It was great to get to Plymouth again this week for a meeting with AA2A artists Clare Thornton and Tom Stevenson about a planned exhibition of our work at part of Plymouth Art Weekender. Clare brought along several tests to show and we discussed a possible title for the show. "Edge of Collapse" was suggested and is the preference at this stage! I have had to be realistic and accept that creating installation at a distance and now without a site to work in relation to is not possible and accept that I would do well to reconstruct and deepen the piece I made for the Time Machine project at Fringe Arts Bath. I am reflecting on how best to achieve this.
While in Plymouth I also attended the first day of the Land / Water Symposium entitled "Journeys and Transmission". The morning before the start of the Symposium I was reading Jane Bennett’s “Vibrant Matter” and really enjoyed the chapter “Political Ecologies”, when she discusses the question of how and to what degree we can bring other species into politics, species that have non-human languages and that resonated with the FAB work. I then went to symposium and two artists spoke about their projects, which engaged with a place through sound, and I kept seeing in their work an attempt to give place voice.
Artist researcher, Paul Whitty works through direct sound recording in a specific field location and Marcus Vergette, through the creation of bells and their placement, with or solely by the community, in relation to the sea. I was very moved by Vergette's discussion of the situation which triggered his work with bells; the terrible culling of cattle at the time of the Foot and Mouth crisis.
After the morning session, I chatted with a young artist about his artistic and “pseudo-botanical” work. I was interested and explained my own dilemma, the fact that I'm very interested in Goethe and his belief that there is some kind of transfer between a person and another living being when a person observes both rationally and with intuition, that people do develop “new organs of perception” in relation to other species when they look more broadly in this way.
Beuys was interested in this development of perceptual knowledge. But I understand the concern that seeing this in spiritual terms can be easily distorted by evangelical discourses. I suspect this may seem a little odd to the artist I am talking to! We are not strangers to the world, aliens who have just landed. We interrelate. But questions of spirituality apart, can there ever be any kind of neutral translation? In attempting to facilitate the speech of place, there is always a degree of mediation through the human body and/or materials and/or technology.
Bennett talks about Darwin’s study of worms and criticisms that have been levelled about his tendency to anthropomorphise. But she says that this slight vanity is outweighed by the fact that in observing carefully, he learns something about the nature, capacities and interestingly history-changing potential of worms and their difference from the human being. This is why I find statements about anthropocentrism valid but not terribly nuanced at times. Certainly we need to seek beyond the languages of our own species (I can’t help thinking of certain staff member’s dismay at Beuys’ inaugural Professorial lecture, in which he cried out like a stag!) But though we need to recognise the limitations of our own perceptual apparatus and don’t perceive entirely through our eyes, how can we perceive other species and their needs but through our own senses? Perhaps it is about our response-ability, as Shelley Sacks once explained to me. (The initial sense of the improbability of Darwin's fascination with worms reminds me of my decision to focus on a slug in her social sculpture workshop!)
Walking back from the Symposium to the Air B&B where I am staying, I met a dormouse. It was probably a tiny baby, and thus fearless, and social. It wanted to run about on the wall of a local school, largely unseen by all who passed. The only reason I spot it is that I stopped to write a text! It flitted in and out of the dark and litter strewn area behind the wall and around the wall, heated by the evening sun. I was totally enamoured, and realised I should take less photographs and look more. Draw. When I extended a hand to try to very gently stroke it, it was finally spooked and disappeared. I waited, but nothing more. On the way back to Bath the next day, I see in my email in-box the news that the first mammal species victim of climate change is a small rodent called the Bramble Cay Melomys.
At the risk of being a little sentimental (not always a bad risk to take I feel!) it is hard not to feel that the little mouse that scuttled before me and showed me the importance, validity and beauty of its little life was somehow a reminder to me of the preciosity of each species. But further, and just as heart-breaking, I am left with the sense that some perceptual potential has been lost in me, and in us all, with each species loss. If soul is a problematic, sullied word, it still feels close to describing what is hurting at this thought. Perhaps we need to find another term. Perhaps not.
