference to the seminal and actual Edmonton Ikea sofa riots of 2005, or if it did, what was the significance of the differences (e.g. here the rioters are all white, apparently middle-class suburbanites)? It was this uncertainty, or a perhaps faltering, that made it intriguing.
The other effective work in this group, if for opposing reasons, was by Stephen Felmingham: a blotchy drawing of what appeared to be jungle grown over crashed aircraft, seen from above, called Dying God. Although the title perhaps too easily confined it to interpretations of failed imperial efforts, or of the natural reclaiming the mechanical, its power rested on the melancholic delicacy of the drawing.
Elsewhere, as part of collective Crowd6, an artist called Steve Varndell presented works made out of a pre-occupation with esoteric numerical systems: digitally reworked paintings of monarchs, benches to look at them on, and also a page in a magazine warning that in the future colours ‘will be described using the Hexadecimal RGB system.’ The line seemed to be that counting in alternate ways to the decimal on which everything operates might have world-changing consequences; I couldn’t see that this was born out in the works, but they did suggest questions of mathematical ‘truth’ and its emancipatory / repressive potentials, the subtle relationships of digitization and subjectivity.
An even greater obsession with the quantifiable, or quantifiable effort, ran through two works by Jamie Randall. These were Pollock’s Summertime: Number 9A rendered exactly, at one-to-one scale, in thread and a recreation of the ‘All work and no play…’ scene from The Shining, with desk, type writer and an inch-high pile of paper, making us wonder if every page is covered in the sentence. Another artist in the same exhibition, Elizabeth Short, had also re-imagined scenes from films: a pair of big glasses based on those sneezed onto in Inner Space (wouldn’t they be even bigger, vast actually, seen from the perspective of a cell-sized viewer?); and a re-worked hoarding from Blade Runner. A separate room had been installed by Naomi Bulmer with a projection of silhouetted mechanical activity, insinuating previous uses of the building, into which opening-night attendees were thrown as wine-glass holding silhouettes.
The group thus worked on a conceptualism which was cohesive but in a way too stable; and while the works were enjoyable and effective their conceptual moves were well-tried: material against content, the withheld, and so on. I will be checking their website – www.crowd6.org.uk – to see if their practices develop a level of risk to match their clearly demonstrated abilities.
Opportunities for unresolved experimentation which may have been missed by these emergent artists were taken up by the more experienced members of a.a.s, who had devised a project called The Family, which seemed to parody secular self-improvement cults. As reception meant participation – staying in a youth hostel with them and flaneuring together – which I didn’t have the chance to, I can’t pass criticism of it, but it looked very interesting and the blog – http://family.404corporate.net/ – is great.
Another project that was not pre- or over-determined was that of Alex Lockett and Ian England, who had been commissioned to build a pigeon loft in a bit of empty scrubland and train 20 homing pigeons for racing. A pamphlet published with The Event by [inertspace] gave the terminology and a project diary that described training with the local fanciers, first flights, caring for the birds and so on. It also gave an account of Pictorial, an event where the pigeons delivered artworks; but in a way this was not needed – their practice as artists / pigeon fanciers was much more provocative, making metaphors and associations with art-making and the institutions of art – the esoteric terminology, obsessive behaviour, types of consciousness employed in practice – beyond their stated interests in modes of communication and collaboration with marginal groups. For me, besides John Hammersly’s contribution, Project Pigeon was the highlight of The Event (even though my engagement was limited to seeing the birds being ‘liberated’ and reading the pamphlet) because it ‘showed itself by itself’, formulating a criticality without prescribed resolution.
After pigeon fancying there came Morris Dancers, which were employed by Mark Essen to dance at the launch night of The Event. To complete the schema, men in sheep-skin coats gave a running, horse race-style commentary on the attendees. Thus having said that The Event was effectively conceptless aside from its ‘art first’ emphasis, we can draw out one strand: traditional and obscure non-art leisure practices appropriated in order to reflect on art, the parochial made critical.
The commentators, who were actors from the theatre group Stan’s Café, quite effectively defamiliarised the goings-on and foregrounded the superficiality typical of these kind of events (they should have been at Frieze). And while the pigeon project seemed to operate earnestly on its own terms, it did feel as if the Morris men were being slightly patronized. Maybe it was just me: the crowd enjoyed the dancing, and there was a mesmeric systems approach to be read into their intricately permutational moves. In fact – this may have been Essen’s intention – the Morris men and their dancing could be seen – if they weren’t being patronised – as standing for the best of The Event itself: a lot of good will, concerted organization, doing your own thing, and not caring what other people think.
(1) according to the website – http://www.artsheffield.org.uk/as08/index.html
(2) from Politics of Installation - http://www.e-flux.com/journal/view/31
(3) in his Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (1995)
(4) according to the press release – http://the-event.org/projects/mona-casey/
Matthew MacKisack is an artist in London
a-n Interface Nov 2009