April 29, 2011

The Bury Poems

In 2008, when Robert Grenier was in Bury for his reading at the "Irony of Flatness" exhibition, an interview had been set up with him conducively located in a local cafe-bar. Unfortunately the interviewer was taken ill, which we didnt hear about for a few hours and with Bob not carrying a mobile phone it took a while to let him know. In those hours of waiting, he wrote 6 poems responding to the local rural landscape, north of Bury, where he had requested to be billeted because he can't sleep if there is any urban noise. They were called the "Ramsbottom Poems" from the village where he was staying.  This got me to thinking about the poetic responses that could be accumulated from artists' involvement in working Bury - and thus was born the idea of the Bury Poems.

Initially, I commissioned Phil Davenport, Carol Watts and Tony Lopez to create new Bury Poems - which all 3 performed at the 2009 Text Festival. Also during that festival, while Ron Silliman was here, he spent time on his wanderings between events working on a new poem called "Northern Soul" to be part of his Universe project. Initally I suggested that we publish it in time to launch at this festival, but Ron felt it may not be appropriate or ready within his plans. But I remembered a comment that Ron had made to me backstage at his festival reading along the lines that he could see in the performances of the artists on stage before him direct resonances to his own work. This made me consider: what has no-one asked Ron to do? A piece of public art. So we commissioned him to make a public text, a neon work which will be shown in the Art Gallery and then located permanently as an artwork in the Bury Tram Station. The making of this work in itself then became an additional sequence in the Bury Poems. With the final addition of works written by Geof Huth also in response to the Text and new works written by Holly Pester, one of the performers at this years event, the collection was almost done. Done in my mind anyway. Having editorialised it to this stage, I invited Phil Davenport to co-edit and continue the project to publication. All that was missing was my commissioner's contextualising essay, but Phil felt that my own poetry was also a response to the context that I had created and so pressed me to select new works from "The Tragedy of Althusserianism" which I have been writing for ifpthenq but had to delay because of the festival workload.

The book arrived from the printers on Thursday, a very handsome production just in time for the opening on Saturday. My thanks to all the poets involved and to Phil for bringing it to fruition.

April 27, 2011

Curating the Text

Although I have only written about my curatorial conception of the Text Festival exhibitions once before they actually open, it feels like it is a tradition that I should continue with the forthcoming displays. In this, I’m mainly thinking about the Bury Art Gallery shows, Wonder Rooms and Sentences. I’ll write about A Map of You, TradeStamps, and Requiem another time.

Preparing for this the third festival, it occurred to me that while previous TF displays included examples of visual poetry, no show so far has directly addressed the question of the location of visual poetry in a gallery. My conception for the show has developed from my responses to the dynamics and location of visual poetry itself. The first thing that seemed obvious is the disconnection of visual poetry from visual art. I am not aware of many (any?) exhibitions of visual poetry qua visual art curated by a curator in an art gallery. Since the 1960’s and conceptual art, text-based work in contemporary art galleries is been ubiquitous; for a while I used to play a little mental game when visiting galleries – how long does it take to come upon a text work? After a while I gave it up because it became repetitive: but tellingly, they were unremittingly not works located in or even tangentially connected to a poetry tradition. As Christian Bök observes in the Harriet Blog about the Text Festival: “While we might expect poets to upstage all other artists in the use of language as an artful medium, few poets of advanced, literary renown have ever enjoyed the level of either artistic prestige or monetary success, typically experienced by any famous, visual artist who uses language in a gallery exhibit.”
It’s actually worse than that. As I have blogged previously, contemporary poetry is so disconnected from contemporary art that it is practically invisible. I could digress (again) into the problem of galleries deploying poets as event decoration which actually proves the point in the vacuous names they choose – eg Simon Armitage at Yorkshire Sculpture Park or Carol Ann Duffy at Tate Liverpool. Even probably the most famous curator Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Poetry Marathon at the Serpentine in 2009 failed to unpick the inherent alienation. One of the poets who performed at the Marathon, Caroline Bergvall (who is perhaps the most successful poet in contemporary art nexus – and by the way one of the first commissions in the first Text Festival) observed of the Marathon experience:
“Although a number of the chosen artists are known for dealing with writing and language pertinently and intrinsically as part of their artwork (Susan Hiller, Tacita Dean, Sean Landers, Jimmie Durham, Jonas Mekas, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster), it was something of a disappointment to see so many of them react with undisguised anxiety at that same word, ‘poetry’. Otherwise lucid, articulate artists found themselves in the throes of open self loathing, ‘I don’t know poetry’, ‘I don’t know what to read’” and “it seems to me that the event confirmed that the debates between art and poetry remain superficial and usually kept on a back foot, or at arm’s length.”
It is at the conceptual end of the poetry spectrum where it feels that the dialogue can engage most easily with contemporary art practice – and I’ll return to this in discussing Sentences. But the curatorial question of visual poetry remains: what are the dynamics of display for a visual form that is peripheral in the infrastructure of visual exhibition?

