Thursday, 21 November 2013

Lisa Watts and Lucy May's Skitter at the Spacex Gallery

Lisa Watts’ and Lucy May’s exhibition Skittish at the Spacex Gallery is just coming to an end, culminating with Watts’ performance of her piece Snowgum on Saturday (the 23rd November). This will involve the use of chewing gum, using its elastic and adhesive qualities to connect the internal body with the outside world. It sounds like it will have its gleefully childlike aspects, too, taking us back to the days when we would stretch a bit of well-masticated juicy fruit to its maximum extent or splodge it onto a convenient surface with the press of a grubby thumb.

This has been a responsive exhibition, with something of a collaborative chain of influence and inspiration. Lisa Watts invited the curator of the Spacex to choose a sculptor whose work connected with hers in some way. She could then contemplate and respond to this work and use it to build up a series of performances moulded around it. Moulded is a good word, in fact, given the malleable, viscid materials they both work with. Most of Lucy May’s sculptures are made from twisted and intertwined strands and nodules of wax which she has mixed together herself to gain just the right colour and consistency. There’s definitely something of the charnel house about the Spacex with these sculptural tangles hanging from the walls. They look like viscera, freshly disembowelled guts, kidneys and muscle, and appearance enhanced by the glistening quality of the wax and the colours used. Other, smaller works have the same tangled form, but are cast in bronze and laid on marble blocks, making for a pleasing contrast of materials whilst retaining the glistening, reflective surfaces they share with the waxworks. As Instant Steve points out on his blog, there’s an element of the baroque to all of this in the intricacy and ornamental joi de vivre with which the wax is wrapped around itself into a riot of scrolled, balled and spiked detail. If these do bring guts and gore to mind, then they are nevertheless beautiful, celebrating inner beauty in a literal sense, rather as David Cronenberg did in some of his early films.

One sculpture mixes materials around its wax core, entwining it with coiled creepers of coloured foam and draping it with streamers of cheap and cheerful artificial flower decorations. I seem to have come across a number of works which incorporate gaudily colourful toys and gewgaws over recent years, including Hew Locke’s Jungle Queen II, currently on display at the Artists Make Faces exhibition in Plymouth. The whole erupts like a bizarre fountain from a plaster base studded with shells, which gives it the look of an oversized piece of surreal seaside memorabilia.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see any of Lisa Watts’ accompanying performances. She has left traces behind, however, which give intriguing hints as to what she might have been getting up to. Wine gums and cubes of jelly are stuck to whitewashed walls and ceiling like tiny fragments of coloured mosaic. Pieces of foil moulded to the shapes of arms, legs, feet and a torso and face are strewn about, looking like the dismembered remains of a cyborg or the discarded cuirass, greaves and helm of a medieval suit of armour. The artist was clearing away whilst I was there today, and these were rolled up into one big ball of foil, the fragility of the material made instantly plain. The debris of the weeks’ performances and experiments was making way for Saturday’s Snowgum climax.

Watts’ also has a film showing in the hived off upper room of the gallery. Made in collaboration with Alice Maude-Roxby and Ron Wright, Bad Luck (2006) unfolds in an ordinary bedroom with an ordinary self-assembled pine bed and dressing table. Within this everyday space, a formless figure completely tented in black rises and spews out coloured umbrellas from a pouch over its stomach. They spin round in a spectral blur before being unceremoniously cast aside, where they pile up on the floor. There’s something defiant about this momentary flourish of primary colour against the enveloping black cloak, which erases any trace of personality. I had thought that this might be an oblique evocation of the controversies around the wearing of the burqa, and a wider comment on the continuing oppression of women around the world, the expectation that they should be confined to the domestic sphere. Lisa Watts told me that this wasn’t the case, but that I wasn’t the first person to make this connection. In fact, she said, there was no direct narrative intention behind the film. The umbrellas being pushed out of the stomach panel before expanding into their chromatic segments does make a connection with Lucy May’s visceral sculptures, however.

A second section features a nearly naked female figure, who we might assume has emerged from the erasing shroud of black material. She makes awkward stepping gestures, as if moving to a disjointed music, and is encumbered by two other sets of cloth limbs attached by a brace to either side of her own legs. Both parts of the film have the feel of a sinister variety show, routines played out in a private arena and serving as some kind of therapeutic personal psychodrama played out in the privacy of the bedroom. The soundtrack, electronic drones which swell to an ominous pitch before suddenly lapsing into silence, adds to the atmosphere of intensely focussed interiority, and of something of great personal import being worked through in a soberly ritualistic fashion. Whatever interpretation you choose to put on it (or not), it’s an intriguing and absorbing film which creates a strangely compelling mood of domestic strangeness. The electronic drones leak out into the rest of the gallery, too, and thus serve as a good soundtrack for the show as a whole.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Modern and Contemporary Art in Plymouth: Artists Making Faces, Hidden in Plain Sight and Luke Fowler

There’s an excellent range of modern art on display in Plymouth at the moment. In the City Museum and Art Galleries an exhibition with the witty title Artists Make Faces gathers together a diverse hoard of heads; phizogs painted, inked, scrawled, sculpted or assembled from gaudy gewgaws. They have been chosen by the estimable Monika Kinley, and is a variation on a similar exhibition which she put together in 1983 with her late partner, the poet and curator Victor Musgrave, and showed in their London home. The title is particularly well-worded given the tendency towards facial distortion. The visages here are pulled into gnarled grimaces and goofy grins, blurred with sleep or caught in moments of shock, aggression or slack blankness. Partly, this reflects the modernist deviation from direct representation into more expressionist, surreal or abstracted views of the subject. But when that subject is the human face, it’s almost impossible to separate the form from the emotional affect of the picture. Once recognised, the features of a face can’t be reduced to a cool analysis of line, colour and textural qualities. They invite a more direct and immediate response, with an appreciation of their artistry possible once familiarity has been established. As with people in the flesh, it’s through the face that first impressions are most firmly imprinted.

