Category Archives: ica

Slogan slogan slogan, shout shout shout

Workers at a protest, from The Battle of Chile, Dir Paricio Guzman, Venezuela /France/Cuba 1973-1979.

Workers at a protest, from The Battle of Chile, Dir Paricio Guzman, Venezuela /France/Cuba 1973-1979.

It’s all about shouting at the ICA today. Leandro Cardoso and Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre (who explains that “Uruguay is the only country in the world where god is spelled with a lower-case g”) present a workshop on Latin American political chants. After listening to unidentified recordings of protests and manifestations, we’re asked as a ‘listening exercise’ to think about what these sounds of demonstrations, speeches and streets clashes might be. The particpants (mostly students) reckons that some are ‘melodious’, others sound ‘tribal’, and one ventures to speculate on the number of amplification and recording devices that the voices have been filtered through to reach us. It turns out that all the recordings are from Chile in the three years running up to the CIA-back coup and murder of Allende (which Leandro pronounces almost as ‘Agenda’), some of them stripped and looped from the soundtrack to Patrico Guzman‘s Battle of Chile.

Our education over, we turn to practical exercises. We chant the word ‘freedom’ until it becomes meaningless to us (pretty quick, that) and then one participant is given Leandro’s mic and told to address and exhort us: we are told in turn to shout him down. Thirty people with their bare voices shouting down one man with an amplified voice is quite exhilarating, though I quickly feel the legacy of too many cigarettes: a street-corner orator I’ll never be.

We go on to follow the recordings and join in the chants: a la Plaza and trabajadores al poder! There’s something sublime about chanting together, even in the hallowed halls of art and isolated from politics. Leandro laughs at the students chanting about the workers and opines that though some talk about ‘re-enacting’ political events, we are not Chileans, and we are not in Chile thirty-five years ago, as if our worlds are incommensurable.

Meanwhile, outside Parliament, as MPs angrily debate their grocery receipts, Tamils protesting against the government genocide in Sri Lanka have broken the bounds of permitted protest. An email from an entity called CommunitySafe comes round to our desks:

A large number of Tamil protestors have spilled onto the road area surrounding Parliament Square, They have also advanced onto Westminster Bridge, this has brought traffic into the area to a total standstill. Please do not make any attempt to travel towards or through this area on either foot or by vehicle. Roads are likely to remain closed for some considerable time. Please refer to media outlets for updates.

Avoid Tamil protestors today. Maybe in thirty-five years time, we will be shouting Tamil slogans in the ICA galleries.

Something concrete

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Poster Poem. Image: Iliazd, flickr.com/migueloks

Ian Hamilton Finlay, Poster Poem. Image: Iliazd, flickr.com/migueloks

To the Poetry Library, then, for a tour and introduction to the history of concrete poetry in anticipation of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse., courtesy of Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe.  The Poetry Library houses the Arts Council’s modern poetry collection, its definition of ‘modern’ being post-1911, and it pursues comprehensiveness in collecting the entire poetic output of the UK, including ephemeral magazines and self-published chapbooks, as well as a representative sample of international poetry publishing.

It’s a brilliant place: its collection is available in stacks in the library on the fifth floor of the Royal Festival Hall; you can just drop in and consult a text. It’s also digitising its poetry magazine collections and putting them online. I first discovered the library in the mid-1990s, and rather arrogantly dropped off two copies of my own chapbook, one for reference and one for lending, both of which I’m always gratified to see they still have.

McCabe introduces the place, and shows us the library’s current exhibition, Lucy Harrison‘s Poetry Machines, a work that takes scans of individual words of poems and cycles them across a row of video screens to produce an multiplicity of new poems in the manner of Raymond Queneau’s seminal Oulipo work Cent Mille Milliards de poèmes.  But the real treat is that upstairs, along the entire length of the St Paul’s Roof Pavilion, laid out for us along thirty or so feet of tables is the history of concrete poetry using material from the archive.

It begins with Lewis Carroll’s Mouse’s Tale, progressing through magazines of 1960s avant-gardeism like Second Aeon, and the curious letterheaded subscription mailings of Private Tutor. There’s a whole table devoted to the gorgeous works of Ian Hamilton Finlay, mostly in the form of fragile little pamphlets featuring boats, and also postcards (of boats) and a card of a lovely-looking neon work. A lot of Brazilian stuff (the combination of typeface, round vowels and Portuguese nasal intonations seem to all go strangely together). Oddities include Colin Sackett’s Black Bob, in which a single frame of the Dandy comic strip is repeated across 63 identical spreads and a curiously sealed package including the work of Tuli Kupferberg backed with a correspondence about the intellectual property rights in the name ‘Poetry’.

