Untitled 2I have been reading about prepositions, as research for a short video that I am going to make. In part this is a development from my recent video work Turning Tables, which was about the influence of language on egocentric or geocentric spatial thinking.

Whilst working on this video I came across articles describing experiments in which linguists experimentally test use of prepositions (in, on, over etc) in relation to different visual scenes. (For example see “The Seamntics of English Prepositions” by Andrea Tyler and Vyvyan Evans). It seems that until quite recently it was commonly held that prepositions mapped spatial relationships between objects, in a fairly straightforward way, as if prepositions would map easily onto Euclidean geometry. More recent experiments have shown that things are not quite so simple, our use of a particular term is also influenced by 1) dynamic-kinematic aspects of the scene. 2) knowledge of object function.

For example, in relation to the first point and looking at the image, top left, where the horizontal arrows represent movement of the bowl from side to side, people are more likely to identify the top ball (identified by the diagonal arrow) as being in the bowl when it moves with the bowl, rather than when the scene is static. In relation to the second point, whether you describe an object as a ‘plate’ or a ‘dish’ apparently influences whether someone will describe a second object as being ‘on’ or ‘in’ the plate/dish. People also respond differently to items stacked in a jug vs. in a bowl and the difference is more marked when the containers are filled with liquid (when the jug seems to be fulfilling its salient function).

But why am I interested in this? Well, it’s part of a broader and ongoing exploration of the relationship between language, perception and the world. Tyler and Evans write: If one assumes that language directly reflects the real world, then one assumes that the objectively metric properties and principles of Euclidean geometry…will form the basis of linguistic descriptions of spatial scenes” (p.21)

However, as explained, experiments show that we do not base word choice only on geometry. So they posit the idea of ‘mental models’ which act as a kind of interim stage between perception and description of a scene. When we look at an arrangement of objects we compare it to a storehouse of mental models that we have built up through experience. The model for the word ‘in’ is based on containment and locational control. The model for the word ‘on’ is to do with support and locational control.

The crux of this is that there is a bodily and experiential basis for meaning. Grammar is not just a set of abstract rules, but is based on our interaction with the physical world. This is a central notion in a book that captured me a few years’ back, Stephen Pinker’s “The Stuff of Thought” (which incidentally also contained reference to some of the experiments outlined above, although I’d forgotten that). On the one hand, the idea that grammar derives from our interaction with the world and yet is insufficient to specify it completely seems very simple and intuitive, Tyler and Evans go on to say:

“Things meaningful to us precisely when have important consequences. e.g. if we let go of a cup without placing it on a larger object, it will fall to the floor.” (p.24). and quoting another linguist, Langacker: “Linguistic expressions are not meaningful in and of themselves, but only through the access they afford to different stores of knowledge that allow us to make sense of them.” (p.17).

On the other hand, exploration of the relationship between language, meaning and the world tap into larger questions about how the mind works and about the nature of being human. What is intrinsic, what is universal and what is learned?

Tyler and Evans talk about non-spatial uses of terms ‘in’ and ‘on,’ such as when we say were are ‘in trouble’ or ‘on the dole.’ Where some linguists have suggested these are distinct, unrelated uses, Tyler and Evans posit that these are metaphorical extensions of a primary, spatial meaning. For example, we use ‘in’ when we are contained by a particularly strong emotional state. This is an idea that I grasp in theory, but haven’t really got my head around how all the meanings of the presuppositions can be reached by this sort of metaphorical extension (take a look in a dictionary and each word has 10-15 meanings laid out). Perhaps some of them are easy to trace and some of them are more like dead metaphors, retained in language but we’re not sure quite where from.

The question remains of how I am going to turn some of these ideas into a video without it seeming really boring or didactic? I must remember that I am not doing linguistics, but using some ideas taken from the field to make an artwork. My current thinking is that I will play around with mocking up some of the in/on experiments and combine this with a soundtrack of a voice intoning some different uses of the words ‘in’ and ‘on,’ but I need to test this to see if it works.