One of the most significant aspects of the exhibition is the inclusion of work by so-called outsider artists, which introduces an intriguing dimension to notions of direct, ‘artless’ expression. Kinley and Musgrave were both champions of outsider artists; Musgrave organised a major exhibition in London in 1979, which helped to define the idea of such art as a genre in itself, and they both amassed an impressive collection, which Kinley continued to expand after Musgrave’s death in 1984. It now resides in the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester. Maybe she feels a certain kinship with these artists who exist well beyond the boundaries of any establishment, creating purely at the behest of whatever need or spirit drives them. As a Jewish girl and the daughter of progressively minded parents in 1930s Europe, she was herself marked as an undesirable outsider and driven across the continent by the expansion of Nazi power and ideology until finally ending up in England as a young teenager in 1939. Although a life-long lover of the visual arts, she had little formal training; the nature of the world in which she grew up made that an almost impossible proposition. In the post-war period, she found herself a job in the Tate Gallery shop in order that she might be close to the world which was so dear to her heart and enjoy the intense discussions about the latest movements and artists which were a part of that milieu. Evidently a very personable and passionate character, she got to know some of the newly emerging artists in London at this time, and started to use her home as a private gallery in which to show their work and foster interest in it. She found a fellow spirit in Victor Musgrave, and together they did a great deal to promote new British art (as well as much more from beyond these shores) in the in the 60s and 70s. Musgrave had opened a gallery called Gallery One in the 50s in Soho which moved to Mayfair in the 60s, and it was here that Bridget Riley had her first exhibition in 1962. The event was captured in a photographic portrait by Musgrave’s previous partner Ida Kar, the subject of a previous exhibition in the Plymouth Museum and Art Galleries.

Of course, once the term Outsider Art became a familiar part of the art historical lexicon, the work it referred to could no longer be considered to be wholly outside. Its very acceptance brought the basis of its difference into question. Other terms applied to it tried to steer around such tricky questions whilst still setting it apart from the idea of an authentic art. The USA, as a country keen to establish its own artistic identity, and with a philosophical bias towards favouring singular individualism over collective endeavour, has been much more open to the idea of the self-taught oddball. This is apparent in its rich history of musical mavericks and inventors, from Charles Ives and Harry Partch to Conlon Nancarrow, John Cage and all the folk, blues and street musicians who fashioned instruments from whatever came to hand. Outsider art here was often included within the traditional rubric of ‘folk art’, which brought it within the wider pattern of American history and culture. In France, under the patronage of Jean Dubuffet, it was known as Art Brut, or raw art. This was a term intended to sum up its rough authenticity. But its implications of creativity unmediated by conscious design risked patronisation, or even the exploitation of the vulnerable for the sake of manufacturing a subversive theoretical opposition to established values. There’s always been a dangerous and misguided tendency to ascribe some special visionary quality to the perceptions of social misfits or the mentally ill, as if they have somehow penetrated through to a more fundamental layer of reality inaccessible to the balanced, rational mind. Their artistic productions are more likely to be attempts to express or come to a greater understanding of their unanchored and drifting selves. As such, their work often seems congruent with that of modern artists who have tried to respond to the turbulent course and rapid, violent changes of the 20th and 21st centuries, and the crises of the human psyche which have resulted.

The Artists Make Faces exhibition places both Outsider and insider artists in unremarked-upon proximity to each other, making no distinction between them. It’s difficult to tell them apart until you look at the accompanying literature. Some of the better known names declare themselves to be the ‘genuine’ article, simply through the virtue of recognition. But distinctions soon grow nebulous and vague. Are self-taught people like LS Lowry and Cornish born David Whittaker outside or inside? The latter achieved widespread recognition when he won the National Art Competition in 2011, an award which specifically aims to bypass the insider world of galleries and dealers. They have operated outside of the mainstream, and still struggle to gain wholehearted critical approval, whilst enjoying broader public appreciation. Also, the lifestyle and behaviour of the likes of Lucian Freud and Francis Bacon shows that the most universally lauded of art world insiders can share similar personal qualities to those which are supposed to drive the compulsive creativity of Outsider Artists. The modern myth of the artist existing beyond the strictures of social convention as a condition of their creativity is a strong one, perhaps originating with Rossetti and the Aesthetic movement and the flamboyant Augustus John. It’s an image which many of the current generation of British artists play with in a very conscious and carefully controlled way, creating their own cults of celebrity controversy. This is exemplified here by Marc Quinn’s drawing of his 2006 sculpture Self, which was chiefly notable for the material it was made from – several pints of his own frozen blood. There’s a definitely a strong ‘look everybody, I’m mad, me’ attention grabbing element to it.

There is a wide geographical spread to the Outsider Artists on display. We have the Austrian Rudolf Horacek’s concentrated coloured pencil scribbles, made from the confines of a mental hospital; Englishman Albert Louden’s flattened faces with reductively mask-like features flushed with bright colour; the intricate ink doodle-hatching and weave (the kind of obsessive detailing characteristic of a number of Outsider Artists) of the American TH Gordon’s remarkable 48 Heads In A Frame, an almost anthropological study of comically grotesque expressions; similarly detailed features drawn by Richard Nie from Britain; the Serbian Sava Sekulic’s symbolic image of the devouring father Napoleon and his Daughters, the latter forming his hair and beard and stiffly arrayed in a queue like strips of beef jerky waiting to be chewed and swallowed by his loosely chomping teeth (this is the image used for the exhibition poster); Jimmy Lee Sudduth from Alabama, known for creating his own pigments out of mud and other elemental materials; the Glaswegian Scottie Wilson, another who weaves together an intricate mesh of patterned lines which are then coloured in with pen; and the German-born Agatha Wojciechowsky, whose paintings and drawings often derive from her activities as a spiritualist and medium in the USA, thus pointing the way towards the occult and New Age realms of automatic and channelled creation. This is an area of Outsider Art less likely to attract the attention of art historians and theoreticians since it comes with its own explanatory framework and is therefore more resistant to meanings being imposed from without (or within).

