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.