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Heave and Flow: Jessica Akerman records soundscapes of labour and play

By Elina Suoyrjö (Independent curator, PhD candidate at Middlesex University)

Jessica Akerman, Untitled (2016)

Jessica Akerman, Untitled (2016)

On a late Friday afternoon on June 17, a bunch of us gathered at the entrance of London College of Communication in order to be escorted to a private view at the Museum of Portable Sound. The current exhibition at the museum is Heave and Flow: Jessica Akerman records soundscapes of labour and play, guest curated by Dr Irene Noy who runs What Sense is there in Art? series at The Courtauld. After a short round of introductions, we were guided through the labyrinths of the school into an auditorium, where the museum and the artist awaited.

Jessica Akerman’s practice focuses on processes of drawing, through exploring different kinds of materials and gestures. She works with a vast range of materials from playdough to mud to song, as the work takes shape as sculpture, installation or collaboration. The exhibition at the Museum of Portable Sound presents excerpts of three of Akerman’s earlier works focusing on sound, and especially song. After a presentation from the museum director John Kannenberg, we got to listen to Akerman’s works. This was followed by a discussion between Akerman, Noy, and the audience. During the talk central topics in Akerman’s practice were brought up, such as exploring relations between gender and labour, sound and song as material of work, and working processes with different kinds of communities.

Jessica Akerman with Frankie Armstrong, Waulking Songs (2014)

Jessica Akerman with Frankie Armstrong, Waulking Songs (2014)

While the exhibition focuses on Akerman’s sound based work, a certain sense of tactile materiality appears to push through her practice even in these pieces. Two of the works, Songs of Salt (2010) and Waulking song (2014) deal with traditions of song functioning as part of labour; as part of working processes where song, gestures and rhythms enable people to work together, and in synch. The songs and sounds are entangled with physical movements of the singers, and their handling of physical materials. The third piece, Darlinghurst playground songs (2013), features play songs the artist composed in collaboration with pupils at Darlinghurst Primary School in Southend. The recording is a lively playground soundtrack, which transmits not only the sounds of the playground songs, but also the echoes of acts and movements synchronized by the children along with the singing.

The Museum of Portable Sound is a project by John Kannenberg. The museum has collections consisting of sound as well as physical objects, an exhibition program, a gallery guide, and a board. The museum doesn’t exhibit artworks only. The collections present for example animal sounds and soundscapes from different museums. The immaterial sound collections of the museum are located on an iPhone. Despite its portable character, the museum does not exist online, but on one portable device only. In practice, you get to visit the museum by booking an appointment. Visiting the museum becomes an experience in itself through scheduling an appointment, arriving at a given place, encountering the space of the museum one on one, within a certain kind of intimate setting, through headphones.

4As a curator, I can’t help but think what does it then mean for an artwork to be exhibited in this museum? Is there a difference to how artworks are presented in non-portable museums or white cubes? In the case of Akerman’s work, all of the pieces presented are parts of larger installations. During the discussion we got to hear in more detail how, and in which kind of settings, the work has been exhibited earlier. Presenting the sound of the work can thus be seen as presenting one part of the work, not the work as a whole. In the case of Heave and Flow, I do not think the presentation of the work exactly takes anything away from the work, while on the other hand, it doesn’t show the work in its whole richness either. The encounter with the work is very different from their original settings, and through this the museum might offer new entrances to the work. The Museum of Portable Sound seems to offer interesting possibilities in terms of distribution of sound based art, and different and engaging visitor experiences. There exists a slight danger of diminishing the work into this peculiar encountering experience, but through careful curation, as in the case of Heave and Flow, this too can be avoided.

Opening Art History to Science and the Humanities: How and Why

By Julia Secklehner (PhD candidate, The Courtauld)

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion

The Duck-Rabbit Illusion

On 1st June 2016, Professor Whitney Davis asked ‘What would a post-culturalist art-history look like?’. ‘Post-culturalist’ in this context is concerned with an inclusive art history and study of world art that can be simultaneously multi-, inter- and transcultural. It can focus on the decentring of one narrative over the other in what Davis has compared to post-colonial trains of thought. It is thus possible to understand culture as ‘shared sense-making’ in relation to ideas developed by Gottlob Frege and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Using this as a starting point, Davis interrogated existing approaches to non-cultural art history in an attempt to bridge the nineteenth century divide between Naturwissenschaften (the sciences) and Geisteswissenschaften (the humanities). As such, he aimed to show that our understanding of art history can be broadened with the inclusion of Naturwissenschaften into art historical theory.

