Text from "Loss of Gravity"
Exhibition catalogue, ArtSway 2002

Ah! This Life is So Everyday
after Patrick Caulfield
Sometimes I see something so moving I know I’m not supposed to linger. See it and leave. If you stay too long, you wear out the wordless shock. Love it and trust it and leave.
Don DeLillo, Underworld

Someone told me recently that there are mathematicians or statisticians or experts of some sort who can demonstrate that there is no such thing as random. I have neither the mind nor yet the time to discover the truth of this. But I like it very much as a plausible fact, and it suggests to me as its own corollary that there is no such thing as coincidence, or at least that which we think we mean by coincidence. For things clearly coincide, but when we remark upon such coincidence it is because we find it remarkable, because we believe it to be the manifestation of a phenomenon or driving force. Coincidence and, so it seems, randomness, are matters of perception. It is our perceptions which are the driving force.(1)

My residency in the digital media suite at ArtSway commenced on September 11, 2001. The fate of the twin towers unfolded over the web and the radio during the day. Like many people, I took this terrible, global event personally, and it seemed certain to affect the work I would make. I had had in mind the form my residency activity might take and the direction it would lead, but the material I would use was less certain. A short while earlier I had been commissioned by Reading Borough Council to make a web-based artwork, in response to the memorial to Oscar Wilde which the council had commissioned from sculptor Bruce Williams and poet Paul Muldoon. My strategy had been to follow the principle of a book on the subject I had already designed for the council, by presenting Muldoon’s verses about imprisonment and freedom in front of a cloudy blue sky. I wanted this sky to be crossed by a plane with a vapour trail, by way of placing it in the present rather than referring to the era of Wilde himself. Thus that summer I had amassed several hours of video tape of planes in the sky, and had in mind that on the residency I would initially work with this material to develop the themes of flight and escape.

In the back of my mind was the title of an exhibition for which I had been responsible in the ’eighties, of the work of Ray Ward, which he had called I Shall Do Nothing But Stare At The Sky. Now released part-time from my duties as an exhibition organiser, and with an open brief, I thought this a good slogan to adopt; the crude metaphor of ‘blue-sky thinking’ seemed to fit, and I envisaged an optimistic work, filled with the sound of planes on a summer’s day.
World events on the first day of the residency seemed to cancel my upbeat agenda. And the fact that it was the very first day caused me to perceive it as a personal coincidence. I made high-resolution, colour scans of black and white photographs of aeroplanes and enlarged them until each pixel was millimetres wide, finding inadvertent images of fiery destruction enclosed within. “I have the sense,” I wrote at the time, “of looking very, very hard at something to discover a new truth about it.” I went home and continued with Don DeLillo’s Underworld,2 a novel I have been reading without completing for almost two years, so distracting is the precision of its language. The book has the twin towers on its jacket, describes warplanes stockpiled in the desert in just the manner of those civil aircraft depicted in Sunday supplements after airlines started folding in the wake of the terrorist attack. There I read:
“A photograph is a universe of dots. The grain, the halide, the little silver things clumped in the emulsion. Once you get inside a dot, you gain access to hidden information, you slide inside the smallest event.”

Michael Ondaatje’s comment quoted on the front of Underworld says “it contains multitudes”, and so it does: it is a bible of a book which will always coincide with other events and always seem to be about you. But I felt hemmed in by coincidence, a palpable force for all its unreality.