Interstellar matter

The electromagnetic spectrum

This week I found myself in the pub with a group of astrophysicists – from undergraduate to head of department level. It’s funny to hear people talking casually about interstellar matter almost as an aside, as something they just know about. It left me wishing that I knew more about what happens beyond the earth, and about the building blocks of the universe.

I was asking the physicists about their methods; how do they observe things? How are new things discovered? They told me about some of their methods: spectroscopy involves measuring the emission of electromagnetic radiation from matter, morphology involves looking at the shape of bodies or collections of matter. You can test the chemistry of molecules in a lab by staging reactions on a small scale and measuring emissions, or you can observe stars and galaxies at a distance using telescopes to collect data on electromagnetic emissions and morphology. Observation is combined with mathematical modelling from the (sometimes sparse) data that has been collected.

Two things in particular struck me from peoples responses.

1) There seems to be a distinct split in physics between being an observer and being a theorist. Apparently very few people are both – you either work on the mathematics and the modelling, or you work on observation and data collection. Recently I listened to an old episode of ‘In Our Time’ on optics and in this episode they guests were talking about the separate paths of practice and theory in the development of lenses. Lenses were being made (e.g. for glasses) by artisans, whilst separately philosophers and mathematicians were writing treatises on optics without actually practically testing any of their theories. The programme suggested that it was really only with the enlightenment and the work of Galileo and Kepler that these two separate paths came together. Of course now theorists and observers work closely in the same university department, but I was surprised that this split endures.

2) Interpreting data beyond our visual capabilities can become second nature, like speaking a foreign language. Talking a bit about the large telescopes used to collect data, I asked whether they actually go and look through the telescopes (they do sometimes) or if data was collected and disseminated to different researchers (this is also often true). As a layperson I tend to think of telescopes in terms of magnification – visually observing distant planets. But although some observation is visual – looking at shape and colour – when considering the whole electromagnetic spectrum, most data is outside our visual range, so researchers receive it in numerical form. I asked whether, over time, interpreting this data becomes as straightforward as the visual interpretation that we all do habitually every day. One of the group suggested it’s like learning a foreign language – eventually you can think in this language.

I also had a discussion about how ideas progress and, from this meeting at least, it seemed that a theory often comes first (although in truth the process must be recursive). Then it’s a case of testing whether observed data supports that theory. Some of the Phd students present explained that when they want ‘telescope time’ they have to make a case to book this with a coherent proposal about what they are looking for. I also talked to one person a bit about the meeting point of process, of day to day work and its minutiae with the ambition of astrophysics to explain the universe – the bigger picture of discovery. Interestingly he said that, if you think too much about the big picture you will miss a lot of the detail. I can imagine trying to have both in mind at once, but one at the forefront of your mind and the other hovering in the background.

Holes in our heads (or a few erratic links)

I have been listening to some radio programmes from the archive of Mind Changers, a series about important case studies from the history of psychology. One episode told the story of Phineas Gage, a railway worker who, in 1848, survived a massive trauma when a tamping iron was shot through his head by an explosion. He suffered significant brain injury and became important for the study of neuroscience as people watched how his personality and characteristics changed.

One thing that struck me was that there isn’t definitive evidence/reporting on the impact of the accident. To some extent we don’t really know how it effected him. From his doctor there were some reports of him becoming disinhibited and swearing more often, but records are few. Some other reports on him were not written until 20 years later. There is the suggestion he joined a circus (or a kind of museum for curiosities) but other records indicate that he became a coach driver – a role for which you’d have to be quite self controlled.

The accident occurred at a time when people were starting to theorise that the brain had specialised areas, so some theorists wanted to use his story to illustrate how, when one area of brain destroyed, certain elements of personality/character are destroyed with it. Others thought that all areas of brain carried out all functions, so the fact that he survived and could still live adequately could equally be used to demonstrate this opposing theory.