These artists are placed side by side with works by Lucian Freud, Frank Auerbach, Richard Hamilton, Roland Penrose, Eduardo Paolozzi, Marc Quinn, Howard Hodgkin, Gibert and George, Allen Jones and others. Hamilton’s Hugh Gaitskell As A Famous Monster Of Filmland (1963) is an amusing transformation of a sober statesman, a leader of the Labour party during the MacMillan years of the 50s, into a pop culture cover star. I don’t know whether there’s any angle of political satire intended here – Gaitskell as a well-meaning but blunderingly destructive Karloff monster. Apparently his rhetorical style was rather dry and clinical. Maybe Hamilton was just struck with a certain likeness, and felt compelled to place the blocklike head in this context. Eileen Agar’s Portrait of Dylan Thomas (1960) drips a white outline profile over a patchwork of colours (a synaesthetic representation of poetic language, maybe), the line flattened into an expressive smear. A startled swirl of an eye is added as a final flourish, giving the poet his wide-eyed vision. Nigel Henderson’s collaged Head of a Man (1956-61) was included in Patrick Keiller’s 2012 Tate Britain exhibition The Robinson Institute, and looks like a face embedded in the grain and cracked contours of a block of granite. Jean Dubuffet’s Smile II (1962) is a grinning gumby whose ragged outline suggests that the artists fully absorbed the raw spirit of the Outsider Artists he admired so much.

Some of the faces here make amusingly incongruous or strangely appropriate neighbours. Hew Locke’s Jungle Queen II (2003) dominates one wall of the gallery with a huge, brightly yellow head of Queen Elizabeth II cobbled together from cheap plastic souvenirs and throwaway toys and decorations. To its left, Ana Maria Pacheco’s untitled sculpture of a head with a spiky shock of hair looks out, mouth open in a frozen scream of horror. It could be the petrified Medusa’s head; it could be the head of a falling body, hair streaming out in the accelerating slipstream; or it could be the decapitated head of a queen from centuries past, caught in the disbelieving moment when it takes its tumble from the executioner’s block to the awaiting basket.

In a smaller adjacent room, an antechamber of the larger gallery which can also be reached by passing through the Victorian murk of the cloisterd library and print room, an exhibition appropriately called Hidden in Plain Sight is on display. This brings together a number of abstract paintings and sculptures from the museum’s collection. Most were produced in the 60s and 70s and acquired by the forward thinking director of the museum at the time, Alex Cumming. There are a number of works here by familiar artists associated with St Ives: Bryan Wynter’s Pas (1970), Patrick Heron’s Rectilinear Reds and Blues (1963), John Wells’ Variations (1961-3) and Barbara Hepworth’s Three Forms Bronze (1970). But others demonstrate what a strong centre for abstract art Plymouth was at this time.

Gentian - Derek Holland
Derek Holland and Alexander Mackenzie, whose paintings Gentian (1968) and Manganese White (1967) are on display, were both heads of art at Plymouth College of Art in the 60s. Holland’s Gentian mixes abstraction with pop art patterning, the zig zag stripes which form a bracketing ground to the painting, reminiscent of the psychedelic insignia on a Sergeant Pepper band jacket. They bring a touch of warm colour to the steely skies filling the rest of the canvas. Mackenzie’s Manganese White, meanwhile, restricts its painterly activity to a band stretching across the middle of the canvas. What look like two separate, mismatched photographic strips converge to create a single focussed image in the centre. This central area has the look of a geological surveyors aerial mapping of an arctic expanse of icy blue and white, circled and triangulated with the marks of cartographical orienteering. The thick black verticals threaded loosely together with wiry lines have the appearance of a provisional fence battered by the elements, marking out the boundaries of the known. Beyond, all is a white void, the purest kind of abstraction.

Manganese White - Alexander Mackenzie
This raises one of the perennial issues with which abstract art has to contend: the tendency of the human mind to create patterns from and bring associative notions to arrangements of shape and colour which have no concrete subject and are intended to be appreciated for their formal qualities alone. No matter how hard-edged the abstraction, how fervent its insistence on its complete repudiation of representation, the human imagination will always latch onto something and think ‘hmm, that rectangle reminds me of a table’, or ‘that circle is obviously represents a flower’. Lar Cann’s White-Brown Advancing-White (1967) is probably meant to be seen as a completely abstract composition. But its white island block, into which a series of linear strips have been excavated to admit the brown of the moat which surrounds it, brings to my mind the outline of docks and wharves. This is undoubtedly associative on my part, given the city in which it’s displayed and in which the artist was born. Relief sigils impressed upon the paper add textural detail and are suggestive of map details or maybe even guild signs. The passion still adhering to debates on the relative merits of abstraction and figuration or representation are indicated by the fact that this is the only one of Cann’s paintings from this period which he didn’t destroy.

White-Brown Advancing-White - Lar Cann
Other works here still trail shadows of representative subject matter. Margaret Lovell’s 1970 sculpture Barquentine III admits as much in its titling. Its twin bronze seed wings stand on a contrasting base of dark slate and, like her Sail which was displayed in the Women in Art exhibition in another gallery of the Museum, draws from the shapes of sails given curvaceous form by prevailing offshore winds. Michael Snow’s Tower III (1967) is a spindly bronze structure planted on a steel base, which has the look of an architectural model, prompting speculation as to its provenance. Is it a watchtower on some borderland of the imagination, the skeleton of an age old Babel structure long since blasted by divine lightning, or the framework for a new utopian block rising up towards the sky? It’s certainly difficult for the active imagination not to weave some kind of story around it.

