February 23, 2010

Havard Volden & Toshimaru Nakamura

SCS 10 :: Havard Volden & Toshimaru Nakamura.
Wednesday 24th February 8.00pm
Islington Mill, James Street, Salford, M3 5HW
Entry: £5 on the door

Håvard Volden : a player of the 'Table Top Guitar', an instrument with a long history, this guy is one of the new generation along with the likes of Thomas Korber that has been handed the Baton by Jim O'Rourke ( in his youth ) who in turn was handed it by Mr Keith Rowe ( who's history is as long & radical as his personal music taste is as bewilderingly Reactionary! ). Strangely he doesn't sound anything like his family tree, with him this ...cough.. 'Traditional' set up of Guitar layed flat with springs, contact mics etc attached comes out sounding more like Hans Reichels Daxophone recordings!
He's Norwegian.

Toshimaru Nakamura : a player of 'No-Input Mixing Desk' , again this 'instrument' has a history, going back thru David Tudor, David Berman, David Myers, lotta Davids there strangely so lets add an Eliane Radigue in ( early stuff before the modular synth got her ), but Nakamura has made this type of music making by riding the treacherous waves of feedback his own. A visitor to Manchester once or twice in the past decade, his previously minimalist style of sharp amplead pulling pops, electric line impedence hum & subtlely EQed feedback have given way in recent years to a more aggressive angular approach. It will be a pleasure to hear this development within his duo with Havard.
He's Japanese.

PLUS: in a slight avant-face on our usual "Promote! NOT Self-Promote!" mantra there will also be a couple of short sets with duo or trio combinations of Havard & Toshi with some of the SCS personel ie: Ben Gwilliam, Lee Patterson & Matt Wand.. They're English.

February 20, 2010

The badge machine is broken

I have been looking forward to the reopening of the remodelled and extended National People’s History Museum http://www.phm.org.uk/ as I held the old version in very high esteem. So high in fact that I used to have to steel myself for a visit because some of the histories, displays, documents, the moments of social revelation were so powerful that I would be moved to tears. This was the only museum that had such a profound effect on me – although appalling, even the Hiroshima Atomic Museum didn’t touch me so deeply.

Living in Manchester you have to have low architectural expectations – an ‘international’ city with no (contemporary) international architecture. Walking passed the museum every day, I have parenthesised my view of Austin-Smith: Lord design (http://www.austinsmithlord.com/ ) as competent mediocrity (although having seen the interior the ‘competent’ may be generous – picture: the foyer, notice the big column right in front of the information desk). But this isn’t an architecture review; so, hopeful for the survival of something special, for my first hopeful visit I committed not to let any architectural flaws detract from the central experience.

The warmth and earnestness of the staff as we entered lifted the spirits with a sense of a collective endeavour committed to the seriousness of the mission to privilege and treasure the memory of working class struggle. And then to the museum proper… and my heart sank.

The first thing we looked at was the temporary photography exhibition “Carried Away” – “taking a sideways look at protest through the last 100 years, illustrated by images of individuals being forcibly removed from the protests by the authorities.” (As it was an exhibition of images illustrating forcibly removal from protests, I am not sure what was ‘sideways’ about it). Many of the images from anti-fascist riots in the 30’s through the Miner’s Strike, anti-apartheid, anti-nuclear, etc, were powerful, and I really wanted them to accumulate into the emotive effect I craved, a celebration of resistance and courage, but the neat arrangement of images circled something crass in the centre of the space: a (new) tent on a photo vinyl of grass on the floor and a (new) rainbow flag hanging. It was a clumsy reference to the peace camps but what pushed it over the edge was a table beside it with colouring pencils and a badge making machine. In another part of the room I looked at the comments book – the comment which caught my eye was from a child: “very very nice but the badge machine is broken”. Obviously a child’s critical vocabulary is unrefined, and I dont actually care that the machine was broken - that's what happens - but this seemed to be a double indictment of the display rather than the play equipment: fundamentally, those images shouldn’t be very very nice but they had become strangely photographically interesting rather than politically engaging; and the broken badge match is symbolic of an aesthetic problem at the heart of the conception of the museum.
There now seems to be a museological conceit that the history of workers’ struggle is manifest as primarily a graphic style, that trade unions’ and protest campaigns’ are characterized by their use of sloganising badges rather than ideas.