The question of who is reporting an event and what they remember or what they prioritise also came to mind in two other instances this week. First another Mind Changers programme, about Sigmund Freud and his patient Dora. Freud believed Dora was telling the truth in her account of how her father had offered her to his friend in exchange for the continued sexual favours of the friend’s wife. But Freud was only really interested in the truth of her story for his purposes, in order to prove his theory of infant sexuality. It is another case of selecting or shaping evidence for your own ends.

Taking the idea of reporting events and ‘truth’ in a slightly different direction, I went to see filmmaker Clio Barnard talk about her work. She described how for the film “The Arbor” she interviewed 2 sisters who remembered the same story of a fire in very different ways, one as a story of neglect and the other as a funny occurrence. This relates to memory and how we remember things based on both how we perceived something at the time but also things we imagine or reconstruct them subsequently. For Barnard, this leads to a question of how to depict such stories in film. Her work is concerned with the idea of ‘truth’ and the impossibility of a documentary film that really tells the truth. With another work Road Race, she asked what is more real? – a fiction film that mimics the way we focus our attention in on particular sounds or images, or a film as a document where all sound and vision is given equal weighting. The work depicts a pony and trap race in these two different styles with the result that neither gives access to the full event. Both methods have their limitations.

Reader respond

Last week I attended a workshop by Kate Briggs, a writer and artist who is currently undertaking a project as part of Leeds College of Art and Design’s “Library Interventions”. Kate’s current work is concerned with how we read books, with a particular (although not exclusive) interest in how individuals engage with novels. When we are not reading a book – when we’ve finished it, or when we have yet to pick it up – what is our relationship to it? Is it possible to hold something the length of a novel in mind, so as to truly know it? What aspects and influences from our own lives impact upon on how we read?

Kate Briggs' artwork, tracking her eye movements whilst reading "The story in it" by Henry James.

Kate Briggs’ artwork, tracking her eye movements whilst reading “The story in it” by Henry James.

These questions are to do with memory and emotional impact, but also relate to the idea of expertise. Kate wondered what it means to be an ‘expert’ on a literary form that is so difficult to retain in its entirety. She showed us 3 examples of her work that track her reading in different ways, variously recording acts of reading in terms of reading patterns or the emotional impact of books. She described these works as ‘methodologies;’ they could be repeated with other books or potentially by other people. Her first example involved noting the time and duration of her reading sessions. This included regular short reading sessions and longer periods over lunch time, about which she explained that she often read whilst her child was napping. This ‘extra’ information is not included in the transcription, but her personal anecdote perhaps demonstrates an interest not just in recording the act of reading, but in the lived context and emotive markers that surround it. The work is from a particular period in her life, indicating the routine that came along with it.

For another piece she worked with an experimental psychologist to track her eye movements whilst reading a short story by Henry James. Again her anecdotal explanation was interesting, that she met the psychologist for the first time when undertaking the reading and was initially self-conscious, constrained by the odd situation of sitting in a room, reading in silence with a stranger. The psychologist said that he could tell that the movements got more relaxed as she read, as if she was over-concentrating at first and then as she got more involved in the story, forgot her real world situation.

‘An exercise in pathetic criticism’ by Kate Briggs.

The final work she talked about – ‘An exercise in pathetic criticism’ – was inspired by Roland Barthe’s advocacy of a ‘pathetic criticism,’ criticism based on the moments of novels that affect us emotionally, that hold pathos. The work involved her talking to a range of people about their experience of reading the “Count of Monte Cristo,” and the bits that were impactful for them. She was surprised at the small volume of material that people described back to her, although the project also made her reflect on reading as a shared experience – knowledge of the same book meaning you can both inhabit the same imaginary space.

I haven’t read “The Preparation of the Novel” – Barthes’ text from which the idea of pathetic criticism is taken – but I have read “Camera Lucida.” It sounds like there is some similarity between the idea of the ‘punctum’ that Barthes advances there and the notion of pathetic criticism. Both are examples of Barthes’ focus on the reception of texts – the ‘birth of the reader’ – but rather than relying on focused, critical ‘reading’ of texts and images, they are concerned with the emotional impact of such representations.

