Visual art exhibitions and events with a platform for critical writing
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By: Lee Devonish
An experimental out-of-body story blog, taking place over a year of an MA in Contemporary Art Theory at Goldsmiths UoL. Names have been changed to protect the guilty.
# 8 [25 November 2012]
“Is anyone feeling... lost? Confused? A bit?”
The class was silent.
He looked up, somewhat shocked, but he must have expected that answer from at least someone. There were a few active participants in the group but more than a few glazed looks as well. Only no-one had so openly volunteered their ineptitude. She felt there was nothing to lose. He might be charming and French, but there was no point in trying to impress him - he’d eventually figure out how clueless she was, and whether he was a frog or a prince, he’d have to be a magician on top to do anything about it.
Flicking through his notes, he said, “What shall we do, go over some of the...”
“Just... just leave me here.” To die, she wanted to add, but she had lost a large chunk of her taste for drama over the last hour and a half. The fact was that she had forced herself to read the two excerpts of Nancy which formed the week’s reading, but nothing had stuck. Just like the Heidegger essay the week before. Now, though, it seemed that there was no getting away from the fact that she had stumbled into a philosophy course instead of an art theory course, and from the feeling that it was going to turn out to be a hideous, hideous mistake.
The minute hand eventually reached its home, and the class had been endured. Another few hours before the second class of the day, which would hopefully be a less torturous experience. In the meantime, she could go to the staff dining room to squeeze in the rest of the reading that she’d avoided all week. This should be better though, Donna Haraway instead of Jean-Luc Nancy. But just so much of it.
One of the other professors from the department was ahead of her at the counter, having his plate piled with ancillary vegetables.
“Hello-o-o!” He said. She was actually surprised that he had recognised her from the core course lectures. “How’s it going?” Cue a disastrous conversation.
He had blue eyes like razor blades and seemed to have honed them for many years on a steady stream of flabby student souls.
“That well, eh?”
“I’m starting to think I should have saved up the money for the MFA in Fine Art. I mean, it’s not like it’s... I don’t think it’s beyond me, but it’s not what I’m really about. I can do the writing, but maybe I should be...”
At that, he turned and fled with his refectory food. Very dramatic. And very fitting, she noted, seeing as he lectured in performance studies.
# 7 [22 October 2012]
Orange! Pair. Trousers!
Orange! Pair! Orange... Trousers!
Orange! Pair... Trousers.
It was coming from one of the teaching rooms, so there was no point in complaining; although it wasn’t the kind of thing one would expect from a PGCE class, they had every right to yelp three words over and over and over again at the top of their voices, with accompanying background babble. She’d have expected it from the art department, but here? Maybe it was a drama class. So inconsiderate of them. The cacophony came straight through the closed door of her office, where she had been trying for several minutes to read past the first page of the Derrida text which had been set for Thursday. This would probably be funny at some point, but right now, it was just... well, it would have been even more inconvenient if she would have been able to concentrate in its absence, but she knew that would still be impossible.
In the middle of every paragraph she saw the image of the white tent, the police cordons and officers standing guard. There was a woman shivering in the drizzle, naturally unable to wear a coat under her disposable forensic coveralls. She was rubbing her hands together, talking to a policeman in the passageway behind the houses; behind them, the covered alley leading to the road was strung with more police tape, and the tent beyond that. She had looked across at the pair and caught the woman’s eye. Another day at the office?
She wondered what the protocol was; could you offer them a cup of tea? Like when the plumber or electrician comes around? Would they take it or would they be suspicious? Were all the neighbours suspects? Did that guy over there do it? He looks like he could have - that one doesn’t - that guy definitely does.... She hadn’t wanted to come out, but she needed to buy milk, and there was no way she was leaving the flat after dark, not that day. It was strange coming to terms with the fact that a few hours after she got off the night bus that Sunday morning, someone - she heard it was a woman - was murdered at the end of her road. And a few hours after that, she was walking past it to the Tesco Express.
Even the next day Derrida wasn’t going to cut it. Why wasn’t it in the news? Does this happen that often here? Forget reading. Tuesday morning’s reading group would be strange if she didn’t at least read some of the texts for both lectures, but she couldn’t even stand to finish the Babha essay. Strange because she’d always managed to be very vocal - probably too vocal, she thought - in the discussions, even if only to say why she didn’t like something. Well, you wanted to be a bit more quiet... this might be the week when you have nothing at all to say. Maybe just stay at home. Actually, staying at home for good seemed to be the best idea all around. Peckham... well. She had learned to take it seriously now.