Other artists use unusual materials to bring an extra textural effect to their work. Peter Tysoe uses slab glass, epoxy resin and welded steel to give the hunched amber wings of his Standing Form (1967) the look of a crystallised insect subject to the dense gravity of another world. Exeter-born Justin Knowles’ Three Reds with White (1967) paints its segments of ill-fitting red onto rough canvas, lending it something of the quality of 70s wallpaper. It’s fitted into an unconventional frame, a triangular form with curved sides, rather like a giant guitar plectrum. This shape gives the whole a feeling of tension, with the contrasting shades of the darker reds against the light background giving the impression of dimensionality caused by some external pressure. Beryl Clark’s Frame Tent (1968) has actual dimensionality, expanding out of the frame into a built-up geometrical relief. Silver metallic facets reflect light onto darker surfaces and contrast with shadows cast by other projecting spurs. Marie Yates’ Vertigo (1965) has the dizzying effect of a piece of op-art, with its receding set of nested black, white and grey hexagons set at lop-sided angles to each other. The whole looks as if it were about to set into spinning motion, like a movie title sequence designed by Saul Bass (who did indeed create the titles for Hitchcock’s Vertigo).

Two works bring us abstract painting from more recent decades and also make play with the physical qualities of the materials used. Ian Davenport’s untitled work from 1989 uses Pollock-like drips of liquid paint but allows gravity to create the motion of action art, creating chance effects by standing the canvas on its end. Julian Lethbridge also leaves his 1991-2 work untitled, both seemingly unwilling to give the viewer any distracting cues. He mixes oil and graphite on linen to create a brittle black surface which is then fractured into a webbed craquelure which radiates out from a central point of impact.

Keith Rowe's cover art for the CD re-release of AMMMusic 1966
There are two labels on the walls for a work by Keith Rowe which don’t appear to refer to anything visible in the general proximity. A low-level progression of creaks, metallic scrapes and electronic murmurs has been subliminally apprehensible throughout, however, and it gradually becomes apparent that this is what the labels refer to. I had at first thought it was the soundtrack to the footage of Patrick Heron painting in his studio being shown on a screen in the corner. An sudden strident electronic squelch seemed to correspond with the sweep of Heron’s brush across a blank expanse of canvas at one point. Rowe is a visual artist as well as a musician, and produced a number of distinctive album sleeves for AMM, the group he has been part of at various times. But the work referred to here is a performance recorded in New York on September 11th 2011 at the Amplify Festival. Rowe is best known for his unconventional guitar playing and electronic soundscaping in AMM, a free improvisation group which came into being in the 1960s. They emerged from regular rehearsals a the Royal College of Art in London, and thus have something of a fine art pedigree. Their music lies somewhere between the guided chance operations of modern classical composition in the John Cage mould and the hard-boiled, non-idiomatic improvisation emerging on the avant-garde fringes of the British jazz scene. Their first LP, AMMMusic 1966 was released on Elektra Records in 1967. In the same year, the label released The Doors’ debut album, Tim Buckley’s Goodbye and Hello, The Waterson’s Frost and Fire, The Incredible String Band’s The 5000 Spirits or the Layers of the Onion, Love’s Forever Changes and Mort Garson’s Zodiac Cosmic Sounds. AMMMusic might seem to come from another world to these artists. But they are at one extreme of a strong experimental tendency which ran through the music of the time, and which brought the ideas of the avant garde into the more exploratory areas of pop music. The pure and lofty academy intermingled with the beer-stained cellar of the rock club for a brief period. AMM were a peripheral presence on the London underground scene, attracting the attention of the ever-inquisitive Paul McCartney, inspiring some of Syd Barrett’s wilder journeys into improvisatory space during Interstellar Overdrive and sharing a certain affinity with the likes of Soft Machine. The relevance of Rowe’s inclusion here (the labels making it clear that his sounds are an integral part of the exhibition rather than providing Satie-esque musical furniture) lies in the fact that his music shares the same drive towards abstraction as the visual art. He was also born in Plymouth, which creates a further connection.

Rowe lays his guitar on a table, behind which he sits with studious concentration, and he often appears to be dissecting it rather playing. Various small devices are used to make contact with the recumbent instrument. He strives to avoid conventional guitaristic sounds, coaxing and tweaking sonorities and noises from the strings, neck and body. It’s as if he were approaching it as an amplified sculpture rather than an instrument tuned to predetermined pitches and designed to be played in a particular style developed over several centuries. He often incorporates the sounds of a randomly and occasionally roughly tuned radio into his performances. In this case, a half-heard passage of mournful romantic orchestral music leaks through the static fog enveloping the weak signal. These days there are more digital elements which make the production of electronic soundscapes less of a physical process. Rowe is no longer a part of AMM, partly because of his desire to explore the new possibilities of electronic music more thoroughly. The group have always been riven by conflicts associated with the inward-looking ideological head-bashing of the post-60s factions of the revolutionary left. Rowe, along with bandmate Cornelius Cardew, was a Maoist ideologue for a time, which caused a lengthy schism. AMM have persisted in one form or another through five decades now, though. The very fact that the acronymic foundation of those letters have never been revealed suggests an emblematic commitment to abstraction which continues to this day. Keith Rowe will be playing at the Plymouth College of Art this Thursday (the 21st November), a return to the place where he studied art in the early 60s (although it's now changed beyond recognition). So you can see just how he wrangles sounds from that potent structure of wood, metal and strings, and what other devices will be cluttering up his experimental table.