In attempting to answer this question (and I am not claiming my answer is the only answer), I apprehended a number of considerations – some are generalisations which may not apply to a particular individuals but are I think observable across the piste. The first is the prolific productivity which seems to characterise most vispo practitioners. Unlike other artistic practice, visual poets tend to generate many interpretations, editions or versions of the same work; though not necessarily common, some vispo artists treat the multiple versions as a rhythmic or serial single work. A second observation was the global ubiquity of visual poetry: as soon as you start looking for visual poets or invite submissions you find them everywhere. So one subsidiary question that floated around for a while was: are there national or regional stylistic differences? Are there even dialects of vispo? As I have curated Wonder Rooms, this has become less relevant. Parsing such subtleties proves difficult given that a significant driver of vispo production and distribution is the internet. It is noticeable that so much of the work is designed with software and ‘shown’ online, which in itself introduces another aspect related to scale. Seeing their precedents in poetry and hence the page, and then working for the screen, many visual poets do not have a specific sense of how their work should exist off-line. A lot of work came to me with no stipulation as to how big it should be printed or on what type of surface. This is not a criticism, just an observation of a dynamic in the form, which impacts on how it can function in a visual arts context in which scale in space is part of the vocabulary of reception. Then finally when I could find representations of other visual poetry displays, which tend to be curated by visual poets: I looked at what these implied about vispo’s interpretation of how vispo functions in a space.

The challenge is summed up by Christian Bök’s comment: “The visual artist might produce a linguistical installation that gets presented at a glamorous, grandiose scale—but to poets, such an installation might often appear “unpoetic” in its use of language, missing obvious chances to demonstrate the kind of artful merits, seen in the most expert usages of both concise rhetoric and unusual metaphor. The poet might deploy language more artfully than the visual artist—but alas, poets seem to be incapable of filling the white cube of the gallery with their own words, since poets lack the stylistic expertise that might give them access to the “vocabularies” of novelty, glamour, and fashion, required to address the world of art with an impressive, innovative gesture.”