The session made me think about the different ways that I read, on the kinds of attention that I give to books, whether for enjoyment or knowledge. For me reading novels is largely for enjoyment and I don’t think too hard about their structure, or attempt either to remember or critique them. As part of a book group I have realised how little I retain of books unless prompted by others’ recollections. It is perhaps the mood, or tenor of a book that stays with me, rather than its specifics. But are books qualitatively different from other experiences in how we remember them? Is it easier to retain an image-based artwork for example? At the start of the session Kate read a quote from Percy Lubbock on ‘The Craft of Fiction’; he made a distinction between books and sculpture or architecture. The latter he suggests are things that exist all at once (akin to the time/space distinction made by Lessing in relation to poetry/painting). But the whole group agreed that this distinction doesn’t really hold. We may also look at a sculpture or a building and retain just a sense of it, not the finer detail. First of all it depends on the initial attention you give to something when you perceive it and then to whether that perception is retained in memory.

I’ll be interested to see the outcome of Kate’s project. Because she is undertaking this in an art library she was beginning to think about whether we engage with art books differently from novels. There are potential differences perhaps, including books you use for reference vs. books for enjoyment, books you dip in to vs. ones you read from start to finish, books that are creative objects vs. books that document creative objects, books where images are an aid reading text, books where text is an aid to reading images, or books where text and images help to interpret one another equally.

Uncommon Ground

Landscape on Fire by Anthony McCall

On a visit to Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979, currently on show at Longside Gallery, Yorkshire Sculpture Park, I was reminded of the work of Keith Arnatt. On show are his works ‘Liverpool Beach Burial’ and ‘Mirror-lined pit (grass bottom)’ (1968). I recall seeing a similar piece of Arnatt’s work ‘Self Burial’ a few years ago at the Henry Moore Institute, although don’t remember if these two pieces were included in that exhibition too.

Exhibited alongside Arnatt was John Hilliard’s ‘Across The Park’ (1972) – a series of 4 pairs of photographs. The top image in each pair showed a man (presumably the artist) walking across the park. The bottom photograph was the same image but now with a wider crop, so the broader scene is revealed. The artist is following someone, holding a balloon or about to be hit over the head with a piece of wood.

I like both Arnatt’s and Hilliard’s work for its sense of humour. It documents slight or somewhat mundane actions (although burying lots of people, or yourself many times is perhaps not that slight if you think about the process!) The works are playful and they play with our perception. ‘A Walk in The Park’ demonstrates the limits of photographic truth and both artists explore the relationship between performative actions and documentation. I do like work by more ‘serious’ land artists such as Richard Long and Hamish Fulton, who are also represented in the exhibition, but I find them a bit earnest. So the daftness of Arnatt and Hilliard is appreciated.

Another piece in the exhibition that employs quite a dead-pan, repetitive structure but tinged with risk, is ‘Landscape on Fire’ (1972) by Anthony McCall. People in white boiler suits walk around the landscape setting fire to a series of bowls/mini beacons that must be filled with petrol or similar, arranged in a grid shape. They intermittently set off loud hailers and flares. Filmed in the darkening dusk, it is quite evocative with the smoke filled atmosphere, flickering light and noise making me think variously about camping trips, burning moorland, industrial landscapes where you might see chemicals being burnt off from chimneys and of light formations used to guide planes to land. It also brought to mind a more recent film work by Sutapa Biswas. ‘Magnesium Bird’ (2004). Filmed at Harewood House, it shows pieces of magnesium being ignited in series. My overwhelming memory of the film is of the light and smoke and the camera movement as it panned across the scene at an angle low to the ground. I had forgotten the soundtrack of children playing and feint figures in the background evident from a clip of the work available online. (N.B. clips of both ‘Magnesium Bird’ and ‘Landscape on Fire’ can be viewed on the website using the links above. Clips are in the right hand menu).

