January 31, 2005

in Köln for the weekend

Arrived today in Köln for the weekend: Around the airport it is white with snow and driving through the woodlands surrounding the centre is reminiscent of a Brueghel painting. The City itself is warmer and not so wintery.

Ulrich Rückriem is on better form than I can remember seeing him. He has resurfaced from the recent crises that hit him one after another over the last 5 years and the last surgery arising from the near-fatal car crash in Spain last year; suddenly he is positive and energised. The material for a new book gathered on one table in the studio, a large project for a Swiss pharmaceutical company in Sardinia spread along one whole wall, other projects and papers spread on other tables, pictures, drawings and diagrams, faxes and orders everywhere. What could be more invigorating than sitting in the studio of one of German’s leading sculptors writing while he works, accompanied by Mozart piano music and the distant bells of Köln Cathedral? Every now and then he brings out a new work either just completed or about to be installed.

On another day we went to Köln University to photograph Ulrich’s latest piece recently installed there. It is a single standing stone about 8 metres high of elongated proportions. There is a split (quite subtle) half way up and then the top half is split again in half. It is the same Porrino Rosa stone as the ones installed in Bury. The site is an unnatural amphitheatre of concrete 70’s academy buildings which must have been desperately bleak until the stone arrived; now, on a cold frozen morning, reflecting pink in the winter sunlight, it’s as if it radiated from its centre with measured tranquillity and beauty. Ulrich said that at the unveiling ceremony he said that he had done the commission not because the site was a good one but because it was a bad one.

After a midday visit to the city centre, which he usually avoids nowadays, we returned to work in the studio. He asked me to write more for the new retrospective publication he is planning (he has had 22 exhibitions worldwide in ten years since the last compendium).

In response to Ulrich’s 1979 piece ‘four steps’, Sol leWitt gave him his own four step coloured wall painting, a photo of which Ulrich showed me, saying if I could find a wall for it to be installed on he would donate it to Bury.

January 25, 2005

How healthy is your Quality Health Check?

Unless you work in a library you probably don’t know that in 2000 under the Government’s targets regime something called the Stock Quality Health Check was created. Suitably dressed up with initial pilots and consultations, it is a spreadsheet into which libraries input their stock records and ostensibly are able to gauge the quality of their fiction and poetry collections through its scoring system. Interestingly it makes the claim that it is absolutely not a canon, with their definition of a library’s collection quality (ignoring physical condition of the books) as the degree to which it caters for all reading audiences. Fluffy inclusive stuff that’s good for us all then.

The new up-dated 2004 Health Check features 9 new categories including poetry. So how well did the 4 good men and a woman of the Audit Commission, DCMS, Arts Council, Society of Chief Librarians and Museums, Libraries & Archives Agency do in creating a non-canonical poetry list which caters for all reading audiences?

Assuming I have spotted all the poets in the writers list, it comes out like this:

Anna Akhmatova – any selection or collection
Maya Angelou – And Still I Rise
W H Auden – any selection or collection
William Blake – any selection or collection
Raymond Carver – What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Gillian Clarke – any adult collection
Emily Dickenson – any selection or collection
John Donne – any selection or collection
Carol Ann Duffy – The World’s Wife
Daisy Goodwin – 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life
Sophie Hannah – First of the Last Chances
Tony Harrison – V
Heaney & Hughes (ed) – The Rattle Bag
Selima Hill – Violet
Miroslav Holub – Poems Before and After: Collected English Translations
Ted Hughes – Birthday Letters
Philip Larkin (ed) – The Oxford Book of English 20th Century Verse
Michelle Lovric(ed) Love Poems for the Nervous and Highly Strung
Robert Lowell – any selection or collection
Andrew Motion – Selected Poems 1976-1997
Paul Muldoon – Moy Sand and Gravel
Les Murray – any selection or collection
Pablo Neruda – any translation published in UK after 1990
Donny O’Rourke (ed) – Dream State New Scottish Poets
Alice Oswald – Dart
Maria Rainer Rilke – Duino Elegies
Shakespeare – Sonnets
Lemn Sissay (ed) – The Fire People
Derek Walcott – Omeros
William Wordsworth – any selection or collection
WB Yeats – any selection or collection
Benjamin Zephaniah – Too Black Too Strong

