Tag Archives: ica

Content

Content, Dir Chris Petit, UK 2009

Content, Dir Chris Petit, UK 2009

This is the foregoing, redux. Chris Petit cannot let go of the Westway, a promise of modernity unfulfilled, now only a key to the past, driven over again, the camera always behind the wheel of the Mercedes, the act of driving as tracking shot. Serious bespectacled youngsters, old men in statement hats and sallow psychogeogratrices are here to see. Multiple narratives, overlapping narrators. It’s usually at this point that we come out of the dive, says Emma Matthews.

Abandoning synchronised sound means the freedom to create any narrative from the images you have. Ten horses begin the race; not so many finish. Malfated children talk about the daily drizzle of family life. Family: “a mechanism for turning life into containers of resentment”. Ian Penman returns from cyberspace to speak through Hanns Zischler about email and late middle-aged desire. A film whose writers have been downloaded.

Petit’s collection of postcards from Berlin, in all states: pre-war, occupied, DDR, post-Wende. The architect whose 1941 vision of Auschwitz as a dormitory town for German emigrants is reborn in the 21st century as the newtown non-place of Cambourne. The parallel drawn, I won’t take it further than that, says Petit. What is said after the film illuminates as much as the film itself.

Always, again driving. Driving as the inevitable Ballardian anticipation of the crash. The crash writ real, the Crisis. Beneath a Dallas underpass, the approaching panoramic rectangle of daylight a forced metaphor for the cinema screen when this technology would no longer be recognizable to the Lumières. Petit pronounces his own take on the Kennedy assassination: an inside Catholic job to martyr the philandering president.

Thomas Hood’s ‘I remember I remember’ orchestrated by a musician found online, located in Finland and encountered in Dalston. “We are imperfect readers of the texts of our parents’ lives”. The middle-aged fear is palpable, but the tone is still sharp, still Robinson. These bald men in round glasses: is Keiller, Sinclair or Petit ventriloquising this film? Where’s the resistance, someone asks. Disappearance, he replies, is dissent.

Watch it on More4 next Tuesday

No more heroes

Anti-art

Anti-art: Home and Childish

It’s best not to have literary or artistic heroes. Leaders will always betray you, and heroes will always let you down. As they slide into their dotage, as their work becomes weak and repetitive, someone will always taunt you with their latest fatuity, reminding you how much you once loved them (in my case a role usually played by my father). Their books and records on your shelves, their pictures on your walls, are like mementos of an ex you can’t bring yourself to chuck away. So, best not to have the heroes in the first place. Except: some people’s work grabs you, and you can’t let it go. In the mid-nineties, three people who fell into this category for me were Stewart Home, Billy Childish and Iain Sinclair. Not only for how or what what they wrote, but also because they wrote about an interweaving, overlapping knot of things that mattered to me: poetry, resurgent Londophilia, anti-art polemics, post-Trotskyist politics, popular culture and the Situationist International.

Both Childish and Home have a history of polemic against my old employer, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (worse than either heroes or leaders, places like that: if you make the mistake of forming an attachment they’ll rip your fucking heart out). Home imagines its violent destruction by the masses in Defiant Pose; Childish as recently as last year targeted the place as part of Art Hate Week. And now, in the space of two weeks, all three of them appear at the ICA, just when it’s going through one of its episodic convulsions (mass redundancies and a departed head of exhibitions; the chair of its council is said to be flinging papers across desks in fury and falling through chairs at meetings). It’s like… well, it’s like something out of an Iain Sinclair book. A storm of synchronicity. This can’t be missed.

At the Childish’s private view it’s good to see old colleagues and catch up on current horrors. The new Childish paintings are better than the ones I saw at L-13 a couple of years ago. Estuarine landscapes and defunct steamboats, portraits of Robert Walser’s snowy corpse, a character that Billy integrates his own self-image into, via Knut Hamsun’s yellow-suited Nagel. Essays in the accompanying Roland catalogue/magazine contain plenty of typical cringe-inducing combinations of forensic over-explanation and missing the point; Childish’s own writings and poems, and a short story by Walser are much more powerful. In the upstairs galleries, a wall of album covers featuring Pop Rivets, Headcoats (and Headcoatees) and Buff Medways, is a reminder of Childish’s prolific output in all creative fields. Poems as black vinyl words on the white cube cement the feeling that poetry can certainly be read in an art gallery, but preferably not on the walls.

