If you play Grand Theft Auto you may be closer to understanding this piece than me. So far as I gather, both artists have had to play their way into all the footage which accompanies this film.
There’s not a stolen car in sight, mind you. The duo wear suits, rather than gang attire. They walk and run through lonely citycapes, some Romantic with a capital ‘r’, some apocalyptic with a small ‘a’.
Finding Fanon 2 grabs you from the opening set up as avatars for both artists fall to earth from a clear blue sky. They pedal limbs like upturned beetles, pick themselves up again like gods.
If this film were nothing more than a travelogue about virtual cities to be found in the GTA game franchise, it would already have a certain novel, uncanny appeal for non-gamers.
But there’s much more to it; the quest hereis not to become a crime lord, but to get closer to an understanding of philosopher Frantz Fanon, who advocated armed resistance to power.
As a former resident of Martinique and a member of the Algerian National Liberation Front, Fanon was most interested in fighting back against colonial powers. Britain is no longer one of these.
So where might Fanon, who died in 1961, be found now? Nigel Farage might have said he would don khaki and pick up a rifle in order to fight for Brexit. But the UK left is using ballots rather than bullets.
The battlefield is the media, both mainstream and social. Dark money and big data are the dangers. So where indeed is Fanon today? He would doubtless be on a terror watchlist.
But the artists remain optimistic. “Perhaps he’s waiting here,” says the VO, as they stride through the ghost town, “behind the polygons, behind the texture maps, through the fields of algorithms”.
Fanon might be found in one of GTA’s beautiful sunsets. Achiampong and Blandy watch our fiery star sink below the horizon. If the sun has sunk on Fanon’s day, we know it will come again.
Finding Fanon Trilogy was screened at Lighthouse in Brighton on 29 June 2017. More information about the artists can be found on the websites of David and Larry.
When it comes to the world of contemporary art, it can be difficult for a journalist to paint the people and the parties in their true colours. So perhaps it is unsurprising, given the suspension of disbelief required by the market and the legal protection afforded by fiction, that the most convincing picture of the art world has, in recent years, come from novelists rather than critics.
This piece considers two historical novels about the art world which capture life in New York, and in London, at the times when art in each of these cities was booming. The first considers NYC just as the 80s were taking off and is the work of poet and filmmaker Richard Dailey.
Dailey’s book, Unplugged Yellow, borrows its title from the painting of an artist called FleX, who destroys himself. His prodigious talent comes with prodigious appetite for drugs; and the author captures both the wealth and squalor of life on the cusp of artistic fame. Dailey’s narrator has a voice as attitudinal as a punk from CBGBs, and as poised as a model from Studio54.
And yet, Unplugged Yellow goes beyond the clichés surrounding either of those scenes. It delivers the excitement of great painting, by introducing a cast of living characters, rather than long dead local colour. (FleX is crazy about astrology, rather than the French symbolists feted at St Marks. He ends his days in the Mali desert rather than a cold water commune.) The book is at once plausible, and highly original.
Dailey made time, before a reading at KGB in New York, to talk via Skype about his book. My first question was about his whereabouts in 1979 and 1980, the years in which his fiction is set. “I was there,” he tells me. “I was not an artist. I was a poet and I worked with a number of artists, either writing for them, incorporating my poetry in their works and hanging out.”
He recalls a time when, “Basquiat was still sleeping in Thompson Square Park in a cardboard box”. This was New York before the money hit, when a duplex apartment could be found for just $300 a month, jobs were plentiful and the living was cheap. “It was a nice time,” recalls Dailey. “Everybody had this vague dream of making it, but nobody really had much sense of what that meant”.
FleX is inspired by a real life painter who committed suicide (“Nobody remembers him”) and Dailey notes the passing of a generation of artists and critics from his chosen milieu who’ve already been overlooked by the history books. It makes this historic novel more urgent. The amnesia can be part blamed on the injustices of capitalism and of the art market in particular.
“There’s an abstract quality to both money and art,” says the author. Without the faith in something called art, a painting is worthless, he suggests. And without custom and convention, even loo roll is worth more than pound sterling. “Either you believe or you don’t,” he says, unsurprised that the two investment vehicles get “confused and mixed up,” because, “of course, art is an investment”.
So Unplugged Yellow is perhaps more interested in money than artistic content. Dailey has said he intends it to be “a real meditation on the collector, and the role of the collector, and the psychology of the collector.” At the same time he notes it is a love story, which widens his audience. Civilians that most of us are, perhaps we can relate to the collector better than the artist.