So actually it’s the Official Verse Culture canon with some missing; although if you are desperate you can always find them in one of their ‘non-canon’ canon anthologies. No doubt the Health Check will add the rest of the canon to this ‘non-canon’ in the next revision, so that over the next few years libraries (which will buy the books to achieve the 'quality score') will have a poetry stock collection with the quality to kill off poetry – to paraphrase Goodwin’s execrable anthology – 101 Poems that could bore the arse off you. It’s a scarily bad list, in which you could say you’ve made it when you get the category “any selection or collection” – god knows how Gillian Clarke is seen as the only living poet worthy.

Stunned by the degree to which this banality has so numbed public access to poetry, and that this list can be foisted on the library network without a challenge, I first complained to the Bury Librarian and sent an alternative list. Gratifyingly, he confirmed that he would purchase all them – so now at least there is one public library bastion that has Bernstein, Silliman, Bök, Prynne, Raworth, Hejinian, Pastior et al (in the spirit of TEXT Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha and Lawrence Weiner too!), the Poems of the Millennium anthologies, In The American Tree, and Other – god knows what that will do to the library’s Health Check score, probably nothing. And there is the insidious power of this exercise, the Alternative Tradition or even just Modernism continues to be written out of history and this Libraries Health Check makes this a mechanism of government policy as the libraries chase the centrally set 'quality' targets.

This needs to be challenged. You need to contact your local Library expressing dismal at their poetry collection and the Health Check and give them some suggestions – not a longer list than the Health Check itself. I’d be interested to hear whether your library is as open as to the innovative 'canon' as Bury’s. I will be pursuing more strategic lobbies in connection with this and will report in future entries. It may seem a small battle but the Establishment get away with each one of these small abolitions because they are unchallenged.

January 21, 2005

A Famous poet?

Lawrence Upton writes

“The brief online text (on the Text Festival website –
www.textfestival.com) says that Cobbing is "famous for his use of the photocopier"

This is often said and it isn't untrue, but... IN FACT he was first famous for his use of the ink duplicator If one were to date his career from SOUND POEMS / ABC IN SOUND, then the photocopier came into use in his hands slightly over half way through the career. If one were to date his career from his earliest arttistic use of the ink duplicator which he chose to preserve, then the photocopier came into use during the last 3rd of his career.

This does not invalidate at all the work he did with the photocopier, which is often *at *least as good as the ink duplicator work; but to stress the photocopier is misleading.

The blurb speaks of "his classic poems". One has to guess what that means, but I would have thought it is likely to refer to poems which, when they are graphically-oriented, rely on effects obtained by creative misuse of the ink-duplicator and not the photocopier”

Having discovered more and more about Bob Cobbing during the preparation for the forthcoming retrospective, and having discussed him and his work with many people who knew and loved him, including Jennifer Cobbing, I know that this is true. Bob was a remarkable multifaceted artist. What interests me in Lawrence’s response is more the issue of how language works and the place of compromised intention. It should be clear to anyone that the website (and forthcoming) brochure are simply promotional vehicles – shorthand summaries as accurate and close to the artist’s spirit and work as ‘it’s the real thing’ is to Coca Cola. The key work is ‘blurb’. The marketing department could have used the slogan: ‘it’s a sugary drink full of chemicals’ but that wouldn’t have sold it. The BLURB on website has as much relationship to Bob’s work as Coke’s claim to reality; it’s purpose was not to accurately encapsulate the defining characteristic of his work but to get people to drink it. There was actually a fair amount of agonising about whether the website should work differently, featuring much more work and analysis but it was decided that the important thing was making it as transparent as possible to ensure people could access what was actually on.