A week or so later, Childish reads his poetry and shows some recent Chatham Super-8 films in the ICA Cinema. I’m prepared to be disappointed, and have a little bet with myself that he’ll sing The Bitter Cup (“whiskey runs through me like a sorrowful river”). Of course he does, but it’s also quite good, not least because he keeps up a self-deprecating anecdotal monologue (he offered to oil-wrestle portly Guardian art pontificator Jonathan Jones, apparently) between poems, and takes the piss a little out of the audience (who don’t look like a typical Childish audience, but what does a typical Childish audience look like?). Some of his intense hatred for family hypocrisy seems to have mellowed since he’s become a dad himself, and the patriotic stuff escapes me (a 20-minute movie about the re-enactment of a first world war march through France is the evening’s one bum note) but he’s hardly yet ready for treasure status. In both verse and person he remains committed to a open, egalitarian vision of human creativity, a harsh critic of art education and any kind of detachment from influence.

The talk by Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair is unconnected to the Childish exhibition, purloining its title from a forthcoming Verso book of urban essays, Restless Cities. Two such massive egotists on stage without a disciplinary interlocutor is always a risk: Sinclair begins by claiming that he may have invented Home as a character, or at least some of his ‘psychogeographical’ writings. Home puts him right on a couple of points about the London Psychogeographical Association and the Neoist Alliance (attempts to recuperate Italian left-wing communism through the establishment of one-man splinter groups) before launching into a series of anecdotes about the gangster antics of distant relatives. Home speaks in the same monotone he uses for his fiction readings, with an added air of weary resignation implying that he could tell you how everything really is, if only it was worth it. He’s oddly compelling: you think you’ll get bored of listening to him long before you do.

Sinclair reads a little from Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire. He’s at his most convincing in his opposition to the Olympics and the clear-cutting of East London. I’ve come across  several people recently slating Sinclair for his adolescent pseudo-romantic solipsism and self-indulgent prose, but his consistent digs at the Olympics, as previously at the Dome, are an honourable sally. Sensitive to accusations of being a pair of ageing men only interested in the past, Home responds by mentioning his enthusiastic use of the internet (I can vouch that he posts a lot of videos on facebook), and the vastly improved quality of contemporary café food. Sinclair by contrast regrets the contemporary immanence of media: journeys of discovery are his bread and butter.

The subject of the ICA’s current crisis itself comes up: is it at risk of becoming a lost venue, like the Scala? Home mentions the notorious 1989 Situationist International exhibition at the ICA that historicised the SI (a trajectory aimed squarely at the gift shop) at the same time as it was coming into focus for the generation of avant-garde leftists that gave birth to the LPA. The first visit Home himself made to the ICA was to see an exhibition of Marvel comics in the bar. He mentions JJ Charlesworth’s analysis of the current crisis in Mute, and mounts a surprising (but half-hearted) defence of current director Ekow Eshun, arguing that the precarity and corporate orientation of the ICA goes back to Philip Dodd, and Mick Flood before him.

They seem in danger of historicising themselves. Sinclair offers that what matters to him, the work that he produces, is the connections offered by anecdote and coincidence. Old men trading on past glories? Here’s where the web tightens and pulls me in. The first time I visited the ICA was for the SI exhibition Home mentioned (people were handing out leaflets outside: who demonstrates outside an art gallery?). Childish is indirectly responsible for my early persistence in publishing my own poetry, via a friend, whose own chapbook, Jack the Biscuit is Skinhead, was inspired by Childish’s Hangman Press. I remember the friend who typeset Childish’s first novel, for another publisher, complaining about what a pig the job was (too fond of Celine, too particular about his ellipses). I used to send Stewart Home stamps in exchange for copies of Re:Action (one of which featured a headline quotation from one of my father’s books), my own (failed) mail art project used a box at British Monomarks, the same mail-forwarding company Home used. My connections to Home and Childish are precisely Sinclair’s tangential, anecdotal, coincidental connections. Not enough to build anything but a meandering thousand words or so out of.