I also learn that, having been there on the Lower East Side at the time in which his unfolding story is set, Dailey came under great pressure from publishers to write it differently. “They were like, just turn this into your memoir, turn it into a real memoir and give us some photographs please.” Lucky for us, the author was stubborn, and this gem of a book is the result.
In the same month Unplugged Yellow came to my attention, I read another, more or less nostalgic, historical art world novel. This was Randall by Jonathan Gibbs: the result of a doctorate from UEA, the first and perhaps best of the many universities who now offer courses in Creative Writing. Unlike Bailey, Gibbs was not quite ‘there’ in the milieu he describes. But like many who remember the 1990s on these shores, this journalist and novelist grew to be fascinated by the Young British Artists.
Let’s first state the obvious. Randall (or to give the book its alternative title, The Painted Grape) is about Damien Hirst. And never mind the fact that a character called Damien Hirst is killed off in a train crash near to the start of this rollicking novel. We meet the eponymous main character as a Jack the lad and we soon discover his genius for marketing that most spurious of commodities, contemporary art. More enjoyable still is the chance to spend time in with Randall and his court. No, Gibbs wasn’t there, but if neither were you, you’d think he could have been.
With impressive powers of imagination, the author ushers us into pubs, squats, country houses and, of course, galleries in the magnetic company of the eponymous Randall. But our narrator is no hipster, rather he is junior banker Vincent, who falls in with these young upcoming artists and becomes for them a talisman. While the narrative here is strong and the characters painted with warmth, Gibbs is also highly interested in what it means to look at art. Several memorable pages are devoted to a somewhat painful attempt, by this narrator, to commune with the Rothkos at the old Tate Museum.
“I’ve never really had any proper contacts in the art world,” Gibbs tells me via Skype from London. Instead he encountered the yBas as a young Shoreditch gallery goer in the 1990s, and shored up his impressions with research about the art market. So he excuses his lack of first hand experience with a laudable get out clause: “Because my narrator is an insider, but not an artist and not a critic, I felt that was my camouflage to pretend to get close to it all”
Writing about this movement in later life, Gibbs tells me, “I was a bit more critical about the art and I was a bit more cynical abut myself”. The result is a mixture of autobiography and wish fulfilment as Vincent lives the dream of any twenty-something in London at the time. For the first time in the UK, art was as hip as music and Randall is the story of a generation who relocated to the capital in the years leading up to Cool Britannia.
But Gibbs is not only interested in the way artists create and viewers gaze. Like Unplugged Yellow, Randall is a fierce attack on the market and the instant monetisation of fashionable art. “What was so clever about that whole scene,” Gibbs says of the yBas, “is that it made itself appeal to young urban professionals, while at the same time having an entirely different set of conversations with the dealers and the collectors and people like that. They got to have their cake and eat it”.
Since conceptual art went mainstream with the yBas, Randall is concerned with a quite different art form as compared with Unplugged Yellow. The painted grape on the title page refers to a legendarycontest between ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius. Zeuxis painted grapes so realistic that birds flew down to peck at them. Parrhasius painted an illusionistic curtain, which in turn fooled Zeuxis into thinking the work was concealed behind. When Gibbs tells me about Ekphrasis, this is surely what he means: art “as a rhetorical exercise” according to Wikipedia.
“That’s the whole thing about conceptual art,” he concludes. “It doesn’t take very much to imagine it. If I say ‘a shark in a tank’, your idea of that is going to be pretty close to the experience of being in the room and looking at it.”
To read either of these books has little in common with going to a gallery. Nor do the encounters with Randall or FleX bear strong comparison with a meeting with a real life artist in 2017. Art has become an alibi for writing a pair of vivid novels which are at once historical documents, critiques of capitalism, travelogues and love stories. They surely do for London and New York what Michel Houellebecq does for Paris in his celebrated art world novel, The Map and the Territory – and that won the Prix Goncourt.
Dailey tells me he’s read this book twice in French and that he is a great fan, but he cant resist a chance to gossip. “Did you see Houellbecq’s show?” he asks me, referring to his art exhibition at the Palais de Tokyo in 2016. “Honestly, it was just awful! But you know, good for him. He’s a writer.”
Unplugged Yellow by Richard Dailey is a limited edition, available from Opium Books, price $40; Randall by Jonathan Gibbs is available from Galley Beggar Press, price £7.70.