Hamilton’s son, artist and poet Alec Finlay is there too, and of course the library’s own collection of Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. itself, missing a few copies and containing some stunning work by Mary Ellen Solt, John Furnival, IHF, Bridget Riley and many others. The explosion of inspiration in concrete poetry is evident in the sequence of the magazine itself. It starts out as a simply folded poetry magazine with illustrations and evolves into something else entirely, with entire issues devoted to a single collaboration between a poet and a typographer. My favourite might be Ronald Johnson and John Furnival’s Io and the ox-eye daisy, in which letters morph and move through each other in a brown-blue moonscape.

On further tables there’s a beautifully colourful shape-of-the-sun poster by Dom Sylvester Houédard, and Furnival’s extraordinary lithographic renderings of the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, densely packed with an inky allusive vocabulary. More recent works include Sam Winston’s Dictionary and a fabulous set of large fairytale-based prints, and Rick Myers’ limited edition boxes of texts and objects.

It’s properly impressive, and we all feel rather flattered that McCabe has taken the effort not only to get the stuff out of the archive, but also to construct an approachable intellectual history of concrete poetry. In some ways it speaks of its marginality; Finlay aside, there are few very well-known names here, and not many journals or publications dedicated exclusively to the form. You get the feeling that, like the villanelle or sestina, concrete poetry is now something that poets try their hand at as a demonstration of their virtuosity rather than a poetic tactic or affinity. In other ways, McCabe has drawn out an enduring tradition of the verse that pays attention to shape, and its ongoing exploitation of the tension between visual form and the internal ear. Either way, it feels like a privilege to be able to pick up and leaf through such an extensive display rather than gaze mutely at it through the glass of a vitrine. The more recent work that he has lad out for us, perhaps with an eye for our artistic sensibilities, comes in the form of limited editions, multiples and artists’ books like those produced by Coracle Press: poetry that has taken not so much visual inspiration from contemporary art as economic.

Walking backwards to the sixties tables, something strikes me about the confluence of poetry, art and radical politics. I’ve been looking at some old ICA bulletins recently, in particular the November/December 1967 issue that includes Tjebbe van Tijen‘s own photo-story of a continuous drawing from the ICA to Amsterdam, involving sarcastic humour and confrontation with the police at the bottom of the Duke of York’s steps, and John Sharkey’s ‘Popular Cut-Out Piece’. It seems to demonstrate a convergence of the radical, poetic and artistic in the ICA’s swish new premises on the Mall that’s unimaginable now.

Of course, in most ways, this radicalism was an illusion: Sirs Penrose and Read’s rather aristocratic ‘playground’ was then still an elite institution, and as such could tolerate the kind of disruption that posed no real threat to its audience’s place at the top of the pile. This kind of spectacular radicalism also worked as a kind of inoculation against real threats to the social order, a demonstration that British society could tolerate the counter-culture (whereas in reality, it couldn’t tolerate real change like equal wages for women or civil rights in Northern Ireland), an alibi for its continued reactionary existence.

Still, it’s hard not to feel some kind of nostalgia for the time when it was possible to discuss politics, poetry and art with the same set of people. Radical politics hangs on somewhere in the recent G20 protests, and if the theatre of protest still exists courtesy The Government of the Dead, there’s certainly little revolutionary fervour in the new East End, where ‘emergent artists‘ seem to be more interested in producing mediocre car advertising than changing the world. And poetry… well, some people are still reading poetry. Some people, like Daljit Nagra and McCabe himself are even writing good poetry. But compared to making art, writing poetry today seems a rather perverse and recondite activity.

Both contemporary art and contemporary poetry share a position realms of the ne plus ultra, in that anything goes: there are no limits to experimentation in form, elaborations of concept or nature of content. It’s a situation similar to the way that academic discourse can only be challenged through the medium of academic discourse itself. They’re the places in which the extreme end of our social dreaming can take place: while this often limits their relevance to our actual lives, contemporary art and poetry both have an essential role in exploring the limits of human creativity.

In status, however, they are completely unequal. While in recent years contemporary art has more than ever basked in the luxury of international money and media attention, epitomised in the Frieze Art Fair, an event which each year has me reaching for the Taliban application form, even among the literati poetry seems to be fighting a losing battle against prose fiction.  While the Poet Laureate and the most recent winner of the Turner Prize seems to attract an equal measure of controversy and derision, Andrew Motion scarcely feels like a fair match for Mark Leckey. McCabe himself might be more like it, but there’s no competition for emerging poets that seizes the public attention in the way that even Beck’s Futures did for art.

In the end it seems hard to put this discrepancy down to anything other than our old enemy, the commodity. While both poetry and art share a similar social function, art can be bought and sold: it has literal value, and value attracts attention and social activity. That the power of the market has then affected the amount of attention that we pay to each form, and the access we have to each is unsurprising. The relationship has been distorted to the extent that capitalism itself is a distortion of life. Shelley’s ‘unacknowledged legislators‘ remain unacknowledged.