Nevertheless, in the final days of Thatcherism, in the last decade before the internet exploded, Home and Childish offered evidence of a meaningful samizdat popular culture. Self-published chapbooks, small press book fairs, Xerox art workshops, the AK press catalogue and postal exchanges were all part of a real alternative to the depressing monotony of mainstream literature and music. It’s halfway to archaeology now, but it’s become a personal archaeology. That’s why the records are still in the collection, that’s why the books are still on the shelves.

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It’s best not to have literary or artistic heroes. Leaders will always betray you, and heroes will always let you down. As they slide into their dotage, as their work becomes weak and repetitive, someone will always taunt you with their latest fatuity, reminding you how much you once loved them (in my case a role usually played by my father). Their books and records on your shelves, their pictures on your walls, are like mementos of an ex you can’t bring yourself to chuck away. So, best not to have the heroes in the first place. Except: some people’s work grabs you, and you can’t let it go. In the mid-nineties, three people who fell into this category for me were Stewart Home, Billy Childish and Iain Sinclair. Not only for how or what what they wrote, but also because they wrote about an interweaving, overlapping knot of things that mattered to me: poetry, resurgent Londophilia, anti-art polemics, post-Trotskyist politics, popular culture and the Situationist International.

Both Childish and Home have a history of polemic against my old employer, the Institute of Contemporary Arts (worse than either heroes or leaders, places like that: if you make the mistake of forming an attachment they’ll rip your fucking heart out). Home imagines its violent destruction by the masses in Defiant Pose; Childish as recently as last year targeted the place as part of Art Hate Week. And now, in the space of two weeks, all three of them appear at the ICA, just when it’s going through one of its episodic convulsions (mass redundancies and a departed head of exhibitions; the chair of its council is said to be flinging papers across desks in fury and falling through chairs at meetings). It’s like… well, it’s like something out of an Iain Sinclair book. A storm of synchronicity. This can’t be missed.

At the Childish’s private view it’s good to see old colleagues and catch up on current horrors. The new Childish paintings are better than the ones I saw at L-13 a couple of years ago. Estuarine landscapes and defunct steamboats, portraits of Robert Walser’s snowy corpse, a character that Billy integrates his own self-image into, via Knut Hamsun’s yellow-suited Nagel. Essays in the accompanying Roland catalogue/magazine contain plenty of typical cringe-inducing combinations of forensic over-explanation and missing the point; Childish’s own writings and poems, and a short story by Walser are much more powerful. In the upstairs galleries, a wall of album covers featuring Pop Rivets, Headcoats (and Headcoatees) and Buff Medways, is a reminder of Childish’s prolific output in all creative fields. Poems as black vinyl words on the white cube cement the feeling that poetry can certainly be read in an art gallery, but preferably not on the walls.

A week or so later, Childish reads his poetry and shows some recent Chatham Super-8 films in the ICA Cinema. I’m prepared to be disappointed, and have a little bet with myself that he’ll sing The Bitter Cup (“whiskey runs through me like a sorrowful river”). Of course he does, but it’s also quite good, not least because he keeps up a self-deprecating anecdotal monologue (he offered to oil-wrestle portly Guardian art pontificator Jonathan Jones, apparently) between poems, and takes the piss a little out of the audience (who don’t look like a typical Childish audience, but what does a typical Childish audience look like?). Some of his intense hatred for family hypocrisy seems to have mellowed since he’s become a dad himself, and the patriotic stuff escapes me (a 20-minute movie about the re-enactment of a first world war march through France is the evening’s one bum note) but he’s hardly yet ready for treasure status. In both verse and person he remains committed to a open, egalitarian vision of human creativity, a harsh critic of art education and any kind of detachment from influence.

