Something is happening in UK politics and conviction is giving way to self-expression. The Labour Party has drifted so far to the centre that tribal supporters are at least free to vote with their hearts. And if they live in Surrey Heath (Southern England) or Hackney South and Shoreditch (London), they can even vote for contemporary artists. That creative presence on the ballot paper tells us that the 2015 General Election has more to do with making points than handing out mandates to either of the two main parties.
The sitting MP in Surrey Heath is a one Michael Gove, a visual gift to satirical cartoonists but a blight on the nation’s schools. The former Secretary of State for Education has got deserved flak for downgrading art, music and drama in UK classrooms. Considering art is one of Britain’s more successful exports you wonder about the wisdom of this. The attack appears ideological, and so his longstanding opponent, artist Bob and Roberta Smith, certainly will be.
Smith, a single confusingly-named candidate, has the bit between his teeth. He has political form, having organised a 2013 conference for the Art Party. And campaign tactics include poster design, personable conversation and psycho-geographical rambles. Given that it is just five years since Gove won here with 57 percent of the vote, Smith has a losing battle on his hands. But losing battles may be all we have left at the ballot box.
Just ask Gordon Shrigley, who is standing in East London without a single policy to his name. The blankness of his campaign slate is not just refreshing, it’s a powerful critique of all government and especially this five-yearly circus in which the public are first wooed and then betrayed. As Shrigley says, “I have nothing to offer, but offer itself”. That’s honest expression, and perfect for 2015.
The fact is that in UK politics the battle lines have been redrawn to include a smaller parties, and even lone voices. Thanks to social media and digital alternatives to the mainstream media, artists and ideologues alike can amplify their voice and enjoy greater visibility than ever before. Whatever the results on May 7th, Smith and Shrigley will have pulled off viable artistic projects. With little to lose, and little alternative, why not vote for an artist?
Recent months have seen the emergence of the phrase ‘career politician’ as a pejorative phrase. So the stage is really set for lone idealists and single issue candidates to come forward and show, or at least point towards, what politics could look like in an age of real democracy. Let professional spin, party discipline and self-interested party donors go hang.
To prove the value of expressive politics, one needn’t look far. My local constituency is Brighton Pavilion on the South Coast. In 2010 we elected the UK’s first Green Party MP and few would contest the fact that our subsequent representative, Caroline Lucas, has been one of the bravest and most effective voices in parliament. She has given us a say on drugs laws, fracking and nationalisation. Greens may never form a majority government, but they get my vote as the greater of various goods, rather than the lesser of two evils.
It is intriguing to wonder if, given a hundred year’s worth of hindsight, there are dealers working today who might earn, by way of tribute, a major show at the National Gallery. Such has been the case for Paul Durand-Ruel (1981-1922), the Parisian art mogul who brought Impressionism to the notice of the world.
NG visitors can see for themselves how Durand-Ruel not only ‘invented’ Impressionism, but arguably did the same for the art market as we know it today. The dealer was responsible for innovations in marketing and market manipulation. It is even said that he invented the solo retrospective. Today we wouldn’t think twice about seeing a Monet show, but when the French painter was still alive, it was harder for some to countenance.
Along with Monet, the dealer can lay claim to have discovered Pissarro, Renoir and Degas. And he once lamented that he lacked the funds to buy up every last piece by Manet (haven’t we all), firmly confident that this shocking new painter would repay his investment: “In fifty years they will sell for fifteen or twenty times more,” said the oft-called prophet of Impressionism.
Numbers alone tell a story. In his custody at one time or another were some 1,500 Renoirs, 1,000 Monets and 800 paintings by Pissarro. The Musée d’Orsay owes nearly 100 of its Impressionist stock to the dealings of Durand-Ruel and the National Gallery in London owns 40 of his previous sales. In the US, meanwhile, renowned collector Albert Barnes wrote to the French dealer with the words, “My collection is practically an annex of your business”.
The current show is well staged with a lot more drama than you might expect from a dry lesson in art history. Visitors can enter by way of the dealer’s New York branch, a black and white photo of which fills the lobby. Then once inside he or she will find a partial recreation of Durand-Ruel’s well-populated sitting room. Later in the exhibition is a room devoted to the innovative Monet show and another which takes a major London show as its theme.
So what of the artwork? Well, sexed up by the wheeling and dealing, it is more fresh and exciting than any show about a 19th century moment has any right to be. There are family portraits by Renoir, pastoral scenes by Pissarro and trademark poplars by Monet. In one especially thrilling corner, one finds an oil sketch for Manet’s great masterpiece Bar at the Folies-Bergère.
Manet is well represented, a still life here, a portrait there. But what’s this… a naval battle? In 1864 the French master painted a duel between the U.S.S. Kearsage and the C.S.S. Alabama. As most will be aware this was a moment from the American civil war. But curiously, these ships engaged off the coast of Normandy in North France. In 1886 A New York critic commented that it was “so grand in its treatment of the water that it makes us forget the ships”.
