I have been working on a piece I call ‘Gestalt’ for a number of years now. First shown Sept 2010 at Durham’s DLI gallery as a three part installation, I am looking to develop it further. I am particularly interested in working with other museum’s collections in order to expand what I regard as an ‘endless’ project.
Watching tv with the sound down and the predictive ticker onscreen is often terribly poignant (I use ‘terribly’ advisedly) . With Springsteen’s ‘dancing in the dark’ playing over the tannoy in the background I am watching a video game.
Except it’s not a video game. It is Jordanian missiles slamming into a weapons store (or whatever) in retaliation for the murder of their captured colleague Moaz al-Kasasbeh. And then there he is in his orange suit, doused in something flammable. In that cage. “Can’t start a fire without a spark – this guns for hire even if we’re just dancing in the dark.”
And dancing in the dark we most certainly are. A seminal American love song embedded with gunslinger imagery. It’s in the fabric of America. America ruled the waves. The airwaves of cultural influence that is, and they passed on their value system, along with an ever expanding internet, cosy right wing views of ‘goodness’ and ‘greatness’ and ‘godness’ – expecting the rest of humanity to accept it as the de facto way of seeing things.
If you ferret around you can soon find the video. The internet is like that – it’s very democratic. I went to the Fox News website to get a U.S. perspective and found it. There were a number of scary things on there. I watched a studio discussion which was frighteningly frank. These people don’t hold back – ‘maybe it’s time to think about levelling the Syrian city of Raqqa’… and ‘the only thing wrong with GTMO (‘gitmo’ -U.S. speak for Guantanamo Bay) is that there are too many empty cells and beds’ says Senator Tom Cotton. ‘Here, Here’ say the studio panel. God bless their reactionary Cotton socks.
But this is not such an easy war to win with a fist. Global communication levels the playing field in an unequal fight. The production values of the Jordanian pilots’ execution video are slick but not of this world. They come from the world of gaming. 3D modelled fighter planes – ever changing overlay screens showing bombing runs, maps and targets whilst the unfortunate pilot is made to recount his mission to camera as part of this on screen montage.
Segue to pictures of supposed blown up bombing victims and then to a dream like surreal sequence where Moaz al-Kasasbeh, in orange jump suit, wanders around a bombed out landscape appearing dazed, surrounded by faceless, gun cradling, sentinel IS warriors. I am reminded of a scene from Dr Faustus where Richard Burton smashes through crowds of monks; each one disintegrating in an unsatisfactory way so as to make his triumph, his reward, appear ultimately hollow and without worth. Are IS aware of that? I am more inclined to conclude that the US and IS have something in common; a propensity for in your face propagandist drama. Methinks the producers of this video are not only mimicking the style and content of their foe but actually believe in a similar sentiment of death and glory.
Reduced by the filmic treatment to the role of an avatar he is not Moaz al-Kasasbeh, he is not even a Jordanian pilot; he is merely symbolic. The gruesome finale in slomo, though horrendous seems almost Hollywood, almost too unreal to be anything but CGI violence porn. It must have taken a few days to film and a lot of post-production . I couldn’t read the end titles as they are in Arabic but I really hope they weren’t production credits. There is almost a nostalgia for the simple locked off camera days of Osama Bin Laden in his cave.
And I am thinking about my own project – the subject of this blog. It began with photos of drugged up Liberian rebels wearing curly wigs to confuse the enemy. With my need to make sense of the mash of media messages coming from conflict zones around the world, I made a visual reference to Ken Bigley in one of my tableau; the first of many unfortunates to be seen in the now famous orange jump suit as he faced the unreal. This was an early example of the iconographic use of colour. A bat-back of imagery stolen from GITMO; this device now being de rigour filmic shorthand for any aspiring guerrilla propagandist.
But us Brits can’t in any way sit back and act all innocent. Wolf Hall. I am a sucker for period stuff and moodily lit Rembrandt-esque lighting. The last episode sees Thomas More administering his own severe discipline. It did not go well for you in sixteenth century England if you veered from the ideological party line of Catholicism. Enlightenment was not a word with a meaning we would now recognise. Hmm.. burning people, torture of the most stomach turning kind; we were quite good at that.
With the luxury of historical perspective many people will see Wolf Hall as relatively light entertainment. It’s a history we have grown up with, absorbed and don’t mind examining in the pursuit of art and entertainment. But I am thinking we are at a cross roads of time. This battle is a collision of cultural timelines. Yes governments now bang on about hearts and minds and have become acutely aware of having to win the ‘online war’, but what isn’t often talked about is that crashing of time…of the conflict of opposing mythologies and the telescoping of cultures locked in different eras .
In a sense we are all observers of the story. The west wants to tell one story and IS rather cleverly feeds their own story back to us in a mimicry of style and content. This is a deliberate strategy on their part, but I also imagine that ‘IS TV’ producers have been as fundamentally affected by the insidious messages of prevalent western (particularly American) pulp fiction as we all have been. I’m betting a fair few of them have watched the gung ho movies and have played the combat simulating video games that are the product of an ‘infidel’ culture…and enjoyed the thrill of the chase.