The talk by Stewart Home and Iain Sinclair is unconnected to the Childish exhibition, purloining its title from a forthcoming Verso book of urban essays, Restless Cities. Two such massive egotists on stage without a disciplinary interlocutor is always a risk: Sinclair begins by claiming that he may have invented Home as a character, or at least some of his ‘psychogeographical’ writings. Home puts him right on a couple of points about the London Psychogeographical Association and the Neoist Alliance (attempts to recuperate Italian left-wing communism through the establishment of one-man splinter groups) before launching into a series of anecdotes about the gangster antics of distant relatives. Home speaks in the same monotone he uses for his fiction readings, with an added air of weary resignation implying that he could tell you how everything really is, if only it was worth it. He’s oddly compelling: you think you’ll get bored of listening to him long before you do.

Sinclair reads a little from Hackney: That Rose-Red Empire. He’s at his most convincing in his opposition to the Olympics and the clear-cutting of East London. I’ve come across  several people recently slating Sinclair for his adolescent pseudo-romantic solipsism and self-indulgent prose, but his consistent digs at the Olympics, as previously at the Dome, are an honourable sally. Sensitive to accusations of being a pair of ageing men only interested in the past, Home responds by mentioning his enthusiastic use of the internet (I can vouch that he posts a lot of videos on facebook), and the vastly improved quality of contemporary café food. Sinclair by contrast regrets the contemporary immanence of media: journeys of discovery are his bread and butter.

The subject of the ICA’s current crisis itself comes up: is it at risk of becoming a lost venue, like the Scala? Home mentions the notorious 1989 Situationist International exhibition at the ICA that historicised the SI (a trajectory aimed squarely at the gift shop) at the same time as it was coming into focus for the generation of avant-garde leftists that gave birth to the LPA. The first visit Home himself made to the ICA was to see an exhibition of Marvel comics in the bar. He mentions JJ Charlesworth’s analysis of the current crisis in Mute, and mounts a surprising (but half-hearted) defence of current director Ekow Eshun, arguing that the precarity and corporate orientation of the ICA goes back to Philip Dodd, and Mick Flood before him.

They seem in danger of historicising themselves. Sinclair offers that what matters to him, the work that he produces, is the connections offered by anecdote and coincidence. Old men trading on past glories? Here’s where the web tightens and pulls me in. The first time I visited the ICA was for the SI exhibition Home mentioned (people were handing out leaflets outside: who demonstrates outside an art gallery?). Childish is indirectly responsible for my early persistence in publishing my own poetry, via a friend, whose own chapbook, Jack the Biscuit is Skinhead, was inspired by Childish’s Hangman Press. I remember the friend who typeset Childish’s first novel, for another publisher, complaining about what a pig the job was (too fond of Celine, too particular about his ellipses). I used to send Stewart Home stamps in exchange for copies of Re:Action (one of which featured a headline quotation from one of my father’s books), my own (failed) mail art project used a box at British Monomarks, the same mail-forwarding company Home used. My connections to Home and Childish are precisely Sinclair’s tangential, anecdotal, coincidental connections. Not enough to build anything but a meandering thousand words or so out of.

Nevertheless, in the final days of Thatcherism, in the last decade before the internet, Home and Childish offered evidence of a meaningful samizdat popular culture. Self-published chapbooks, small press book fairs, Xerox art workshops, the AK press catalogue and postal exchanges were all part of a real alternative to the depressing monotony of mainstream literature and music. It’s halfway to archaeology now, but it’s a personal archaeology. That’s why the records are still in the collection, that’s why the books are still on the shelves.

Recent acquisitions: poetry

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

Recent Acquisitions flickr.com/dannybirchall

The horror of buying a novel is having to read it. Fascinating discoveries from second hand bookshops and chainstore threefertwos alike pile up on the shelves, taunting you with your laziness and their unreadness; novels that have been read are no better, merely taking up space as you slowly forget their plot and characters, destined to either be lugged from house to house as you move, or given away as fodder for Oxfam in its quest to become the Tesco of secondhand bookselling.

