On the record: the truth of Artists’ Lives

Despite having been in possession of a British Library reader’s ticket for more than six years, until recently I had never heard of the Artists’ Lives archive of recordings with living artists, a catch-all that appears to include poets, painters, sculptors, critics, gallery owners, dealers, curators, publishers and so forth. A discrete part of the overarching project National Life Stories, along with Industrial Lives, Craft Lives and Book Trade Lives amongst others, C466 Artists’ Lives active list of human subjects interviewed since the project’s inception in 1990 (the first five interviews were funded by seed money from the Henry Moore Foundation) is one that will probably appeal more to art world insiders than the wider public, for it seems to have largely steered clear of celebrity artists (even Tracey Emin’s NLSC interview focuses on drawing rather than her bad girl past). Perhaps some practitioners are not yet in their dotage or unwilling to look back on the past, too busy with careers and money making? This though is mere speculation, as the exact criteria that shape the direction and content of Artists’ Lives and how biographical noteworthiness is determined are unclear.

Having navigated from the BL’s Sound & Moving Image Catalogue to the Artists’ Lives web page and scrolled down it emerges that some electronic resources are formatted as ‘Play this’ and can be listened to immediately at any of four computers with headphones dotted throughout Rare Books & Music, whilst everything else (actually the vast bulk of material) must be ordered in advance either by an old-fashioned Playlist Request form or emailing the issues desk. Clicking randomly on a Details tab certainly brings up some intriguing statistics: eg Derek Boshier’s entire interview lasts some 25 hrs 13 minutes, Richard Demarco’s words are stored on 19 x 60 minute cassettes, Paula Rego’s tape 10 side B is blank, while Gustav Metzger’s testimony (recorded on a Marantz PMD660) is closed until April 2017, an option according to Project Director Cathy Courtney that can be “of greater value to posterity than an anodyne version for immediate release”. It is also handy from the research perspective to see the precise bibliographic information and extra material contained in summary form that comprises some entries.

Using the resource in an ad hoc manner though is not to be recommended. Grazing in the modern way, ie sampling from here, sampling from there must be carried out under close restraint, as so few interviews have been digitised, and therefore just turning up on the day and expecting to have instant access to a particular life story is not recommended. Frankly this is a resource for highly organised researchers, specialists who can plan in advance and order tapes or cassettes from the store to coincide with their visit. As such it might be claimed that Artists Lives is still somewhat antiquated as a delivery system (there is a noticeable transition in the late 1990s from Product, ie material stored on open reel, to Recording). Nevertheless the charm exuded by some conversations soon gets to work. Alasdair Gray’s moving reminiscences of his family, and growing up in industrial Glasgow between the wars are related in a full range of rich Scottish cadences, featuring many voices or personae in one recording, with the odd burst of sardonic laughter or apology for getting carried way by the performative side of his interview. Bruce Lacey also tells a good yarn, and reveals how he once smuggled government issue cigarettes from his Royal Navy ship after cutting a compartment out of a history book, whilst the painter Patrick Heron, tentative at first, memory faltering, until gently nudged along by Mel Gooding recounts a pre-war trip to Nazi Germany in which the Gestapo boarded the train and sneered at his capitalist top hat (Heron was on his way to a wedding in Berlin). Looking back into the long lost past these figures often find it hard to keep the thread, and sometimes actually lose it along the way, but aided and abetted by the odd deft intervention can be heard to actually be in the process of rediscovering a buried archive of experience as if scraping away grime; although quite how much preparation or scripting has been done in expectation of the interview is impossible to tell. These are old stories, so the best or most vivid ones in other words, not to say embroidered over and over again through their recall.

Subsidiary notes from underground: the video explorations of Ian Stead

The twentieth-century ruin has become the preserve of countless urban explorers and enthusiasts of decaying concrete: the evidence of their obsession is spreading across hundreds of websites devoted to haunted asylums, silent foundries, vacant bunkers, and amputated subway stations.                                                                                Brian Dillon, CABINET magazine #20, Winter 2005-6