Eventually - she hoped - there might turn up something she was actually interested in reading. So far there was hardly any art in Contemporary Art Theory, and that was how it looked likely to stay. Philosophies and fatalities, frick.
# 6 [25 September 2012]
8 weeks later.
“When does your course start?” Marisa asked, surveying the first of the plastic boxes on the storeroom shelves.
“I’m registering next Wednesday, and the induction - I’m calling it indoctrination - is on Thursday. It’s funny, having to cut through the lines of students for the last two weeks, and now I’m going to be one of them... gonna wear my staff ID card just to confuse as many people as possible.”
“At least you’ve been here long enough to get accustomed to it, so you won’t have that deer-in-the-headlights look they’ve got!”
“I know... but I still feel a bit behind where I wanted to be by now. My evil plan was to get all the books on the reading list out of the library before the students came in, and I did get a lot of them out, but have I actually read them? I’m just fattening up Goldsmiths library with my late fees!”
“Well, moving is a big upheaval, at least you’ve done that, and you’re settled in now. If you can survive doing that, and clearing out 288 at the same time, you can manage. It’s lunchtime... you coming to the pub?”
“Yep. I feel like the whole life-support-machinery is just now starting to get onto autopilot after a couple of months of pushing it along in front of me, waiting for it to get into gear. ”
The Educational Studies department maintained a delegation at the pub each Friday lunchtime. Individuals came and went, but the department was continuously represented by academics and administration staff as a matter of honour. After a morning of clearing out the downstairs stock room, the pub needed little to recommend it.
They found the department at their table and joined them.
“Hey Dennis,” said Marisa, “this is Lee. She’s our new general technician for the next few months. Dennis lectures on the PGCE Secondary. Lee’s just been telling me about her MA, it’s starting next week.”
“Oh yeah? What’s that in?” said Dennis, swirling his gin and tonic.
“Contemporary Art Theory.”
“Is that all writing?” said the art technician, adding, “No, I wouldn’t want to do that. No, no.”
“All writing, no practical - I was just saying I felt bad about not having made any new work in the last few months, but I could say this is part of my general practice, so right now I don’t feel as bad about concentrating on the writing side.”
“Which department’s that?” asked Dennis.
“Visual Cultures. I’ll be cheating on you with them. Or am I cheating on them with you?”
“Well we’re all for a bit of that kind of thing, it’ll be good for the students to be able to talk to you about what you’re doing there.”
“It’s probably going to overlap both ways - I took home one of last year’s spare MA in Education course packs to read because it was about masculinities and femininities in education, and that’s the kind of thing I’m hoping to go into with this. When I get through my mountain of reading, I mean.”
“You’ll have to tell us about life on the other side next week.”
# 5 [26 July 2012]
“I’m sorry love, I’m going to have to leave it. It isn’t for me.”
She had to be kidding. This woman had wasted her afternoon, when she could have been happily - to a degree - ferrying rubbish to the tip instead of waiting in for the buyer to arrive to dismantle the shed. But what would come out of having an argument at the back door with this woman, who she would never see again anyway? Some might say that was a good enough reason to have an argument, but it was too hot for that.
“You’re kidding.” It had to be said.
“It’s nailed together; I don’t think I can get it dismantled without it falling to pieces. I’m ever so sorry.”
“Just leave it.” Just get out of my back yard, she thought, but her face must have said it as well.
“You’re not going to leave bad feedback for me, are you?”
Once the van had gone, she went into the cursed shed with a cup of tea and sat on the folding chair. So much for ebay. This shed didn’t want to go anywhere. So much for the studio. So much for making money for the van hire. Might as well drink the tea and get your money’s worth of shed ownership. She did.
At last, there had arrived those golden summer days that the Weald of Kent does so well, and it would be a crime to waste this one, even getting one’s money’s worth from a white elephant shed; the only thing to do was to walk. The footpaths radiated out of the village via the churchyard, and making a quick decision, she climbed the stone steps, walked past the graves and tombs, through the shade of the beech trees and the metal kissing gate into the waiting field. Why this way? She had thought of going to the woods. But of course, she knew why. They had gone to the woods together, and in a way, the woods, that footpath and that field would belong to him. It would be good to go to London now.
