of the avant-garde
and Asian Visual Artists Archive
One Ever Suddenly Became Depraved
in the Web
láidire, i nglór íseal
Return of theReal: The Avant-Garde at the End of the Century Hal Foster
Manufactured Mass Culture; Julian Stallabrass
Robert M. King
experimental CD releases
and Videos in Paris
No Success Like Failure
Gr. sykophantes, usually said to mean one who informed against persons
exporting figs from Attica or plundering the sacred fig trees; but more
probably one who made rich men yield up their fruit (lit. to show a fig)."
that Would Not Die
This is a collection
of some of the responses sent to the Scottish Arts Council (SAC) by our
readership, provoked by the withdrawal of Variant's funding which resulted
in its closure. They are arranged here to represent a glimpse of the concerted
effort in lobbying which was independently undertaken by a wide range of
individuals and groups. In this case their efforts were ignored. The immediate
question which arises from this (and other similar cases), would have to
ask whether the SAC are in any way responsive to the opinion of the art
community: given that they have openly defined themselves as not a 'democracy,'
does this then mean that they are autocratic? What form should our approaches
to them take--sychophancy?
This is something
of an unusual--in that such a gathering would never normally have such exposure--but
ever present and powerful combination of viewpoints. They have been edited
down to focus on each individual's attempts to identify very real, yet
unaddressed concerns. Although their concentration centred on Variant's
plight, the predicament revealed still resonates strongly with the present
climate. They have also been presented to provide a tentative model of
what kind of concerted effort could be made, in the pages of this magazine
to monitor and cast light on the activities of funding bodies in determining
This is not
a gossip column; it should be stressed that it is the issues which the
individuals raised which is of importance here, most of the glowing tributes
given to the magazine and its then editor, Malcolm Dickson, have been omitted.
A collection such as this, represents a valid survey of opinion, possibly
in a more natural form than the traditional survey, since the responses
were unsolicited, and given that the writers were also free to express
their own opinions rather than presented with a multiple choice. It also
gives a practically unheard of insight into how the SAC themselves are
viewed. Taken as a whole, what perhaps emerges--bearing in mind that a great
deal of the individuals below have 'inside knowledge'--is that a large number
of people were convinced that something underhand took place, that this
constituted an abuse of power, that the decision was unjustifiable and
that funding should be restored to the magazine. In closing it should be
pointed out that the 'substantial increase' referred to by the SAC was
£5,000 and that they received full copies of these, many other letters
and other forms of protest. Despite the disingenuous tone of their reply
(which was identical for each individual) the SAC must be fully aware that
this type of action towards them constitutes not just a reliable cross
section of opinion by the Scottish arts community, but an undeniable expression
of their will.
to letters of support for Variant, from prominent critics and artists,
SAC officers stated that it was not considered vital to the infrastructure
of Scottish art."
survived resolutely for many years now in conditions which have left many
arts organisations in a state of financial ruinorganisations that
have subsequently been kept afloat by means of additional Arts Council
funding. To pull the rug from under the feet of Variant at this stage is
a truly short-sighted act of cultural vandalism..."
to produce four issues in the forthcoming year, Variant required a substantial
increase in its grant. After much discussion and consideration of the magazine's
value, the Committee decided, in relation to other priorities, not to recommend
this increase. Without an increase a continuation of the current grant
of £21,000 would only have guaranteed two issues. The Committee decided
that it could not justify continued funding on that basis..."
Nairne in reply to the above
support this decision. You may have other ideas about publications from
Scotland, but with Alba gone and now Variant it does seem perverse."
now be no focus for the debate and interchange of ideas that has been of
such importance to Scotland's growing development as a significant cultural
centre outside of London."
MA student body GSA
the various bodies with Scottish Arts Council support are of relative importance
in helping artists to gain access to showing their work in public, it seems
to me that there must also be a platform for consistent and considered
critical debate on the general state of the arts. Any art scene worth its
name would expect not one but a number of regular publications working
to fulfil this very necessary function. That Scotland is lacking or being
denied this essential critical facility must be a sad reflection on how
seriously we take the intellectual and ethical role of art in Scottish
Talbot Rice Gallery
of critical debate is crucial to the well-being of any culture and any
decision which makes critical debate less easy to engage in is, in my view,
to be deplored."
MA PhD LCAD,
particularly ironic that at a time when serious coverage of innovative
visual arts in the national media is shrinking (even the Guardian now seems
to have a policy of restricting its regional coverage to 'major' exhibitions)
our specialist press is finding it increasingly difficult to command the
support of its natural allies within arts funding... The majority of publications
we subscribe to are quickly digested, often offering an unappetising fare
of overlong interviews, unfocussed reviews, art gossip and dull layout."
barometers the arts industry will not be able to pace itself nor place
itself within the rest of society: financially or culturally."
In House Video
"A chief factor
in Variant maintaining and consolidating its reputation has been its independence
from fashionable mainstream art thinking; not functioning merely as a curmudgeonly
critical tool, but rather attempting to contextualise many different cultural
facets in an intelligent and considered way."
"I know from
experience that it is virtually impossible to publish an art journal quarterly
without substantial financial backing... I'll bring you up to date on what
damage an earthquake can do to an arts organisation."
Institute for the Arts
and education are the central aspects for the European Countries to survive
in the growing market of communication and visual communication in the
future. To form this future it is necessary to realise the change of paradigms
in society as well as to find new humanised approaches to technology."
Rotert, European Media Art Festival
"It is almost
as if I am witnessing the demise of the Arts magazines in Britain."
"Many of the
museums in Texas read Variant... it is an important tool for informing
spaces around the US about art activity in your region of the world. It
is an invaluable resource for finding out about new artists and ideas and
influences and which artists they invite to exhibit, perform and lecture.
To withdraw funding from such an important information source is like cutting
your head off while the body runs around in circles."
Plunkett, ND Magazine
financial strength of American film production and their influence in the
publishing industry, it is unreasonable to assume that independent magazines
could finance themselves on the free market. To the contrary: only because
the promotion and discussion of European films in magazines like Variant
is notoriously underfunded and underestimatedthus making efficient
work difficultmany "European" films do not get the attention they
deserve. On the other hand, the success of "American" films is often not
based on their superior quality but on well-equipped and financed promotional
organisations and a critical establishment which can afford to actually
write and think about films rather than spending most of their energies
on financial questions.
situation of independent European film is a result of a political and socio-cultural
attitude which considers every non-American production to be some sort
of difficult subtitled art movie. Watching film has become a crucial social
ability, a new kind of cultural literacy needing to be developed and supported
by professionals. I cannot believe that Scottish authorities have no interest
in cultivating a Scottish view on cinematography and film journalism."
Puntigam, Blimp Film Magazine
"As an arts
administrator yourself, you will be aware of the current trend towards
cross-artform interaction and collaboration, and that the creative potential
of such a trend depends absolutely on the awareness of the artists themselves
of activities not only within but also around their own discipline. It
is my opinion, speaking as a composer and performer, that the coverage
of a wide variety of activity in such a journal as Variant takes an essential
part in this process of fostering a more open attitude towards what artists
in the various disciplines are doing and perhaps might do next."
"I'm not sure
that any comments from me would actually help Variantbut it seems
like a recurring nightmare. To lose one magazine could be called unfortunate,
to lose two... Publications cost money. Either you want to support them
or you don't. The message from SAC is that it doesn't.
in SAC about supporting criticism and discussion should have happened before
delivering what could be the coup-de-grace to Variant. To timetable it
for later this year seems at best like a policy which is trying to catch
up with events."
Robinson, University of Ulster
most important thing to say is that the Committee was not 'against' Variant.
The problem was whether they could continue to offer support, in relation
to other priorities. Without going into detail about all the funding decisions
it is not possible to completely explain the decision...Taking up your
final point, I am not sure personally whether what we want is a glossy
magazine which only reaches a very small number of people. If magazines
are about encouraging debate perhaps they have to aim to attract a broader
visual arts readership than Variant aimed to attract, given its very specific
Nairne, in reply to the above
"I was really
very shocked by the withdrawal from Variant. You know what a fine publication
I've always considered it, way way above some of its English and European
counterparts in its scope and the quality of writing and philosophy."
Programme Director, Tramway
"As a director
of an international experimental and innovative Film and Video festival
I am daily confronted with this stupid kind of commercial thinking and
it needs a lot of time to convince foundation members and sponsors that
it is very important to support innovative and high-quality cultural projects
apart from the mainstream entertaining culture."
Settele, Viper, Switzerland
an aspect of cultural experience which is non-definitive, an open form,
where terms like, radical, visionary, self-determination, seem to be very
much less a thing of the past than they do when one is confronted with
the general depression and neurosis of everyday."
would agree that one important aspect of a magazine is to serve as a promotional
tool for the arts within the region it is based. At a future date, when
considering how the gap left by the inevitable demise of Variant is to
be filled, the SAC should not presume that a magazine can be nurtured into
existence by simply making money available. The quick demise of the relaunched
Alba and the failure of Hybrid illustrate the folly of this approach.
Art magazines emerge from, and are supported by a constituency. These are
the publications funders have the duty to support."
appear that for a small increase in funding, a vital publication would
have been secured that would continue to champion issues of arts development
and access. It is curious therefore, that issues of ACCESS and DEVELOPMENT
are highlighted in your 'charter for the Arts' policy document...
art institutions are not exactly models of accessibility... Increasingly,
the arts are being dictated to by a select few. This is a state of affairs
that would seem to contradict the SAC's strategies of Access and development.
And yet, through the decision to withdraw funding, you have denied opportunity
and restricted access to the arts...Variant reflected my, and many other
people's aspirations and hopes for the development of a new arts activity
which is grounded in community practice, rather than in the sales rooms
and commercial galleries."
decision in relation to Variant does not imply a lack of support or interest
in encouraging critical debate. However substantial future support for
a Scottish based visual arts magazine is unlikely unless it clearly addresses
issues and events central to the making, curating and appreciation of contemporary
art made or presented in Scotland. The question of art magazines is moreover
part of a wider debate about fostering intelligent criticism and discussion,
documenting exhibitions and projects, and encouraging both within Scotland
and abroad an increasing interest in the work of artists living in Scotland.
The Visual Arts Committee will be discussing this subject in detail later
in the year."
in response to the above
years ago I was approached by the ACGB and asked to submit a proposal for
a London-based live-arts magazine. The panel specifically mentioned that
they enviously took Variant for their model: Had the unwieldy machinery
by which ACGB and SAC communicate allowed it, I suspect they would simply
have put more money into Variant. My study for this proposal suggested
such a magazine was uneconomic, and it comes as no surprise to me to hear
that Hybrid, the eventual outcome of ACGB's plans, is now rumoured to be
rapidly sinking into debt. However, for a magazine to fail in today's market
is not a matter of blame or surprise. What is surprising, and worthy of
blame, is that bodies such as the SAC are apparently incapable of recognising
that they have before their eyes a flagship which has earned the respect
of both the most extreme of art-loathing anarchists and the trendiest of
ICA curatorsand all in between.
It is incomprehensible
to a person such as myself that you should now seek to undo the fine work
in which you have had so integral a role: it argues some sudden thick darkness
of mind on the part of SAC, indicative to outsiders of a demoralised and
gutless institution that is losing its sense of direction and purpose."
"The SAC may
be there to promote what it sees as mainstream culture, that is bringing
things in from outside, but it is also there to sustain and develop indigenous
talent and culture. You cannot force local culture to be something it is
grounds for not extending Variant's funding beyond its initial three years
was that it was 'unable to produce quarterly issues without significant
increase in support'. I would not seek to question the details of your
other funding decisions, although I note that no other revenue client has
effectively been abolished by you in this funding round.
would like to question your strategy. The visual arts, like any other area
of the arts, does not survive and grow by art works alone. It needs an
infrastructure, a vital part of which is one or more intelligent and critical
magazines which make connections between different works and different
fields. The benefits of such a magazine, as with all infrastructure, are
difficult to trace in detail, especially in the short term. But it is the
job of an arts strategy to address such infrastructural needs."
and note your comments about the need for magazines which make connections.
However, the committee's view was that in reading the magazine, because
of the specialist nature of most articles, it was actually very difficult
to make meaningful connections. The committee does not believe Variant
to be a primary part of the infrastructure of the dynamic visual arts constituency
in response to the above
in Scotland, and outwith, are aware that the city of Glasgow is burgeoning
with activity, and recognition has not been slow to come. This recognition,
as I see it, is based upon the fact that Scotland supports a broad practice
within its art community; and that Broad practice is made up of small pockets
of intense discussion and application... On the issue of a profile for
Scottish art/ideas within the international context: as a younger artist
I had to make a decision as to the prospects for a fruitful practise based
in Scotland. I, and many others, decided that it was worthwhile to remain,
or return to, this country as opposed to any other. It is honest for me
to say that this decision was encouraged by several individuals, institutions
and publications, if not by word of mouth, then in commanding respect for
the activities in which they were engaged. Malcolm Dickson and Variant
magazine were key elements, among others.
of the SAC's decision on Variant does nothing to encourage me for the future."
for 3 years on the Arts Council of Great Britain's Art Advisory Committee,
and an ACGB magazine review panel... I see no reason to compel a magazine
to quarterly deadlines for bureaucratic convenience."
of the cultural situation in this country has depended on the commitment
of groups and individuals who... have a remit based not on personal gain
but on ensuring the continuation of a healthy growth. It is extremely disheartening
to see this commitment so cruelly ignored. That the Council does not acknowledge
how their decision will adversely affect the kind of new initiatives required
to sustain the vitality of the arts in Scotland is baffling."
back to top
volume two of Variant, marking the re-launch of the magazine after a lengthy
absence. It must be something of a rarity for a magazine which was 'killed
off' to get the opportunity to discuss its demise; just like Tom Sawyer
and Huckleberry Finn we have turned up at our own funeral.
would like to thank all the many readers who wrote to the Scottish Arts
Council in protest against their decision. We have tried to summarise the
numerous issues brought up in some of the responses in the form of a letters
page, which has the additional function of providing a link with the past
and orienting our readership with the focus of the magazine. It will suffice
to say here that none of the carefully reasoned arguments put forward met
with anything like an appropriate response.
We have resurfaced
at a crucial yet not altogether unfamiliar point, which in the interim
period of our absence has witnessed this tendency to openly and routinely
consign independent and critical voices to silence, developed into something
approaching policy. From who's viewpoint will the history of the last two
years in the arts in Scotland be constructed, will it be from diverse sources?
Just as Variant's critical function had been defined as an urgent and diagnostic
one, offered from a position of autonomy from vested interests (rather
than operating as PR for the institutional art machine) it was targeted
for closure. Was it really such an irony? It is our aim to carry forward
Variant as a project with or without funding. As stated in the last editorial:
"For the establishment of a critical, engaging and diverse culture, lateral
links need to be made across media, and opinions need to be expressed and
Is it unreasonable
to assume that, earlier than in any other industrial country, British governments
began to make the avoidance of crises their first priority? That even before
the era of full sufferage they had discovered how to exercise the arts
of public management; extending the states power to assess, educate, bargain
with, appease or constrain the demands of the electorate? That they created
in Britain a political Gleichschaltung, and a financial Anstalt, subtle
and loose enough to be resented only by 'deviants' and 'minorities'; and
in which the challenges of Conservatism and Socialism were alike dispersed
in a common reformist policy justified by an unreal assessment of historical
limited resources we can sustain a much needed forum for debate based in
Glasgow, which can move through the forces exerted by the administration
of the arts in Scotland. It is our perception that the current climate
seeks to stifle any deviation from the cultural packaging and re-packaging
of a benign culture of entertainment. This imagined utopia, this "Disneyland
without the rides," is a product of the repressive prioritisation of public
funds which has become social Darwinism run wild. It is our intention to
challenge this emerging culture of denial and its attendant language of
competition, through debate and critical analysis.