If that scene appears off kilter, it is next to nothing compared with those of the dealer’s other great investment, Edgar Degas. Whether of ballerinas or race horses, these works might just have been the toughest sell of all. Paintings with no central focus still challenge the eye today. Yet somehow, thanks to that, and to the generally polite picture making of the time, we know we gaze upon genius. But what is most remarkable is that Ruel-Durand knew it as well so long ago.
So yes, it makes you wonder if we’ll see his like again. An even better question might be to ask, when faced with today’s market, what would Ruel-Durand do?
Inventing Impressionism is at National Gallery, London, until May 31. The show travels to Philadelphia Museum of Art from June 24 – September 13 2015.
If Internet killed the video star, this minimal techno video could be Exhibit A. There is a hint of cityscapes, fish shoals, and cell groups. But the work of visual artist Joëlle is as slippery as the music it serves. No song, as such, and certainly no starring musicians.
Instead we have a work that gives form to data, as it throbs, scatters and murmurates all around us. Joëlle is among those artists making sense of the ever evolving technoscape, and there is little idealistic about this project. The static and grit which characterise this track and her film could, like high frequency trading, be lethal.
Joëlle was up for an interview with Bad at Sports, fielding half a dozen questions over email. Apart from the discovery she does have a surname, the impersonal exchange, with its gaps and disconnects, was at one with the mystery of her four-minute film, which you can watch below.
Tell me a bit about your process, and the technology, in layperson’s terms.
I start by listening to the music over and over to get a feeling and sense of the atmosphere and to discover what aspects resonate with me.
Then starts a period of experimentation. I generally have an idea of what software and tools I will use, and in this instance I used After Effects with Trapcode Form, Mir and Sound Keys for the audio reactive animation and landscape environments, as well as Quartz Composer to do some post processing on the video.
Sound Keys provides you with an audio spectrum where you can select parts of frequencies and link that frequency data to parameters.
Form is a very powerful particle system that has many properties, an awesome feature being the the ability to drive a number of parameters such as displacement, disperse, fractal field etc. with an audio layer.
Mir allows your to create procedural animations of organic flowing 3D surfaces and abstract shapes.
Quartz Composer is a node-based visual programming language which I used to add real time glitch and Rutt-Etra [a 1970s video synth] effects to some of the rendered movies.
The process is iterative and often unpredictable, as I like to relinquish some control to the software. I spend some time tweaking values and seeing how the audio creates something visual within the constraints and parameters I’ve defined. At some point it starts to take shape into something that makes sense with how I feel when listening to the music.
What’s your working relationship with Killawatt and to the music?
It’s been quite collaborative, he has a pretty clear idea of what he likes, visually. And our taste is similar. I’d send him stuff and he’d tell me which bits he was feeling.
What’s the most challenging aspect of making a video like this?
I think the initial phase of immersion, in the music or track, is the most challenging, only in the sense that there is a blank canvas, which is always the most difficult part of any project, until I see something in my mind’s eye – if that makes sense. Once that’s resolved mentally, everything usually flows, the other challenges would be be on the more technical side of things.
Which visual artists or art historical trends have influenced you the most?
Ali Demirel, Universal Everything, Carsten Nicolai, AntiVJ, Ryoichi Kurokawa and Kazimir Malevich. I also love Pinterest.
What types of music do you most like to work with?
The darker, melancholic, abstracted, minimal, sometimes aggressive side, no cheese. I love rolling, deep and dark sounds, music that takes me on a journey.
What are the advantage of music biz style management through Derelicht?
Aside from the support, it’s great having someone push and promote your work, that has a bit more industry know-how, and can help discover opportunities in areas I am interested in.
How does music videos sit within your wider practice?
It’s a continuation and expression of my ongoing interest in sound and form and how they compliment one another and relate to each other.
Music video is often called an art form. Why is it rarely called pure art?
Perhaps because a video is influenced by the music and other elements, and could be seen as commercialised art… or made for promotional or marketing purposes, which it often is. I suppose it depends on the intention in the first place, personally I’m not one for the analysis of things like this…
Thank you, Joëlle.
The current political differences between Moscow and Kiev seem intractable. But it remains true that both governments have an interest in cultivating sustenance. Both governments need to eat.
A new London show by Ukrainian artist Nikita Kadan revolves around a vegetable patch. Well-cared for lettuce and herbs grow in a square yard of rich, dark soil. The sight is nourishing, a stark contrast to the death toll of 5,000 killed since fighting began in 2013.
But there’s more to this installation than plantlife. Straddling the small plot is a three-panel display stand designed to celebrate Soviet agricultural planning. Unimpressed by the memory, Kadan leaves off the sloganeering. The boards are blank.
“I combine my works from, let’s say, confronting elements quite often,” Kadan tells me from Kiev via Skype.
“I use forms from Soviet neomodernism often and somehow they represent this gap between having a Soviet era project and . . . then doing things for purposes you understand, not as part of any ideological programme.”
You don’t need to look far to find a response. A slide carousel projects images of protest from the capital’s Independence Square, a pro-EU gathering which came to be known as the Euromaidan.
Here too they are growing food, albeit shabbily. Patches of greenery break out between makeshift tents. They indicate that non-Soviets can also sustain themselves. Supporters of European alliance can also reap a cabbage or two.