A book of poetry, on the other hand, is never finished. The most dog-eared and memorised volume of verse is all the more valuable for that; the smallest anthology is always capable of revealing new lines and new perspectives. And never being finished, starting is easy. Dip in, find one good line, one satisfying couplet or image, one short poem that you can read to your other half in bed, and the book has already paid for itself. Moreover, there’s never any reason not to buy a book of poetry today just because you bought one yesterday.

And so, recent acquisitions include:

Jerome Peignot, Typoesie
A gorgeous anthology of visual poetry, bought for me as a leaving present by my lovely colleagues at the ICA. It contains some beautiful flower poems by concrete poet Mary Ellen Solt, who shares with abstract animator Mary Ellen Bute not only a first name but being a true pioneer in a field dominated by men. I have a small dream of one day curating a small Mary Ellen festival devoted jointly to the work of both.

Tom Chivers, How to Build a City
I did my little bit to save Salt by buying this (great though they are, their constant self-publicising does border on the annoying). The author is not to be confused with the London Paper hack of the same name, though this book is all about London. Dense, allusive stuff. Contains the word ‘lozenge’ in the first line of the first poem.

The Norton Anthology of Postmodern American Poetry
Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. led me here, looking for Robert Creeley (title) and Clark Coolidge (Guston collaborations), as well as some Beat context. Postmodernism’s a dirty word: postmodern less so, the further you get from the 1980s. Very familiar names rub up against very (to me) unfamiliar. There could be a lot of education in this one.

The Collected Poems of Kenneth Koch
A P.O.T.H. impulse probably led me here, too. I wish that Koch’s name rhymed with Hanhan Höch’s, but instead it rhymes with Coke. Seven hundred-plus pages of poems I will probably never read most of, but a few short beautiful and funny ones including  ‘Permanently’ and ‘Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams

Johannes Kerkhoven, Mixed Concrete
Acquired in Housmans and published by Hearing Eye, a book of contemporary visual poetry. Intriguing, but some of it borders on the tritely aphoristic.

Pot! Poetry Olympics Twenty05
An output of Michael Horovitz’s small empire. I saw Horovitz, editor of Children (and Grandchildren) of Albion,  perform at a recent London Liming at the RFH. Coming on with his ‘anglo-saxophone’ after a young woman had read a rather self-righteous poem about how she preferred the power of words to the power of drugs, he performed an excellent poem about being stoned out of his gourd which was many times better than hers. Later he could be seen by the side of small the stage tapping his foot to the dubstep poetry of Spaceape. This book also contains the very funny ‘Spam’ by Stacy Makishi, who performed at London Liming’s QEH outing last year.

City State, New London Poetry
Edited by the aforementioned Chivers, a sampler of new London writers from Penned in the Margins, every one of which is younger than me. More by Chivers himself, Chris McCabe and Caroline Bird (another Liming performer). East London references probably win out over any other corner of the city, but the range of poetic practice is satisfyingly wide.

Generation Txt
Another Penned in the Margins/Chivers effort, a self-consciously zeitgeisty collection of six young poets. Better than it sounds: there are already some favourites here, including Joe Dunthorne’s ‘Sestina for my Friends’ which he performed at the recent Oxfam launch of The Manhattan Review. James Wilkes’ ‘A Postcard from the New Forest’ is a piece of visual poetry curiously reminiscent of Ben Marcus’ invented worlds.

Peter Finch, Selected Later Poems
Signed by the author, and acquired at a reading at the ICA. Hearing Finch read was like feeling poetic horizons physically widened. The fact that his reading was so viscerally oral is neither undermined nor lessened in  works committed to dead tree. Some of it borders on the concrete, some of it can be heard with the mind’s ear; all of it adopts a relentlessly unforgiving playfulness with language (From ‘Paint’: “Winter Arse …  Blueberry Sandinista … Mango Vagina”). This is the second book in the list to contain a parody of William Carlos Williams’ ‘This is Just to Say’, entitled ‘The Plums’. (Tom Leonard has written another: I may devote a tiny aberrant corner of my Mary Ellen festival to this form).

