It’s time to admit this blog is dormant. I started it in 2013 with one of my motivations being that I wanted to practice writing about art. I knew I wanted to do more writing but didn’t have much of a forum for it at that time.
Now I find myself doing quite a lot of writing (writing for my own artwork, writing lectures for teaching, helping other artists write about their work, writing articles). I like doing it. But I don’t find it easy… and it takes time. Much as I would like to keep the blog going, the energy needed to do so is currently spent on other things. I do hope I will return to it at some point, but for now it stands simply as an archive of past posts.
Last year I wrote a response to Open Music Archive’s dual exhibitions at Salford Museum & Art Gallery and Castlefield Gallery, Manchester. I entered a version of it into a writing competition…but didn’t get anywhere with that, so have decided to post it here.
A SIDE: Salford
Museum and Art Gallery
A woman and a man in a recording studio, wearing headphones and singing into stand-mounted microphones. They repeat a vocal phrase – “to be with you” – several times (as if on ‘loop’) before the sound transitions to a double-bass- bassline, casually plucked by an older gentleman. These performers are a few of the characters who populate ‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ (2019); a thirty-minute long moving image installation produced by artists Eileen Simpson and Ben White who collaborate as ‘Open Music Archive.’ Sixteen older musicians heeded the artists’ request to collaborate with them to compose and record a new piece of music, constructed from excerpts of pop records originally recorded between 1952 and 1962. The performers – dubbed ’the original teenagers’ – had their teen years during this decade, the first decade of the UK singles chart.
On screen today, far
removed from their youth, some performers look like seasoned session-musicians
whilst others (more tentative or eager) recall a teenaged attitude; as if their
young-selves found themselves here, unexpectedly aged, uncertain of where the
intervening years went. Performers play and sing individually, or in small
groups, while the camera tracks a constant, anti-clockwise pan. This movement –
revealing new musicians on each apparent rotation – mirrors footage of vinyl
and shellac records, visually intercut with studio shots, and evokes a rueful
sense of time’s relentless passage.
The film’s soundtrack
has all the pull and fizz of pop music but is an extended deconstruction of
pop’s component parts. An individual instrument (the double base or a plangent
saxophone) is heard sometimes in isolation, like a single ‘track’ from a
multi-track recording, before the composition builds. In other instances short,
repetitive motifs evoke electronic music or provide ‘hooks’ that don’t develop
as expected. Intercut close-ups of spinning records are stop-start. Repetitive.
A visual analogue to the conglomerate sound; mimicking musical phrases
performed ‘live’ in studio or accompanying extracts played direct from vinyl. The
vinyl sound quality is recognisable; muffled and analogue – seemingly played
from far away. ‘Everything I have is Yours’ is based upon content produced in
an era before sampling or multi- track recording but its construction implies
the mutations popular music has undergone since the inauguration of the charts.
The work’s power comes from its emotional resonance. It prompts reflection on time, technology and the enduring personal and cultural significance of music. But beyond such ruminations lies another crucial aspect of this artwork; pointedly foregrounded by text on ‘paused’ record labels reading: “copyright control” or “the rights of man.” As the name ‘Open Music Archive’ hints, Simpson and White have a conceptual and ethical interest in challenging (or creatively circumventing) copyright. The date 1962 – delimiting the artwork’s source material – is significant as a date when copyright rules were tightened. As the exhibition guide explains, there are two sets of U.K. copyright: composition copyright (granted to authors) lasts until 70 years after their death; copyright for recordings (made after 1962) lasts for 70 years from recording date. In choosing pre ’62 records the artists only need navigate the former. They do this by sampling or re-performing only extracts: notes, short phrases or breaths. Enough to convey the tone of the source whilst respecting creative copyright of still- living composers.
Rather than considering music as something to be individually owned, Open Music Archive’s work advances music as a collective resource. ‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ creates one example situation where music has brought people together in a vibrant, productive way. Contributors reclaim sounds that were part of the mental-landscapes of their youth; music that is arguably theirs as much as any authors – for it is the listener who puts music to use. Now we (as listeners or viewers in the gallery) get to join in the fun. A work about copyright could be dry and legalistic, causing an audience to switch off. This decidedly isn’t. The project educates about copyright, and invites consideration of its ethics whilst concurrently enacting the enjoyment that music-sharing can bring.
B SIDE: Castlefield
Alongside the newly
commissioned ‘Everything I have is Yours’ – at Salford Museum and Art Gallery –
Castlefield Gallery, nearby, held a sister exhibition of Open Music Archive’s
earlier works. This shorter-run show provided an opportunity to gain a broader
understanding of the artists’ approach.
