Friday, 27 November 2009

Yesterday's News (lost in the wind)

This multimedia piece was performed at RWCMD in September 2009.
We live in a time of complete media saturation, of instant and constant news coverage. There has
never been so much information available to us, and never so much misdirection and falsehood.
Free press has the ability to enlighten and empower us, to expose corruption and bridge societal
rifts. When this freedom is subverted however, the media can be used to keep us atomised, divided
and numb. ‘Yesterday’s News’ is intended as a comment on this constant barrage of news media,
and as an attempt to reduce it to what it really amounts to when its integrity is undermined; babble.
To reflect the 24hr cycle of today’s news media the piece is divided into four main sections,
corresponding to the phases of day and the four ink colours used in newspaper print; Black, Yellow,
Cyan and Magenta. The piece begins halfway through the Night/Black phase of the cycle and goes
full circle.

watch the video here

Friday, 10 July 2009

Back to the Futurists

Tate’s new retrospective misses the mark.

To mark the centenary of the Futurist movement, the Tate Modern is now displaying what it describes as a “ground-breaking exhibition”. Despite this bold claim, the experience is actually rather low key and captures little of the feverish drama of early 20th century Italian modernity.
In 1909, F. T. Marinetti penned the Futurist manifesto in the newspaper Le Figaro, and declared his contempt for all backwards looking forces that should inhibit the full expression of modern speed and vigour. With all its madness, destructiveness, misogyny and (rather uninformed) glorification of war, the Futurist movement was a celebration of the new. 100 years later, Marinetti finds himself firmly in the grasp of the “archaeologists and antiquarians” he so despised.
The new tate exhibition is a stale retrospective study of futurist and futurist influenced painting and sculpture of the sort that would provoke the most acerbic reaction from any self proclaimed partisan of the movement. The thing about Futurism is that its all talk, showing off, bombast, cacophonous noise and demented writings. Nothing of the movement’s pretense or energy is really captured by a series of paintings accompanied by boring historical prose. The Futurists were not seminal painters, they were enshrining an idea, and to celebrate their anniversary by purely focusing on this is to miss the point spectacularly.
That isn’t to say that there weren’t some superb works on display. Futurism’s borrowing of simultaneity of experience from Cubism, combined with their particularly visceral choice of subject matter certainly produced some striking images. Carra’s huge "Funeral for the Anarchist Galli" canvas depicting a police raid and subsequent riot, looms over the viewer and draws you in with its mechanistic violent shapes and dynamic force lines.
Umberto Boccioni’s “Forces of the street” allows the viewer to experience the speed of an approaching tram as it looms in the distance, clatters towards and eventually over you in a single instant. Modern life, it seems, moves much faster than our perceptions will allow us to comprehend.
Another work by Boccioni is better still, his 1911 triptych “states of mind” depicts travel in the three images “The Farewell”, “Those Who Go” and “Those Who Stay”. The pictures sing of movement and excitement, but the anonymous figures, bent double in the whirl of speeding landscapes, are desolate and heart rending.
On leaving the exhibition, I was left with the strong feeling that this was an opportunity missed. A look back at such a vigorous, but naive an artistic movement as Futurism, shouldn’t have been such a studious affair. Perhaps though, these anarchistic, patriotic and warped children of modernity got just what they deserved; a dedication that represents their own personal hell.
“Futurism” is on now at the Tate Modern and runs until 20th September.


Friday, 20 March 2009

The Constructivist Vision

A review of “Rodchenko and Popova; Defining Constructivism” at the Tate Modern.