The frequent repetition of the museum’s new circular logo itself announces the importance of the badge as the focal point of the history.

The case is repeated in the colour coding of the displays (see sign)

And pulling out from this colour text we see a juxtaposition which again reinforces this idea.

Moving to the two floors of galleries, paradoxically, despite the colour coding, displays, items and ideas are jumbled and confusingly juxtaposed; really appalling moments of people’s struggle are thrown away; the uplifting cultures of hope are dissipated, collective aspirations for beauty and justice are marginal. At this point, I confess that there was an elephant in the museum which was completely invisible to me. Or should I say monster in the museum. It took Sue to point it out: this is a children’s museum! I think I have conditioned myself not to see the dismal signs but with her observation the sad reality confronts you.

Everywhere there are colouring-in activities, dressing up opportunities, lift the flap to find out, act out with puppets displays. If only I had remained blind to it. Faced with this I would just dismiss a museum as no interest, but as Sue used to be teacher, she made professional comments – though actually equally critical: her view is that given modern children’s greater sophistication and at the same time shorter attention span, this model of display and activity is outmoded for engaging children over 6. A good example of the problem is the pictured puppet activity. Puppets of British political leaders from the 70s and 80s.
The label invites children, for that is height at which the “TV” is located, to conduct interviews. As Sue observed, what educational value does that have? The children have no knowledge of who the puppets represent or any of the political stances/philosophies which those figures stood for.

Because UK museums are measured by the number of visitors, as currently configured the museum will be a success in those terms; it will be loved by families with toddlers (2-6 year olds can pick up a Busy Bee explorer backpack) and schools – the latter because it is almost a school worksheet on the wall. It offers all the labour-saving preparation work that teachers relish. But Sue summed up the problem thus: The history of people’s struggle has been reduced to the form of Spot the Dog.

I think(hope) the museum as a whole is a more complex picture; the value of its work is immeasurable; it has very significant labour history archives, serious relationships with academic institutions and international working history museums which are commensurate to the seriousness of the history it retains. However, curatorially, it has been infected by the national cultural policy which homogenises and dumbs everything down. Given that this museum should be the inspirational repository of a class memory, a memorial to the ordinary made heroic, and a rallying idea that progressive change has and can be achieved, the prioritisation of toddlerism directly contradicts, neuters and marginalises the idea and experience that “there are ideas worth fighting for”. For me, the most powerful museum has been brought low. For the next few weeks the museum is in a ‘soft opening’ period, but sadly has conceptually located its public access at the level of Kids in Museums and as such it now seems distant from the idea of positive social and political change in favour of the central edict of public funding: the importance of civic and capital management of public thought. I felt a little sad for the staff whom I respect greatly, who in my experience are committed to the idea, optimism and knowledge of workers’ history but the policy landscape in which the museum operates, distorts its past in the deadening political shift that has redefined community (of idea, geography or workplace) as family, family as Engels observed the organisational unit of capitalism, and family as a mediated child-obsessed hierarchy in which complexity or collective action by definition are unnecessary and undesirable.

– Clock yourself in

February 13, 2010

Wallflower poetics and ‘the orthodoxy of subversion’

Back in December, I wrote a letter contributing to the online correspondence between choreographer Jonathan Burrows and Live Art theorist Adrian Heathfield (http://tony-trehy.blogspot.com/2009/12/gauging-freedom-and-constraint.html ). It’s been a while since the two put anything online to continue their conversation. In his new letter, http://www.thisisperformancematters.co.uk/news.1.12.html Jonathan tells us that they have been continuing development of their thinking by phone, which seems like a breach of the convention of starting a public conversation in the first place, and implicitly it does now feel like a dialogue that we have missed part of. Anyway, though I understand my contribution was pointed out to Adrian at least, I wasn’t expecting a response or acknowledge; I did hope that proof of an audience would up the quality of argument. Maybe a nod to this in Burrows letter is his references.