So I got along with completing my commission for Reading and let the sky wait. And then one day the train to Sway underwent one of those inexplicable pauses, becalmed for a few minutes on the bridge at Totton which affords fine views in one direction of all the mighty cranes of Southampton docks, and of Totton Nature Reserve in the other. Birds, of indeterminate species, were flocking over the marshland, swooping and swirling in perfect unison as flocking birds so often do. The woman across the way commented quietly to her companion; the youth further down the compartment looked out and swore luridly. It was an exaggerated reaction to a wonderful but nevertheless everyday event. Waiting for the train to move I wondered how the boy would react, what reserve of expletives he could call upon, had the massing birds formed themselves into letter shapes to return his compliments. And that was it. My new agenda was set. The scene I had envisaged, a major coincidence, could occur; the task I set myself was simply to interfere with the odds, make it just a little more likely. And it kept me busy for the next nine months and counting. I had to video a lot of birds, looking for the right one; I had to learn new software; then work out ways to make it do what I wanted it to, only to find that the operations I was asking the computer to perform were so complex, or more often so numerous, that the machine just seized up; or that the results, while just what I was aiming for that day, looked nothing like natural birds in flight. My children, still learning to read, are so used to these images on my screen that they are completely confident that birds in flight make words. Sometimes I wonder what damage I have done to their young minds.

The next sustaining coincidence of my residency was the arrival in ArtSway of the exhibition of prints by Patrick Caulfield: The Poems of Jules Laforgue. I wrote a degree thesis on Caulfield, and pasted to its front cover a reproduction of the frontispiece image to this very suite of prints Ah! this Life is so everyday. With the simplest of black marks it depicts two birds crossing a sky-blue void. It sums up the gentle melancholy of the series as a whole, and encompasses the idea that a moment may be general and everyday in nature yet remain the arena for very precise incidents and coincidence. My borrowing of Caulfield’s title, itself translated from Laforgue, seemed inevitable.
I expect the bird piece to have any number of manifestations. The degree to which one interferes with the odds that govern its behaviour is debatable: should one give it words as well as letters? I have considered making it recall the names of all those lost on 11 September, but this is a task for real birds. For my children are right: just as the stars made bears and ploughs for the ancients, because three points always describe a line or a triangle, real birds do make words in the sky.

1. There are a number of ways to make a computer approximate randomness in its behaviour, and the one built into the software used to make Ah! this Life is so everyday has more to do with the unpredictable than with the random, but it affects perception sufficiently for the purpose.
2. Underworld, Don DeLillo, published Scribner, New York 1997

Thrown Pot
after Emmanuel Cooper
Thrown Pot was nearly something quite different. In April, with a classic craft exhibition3 about to occupy the main gallery at ArtSway, there was a sense in which it was appropriate to assert the continued presence on the premises of digital media. The task was in effect to make an advertisement for myself, to be screened at the gallery entrance. The idea for the piece I planned stemmed from an interest in the title sequences of TV dramas, particularly those from America. Unlike almost any other kind of film or television, these sequences are made in the knowledge that they will be subject to repeated viewing, week after week before each episode, and in this one respect they are akin to video presentations in galleries, which loop after only seconds or minutes, subjecting the lingering onlooker to all the risks of repeated exposure. In typical TV title sequences, very small and often very mundane fragments of the programme’s episodic substance are inflated into something pompous, grandiloquent, portentous; the particular, minor details of the script harnessed to convey the flavour and universal themes of an entire production. I was interested to see if I could take fragments of speech plausibly drawn from the everyday life of a digital media artist and create a sequence which suggested all the overblown drama and imminent disaster of a police series or space adventure. The whole was to be threaded around an image of what would reveal itself to be a remote control unit cast to the desk in temper, wheeling through slo-mo space and flying apart on impact. Computers offer any number of ways of creating objects and making them float through space, free of gravity. The attraction of doing so is strong, as was the urge on this occasion to over-emphasize the digital nature of what I was doing.4

But the piece was never started. For when I arrived in Sway to work on it, Emmanuel Cooper’s beautiful, intense but airy ceramics were just coming out of their travelling cases. I recognised immediately that the gloomy, noisy production I was planning would be utterly out of place, and I abandoned it, relieved at finding a reason to postpone my amateur acting debut. But less than an hour later, I had launched my career as a mime artist. For I had observed a striking similarity between the remarkable textures of Emmanuel Cooper’s vessels and the otherworldly landscapes encouraged by the 3-D modelling programme I had been learning and with which I had planned to construct my flying remote control.5

That afternoon, the flying remote control gave way to a flying vessel, a virtual ceramic pot, which took a few moments to make, a few more to make fly, and very many hours to land accurately. At this time I was in the middle of a project for the Winchester Gallery which involved videoing a number of craft makers as they worked in their studios, among them two ceramicists.6 Whilst I was familiar from the films of others with the principle of throwing a pot, it was only the visits I had recently made which had brought home to me the momentary nature of a pot’s creation, that in terms of the basic form, one moment it is not there and the next it is. My sense of this off-on suddenness suggested to me an appropriateness in the idea of a digital pot.

