Tuesday 30 August 2011


This download of Current 93 at the Off Festival in Poland was linked to in the band's own 'Coptic Cat' newsletter, so can be regarded as legit by those who get concerned about that sort of thing.

From not much later it's not too far different from the set I saw at Meltdown - more Shirley Temple numbers but about the same amount of Boney M. Tibet does rather fluff the vocal timings on 'Black Ships Ate The Sky', unfortunately, but it's more than worth a listen. Personal faves so far are 'Not Because the Fox Barks' and 'Invocation of Almost.'

I worried before about falling down the rabbit hole of the world of C93. And now I'm certainly feeling its tug...

Monday 29 August 2011


The concluding part of an exhibition at the Barbican that actually ended so long ago it’s not even funny. Find the opening here. If you were expecting to see something on 'Doctor Who' try here.

So commendable is this emphasis on downtown as a scene that it feels almost mistaken to break that apart and talk about the artists as individuals. It’s a show whose sections are not composed of different artists but different themes - should this not be kept up? Nevertheless, ‘scene’ is definitely the right word - and it is by definition a different, more loose-limbed creature to a movement. Artists overlapped in interests, inspired and supported each other, even fed each other, but each had their own direction. (Imagine this lot issuing a manifesto...) So, having established their commonality first, let’s move on to what made each distinctive...

 Laurie Anderson: Sculptural Instruments

It’s tempting to see Anderson as the odd one out here, given her subsequent career. After all, she moved from penniless performance artist to Grammy-nominated musician, from acting out spontaneous improvisations in the street to selling out the Town Hall. Surely she was only ever slumming in the downtown scene, keeping a toehold in Manhattan while waiting for the moment she could springboard to the big art league?

Actually, and happily, it works almost exactly the opposite way round – we find here the roots to almost all her subsequent work. Anderson cheerily recalled the chief distinction between that scene and today – “art had nothing to do with money” and was instead all about “fun”, something she clearly regarded as a kind of liberation.)

For example, her interest in “sculptural instruments” and sound-manipulating devices became less lo-fi and more technological after the Seventies, but they stem from just the same impetus. In ’Duet For Door Jamb and Violin’ (1975), her violin bow pushes a door behind her as she plays, causing a magnetic tape stuck to it to pass over a playback head. ’Electric Chair’ uses the detritus of an apparently abandoned office as sound sources, a flickering florescent light, the whirring and trundling of the electric chair.

However, that’s not to say emphasis hasn’t shifted in that time. Unlike some of her later inventions the ‘sculptural’ sound source needs to be present, the concept being more important than the generated result. They’re indicative, not illustrational. They’re about learning to hear music everywhere around us, cacophonous city noise retuned into a symphony.

Perhaps Anderson’s truly distinctive feature, in this crossflux of collaboration, is her tendency to work and perform solo. This leads to a notable shift in her art as the Seventies progress. The programme comments, “just as she engaged passersby during her street actions, she also created a few interactive works that require the viewer’s participation in the gallery.” Of course the gallery is a shift from the street, but it’s their claimed point of continuity which actually obscures something.

They are talking about works such as ’Talking Pillow’ (1977) and ’Handphone Table’ (1978). In the latter, for example, a recording set inside a table generates vibrations. To hear it the listener must sit with their elbows on the table and hands over their ears, effectively using their own body as headphones. Anderson has gone from engaging street crowds to creating works which can only be heard individually - the solo performer is now insisting upon a solo audience! So strong is this personalisation that I wondered if there was something ultra-Protestant in Anderson’s background, that she was simulating its shtick for the word of God in the believer’s ear.

(Of course it could be said that Anderson’s later, more mass-media work, is the reverse of this. However, I’m not so sure. There is something in her low-key, murmury performance voice which leaves you feeling she is speaking just to you.)

Trisha Brown: Dance Off the Stage

Instead, perhaps it’s Trisha Brown who’s the odd one out here. Over a decade older than Anderson, she’d been practising in New York City since 1961. However, she fits in so easily that she gives the truth to Anderson’s claim that the scene’s roots were in the Sixties.

However, it’s possible Brown presents us with another problem. Despite all this multi-media malarky going on around her, she has stuck to pretty much one discipline – dance. And worse, I am quite antagonistic to that whole business. I only ever dance when no-one else seems to be looking, so I can’t see why everyone else can’t pay me the same courtesy. And ask for all that interpretive dance business, surely that’s just a long-winded four-letter word...

Yet this is Brown’s dance as described by the programme: “eschewing virtuosity, working with non-dancers, using everyday movement and taking dance off the stage.” There’s quite often not even any music in the performances, while there is plenty of audience laughter. In short, by the time she is through with it dance isn’t really dance any more – at least as most of us think of it. (She calls this “post-modern dance”, but then no-one’s perfect.)

Without being too reductive, there seems to be two strands to acting out Brown’s particular branch of anti-dance.  First, Brown takes everyday movements, often so familiar as to be subliminal, and by replication explodes them into defamiliarity until we look at them anew. She said “I use quirky personal gestures like bending or straightening”, plucked from life and divorced from function to become “pure movement.”

This can be done through shifting the plane, such as the afore-mentioned ’Walking on the Wall’ or the earlier ’Man Walking Down the Side of a Building’ (1970, above). In both cases all the ‘dance’ we are really looking at is walking, what she called “a natural activity under the stress of an unnatural setting.” Similarly, ’Floor Of the Forest’ (1970, below), another of the show’s live performances, is based around getting dressed but horizontalises it by suspending clothes across a steel frame.

At other times this is given emphasis through being played out by several figures in synchronisation, like a simple phrase repeated until it gains significance. (One example would be ’Group Primary Accumulation’, 1973.) These are rather like the result if Busby Berkley had designed dance routines for Steve Reich or Philip Glass’s music.