There are two major subsets of the art world which have grown in visibility in recent years: ‘women in art’ and ‘contemporary crafts’. For reasons below, a venn diagram of their relation would be heavy on theoverlap. Add another circle labelled ‘domestic production’ and you might find textiles in the central corral. Given that women-making-textile-based artwork is the subject of a current show, Turner Contemporary in Margate has hit a timely, thematic sweetspot.
If nothing else, textiles are the thread that binds together a group of artists whose previous point of comparison has been merely making art of any kind in a man’s world. Louise Bourgeois and Anni Albers both used textiles, as have Annette Messager and Susan Hiller. And then, as this show also demonstrates, there are the many many talented women who have been overlooked for making art that was just too homespun for contemporaeneous tastes.
Sidsel Paaske is a jewellery maker, for example, and never before shown in the UK. Working from an enamel kiln which she built in her kitchen, she got serious about beads, and the belief that one of her statement necklaces could have occult, protective powers. She collected materials from the natural world, both in her native Norway and from her travels all around the world. The results, be they made with bone, feathers, or even lizard skin, have a look that is at once primitive and sci-fi.
There is also something macabre about the sculpture of Christiane Löhr. The German artist made her Horse Hair Column on site after several visits to local stables in search of source material. The installation is breathtaking in a literal sense – you feel as if a sigh could tear it down. And yet it spans floor to ceiling becoming invisible as it goes. When you think of the bold statements of male minimalists, you realise that a whisper can be as powerful as a shout.
But this talk of whispers and of magic is liable to entangle this review in some of the stereotypes around women’s art, stereotypes which may be responsible for the way in which the art system has overlooked so many of the forty five artists on currently on show at Margate. “Excellence has no Sex,” as the post-minimalist Eva Hesse famously said. Her abject cheesecloth and masking tape sculptures sit around on their raised dias and, despite hinting at body forms, defy you to ascribe them a fixed gender.
Susan Hiller, meanwhile, has worked with canvas and likewise has no interest in being either cosy or pretty. In the 1970s the American-born artist made an attack on painting, by cutting up canvases to make sculptural blocks, or by stitching them back together to make grids. Too messy to be considered minimal, Hiller waded into the world of conceptual art where there is hardly any sex, and as little desire. Her painting blocks are among the driest works in the show.
There is more pain than pleasure in the work of Louise Bourgeois. HAND is an oversized red glove with coarse stitching that resembles the suture of a wound. The materials may be fabric and wool, but the presentation (within a vitrine on four steel legs) is as grave as a museum exhibit. The work has an uncanny power and, if you consider the hand in question to belong to any given artist, the evident dismemberment is a bleak comment on the power of the creator.
In 1930s Germany, for example, was no place to be an artist and when the Bauhaus school was shut down in 1933, Anni Albers went through her own symbolic castration. But a consoling thought about fascistic regimes is this: one of Albers tapestry designs from 1926 gave rise to a fresh piece of work in 1967 (by German artist) Gunta Stölzl and still has the power to seduce in a show in 2017. This particular example of women’s work long outlived several dictatorships, and may yet continue to thrive.
National Socialism spurred Hannah Ryggen to make a tapestry with an enduring sense of agony. ‘6. oktober 1942’ is a monumental piece which narrates with the execution of a theatre director the day after the dress rehearsal of his pollitically charged production of The Wild Duck by Ibsen. This is the first time this memorial has been seen outside of the UK, but you get the feeling that if Ryggen had had a Y chromosome, this cri de coeur could have been another Guernica.
“Oil paintings were initially poor man’s tapestries, so it has a long and distinguished history,” says Kiki Smith of this medium, as interviewed by show curator Karen Wright in the catalogue. But it is peace rather than war which Smith depicts in her soulful tapestry, Sky. A female nude reaches from the earth to the heavens as a sextet of doves flutter past and moths crawl towards the starlight. This image has the power of a pleasant dream to impart a good mood that stays with you for the visit.
Costume is another aspect of women, threads and making. Along with the jewellery here by Sidsel Paaske, we find a tapestry jacket by Arna Óttarsdóttir, a ballet costume by Sonia Delaunay and a tutu by Annette Messager. The latter is suspended from the ceiling and buffeted by a fan. So it spins and pirouettes in a way that Little Dancer Aged Fourteen, by Edgar Degas fails to. One is reminded of the oft quoted proviso of another celebrated feminist, and anarchist, Emma Goldman: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” The 21st century has seen something of a revolution in attitudes to women in art, and this show partakes in it, and binds the visitor fast to its progressive agenda.