But before I could make my pot, the staff took their lunch break, and for a few minutes I had their gallery to myself. Knowing I could not do what I had to do in front of them, I hurriedly set up a tripod, and with the camera running walked the length of the room, concentrated hard, and flung the as yet imaginary object into the void above its real and fragile counterparts. I have read very many artists’ accounts of their work in which they explain that the process is the thing, the performative aspect of their activity the important part, and that what we are left to look at in the gallery or on the page is only the trace, the residue, the record of their work. There will be none of that here. Nevertheless, the sense of schoolboy mischief which I felt in that silent space, performing the mime in my squeaky shoes, made for a precious moment and set the tone. Having been responsible as an exhibition organiser for very many craft displays over the years, suddenly I had the run of one for which I was not responsible, and with the help of the computer I was misbehaving accordingly. It is an irony I have reflected on since that it was probably the judgement of an exhibition organiser rather than that of an artist which led me to abandon my original plan for the work.

3. Emmanuel Cooper, Ruthin Crafts Centre touring exhibition
4. When Thrown Pot was originally shown with the Emmanuel Cooper exhibition, it ran backwards. The pot gently rose from the plinth like a flying saucer, and flew to my waiting hands. I wanted people to think “how’s that done? Oh it’s running backwards!” before realizing it was a montage. But I was too taken up with the idea of sleight of hand; the piece was a simple idea, quickly realised, and should be shown and seen as such.
5. Bryce5
6. Hand to Eye, sates.org/making it work/Southern Arts Visual Index Projects, 2002, curated by Sara Roberts and Rebecca Cairns, features earthenware by Joanna Still and porcelain by Margaret O’Rorke.

Girl on a Swing
after Fragonard
In this piece the process is the thing; the performative aspect of the activity is the important part. What remains is only the trace, the residue, the record of the work. Well again, not quite.

Thrown Pot had inadvertently introduced the idea that my residency activity might respond to the exhibition programme in the gallery. It suggested as well how such a response might also reflect on my experience as an exhibition organiser. My over-developed sense of spurious coincidence was again alerted when the next exhibition in the programme turned out to be Out of Line, a touring exhibition of drawings from the Arts Council Collection. In the early 1980s, I was trained by the Arts Council in its touring exhibition department and knew well many of the drawings in the show. But more than this, when I read the catalogue for the first time, I found I already knew what was written there. For twenty years ago there was already a well established convention for writing, editing and presenting the texts which accompany art on public exhibition. The Arts Council’s Exhibitions Department, now a function of London’s Hayward Gallery, by touring work the length and breadth of England with such accompaniments, played a major part in establishing a standard for this textual treatment. Nowadays, most publicly funded galleries when staging an exhibition will provide written explanation of what is on show, couched in very particular terms and with a very particular tone.

Many commercial galleries do a similar thing, presumably finding that helpful guidance on the thoughts and intentions of the artist encourages the viewer to purchase. But public funding is the key: bodies accountable for how they spend their exhibition budgets are obliged to take every effort to ensure complete understanding on the part of their audiences: you need not like the work you see there, but you must be informed, educated, about its significance. This is a process in which I have freely, gladly and fulsomely participated for twenty years; I expect to continue to do so, and indeed here I am, doing so now. But even now, dear reader, I am looking for a way to hit the brakes hard and send your head crashing through the windscreen of your own expectations.