In this, the
re-launch issue, we have taken the decision not to put a specific type
of exhibition review to the forefront, but rather take the opportunity
to focus on more critical/theoretical issues. Our initial plan is to produce
four magazines in the space of a year, each one expanding the possibilities
of what Variant has previously achieved. Variant has always been part of,
and aimed to represent ideas that are refused the hospitality of the would
be 'mainstream,' which itself represents and replicates the ideological
chastity of a tiny elite. With the new format comes a wider distribution
(possibly the highest of any comparable magazine in the UK) and a wider
readership; also the magazine is free!
back to top
96 (Running Out Of Time), International Festival of Live Performance
and Time Based Media, this year takes Skinny: Money/No Money as its theme.
From 5-25 October, at venues throughout Kingston upon Hull, Hull Time Based
Arts and The Ferens Art Gallery have challenged a group of international
artists to look at issues of money, power and people, using live performance,
video, film and sculpture. "Money is a national obsession: from the National
Lottery to European single currency. Skint asks as we head towards the
millennium, do we live in a society obsessed with cash or has a new generation
emerged recognising things as spiritually, ethically and materially bankrupt?"
Skint takes risks with the majority of the work being new commissions and
the unusual public siting of much of the work. ROOT 96 provides a platform
for artists and the public to debate the issues and aims to attract diverse
audiences by involving local people in the working processes. Sites: Eich
Gallery, Ferens Live Art Space, Ferens Art Gallery, Sewerby Hall, Warehouse
6 and public spaces throughout the city. Artists include: Kathy Rae Huffman,
Kaffe Mathews, Mandy McIntosh, Alan McLean, Tony Mustoe, Chumpton Apisuk,
David Mach, Jason E. Bowman, plus lots, lots more. Hot Weekend 1114
October. Skint Party at the Room.
For more information
contact: Mark Waddell Tel: 0141 357 3673 Fax: 0141 337 1369
have relaunched themselves as The Foundation For Art and Creative Technology
in a response to the growth of interest in artists working with new technologies,
and after eight years of promoting video and film. It will remain as a
development agency for artists and exhibitors, together with presenting
technology-based projects in partnership with galleries, museums and other
organisations. It now has four main divisions of activity. Video Positive:
which itself has evolved beyond a video festival into a 'technology based
cultural event,' the next of which will take place in '97, and actively
seek to take a critical position in relation to new technologies. MITES:
is their Moving Image Touring and Exhibition Service. The Collaboration
Programme: will act as a partnership broker between artists working with
technologies and non-professional interest groups. Projects and Touring:
will include a major international conference in '98, The International
Symposium on Electronic Art (in conjunction with Liverpool and Manchester
universities), which is billed as the largest electronic arts event ever
to be staged in the UK: "We will be taking as a theme for ISEA '98 the
idea and metaphor of revolution; from the industrial to the technical,
from the shifting political and information territories of the last ten
years, to the failure of the 'information revolution' to address the great
divide between the Northern and Southern hemispheres."
contact FFACT, as they are now known, at:
School Lane, Liverpool L1 3BX (+44(0)1517092663). Or find out further details
on their web site (http://www.fact.co.uk).
presents its 3RD International Festival of Film, Video and Media from
12th Oct to 10th Nov. For one dynamic month, exhibitions, installations,
and events will run at the following venues: the Glasgow Film and Video
Workshop, Street Level Gallery, Glasgow Museum of Modern Art (Fire Gallery),
Glasgow Film Theatre, java internet café and exhibition space, Tramway,
Project Ability. The core of the New Visions Festival '96 is the International
Zeitgeist--a series of programmes curated from open submissions from around
the world, running from 12th20th Oct. Also featuring during this time:
experimental music, performance, site specific installation, talks and
presentations--all providing an opportunity to mingle, and engage with the
work on hand. In addition the GFVW will house the Festival Information
Point, book shop and 'Virtual Living Rooms' (a chance to view Alternative
TV in your very own domestic environment). "New Visions is committed to
showing only the best of cutting edge, local and international creative
work by artists using film, video, computer and multimedia technologies,
presenting a coherent and innovative overview of contemporary audio visual
culture." To complement the Centenary of Film celebrations, New Visions
looks to the origins of German experimental film of the '20s and to the
Scottish Kinecraft movement featuring works by Norman McLaren and Helen
For more information
call Paula on 0141 552 3436, or write to New Visions PO Box 1269, Glasgow
Review of Live Art returns to Glasgow running from Thurs 24 OctSun
3 Nov 1996, working in partnership with various venues and educational
establishments across the city. The body of the festival consists of programmes
of performances, installations, video screenings and talks at The Arches,
including the Festival club. Box office 0141 227 5511. All tickets available
information call John McInally/Ian McKay at Wonder, Tel: 0141 553 1511.
back to top
Palingenesis of the avant-garde
must not only engender another conception of time, but must also assimilate
it to a new synthesis of space. Both will be created simultaneously as
they emerge out of the new relationship between human beings and nature;
One of the
problems with recent academic critiques of the avant-garde is the way in
which 'anti-art' has been conceptualised as privileging space over time.
As a consequence, there has been little interest in viewing the avant-garde
teleologically. Peter Burger in Theory of the Avant-garde (University of
Minnesota, Minneapolis 1984) tends to interpret the avant-garde through
the prism of Dada and surrealism. A correction to this tendency begins
to emerge in such works as Andrew Hewitt's Fascist Modernism: Aesthetics,
Politics, and the Avant-Garde (Stanford University Press, California 1993),
a work that focuses on Futurism. However, while this move 'backwards' in
'time' is most welcome, academic theorising about the avant-garde has yet
to get to grips with post-war phenomena such as Lettrism and Situationism.
What can most
usefully be lifted from Burger is the notion of the avant-garde as an attack
on the institution of art, which emerges in opposition to the absurd assumption
that Dada and Surrealism were merely an attempt to supersede the dominant
artistic styles of their epoch. With regard to the author of Theory Of
The Avant-Garde and his collaborator in criticism Christa Burger, Hewitt
problematises the idea of the autonomy of art that they took up from the
Frankfurt School. The following passage from Fascist Modernism (page 59)
is typical of Hewitt's polemic: "If capitalism provides the material preconditions
for autonomous art, then it is the philosophical tradition of German Idealism
that provides its ideological legitimation. At the end of the eighteenth
century the emerging literature is assigned a place within a discursive
hierarchy regulated by the philosophy of Idealism. Thus, while art might
be said to resist at the level of content capitalism's tendency toward
economic rationalisation, it can do so only within a prerationalised set
of philosophical relationships. Contrary to its ideological status in the
nineteenth century as an escape from ubiquitous social forces of rationalisation,
autonomous art is also a product of those forces."
It has long
been a banality among 'radical economists' that choice within the 'free
market system' is already and always ideological; that rather than being
'value free,' choice (which is inevitably preconditioned) is an arbitrary
a priori value. The 'free market' has never existed, it is a utopian construct
designed to mask the 'social' forces that actually shape the economy. Historically,
as 'the arts' are liberated from the shackles of the patronage system and
thereby become 'Art' in its modern sense, precisely at that moment when
the commodification of culture brings about the possibility of its ideological
'autonomy,' the institution of art emerges to regulate the cultural field.
It follows from this that in attacking the institution of art, the avant-garde
ought to develop a critique of commodity relations. The failure of the
classical avant-garde, and I would subsume the Situationist International
within this category, is its failure to make this leap to an issue that
lies at the heart of Marxist economics. This failure arises from a desire
on the part of the classical avant-garde to integrate art and life. The
classical avant-garde is utopian precisely because it wants to deregulate
art; but this literal/metaphorical acceptance of the absurd claims made
by Capital's ideological apologists (who necessarily propagate theories
which imply that art does, or at least can, exist in the 'beyond' as a
secular religion that 'transcends' commodity relations) is not without
certain merits, because ultimately it brings those operating within the
institution of art into conflict with the very forces that legitimate 'artistic'
It is within
the parameters of such a discourse that we must situate the 'praxis' of
the Situationist International. Guy Debord states in theses 191 of Society
Of Spectacle (Black & Red, Detroit 1970, revised 1977) that: "Dadaism
and Surrealism are two currents which mark the end of modern art. They
are contemporaries, though only in a relatively conscious matter, of the
last great assault of the revolutionary proletarian movement; and the defeat
of this movement, which left them imprisoned in the same artistic field
whose decrepitude they had announced, is the basic reason for their immobilisation.
Dadaism and Surrealism are at once historically related and opposed to
each other. This opposition, which each of them considered to be its most
important and radical contribution, reveals the internal inadequacy of
their critique, which each developed one-sidedly. Dadaism wanted to suppress
art without realising it; Surrealism wanted to realise art without suppressing
it. The critical position later elaborated by the Situationists has shown
that the suppression and the realisation of art are inseparable aspects
of a single supersession of art"
'anti-career' began with a full-length feature film Howlings In Favour
Of de Sade which contained no images, just black film stock interspersed
with bursts of white light, was incapable of stepping outside the frame
of reference provided by the institution of art, and instead theorised
his way back to a one-sided understanding of Hegel. It is perfectly clear
from both The Philosophical Propaedeutic ('The Science of the Concept',
Third Section, The Pure Exhibition of Spirit theses 203 to 207) and the
Philosophy of Mind: Being, Part Three of the Encyclopaedia of the Philosophical
Sciences (Section Three--Absolute Mind theses 553 to 571) that within the
Hegelian system the supersession of art is in fact found in revealed religion.
the more advanced sections of the 'bourgeoisie,' 'art' had by Debord's
day come to replace revealed religion, the Situationists were forced to
skip this particular Hegelian inversion, and instead jump forward to philosophy
which represents the highest achievement of 'absolute mind' in Hegel's
system. In line with the young Marx, Debord viewed the proletariat as the
subject that would realise philosophy. The Situationist conception of the
supersession of art is also filtered through the ideas of August von Cieszkowski,
whose 1838 tome Prolegomena zur Historiosophie was dedicated to the notion
that "the deed and social activity will now overcome (supersede) philosophy."
It was this source that provided the Situationists with the material to
complete their false 'sublation,' allowing them to arrive back at the final
category of romantic art within the Hegelian system, that is to say poetry.
states in The Revolution of Everyday Life (Rebel Press and Left Bank Books,
London and Seattle 1983, page 153) that: "Poetry is... 'making,' but 'making'
restored to the purity of its moment of genesis--seen, in other words, from
the point of view of the totality." In the sixties, Debord and Vaneigem
claimed that they'd superseded the avant-garde and were consequently 'making'
a 'revolutionary' situation that went beyond the point of no return. However,
all the Situationists actually succeeded in doing was restating the failures
of Dada and Surrealism in Hegelian terminology, with the inevitable consequence
that their critique was in many ways much less 'advanced' than that of
their 'precursors.' Debord, who was a better theorist than his 'comrade'
Vaneigem, appeared to be aware of this slippage although he did not know
how to 'overcome' it, and the fragment of von Cieszkowski cited in the
celluloid version of Society Of The Spectacle (an English translation of
the script can be found in Society Of The Spectacle And Other Films, Rebel
Press, London 1992, page 71) is most telling: "Therefore, after the direct
practice of art has ceased to be the most distinguished thing, and this
predicate has been devolved onto theory, such as it is, it detaches itself
presently from the latter, in so far as a synthetic post-theoretical practice
is formed, which has as its primary goal to be the foundation and the truth
of art as a philosophy."
in Fascist Modernism (page 85) that "History, to the artists of the avant-garde,
is available as commodity; and the commodity, in turn, is intrinsically
'historical,' second-hand. Perhaps, after all, the avant-garde does develop
a style, one of bricolage, in which the commodification of history and
the historicization of the commodity (that is, aestheticization and politicisation
respectively) converge." I agree with Peter Burger when he suggests in
Theory Of The Avant-Garde that the failure of the Dadaist and Surrealist
assault on the institution of art led to a widening of the definition of
what is acceptable as art. This was a double edged 'failure,' arising as
it did from the desire of the classical avant-garde to integrate 'art'
and life, because as Hewitt implies, it leads to the history of art becoming
available to the artist as a commodity. However, since the ideological
'autonomy' of art is grounded in its status as a commodity with a market
value regulated by the institution of art, it must inevitably be protected
as a piece of 'intellectual property' against its free use as a piece of
bricolage in later works of art.
It comes as
no surprise that as early as 1959, the Situationist Guy Debord had to rework
his film On The Passage Of A Few Persons Through A Rather Brief Period
Of Time because he was unable to buy the rights to many of the scenes he
wished to re-use from Hollywood 'classics.' Debord's constant recourse
to cliché is undoubtedly self-conscious and iconoclastic, so perhaps
it is not ironic that his 'wholly new type of film' should sit very easily
within one of the most despised cinematic genres of the post-war period,
that of the mondo movie. Nevertheless, Debord was much more than simply
a plagiarist, when his output is viewed from the perspective of avant-garde
film-making, it appears highly innovative.
Once the practice
of appropriation became widespread within the field of art, that is to
say within that field of cultural practices regulated by the institution
of art, then art as a discourse had reached its historical limits. These
contradictions cannot be resolved within the discourse of art; within this
discursive field it is not possible to advance beyond the solution offered
by Hegel for whom "plagiarism would have to be a matter of honour and held
in check by honour" (Philosophy Of Right, thesis 69). In other words, while
copyright laws remain in force, appropriation as an 'artistic' practice
will continue to be dealt with by the legal system on a case by case basis.
From my perspective, all that remains to be done is for the contemporary
avant-garde to broaden its intransigent critique of the institution of
art, while simultaneously offering a lead to all those who would step outside
art as a frame of reference. This is not so much a case of 'overcoming'
art as abandoning it; such a strategy was implicit in the activities of
Henry Flynt, an individual active on the fringes of Fluxus who as long
ago as 1962 gave up art in favour of a subjective modality which he named
is viewed as a nuisance by those who are happy with the world as it is.
Art is a secular religion that provides a 'universal' justification for
social stratification, it furnishes the ruling class with the social glue
of a common culture, while simultaneously excluding the vast mass of men
and wimmin from participation in this 'higher' realm. The work of art is
never a simple entity, a 'thing in itself,' but is literally produced by
those sets of social and institutional relationships that simultaneously
legitimate it. While the contemporary avant-garde shares its precursor's
desire to attack the institution of art, it also differs fundamentally
from its classic predecessor. If Futurism, Dada and Surrealism wanted to
integrate art and life, today's avant-garde wants to consign the former
category to oblivion. This is the return at a higher level of Islamic-cum-Protestant
iconoclasm. While the classical avant-garde was ultimately Deist in its
attitude towards art, its progeny has taken up a stance of intransigent
atheism in its antagonistic relationship to the dominant culture.
of art long ago adopted the ironic pose of post-modernism, which is why
the contemporary avant-garde denigrates space in favour of time. To be
avant-garde is to be ahead of the pack and this inevitably entails a 'teleological'
conception of history. The avant-garde uses the 'myth of progress' in a
manner analogous to George Sorel's conception of the 'General Strike'.