So, to the content of the argument: I find it bizarre that their thinking continues to be located in the arguments of Michael Donaghy. If they were poets I would now be discounting this conversation as banal drone from the UK mainstream - it wouldn’t even have crossed my radar. I find myself almost thinking that this must be a different Adrian Heathfield than the one who wrote Out of Now: The Lifeworks of Tehching Hsieh
In Wallflowers, Donaghy makes much shadow of a dance, a metaphorical formula for the social transaction between the artist and audience in an oral tradition; I don’t understand how this isn’t just ridiculed when someone like Tehching Hsieh (for instance, whom Adrian must know well) posits considerable linguistic rigour as the continuity of a temporal act in space.

With Jonathan now also introducing ‘theory’ from folk(!) musician John Kirkpatrick, I almost want to warn the dance/performing arts worlds that there is a dangerous retrogressive agenda to drive these forms into the same tame deadend into which UK ‘public’ poetry now languishes.

Because of the gaps in the correspondence due to the shadow of phone conversations, with irritation I felt compelled to buy Donaghy’s “The Shape of the Dance” (which includes the Wallflowers essay). Imagine the level of irritation when I actually then read it. I shouldnt really have to put up with this nonsense, life is too short to waste on it, but the marker needs to be put down in the Burrows/Heathfield dialogue and then I will move on to more serious things.

In responding to the meandering Donaghy style, it is the most efficient use of time perhaps to focus on the Wallflowers “In Lieu of a Conclusion”. In this he acknowledges the literary battlefield that poetry became at the end of the 20th Century but of course located where he is, this is framed as an ‘attack’ on “traditional terms of engagement with the audience, modernist poets and critics…cut poetry’s lifeline to the oral tradition.” He does however recognise that this “developed immeasurably our capacity to think speculatively and innovatively about the genre.” But instead of seeing what we can now do since 'our capacity to think' has been expanded, he turns back from immeasurable possibility to ask the final question of the essay: How do we re-engage with poems? (I’ll come back to the wrong-headedness of the question in a minute).

Donaghy’s answer is “Memorize. When we learn a dance step, a part in a play, a song, or a poem by heart, we give it a body to live in.” Memorize?! The answer to re-engagement with poems is to memorise? There are two objections to this outrageously simple-minded harking-back-to-the-romantic-pre-industrial-bucolic-idyl-nonsense. As Donaghy himself identified earlier in the essay “In non-literate cultures, of course, the only way to preserve knowledge is to make it memorizable”. We don’t live in a non-literate culture. In the 21st century who the hell has or wants this form of oral relationship with poetry? We live in a literate, but predominantly visual-technological culture. Donaghy posits a central relationship of the artist to the audience; how is his (non-literate) audience served by perpetuation of a fantasy that poetry is an oral form (as opposed to a linguistic form)? No-one would deny poetry’s origin but this laughable position is the equivalent of arguing that drama should return to institutionalised competitions celebrating the god Dionysus; and if antecedence is validation you could argue that live art itself is historically illegitimate; and sound art isn’t proper music so that should be crossed off too; and multimedia art is ...(etc) (etc).

How do we re-engage with poems? Asks Donaghy. He also anticipates one of the questions that this raises: why is this desirable? Both questions are actually rooted in the mainstream’s location of the problems of poetry in marketing and audience. Who are the 'we' he refers too? What poems? ‘Re-engage’ suggests readers who used to read poems but don’t now, or maybe, read poems but somehow fail to ‘inscribe on their hearts’. The tenor of the passage is that it is modernism’s fault that readers are disengaged because the “lifeline to the oral tradition” was cut. This is the argument against conceptual art from the Stuckists.