Brown’s second strand is to derive choreography from random processes. She would assign movements numbers, then numbers letters, then generate choreography from simple plain-fact phrases. (Such as her birth-place, see example top of section.) These working methods were close to fellow choreographer, and frequent John Cage collaborator, Merce Cunningham. (See her tribute to Cunningham here.) I’m intending to post something about Cage in the near future, so I’ll say more about all this then.)

Gordon Matta-Clark: Anarchitecture and Fake Estates

In fact, if there is an odd one out here, it’s Matta-Clark. Even if the show’s sections are themed, the ’Urban Interventions’ section is almost entirely devoted to him. His patented term (and short-lived group) ‘Anarchitecture’ tells us two important things about him; firstly, and most obviously, that he worked at the junction between art and architecture.

If Brown and Anderson used the city as an inspiration and canvas, for Matta-Clarke it’s quite literally a medium. Real estate had fallen so cheap in places that he could buy up buildings at auction, like other artists buy paints and paper. (The documents are on show for one he bought for $25!)

In ’Splitting’ (1974), he cut a New Jersey house in half, and similar experiments were to follow. (Such as carrying a house intact down the Hudson on a barge; if ’Clock Shower’ was his ’Safety Last’, that must be his ’One Week.’) He described this as like “a dance with a building”, but it struck me as more like collage – merely using an axle-grinder instead of a scalpel. (He also made photo-collages, enhancing this idea.)

With a family history in Surrealism (his father the painter Roberto Matta and his godfather no less than Marcel Duchamp), there’s no doubt he enjoyed the surrealist dimension of rending bricks and mortar into his clay. His ’Bronx Floors’ (1972-3, above), sections illegally removed from abandoned buildings and transported to galleries, are in some ways akin to Duchamp’s ready-mades.

However, ‘anarchitecture’ also suggests at a political perspective, commonly absent from his contemporaries, and this gives us the double nature of Matta-Clarke’s works.  At the same time they are playful, there is something lamentary about them. You look at the tawdry squares of cheap and peeling lino in the way you’d look at a found family photo, as a section of someone’s life rent from its context and meaning. Symbolically, the cut-out sections of floors are like looking at the accumulated sedentary layers of the past.

A landscape painter might then feel an affinity to that landscape, take an interest in its history, seek to protect it from development. Matta-Clark does that with houses. His ’Reality Properties: Fake Estates’ (1973) assembled documentation from unsellable properties he’s bought. If buildings were Matta-Clarke’s materials, he also saw himself as their biographer. These works reminded me of the sign-off line in ’Gangs of New York’, “no-one will ever know our names.”

This political dimension led to a more confrontational attitude than Anderson and Brown’s celebration of life in the city. In 1976 he was invited to stage an exhibition at the prestigious Institute for Architectural and Urban Studies. Shortly before the opening, he took an airgun and shot out the windows of the gallery, so as to reflect his home environment the more clearly. The venue promptly banned him.

If Anderson was rooted in Fluxus, I wondered if Matta-Clarke was similarly influenced by the Situationists. Extensive research conducted after the exhibition proved me right – but only half-right. He had been in Paris during “the events” of 1968, and come across such currents. Yet what I saw in his work was an earlier era, prior to the political coup of 1962, when concepts such as unitary urbanism still held sway and Chtcheglov was a guru. The then-dominant idea was that the city should not be fixed, like an exoskeleton, but modular - a “landscape of our desires” which we could reshape upon our whim.

History has not necessarily been any kinder to Matta-Clarke than his subjects. For one thing, he died tragically young in 1978. His disinterest in conventional media, while enthralling, was also not the best decision in terms of preserving his work. As Steve Stern comments in ‘Frieze’: “More than any of his peers, living or dead, Matta-Clark exists for us in documentation and anecdotes. His interventions were ephemeral by design, his cut-up buildings have been razed, his restaurant shut down. There is simply no such thing as a Gordon Matta-Clark work in the world today.” But perhaps that’s even appropriate. Perhaps it is the ideas which have the currency...

When the Party’s Over

In that afore-mentioned Brighton Festival conversation, Anderson confessed her chief fear for this exhibition was that it would present the scene as “tidy”. In writing this, my chief fear has been similar, that I would present it as an accumulation of art-works to peer at. Which might sound virtually a definition of an exhibition, but the point of the pieces here was chiefly to inspire. You didn’t necessarily need to become an artist yourself, but you needed to look at the urban environment enveloping you less passively and more creatively.

In one of my few criticisms of this show, with Seventies New York such a centre for creativity, I would have liked to hear more about how all this overlapped with other scenes. If they ran counter to minimalism in art, what about minimalist music or the general downtown music scene which was emanating from other loft events at this time? (And would seem to have much in common; taking music out of its common performance areas, out of the hands of musicians, responding to the urban environment and so on.)

For that matter, what of the punk scene then emerging, which was often influenced by performance art? Or hip-hop? Perhaps counter-intuitively, hip-hop may even be the closer fit. In its early days it was uninterested in social commentary. Yet it covered run-down buildings in colourful graffiti, and countered gang culture by putting on all-inclusive parties in public spaces. Until the very end of the Seventies, this was confined to the majority-black borough of the Bronx, and it’s possible - indeed likely - the two scenes were unaware of each other. However, they might make for an interesting comparison.