So these were the elements that Wonder Rooms set out to address – production and distribution factors, display assumptions (of individual works and works in spaces) and then finally the specific location of visual poetry in Bury Art Gallery in its dialogue with Sentences (and to a lesser extent with the other shows in the festival).
My initial solution is implied in the title – the urge to ‘over-production’, the geographical ubiquity, the alienation of scale – suggested a cabinet of curiosities style installation. Not only was this inherent in the vispo landscape, but it also challenges the expectation of display as restrained in the minimalism of the white cube. Again, generally, on the odd occasion when vispo is curated it seems routed in a static idea of curating, a response to space that is inherited from galleries seen, rather than an engagement between the work and spatial immanence. Although it was my intention to pack the show to the roof, but as Picasso once advised, you should avoid the seductions of pretty ideas. So as the mass of works came to be laid out in the room, a new dynamic imposed itself – rooted in the original Wunderkammer idea but taking the visitor/reader through the space as an interweaving of vispo styles, methods of production, technologies, ideas exchanged in juxtaposition, and curatorial judgements about how blocks of works, colours, eye-lines, desire paths enhance the experience of passing through the space.
For the Sentences show, I set out to investigate the problem from a different direction. In looking at how conceptual artists have approached language in art, the simple observation is their tendency towards the sentence as the unit of composition – which is a relatively straightforward place for poets since LANGUAGE. And in consideration of the lack of stylistic expertise that might give poets “access to the “vocabularies” of novelty, glamour, and fashion, required to address the world of art with an impressive, innovative gesture”, I commissioned and sourced poets noted for their work with sentences treated with equality to text-based artists. I’m particularly pleased to be the only context that has commissioned Ron Silliman to create a gallery work; more than that, his neon text has been conceived as a piece of public art which will be repositioned after the exhibition to become a permanent feature at Bury’s Tram Station. Curatorially, this show was conceived to be a significantly minimalist hang to counter balance the excess of the Wonder Rooms show; though to establish a dialogue between the two spaces, a little of the latter style bleeds over into Sentences.

Anyway, there are a number of other ideas which inform the inclusion of Pavel Buchler’s Studio Schwitters, Christian Bök’s Protein 13, Holly Pester’s Text Festival archival work, etc. but I will leave these for visitors to experience. Let’s just say, I endorse Art Monthly’s review comment of the 2009 Text Festival’s “intrepid resistance to interpretation”.

April 20, 2011

The London Delivery

I've been looking forward to today for some time: the day when the art movers delivered the artworks collected from artists, galleries and collectors in London. It's a great moment when works that you pursued get unwrapped of their packing. Invariably they are bigger or smaller than you expected, which is also fun, because you have to re-think how things fit together.

It was a very intense day while the main focus was on working out the Sentences show, there was still installation work going on in the Fusilier Museum too.

April 18, 2011

The Team working hard on continuing installations

Chris and Scott hanging a work by Márton Koppány.
Another Márton Koppány work being transferred to the Transport Museum.
Sarah Kerrison (Transport Museum Curator) checking out a work by Marco Giovenale and another
Márton Koppány.
Helena Ho sorting out Geof Huth's vispo cards
Kat and Richard installing vispo...

April 16, 2011

Language Moment

The trailblazer event of the Text Festival took place last night at the Green Room. I was pleased with how the juxtapositions of artists worked - a great gig. These pictures were taken during the sound checks. More pictures, films and a soundtrack will be available in due course.
Maggie O'Sullivan
Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl

Phil Minton

April 14, 2011

Text Festival

The Language MomentFeaturing Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, Maggie O’Sullivan, Phil Minton and Ben Gwilliam & Phil Davenport, Sarah Sander, and Sarah Boothroyd
@ The Green Room, Manchester

Friday 15 April 2011

In a pre-festival partnership event with the Green Room, Manchester, the Text Festival presents an evening of virtuoso vocal performance and groundbreaking sound art.

Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl is an Icelandic poet and author of three novels. He works with performance and sound-poetry, and regularly appears at poetry and music festivals, as well as dabbling in the dark arts of the concrete. In the recent years he has explored the possibilities inherent in the European and North-American avant-garde traditions, and focused on disassembling language into its visual, social and linguistic units. Nothing can prepare you for the power and dexterity of his performance, the sonically richness of his sound poems, and his amazing control of his material. His huge contortions twist his mouth to stun the audience.

Phil Minton is a dramatic baritone with a free-form style of "extended techniques" that are extremely unsettling. His vocals often include the sounds of retching, burping, screaming, and gasping, as well as childlike muttering, whining, crying and deep-throated drones; he also has an ability to distort his vocal cords to produce two notes at once. Phil Minton's voice occupies a category apart, as joyously accessible as it is radical.