The second objection to privileging memory as the functional repository of a poem is the fossilisation of the artform. This is a sad reflection on poetry itself – what other artform would think like this? No-one goes to a Lawrence Weiner exhibition with the intention of memorising his texts. Does Jonathan Burrows expect the audience to memorise the choreography of one of his dance works? And if the voice is going to be only measure of poetic quality, how are we expected to memorise poems by Christian Bök or Caroline Bergvall? Fundamentally most other artforms, and contemporary poetry that “developed immeasurably our capacity to think speculatively and innovatively about the genre” are driven by an artistic imperative (analogous to scientific method) toward discovery and ideas, hypothesis and experiment. Which brings me to the question of the discussion of what Jonathan calls the orthodoxy of subversion – “how to negotiate the relationship between old and new, especially in a time when the marketplace pushes us always into buying the new and even the old is repackaged and sold back to us.” Interesting to note that the greatest public ‘exposure’ to poetry nowadays is through the use of its forms in TV/radio advertising. Jonathan quotes 'Wallflowers':

"A player in such a tradition is expected to improvise, to 'make it new', and the possibilities of expression within the prescribed forms are infinite. But it's considered absurd to violate the conventions of the form, the 'shape' of the dance tune or story, because you leave the community of your audience behind.” (Mmm… 'making it new' – it makes me smile when one of the Hegemony of the Banal make the Poundian claim because it indicates the incapability of their desire and their absence of self-knowledge.) In another section of the book Donaghy comments that “the reader is willing to go halfway to accommodate you – but no more”. I have often quoted from William Carlos Williams’ autobiography where he uses the metaphor of the artist as bridge builder: the artist is faced with a gorge, the bridging artwork is the method of crossing; the artist makes and uses the bridge to cross. The bridge is useful. (Lawrence Weiner: “Art must be useful”); the viewer/reader/audience can also use the bridge. It is of no interest to the artist if critics don’t like the shape of the arch, or if someone doesn’t want to cross. The artist has moved onto the next valley. In my writing, if the reader is only willing to go halfway, then they won’t get all the way across, they won’t get to see what I discover on the other side, and if they don’t, why should I care? I crossed because I had to. If the reader doesn’t cross, they don’t have to. This isn’t a declaration of transgression – the desire for that would be to privilege the effect on the audience over the imperative to know. If the artwork is transgressive, it was the requirement of the creative imperative; if it is not transgressive, it was the requirement of the creative imperative.

Coincidentally, I was recently in a workshop where the 6 object exercise was used, and gratifyingly in this context I didn’t have any urge to take the objects out of the room. I agree that there is a misconception that the creative act must involve transgression, it can, but the over-egging of it, as Jonathan and Adrian agree, has had negative effects which are tied into commodification of the impulse, the prioritisation of the ‘emerging artist’ and the subsequent interchangeability of artists as fashion accessories. It is this very context which demands that the artist address their own artistic problems; to let the audience or the salesman or the educationalist define the problems is to compromise the possibility of discovery. Donaghy’s Irish country dance, in reality or as analogy for poetry, is a community entertainment, it is a fun night out; no-one begrudges the audience having a good time, but it is frankly silly to elevate it or its shadow in memory as a serious artistic discovery.

February 10, 2010

The Non-existence of the Unnamed

A solo exhibition by Brass Art
Preview: Friday 12 th February 2010 6pm -8pm
Exhibition Dates: 13th February- 20th March 2010
Exhibition opening times: Wednesday - Saturday 12pm - 5pm

The Myth of Origins, The Unnamed no.1, (2009), watercolour on paper, 50.8cmx40.6cm

Brass Art is the collective name for artists, Chara Lewis, Kristin Mojsiewicz and Anneké Pettican. For their second solo show at The International 3, Brass Art continue to develop the expansive series of watercolour drawings collectively titled, The Myth of Origins, in which the shadow forms of the artists encounter the manifestation of their collective psyche.