Standing in front of one of Liubov Popova’s astonishing works in her 1918 painterly architectonics series, you get the impression that you are witnessing before your eyes the formation of a brand new aesthetic. The smashed shards of the old order are being thrust together at impossible angles to form exhilarating new structures, and before the dust settles are torn apart and reconfigured in the next startling painting. Such is the urgency and bristling energy displayed in the first part of the Tate Modern’s new exhibition “Rodchenko and Popova; Defining Constructivism.”
In these early paintings, the emergence of non-objectivism can be seen with all its radical new imagery and heady ambition. These works capture the spirit of revolution perfectly. Not intended as an end in itself, the new aesthetic represents a noisy, cluttered and complex transition from old to new. In this thrilling phase, using the materials available, art must take on a new precedence in society, and these two artists seem up to the task. While Popova constructs futuristic visions on plywood, with metal dust mixed into the paint, Rodchenko experiments with texture, form and line in pieces that seem as shockingly modern and bold now as they no doubt must have done to his contemporaries.
Both artists betray an ambition way beyond the two dimensional surface, and as the exhibition progresses the two rapidly advance into new territory and continue to explore new roles for art. Popova shows a great talent for set design, textiles and linocut prints which displays a desire to disseminate her work more effectively. Meanwhile, Rodchenko applies the abstract geometric principles of non-objective art to lamp shades, sculpture, furnishings, newspaper stands and an aircraft storehouse.
In a later part of the exhibition, the new guiding principle in artistic pursuit becomes organisation. Rodchenko, who is perhaps better known for his later photographic work, shows an incredible flair for graphic design and propaganda, and as the new economic policy comes into effect produces a truly dizzying volume of work. Advertisements for rubber shoes and red october biscuits are perhaps a misuse of his talents but as the Soviet Union moves into the difficulties of the 1920s the Bolsheviks recognised a need for bold images to both educate and propagandise.
Rodchenko and Popova both produce amazing work in this area, from abstract Trade Union posters to the development of a new montage style to depict historical material. In a series of posters, Rodchenko illustrates the history of the Bolshevik party with newspaper excerpts, archival images and striking design. Other highlights in this flurry of material include Popova’s slogan posters for Earth in Turmoil, a theatrical project with Meirkhol’d and Rodchenko’s title designs for Dziga Vertov’s cutting edge newsreel series Kino-Pravda (Cine-Truth). These films documenting an idealised image of everyday life in Soviet Russia were intended to be projected in workplaces and on the streets, to become fully integrated into the surroundings.
It is at this point in the exhibition that it becomes clear that the Constructivist’s vision for art’s new role in society has become warped and distorted. Instead of providing inspiration and delight, Rodchenko and Popova’s powerful visual material is used to obscure and repackage the hard truths of Soviet life. Where this exhibition really succeeds is in recreating the energy and overwhelming upheaval of the emerging Soviet Union with a giddying amount of works and points of interest, while still retaining a logical progression to allow the artist’s development to emerge. The historic context isn’t imposed upon the work, but rather emanates from it, allowing the art to stand in it’s own right.
There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to learn from this exhibition. It runs from the experiments in non-objectivism at the dawn of the Revolution right up to Popova’s tragically early death in 1924 and Rodchenko’s homage to her in the form of a posthumous display of her work. At the mid point is a showcase within a showcase; a recreation of the 5X5=25 exhibition where Rodchenko displays his farewell to painting in the form of a triptych in the three primary colours. In 1927 he wrote of his paintings “...They are as useless as a church. They serve no purpose whatsoever.” He was wrong of course, but this is a bold statement of artistic intent. In the last room of the exhibition, spectators are able to enjoy his design for a Workers Club, a collective leisure space including a surprisingly comfortable set of chairs with integrated chess board. The Constructivist’s artistic vision of transforming everyday life may have been obscured, but it was never forgotten.
Defining Constructivism is now open at the Tate Modern and runs until May 17th.

Friday, 27 February 2009

The Logic of Contradiction

"The Logic of Contradiction"- is a mixed media installation project by Dani Thomas, James Gardiner and Lee Grey. It will open for public viewing on 18th April at tactileBOSCH gallery and performance space in Llandaff (just outside Cardiff)