The avant-garde does not believe in 'absolute' progress. Progress is simply
a means of organising the present, it is a 'heuristic' device. In its 'affirmative'
guises, 'progress' is an empty conception that offers men and wimmin the
illusory compensation of future revenge for the humiliations they suffer
in daily life. A mythic conception of progress moves wo/men to action,
it is the means by which they can organise the transformation of geographical
'space'. This transformation will entail a complete break with the ideological
trappings that have been familiar to us since the enlightenment. Just as
the Christian religion ceased to be a vehicle for social contestation in
the eighteenth-century, the political party as an engine of social change
is now utterly exhausted. The future of mass struggle lies in what were
until very recently viewed as 'fringe' phenomena, that is to say new social
movements with an absurdly faked antiquity; the ever growing band of 'Druid'
Councils offer an excellent example of this type of organisation.
notion of progress would be an anathema to the classical avant-gardists
of the Situationist International. However, while I agree with Kant that
'culture' must be brought before the judgement of tradition, the founding
father of transcendental idealism failed to ask by what tradition is any
particular theory or cultural artefact to be judged? The contemporary avant-garde
insists that the only tradition by which anything can be judged is one
that does not yet exist, in other words, the culture we are elaborating
in our theory and practice. Fluxus was not a 'genuine' avant-garde, it
was simply a womb out of which intransigents capable of superseding the
Situationist International have subsequently emerged. If various young
adults are currently experimenting with Fluxus-style assemblages, multiples
and mailings, this is a perfectly healthy first step towards avant-garde
iconoclasm. To borrow Wittgenstein's metaphor, Fluxus is a ladder with
which youth can climb above the world as it is, and then proceed to throw
and his comrades wanted to supersede art with the 'highest' achievements
of 'absolute mind,' that is to say philosophy, recent theorising about
the avant-garde can be read as an attempt to transform culture into a religion
of the most 'primitive' type, that of the 'divine King' or a vegetation
cult. Paul Mann in The Theory-Death Of The Avant-Garde (Indiana University
Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis 1991) states that: "Death is necessary
so that everything can be repeated and the obituary is a way to deny that
death ever occurred. Under the cover of the obituary artists and critics
continue exactly as before, endlessly recuperating differential forms,
endlessly manufacturing shabbier and shabbier critical goods... The death
of the avant-garde is old news, already finished, no longer worth discussing;
but those who think so have not yet even begun to think it. There is no
post: everything that claims to be so blindly repeats what it thinks it
has left behind. Only those willing to remain in the death of the avant-garde,
those who cease trying to drown out death's silence with the noise of neocritical
production, will ever have a hope of hearing what that death articulates."
The task of
the avant-garde then, is to carry on as before by providing those still
trapped within the old modes of discourse with a myth that will deconstruct
itself. What is as yet particular must become general, that is to say we
require the social construction of a new 'subjectivity' so that, once belief
is recognised as 'our enemy,' it becomes possible for 'everybody' to step
outside the frames of reference provided by art, religion and philosophy.
This must necessarily take the form of what the discredited 'culture' views
as a fraud and a sham. Rather than attempting to 'resolve' contradictions,
the 'avant-garde' puts them to 'work' as the engine of an as yet unknown
back to top
that seem beautiful, inspiring and life-affirming to me seem ugly, hateful
and ludicrous to most other people.
and wasters are leading art down some dingy streets. Styles of enjoyment
that seem to have always been sneered at by wisdom are being shamelessly
displayed by the emergent art. The question seems to be, are these artists,
who are getting carried away with little pleasures, losing sight of more
important matters? The answer I want to give is unambiguous, but difficult
to support: you can take your aesthetic propriety and stick it up your
Not all so-called
'young British art' is characterised by fickle, wanton, undisciplined enjoyment.
Some is. But what's more important is that this art of high-spiritedness
and low tastes has turned its back on aesthetic and saintly visions of
spiritual sublimation, of noble pleasures and purified souls. This is to
be seen not only in the spectacularly puerile mannequins of the Chapman
brothers and the adolescent fanaticism of Jeremy Deller's Madchester idolatry.
Georgina Starr's cultural trashiness and Keith Tyson's incontinent absurdity
are no less insubordinate to wisdom's ordering of pleasure, though they
are much less conspicuously philistine.
and cheap tricks, dirty words and daft ideas: the lover of wisdom would
find the lowest of indulgences in the emergent art. Adam Chodzko getting
off his face in the forest, or sending stuff in to contact mags; Bank's
all-knowing curatorial irresponsibility; the Wilson twins' acid trip images;
and, David Burrow's fist-fights between Britpopsters and Enlightenment
thinkers - these are the works of vandals, numskulls and the easily led.
Unless, that is, they are the works of those who can't take seriously the
age-old eulogies of art and refined thought. There's no better example
of this than Rebecca Warren's video of her own chirpy face being splattered
with spunk - a piece which has an astonishing disregard for 'the beautiful',
preferring the ugly, hateful and ludicrous. It's as if the art of the last
couple of years has finally come to terms with the aesthetics of fat Elvis.
pleasure is satisfied with beauty then an Elvis pictography would be an
aesthetic nightmare of waste, decay, loss, destruction, and weakness. Young
Elvis was beautiful. And when his body got carried away with the music,
the world swooned. But when Elvis got carried away with burgers and drugs
his body left his control then collapsed. But isn't this picture of decadent
tragedy a severe assault on voluptuous thrills in the name of exalted pleasure?
And wouldn't the Elvis story begin to look very different if aesthetics
could learn to love the passion and madness of falling, losing your head,
getting fucked? Yes, fat Elvis deserves to be the patron saint of mad fuckers,
layabouts and chemically aided hedonists, because these are the lovers
of a graceless, insubordinate aesthetics.
the wise, on the other hand, must be ultimately commensurable with discursive
reason. This is why beauty - not gluttony, drug abuse or theatrical excess
- is at the centre of the noble discussion of pleasure. It's not that wisdom
overlooks indulgence; it knows it only too well as a threat to truth, happiness
and genuine pleasure. In this, pleasure has been written up as reserved
for those delights which reconfirm the rational and free self. All other
enjoyment is accused of self-deception, self-destruction, and so forth.
This leads to what I'm calling the ordering of pleasure. When Elvis sacrificed
his beautiful body by giving in to bodily cravings he slid from near the
heights to the ultimate depths of the ordering of pleasure. To choose burgers
over beauty and health is, for these thinkers, to go against your own best
interests. To do this knowingly, at least for Aristotle, is to have an
incontinent will (to use your free will despite yourself). This is the
heart of the matter: wisdom combines pleasure with truth and happiness
by insisting that your tastes complement the pursuits of knowledge and
stake here can be illustrated by looking briefly at the joys of masochism.
I don't mean the popular misconception that the masochist paradoxically
finds pleasure in pain - though this alone shows the ordering of pleasure
to be at risk. I'm thinking of the masochist as someone who sets up a theatre
of sensuality full of games, toys and rôles - all of which cast the
masochist as if s/he is at the mercy of an accomplice. In other words,
the masochist is a subject who takes pleasure in the surrendering of subjecthood.
Strictly speaking, then, the masochist - although the author of their own
eroticism - isn't the subject of pleasure at all, because, having surrendered
the integrity of the subject, their delights can't claim the dignity of
the category of pleasure. With no interest in the true interests of their
own or their partner's 'self', the masochist flouts the ecology of aesthetics,
ethics and rationality. In fact, the masochist's first pleasure is the
renunciation of wisdom because s/he finds joy against the ordering of pleasure.
Philosophers and priests have an anxiety for the subject which means that
they will condemn the masochist but love the wise recluse. These two types
shape themselves around denial, but it is the sort of denial involved that
sets them apart.
about the subject have always turned on questions about the body. The masochist
is always willing to sacrifice the soul for a few moments of bodily bliss;
the recluse will do without everything connected to the body in order to
be closer to God and truth. Artists adopt similar positions. The thing
is, wisdom has always derogated the body, with its corruptions and distractions,
as a threat to truth. There is a foolishness of the body: it's always liable
to the contingencies, myopia and errors of passion, appetite, need. This
is why fasting, which is as old as religion itself, is regarded as a technique
of seeking proximity to God. When fasting the soul is not being jostled
by the seductions and satisfactions of salivating mouths, rumbling bellies,
delicious smells, and all devastating invitations to bite, chew, suck and
swallow. Food is an enemy of the soul because the mouth and belly couldn't
care less about eternity.
find much enthusiasm here for Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas' T-shirt slogan,
"have you wanked over me yet?" In this work the body is all over the place
- dressing it, teasing it, speaking of its urges and mechanics, perhaps
even affecting it with laughter or a blush. Moreover, their bare-faced
questioning imagines a disorderly intermingling of the bodily and the intellectual,
figuring the body (itself fired up by fantasies) as overwhelming the mind.
So, even if artworks of this sort can be made to feel at home in high-minded
company, the thrills they speak of are supposed to be understood without
indulgence, appreciated without getting carried away.
This is why
Socrates opposed knowledge and the body: "I reckon that we make the nearest
approach to knowledge when we have the least possible intercourse or communion
with the body". For philosophers and priests the body is an undisciplined
mob, forever confusing and misleading the rational and free mind with short-term
gratifications and ill-considered desires. Even Nietzsche, the greatest
opponent of truth's hatred of 'instinct', who is relentlessly anchoring
the highest endeavours of the mind in the lowest workings of the body (German
Idealism, he says, was caused by German cooking - one has to be 'selfless'
to put up with such food!) - even Nietzsche regards thinking and solitude
- a thorough cleanliness - as higher and more exalted than the body because
of its distracting thirsts.
You get a
clearer example of this fear of the body within a general anxiety for the
sovereignty of the subject in the writing of Erich Fromm. His famous Marx-plus-Freud
guide to personal and political health, "Art of Loving", is a manifesto
for the ordering of pleasure in line with the requirements of the autonomous
self. His distinctions between mature love and dependent love follow the
contour of the distinction between genuine pleasure and bodily enjoyment.
Mature love is union under the condition of preserving one's integrity.
This is why he tuts at lovers who lose themselves in each other, who ache
with an exorbitant desire. Above all, Fromm is frightened of falling -
falling in love, falling for someone, falling into something. Scared to
death of making a mistake, he precludes all forms of seduction and thrill
from entering the private property of his neat, ordered, balanced self.
And then he extends his anxiety for 'falling' to include "masochistic submission
to fate, to sickness, to rhythmic music, to the orgiastic state produced
by drugs or under hypnotic trance". As such, Fromm is an intractable exponent
of truth's ordering of pleasure because it is a regime that protects the
subject against its own moments of weakness and self-neglect.
masochist, and the yobs, weirdos and wasters of contemporary art, all fail
spectacularly to reconcile their tastes with the family group consisting
of beauty, happiness and truth. Instead, they are seduced, duped, intoxicated,
led astray. You would expect to find some of this in a Bank exhibition
entitled 'Fuck Off'. And yet, the show was disappointingly smart. Nevertheless,
it contained a work that knows exactly what getting carried away is all
about: Rebecca Warren's neon sign which states, in a doubled handwriting,
"trust yer unconscious". It combines the informality and sensual materiality
of the colloquial voice, and the warm self-examination of the diaristic
note, with the theatrical seductiveness of the culture industry's basest
(though perhaps most sublime) technique, and a recommendation to develop
a closer relation with urges, drives and fantasies that have been repressed.
It is a paradoxical goal, but I still want to see this sign in a boutique
for bodily ornament, in a club full of sweaty bodies, above my bed, or
in an art exhibition which sniffs at aesthetic propriety--in the toilets
at the CCA perhaps.
I'm not arguing
for the discourse of the body, or what came to be known as the embodied
eye. This sort of critique was fashionable in the 80s. The New Art Historians,
for instance, extended Bourdieu's sociological analysis of the secretions
of power within the seemingly innocuous operations of pleasure, in theories
of the embodied eye--the cultural gaze as a kaleidoscope of gender, class,
race and so forth. It figures the gaze as a site of struggle. Recent attacks
on the social history of art, for a more familiar looking defence of art's
autonomy and judgements of taste, argue that questions of value and judgement
cannot be reduced to psychic, social, political, historical questions.
The stalemate which results considers what I'm calling the hierarchy of
pleasure as either hierarchy or pleasure. And in both cases the foolishness
of the body is renunciated, through politicisation or sublimation. In other
words, the aesthetic affirmation of pleasure and critical theories of embodiment
alike are suspicious of the pleasures of the body.
artists, critical theorists, philosophers and priests guard against with
their fear of bodily excitation is what Adorno called the 'subjectless
subject'. It can be understood as a warmed-up, industrialised, administered,
mass version of Aristotle's concept of incontinence: only nominally a subject
at all, the subjectless subject is consumed by momentary gratifications
which bombard it relentlessly from all sides. Adorno was a chilling critic
of the slightest trace of barbarity, authoritarianism, alienation, horror,
inhumanity. As far as he was concerned, when he scarpered from Nazi Germany
to exile in New York, he had swapped one form of totalitarianism for another.
Capitalism's culture industry might be a softer totalitarianism than Hitlerian
fascism, but Adorno was not soft on its abuses, corruptions, and violations.
He spat evangelical poison at jazz, Hollywood, and even the way radio used
only memorable sections of classical music. For Adorno, the totally administered
society of technological capitalism had resulted in a totally administered
subjectivity for which every aspect of life had been damaged by omnipresent
Such a predicament,
for Adorno, requires cultural diligence: blackness, silence, negation,
dissonance. This is the repertoire of an art which registers beauty as
the promise of happiness betrayed. Art's self-reflexive attention to its
own unhappy situation is thus a central component of the resistance to
totalitarianism, and merges political, ethical and epistemological truths
in an aesthetics of formal self-suspicion. Art's critical burden has never
been quite this sobering.
of the 'subjectless subject' stands in sharp contrast to his imagined artist:
one consumes, the other produces; one loses him/herself, the other constantly
inspects her/himself; one acts with the masses, the other produces her/his
own subjectivity out of a rigorous critique of commodity fetishism and
its characteristic alienation. Subjectlesness seems to be a negative and
inverted image of Adorno's own intellectual, cultured, liberal, poised,
snobbish personality. But it's not the case that Adorno hated mass culture
because it clashes with his love of books and Beethoven. There is no conspiracy
of good taste. With the entire weight of wisdom behind him (egging him
on), Adorno faced the hellish force of capitalism with awful clarity, knowing
subjectlessness to involve the gravest of sacrifices--the loss of the emancipated,
of pleasure and its attendant sense of subjectivity and subjectlessness
can't be explained away as an effect of social divisions. It is the outcome
of a systematic assessment of judgements and experiences in relation to
what is taken to characterise truthfulness. Socrates runs away from beautiful
boys because the body's appetites distract the soul from eternal truths.
Likewise, Nietzsche never spares himself in the pursuit of hard truths;
he is strict, persevering, exacting, disciplined, austere, frugal, serious.
In short, so long as it seems wise to act according to your own best interests,
then getting carried away (acting against, despite or with neglect to your
best interests) will seem foolish. And not only foolish, but a sort of
masochism: taking pleasure in something harmful. In this way the hierarchic
ordering of pleasure, even the affirmation of restraint, can make a good
case for itself as benevolent and enlightened. What has to be challenged
isn't the ordering of pleasure directly, but the constitution of wisdom
that shapes it.
your mind away from questions of truth, freedom, and the greater good--at
least for a time. Getting carried away is never rational, is unlikely to
be ethical, and can't be relied on to serve one's best interests. In a
sense, such things are put in abeyance. And the idea of switching these
imperatives on and off at will strikes the robust thinker as hypocritical
and inconsistent: wanton. Even occasional lapses seem to threaten the integrity
of the subject--as if losing yourself in something would be irredeemable,
as if having a weakness for something meant an erosion of one's powers,
as if getting carried away meant loss of self. Psychologically such principles
are dangerous; culturally they lead too easily to prejudices which make
the preference for self-reflexive art somehow have the edge over having
a good time because it is as if the difference between them is determined
by whatever distinguishes truth and error.
then, it doesn't seem all that wise to ask us never to get carried away.
