Tag Archives: turner prize

Leckey-likey

Dan Iggers flickr.com/fortinbras

Felix the Cat. Photo: Dan Iggers flickr.com/fortinbras

What can you learn from a Turner-prize winning artist? In the queue that runs down the ICA concourse waiting to get into mid-winter’s hot ticket, a performance lecture by Turner-winner Mark Leckey called ‘Mark Leckey in the Long Tail’ (arranged while he was still only a nominee), at least one fan seems to think it’s a question of fashion: he has the shoulder-length dyed-blond hair and non-matching whiskers to a T. For a couple of weeks after he won the Turner, I thought I saw Leckey everywhere: at work, on Oxford Street; now I wonder if it was merely his army of clones…

We’re kept waiting twenty minutes or so for final arrangements to be made, but eventually we’re allowed in. The performance begins with an offstage recitation of Charles Sirato’s Dimensionist manifesto of 1936, a standard-issue modernist invitation to abstract an aesthetic from the turbulent times: literature leaves the plane, painting becomes sculpture, sculpture is no longer static, and finally cosmic art places the five-sensed human subject at its centre.

Leckey takes the stage and lectures from a lectern, with a large desk to his left, a projector screen on his right, and various contraptions inbetween. Behind him is a blackboard, which is later flipped around on its horizontal axis to reveal further scenes. He begins with Felix the Cat, star of the first experimental television broadcast. Engineers placed a small doll of Felix atop a record turntable before illuminating and scanning the image into 60 lines to create a test pattern for broadcast. Using a remarkably shonky-looking contraption of wooden discs, Leckey recreates this process on stage (or at least seems to): an image of Felix revolving, his convex face bulging into the lens, appears on the projector screen. Leckey meanwhile discusses the revolutionary moment of television and the dematerialisation of Felix as cosmic sculpture.

A similarly revolutionary moment, he contends, occurs with the birth of the internet as mass media, and on the blackboard behind him he sketches a power-law graph line, as an illustration of Chris Anderson’s idea of the Long Tail. He does a fairly poor job of explaining the actual economics of the long tail, merely conferring to immaterial culture the benefit of near-zero-cost reproduction at an infinite number of nodes along the tail itself. He draws a wonky circle at the top of the line to indicate the bestsellers of the mass market. But when he sits down at the desk we notice that his office chair has been augmented with a large mechanical cat’s tail that twitches and moves with electronic motors (the tail itself is a recurring theme in Leckey’s recent work). And when he begins to talk about pornography as the ultimate realisation of the monad at the end of the network, and how spilling seed is no longer dissipation but fulfilment, we realise that he’s in fact drawn a giant sperm on the board behind him.

He returns to the dimensionist manifesto and presents to us a solid glass block: the cosmic sculpture. Light falls on it, and we see that inside are servers: Leckey introduces us to the idea of ‘cloud computing’ (again, he’s slightly off: the point is not that we can access these servers from anywhere but rather that they can be anywhere) and the final evaporation of the economy of desire. The pièce de résistance: the blackboard flips forward, dry ice pours forth and the giant inflatable head of Felix the Cat edges forward to float over us all, a symbol of our dematerialised desires, as Leckey ecstatically proclaims the new age of infinitely satisfiable cultural need. And then it’s over.

The language that Leckey uses throughout sounds at first to be the usual art-academy jargon-ridden nonsense. He’s no natural performer, and he reads verbatim from his notes, occasionally stumbling over words. It’s Leckey’s use of language that’s always made me suspect him of hollowness, the feeling that this mangled verbiage of critical theory is there to create a marketable impression of seriousness and intelligence rather than communicate properly critical thought. Parts of the talk become impenetrable, and I’d like to go over a transcript sometime to try to understand what he actually said. But both humour and feeling seem genuine, real communication and entertainment rather than the abstract posturings I’d expected.

Indeed there’s something about his tangled, intuitive references, and euphoric exclamations that’s infinitely preferable to the earnest deadliness of the ‘proper’ proponents of web-2.0ism, dweebs like Charlie Bedwetter and Clay Shirky. And like James says, art talks aren’t accurate in the way ‘intellectual’ talks are, but they’re far more entertaining. But the lecture is clearly not to everyone’s satisfaction. As Leckey finishes, from behind the curtain you can hear that he still has his head-mic on: ‘Jesus,’ he almost-whispers, ‘ that was terrible.’ Then he re-emerges, to take his applause and tell us that he hopes we understood some of what he was trying to get across. For a moment, under the gaze of Felix, I almost did.

Unlimited

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.