If a sentient, autonomous agent is oppressed by a system, the agent might feel more free, or certainly more comfortable by accepting the limits the system has provided, and living obediently within it’s bounds. If, however, the agent turns to face the system that oppresses him this comfort will be lost. He will be more directly oppressed and even violently opposed in consequence of his challenge, but objectively more free than the obedient agent as he takes a step towards true liberation.
In everyday life, all sorts of information is organised into discreet categories; colours, musical pitches, animal and plant species, ethnicity and social strata are all commonly perceived in these terms. This is traditional formal logic, and its important for all sorts of reasons. Its important for us to be able to label the colour - blue - and be able to distinguish it from another - green. Our ability to organise everything around us into easily observable chunks is an absolutely vital faculty.
However, it is also important for us to step outside this strictly empirical framework and realise that many of these categories are socially imposed and in some senses false; Colour is actually a continuous frequency, and in spite of our attempts to consider them as separate entities, one colour flows smoothly into the next.
To appreciate the world in it’s full complexity, one must take a dialectical approach; examine the underlying dynamics and laws of motion at work and attempt to understand it as it unfolds in a constant state of flux. Most importantly of all we must understand that this perpetual motion is powered by the relationship between opposing forces. The essential point of dialectical thought is not that it is based on the idea of change and motion, but that it views motion and change as phenomena based upon contradiction. This piece aims to demonstrate this idea in an interactive setting and begin to draw out it’s social implications by setting the physical space at odds with the sound world.

Fantasy Student Land

The failure of the left in the 20th Century and today could perhaps be said to be a failure of imagination; a failure to penetrate other minds. It is a failure that is felt most keenly by those who self consciously place themselves to the left of the political spectrum, but the weight of the ever growing disaster of modern society must now, in varying degrees, surely be felt by all. The program for its remedy must be daring, audacious and inspiring and it is in the communication of each other's ideas that the imagination must take fire. University should be a place where this sort of creativity is fostered and allowed to flourish.
We have to take heed of the fact that in the current atmosphere, the current state of things, to ask someone to see beyond the formal logic and idealism that has been instilled in them since childhood, is asking a lot. To see the world of capital, with all its false and socially constructed categories, for what it is and thus recognize the need for change requires a rigorous and self motivated materialist stance and a firm, dialectical grasp of the world as it unfolds. The root of this kind of understanding must of course be in education.
It seems so obvious, so fundamental that education should be free for all that it seems almost churlish to express it in writing. If we are to invest anything at all in the progress of humanity, if we are to struggle towards the free and open society in which the curious, sentient and autonomous agents known as humans are destined to dwell, we are absolutely obliged to strive for this. Universities should be completely open communities for intellectual enrichment that allow anyone to come and go as they please. The only goal is to produce well-rounded and, above all, free thinking individuals. To this end, there need be no set requirements to enter and proceed to the next year of study, no element of competition except for intellectual stimulation. In this community of learning, open debate and energy, the alienation of the student population can also be overcome.
The reality of higher education is, and has been so disparate from this vision that such a rounded and inspirational education seems a wild and improbable dream. The experience of student life today is something quite different. Of course, its very easy to point out what a loathsome, slovenly and pretentious lot we all are really. A typical student's day might begin at about 1pm following a cruel and rude awakening by an incensed neighbor complaining about the previous night's noise. Seventeen cups of tea, a leftover chop suey and a Sopranos box set later and we're just about ready to go back out into the world, by which of course I mean the pub. We are the supreme kings of our own student fantasy lands; daytime television is our banquet, big brother's hapless whelps are our jesters and Paul O'Grady is our closest and most trusted advisor. After the initial excitement of landing in our new University setting is passed, we're ready and willing to fully commit to our fantastical sofa kingdoms. Forced indoors by financial decrepitude and the weight of parental expectation, it isn't surprising that so many students enter into these daytime TV-based, vaguely nihilistic fantasies, which are really a sort of depression. Stuck in limbo between a protective family existence and the frosty embrace of the market economy, it isn't long before the fantasy starts to unravel; Paul O'Grady isn't funny, Noel's house party is well and truly over and Carol Vorderman has made the transition from the borderline sexually appealing to the downright disturbing. It's the sort of thick, muggy inertia that sets in when you really can't remember what on earth you were striving for.
Once the spell is broken, it becomes clear what the true nature of University education is. The student at this or that institution has been under the misapprehension that he or she is incredibly lucky, even privileged to be there; a veil of expectation surrounds the whole university experience, dissuading the student from asking the vital questions. "Am I actually enjoying this?" and "Is it worthwhile"? "What am I even studying for?" In fact, the systems of higher education currently in place in Britain very precisely serve the needs of capital. In essence, and a useful phrase to remember, they need us more than we need them. Young people are flocking into Universities by the thousands, unaware of the future burden of the hefty loans that 'allow' them to get there. What the British economy needs is educated workers; white collars; office dolts, and thats exactly what our redesigned educational institutions are churning out. As soon as graduation day is over, the carpet of student bank account overdrafts is pulled out from under our feet and the majority of students are forced into poorly paid and banal work to avoid complete financial oblivion.
It is important to state at this point that I am by no means advocating a nostalgia for the dusty University institutions of old. The main purpose of these systems was to provide the progeny of the wealthy ruling classes with a crash course in general culture before rejoining the ranks of owners and exploiters - an environment in which they could test the efficacy of different ideas and models, debates and discussions, in order to learn how to rule society. There is no 'golden age' of free education where campuses were abound with milk and honey - within the framework of generalized commodity production (Marx's definition of capitalism) education is for sale, whether Working Links plc or the British state provides the service. While some Universities still cling on to this air of academic detachment and exclusivity, the changing needs of Capital are rendering them ever more anachronistic.
Higher education is a crucial part of a young person's development. Universities should provide an environment where students have time to think, study, experiment and, crucially, live away from the family environment and develop into individuals in their own right. Courses should be open and flexible to give students the opportunity to educate themselves in a more complete and well rounded manner, with technical skills being taught alongside more academic subjects. The strict separation of these subjects and different skill sets in the current educational system forces students to specialize far too early and they can often leave university equally as naive and helpless as when they entered, or perhaps even more so. Most importantly of all, the system of higher education must be free and democratic. In other words, it needs to be radically transformed from it's current state. We must treat the current university system as an obstacle to be overcome; not to be tweaked and tidied, but demolished and rebuilt. Let's be clear: we demand nothing less from the state than an eduction which can equip us all to become the knowledgeable, fully-rounded humanoids able to change this ailing world and usher in human freedom, anything else is simply not acceptable. In the meantime, we should strive to operate our own educational program outside the state system, in universities, meetings and social events.
To once again draw reference from the world of daytime television, and that show most keenly watched by students, I leave you with a countdown-style anagram; t o i n l r e v u o. See you after the break.