For over thirty years, Maggie O’Sullivan has been one of the leading figures of British innovative poetry. An international performer and visual artist, she is committed to excavating language in all its multiple voices and tongues, known and unknown, in visceral gestures that collage and pulverization at the service of a rhythmic vortex.
Phil Davenport & Ben Gwilliam are artists engaged in collaborative practice across different artforms: Davenport the poet and Gwilliam the sound artist merge experimental language through the infrathin processing of the silence between sounds.

The event will also feature interventions by Sarah Sanders and Matt Dalby.

April 13, 2011

Wonder Rooms hang

 The curation and installation start in earnest for the Wonder Rooms visual poetry show.

April 11, 2011

Helen White installs

Belgium-based poet Helen White arrrived today to install her texts in the Museum.


April 10, 2011


Could art ever compare to one of Sue's fine dinner parties? Last night, guests Christian Bök, Phil Davenport and Julia Grimes. 
On arrival prosecco and sharing platter consisting of bresola, hams, roasted red and yellow peppers, artichoke hearts, various dips and sausages in a spicy sticky sauce. Followed by:
A choice of parsnip soup or cauliflower veloute with chorizo and herb garnish accompanied with a Hungarian Furmint to drink.
Pan-roasted pork tenderloin, portobello mushroom sauce, cubetti potatoes, carrot puree and spinach accompanied with an Argentinian Bonarda.
Cointreau and blood orange jellies, home-made orange ice cream, and home-made orange-scented short breads; with Muscato d’asti to drink.
Cheese board followed by coffee and home-made chocolates (and for old times, no doubt some Finnish Cloudberry liqueur)

April 09, 2011

Text Update

Another week packed with Text Festival organisation: Printing late submissions from Michael Basinski in Buffalo, Fatima Queiroz in Rio and new tradestamp designs for Wang Jun (CHI) and Satu Kaikkonen (FIN) for the Museum Tradestamps show,
which I also spent time talking through with Museum Curator Sue Lord who has done the massive job of researching and pulling together the history and objects for the show – the nearly final installation layout decisions were made on Friday morning; followed immediately afterwards by the installation walk-through at the Transport Museum – for which the Nozomi video piece from Peter Jaeger and Kaz was confirmed yesterday. Phil Davenport was having such good ideas for this show that I invited him to take over its curation. Then quickly across the road to the Fusilier Museum with incomparable Curator Kat McClung-Oakes and Technician Chris Holland to look at the siting and technical issues of Steve Giasson’s 246.

Finally found Brazilian sound artist Bruno Bresani and agreed the work I want for one of the gigs.

Meanwhile Christian Bök continues to build the model of Protein 13; lots of to-ing and fro-ing with 3 different BBC departments attempting to set up interviews with Christian Bök – toward the end of the day it looked like the Science correspondent for Radio 4’s Today programme had bagged the story, but then it got lost somewhere in the BBC.
Also generated by Catharine Braithwaite were various media pick ups of Phil Minton especially his Feral Choir project running from 26 April. All this generated requests for more publicity copy, especially the gig on 15 April which the press obvious need soonest. The bit I like least: sorting out the technical details for the gigs at the Green Room, the Met Arts Centre and the Parish Church. The first two not so bad as both have technical staff who know what they are doing.

Helmut Lemke arrived for a tour of possible sites for his durational performance with Hans Specht on 30 April. Soon after Ian Hunter of Littoral turned up a week early to discuss the arrangements for the Schwitters events on Sunday 1 May.
Then back to the Gallery ring balcony to layout the selection of Japanese visual poetry that I think will go there. The works maybe a little delicate for such a large space but they fit its connective curatorial logic between Sentences and Wonder Rooms.
And each day more work arrives…
This week (interrupted a couple of times for planning the re-launch of the Irwell Sculpture Trail in September): Helen White will install her work in museum on Monday; an interview with the Manchester Evening News; curating the Wonder Rooms show; curating the Fusilier Museum show; writing various interpretation texts; and ending the week with Phil Minton, Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, Maggie O’Sullivan, Minton and Ben Gwilliam & Phil Davenport on Friday. Get your tickets!