If one could be dispassionate, it is an intriguing conflict. ‘You gave us the weapons i.e. the technology, the phones, the cameras, the computers, the internet, the sneaky software etc etc and now we use them against you.’ Classic David and Goliath. Or make that – two sightless mythical beasts collide whilst trundling around a drab maze of underworld tunnels where time has no meaning. Or make that – a wolf in the woods is given a magic power to speak, but is still a wolf, so he does what wolves do. It’s the same thing in essence.
This week there was a flurry of publicity about the setting up of the 77th Brigade. The so called Facebook Warriors based in Berkshire. The idea is that they counter and subjugate the messages delivered online by IS through all the usual channels we have come to know and love, such as twitter, facebook, YouTube etc. You have to wonder how this hasn’t been looked at before. Perhaps even this flurry of publicity itself is a coded message, a volley across the bow of the enemy . Or perhaps, I suspect, none of this thinking is joined up and the mythical beast is in fact flailing around in exasperation looking for its lost eyes.
There are so many examples of how this macabre theatre is now playing but I have to make note of another one today. American aid worker Kayla Mueller is the latest shadow to cross this stage. The poor woman was probably dead already but out she comes; a propaganda asset. In western timeline terms the Jordanian governments’ reaction to their pilots’ murder could perhaps be said to be nineteenth century. Their reaction simple straightforward and vengeful. Execute prisoners in a tit for tat, and send out the bombers. Kidnapped some time ago, Kayla Mueller is subsequently reported by IS to have been blown up in one of those Jordanian raids. Gotcha – the wolf is cunning. Seems unlikely she would have been where they say she was but we’ll never know. Sick but wolf clever. The mighty vengeful Jordanian fist swings around and inadvertently slaps itself in the face.
‘The Assyrians came down like a wolf on the fold’ (The Destruction of Sennacherib, Lord Byron).
This is a tricky, unhappy subject but if art reflects life then it’s a subject that can’t be ignored.
As per usual I travelled hopefully to Hartlepool this week. Hopefully in the sense that I knew it would be worth filming the centenary commemorations to the one hundred and thirty people who lost their lives, with many more wounded, during the shelling of the Headland (old Hartlepool) on Dec 16th 1914.
I have gotten to know the place from filming for another project – the Rink project – but this will fit in Gestalt. The more I thought about it the more of an obvious fit it is.
I am building up and evolving a body of work that looks at what it is to be captured in the media saturated, relatively safe (so far) islands we call the UK. I am loosely attached to this particular piece of history by a distant relative – tho that isn’t really why I went. Apparently relatives of mine lived in the square that was bombarded. They were in bed. The shell passed straight through their bedroom and went out the other side. These were armour piercing shells and intended to explode when hitting something more substantial (like another ship) so didn’t explode when hitting a house. Instead they must have been hurled through the walls like a battering ram on steroids.
My interest is in how this episode was portrayed at the time – and to some extent how it is still recalled.
Hartlepool is not fashionable – and the somewhat cooler Victorian seaside resorts of Scarborough and Whitby were also shelled by the German Navy on the same day. The war department, seeing a ready-made opportunity to capitalise on this outrage published recruitment posters calling on men to enlist to avenge this defilement. They decided that dowdy Hartlepool (although it was in fact a large industrial town with shipbuilding and docklands at its heart) was not quite so evocative as Scarborough in the propaganda stakes, being as Scarborough was a popular seaside holiday destination. Hence you can find lots of Scarborough themed posters of the time exhorting men to enlist in the defence of their women and children. The idea that a seaside resort could be attacked, that somehow pleasure, fun and freedom are despoiled by the evil aggressor is an easy sell. So even in such adversity Hartlepool got second prize, though its population in fact suffered the most.
There we have it. One hundred years ago the British population sent their men off to war, to abstract places that very few, certainly not the working classes, had ever been to. Many things have changed since then and yet why do I feel even now that we still live in a bubble of informed media protection? It’s very close but it’s all so far away too.
So here I am, stood on the Headland in the sharp, low winters light filming people. There are various film crews here – all jostling for an interview or to capture the ceremony from the best vantage point. I too am interested to see and hear what is said – but I am also interested to see who is here and why. There are the dignitaries, the representatives of the various armed forces, the council officers, the school children, the passing dog walkers, those related to victims generations on, and of course the media. There is even a small contingent of first world war soldiers (actors) who form a guard of honour.
I wandered around looking at the scene. Not so much the actual event but the people as an event. The people and their concern and their need to mark something in this way. I am not cynical about this. It is ritual. I am not sure I would be putting up a monument quite like the one chosen if it was up to me, but I can see why they would. There are poppies – the same ones that surrounded the Tower of London. The children are excited to go up one by one to ‘plant them’.
