I’m suffering post-holiday loss of bearings in relation to my work, and trying to get my head back into it by going to film screenings and talks. As part of this re-immersion drive I went to Ian Forsyth and Jane Pollard’s screening and talk at the Whitechapel, which showcased new work made for Nick Cave’s forthcoming DVD, alongside old work and videos that had influenced them, all focused on the talking head format. I don’t know their other work very well, though the event convinced me to go to the South London Gallery to rectify that, but from this selection it seemed primarily concerned with the foibles of human nature- obsessions, passions, attachments- filtered through the lens of music.

While talking heads are standard in documentaries and YouTube videoblogs, Mike Sperlinger, who was chairing the talk, pointed out that when utilised within ‘cheap’ TV clip-shows the people talking are treated as merely a means of content delivery- to say the things the progrmame editors require so that a coherent narrative can be pieced together from multiple voices. Jane pointed out how easy it is prompt certain answers, comparing this type of cynical interviewing to handing out a script- an instrumentalised mode of interview that their work is clearly in opposition to.

Their use of talking heads also differs from mainstream manifestations by rejecting name-titles, depriving the viewer of the framing device that identifies the interviewees, and thereby affords authority and prestige to them and to the interviewers, particularly when dealing with famous personalities as in the Nick Cave videos, for being able to secure such ‘big names’. Without names, everyone is leveled and hierarchy is eliminated, in a kind of gesture towards fundamental equality (unless they’re so famous you recoginse their faces).

Another interesting thing Jane said concerned their editing process, which is done according to the spoken word, much like a radio edit. This type of work is seemingly much more a literary/ writerly form of art since the text has primacy over the visual content, with the visual elements almost entirely determined by the text. One could argue that the individual speakers are similarly subordinated since their individual voices and stories are not as important as the overall narrative the artists construct from them.

My video Reality Life (2009), which featured teenage girls reading out a script written entirely from the titles of ‘unscripted’ TV programmes, attempted to foreground the potentially exploitative aspect of this practice; un-named and cut into wherever it suited the rhythm and flow of the video, the girls were simply ‘delivering’ their lines to camera for my use.

Of course the difference is that it was scripted beforehand, whereas documentaries are constructed from the (supposedly) unpredictable stuff people come out with. But- and this is something I’ve pondered a lot in relation to my own text-based work- where does carefully manipulating other people’s language leave the artist? Contrary to the positing of the work screened as oppositional, with their collaborator Nick Cave acting as a credible signifier of ‘alternative’ culture, the artists still have total authorial control and edit the content to create their own unique, individual response out of it.

It reminded me of something Steven Ball said at the curator’s talk at Banner Repeater in relation to one of my videos. He mentioned Marjorie Perloff, a theorist of conceptual poetics, who has espoused the notion of ‘unoriginal genius’, which as the name suggests, hardly destabilises the old romantic/ individualist idea of the artist as genius- albeit one who displays their virtuosity through re-using and re-ordering existing texts. She gives Benjamin’s Arcades project as a paradigmatic example but also champions the work of contemporary artists like Caroline Bergvall, who has worked with re-written found texts like lyrics and titles of pop songs, for example.

I think she is proposing this as a definitive break from the idea of ‘original genius’ in the age of the internet and simulacrum but I wonder whether using existing texts does anything to challenge the authority and control of the artist since what they formulate from them is still unique and individual – words often associated with ‘genius’, original or otherwise.

Reality Life (2009)


It’s a familiar feeling to anyone who has found themselves trapped in an endless cycle internet browsing- somewhere, out there, is the article, text or information that’s going to make sense of it all and make something click, as it were. My new year’s resolution for the second year running- having finally managed to quit smoking- was to stop wasting time in this manner, along with the even more pointless activity of reading the comment boards of blogs. Amongst many others, this topic was covered during a workshop at the ICA lead by Mark Fisher and Nina Power addressing the way the internet has affected the dissemination of artworks and looking at how artists and writers have used the web, especially blogging.