Even if the systematic thinker expects it, consistency is certainly not
practically necessary. Wisdom's ordering of pleasure distributes guilt
to forms of enjoyment that are too unhinged to produce or result from robust
debate. As such, the ordering of pleasure is always the surreptitious work
of ethics, rationality, theology or whatever. And without this aesthetics
wouldn't appear to reconfirm spontaneously the values of wisdom, but would
be seen as wisdom's colonisation of bodily experience. Without the surreptitious
ordering of pleasure there could be no aesthetic privilege for beauty over
masochism, gluttony or addiction. Contemporary art's indulgence in pleasures
of this sort casts itself as unserious, ill-advised, brutal: having its
thrills in the shadow of the ordering of pleasure.
the willingness to fall--or to be pushed--means to run up against a cluster
of very well placed axioms. It is not for nothing that hard thinkers regard
subjectlessness and its cousins as damage, illness, contagion, insanity.
Being mad for it is, from an intellectual point of view, utterly monstrous.
So, in order to get out from under the oppressive grandeur of intellectualism's
self-serving attitude to culture, younger artists have lost themselves
in worthless preoccupations without the least care to show themselves in
a good light. Sue Webster and Tim Noble don't only call themselves 'the
cunt' and 'the shit', their works--such as a group of shagging bunnies in
a grassy idyll--are simply too risible to compete with the jumped-up institutionalism
of Damien Hirst and Douglas Gordon. Baby Conceptualism has given way to
something much more infantile. Mixing the kitshploitation of the Chapmans
with the strategic art-world nous of Bank, Webster and Noble are setting
the tone for an art that doesn't take seriousness seriously, preferring
unjustifiable loves because the architecture of justification is uninhabitable.
back to top
And Asian Visual Artists Archive
in Bristol, the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive (AAVAA) was founded
in 1988 by Eddie Chambers, an artist and curator, with support from the
Arts Council of Great Britain (now England) in collaboration with the Gulbenkian
Foundation. AAVAA is the only independent arts organisation to focus on
archiving the work of African and Asian artists in Britain. The origins
of the archive lies in the prolific activities and contributions made by
artists of African and Asian descent to the British Post-War art scene.
Notably groups like the Caribbean Artists Movement (1966-1972) which focused
it's discussions around an arts journal Savacou, and key figures like Rasheed
Araeen who during the 1970s ran the Black Phoenix magazine, and curated
the much discussed Other Story exhibition at the Hayward Gallery in 1989.
One can pinpoint an 80s generation, characterised by figures like Eddie
Chambers, one of the founding members of the Black Art Group, along with
Claudette Johnson, Keith Piper, Donald Rodney and Marlene Smith. Or one
could also mention Lubaina Himid, who opened her own gallery the Elbow
Room and established Urban Fox Press with Maud Sulter. These were all artist-led
this time, and since, there has been a wealth of exhibiting and critical
activity, inspiring a diverse range of cross-discipline debates. In a way
AAVAA developed at a strategic moment to consolidate this history and to
intellectually frame and map a number of relationships to the field of
contemporary visual arts practice.
post-war period, generations of students of African and Asian descent have
studied at British art schools. What is worrying is that the work produced
is still regarded and reduced in totality to questions of ethnicity and
cultural difference, outside the historical context of contemporary art.
We are working towards a time when the work displayed in exhibitions is
no longer cordoned off from it's contemporaries as a separate and marginal
area of artistic production.
AAVAA is keen
to encourage up and coming generations of artists, designers and writers
to contribute to it's future development, and we look forward to receiving
material from graduates and young practitioners. The main body of the African
and Asian Visual Artists Archive's work relies on slide documentation of
the exhibition installations and individual works of art. We also house
additional information in the form of audio tapes, artists' statements,
artists' CVs, catalogues, posters, dissertations, critical texts and art
publications. Our role is to ensure a national profile for the work in
the archive and to make this wealth of information available to a wide
and Asian Visual Artists Archive has been re-launched at the University
of East London (UEL). This move to London provides an excellent opportunity
to bring together the documentation of work that has been done so far while
being based in a culturally diverse and vibrant academic community. The
new directors David A Bailey and Sonia Boyce, anticipate that this new
partnership between the art and design department at UEL and AAVAA will
ensure the necessary infrastructure that an important resource like this
and Asian Visual Artists Archive is based at the University of East London,
Greengate St. London E13 0BG. Tel: 0181 548 9146. The archive is open to
the public on Wednesdays from 10.30 am - 4.30 pm.
back to top
ever suddenly became depraved
many invisible circumstances, which whether we read as enquirers after
natural or moral knowledge, whether we intend to enlarge our science, or
increase our virtue, are more important than publick occurrences."
Life of Johnson
prurient glare which has so cruelly been cast upon Julian Spalding, Glasgow's
Director of Museums, has blinded us to the proper distinction of "publick
occurrences" and "invisible circumstances." This not only discourages virtuous
enquirers and fails to increase their moral knowledge, but engineers a
field-day for muckraking and effrontery, which has occupied the confusion
purely to generate scandal where none exists.
and repetitive slander may entertain the jaded palate, it has sufficiently
wearied the unbiased yet silent majority, that an unvoiced desire is almost
palpable in the atmosphere of Glasgow, which calls out for the exposure
of the hienious nature of the lies and conspiracy theories which have so
distorted and poisoned our appreciation of one of the city's most forthright
and dedicated public servants.
is the pernicious myth that prior to coming to Glasgow, Julian sacked Terry
McCarthy and the entire staff of the National Museum of Labour History
(NMLH) in Manchester. Nothing could be further from the truth. The NMLH
moved from London to Manchester and, following common practice, quite naturally
left a lot of its staff behind. Julian's role was in a purely advisory
capacity in its reorganisation; and in any case, McCarthy (an old fashioned
Socialist) had held his position for 13 years and surely fresh blood was
needed. Ask yourself this: would Julian have been a successful candidate
for the position of Director of Museums, in the eyes of a Labour Council
and NALGO, if he had a track record of ruinous spiteful vendettas against
anyone with a left-wing outlook on social history? Of course not! The utter
folly inherent in this assertion is revealed by the misapprehension that
he was brought to Glasgow expressly for this purpose by the now Lord Provost,
Patrick Lally. This is not the case. He was head hunted by someone else.
Their inspired choice is vindicated by the fact that nobody can now remember
who he replaced, Alisdair Auld, who was approaching pensionable age. Also,
think of the other applicants for the post: Roger Billcliffe, Christopher
Carrell and Elspeth King. With all due respect, would they have brought
such verve, flair and media attention to the job? Perhaps, but only perhaps.
turn now to the so-called Elspeth King Affair, which with all its attendant
hysteria, saw her demonize Julian in a vicious attempt to hound him out
of office. The facts of the matter are as follows. Julian freely offered
King (a Communist) the position of Temporary Keeper grade and a golden
opportunity to manage 1990's flagship exhibition, upon which rested all
the hopes for the new Glasgow. Her disgraceful response described The Words
and the Stones (TWATS), in a letter of 28/8/89 as follows: "You perhaps
do not know how poisonous the cup is. Most people in the West of Scotland
who have the option are not co-operating with this project... To turn this
situation around will require... the risk of my own reputation and personal
integrity." What was the price of her involvement? "The least I require
in return," she wrote, "is a recognition of departmental status for social
history, my immediate appointment as keeper and Michael Donnelly's appointment
as depute keeper." How could Julian be expected to strike such a Faustian
bargain with someone willing to compromise her reputation and integrity
so wantonly. How could he reconcile this with his position as one of the
Council's department heads on the exhibition's board safeguarding the city's
investment? King then foisted on him a list of 24 questions about TWATS,
riddled with unnecessary and niggling jibes, which impugned the financial
management and political direction of the exhibition and thus the entire
city. All that really happened was that a small group of professional cynics
then aimed to try to link these events to King's eventual resignation,
ignoring that this occurred a full year later, and that she resigned of
her own volition. The exhibition, renamed Glasgow's Glasgow, had by then
become an unqualified success, bringing £4.3m of inward investment
to the city and vanquishing forever the city's poor public image of poverty,
violence, housing schemes, political dissent and general unpleasantness
which had perverted Glasgow into the linchpin of perfidious Albion.
We were later
to witness numerous petty reruns of attacks on Julian's professionalism,
particularly with the "Glasgow Girls" exhibition, where he was falsely
accused of "ousting" Jude Burkhauser (an American) and muscling in on "her"
exhibition. Critics here ignore the fact that she had only performed some
minor research on the exhibition, attenuated as it was over three years,
and that again Julian's role was only in an avuncular advisory capacity.
This is typical of how aspects of his private life and personal dealings,
which have no right to be in the public gaze, and should have been kept
invisible, are outrageously invaded. Even the happiest day of his life,
his wedding, was brutally intruded upon, with wildly unfounded allegations
that he had failed to pay for the hire of the Kelvingrove Museum for his
wedding reception, surfacing during his honeymoon. This is nothing short
of vile persecution. These unfounded, often sexist, allegations (nothing
has ever been proven in a Court of Law) persist with all the characteristic
regularity typical of a smear campaign.
most vicious calumny attached to him, is that he has subsumed the identity
of individual Galleries into an overriding corporate identity and censors
any dissent by employees. This is simply a demonstration of the ignorance
of his detractors of his efforts to develop a more democratic form of management.
Indeed, in the Kelvingrove Museum, junior members of staff are actively
encouraged to criticise the displays of their departmental heads and challenge
them for the right to replace their exhibits. The cheerful morale of the
Museum's staff and its open working practices were themselves on display
for all to see in the programme, "Dinosaurs and Sacred Cows," produced
by Julian with assistance from Ishbell McLean. As for censorship, during
1990 more comment was made on culture in the Glasgow Herald than on the
Poll Tax, a great deal of which either concerned Julian directly or had
his sanction. Neil Wallace, Mark O'Neil and others all spoke out frequently
to silence the critics and artists on the loony left who were becoming
an embarrassment to the City and its clients.
of respectable good taste--perhaps he is a Museum Director's Museum Director.
He has not made a mockery out of the new Museum of Modern Art by including
what small factions within the reactionary establishment impose on us as
contemporary art; but what is in reality the connivance of inflated personal
ego and whim, vested interest and the ugly, hidden, dangerous agendas of
wierd secret cabals. His stalwart critique of the excesses of modern art
and its petulant inability to face criticism, was in evidence from the
start of his tenure, some 7 years ago, with his denouncement of the British
Art Show, and his organisation of the Great British Art Show as a replacement.
Here we saw the roots of his radical ethos, which seeks to put the interests
of the paying public first: and is fully cognizant that they require a
simple clarifying vision to steer them through the maze and obfustications
of 'conceptualism' and 'ideas.' The four new galleries in the new Museum
are mercifully free of concepts. That one lone, and now sadly isolated
figure, can achieve as much as Julian Spalding in so short a time, is a
testament to the openness and opportunity that his enlightened dictatorship
has brought to Glasgow, and which he has single-handedly striven to protect
for those few loyal individuals who deserve it.
back to top
in the Web
Only a few
short years ago, the birth of the World Wide Web greatly extended the capabilities
of the Internet by allowing pages of text and images to be created and
transmitted in a simple way. As with previous technological developments
such as the cassette tape, people soon harnessed this to create their own
magazines. Until last year, the expense of space on the rapidly evolving
web placed it beyond the reach of independent projects, other than those
within universities. However, by last summer, competition between service
providers brought a position where anyone with an Internet account could
get web-space and set up some pages.
One of the
first UK arts projects to have a web presence was the Manchester-based
Index group, whose pages document the group's 7 years of performance and
video installations. These well-assembled pages feature the artists' statements
plus small (and hence quick to obtain) photographs of each event.
1995, the Society of Scottish Artists obtained web space through Cyberia
Cafe. Artists participating in their annual exhibition were able to place
a photograph of their work in a virtual display over the following year.
This is very much an on-line catalogue, which lists works by category and
enables the viewer to see small images of any individual's works and then
obtain a closer view if they wish.
same time, the Stirling Marginal Review was created. The original intention
was to use text-based pages to meet the real need for critical discussion
in the Forth Valley area, where projects are rarely covered by the Glasgow
and Edinburgh based "national" media. Locally, 1995 had also brought intense
discussion around issues of the urban environment and public art in Stirling.
These too could have benefited from a forum for debate.
a short time the Stirling Marginal Review pages began to develop towards
being a site for arts projects. These have rapidly changed from mere documentation
of works to a more complex situation. Sometimes the web pages complement
the work: for example the critique of Scottish primary schooling in Karen
Strang's Ricky 1963: Wound Strap Watch Table. Alternatively, the web pages
can be the only realisation of the work; an example of this is the Hanging
Together group-work X-Site, which was prevented from achieving real existence
by logistical difficulties.
focus is in line with developments elsewhere. A couple of notable recent
web-works have been the Hypertext Journal by Nina Pope and Karen Guthrie,
texts and images gathering around a journey to the Scottish islands, and
Simon Yuill's Alma Mountain Review. He is also involved in elevator: a
Dundee-based web-zine which is experimenting with collaborative works in
images, real-time discussion and video work.
As I've noted,
web projects fulfil a variety of functions. Starting from the secondary
function of documenting past and present real-life projects, there is the
movement towards the web pages being integral to ongoing projects, or even
becoming the sole manifestation of the project. And, importantly, there
is a push towards collaboration, where boundaries, whether of geography
or specialisation, can be breached. The original purpose of the web was,
after all, to link diverse parts of a project. So, for example, some people
involved in Index will create a 24 hour web piece for World Aids Day in
conjunction with others in Australia, Hungary and Canada..
are now taking their first steps towards a web presence: for example Locus
+ in Newcastle. Again, these are starting as documentation sites but, in
time, the web aspect may become more integral to their activities.
of people who have looked at all these sets of pages remains relatively
low--far lower than, say, a Star Trek fan page. However, what has motivated
people to become involved is probably a combination of curiosity to explore
a new medium, with a desire to make something different in the short period
before the net becomes dominated by "official" pages.
some seem to long for the bonds of official involvement, for the arts agencies
to become involved. Echoing the pursuit of grants for status more than
monetary value, such a desire takes managerial quality control at its face
value--the good faith that selection and presentation by an agency do indeed
"separate the wheat from the chaff". This reinstates the very hierarchy
of managers and clients which can be side-stepped by autonomous projects.
In the case
of the web, and the net in general, the institutions can provide very little
which isn't better done for yourself. It is quick and easy to learn how
to create web pages, and the medium has none of the distribution problems
of conventional zines or cassettes: once the pages of a project are available
on a directory like
it is accessible
to any enquirer anywhere.
pages have been set up, such as the new British Council/ Scottish Arts
Council pages at
go beyond providing a Scotland-wide institutional phonebook, with each
page a destination rather than a node. This may have its uses, but it is
unlikely that they could, or would want to, move towards collaborative
of concern to some is the copyright issue. Artists' concern to obtain recompense
for their works has led them to support the copyright laws. This is despite
these laws having been introduced to protect middlemen like publishers
rather than originators. There is no getting away from the fact that a
work made public on the web is one which can be loaded onto anyone's computer,
for as short or long a time as they see fit. Indeed, some web arts projects
are constructed around repeated adjustments to an image by many people.
If one wants to retain control over an image, then web pages (like any
form of publication) should be avoided. But if one seeks collaborators
to develop a theme, then the web opens possibilities which transcend the
limitations of geography and commercial distribution.
