The eight a-n members selected for the 2019-20 a-n Writer Development Programme are: Kitty Bew (Brighton), Joanna Byrne (Leeds), Orla Foster (Sheffield), Jamie Limond (Glasgow), Rachel Marsh (Beaworthy, Devon), India Nielsen (London), Isaac Nugent (London), and Valerie Zwart (Leeds).

The first workshop of the programme took place on Wednesday 20 November 2019 at Coventry Artspace during the last week of the Coventry Biennial.

Led by Chris Sharratt, we were joined by Stephen Palmer (a-n’s head of online content). Special guest for the day was Ryan Hughes, director of Coventry Biennial, who very kindly agreed to be interviewed – press conference style – by the eight participants.

The workshop was a mix of tasks and discussion, with quick turnaround writing and editing plus a tour of two key Biennial venues, The Row and Herbert Art Gallery and Museum.

As a post-workshop task, each writer was asked to file a 1,000-word feature on the Coventry Biennial, including quotes from Hughes, description of the work on show and exploring the context and theme of this second edition of the festival.

Each of the features will be published here following editing and feedback.

Image: a-n Writer Development Programme participants and Chris Sharratt visiting the Coventry Biennial with Ryan Hughes. Photo: Stephen Palmer


Mark Leckey’s Felix Gets Broadcasted (2007)

Mark Leckey keeps things. More than just an artist, he is a hoarder of epic proportions. His 30-year career is littered with the objects, images and detritus of 20th century popular culture, a lexicon of cultural symbols that formed not only his own cultural consciousness, but that of many others. On one fateful occasion, Leckey came across a photograph taken in NBC’s New York studio in 1928. It was an image of a papier-mâché cat, on a record player turntable. That photograph documented the first-ever test screening of a television broadcast, of which Felix the Cat was the perfect test subject. 

Felix was an early cartoon, an anthropomorphised black cat that was at the height of its popularity in 1920s America. This papier-mâché Felix remained the NBC guinea pig for another decade, as its experimenters toiled for high definition. For Leckey, his discovery inaugurated an obsession with the grinning black cat. This feline now occupies a unique and mythic space within his own artistic practice.

In Felix Gets Broadcasted (2007), Leckey recreates those nascent moments of television broadcast. He spotlights Felix in a flickering blue light, as it circles on a turntable. Like much of Leckey’s film work, the video is eerie and ambiguous. The frame switches to an ominous open door and back to Felix stood alone, accompanied by only the mechanical, spiritless hum of old-school film equipment.

Leckey’s digital recreation of this pivotal moment nods to the technological developments of both the previous and present century; it represents a slight turn towards our present moment. Following those early televisual experiments, the broadcasted image marched firmly on to become a dominant cultural form. Boundless broadcast is a phenomenon of our post-internet age and a heightened consumption of media is a defining aspect of human experience. It’s a reality that does not pass Leckey by. As Mark Sheerin has pointed out in Hyperallergic, his work exposes a ‘slippage between our physical world and the realm of technology’ – a slippage that is uniquely reflective of contemporary life.

Felix occupies all manner of forms within Leckey’s practice. He is drawn to the idea of the cat existing in multiples, simultaneously image, object, concept and so on. Leckey describes the experience of finding that 1928 photograph of Felix in a guide to his 2013 Nottingham Contemporary exhibition: “I thought that was magical. I liked that it was a two dimensional cartoon, that became a three dimensional doll, that then became this electronic entity that got broadcast out into the ether. It went through stages of transubstantiation.”

Over time, Felix has become a talismanic figure. The eerie uncanniness of Felix Gets Broadcasted bears on the idea that this cat literally haunts Leckey’s work. American curator Peter Eleey, in collaboration with Stuart Comer, organised Leckey’s 2016 exhibition at MoMA PS1. Speaking of the artist’s obsession with certain objects and images, he suggests that the artist returns to items that “have held some outsized power for him.” In an interview for the Guggenheim, Leckey says of his own process, “I make a lot of things to get them out of my head…to examine them, and to exorcise them.” That Leckey continues to return to Felix suggests that this process isn’t over yet. 

