THERE ARE NO DARK SPACES IN THE LIBRARY

1. Beneath the veneer of civilisation is just more civilisation.
Fear
Paranoia
Disappointment
Confusion
Loss
Need
Expectation
Antagonism
All these symptoms fade when love gets poured over them. I’ve struggled to do everything I said I would but you have been so kind.

2. Amid the panic I decided it didn’t matter. Letting go made it work. I’ve done what I’ve done and the same goes for what I didn’t do. I enjoyed not doing it.

3. You and I hid in the library. We hid in a shelter we’d been secretly constructing for weeks, an enclosure of books built up around the legs of a table. There was enough room inside for two people to lie side by side. We held on to each other as we slipped in and out of sleep.

4. We pee’d in the metal waste paper bin. That was my idea. There was a conversation between us about what we did and what we didn’t do. And I described some of those things like painting my face so I could read more effectively. Such bright colours that I shone, illuminating the pages.

5. During the day students come and go. They do all of the things I did when it meant something to misbehave. I want to tut but I’m supposed to be subverting civilised behaviour, so I tut at their lack of flair. Anyone can talk in a library nowadays and I don’t really care. I just want to sleep; it’s so warm in here.

6. I remember going to art school to find something but now I’m quite happy to lose it all.

7. One day I came in and made myself look so hideous that no one could look at me. That’s what it’s like around here. So quiet!

8. [And} within a few yards of here the architectural apotheosis of Bloomsbury itself – The British Museum. It’s a fine Greek façade as you can see. It was designed by the Smirke brothers. The whole thing’s really a crib from the Parthenon and it’s ironic that this museum should house the Elgin Marbles, those curious pieces of statuary which were in the frieze originally of the Parthenon itself. In the Assyrian section here is a fine head of Hadrian who ruled over us as proconsul and built that incredible wall from Solway to Tyne against the barbarians. And that’s a Greek word that was coined by the dwellers of the city-state in derision of those outside that looked after the sheep and who they said only make noises like sheep and went ‘baa-baa’ and thus ‘Bar-barian’ to indicate all the uncivilised values as opposed to Hadrian who was eminently civilised and [winks] dead right for Bloomsbury.

9. The ceiling has crashed in dropping lumps of rubble on the books. I can no longer dig. Pieces of stone and concrete have melted over everything, binding it all together. The door is gone. I don’t want to go up into the light that is shining in through the blasted ceiling. I’m exposed and bereft of what it was I was seeking underground. The grotto is out of reach and I’m left in tears.

10. I came in dressed up like a clown. I had the full kit on: bald wig with rainbow frizz, ludicrous face, a big red nose, baggy trousers and long, long shoes. Nobody would look at me and that made me cry one tear that froze on my cheek. I dropped a few books into my trousers and left. That was on the first of May. I remember because I left my bladder on a stick behind. I wonder if anyone handed it in?

11. In our bunker made of books I lay awake while you slept. I didn’t know what you wanted at all at that time. I put my arm over you but it felt wrong. In your sleep you said ‘why don’t you take your clown make-up off?’

12. The votive crown of King Recceswinth. Musee de Cluny, Paris. Gold with pearls and sapphires. Visigothic. RECCEVINTHUS REX OFFERET.

13. Though some have tried to find one, no common definition will fit these works, for they answer to endlessly different mental positions and keys of transcription, each of these being invented by the maker for his own purposes of the moment, so that the only common feature of such works is that they run on different lines from those of museum art. They do not meet us half way as the latter does. The standards and the references of cultural art fail to apply. Each of these works has its own standards, its own system of reference, to which one has to adjust.

14. There are people peering down at us through the hole that used to be the ceiling. I don’t know if they are hostile or helpful. They say the sewerage system has burst and is flooding the college. If we don’t get out we’ll drown. What about all the books and objects inside? It’s too late. They pull me out and start to seal up the hole. I’ve got a book in my hands, its bound in cardboard – like a pizza box. I have to get it back into the underground room but it’s too late. You are still down there but no one has noticed.

Do We Need to Grow Up? A two day conversation hosted by the NewBridge Project, 10-11 September 2015

This article was originally published on a-n news 17/9/15
Here is my original version.

Last week I attended Do We Need to Grow Up? A two day conversation hosted by the NewBridge Project (NBP) in Newcastle. It formed part of its 5th birthday celebrations but was also a response to the problems they, and other artist-led projects in the UK, are facing. How to deal with financial insecurity, gain support from and manage the expectations of funders and Local Authorities and what to do when your building gets taken from you for redevelopment.