The elder EP Thompson in full flow
Over the busy ringroad, around the roundabout island with its bombed out and stranded church and under the bleached bus station you come to the old town and Plymouth Arts Centre. Here, Luke Fowler’s film “The Poor Stockinger, the Luddite Cropper and the Deluded Followers of Joanna Southcott” is currently showing on a loop in the curtained-off gallery space on the lower floor. It starts more or less on the hour, and lasts for about an hour. It is based around the journals and class reports of the young EP Thompson from the post-war years when he was teaching WEA evening courses in various towns in Yorkshire. The film offers a view of a time when idealistic people of Thompson’s stripe were trying to provide a non-autocratic form of education for the working classes (or anyone else who wanted to attend) who might ordinarily feel excluded from institutions of higher learning. The students were encouraged to shape the courses according to their own needs and interests, and Thompson observations make it clear that the tutors in this context were likely to learn as much as anyone in the classroom. Some of what Thompson experienced during his years teaching in Yorkshire led him towards the writing of his magnum opus, The Making of the English Working Class, a landmark history which was first published in 1963. It was his historical reclamation of the lives of ordinary working people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

It’s from a passage in the introduction to the book that the title of Fowler’s film is extracted and condensed. Thompson’s sentence in full reads “I am seeking to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’. It could be said that Fowler is trying to rescue Thompson and his fellow WEA proselytisers for the transformative power of open, accessible and democratic education (amongst them Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams) from a similar retrospective condescension. His choice of a Welsh reader to taken on the role of the young Thompson is surely significant (as is the fact that he is audibly of more mature years, giving the whole thing an air of retrospection). His rich, lyrical voice replaces the slightly patrician tones of Thompson familiar from footage (some included here) of talks and interviews recorded later in life, once his reputation (and wild white-haired persona) was established. A connection is made with the proud traditions of self-education which prevailed in the Welsh valleys, which gives the film a greater universality. The reader also sometimes comments on what he is voicing, asides which Fowler has decided to retain. This creates a further sense of distancing and reflection. This is a Thompson coming to us at some remove, almost as if he were a character in the early part of his own biopic. Mysterious pieces of archive footage are interpolated at various junctures; firemen putting out a fire in the streets and a group of people walking down a newly constructed and as yet unopened motorway underpass. These hint at untold stories, and invite us to fill in the narrative blanks.

There’s a geographical particularity to Fowler’s images, however. They focus on the telling detail and the broader land and cityscapes. There’s a carefully framed pictorial quality to his shots, which are often lingeringly static. This stillness and reflective pacing draws the viewer in to the environments Fowler explores. Its visual tone invites comparison with the similarly contemplative style of Patrick Keiller’s Robinson films. There are occasional bursts of rapid editing and more fluid camerawork. These serve as interludes, chapter endings, or perhaps just as a means to snap the viewer out of a trancelike fugue. Interiors and exteriors are contrasted, with many shots looking out of windows at the vistas they frame. We get a feel for the spaces in which the evening classes took place, many of them now silent and empty. They are often to be found in Victorian buildings, and the legacy of industrial expansion and of the less visible socially progressive and philanthropic ideals of the later nineteenth century which shore up the WEA endeavour are made plain. Fowler contrasts the architecture of the industrial age with the concrete structures of the post-war era, which bear their own mass of ideological intent. An image of soaring and ruthlessly functional concrete roadways snaking over an old Victorian wrought iron bridge, rich in colour and decorative design, is particularly striking. There is a sense of a visibly layered history, of eras which looked to the future and were intent on shaping a new world, both in the built environment and in the less tangible constructions of the mind. Later accretions of steel and glass monuments and overarching malls provide the imposing architectural markers of a present in which all futures have already been bought up. The film is imbued with a certain nostalgia for the sense of manifold possibilities which the post-war period seemed to offer. It ends with dark clouds gathering above wintry hills. Richard Youngs (whose songs are heard at intervals throughout the film) sings an old ballad over Fowler’s slowly plummeting electronic sine waves. We’ve already heard Thompson talking about William Blake’s apocalyptic visions, and he comes to the rallying conclusion that the Beast is now more in the ascendant than ever. Through the chronicling of the small, everyday triumphs and disappointments of the travelling teacher, we gain the sense that this was a period suffused with the modest radiance of a golden age, one lit by lamps on a common, local and therefore human scale. An age before the darkness began to descend, particularly densely in the industrial north in which Thompson was teaching and which Fowler has documented on film.

Luke Fowler in the editing room
I went to see Fowler talk about this film and his work as an artist in general when he travelled down to Plymouth from Glasgow a couple of weeks ago. Patrick Keiller, Lindsay Anderson and Free Cinema were mentioned, and he expressed his admiration of Anderson’s If… ( a favourite of mine) and of its star Malcolm McDowell, whose youthful looks he shares to some degree. If… was the film he chose to be shown as a supplement to the exhibition. It takes a similarly iconoclastic stance towards traditional educational values, and its possible to see a little of Thompson in Graham Crowden’s eccentric professor, who rides into the classroom on his bike and tries to get the boys interested in the savage ironies of twentieth century history. Fowler also talked about his collaboration with Toshiya Tsunoda on the installation piece Flutter Screen which was shown in Plymouth as part of the British Art Show 7 in 2011. It initially sprung from a meeting at the Arika festival in Glasgow, and was partly an attempt to counter the static quality of the cinematic experience, the passive spectatorship inherent in the gazing up at a large image on a flat, unmoving screen. In Flutter Screen, a loose, silk screen is blown by a strategically placed fan. Projected images of wings, clouds and liquid surfaces are moved by the rippling of the screen rather than the unspooling of film or reading of digital bytes. When addressing the variety of his artistic modes (film, poetic documentary, visual art and music) he refused to be limited by definition or to accept a neat compartmentalisation dividing these different aspects of his work. Everything is sound art, he suggested, possibly implying that other connections could by adduced to bring seemingly disparate strands of work together. Questions were asked about whether galleries were the right place to show fairly lengthy artists’ films, and whether he minded if people wandered in and only stayed for a fraction of the full running time. He admitted that such work might not be for everyone, but that was alright. Even if only a small number of people got something from it, they were able to return and gain a deeper insight into what the film meant. He also said that in making his films (and he was referring to the Thompson film and All Divided Selves, his portrait of the anti-psychiatrist and 60s guru figure RD Laing) he was in effect educating himself. The Poor Stockinger…. Was therefore in effect a meditation on voluntary and participatory education in which the director himself partook.