Beyond the scope of the exhibition, but interesting to know, would be how many other similar scenes flourished out of similar conditions in other American cities at this time? You could optimistically imagine anywhere big enough to have a downtown having a downtown scene. Steve Brown of San Francisco’s Angels of Light later commented:

“We lived together in a big Victorian house...pooled all our disability cheques each month, ate communally and used the rest of the funds to produce lavish theatrical publications – never charging a dime to the public.” (Quote from Simon Reynolds’ ever-influential ‘Rip It Up And Start Again’)

Perhaps it’s a testament to a show when you try to extend it in your mind, conjuring up more of it elsewhere. However, there seems one sharp limitation to such extensions, one revealed in the show’s title. As mentioned Anderson started out the Seventies by performances on the street. She’d wear ice skates embedded in blocks of ice as a timer, when the ice melted the show was over (see top of section). Alas that block of ice has now truly melted beyond replacement.

The low-rent attractions and urban possibilities of SoHo have gone, choked with one hand by a property boom and the other by the clamp of a post-Guliano “zero tolerance” regime. Matta-Clarke was buying buildings with money which now wouldn't pay a week's rent. Nowadays artists can only survive in such an area by producing blinging yuppie fodder, like the contemptible Jeff Koons.

Yet, to turn to military terminology momentarily, of course what counts isn’t the battle but the war. When one field is closed, you merely migrate elsewhere. If the function of the downtown scene is to inspire, it doesn’t need to – indeed shouldn’t – be copied. least that’s the official answer. But I wonder if the downturn will lead to the return of the downtown scene, or at least something similar. The real estate collapse in America, which has occurred on a greater scale than here in the UK, could be a crisis which creates opportunities. (I have heard tales of artists recolonising areas of Detroit.) When cities can no longer be based around work, perhaps they’re ripe to be transformed into places for play all over again. As the Fall put it back in the Eighties: “new art forms hit recession cities best.”

The financial black hole and act of social cleansing commonly known as the Olympics has shown a surprising upside for London – all the art exhibitions and events being planned to coincide with their intended tourist influx. In fact some of these seem to be arriving already. There will be, I fear, more to see than I will be able to. While many are safe blockbuster shows, others look more interesting. But it seems doubtful that many will be as genuinely inspirational as this glimpse into the downtown scene. It’s literally off the wall! (At least I saved the bad gags till last...)

Coming soon! More of this sort of thing...

Sunday 28 August 2011


Anyone expecting to see the second part of ‘Downtown Scene’ here, it is showing up soon, honest!

Okay, Hitler...

It’s been a longstanding tradition of ’Doctor Who’ that no Nazis appear, let alone their head honcho. (Note to pedants: Okay they turned up in an old ’TV Action’ strip, but never the actual show.) This was even kept up in the recent ’Victory of the Daleks’ - for all else it got wrong, it carefully showed Nazis only at a distance and in planes, leaving them as no more than their insignia.

Which of course it had to. As the name might suggest, that episode starred Daleks and (as with so many of the Doctor’s foes) Daleks are stand-ins for Nazis. And showing stand-ins or symbols for something alongside the thing itself would be odd, strange, wrenching. It would be like a hardcore porn film suddenly dissolving into waves lapping on the shore. (Disclaimer: Porn films do not do this, insofar as I am aware. I am willing to go and research this if you are willing to wait.)

It’s a slightly less longstanding series tradition that the Doctor doesn’t hang out with big historical figures all that much. He’s always bragging about chucking apples onto Newton’s head and the like, but all that happens conveniently off-screen. They did appear in the early First Doctor days, but it normally led to rather stiff and undynamic stories, like touring a waxwork museum. Besides, the Doctor instinctively sides with – and therefore gravitates to – the little people.

This is a longstanding tradition which the revived show broke in it’s third episode. In Sergeant Wilson’s immortal words, I have not always thought that wise. If ’Victory of the Daleks’ hides it’s Nazis, it has no such qualms about Churchill. You can see the way the figures work differently in the different eras. When, for example, Napoleon shows up in ’Reign of Terror’ he stands there like an irrefutable historical fact, around which everyone else must arrange themselves. Consequently he doesn’t actually do much, he’s more like a statue of Napoleon than a character. But Churchill is the cigar, the hat, the voice. He’s not a character or statue, he’s an impersonation of Churchill. (And his summoning of the Doctor is wrong on... oh, I grumbled about all that already.)

And Hitler here is even more an impersonation of Hitler than Churchill was of Churchill. When he’s called Hitler, it’s not in the way you would call Hitler Hitler. It’s in the way you would call some annoying petty bureaucrat Hitler. I was reminded of Grant Morrison’s comment over his ’New Adventures of Hitler’, that he had always found it hard to tell Hitler from Charlie Chaplin, that they both seemed just clowns to him. (Similarly, ’Cabaret’ is notably referenced more times than any actual war film.)

Perhaps that’s just a symptom of our times. The recent film ’X-Men: First Class’ was in many ways similar. Both use Nazis as a kind of default absolute evil which the characters have to respond to. How far would you be willing to go to see them punished? But taking evil as an absolute is very close to taking it as a given, as a fixture. And I suspect the more we see bad stuff as That Stuff Over There, the easier it grows beneath our feet.

However, the whole thing is then taken up a notch by forgetting all about him. He’s the target for two teams, who both immediately switch to River. In fact, the sole purpose of showing him is to tell us “River’s worse.” (Presumably he’s still where they left him, like that pirate extra in ’Curse of the Hollywood Ripoff’. He must be pretty peeved; one minute he’s annexing the Sudetenland, the next he can’t get out of a cupboard.) The ultimate symbol of evil for our parent’s generation, and we leave his YouTube video unloaded while we end up clicking on something else. “Let’s punish Hitler for his war crimes... wait, what was it we were doing again?”

Despite this shift, the schema remains pretty much the same to ’X-Men.’ The shrunken cops of the Justice Department take on the Magneto role of insisting on implementing punishment, their pursuing, shape-shifting, time-travelling robot a cross between Masquerade and Terminator. The Doctor is (of course) more of a Professor X, who wants above all to see River redeemed.