Two threads of commonality: four of the books contain poets who I have recently seen perform. Five of the books in some way relate back to the ICA’s Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. All of them remain resolutely unfinished books. Forever.

Free, or really Free?

The worst thing about public talks given by the new tech glitterati, Anderson, Shirky, Steven Berlin Johnson and their ilk, is not the half-baked philosophastry, the down-pat ‘insights’ and general air of arrogance: it’s the fawning, my-hero puppy-dog questions the audience ask. Andrew Keen may be as wrong as dogshit for breakfast, but he gets an argument going. Thursday’s appearance by Chris Anderson at the ICA to plug his latest book Free, the basic argument of which is, as he succinctly tells us, that the twentieth century’s idea of free goods as too-good-to-be-true loss-leaders has given way to an economic model where, due to rapidly falling costs of bandwidth, storage and processing power (he refers to Moore’s Law as if it causes the number of transistors on a microchip to increase) it is possible to run businesses by giving away a lot of things to a lot of people for free.

And right on cue, the first question is: ‘Er, Malcolm Galdwell didn’t like your book. What do you think of that’. This questioner didn’t appear to even have read Gladwell’s review of Free: he didn’t repeat any of its arguments; he just wanted to know what Anderson thought about getting a bad review. Maybe I shouldn’t sneer; I make a bit of a hash of asking my question, and Harkin tries to wrap me up, but the gist is this:

A real model of Free exists, and that is Free Software. Created in collaboration between individuals without monetary incentive and available to anyone to use. It’s a model of collective knowledge creation compared to which, Anderson really is still talking about a twentieth century model of ‘free’, because what’s given away is essentially as much of a loss-leader for ‘freemium’ (this kind of hateful vocabulary can only exist in the head of someone who thinks in ‘business ideas’) content as a Be-Ro home recipes book. I suggest that Anderson may be doing the kind of disservice to real Free that Eric Raymond did in 1997 with the Open Source Initiative, responsible in some way for the incoherent muddle of underhand business models that now revolve around the words ‘open source’ (Microsoft’s definition-bending; the ‘community version’ scam; the not-quite-proprietary CMS model where it’s ‘Open Source’ but only one company’s developers work on it).

That’s definitely a lot better than I put it in person. Anyway, Anderson gratifyingly responds with ‘I disagree with everything you just said’. He counts Open Source an unqualified success, but all his examples are those of businesses that have made money using an open source business model. Any question of whether software or our lives have got better because of the phenomenon is quite clearly ultra vires. (The ‘business idea’: it’s not really an idea).

There’s some ‘free’ giveaway stunts with the book itself (time-limited downloads etc: It’s now published on scribd, in a disgustingly unusable fashion). Anderson tries to impress us that he’s persuaded Disney, his publishers, to do any of this. He boasts about how outside the working day he licenses much of his own personal work under Creative Commons licenses; he runs an ‘open source’ hardware company making drones (from the website it looks like a sort of model airplane club, but when an American says ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’ you can’t help but think of dead Afghan wedding guests). It sounds nice to be Mr Chris Anderson, and he’s certainly making the most of his ‘cognitive surplus‘, but you hardly get the feeling he’d be making the drones if it didn’t pay off somehow.

Knowledge can be properly Free, when supported by individuals’ donations of their time (like Wikipedia) and taxpayer-funded institutions’ sense of the public good (like the Flickr commons). The knowledge commons is something that belongs to us all, all of it and can’t be withdrawn at the whim of a media baron, or disappear with financial restructuring. To survive, the commons also needs continual replenishment with new material, and a book that can only be read on a website for a week doesn’t count. This other kind of free (like the software that runs this blog), the Anderson free, is certainly useful, but to confuse the two is to flatter businessmen and threaten the future of our culture.

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.