April 08, 2011

molto semplice e cantabile

In 2009 during the Bury Art Gallery exhibition "Not at this address", the UK sound artist Ben Gwilliam performed a new work using ice casts of Beethoven's molto semplice e cantabile. Today, we received the conceptual conclusion of that work with delivery of a limited edition of the disc cast in transparent vinyl. Ben will be performing at the Green Room on 15 April with Phil Davenport as the opening gig of the Text Festival. molto will be available for sale at the Festival shop (£15) - I would suggest that your art collection is incomplete without a copy of this work.
In molto semplice e cantabile Ben Gwilliam taps into the traditions of harmonic music of the classical period, the Cagean rejection of what Beethoven stands for, sound artist turntablism, the physics of the anomalous expansion of water, the metaphysics of time, the counter-continuous diagram of creation through entropy, the very ontology of the listener. The plenary space fills with more than the sound of ice melting. molto semplice e cantabile is a recursive and dynamic inflation of musical parameters.

A mould of a vinyl disc of Beethoven's Sonata No 32 was taken to create ice casts of the record. Taking the ice discs from a fridge located in the space, Gwilliam places them on turntables and mixes two or more records - technology integral to contemporary aural experience that stores and channels original vibrations without depletion or transformation due to interaction with surfaces, densities of medium, of other frozen vibrations. Gwilliam goes beyond the technical. The discs are played by him, hands-on as it were, he is improvising; he develops an intimate knowledge of how ice melts – the humidity in the playing space, the differences in the original water consistency, the room temperature, all effect the way the work materialises. He is not simply in the hands of the physics of water’s anomalies, he adds fine spray as the records play, subtly lubricating the disc, the grooves refreeze the new droplets creating microscopic intervention. Suddenly the ice grooves give up and the 'instrumentation' becomes harsher, more mechanical, urban and then it slowly fades to a recording akin to applause, like ice being swept away or paper torn; melting unevenly the discs undulated to become more like crashing massive waves. A new disc was added, a re-invigorated orchestration, this time sounding more like series of explosions offered as variations. Abstract and swirling, rotation and undulation, the rhythm created by spinning discs is hypnotic and relentless, the energy of vague drumming culture intensity, or Reichian appropriation. But while molto semplice e cantabile shares the interminable repetition of these sonic traditions, through the mechanics of rotation, melting creates an extraordinary counterpoint, constantly moving to a different place with different turntable pick-ups subtly altering the pace and nuances and meaning of sound.

Fundamentally the work operates at the margins of physics – the phase transitional point of ice to water states. Phase boundaries between phases of solid, liquid, gas are characterised by the free energy of non-analyticity. The phase boundary between solid and liquid does not continue indefinitely. Instead, it terminates at what is called the critical point. At temperatures and pressure above the critical point, the physical property differences that differentiate the solid phase from the liquid phase become less defineable. It is in these unstable liminal spaces that Gwilliam conducts his sounds.

It is a remarkable flow feature of molto semplice e cantabile own phase boundaries that it is both a continuous function, discontinuous and, in its inversion of decay and creation, bicontinuous at the same time. In the wave ripples of mechanical thirty three and a third rhythm, shifting from utterance to audition, Beethoven’s contributory material is a decaying monolith, superseded, from the start distant from us even as it recedes. In this way, although the equipment of turntables and sampling gesture, discs spinning, pick-ups tweaked, that the work only nods at the intertextuality of analog-digital cut and paste. The whole is such a plenary concept that its amplification saturates the acoustic space: the microscopic crashes of the stylus in crumbling ice grooves become explosive glaciers - we listen to the sounds in listening inside sounds.
We are forced to address ourselves to the question of time through the work. Intellectually there is a cultural time-line, with the work carrying the history of music from harmony to modernist musicalising sound; but as we experience the ice record, a physical time-space thickness, we face the ontology of listening to our time as also melting. Ben Gwilliam pulls the sounds into time. Is there a mathematics of this, an equation of melting which extrapolates a rule? Could we apply a science to measure how long we have left? No. Physics dissolves culture (paradoxically modelling it into a sonic (cultural) act). Reality has too many micro-macro variables: the anomalous expansion of water becomes an uncertainty principle for our continued experience.

