Friday, March 06, 2009

Where is the literature?

I was at the Clicks or Mortar? conference at Tyneside Cinema yesterday. The symposium was about the role of venues in the digital age - a dichotomy of "clicks" or "mortar". As often happens at events these days, there's ample representation of the visual and performing arts, and a small, but noticeable gap for literature. Literature, of course, exists, offline, is non venue-based, despite the plethora of festivals and readings these days. That even these can exist in a variety of places - theatres, cafes, bars, bookshops, fields, market places - should offer some lessons about "venue" - but literature remains quiet. More worryingly, as Dick Penny, from Bristol's Watershed (and Dshed digital venue)said "we are living in an audio-visual culture these days." This has some very large implications for literature - because its saying that, since the age of the printing press, since mass education began - the arbiters of our culture have been writers: whether poets, legislators, priests or journalists. If the inevitable consequence of the digital age (and the generation that have grown up only knowing a world with the internet and digital images/sounds) is an ending of that age-of-text then surely we should be worried. At the moment, as I've made the point before, the web remains a text-based medium. Yet a culture of video games, short messages, flashing images, 3D films etc. is sensory - external, all around us. Reading, and writing, require a certain calm, a certain isolation. In this new world, even with our own "bubbles" (ipods, tomtoms etc), where is this calm?

Peter Greenaway was one of the highlights of the day, giving an extensive polemic about the "death of cinema". He made many points, both valid and contentious, but two keys ones sat in my mind. Firstly, that the crowd gathered in the dark in the evening to have a one way experience with the optical illusion of the two hour film on a project screen, is surely now an absurdity - that all those things about the experience are no longer sustainable. Secondly, that if we are now in this audio-visual age, that we have a problem, because we are so visually illiterate. Painting, he contrasted with film, as having thousands of years of history, film has 115 years and it is "over."

There's an irony about all of this of course - in that the disruptive technology of the internet is being adopted by the very things that it is most likely to replace: the BBC, for instance, and, yes, cinemas like the Tyneside and the Cornerhouse. The beautifully restored Tyneside is also highly connected, with good internet access throughout the building that allows things to happen - artistic and otherwise - throughout its diverse physical space. Like the Cornerhouse, it acts as both cinema and art venue - and as Greenaway's presentation makes clear, there is little distinction - amongst artists, at least - between both mediums. However, I'd add that the great wonder of 20th century cinema, like the Victorian novel is both an accidental anomaly that has become its own high-watermark - and something that has, inevitably to change. Theres a confluence took place: of talent, audience,technology and for want of a better word, "timing", that means the motion picture has held us in its thrall for best part of a century. I watch "The Last Picture Show" of "Cinema Paradiso" and I don't recognise that cinema going experience, any more than I would the Saturday matinees or the Drive-ins. My cinema going experience - a flat suburban one, dull Odeons, limited choice - was changed not by the multiplexes, but by the art house cinemas, and, yes, by the choice that the video player and multi-channel viewing (starting with the "option" of Channel 4) gave me. If those "new markets" were themselves made allowable by the success of, "Star Wars" and "Jaws", then so be it.

I think what is intriguing about the "venues" and their management, is that they have an impossible tightrope. Ideally their model should be beginning to fade, with any space becoming a possible replacement for the Cornerhouse or the Watershed. But these venues, holding houses for art, if you like, are culture-shops in many ways. They are in ideal locations, at the heart of a city's young urban cultural life. They are not, noticeably, growing... but neither would you close them down. Their success is of appealing to the young urban consumer. Where they are in the wrong place or have the wrong or even worse, an unclear function (Sheffield's centre for popular music, the first incarnation of Urbis, the Place in West Bromwich) they will fail, and fail again. A conversation was had about turning old Woolworths into cultural venues, but as someone pointed out, the reason that Woolworths failed was because not enough people came through the door.

I've noticed recently - with exhibitions at FACT and the Cornerhouse - that the venue is becoming a constraint on the art in many ways. There's an absurdity about going to a cultural venue, not to look at a painting or see a performance, but to watch a video (particularly when, in that same building there are high quality cinema screens being used to show an Oscar nomination rather than video art), or to hear some sound art. I think new forms of art are exploding from the venue, whether on the internet in the public space, and arts venues and festivals need to see this and replicate it.