I don’t think Biswas’ work was specifically devised in relation to its being filmed in a Capability Brown landscape, but it leads me to mention that over the summer I will be making a landscape intervention work with Pavilion at Whitley Beaumont in Kirklees. This is a landscape with equivocal attribution to Capability Brown and forms part of a series of commissions exploring lost Brown landscapes. Although I haven’t started working on it yet, the question of what I might do is sitting in the back of my mind. So the exhibition of land art was perfectly timed to spark some ideas.

Glasgow International

I recently visited Glasgow International festival and particularly enjoyed some of the film and video works. Here is a round up. (N.B. I didn’t take any photos myself so have nicked images from various places on the internet to illustrate, sources are given under each image)

Rasberry Poser by Jordan Wolfson (2014. Image from:

First, Jordan Wolfson. I’d seen images of his work ‘Rasberry Poser’ (2014) online and hadn’t liked the look of it – something about the aesthetic of his cartoon images overlaid on swish, domestic interiors. So I wasn’t excited to see his work, but I really enjoyed searching it out in the McLellan Galleries. The exhibition was very well installed within this historic building. ‘Rasberry Poser’ was my least favourite of his piece, partially because of its slick, sickly aesthetic accompanied by blaring pop music, but also because it has a somewhat sprawling structure. The other exhibited works were much shorter or had a predictable, repetitive structure. ‘Perfect Lover’ (2007) consisted of a speaking cartoon bird, counting hours, superimposed on a footage of a forest. It was installed in the disused ladies toilets and projected at a small scale. I found this slight, looping film piece amusing and engaging.

Perfect Lover by Jordan Wolfson, 2007. Image: Alan McAteer from The Guardian,

Perfect Lover by Jordan Wolfson, 2007.Image by Charlie Porter from:

Contrasting ‘Perfect Lover’, an Untitled work from 2012 was projected large scale on a freestanding screen. It showed slowed down footage of a hand manipulating a decorated claw (a lobster claw I think), reminiscent of painted sea shells and Victoriana curiosities. The claw is bound by a ribbon and at first the image printed on it is obscured by a hand that moves in and slowly cuts the ribbon. When the ribbon is cut and the hand withdraws it shows a pornographic image of a naked young man. Then the whole cycle begins again with a different but similar claw, so perhaps if I had stayed long enough there would be a whole series of claws. What appealed to me about this work was the incongruity of the object and the action, which was quite meditative to watch. So it seemed both quite aggressive and gentle at once and could be taken as a metaphor for breaking something, for literally penetrating or for figuratively doing so in terms of breaking a taboo.

Untitled, by Jordan Wolfson (2012). Image by Charlie Porter from:

Upstairs in the same building I encountered the work of Charlotte Prodger. She was showing a whole-room installation, interesting in terms of its display. It included a narrated sound work, also presented as a transcribed text, that acted as the soundtrack for images and footage shown on 3 monitors. Facing in different directions, you had to walk around the room to watch the different sections/images as they came on screen.

work by Charlotte Prodger, 2014. Image from:

However, in terms of artwork content, the piece of Prodger’s work that interested me most was displayed more subtly on a single, small monitor in the gallery’s landing area. It was a work called ‘Compression Fern Face.’ On screen a rotating geometric shape and alongside this an audio narrative recounts video/performance work by an artist referred to as “D.O.” The narrative describes a series of videos, as if watching them, although I presume the artist and videos are fictional. The work described is reminiscent of that by artists such as Vito Acconci and Dan Burden, produced in 70s. Some of them involved squashing ferns into different body parts. I found it funny in a dead-pan way. (Update: since writing the above I’ve discovered that D.O. is Dennis Oppenheim and the video refers to actual works he did, somehow this didn’t click, even though I’ve only recently seen his work at the Henry Moore Institute).

