November 30, 2010

The Other Room


7pm 1st December 2010

The Old Abbey Inn, 61 Pencroft Way, Manchester, M15 6AY (Manchester Science Park)

Admission is free and there is a well-stocked book shop.

Ken Edwards is the publisher and editor of the small poetry press Reality Street. He has had numerous books and pamphlets published including: Good Science: Poems 1983-1991 (Roof Books, New York City, 1992), No Public Language: Selected Poems 1975-1995 (Shearsman Books, 2006), Songbook (Oystercatcher Press, 2009).

Neil Addison’s latest book Apocapulco is in the new Salt Modern Voices series. His chapbook The Everyday of Irma Kite (2009) was published by Arthur Shilling Press. His blog is

Louise Woodcock is an artist currently residing in Manchester. She works in a diverse range of media including Live Art, Installation, Sound and Fibre. Recent projects include a collaborative performance with Jennifer McDonald at Counting Backwards, a live crochet at Mill 24, a video piece in Unsungfest at Contact Theatre and a talk and performance at University of Huddersfield’s Sonic Arts Forum.

November 26, 2010

Every Day is a Good Day

There's been a buzz about the major retrospective John Cage, currently on display at Huddersfield Art Gallery - originated by the Hayward Gallery and the BALTIC, an excitement I also shared today when I got to see it. I say 'shared' because despite all its marvels, I found a flaw which has nagged away at me since I left.

You enter the exhibition to a film of Cage being interviewed and photos of him doing various things, and even if you don't hang around to watch the video the drift of the Zen contentment of his conversation seems to gently locate your consciousness as you pass into the exhibition proper. The individual works are mostly beautifully deep and subtle images, for obvious reasons, reminiscent of Japanese Zen painting, punctuated by the equally striking diagrammatic compositions. Seeing such a body of work is fascinating, wash-away calming and affirming. It's just great stuff.

Then there is the hang: inspired by Cage's use of chance-determined scores, according to the catalogue "the exhibition differs markedly from a traditional touring exhibition. The procedure that Cage often employed, using an I Ching-like computer programme, is used to determine the layout of the exhibition at the gallery, with the programme determining the position of each work through chance operations. This results in works being displayed at many different heights, and in groups that no curator would ordinarily choose; such chance encounters between quite different works gives a sense of them being part of an ongoing creative process, rather than merely being the result of one creative moment." And on first experiencing the spatisalisation of works as no curator would not ordinarily choose, it is very striking. Knowing that the works are juxtaposed by chance adds a new layer. But as I walked through the galleries a second time (as I was waiting to meet Phil Minton who was performing at the Gallery), something about it began to bother me. It's no more than a deep feeling but how to explain that there is something fundamental and subliminal not right? I began to wonder about the "I Ching-like" computer programme. I realise that I am not convinced by the computer programme - not that it isnt random or that someone cheated, but that its randomness is not Cagean. I know that Cage did use a I Ching computer programme to generate chance operations which he created with Ed Korbin but he also used the I Ching itself - as I have frequently in the past. And it is this familiarity with I Ching that makes me uneasy. I didn't investigate the mathematics of the hang but I can only call its effect 'mechanical', and for me it seemed to clash with the ethereal Cagean gestures in drawing and paint. I am left thinking that an installation using an actual I Ching ritual would have delivered a more organic chance driven curation.

Just on the comment "in groupings that no curator would ordinarily choose", I am also reminded of the Schalauger (Basel 2009) hang which delivered a similar aesthetic (other areas not pictured here had the Cagean sparseness).

So I found Cage's works beautiful but I was less convinced by the artifice of the mock-Cage installation concept - not because it was over-egged or contrived but because I could feel that it was machine generated rather than spiritually random.

November 22, 2010

Worksetting - in every dream home a heartache

Last night's launch of "in every dream home a heartache" at the worksetting gallery, huddersfield. It opened with a performance of a structured accordian ensemble improvisation by experimental music composer Alvin Curran. Although it was interesting in its intervention in the distinctive arcade space, it was over long and too tonally restricted.

The most striking element of the show was the corian furniture by amanda levete.

Also included (on ipods) was the first stage of the nono project: sound-poetry works by
Ben Gwilliam (sound treatment of American poet P.Inman) - "Nono"
Carol Watts & Will Montgomery - "Pitch"
Simon Smith (with sound treatment by Jamie Telford) - "The Angel"; "Angel Cut-Up"; "Six Bold Flavours"
Sarah Boothroyd - Power and Freedom.

I am still working on curating the nono project so anyone out there still interested in responding to Luigi Nono can still get something in.