In a feature
on Radio Scotland's The Slice in May, artist Karen Strang summarised this
viewpoint: "The great thing about Internet web sites is that anyone can
have a go... I'm anti-copyright, anti-censorship. This is the last bastion
of free speech".
problem affects far more than just artists. In his article "The Economy
of Ideas" John Perry Barlow tries to bypass the current wrangles over intellectual
property by looking forward to a future whose economy is "based on relationship
rather than possession... a world made more of verbs than nouns". Whatever
the hyperbole, and the suspicion that this attitude fits the interests
of a stratum whose careers allow them to avoid attachment to any one place,
that does seem to be an interesting possibility. If the web can provide
an opportunity to assemble networks from diverse projects each rooted in
its own particular location, perhaps we can re-place ourselves in a way
that bureaucratic plurality cannot.
these pages are accessible at :
can be found easily using the Alta Vista search tool.
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láidire, i nglór íseal
space of the last year there has been a surge in the construction and shop
fitting of strongly advertising, self proclaiming Irish bars in Glasgow.
At least seven such new pubs/bars have opened, staking claims to a notion
of authentic Irishness. There is no one focus of location for the new premises
though they are predominantly concentrated within Glasgow's city centre.
This phenomena of the escalation of proclaimed Real Irish pubs is not one
isolated to Glasgow, it is inextricably linked to a snowballing UK wide
of the new pubs are based on the pursuit of an idealised small country
pub feel. Various attempts are made to give these larger spaces a sense
of intimacy through the use of partitions, screens and the reintroduction
of snugs. As much as the theme of Irishness retains a stressed similarity,
the specifics of the themes differ and the varied geometries of the buildings
dictate their own particular layouts and features. The allusion to Irishness
is also played out in a variety of fashions, from the use of 'olde worlde'
shop interiors to the inclusion of museum vatrines displaying ambiguous
artefacts. In common with most idyllic country pub themes, wooden panelling
features heavily and object d'art hide the harsh corners and empty ceiling
spaces, all of which in the setting signify little other than an attempt
at a throwback to a vague rural past using clichéd terms of nostalgia
and romanticism. The reading of the pub's contents are more specifically
placed with the use of the Gaelic language in signage. Distressed, supposedly
aged, clichéd wooden signs, prints and enamel plaques, either referencing
or actual reproductions of graphic styles of previous advertising, seek
to re-affirm the heritage of the establishment and the products on sale,
all with the appearance of having come off the production line the week
before. Still more direct associations are made to an Irishness and a sense
of place through the greater proliferation of the media advertising of
the products on sale. Despite the otherwise seemingly nonsensical and taboo
activity of drinking in a would be Oifig An Phoist or hardware store, the
flimsy plywood cornices with shamrock patterns drilled in them and the
deliberately chipped, newly stained woodwork, exposing the fresh pine underneath,
only add to the feeling of being on a stage set surrounded by props. The
general ephemera, the rush and tack of the decoration and building work
adds to this disingenuous sentiment. I would have thought that there should
be an obvious loss in the feeling of any implied authenticity alluded to
in these places. The actuality is that the new pubs reside in a tradition
of such thematising and are a well established part of our daily, critically
conscious lives. The decor is familiar in the way that it shouts it's a
themed pub, and not the first or last in a long line of thematising.
arise about our desire for, or assumptions about, an authentic reality;
how and where they are informed. I am not making a claim for an authentic
National identity but I am questioning the effects of these selective re-constructions
of Irishness. The claim to an authenticity and the constant need for new
sights and sounds that must still convey a sense of familiarity, a feeling
of homeliness and the reassuring associations to that much beloved corner
shop workplace. What we are presented with is a would be 'microcosm' of
Ireland, a public relations packaged image that has turned into a predictable
but successful formula for an audience that wishes to be reassured. These
theme parks present a populist notion of an Irish cultural Disney Land
and in doing so suggest a kind of homogeneity of style and content. They
speak reassuringly with one clear voice which on the other hand is also
do not exist simply in themselves but are steeped in the mass marketing
of the companies products that they sell or are owned by. They are after
all, both the outlets for, and the embodiment of, media constructs of identities
and life styles familiar to the sale of any product, in this case part
and parcel of the construction and consumption of an Irish identity that
presents the male Irish immigrant as a unified category. There has been
a general targeting of a younger market as well as an expansion of the
product range. In much of the advertising we find the generic Irishman,
redefined for mass consumption and obliging to a form of populism, an acceptable
UK media face of Irishness, stereotypically the comedian, game show host,
gambling rogue and light entertainer. In one TV advert the desire for escapism
both to and from the excitement, hustle and bustle of an American bar is
collided and contradicted with the nostalgia of an ideal rural bliss. Knowingly
and openly tugging at the family heart strings, its references to the reality
of economic migration are stirred only for effect. Similarly, in a now
routine feature of avoidance of any possible links with Irish Nationalism,
the rolling, pastoral landscape is presented in a way that deliberately
effaces any contentious notion of land.
On the Irish
landscape Irish artist Willie Doherty explains, "..the landscape is the
site of disenfranchisement and privilege, of sorrow and anguish, of hate
and guilt, and simultaneously of aspiration and hope. The role which place
and landscape play in the psychological battle of hearts and minds in the
war in Ireland cannot be underestimated. If place is inextricably bound
up with ideas of home and identity then it is at the very heart of the
struggle between colonised and coloniser." (Two Names...Two Places...Two
Minds, Camera Austria, No. 37, 1991)
Some of the
very basic things that motivate us are advertising imagery, our very world
is saturated in it. Advertisers pervade our being to affect our deepest
impulses; to shape our sensibility; to transform and organise our vision;
ultimately to affect our whole behaviour. In doing so they frame our notions
of authenticity. Even if we believe we are not affected we do not exist
in a vacuum. Our world is lived with others. What we have in these pubs
is the re-construction of the re-construction of an Irishness, a lived
reality of thematics operating at a level of fantasy. The copy has become
the familiar in the consciousness of many, it has been reinvested with
an authenticity through proliferation. It is value constructed numerically.
Similar in ways to Coronation Street, perhaps once intended to reflect
an essence of a Northern English life, a soap fitting for the time of social-realist
documentary and film, finding its existence in the 90's a parody of its
own constructions. Its reference points have become itself but for the
viewing culture at large it has to be remembered that the TV is also a
point of reference. It is not just a painted backdrop but an integral part
within a diversity of representations, making claims towards or against
the authentic problematic in themselves.
not necessarily presuppose that these pubs, and the media circus that surrounds
them, are somehow representative of Ireland. What we are presented with
is an Ireland constructed of 'other' acknowledged and assimilated words,
functioning in a way intended to tickle our sensibilities and provide us
with pleasurable sensations. This construct is fixed in a particular de-historicised
provincialism, arrested from the world of politics. In these terms, a perpetuated,
unified identity of Irishness is used as a convenient, and politically
passive, organising principle for the circulation of consumer goods. Unfortunately,
the raised profile of a product, along with an uncritical absorption of
updated stereotyping terminology, doesn't amount to a raise in the profile
of the different issues that affect a community or lead to an understanding
of the complexities and diversities of experience within it.
One of the
results of British colonialism has been the fragmentation of Irish people
through a complex web of differences. While there is no homogenous representation
of Irish immigration, Ireland's Diaspora has created a huge global network
of people claiming to be of Irish origin. Irishness means different things
in different places and develops characteristics particular to specific
locales. The wider network of social practices within which identities
are constituted must be explored within a discourse not only of emigration
but also a complex diversity of assimilation.
back to top
"In the closed
universe he [the artist], he escapes sterility only by that continuous
renewal afforded by a game in which nuance acquires idolatrous dimensions
and in which a verbal chemistry achieves compounds inconceivable to a naive
art. So deliberate an activity, if it is located at the antipodes of experience,
approaches, on the other hand, the extremities of intellect."
is the only form of action that is not degrading."
"On this immaculate
page, a gnat was making a dash for it. "Why be in such a hurry? Where are
you going, what are you looking for? Relax!" I screamed out in the middle
of the night. I would have been so pleased to see it collapse! It's harder
than you think to gain disciples."
"In front of
poverty, I am ashamed even of music."
On the Heights
Do the untranslated
thoughts of a Rumanian writer exist if there is no English ear to hear
them? Like the philosophical tree in the forest, E. M. Cioran may not have
made a sound, but he surely fell over. Explorers to deepest Paris brought
back word: "Yes, he works. Yes, it hurts." Here be monster intellects...
perhaps. How would we know, lacking the language skills? Though translated
into English from the sixties, the works were unavailable here due to a
legal huff, or a Harvard plot or something. My own attempts at booklegging
came to nothing. Forlorn, I went to drown my sorrows, and, just when I
was impressing the bloke next to me, the barman says, 'Cioran?--Quartet
Encounters you want mate.'
Now it is
one thing to have a pet-intellectual hero whose name you are unsure to
pronounce and whose pre-eminence is effected on the heights of the four
spindly quotes that comprise your knowledge of his oeuvre. Another to behold
a parcel from the book mongers that may have clay feet writ large upon
it, to be revealed only by your powerful x-ray vision... as if. This boy's
from Krypton; able to leap off tall buildings in a single bound.
As the Job
club would have it, Cioran is a philosophical essayist with aphoristic
experience. Born in Rumania in 1911, by 1937 he had completed his post
grad study at Bucharest University when he won a coveted scholarship with
the French Institute to Paris. And there he stayed, soon deciding to write
only in French. Only his first collection, 'On the Heights of Despair'
(1934), was written in Rumanian. The title derives from Rumanian journalists'
habit of prefacing the obituaries of suicides with the phrase. His themes
are suffering, mind, insomnia, death, madness, music and the salutary effects
of lying down in the face of it all. You might not choose to read it to
your friend in the hospital, but he's a good laugh really. If you like
your laughter so slow and deep that you mistake its undulations for moods
you are having. It is Transylvanian laughter after all. Even this first
book though, has a Franco-feel that goes beyond theme and style. In his
sensibility and droll elegance he out Frenches the French, and they do
so love that in a foreigner--look at Monsieurs Picasso and Beckett, and
their exile Joyce, par another example. Yet even the French initially championed
him unread, taking the word of the few who had read him in the Rumanian.
Cioran has a PR angel where we make do with mere guardians. I'd read an
essay or two on him which told me little but that he was much admired for
vague reasons. Then this in Newsweek: "If it hadn't have been for the possibility
of suicide, I would have killed myself years ago."
love this man. I want to take him for a drink and talk him into it. It
isn't the humour, paradox, bathos, irony or self-deprecation that gets
me. Despite all that, something else is happening. Cioran has elsewhere
described his work as diagnostic (di-agnostic, when two or more don't know
for certain?). He may be telling me I'm sick, but I rather see his aphorisms
as prescriptions for the condition--how to tread air in the abyss. It says,
when on the horns of a dilemma, sit on the bull's head and hold tight to
the pointy bits. It is a call to remember that survival is a way of life,
and not something that operates only at crucial points.
the phrase is an ourobus, biting its own tail--a position simultaneously
self-destructive and self-sustaining. Not a time for action, but to persist.
But all this is plan B. Plan A, I feel, is the use of the mechanism of
emotional resonance, a communicative mode which works only if the receiver
has experienced similar emotions. Emotion is the memory of being, and like
smell, evokes the whole experience it is bound to, the time and place and
myriad streams of consciousness associated with it, whether the emotion
is depressive or ecstatic (odd how many emotional terms are spatial in
origin). Extreme emotional states such as trauma, for example, have many
possible causes, but the human reactions to it are clearly delineated,
and few. The experience of trauma is homogeneous--indeed, to the extent
that we say Post-traumatic stress is syndromic. In the diagnosis and treatment
of the condition, only the evolution of its stages is characterised; self-blame,
survival guilt, aggression, fear, etc. Cioran, to the contrary, addresses
and is informed by the resolved, consolidated condition. He uses tactical
emotional bomblets, that, if they strike home at all, strike hard.
I'm out of my depth. Although such emotional resonance is a highly effective
mode of communication, some, like Theo Adorno, reject it out of hand. Adorno
insists on 'non-participatory teleologies,' that is, his participatory
teleologies. What he means is, you don't dream because he cannot verify
it. But, if all teleologies are to be non-participatory, who is to participate
in them? Anyone with experience of a similar enough one to resonate with,
I suppose. So get a life Theo. Or a near-death experience. Better still,
get a book: "On the Heights of Despair" (1934), "The Temptation to Exist"
(1956), "Anathemas and Admirations" (1986), "History and Utopia" (1960),
E.M. Cioran, Quartet Encounters.
back to top
of a roundtable discussion centring on dance music. Participating in the
debate were Tony Lamprey (resident DJ at the House of Chords club in London,
founder of the legendary Sigh night), GX 303 (techno producer based in
Middlesborough, latest EP Rubber Bullet out soon) and Theodor W. Adorno
(leading member of the Frankfurt School of social theory, his publications
include Negative Dialectics and The Jargon of Authenticity). Discussion
chaired by Mandy Leatherall (reader in sociology at the University of Guildford
and experienced clubber).
Good evening. Before we begin I'd just like to thank our guests for their
generous participation in what I'm sure will be a lively and provocative
discussion. Particular thanks to you Theodor, as I think you must have
had by far the longest journey to get here tonight. OK, so, if I can turn
to you first Tony? What do you think has been the defining experience of
the British house music scene?
Well, for me there have been so many great clubbing experiences over the
years but I suppose that if I had to pick out just one it has to be that
feeling of freedom and elation that we first felt in Ibiza during the famous
summer of '88. You know what I mean? Pure pleasure--you just can't get that
you've been working on critiques of pleasure and aesthetics since before
the rest of us were born, in addition to having some famous experience
of that first Summer of Love, 1968. What's your position on the Balearic
Adorno: Here the watchword is 'relax and take it easy', a formula borrowed
from the language of the nursing home, not of exuberance. Happiness is
No. No. I think you're missing the point--it wasn't about making money,
GX 303: Yeah!
Yeah! The keyword being "wasn't". I know what the professor means. These
housey housey characters are bleedin' morons. Corporate pop house producers
making tunes for the under sixteens!
keep it intelligent please.
GX 303: That's
what I'm saying to you. These millionaire hippies are an insult to the
T.L.: Oh come
on! Listen mate, we're all on the same side here you know.
GX 303: Don't
fuckin' mate me! I know your type, one of these middleclass flyweights
with sun and moon symbols all over your stripped pine scatter cushions.
ML: Any thoughts
on that Theodor?
TWA: The tendency
to occultism is a symbol of regression in consciousness. Monotheism is
decomposing into a second mythology, 'I believe in astrology because I
don't believe in God.'
GX 303: Right
again Einstein! Fuckin' Notting Hill sun worshippers! Scum of the earth.
Okay. Let's move on shall we to discuss the clubs that you DJ at. Tony,
you tour the country playing to packed houses in Leeds, Manchester and
Glasgow but you still turn up on your home turf every Friday. Is that important
to you as an artist?
I've been resident at the House of Chords for over four years now and the
amazing thing is that the vibe is still so strong after all that time.
It just feeds back into the music and seeing all those familiar faces week
after week really makes you want to turn on the style, you know.
ML: How would
you answer those charges of elitism that some in the music press have levelled
at you? After all, that strict door policy of yours is legendary.
but it's a necessary evil for any top club. I'm afraid you've got to be
selective to keep the atmosphere.
warmth, for the sake of profit, fabricates closeness and immediacy where
people are worlds apart.
mate, there's nothing fake about our atmosphere. You should come down and
check it out. Tell you what, why don't I put you on the guest list for
'Sigh' this Friday? If I put you down plus one you could bring a friend.
ML: It is
a 'must go' night Theodor, I've been loads of times. Maybe you can take
Max? Oh go on!
a state the dominant consciousness must have reached, when the resolute
proclamation of compulsive extravagance and champagne jollity, formerly
reserved to attaches in Hungarian operettas, is elevated in deadly earnest
to a maxim of right living.