Echt by Bedwyr Williams, 2014. Image from:

So, now to my favourite venue of the whole festival, Tramway. The gallery was showing two brilliant exhibitions by Bedwyr Williams and Micahel Smith. Williams’ ‘Echt’ was an absolute joy to watch, very exuberant and visceral and good fun whilst being simultaneously incredibly dark and close to the bone. A dystopian fantasy tells of a society where social order has broken down and the people now in charge are those who have hoarded the most stuff. They ‘rule’ their inferiors from abandoned club/discotheque buildings with aggressive bouncers who have over developed facial muscles (from face building as opposed to body building). There was so much going on within the work that it’s hard to summarise but I was particularly taken by the idea and visual representation of the new ‘kings’ and ‘queens’ who show their status by wearing layers and layers of clothing – stacks of cardigans making them hunch backed, caps piled high on their heads. I also can’t shake the image of former councillors and property developers being walled up to die in model bungalow sarcophagi with their heads still visible through mini conservatories. The eerie atmosphere of the work was compounded by its display within a large, dark gallery space entered via a tree lined path but then empty save for the projection and an apparently abandoned coach with its baggage strewn out across the floor.

Echt by Bedwyr Williams, 2014Image: Alan McAteer from The Guardian,

There’s similarly a lot to say about Michael Smith’s work. There was probably about 8 separate video pieces being screened as part of his exhibition, spanning his career. So I’ll just write about my favourite. A newish work, I think, although I cannot find the title/details of it now. It showed the artist in multi-pocketed coats, repeatedly taking items (phone, wallet, glasses, sunglasses) from the pockets, fiddling with them, rearranging them, returning them. He looked perpetually anxious and I have to say it resonated with how I sometimes feel doing a wallet/phone/keys/train ticket check between the various pockets in my coat and bag. Smith is an artist who I didn’t know about before and I’m really pleased to have made the acquaintance of his work. Just to give you a little bit more of a taster, other videos involved disco dancing and ghosts. What more could you want?!

A Parlay

IMG_0070Last week I launched my new artists’ book ‘A Parlay’ at Leeds Art Gallery. The book is the outcome of a rather longer than expected project that I started just under a year ago. I’ve written about it already in a few previous posts but to re-cap, the content of the book came from a series of conversations I had with individuals at Leeds Art Gallery about the sculpture ‘Atom Body Was Light,’ 1964 by the artist Liliane Lijn. As well as the book I designed 2 new print works, printed by the The Print Project.

IMG_0076I must say thanks to everyone who came to the launch and supported the project. I really enjoyed the event. I also had a bit of a light bulb moment whilst I was talking to the audience who came along. A few days before I had heard an episode of ‘One to One’ on radio 4 in which a Jewish woman who was a feminist but accepted a lesser role for women in her religious life interviewed an older woman about her views one the subject. She was using this older woman, an experienced lawyer and a very successful professional, as a proxy for exploring her own views. Suddenly I realised that the artwork I chose – Lijn’s sculpture – has been a bit of a proxy for my own work. Of course the work I have made for this project has a visual affinity to Lijn’s work because it has been influenced by it. However, generally speaking, I think there is some similarity between my visual use of text and interest in arguably slightly obscure or not immediately apparent subject matter and this particular object that Lijn made in the 60s. I wonder, have I been thinking about value in general? Or have I really just been wondering all along about the value of what I do?!

IMG_0117 IMG_0124


5000 feet is the best

5,000 Feet is the Best by Omer Fast

After the moan of my previous post, I want to tell you about another film that I saw yesterday that worked brilliantly in a gallery screening setting. 5,000 Feet is the Best‘ by Omer Fast is currently on show at the Imperial War Museum in London. The film is based upon interviews with an unmanned drone operator. Parts of it are extracts from an interview with the operator spoken in (or as if it’s in) his own voice. This is combined with images of the blurred out face of the operator (?) or aerial views of landscapes including Las Vegas (the glitzy hotel/casino part) and suburban residential areas. He speaks about his experiences including how clear one’s vision is of the area over which the drone is flying and about dealing with the fact of killing people, including the innocent. Interspersed with this ‘real’ interview there are staged scenes of a man in a hotel being interviewed. His interviewer sits there like a therapist, a journalist, or perhaps the artist filmmaker. The man being interviewed is acting as the ex-drone operator and also here is asked about his experiences but rather than answering the question directly he tells anecdotes.