More of an informal dialogue with comments and questions actively encouraged throughout, the talk took in themes like the continuous displaced attention typical of the web, the illusion of infinite time it conjures up and the politics behind a switched-on culture. Thankfully free of the usual tips to success, networking and branding that often characterize ‘artists and websites’ discussions, the speakers instead talked about the personal reasons behind starting a blog in the first place and the strangeness of suddenly addressing a public- even if no one is reading. Mark asserted, and Nina concurred, that for him and others of his acquaintance, starting a blog coincided with some sort of loss or otherwise difficult period, in his case depression following the ending of his PhD. It takes some guts to offer up this kind of detail to a crowd of strangers, and it set the tone for an almost intimate (in a good way) discussion.

The tension between the printed word and on screen text was another theme, since most people prefer to read long articles in book form; on screen, with other tabs constantly attracting your attention, the pull to keep scanning and moving to the next article is too strong. This continuous displaced attention, a kind of distracted roving in which the ‘labour is the look’ and eye-balling accrues value, is apparently integral to what Jodi Dean called “communicative capitalism”. As I understand it, the utopian dream of increased quantity of and access to information does not lead to a more democratic situation, but to a state of confusion and distrust, where the endless stream of publicity, op-eds, wikipedia entries and blogs “produce searching, suspicious subjects ever clicking for more information, ever drawn to uncover the secret and find out for themselves”. The excess and lack of meaning creates a kind of whirlpool intensity of information, which the subject gets swept up in, unable to decide who to trust.

Not to mention the fact that despite the liveliness of online debate, the endless ‘Support this or that protest’ Facebook group thousands join, there is little actual, real-world activism to back it up. I started writing this before the uprising in Egypt, and I wonder how much events there disprove this theory- some have suggested that its precisely the Wikileaks episode which lead to the uprooting of the Tunisian regime, which consequently spurred on the Egyptian people into action. Mubarak’s decision to disable the internet suggests there is real fear from authoritarian regimes of protestors using it to communicate and organize; it undeniably also presents us, the online observers, with a captivating ‘breaking news’ drama to keep abreast of and endless debate to engage in.

Mark mentioned the crucial role of debate to culture as well, since the debate- the buzz, hype, discussion around it, the participation of the viewer- is the product; that’s what is being produced (and guarantees its success). This is obviously integral to reality TV, a pseudo-participation better described as interpassive rather than interactive, and as he said, with the whole ethos of ‘inclusion’ as practiced by the government and corporate interests. I’ve seen this ‘Have Your Say’, ‘Join the debate’ culture in action in Redbridge where I live: posters saying “£3 million must be cut, have your say where from” but the decision to cut at all, is of course, closed to debate. As Mark said, if your opinion made a difference, they wouldn’t want to know it!


How important to the understanding of their work is an artist’s political and spiritual stance? Reading an article about Gilbert & George in that quality publication ES Magazine, I was reminded how easy it is to dislike someone on discovering their political views. Apparently they have always been staunch Tories, sticking it to ‘the man’, meaning the art world, with whom they assure us it’s impossible to discuss politics. Maybe they have a point, as Mark McGowan’s Facebook work at the election showed, in which a spat broke out between him and other artists who felt his (presumably insincere) support of Tory politics was one step too far.

Gilbert & George share their ‘rather deferential attitude to statesmen’ with another artist who has been claimed for the liberal left, despite the evidence to the contrary- Andy Warhol. His coke argument has been understood by some as socialist/ egalitarian, since if ‘the richest consumers buy essentially the same things as the poorest’ it means in some way we’re all equal: regardless of material wealth, the Queen and the bum on the street are the same in death, and Coke.

As he was reputedly a ‘good Catholic’ it could also be considered a spiritual position- didn’t Jesus stress that in the eyes of God all men are equal? But here’s an interview with Peter Gidal illustrating his (affected?) nonchalance towards social inequality:

AW: So how is everything in England?
PG: Everyone’s poor, things are real bad
AW: It would’ve been better if England had kept the colonies, then things would be ok.
PG: Are you kidding? The rich were even richer, and the poor poorer…
AW: Oh, but then England had all those colonies….

It’s as though, having made that realisation of a basic spiritual equality, we can all relax- if everyone is equal in the eyes of god, why bother changing anything? Improving your quality of life while on this earth isn’t going to make you a better human being or facilitate a smoother passage into Heaven. But that’s no excuse for accepting social divisions and uneven sharing of wealth and resources.