SuperFloodManifesto

Flooded McDonald's

Superflex: Flooded McDonald's

I.

McDonald’s as the Marie Celeste, a perfect desertion. The low hum of attendant machinery in the background. Rubbish on the floor, a meal on a table, a crisp french fry dipped in still-glistening oleaginous ketchup. Everything placed as if in an experiment, the excrescence of human activity without active humans. The employee of the month smiles from the wall, as silent as the man-sized Ronald standing sentry by the counter. A pot of filter coffee waits to be poured, a droplet hangs in the spout of a soft drink dispenser.

Then water begins to well in from under a door a ripple flowing across the floor, as if a toilet has overflowed. It dusts the litter, moves it around a bit, knocks over a yellow ‘wet floor’ sign. Laps at the chairs’ legs. It doesn’t take much of a swell to float the big hollow Ronald. He rises and bobs around like a greeter, welcoming us to the restaurant. Eventually he overbalances and topples, lying helplessly on his back.

The machines shake. One by one glowing Ms go out as their electrics shortcircuit. Tiny Ronalds, in happy meals and on wall displays, topple into and drown in the rising waters. The chairs wobble away. The water rises inexorably, biblically. It reaches the tables and lifts the trays and their abandoned meals, works its way into the ketchup, emulsifies everything.

It all ends in gorgeous chaos, the chips and coffee and rubbish floating around in the increasingly opaque water, the way a burger, coke and fries must do once you’ve wolfed them all down. The connection between meat production, global warming and rising sea levels passes me by. I’m thinking that when the floods subside, it isn’t the water that’s dissolved the houses, it’s the shit left behind that makes them impossible to live in.

II.

Earlier, in the same place, solicitor Daniel McClean (joint editor of the Ridinghouse/ICA 2002 Dear Images publication, a discursive handbook on art and intellectual property law) gives a slightly-overlong talk on copying and the law in art. He begins with a discussion of the history of art as copying: sketches and engravings taken from paintings, Ravenna after Raphael and Raimondi, Picasso’s Déjeuner after Manet’s, and so on. He posits the idea that all of art history is predicated on a tacit ‘creative commons’, the resources of other artists available to all other artists and goes over some of the copyright basics. He introduces the idea of copyright as an economic measure, enshrined in the US constitution (but doesn’t address the parallel European notion of moral rights).

The most interesting part of his talk is individual cases, the thought experiments of right and wrong, and in particular the cases of three contemporary art superstars caught red-handed incorporating other people’s work into their own products: Damien Hirst’s giant copy of his son’s Young Scientist Anatomy Set; Jeff Koons’ sculpture based on Art Rogers’ Puppies and Glenn Brown’s near-copy of Anthony Roberts’ Double Star.

Hirst and Brown settled out of court, and Koons, claiming parody, lost in court to Rogers. There’s something offensive about these cases, and it isn’t either that appropriation is wrong, or that the boot is often on the other foot (Fischli & Weiss had every reason to be outraged by the banality of Honda’s The Way Things Go rip-off). Rather, there’s something about the elevation of contemporary art that allows for an arrogant attitude towards the materials it makes use of. Humbrol’s science kit is ‘only’ a toy; Art Rogers’ photography is contemptible, and Anthony Roberts is ‘only’ a hack paperback cover painter.

There’s a simultaneous need and contempt for popular culture in the high art avant-garde going all the way back to Greenberg’s 1930s essay, Avant-Garde and Kitsch which counterposes the avant-garde’s “superior consciousness of history” with “ersatz culture, kitsch, destined for those … insensible to the values of genuine culture”. If you believe that your artistic acts are a transcendent category, then like the contemptible Shepard Fairey, you quickly become a hypocrite, defending only your own creation of (literal) value, even as you sell it from your own back pocket.

IIa.