One of the really clever things about Fast’s film is that this section loops but changes each time it does so. After the interviewee has told an anecdote something always interrupts the conversation (a phone ringing, or he needs to go for a cigarette). He leaves the room and when he returns the sequence begins again with the same questions. Each time the loop recurs (there are 4 loops if I remember rightly) the anecdote he tells is different. Sometimes it seems to relate more directly to the experience of war/being a drone operator and sometimes seems a bit more tangential. The anecdotes play with expectations of geography, race and the idea of being distanced from something or of playing a role.

I thought it was a great film in many ways and also really fantastic because the looping structure means you can walk into it from any point, start watching and it makes sense. Fast used the same strategy in the only other film by him that I have seen; ‘Continuity’ where a scenario involving a German family, whose son had been killed in Afganistan,  is also repeated and altered effectively conveying the trauma experienced by the family in a series of weird and disturbing scenarios.

Nasan Tur, Berlin Says

I should say that I don’t expect all films to loop and I do enjoy sitting through screenings of artists’ films, but I think it is about finding the exhibition format that is right for each work. This morning I watched a series of films at Whitechapel Gallery; ‘Artists Film International’ which included work of varying lengths but shown in an auditorium so you could happily sit through the whole screening of 75mins. The work here was really interesting too although I would have preferred to see Nasan Tur’s video ‘Berlin Says’ as a gallery installation. The video shows a man spraying slogans over each other onto a wall until the wall becomes obliterated by the words. To make the work easily watchable from start to finish, it included cross dissolves so you don’t get to watch it all in real time. I would have preferred it to be in real time in a gallery context where you could watch as much as you wanted and return to it repeatedly whilst looking around an exhibition. I guess it is possible that it does exist and has been shown in such a format too and that the version I watched has simply been edited for show reel type screenings.

Word. Sound. Power.

Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Larsen Still from Arise 2013

It’s a bit of a bug bear of mine when long films are exhibited in gallery settings; films designed to be watched from start to end. I find it especially annoying when the screening times are not stated but even when they are, long-from films in galleries are irritating. Yesterday I went to see the exhibition ‘Word. Sound. Power.’ at Tate Modern and several exhibited works were long. I didn’t take a note of the durations, but from memory there were 5 works ranging between 20 mins and 1 hour each.

For all I know these works might be really good, but I will probably never find out. Not only were they long, they were largely exhibited on monitors with just a couple of seats and headphones. I felt obliged to move on anyway by all the other visitors hanging around waiting to get their bums on the limited seating.

I ended up feeling unfulfilled, as if I hadn’t properly seen the exhibition. This is a real shame, and it’s a shame that I am writing about this situation rather than about the artwork. So, to talk briefly about the artwork – and this is a thought which is provisional, that I’m not totally resolved about – I felt that the exhibition was a strange mix of works that considered the more formal and physical/material aspects of language and works which alternatively focused on specific language forms (poetry, hip hop) as creative formats that can identify or unite particular communities of users and/or be used as a means of resistance.

Caroline Bergvall Crop 2010 © Steve Shrimpton 2010

In the first camp was work by Caroline Bergvall; ‘Voice’ and ‘Crop’ used word play to evoke the physical and audio qualities of speech. The longer films tended to fall into the latter camp with, for example, ‘Arise’ by Nikolaj Bendix Skyum Lasen focusing on young men in New Delhi who were finding meaning in their lives and potentially challenging their social and class position through getting involved in dance and rap. I can’t do this film justice because I watched hardly any of it but it seems there was a different formal language at play in this and the other longer documentary style films as compared to the more installation based works. Were it not for Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s ‘The Whole Truth’ and ‘Conflicted Phonemes’ the exhibition would have seemed strangely split down the middle. Abu Hamdan’s works were by far my favourite pieces in the exhibition.