But there are only so many words one can use, and in a funny sort of way, I realised over again as I read the Out of Line catalogue, no matter how much the world and the work moves on, it always comes out sounding the same. Curators or their hired writers are usually aware of this, and wherever possible seek the artist’s own words to lend authenticity and grit to the accounts given. But the artists are also limited to a particular if different vocabulary, and the process of isolating their words, editing them, printing them on the page, again distances them from the inner truths of the objects and processes they are about. It is a well-known paradox. There is a bit you cannot explain: you just did it; you knew you were going to, and you did. The more you move towards it, the more it edges away.
So I took all the text content from the Out of Line catalogue, chose the very particular parts of it that suited my purpose, and re-edited them into a new, spoken account of drawing which I delivered to camera while I drove my car around a typically gravelly car park in the heart of the New Forest. Then I edited the video of the process, to try to make it seem fast and brutal. I felt the need to demonstrate that what was written about these gentle pencil marks on fragile paper could be equally true of Michelins across the dirt, but to maximise the contrast between the smooth, rounded-off nature of the text, and the rough, ragged nature of the activity.

As originally shown, a crude tracing of Fragonard’s girl on a swing was superimposed unconvincingly on the ground behind the car, in another over-use of the digital which I have since dispensed with, having come to understand that the implied drawing, or the audible fact of it, is enough. However, I have retained the reference in the title, because I chose it originally for the delicacy, ambiguity and familiarity of the image, which I hoped would bring out the contradictions I was getting at: you visit the art gallery, in my case to work in it, discussing the quality of line on the canvas, the play of light; then you drive home and watch cheap telly. I had finally allowed myself to make my police drama: Bodie and Doyle driving, with Gilbert and George in the back seat.

Good and Bad at Games
after Michael Andrews
In 2001, just as I was embarking upon my residency there was a major survey at Tate Britain of the paintings of the late Michael Andrews, eminent member of the so-called London School. Twenty years earlier, his retrospective at the Hayward had affected me greatly. I wanted to paint like that; I wanted to be his friend. To me these large, ambitious narrative paintings had the compass of entire films. Film-making was something I knew nothing about, a collective activity and the stuff of large corporations. I had no proper sense of film makers as individuals. Painting, it seemed to me then, was generally the only route by which an individual might exercise an author’s control over visual narrative.

For me, in front of those works again in Tate Britain last year the situation was reversed. Painting as an activity seemed like a closed door, a treat for someone else but not for me. But I still found myself naïvely thinking of Andrews as some kind of old buddy, and even more naïvely thinking that, were he to be embarking on his great projects today, he would revel so much in the possibilities of digital video: so applicable to his preferred subjects; so susceptible to the kind of collaged approach which Tate’s display of preparatory materials now showed me he had favoured; and so texturally similar to paint on canvas in its ability to reveal form from within the richness of a smudge. Naïve thoughts as I say, for a great painter like this would choose paint in any age, but passing through my head as I sat for the better part of an hour in front of just one of his great works, Good and Bad at Games, they coalesced into an idea which has had to wait until the closing stages of my residency to be realised.
From 1964 to 1968, Andrews worked on a final, large-scale party painting, Good and Bad at Games, which takes as its subject the way people, interacting, affect each other’s behaviour. Some grow in confidence and stature; others shrink and wither. The three panels which comprise the work represent three moments in the course of the party; and, in a singular departure, Andrews suggests the changing fortunes of his party-goers by representing the figures as balloon-like shapes which expand and deflate according to mood. The painting was an advance in more ways than one. The adoption of the balloon metaphor suggested the rich possibilities of more symbolic forms of representation. And, in attributing changes in behaviour to fluctuations in a personal sense of well-being, the notion of self-consciousness - the idea one has of oneself - now began to exercise a fascination.
Paul Moorhouse ‘Strange Consolation’: The Art of Michael Andrews
in Michael Andrews, published by Tate Publishing 2001