Richard Youngs and Luke Fowler at the Bread and Roses
After the talk, people repaired to the Bread and Roses pub on the other side of the roundabout where Fowler played a short set with Richard Youngs, who had also come down from Glasgow. It was a prelude to their performance in a trio with Neil Campbell at the Colour Out of Space Festival in Brighton on the ensuing weekend. They were hived off into a hastily assembled corner snug at the end of the long, narrow space of the Bread and Roses front room. Youngs played a cheap old Casio keyboard, on which he stabbed chords, held down reedy drones and bent notes with reckless abandon on the pitch wheel. Fowler bent studiously over a sleek slab of digital gimcrackery from which he stroked looping beats and circling melodic patterns. Repetition was the theme of the evening. Youngs sang phrases over and again as if they might reveal a different meaning each time. The repetitions of the music seemed to ground the wide spectrum reveries found on many of his recordings, refining them into a point of narrow, pin-bright focus. There was a slight feeling of a work in progress, but even if this were so, it was enjoyable witnessing its unfolding.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

The Ghost Box Study Series

Ghost Box Records have just issued the tenth and final instalment of their Study Series. These singles have provided an experimental lab in which established artists on the label have been encouraged to vary their customary style and to collaborate with others, hopefully producing new and pleasing compounds. They have also brought other fellow spirits into the enchanted circle, broadening the house style without diluting its essence. That essence, as ever, extends beyond the music to incorporate the graphic design, the constructed world in which it is placed and the associations which it courts through sample, quotation, pastiche and homage. The covers here have been given a lovely uniform design by Julian House (who also operates under the guise of The Focus Group), lending them the appearance of booklets outlining modules in some esoteric open learning course. It makes for a handsome set. Now that it is complete, it seems an ideal time for a bit of revision to gain an overview of what we have learned in our studies.

The first single is a collaboration between Belbury Poly and Moon Wiring Club and comes under the general heading of Youth and Recreation (each single has its own thematic title). Things get off to a fairly funky start with the A side The Young People. Stevie Wonderish clavichord and disjointed beats beats are overlaid with more typically Ghost Boxy synth melodies in warm, sunfilled analogue tones. A haunted middle section has echoing zither shivers (‘terror zings’ as they’re referred to on the Radiophonic Workshop Out of This World effects LP), ratcheting scrapes like sticks dragged along railings and other murmurations. All of which suggests the approach of the young people with the strangely ‘whitewashed faces’ of which the voiceover speaks. It all ends with ominous, booming synth chords: they’re here, they’re at the door. The B-side, Portals and Parallels, has more beats and bass from the Moon Wiring end of the spectrum. The repeated pattern of a spiralling Belbury theme tune creates zooming false coloured photo title graphics in the mind, suggestive of some supernatural action series. Distorted, half-comprehensible voices can be heard leaking through from some other place. The middle-section shifts into an urgent, John Barry-esque style, which you could imagine being hammered out on a cimbalom (the sound of cold war spy thrillers). An odd, bumbling folk melody in the middle could be the signature of a friendly spirit sidekick, manifesting in order to aid our occult detective in his fight against malevolent forces.

The second single, Cycles and Seasons, teams The Advisory Circle, Jon Brooks’ supervisory body set up to ensure public wellbeing and correct behaviour, with Hong Kong in the 60s. The A side is the Circle alone, offering us New Dimensions In…what exactly? Anything which comes to mind as you listen. It begins with an ascending electronic exhalation, a rising to the surface, tuning us in to a wooden percussive intro of measured clicks. This sets the rhythm for acoustic guitar and gently shuffling drums, which blend with a brassy, sunfilled synthesiser melody. The middle section shifts into the kind of melodic synth music which Paddy Kingsland produced for the Radiophonic Workshop in the mid-70s, mixing electronics with conventional rock instrumentation. It’s one of the first of several Study Series tracks which feels like the soundtrack to a railway journey. The pastoral flute tones which join in towards the end suggests that we are watching the English countryside passing by through the window.

The b-side features Hong Kong in the 60s backed by The Advisory Circle. It’s the first song in the series, and perhaps the first Ghost Box song in the traditional sense. A hazy piece of dream pop with whispered male and female vocals, it drifts along with a sleepy, trance-like pace, lightly shimmying to a background Casio-like bossa rhythm. The half-waking mood is enhanced by the occasional omnichord waft of chordal chime. The lyrics throw out an invitation, a blissfully repeated invocation that ‘everyone come’ to some ritual gathering the nature of which is left worryingly vague. It seems innocent enough, but…

Number 3, Welcome to Godalming, is split between Belbury Poly and fellow astral travellers Mordant Music, who have long investigated similar haunted byways to the Ghost Box artists. Belbury Poly’s Swingalong begins with a sprightly light music intro which, combined with the flickering sound of an unspooling projector, sounds like it might be the soundtrack to a post-war documentary about some sparkling modern new town being shown at the local town hall. It gives way to a relaxed, jazzy and moogy theme tune played over swinging rhythms and watery splashes of stroked electric piano. Noises burble in the background – voices, laughter, vaporous electronic wisps and springing clockwork rasps – paint a blurry impressionistic picture of a paisley-patterned party in full flow. Touches of sitar and tamboura scent the air with the incense of suburban psychedelia.