I appreciate your conception of a fully commodified and administered leisure
culture but surely there's room for selfish abandon, or losing control.
GX 303: I
think she wants you to cheer up.
TWA: My friend,
Schiller's dictum that 'Life is good in spite of it all', has become idiocy
now that it is blown into the same trumpet as omnipresent advertising.
The entire practice of the culture industry transfers the profit motive
naked onto cultural forms. Ever since these cultural forms first began
to earn a living for their creators as commodities in the market-place
they had already possessed something of this quality.
GX 303: Well,
there are chances to stick a spanner in the works, just use a bit of cunning
TL: Why so
negative all the time? Honestly, knocking success is like a plague in this
GX 303: (laughs)
Sometimes it's necessary to squeeze something out of the mainstream, even
if it's only money to finance the real tunes. Use a different name in a
different style, or whatever takes yer fancy. Listen, are we done yet?
TWA: In the
age of the individual's liquidation, the question of individuality must
be raised anew. While the individual, like all individualistic processes
of production, has fallen behind the state of technology and become historically
obsolete, he becomes the custodian of truth, as the condemned against the
victor. A pencil and rubber are of more use to thought than a battalion
GX 303: Or
as we say in the old school, a Stylophone is more useful than CD mixer.
Thankyou and goodnight.
New Heads On The Block 1996.
back to top
in the Real
of the Real
at the End of the Century,
(cloth), $17.50/£11.50 (paperback)
Over ten years
ago, writing in the preface to his widely-read anthology Postmodern Culture,
Hal Foster proposed a distinction between two types of postmodernism. "In
cultural politics today," he observed, "a basic opposition exists between
a postmodernism which seeks to deconstruct modernism and resist the status
quo and a postmodernism which repudiates the former to celebrate the latter:
a postmodernism of resistance and a postmodernism of reaction."1
One of the virtues of The Return of the Real is that Foster hasn't forgotten
or otherwise neglected this distinction, with his new book holding to an
all-to-often dismissed concern for a radical and far-reaching critique
of the reactionary avenues of postmodern art and culture. But whether or
not it is actually possible, today, to develop and to act upon an extensive,
effective critique of capitalist culture is a question Foster, in the final
run, appears unable to answer.
But such a
question as that posed by Foster regarding the status and effectivity of
critical practice is perhaps the kind of question that can't easily be
answered, and certainly not in any direct sense. Nor can the role of the
critic and of criticism itself be reduced down to a few smartly argued
positions and theories. The Return of the Real virtually begins with an
acknowledgement of this intractable situation, with Foster launching straight
into a fistful of difficult questions concerning criticism itself: "what
is the place of criticism in a visual culture that is evermore administered--from
an artworld dominated by promotional players with scant need for criticism,
to a media world of communication-and-entertainment corporations with no
interest whatsoever? And what is the place of criticism in a political
culture that is evermore affirmative--especially in the midst of culture
wars that prompt the right to threaten love it or leave it and the left
to wonder where am I in this picture?" (p.xv). The emphatic tone thrown
out by such italicised speckles of text as are found in this and other
similarly searching passages of prose might very much irritate the reader
where he or she not also presented, throughout this work, with many instances
of a much less table thumping tone. Foster's postulates, his outline map
of recent and contemporary critical and aesthetic practice is, most of
the time, subtle enough to support the occasional conveyor-belt questioning.
There isn't too much finger-pointing actually. You don't often feel that
the local SWP representative is knocking on your door, pen and clipboard
in hand, asking you to sign up for "revolutionary" activities about which
they assume you so far know nothing.
In other words,
The Return of the Real is not a patronising book smugly plugging, as its
title might all too readily imply, a "return" to "commonsense" accounts
of art and its relation to politics. The "return" of the title doesn't
carry with it the sort of conservatism that was evident in, say, the "return
to painting" of the early 1980s, a loose but influential move within the
academic and curatorial art community that called for the resurrection
of good, "solid" technical skills and subject matter, these being pushed
as a morally uplifting response to all that funny conceptual stuff from
the late 1960s and 70s. In a recent interview Foster summarises the focus
located, if obscurely, within his title. It is, he tells us: "...meant
to evoke two different ideas of the real which govern much art and theory
today. The first is... the real of the obscene, of things that are too
close, too gross, to be represented, of things that resist the symbolic
or (better) that reveal its order to be in crisis, of which the damaged,
diseased, or dead body is then presented as evidence. The other is the
real of identity, of community, of site-specificity..."2
One of the
readings of the real that the book examines is, as Foster says in the Flash
Art interview, that of "...the present fascination with trauma. In both
popular and vanguard culture there is a reconception of appearance as traumatic--of
experience as its own loss, without punctual presence or coherent narrative."
 Chapter 5, the title of which echoes that
of the book, examines a range of artists whose work confronts the dismembered
or otherwise disaffected human body--the Warhol of car crash disasters and
race riots, Andres Serrano's morgue photographs, the oddly sectioned models
of bodies installed in galleries by Robert Gober, Cindy Sherman's paradoxical
self portraits--these works and those of other artists are subjected to
analyses grounded in the psycoanalytical considerations of Lacan and Kristeva.
It is the body and notions of self and other which are most directly addressed
here, a theme which is further taken up in the following chapter, a study
of the "otherness" of the Other and, indeed, of the very construction of
concepts of "the Other." If the issues at stake are complex the writing
is clear and to the point. Foster is at pains to stress what he argues
is now the dominant model of the artist: "the artist as ethnographer."
No longer championing the downtrodden proletariat (itself an extreme denomination
of alterity), contemporary practitioners have changed the site of their
gaze to that of the "Other" in terms of racial and cultural difference.
in the book several other positings of "the real" are given up to readings
of acute scrutiny. One "real" to which there is a return is the substantial
physical and intellectual reality offered by Minimalism and Conceptual
art. With such examinations it becomes apparent that Foster's sense of
return is in fact the opposite of that of the "return to painting" to which
I above refer. Foster's contention is that the radical issues raised in
the 1960s and 70s were themselves in part a return to an even earlier moment
of radical questioning, that of Dada and Surrealism (and these via another
"level" of return, that occupied by New York Dada, particularly that of
Rauchenberg and Kaprow). One begins to get a picture, as one progresses
through Foster's book, of an extremely clever intermeshing of events and
questions, relationships between "key" moments of twentieth-century art
practice and theory being drawn out in a convincing and subtly structured
way. Thus contemporary art has, in its important manifestations, returned
to what one might call "limit points" of previous practice. This "real"
is not the ideological real of academic, naturalised practice but a reality
that is that of the embodied human subject. Though two aspects of "the
real" are brought out in Foster's Flash Art interview remarks, the book's
title in fact appears to allude to a multiplicity of equally serious, equally
considered an outmoded notion, the entity of the avant-garde returns in
Foster's work as an immensely important trigger, a kind of avenging angel
returning from the future via the agency of innovative contemporary art.
Throughout his text Foster is keen to stress a notion of delay (partly
unpacked from the concepts of Freud) through which radical critique is
retrospectively connected to other insistent moments of transgression.
The figure of Walter Benjamin, particularly through his speculations upon
the correlation between two idiosyncratic historical periods, haunts Foster's
own network of moments, movements and spatial and chronological alignments.4
The very idea of the avant-garde suggests a time of waiting, a holding
out until the broader culture correctly (so to speak) connects with the
advance party of artists and thinkers whose aim it is to assemble and activate
the new reality. It is pertinent, then, that Foster's book begins with
the aforementioned set of questions about the function and possibility
of critical practice today, and equally apt that the discussion of these
concerns is immediately followed by a chapter scrutinising Peter Burger's
provocative Theory of the Avant-Garde, of which Foster is extremely critical.5
This leads into some consideration of the boundaries of art and its institutions.
There are many insights upon which one might ponder at length--I'll quote
just one: "...the institution of art may enframe aesthetic conventions,
but it does not constitute them." (p.25)
of concern in The Return of the Real include the "cynical" art of Jeff
Koons, Haim Steinbach, Ashley Bickerton and Peter Halley (amongst other
"Neo Geo" and related practitioners). Their "defiant complicity" (Bickerton)
is carefully disentangled. Much also is said about poststructuralist theory
and its direct connection with a great deal of the ambitious art of the
last twenty or thirty years. As one progresses through the book a large
number of discrete examples are drawn together to form a picture of late
twentieth century practice. Even if one sometimes disagrees with the detailing
and the dovetailing of contrasting territories, Foster's speculations generate
a mass of noteworthy directions for critical pursuit. I began by suggesting
that Foster isn't able to answer his own questions about contemporary art.
What is important though is that, at a time when much of the legacy of
conceptual art is scurrilously derivative in a shallow or more or less
uninteresting way (I refer to the eponymous phenomena of "Brit Art") Foster's
book convincingly suggests that work made in the 1960s and 70s provided
the grounds for genuinely radical practices to emerge. There is a hint
that the radical potential of much that took place two or three decades
ago has not yet been realised. Such an actual realisation, indeed even,
in a certain sense, the recognition of that period's latent potential,
allows for a field of practice of greater significance than that of the
limp one-liners upon which today's market spotlight all too tediously falls.
There is an understanding of fashion and its fluctuations buried within
Foster's analysis, one informed by a politics which, quite unfashionably,
is not afraid to call itself by that name. If Foster retains a belief in
the future emergence of a transformatory critical practice it is because
he grasps the unfinished form of culture which, even in this time of "evermore
administered" multinational capitalist expansion, is not open to reliable
prediction. That's one more way of considering the "real" of the book's
title: a real that has to be made in practice, in actuality, that isn't
already part of the foreseeable future. "There is a new set of concerns
amongst artists, critics, and audiences. I am not very active in this situation,
but I think there are important stakes there. And it makes me feel focused
again, for I see connections with what came before and what may lie ahead.
It is strange to be optimistic in a depressive moment, but I am." 
A Preface, in Hal Foster (Ed.) Postmodern Culture, Pluto Press, 1985, pp
xi - xii.
2. Miwon Kwon/Hal
Foster, The Return of the Real, An Interview with Hal Foster, Flash Art,
Vol. XXIV, No. 187, March - April 1996, p.63.
3. Ibid, p.63.
Benjamin, Theses on the philosophy of History, in Benjamin, Illuminations,
Fontana, 1979. Benjamin's The Author as Producer, a lecture delivered by
Benjamin in 1934, is another important work for Foster. It is included
in Benjamin's Understanding Brecht, NLB, 1977.
5. Peter Burger,
Theory of the Avant-Garde, Manchester University Press, 1984.
6. Hal Foster
in Kwon/Foster Flash Art.
back to top
I love trash..."
manufactured mass culture
pbk 185984 0361 £12.95 hbk 185984 9415 £39.95
mass culture has shifted considerably since the 1930s. This has much to
do with the rise of cultural studies as a separate discipline in the late
'60s. The old school socialist critique of mass culture as the embodiment
of false-consciousness, and the patrician liberal view of mass culture
as the destruction of taste and cultivation, have largely retreated, as
popular TV, Hollywood film, comics, and recently computer games, have become
acceptable areas of study. Crucial to this shift has been a critique of
conventional ideology theory. Following the work done by Gramsci and Bakhtin
on language and consciousness in the '30s, the orthodoxy in cultural studies
now is a rejection of what has been called, after Althusser, the dominant
ideology thesis. Mass culture, it is argued, doesn't reproduce dominant
ideology by coercively producing false-consciousness in passive consumers,
but is a space of conflicting identifications and desires. For instance,
the consumer of soap operas, does not take at face value their world of
comfortable homilies, but reads through and against the meanings of the
text according to the specifications of class, gender and race etc. This
dialogic approach has turned the study of mass culture from something that
is seen as manipulating the subject, to something that shapes it in contradictory
ways. TV is no longer judged as a one-way flow of homogeneous triviality
and unremitting vulgarity but a complex site of intentional pleasure seeking
and creative viewer-response.
In the 1980s
this dialogic model was widely used in cultural studies to counter the
revival of the Hegelianism under the extensive influence of Jean Baudrillard
and the Situationists. Baudrillard's understanding of mass culture though
was very different from other critics who saw mass culture as a total system
of control and the consumer as a mere ideological effect of this system.
For Baudrillard the widespread legitimation of the triviality and barbarism
of mass culture in the masses was not so much evidence of the super-commodified
subject, but in fact a wholesale rejection of the social democratic political
process itself. What he called the implosion of the social in the masses
was, for him, a kind of utilitarian act of disaffirmation. However, for
all its novel inversion of what constitutes resistance to bourgeois culture,
Baudrillard's model was clearly within a philosophic tradition which approached
mass culture in terms of the erosion of meaning, the homogenisation of
subjectivity and the de-politicisation of the public sphere. His later
writings may have become guide books for radicals in how to love the vertiginous
pleasures of the commodity, but nevertheless for Baudrillard mass culture
remains at base a forbiddingly abstract and pacifying experience.
It is little
surprise therefore that the dialogic school of cultural studies has upped
the ante on both the would-be fluid and open character of mass cultural
forms, and the idea of the consumer as an active, creative interpreter.
In the 1980s, in the construction of what might be termed a counter-postmodernism
or critical postmodernism, many writers on culture borrowed from a revisionist
post-Derridean school of philosophy in which the social itself was considered
to be elastic and open. Following on from Paul Hirst's infamous attack
in the 1970s on Marx's supposed economism--for Hirst material interests
cannot be held to have a determinate influence on class consciousness--the
political theorists Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, for example, insisted
on a separation of the link together. This allowed cultural theorists susceptible
to this kind of thinking in the name of anti-reductionism, to talk about
mass culture as if it was structurally open to its own critique, as if
the capitalist demands of cultural production could be turned over with
hard work and good intentions to enlightened and progressive interests.
GARGANTUA: manufactured mass culture steps into the debate. Yet, Stallabrass's
book is less a survey of the literature, or the settling of professional
scores within the field of cultural studies, than an unrepentant attack
on mass culture as such. "This work will look at stupidity" and "how the
decline of thought and principles makes acts of cruelty easier". It is
not often on the left these days you read a full-scale assault on mass
culture for its imbecility, boredom and wastefulness, the popular impact
of the dialogic model having made such sentiments appear deeply anti-populist
and 'out of touch'. But Stallabrass insists he is not anti-populist, but
merely a critic of the way the cultural studies industry has driven the
study of mass culture into a banal relativism. In this Gargantua positions
its critique of mass culture and cultural studies from within the modern
tradition of philosophical aesthetics. This is a book written out of the
ethical legacy of Adorno, Benjamin and Henri Lefebvre, and thus out of
a philosophic engagement with the artwork as the negative 'other' of commodification.
particular, has come to define the high-ground of the debate. In his aesthetics
art has the potential to stand athwart the culture industry given its subjective
drive to continually outreach the powers of discursive reason. What art
carries before it, therefore, is the possibility of the subject's non-identification
with brute social reality, a possibility made in the name of a greater
freedom forever touched, but always out of reach this side of the end of
the rule of capital. For Adorno this does not mean a defence of art as
freedom, but a recognition that however coerced art might be by commodification,
its drive to self-determination coincides with the principle of freedom
itself: the pursuit of individuation. When postmodernists argue, then,
that we are living in a period when the divide between high culture and
mass culture has lost all distinction they confuse the very real expansion
of art's commodification--its industrial development as 'entertainment'--with
the notion that art's claims for critical autonomy have been superseded.
