Sunday, March 03, 2019

Cute Apocalypse

Carnival of Cute - 2

Bathed in pink, Jacob Epstein's Lucifer looks disdainfully down on the crowd at this week's "Carnival of Cute" at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. There is no version of hell he could have imagined which could be worse than this...

"Too Cute! Sweet is about to get Sinister" is a fantastic show, curated by an artist I've been watching for some time, Rachel Maclean, probably best known for her work, "Feed Me":

It is mostly not her own work - though there is a new video piece - rather, she has designed an environment in which to display her own curatorial choices of work from the collections of the Arts Council and BMAG which sit on the uncomfortable boundary between "cute" and "sinister". Having always been unnerved by an excess of the deliberately cute and not really getting the more usually-defined cute objects (nasally-deformed dogs, babies, miniature fruit and vegetables, inanimate objects with eyes...), I enjoy that Rachel performs a high-risk balancing act in which she reveres the cuteness while simultaneously undermining it. There is a lot of fun in what she is doing but there is also a vicious skewering of the late-capitalist urgency for consumption, something which she makes explicit in the accompanying video and about which she spoke passionately at the reception.

Carnival of Cute - 11

It was rather a surprise to see her as a self-possessed, balanced and cheerful person!

The show is excellent. It is funny, thoughtful, disturbing and only after leaving do you realise that it is transgressive and shocking.

I have linked to this article before, but I think it is critical - late-capitalism needs the population to be in a constant state of angst. Rachel Maclean has exposed yet another tool in their kit.
The show runs until May 12th.

Carnival of Cute - 7

Carnival of Cute - 9

On the subject of late capitalism, I've been listening to the new album by The Specials, "Encore" (which is very good, exactly what I would have hoped for but with a bit of a 70s funk edge going on, a tango-tinged "The Lunatics Have Taken Over The Asylum" and a song called "Breaking Point" which is one Optigon away from Tom Waits) and was also listening to Terry Hall being interviewed by comedian, Richard Herring. I'm not a huge Herring fan but listened because I haven't heard anything from Terry Hall since the eighties and wondered what he had to say, especially about the current state of the world, given his fantastically gloomy socialist view of the 1980s. As with so many of the socialists from that era, they were not suckered in by the softer capitalism - or is that centrist socialism? - of the early 2000s as they had seen what hard-line capitalism ("Thatcherism") had done. In this interview, Hall mentioned that his favourite book was "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher" on the grounds that "I like a book with a happy end", which is a pretty good line but I was intrigued...

Discovering a new writer for me to enjoy. These are just fantastic short stories, all with a lovely balance of bleakness and humour. I've never read any Hilary Mantel before, having written off her "Wolf Hall" trilogy as the sort of historical romance stuff that you see people reading in airports and therefore it was something of a surprise to read these elegant, literary stories and to do a bit of research to discover that she's something of a literary superstar! That's what comes of judging books by covers...
Thanks to Terry Hall for that one.

If you are interested in the interview, it is on the Richard Herring podcast.

Music has been a big part of the last few weeks and this week I signed up to Bandcamp (yes, a full eleven years after the site launched!) after discovering that the new Test Dept. album was only available through that outlet. I've also been listening to the incredible Spellling and her album, Mazy Fly, which I also found on Bandcamp.

Crash Ensemble - Romitelli

Off to Dublin for a flying visit to see Crash Ensemble perform Fausto Romitelli's "Professor Bad Trip", a most incredible piece of music which I have wanted to hear live since I heard it on a radio programme some years ago, introduced by Jonathan Harvey. I subsequently became a bit obsessed with Romitelli's music, which really sounds like nothing by any other composer, but have never had the chance to hear much live. The performance in Birmingham of "Trash TV Trance" a few weeks back was the first piece I heard live and this is the second. I'm pleased to say that it exceeded my expectations and clarified so much about the music: the use of live electronics, amplification and spacialisation is not evident in the recording I have, nor is the importance of the 'cello in the central movement, played here with unbelievable bravado by Kate Ellis.


Here is the "First Lesson", conducted by Ivan Volkov

Lovely to meet up with composer from the Birmingham Conservatoire, Seán Clancy while I was there, too.

I didn't have much time in Dublin, so went for a wander the next morning, being really saddened by the way in which the city has embraced Europe and the EU without losing anything of its own identity.