Another way of understanding some of Warhol’s quips could be through Buddhist thought: “If you didn’t have fantasies you wouldn’t have problems because you’d just take whatever was there” (attachment- to material goods as well as thought forms- and desire, lead to suffering). He also claimed not have a self and wanted a blank tombstone, echoing the Buddhist path towards dissolving the ego, whose lifeblood is desire and individuation.

This leads me onto Zizek’s take on Zen, which he sees as completely opposed to the pernicious doctrine of ‘Western Buddhism’. The latter, according to him, is best summed up by the title of a self-help book, ‘Self Matters’: a self-centered notion of an inner journey, towards a more authentic, integrated self, with the built-in promise that the pay off for taking the trip is a more ‘successful’ life. His main gripe is that it allows you to fully participate in capitalism, while maintaining a perception of being outside of it, being able to coolly see the worthlessness of the spectacle but remaining calm in the knowledge of the “peace of the inner Self”.

Also, the self-help movement often advocates the ‘we’re all freelance now’ attitude championed by neo-liberalism that assigns all the responsibility for living, working and surviving in the capitalist game to the individual. Social factors, plus the role of government and corporations are thus rendered incidental when compared to the ability of each person to rise above limitation if they really wanted to.

Anyway according to him, this ‘inner journey’ of self-discovery is almost the complete opposite of Zen proper: if anything it’s “a total voiding of the Self, no “inner truth” to be discovered. What Western Buddhism is not ready to accept is thus that the ultimate victim of the journey into one’s self is this self itself.”

If there’s no ‘inner’ depth in Zen, maybe all there is ‘outer’: surface, exterior, or no self at all. Following Zizek’s logic, Warhol’s blankness and self-proclaimed complete superficiality could therefore be considered strangely native to Zen and against the cult of individuality which capitalism thrives on.


Coinciding with MOVE at the Hayward Gallery, the BFI devoted its Studio Space to Yvonne Rainer’s work and influences, in a programme of videos which explored the interaction of moving image works with choreography, with work by international artists accompanying pieces from Rainer’s series, Five Easy Pieces. Two themes emerged from the selection I saw: language and linguistic structures in video, and movement, in physical and social space. These areas are linked through the logic of the score, prominent in experimental music and dance as well as in conceptual art, exploring the political and aesthetic implications of art based on instructions. Thus the linguistic is inscribed within the works, despite the absence language in the form of voiceovers, dialogue or subtitles, through the score that sets them up.

Exploring movement on a human scale were videos such as Prune Tourne, by Michel François, which followed a woman with long reddish hair spinning; plus two videos of ‘obstructed’ piano playing, the first showing a hand playing while wearing splints, the second, Audience by Bea McMahon following a recital on a piano covered by slobbering snails. These, along with Rainer’s video Volleyball, used a score, or instruction, for the video and followed it through in a deadpan, unvarnished manner reminiscent of her interest in ‘task-like’, quotidian actions. Rainer’s Hand Movie (1966) also comes to mind, a video which shows hands moving in a continuous flow, so that “No part …is any more important”.

In contrast, some of the videos rejected detached coolness, instead using the body to expressive or political ends. Head Hand, by Sonia Kurana showed the artist’s hand caressing and pummeling a black man’s head, supposedly representing a multi-layered negotiation with race, gender and sexuality. Rainer spoke of being opposed to the exhibitionism and narcissism of the body as it is used in most dances, but stressed it was “also true that I love the body- its actual weight, mass, and unenhanced physicality.” These videos brought out the idea that the corporeal, fleshy aspect of the body could act as limit, an opposition to the “pseudo-world” of the spectacle, as Carrie Lambert puts it, acting politically against the endless production of images. She quotes Rainer: “My body remains the enduring reality”, a phrase which suited the screening, with its focus on bodies spinning, touching and feeling their way through physical space.

Another thread running through a group of other video was the human mass, and its movement through physical and political spaces. Yael Bartana’s well-known piece Kings of the Hill silently observes men in Israel driving gas guzzlers up and down steep sand dunes, in an improvised collective dance of negotiating the uneven terrain. Movement here appeared at first to be unconstrained, almost playful, with no boundaries, roads or officials in place to control it, but within that was an ominous undercurrent of containment, a sense of movement only within the allocated space. The Flag, by Koken Ergun, shows the effectiveness of modern brainwashing at mass youth rallies in Turkey, in good socialist realist style: little bodies choreographed from childhood into their allotted place in the dance and in the wider culture. Language in this video was exposed as an instrument of nationalism, fully exploited for its powers of persuasion, emotive storytelling and nation-building.