If poetry has derived any benefit from its non-object, reproducible status, perhaps it’s this: the Arts Council’s own collection of contemporary art, constrained by budget, foresight and all the other vicissitudes that make art buying a popular hobby of investment bankers, is actually a rather poor affair. By contrast, the collection of poetry belonging to the Arts Council that lives in the Royal Festival Hall is, as we have discovered through looking at only a tiny fraction of it today, an invaluable archive and an exciting resource. After McCabe has concluded our tour, I shyly-proud pull my own volume off the shelves to show my colleagues, hopeful that they’ll be impressed and petrified that they might actually read any of it: it’s a pretty appalling piece of juvenilia. But that’s the beauty of this place, and of poetry: looking after things, however little they apparently may be worth.

Ruined gothic

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Pancras Halfspider: Paul Day's The Meeting Place

Like an Edwardian cinema, a Victorian train station has two parts: the frontage that welcomes you, and the hall where the business of departure is done. The front is generally shallow and tall, the shed long and low. Together they form a supine letter L. The building that faces you on the street is typically the more impressive half (such buildings’ fantasy architecture returns to haunt them: the colonisation of former cinemas by religious organisations is not limited to Pentecostal churches. Is it surprising that a former cinema once owned by Mecca Leisure has become a mosque?). But even cinema sheds are not without their merits, as watching even the most meagre arthouse fare in the Finchley Phoenix or the Duke of York’s in Brighton will show you.

So it is with the dreaming Gothic spires of Sir George Gilbert Scott’s Midland Grand Hotel and William Barlow’s vast single-arched train shed at St Pancras. The monumental vision of an architect, and the architectural vision of an engineer combine gloriously (engineer Brunel alone was good enough for the earlier Paddington). But alas, now split between the glassed-off fortress of the Eurostar showroom and the far-off extension for the spurned Midland platforms, the undercroft filled with a standard-issue transport shopping mall, and enhanced with a Betjeman-themed pub, St Pancras has been multiplexed.

Is it possible to love gothic without also loving its abandonment? The Gothic Revival was born from the appreciation of picturesque ruins, but even a twentieth century hipster might talk of wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic appreciation of transcience. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect.” Like Brighton’s West Pier which periodically burns and folds slowly into the sea, the Midland Grand gained something from its ruin and emptiness. We cherished the tiny glimpses that we caught on Open House weekends, the impassive facade we drifted past on the nightbus, even if we didn’t know what St Pancras station, like its near-namesake vital organ, was really for.

Margaret Thatcher’s London manufactured dereliction. City-based representation was stripped away, the rights of the suburbs to veto progressive transport policy were enforced, and corruption was funnelled through borough councils. This wasn’t just about a recession: even in the boom years the Tories were more interested in beginning again in the Wild East on the Isle of Dogs than the city or even the City. Though the channel tunnel rail link was signed off by Heseltine, it was only with the election of a Labour government, less than a year after the Spice Girls symbolically reopened the doors of the hotel in the Wannabe video, that the regeneration of the Midland Grand Hotel became an inevitability. As Iain Sinclair says, you can’t make policy decisions to preserve decay, but a five-star Marriott and penthouse suites promise to be as showy and tasteless as the Peyton and Byrne pastries on sale in the arcade.

Tubby little John Betjeman, St Pancras’s own Paddington Bear, holds onto his hat and gasps in awe at Barlow’s train shed. Appointed patron saint, the man who through the medium of the Victorian Society is credited with having saved the building from modern hammers. Though his heirs in the Society relish regeneration, he himself invested a very gothic wistfulness in the building, deeming it ‘too beautiful and too romantic to survive’ (though almost certainly it was the labour economics of a building without ensuite bathrooms or central heating that did for the hotel itself). He’s a fusty figure for a fusty restoration: the author of A Subaltern‘s Love Song, is a bit too metropolitan (in the wrong way) for London today. In fact, Betjeman was at his best when satirising exactly the kind of middle-century, middle-English existence that we now use him to typify, and not just on the subject of Slough.

The dead hotel is haunted not by Betjeman but by an upstart and a ghost. The Euston Arch is the Midland Grand’s dead twin, the unsaved glory of the Euston Road, a baleful classical monstrosity borne of the architectural monomania that decreed every public building from a bank to a school should be modelled on a pagan temple. Those who would reconstruct it, return it to a zombie heritage half-life, are guilty of the same neurotic fixation with the past that led the city government of Berlin to demolish the Palast der Republik and replace it with a facsimile of an eighteenth century palace. Rebuilding the Palast now would make as little sense. It is a building that we can now only access through memory and historical record: all that will ever happen there has happened. The construction of the lines into St Pancras itself involved the destruction of half St Pancras churchyard (under the supervision of Thomas Hardy). Should we reconstruct that too? History is human jam: you can’t make strawberries back out of it.