Kitty Bew

Mark Leckey, Felix Gets Broadcasted, 2007, Digi-betacam, 9 mins 50 secs. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London


Uncrossing my arms: Lorna Simpson’s Five Day Forecast at Tate Liverpool

American artist Lorna Simpson (1960) is one of the first black female artists to achieve critical, institutional and art market success. But none of that counts much when you’re standing in front of a piece of art – the work has to speak for itself. For years I’ve preferred looking at paintings to conceptual art, mostly because I often found the latter an unrewarding viewing experience. But Lorna Simpson’s Five Day Forecast (1991), currently on view at Tate Liverpool as part of its ‘Constellations’ series, opened my mind to the beauty of image-and-text art.

Five Day Forecast is a sequence of black-and-white photographs hung side by side and separated by wooden struts, almost like a film strip. The subject is the same in all five: a young, dark-skinned woman wears a loose-fitting, white shift dress and faces the viewer. Except that ‘faces’ is the wrong word: we see only the subject’s torso. The intention in denying us any more photographic information than that, Simpson says, is “related to the idea that the one thing that people gravitate to in photography is the face and reading the expression and what that says about the person pictured, an emotional state, who they are, what they look like, deciphering and measuring. Who is being pictured, what is actually the subject?”

In this ‘anti-selfie’, traditional cues have been replaced by plaques engraved with a no-nonsense font: five are above the photos stating the days of the working week, while 10 plaques underneath contain words beginning with ‘mis’ — such as misdiagnose, mistranslate, misremember, misidentify. They categorise the many ways someone, specifically a ‘Miss’, can be misunderstood.

This piece is typical of Simpson’s early work, made at a time when the artist was doing a lot of temporary secretarial jobs. As Simpson says, “the experience of being in different work environments influenced the work”. While Five Day Forecast is not directly autobiographical, it’s easy to imagine how repeatedly watching work colleagues have the same initial response to you might become predictable. Simpson’s reply feels universal, expressed here in the work’s line of large photographs of female torsos with their arms crossed. It’s an ambiguous pose, simultaneously self-restraining, defensive and assertive. The artist has said that she is exploring “what could happen in one week”, and the openness of this posture means that those explorations are limitless. Simpson isn’t telling us what to think.

Critic and scholar Kellie Jones, writing in 2002, observed that Simpson ‘creates mysterious and quietly intriguing works that reflect the silence of a portion of society — African-American women — that is rarely if ever represented in art. She raises profound questions about how we represent, see and communicate with each other and ourselves.’

But it’s not only professional and interracial communication that are found wanting. These photos are stylistically similar to 19th century ethnographic photos, reminding us that photography is unable to give us a true representation of the human condition.

Simpson would know, having started her career as a documentary photographer. It was after studying art at the School of Visual Arts, New York and the University of California that she began combining text and images to explore preconceptions about identity and gender. It became her signature, and has led to her work being associated with American female conceptual photographers Cindy Sherman and Barbara Kruger. However, Simpson’s themes, her documentary elements and narrative content distance her from the previous generation of conceptual art photography.

Not that Simpson has worked exclusively with photography. In the nearly 30 years since making Five Day Forecast, she has produced in very varied media including paintings, video, silkscreens and sculptures. Her work is spread across many of the most important contemporary art museums in the world, and aside from its economy of expression, it is the quiet hope implicit in it that has helped me uncross my arms to conceptual art.

Valerie Zwart

Image: Lorna Simpson, Five Day Forecast, 1991. Tate. © Lorna Simpson, courtesy Salon 94, New York


Hito Steyerl: How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013)

“Whatever is not captured by resolution is invisible” intones the narrator of Hito Steyerl’s How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File (2013). For anybody who has ever felt unnerved by the overbearing degree of surveillance on modern life, Steyerl provides a manual of resistance. Loosely inspired by Monthy Python, although whimsical in tone,  beneath the film’s veneer lies a stinging critique of the ways in which governments harness the power of the image to confuse and misinform.

Born in Munich in 1966, Steyerl originally trained as a filmmaker. These days, however, her practice is just as indebted to philosophy. How Not To Be Seen is a deconstruction of the modern paradox that sees us compulsively consume and circulate images, while surrendering ownership over our own pictures and data. A plummy, computerized voiceover manages to sound like both a favourite uncle and tyrant at the same time, while the landscape flickers between desert military bases, TV studios and computer-generated shopping centres. The effect is disorientating, like a bad dream.