Paul Moorhouse’s recent essay on Andrews is the more sensibly quotable, but it is Lawrence Gowing’s account from 1981 which has stayed in the back of my mind all these years. In the catalogue of the retrospective at the Hayward Gallery he describes how a photograph of the ‘ragged attenuated contours’ of figures, busts and heads by Giacometti had been the inspiration for Andrews’ approach.7 Either writer might also have mentioned the anamorphic memento mori skull in Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors. For me it is as if this most famous of death heads in art has assumed flesh once more, many times over, in Andrews’ painting, and with gritted teeth is busy partying the night away. Gowing writes: ‘The Games of the title are primarily the games people play, the games to which, in the popular psychological parlance of the time, one might liken the systematic expedients by which people maintain their idea of themselves as best they can.’ Both Gowing and Moorhouse refer to the interaction between people, identifiable individuals from Andrews’s close circle, and Andrews himself. But to me they are isolated and lonely, united only in the shared sense of some coming onslaught, be it a difficult ride home, a hangover, or something more existentially challenging. Otherwise they are bound up, seemingly almost literally, in the straight-jackets of their own personae.

These details apart, I am struck all the while by the similarity between accounts of the work separated by twenty years of perspective. It gives a clue to what is so admirable about the piece: it is so very painterly, made with materials scuffed and vague, richly ambiguous in their spatial meaning, yet it gives full account of itself and its intentions; writers may write with confidence about the artist’s strategy, and the uninformed onlooker may fully decode the meaning with little or no prompting, and do so without diminishing the sheer enjoyment of the stuff on the canvas. In this regard it is oddly opposite to the work of Patrick Caulfield, mentioned earlier, whose intentions of meaning seem to be directed towards ambiguity itself, conveyed in the unequivocal definition, the very unambiguity, of the material and its application.

My idea was to make a video transcription of the piece. Transcriptions, like paintings of ‘the artist’s studio’, arid views of wood-burning stoves and empty easels, are where artists turn when they are stuck for an idea, or are set as exercises in the classical academy. But they hold out the hope of fresh insight into the work transcribed, and every so often of something truly new in itself being created. I had no such aspirations, and was driven only by curiosity about the viability of transcription to a medium on the face of it quite different from that of the original, but as I have indicated sharing many of the same characteristics. What held me back was uncertainty about who the subjects of the work should be, and by extension, what the piece I would make might be about.

In much of his work Andrews addressed himself to his family and friends. His party paintings, the last of which was Good and Bad at Games which includes a self-portrait, seem to chart his growing confidence as a social creature, but mainly suggest an outsider looking in, with an admiration for the capacity of others for abandoned enjoyment. I included an earlier work by Andrews in an exhibition I selected in 1984 about what I called the ‘inner distance’ with which certain English artists look at familiar subjects, giving things that are ordinary and familiar a new strangeness and a gentle melancholy, and Good and Bad at Games, by Andrews, works in that way too.8 For me it addresses the concept of milieu , the social environment, and how you have in some sense to belong in such a context before you can feel that you do not. Having accidentally made two video works which touch on life as an exhibition organiser, about handling exhibits and about writing about them, it seemed appropriate to make a third featuring the professional society one joins to do so, especially as I hoped the results might have a humorous side. I used two pieces of film I had made with no particular purpose, one of a curators’ trip to the 2001 Venice Biennale and the other at a party to mark the transformation of the Southern Arts Board into a regional office of the Arts Council. Both occasions were festive enough to match the setting of Andrews’ piece, and both sufficiently arcane to yield the requisite ‘inner distance’: portraits of colleagues and friends turned for a moment by the social act into the strangers that most people will see.

7. Michael Andrews, published Arts Council of Great Britain 1981
8. Semi-Detached: Pictures of people and Places, Arts Council of Great Britain 1984

Text from "John Bull War and Peace"
Exhibition catalogue, South Hill Park 2004

John Bull War and Peace
The Making of John Bull War and Peace transcript
This is John Bull War and Peace, and specifically, The Making of John Bull War and Peace.
What you see is a real-time record of a performance, and the performance consists of every bit of printing and every bit of video required for this project. It takes about twelve minutes.