In the new series of drawings for The Non-existence of the Unnamed, the artists unlock the Entomology collection at The Manchester Museum. The suggested encounters portrayed between the re-animated specimens and living flesh are at once terrifying and intimate. Transformed into a series of theatrical masquerades, the drawings reveal the tension between the idea of the act and the act itself.

Made as collaborative drawings, the artists are collectively engaged in their production; in process and product articulating the intimacy of Brass Art's long-standing working relationship.

Brass Art have recently exhibited in 'Not at this address' at Bury Museum and Art Gallery and at Yorkshire Sculpture Park. They are currently exhibiting newly commissioned work as part of 'Tell it to the Trees' at Croft Castle and Museum and their upcoming exhibitions include, 'The Economy of the Gift' at A Foundation, Liverpool in April 2010, 'Shadow Play' at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester in May 2010 and the Tatton Park Biennial in 2012.

February 06, 2010


Marton's response to Reykjavik makes me think that unless you were in Iceland in 2007 you probably haven't seen the poem's own visual manifestation in the Safn Museum. So here is what it looked like:

(Dan Flavin and Roni Horn in the background)

February 05, 2010

Márton Koppány responses to Reykjavik

Marton writes: "Since my English hasn't improved a bit since we met, here I send you an asemic comment on your Reykjavík (on its distances and boundaries)"

February 02, 2010


Arrived in Budapest to what the UK would call a blizzard. The snow was thicker than it was a few weeks back in England and it seemed to have no effect on daily life. Everywhere I went, even outer areas of the city, had cleared pavements and roads. Unlike Manchester city centre's incapable response to snow, no-one was slipping over; it was business as usual.

(View from my hotel)

Being here had the desired effect on writing Tesseract – what could be more conducive than being cut off from the world supplied at regular intervals with caffe lattes and overlooking ice flowing down the Danube?

On Monday evening I had the great pleasure of dinner at Márton Koppány's apartment. About 25 mins from the hotel, though the taxi ripped me off charging double what it cost for the trip back.

Márton's 'poetry dog' (every poet should have one!) Gertrude S. was a big black soft haired sweety who barked whenever she wanted something, which most often was to be played with or stroked. Luckily I had brought her a ball and missing our poetry dog was happy to stroke. Márton's wife Gyöngyi teaches English and asked me a couple of questions about grammar which I answered inconsistently, because, as I said, the English don’t really learn or understand grammar – part of our imperial laziness - so even things that are grammatically incorrect sound feasible to our ears. I called it our ‘flexibility’. Márton and I talked about vispo and whether the new taste for asemic writing amounted to anything, conceptual art, the Text Festival (which he will be in), his choice of English over Hungarian and the phenomenon of global networking. Gyöngyi made dinner; we drank two bottles of wine. The food was a chicken and cauliflower bake with rice followed by cake. I gave Márton a copy of Reykjavik and he gave me a couple of his books (Investigations and Endgames) which look very nice indeed.

Yesterday, I had lunch with Allan Siegel, a media artist, writer and teacher at Budapest Art University.
http://www.kekbicikli.hu/ We discussed the 5 Places project in his favourite bistro.

After that, I connected up again with Márton to see the Műcsarnok Kunsthalle retrospective of the Balázs Béla Studio.

It didn't really work for me as I had no knowledge of 50's-60's Hungarian avant-garde film-making and it was curated as a cross between an art show and a museological survey, the latter part not really working with Műcsarnok's spaces.

From there I went on to the Trafo Contemporary Art Centre, http://www.trafo.hu/ to see Subversive Excerpts, a show looking at the experimental and conceptual practices between the nineteen-sixties and eighties in Europe and South America under the influence of military dictatorships and communist regimes. Taken with the subtext of the BBS show and the conversations with Márton, it is clear that the recent history of repression in Hungary is still a raw element in artists' consciousness, but not having had that experience, I had to feel a distance from that reality.