Steyerl recognises how visual cues can be used as an authoritarian tool. She looks at a shutter and thinks of target practice; she watches a screen and sees a cell. We are complicit in the circulation of visuals, she suggests, but we are also in thrall to their power. “People participate in the launch and lifespan of images, and indeed their lifespan, spread and potential is defined by participation,” she told DIS magazine in 2014. Images make us glassy-eyed, unable to distinguish between physical and digital reality. This is why, Steyerl suggests, it is important to develop strategies of resistance. “Anyone slightly interested in digital politics and technology,” she adds, “is by now acquiring at least basic skills in disappearance and subterfuge.”

It’s a view that has resonated: in 2017, Steyerl was named most influential contemporary artist by ArtReview. Writing for that same publication, Paul Pieroni nonetheless managed to identify a hopeful message embedded in her practice: “Agency is still possible; one can still act, if only to needle and pick at representations in order to expose the conditions of manipulation, exploitation and affect underlying their appearance.” Perhaps as well as diagnosing and articulating the threat of digital surveillance, Steyerl could be the artist who helps us survive it.

But there is a quiet horror to her work. How Not to Be Seen was originally inspired by a conversation she had with Kurdish citizens, who described to her how they would conceal themselves from drone attacks by hiding in plain sight. As they heard roars begin to sound overhead, they lay still and adjusted their body temperature until they could no longer be picked up by the sensors. Steyerl was struck both by the absurdity of this routine and its pathos. People were living their lives on a battlefield, but had still managed to devise small ways of working around their oppressor. 

What Steyerl proposes then, are strategies for slipping between the cracks, receding from the radar of authority. In the film, this is represented by a green screen, a porous space which can be emerged from or slunk into at will. But there is a whole catalogue of other suggestions, some dystopian, others more tongue-in-cheek. You could become invisible by being eradicated by your government, living in a military zone, visiting an airport, or simply being a woman over 50.

As the film concludes, its landscape recedes to that of a computer home screen. If the desert terrain or simulated shopping complexes seemed alien, this one is disconcertingly familiar. You may not choose to participate in the world Steyerl describes, you may not even feel that you are being watched, but by being swept along with the advances of technology, you subscribe to it all the same. After all, can anyone who participates in a capitalist society truly dream of being anonymous? 

Orla Foster


Mark Leckey’s Felix Gets Broadcasted (2007)

In the blue, flickering half-light, two large oval eyes, a perfectly round nose and upturned crescent smile emerge briefly, before revolving out of view. The scene cuts to a spinning disc, pierced towards the edge by a shuddering bright light and accompanied by the sound of a whirring motor. These two enigmatic short clips form part of Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Leckey’s love letter to Felix the Cat, a cartoon character that became the star of silent cinema, appearing in over 100 animated films before the arrival of the ‘talkies’ in the late 1920s. 

Such was the popularity of the amiable grinning cat that electrical engineers chose a papier mâché figurine of Felix to be their test subject for the first experimental television broadcasts in 1928, his signature black and white silhouette providing the strong tonal contrast they needed to fine tune the picture definition. Leckey’s film recreates this significant event through a series of tantalising glimpses behind the scenes. We’re brought inside the studio at W2XBS in Van Cortlandt Park, New York where the broadcasts were made, given a glance at the elaborate light set-up, the spinning camera flywheel and occasionally even the Felix figurine itself, revolving with hands outstretched on a phonograph turntable. Leckey cuts quickly between images, using inconsistent lighting and extreme close-ups to ensure that we never get the complete picture. This lends the mechanics behind the first television broadcast, ostensibly a mundane subject, an air of mystery and intrigue. Felix appears only as a fugitive presence, an apparition haunting the popular imagination. 

Felix Gets Broadcasted is just one of several works the artist has made about Felix the Cat. Others include a 33-ft tall inflatable sculpture and an hour-long lecture on the enduring power of obscure popular culture in the internet age. ‘I liked that it was a two-dimensional cartoon that became a three-dimensional doll, that then became this electronic entity that got broadcast out into the ether,’ Leckey explains. The  role of magic and myth in the 20th century, and almost alchemical process through which the symbols of popular culture transition from one medium to another, has fascinated the artist throughout his career. Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a 15-minute film that made Leckey’s name when it was shown at the ICA in 1999, charted the development of youth culture between the 1970s and 1990s, whilst Made in ‘Eaven (2004) digitally recreated Jeff Koons’ legendary stainless steel Rabbit (1986), placing this icon of late 20th century sculpture on a pedestal in an empty room within Leckey’s own modest London home. 