Stallabrass argues, quite rightly, that this supersession is a myth.
defence of critical autonomy and critique of mass culture is very heterodox
and at times confused. Stallabrass, in fact, is not interested in giving
any kind of post-Adornian defence of autonomy at all, just as his critique
of mass culture, despite his coolness towards Baudrillard, is extraordinarily
one-dimensional. What interests him first and foremost is the possible
radical content of those popular practices that are in internal disalignment
with mass culture such as graffiti and amateur photography, where he perceives
the disenchantment with mass culture and the social democratic political
process to be a broad, collective activity (albeit cut across by age and
gender). Autonomous art's implicit critique of mass culture may sustain
a utopian glimpse of world beyond capital, but this is confined to a narrow
middle-class base. Whatever form the self-conscious incorporation of these
limits might take in the production and theorisation of art cannot alter
this fact. Popular practices such as amateur photography, and to a lesser
extent graffiti, on the other hand, are the result of a generalised will
to knowledge, self-representation and creativity. "Slipping out of the
noose of avant-garde fashionability amateur photography takes fragments
of the world as evidence for an order of things, forcing them into making
sense". "Graffiti...is...consciously oppositional art. It is a 'criminal
act', made in defiance of commercial and governmental authorities". In
this respect the issue of a self-conscious autonomy is less significant
for Stallabrass than the idea of popular cultural practices as a kind of
unconscious resistance. Because amateur photographers are concerned with
recording an event or scene for their own use and memorialisation this
represents a "radical moment" of refusal of commodification.
photographers take photographs in 'philistine' defiance of the bourgeois
categories of professional art practice there is no doubt; and there is
no doubt that this in certain circumstances can have an explicit class
consciousness. Just as urban graffiti is evidence of a thwarted socialised
individuality. But 'unconscious resistance' remains unconscious, that is,
it remains below the level of what Adorno demanded of freedom: self-reflexivity.
The issue, here, therefore, is not about the aesthetic value of such practices
in relation to the professional categories of art, but how the symptoms
and contingent gestures of working-class resistance are theorised in relation
to the social cost paid in the split between art and mass culture. Stallabrass
is very critical of middle-class cultural theorists projecting their ideas
on the non-specialist consumers of mass culture, but I detect a similar
kind of projection at work in his theory of cultural resistance. Indeed
what is striking about Stallabrass's use of the modern tradition of philosophic
aesthetics is his turn to the romantic-primitivism of many of the debates
on aesthetics and politics from the '30s. Thus what runs throughout the
book is less an Adornian dialectics than a reworked notion of the aesthetics
of transgression. Stallabrass's defence of graffiti is loosely reminiscent
of Bakhtin's theory of the carnivalesque, just as his evaluation of amateur
photography remains very close to Lefebvre's endorsement of photographic
naturalism as politically more progressive than the avant-garde. As with
early Bakhtin and Lefebvre, Stallabrass treats popular cultural practices
as oppositional to the overwrought and etiolated intellectual concerns
of official, professionalised forms and languages. Subversion lies in unselfconscious
playfulness. Such 'primitivism' though is not so much counter-hegemonic
as anti-hegemonic. The issue is not that graffiti and amateur photography
do not at some level contest bourgeois categories of competence and value
in art, but that this contestation is always orientated to the 'unformed'
as radical in itself. In the name of authenticity contestation is identified
as a form of 'not knowing'. These problems are at their sharpest in the
chapter on trash.
is the theoretical core of the book. It is also the point where Stallabrass's
aesthetic 'primitivism' is connected in an explicit fashion to the questions
of art and cultural theory. If Bakhtin and Lefebvre play a formative role,
here it is Bataille refracted through Benjamin's theory of allegory and
Michael Thompson's 'Theory of Rubbish'. Bataille's theory of the unformed
or informol is well known: the ignoble, the excremental, the impure, what
he called the base, were the means whereby the fixed hierarchies of bourgeois
rationalism might be rent and destabalised. This direct embrace of the
abject and lowly clearly has affinities with Benjamin's allegorisation
of the cultural fragment as the symptomatic ruin of modernity's shattered
whole. Both positions look to what is remaindered or 'beyond' received
cultural codes and forms of attention as a means of symbolic interruption.
Since the 1930s and Surrealism this allegorisation of the remnant as ruin
has flowed into many practices: Warhol, early conceptualism, critical postmodernism,
contemporary post-conceptual work. But, following his subordination of
the specialist to the popular, Stallabrass is less interested in the 'primitive'
or philistine as a problem of ideological positionality internal to the
dynamics of art, power and knowledge, than in a defence of trash as the
universal other of bourgeois culture itself. As he says: "To look to destruction
for the positive, and for critique in garbage, is one way of saying how
bad things are". In other words, to recognise trash as the remains of the
commodity's allure is to break with the false perceptions of fetishism
and therefore to release the ruin's allegorical potential. But if this
allegorical power is not to be found in the avant-garde, where is it to
be found?: in the street itself. The broken shell of the commodity lying
in the skip, the mound of rotting rubbish and discarded household goods
on the pavement, functions as part of a continuous, unconscious, permanent
act of criticism of the culture.
of rubbish as the ubiquitous 'other' of capitalist rationality and the
accelerated turnover of the commodity is the key focus of Stallabrass's
cultural politics and his notion of critical practice. He replays, therefore,
one of the most routinised aspects of early modernism's romantic-primitivism:
the idea that the unformed, the grotesque, the anti-aesthetic can provide
a utopian glimpse beyond the limits of capitalist order and linearity.
Thus he appears to believe that every time we pass a rubbish dump (or for
that matter a graffitied underpass) or every time the kitchen bin is full
to overflowing we experience a moment of critical insight into the law
of value. Rubbish pushes us up close to the brittle surface of the commodity.
Whatever the merits of rubbish as a denaturaliser of vision, this is a
highly abstract base to begin a cultural politics from. Indeed in a certain
way Stallabrass's 'primitivism' reminds me of that leap in faith the early
Lukacs was left defending in his writing on class consciousness and commodification.
For Lukacs, with the expansion of the commodity form and the rise of modern
forms of social control and administration, workers' consciousness of capitalism
as a total system is subject to the iron logic of atomisation and fragmentation,
it would therefore have to take an extraordinary leap in revolutionary
understanding for this to change. In Stallabrass's cultural politics the
individual's relationship to rubbish seems to function in a similar kind
of way to Lukacs' millenarian understanding of history; unconcerned with
specific questions of agency and representation rubbish-as-a-site-of-consciousness
raising becomes strangely hollow and compensatory.
And this is
the fundamental problem with gargantua. Stallabrass is not at all concerned
with art as a set of immanent and institutional problems, even if he accepts
the explanatory power of Adorno's 'aesthetic paradox', or law of the divided
whole. It leaves him then with a highly attentuated base from which to
practice and theorise art, an inflexible model of mass culture as banalised
coercion, and a romanticised cultural politics in which an undifferentiated
account of the 'primitive' carries a universal utopian content. From this
it is clear that Stallabrass is responding to many of the substantive issues
that are currently preoccupying contemporary art theory in the wake of
the expansion of the power of mass culture in the '80s and '90s, and the
exhaustion of '80s counter-hegemonic art strategies. Yet because of his
over generalised attack on mass culture, the avant-garde and contemporary
cultural studies, he is left stranded with good intentions and an over
formalised sense of the structural constraints on an 'art of the every
day' in a divided society.
back to top
and Tim Noble
Art Space London, June 22August 3.
A Union Jack
rubbish bin, flattened to resemble an oversized cod-piece, greeted visitors
to British Rubbish. I wanted to ask where the safety pins were but I resisted
the temptation, not wishing to offend the two artists invigilating their
show. I shouldn't have worried. A catalogue featuring biographical fragments
included ironic references to Punk and a number of crudely drawn self-portraits
portrayed Noble and Webster as foul-mouthed misfits. All this served to
reference the zenith of white, teenage rebellion as a vanishing point for
the pair's work; a period revisited by more than a few artists and critics
of late. Neville Wakefield has argued that Punk's legacy is a crucial component
of the new art currently being produced by the Brilliant generation, particularly
Punk's DIY entrepreneurial spirit, but also its promotion of shock tactics,
which Wakefield has unfortunately attempted to place in a tradition of
détournement. Noble and Webster's unashamedly hammy performance
as white trash, however, was without romance and raised questions about
other artists behaving badly.
was a collection of crude allegories and cheap jokes and the exhibition
appeared as something not all together wholesome amidst the diversions
offered by the 'Capital's' other summer shows. The installation Everything
Was Wonderful was one such allegory: hidden behind an impeccable privet-hedge,
this Tamazipan induced utopia presented a suburban or country garden, populated
by a family of mechanical rabbits. The rabbits ate, fucked and bobbed out
of holes, but they seemed far from wild. The slow repetitive movements
of these petite-bourgeois animals indicated that they were probably pets
belonging to the children of the Stepford (or Cheltenham) Wives. This installation,
comparable to the occasional displays of paradise in shopping malls, could
have been interpreted as a timely reminder that 'England is still dreaming',
but there remains a possibility that the artists were celebrating the unproductive
and the useless as well.
and Webster's exhibition did employ a liberal dose of vernacular culture,
by labelling themselves and their work British Rubbish the pair managed
to distance themselves from the hiatus surrounding the 'Britishness' of
new British Art, or at least the hip, swinging Britishness currently being
celebrated both here and abroad. Through this act of self-degradation,
Noble and Webster cultivated a negativity at a time when the feel the good
factor had reached endemic proportions in Britain's art scene. As Julian
Stallabrass has recently written, new commodities are trash waiting to
happen, and Noble and Webster similarly repudiate the new, tarnishing the
high production values of their installations in the process. Despite this
negativity though, Noble and Webster did not distance themselves from a
vernacular of British popular culture as their allegorical installations
clearly located the artists in a specific geopolitical space.
of non-productivity was pursued further in Noble and Webster's other installation,
entitled Idealistic Nonsense, which featured a collection of mechanically
powered workmen. Inane grins and kindly eyes gave the workers something
of the appearance of Hasêks Good Soldier Svejk, the infamous imbecile
who spread disaster whenever his masters called upon him to perform his
duties and whose reckless stupidity was often matched by a knowing cruelty.
Standing amidst white plinths, the workmen could have been mistaken for
DIY enthusiasts, stupidly spending their leisure time working, but they
were far too uniform in appearance. They could have been a team of Minimalist
sculptors too, but they were clearly trying to waste time and had no love
of the materials before them. One worker hammered, one painted and another
sawed; all laboured ineffectively. Another workman was squatting with his
trousers around his ankles behind a large plinth at the back of the installation;
he was enjoying the sensation of a small turd nearly, but not quite, plopping
out of his arse on to the painted white surface. A fifth worker hidden
inside a plinth revealed his presence by moving his finger in and out of
a small hole drilled in the plinth's side. The pleasure gained from this
mindless activity may have lain in its crude sexual connotations, but it
was just as likely to be pleasure accumulated from avoiding hard work in
a dead end job.
Nonsense exhibited a clear lack of commitment to get down to the difficult
tasks of constructing ideals, building the future or confronting the present
and it serves as a good example of the propensity to be useless that Noble
and Webster share with a good many others. If this lack of commitment infuriates
those Post-Conceptual critical types, who see such attitudes as an abandonment
of hard won theoretical positions, then it is worth remembering that those
Avant-Garde projects that refused to be functional were collective experiments
in doing nothing; which, as Denis Hollier has suggested, was a way of avoiding
an aestheticization of politics: something that artists employing a Post-Structuralist
paradigm often failed to do at the turn of the decade.
in irresponsibility, however, does not account for the specific voices
and narratives being adopted by a growing number of artists. Like Sarah
Lucas, Gavin Turk and Bank; Noble and Webster use narratives and voices
that employ a vernacular of British popular culture to evoke, what Slavoj
Zùõzùek has called, a fantasy of a collective existence.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that at the same moment new British Art developed
a successful and distinctive voice, something of a fantasy of collective
life emerged in 'Brit Pop' culture too: the most recent and voracious example
of this collective fantasy in England must be football's 'homecoming' for
Euro 96. Zùõzùek suggests that such collective narratives
erupt after being repressed by cultural institutions and he concludes that
this experience of repression is felt as a theft of enjoyment. The return
of the repressed is sometimes liberating and sometimes ugly, as in Zùõzùek's
own country of origin, the former Yugoslavia. In Britain's contemporary
art scene, the return of specific everyday voices and narratives has acted
to frustrate those institutionalised and aestheticised Post-Modern sensibilities
cultivated in the eighties, but at the same time the current hiatus risks
an affirmation of stereotypes and cultural chauvinism. This is where the
more astute new British artists resist such dead-ends, by problematising
identity whilst still enjoying the luxury of bad behaviour and irresponsibility.
In contrast to an artist such as Sam Taylor-Wood, whose piece Slut is a
one-dimensional celebration of a stereotype, Sarah Lucas's adoption of
an aggressive, and often derogatory, vulgar male voice impacts upon her
identity as a female artist, creating a complex and contradictory voice.
This complexity is also found in the early work of Gavin Turk whose appropriations
of British popular culture and the products of fame, through such objects
as a wax work Sid Vicious and a heritage plaque, are confounded by the
museum format Turk uses for the display of his work: Turk presents his
work and himself as already being dead; that is, as already being consumed
by the culture industry. Following the lead of their contemporaries, Noble
and Webster similarly refuse to affirm the vernacular that they embrace
and thus complicate their identity as British artists.
There is though
another level to Noble and Webster's work, but it is one that they have
less control over. It concerns the fabrication of identity, which is something
that has become an important feature of new British Art. From the bad boy
posturing of Hirst to the recent successes of Tracy Emin and the Chapman
Brothers, there has been an emphasis on the 'personality' of an artist,
which has greatly assisted the successful reception of contemporary art
by the media. Considering the emphasis placed upon the individual in the
economic and social culture of the eighties and early nineties, this is
perhaps not surprising. Noble and Webster address this 'personality factor'
in their drawings and their catalogue by portraying themselves as foul-mouthed
wannabees and labelling themselves 'The Shit and The Cunt' after the patron
saints of new British Art, Gilbert and George. However, although Noble
and Webster attempt to construct themselves as negatives, they still want
success, quite reasonably, as a lack of success can equal marginalisation
and silence; and to achieve visibility entails making the right moves and
knowing the right people, which contradicts their representation of themselves
as misfits. This is a dilemma faced by any artist attempting to maintain
a negativity within their work and it is a contradiction that can not be
easily resolved. In a timely intervention Noble and Webster take this contradiction
to its limit. The duo wear their petite-bourgeois career aspirations on
their sleeves and, through their second-hand Gilbert and George posturing,
flog a dead horse to good effect.
back to top
King cut and pastes his way through some current experimental CD releases.
the racks of the more discerning record stores it is heartening to see
a renaissance in the fields of experimentation and collaboration. Musical
barriers and genres are becoming less divided, distinctions and labels
are becoming blurred, paving the way for a wealth of audio adventures and
electronic possibilities. Seemingly disparate musicians converge in the
studio and live arena; Improv veterans like AMM's Eddie Prevost engaging
with Kinetic sculptor Max Eastley and guitar loop-drone guru Robert Hampson
(Main), sax supremo Lol Coxhill fusing with the pacific electronica of
Australian Paul Schütze, the list is endless. The results creating
new cross cultural currents in music's textural paths. This cross fertilisation
is being embraced on an international scale and has emerged from the (post)
Industrial scene and the realm of 're-mix culture'.