Such a shame the UK is being driven to the exact opposite.

Leprechaun Museum

Perhaps we never had the same confidence in our own identity in the first place.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

All About the Waste

The last two weeks have been a bit of a whirl, what with the opening my collaborative exhibition "A Waste Land" at the Vittoria Street Gallery in the Jewellery Quarter. The launch was on Tuesday 5th February and kicked off with me and Dan Russell, my collaborator, in conversation with Sian Hindle and, I'm pleased to say, a capacity audience in the Lecture Theatre at the School of Jewellery.

(I was wearing clothes which I had found discarded in the street! This includes the amazing 1970s Levi's denim jacket, which is now in my permanent collection of clothes.)

After the talk, we had the reception downstairs in the gallery.

A Waste Land - Private View - 4

A Waste Land - Private View - 5

A Waste Land - Private View - 9

The event was catered by by The Real Junk Food Project Brum who supplied a fantastic vegan buffet and we had music by, James Abel, George West and Peter Bell -students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire - who played found and discarded musical scores:

A Waste Land - Private View - 6

A Waste Land - Private View - 7

Peeking out of that bag, on top, is the score I found during my litter picking trip round the Quarter with the JQ Bid Clean Team.

The exhibition moves next to Chatham in about two weeks' time. We've still not released any photographs of the work other than what can be seen in the general images and will be doing this after the show is finished in early April.

The knife-crime pilot project "In The Cut" moved into the final phase this week with the young people visiting the School of Jewellery for a workshop session and getting to use flames to solder and seeing things like the laser-welder and other bits of exciting equipment. 

In The Cut - 13

In The Cut - 12

The knife material has proved to be somewhat intractable and I have had to use a local business in the Jewellery Quarter, the amazing RF Bevan to cut them by wire erosion.

R.F. Bevan & Co. - 1

R.F. Bevan & Co. - 2

The finished work will be presented next week.

Off to the Birmingham Conservatoire again, this time to hear the amazing Sean Shibe play an eccentric and thrilling programme of early music and ultra-modern music, ranging from Scottish early music by James Oswald through Steve Reich's "Electric Counterpoint" to the ear-shredding LAD by Julia Wolfe. Fantastic!

Sean Shibe

Off to Sheffield with friend and colleague, Anna Lorenz, for the Re:Mains exhibition by Rachael Colley at SIA Gallery in Sheffield. This is a fascinating show and one which is distantly related to my own "A Waste Land" in that it deals with a lot of food waste. It also deals with the performance of eating and food and the implements for that performance, appropriate given Sheffield's history of cutlers and cutlery.

Re:Mains - Sheffield - 9

Re:Mains - Sheffield - 6

Re:Mains - Sheffield - 15

Rachael also catered the event with food waste, as I had done for mine, hers coming from Food Works in Sheffield, an impressive display:

Re:Mains - Sheffield - 19

There is something disturbing about being able to so easily cater events for 50+ people using only waste food from the catering and supermarket industries.

Re:Mains - Sheffield - 11
Anna Lorenz (left) talking to Rachael Colley.

Off to the town centre and New Art from Birmingham, an exhibition in Medicine cafe/gallery as an outpost of the IKON Gallery. My next-door neighbour, Leah Carless is exhibiting as part of the show.

I was disappointed to see that her work had been moved from the centre of the gallery to the edge, much lessening the impact. Overall, a very strong show and worth a visit before it closes on the 24th March.

New Art From Birmingham - 1

For all that I go to endless experimental, contemporary and often complex music events, one of the constants in my musical life has been Henry Purcell. I can't even say what it is about his music that I love but there is a certain turn of minor-key musical phrase which he has which raises goosebumps. After New Art Birmingham, I went to hear Ex Cathedra perform his fragmentary "The Indian Queen".

The concert began with an unusual selection of Baroque music collected by conductor and musical director Jeffrey Skidmore from Bolivia and Mexico which were rather excellent and interesting, especially the little bits of history he gave, explaining why, for example, one of the pieces was in Angolan!

Needless to say, The Indian Queen did not disappoint!

The Indian Queen

Sunday, February 03, 2019

Not Out Of The Woods

I've been avidly devouring a very strange and marvellous book indeed. "Out of the Woods" by one of the founders and contributors to my favourite music website, "The Quietus", is an odd melange of autobiography, social history, confessional, and psychogeography which is - mostly - beautifully-written and poetic, his writings about his relationship with his parents being especially touching.