What does it mean for the ice to be represented by the vinyl?
An original vinyl is transformed to ice and now the ice is transformed back to vinyl, transparent, and shot through with the phased transitions from start to finish. But it could be argued that the production of a clear vinyl is illustrative, almost a decorative outcome, a product rather than the original process. The melting performances were located in time and places (Bury and Wolfsburg), but the disc is no longer site specific. Moreover, with this disc, circles are closed vinyl-ice-vinyl, harmony-melting-silence; the monolithic presence of Beethoven recording is engaged with the physical repeatable presence of its fading away, the transparency counter-changeable to the blackness of a traditional vinyl, symbolic again of the death of distance measured as time. The Gwilliam disc is the instrument, the sound emitting body, the necessary part of an ensemble which creates artistic meaning.

April 02, 2011

Textual Excitement mounts

I often comment in conversation that by the time Text Festival arrives it will already be over for me as I will have seen all the exhibitions before anyone else arrives. Obviously I won’t have seen buzz of so many artists hanging out or experienced the performances – but sadly I am able to enjoy these less than most because I have the stress of carrying the event and hopeful making sure it all comes together. The run up to the last festival wasn’t so good for me because I had an agonising broken tooth so preparations for the shows were a little distracted.

Without that pain, this time round is doubly exciting because the Text has achieved a presence in many artists’ thinking so lots more practitioners than previously have engaged with it.

Each time I walk into the receiving office at the gallery there are tables full of newly arrived works, packages wait to be unwrapped, fresh printed digital submissions: beautiful visual poetry from Japan via Vienna, the first 50 of 100 vispos by Geof Huth, a delicious limited edition by Eric Maximillan Zboya (pictured), Alexander Jorgensen’s prints from Prague, an unexpected video poem by Kazuo Takakatabe & Peter Jaeger which will be in the Transport Museum; two brand new, unseen, works by Aysegul Tozeren, a dozen poems from Zeynep Cansu Başeren arrive by email. A long Skype conversation with Steve Miller in Berlin about how the fonts should work on his powerpoint work; email exchanges with Marco Giovenale in Rome about his performance, with Derek Beaulieu in Calgary about his conceptual text response to the UK arts cuts, the complicated arrangements for Christian Bök’s construction schedule, Helen White’s early installation in the museum, the confirmations of On Kawara and Ian Hamilton Finlay for Requiem at the Fusilier Museum; testing sound works in location – Matt Dalby’s sound great in the Greenroom; contacts from Poetrifestival Berlin or the Journal of Contemporary Visual Culture in Dubai wanting to set collaborations; comings and goings of various media enquiries – BBC interview schedules, a possible World Service documentary (Catharine Braithwaite our media expert is doing a miraculous job as usual) – , advising on travel arrangements, suggesting hotels; checking the proofs of “The Bury Poems” publication which we hope will be ready just in time for the Festival. This was just the last few days. It’s been like this for weeks and it will just ratchet up day after day as the opening gets closer. On Monday, Christian arrives to start work; Helen White the week after; the big delivery of artworks from various London artists and galleries is awaited with great anticipation. On Friday we curate and install the museum Tradestamps show and curate the Transport Museum and maybe the Fusilier Museum too if we have time. The following week the Wonder Rooms (visual poetry) show is installed and on the Friday the first gig - Eiríkur Örn Norðdahl, Maggie O’Sullivan, Phil Minton and Ben Gwilliam & Phil Davenport. Blimey! It’s getting close!