Friday, March 28, 2008

The Possibilities

This image used to represent Supernatural Presents... Digital Dreams was created by Zissou, founder of Supernatural Studios.

The very red Seminar Room of the Tate Modern's Starr Auditorium is littered with laptops and screens on which the most fantastic scenes of Hollywood blockbusters are projected in a loop. A number of media types - recognizable by the impeccable choice of designer denim - and art student types - identified by their very own threadbare denim - are either milling around, attending to the equipment, or hovering about, intimidated. All the while, a lady stands naked in a corner of the room. Is this a revival of the Fluxus happening ? No, it is merely the workshop adjunct to the Supernatural Presents... Digital Dreams, a couple of evening lectures organised by Supernatural Studios in order to allow the leading brains behind special effects technologies to leave us all speechless with their visions of a pixelised future.

Being one of the naive people who often think that what happens on the screen must be the recording of an event that happened in real life, I was attracted to the evening of the 25 March for its selection of speakers from various backgrounds: art, science, advertising, gaming and film. Although their presentations were meant to highlight recent developments and interdisciplinary cross-pollination rather than explain the nuts and bolts to the philistines, most of it was accessible to me in tone and content. In fact, it was striking how accessible the results shown to the audience were, especially in relation to the apparent complexity of the technologies used to achieve them... A crowd that took weeks to simulate looked convincingly boisterous, animals populating a movie could be mistaken for those gallivanting in a forest, ancient Greek sculptures were neither ancient nor Greek but could have fooled even Melina Mercouri.

What came across as a common point between all the lectures was puzzling. It appeared that the most recent developments in digital technology essentially consist in a return to traditional skills or paradigms. Marc Petit introduced the digital sculpting software Mudbox by saying that it was meant to achieve the look of the clay without the mess. Advertising and film special effects as well as game design have been aiming for more and more realism by treating the digital until it looks analogue. In order to achieve this goal, the designers are now turning to fine arts notions of contrast, light, perspective, proportion. Although I admired the works I got to see, I'm still wondering why the limits of existing paradigms are being set to the limitless potential of a technology in the infancy of its development. The prerogatives of the market that finances most of that development? A sheer lack of imagination?

I heard a little giggle of glee. It was the spirit of Umberto Eco relishing the prospect of a new age of the simulacrum. If we're going to use such refined technologies for the sake of (re)producing a reality as close to possible as the ones we can experience on a daily basis, why not just make an improved digital sculpture of the controversial Elgin Marbles, otherwise known as the Parthenon Marbles, and return the originals to Greece, finally allowing Melina Mercouri to rest in peace? Why not reproduce cities in the form of immersive environments and cut down drastically on the carbon footprint created by our travel? Perhaps because there is no substitute for a first-hand experience of the world and digital technologies offer a first-hand experience of technology. Why try to abolish that mediation when we still haven't figured out all the ways in which it can be used?

Still, I can't wait to see what the same experts would have to say ten years from now...

PS: Umberto Eco giggles in my mind only metaphorically.
PPS: If you're still wondering why there was a naked lady in the Seminar Room, perhaps I should clarify that it was actually a sculpture in the tasteful nude genre by the extraordinary Scott Eaton, Founder of Armature Studios and digital sculptor.

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Thursday, March 13, 2008

For or Against What Exactly?

I attended Against the Avant-garde? a study organised by Tate Modern and the Open University on the 8 March with a bit of resistance and a lot of curiosity. By doing a post-graduate degree in the fringes of art, I'd already encountered so many uses of the term 'avant-garde' that I had started to doubt its etymological origins. In French, my first language, 'avant' means before and 'garde' means guard, so avant-garde literally means before the guard. Over time, its connotative meaning has come to designate what is thought to be 'cutting edge' or 'ground breaking'. So I attended this event with the glimmer of hope that I would finally walk away with a definition of the Avant-garde that did not resort to metaphor. The title of the event led me to believe that I might even formulate a position with regards to it: maybe I'll become an adamant defender or an inflexible detractor of the avant-garde. How exciting! No, really.