The upstart is Colin St John Wilson’s British library building. Though it’s the UK’s largest public building of the twentieth century, it bears a mere 10 million bricks to Scott’s 60 million (Bazalgette’s majestic shitpipes put them both to shame with 318 million). Wilson was a member of the Independent Group alongside brutalists par excellence the Smithsons, but his library is associated with the warmer nordic humanism of Alvar Aalto, and fellow Independent Eduardo Paolozzi’s Newton After Blake graces the courtyard. We can tell the building is a modernist masterpiece because that eminent Palladian Prince Charles said something rude about it. He called it “an academy for secret police”, but in fact it’s Babcock House just down the road, a building of Grecian proportion, that once housed our secret services. The library may look a bit like a suburban Tesco, but with five subterranean floors extending twenty five metres down into the London clay, Wilson’s behemoth is an iceberg. Its form nobly follows its function, if only we could see the form.

If there is a single focus point for all these contradictions, it is in another structure found on the Euston Road, one also on the brink of obsolesence. Scott’s own son, George Gilbert Scott Jr died mad and cirrhotic in the Midland Grand, but Scott Jr’s son, Giles Gilbert Scott’s architectural achievements rival his grandfather’s. He designed not only Liverpool Cathedral and Battersea Power Station, bringing gothic home to the modern, but also the archetypal K2 red telephone box. Whence the inspiration? From the self-designed mausoleum of a man of the other party, arch-classicist Sir John Soane, which can be found in in the undisturbed half of St Pancras Churchyard. See the echo of the curved pediment? Take a picture on your phone and text it to someone. If you’re lucky, one day it may be all you have.

The above owes a great deal to drink and conversation in the Betjeman Arms with Nathan Charlton and Rich Cochrane. The podcast we made on the night [mp3 | subscribe: xml]  is available on the Big Ideas website.

Leftfield and Looping

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The Lifesize Zoetrope, Dir Mark Simon Hewis

The London Short Film Festival‘s Leftfield & Luscious programme of experimental shorts is a good halfway house between the ascetic contemplationism of the LFF’s Experimenta weekend, and the calling-card aesthetics of most other shorts programmes. With a small prize backed by Wallflower Press (the Lux in previous years), and unencumbered by any obvious curatorial baggage, it’s a light-on-its-feet sort of picture of the state-of-the-art.

In The Lifesize Zoetrope [watch] director Mark Simon Hewis creates selfsame out of white t-shirted extras in a fairground centrifuge. The camera zooms in on a book of sheets that each particpant holds, and each scene repeats a couple of times as a zoetrope would before the page turns and a new sequence begins. The technical dedication is admirable (imagine how easy it would be to create the effect of this happening rather than actually filming sheets of A4 paper on a moving fairground ride), and the sometimes-scratchy results reminiscent of early eyetoys, but beyond formal experimentation the story itself is a suitably circular and repetitious tale of life, procreation and death.

The Black Dog’s Progress [watch | essay by Karen Alexander] (Dir Stephen Irwin) starts with a similar lo-fi moving image technology: looping flickbooks are laid out one by one across the screen, building up the tableau of a dog’s life through rejection, hunger, perversion and death, ending with a howling inksplatter. Both films were funded by Animate Projects, (an ACE/C4 venture) laudably supporting artists’ ventures into the medium of animation.

Like a filmic camera toss, Christopher Steel’s Welcome to Southside takes a roll of film and exposes it to the lights of London’s South Bank 36 times. Lights become lines become stars: the shape of the London Eye is somehow there and somehow not. Nagisa Kinoshita’s Touched is a creepy series of meditations on womanhood, from the little girl holding hands with a monster in the park, through pregnancy as a tethered balloon and the emergence of dark tentacles from within (we watched this while waiting for news from the hospital of L’s sister’s baby); each vignette breaks and then recedes through the vertical surface of the screen like water.

Judith Poirier’s Dialogue appears to lay type directly onto clear leader with ink: elegant outlines filled in with telltale inky ripples. What’s printed on the frame appears to be applied to the soundtrack as well, an echo of the experimental tactic used by Mary Ellen Bute, and by Norman McLaren in Synchromy. Typographers’ dabblings in other visual forms are typically facile (and often hard to read), but Poirier plays a more entertaining game: while bold capitals only produce snaps and crackles, the most aurally pleasing examples are the lines of lower case repetitions: mmmmmmmmmmmm, ppppppppp and fffffffffffff together produce satisfyingly crunchy bliptop chords.

It’s not the only film in the programme that refers back to earlier works. Ava Lanche’s Silence [watch], like Eisenstein et al’s Everyday, works through a groundhog day of alarm clock ringing and feet clumsily hitting slippers on the floor, before deviating to a simple point: each morning a woman wakes to urinate and tell us of a recent newspaper article justifying further wars in the name of the struggle against terror, which is useful, as she’s just run out of toilet paper.