I am using my John Bull Printing Outfit. I’ve also borrowed parts from printing sets belonging to my sister, Claire, and my school pal Richard. You get an inkpad and some tweezers, and little rubber letters to put in this stamp. They were toys of the very best sort, because they let you make something real, useful and in quantity. This was important in an age before personal computers and when you didn’t have access to photocopiers. Richard and I were still using these sets after we left college, printing invitations to an exhibition we were having. This is how I have all three in my possession now, more than twenty years later.

You’ll see me doing the printing. I need just one good impression from each of two stamps. Next I will unload the letters from the stamp, into a rack that I’ve improvised from a bit of card because the plastic one supplied is too fiddly to use, and then load them all up again, back into the stamp.

The brand, John Bull, seems to have been named after the John Bull who lived from 1523 to 1628, a musician to whom composition of the first national anthem is attributed. He is described as a bluff, good humoured yet determined character, who has come to personify the characteristics of the English nation. This information is from something someone gave me about Toby Jugs, and that’s exactly the area you’re in with John Bull: Toby jugs, bull dogs, hunting jackets, Ye Olde England; a cosy, comfortable country.

Nowadays my pal Richard and I exchange e.mails less than once a year. When I found his John Bull printing outfit in a box I was clearing out, I wrote to him to say I would be returning it forthwith, since I had no further use for it. The minute I sent the message I realised that suddenly I did have a use for the printing outfit. By combining its rudimentary technology with that of the video cameras and computers by which, in my life at least, it has so comprehensively been replaced, I would attempt to use it to create an epic, or re-create an epic: my own personal copy of a very long book. “War and Peace” was the immediate and the obvious choice, for the simple fact that people so often mention it purely because of its length. If you take longer than they think you should over a note cancelling tomorrow’s milk, people say “What are you writing? War and Peace?” The cliche of it as the archetypally long text signals the absurdity of the proposed task.

The project is about how long art takes to make, how long it takes to look at, and the difference between an idea and its execution.

There is a long-standing and persistent habit amongst some gallery visitors of judging any representational piece of art by how much of an illusion it presents. The more illusionistic it is - the more realistic, as we would have it - the more we claim to like it. Modern artists, on the other hand, have for a good hundred years now, been resisting the pressure on them to make things that look just like other things. This preference for presenting real things as themselves has led contemporary practice in any number of directions: art that insists that you see only the object in front of you; art that makes you recognise the process of making it; art which consists only of a process, not an object; and even, though this comes with some technical difficulties, art which is only an idea. Faced with these kinds of art, where there is little or no illusion to admire, people often ask: “how long did it take?” And their admiration is at least partially revived if the artist is found to have invested considerable time in an enterprise, or to have endured startling discomfort or tedium.

This somewhat simplified view of things led me to the idea of “John Bull War and Peace”, by way of asking a very simple question: what if the illusion in an artwork was precisely that it took a very long time to make?

The growing emphasis on process in art, and on performance, and the opportunities of new media, mean that we are now very often confronted by art which is conspicuously time-based in its presentation as well as its execution. I have noticed, particularly with things which don’t offer any obvious narrative development, with a beginning a middle and an end like an ordinary film, that our curiosity about how long something took to make is not matched by a willingness to witness its entire duration. We get the idea, and then we move on - we are busy people, after all. It’s as if the repetitiveness and even boredom of what we see inspires a special kind of trust in the artist: the artist definitely endured the performance, so we don’t have to. With “John Bull War and Peace” I wanted to make something which brings out this difference between the experience of making something and the experience of viewing it, and which even reverses the experiences.

For which is more real? What you see on this screen is primarily my experience in real time: I am here, now, performing these actions, and you are not. What you see on the other screen, which is manipulated by the computer, live in your presence and in your real time is your experience, and it will occur, all being well, regardless of my presence. My experience here will have lasted for about a quarter of an hour; yours there, should you so choose, is limited only by gallery opening hours or other such circumstances. The huge boredom of a very fiddly job which I seem to have inflicted on myself is revealed as an illusion, computer-generated. It is available either for you to admire as an illusion or, to complete the reversal of the normal order of experience between maker and viewer, you could take on watching it as a feat of endurance yourself. More likely you’ll just walk away.