I drop into the Time Machine at 44AD several times this week, to see Sarah Wölker’s sound installation “Momento Mori” which seeks to find an alternative way of archiving time through a sensor responding to visitors’ movements and generating sounds. It is quite pleasurable to almost dj with your body! On Thursday to go to a piece created by two of the alldaybreakfast curators, Tommy and Anwyl . We have to remove our shoes and socks and put on a blindfold to go through a curtain and follow a quite therapeutic “scent” walk in the space. We are treading on a grass-like substance and holding a railing to guide us and scents emerge and waft at us. They leave a note in our shoes which we discover on our “return” to explain that in the future, when we smell that scent we will be transported back to their Time Machine installation.
On Sunday, a number of the Time Machine artists and a number of members of the public, most of them artists themselves, come to discuss the week and its events. It is a really valuable process to discuss the work and also to view the video footage for each piece and feedback, and to ask bigger questions about contemporary work that addresses time. I get a strong sense of temporality as something that can be shaped by people, and that the shaping of space-time is not impossible! Each artist effects something different in the space; for example, Jane Thomason's performance gives a sense of long duration, of generations previous and yet to come. It reminds me of native American cosmologies; 7 generations past, 7 generations hence. A notion of time we would do well to pay attention to.
Tommy has worked incredibly hard on the documentation, and I am delighted with what he has done for my day, but I am also keen that there is some reference to my slight dilemma with Beuys’ work. In my talk I explained that I find myself sitting somewhere between his position and the nature of his work with materials, people and other living beings – which has real effects and operates in ways that aren’t purely scientistic – and that of Jane Bennett. Bennett recognises the vibrancy of material, the power of materials and other living beings as actants, but shies away from all notion of spirit because of its potential perversion in the context of evangelical discourses in a way that I agree with to some extent, but also find limiting in cutting off all sense of the spiritual.
Artist and Lecturer Robert Luzar gives valuable feedback and asks useful questions about contemporary questions around temporality. He wonders whether there are certain issues that are problematic once reified in philosophical discourse and whether some things happen only in the action of art. I find this interesting; I am not sure I feel that art can ever be innocent by virtue of this, but I find it a valuable reflection.
Monday was taken up with assisting again, helping Carol put up the lettering of scientist John Archibald Wheeler’s quotation about space-time: "The quantum principle shows that there is a sense in which what the observer will do in the future defines what happens in the past—even in a past so remote that life did not then exist, and shows even more, that 'observership' is a prerequisite for any useful version of 'reality'."
Then on Tuesday it is my day in the “Time Machine”. It is very important day for one me, I have never really shown work outside a University context and felt so sad not to complete the MFA. The experience tells me – you can still make and show work and you must keep at it. I am bowled over by the extent to which it is the people who come and respond to the work that interest me and make the work worthwhile. One of the visitors, a retired financier who enjoys art, really thinks deeply about the sounds that plants and flowers make and our ability to perceive them, or at least to intuit them. On first seeing it, one man emits a deep belly laugh of pleasure (not scorn I hope!) which is priceless. Another is angry, why do the flowers not speak when there is so much that needs to be discussed?! One man shares, “There is a time machine in Keynsham!” A poet describes it as “A sensitive response to our “time of emergency” and she could not have said anything that could have made me more hopeful that the work might reach people. I realise there is something about the alarm call Beuys developed that interests me because it is committed not to violate people's dignity.
Encountering all these interesting responses I am really struck by the need for humility and a constant openness to where people are at. I reflect on Beuys and how he suggested that it the fact that he used a material like fat that got conversations and (spiritual?) processes going.
During the day, Carol, one of the curators reflects on the fact that there didn’t appear to be a connection between the video work of their previous time and space related project and my reflective piece and that this was confusing for some. I certainly observed that some people glanced at the installation then went straight to the video, not only I hope because it didn’t interest them, but because it demanded that they think and perhaps because it felt safer.
The talk at 4pm felt like an important part of the work, connecting the work to my research. At the same time I realised I was perhaps bringing myself to the work. I was asking myself the question – how does Beuys’ Steiner-influenced methodology speak to Jane Bennet’s formulation of “vibrant matter”. What is there in Bennett’s work about how materials transform us and are transformed by us? I also felt happy about the garment I had on and the Importance of the connecting costume and ‘being there’. I made sure I documented the work, thinking of Maria’s wise words, but was also very glad that Tommy has documented the talk and how people responded. That is important.