At time of visit, the city of culture franchise was barely a month old and already the statistics were out in force. In the run up to 2017, Hull attracted £1 billion in terms of investment, with £100 million spent on cultural infrastructure. Job creation is up 12 percent since 2012. Those are just the measurables.
For each statistic there are countless moments in which locals encounter something new and feel better about the place they call home. Such experiences are largely invisible, but head to Victoria Square on any day of the week and you will see the culture-effect in effect. The audience for Hull 2017 can be found posing for photos with a 75-metre long fibre glass wind turbine blade.
Blade (2017) is an artwork by Nayan Kulkarni, which dissects the town centre at a height of some six or seven foot. With the shade of a white whale and the shape of a near-weightless wing, this piece cannot be ignored by even the most casual visitor. And, as a readymade B75 rotor blade, made here by the Humber Estuary, the installation sets the stage for renewable cultural energy.
Ferens Art Gallery is already seeing the audience figures go spinning round. Reopening after a £5.2 million refurbishment, 50,000 art lovers came through the doors in just two weeks. By comparison, January 2016, in its entirety, saw Ferens welcome just 10,000 to its dozen grandiose galleries. The new draw is a pair of contrasting exhibits: one which centres on an altarpiece from the early 14th century; the other which lines up five of Francis Bacon’s notorious screaming popes.
Neither showing would have been possible were it not for the refit, which has brought the humidity, heating, lighting and condensation up to acceptable standards. The altarpiece is an exquisite gold-ground panel painting by Pietro Lorenzetti which Ferens acquired for over £1 million. The gallery has put it on show together with loan works by Cimabue, Giotto and Duccio. Find yourself in this hallowed space and you are reminded that culture is a serious, non-mercantile business at heart.
Meanwhile, with his reputation for nihilism, the paintings by Bacon are also unlikely advertisements for economic regeneration. But this is a rare chance to see a number side by side, and a curatorial coup for a city of just a quarter of a million people. Whatever his views about cultural tourism, here is another serious artist. He threatened to destroy at least one of these portraits, and it was all his friends and patrons (Sir Robert and Lisa Sainsbury) could do to persuade him to save it.
In some ways he would be more at home in Humber Street Gallery alongside the scurrilous shows by Sarah Lucas and COUM Transmissions. This new contemporary space opened on February 3rd and converts an old fruit warehouse into a three storey visual arts hub that would be a fine addition to any of the UK’s larger cities. The designers have left the floors and fixtures in a rough and ready state, which befits the idea of culture as a commodity for import and export here on the dockside.
COUM were a performance art collective founded by Genesis P-Orridge and Cosey Fanni Tutti, who employed music, hallucinogens, participation, obscenity and street theatre to liven up Hull (and also further afield) in the late 1960s. COUM were so good at what they did that, on several occasions, police intervened, and a conservative MP stood up in Parliament to brand the group, “wreckers of civilisation”. So once pariahs, they are now famous locals. This is one of the most edgy shows you are likely to see in a publicly-funded art festival, so make the most of it.
In the ground floor space, walls are bright yellow for three sculptures by former yBa Lucas. The work was previously seen in the British Pavilion at Venice in 2013, so it’s a great opportunity for less travelled Brits to actually see it. Worth the wait, it is also worth the chance to compare and contrast with the show upstairs as it also features nudity and crude wit. Lucas has made plaster sculptures of women from the waist down, given the provocative poses upon unwanted pieces of furniture, and stuck unlit cigarettes into various orifices.
The bar at Humber Street Gallery also features a reclaimed and much loved local landmark. Dead Bod was a piece of graffiti which sprung up on a coal shed in the 1960s on the dockside. With the outline of an eponymous dead bird in paint over corrugated iron, it is not the prettiest example of early street art, but for several decades seafarers have relished the sight of it as they returned to the shore. When the coal shed was removed to make way for a Siemens factory, Dead Bod was much missed. So locals from all walks of life, will now have a familiar introduction to the often challenging waters of contemporary art.
Hull has also offered a show that unites lovers of contemporary and traditional art. At the University of Hull, Michelangelo was hung alongside Michael Landy, and visitors had the opportunity to get close to many of the great masters of classical and modern art, closer than paintings will usually allow. Lines of Thought was a show dedicated to drawing and, as drawing is an intimate medium, this wonderful exhibition offered instant familiarity with many greats who have never been shown in East Yorkshire before.