The example used in the talk to visualise these abstract theories was the so-called ‘Mondrian stimulus’, a neurological experiment Edwin H Land developed in 1971 as part of his ‘retinex theory’, which questioned why we can see colors consistently even if light levels change. In the experiment, test subjects were shown a display resembling paintings by Mondrian, checking which brain cell complexes were activated by looking at certain patterns. The cell complex V4 (an area tuned for colour in the visual cortex) ‘lit up’ with all the test subjects. As Davis highlights, regardless of whether the subject was an ‘avant-gardist’ or a ‘philistine’, V4 would have been stimulated. This is because the experiment was not about cultural understanding, but the physical activation of particular cells by looking at colour patterns.

Mondrian Apparatus

Mondrian Apparatus

What does it mean, then, that cultural differences (the avant-garde philistine dichotomy) are not registered neurologically? As Davis suggested, this result had a series of implications. From a scientific point of view, the question ‘but is it art?’ turns out to be less significant when it comes to looking at art objects – creating an opposition between what can physically be seen of a work and what can be seen in it (interpretation). Meaning thus can be differentiated from our physical experience of seeing colours and structures: while the former is culturally conditioned, the latter is physiological. As such, a consideration of scientific methods for a new art historical understanding shows the simultaneous value of different interpretations. This helps to forge an art history that is no longer limited by the constraints of ‘seeing culturally’, which means that our understanding of an object is restricted to the ways we learn about it in our cultural environment.

Undoubtedly, there is still some resistance to the closing of the Naturwissenschaften and Geisteswissenschaften divide, given how entrenched this split has become over the past few centuries. Yet, the important point to highlight here is that any inclusion of ‘neuroarthistory’ does not replace conventional forms, but adds to them and provides a broader perspective that is no longer solely reliant on cultural understandings of art, which are always conditioned by social aspects as well.

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue Painting, 1921

Piet Mondrian, Composition with Large Red Plane, Yellow, Black, Gray and Blue Painting, 1921

In a way, Davis’s approaches seem, crude to ‘avant-gardists’. This is not surprising. By approaching artworks from an opened-up perspective that embraces naturalistic and universalising sciences, the hegemonic status of art that is often ascribed to it by avant-gardists is diminished. With this new approach, art objects have to withstand scrutiny not only from cultural interpretations, but also scientific ones, which liberate them from the ‘sacred’ space of art and white cube institutions and place them into an all-encompassing worldview, where art is just one of many things that provokes physical reactions. There is a clear politics behind this, namely that of embracing multiplicity and of decentring hegemonies (be they humanistic or scientific). Davis suggested ‘post-culturalist’ positioning, which opens up art history to a non-cultural discourse. This becomes much more than ‘a new way of looking at objects’: it encourages a multi-dimensional way of seeing the world and supports diversity – which is just what we need at times that toy with a return to nationalism and conservativism, like today.

A Mockery of Contemporary Art Taste or a Triumph of Medium over Message?

A symposium and an exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

By Wiktor Komorowski (PhD student)

Softer Targets is a solo exhibition by Jenny Holzer at Hauser & Wirth Somerset, featuring both new work and a selection of significant pieces drawn from over three decades of the artist’s career. The exhibition was accompanied by a symposium under the McLuhanian title ‘The Message and the Medium’. The main aim of this one day meeting was to explore the use of language and technology in art.

Softer Targets, exhibition view

Softer Targets, exhibition view

The undisputable highlight of the symposium were talks given by Dave Beech and Pavel Büchler. Dave Beech is an artist in the collective Freee, as well as a writer and curator. He is also Professor of Art at Valand Academy, Gothenburg, Sweden. His work focuses on slogans, billboards and publications that challenge the commercial and bureaucratic colonisation of the public sphere of opinion formation. Pavel Büchler is an artist, teacher and occasional writer who describes his practice as ‘making nothing happen’. Büchler teaches on MA Fine Art at Manchester School of Art.

The presence of two conceptual artists among the panellists contributed to a more interactive discussion by providing a testimony of the first-hand experience of artistic practice and through brining ample examples drawn from the portfolio of both speakers. Beech’s talk concerned the foundations and the almost 50-year long tradition of text art. His presentation emphasised the artistic potential of language that provides almost limitless opportunities to unfold different contexts. Language, as a highly culturally-related medium, became a foundation of all conceptual creation as it facilitates artists to introduce additional levels of meaning. His presentation was followed by Büchler’s talk on the discrepancy between the limitless potential of language and technological limitations of working with letters and words. Pavel Büchler focused on the gap between ideology that supports the conceptual practice and the frequent practical difficulty of bringing these ideological assumption to life.

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

Jenny Holzer, There were eleven of us, 2015

The presentations given by Beech and Büchler fully engaged the audience, but, surprisingly, did not build on the links between the tradition of text art and the work of Jenny Holzer. The lack of a more structured commentary from Beech and Büchler left an impression that the tragedy Holzer talks about in her art becomes marginalised and serves merely as a platform for a discussion over aesthetic form and different modes of reception.