Superflex‘s Rasmus Nielsen at last takes the stage from McClean with his laptop. Superflex do ‘process art’, stuff that mostly takes place outside a gallery and doesn’t take the form of objects. Starting from their student biogas project, DIY cowshit-to-fuel generators, they first ran into IP trouble with their biogas PH5 lamp, a sustainable lightsource in the shape of a 1950s Scandinavian design classic by Poul Henningsen. The artistic intention seemed simple, to reinvest value in a modernist ‘universal object’ that had long-since become merely a symbol of bourgeois comfort. Henningsen’s lawyers disagreed and delivered a (‘what do you call these things?’ – Nielsen possesses that superb deadpan of the near-native English speaker) cease-and-desist, not the only one Superflex have ever received. Their subsequent projects have often worked around taking on IP as a tool to modify, rather than revolutionise, the economic terrain.

Copy Shop is a franchise to facilitate challenges to the intellectual property regime. They got a lot of press for Free Beer, an open-source brewing project (rather missing the point I think as you can’t physically copy a bottle of beer, more’s the shame). Another bottle project was Guaraná Power, when they worked with smallscale Brazilian guaraná growers to create and market an ethical alternative to InBev’s grower-crunching corporate version. It originally came in brand-satire bottles; following yet more cease-and-desist, it’s become more-or-less just another ‘ethical brand’, but following the publicity, one stocked in Danish 7-11s.

Their Supershow, in which rather than being charged an entry fee, entrants were given two francs to see the Superflex show in Kunsthalle Basel, which consisted of the audience itself, had overtones of a typically awful artworld surplus reflexivity. There was better street theatre in Free Shop in which ordinary grocery stores were funded to give everything away for free for a day, presenting customers with a zero receipt at the till. One quote from a pharmacy considered the disruption of daily routine a threat to the mental health of their psychiatric drug customers, reinforcing the idea that not paying for things is literally insane.

Neilsen reminds us that Mark Getty told The Economist: “Intellectual Property is the oil of the 21st century.” It’s no surprise to find the Getties at the top of the pile, but oil means war. If the Koonses and Faireys of this world are warlords, talking liberation only when it suits them, and Superflex are the guerrillas, always subject to the seduction of peace talks, then Lessig and the Creative Commons stand by like the UN, praying hard for peace but powerless to stop the chetniks descending on Srebrenica (actually, I think Lessig’s currently doing the tribunal). Is this a war in which only artists are combatants?

III.

Later, in another place, a bar full of people collectively read aloud the Freee Manifesto for Guerilla Advertising (after the Revolution) in front of a new bar poster commissioned from the art collective. This is a manifesto in favour of manifestos, an invocation to self activity. Bracketed by a very self-conscious narrative about the social construction of manifestos (all of which we read out, it takes about thirty minutes), a fat ten points of rage, an invitation to abandon art for the tactics of art:

Down with art’s police! Down with the protectors of the common good! Down with the experts and officials who keep the artworld ship shape! There are no experts on happiness! There are no experts on liberation! There are no experts on art!

it goes. The crowd stumble along in classroom rhythm, enlivened by the occasional shouting of a key word (‘Andre Breton!‘ ‘Lenin!‘ ‘Wankers!‘). I actually get quite excited by this bit:

Abolish culture-led regeneration! The correct response to public art is anger! Smash all the town centre fountains, statues and heritage sculptures! Make your ideas public! Publish! Publish! Publish! But know this! Publishing is not an arm of town planning!

and start to imagine cruising the Isle of Dogs smashing up the dreadful corporate dogturds of public art that litter the peninsula. Oh yes, I want to go to places like Basingstoke and Bury, smash their crappy sculptures and piss all over their insulting ‘culture quarters‘. I reminisce about days when the police ran from demonstrators under a hail of bricks and bottles. Meanwhile, the manifesto rumbles on:

Look at us! We are not politicians….
Look at us! We are not administrators….
Look at us! We are not managers….
Look at us! We are not bureaucrats….

chant, in unison, a bar full of managers, administrators and bureaucrats (mostly ICA staff). Who’s taking the piss out of who here? Freee have a nice ear for propaganda, a nice pen for a slogan. But if they don’t mean it, then they’re just wankers like the rest of them.