Student Occupations in Cardiff University

The student occupation of the Large Shandon Lecture Theatre in the main building of Cardiff University lead by Cardiff Students Against War ended last night (26th Feb), after receiving the news that Cardiff University has divested all shares from BAe Systems and the aerospace arm of General Electric. The University has instructed it's external fund managers to avoid future investments in the arms trade, and promised to raise the issue of an "ethical investment policy" at the next council meeting on May 18th. They have also said they are willing to consider sending surplus computer equipment and other resources to institutions in Gaza. The decision to end the occupation took place after a large debate on the afternoon of the 26th, where it was decided that the occupation should now be ended in light of these developments. This was followed by a march around campus declaring the victory of the action. Further demands that have not been met include the facilitation of scholarships for Gazan students and the boycotting of all Israeli products in University Shops. There will be a meeting on Monday 2nd March to discuss where the Campaign will go from here, as there is an urgent need to organise fundraising events and further action to raise awareness and ease the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. There is also an urgent need to consolidate the political platform of the campaign to avoid the surge of student activity disappearing as quickly as it arrived. I will be attending this meeting to assess the political content of the discussions, and to argue for the need to campaign for genuine Marxist politics if the interest that has been generated by these occupations in the student community is to be anything more than a flash in the pan.

Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Critic of the Enlightenment from Within: Rousseau

In many ways the late 18th Century is a time that reflects our own. In a period of supposed intellectual enlightenment, but also cultural excess and a widening societal rift, one thinker stands apart as a voice of reason and social justice. Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a critic of the enlightenment from within, and in this role he brought the need for social change back to man's very nature, which has been betrayed and warped. Within a tightly structured and fickle intellectual environment, and with all the airs and graces necessary in order to avoid censorship, he conceived some of the most socially relevant philosophy of his age.