There’s a story about Picasso, which I liked so much when I heard it years ago that I’ve never sought to confirm its veracity or detail. Quite late in his life, Picasso was on a TV chat show. The interviewer prevailed upon him to do a drawing on a table napkin, in front of the camera. Picasso very quickly drew a single-stem flower and signed it, and the audience burst into applause. “Aren’t you just a bit embarrassed,” the interviewer asked him, “that something that only took you a few seconds to make is instantly worth a large sum of money?” “What do you mean, a few seconds?” replied Picasso. “It took me eighty years to do that.”

I’ve never been sure whether we’re meant to think that Picasso was referring to the effect a lifetime’s work had had on his reputation and therefore the market value of his work, or whether he simply meant that he put everything he had ever learnt about looking and about drawing into every piece he made, and that this was the source of the confidence and fluidity of the lines on the paper. I hope it was both.

The brevity I am claiming for my experience of “John Bull War and Peace” is, of course, confined to performing for the video. Working out how to do it, worrying about how best to programme the computer, finding the nerve frankly, to perform for my own camera for twelve minutes, all that has taken some six months, or more, depending how far you go back. But not quite eighty years.

The title “John Bull War and Peace” came with the idea, as part of the package. Events give words new meanings. It is 2004, and the nation of Iraq is in violent chaos following the American-led invasion. It has become clear that the reasons given for supporting the war, by the government of John Bull’s cosy, comfortable England, were just so much John Bull, as was the subsequent announcement of Peace.

Oncoming Traffic
The Making of Oncoming Traffic
transcript

This work began as a response to a call for contributions to a video screening on the theme of the urban and the sub-urban. I hoped to sample the fluctuating densities and random poetry of urban and suburban environments by driving through them and recording the make and model of every car that came towards me. The journey, from Winchester to Southampton, (avoiding motorways) takes some twenty-five minutes, an unbearable age, if you’re obliged to sit and watch it.

The recording was to be edited, therefore. To provide a beginning and an end, you would see me get into the car, and later, with the performance completed, park it and apparently leave; in between, the only parts of the original recording that would remain would be those where I was announcing the name of a car. I observed this rule very strictly, and reduced twenty-five minutes to ten. But ten minutes still seemed at least twice as long as it was reasonable to ask a captive audience to watch for. So I edited further. I removed all gaps where I had hesitated over the make of the car or waited while it went past. This improved the smoothness of my delivery, and the mild visual discontinuity it produced was acceptable as an acknowledgment that editing had taken place. But even after shortening the walks I took at beginning and end, I was still several long minutes beyond my target five. So I had to cut whole cars from my narrative. I tried to reduce them proportionately across the entire duration of what survived of my original journey, but the need to choose exactly which to remove led me into obscure value judgements about the cars in question, favouring those I deemed interesting over those which were commonplace.

When I was no more than three years old, so the story goes, I used to astonish the greengrocer’s delivery boy by standing on the front steps of our house in Coventry and naming the make and model of every car that drove by. My mother had had to learn what the cars were in order to teach me. Presumably, the admiration of house callers and my mum’s pride encouraged the habit of maintaining my knowledge, embedding it so deeply that even now, having supposedly abandoned my interest, I nevertheless experience a strong sense of unease if a car passes which I cannot identify. Cars are a common enough interest, but one I have long felt obscurely guilty about: it isn’t, I think, what is expected of an art curator. In recognition of this, the recorded journey begins where I work, at The Winchester Gallery, and ends where I used to work, at Southampton City Art Gallery.

Editing has produced a flawed record of the performance: it reduces the sense of traffic fluctuation, and the arbitrary removal of cars from the list takes it still further from a full representation of my route on that particular day. So the present scheme offers simultaneous showings of the edited version, of an extra-shortened summary, and of this, the unedited performance, complete with return journey and signs of heat and concentration fatigue. They are presented to leave the viewer to determine which version, and crucially, how much of it, to view. For further freedom of choice, a transcript of the narrative should be available alongside.