Consisting only of subtle shifts in context or almost imperceptible transitions from one medium to another, Leckey’s work has sometimes been criticised for being overly slight. ‘Diverting in small doses, on a large scale it is exposed as minor art’, Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones wrote of his Turner Prize exhibition in 2008. Leckey’s supporters argue otherwise. The curator and critic Matthew Higgs believes the ‘strange non-artlike quality’ that Leckey’s work possesses allows him to operate ‘on the knife’s edge where art and life meet’. Felix Gets Broadcasted may have the appearance of a narrative film with the voiceover turned off, but there’s something rewarding about engaging with the nuanced arguments the work is making about the development of popular culture. Subtle and well-crafted, Felix Gets Broadcasted looks back at how figments of the 20th century imagination were disseminated, raising important questions about how these ghosts persist into the present day.

Isaac Nugent

Image: Mark Leckey, Felix Gets Broadcasted, 2007, Digi-betacam, 9 mins 50 secs. Courtesy: the artist and Cabinet, London


Eduardo Paolozzi: Michelangelo’s ‘David’ (?1987)

In 1987, Eduardo Paolozzi (1924–2005) was walking past Harrods in London when he spotted a window dresser setting up a display using a plaster cast of the head of Michelangelo’s David. Apparently on impulse, he borrowed the head, then took it to the Royal College of Art to make his own mould and cast. As plaster casts of the original David sculpture abound around the world, Paolozzi’s was, at the very least, a copy of a copy of a copy – which may account for the slightly rough surface and lack of definition in David’s features. No matter, as Paolozzi used a saw to cut David’s head into pieces, then glued him together again, placing wood strips between the joins. These spacers simultaneously hold the head apart and together so that it is possible to see right through the sculpture, and brown string is tied around the cast at the neck and forehead, as though to keep it from falling apart. Despite this harsh treatment and with the top of his head completely missing, David is still instantly recognisable in this new form.

While this deconstruction and reconstruction of David may have been an impulse, since 1982 Paolozzi had been creating a series of fragmented heads in wax, wood and bronze. Most of these sculptures had their genesis in plaster: his studio was full of plaster casts of hands, feet, eyes, ears and torsos – the raw ingredients for future work. For Paolozzi, this was an extension of his collage work of the 1950s, which saw him slice up heads from the front covers of Time magazine, mixing them up, reassembling them and then adding pencil, gouache and ink. Those cuts, as in the heads made in the 1980s, are often down the centre of the face and across the mouth. “One comes back to the original obsessions; or perhaps the original obsession always lies under the surface,” explained Paolozzi in a 1984 radio interview, “so that I’m actually doing heads again which, instead of having detritus, have parts of an experience which is previous work pressing through.”

The transition from two to three dimensions in collage was a logical step for the artist. In an interview in 1994 with Frank Whitford, Paolozzi said: “Collage has always been a kind of tool where you can sprinkle the elements … and that randomness can have as much meaning as wilful construction. So I’ve always thought collage could be introduced to sculpture … by chance you can make, as Arp would say, another reality.” 

David was an apt choice for Paolozzi’s creative act of destruction. The original marble statue in Florence was first copied in plaster by Clemente Papi in 1847. This involved making over 1500 mould pieces that fitted together like a 3D jigsaw inside a ‘mother mould’. Inevitably, once the plaster was poured, the small gaps between these mould pieces left a network of raised plaster seams on the surface of the cast, which can still be seen today. Papi was commissioned to cast a second copy which was gifted to the V&A by Queen Victoria. It arrived in pieces and was assembled in 1857. It has since been copied many times. Indeed, Paolozzi drew from a cast of David as a student at Edinburgh College of Art in 1943. Perhaps those raised seams were also visible on that cast?

Towards the end of Paolozzi’s career, his work was characterised by the reproduction  of copies, which he repeatedly destroyed and reassembled. The outcome of this process can be seen in Newton (1995), outside the British Library, a reconstructed self-portrait… with the eyes copied from Michelangelo’s David. Paolozzi’s David, however, feels like a peculiarly 21st century construction – a pixelated but recognisable face-to-launch-a-thousand-memes.

Rachel Marsh

Image: Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (1924-2005), Michelangelo’s ‘David’, ?1987, Plaster, plywood and string. Presented to the Tate Collection by the artist 1995