The day started with art historical accounts. Paul Wood argued that the Avant-garde was essentially the critique of the conventions of art. Jason Gaiger then asserted that Duchamp led to a break with the art of the past with his ready-mades by creating works that revolved around ideas rather than aesthetic concerns and that these works now exist in a sort of limbo between their formal qualities and their status in art history. T J Demos followed by subsuming Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia under the category of the Dada movement and proceeded to demonstrate that the notion of exile was at the heart of their production. Jennifer Mundy, the curator of said exhibition, then presented her view of three artists who didn't belong to any movement or school of thought but influenced and nurtured each other's practice. At this stage, I had yet to be gratified with a unified definition of the Avant-garde and found myself more than ever in no position to endorse or reject it. Was the Avant-garde perhaps a complex set of contradiction? Critique, oppositions, resistance to categorisation and unification. Was it rather a source of frustration? How do you curate the works emerging from a movement that defies classification? How does one neatly document for historical purposes something that aims to evade definition?

Over lunch, I couldn't quite slow down the dizzying activity of my little mind's attempts to answer these questions but the afternoon was a welcome shift of paradigm. Dave Beech, Richard DeDomenici and Carey Young didn't provide more of a definition of the avant-garde, but they demonstrated how the co-opting and appropriation of mass media, popular culture and corporate culture could be used to question a dominant definition of art as well as social values and preconceived ideas. Critique, oppositions, resistance to categorisation and unification are but expressions of a tension that can be productive in affecting changes in our perception of art and perhaps even in our perception of the world a large. In that sense, they are forerunners in their field. Does that make their work avant-garde? I still don't have an answer to that question but I sure hope they never appear before the guard. I guess that means I'm for the Avant-garde... or is it against?
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Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Opening up art spaces

News Flash
Last Saturday (8 March) a group of around 10 men and women joined the artist activist THE VACUUM CLEANER to whisper, clean, lay their scars across, and bandage Doris Salcedo's art work Shibboleth at the Tate Modern in London as visitors looked on.
The Forum team recorded the event.

Photos: © Miranda Gavin, 2008

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Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Hard Craft

It’s week five of the Surreal Art, Magical Poetry course, and, flanked by the appropriately bizarre productions on display in the Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia exhibition, the group are reading out the fruits of last Monday’s class. This previous session, it seems, was hard work – although you wouldn’t be able to tell from the poems that emerged from it. The pieces are strikingly experimental and individual, ranging in tone from the cheekily irreverent to the intimate, and studded with the kind of Duchampian images that would make Marcel & Co proud.

Pascal Petit, the course leader, shows me the task that generated these poems – and which caused such a headache. She hands me a piece of lined paper split vertically down the middle, one side of which is covered with the text of Octavio Paz’s essay on Marcel Duchamp’s The Bridge Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass). So far, so innocuous. Then, Pascal informs me, on the other side each of the group had to write a true account of a personal sexual experience. Then the paper was sliced in half, before being cut up again along each line, leaving each participant with a confused jumble of the personal and the Paz. From this melange, the writers had to tease out words, images and phrases, before moulding them into their own poem. I’m beginning to see how this might have been quite a challenge.

As a listener, it’s fascinating to hear how certain images from the Paz essay – notably a sublime Milky Way and a conspicuously gaseous crocodile – are reworked by each individual, undergoing transformations and permutations with each stroke of the pen. The influence of the Duchamp piece – its complexities, machine imagery and sexual politics – is strongly apparent.

Equally apparent is the change that the group has undergone during the course: having been present at the first session (where the group were nudged into the deep end of the writing pool by being asked to write a poem in five minutes), it’s noticeable how confident and relaxed they have become. After the challenges of last week, session five is a much more tranquil affair: the group are given free range of the Duchamp, Man Ray and Picabia exhibition and told to base their poem around the image that most appeals to them. Although the writers might well be glad of a break, the graft of the prior session really has paid off – and, after all, its not often that a course leader gets to compliment a class for it’s 'great poems from the sex exercise'.