After my day in the “time machine” I go home and yes, eccentrically, I start having a conversation with the gorse!!!! I realise I need to pay attention to just what is going on here. I already have a sense of needing continuity with the work and wonder whether to draw the plants and work with them. During the few days following the installation I wonder, how will the work continue on? How will I work with people and in places where that is needed? I go and speak to the flowers! I had not been able to articulate why it felt important to include the broom even though it was not ‘used’ in the piece. Significantly, it was the broom I needed to go to at the end. What did it say? I know this is rather cringe-worthy but it is part of a process. It told me that I needed to go to where the work was needed, where people were at a low ebb.
I wonder whether, given the time I have, I should develop the work at Plymouth – showing “Emergency Conference” again, but this time, with more understanding of how it might work with respect to people. It makes me realise that perhaps the groundswell I am interested in is not in the ground, it is an upswell in people!!! How can I not have seen this before??! I was so tied into depicting the instability of the situation, but isn’t that there all around us? If I show this work at Plymouth, perhaps drawings could be included with it. Although I don’t presume to make a comparison with Beuys directly, I can’t help but think of his Secret Block drawings, shown alongside his lecture action at the Museum of Ulster. I also think of the work of Hilma of KIimt, I am so sorry I missed the exhibition of her work at the Serpentine! http://www.serpentinegalleries.org/exhibitions-events/hilma-af-klint-painting-unseen\)
But perhaps it is a shame not to persevere with the lino pieces. I wonder about how the work might be more responsive to Plymouth as a place. I remember the issue that first interested me with respect to the history of Plymouth and underpinning narratives of the city. Can this be made reference to in some way? I realise that the work has helped to give me confidence – working in a certain attitude. I have a sense of needing to do something practical.
More work in preparation for the installation, a trip to the garden centre to buy the plants. I am immediately taken by a dwarf rhododendron referred to as Arctic Tern after the bird which flies from the Arctic all the way to our shores. It is a plant which the bees clearly love and which has, so aptly in conversation with Beuys, a wonderful honey scent! For a while I just want the piece to include that plant, but realise that would give the impression of a “conference” which lacks diversity! It takes a considerable amount of time to work out which plants to purchase but in the end I opt for the dwarf rhododendron, a dianthus (mojito) and a margerite. I also buy a rather dejected looking pot of gorse, which I feel somehow makes me think very strongly of Beuys’ interest in moorlands and areas that expressed the very powerful forces in the world. It reminds me of him somehow, bearing scars but still standing.
In the afternoon, it's time to sieve soil through transparent tubes, rather like medical tubing I got hold off at Scrap Store in Bristol. I find a funnel to help but it is a slow process, any hint of moisture and the soil sticks and plugs up the tube. The tubes need constant tapping to let the soil pass through and I am reminded by the way in which I have seen medical tubing being tapped in hospital dramas! I enjoy photographing the soil itself, too.
On Sunday I went in to assist alldaybreakfast in setting up the time machine and take in my materials. I get a sense of how the work would be presented in the space and I set up and am really pleased with the way the work interacts with Tommy’s LED light.
Following our meeting at Plymouth I send out minutes and am pleased that we would all like to show at the Plymouth Art Weekender in September. We can all meet on 17th of June, which is great as we have never met together as a whole group, as far as I can recall. I am unsure as yet how I am going to resolve the issue of working without studio space in Bath and at a distance from Plymouth, but realise I must now turn my attention to my contribution to the Time Machine project at 44AD as part of Fringe Arts Bath (FAB). When the curators, alldaybreakfast, mentioned it to me, what appealed was the opportunity to reflect on Beuys’ radical ideas about time and warmth not solely through theory but through practice. Beuys developed the notion of people’s relations with the living earth as a “warmth time machine”, depicting this concept in a number of drawings and other works, including this lithograph of that name. I could see that this related to people’s connections to the earth and their creative agency, but it is something I did not feel I had fully understood and felt it may help to explore through practice. In the end I put forward a suggestion to the curators to make a piece called “Emergency Conference” which was accepted. This is the initial blurb:
"This installation piece is a form of homage to the German artist Joseph Beuys. Beuys saw the earth itself as a “warmth time machine” – effectively the principal source of energy to which we are all connected and one that, without people’s active help, was running out of time. His notion of engaging the warmth of thinking as a means to re-enliven static forms and counteract what he saw as an overly rationalistic deadening consciousness is well documented. The installation consists of a group of plants installed in the space in the manner of a press conference, with a microphone set up to capture their ‘speech’. In this respect the work raises the issue of which species’ languages are seen as valuable and the importance of actively listening to other species across the globe. By calling Beuys’ legacies into the gallery, the artist hopes to suggest that this warmth work still has resonance and urgency across time and space.