Mordant Music’s Inn Ohm the Lake has a looping male voice, full of post-war pedagogical assurance, repeatedly informing us that ‘this is only a recording’. Gently humming drone loops and simple, sighing phrases are layered in, sounding a little like Brian Eno’s Discreet Music. Other voices join this underlying mantra, which fades in and out of our consciousness but persists on a subliminal level throughout. A echoing babble builds up around a descending harp-like figure. A children’s round song floating briefly to the surface, emerging from a murmurous mass which is distorted to the point of abstraction. The chorale is dispersed out into slow, edgeless fogs of reverb. It’s like a confusion of calls skimming through the mist on a morning lake, or perhaps rising from more inward pools of the deeper psyche. Single note splashes and warm synth waves are like rain and wind on water.

The fourth instalment finds Broadcast and The Focus Group returning from their investigations of Witch Cults of the Radio Age to turn their attentions to the more domestic subject of ‘Familiar Shapes and Noises’. The title is both accurate and misguiding, since the music delights in the ceaseless warping and transformation of its humble source sounds. There are familiar Broadcast elements embedded in the A side, Inside Out. Trish’s lulling voice is the first sound we hear, and there is a pointillistic piano loop, an archetypal Broadcast (and Brubeck!) bass and rolling drum rhythm, also prominent in the theme for the imaginary film in Berberian Sound Studio. There are chattering harpsichord figures and what sounds like the Mongolian-style lute which Trish used to thrash a furious ethno-Neu drone on at the end of later Broadcast concerts. This gives is something of a North African feel, akin to the psychedelicised recordings of the Master Musicians of Jajouka which Brian Jones brought back from Morocco and subjected to heavy phasing in the 60s. The general tone pushes the experiments of the previous Broadcast and Focus Group collaboration to new and dizzying heights, focussing with intense concentration on making the familiar perpetually strange. The sound is harsher and more distorted, as signalled by a bell chime ruthlessly being pulled out of shape, its purity ground up into a rough grain.

The constant transformations, with tape speed stretched, bending sounds this way and that, compressing and colliding them together, creates an overwhelming effect of sensory overload. We’re never allowed to settle on one singular sound object for sufficient time to gain a firm anchorage within the general flux. This is the kind of psychedelia which Trish used to talk about, the realignment of the sensorium by means of a disorienting rearrangement of the elements of the world into new and startling patterns. For all its intoxicating surface chaos, there’s a real cohesion to the whole, however. Transitions between sounds are made with a seamlessness which is very different from the deliberately ragged collaging of the Witch Cults LP.

The B-side has two short pieces, The Song Before and Tuesday’s Offering. The former features a hazy summer psych buzz and hum, the drone of drowsy heat and bees. Concrete sounds of pouring water and shattering glass add to the atmosphere of daydream detachment. Trish’s song murmurs with beatific self-containment in the background, while bass and occasional guitar twang sustain a forward motion. Massive reverberation gives the impression of visual distortion and kaleidoscopic shifts of focus, whilst a gabbling goblin voice intruding towards the end seems to anticipate the gibber of the Berberian Sound Studio soundtrack’s dangerously aroused homunculus.

Tuesday’s Offering is full of reverse tape effects of the sort which make sounds appear to manifest themselves magically from the substance of the air. Clock chimes, ticks and pendulum swings are savagely morphed and mutated, as if to emphasise the elasticity of time. Set against this mutable temporality are strongly metronomic Can-ish and Pink Floyd-esque bass riffs, which provide a contrasting measured regularity. A voice issuing ceaseless incantation with no apparent pause for breath adds an element of the uncanny. Tuesday’s Offering looks forward to the post-Broadcast which James Cargill has begun producing with Julian House (aka The Focus Group) and Roj Stevens, an ex-Broadcast member and now a Ghost Box artist in his own right, under the name Children of Alice. They have thus far released a striking 20 minute piece on Devon Folklore Tapes which has a definite sense of continuity with this Study Series offering.

For the fifth lesson we delve into The Open Songbook, and enjoy some wryly low key pop by Hintermass. Christened for this single, they are what might be a one off figuration of Jon Brooks (aka The Advisory Circle) and Tim Felton, once of Broadcast and now one half of the pop electronica duo Seeland. The A side, Are You Watching, is initially reminiscent of the latter, with a wistful guitar intro and Casio keyboard rhythms leading into Felton’s reassuring and homely vocals. It’s a pleasingly unaffected slice of light psych pop, reflected and restrained but, all things considered, quietly cheerful and optimistic. The synthesiser whistles along in companionable harmony, and there’s a moogy break near the end which adds a scribble of signature Ghost Box sound. The B-side, So It Shall Be, leads off with wistful piano chords, setting the tone of autumnal minor key melancholia. Felton’s vocals are affectingly ordinary, and the air of everyday heartache and weary resignation is made all the more poignant by the humdrum poetry of tartan flasks in the rain and out of date plastic travel passes. Synth flute lines enhance the flavour of delicious melancholy, whilst background shimmer provides emotional shading.

Jonny Trunk’s Animation and Interpretation, Number 6 in the series, is more minimal in construction. The two sides are skeletal sountracks whose rhythmic emphasis conjures images of movement and travel. The first, Le Train Fantôm, sets the engine in motion with call and response bass and snare drum, and adds more mechanical elements as it accelerates, until it’s picked up a good head of hissing and clanking steam. It never achieves the piston-pumping boiler plate power of Kraftwerk’s Trans Europe Express, but is small and perfectly formed in its own modest way. Indeed, this sounds like a record for playing as an aural backdrop to the running of a model railway. The echoing ‘phantom’ sounds ghosting the rhythms of the rails suggest that this may be a very special set, one with a self-operating nocturnal life of its own.

The B-side, Cardboard Boxford, has a similarly homemade feel. With its plinking triangle and echoed, suspended piano notes and measured, spaced bass, this is movie prowling and searching music, all tension and anticipation as we wait for something to leap out, possibly with a blare of Elmer Bernstein horns. Again, there’s a hollow, miniaturised feel to this soundtrack, something a bit Michael Bentine’s Pottytime about its noirish shadows. The streets of Cardboard Boxford might be mean, but they’re easily flatpacked and stored away.