There is more to come. Before the end of 2017, Hull will host more public art and more exhibitions: these include Offshore, a major show about visual art and the sea, and, from September, the much talked-about Turner Prize. There will, of course, be many more visitors through these gallery doors, many more selfies next to monumental sculptures, and many more pounds rung through the tills of coffers of local hotels and restaurants. From the earliest of signs, the event is a success.
But let us offer some balance, in the words of poet Philip Larkin, who worked as a librarian at the University here for 30 years. In an early letter from his new home, he wrote: “I’m settling down in Hull all right. Each day I sink a little further.” It’s a nice bon mot, but Hull 2017 should attract both visitors and settlers. If you come here and sink a little, it’s only because the city has depth.
Hull is UK City of Culture 2017. For full listings and event details please see the festival website.
In these end times, it is worth remembering we have been here before. We have had more than 70 years to get used to the idea of nuclear weapons. In 1962 the psychic shock was fairly raw.
As in rock music, fast food and situation comedies, the USA led the rest of the world, the deserts in its Southern states serving as a blank canvas for numerous spectacular tests.
In the interests of public entertainment, if not safety, the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce saw fit to publish a calendar of detonations and a list of the best viewing sites.
And in that sense they beat this artist to the punch. Tinguely’s first staging of the end of the world was brought about in the early sixties; his earlier Study, No.1, took place in 1960.
How do you follow a mushroom cloud with a piece of fine art? Tinguely’s answer was to step up his interest in kinetic and self-destructive mechanical junk sculpture.
Together with his partner (French artist Niki de Saint Phalle must get some credit) he scoured a remote junk yard for components. It seems anything was fair game: toys, a toilet bowl, a trolley.
In metal hardhat and goggles, Tinguely was arguably as keen to control his own image as that of his soon-to-be explosive artwork. Now both artist and creation were ready for broadcast on NBC.
Were it not for the televisual audience there would have been few witnesses. There were shelters for camera crew and press; the sculpture was too dangerous for the public.
It was also dangerous for TV execs. The sight of a configuration of functionless objects, which spring into pointless life for an 18 minute performance must have had serious commercial fallout.
And then the fuses were lit. The sketchy YouTube footage is linked above. Better footage can be seen in Tinguely’s largest ever retrospective right now. And yet we fail to get a sense of it.
The camera lingers on a burning armchair. But safe in their all-American homes, we may never know how many viewers felt the heat of this detail, as noted in the catalogue.
It was just a study, mind you. As the end of the world continues to unfold in a way that looks quite different to that of 1962, we are reminded of Tinguely’s words.
“You can’t expect the world to end the way you want it to,” said the anarchic sculptor. We can only speculate about the piece of avant garde software code that could form Study No.3.
Jean Tinguely, Machine Spectacle, can be seen at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam until March 5 2017. My visit was at the invite of the museum and the airline KLM, whose informative new art history page can be found here.
The vital importance of visual art, in this emerging plutocracy, is without doubt. Even though, for most politically engaged artists, it can seem like swimming against the popular tide.
But the cultural reversals of 2016 are, in fact, just a reaction against the false promise of aesthetics. They are anti-art, anti-intellectual, anti-fashion, and opposed to all forms of sophistication.
What went wrong? We enjoyed eight years of the most presentable US President in history. And no matter how little you liked Cameron and/or Blair, their smooth brands offered a certain surety.
Well, I don’t believe that BrexTrump had much to do with political realities. Nothing does, when you live in a corporate owned mediascape. It was rather a rejection of a certain bad look.
Please don’t ascribe authenticity to these populist politicians. Their deceptions are numerous and notorious. They have done away with political craft, the actual honesty of rhetoric and oratory.
In short, they have killed statesmanship or statespersonship. They have killed the gravity which art, via countless portraits and busts, has so often ascribed to the powerful: to popes, kings, gentry.
Who can maintain gravity, as the world spins faster and faster? Who can pretend to pre-eminence when already several billion are a click away? What matters if the context for any action is chaos?
It would be ridiculous to think that art could restore politics, on either side of the Atlantic, to former glories. Since the glorious few have led us to this, it would be neither possible nor desirable.
But the shallow figures who dominate world politics now have ushered in real 21st century fascists. Wherever they were all hiding, there is certainly a role for art in the fight against this.