This field, this one that she was now crossing, was no one’s but hers, anyway. Once at the top, in the middle of the beech avenue, she looked back and wondered how much she would miss this. Her vista was once the flat blue Caribbean horizon, and now it was Kentish fields and trees... would buildings ever fit in to this mental picture? And why, if she was so attached to this, did she find it impossible to produce anything vaguely like a landscape?
Thinking about this, she climbed over the stile and headed out along the lane. Umbellifers growing in the ditch and cryptic rustlings in the hedge caught her eyes and ears, and then, the smell of the sheep caught her nose. It was definitely dead - its abdomen fell sharply to nothing after its round ribcage and flies buzzed about it hopefully - but for some unexplained reason she had to stop and stare through the gap in the hedge, just in the hope of a twitching ear. The other sheep in the field were alive and well, which made this sheep seem somehow... extra dead. The unseen dog, now growling loudly on the sheep’s side of the hedge, became for a moment a mythical beast, slavering and guarding his kill, until the incredulously cheerful whistling of the man approaching with the wheelbarrow brought her back around, and told her to move on. There’s death all over my idyll. So much for being a country girl, she thought, and carried on.
The sun was low, but still heavy-handed. She would have to decide which way to take to get back into the village. The line of treetops on her left, across the field, called her - come here. It won’t be that bad. It will probably be the last time, too. And it does belong to you, for now. The stile was overgrown, so she carried on, but further on the gate was opened. Take it. She headed for the woods.
# 4 [18 July 2012]
Not the first thing to come to mind after breaking down on the side of the A20. It came later, having been towed home; the next morning’s viewing for the flat in Nunhead would have to be canceled. It was a good thing that they had driven past it on the way home from the first viewing, as it hadn’t looked as good in real life as online. But then, she thought, very few things do. Or people, for that matter.
So, no clutch meant no car, no more househunting. The first flat was better than it looked on the outside, and nearly on top of the primary school, so T would be taken care of. Maybe this was a serendipitous clutch failure, if there could be such a thing.
After a day of festering in thought, the rain finally stopped. Time to drag the furniture, books and tchotchkes outside with a homemade sign that read, ‘Moving Sale’. Just in time to catch the mums on the school run; they’d surely be up for a good old rummage. Immediately, it worked; here came Hippy Mum #1 - the pretty one with the hair and the eyes and the coat - and flicking through the books, she said,
“Moving sale. What a groooovy idea!”
“Well, I can’t take it all with me.”
“Where are you going?”
“Are you craaazy?” she said, circling her fingers around her temples. “From down here to there? Wow, that’s something!”
“I know, people usually move down here when they have kids. But I got a job up there, and I’m going to be studying up there for a year as well, so it’d be too expensive to go up by train.”
“Yeaaah. Oh wow, good for you! We’ll miss you!”
This seemed strange, as this was only the third time they’d spoken in four years.
“I’m gonna come back and have a good look. See youuuu!”
The sale was a success, seeing that she hadn’t actually left home all day, and there were fewer large bits of furniture to manoeuvre up what would hopefully be two flights of stairs. Sitting in a tub chair on the driveway, pretending to read a 13 year old copy of Anna Karenina, she looked at the rest of her unwanted possessions and withered. What was bothering her most was the shed full of lime planks, mdf, and the art materials she’d spent considerable time and money in accumulating. They had to come along, but where could they possibly go? Since finishing the course, she hadn’t made any work at all, and the writing had stalled under the cloud of chasing The Job and then, consequently, facing up to The Move. Now, it was nearly August, and the reading she would have to do for the MA course would have to be crammed in, and straight away. Was all of the upheaval actually going to be worth it? The shed, which only two months previous was destined to become her cupboard-sized studio, was now on ebay, and there was no chance of doing any painting in the new flat. Carving? Not easy with less space than she had now. Drawings, it would have to be. Very small drawings. Or rent a studio - but not on her part-time wages.
She started to think about the unfinished proposal and its looming deadline, when the phone buzzed and brought her back.
How are you feeling about the move?
From Lewis Arnold. No matter what, a text from an ex-boyfriend is always an event.
I’m ok now, had a v odd day yest. Selling off some stuff!
It’ll be fine, I’m sure you’ve made the right decision.