Beuys famously clarified that his project stemmed from an engagement with issues around language. He argued for a “permanent conference”, whereby people would resolve their differences through ongoing dialogue. However, he was also emphatic that the voices and needs of other species be taken into account in decision-making. The idea of flowers speaking appears on a lithograph for a set of postcards entitled “Warmth Time Machine for the Economy”. There is a photograph of an apple on which the artist has drawn land masses in red, with his name placed above it. Underneath is a photographic image of pansies with the words “Lasst Blumen sprechen” (“Let flowers speak”). A drawing entitled “Warm Time Machine” also appears in Beuys’ extension of Finnegan’s Wake. This depicts what is thought to be the head of the central character Leopold Bloom, from whose mouth a test tube emerges and whose heart bears the form of a flower."
I have long felt that Beuys’ approach is formative for me, but I have never really worked with social sculpture through practice with any great degree of confidence. I also have concerns about the spiritual aspects of the work and how they are understood. Looking back at my thesis, I wrote the following:
“Beuys appears to take Einstein's proposition, that time is akin to another spatial dimension, seriously; however, as an artist he is particularly interested in this in terms of human perception and explores how, in working in relation to time and warmth as dimensions, (in the example that Beuys gives, communicated through the use of felt), he might stimulate the production of new thinking, new creative material in the human being. Ulmer argues that part of Beuys’ legacy lies in the lessons it offers “about how to mount a practice that moves between preconscious (Imaginary) and unconscious (Symbolic) registers…” (Ulmer, 1985, p.234). Arguably, Beuys stimulates both unconscious symbolic and pre-symbolic registers, triggering both human memory and the imaginary realm (which Ulmer refers to as the “preconscious”). He achieves this through expanding artistic practice into the spiritual realms of time and warmth, encouraging a future orientation and the production of new material.”
Looking at this again now, I wonder whether more directly the artist is trying to make people aware that they can affect space-time! This seems to be an important project today, because there is a clear and palpable sense in which may people aren’t responding to climate change, artists are seeking to raise awareness and engagement, but, with the exception of a minority of engaged activists, there is a level of either denial or a sense of not knowing how to engage. Perhaps we fundamentally lack a language of engagement, we are not fully aware of our power to intervene, and also to engage with other living beings who have agency.
The planned work is a kind of tableau (as much of my work on the PGDip seemed to be), a conference table set up ready for flowers to speak. The idea of letting flowers speak appears in Beuys’ work, particularly in this lithograph, created from a sugar card the artist picked up in the US, depicting violets. The artist writes “Let flowers speak” next to the image. I love this sense of the need to recognise languages beyond our own species, get beyond our own semantics, in order to fully grasp what he referred to as “the whole reality”. But I don’t want the piece to be simply a kind of description of Beuys’ perspective. There is something of my own practice here too; the concern with states of emergency, a need to revisit the question of whether the artist’s notion of materials is congruent with theories now referred to as “new materialism”.
Sourcing materials for the work takes longer than anticipated, the microphones prove more easy to find that I had anticipated – partly due to Tommy’s suggestion that I might find something on eBay – but a cover for the table proves hilariously difficult. I see this boxing approach at Plymouth but the fabric shops I visit simply don’t stock fabric on wide enough rolls and when they do they are extortionately expensive. I finally resolve this when I think of how I want the piece to look and I realise I would like a degree of continuity with previous work I have done with calico. If the table is covered with calico I can also wear my little “no more boiler suit”, a sort of impossible survival suit.
On Saturday I went to see the private view of Martin Creed’s work at Hauser and Wirth. I had mixed feelings about Creed’s work when I viewed the first few rooms, but as I moved through the exhibition and got a sense of the body of work as a whole, including his music (some of it performed live!), I got a sense of a huge playfulness, variety, warmth, humanity and generosity. I found the experience of being at an industry PV rather intimidating I must confess, the great and the good of the art world were there, and there was a definite sense in which business was being done. But although I felt rather gauche, it was interesting to be there, and I had a nice interaction with Manuela Wirth, who was kind.