They may have their baseball hats and their double breasted blazers, but underneath the trappings of normality, Trump, Farage, and their ilk are naked. They do not yet have their Leni Riefenstahl.
So in a world where perception is everything (and hasn’t it always been everything?) visual art is the most potent creative endeavour in which we can engage. Artists can dress power up, or down.
And when you throw in ceremonial drama (performance), when you throw in a few flags (pop), and some party political ads (video) you realise that in fact there can be no power without art.
This must be why an event such as the Turner Prize will always fuel tabloid ire. The political relations bodied forth by a quiet Helen Marten installation are surely antipathetic to shitty gold elevators.
In short, contemporary art has never had a clearer challenge. It is time to accede to the visual realm, to make it new, to make it more powerful than the guys writing the cheques for it.
Because seriously, plutocrats will always be the like the uninteresting patrons who paid to appear on their knees in renaissance altarpieces. Let art ensure history pities our new leaders, rather than fears them.
The time tested way of introducing a story (“Once upon a time…”) is little help when writing a blog about art. And so faced with the most narrative-driven work in this year’s Liverpool Biennial, I don’t know where to begin.
HFT The Gardener is a multi-faceted piece display which comprises of some 174 works on paper and a (roughly) 10-minute film. There’s a fiction in the film, made concrete by the drawings. So the drawings, although quite loopy, fall into a non-fiction category; it’s complex.
In short, Treister tells the story of a high frequency trader who undergoes a breakdown and looks to psycho-active plants to generate algorithms to plug into the banking system. He is fired, as you might expect. But then he becomes an outsider artist and the drawings in this show are his colourful plant diagrams, which he sells to rich bankers.
The artist was good enough to speak with me at the launch of this show and I asked her how it came about. “I was interested in high frequency trading. I was interested in these ideas of the holographic universe. I was interested in psycho-active drugs,” she tells me.
Following that, “through thinking about them all and wondering where it might go,” Treister made the connections which rounded out her show. As for the film script, it remains a trip to compare with one of the hallucinogenic plants which star here.
It took a lot of “fine-tuning” says the visionary artist. “The plot expanded, contracted, then needed to come back around and reference itself in certain ways. So I was constantly working on it, to form it.”
But however much Treister worked on this voiceover, it pales beside the maniacal energy which must have been needed to research more than 90 narcotic plants and translate their biological and chemical properties into intense and detail rich diagrams.
“Work ethic,” says the artist in response to this. “But you know novelists are the same. They have an idea. They gradually develop the plot. Then they’ve got to spend about two years sitting there every morning. They’ve got to get up and get a certain amount done”.
But if the show really is a novel, it is Moby Dick rather than Pride and Prejudice, the sort of novel which freights in a wealth of technical detail. Each plant has its Latin name, its medical effect, its equivalent as abstract pattern and its correspondence to a stock on the FTSE index.
HFT The Gardener is not, however, an instruction manual for drug use. “I’m not suggesting a mass free for all,” says Treister of her 92 psychoactive plants. “These are plants that have been carefully used for centuries in many parts of the world for ritual purposes. They need to be taken seriously and there could be an enormous amount to learn from them if research was able to continue unrestricted.”
Unlike South America, we don’t have a culture which facilitates drug-induced vision quests. We do, however, have a crazy financial system where a dose of peyote could hardly make things any worse; you could happily leave reality behind for an hour spent at this show.
For more information about this work, head to the artist’s website. The show runs until October 16 2016 as part of Liverpool Biennial, and can be found in the Exhibition Research Lab at The John Lennon Art & Design Building, Liverpool John Moores University.
Brighton Photo Biennial 2016 will look at the way photography fosters our understanding of style, the body, gender and subcultures. It is arguably the biggest visual art event on the city’s calendar, and this year the month-long festival issued a call out to BA students on Brighton Uni’s acclaimed photography course.
Four chosen artists, who appear to come from all walks of life, will feature in one of the busiest exhibition spaces in town. So if you’re passing Jubilee Square, do take some time to take in Our City, How Do We look? I spoke with the talented group at local music festival Together the People.
Interview: Chynna Guyate
It is at once a comfort and occasional source of alarm that Brighton’s sartorial flair extends to residents of all ages. So in putting together her show, Guyate has looked for “the elderly who defy age and disability and dress how they want to express themselves”.
