Sunday, October 06, 2013

Now, October

2013 - did I have plans for it?

I can hardly remember. Years seem less important these days - they go so fast. Life goes in phases. I prefer a shorter window: this week, next week, last week.


Over in Liverpool for this year's ANDFestival at FACT in Liverpool on Thursday night and Friday. I've always loved the city, though its years since I've had such a night out there. It seems more intimate than Manchester somehow. Manchester's always had good pubs, but Liverpool seems to have better places sometimes.


I got there in time for a brilliant piece by Michelle Ellsworth, "Three optimal solutions." Sat with headphones on (is this part of the piece or just to keep out extraneous noise?) we eavesdrop on her preparation. She's a deliberately nervous performer, but the performance is also nerveless. In the version of the talk I saw, (and it was a talk, a ten minute improv with Powerpoint visuals), she talked about PRISM and the way that the US government is eavesdropping on us all. She has come up with a solution - and that is to make her own internet; and she shows us it. A crazy melange of a personalised set of web pages, some films which she is the only participant, Cindy Sherman style decked out in different wigs, different roles; web pages that are fake fetishisms - (Hamburger sex anyone? Not as grimey as it sounds - animations of hamburgers having sex with other hamburgers.) There are films of her in a homemade box where she is using green screen techniques to change the environment. One of my gripes about a certain kind of media artist over the last few years is there "built it and they will come" approach to alternate worlds and realities. It has always seemed a handing over of responsibility - especially as the technology is now well known. In Ellsworth piece she makes so many media artists immediately redundant or irrelevant through the complexity and the fun of her work. Described as a "series of performable websites" its a short performance full of wit, and with a breathtaking complexity of detail.

Inevitably, the more static exhibits in FACT felt, well, static in the aftermath. I enjoyed The Pirate Bay's cut up of peer to peer downloading even if the constantly shifting narrative of random downloaded films and audio seems hardly shocking or aurally confusing, more simply "how we live now."  The brilliant SEFT-1 project didn't really come alive in its presentation here - a short film and the space age rail-car itself being present throughout the festival. Yet the idea is impressive - heres a vehicle built to traverse abandoned railway lines in out of the way parts of the world - and I imagine that any small (or not so small) boys who came across the SF-like vehicle outside of FACT would have gone away smiling.

Opening at the exhibition and on for the next few weeks was a major set of works from American video artist/documentary film maker Mark Boulos. A symposia on Friday morning accompanied the exhibition. His work didn't feel too unfamiliar to regulars at FACT with its multiple screen narratives. After all, this is one of FACT's artist reasons-for-being. Yet Boulos's older work is more in the filmic than digital tradition. Working as a lone cameraman documenting renegade/terrorist/freedom fighters far from the usual reach of Western media, this self proclaimed "Marxist" film maker, may appear at first to be making some overly-obvious political points. We stand between two screens one of which is showing oil futures traders in Chicago, the other, soldiers from a revolutionary group fighting in the Niger Delta. We are caught between two contrasting versions of the same narrative - or not? The piece is on the one hand an easy polemic; typical of a globalised sense of appropriated conflict, but on the other hand there is no obvious beginning or end. I asked Boulos whether he felt narrative closure was important to the works - we can move in and out at any point - and he said not; that he felt the difference between video art and documentary film was more like the difference between poetry and prose. The former can be a series of impressions.

The new commission from Boulos was less problematic in terms of meaning, but perhaps more confusing in terms of intent. "Echo" (reflecting the myth of Echo and Narcissus) sees a spotlight on which we stand and are then transported into a piece of film. Here we are the trigger and the film - a road junction in a busy city (Bank, in London) - begins to happen around us. We are inert though - even though the illusion of us being transported (mirrored, echoed) into them is a compelling one. Boulos is working here - as in his other pieces - to add us to the narrative; but I'm confused as what the narrative is here. The scene may as well be abstract even though its familiar. Like participants on the Fourth Plinth in Gormley's "One and Other" we are not really capable of shaping the narrative. The work seems tentative in some way, not quite finished. Yet there's also something quietly compelling about it. The often complex stratagems of participatory video art are simplified by Boulos's method. In the symposia he talks at length about the technical challenges, and the decisions that were made around the work. Working with a neuroscientist there's a desire to create an optical illusion of self - an out of body experience, perhaps; yet without some of the cumbersome tech of Google glasses or immersive 3D environments. It felt to me to be a failed experiment in some ways, but only in that there's a banality about the piece - as there was with "One and Other" - that reminds me of the current neurotic realism we find in novels like Lee Rourke's "The Canal" and Tom McCarthy's "Remainder" and Nicola Barker's "Clear." In the morning's debate, Mike Stubbs, director of FACT tries to push the artist into a question that seems to have been an obsession around digital art curation for several years: what is the participants role in the art?Boulos wasn't sure - but could see a way in which the participant became more involved in future works. Yet Boulos' work seems only accidentally participatory to me, or rather, it is participatory in the same way that a Caravaggio is - we are the audience, and become, for a moment transported to the time and place of the work. Its how this kind of hyper-realism has to work I think.  If I preferred Ellsworth's absorbtion in a virtuality, its perhaps a concern at where art-film-performance now interlock. Unlike Daniel Rozin's mesmerising "Snow Mirror" where we are anonymised in the static field of the art work, this "transference" of our physical self seems a slight misplacement. At its best - the three screen narrative of "No Permanent Address", where we are placed, as Boulos was, in the midst of another terror conflict - this is a political artist manipulating or at least trying to engage our assumptions; "Echo" is only a relative failure I think; it feels technically impressive; yet more of a staging post onto his next work.
Go see and see what you think.


Time and trains wait for no man and I had to get back to Manchester, missing so much else that was taking place at the ANDFestival. An Olympic legacy project this year was a scaled back, but still intensely satisfying programme of compelling anti-narratives.


More prosaically I went to see "Rush" the new Ron Howard film about James Hunt, Niki Lauda and especially the intense rivalry of the 1976 season. As ever Howard is brilliant at rediscovering half forgotten historical stories and making the most of the resonances. Seventies formula one had a glamour all of its own. The madness of a sport where of the 25 drivers each year, two might not last the season - a "20% risk" that Lauda, scarred for life after an horrendous crash on an unsafe German circuit - is brought into focus by the cavaliers and adrenaline junkies who race F1 cars. Before the film there's an advert for Grand Theft Auto, and I'm struck by how much film and video games now want to be each other. In this context "media art" and "digital culture" have their work cut out. "Rush" works best when its on the racetrack but though you know the outcomes, Howard does a great job in accelerating the tensions. I was too young to remember the racing - but I do remember James Hunt. Its hard to comprehend just how famous he was in the UK in the late 70s. I doubt they'll be making a film about Vettel and Hamilton anytime soon.

Though I missed their intimate gig at the Castle, I picked up the blinding white vinyl of the band Pins debut LP, "Girls Like Us."  Losing none of the freneticism of their live gigs, my only worry is that the last white vinyl album I got was by Coventry's unlamented Birdland! 

This coming week sees the start of the Manchester Literature festival, and the Manchester Weekender, the lovely idea where all Manchester's cultural institutions have the equivalent of a "bring your own" party. My week's cultural highlight is undoubtedly the Northern Lights writers conference on Saturday at Waterside in Sale, with A.L. Kennedy as headliner. On the evening, the 3rd of Peter Barlow's Cigarette, a new firm favourite on the poetry night scene, is taking place with a great line up. 

No comments: