Hannah Maclure Centre

‘Performing Worlds’ is an exhibition that scrutinizes the difficulties of contemporary art and life, relative to the social dynamics of UK cities which unsuccessfully stretch to balance post-industrial, academic and cultural living. This exhibition is strongly socially aware, individual yet cross-referenced works leave one intrigued by the characters that commit to maintain grass-roots practice. It instigates questions whether this is a selfless or selfish act, an arts grouping defined by principle or a worthy cause for self-betterment and whether such practice is inseparable in the person/artist dichotomy.

A 7 week exhibition homed in Abertay University’s Hannah Mclure Centre, ‘Performing Worlds’ has been in durational fluxes, now seeming in its interim period, having passed its middle phase. It offers a hotchpotch of works from many practitioners, the viewer/participator is primarily welcomed by the output by Performance Platform artists, a group established by D-AiR (an organisation which fosters links between artists and the wider community in Dundee), and to provide a programme of events for Dundee based artists, gifting opportunity for dialogue and expression. Performance Platform helped form the first chapter of ‘Performing Worlds’ in a week-long public art, performance and education event from the 19th – 15th June with a varied creative itinerary in response to ‘what it means to be alive today’ involving artists and organisations. The reactions of the week from Performance Platform communicates the groundwork made by those in, and linked to, D-AiR in putting on such an all-encompassing extensive critiquing celebration, attempting to build and sustain a critical mass in Dundee.

There is a discontent voiced through the works echoing the zeitgeist of what not only appears as post-industrial small city problems but issues which concern the whole of Europe, confirmed by lack of opportunities in all fields and a discordance achieved through ignorance and disconnection between politics, public and institutions. Tracy Mackenna and Edwin Janssen’s ‘Perfect Timing’ is a reflective project, signifying 15 years working in collaboration through the unpacking of their archived practice over the course of the 7 weeks. Their work is underpinned by the notion of art as a social political agent; however, this practice has evolved with their profession as tutors at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Using the performative actions of excavating and sharing past projects, there is a hope to re-narrate previous ideas in their role and the function of art in culture for future projects. Their area is not occupied at all times and what is left are traces; pieces of evidence from past works, such as clothing, a feeling of retro melancholia, as these works appear remnants of the fabric of their existence as colleagues, artists and partners spanning nearly two decades, whilst also acknowledging life before this companionship. It provokes thoughts, if it is possible for socio-political practice to remain a separate entity from everyday family, working and collective life.

The greater part of ‘Performing Worlds’ speaks of the dysfunction of society, with the work of Mackenna and Janssen acting as a broader scope for discussion on such topics as ‘…loss, conflict, the construction of ideologies and identities.’ Viewing Mackenna and Janssen’s space void of their presence feels as though they are pensively searching for a remedy through the unpacking of their past, clasping for some kind of organisation and answer in a time when imbalance is occurring between the populace and governmental decision-making in arts and education. It will be interesting to see the repercussions in the coming years within their practice and professional life.

The practice of archiving appears to be an activity to seek order in a time of cuts and under-staffed institutions that have lost grasp of bringing exciting educational, socially concerned programmes, whilst they continue to adhere to the criteria that arts funding mandates. However, there is a difference between artists such as Mackenna and Janssen deconstructing an archive to begin re-/constructing artwork and that of artists such as Peter Horobin whose whole performance through life has been documented, inseparable from his art practice and the various manifestations of his personality, (Horobin has taken on many aliases over his life and is now living under a new guise). Horobin’s installation ‘The Principle Player’ appears like a cave or cell of daily routine data, as the viewer is enclosed within three Xerox-walls of recordings of his existence. One could confuse this work as being naïve and underwhelming – a data caveman clinging to the nothingness of life. The Attic Archive housed such works; a living home archive in Dundee, filled with such durable projects as ‘DATA’ (‘Daily Action Time Archive’), a ten year self-portrait through ephemera and what many would see as the detritus of the everyday. It is this non-conformist anti-hierarchical stance towards art/life that positions Horobin as a seminal yet unacknowledged “player” in not only Scottish but in the European contemporary art context, in particular in the low-fi, “outsider” realms of mail art and concrete poetry.

The Xerox-cell holds a screen presenting videos which mix various projects from his life, the viewer watches footage, such as, Horobin seeming to be an atypical art student literally mirroring a city, in an obviously self-aware manner, to more recent work in which, a conventional and mature woman discusses the rights or lack of rights concerning death. There is a complex brutality to be found in the recording of daily life, an urgency is felt in documenting the inevitable temporal quality of life, bringing order to disorder which strikes a chord with Mackenna and Janssen unpacking and re-examining their past works. However, Mackenna and Janssen’s practice has revolved around openness, an engagement which all too often is now lost in contemporary art and education, whereas, Horobin’s ‘Performing Worlds’ installation speaks of a “NON PARTICIPATION” as stated on a jumpsuit round the corner from his data-cell. But it is this non-participation, this awkwardness in persona or perhaps purposeful lack of persona, this dysfunction in character which allows space for art practitioners such as Mackenna and Janssen and the other collaborative project in ‘Performing Worlds’ – ‘DUO’ (‘Dundee Urban Orchard’) to work in a more inclusive convivial manner. The work of Jonathan Baxter (“Default Curator” of ‘Performing Worlds’) and Sarah Gittins, is a commitment to work with the Dundee community in planting apple orchards. Artists such as Horobin, push for re-thinking art and life by hiding behind art, by making their life’s worth documented in art. His lifestyle brings about questions about historicizing one’s life, one’s practice and its value in the history of Dundee and its cultural existence. It offers a contemplative rational platform for others to examine life, creative output and ones relation to the re-imagining of a city such as Dundee. Horobin’s work speaks of the jarring divides between cultural and general populace and governing bodies. This work confirms disengagement through obsessive recording, disengagement which collaborative practices such as ‘DUO’ attempt to fill through dialogical community activity and open-office.