Brighton may be thought of as a city for young people to see and be seen in, but Guyate is drawn to those who have seen it all before . “These people need a voice,” she says of her subjects, “Because they’re just as great. That’s why I picked up on the older generation”
While aware that it might sound like a cliché, the second year student was inspired by her own 91-year-old grandma, who was living with dementia. “Despite that she loved dressing up, styling; she had all these crazy clothes. I just thought, Good on you!”
Her show came together over three sun-drenched weeks this summer and Guyate recalls “going around and seeing who’s about, clicking away”. She staked out her subjects from cafes and soon learned how to get up the nerve to approach strangers in the street.
“These people were fairly rare,” she points out. “So when you see them it was, Right, just got to go and do it.” The result is a portfolio of straightforward portraits and glimpses such as you or I might catch of these older denizens one hesitates to call eccentric.
All the same, Guyate does report an encounter with a man festooned with keyrings, who was pushing his own wheelchair, and a woman on the beach playing a tambourine to the seagulls. “That was pretty interesting,” she tells me with wry understatement.
Old people clearly have to work hard to achieve visibility. But Guyate finds in their “crazy colourful clothes”, an intriguing reflection of our “crazy colourful city”. Expect a crazy and colourful display during BPB16.
Interview: Jennifer Jackson
After several moments talking with Jackson, it seems there’s more to gender than male, female, and trans-one-way-or-another. The third year photographer introduces me to the term non binary to describe a group of people who subscribe to neither gender norm.
“I use ‘them’ and ‘they’ pronouns rather than he or she,” they advise me and their portrait-based show is about making visible a diverse non binary community which was a lot larger than Jackson at first expected it to be, even in a city with a vibrant LGTB scene like Brighton.
Not that one can make assumptions about the sexuality of people who might simply be gender queer: “There’s a lot of people who identify very differently within it and express their non binary very differently,” says Jackson.
Although on the boyish side of feminine, this photographer looks fairly conventional. “A lot of people who are more openly non binary might present in a more radical way,” they say. So, the show is not short of telling details in clothing, modifications, tattoos, and hairstyle.
“But there are a lot of people who are non binary who are exactly like everyone else on the street,” Jackson tells me. “Maybe very feminine, or very masculine. Other people are androgynous. So I think it’s impossible to tell. It’s just a feeling really.”
Whatever the case, it is a feeling which is safer to express here in Brighton, as compared with the far flung northerly region where the photographer originates. “In Cumbria there are still difficulties in being accepted,” they tell me. “I can’t imagine anywhere being as accepting as Brighton is.”
Interview: Sophia Wöhleke
Although Brighton has its share of fashion chainstores, it does more than most cities to redress the ecological and ethical balance. Look no further than the North Laine and London Road, where second hand shops encapsulate something of the spirit of this city.
Now in her third year, Wöhleke came from Marseille to join the BA in Photography and having done so she brings an outsider’s eye to what seems to be a growing proliferation of thrift stores, upcycling workshops, leather workers and cobblers.
With an avowed interest in “sustainable fashion”, Wöhleke makes clear: “We live in a consumerist society where little emphasis is placed on the durability of items. Brighton is a city where there is a trend of people going against that”.
So the well-travelled photographer turned her lens on the retailers hitting back and stalked the city’s most bohemian streets to find alternatives to Top Shop etc: “I wanted to look at it from a grassroots perspective while focusing mostly on little shops in order to gain an understanding of how people make a living without succumbing to the consumerist culture that exists elsewhere in Brighton”.
Most businesses were open to participation in a student project. “The first place I photographed was an alterations place. The owner only opened the shop last year and she sometimes has to work nights to finish her orders on time,” says Wöhleke. “She was open about how she works and didn’t mind me photographing anywhere, she helped me out quite a lot.”
Her industrious subjects were also open about their working environments; “I wanted to bring the different layers of the shop into the pictures because I wanted to get a sense of the amount of manual work and time that go into running small businesses like these”.
Wöhleke uses a medium format camera to capture all that rich detail. Her only remaining challenge: finding room for a tripod.
Interview: Judith Ricketts
A show that combines fashion with the realities of Brexit may sound unlikely; the Leave campaign was marred by many things, not least the double-breasted blazers of its chief protagonist Nigel Farage. But third year Judith Ricketts is interested in both all the same.
Ricketts has responded to the referendum by finding EU nationals living in Brighton and taking their portraits in the city they have thus far called home. Subjects were invited to choose a location that had personal meaning and dress to represent themselves to the world.