On the final page of Dosteyevsky’s Notes from Underground (1864), a tension between the writer and the autonomy of his fictional anti-hero emerges, as the one avows exhaustion with the social milieu of the literary underground, even while asking the reader to believe in the conceit that his nameless ‘abject hero’, to use Michael Andre Bernstein’s telling phrase, will continue to scribble down his testimony, literally live his notes, long after the book has been closed and returned to the shelf: “He could not restrain himself and carried on.” So it is the afterlife of this classic text that matters, not only because its characters, situations and message are unforgettable, but for the way Dosteyevsky found an idiom to reflect an unstable world where experience is fragmentary, a dark premonition of what would become the norm in twentieth century letters and indeed musical composition… Anton Webern’s Six Bagatelles (1911-13), Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook (1962) and Cy Twombly’s calligraphic paintings being prime examples. The lightning sketch or note taker is skilled in “assembling reminders for a particular purpose” to cite Wittgenstein’s gnomic remark from Philosophical Investigations (1953), as the rush both of facing and participating in the world is too fast, too dense, and often vertiginous. Note-taking steadies and organises the flow of sensory data, an input filter and handy mnemonic, its only drawback being the need for the Janus-faced writer to practice an on/off detachment in the midst of life. Kinetic and immediate, the note lends itself to outdoors, especially torchlit darkness, street or safari; a Van Gogh crow that flies off the canvas, carrying the weight of the whole on its plucky, syntactical shoulder, best expressing the impossibility of gaining a universal overview, or 360 degree sweep. As such it is the polar opposite to grand narrative, a precursor of the blog and video diary.

Ian Stead’s remarkable series of subterranean videos produced by his company IKS Production, all of which can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch, reveal him to be a gifted visual note taker, bringing an unexpected lyricism to bear on the sub-genre of week-end filming both in the nimble way he grabs impressions, or slowly pans over ravaged surfaces, turning out well edited and gripping accounts of risky underground explorations (“It’s full of fungus… spores …good for the lungs!”), tracking cheerfully through a variety of disused wartime bunkers, shelters, oubliettes and other long abandoned military installations in his native Kent. His hand-held videos stand out from other contemporary reportage and pictures to be found at http://www.28dayslater.co.uk -a site dedicated to dark and derelict Britain- managing a laddish yet sophisticated configuration of Second World War collective memory, snaring psychic traces unsettled by his probes into these abandoned spaces, miniature elegies for the dead and departed, threads that vanish into pitch blackness. Here the metaphorical cultural cavity of underground, or “podpol’e” as Dosteyevsky called it, ie a crawl space under floorboards, is transposed below earth’s topsoil into the hollowed out geology itself.

By Stead’s standards Langdon Hole Command Headquarters at seven minutes thirty-eight seconds is long, but his methods reveal a dedicated videographer following his own fragile beam of light through a maze of corrugated iron lined tunnels, rubble-strewn corridors and bricked up arches, panning slowly to examine rusted pipes or period graffiti as his mood music sets up a spooky and malignant atmosphere for the viewer, dramatising the impact of this abandoned HQ till it becomes unpleasantly claustraphobic and the piece ends in musical noise. In Hawkinge, Officer’s Mess the camera picks a way through gloomy ramshackle buildings, studying the palpable decay of the fabric as it pours with rain outside, calmly proceeding in and out of this melancholy, reject heritage. The former RAF site is truly a mess, but Stead treats his material with the reverence of a Tarkovsky, lingering on a mangled wartime consumer fuse-box, long since disconnected, a powerful metaphor for the way that successive generations forget the sacrifices of their ancestors, or pay them mere lip service. Winchelsea Quarry is a very short enigmatic piece modulating from frightening black & white, to colour and a wartime tune that sounds as if it has been hermetically sealed and then released by the intervention of the artist; less a soundtrack than a sonic remnant. Detached Bastion Western Heights [Dover] too is a blend of image and music, with a jaw-droppingly beautiful opening sequence that shows a gothic propensity in its restless quest to find a place to linger, the phrasing finally resolved into a sinister red beam that transforms the space into a dungeon. This longing for home is developed further in Foxenden Quarry Air Raid Shelter [Guildford]. Built in 1941 on the outskirts of Guildford, Surrey, to house a thousand inhabitants, the shelter was abandoned after the demise of the Luftwaffe from 1944 onwards, and has recently been opened to the public. Stead again uses contrast as a structural device, switching from the delectation of entropy to a tour of the catacomb with its dangling light bulbs illuminating period signage -much in very good condition- as a dance band crooner sings “When shadows fall and trees whisper day is ending, my thoughts are forever wending home” to emphasise how the locus and value of home be it mythological, political or primal, was a key ideological trope during the war both for the armed forces and the general populace. Such sugary yet poignant lyrics would have expressed a yearning for peace, whilst also acting as an opiate to ease the ultimate sacrifice of death and dissolution. This trend reached its rhetorical apotheosis of course in Winston Churchill’s famous “fight them on the beaches and the landing grounds” speech that is dubbed onto Stead’s South Foreland Battery Deep Shelter 1, emphasising Churchill as both arch demagogue and con-man, the video camera wending its way through yet more decay.

