I lucked out with this: a press trip to the fifth Marrakech Biennale. Having never before visited North Africa, culture shock kicked in before we had even checked in at the (palatial) hotel.
As you see from this piece of guerilla marketing, the event asks ‘Where are we now?’. On my first night I was advised by some more experienced local hands to have adventures and ‘get lost’ here.
Asim Waqif’s sound sculpture, The Pavilion of Debris, jockeys for attention with a number of nesting storks. The locals revere these migratory birds and the city was once home to a stork hospital(!)
My understanding of nomadic war machines is limited, but I imagine they would look something like this super-charged crossbow. Max Boufathal reportedly has popular culture in his sights.
This is perhaps the most talked about exhibit on opening week, an F1 engine made locally using craft materials. 50 different craftsmen and women were apparently used to construct this sculptural beast.
Possibly one of the strangest gigs this musician has ever been booked for. Gabriel Lester walled up a gnawa band inside a performative sculpture. I’m still not quite sure why, but it was compelling.
Here you see an offline, open source, 3D printer engaged in crafting the model of a star shaped clay dwelling. Operators, Urban Fab Lab, aim to one day work on life-size scale in rural Africa.
This was Hicham Benohoud’s iconic signage on the Bank Al Maghrib. Whether or not the Biennale has flipped this city on it’s head, there were plenty of sights to flip out this foreign visitor.
My favourite work, a geometry lecture at twilight in the city sqaure. As you can just about see, Saâdane Afif is here discussing the circle with an audience of everyday Moroccans, who were rapt.
Of all the venues, this unfinished opera house was the most impressive. The Theatre Royal now houses a sound installation by freq_out, in which 12 composers work in 12 stirring frequencies.
Finally, a proper showstopper by Alexander Ponomarev. Take one desert, one helicopter, one monumental installation of a ship and mix up with a set of letters in the sand to breathtaking effect.
And finally, a tortoise, attempting in vain to climb a step at the festival hub El Fenn. So long little guy! I get the feeling he’ll still be here in 2016; let’s hope this cosmopolitan Biennale is as well.
Two myths converge in an evocative piece by a sound recordist and a producer. The first myth concerns the most powerful Norse god and the second myth could concern you.
HRAFN will be staged in Kielder Forest, Northumberland, with support from the Forestry Commission. The artists reveal that Odin owned two pet ravens: Huginn and Muninn.
These two tame harbingers would sally forth at daybreak and observe goings on in the wider world, much like a pair of spy drones would do in this day and age.
Upon their return they would sit on Odin’s shoulders and tell him all that they had seen and heard. It intrigues me that such a major god was not already omniscient.
The ravens were web-like prosthetics. Huginn related to thought; Muninn to memory. Odin once said: “For Huginn I fear lest he return not home, but I am more anxious for Muninn”.
Chris Watson and Iain Pate have also been waiting for ravens. They’ve been waiting for the birds to return to roost on the site of a forest in the North East. The birds predate the trees.
The duo will take a group of art and nature lovers away from the car park, over a stone bridge portal and into the heart of the forest where they promise 2,000 of the birds.
But this is myth number two. Inspired perhaps by Loki, the god of mischief, the team are to engineer a 21st c. raven-based hack to achieve their desired effect.
And so, hidden speakers will pipe the birds’ cawing down from a canopy, from the vault of abundant conifers which have been compared to columns in the hall of Valhalla.
The birds will arrive with the darkness, a situation which has been restaged to disorienting effect at Jerwood Space, when the film comprising their proposal blacks out.
Now you wait, blind and anxious, until you hear the ravens arrive. There is a mood of conversation between these birds, both palpable and comforting.
You can even imagine, in the polyphonic soundscape, that you have a bird on either shoulder: one of them helping you think; one of them helping you remember.
For your benefit, I made the sound recording below. If you’re interested in the amazing work of Chris Watson, try this documentary about his work with David Attenborough.
This work together with pieces by Semiconductor, Amanda Loomes, Adam James and Juan Delgado can be seen in Jerwood Open Forest, Jerwood Space, London, until February 23.
BREAKING: Since writing, I’ve been told that the film was just a proposal. So congratulations to Chris and Ian who, along with Semiconductor, have won a commission from the Jerwood Open Forest initiative. Their project will now take place in September 2014.
“Unfortunately, this being East Germany/Gert patriotically volunteered to be sent on a labour/Beautification course of the countryside north-west of Dresden/And never seen again.” *
There is something punitive about Work Programme at the gallery known as CAC. At time of writing we’re on edition 28, and more than 27 souls have already pitched in and given us shows. Work is on the tin; artists are expected to labour. And this is a Programme, a temporal and spatial structure which must be followed: fill a Brighton gallery in just six days and make it good.
But what results! Each one has been a triumph of the impossible. Rarely have so many, produced so much, in so little time and with so little cash. Hard graft has led to, I would say, miracles. And to arrive at a launch is always to see a familiar place rendered strange. Yet the next conscript moves in on the very next day. A Francis Alÿs piece comes to mind: Sometimes Doing Something Leads to Nothing.
This important film, also called Paradox of Praxis, follows the Belgian artist as he pushes a block of ice around the streets of Mexico City. It takes an entire day for the sliding block of H2O to melt. So he is left with nothing (although of course he has a film). Work Programme also leads to nothing. But in both cases, nothing is not a failure but a good outcome.
Needless to say, in these austere times, Work Programme doesn’t pay. In this respect it is worse than sewing mail bags. But, if only for one week, free labour does allow artists to opt out from the dominant economy, with its hedge funds and its property ladders. It gives participants and audience, alike, access to another non-monetary system, that of the gift.
Anthropologists are not the only ones to have an interest in the gift-giving feast of potlatch. Found in North West Canada and some parts of the States, this competitive event is a non-lethal act of war. It asks which indigenous tribe can give away the most. Things get out of hand, buildings are burnt and possessions thrown in rivers.
Meanwhile back at CAC, shows open on saturday evening; on sunday they close. The spotlight lasts less than 24 hours. Work is removed, and often destroyed, before the weekend is out. This moves us away from the commodification of art and, in the subterranean space at CAC, we find a community of artists and friends surely tapping into something a little more primal.
And just as cells (correctional and/or monastic) are the most ambient of spaces. The architecture at 31 Queens Road are by now well charged with hard work, anxiety and at times, clearly, wild flights of inspiration. CAC might be the engine room of the Brighton art scene, making other gallery models look cumbersome.
But are they cumbersome, or merely humane? As demonstrated, this is a punishing model for art production. If it suggests a gulag or a camp, that would suit our provincial setting at the end of the A23. And by the way, a certain Mark E Smith (singer with The Fall) once described Brighton as a “cultural prison”**. To the best of my knowledge he has never been to Work Programme, but he would recognize it for what it is.
The first Work Programme of 2014 opens (and closes) on Saturday 18/01 at 7pm at Community Arts Centre, 31 Queens Road. The artist in residence is Sam Ayres.
*The Fall, Athlete Cured (from the 1988 album, The Frenz Experiment).