There is one famous painting called the Bombardment of the Hartlepools by James Clark that hangs in the art gallery. It is the go-to image of this event and it is hmm…a tad chocolate box. A little girl is helped on her way to (implied) safety by an old seafaring type gentleman, whilst a few soldiers are scattered about in various states of disarray. It is rendered in the grand tradition of romanticism. Telling in its own way when looking back on the period. Details of that painting are now embossed in brass on the modern day newly erected slab of granite. So now that original hazy depiction has been passed on one hundred years later. No newer vision, no re-telling, no re-interpretation. Romance from disaster. More of the same. It’s safer somehow.
On returning to Newcastle and looking back through my footage, what is striking is just the poignancy of a small huddle of people holding to that spot. Some no doubt travelled to be there, some local and others just passing through. But held together for a short while. There was a lady with a glass ball. She walked around taking shaky pictures through the ball with her camera. The lighthouse, the sea, the cannon pointing seaward. She told me she was just a beginner but was learning how to take creative pictures. Good for her I thought.
Next day I wanted to just take a few shots after the event so revisited the scene. I got chatting to an old chap who had wandered in. “The cannon comes from Sebastopol “ he said. “They melted some down to make medals – Victoria Crosses” he tells me.
We ponder the fact that the old defunct cannon got recycled into another form which was still a part of war and perpetuated the myth of heroism. “People are bloody fools” he said “They never learn and they never will”. I hadn’t expected him to say that.
On the same spot they had buried a time capsule during the centenary ceremony. I wished I could have filmed him, rewound time, and put that into the time capsule as well.
The video ‘two chats with andy’ (Andrew Dodds of RAF bomb disposal) was never quite right in the gallery situation. It comprises 2 videos, each with close-cut edits that need to sync in order to make sense, as one freezes whilst the other plays and vice versa. For some reason no one could ever seem to start these off at the same time.. even though both videos had a count in leader drrrr… so i decided to make it into a split wide screen instead and thereby solve the problem at a stroke. Only took me a year to work that one out ha ha… anyway, if you’re interested this is the first part (You Tube only lets you put 10min clips up so this is in two parts). My You Tube channel is called neilsvideoart
Two chats with Andy (part1)
I’m wondering – can this technically be called a blog if I add an update almost a year later?
There are so many channels through which to proffer ones bits of info that it can seem like a job in its own right. Last week I decided to join twitter (username: NArmstrongArt ) but i have a certain amount of help in this regard as I’m told that in order to establish a meaningful presence you have to work at it and watch trends etc. to stay relevant. Interesting and no doubt necessary – but hard to keep up when one has a full time job, plus a full time job as an artist (in my brain anyway) and then a hungry global information superhighway monster to feed. Hence my worthy assistant.
A year can be a long time or it can be virtually nothing. I haven’t worked on Gestalt since my last show – but I can feel it coming round again. Feels a bit like being Doctor Who – reborn every now and again to face new adventures…
Just pondering the meaning of success.
If I Google myself at the mo (I have to say I am not in the habit of doing this normally… I tried ‘neil armstrong artist‘) I currently come up number one, three and six on the first page. I have to say I am quite impressed with my pavlovian rise through the ranks… but what does it mean?
It is no doubt in some part due to the fact that my recent show still has breadcrumbs of links dotted about all over the place, some on quite busy sites… so this will have a good effect on my Google weighting I guess. It’s kinda nice to think that, given a name like mine, I can actually wave a small flag and be seen in the sea of information out there.
But I can’t help but think it’s a hollow victory.
It is genuinely gratifying when someone takes the trouble to respond to my little info-bites here and there (this blog for instance.. and let me say a big thank you to the two people who have left messages so far lol. Let me also point out that two is two more comments than my previous blog… even though I did end up getting a piece in an mag out of it eventually).
Anyway I think my point is that it’s very hard to know just what the effect of this public profile stuff is. I haven’t yet asked the gallery if they had any feedback from the general public.. but I’m not holding my breath.. there was just a little ‘posty box’ for comments so I’m prepared for some rude stuff.
Having said that – on the last weekend of my show I went to take some stills. There was a talk taking place at the gallery… the car park was full and I have the impression the topic was in some way related to one of the world wars. So.. I took my photos (no one was aware it was my show) and ,as the people drifted out of the talk and through the gallery, I kept a discreet eye (and ear) on what the reaction was to my work.
I have to say I was quite impressed. Well impressed in a small way at least. I kinda expected them to just scan and move on through. Some did of course. But others took their time… looked close.. “oh look – isn’t that the same person in that photograph over there – dressed differently”.. etc. They were actually having a go at de-constructing what I was getting at.
I had rather meanly expected less, so it was a pleasant surprise.
And this was happening just whilst I was in the gallery. All the time I wasn’t there other people were having a dialogue that I would never overhear.
Yes it sounds a bit quaint I know.. but I sort of hope I never lose the buzz I get from these small ‘life’ events. The people who saw the show had a dialogue…even if it wasn’t with me! That’s kinda nice.
My Google ranking thus far hasn’t led to any other opportunities being passed on.
Google is just a smug mirror of conceit. It’s the hard slog of making approaches for me now…again…