The absence of further considerations of the message Holzer is trying to convey, pauperises her work to a purposefully hyperaesthetic commodity. Her practice seen in such a light does not provide the silent victims an opportunity to speak but rather questions the moral condition of the contemporary audience, in particular, its ability to spot the message under a thick layer of conceptual aestheticisms. Holzer’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth, similarly to the recent exhibition of Ai Weiwei’s works at the Royal Academy, raises the question how far has the politically inspired conceptual art turned into a mockery of contemporary art taste?

JENNY HOLZER: EXCLUSIVE

 ‘The Message and the Medium: a Symposium’ at Hauser & Wirth Somerset

By Professor Sarah Wilson and Dr Irene Noy

On October 19th 2015 three Courtauld pilgrims made their way by tube, train and taxi to a much welcoming Hauser & Wirth Somerset (near Stourhead). Formerly the medieval manor of Bruton, its Farmhouse, Stables, Cowsheds, Piggery & Threshing Barn were repurposed as the country playground of the international art set – attached to the blue chip gallery which has branches in London, Zurich and New York. Set in Piet Oudolf’s wild landscaped gardens – far from the aesthetic of the farm itself or from a Capability Brown (despite a nod to the Oriental) the farm buildings have had new wings for art added to the original plan. Precursors might include the Insel Hombroich, Neuss (near Düsseldorf) with its ancillary pavilions. In Somerset, Smiljan Radić’s Serpentine Pavilion (2014) was marooned in the park like a biomorphic spacecraft in autumnal landscape. Inside, playful and seemingly messy junk décor decorates The Roth Bar & Grill.

Smiljan Radić, Serpentine Pavilion (2014)

Smiljan Radić, Serpentine Pavilion (2014)

The impressive Jenny Holzer installation which for the first time filled all the display spaces, functioned as a backdrop to the event entitled ‘The Message and the Medium’. The short abstract indicated that the symposium would deal with the issues raised by Marshall McLuhan in regard to language and innovations in technology and their usage by artists. In addition, it proposed to address issues concerning those who make, who view and who consume art (the self-selected audiences, predominantly local,  paid high fees for their participation and lunch). Instead Jon Bird, Professor of Art and Critical Theory at Middlesex University, focussed upon the shared preoccupations and generational transition between Nancy Spero, Leon Golub and Holzer, with whom she was friends. Holzer’s archive of redacted documents from American military archives underline her recent series Dust Paintings. Her turn to paintings references suprematist precursors and the fetish of Greenbergian flatness. Ruth Blacksell, Lecturer in Typography and Graphic Communication, focused on Art & Language and the ‘story of conceptual art’. The art polemicist, Dave Beech, gave examples from his contemporary performative practices and insisted on manifestos as a voiced performance, relating to the actions by his group Freee, which transforms read text into a democratic process of interpretation and voicing. Lastly, the experienced conceptual artist Pavel Büchler presented his Honest Work and his subversive play with the meaning as well as the materiality of actual letters.

Jenny Holzer, Floor (2015)

Jenny Holzer, Floor (2015)

Discussion generated by an ‘is it art?’ question evoked by Holzer’s work led to an amusing internal polemic around Duchamp’s urinal versus his eponymous Fountain. Yet the display of neatly cleaned and arranged human bones on charmingly rustic gate-legged tables in the barn ­­—  the Lustmord tables of 1994, which ‘materialised’ debates on rape and murder during the Balkan war — provoked no comment during the whole conference. Holzer’s recent ‘painting’, which appeared to be conceptual as Büchler pointed out, looks like it is entirely the work of anonymous assistants. A disturbing play of aesthetics, pathos and indeed bathos, nonetheless related to extreme instances of abuse and torture ­ — the redacted documents from American military archives, which become increasingly invisible as suprematist/Greenbergian references take over. Not only does Holzer ‘make the inhuman visible’ as Bird argued: the signatures of perpetrators as well as victims added a dialectical comment on the state of the human race at war.

‘Pastoral conceptualism’?  the Hauser & Worth Somerset framing demonstrates the art world ‘red in tooth and claw’ (Tennyson): uncannily echoed by the displays of carcasses and dead fowl in the designer kitchen.

Salt Room at The Roth Bar & Grill

Salt Room at The Roth Bar & Grill

Interestingly, Holzer’s exhibition was accompanied by an education guide (which was included in the symposium pack) and included some of the following questions for discussion:

1.      Do you think that Jenny Holzer’s work is Feminist? Discuss reasons for your answer.

2.      How does art make you politically aware? Think of some examples.

3.      What emotions do the texts in Lustmord evoke in you?

4.      How do Holzer’s Truisms work in promoting social change?

5.      How does protest become art?

6.      Do you consider what Holzer does as art?

7.      Do you think it can still be considered Jenny Holzer’s artwork even if the text comes from a different author?

It would have been beneficial to refer to at least some of them and perhaps voice the contemporary connections between those who make, who view and who consume art – issues that were perceptible and visible within the Hauser & Wirth Somerset setting but went unspoken.