What makes this book especially unusual is that it is written from the point of view of someone who defines himself as "bisexual", a definition which we have overlooked in recent years, one which we don't hear much from in the ever growing list of L, G, B, T, Q, I, +..., all of whom seem to be eager to shout each other down. Turner goes some way to explaining this - the fear of the 'other', the power of homosexuals to adopt heteronormative roles, the way in which bisexuality undermines those roles in a way which "gay" can never do. Based around the author's relationship with London's Epping Forest, the book twists and turns around and within the forest, exploring the role of "nature" in modern life, the author's psyche and relationships and with London. This book opened my eyes to an aspect of sexuality which I had, like most people, inadvertently ignored, my only criticism being that it could have done with a more rigorous editor. Having said that, I am going to love any book which gets this review from tory rag, "The Spectator".

On the subject of frothing tories, I came home to this heap of shite on my doormat:

Needless to say, it wasn't ripped up when it was delivered. I did this for effect. Ghastly pub chain, owned by the definitive "swivel-eyed loon", Tim Martin (he really does look like something "League of Gentlemen" would have come up with) serial exploiter of poverty-wage employees and with a personal wealth of something around £500m has decided to squander some of his shareholders' profits on putting out propaganda for the disaster-capitalist wing of the tory party.
Naturally, he doesn't consider that it will be his finest, elderly customers who suffer the most if the UK leaves the EU... he's alright, Jack! He's one of the richest people in the UK. Like all the others pushing for the UK to leave the EU: Rees-Mogg, Banks, the Barclay Brothers...

I've spent the last week with friend and colleague, Dan Russell, setting up our "A Waste Land" show, of which I have previously written. This week was the install, filling the gallery space with all the waste we've gathered from the streets of Birmingham and Chatham. Dan was brilliant at curating the waste and it looks really good.

A Waste Land - Install - 1

A Waste Land - Install - 2

A Waste Land - Install - 4

A Waste Land - Install - 3

We've not released any photographs of the work yet, but can now reveal how some of the cabinets look:

Each object comes with a "museum card" which we hope is in the style of anthropological museums, bolstered by an essay by Dr. John Scanlan and videos of our working process and the gathering of the waste.

The opening is on Tuesday next week. Tickets for our "in conversation" event at 6pm are available here.

There will be music played on waste instruments by students at Birmingham Conservatoire and food by The Real Junk Food Project Brum.

On Tuesday night, Dan and I went to Centrala to hear a piece I've wanted to hear live for years, Fausto Romitelli's "Trash TV Trance" for solo electric guitar and electronics. Played by Simon Aeschimann of the Ensemble Contrechamps,  this was an amazing performance and everything I had hoped it would be.

Millennium Percussion

Afterwards there we moved upstairs for the performance with the percussion department of the Conservatoire along with the Ensemble for the premier of a ravishing new work for guitar and marimba by Fumiko Miyachi and a performance of Ligeti's absurdist song-cycle, "Sippal, Dobbal, Nadihegeduvel", which was also wonderful. It is such a privilege to have access to this much interesting music, played to such a high standard.

Here is a recording of Trash TV Trance, performed by the person for whom it was written, Tom Pauwels:

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Kingdom Come

I've been a huge fan of JG Ballard ever since I read "High Rise" when I was about 16. I rapidly explored "Crash" and "Atrocity Exhibition" - which, at 16 or 17, I probably pretentiously pretended to understand: as an adult, I still struggle with it - and up until his death, I eagerly awaited each new novel, "Rushing to Paradise", "Cocaine Nights", "Super-Cannes"... Thus it was that in 2006, I read "Kingdom Come". In this novel, middle-England revolts without realising that they are doing it. Led by a charismatic, media-managed, glossy 'eccentric' who is prone to outbursts of cruelty and buffoonery, they relieve the dissatisfaction generated by gigantic shopping malls and the boredom of consumerism by building a populist movement, sporting St. George's Cross teeshirts and hats, flags fluttering from car windows and suburban bungalows, overturning the rule of law and attacking Asian and Polish businesses.

Sound familiar?
I have always viewed Ballard's writing as allegorical, sometimes far-fetched, but always with the point that society is only just held together by a thin veneer of civilisation but this novel is now something quite other. Re-reading it is actually frightening as it no longer reads like an allegory, more like a prediction: what seemed to be a warning now reads like an instruction manual with exact parallels in what is happening in the UK today. Ballard writes, "The danger is that consumerism will need something close to fascism in order to keep growing."