The seventh record summons up the atmospheres of what must be the favourite Ghost Box season, offering the class some Autumnal Activities to engage in. Side A, November Sequence, finds Pye Corner Audio introducing synthesiser sonorities of a slightly later vintage than the early to mid 70s Ghost Box norm. Broad, expansive chords serves as a steadily pacing ground upon which a simple but hypnotically effective motif is built. Another figure is added on to of that, and the gradually layered counterpoint leads to a cumulative intensification of the listener’s engagement. In minimalist form, ominous effect and in terms of the late 70s sound palette, this has a similar feel to an early John Carpenter title theme – Assault on Precinct 13, say. On the B-side, Cloud Control, Pye Corner Audio join forces with The Advisory Circle. A steady bass and drum beat and minor key chord sequence create the landscape above which a plangent Advisory Circle melody floats with the burnished glow of Autumn sunlight on copper beech leaves. A foursquare snare and bass drum rhythm introduces what sounds like another ghost train winding through the countryside. A minor key middle section introduces darker shadows to the Autumn scene, long nights in which diminished chords conjure threatening, half-glimpsed presences.

Number 8, Inversions, is an exercise in ringing the changes on the familiar and well-established. Belbury Poly and The Advisory Circle (aka Jim Jupp and Jon Brooks) each take one of the other’s tunes and refashion it in their own way, but not necessarily according to their own accustomed style. It’s a congenial exchange, with both participants safe in the knowledge that their music will receive respectful treatment from somebody with an inherent understanding of its spirit. This is a Ghost Box covers single, then, offering interpretations of what are, to a small coterie at least, classics. On the A side, The Advisory Circle arranges The Willows from the Algernon Blackwood-referencing Belbury Poly album of the same name. A fingerstyle acoustic guitar intro with synth flute melody sets up a psych-folk mood, with a similar light pastoral air to Nick Drake’s instrumentals on Bryter Layter. But we soon leave the countryside for the disco, although perhaps this one might be held on the village green, with neon-painted maypole erected. Propulsive Morodery sequenced beats combine with the heavier, metallic springiness of late 70s synth sounds to take Ghost Box out onto the dancefloor. The more familiar warm analogue tones are re-introduced towards the end, sounding fresh and renewed in this altered setting. The groove is maintained on the B-side, on which Belbury Poly effect a similar transformation upon The Advisory Circle’s Now Ends the Beginning from the As The Crow Flies LP. Here, the deliquescent descending motif is rendered as electric piano droplets. A 70s disco drum shuffle dims the ethereal glow of the original in favour a more earthbound ambience, lit by revolving, multi-coloured spotlights. It’s clear and to the point, moving the feet and the body rather than the spirit, with handclaps to co-ordinate moves and create a collective experience. The sense of Pan’s People communion and controlled and directed ecstasy is further expressed by the female ‘la la’ vocals neatly rounding off the chorus with pre-determined ritual precision.

The ninth module, Projections, introduces Listening Center, who perform the A side, Titoli, before combining with Pye Corner Audio to map out the Town of Tomorrow Today. The former has a tinnily preset bontempi rhythm over which simple motifs are placed. On the bottom, a boggy, splodging synth ground hops along with the squelchy bounce of a children’s animated TV theme. The ascending melody drifts overhead with airy nimbus lightness. Sampled female vocals rise in pitch up the synthesiser keys, the evident artificiality of the notes somehow in itself strangely affecting. It’s all so childishly simple, yet creates such a direct, emotional connection. Town of Tomorrow Today begins with a rolling, slightly turbulent synth pattern, perhaps the helicopter approach to our shining urban destination. The grid patterns of the planned and zoned environment is measured out with mellow techno, simple circling chord sequences around which descending melodies are woven. Its repetitive iterations of the basic material with slight variations in tone and structure echo the imaginary modernist architecture which we travel through in our heads.

The final single in the Study Series pairs Belbury Poly with Spacedog, who are Jenny Angliss on vocals, Sarah Angliss on theremin, piano and electronics and Stephen Hiscock on percussion. The record celebrates the mathematical genius, intellectual daring and ‘poetical science’ of Ada Lovelace, Byron’s extraordinary daughter, who imagined the possibilities inherent in the analytical engine which she worked on with Charles Babbage and thus anticipated the modern computer age. On the A-side, Feed Me, we begin with her beautiful statement ‘we are toying with the intangible, the stuff from which the Northern Lights are made’, which shows a profound insight into the spiritual urges at the heart of scientific enquiry. Jenny Angliss’ classically inflected soprano voice echoes Ada’s words (as read by Flora Dempsey) with a lyrical, yearning melodicism reminiscent of parts of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings or his Rimbaud settings Les Illuminations. There’s also a hint of the North Sea Radio Orchestra in the mix of classical and pop elements. Dub melodica opens up interior spaces and suggests the thought processes which reach towards new ideas and concepts.

If Feed Me depicts the conceptualisation of new possibilities in computation and analogs of mental processes, the B-side, Quiet Industry, presents the mechanical realisation. Ada envisaged the way in which the analytical engine might be used to create complex music beyond the capacity of human musicians to perform. Here, machine rhythms like those in Broadcast’s Hawk drive the music on. The analogy with the Jacquard loom is made, and we hear complex, chattering rhythms incorporating sounds recorded in Quarry Bank Mill in Cheshire. With more readings and vocals taken from Ada’s poetic scientific writing woven into the skittering calculations of the machine rhythms in hocketed patterns, the whole bears some resemblance to Steve Reich’s vocal piece Tehillim. Above this complex but intricately ordered polyrhythm we hear a gorgeous synthesiser melody which expresses the beauty of science and the human mind’s efforts to understand the universe through its application. This paean to a female pioneer and prophet of the modern age is a noble, affecting and inspiring lesson with which to conclude our series of studies. Hopefully a new course may be announced in the not too distant future.