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Sunday, March 9, 2008

5: 7: 5

Photos: © Miranda Gavin, 2008

The gentle art of haiku and senryu poetry and their potential in art practice was explored in two workshops led by Japanese artist Hana Sakuma, who once divided the letters R and L into two separate piles from a bag of alphabet-shaped pasta for her work Diffelence (2002).

The sounds R and L are notoriously difficult for Japanese people to form as they don’t exist phonetically in the language and for Hana, 'There is an implicit desire that I want to "eat" the problem as I would eat the pasta.'

After giving an overview of the cultural and historical backgrounds of haiku and looking at the earlier forms hokku and haikai, for example those written by Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), as well as the poems of Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), who gave the short poetry form the name haiku, Hana asked the workshop participants to create their own 17-syllable poems.
Some people were interested in 'Japanese sensibility and the use of words in art', others were 'attracted by the discipline' of the form and one participant summed up his interest in Haiku saying: 'I love very efficient poetry.'

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Friday, March 7, 2008

The Forum is proud to unleash its first commission on the World Wide Web

Here is the eagerly awaited avant-garde self-portrait by Richard DeDomenici.

A man called Anthony drawing over a picture of radical American labour organiser Lucy Parsons, so it more closely resembles me.
Photograph: Richard DeDomenici

A picture of radical American labour organiser Lucy Parsons drawn over by a man called Anthony so it more closely resembles me.
Photograph: Richard DeDomenici

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That Crusty Corner of the Sandbox

Doris Salcedo Shibboleth 2007 Photo: Tate
Image from the Tate Modern Website

It's amazing the things you can find at the end of something else: home at the end of a journey, a fish at the end of your line, a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Yesterday, I found artist Richard DeDomenici at the end of the Tate Modern's crack. Equipped with a coffee and a hot chocolate, we headed for one of the windy balconies. I'd come more or less prepared to discuss the place of avant-garde in his work but instead I got to see the smallest gallery ever to be worn on a wrist and was introduced to the progress of his new year's resolution to make bad decisions. So far, smoking, flying and watching a lot of Eurovision seem to indicate success.

But a quick look at his work reveals that although he's not always been an adept of the well assumed disaster, he's often voluntarily privileged the unexpected and the absurd. I would say that forming a boys band with asylum seekers, signing the 80s success 99 Red Balloons while inhaling helium and embracing failure are a fairly good indication of his propensity to create unsettling experiences. Although some of them are no less than giggle-worthy, it's not that simple to faze people enough so they're able to consider their world from a different vantage point.

As the conversation veered to Richard's works in progress and my coffee gradually got cooler , I couldn't help but think that if there is any chance that art can accomplish what politics can't – significant changes in the attitudes of people regarding the various unpleasantness otherwise known as “social issues” – it's via works that jostle people out of their comfortable preconceived ideas. Some of these works are notably uncomfortable to engage with, but some of them present themselves in the guise of a game which is much more efficient. As you all know, whoever doesn't want to play is left to sulk in the crusty corner of the sandbox. And since nobody wants to be left alone in the sandbox, being playful about important issues is serious work.

Finally, we've run out of coffee and hot chocolate when we get around to the avant-garde. In all honesty, Richard is not sure whether his work is neo-avant-garde, post-avant-garde or plain avant-garde but he knows he's an artist. I tend to believe him and promptly commission The Forum's first avant-garde self-portrait. Result soon to be posted...

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Wednesday, March 5, 2008

The Fifth Way

It’s week five of the Seven Ways of Thinking About Art course at the Tate Modern and I catch the tail end of the class. Some of the work of Mark Rothko is being discussed in the dimly-lit Rothko Room, which is ideal for contemplative appreciation, while Giacometti’s impossibly slender Bronzes stand to attention in the brighter Material Gestures room.