We are close to some sort of fascism now, caused by the deliberate destabilisation of a consumer-led society. Artist, Rachel Maclean hit the nail on the head when she said of her residency in the Birmingham Bullring shopping centre, "There’s something about shopping centres and the whole experience of advertising that is anxiety-inducing. It has to make you feel bad in order that you buy something to make yourself feel better. It’s an entire culture that necessitates dissatisfaction."
The problem here is that the whole population has been exposed to this culture, they have been saturated in dissatisfaction, itself a function of the neoliberal economic model which requires the population to consume endlessly. Ballard posits that the population have become bored of neoliberalism, bored of consumption and, as they have defined themselves through their consumption, bored of their very core of being. This disaffection manifests itself in outpourings of violence directed against the "other" and, ultimately, against manufactured "others": "New enemies were always needed, and one in particular was soon found. The traditional middle class..."
The outlook for the UK is not good.

In The Cut - Project - 3
Riv, one of the mentors and a musician working on the "In The Cut" project with pupils at Broadway Academy.
In terms of my own work, the 'big project' I've been planning with Norman Cherry has now kicked off and it relates very strongly to this malaise. This week saw us taking a group of Artists-in-Residence from the School of Jewellery into Broadway Academy in Perry Barr along with a couple of local musicians, BCU Criminology students and the fantastic Criminology lecturer and researcher Yusef Bakkali with a view to trialling a prophylactic intervention amongst a group of young people who could potentially be at risk of being involved in knife crime.

The reality is that there is an epidemic of knife crime and all young people, excepting, perhaps, the most isolated and/or privileged are at risk. This is partly to do with survival, or at least the  idea of survival, the idea that other people are carrying knives and so knives are carried as a "protection" - despite figures which show that carrying a knife increases the likelihood of being injured or killed in knife-crime incidents. These young people are anxious. Anxiety and fear are part of their lives. Even the best brought-up young people are targeted by advertising and are made to feel inadequate, to doubt themselves. It is little surprise that they not only have alarming levels of mental-health issues but that they also feel the need to defend themselves, both physically and psychologically.

In The Cut - Project - 1

Unusually, our project is prophylactic. It is an intervention before anyone is involved: it seeks to alert the participants to the issues in a creative and thoughtful way, to make them think about their environment and to try to make them think about committing to a life which eschews violence. To this end, we've been getting them to draw protective amulets which are going to be made from the knife blades and we've been really encouraged by the outcomes so far.

In The Cut - Project - 4

In The Cut - Project - 2

John Grayson - Talking Practice - 4

Over the last month, we've had John Grayson's PhD exhibition "Enamel:Substrate" in the Vittoria Street Gallery and last week was his "Talking Practice" about the exhibition and his work on researching Bilston painted enamels.

John Grayson - Talking Practice - 2

John is a great maker and a most engaging speaker and the talk was fully-booked, the reception afterwards very busy. I particularly like his work but his drawings and sketchbooks are really lovely:

John Grayson - Talking Practice - 4

John Grayson - Talking Practice - 5

I have been making preparations for the show I am doing in Vittoria Street with Dan Russell, "A Waste Land" which opens next week on the 4th with our "Talking Practice" on the 5th February. As part of this, I spent a day litter picking with the Jewellery Quarter BID Clean Team:

Working with Dennis and Allan, the regular team members, we wandered about the Jewellery Quarter, gathering up the rubbish, something they do four days a week, 10am - 4pm. I was only with them about an hour and we found some horrors...

Out With The JQ Clean Team - 6

Out With The JQ Clean Team - 5

It wasn't all bad, though and I did hear some great stories, such as how someone had dumped a safe in the middle of one street and about the complete set of boxed false teeth which turned up in another. In case you are wondering, that IS a "Moomin" on the cart in the first picture:

Out With The JQ Clean Team - 4

Work starts on the exhibition tomorrow. Should you be interested in coming along, all the details are here. There will be food from the Real Junk Food Project  - made from food-waste - and music from students at the Birmingham Conservatoire - James Abel, George West and Peter Bell - which will include some sheet music I found on my litter-picking expedition, played on scrap materials and instruments: