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Keith Tyson, History Painting

Keith Tyson, History Painting

In a co-promo with The Guardian this morning, Keith Tyson gave away ‘5,000 original works for free’ — the process basically involved slashdotting Tyson’s own cumbersome flash-heavy site until you arrived at a screen where you could type in your own location, which would then generate a roulette-striped print for you, part of an online extension of his series of History Paintings.

If you missed out, here’s mine: download it and print it out (A3 recommended). Does this decrease the value of my ‘edition’ of the work (£100 is the starting price on on eBay)? Does it decrease the value of the edition as a whole? I doubt it, any more than printing the work out and blutacking it above the stationery cupboard to ‘share’ with my colleagues does. Aesthetically, it has some kinship with Maya Roos’ defrag paintings, but for all the fiddling around with randomness and generativity going on in this work, the idea of ‘editions’ is fundamentally pretty antithetical to the internet, a domain of infinite reproducibility, and the ‘released at noon’ gimmick a rather tired stunt.

On the morning that the Guardian came with a sheet of christmas wrapping paper ‘designed’ by Sienna Miller, we should probably allow for some seasonal lowering of standards. But there’s something truly sophomoric about Charlotte Higgins’ assertion that “Tyson’s attempt to colonise the web highlights how little, in fact, mainstream artists have harnessed its possibilities”.

In fact the really puzzling question is why mainstream contemporary art has so little interest in the possibilities and problems created by the internet. At the end of the article Higgins can do no more than assert that today’s art students watch YouTube and know about UbuWeb, which are both mostly vast archives of media objects. They’re each in their own way critical repositories of artistic history, but neither has much to do with any kind of online practice.

The disavowal of the internet might have something to do with the financialisation of the artworld so slobberingly documented by Sarah Thornton which demands a kind of differential pricing (original works for the collectors, editions for the serious fans, and mass market prints for the plebs), to achieve maximum market penetration. The web’s good for selling stuff like this, but work which is infinitely-reproducible, non-object, collectively created, ephemeral or politically aggressive, as online art tends to be, doesn’t really add any value for anyone but the audience.

Charlie Gere has a more in-depth analysis on CRUMB:

Institutions such as the ICA or Tate are absolutely invested in the quasi-religious mystagogy of contemporary art … This is I think the source of their resistance to New Media Art, which for me is like Toto in the Wizard of Oz, pulling back the curtain to reveal that the great Oz, the big Other, is nothing but a funny little man manipulating some levers and shouting into a microphone, or in other words art is nothing but a manipulation of material means and techniques. This is perhaps why NMA does not invoke the kind of emotional reactions that other Art does. That is perhaps both its strength and its weakness. It repudiates the mystagogical claims to transcendence that Art still needs to be believed in. No wonder Eshun and Bourriaud and all the others don’t want to have anything to do with it. It is not in their interests to have the curtain drawn back, which NMA arguably does by engaging in the fundamental technicity of all art through its own practice, which is otherwise disavowed. They’d rather have the big green shouty head.

which only suffers a little from the recursive what-is-art quandary of academic art discourse.

Apparently, Tyson also “hopes to exploit its possibilities more fully, by creating communities and open forums for discussions.” That’ll put him in direct and pointless competition with everyone from ArtReview to Facebook, then. (Remember when David Bowie transformed himself into an ISP? He can’t even keep his own website up to date these days.) Good luck with that, Keith.

If you’re interested in internet-based art, two of my personal recommendations are Harwood’s Uncomfortable Proximity and Tomoko Takahashi’s Word Perhect, both a few years old, but imho still politically and aesthetically valid. For a historical perspective, read Vuk Cosic or Olia Lialina. Visit the HTTP Gallery. Look at runme.org, ljudmila, furtherfield.org, and even Rhizome. But don’t expect to learn much from a Turner Prize winner.

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Fuck the Creative Industries

Fuck them first and foremost for their exclusiveness, for drawing a line between them and you and putting themselves on the creative side of it. Fuck them for saying that what they do counts and what you do doesn’t. Fuck them for the over-inflated notion of their own ‘creativity’.

Fuck them next because what they actually do create is awful. Acres of anxiety-inducing advertising, tedious dadrock and festering beehives of migrainous office blocks. Because it’s cancer before it’s even left the drawing board. Because they treat housing as sculpture, text like pictures and everything they do as an excuse to invite celebrities to a party.

Fuck them then because they really are an industry, an ugly, landscape-scarring, mind-polluting industry, treating talent like a mine and inspiration like dirty fuel. Fuck them again because of the frequency with which they demand subsidy and succour for their industry when they decide it’s an art. An entrepreneur wearing a t-shirt of a band you like is still an entrepreneur. And an entrepreneur is just a small maggot who wants to be a fat maggot.  One day, he’ll grow up to be a fly and shit in your food.

Fuck the creative industries because they promise to bring change, innovation and ‘disruption’ to the table before serving the same old bitter vinegar in impractically-shaped new bottles. People who think that product design ‘shapes the way we live’ should be permanently rehoused on a Midlands sink estate and mugged repeatedly until they develop better theories about the relationship between aesthetics and social formation.

An office with distressed plaster walls is still an office
An office full of folding bicycles is still an office
An office with a ping-pong table, pool table or football table in it is still an office
… and the people working in it are still drones.

Fuck them because they flood our eyes and ears with media like a backed-up sewer. Their whip pans, crash zooms and tedious electronics soundtracks are the vectors of a deadly, suffocating cholera of distraction. Their synchronised escalator adverts are a Nuremberg rally of the imagination.

Fuck their unshakeable faith in the importance of what they do. Talking to a graphic designer shouldn’t feel like talking to a Moonie. And fuck their “communities”, an insect-hive circle-jerk, a babbling repetition of the same meaningless cliches.

Fuck their ant-like colonisation of our intellectual culture. The only idea in the ‘business idea’ is the business of persuading people there’s an idea when there isn’t even a clue. They waste trees like an illegal Amazonian logger and  they waste our time as if it belonged to them: they are the windbags of superficial change.

When they call marketing poetry, they piss all over poetry
When they call conferences playful, they shit on play
They are lipstick on the mouth of a corpse

Fuck them because they think they are life, and they are only life’s dull echo.

Self-promotion round-up

Recently I’ve been getting poetic at nthposition; reading at writLoud and at Decongested; and talking memory at Big Ideas.

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.

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.

Questions and Answers

I’ve been nursing a minor, and so far inexpensive, addiction to AQA recently. It’s not just wanting to know the answer to a question when I’m not online, it’s not just being too lazy to look something up myself; it’s more like wanting to know what someone else thinks the answer is.

After the usual ego-boosting questions, to settle an argument with Rebecca’s Jonathan I asked…

Where was Captain Cook Killed?
Captain James Cook was killed on 14 Feb 1779 by the natives of Sandwich Island, now known as Hawaii. Captain James Cook was also a mapmaker.

Factually correct, and with a bonus piece of info too. (you only pay for the questions… the answers are free). Jonathan still technically owes me a pound for this. Jonathan says he asked AQA whether he was gay, and the response was something like: people who ask that question are more likely to be gay than people who don’t, and so on balance of probabilities, yes.

In a reflective state of mind, I asked…

How can I tell right from wrong?
AQA suggests that to tell right from wrong you should always ask yourself if you would want someone to do the same to you. If not, you’re probably wrong

Hmmm. Less the categorical imperative than ‘do unto others’. I wonder if AQA is a ‘faith-based’ question-answering service. I reckon it should be possible to triangulate AQA’s philosophical position in ten questions or less, but I don’t quite know where to start.

Once I’d noticed there was a viewing terrace at the top and doors at the bottom of the Duke of York’s column, I became annoyed that the latter weren’t open to provide access to the former (there is not enough access to tall things in London, generally), and I asked…

Why is the Duke of York’s column closed to the public?
Admission to the Duke of York Column & ascent to the summit should be accessible between 12pm & 3pm in winter & 12pm & 4pm in summer. Admission 6d each.

Uh-oh. Out of date information. But er… out of date information in pre-decimal currency? This is sloppy work.

I was once again reflective, when I asked…

What is the difference between contemporary art and modern art?
The term ‘contemporary art’ generally refers to today’s art whereas the term ‘modern art’ applies to art from the late 19th century until the 1970s.

Which was a very predictable answer indeed. That might be the trouble with MOMA.When Ruth was delayed on her journey home by a person in front of a train, we briefly discussed our own preferred methods of suicide and then asked…

How many people commit suicide by jumping in front of trains and tubes each year?
Around 50 people commit suicide by jumping in front of a London Underground train each year (200 from all trains in the UK); around 1 every week.

Which was many more than I’d reckoned. And a disproportionate number (a fifth of all of them) are in London. Is this because of the improved efficiency of London Transport? Are Londoners more depressed, or do people head to London to kill themselves as well as find themselves? This could be an expensive line of questioning.

And late one night & maudlin, I asked it, only slightly ironically…

Why do fools fall in love?
Fools fall in love because they do not recognise the signs of mutual attraction. However, some bitter folk would argue that all people in love are fools.

Fair point, & cute, if a little faux-cynical. But I spot a small logical error… AQA appears to be answering why fools fall unrequitedly in love, not in love at all. Surely it’s possible for fools to be in love, have that love requited and still be fools. What I was asking is why? But on further reflection, it’s a sensible answer, and I’m beginning to think that maybe Diana Ross was asking the question wrong in the first place.

I’ve read that AQA keep a record of the questions asked by individual users. Looking back at these questions, I’m beginning to worry they’ll send social services round to my mobile phone. There are vacancies in the UK once again: I wonder how much they pay.