The capacity of language to create and solidify national identities obviously includes its capacity for activating the opposite impulse: exclusion, segregation and singling out due to language differences. Anri Sala’s video Lak-kat showed young boys in Senegal trying to pronounce words in Wolof which related to variations in skin hue: from dark black to whitey, all words associated with colonialism and its implicit valuation of these colours. Language here sets people apart, and values them accordingly; naming becomes a function of social positioning.

Seen in relation to MOVE: Choreographing You, the moving image works seemed to cast a more sombre shadow, as if to remind the viewer that despite the playful aspects of participation and dance, bodies are equally subject to exclusion, coercion and separation; but also that possibly this is where their agency also lies, as capable of generating their own language against the social and political structures which would limit its movement.


Yesterday was my last day in Barcelona, which I spent going to MACBA for the second time, to see Are you Ready for TV, a show of moving image works about television. The suspicion that the rise of net-worked technology dates the theme a little is echoed in the press release which states (complains?): “just when it seems that television as we have know it is over, we are asked if we are ready for more”. Its an attempt to “deceive the senses in order to escape the emitter-receptor duality”, a description seemingly more fitting for the internet than for TV, in this age of fan art, prosumers and content creators.

The exhibition implicitly acknowledges the self-directed mentality of the internet through its design, which encourages a twitchy, distracted mode of attention. Consisting of 10 sections (or “episodes”)- each with at least two interactive screens, with an average of 3 works to choose from, many with lavish running times, plus numerous large screen scattered about- meant that watching even a fraction of the works on offer took two visits. Like a night spent flitting through UBUweb, the viewer becomes curator, necessarily making a cut and hoping for the best; the emitter-receptor duality is certainly breached, with the viewer/ receptor being burdened with the responsibility (freedom?) of making their own choices. It is unclear whether this completist approach is a curatorial strategy or a result of technological advances, with a similar format for viewing video used at MOVE at the Hayward, and at CCCB in Barcelona; the encyclopedic scope is dazzling, but is the viewer willing to put the hours in?

Despite these quibbles, the show provided a good opportunity to catch ‘classics’ of the genre in the same space. In the ‘Site-Specific TV’ section, dealing with the sculptural and material properties of the TV set, was David Halls’ This Is a TV Receiver, whereby a TV presenter making a statement about the appearance and function of the TV box deteriorates over repeated re-screenings, emphasising the objecthood of ‘the box’ through dry description. While the technology described is now obsolete, the anti-illusionist sentiment of the line “this is NOT a man’s voice” remains true regardless of the particular apparatus used, unlike for some of the other work. Peter Weibel’s TV Aquarium casts the TV as a fish-filled aquarium, being drained of water; Jan Dibbets’s video TV as a fireplace does just that, and so on. These suffer a little from their reincarnation in a flat screen world, where boxiness and depth are almost forgotten, not to mention 4:3 formats; when works depend on the frame of the video matching the frame of the TV, awkward black strips ruin the illusion.

Some works lose their site-specific punch through their re-constitution as single screen works in a gallery setting, as opposed to unannounced TV inserts, a practice which seems amazingly radical by today’s standards. David Hall’s TV interruptions, a series of 7 inserts, cut into the smooth fabric of TV with no titles or explanations, catching the viewer unawares. Similarly, Bill Viola’s Reverse Television consists of 15 seconds inserts of people sat in their living rooms, staring, presumably, at their tellies in an echo of the viewer at home. Situated in the same room as Richard Serra and Carlota Fay Schoolman’s TV Delivers People on the big screen, the two works seem to be in conversation, with the protagonists of Viola’s video having the unvarnished truth about the machinations of TV explained to them. The lines of vaguely threatening, accusatory, and still spot-on observations about TV, like “ The product is the audience”, “You are the end product delivered en masse to the advertiser” seemed to be directly addressing them in their silent, private stupors.

Collective experience as simultaneous private experiences distributed across the field of media culture, as Seth Price puts it. Maybe, despite the added interactivity, not that much has changed from the shift from TV to internet- and we are still being ‘delivered en masse’ to the advertisers, more accurately thanks to profiling and consumer feedback loops than the scattergun approach of TV.