The concerned photographer reports a general reaction of shock to the outcome. “People were saying they felt very much under the microscope,” she tells me. “Because the vote was most focussed on immigration and before that they were part of the landscape”.
Ricketts’ interests in home and displacement may stem from her African-Caribbean parentage: “I was wondering how that moment in time changes peoples sense of belonging in a city, because one of the things about this city is, I think, it’s always very, very multi-cultural.”
The resulting show brings documentary up flush against a conventonal fashion shoot. But the photographer in question sees fashion as political. “It’s a complete identity statement,” she tells me, before adding: “Our identities are fluid. They change depending on who we are, who we are with, and where we live”.
In the case of this show, subjects were persuaded to meet in town at seven or eight in the morning and talk about their experiences of the disaster known as Brexit. (“You have to make that connection really quickly!” Ricketts tells me.)
“Most people I photograph become my friends,” she adds. “They become part of my own identity, because I use it as an opportunity to get to know different kinds of culture.” This attitude, which realises we are in fact lucky to mix with different nationalities, is refreshing, even in Brighton.
Our City, How Do We Look? is a Photoworks/Together the People co-comission for Brighton Photo Biennial 2016. Work by all four photographers can be seen in Jubilee Square, Brighton, between 1-30 October 2016.
Art Rules was a shortlived online experimentfrom the ICA and in 2013 I was one of many people asked for some wisdom. “Don’t plan on getting paid or laid,” I wrote. “The work is its own reward.”
Well, Lucky pdf, an arts collective who are much cooler than me, wrote “Don’t work for free”.But I would contend we both have a point. The work is its own reward, yet has monetary value.
That is in essence the beauty of both writing and art. Surely nothing worthwhile is ever made with a price tag in mind. And so the art world is as full of freebies as it is full of art fairs and auctions.
We need hardly enumerate the perks of engaging with this system: free admission to galleries, free wine at openings, free press releases, free selfie opportunities and free reviews online.
Then a middle tier: blockbuster shows cost up to £20; catalogues can cost even more; editions will set you back three figures. But all of the above augment a pleasant middle class lifestyle.
The gateway comes next: work by ‘name’artists costs between the price of a car and a house; at auction, you could spend millions; if accepted as a collector you’ll become an art world VIP.
At this point you may want to loan one of your works to a museum, thus increasing its value. Or you may want to bequeath all your art to a provincial gallery, ensuring immortality: a good trade.
Artists themselves meanwhile have to speculate to accumulate. At the very least they will need to buy materials. At worst, for their pockets, they’ll manage to rent a studio or hire assistants.
Journoscan get by with a laptop, a pad and a pen, and a voice recorder. Utilised to our advantage these will gain enviable invitations to press launches and press trips.
After that point, whether visual artist or art writer, you will want to sell work. This is as difficult as it sounds. We are legion and there are always pre-validated colleagues out there with more talent.
So I found myself coming back to that pearl of wisdom from Lucky pdf. It struck me as quite an important principle. Giving away art or giving away writing does no one any favours, surely.
And yet we have social practice, a genre of art which thrives off what is freely given. And yet we have blogs like this one, which never make a bean.And on social media, every darn thing is free.
I guess that moving forward, the approach should be: don’t give away more than you earn. Be you an artist, writer or curator, you should try and come out of your professional activities in the black.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering a new phenomenon: the crowdsourced gallery guide. Back in August I was invited by one of these to volunteer some commentary for a current London show.
The email, from a Michael Bouhanna from Untitled, captured my imagination because the featured artist was Jeff Koons and the gallery was Damien Hirst’s. I have written on both, but who hasn’t?
It can’t even be said that the request came from either of the two great men. This untitled gallery guide was positioning itself as a public service, as a kind of digital intervention.
This was supposedly in response to the lack of clear interpretation which goes along with some of the work in Hirst’s personal £100 million collection of art shown in his purpose built gallery.
But no matter how frequently I have worked for free, to promote myself or support an artist, I would never for a moment think that the Murderme collection or Newport Street Gallery needed my help.
In return Bouhanna offered the chance to joina community of ‘passionate’ art enthusiasts who may or may not attain VIP status at future shows or art fairs. That doesn’t really appeal.
Indeed I found more community belonging on my Facebook wall where, being a blogger of the passive aggressive variety, I eventually cropped up to share my dismay at this cheeky request.
Writer Ben Street and artist Paul Brandford, who are both already VIPs to me, soon reported having similar experiences with Untitled. Bouhanna clearly spread his net far and wide.