In Chatham Dockyard Underground Headquarters things take a turn for the worse though, as the perils of underground exploration are starkly revealed. Two ‘potholers’ encounter dangerous pits, rusted ladders, nasty looking dead ends, and the viewer begins to feel suffocated, as if this trip will end disastrously, or not end at all, and is a fatal study in loss, lunacy and entombment somehow salvaged by a rescue party. Warnings not to drop the camera grow repetitive. So as the video fades out and the by now familiar IKS Production credits appear against a black background. Stead’s doom-laden message is reinforced, an allegorical pessimism fitting for the 21st century, in which the ambitious desires of a note-taker or trainspotter might prove to be their undoing. This is The Descent (2005), without the flesh-eating zombies, and considering its short duration just as spooky. History for him and other subterranean trespassers is no longer just an inventory of facts & figures but an adventure playground, these troglodyte caverns and damp command bunkers as much a part of British heritage as Stonehenge, Stratford-upon-Avon, the Crescent Bath, Ironbridge or Orford Ness; his contemporary annotations from underground clawed from darkness.

Going postal

Every belief system, art movement or even social media trend rests on a foundation myth of some description, however apocryphal, be it a blinding moment of revelation, an act of formal transgression or a dodgy meme that suddenly goes viral and turns into a fashion. With regard to Mail Art, which could be said to combine aspects of all these three – ie it involves membership, group identification and exchange- the infamous court case of GPO v GPO might be adopted as the phenomenon’s archetypal back story. Incidentally the eponymous initials stood for General Post Office versus Genesis P-Orridge!

In 1976 Orridge, real name Neil  Megson, was grassed up to Scotland Yard by a puritanical employee in the Hackney sorting office for sending five lewd postcards through the post. These were immediately seized and Orridge subsequently charged under the terms of the 1953 Post Office Act. Things started out on a farcical note as the GPO mistakenly thought he was a ‘male artist’; (you have to wonder what they might have made of his recent gender erasing status ‘pandrogyny’?). In a pre-trial statement to his solicitors David Offenbach and Geoffrey Robertson (who had already successfully defended  David Waterfield and John Jesnor Lindsay of OZ fame), the artist opined “Why use postcards? The popular context. I like to use an existing popular structure and examine it in a creative way. To extend what is already there and assimilated to society rather than try to impose alien ideas on them.” But images of Buckingham Palace overlaid with a cut-out of a lady’s ass turned out to be rather too creative for his own good, though as he argued quite reasonably at the time, weren’t Donald McGill’s seaside postcards dirty too? But reading between the lines it appears Orridge’s real crime was to offend the good name of the House of Windsor. Ever the cultural engineer, after choosing to plead not guilty it at least meant the onus was on prosecuting counsel to prove him guilty of indecency. A contributor to Studio International at trial in Highbury Magistrates Court his seriousness was vouched for by a string of names including William Burroughs (who allegedly told him at the age of twenty-one “Your task is to short circuit control”), Richard Cork, Bridget Riley and Lord Goodman, though to add insult to injury Orridge was referred to throughout as Mr Porridge by the Scottish magistrate Mrs Caldwell! In any event the scamp was fined £100 plus costs, a judgement he failed to overturn on appeal. Still pretty obscure in those analogue days, Mail Art has continued to walk a tightrope between exuberant lyrical material circulated through an open system and illicit or coded communiques hidden in plain sight. According to Ian Mather in the Observer of 11 April 1976 “Mail artists believe postcards presented as collages and properly stamped and franked can be art. Hundreds of them advertise their favourite themes in the ‘image bank request’ section of a United States magazine File.” The implication that such people were little more than networking WLTM lonely hearts isn’t exactly veiled. Prior to Orridge’s cause celebre Mail Art had largely been a transatlantic underground form, a one man band contrived by Ray Johnson (he of the flop art bunny heads) as a way to stay in touch with pals, and a movement that Ed Plunkett had wryly named the New York Correspondence School in 1962; but in the wake of GPO v GPO, Orridge’s arts collective COUM transmissions would go from strength to strength, and Mail Art itself receive a comprehensive survey at the ICA in 1977.

What’s in a name?

What’s in a name? Sometimes a great deal symbolically, but at another physical level very little. As Zongxiu Xie, one of the artists involved in ‘Touchy, no touchy’ has stated “I believe what do we do is more important.” (email 25 March 2016)

However in contemporary art terms when an individual or collective devise a name there is often an expectation it will function as a street tag or branding device, attuned to the demands of the 24 hour mediascape, yet with the accompanying risk that their transmission can be lost in digital noise too, which was the challenge to the three young practitioners in the group show ‘Touchy, no touchy’. From the get-go this clever, somewhat theatrical title betrayed a tension that runs through art display logistics but is rarely tackled by fashionable curators or institutions, ie the issue of whether to preserve objects in vitrines or let the public touch and therefore explore them with the risk of damage, vandalism and theft? Marcel Duchamp’s 1947 soft sculpture of a foam rubber breast mounted on black velvet, inscribed with the words ‘Prière de Toucher’, (Please Touch) plays on this very notion of the artwork as sacred relic, whilst situating it in a libidinal economy. The polite request ‘Please do not touch’ is the kid-gloved universal language of grand museum collections, poked at by Duchamp in overtly surrealistic mode. ‘Touchy, no touchy’ sat on this interactive fault line, asking a valid question about the status of its installation, in this case at Light Eye Mind, an emergent project space in which the work of Zongxiu Xie, Yuen-Ying Lam and Karen Flecknall, materialised; if you like, dramatising the Freudian conflict between the playfulness of the ‘id’ and parental control of the ‘superego’. In short ‘Touchy, no touchy’ addressed the managerial order of things.

But did the hand-made, low-tech aesthetic of this exhibition signify a backlash against the digital? Not necessarily. It would be all too easy to dismiss it as student art too, for that would be to ignore its delightful commitment to the accidental, the experimental, and its basis in post-medium bricolage rather than fine art. Xie’s toy Hello Pumpkin, 2015, was artfully constructed, if rudimentary, a non-utilitarian wooden machine that in common with her other work established a microcosmos. The gourds were brilliantly faked, and set in motion by cranking a handle. London Kaleidoscope, 2015, a series of pinhole snaps (that box again!) printed digitally onto paper conveyed impressionistic views of the capital city: a blurry Eros in Piccadilly Circus, a red bus, broken clouds passing overhead. This was a secret cache trying to defamiliarise the city, and provided a wider context to the group’s collective intervention.

Yuen-Ying Lam’s pieces had extended titles that all begin with the possessive pronoun ‘My’, formulated as a challenge to the viewer, as if to say these works are highly personal assets of mine, would you care to enjoy them or even own them? In other words their titles initiated a potential exchange semantic, physical, emotional, financial; literal mouthpieces or maybe stand-ins for Lam herself. My fluffy balls are friendly, kind and non-judgemental, 2015, consisted of a four-legged waist-high holder containing fluffy balls, each one waiting silently to be picked up, stroked or thrown maybe? It wasn’t really clear if such a liberty was desirable. So whilst the artist offered closeness, was she also an undercover policewoman? My sands know they are great, beautiful and deserve love, 2016, continued in the same vein, taking the tango a step further, since an explicit invitation to dip a finger into red powder had been appliqued (a là Emin) in lower case letters onto the side of a fabric sack holding the sands. Containment was an apt metaphor here, since its polar opposite, ie unloading or dispersion was never far off, and Lam’s work staged this duality, aware that the tactile moment signals a social relationship is getting more serious, an art object no longer simply mute and conceptual.

Karen Flecknall’s work altered the tone somewhat, but shared formal properties with the other work in ‘Touchy, no touchy’. Her objects investigated distress, both as a structural limit and ecological condition. She has summed this up as “pollution, deforestation, animal testing causing deformities, urban development being a huge cause of destroying animal habitats and ways we use animals for scientific experiments, fur and food”. Ranging from bricks assisted by spikey fimo© clay sat on plinth-like shelving, to The Mutated, 2016, a tableau of altered toys under a perspex cube, and Urban Mice, 2014, ceramic figurines morphed together with keys, bolts and a rusty hinge -giving them a wind-up toy look- such irrational flair highlighted how things are going badly wrong in the lab and the wild.

The exhibition at Light Eye Mind wasn’t over-processed or highly documented, suggesting its contents could be viewed as what the British psycho-analyst Donald Winnicott termed ‘transitional objects’; items ready to be handled or hugged. ‘Touchy, no touchy’ explored the antinomy of wanting to touch, whilst being barred by the unwritten regulations of art spaces and their aura of pseudo-religious gravitas.