So three versions of the same performance pose the question: which is more important, the idea for the performance, summed up easily enough in thirty seconds of anybody’s time; the poetry, for want of a better description, that words selectively distilled from the performance may produce; or the performance itself, with all its imperfections and unendurable protractedness? To put it another way: the idea? The fact of the performance? Or the actual performance? The standard art curator’s response would be that you need all three: to grasp the idea (thirty seconds), to sense proof that it was fully realised (the unedited performance, only partially viewed), and to taste the flavour of the result (the edited version). We then add coyly that in between the three there is perhaps some other quality to be found, something transcendent and inexplicable. I sincerely hope not.

HIGH/STREET/SLOUGH
Proposal commissioned by Slough Borough Council 2004
This is an idea for simply announcing the High Street and its renewal, intended to emphasize the positive qualities of the street today and to allow very many people to join in its making.

I have imagined a talking streetname sign: HIGH/STREET/SLOUGH.

It would comprise three video images arranged side by side, each with accompanying sound output which would only be audible at very short range.

I have taken photographs of every building along the street, and experimented with simplifying them and intensifying their colours to show the considerable visual richness of the street. Such pictures would be the background images for the sign. In the foreground would be people, speaking the words “High”, “Street”, and “Slough”, a different word for each screen. Each person’s portrait would move from screen to screen as they spoke.

In the early stages of this project, someone had suggested to me that Slough might need a new name, and it led me to think the opposite: Slough is an excellent name: an interesting, single syllable, which makes a bold mouth shape when you say it. I played that game where you repeat a word over and over again until it becomes a stranger to your ears, and made Slough itself sound like a new name. This is the principle behind my proposal.

I was pleased to find that most of the volunteers I enlisted to try out the idea on video became visibly cheerful when they took part, and the ‘High’ of ‘High Street’ tended to become a cheery ‘Hi!’ on their lips.

Because the shape of the mouth is distinctive when each of the three words is spoken, the piece, which also includes text, will work visually even when it is out of earshot. On the other hand, when you can hear it, you will hear all three words at once: High/Street/Slough. But as your eye decides which face to follow from screen to screen, somehow your ear falls in line, distinguishing the three words as spoken by the person you’re watching. It reminds me of how we thread our way through a busy place like the High Street, always a different route, and a different impression, for each of us.

The screens would be at an average eye-height and with text sized to match the size of a traditional streetname sign. There could be versions for the north and south sides of the street, which could be presented at either end of it.
The mock-up on video was made with my family and work friends from Winchester who happened to pass by. The real sign would involve people from all sections of the local community in Slough, and there could be very many of them: a one-hour DVD, for example, has room for 3600.

Endless Column
A site-specific public art proposal for the University of Southampton
Burgess Road
Highfield
Southampton
February 2005

The structure takes the form of an aerofoil, minimising its footprint on a confined site and echoing the curvature of the facade of the adjacent building. The portraits presented on the L.E.D. colour screen are arranged in the four-up configuration of photo-booth passport pictures, with proportions which also mirror the glazing of the adjacent building. The low-resolution image stream is updated annually from University identity card portraits of all consenting University members. The images pass from frame to frame on an upward, aspirational trajectory. The stream cycles continuously at a rate of 10 frames per second, so each portrait is visible in each frame for only a tenth of a second, a total of less than half a second per cycle. The duration of the cycle is determined in any given year by the number of University members consenting to the inclusion of their portraits.
At the time this proposal is made, the issue of national identity cards is contentious, but the work takes as its starting point the fact that within corporate institutions including universities the use of picture cards for individual identification is an accepted commonplace. The work seeks to use the same idiom to express the identity of the institution as a whole, as a richly diverse and ever-changing collective of individuals.

The title Endless Column is an ironic borrowing from that of a classic of twentieth century Modernism by the Romanian sculptor Constantin Brancusi.

Whereas Brancusi’s work addressed the limitless potential for mechanical repetition of a modular form, here the column referred to is less the physical manifestation of the work than the endless file of people it represents, staff and students, who pass through the University and make it what it is.

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