Literature, I worry about. It remains mute at these events. Yet, as Peter Greenaway made the point, so much film is just animated stories, books with pictures. The irony is - I've mentioned recently - that writers are sometimes becoming "middlemen" in the cultural value chain, not originators or initiators. Greenaway recently illuminated Rembrandt's The Night Watch, and has turned it into a movie - seeing it as a source material, a visual journalist's account of a murder that has taken place.
Because literature has no venue, because, as well, it is everywhere (or at least, because writing is everywhere), because we no longer venerate the word (the Holy Books, the American constitution) - and may even abuse them instead (Jade Goody, Ashley Cole, because there's a "commercial" literature that dominates and doesn't receive public funding; because writers themselves baulk too much at the idea of art or of originality - all of these make it vulnerable. It has already gone from the centre of the university experience, I think; and there are few writers under 50, here or abroad, that seem to have the cultural heft of their predecessors, still writing deep into the night. We were not always a written culture, not even always an oral one. Did the crowds attending the mummers play or mystery play catch all the words, or simply revel in the physical action, the costumes, the spectacle? Yet there was a story - a telling - and a structure - an ordering - to even those representations. In many ways, a conference like yesterdays highlighted which art forms are most vulnerable in the modern age - and it may well be the representative ones (film or recorded music) rather than the experiential (theatre, dance). Greenaway mentioned that he had been commissioned to make a film by Nokia for its mobile phones - and his work is more likely to be presented, not in a cinema, but as public art, or in a gallery, or for a festival now, than as a conventional film. He is, of course, not the most conventional of film makers. Yet with the Hollywood blockbuster costing so much to make - the odd Slumdog apart - then the representative arts run a great risk. The Guardian yesterday pointed out that the game Guitar Hero has sold nearly as many copies as the best selling album of all time, and in much quicker time.

This recession that gathers around us may not be so bad for art, but it may be disastrous for the commercialising of that art. The refurbished Tyneside is a beauty, a gem, but it is also a living venue, a high church of culture. The audience at the conference was predominantly white and middle-class, the panel's predominantly male. Literature, as always on these occasions appeared absent. I'm hopeful that this absence might simply because literature have sorted it out already (though I know that's not entirely the case), but I also fear that the written word, which underpins so much of our great culture, may be chopped up, mixed up and made incomprehensible or easy to ignore by this newly pervasive multi-sensory audio-visual cultural world. The gatekeepers, whether arts bureaucrats, educators, politicians or Apple and Sony, won't notice till the damage is too far gone. It is the writer, and only the writer, who can continue to insist on his or her relevance.


Taylor Nuttall said...

Response to this article at:


Taylor Nuttall

Flat Out said...

great post - loads to think about. still saturday morning though, so i'll have to come back to it!

Adrian Slatcher said...

Taylor, I think the interesting thing is how little the argument moves on over a period of time - maybe its the nature of larger symposia, they are a set point in time, a Question, rather than an answer. Perhaps we need some hands-dirty cultural working group with a reasonable timescale, to explore these things further.

Flat Out, I'm sure I'll come back to a few of these things shortly - the post tried to "download" my experiences - and they all need a bit more unpacking

Heather said...

As a writer and reader it [not surprisingly] also makes me nervous when people talk about a visual culture - another death-of-the-author scenario -
Yet more people are reading books today than they ever did - only two or three generations with universal education and therefore much more widespread literacy - and think of all the other countries and cultures hungry for the word. Film too - the big multi-plexes may not be cool but they are still full of people - some of them snogging, texting, kissing and laughing [almost] in Cinema Paradiso style as well as watching, enraptured. The artistic 'elite' always want to be one step ahead and there does seem to be a quite a lot of anti-word stuff going on in art departments . . . not sure why. Maybe because literature has often been associated with snobbish high-culture in the past.

I'd like to see more words - more literature/langauge - as collaborative work with visual artists.

Adrian Slatcher said...

I agree. I tend to hear this coming from people in the visual and performing arts, for whom literature isn't particularly their thing, or from those talking about "young people" as some homogenous bunch of texters/gamers. Believe me, being a boy who read, was very much a minority sport even in the seventies/eighties! What particularly annoys me is how contemporary art - and much performance - is, as Peter Greenaway pointed out, increasingly reliant on words - either as source material (stories) or as explanation, yet they will only rarely involve writers directly. Simon Armitage's works for television, seem a rare example of a writer being given joint artistic control of a visual piece. I'd call in a painter or photographer if I needed one, rather than doing it myself, yet its rare that its reciprocated. As Greenaway also said, if we are now a visual culture, then we're actually quite an illiterate visual culture. There's a challenge to literature of course; in that if you want to engage with visual art in particular, you can't really do it with the literary equivalent of a 19th century watercolour.

Heather said...

Yes I do agree we shouldn't the literary equivalent of a 19th C work - but is the idea of equivalence always meaningful here? Of course there is space for formal, linguistic experimentation but writers should not allow themselves to be intimidated by the idea that words and sentences and stories are becoming irrelevant . Literature - writing - fiction - poetry - mainly works in the mind and in culture - not on the page - the form on the page may be use similar forms and structure [word/ sentence/
paragraph,character/sonnet/story] et cetera - but be radically modern and contemporary in ideas, imaginative power, social and political challenge.