“What then is to be done? Must we destroy society, abolish mine and yours, and go back to living in the forests with the bears? This is the sort of conclusion my adversaries would come to.”
In ‘A discourse on the origin of inequality’ Rousseau is eager to dismiss the above conclusion as an ill-considered reaction to his work, and states that he would ‘sooner forestall it than leave to them (my adversaries) the shame of drawing it.’ It can be argued that this criticism is unjustified in the brief text that follows it. Rousseau confirms in this passage and consistently throughout his text that a return to the state of nature described in the first part of the discourse would be impossible, but leaves little room for an alternative course of action. Rousseau’s only suggestion in this part of the discourse is for men ‘whose passions have destroyed their original simplicity’ to continue to respect and serve their communities and in particular honour those who find ways of preventing or curing all the ‘evils and abuses’ that necessarily plague the current society. The discourse ends in a very negative manner by stating that these men will continue to live in ‘contempt for a constitution that cannot support itself...’ and the question still beckons “What then is to be done?”
Rousseau gives no explicit answer to this question in the second discourse, his hypothetical history of man seems to place the society in which he was writing and indeed, the one we live in today into an irredeemable situation. However, this impression that is imposed upon the reader can perhaps be seen as a result of the strength and plausibility of Rousseau’s thought experiments, rather than as a misgiving or failure to provide positive response. It is important to recognise that the question posed by the Academy of Dijon did not allude to a need for a solution to the problem, and that despite this there are suggestions for a remedy of sorts evident within the discourse.
At the very beginning of the discourse in ‘Dedication to the Republic of Geneva.’ Rousseau reflects extensively on what he would consider to be an admirable and just society in which to live. These thoughts are not placed in the context of the intricate thought experiment later in the piece, but still can be considered to be relevant to the problems posed by the specious social contract. In the dedication, Rousseau describes a society which has ‘an extent proportionate to the limits of the human faculties.’ Where each person’s occupation is equal to their capabilities, and no-one has need to make an infringement on another’s function. Within this structure, Rousseau argues that each person will bear his own burden or yoke ‘...with the greater docility, as they are made to bear no other.’ Another aspect of Rousseau’s ideal Republic is that all the individuals are ‘well known to one another’ and there is an emphasis on the ‘general happiness’ of the public, which is achieved by the solemn adherence to and reverence of a few antiquitous and sacred laws. It is possible that Rousseau placed this dedication to an ideal republic at the start of his discourse intentionally so that these ideas can be kept in mind when reading the fiercely detailed and derisory comment on the unjust civil society which is to follow.
It is arguable however, that Rousseau is providing a positive response in a much more subtle manner, that is, the conceptual history of the discourse is, in itself, a response to the problems of the current state of man. In the first part of the discourse, Rousseau constructs a detailed hypothetical image of ‘Nascent man’ in a ‘pure state of nature’ or what he calls the ‘forest’. In this world man is stripped down to its raw material, lives entirely within himself and inequalities are unimportant as liaisons with other beings do not occur. One might ask what the point is of constructing an entire argument on a world that may not have and may not ever actually exist. Rousseau’s response to this is that it is necessary to have ‘precise notions’ on this state of nature in order to ‘judge our present state correctly’ , and the only way to achieve this within society is to hypothesise. The incredibly extraneous but plausible world which Rousseau creates forces to reconsider our notions of what the basic natural characteristics of a human are. Rousseau does not allow for any Hobbesian ideas of natural violence or Aristotelian ideas of natural sociability and argues that man is naturally solitary and peaceful, and can be likened to an Orang-utan in this respect. This reassessment of the intrinsic nature of human beings can be considered to be a positive response in light of a society rife with injustice and violence.