On a gentler, more personal tip, The Reason I Collect [watch] takes Paul Escott’s own account of his life as a collector and hoarder of almost everything (save christmas cards), and animates the objects themselves: toys at war, a svankmajerish taxidermy cabinet, other people’s family albums and a one-armed Luke Skywalker: everything once belonged to someone, and that gives everything meaning. New Madrid (winner of the Wallflower award, imho a duff choice) narrates John James Audubon’s account of the 1812 New Madrid earthquake which altered the flow of the Mississippi river, over footage of landscape and submerged trees: beautiful and meditative, but also somnolescent.

Jacob Cartwright & Nick Jordan’s Landing Lights (Wallflower’s special mention), a 3-dimensional model of a plane repeatedly flies through a 3-dimensional model of a residential building, shown from several different aspects. The immaterial intersection of imaginary forms, the intimation that the catastrophe of a plane flying through a towerblock can be averted through modelling software as each are perfected on the drawing board, is magnified through the eerie emptiness of both plane and building into an ethereal beauty, until at last an engine hits a glancing blow on a folding chair left carelessly in its path, and something is touched.

On the less formal side there are a couple of interesting performance-based films, one amusing and one tragic. Alan Chieh-Hung Liang’s Cul De Sac is the recursive adventure of a scriptwriter stuck in a storytelling dead end, unable to make anything happen to a couple on the run through a tunnel. He ends up getting on his bike and going for a pint. Rinat Kotler’s You’re Not Going Anywhere presents a split screen, juxtaposing children playing and a woman recounting in a jocular fashion a horrible tale in which a woman skins her lover, without comment.

The final film in the programme Better to Have Loved [watch] (Dir Karen Macey), gets a live-action/stop-motion effect from being constructed of photographs on cards animated and manipulated, overscrawled with spiders, matchstick men and fuzz. Climbing through a hole in a wall leads a lonely man back to the seaside, a lost love and the picture on his own bedroom wall.

More so than feature film festivals, the point of short film festivals and programmes often seems questionable. With world-domination outfits like Future Shorts making a serious fist of online distribution, and online channels continually hungry for this sort of content, you can see a lot of these films online, in most cases before they hit a big screen anywhere near you. Why bother to drag your arse down to a cinema on a January Sunday evening? The point of sitting down in the dark and seeing all these films together (and more importantly the skill of the programmers: a mighty tip of the hat to Kate and Philip) is not only the avoidance of buffering and distraction but to see the whole lot at once, to grasp similarities, differences and references. This year, it seems to be all about returns: films that return to the beginning, and return to experimental traditions.

South by Southwest

I don’t realise how much London attitude I’ve got till I’m in the Hourglass Inn and spot a youngish barman sporting a tufty ginger beard and another youngster in a trilby: I’m cursing them already for the sheer affectedness of it all before I remember that this isn’t 93 feet east and sometimes people just wear beards and hats.

Phew. The next morning I find out that in Exeter you can pay what you like for a book, but the bookshop staff don’t get paid (“it’s in the constitution” says the dreadlock on the phone), and that culture exists outside the M25: Spacex have a pretty excellent Cory Arcangel show on.

I’ve been dying to play I Shot Andy Warhol, for a while… it’s based on an old NES game, Hogan’s Alley, one of the first to be played with a light gun. The cartridge has been physically hacked (the plastic sawed away, the chips removed, reprogrammed and soldered back in) to replace the baddies with Andy Warhol, and the don’t-shoot-’em goodies with Flavor Flav, the Pope and Colonel Sanders. Keep shooting Andy, and eventually you start to feel like Valerie Solanas. As a bonus you can also blast ricochets off spinning Campbell’s Soup cans.

In Sans Simon, Arcangel edits Paul Simon out of a 1960s Simon and Garfunkel performance with his hands, interjecting their shadow between a projector and the wall, which is then refilmed. In Colors, the top line of pixels of Dennis Hopper’s cop drama of the same name is stretched downwards to fill the whole screen, so the soundtrack plays to a rippling curtain of moody greens and purples. The Bruce Springsteen Glockenspiel Addendum takes the few tracks on Born to Run which don’t contain glockenspiel, and adds the missing instrument. The format is a giveaway CD. The track lengths remain unchanged: pop it in a drive and the CDDB will read it as the original. Put it up as a torrent, and the unauthorised version will spread, an invisible virus.

The centrepiece, a couple thousand short films about Glenn Gould, reassembles the first of Bach’s Goldberg variations from the single notes of thousands of YouTube musical performances. Twin screens play separate melody lines, synchronised with simultaneous frame grabs from the amateur movies. For my money, Oliver Laric did this sort of thing better with his ICA piece Under the Bridge in which renditions of the Chilli Peppers’ ballad were similarly stitched together note by note as single frames accumulated in rows filling a four-times-normal-width screen. That piece had something about fandom and guitar-devotion in it that Arcangel lacks.

As media art, Arcangel’s stuff is about the usual clever media art things – the ubiquity of video, low-tech techniques in a high-tech age, the accidentally aesthetic qualities of everyday media. But more importantly, it’s very funny – watching Paul Simon trying to sing from behind Arcangel’s hands, the crappy eight-bit sound as Warhol takes another direct hit, the fact that many of the instruments in the Glenn Gould piece are being played by cats and hamsters: each time, it’s a giggle.