NewBridge’s 80 studios, project space, book shop and performance space are located on a block of land in Newcastle’s city centre along with several other small arts projects, which include VANE, Commercial Union House Studios, Tyneside Cinema’s pop up space and Globe Gallery. At a conservative estimate 200 artists are supported on this block, which is owned by the billionaire landowners the Reubens brothers. Newcastle City Council is currently in negotiations to unlock this space for redevelopment.

One of the aims of the conversation was to explore various models from around the country and Europe with representatives from different artist run projects including East Street Arts in Leeds, Grand Union in Birmingham, Star and Shadow cinema in Newcastle and NAC Foundation in Rotterdam sharing their experiences and insights. The second day was more focused on local issues within the wider political and economic setting and we heard speakers from Newcastle City Council, ACE and Newcastle and Northumbria Universities. This was where you might say the conversation got a bit ‘grown up’.

Jon Wakeman from East Street Arts in Leeds. Photo Courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Jon Wakeman from East Street Arts in Leeds. Photo Courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Andrew Rothwell, Culture and Tourism Manager, Newcastle City Council let us know quite plainly not to expect much support from the Local Authority. There was no money for culture and seeing how it isn’t a statutory requirement and there are only two people in the Cultural Development department we are going to have to learn to stand on our own two feet. He said it more kindly than that but it was still pretty sobering.

In a neo-liberal environment where everyone has their eye on the bottom line and Local Authority budgets and cultural departments are disappearing we are asked to look to philanthropic sources of income and as someone in the discussion pointed out, it’s hard to find a philanthropist who isn’t also a philistine.

John Tomaney, Professor of Urban and Regional Planning, UCL, talked about big institutions getting sponsorship from oil companies as if this was OK. Where are our sponsors? He asked, reminding us that our artistic values have to change to meet the needs of funders. How do we reconcile? Should we reconcile?

One contributor suggested that business needs us, needs our ideas and creativity and we should allow ourselves to be ‘tapped’. Great! And when our city becomes a completely devolved private corporation, managing its own affairs just like a big business (apparently this is happening to some cities in the US and is on the cards for us) arts and culture will settle down to become be a division of Newcastle Corp. Maybe good things can come out of art and business working together but the idea of being tapped made me feel a bit ill.

Tom Warburton, Director of Investment & Development, Newcastle City Council had the most difficult job of all the speakers. He was there to give an update on the Rubens negotiations. Many of the attendees were studio holders and wanted to know how long they had before they’d be forced to leave. What they wanted to say but didn’t was: You are happy to use Culture to sell the city to foreign investors but how willing are you to help us when we need you? You could feel the tension in the room and see it on the poor guy’s face.

Group discussion led by activist Chris Erskine. Photo courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

Group discussion led by activist Chris Erskine. Photo courtesy of the NewBridge Project.

We were reminded again and again by the representatives from the city council and the Arts Council that culture is a driver for urban growth and to this some artists voiced their frustrations. What were we talking about when we used the word ‘culture’? Were we confusing it with capitalism? Is art just seen as an activity, a way of making money? What about actually paying the artists who create all this culture and growth?

The problem for NBP and projects like it across the country is that most of the stuff they do is hard to see. Unless you have a shiny, glass fronted space where the public can consume a neatly packaged product, those with power aren’t going to see the value – I doubt they understand the contribution that a repurposed office block full of studios actually has. This is the difficult side of art – people need time and space to produce it and there aren’t always tangible outcomes.

There is hope though. Grass-roots movements are beginning to gain momentum and our voices are starting to be heard. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn as the new Labour Leader a feeling of optimism and opposition can be transformed into positive action here at a community level. Imagine if we worked together to voice our concerns, influence policies and made a case for artists in urban spaces? What if we saw to it that more public money (our money as Chris Erskine reminded us) got spent on culture? What would a Corbynite Newcastle look like? Alex Niven asked. Well, let’s figure it out and see!

We don’t need to grow up, not if growing up means compromising our values or forgetting why we became artists in the first place, we need to stand up and be counted.

For a full schedule and list of speakers >

Why Pizza?

People often ask me why I love pizza and put it in my work so much.

The fact is I don’t use it that much, but yes, I do love it. I love the beauty of it and the profanity of it. It is also good to eat. What other reason do you need?

When people ask this the way they do it pisses me off. They ask as if it’s all about pizza. Don’t they know anything about making art? 

The best book I found at Leeds College of Art Library is this

IMG_1300

Art Brut by Michel Thevoz. I wish I had time to read the whole thing. I found this nugget about Gaston Duf, a man who made art in a psychiatric hospital. 

IMG_1301
Gaston Duf, Punchinello, 1920

It says: His favorite subject, an obsessional subject with him, was a strange, protean animal which he called a rhinoceros, but which obviously has little connection with the real animal of that name. In his hands it represents a kind of microcosm or generating principle of all real or imaginary forms. Philosophers have seen fit to take fire, water, atoms, essence, existence, etc., as the principle of their metaphysical explanations. Why not take the rhinoceros?  

And I say: Why not take pizza?

Library dream

It was warm in the library and I was dog-tired so I put my head down on one of the big books and closed my eyes. I fell asleep and had the following dream…

I’m in a large underground building – a bunker I suppose but not a concrete one, this place feels like an old house or antiques emporium made up out of many small, interconnected rooms. Some of these rooms contain racks of clothes and furniture and amazing objects but further in I find rooms full of books – the walls lined with cases and shelves. Books of all sorts – maybe every book I had ever wanted to read and so many I haven’t heard of but still need to have. I feel greedy for it all.

Bombs are falling outside. I hear shouting and sirens and buildings crashing down. It feels darker inside the rooms. I don’t know if it’s smoke or the lights failing. I’m groping around. The place is shaking and dust falling down into my hair. Books are all over the floor in great piles up against the bookcases and walls. I’m burrowing through trying to get to the door throwing books over my shoulder. Other objects are mixed in with the books and dust: gold coins, jewels and pieces of glass tile that have fallen from the mosaics on the walls. It’s all falling through the books as I push through, falling into a deep unknown place, like pennies dropping down a well. I can’t see it but I know it.

The ceiling has crashed in, dropping lumps of rubble on top of the books. I can no longer dig. The pieces of stone and concrete have melted over everything, binding it all together. The door is gone. I don’t want to go up into the light that is shining in through the blasted ceiling. I’m exposed and bereft of what it was I was seeking underground. The grotto is out of reach and I’m left in tears.

There are people peering down through the hole at me telling me to come out. I don’t know if they are helpful or hostile. They tell me the sewerage system has burst and is flooding all the bunkers. If I don’t get out I’ll drown. What about all the books and objects inside? It’s too late. They pull me out and start to seal up the hole. I’ve got a book in my hands, it is bound in cardboard – like a dvd sleeve but thicker, more like a pizza box. I have to get it back in the underground room but it’s too late.

Warming up

I arrived at the Vernon Street Library feeling tired and emotional having had a poor night’s sleep. The perfect state to be in when trying to do experimental or anti-research.

My activity became visual and basic. I spent a long time flicking through books looking at pictures. My note-taking would be a word or two overlayed with drawings of gurning faces. Long minutes were spent shading the shadows around their eyes.

eyes

One of the first books I opened just fell open at an image of Tlazolteotl the Aztec Goddess of filth sexual sin and redemption. I won’t elaborate here too much but she was the subject of a project I did with Totaller at East Street Arts last year (Totaller is a project that I collaborate on with Dale Holmes and Lea Torp Nielsen). 

She gives birth and eats excrement.

  IMG_1249

Andre Breton’s picture was in the same book.

Andre Breton meets Tlazolteotl

Totaller has just taken down a show based on Andre Breton’s studio wall called 15” Deep Pan Stuffed Crust Portuguese Man O’ War (Totaller’s Studio) at Paper Gallery in Manchester.

I guess you’ve got to start with what you know and I’m pleased that Tlazolteotl and Breton were there to see me off on my Library Intervention quest. They have set the tone and I now know how I’m going to do this – I think.

I made a few of these post-it drawings and have left them in the books they belong to. I’ll make a list of all the books I used at the end of the project but until then I’ll keep quiet and give a chocolate coin to whoever finds them.

After all this I put my head down and had a little nap. More about that in my next post.

Civilisation – My Library Intervention at Leeds College of Art

On Monday 20 April I will be heading over to the Leeds College of Art library to begin a project called Library Interventions. LCA have been inviting artists to spend time in their libraries to research and make new work a bit like a residency only I won’t be there every day.