For a prime
example of this new hybrid you need look no further than the latest CD
ep by ethno primitive percussionists O Yuki Conjugate. Sunchemical (Staalplaat,
STCDO96) is six radically different reworkings of this track from their
(highly recommended) 'Equator' album (an eclectic fusion of tongue drums,
marimbas, body percussion and other world instruments). Highlights of this
ep being the intricate droning soundscapes achieved by the aforementioned
Robert Hampson and a dancefloor reworking by Charles Webster, the slow
keyboards wash over delicate pulsing drum loops and by the time the bass
kicks in you can almost imagine a sea of hands held high in dance anthem
is a member of OYC and has recently launched a mail order only label (7°)
with Paul Schütze. During a recent meeting with Andrew he explained
that "We just want to keep total control over something for a change, this
is our response to various bad experiences with labels over the years,
we'll (Paul and myself) be handling every aspect of the releases on the
label". Admirable sentiments that pay off as is evident in their first
release, Fell (7°, 960115) is a lavishly packaged (foil embossed, hardback,
cloth bound, signed and numbered limited edition of 999) collaboration
by Schütze & Hulme. Andrew is a seasoned world traveller and has
amassed an impressive digital collection of environmental sounds, ranging
from hi-fi markets in Bangkok to roadside Gamelan in Bali. They have taken
extracts from these recordings and woven them into a seamless travelogue
of electronic exotica. Repeated listening to Fell continue to reveal the
dedication that has gone into this work, new sounds continue to emerge
if you listen beyond the ebb and flow of the electronics and attempt to
follow the street noises or even the faint strains of the gamelan. This
isn't linear listening by any means, the digital editing involved here
has created many paths to follow, and listening to this in the open air
adds further depth to this remarkable work.
the outside environment, the latest release on the American based Projekt
label, Steve Roach & Vidna Obmana--Well of Souls (Projekt 60) creates
a sense of immense space over its two disc set. Roach is best known for
his early 'new age' synth epics and more recently with his embracing of
ethnic and handmade percussion works (including using his Cannondale mountain
bike) whist VO's Dirk Serries has emerged from a post industrial background
to a current approach of an almost minimalist form of sound painting. Combined
they have produced a stunning collection of material that is a vast expanse
of lush keyboards, disembodied voices, didjeridu and percussion. Titles
like 'The Quiet Companion' and 'In the Presence of Something' hint at what
they are trying to achieve here, this music is meditational and contemplative
and a welcome change to the daily noise that pollutes our minds. In fact
(as a side issue), recent publications from the World Forum For Acoustic
Ecology have pointed to evidence that indicates that day to day noise is
having a detrimental effect on our bodies. The packaging for Well of Souls
mirrors the sounds within, warm ochre colours blend and almost reveal what
appears to be tribal paintings from some previously undiscovered race.
There is nothing 'solid' to grasp onto here, just as you start to identify
a sound it fades and moves of to allow a new texture to emerge. A release
that you will return to again and again.
ambient trio that is Tuu have been something of a personal favourite since
their first release a couple of years ago, so I was excited to receive
Maps Without Edges (Beyond, RBADCD16) by Stillpoint a collaborative venture
from Tuu's Martin Franklin, percussionist Eddie Sayer (from Lights In a
Fat City) and flautist, performance artist Nick Parkin. Similar in many
ways to Well of Souls the material contained here is a trance inducing
excursion to lost lands. Maps is a slow inward improvised spiral of rich
textures. A dense blanket of processed gongs envelopes the deep pulsing
tones of the water drums, whilst the quiet ebb and flow of the percussion
and incidental sounds is occasionally broken by peaks of fractal electronics.
A fascinating work.
If all of
this sounds a bit too organic for your noise craving ears then hard-wire
yourself into the future courtesy of alt.frequencies (Worm Interface, WI007)
a compilation put together by Rockitt (DJ / musician and owner of record
store 'Ambient Soho'). This is the sound of a recombinant digital culture
morphing into new cell structures almost as soon as your finger hits play
on the CD player. Forget media hype buzzwords, intelligent techno--drum
'n' bass--hardstep, alt.frequencies invents new ones and watches them implode.
Highlights include the hyper electronic tempos of Freeform, the drill 'n'
bass velocity of Tom Jenkinson (aka Squarepusher), the smooth urban sprawl
soundscapes of Coma (Astral Engineering) and the crystal shard electronica
of Gescom (Autechre). The remaining seven contributions (from WI artists
and friends) covers similar ground and planted there are the seeds of new
approaches to experimental / electronic music, all wrapped up in an exquisite
hand finished textured card sleeve, what more could you want?
Box 2222, London W1A 1XD
Beyond - Pinnacle
- Pinnacle / D.O.R. Infinity.
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Miller - Witch
Witch is an
independently produced comic by Glasgow Based artist Lorna Miller: after
the usual treatment by the old poops in the painting department of Glasgow
School of Art, she found healthier inspiration in her gradual awareness
of a network of women artists producing comics, particularly through the
example of Canadian artist Julie Doucet's autobiographical work, and Witch
is now in its third issue. Miller is part of the group centred around Parade
(with Chris Watson, Yves Tanitoc, Marc Baines and Craig Conlon) which is
not just a comic but also a support network, and she is also part of SCCAM
a loose association of 100 or so comic makers. While the comic scene in
Glasgow can still be caricatured as having a 'loveable' tendency towards
the sci-fi male anorak, thick spectacles and a certain retention in and
around the anus, it has nevertheless endured, and--perhaps for reasons particular
to the status of the medium--it can encompass an independence of spirit,
invention and international influence, a strand of which includes the American
underground of the 60s and 70s: for those familiar with such comics one
could describe Witch as a raw version of Raw and Parade a less Arcadian
version of Arcade.
Is Witch a
comic for girls in a male dominated arena? According to Miller most of
the readership has been male. Girl's comics are understandably something
of an influence, but an influence which takes into consideration that they
were designed by men and express plainly stupid notions of what those men
thought girls were after. Sorry guys but it looks like all the Bunty's
dedicated propaganda about ponies, good deeds, ponies, healthy out-door
pursuits and ponies was either wasted on the young Lorna or has festered
into subversion in the pages of Witch and its all your fault. As I remember
it, the cut-out-and-dress doll was never a large kilted hunk with a thick
tallywhacker or an 'Elvis Fertility Doll' with an even thicker one. Even
though it is practically a certainty that masturbatory aids would have
boosted the Bunty's sales, the guys who wrote it just didn't want to take
their chances in court. Witch is better described as a comic for adults,
all you need is some loose change and a slightly twisted sense of humour.
Witch subtly shifts in its approach to drawing, responding to the mood
of the artist, generating an appropriate pace and atmosphere for the subject
matter created: a situation strip on the sheer rat-bastard tedium of relationships
is loose and spontaneous; while 'Jane' is a combination of Commando style
graphic art as a background, with its ever so slightly emancipated 'heroine'
incongruously superimposed both graphically and in her satirical response
to what the hell is going on around her. Other different approaches feature
reworkings of 50's representations of women, including uncomfortably salacious
material from ostensibly innocent film annual biographies of 'starlets,'
or lunatic advertisements for various things unmentionable in polite society,
but deliciously poured over here. While the wholesome world of 'true love'
is not exactly ignored as a theme, its treatment does--like the activities
of certain insects--have the tendency to end in at least G.B.H. if not the
decapitation of the male, and yet imbue the feeling that this is no sad
loss to the world.
Witch is very, very funny and comes highly recommended, sadly though, as
with most small press productions it has encountered the usual reluctance
from distributors, even from 'Comic Shops.' Miller is open to responses
from readers: "even if people don't want the comic I'd still be interested
in hearing from other women out there and finding out their views on what
be obtained from Hi-Tone Art & Design, 120 Sydney Street, North Gallowgate,
Glasgow G31 1JF. Readers can obtain a list of other titles distributed
from: Peter Pavement, Slab O' Concrete, PO Box 148, Hove, East Sussex,
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and Videos in Paris
time (16.00 hrs) on the first and last Sunday of each month, Corine Miret
and Stephane Olry organise a screening of video works in their apartment
in the Le Marais district in Paris. Tea and biscuits are served in the
living room while the bedroom is set up for viewing.
wanted to combat that "terminal" Sunday feeling, the terrible boredom of
the day in the week they both dreaded. Corine--a fan of different kinds
of teas--combined their enjoyment for tea and cake with a good excuse for
cleaning and rearranging their apartment to focus into the organisation
of Thes Videos.
Set up in
1993, their public grew gradually through word of mouth and from Stephane
and Corine's contacts within the world of art, theatre, dance, cabaret
and multi-media events, Corine Miret is a dancer, Stephane Olry is a theatre
director and writer and together they operate a production company called
"La Revue Eclair" which organises large multi-media events.
Videos, invitation cards are sent out every few months to already established
contacts and some are left in gallery spaces. The invitation cards are
mainly to announce when screenings will recommence after the summer, winter
or autumn breaks or when Corine and Stephane have returned from travelling
and working outside Paris.
free but a donation box is situated in the lobby for contributions, a list
of video works is provided when viewers enter. All videos are selected
from their personal archive, to date, the archive comprises of sixty to
seventy videos mainly by French makers with a few other Belgian, Dutch
and German works. The organisers collect and screen video work that they
like, their choice is purely subjective. This becomes evident when they
introduce individual works and give a brief background to them, they take
a great delight in what they show.
is for direct, live to camera works in 'real time,' often with an element
of humour. They do not favour flash technical skills and paint-box usage.
In this sense their archive represents a current trend in art for highly
subjective personal works in 'real time.'
On the occasion
I was there, one video played showing its maker (head and shoulders shot
to camera) singing a well-known French pop song without the aid of music
or an accompanying record. All the pauses, timing and intonations were
perfectly studied and memorised and the video maker's complete sincerity
in his rendition caused great hilarity amongst viewers.
Three to four
new titles appear each month. The archive grows organically through word
of mouth and it is the video makers themselves who approach Thes Videos
with their works.
Care is taken
to inform each video maker about the reception of their video, to describe
and explain the context within which the work will be shown if the maker
is not already familiar with Thes Videos. This is important as throughout
a screening viewers may come and go, out for a cigarette, a cup of tea
or a chat. The television/monitor itself is more than simply a 'black box,'
being camouflaged in a 50s sci-fi style and set up as a unique, almost
sacred object. Mattresses and cushions are littered across the floor accommodating
ten persons comfortably and fifteen at a push. The apartment is spacious
enough, but for organisational ease numbers do not exceed twenty/twenty-five.
In 'le salon' where tea is served, viewers get together to decide what
they would like to watch. A list of video works is provided on entering,
these being generally of short duration, between three and five minutes,
with the occasional thirty to fifty minute video included for those who
enjoy an element of perseverance. Some people turn up uniquely to view
videos, others come simply to discuss, without watching a single work.
Stephane are themselves video makers, producing video postcards whenever
they travel, and naturally they are included in the archive for viewing.
started up again in September and any video maker passing through Paris
with a copy of their video under their arm, and in need of a cup of tea
can contact Corine Miret and Stephane Olry: 11 Rue Des Arquebusiers, 75003
Paris. Telephone 42 77 16 62
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no success like failure
interviews ex-K Foundation
It began with
a phone call from a publicist who asked if I'd like an all expenses paid
helicopter trip across Dartmoor to witness former KLF star Jimmy Cauty
demonstrate his sonic gun. Next came a press release which promised that
the formidable and highly dangerous Saracen Armoured Personnel Carrier
Audio Weapons System would transmit sonic frequencies and run down photographers
for my amusement. The press statement was accompanied by sixteen pages
of recent cuttings detailing the deadly effect Cauty's 'noise tank' had
on cattle when he demonstrated the weapon for the amusement of a few friends.
From the start,
I suspected something dodgy was going on. Cauty built his career in the
music industry on the back of stunts and scams. The first KLF album 1987
received rave reviews, but the record was soon suppressed by lawyers acting
for ABBA who objected to the heavy sampling of their hit single Dancing
Queen. Drummond and Cauty milked the legal proceedings for press coverage,
then released a new version of the LP with all the samples removed and
detailed instructions on how to recreate the original sound. Later scams
included dumping a dead sheep outside the Brit Awards ceremony at which
they were named Best British Group. Shortly after this, the KLF announced
that they would not be releasing any new material in the foreseeable future
and that their entire back catalogue was deleted.
themselves as the K Foundation, Cauty and Bill Drummond turned up at the
1993 Turner Prize to humiliate winner Rachel Whiteread with a forty thousand
pound award for being the world's worst artist. This was followed by a
controversial trip to Scotland, during the course of which the duo burnt
one million pounds. In November 1995, they selected the Workshop For A
Non-Linear Architecture Bulletin to announce a 23 year moratorium on K
Foundation activities. This privately circulated newsletter is so obscure
that news of the moratorium is only just beginning to seep through to the
Drummond is currently collaborating with former rocker Zodiac Mindwarp
on a series of novels, Cauty is pursuing various solo projects, including
an album of his sonic experiments for release on Blast First Records. After
my initial dealings with this outfit, I was more than a little perplexed
when further details of the Dartmoor trip were faxed to me by a PR company
working on behalf of the band Black Star Liner. Having made it as far as
one of the fifty block booked seats on a Devon bound train, I was presented
with a set of ear plugs and a personal safety waiver to sign. Since most
of those present were acting as though they were on some Boy's Own Adventure,
I moved along to the next carriage where I was able to relax. After working
out that I'd switched seats, publicists began dropping by to ply me with
drinks and plug Black Star Liner, who were performing after Cauty had demonstrated
his noise tank.
By the time
we boarded a helicopter at Exeter airport, the majority of journalists
present were at least mildly drunk. Then, after a twenty minute chopper
ride, disaster struck. The pilot announced that we couldn't land because
a mist had swept across the moor. Instead, we returned to Exeter airport
where we were told a coach would pick us up and transport us to the acoustic
weapons test site. After an hour of waiting, the PR people were going crazy.
Meanwhile, an assortment of journalists and photographers were having luggage
cart races around an otherwise deserted passenger concourse. The airport
had closed down for the night, until one of our party succeeded in activating
the public address system and went into pirate DJ mode.
guard appeared and attempted to restore order when a bored music journalist
switched on a luggage conveyer and one of his friends disappeared down
it. Finally, a fleet of cabs conveyed us to the Latern Inn at Ashburton.
We'd already misses Black Star Liner. The free bar only mildly improved
the gloomy atmosphere that hung over the event. To make us feel better,
every journalist present was promised an interview with Jimmy Cauty. We
had to go through to another room and talk to Jimmy one at a time. First
up was Tony from i-D, who came back quietly complaining that all he got
was some incoherent babble about drugs.
When my turn
came, I began by asking about the burning of the million quid. Jimmy flatly
refused to talk about the K Foundation. Next, I asked Cauty if he was up
on the latest research into frequency weapons, which got a much better
response. "I know very little about military research into the uses of
low frequency sounds as weapons. All this stuff about Advanced Acoustic
Armaments is a joke, all I've done is mounted some disco gear onto my two
Saracen tanks. Everything the press has written about the sonic guns I'm
supposed to have built is just rubbish, the papers want to believe this
stuff which is why they are so easy to hoax."
cost fifty thousand pounds to put on," Cauty cackled after I told him about
the debacle at Exeter airport, "and I'm really pleased with it. What happened
at the airport was as much a part of the entertainment as what I did up
on the moor. I'd intended to detain everyone up there, the fog coming down
was a real stroke of luck. The performance was sponsored by Black Bin Liner
and their record company because they thought they'd gain some radical
credibility from the stunt. It might have blown up on the band, but it
will still get their name around. After all, they've just played the most
expensive pub rock gig ever!"
So there you
have it. Jimmy Cauty the side-splitting avant-garde manipulator of the
art of hype, who leaves journalists and PR people trapped in a web of their
own making. Or, Jimmy Cauty the pop star whose promotional stunts end in
Fiasco? The choice is yours. In a knowing post-modern sort of way, I think
it's best to accept both versions of Cauty as true.
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