Programme or no programme the Maidan could claim a famous victory when in Feburary 2014, then president Yanukovych fled the Ukraine.
But the incumbent government was just as uneasy about the lively protest camp on their doorstep. Kadan recalls them wanting “a normal square,” but persistent occupiers of the Maidan saw a chance to create what might be “an instrument of permanent control of power”.
If Kiev was changed by events in its main square, so too were those who came to spend time there. “There was an experience of unity and an experience of violence and these were experiences which transformed us very much,” says Kadan.
The politics of the Maidan were eclectic; it encompassed liberals, leftists, and nationalists. So the artist reports back on a phenomenon of “postponed questions” which allowed the camp to resist outside aggression. Over 48 hours last February there were some 77 people killed in clashes with police and security.
So the vegetation at Waterside Contemporary is as much a memorial as it is a utopian proposal. And in the midst of the square’s garden, a mournful cross reminded passersby that this was a statement as well as a food source. “We have roots in the soil,” as Kadan puts it.
It is sad and predictable that the Maidan was in August destroyed. But that just makes this show in East London all the more luminous.
“What is happening in Ukraine is very untransparent,” says the artist. “It has to be analysed, researched, described, and somehow we need to make a step out and look at this from a certain distance.”
So the history of the Maidan can now begin to grow, much like the faded crops which creep around the blasted and pockmarked city in Kadan’s optimistic collage, as seen on the surrounding walls.
These need little political knowledge to read as a celebration of gardening over military power. Even tanks can be stopped, but plantlife never; guerrilla gardening remains a lot less contentious than guerrilla warfare.
When asked about the London context for his work, Kadan says: “I don’t consider it as an act of cultural diplomacy between Ukraine and Western Europe.” It’s not, he insists, cultural journalism. His square yard of crop cultivation is more personal than that.
“It’s maybe something between what happened in Ukraine, and in the world, and in me. So I think about such a constellation.”
And so from the earth to the stars, Kadan has revealed a poetry of resistance, an idea which travels well, even as it anchors a people to their public space.
Nikita Kadan: Limits of Responsibility is at Waterside Contemporary, London, until April 4 2015
Shipping containers may be the very apparatus of globalism, but in South London they have come to rest in the community. Recycled and refurbished with windows, light and double power points, it is hoped they will create Brixton’s newest and most creative destination.
Based at a former ice rink, Pop Brixton aims to provide a home for start ups, creative businesses, events, workshops, cafes and local retail outlets. It may look to some like retail mall BoxPark in Shoreditch, but a localist focus promises a completely different agenda.
After all, shopping BoxPark for trainers, you are unlikely to stray across many artists in residence. Pop Brixton, on the other hand, is planning to invite not one but two artists to reside with them in the first twelve months of operating.
There are other social-minded touches, which spokesperson Valentina Fois told me about via phone earlier in the week. At their own expense, architects Carl Turner are giving work and training to apprentices from Lambeth College.
Meanwhile the brief for signage has gone to students at nearby Camberwell College of Art. “The plan is they’re going to come on site. We’re going to work with them. We’re going to be very close and support them as much as we can,” says Fois.
As such it will be one of the few places an undergrad in graphic design can learn how to fit out a shipping container, or even how to market a successful local enterprise. They may also get to use containers for community events, prompting unprecedented levels of student/civilian interaction.
Fois recaps the project origins: “Last year Lambeth Council held an open call to regenerate the site on Pope Road in Brixton. Carl Turner Architects submitted a proposal and won it.”
“It wasn’t in use for a very long time and it wasn’t very nice,” she adds. “But it’s not just about the aesthetic. It didn’t have any purpose. It didn’t serve anyone, let alone the community, for sure.”
When she’s not promoting urban regeneration projects, Fois is also a gallerist and digital curator. So it was imperative to ask her about the differing worlds of art and creative business. “Okay, that’s a tricky one,” she laughs.”I don’t divide the two.”
“Well, when I think about art I don’t think about ‘Art’, as such, like as a temporary world detached from the rest. So, I always consider art as such a mixture of sound, and, it could be cinema. It could be everything really.”
“I don’t see much difference between working on an art project and a project like this, because the two things can be combined,” she continues. Her artists in residence and signage briefs are a case in point. And so vital are Pop Brixton plans, TEDx Brixton has recently shown an interest, which Fois is thrilled about.
“This is a 3-year project so it is very hard to generate a substantial profit from it in such a short amount of time,” she says. “That’s one of the things we really want to make sure people understand. It is easy to assume that the project is lead by another big developer who wants to gentrify the area, but this is not the case. CTA is an architectural company interested in place making”.
The plans, at least, for the site on Pope Road look green and idyllic. And Brixton, which has changed a lot in recent years, hardly needs the helping hand of gentrification.
Fois concludes that Carl Turner the lead architects are more interested in people than profits. “I know it’s going to sound a little bit naive,” she says.
“But the way they work in architecture is to create spaces for people which really mean something, that can engage with the community and change the way people perceive the common space”.
It would seem art and enterprise, like globalism and localism, can indeed pop up together. Let us see how the rapprochement goes.