November 20, 2010


In London in the week making a presentation about the Irwell Sculpture Trail to the Chartered Institute of Water and Environment Management ( ) to develop future project partnerships. (A bit scary to realise that I started the IST in 1993).

Anyway, the only show I had time to take in was Newspeak: British Art Now at the Saatchi Gallery

It wasn’t clear why it called Newspeak. I guessed that it somehow implied that as this is Saatchi’s next generation they are supposed to be speaking new. That was me assuming that they were trying to say something positive about the new collection. But it did seem a bit risky because of the Orwellian interpretations – that Saatchi is attempting to control the discourse (again) about contemporary British Art. I discover via Google that "this exhibition turns that Orwellian vision on its head, showing that the range of visual languages being exploited and invented by these new artists is, in fact, expanding and multiplying." This in itself is a mad newspeak distortion of the meaning of newspeak.

And the claim made for it is not supported by the work or oddly the curation. On my previous visits the latter aspect has not really struck me because the work carried the hang. But while there are some works worth seeing the absence of a sense that this is a cohesive vision makes the linear circulation pattern of the hang seem lumbering. The only locational surprise is Gareth Cadwallader’s Dead Horse installed alone in a thoroughfare between two galleries. In the loose context, I found myself more in the mood for abstraction and so liked (top picture) Marcus Foster’s Untitled form, which he describes as hot air balloon-like but for me was reminiscent of forms from 17th Century Chinese fluted ceramics.
Dean Hughes never puts a foot wrong but I didn’t think Saatchi displayed it very well.
And the other work that stood out for me was Systems House with his mix of minimalism and manufacturing.

Unusually nowadays, the only noticeable use of text was James Howard and his 46 digital prints appropriating the graphics and language of advertising and information posters. Apart from the soft spot for me of finding an artwork which features a dog called Barny in the Saatchi, I enjoyed Howard’s word play

When its fact of life teaching schedule remember to
Include tell her most important one.
“Is any other dog?
Has it happened
To Barny?
At an alarming rate?”
“Has the children?”

November 14, 2010

Death and the idea of museums

(My usual excuse for not blogging much = Text Festival organising, preparing for the government destruction of public services, writing the Tragedy of Althusserianism, etc.).

Anyway, I joined the Museum-id network recently ( ). A quick trawl through more recent discussions that drew my attention to a question from Steph Mastoris, Head of the National Waterfront Museum: Are Museums About Stories or Objects? He answers:

"The boring and safe answer is, of course, that museums are about both. Objects are central to the very existence of the museum, but without telling stories about them the museum is just a storehouse. For me, the key issue here is much more about whether the museum's displays begin with the object or the story. I feel that the concept-centred display is far more robust and logical than one driven by what is available in the stores. The imperative to inform that lies at the heart of the museum's purpose is best served when coherent narratives are on offer. Once these stories are established the museum's collections really come into their own by providing unrivalled sources of evidence. Indeed, such a clear narrative structure also enhances the more random inspirational powers that objects possess. It is so easy to say "let the objects speak for themselves", but their language and their messages are often difficult to understand without a good narrative context. So we need museums that are story-driven, but object rich. "

Although Mastoris uses the phrased ‘concept-centred display’, ‘story-driven’ privileges narration, linearity over concept; I read his conclusion as bypassing ideas as the driver of the concept of a museum (despite the word itself of course being rooted in ‘the place sacred to the Muses’).

Contrary to a response framed in museological theory, my reflex in these sorts of debates is more phenomenological, referenced back to my own first museum ‘epiphany’ in the Isle of Man. Back before the Manx Museum had its rationalising extension and modernisation, it was a magical place. When asked questions about what museums are for, or how museums work best I am always taken back to a memory from 1972 standing in the museum’s reconstruction of a dimly lit Victorian shopping street and looking up to see the giant skeleton of a whale hanging overhead. It made no sense (probably a mixture of historic display accident and/or lack of storage space) but it remains my most striking experience in any museum. When I last visited everything had changed for the less imaginative. This panorama link:
now shows the whale skeleton hovering above where it ‘should’ be in a natural history gallery. I have thought often on why this bizarre juxtaposition worked. It clearly wasn’t a curatorial strategy – generally deliberate curatorial surrealism is egotistic and irritating – it had hung like that since the early Sixties, I think; I’d guess in a time when a little isolated island museum didn’t even have what we now think of as a curator. It wasn’t an ostentatious surrealist act; it was just the way the architecture of the building worked. When you were upstairs you could see the skeleton contextualised with the natural history collection but in the ‘street’ the outline of whale flew overhead. In terms of the debate about what are museums about, this experience is about an object (the skeleton) but, unless you are a museum professional who can interpret the installation as an operational configuration, there was no story. I recall and still find that the installation was unfathomable: it was what it was and was magical because of that. That moment represented, and still does, the possibility of imaginative space; in negating any meaning at all except itself it offered the exhilaration of creative freedom in an act without precedence. My answer to “Are museums about objects or stories” is neither. For me, museums are about the possibility of freedom, the ground for creativity. The curatorial responsibility is the mobilisation of objects to create the opportunity for that space. This is why the political imperative over the last decade or more for UK museums to be educational, to spoon feed the visitor and the school pupil with the story, is fundamentally destructive to museums’ value and raison d’etre.