Also made from what’s found, Virgil Widrich’s Fast Film, playing on the closing night of Animated Exeter, takes the archetypal Hollywood chase and projects it onto virtual origami. As the basic forms of the chase scene are animated with the folded-paper forms of racing train carriages and paper planes, each surface has embedded into it carefully-picked scenes from the entire array of movie history. Bond walks along an underground passage: as he passes behind pillars he ripples from Connery to Moore and back again. A woman is fiendishly manacled, but her head rotates on a lever-operated disk: here’s Janet Leigh emoting anguish – click – now Tippi Hedren. The cumulative effect, like that of Cremassticparkinator 3, is to demonstrate how alike films are not only in their plot and structure but also in their gesture and manner. The kiss, the punch, the laugh: all repeated a million times.

Films about other films are fantastic, and it took reading Dubravka Ugresic to make me realise that one of the simple and unpretentious pleasures of postmodern literature is reading books that are about other books. At seventeen, studying it for A-level, much of the emotional impact of The French Lieutenant’s Woman was missing from a work of literature that’s all about other literature. Visiting Lyme Regis for the first time goes some way to exorcising the ghosts of that spine-bent paperback illuminated with dayglo marker pen. However, it’s not the 1860s but the 1970s that are most immediately evoked: there’s a shop where you can still buy backjacks and fruit salads for a penny each.

In fact what’s most striking about the place is not the cobb (crowded, slippy and a bit short) but the long Jurassic cliffs stretching west. Here was once shallow seawater, teeming with spirally little ammonites dutifully dying, falling into mud and getting lithified into cute fossils. Tectonic action has lifted the resulting near-perfectly horizontal strata out of the sea and into cliffs of shale from which the fossils can easily be pried. Carl says that the creatures found in higher levels show clearly higher levels of morphological complexity than the creatures in lower levels, an irrefutable demonstration of the thesis of gradual evolutionary advancement.

How could the heart of a fervent atheist be gladdened further? Sadly, these days it seems to take more than overwhelming evidence for the scientific theory of evolution to prevent even the most po-faced bishop-basher to declare that they like getting Christmas presents anyway. Thankfully, the beauty of mere nature prevails: on the drive back to Exeter, we drive into the most gorgeous of sunsets: a burnished orange glow, filtered through the naked branches of windswept trees.

Monument Manoeuvre

Standing on the second floor balcony of the ICA looking out across the greenery of St James’s Park to the London Eye, Westminster Cathedral and beyond, artist Tim Brennan reads out two passages. The first concerns Westminster City Council’s disinclination to allow any more statues to be built in the city, arguing that future monuments should rather live in the form of tress or gardens rather than statues; we have simply already filled the city with memorable figures. The second is an encyclopaedia introduction to various forms of amnesia. This is the beginning of Monere Manoeuvre, a walking tour of monuments in the vicinity of the ICA, and the following is written from memory and a single page of notes that I wrote immediately after the walk.

The area immediately around the ICA contains the physical manifestations of many sets of unpleasant power relationships: the clubland of St James, the odious Institute of Directors, the embassies of foreign power, all butt up against Whitehall, the home of the direct bureaucratic instruments of government. It’s fertile ground, and two artists have used the ICA to explore it in the last year alone: Cerith Wyn Evans in his tribute to Marcel Broodthaers, opening up the lower gallery to the Colour Guard on the Mall; and Heath Bunting in his exploration of local embassies. And again, with Memorial, we find ourselves exercising a fantasy about the memorial form in a part of London in which there is apparently no room for any more.

Brennan’s method is the juxtaposition of evocative quotation with the physical presence of objects, and so once outside the ICA we move from monument to monument as he reads from printed passages pasted into a brown notebook. It immediately feels like being inside an interactive Patrick Keiller film, but it’s also the opposite of the new Time Out brand of London geekery, of dreary fact-collection, the pursuit of local history in the hipster garb of a wildly-misunderstood concept of ‘psychogeography’.

By James Cook’s statue on the Mall, he reads a passage describing the proliferation and differentiation of Polynesian culture across the eastern pacific, and the duality in the social structure of natives and strangers (the principle of tangata whenua, but not in so many words). From the statue of Charles I at the south end of Trafalgar Square we can see the Banqueting House and receive a gratifying description of the hours preceding the regicide, but with Uganda House also in view there is also a disquieting account of the tactics of Idi Amin’s Public Safety Unit.

Any kind of guided tour reawakens my dormant geekily enthusiastic child who wants to ask questions about this thing, that thing, where that quote comes from, almost as much as I want to show off what I already know. But Brennan eschews the role of the knowledgeable or even impressible guide: he cannot even pretend to be able to answer all the questions we might have.

The fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square becomes a catafalque; what is now Thai Square on Pall Mall and was once Norway House is adorned with a Blood Eagle, cause for an account of the vicious Viking torture that stripped a bird shape from a man’s ribs before drawing out his lungs. Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to traverse the North West Passage is recounted; at the foot of Edward VII’s plinth shrapnel scars are examined and shellshock described.

Amnesia returns as a refrain: amnesia caused by physical trauma; amnesia caused by psychological trauma; amnesia caused by hypnosis; amnesia of an event that will never be recoverable because memory was not transferred from the short-term to the long-term memory faculties, a simple and irretrievable loss of data. I wonder what is being forgotten; whether it would be better to forget some of the people of whom these statues were built. In Budapest, where the revulsion for the statues of the former regime was violent and unambiguous (unlike London, where we feign to regret the crimes of empire and yet preserve the likenesses of its bloody criminals) the statues that were hacked down in 1989 have been resurrected in a statue park on the outskirts of the city. Here they are both simultaneously remembered and forgotten.

Standing by the memorial to Robert Falcon Scott, Brennan begins to describe the symptoms of and recommended treatment for, hypothermia before breaking off to ask if any of us have ever suffered from hypothermia and then if any of us can remember what we were doing a year ago on the seventh of July. I have to remember two years ago first, before remembering standing on the Mall participating in a two minute silence outside the ICA building that most of the passing tourists and traffic were unaware of and failed to participate in. He asks if this is the kind of living memorial that Westminster Council is talking about. I’m not so sure a moment can be a monument.

Lastly there’s a local favourite: the grave of Giro, faithful companion of the last Weimar ambassador to London buried beneath a small stone at the top of the Duke of York’s steps; Brennan tells another story: that beneath the carpets of what was the German Embassy on Carlton House Terrace there remains, unfound, a swastika flag. He finishes with a killer unscripted anecdote: Ribbentrop, Oswald Mosley, Diana Mitford and Albert Speer sitting on the balcony of the German embassy in 1937, looking out across the greenery of St James’s Park and discussing their plans for a transformed and reshaped London. Imagine a London rebuilt by Speer, I say. Isn’t that what’s happening now? he asks.

Martin Creed vs Second Life

I’ve been thinking occasionally about art in Second Life recently, and it occurred to me that the philosophical proposition of Martin Creed’s Work #232: the whole world + the work = the whole world which is self-evidently true for the world we live in, is not true for art in Second Life: every work of art added to SL will literally increase the volume of SL as a fraction of the real world (server space, processor power) and culturally increase the weight of SL in people’s consciousnesses. Does this mean that art in Second Life has a philosophically, or even ontologically, different basis than art in Real Life? Discuss.

Brian Eno and Steven Berlin Johnson are a pair of clueless twats

What is it with Wired journalists and their superficially-attractive-yet-underlyingly-bollocks theories of the world? Did they learn nothing from The Long Boom? Not too long after Chris Anderson rolled through town with his bad Amazon maths and middle-aged YouTube gawpery, up rocks Steven Berlin Johnson to talk about The Ghost Map, and according to, er, my website:

Johnson will explore what a cholera outbreak in the nineteenth century can tell us about solving the long term challenges we face in the twenty-first century.

which sounds interesting enough, so along I roll to see the talk introduced by Brian Eno (charming and tweedily avuncular), in his capacity as co-founder of the Long Now Foundation, devoted to taking the 10,000-year perspective on things.

It starts off with SBJ talking about how the mystery of London’s 1854 cholera epidemic was solved by a dilettante doctor and a priest who mapped the cases to their source in the Broad Street Pump. And as far the story goes, it’s good.

After that, it gets bizarrely irrelevant. The ‘challenges’ of the twenty-first century apparently consist of 1) people living in cities in the US being a good thing because it they vote Democrat and 2) whether ‘community’ can (yaaaaawn) exist online as well as offline. 3) meandering gossip about Second Life and how to punish people who interrupt the view of a virtual sunset with political slogans.

Eno praises denizens of the ‘real’ third world who build up elaborate Second Lives and then sell them to rich westerners as an entrepreneurial marvel, rather than some obscene kind of social organ harvesting. In fact there’s rather a lot of talk about Second Life. The audience are no better, asking us to indulge in ‘thought experiments’ about those valuable democratic voters getting drowned because they live near the coast, and asking about the role of the ‘exurbs’.

So what had been a half-formed sympathetic question on my part about how you relate the central-urban problem of a cholera epidemic to Mike Davis’ Planet of Slums becomes a small tirade about the ‘hobbies of metropolitan elites’, and asking if they have anything to say that relates to the reality of life the modern inhabitants of cities, ie slum dwellers. (It’s not until I get home that Ruth reminds me that while safely conquered in nineteenth century London, even cholera itself is still busy killing people in refugee camps and warzones around the world.)