My starting point for this intervention is the television series Civilisation by the art historian Sir Kenneth Clark who set out to show us what civilisation was supposed to be. Ours was the civilised world, he said, this European post dark-age world of art and learning and enlightenment. Below is a still image from the final scene of the series where he lovingly caresses a small Henry Moore sculpture that sits on the desk in his magnificent study – itself a great symbol of learning and privilege. The look on his face has always bothered me.

clark2 copy

The picture below it is my school portrait aged 12. The bookshelves aren’t real – it is just a backdrop put there to create an illusion.

School portrait

What is civilisation? How do we become civilised? Why is it seen as better than other forms of society or culture? Why does K. Clark bother me so much? Here’s what the sociologist Michel Leiris had to say.

‘Civilisation could be compared to the layer of green scum that settles on still waters. All our moral habits, polite customs, all that brightly coloured cloak that veils the crudity of our dangerous instincts, all those lovely forms of culture we are so proud of, for it is thanks to this that we call ourselves civilised, can vanish at the slightest turbulence, break up at the slightest shock revealing in the cracks terrifying savagery.’

I would like to use my intervention time exploring these cracks. By researching civilisation, enlightenment, dark age, ignorance and savagery I want to tread the fine lines between all of these ideas and find new ways to make work. 

Early definers of civilisation such as Petrarch and Vasari vilified the Dark Ages. In his Lives of the Artists, Vasari says that the years between the sack of Rome and the Renaissance were a time of ignorance and barbarism and that all of the art made then was rubbish. We now know this to be untrue of course but I’m still fascinated with the idea of working within a dark age – a time and place with no expectation, no complexity or veneer of civilisation and therefore a space for creativity and potential. Where are the dark places of ignorance and freedom to be located within the library? How can I exploit them?

I will probably start out by using the library in a standard, traditional way: reading, looking, notetaking and collecting images – and documenting my findings and thoughts in this blog. I am also planning to create small drawings and paper mache objects in the form of amulets and votive bookmark offerings. I imagine myself depositing these around the place for library users to find and puzzle over.

Most importantly I’m going to experiment with being uncivilised in the library, whatever that means, with (or without) the permission of the librarian, out in the open and more enjoyably when no-one is looking, like when I was at school, secretly misbehaving.

Between now and 10 May I will document my interventions and the work that follows here in this blog. 

Find out more about Library Interventions here >

 

I’m not OK: Part One

‘I’M NOT OK’ was made after a trip I made to the cemetery a few years ago. I’d been visiting my father’s grave and as we were driving out I caught a glimpse of a floral wreath that appeared to spell out the words ‘I’M NOT OK’. By the time I’d looked back to see if this was real it had passed out of view and so I was able to confirm in my mind a wreath that said those words – so let’s assume it didn’t really say GRANDMA or AUNTY BERYL.

Was it a joke? Who would commission such a wreath – the deceased as a last wish or a grieving relative? It reminded me of the words on Spike Milligan’s head stone ‘I told you I was ill’.

Grief or mourning is something that pops into my work from time to time (see Obituary stuff), I had to do something with this. I had to do something funny.

I made loads of drawings – I couldn’t get it out of my head. It became a mantra – I’M NOT OK, I’M NOT OK, I’M NOT OK…

IMG_2692

It was going to cost £300 to have the wreath made from flowers so I decided to make it myself from paper mache. That’s what I’d been working with, it’s what was at hand and it was perfect. PM is associated in my mind with carnival crafts – bright effigies made in Spain or South America. It is solid but not permanent like stone but it would last longer than fresh flowers. I’d be able to play with it. My wreath needed to be ridiculously bright and jolly. These words needed to be difficult to believe – like their counterparts in the ‘How are you?’dialogue – ‘I’m OK’.

IMG_3067     IMG_4123

 

I was working to a deadline. I wanted it ready for the Bloc Open Studios to be part of an installation. I was turning my studio into a psychedelic grotto by covering every surface with fluro rawshchach printed newspaper. Would I’M NOT OK be a bit obvious in this space? I didn’t want to say look at me I’m crazy. It wasn’t even about me. I didn’t have time to paint the words – but this was OK. I let them blend in with the newspaper – maybe even get a bit lost.

Grotto_C_T

Working with words is HARD. People read them and either take them at their face value or try to read more into them. (Of course – I’m not complaining). This means it’s harder to be flippant or just aesthetic or lack conviction. Words add meaning to other things. Putting those words in that environment meant people thought something was trying to be communicated to them. I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing. I wanted the grotto to be a bit overwhelming so in this respect it worked. Maybe I wanted them to be a bit more overwhelmed – to step inside and lose themselves. Its wrong to expect this sort of thing from an artwork.