There are two questions Lawrence raises: fame and ‘classic poems’. I think the definition of fame (or should I say ‘a definition/my favourite of fame’ in case there are any pedants out there) is you are famous when someone knows you and you don’t know them. Putting aside the repost that a famous poet is a contradiction in terms, is someone’s (poet or anything else) fame solely definable to a single aspect of their life/work? And who decides? Is Paul Gascoigne a famous footballer or a famous drunk? Is Gary Glitter a famous pop singer or a famous paedophile? If you don’t know the whole of someone’s oeuvre but acknowledge their fame then while it may be inaccurate, it is legitimate to equate that fame to their later production. The use of the term ‘classic poems’ touches on an issue that I expect I will return to in future, essentially the process and power determinations involved in the creation of a canon. The Establishment are very good at this and have successfully written many good poets out of history - sometimes you can even wonder whether Modernism happened. By defining some Cobbing poems as classics we are putting a marker down that Cobbing created classic poems. Why are they classics? Because we say so.

January 16, 2005

Back from Suffolk

One of the areas that I am playing with in the opening Text Festival exhibition is the privileging of the book and the canon. To do this I decided to create a canonical bookcase, an alternative canon; not complete or undisputable but something to raise questions, such as what is that? Why does this shelf look so different to every library or bookshop poetry shelf? Where could I get some of these books? Why isn’t such and such on there? In Suffolk over the last few days, visiting cris cheek (and Kirsten Lavers) (collectively Things Not Worth Keeping), he was stunned by his huge and remarkable book collection, fabulous things ranging from an original complete set of LANGUAGE and a massive collection of the innovative British poets of the last 30 years to rare editions to drop your jaw. I was particularly struck by the Tom Raworth and JR Prynne books. Through the recent Carcanet and Bloodaxe collected works of both I thought that I understood the quality of their work. Seeing what they really can do was both an exhilarating discovery and a source of annoyance that the 2 most recent more mainstream publications are such a disservice to their work.

I came back with about 270 books from cris’s collection; sadly I am too slow a reader to make a dent in this fabulous pile before they go on display.

January 09, 2005

A Portrait of the Artist in 2015.

Ask not what creative industries can do for you; ask what you can do for the creative industry!
Quoted from a recent European cultural policy forum which attempted to predict the status of the arts in the year 2015: artists will either be marginalised(!) or part of the global creative industry. It seriously considered why the independent, individual, autonomous artist will be almost extinct in a few decades time. The big, global creative industries – which will rule the whole artistic and cultural world, including the political arena – will have absorbed the greater proportion of artists, providing them with security and success in exchange for their individuality and independence. To ensure this state of affairs, they will have replaced the art schools with their own educational institutes. Ultimately, the creative industries will define the public perception of art and creativity – not by just creating what the public wants, but manipulating the taste of the public in the direction the industries want it to go.

“The educational institutes introduced art management, art business and art marketing. And although art students are still not very enthusiastic, it is working. I believe we can breed artists who can compete.”

As (in part) a manager myself of a creative industries unit, I have come to realise that Creative Industries is (as it likes to refer to itself) a sector which (it wouldn’t like to admit) has nothing to do with the arts. As a sector its defining characteristic is the large numbers of development and support staffs it has created in the public and voluntary sector. In economic reality, an professional artist is no different that a hairdresser. As the late Robert Hopper (former Director of the Henry Moore Foundation) use to say: art is 90% like plumbing, it’s the 10% that is important. Creative Industries concentrates on the 90%, but that proportion is what makes it no different from any other former of production.

The arts in Britain have spent the last 25 years (if not more) desperately justifying their existence; under the Thatcherite threat they found justifications in adopting the language and agendas of social, economic and environmental regeneration. The arts had value because they could be mobilised to support social cohesion or lifelong learning. Cultural regeneration developed flagship successes like Barcelona, Glasgow, Birmingham, Bradford, Liverpool. Then New Labour came along taking the justification one step further; creative industries can be calculated as the fourth biggest sector of the British economy! The arts can be supported because they create jobs and prosperity. So an infrastructure of support agencies has been put in place, employing large numbers of workers who in reality provide nothing different from any of the previous small business support infrastructure that exists for self-employed plumbers or hairdressers. One of the problems of this of course is that the infrastructure does not address and has no interest in the 10% that matters. Creative Industries is measured in terms of jobs created, jobs maintained and turnover. The culture of targets, government performance indicators which has for so long thrown up its hands in the face of the question of how to measure the arts, has got a foot hold here (of course, there are the other measures of quantity which are coming – number of visitors, numbers of school children, etc., exposed to the art – more on this another time). Culture only worked as a driver of regeneration when culture was the driver. Of course as the cultural input was recognised, it was taken over by Regeneration and we can increasingly see ‘flagship’ developments that are/have failed – because their vision is regenerative rather than cultural. In the end, despite all the non-arts justifications/agendas, the arts only actually contribute the policy suite when they do what the arts do rather than what regeneration does.