Eno’s response is to tell me to read Robert Neuwirth, and then to say that slums are self-organising, that they gain infrastructure and develop, and lastly even that the cure to slums is gentrification, where former slum property becomes desirable and slum areas are incorporated into cities properly. And that the Second Life demographic isn’t the metropolitan elite because it’s, er, half female, and contains a lot of old people.

Then he tells an anecdote about a clock he made for the Science Museum, and the talk’s over. I’m amazed by how little their arrogance translates into any evidence of actual thought about the world, particularly its inequalities. If these people are looking after the future, then we are well and truly fucked.

Moi, l’artiste

I have four pieces in the ICA ‘PRIVATE: Staff Only’ show:

IV. The New Republic

X. Points of Transit

XVIII. The Man Without Qualities

XXIX. What People Argue About in Heaven

Watching this go up around the building has been a real treat. Every weekend, new works have appeared: on the narrow stairwell, in corridors, and even in our offices. Déva has her films running on a monitor by the photocopier; Emma has her dirty washing in the kitchen. Little surprises popping up everywhere.

Though there have been mutterings about some of the work being ‘a bit GCSE’ (usually from people who don’t have anything in the show), I’m really surprised not by the talent that’s on display, though there’s plenty of that, but by how many of my colleagues are (unlike me) day-to-day working artists. While Jens rather patronisingly wonders what it must be like to be a mere gallery assistant when you’re ‘actually an artist’, I’m struck more by the way artistic practice is a part of so many people’s lives. Though it’s also notable that the show belongs to the ground floor and mezzanine a lot more than to the second and third floors, and inasmuch as work refers to the quotidian ICA, it refers to the ICA below Carlton House Terrace rather than above.

The show’s also at least as conceptually rigorous as Cerith’s empty gallery: a hidden secret gallery behind the walls draws attention to what and who it takes to keep the white cube, the cinemas and the theatres, running: the wires behind the scenes. Welcome to the ICA, now please move along, there’s (literally) nothing to see here…

Please pay attention motherfucker

Please pay attention motherfucker is the title of Cerith Wyn Evans’ stuffed magpie, perched on a branch in the concourse leading to the ICA bar. Some people are having a hard time dealing with its intimations of bad luck; the magpie is oblivious, its wings fully flung as if about to leap into flight, its beak dark and glittery, unaware it’s an omen of any kind. It’s hard to get a photograph with any detail against the bright white walls and ceiling.

Staff have the usual morning bar talk on the day of opening, and Cerith turns up to apologise for his work if it embarrasses us. He’s dapper in a grey suit, a band of transparent beads around his left wrist and a grey soup-straining moustache. He asks for a light. When he starts talking, his voice at first sounds odd, foreign, until the cadences fall into place as properly Welsh. He doesn’t say much at first, and so Jens tells us a joke that Cerith has told him.

Cerith interrupts a film crew and leads us all into the lower gallery, which has been stripped bare for the most controversial work in the show, Décor, named after Marcel Broodthaers’ 1975 exhibition (a formative experience for Cerith) and the centrepiece of a show that’s essentially a homage to the ICA itself. The work itself consists of the lower gallery with its stud wall removed to reveal the original arched Nash windows, allowing natural light to flood in, and making Westminster visible outside. As if on cue, as Cerith is talking, the Queen’s Life Guard go by on their horses, all feathers and funny helmets, quite an odd and beautiful sight. I ask Cerith what he thinks of the view itself, because I hate this part of London. He says it’s all human, that the guards aren’t actors, they all have their inner lives.

Upstairs, Cerith takes us into the first gallery, in which motorised venetian blinds spell out in morse code an academic text discussing errors in early astronomical photographs of the southern hemisphere caused by imperfections in the photographic plates and process. How, as Cerith says, ‘a scrap of dandruff became a galaxy’. He points to where Marcel Broodthaers had arranged cannons pointing at the sites of power and tradition in Whitehall. The whole exhibition is a love letter he says ‘a love letter to Marcel Broodthaers’.

In the other upper gallery is the show’s title work, take my eyes and through them see you. It’s a big projector running a continuous loop of fully-exposed film. Throughout the course of the exhibition, the film will pick up dust, scratches and tramlines, gradually adding to the projection of monotonous black with green scratches and white sparkles. It’s both direct film without the artist’s agency, and a film work that it’s impossible to preserve. It reminds me at first of Malcom LeGrice’s White Field Duration, but in the gallery, it seems to be about the projector as much anything else: rather than being hidden away behind another wall, it obtrudes itself on you with its fat cakestand and inky loop of film. It has a mirrored plinth, something Cerith seems particuarly happy with. If a film projector has ever looked sightly camp, it’s this projector.

Later I hear second-hand that at the members’ talk the same evening some were outraged with Décor, and someone called it ‘degenerate art’. It made me laugh. Richter and Grosz are company anyone can be proud of keeping. Some were less amused.

And why the magpie? Because, says Cerith, when you head to the bar at the ICA, it’s always one for sorrow.