You still talk like a robot. :P
And you’re still too emotional. :/
Fair enough. Nice to talk to you again though.
It would be good to sell some of his portraits sometime soon; that would help with the mechanic’s bill, at least. And maybe it was time to get him off of the wall and out of sight, with a new flat in which to start over again. Thank goodness for the exhibition in August, at least she would get some use out of him, if not a sale, then something for the cv. And if no-one else wanted him, he could live under her bed.
# 3 [13 July 2012]
There had been no chance of sleeping well the night before, but still, plenty of hope. After 2 a.m, the hope faded, but at least she drifted off some time soon after that. In the morning, her eyes stung and the rolling of the train made them beg for sleep, but unfortunately, the nervous feeling in her stomach wouldn’t let her eyes close for more than a few minutes between stations - Staplehurst, Marden, Paddock Wood... No use. The woman opposite her stretched in her seat and grunted uncommonly loudly, which was disconcerting but welcomely distracting. The peak time ticket had burned a hole in her debit card and given her another thing to think about; if she did get the job, would she end up spending all of her money on train fares?
Don’t worry about it, just try not to look nervous in the interview. You might not even get the job, no use in getting worked up about it.
The plan was to get to Goldsmiths early, have a drink, get her bearings, and look composed, and definitely not sweaty. The previous week’s trip up with T had been a reconnaissance mission, figuring out the trains and setting eyes on the campus for the first time. It was worth it, at least she wouldn’t get on the wrong one again. Wouldn’t it be good to get a part-time job on the same campus at which she was doing her MA? Probably a bit too good to be true. What if she managed to say something hideously inappropriate in the interview? At least let it be funny. If it all went horribly wrong, at least it would be an experience to learn from. Please don’t let it go horribly wrong! she thought. Fiddling with facebook on the train would fill the time.
I hate feeling like this - nervous and slightly sick to my stomach.
Three minutes later, three comments:
John Plummer: Interview?
Mark Maguire: Disposing of a body again?
Lewis Arnold: Sugar shock?
Funny. But why couldn’t she keep it to herself? Now if she didn’t get the job, everyone would know. She’d already told Ali, though. And it was no use, the only way to get past it was to confess all, even if only into the ether.
The morning went as planned - early arrival, checking appearance in the toilets, sipping on a cup of tea (less leisurely as the time slipped by) and finally, taking up position outside of the meeting room.
Check time, look nonchalant, try to sound like you have a clue what you’re doing.
After an age of nonchalantly reading and re-reading the same page of her book, a figure opened the door.
Well, that went well.
It went. It had gone. Quickly. She wondered if she should go in search of a few galleries while she was up here - make the most of that ticket - but inspecting her reflection before rolling back out onto New Cross Road, the blooming sweat patches on her grey jumper told her to get back on the train and go straight home. Maybe they didn’t see that.
# 2 [9 July 2012]
It was the last day of the exhibition, the last day invigilating, and the last tie left to the university and the college. She stared at Laura’s installation, streaming, insanely vivid spirals of sprinkler hose, strimmer cord and yarn, and felt sad in spite of it. Was it sadness, or just fatigue? It had been a good decision not to go for a drink with the band after the previous night’s rehearsal. The invitation was tempting, of course, as the new bass player had a story about everyone in the music industry, it seemed; “I met Bob Marley,” he said. How funny, he actually did say it in italics, she thought. But the drive back home had been wearing, and by the time she parked outside the house, she felt permanently creased and car-seat shaped.
Since the degree show went up in Chatham, nothing had stopped. There had been two days in the last week when she was free, but what did she actually do? They weren’t just blurred, they had disappeared in a flurry of driving. It had taken six hours in all to get to Basingstoke, do the site visit, then drive back to Kent to collect T from school - all in the hope of making a winning proposal for a commission. There was no knowing whether it would be worth any of it, especially after seeing the number of artists there - the odds shrank visibly as yet more and more latecomers trickled into the room for the briefing - but the entire experience made her feel like a professional. In on it. This is my job, of course, she thought. She’d like to be paid for it at some point in the not too far future.
That day, there had been less than an hour between getting back from the school run to getting into the car to make the 16:09 train to London Bridge. All in order to look at some feminist crochet. Well, that wasn’t entirely true. It was partly to have a look around Goldsmiths at last, and to try to work out how long the commute would be, door-to-door.