Having had the misfortune to have had a ‘Creative Industries Development Officer’ added to my team about 4 years ago, I have learned over that time that it is an entirely pointless activity, not simply a waste of time and resources but actually downright dangerous to culture. The artists actually remain marginal; the artists with the talent, skills and vision make it whether the CIDS is there or not; curatorial expertise which is what would actually support artists employment is left without investment or development.

January 06, 2005

Text Festival postcard set

The Text Festival postcard set arrived today; I commissioned various artists and poets to provide a design(s) and the pack looks great. Thanks to Philip Davenport for the leg-work pulling it together. Email me if you want one.
The artists are:
Caroline Bergvall
Carolyn Thompson
Jennifer Cobbing
Alan Halsey
Philip Davenport
Hester Reeve
Jackie Wylie
Shaun Pickard

January 04, 2005

The Red Pill or The Blue Pill

In 1916 Eric Satie performed his work 'musique d'ameublement', literally furniture music; music heard but not listened to. It was the first ever muzak; Satie foreseeing the time when our lives would be filled with unheeded music. While ignoring this contemporary sound track most of the time, we are conscious that it is there, neutered, affecting our moods, altering our behaviour – driving us to consume. This musical accompaniment is a new phenomenon – less than one hundred years old; in a same period of time, the textual has become furniture text, text seen but not read – logos, signs, advertisements, labels – affecting our moods, altering our behaviour, constructing our experience of reality.
Morpheus: I imagine that right now you're feeling a bit like Alice. Tumbling down the rabbit hole?
Neo: You could say that.
Morpheus: I can see it in your eyes. You have the look of a man who accepts what he sees because he's expecting to wake up. Ironically, this is not far from the truth. Let me tell you why you're here. You're here because you know something. What you know, you can't explain. But you feel it. You felt it your entire life. That there's something wrong with the world. You don't know what it is, but it's there. Like a splinter in your mind – driving you mad. In every moment of your waking life you can see a text – this page. Look up from this page – in any glance in any direction you will see another text. You are immersed in text. You describe your experience to yourself in language and every aspect of your visual field is labelled, text-overlaid. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I'm talking about?
From advertising to road signs, from logos
to global branding to digital communications,
text forms the visual and linguistic background to everyone’s existence. Once
poets were seen as developers of language and ideas,
the creators of new ways of thinking and expressing,
but now poets are irrelevant except as marginal entertainers or advertisement copy-writers.
Faced with a modern world where the written word
or sign consumes and clutters virtually every environment,
how can poets and text artists work with language? In what gap can it be used without it being appropriated to sell something or, as George Orwell observed in The Prevention of Literature, without "turn[ing] the writer, and every other kind of artist as well, into a minor official, working on themes handed down from above and never telling what seems to him the whole of the truth".
It is at this point in the classic sci-fi film, Matrix, where Morpheus offers the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. You take the blue pill and the story ends. You wake in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. The narrative (and canon) you are given. The structures that offer comfort and conformity. The return to the tyranny of the familiar. The warm voice of the personal poem, self-reflexivity without knowledge.
The crowds’ horror at the gait of a mistake.
"In a passionate age, the crowd would cheer his courage and tremble
as he tried to reach it. But in an age without passion,
people would agree that it was unreasonable to venture out so far,
and think each other clever
for figuring this out.
admire ourselves?
Or there is the red pill.
From March 2005, The Text Festival is a nine month programme of exhibitions, commissions, performances, debates and workshops investigating textual practice in contemporary art and poetry - examining the response of text artists and poets to what Umberto Eco called the substantial ambiguity of language. Post-avant poetry and text art share a range of concerns and in this context the Festival aims to contribute to a greater dialogue and understanding between both fields of language creators. Based in Bury, in Lancashire, but locating text in its international context, the Festival not so much challenges the boundaries between art and poetry as relocates poetry in a vital and revitalising relationship with text art. Accepting that much of British poetry will remain in Guy Debord called ‘the colonized sector’,
the absence
of rejoicing – to that
last minute
wanting longevity and farewell,
the Text Festival will go on to a future, dialectically rising from a Glass Bead Game of Performative writing, Parataxis, Intertextuality, Materiality, Spatialisation, Constricted Systems.