With the new Dark Age pending in the UK and the sad and sudden death of Sue’s father, this question and my intuitive response to it, were in my mind when I checked out the People’s History Museum exhibition “Death and the Working Class” this week.

This video link gives a pretty good visual of the layout.

Although I have blogged previously about how disappointing the new PHM is, I approached the show with an open mind, maybe even optimism – reasoning that the banality of the permanent displays could be put down to funder sensitivity/expectation of political neutrality but that a temporary show working with such an emotive subject has the room, even the imperative, to address the seriousness of its intent.

Predictably given where PHM seems to have located itself, Death and the Working Class lacks the idea that would make it a serious show: anger. It is a bland social history show of objects supported only by fragments of context. It doesn’t evoke the idea of death or the experience of people dying. The display goes down the route of parsing the subject by themes:

preparing for death
causes of death
laying out
the ceremony
wakes and wills
mourning and remembrance

but the absence of the theme of struggle leaves you wondering why it bother to mention Class in its title. How can you curate such as show and not impart a sense of injustice in the viewer?

Whatever seriousness the exhibition could claim is badly undermined by the ubiquitous nonsense of ‘access’ play. In amongst the exhibits you are invited to read an epitaph and guess whose name it relates to under a flap you lift. There is a comments board where you are invited to write your own epitaph. On the floor there is a snakes and ladders game with coloured plastic skulls as pieces. But the stupidity prize has to go to the rack of mourning clothes with its sign “Put on these mourning clothes: how do they make you feel?” This is really unacceptable - especially having had Sue's father's funeral last week.

November 04, 2010

The Olympics and Poetry

In 2009 I was shortlisted for one of the 2012 Olympic commissions called "Artists Taking The Lead" - which would develop an international language festival featuring many of the world's leading poets, sound and media artists. Held in Manchester in 2012, The Language Moment would be the largest ever celebration and dialogue of language in the arts.

Simon Armitage was shortlisted for "Any Distance Greater than a Single Span", which would see an epic poem carved into the rock on Ilkley Moor and a range of spectacular performances. Neither of us got the final commission - mine was beaten by the proposal for a crap fountain in Liverpool; I dont know who beat Armitage but I like to think that his proposal was beaten by the offensiveness of its own egomania.

When the powers that be realised that the 2012 Cultural Olympiad was becoming shambolic, they brought in respected cultural leader Ruth MacKenzie to give it new direction. Various people said to me: MacKenzie is a shrewd judge of a good project, re-submit the Language Moment, she might have more insight than the previous discredited judging panels. So I did. I got a reply that she would pass it on to her team to consider. I heard nothing more and readers here will know the Language Moment has continued to develop and will subsequently be the legacy project I take forward after the Text Festival (freed from any constraints that the Olympics would have imposed).

Suddenly the BBC announced yesterday "An ambitious project to assemble poets from all of the Olympic nations in 2012 has been launched in London." apparently"Simon Armitage, the poet behind the idea, said: 'My hunch is this will be the biggest poetry event ever - a truly global coming together of poets.' The fucking poet behind the idea! Jude Kelly, the Southbank Centre's artistic director, (which is hosting the event) said: "Poetry has always been so associated with the Olympics - It seems appropriate to make poetry this central idea of something that is about a world gathering." Tony Trehy of the Language Moment said (in 2009 and again to the new Olympic Culture people in 2010): "Poetry was as much a feature of the ancient Olympics as sport. By the 21st Century the concept of global friendship has become central to the Olympiad without recognition of the role that the language arts could play in enhancing this world dialogue."

Apparently they are aiming for 200 poets from all continents. Hmmm... the Language Moment had 200 poets signed up from all continents. The only differences I can see is that the event will happen in London where the Language Moment happened in Manchester - to which people living in the north will no doubt look askance sky-ward, tutting "the usual story". And the other difference is that Hegemony of the Banal continue to limit the possibilities of language in poetry thus ignoring its relationship and dialogue with sound art, visual art, multimedia, etc.