At first glance, ‘DUO’ appears as a middle-class P.T.A. crusade, but on closer inspection one realises the endearing cut-out shadows are actually orchard planting vigilantes. These shadows, making citizen’s arrest on their own city, a reclamation, spreading Gittin’s and Baxter’s word/work around Dundee, sworn in, to aid creating a better sense of community, belonging for locals and re-planting Dundee’s history of scrumping in the 21st Century. It is a work which is a pledge to the people of Dundee; printed work is disseminated and made through a kitsch “Mobile Print Unit”, a scan of the installation area provides the viewer with a refreshing wholesome vision of something for Dundee’s future compared to the sense of the retro, tainted with time, visual fragments of times gone by, works of the others artists in ‘Performing Worlds’. Through dialogue, community camaraderie, physical planting takes place, with the gospel spread and sewn at different Dundee housed organisations such as Dundee Contemporary Arts by the shadow orchard vigilantes – pupils from Braeview Academy, building a genial, non-hierarchical learning network. It is not until one is engaged in the film work of DUO that it is apparent that this work is of similar ilk to that of the rest of the exhibition, as Kevin McCabe a local Street Poet narrates the film. McCabe animates the work, cementing a droll yet melancholic truth through spoken word, discussing the historical problems of Dundee which have manifested themselves into various widely acknowledged modern sociological issues. McCabe articulates life from his position – no work, no prospects, and redevelopment meaning nothing, the masking of reality, he extols his political opinion and the un-thought through politics of a city looking in all the wrong places for a brighter future, a city unable to cultivate its inhabitants welfare and cultural identity equally. This durational project voices what ‘Performing Worlds’ represents – work that wants to reinforce democratisation.

Stephen Willats’ practice is centred upon the function and meaning of art in society and his 1969 ‘Art and Cognition Manifesto’ (re-presented at ‘Performing Worlds’) is based upon the concepts of the 1960’s Free Education Project in which qualifying can only occur through self-authentication, complete democratic learning, adhering to the similar concepts of education that Mackenna and Janssen are interested in. This text explores the tools of knowledge whilst examining Cold War Paranoia in the 60’s in arts, culture, the military and politics and is set within three parts – ‘Art and Cognition’, ‘Life Support Systems’ and ‘Control’. As one reads on, not only does one feel a sense of suspicion from Willats’ point of view but about the text itself, through its austere aesthetic and sense of urgency, acting as a precursor to information and technological developments and the use of media within artistic communication and social-political systems. It is not until the viewer assesses the 2008 documentary ‘A State of Agreement’ in which Willats is interviewed by Dr Andrew Wilson, Curator of Modern and Contemporary British Art at the Tate, that this suspicion subsides into a admiration of Willats’ ability to bring a sense of escapism to the daily infrastructure of those detached from culture, living a life bound by the parameters of social housing. It is escapism, through transformation via creative responsibility, self-organisation and exchange between social groupings which normally would be isolated from one another. One such project is ‘Brentford Towers’ from 1985, made with the residents of the Harvey House towers blocks, West London. Over 9 months, the residents developed work, finalising panels consisting of connections between home objects and outdoor images which kept them in touch with life below and afar and descriptions of how they perceived the world from their monumental yet ignored environment. These works were installed outside the flats, with a panel on each floor with the residents informing other residents and visitors about the work. Willats’ work asks for participation and mass-inclusion to explore externalising oneself, through pragmatic discussion and creation through engagement. It becomes apparent that Willats can only produce meaningful work through rationalising the absurdities that occur by ineffective governance and that such projects as ‘Brentford Towers’ are advanced creations of his earlier manifesto. Willats’ originally sent his manifesto, anonymously through the post to various educational institutions; this meant no means for rebuttal let alone discussion. Willats is now working with “Default Curator” Baxter to take this conserved manifesto further, taking ‘Performing Worlds’ quite possibly into its propagating outer stages by inviting artists in September to interpret and re-mediatise the text for a responsive ‘Cognitive Manifesto 2012’ with a series of exhibitions and perhaps socially-interactive projects.

Dissemination appears to be the key for the progression of social art and ‘Performing Worlds’ provides the stage from which to do so. However, like a tree, it needs to root, to be able to grow – the main issue with socially concerned art practice is its temporal quality, bringing experiential positivity to those who otherwise might be neglected when it is something that should be cultivated into the permanent make-up of a city. It can only be hoped that the outer projects such as Willats’ responsive manifesto project and DUO further establish a critical-mass in Dundee, which includes its people.