Hence of course the emphasis on Mels as something between a hyperactive child and a juvenile delinquent, not even knowing she’s really River until the Doctor tells her. Not wrong, just misdirected. Which is of course very classic  ’Who.’ (Though notably avoiding the question of how Hitler should be treated.) Plus the ‘antibodies’ inside the robot underlies their perception of evil as an invading virus, while they of course are not without sin and get attacked themselves. (Things seemed a little fuzzy why they could only use time travel to punish and never prevent. Perhaps you’re better just going with the symbolism, where they’re like angels sent to dispatch post-life judgement.)

Moffat is doubtless a clever and inventive writer. When Mels is first retconned in, you cry clumsy. Then it turned out that River has done all this, retconned herself within the story. So we didn’t see her at the wedding because she hadn’t gone back and seeded herself at Leadworth Infants yet. ’Simpsons’ fans may follow if I say I thought we were being sold a Poochie, but were really getting Roy.

But (and yes, I’ve said this before), does it all have to be so rushed? Is Moffat’s time dial stuck on fast forward? Within two episodes River is born, trained to become a weapon, let loose on her target, regenerates and redeems herself. No wonder she needs a lie down by the end. As there’s little doubt which side she will fall on, everything actually depends on the strength of the emotional pitch. Maybe it would have had more of that, had her fall into evil and rebound out again taken longer than thirty minutes. (“I’m baaaaaad! No wait, better now!”) Similarly, the Justice Department side of the debate is reduced to a mere plot function, something for the Doctor to over-rule. ("I'd ask you who you think you are, but the answer is pretty obvious.")

What would the old show look like if run at this speed? Probably something like this...

For this second half of the season, the same rules apply. Life is short and episodes which are merely more crap TV shall pass without comment here. Time is instead reserved for more interesting episodes, including (for want of a better term) anything ‘interestingly bad.’ If I do talk about the next episode it will be late anyway, as I’ll be up in London seeing Arthur Darvill in ‘Dr Faustus’.

Wednesday 24 August 2011


Now I grant that it might appear a little... um... eccentric to review an art exhibition (staged at the Barbican) which actually finished in May! Unless of course it’s just downright barmy. However, the show may well be... er... shown but it’s still very much worth reading about. And the delay is perhaps a testament to just how much good stuff’s been happening lately. (Um, maybe.)

Institutional Dreaming in the City

...okay it’s not an exhibition with a very catchy title. But it is a fitting one, and the curators should be commended for resisting the temptation to call it “the very famous Laurie Anderson plus some of her buddies.” As the name suggests this show commemorates a scene, a group of artists working together, and evokes the time and place they arose from (Seventies SoHo, downtown Manhattan). When Matta-Clarke created an artist’s cafe, ‘Food’, allowing artists to meet, eat cheaply and sometimes earn a dollar through helping out, it’s treated as “an artwork in and of itself.” By the end, this show will convince you that’s entirely appropriate.

As I argued in a previous piece on Brian Eno “though often presented as the preserve of individual genius, art is at root a collectivising force – a way of getting you out of yourself… offering up ideas like dishes at a potlatch dinner creates new combinations which generates more ideas – sharing makes more.” Art springs out of scenes; it needs a combination of the right soil to nurture it, and other germinating seeds around it to inspire growth.

However, for all the stage-sharing, it’s Anderson who provides the epitomising work - a photo of her asleep in the public gallery at a Night Court. The very concept of Night Courts conjurs up the crime-ridden, dysfunctional New York of the Seventies - a judicial system straining at the seams, with not enough hours in the day to cover all the cracks. This was a place where you stood more chance of getting mugged than an arts grant. Yet Anderson uses the Court for dreaming in. Her accompanying text explains “I am trying to sleep in different pubic places to see if the place can colour or control my dreams.” (This was part of an ’Institutional Dream’ series.)

We’re used to artistic depictions of New York of quite a different colour. Cities in art occupy a particular place, and New York is the uber-city. The Tate’s recent ‘Exposed’ photography exhibition, for example, featured Jacob Riis’ early reportage snapshots of New York tenement poverty. And when we’re not on social realism, we expect the city to be used expressionistically. In ’Taxi Driver’, released in 1976, it’s both spur and backdrop to a troubled mind. Lou Reed (ironically Anderson’s future husband) sang of “the big city, where a man cannot be free.”

This scene would seem to channel quite a different punk lyric, Pere Ubu’s “we can live in the empty spaces of this life.” Urban dereliction proved fertile ground for this scene. Places were so run-down capital was barely colonising them any more, rents were falling to almost nothing (lowered still further for anyone who claimed to be an artist). Streetside art happenings were unlikely to disrupt business when little commerce was going on beyond drug peddling.

But motive is always more important than opportunity. Unlike Reed, they saw the city as precisely the place where you could be free. Grimy, crumbling downtown is seen through a Corbusian dream filter, the city is seen as the opening-up of space. (An associated talk was given on Corbusier’s influence on Matta-Clarke.) The City becomes a kind of exoskeleton, augmenting and enhancing us, freeing us from the limitations imposed by nature. We can be whisked along just by boarding a bus, leap to the sky just by pressing an elevator button.

If Anderson is the anti-star, the poster image of the show came from Trisha Brown’s ’Walking on the Wall’ (1971, pictured above). In this work performers don harnesses and walk horizontally along... oh, you guessed. The handouts note “at times, they appear to the viewer to be foreshortened as if seen from several storeys above.” In fact, my guess would be that Brown got this idea after looking down from some glass tower to the street below.

(It’s also notable that much of the content of the piece comes from the rituals of politeness. For one performer to cross another’s path the other has to kneel, or their harness would be a barrier. This seems closer to hat-tipping Edwardian gentlemen, out for their morning constitutional, than any commonly received notion of downtown SoHo streets!)