T was getting accustomed to private views, but that didn’t mean he was impressed. He didn’t seem to notice the two crocheted penises on display. Either that, or he did, and found them, as well as the crocheted breasts, entirely unremarkable. After playing hide and seek with the staff upstairs, he chose a moment when the exhibition was full of people, and yelled, “Can we go home now, Mum?” Chuckles from the room followed by a quick exit for a glass of wine.
One hour and forty-five minutes, door-to-door.
She had to come up with a plan. Or money for a childminder. She also had to come up with a band name, but that was the least troublesome thing to come up with.
Talking to Ali usually made things clearer, as though her kitchen had magical calmative qualities - probably the tea - but this time, it wasn’t as easy. The ideas suddenly seemed too vague, and to make things worse, there was a new idea for a proposal; usually a good thing, but in this case, a proposal for an entirely different project, and the energy for coming up with anything for the commission seemed to be fading away. When she got home from Chatham, she would leave the evidence of the her degree in the car, and go to bed.
A couple of days to think, then time to finish the two writing projects she’d started - can’t put them off any more, she thought - and then she could concentrate. She hoped.
# 1 [7 July 2012]
Ali folded her dried washing and dropped it into the basket. The kids were watching a movie in the other room while their mothers hid in the kitchen, and for a while, no-one was screaming. Lee filled the kettle from the tap and started,
“I went into the loft today and came down with some ideas. I came down with the glass bits of that desk, which was actually what I went up there for in the first place, but I gotta go back for the legs when I can find a torch.”
“That desk that Patrick had in the spare room, his office desk. I want to sell it at a boot fair or something. I should sell this stuff on ebay but I don’t want the hassle of posting anything. I want people to just come up to me and take my junk away, and give me some money for the privilege.”
“What junk? I might want some of it. But not if it’s junk junk, just good junk. What’s the idea?”
“Well, you know how I’m slightly obsessed with being evicted. Or having to move. That’s partly why I had the camper van.”
“Yeah, I know. I thought I’d get the desk bits down now while I was putting a suitcase back up there, so that at least it could be ready to go to the next boot fair on the cricket pitch. But there was just so much stuff up there. Just so much stuff. What on earth am I going to do with it if I have to move?”
“You’re doing your usual thing and going nuts over something that hasn’t happened and probably won’t for a long time. Just tell me what the idea was. Was it my jam and bread on the horse’s head?”
“No, but I’m still pinching that. Where would I get a horse though?”
“I want credit for that! You see? I could have been an artist too. And don’t forget the rose petal idea I gave you.”
“Oh yes! Anyway. I’ve got these two sheds and a loft full of detritus from my past life, and no money to buy materials. So instantly I was like, “I need to use this fabric somehow,” but the problem is, I keep thinking about the things I used to make, and the leftovers from that time kinda spoils it for me. For one thing, I think the patterns are going to be too obvious. And I don’t really know if I want to bury all of that time or talk about it with the new artwork.”
“Why would you want to bury it? You’re just turning into a snobby artist. It’s too ‘crafty’ for you now?”
“Gimme a break. I was always a snobby artist inside. But seriously, I don’t know if I’m ready to go back to that; since I stopped, I haven’t had the time or inclination to sew anything. Katrina, one of the girls on my course, said it was like I’d come full circle too soon. The circle is still too small, that’s all. It’s all in my head. Like the knitting! I was knitting like crazy for months, then I remember the morning Patrick said he wanted a divorce, and I was knitting a jumper for T; I put it down and haven’t knitted a stitch since. Thing is, I’m not traumatised by knitting, but it’s such a cool story, with the “I haven’t touched it since!” that I can’t be bothered to break it up by knitting again. It’s been six years and I might be able to drag it out forever if I’m careful. Such a waste of all that wool though. And all those needles I bought.”
“Well, you can always crochet if you feel the urge. Get the milk out of the fridge. Have you ever been dumped mid-macramé?”
“Har, har. What I was going to tell you about was when I went to Basingstoke to do a site visit for this commission. It’s a craft commission. And I was thinking, aha, I can do that! But I didn’t know what I wanted to do exactly. But then the same night I went up to Goldsmiths and looked at some feminist crochet.”
“As you do.”
“Of course. So like I said, I have some ideas...”
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