Conflicted Phonemes by Lawrence Abu Hamdan

‘Conflicted Phonemes’ used a large wall diagram to depict the scale and geography of migration both within and from Somalia since 1972 (when somali became an official language with a writing system). Alongside this were forms/A4 print outs detailing the cases of individual Somali asylum seekers in the UK who had their claims for asylum rejected due to accent analysis suggesting they did not come from south Somalia as claimed. The work showed how situations of war and famine have led to multiple regional influences on people’s speech. Abu Hamdan’s other work ‘The Whole Truth’ included a video of a line graph – its red line indicating various degrees of truth or lie – that was viewed in mirror, so you also watched yourself watching it. The soundtrack was made up of interviews with people including (according to the exhibition guide) software developers, anthropologists and entrepreneurs of the biometric industry talking about voice based lie detectors. I also noticed some audio taken from UK news programmes about such software being used by benefits agencies. Both works successfully explored how the audible and material aspects of voice have social and political ramifications.

What is art about?

Another preview page from forthcoming artists' book.

Another preview page from forthcoming artists’ book.

A few more thoughts and comments that haven’t made it directly into the final book. This time on the role of art.

First in response to the particular object (Lijn‘s sculpture):

It’s a questioning object, opening up other things to think about rather than an aesthetic inspirational object.

I don’t think you’re supposed to know what it is. We don’t know what things are in life.

First thoughts. It’s obscure. I am going to betray some prejudices…I think it’s too easy to be obscure, so I am sceptical.

It’s a question then of whether it works to create some impression in the observer that has some emotional impact. And I am not sure it does, in me at least.

…about the role of art in general:

I think it’s necessary. It’s not life or death necessary, but you can see people coming together. 

We should have the attitude that art, science and literature should be part of everybody’s life. If not practicing you should at least have ability to look at it and enjoy regularly.

The first thing a work of art asks is “do you like me or do you not like me?” The second is: “why do you like me, why do you not?” It’s easy to ignore the second question but it’s hard to ignore the first.

If art’s only for one thing it’s for thinking. If it makes people think then it’s got to be good.

We can say all sorts of fancy stuff about art but it’s about having something good to look at or listen to, to smell or to chew.

Art definitely has a monetary value, overinflated. But there are various values in society, the making of art helps with mental issues. People make things and it releases something. Also there’s value in creating dialogue.

To me I would value the emotional aspect of it. What I don’t like is the art world of pretence and rather showy stuff that goes on because it’s exclusive and elitist and all that sort of thing.

People create works for a variety of reasons. One of them is purely personal. That they have a strong desire to create stuff, express something personal or about the outside world and knowledge they have about how things work. Sometimes they’re trying to make a statement. Sometimes it’s purely an element of wanting to create something really beautiful or stunning that sticks in people’s minds.

Art can be functional, it can be public benches, it can be wallpaper, utensils or furniture. Or it can be Henry Moore sculpture, something that’s completely not functional that’s interesting or nice to look at. Maybe not even nice to look at. It’s there and it’s making a statement.

I don’t necessarily make the distinction between art and design, I can see beauty in a lot of the things around us.

and some thoughts about the accessibility of art, or lack of.

I’ve lived in Leeds for 10 years in Leeds, but only stepped into the gallery 2 or 3 times. I find that a bit sad. I am frequently in the area but there’s nothing to draw me in.

I will pass this place way more times than I come in, I am ashamed to say whole exhibitions come and go and don’t pop head in door.

We’re always wanting people to come in to art spaces who feel very uncomfortable and don’t feel they belong….The whole process so negative in terms of inviting people in who don’t understand white cube spaces.

Art has become far too esoteric….the rationale behind paintings you can’t understand unless you read up about it. It’s a ridiculous situation where you’ve got a painting but a lengthy explanation….I think art is about emotional impact and if you make it too intellectual you loose something.

I think it’s financially driven…I’d like to see art handled better in terms of corporations that just slap bits of sculpture in their entrance annoys me and councils who spend an inordinate amount of money on something that’s uninspiring. I think there could be better ways.