Rooting the debate in a reclaimed literary history, the Festival celebrates landmark bodies of work – the first major retrospective of the works of Bob Cobbing and a rare opportunity to see 30 years of Lawrence Weiner’s poster works from the Vancouver Collection, works by Kosuth, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Hamish Fulton, Robert Grenier; exhibitions of artists books and poets alphabets; Alan Halsey’s complete Memory Screen exhibited and performed with Live Artist Hester Reeve and cris cheek; ; readings from Robert Sheppard and Mark Nowak (USA); new commissions from Lawrence Weiner, Maurizio Nannucci, Shaun Pickard, Caroline Bergvall, cris cheek and Kirsten Laver; intense public dialogues between leading international poets, curators and artists; screenings of poetry film and new digital texts. All this aiming, as Bob Perelman wrote, "To construct room for further efforts”.

Once poets were seen as developers of language and ideas, the creators of new ways of thinking and expressing; they can be again, if they are creators of new ways of thinking and expressing:
As Morpheus says: I'm trying to free your mind, but I can only show you the door, you're the one that has to walk through it.

January 02, 2005

Death planning and resistance

What better way to start the New Year than planning your death?

For about 30 years I have bought (literally) into a personal future plan believing the wisdom that saving for the future was a vital part of your life, your future security. Unbelievably now, at 18 I started an endowment Life Insurance Policy! And believing each time they trotted out the next scare about the future, I bought what was required of me.

Anyway, back to my subject: much as they would like the respond-to-fear financial planning advice to sustain pension expenditure, no-one believes any more that any sort of pension will save you. Even the apparently secure final salary pensions of government workers are under the attack of the ‘hard choices’ of invading the next country on the list as against looking after the old.

The next illusion offered was: invest in property. Pensions could be replaced by capital investment and anyone who could joined the rush to own. The financial industry of course only recently and still in a quiet voice have commented that property was not likely to be enough. Darkly the Chancellor has said we have a choice: save more for our retirement or he will be forced to introduce some sort of compulsory pension tax. The government are fond of choice – it will be up there with fear as the major planks of their election platform – like so many managers or American presidents though the choice amounts to do as we say or we will make you. Of course the logical respond to this choice should be to spend as much as you can now since pension saving is ludicrous but they are going to force us to do it anyway soon. Presumably when the pension tax is being collected they will be able to afford more weapons of mass destruction to protect us in our old age. The final scare is the ‘work-til-you-drop’ threat; if you haven’t saved enough, and of course we all live so long now, you won’t be able to retire, you’ll have to work beyond retirement.

What strategy could be adopted in the face of the pension crisis and our enslavement to it? This is the one I have adopted: Instead of planning for retirement, plan for death. Death is most likely to be preceded by ill health and poverty. See it doesn’t matter how big a pension I have, at the end I will be poor and ill. It also doesn’t matter about planning for retirement because I am in an age-range which will be caught in the phenomenon of a moving or abolished retirement age. Property also won’t help. How liberating it is to brush away the illusory fears and accept the reality: poverty, illness, death. With these as the standard, working til you drop is not a threat. I am suddenly much richer to live my life now while I can enjoy it. A small resistance be every little helps.