As the discourse progresses and develops this sympathetic view of human nature is maintained in reference to our natural capacity for compassion. Although Rousseau recognises that this capacity is altered in the later stages by the awakening of imagination and amour-propre, the very idea that we are by nature compassionate beings offers some insight into how society could perhaps be altered fundamentally simply by placing more trust in ourselves as moral agents. This idea is reflected in ‘Dedication to the Republic of Geneva’ in the importance Rousseau places on ‘the right of legislation...’ to be ‘...vested in all citizens.’
In his book on Rousseau, Tim O’Hagan highlights his concern on the drastic difference between savage man and civilised man. Rousseau writes ‘Savage man and Civilised man differ so much in the bottom of their hearts and inclinations that what constitutes the supreme happiness of one would reduce the other to despair.’ The Savage man of Rousseau’s argument wants only to ‘live and remain idle’, while the civilised man ‘torments himself incessantly in order to seek still more laborious occupations.’ O’Hagan insists that Rousseau is not advocating a return to this idleness of the savage man, but is using it to ‘highlight the frustrating character of work in the contemporary world’ Perhaps then, as O’Hagan argues, Rousseau is suggesting that a positive solution to this ‘frustrating character’ would be to shift the emphasis away from the results and competition of industry which ‘fails to bring satisfaction’, and to have a system where the actual process of work can be appreciated and valued in itself. In this way, it is possible to discern some positive solutions to the problems posed in the second discourse by carefully considering the methods and practices Rousseau is critical of.
However, it is not until the end of the discourse that the full scale of the problems that Rousseau has identified is realised. He describes how original man has ‘vanished by degrees’ and ‘society offers to us only an assembly of artificial men and factitious passions... without any real foundation in nature.’ In the following passages, Rousseau continues to describe the extent of the evils that society has caused and the corruption to the human soul. As injustice is piled upon injustice and corruption upon corruption Rousseau builds up an overwhelming image of seemingly insurmountable despair. The reader is forced to come to terms with the fact, and Rousseau does indeed present it as a matter of fact, that human existence in civilisation has become wretched and miserable in comparison to the peaceful life of the savage man. The discourse ends in a defiant tone where the civilised man can only hope to soldier on, with respect for the many ingenious and splendid ways men have held off the evils caused by their society, but in contempt for a situation where this sort of practice is necessary. This seems to be a very unsatisfactory conclusion. Its possible when reading the final pages of the discourse to feel as though Rousseau has broken away the foundations upon which we live and left us nothing to clutch on to.
To rectify this, it must be considered that Rousseau makes allusions to how society could be restructured and improved without ever explicitly stating it. His tone earlier in the discourse is more forgiving. ‘...this is not the original state of man, but it is merely the spirit of society, and the inequality which society produces, that thus transform and all our natural inclinations.’ Although Rousseau maintains that a return to the original state of man is impossible, the above realisation certainly allows room for some sort of change. The intrinsic hardships of nature could perhaps be replaced by a more rigourous social structure where the general will prevails and inequality in society is proportionate with physical inequality, which Rousseau insists is minimal.
By stating so explicitly the injustice of the current situation where the ‘privileged few... gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life.’ in context with the intricate and sophisticated thought experiment that precedes the claim, Rousseau places himself in the best possible position to make such claims, and they are given added weight by the plausibility of his argument. While no complete answers are given within this discourse, the essential groundwork has surely been done to allow these questions to feasibly by addressed in the future.
In conclusion, Rousseau’s positive response to the problems identified within the second discourse is not in the form of explicitly stated answers. Instead, I would like to consider the possibility that the discourse itself is the first step towards a conceivable solution. Another strong aspect of Rousseau’s positive response is social, allusions to which can be found throughout the text but most pertinently in the ‘Dedication to the Republic of Geneva’, he states ‘I should have wished to live and die free: that is, so far subject to the laws that neither I, nor anybody else, should be able to cast off their honourable yoke.’

1. O’Hagan, Timothy. ‘Rousseau’. London: Routledge, 1999.
2. Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. ‘The Social Contract and The Discourses’. Everyman’s Library, 1993