Most overt in its
challenge to copyright, ‘PLAYHEAD: A Parallel Anthology’ (2010- ongoing) was
presented in a listening area where visitors could hear versions of tracks from
the six-album compilation ‘Anthology of American Folk Music,’ compiled by Harry
Smith in the early 1950s. The collection – which contributed to a mid- century
folk revival – made diverse music, that had originally been issued from 1927-
32, available to a wide audience. Concurrently, however, it ‘fixed’ and
copyrighted single versions of tracks previously shared and performed in
multiple versions. Simpson and White’s parallel anthology reinvigorates the
multiplicity. Tracks appear in the order of Smith’s collection but in
alternative, uncopyrighted versions. An accompanying booklet indicates each track’s
status, with blue typography for existing alternative versions and orange for
remixes made for this project. Tracks still copyright-restricted are
struck-through with black. At Castlefield Gallery the installation was slick,
with graphic elements from the printed track-listing continuing in a colourful
vinyl wall design. But it was the exhibition’s most didactic work, perhaps
functioning better in its online version (see www.openmusicarchive.org/playhead)
where content need not compete with other, more concise pieces.
(2016) prefigures ‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ in form and method. Shown as a
single-screen installation, it similarly depicts invited participants in a
recording set-up, interspersed with shots of vinyl. Again it enacts a
contemporary re-use of copyrighted material. This time, however, participants
actually are teenagers and – rather than collaborating with them directly to
write new music – Simpson and White asked contributors to vocalise freely,
subsequently matching their experimental articulations to excerpts from 1962
records. Cautious “ahhs” and bravado-laden “huhs” meld with the archive sound.
Dissonance resolves into harmony (and back again) evoking the tension between
possibility and self-doubt involved in teenage-hood. The recording took place
in an anechoic chamber – a room that absorbs all echoes. The novelty and
unfamiliarity of this registers on contributors’ faces. Voice is both a
metaphor for and an enabler of agency and the work communicates a sense of
young people finding theirs. By combining individual, provisional utterances
into a co-voiced work, it proposes power in numbers; the whole being more than
the sum of its parts.
the power of collective voice were ‘ATL 2067’ (2013/2019) and ‘The Brilliant
and the Dark’ (2010). For the former (made in Atlanta U.S.A.) the artists
worked with local hip-hop producers to reuse and reimagine extracts of still-
copyrighted 1920s folk and blues music; producing records to be played at a
public open-mic event. The resulting film depicts open-mic participants
freestyling about their imagined future city; optimistic conjectures of a
cooperative future echoing the sharing ethos associated with both folk and
Where ‘ATL 2067’ is
presented as a minimally-edited observational documentary, ‘The Brilliant and
The Dark’ (commissioned by London’s Women’s Library) adopts the tightly
choreographed format of a pop video. Women dressed in striking red robes – with
head-pieces that recall Margaret Atwood’s ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ or Louise
Bourgeois’s ‘Femme Maison’ paintings – lip-sync to an absurdly catchy, choral
pop piece. The composition, created with a 22-strong women’s choir ‘Gaggle,’
reprises a cantata originally performed by 1000 women in 1969 at the Royal
Albert Hall. The original depicted the lives of women through the ages. The
remake is a lament and a call to arms with vocals alternating between swooping,
long-line harmonies (“we weep, for the dead” ) and snappy appeals (“fight,
fight, fight”). The women here comply with the contemporary norms of pop-
performance: they mime but with attitude. Popular culture is, at once,
liberating and constraining. The music’s circular structure suggests that
progress – towards equal rights – is recursive, not linear.
demonstrate the artists’ adaptability in working with different communities and
contexts. Their overarching concern with collaboration and co- authorship
manifests differently in each. One final work – ‘Struggle in Jerash’ (2009) –
stands apart because it does not take music, or copyright, as its instigator.
It is a re-presentation of a 1957 Jordanian feature film, here narrated by
contemporary Jordanian artists, curators, filmmakers and critics; invited to
interpret the action. It does, then, share an intent to revitalise archive
material. The film (purportedly Jordan’s first) was considered ‘lost’ until,
following a 2008 residency in Amman, the artists gained access to the last VHS
copy and re-circulated it in its current form. The soundtrack conversations can
be compelling: discussion of changing norms of dress or behaviour, for example,
raises broader questions about politics, religion and national identity. But it
is a slow and meandering piece which struggles to hold attention.
Open Music Archive’s works that take on musical formats (whether pop video or experimental opus) have ‘oomph.’ They entertain and thus invite the viewer in. ‘Struggle in Jerash’ is a harder sell, but its inclusion has purpose. It intimates that the bigger project is not about music as such, or perhaps even about copyright per-se. Taken together these are works about agency and ownership. They posit the importance – and implement the act – of speaking-back to dominant cultural forms. The artists set up structures that allow multiple voices to speak (or sing). Their works are, in the first instance, mostly collaborations. They involve participants working together to create something new. We (gallery-goers or subsequent viewers) can’t access this experience directly; we observe its outputs and portrayal. In the couple of instances where resultant pieces fail to entirely hit the mark, this is less an issue of conception and more a failure of translation. For the main part, Open Music Archive – and collaborators – succeed in transforming complex, process-based projects into succinct, evocative gallery-based artworks.