This may come across even more strongly in another of Brown’s works, and my personal favourite of the performance pieces, ’Planes’, above. (Technically out of bounds for being made in 1968, but who’s counting?) Performers traverse a climbing wall while a collage of images projects over them. As this goes from aerial views of Manhattan to the microscopic, their presence seems to shift - between dominating forms, falling figures and dots and atoms. I kept being reminded of Spider-Man’s building-scaling abilities. (I am starting to get worried about how often art exhibitions remind me of superhero comics!)

As art is not only brought out onto the streets but in some ways becomes an expression of the streets, and performance spaces lose their boundaries, another distinction which collapses is between private and public space. This was quite literally true of the now-legendary lofts, which tripled up as living space, studio and performance area.

This is quite explicit in Matta-Clark’s ’Clock Shower’ (above) in which he performs domestic daily routines such as shaving and washing while suspended from an actual clock face. Everyone regards this as rooted in Harold Lloyd’s ’Safety Last’, and perhaps it is. But I thought of it as the inverse of the scene in ’Metropolis’ where the hero, dressed as a worker, is slave to the clock. The clock here is not incessantly ticking tyranny but a climbing frame. (There’s a video of it here, wind to 9.44.)

The programme notes the scenesters “distancing themselves from the dominant artistic movements of the 1960s, Pop art and Minimalism.” This striving to make their subjects unique does underplay the influence of Fluxus. (Anderson has spoken of how rooted in the Sixties they were, and cited Fluxus as an influence.) However there is none of the Dadaistic anti-art iconoclasm that often fed into Fluxus. If Dada wanted to sabotage and destroy art, the downtowners wanted art to flood its banks and appear everywhere. Art to them was simply an invitation to play.

It should be conceded that some works, seen in isolation, would seem merely the scrag-end of conceptualism. In one piece Anderson compresses a pile of the day’s papers into bricks and date-stamps them. But even the weaker works such as this don’t deflate you, for it’s not a show which is a composite of individual works, where you juggle weaker pieces against stronger in your mental accountancy. It’s about the wood not the trees.

Centering the Scene?

Brown is quoted as being “thrilled by... the community of downtown Manhattan, a real concurrence of conceptual and performance art.” Befitting such multidisciplinarian leanings, the show presents a wide variety of forms – drawings, sculptures, art objects, documentation, videos of performances and even performances re-enacted live in the gallery. It may be worth asking where the actual centre of the show is? The preparatory drawings (which perhaps represent the idea in its purest form), the art object, the videoed performance, the performance being re-enacted live in the here and now?

We’re told they “valued ideas and process over finished objects”, so perhaps it’s the drawings. Yet the artists themselves differed greatly in how they saw them. Anderson’s diagrams are clearly composed and worked on, ready for display. (They remind us that she started out as a cartoonist.) Matta-Clarke’s action plans, however, are frenzied accumulations of motion lines, looking like they’ve been scrawled in some mad rush then posted beneath the door of a padded cell. (It’s quite hilarious to see them neatly framed on a gallery wall!)

This was the era of emerging “video art”, but the videos here mostly feel like documentation of events. To stand and watch them would be like concentrating your mind on an ambient soundscape – a catgeory error. Even an obsessive like myself tended to skim them, watching a segment then glancing back as I made my way around each room, checking how they were progressing.

So perhaps the answer is the performances. This exhibition certainly needed something like the live performances in order to work, to avoid becoming a dry record of a long-gone party. It’s fantastic that the curators recognised this and had them going on in the gallery every day, rather than just as a one-off show. However (and this is doubtless looking a gift horse in the mouth), staging them as timetabled events, sometimes with curtain calls at the end, made them too much of a centrepiece. You become aware that they’re actually neat concepts, but actually fairly structureless. Had they gone on continuously, one leading to another, the viewer could have dipped in and out of them, as with the video works.

(Their rough-edged informality was captured, however, by the way most of them were staged without a designated or obvious audience space. With no ‘ideal’ vantage point, wherever you stood you missed some of the action, and probably saw a slightly different show to someone elsewhere.)

Of course, the question is a Zen one. This show has no centre for you to discover. Ideally you’d pass through it the way you would a city, soaking it in rather than reading it, witnessing and absorbing slightly different things to your neighbours. It ‘s essence sparks and flickers in between the works. It’s less about presenting an idea than evoking a feeling, the feeling that the City could be reterritorialised as a place for play.

...part two here!!!

Wednesday 17 August 2011


Sat 11th June, Queen Elizabeth Hall

The Fugs must be one of the most legendary of bands. Their name (a barely concealed euphemism for ‘fuck’) may tell you all you need to know. Kicking off a trail of outrage and provocation from a radical bookstore on the Lower East Side in 1965, both reeling from and feeding off a barrage of bans and censorship, they were essentially Sixties before the Sixties (as we think of it) had arrived. Which means, of course, they helped kick off that Sixties.

...or perhaps they kicked even further. Despite their anti-war activism, few Fugs songs go in for that dewy-eyed Sixties utopianism that now seems so naive and irrelevant. With their acerbic and scurrilous satire they were much nearer to the Mothers of Invention, perpetuating a derision which bordered on nihilism. Though they’re not mentioned in the Wikipedia article on protopunk, check how the term’s defined:

“... a certain provocative sensibility that didn't fit the prevailing counterculture of the time ... It was consciously subversive and fully aware of its outsider status ... much proto-punk was primitive and stripped-down, even when it wasn't aggressive, and its production was usually just as unpolished. It also frequently dealt with taboo subject matter, depicting society's grimy underbelly in great detail, and venting alienation that was more intense and personal than ever before.”

But, almost by definition, with a legendary band it’s not their music that plays the most important part – that’s just a holdall for everything else around it. Their attempted exorcism of the Pentagon, which led to the iconic flowers-down-the-gunbarrel image when the National Guard intervened, was stuck as-live onto their third album, as much a part of them as any of their gigs. Shorn of this context, advanced in age by several decades, can we expect a crazy free-form freak-out in the Queen Elizabeth Hall? Or do legends work best by staying legends?

This perennial question has an extra piquancy over the Fugs. Key member Ken Weaver never rejoined when the band reformed in 1985. But more importantly Tuli Kupferberg, essentially the John Lennon of the band, died last year. (I have sometimes posted little obituaries for figures I consider to be important and influential. Of those I’ve missed, none galls me more than Kupferberg.) This leaves Ed Sanders, now in his Seventies, as the last remaining founder member. 

Yet the band haven’t played London since 1968 (when some Hari Krishnas supported them) so perhaps you should take the chance to see them when it presents itself. And so it was that I paid the highest ticket price I have to date in order to see a bunch of yippie anarchists.

Reviewing them in the Guardian (in a slightly timelier fashion than me) Alex Petridis comments how their “gleeful screw-you nihilism has been replaced by a wistful, elegiac tone.” It was certainly possible to focus on the first part of this, on what was missing from the night. Lyrics were often updated to reflect contemporary events. But too often songs sound polite when they need to be raucous.

Of course those originals were only ever rough and ready out of simple necessity, but it was still fitting. They were rough in the tradition of rough music, when music existed to assail those in power and stimulate the crowd to sing along. (Several times Sanders invites the crowd to join in, but no-one does.) Without this active ingredient, songs fall back on their basis. And their basis is often quite... um... basic, Beat pop or Peter Paul and Mary folk. It’s like the gelignite’s been disarmed and we’re left looking at the timer. It’s like the band we’re seeing is really the Flips.

At one point Sanders mentions that Kupferberg (who was Jewish) stole the tune of the classic ’Nothing’ from a yiddish traditional. Perhaps that was part of it. Music still had a functional part in Jewish culture, where the purpose wasn’t to play and sing well but to play and sing the song.

There is, however, another element. People focus on Sanders and Kupferberg’s previous trade as poets, but what they tend to mean by that is “having something to say.” Though it likes to market itself as an outsider art form, rock music is often at its best when made by outsiders to it. Both Bowie and Patti Smith turned to it after exhausting virtually every other artform, while those who want to be rock stars end up sounding like Oasis – essentially franchise outlets.

Ever satirical, many Fugs songs are pastiches – of country, of gospel, of barbershop and much more. But perhaps that pastiche was always present, they were taking up a music not inherently ‘theirs’ because of potentials they saw in it, and they used it as a makeshift raft to take it and themselves places no-one else would.

Two things, however, rescue the evening from being a total waste. The first also spins from the band’s history in poetry. Though their anti-authoritarian theatrics inevitably seized front stage, they always had a more literary side. As Petridis also points out, from the first album they were setting to music Blake and Arnold poems. For this gig, where shock is less on show, these numbers start to come to the fore. (The version of Arnold’s ’Dover Beach’ is especially fine.)

Secondly, if Sanders is the only originator, his backing band have been at it for twenty-five years – significantly longer than any other Fugs line-up! This is long enough to get good. Ironically, though the name on the poster, the ageing Sanders may now be the biggest drawback – reading lyrics from notes or stumbling over lines. Songs where his contribution is minimal or (occasionally) absent tend to work better. A version of ’Working for the Landlord’, sung by drummer Coby Batty, contains all the uproariousness you could wish for. As music fans we have ticklists of classic line-ups we want to see. But the point of the Fugs is the spirit of the Fugs, it matters little who it inhabits.

Home again just long enough to clock up another week’s work, then back in town for...

Sun 19th June, Queen Elizabeth Hall

If I had not already so carelessly used the term for the Fugs, I would about now be calling Current 93 a classic legendary band.

They started off so steeped in the industrial scene of the early eighties that main man David Tibet was given his monicker by no less than scene supremo Genesis P Orridge. However, in retrospect, it is all too easy to spot the divergence points. Industrial tracks typically sounded like black magic rites being enacted rather than songs getting recorded. They let loose sonic maelstroms, or some brutalist precursor to dance music’s repetitive beats, over which someone would shout and scream and sloganise. Normally about Aleister Crowley or Charlie Manson, for Industrial’s list of approved ‘transgressive’ topics was not extensive. (The band’s name stems from Crowley.)

Current 93’s numbers always had an element of sound collage, which itself suggested a kind of structure. (Originally a pretty loose kind, but any semblance of structure being a no-no in industrial’s quest for the systematic derangement of the senses.) Tibet could have been listening to Berio or Nono as well as reading de Sade.

Moreover, those collages often included snatches of songs – everything from hymns to nursery rhymes to popular numbers. As time went on, those snippets started to join up like jigsaw pieces and – in a massive transgression from the transgressive – something like songs themselves started to appear. At this point Tibet half-jokingly called their sound ‘apocalypse folk’, but ‘neofolk’ and ‘psychfolk’ have also been suggested.

Greater ruptures were to come, however. The thematic obsession with religion and the liturgical at first seemed typically industrial - God-botherer-bothering was commonplace in that scene, nihilistically insistent that all social rituals masked power structures and that God was merely an abusive parent on a cosmic scale. But somewhere along the way, he who came to mock stayed to pray and Tibet took on a kind of Christian mysticism.

Now Christian folk might not initially seem a particularly enticing direction to go in, but in fact it was. Firstly Tibet’s Christianity took so personalised a form that it could be argued he merely invented his own cosmology. (At times he’s almost reminiscent of Blake.) And the music was not anaemic Anglican do-gooderism, but weighed in on the weightiest of subjects – life, death, the end of everything. Tibet sang about it all with deranged conviction, less a trendy vicar than John the Baptist recently returned from the desert.