Giacometti’s sculptures are like a group of saplings emerging from a plinth and provide a counter point to the huge swathes of subdued colour - red, maroon and black - which sweep across Rothko’s canvases. Taking R. G. Collingwood’s views on aesthetics with his attendant ideas of Art as Craft, including Magical and Amusement, and Art as Expression, as a starting point, the class explored Collingwood’s ideas in relation to these works. Later, over a drink, I discover that one of the students is a friend's mother and my world shrinks again. She has been applying what she has learnt on the course when she visits exhibitions with friends and I encourage her to share these experiences via the blog. While we are chatting a colleague in the class joins us and presents her with the name of a book about the poet TS Eliot which he thinks she may be interested in. He also recommends further reading which I hope he'll post as a comment.
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Saturday, March 1, 2008

Kevin... Kevin Carter

Alfredo Jaar, Muxima, 2005, digital video, 36'. Courtesy the artist and Galerie Lelong, New York.

Chilean-born artist Alfredo Jaar’s latest solo exhibition Politics of the Image opened at the South London Gallery last week and runs until 6 April. At the opening, Alfredo took the press on a tour of his solo show which presents six works born of his 25-year long engagement with Africa. A talk with the artist will be held at Tate Modern on 13 March in the Starr Auditorium. The following are excerpts:
On Muxima (2005): Muxima means heart in the indigenous language of Angola. 'This piece is a 36-minute film. I did a six-year long project in Rwanda about genocide, which left one million people dead, in the face of the criminal indifference of the rest of the world. That project marked me and I had psychological difficulties going back to Africa. I was looking for a way to go back in a different mood and music gave me that occasion. For 20 years, I’ve been collecting contemporary African music of Portuguese influence, particularly music from Angola, Mozambique and Cape Verde, which is the most extraordinary music being produced today. A few years ago, I was organising my Angolan music collection and I realised by chance that I had six different versions of the same song called Muxima, and I put them in chronological order. The earliest one was from 1956 and the latest from 1998 and just by listening to that song, I realised the different interpretations you could hear and how you could understand the history of Angola by the different interpretations occurring at different historical moments. I decided this was a marvellous device to make a film so I went to Angola a few times and then I wrote a script.

I wanted to give an overview of Angola today, to talk about the country, the people, AIDS, and oil production etc. Again following the logic of my work, I didn’t want to use any insulting, stereotypical images you have seen in the media by now. The film is divided into 10 cantos, a canto is a verse, so it’s a visual construct in different poetic stanzas and here the canto structure allows me to suggest. I cannot say everything, it’s just segments fragments of a reality and each canto is structured like a Haiku – like a short Japanese poem. It focuses on one, two or three elements because I wanted to use as few elements as possible to convey as much as possible. The logic also was to force people to listen to this song ten times. Most people leave the space with that song embedded in their brain; they have no choice because they have heard it ten times. For me, that’s one way to give you a little bit of Angola and to leave with Angola in your head, so you start by learning a song. This is just a symbolic starting point for you to learn something else.'

On the multi-media installation The Sound of Silence (2006): 'I always wanted to a huge piece dedicated to thinking about a single image and this is what it is. It is a theatre for one image, four metres by four metres by eight metres so it is around 128 cubic meters. The film is shown for eight minutes and it’s all about a single image. (The image from the 1990s Sudanese famine won a Pulitzer Prize and was taken by South African Photographer Kevin Carter, who later committed suicide). We were educated in order to read, read words, read letters, read sentences, but no one has taught us how to look, how to see, we are bombarded by thousands of images every day. So this show is about the way images make us see the world in a very specific way; images are not innocent. You go inside and there’s a film that lasts eight minutes telling a story of an image. I tried to keep an outsider position, as objective as possible, but it is impossible to remain objective. In between the lines you might see some references but basically I tried to keep it as neutral as possible. It’s like a Greek tragedy - there is a chorus that repeats during the film.'

On the photographic work Searching for Africa in Life (1996): 'This includes over 2500 covers of Life magazine from the first magazine cover in 1931. I started this insane work 1986. Following the earlier point about, how do we learn about the world? In school and through our parents, and the images that surround us. Part of the world grew up with Life magazine, first in black and white, then in colour, telling them about the world before television.'

On the photographic work From Time to Time (2006): 'This piece was finished in 1996, ten years later and it is, in a way, a remake of the earlier piece but with Time magazine. I’d been collecting these covers and I was trying to do something with them and then when this one came out I realised that I had completed the trio I wanted to do the piece. Here is the way Africa has been treated by Time magazine, which replaced Life, which is a fundamental news weekly. So again, there are animals, hunger and famine. This is what we learn – never a positive image – never science, never music, never humanity; nothing. We grow up with these images, when we see an African kid, immediately we think about this, we never think about anything else. The media has robbed them of their humanity.'

On Greed (2007): 'In the same way that I moved from 2500 covers to nine covers, then I just decided to put a single cover which happened in December of last year. When I saw it, I almost fainted, I couldn’t believe it. It says: Can greed save Africa?... and of course, there’s another animal with an open mouth because of the greed. This was very, very shocking. This really is a prototypical of the media representations of Africa.'

On The Power of Words (1984): 'This is really the graphic version of a small installation. The installation consists of a photograph of a typewriter and there's a hole and a red neon light at the back and this was hung on the wall. I had a slide projector – at the time we used slide projectors – and the slide projector projected images in the space where the paper should sit. Instead of projecting words, I projected images from the media of the time. This is when there was an accident at Union Carbide in Bhopal, India which left thousands of people dead and thousands of people blind. Each one of these images represents a historic moment. Here is the Invasion of Grenada (1983). Instead of putting words, I put images, but I still call it The Power of Words. This is really about the inadequacy of words or images to tell a story. It’s very difficult to represent reality, we cannot represent reality - I’ve always said that we always create a new reality. This piece is about this inadequacy. We think we write but we’re really conveying an image and this image also is not innocent, it needs words to actually have a very precise meaning, so it’s about confusion.'

Question: Can you comment on why you are so interested in Africa? 'There are many answers but the two official ones are that I lived, from the age of five to fifteen, on a small French island called Martinique. I became a little Martiniquette and when I left at fifteen it was very difficult as I had managed to identify with the people and the place, and had created very strong links with the people. That’s the more sentimental and more biographical story. The second is that I grew up and discovered the media and the power of the media and because of the geopolitics of African history, I started focusing on Africa. I moved to New York in 1982 and immediately realised that in the art world, the world of culture, Africa and Asia and Latin America didn’t exist. You see artists from all over the planet but 30 years ago it wasn’t like this; a few Americans and a few Germans - that was an international show. It was unimaginable in 1986 that they would invite an artist from Africa or Latin America - that was 22 years ago - and they invited me to the Venice Biennale, it was the first time that they had invited an artist from Latin America. When I came to NY in ’82, I realised that the art world was a world of fiction; it wasn’t representing the world and I wanted to bring the real world into the art world, to bring works and ideas, and Africa took centre stage. The work is always about me and our relationship, in the so-called Western world, to Africa. I’m never speaking for an African, or for Rwandans or for Nigerians or for South Africans, when I do this work I try never to speak for anybody but myself.'

Question: In terms of looking at the range of work on show here and you talking about your motivations, are there any pieces that you think are particularly successful and bring all the elements you have talked about together? 'I’m very critical about my work. Normally, when I see the work with distance, I say, 'This is terrible, I could have done this'. These selections are all works which have been shown before and have had extraordinary impact. The films are some of my stronger works. We have shown the new one six times, and the other maybe a dozen times, and we always get, invariably, the same reaction no matter where we show it. It premiered in Namibia, then we showed it in Angola and the States. As an artist after 30 years of doing this, you start to understand when something works and when it doesn’t; you see it in people’s reactions and what they tell you. I think these two (The Sound of Silence and Muxima) work very well.' read more