‘Everything I Have Is Yours’ was shown at Salford Museum and Art Gallery from 4 July-3 November, 2019. Eileen Simpson and Ben White: Open Music Archive was at Castlefield Gallery, Manchester from 14 June-18 August, 2019.
One of my favourite exhibitions from 2018 was ‘Bus2Move’ by Simeon Barclay, at The Tetley Leeds. I thought it was a brilliant exhibition that used the unique spaces at the Tetley very effectively. So, I was happy to have the chance to interview Simeon recently for a-n.
This is one of the few times I’ve done artist interviews and thanks go to Simeon for being a really accommodating interviewee. I hope I’ve done his words and his work justice in my write up which you can read on the a-n website.
“A question that kept occurring to me was: how is it possible to adequately represent migration in art, and what’s the purpose of doing this? Whilst the biennial gives no definitive answers this many of its exhibiting artists seem to be grappling with this question. I want to try and explore it a bit more through specific, example works.”
I wrote the post below to consolidate my memory of the Ravilious exhibition and in part because I’m intrigued by how learning; forgetting and remembering works. But beyond this I’ve also been thinking about what it is that engaged me in the first place about the Ravilious & Co. exhibition and similarly about Jenny Steele’s work. In part it is the artistry; the striking, graphic aesthetic of many of their designs. I bought a book about Ravilious’ ‘Submarine’ series of lithographs because there are aspects of these that mirror the as-yet vague mental imagery I have for some of my own future work. The book traces Ravilious’ references and influences including Russian children’s books from the 1920s and London Underground advertising posters made under the auspices of Frank Pick. Both are design sources I’ve looked at before, but have not been sure why. What is it about them that I like?
Eric Ravilious, Passing the Bell Rock, 1940, Museums Sheffield.
The ‘something’ that I am drawn to is linked – I think – to the title of Steele’s exhibition at The Midland Hotel in Morecambe (referenced in my prior post): ‘This Building for Hope.’ Steele draws on the utopian imagery of Modernism. It was a time in western culture of aspiration and of belief in a better future. This is an aspect that I drew upon too in my 2016 commission ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Nobody,’ looking at the later – but still aspirational – post war architecture of Coventry. There is a risk in looking back to wax nostalgic about these past times, which were in fact complicated and messy (Ravilious for one died during service as a war artist in the second world war). Simple nostalgia is certainly not what I (nor Steele I think) am aiming for. I am interested in a kind of ambivalent history, seen too in the recent exhibition ‘The Return of Memory’ at HOME, Manchester that marked the centenary of the Russian Revolution. To given a couple of example works from that show: Declan Clarke and Sarah Perks’ work ‘One Day The Sadness Will End’ involved naming, each day, someone who was betrayed by the revolution; Stephen Coates and Paul Heartfield’s ‘X-Ray Audio’ included records surreptitiously produced on discarded X-ray plates at a time when the music industry was controlled by the state.
I am interested too in how moments that are narrativised as historical turning points offer the possibility for thinking otherwise. They entertain possible futures that never happened. In our present-day when the organising principles of society have succumbed to individualism and the market, there is an appeal to looking at past times when there seemed to be a belief in more collective endeavour (even if it was an ideal not fully realised in practice).
Amelia Crouch, Tomorrow Belongs To Nobody, 2016.
My own work is not particularly focussed on Modernism. I admit I am opportunistic and in site-responsive pieces have hopped around time periods as projects have allowed. Still I have been thinking about whether anything links the approach that I take in disparate works. Broadly speaking the times I have looked at are the Enlightenment, Victorian era and Modernism. Within each there is a narrative strand of rationalism and the idea of doing things for the greater good. Within my work I have often dealt with the interrelationship of individual and collective identity and contrasted rational and irrational behaviours. Perhaps realising this will help me to be more specific and focussed with where I want to take my work next.
I sometimes feel that my artwork is divided between site-responsive pieces (that take a lead from the history of a given location) and gallery-sited works (that usually play with words). There is, however, a parallel between them in that both counterpose order and disorder, sense and non-sense. The word works appear logical, ordered and systematic but in fact their meaning is intentionally fragmented or oblique.
Jenny Steele, Not so Nautical a Divide, digital print on PVC banners, 1m x 56m, Morecambe promenade, October 2017.
To get back to where I started – as I’ve wandered off topic a little – what the Ravilious and Co. exhibition and Jenny Steele’s work have highlighted for me is the relevance of considering the visual language of particular moments or ideologies in a more intentional way. When I heard Jenny Steele talk at a previous event (at the Tetley, Leeds) one thing that impressed me about her methods was the extent of her visual research. Her outcomes are based on extensive time spent in textile archives, gallery collections and doing factory or architectural site visits. Of course I do visual research myself, but with my penchant for wordy works this often comes after I have a focus or intention, rather than driving research.