Media Art unmediated
The International Media Art Columne #2:
I have been impressed by recent attempts to grapple with the complex and subtle issues of ‘community’, ‘audience’ and ‘economy’ in UK art shows. The question of media and mediation in fine art circles is hinged on these concepts but is often glossed over in fine art accounts of work that employs alternative forms of media.
The first of these shows was ‘The Balfron Project: Simon Terrill’. Terrill creates photographic performance events as part of a series of works he calls ‘Crowd Theory’, long exposure portraits of places such as railway stations, ports and sports fields and the people who work and live in and around them.
His most recent ‘living portrait’ was exhibited at the Nunnery (London, 7-23 January), the exhibition space of the Bow Arts Trust in East London. The end result is a large format (1.8m x 2.4m) type C print, but the photograph is only half the work. Terrill lived in a flat on the 21st floor in November and spent the month, as part of a residency sponsored by the Trust, developing a project that would involve the residents of Balfron Tower in a ‘community’ portrait.
As Chantel Faust noted in her essay that accompanied the exhibition: Terrill ‘had always struggled with the term ‘community’, seeing it as a manufactured attempt at coherence and belonging.’ I can see why he would struggle. Just because you move into a building, doesn’t mean you are part of a community. Nevertheless, ‘it was the idea of community that defined the work’. And this was expressed vividly on the evening of the exhibition’s opening as those residents and crew who had worked on the project – indeed, are the project – mingled with a ‘visiting’ art audience and expressed a clear connection with a media process that existed beyond the walls of the gallery. The atmosphere was decidedly collective, an organic identity system generated by the process of making art. Proof, perhaps, to what extent lives and places are performed, and their representations merely a collection of documents not a set of commodities.
Similarly anti-commodity, Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock (JCHP), the ongoing collaborative practice of Dave Smith and Thom Winterburn, held its annual ‘exhibition’ at All Hallows on the Wall close to London’s financial district on January 20th. Media and mediation as a collective, even community-like, condition defines the ‘work’ of JCHP.
At the All Hallows exhibition 24 framed drawings were given away free of charge. The alternative economy of gifting their work to those willing to receive it prompted a review of the nature of the ‘audience’ and of the ‘community as art’. While clearly staged, the process felt strangely unmediated – almost liberating. The work being free, we had to seek other relations, other understandings of what we were there to do.
This staging of free open relations certainly takes place in Phil Collins’ media installation, ‘Marxism Today’, at the BFI Gallery, Southbank. The large gallery space is divided by a full-sized hanging screen onto which is projected a short film, Marxism Today (Prologue). The film is made up of interviews with teachers who taught Marxist-Leninist political economy in the former East Germany and who describe the adjustments they had to make after 1989. The work is strangely compelling. There is a rawness in the material’s presentation. Stripped of nostalgia, it appeals to a discursive form of viewing that again feels in some way unmediated.
In part of the footage the students are encouraged to interrogate their teachers and each other. Far from didactic the installation playfully expands video into a ‘classroom dialectic’ as the audience is invited to sit at school-desks in the installation while viewing the accompanying piece Use! Value! Exchange! The teacher lectures across time, re-contextualising the ‘lessons’ of Marxist theory – but are we part of the discussion or subject to it?
Perhaps in response to the cultural, economic and social upheaval taking place in the UK today this type of direct and raw engagement with ‘unmediated’ material in art-media practices is becoming increasingly charged.
At the college where I work a new exhibition organised by Anthony Davies and students on the Fine Art BA have put together a living exhibition of archival material taken from a period of radical pedagogy in UK art schools during the early 1970s. Lecturers then working at St Martins including Peter Kardia and Ken Adams would don hooded masks and ‘interrogate’ students in locked classrooms imitating the ‘hostility’ of the outside world towards abstract art. The current exhibition takes a relational look at the rough traces of material from the time – as students and lecturers map the radical pedagogy of an earlier era into their own context. Again, the approach to the material suggests a new model of mediation in art practice through the lens of older forms of education, art and public space. And this is perhaps what links these shows as a way of re-thinking ‘media art’ in 2011. Here we find a renewed engagement with the ‘work’ of art as a relational form, which in turn begins to express a renewed engagement with ourselves as mediated agents. These shows sidestep the traditional art economy, by seeking to forge new communities offering a raw challenge to the socially and culturally mediated conditions of our lives and our work. Is this a moment of change? How do we act, participate? Is this a time of new communities of shared makers and what is the role of art media practices within this shifting context today?