Furthermore, though doubtless unplanned, the change in direction prevented Tibet sinking with the boat. Industrial soon became a self-caricaturing obsession with the self, a mixture of a rather nasty right-wing Nietzscheanism and teenage stroppyness. God offered Tibet a way out of all that designer nihilism. As he sang on the 2006 album, ’Black Ships Ate the Sky’, “who will deliver me from myself?”

For all that, however, I confess to have listened little to Current 93 in those intervening twenty years. Partly, when I burnt my own bridges to industrial I also lost my connection to them. Also, the accumulation of material in that time quickly became daunting. (Amazon lists 63 releases, Wikipedia 73 and their own label Coptic Carts 89... perhaps the plan is to reach 93. (Disclaimer: some of these are split releases and collaborations.))

But, truth to tell, I became almost frightened to peer into that world. It was like a rabbit hole. You could quite easily get lost in the infinite recesses of coptic cats, outsider art and hallucinatory visions of the impending apocalpyse, and people have. (Okay, it’s an appealing place to get lost. But that’s all part of the spell...)

But, as you may have noted, I am not one to skip a chance to see a legend...

The highly unusual band have a highly unusual instrumentation; an electric guitar but instead of bass some acoustic instrument which sounded a bit like a balalaika (but probably wasn’t), a grand piano (sometimes swapped for electronics), and a drummer who works as another instrument rather than just keeping time.

With music that’s elegant yet at the same time repetitive and intense, of anything I’ve seen lately it’s most similar to Swans. (You could also do a similar then-and-now over their sounds... oh wait, I already did.) But Swans seem intent on colliding the opposites of ostentation and brutality, like some musical Hadron Collider hoping to break everything down to it’s components. With Current 93 one blends effortlessly into the other: songs can start out almost as crooner numbers, but slip into intensity without you noticing the shift.

Like Silver Mount Zion, there is something about the combination of it all that disarms preconceptions and evades tags, the mixture of accomplishment and fervent amateurism. Everything has an epic grandeur and yet is so personalised, with many songs about friends and collaborators, as if there’s no barrier between the ultimate and the everyday.

This is all perhaps best epitomised by Tibet’s idiosyncratic vocals cutting across the ornate instrumentation. (The contrast occasionally reminded me of the infamous Neubauten gig where they sliced up classical instruments with chainsaws.) His stage presence is not at all ‘cool’, much more in the realm of deranged visionary, at one point hopping around on one leg.

Bizarrely but appealingly, between songs the blood-and-thunder prophet turns back into a regular bloke. He wishes his guitarist an impending “happy marriage” and makes us all clap, like a village hall announcer. He dedicates a song to a recently deceased friend, only to very Englishly cut up, stammering repeatedly “he was very beautiful” while the band fidget, unsure of when to start.

However, through some strange combination of suffering an earlashing and being spoilt rotten, I find I lose the ability to take it in before the night is up. Perhaps it’s too much of a good thing... certainly it’s too much of something. This effect is interesting in itself. Music which is merely shouty or cacophonous (yes I’m thinking of Whitehouse there) is like living near an airport, your ears adjust and it becomes background noise pretty quickly. This is music which draws its power from something deeper and you cannot help but be pulled in... yet, to be honest, I was thinking this rather than listening before the end.

I joined the mailing list, and later received a missive from Tibet describing the gig as “one of our most intense and personal experiences.” I was mildly reassured he wasn’t promising to pull out more stops next time. On the way home I stopped in a supermarket for a snack, which promptly got besieged by a barred tramp - fiery eyes and fists 

on a glass door a few feeet from where we patiently queued. It seemed the perfect end to the evening...

As we did the then-and-now thing for the Swans, let’s grant Current 93 the same. First at the 100 Club from 1985, at the height of their ‘intonation + distortion = nightmare culture’ phase..., not the Meltdown show, but from London about a year before...

Coming soon(ish)! An end to all this out-of-date stuff...

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Thursday 4 August 2011


Your host was once nearly ill-tempered enough to write a tetchy piece about the recent Eric Gill retrospective at the British Museum. Not that there was anything wrong with what went into it, but for precisely the reverse reason – it was the stuff on display which demanded more of the same! It was a smidgen of a show, a bone tossed to a cur, crammed into two small rooms that perhaps previously functioned as a broom closet.

It induced the notion in this ingrate that we had rendered the arts into an acute-angled pyramid – big-name artists on repeat in a whole series of blockbuster exhibitions, some for almost completely spurious reasons, with everyone else left to langour. Furthermore, it felt like British arts were particularly unsung in their homeland (albeit with honorary exceptions), that the insistence that the British didn’t “do Modernism” was becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Finally, putting such spleen to paper came to feel like stabbing a gift horse in the mouth. (Even if that mouth was too small to easily find.) So pleased am I to focus on something more positive, this retrospective of the decorative map posters of Eric’s brother Macdonald, aka Max. (The shadows of the show’s title refers to his rescue from semi-obscurity, when a trove of his work was recently discovered at a rural Sussex cottage.) True this show runs for a frustratingly short period of little more than five weeks, but let’s not start that horse-in-the-mouth business again...

Though the exhibition is chiefly devoted to those titular decorative maps, there’s also (as you might expect from Eric’s brother) logos and typefaces on show, plus some book and architectural designs. But let’s take our cue from the name. Part of my fascination with maps is their supremely ideological nature; they always affect to simply present information, and always attempt to construct a reality. And this is a classic case in point...

Gill’s career seems to have taken off with his ‘Wonderground’ map of the then-developing London Underground system. Rather than a functional map for travellers this buried the network and focused more on the sights to be found above ground; portraying each with a little comic vignette in what the show calls “a labyrinth of intriguing detail.” (Gill simultaneously worked out a travel map; to see the Underground network not in the now-ubiquitous geometric style is like looking into another dimension.)

Despite the breadth of scenes contained in the map, each little detail is itself bold and graphic. Though drawn with pen and ink they follow the style of engravings - thick outlines with very little hatching. Colours are not naturalistic but bold simple blocks. This same palette is used virtually throughout the exhibition; pillar-box red, navy blue, saffron yellow and teal green. The consistent use of these strong elements makes the poster feel clear and unfussy despite its wealth of detail, and demonstrates the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement upon Gill.

 It is rather like looking at a page of text in one of his brother’s fonts. Even if you are too far away to read the words they do not look daunting, cramped or jumbled, but elegantly arranged and inviting. And, should you wish, you can blow each letter up to see a carefully crafted geometric composition.

The result is England’s self-image in microcosm, at least of this period, with a London simultaneously teeming and serene. The streets and parks are full of chaps, minding their own business with jollity and charming eccentricity. Yet they add naturally to a cohesive whole. Just like letters can be called characters so are we, but in our individuality we naturally form meaningful words and sentences.

An interesting feature of Gill’s work is that it was not only of public places, it was mostly designed for them, blown up onto hoardings or made into murals. (Though it is suggested smaller poster versions were sometimes made commercially available. ’Wonderground’ itself incorporates the suggestion “why not take a map home to pin on your wall?”) The internet being the very opposite of this medium, it is quite hard to show examples - which is most probably significant in itself. (Follow this link then click on the image for a scrollable, larger-scale reproduction.)

From this base in ’Wonderland’ the exhibition then embarks on a loose but intriguing journey. The decorative maps spread out, first to encompass the whole of London, then the home counties and finally the world. ’Country Bus Service’ (1928) encircles central London with a striking (if entirely imaginary) city wall, radial routes splaying out across the surrounding areas.

And just as London is the heart of England, England it seems is the heart of the world. (Around ’Wonderground’ is written “the heart of Britain’s empire, here is spread out for your view.”) A later map, made in 1945, is unapologetically titled ’Britain The World Centre.’

The show at points quotes Gill on how maps can represent space in different ways. He explains ’Highways of Empire’ (1927) as demonstrating “the world as it would appear from an aeroplane so high above London that the continents stretched out beneath him. He would thus be given a vivid idea of how the British Empire is scattered in relation to the home country.” In practise this is construed as if the continents have all upped sticks to the northern hemisphere, gathering around Britain as if for shelter.

Of course from the earliest times maps have been power objects as much as guides, for what you describe and demarcate you also control. Gill’s remit to provide decorative more than functional maps brings out that aspect to the hilt. There are several maps of colonies or trading partners, the symbolic drawings easily rendered into units of production (bushels for wheat, diamond shapes for minerals and so on). Perhaps the most joyously self-parodic of these is ’Tea Revives The World’ (produced for the International Tea Market Expansion Board, 1940), its indicia cheerfully dividing the world up into the countries that produce tea and the countries that actually get to drink it.

Of course such an absence of selfawareness about the Empire is so alien to us today that our natural reaction is laughter. Even the revisionist right, who attempt to invent justifications for its conquests, are at least aware of and orient themselves around the criticisms.

But it would be wrong to assume Gill is representative of some eternal past, as if there had been no changes to British society between Victoria’s coronation and Indian independence. In fact the interwar era saw itself very much as the apex of modernity, as an electric trolley-bus speeding away from an unchanging past, something amply reflected in Gill’s work. As this show demonstrates very well, Gill’s work was very much of a specific time and place.

Let’s look again at ’Highways of the Empire’, which was produced at the behest of the Empire Marketing Board. The name seems weirdly oxymoronic – by definition an empire conquers, it has no need to market itself. In fact this body was formed in 1926, as a response to growing disquiet among the colonies. Its power waning, empire had very much become something that needed selling.

Simultaneously, however, the maps picture a belief in empire. We may no longer subscribe to such imperial notions, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to understand them. Those bold and simple maps, where everything is run and accounted for by a controlling centre, they orient around the assumption that order is a prerequisite for benevolence. Only through control can we bring harmony. The model reflects the way a map designer transforms some crinkly accidents of geography into a well-composed whole, and perhaps doubly appealed to Gill.

As mentioned in an earlier piece on Hepworth and Moore, their semi-abstracted figures sitting outside social institutions reflected the new post-war politics. It is tempting to see Gill’s maps as belonging to the previous generation.

Yet there are intriguing points of overlap. In 1942 Gill drew up the ‘Atlantic Charter Map’, effectively staking out the sea as under the two countries cross-ownership. This was part of a pact between Churchill and Roosevelt to promote association (though at that point stopping short of American involvement in the war).

Six years later the map reappeared, rebranded as the ‘Time and Tide Map of the United Nations.’ Of course we know with hindsight that the UN became a glove for increased American dominance in world affairs. Yet at the time it stirred up idealism, it was welcomed as an answer to war and a sign of growing world maturity. The rebranded poster promises “to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” But there was also a continuity. Charter was replacing empire as the bringer of order.

Gill straddles what seems to us to be a great variance; celebrating Empire, yet associated with the arts and craft movement and keen to create art that was public, accessible and functional. (He might make an interesting comparison to Otto Neurath’s contemporary Isotype system.) Added to which he celebrated what we now see as the apolitical but inexorable march of progress and technology, as epitomised by the spread of the London Underground.

But perhaps the key to Gill is not to think how he reconciled these variances, but to picture a mind oblivious to them. A mind he has obliginlgy mapped out for us...

Postscript: The welcome nature of this exhibition in no way means we are no longer due a major Eric Gill retrospective!