Excavating the Present: A Tribute to Syrian Mothers
Review and Interview with Issam Kourbaj,
by Pete Jackson
(Photograph by Patrick Hurst)
Syrian artist Issam Kourbaj has lately become rather a hidden jewel in the crown of Cambridge’s artistic aspirations. By his own admission he has been sequestered away in his studio in Christ’s College (he is artist in residence there), perhaps excavating his own present, for rather too many years, his once annual contribution to the Cambridge art offer very much a thing of the past. What he has been doing there, however, represents perhaps the greatest leap forward in his output for many years. The wait has been worth it.
But it has taken the tragedy currently overtaking his homeland to bring him out of his reclusive gestation and galvanise this extraordinary exhibition. As he noted at the exhibition’s opening, the idea here is not just to present pictures on the wall, in standard gallery style, but to sell as much work as possible in order to raise money for the Syrian humanitarian cause. The result is a dense and immersive experience that at one and the same time enthrals and humbles.
But if the sublime is to be encountered here, then so indeed is the liminal, not only in Kourbaj’s long term interest in calligraphy, or his use of books and their pages as part of his readymade lexicon, but in the archaeological concept that forms the central metaphor of the exhibition. Once asked whether, as an artist used to writing in Arabic, he also painted from right to left, he replied, “No, I paint from back to front”. Kourbaj originally presented this concept in an exhibition linked with the outbreak of the war in Iraq in 2003, Palimpsest. The palimpsest remains a powerful motif here, and one could say that the manner of reading the work is in reverse – from front to back, the excavation in the act of viewing, which progressively reveals the traces left by previous usage.
The meta-medium is the readymade, in this case discarded X-ray plates, first etched back and overwritten – “treated” – with the use of photographic chemicals and acids, then arranged into human-sized assemblages, which are in their turn reprocessed, first as photograms (Kourbaj points out that X-rays are photograms in their own right, and these are therefore “photograms of photograms”), and then digitally, by photographing them against a large lightbox to produce life-size prints. The resulting “layers” form a chronological record of the transformation of objects once presumed dead into the actors in a living drama. In conversation, Issam noted:
“They have a figurative quality, any object has many lives, and for the last few years I have worked with the idea of found objects, where objects are discarded because their original life is finished from the point of view of a particular consumer. I find it, and I find that it has still a life to go. I went to Cuba and I saw how Cubans had to emigrate to Miami, and the only things they had were their furniture; they took their furniture apart and made boats out of it to sail to Miami. Sadly they did not survive, but the idea behind it I found incredibly imaginative, that somebody out of necessity would create out of their home, that is to sail with their home, to sail with their objects, I found that very moving. I came back and started to make sculptures out of my own objects – you saw one in the last exhibition. Similarly I go to the bookbinder’s shop for example, take their rubbish, and make something out of it.”
It came as no surprise to learn that Kourbaj has a background in theatre design. Not only the drama of the “set”, but the character of his creations, the actors in the drama, place this exhibition apart from the ordinary gallery experience. “When I knew the work was to be presented in this space I started thinking, it has to be a performance of some sort, the journey is itself part of the perception of the work.” The result is that those original artefacts develop, in Kourbaj’s words, different “voices” – “They have a different voice when they are in their original state, than when they are treated with light, and when they are digitised. Three different voices – the original, the trace and the digital, there is an evolution of some sort.”
I asked whether he thought he had added to the century-old tradition of the readymade in Fine Art. Issam thought for a moment and then said, “I am not taking it as it comes, I am not taking the X-ray as it comes, I am adding, if you like, I am taking it, listening to its past, but I am treating it, for example with bleaches and acids and by scratching into it, and I am merging it with something else, for example with aerial photography, there are images of aerial photography in there.” I noted that this merging, this partial erasure and overwriting, was not random, that there was a strict kinship between, for example, the treatment of the original “photogram” with photographic chemicals, the creation of a secondary photogram, and the digital photography of the assemblage: all are successive “lives”, or “voices” of photography itself, forensically revealed in the making of art.
This concept can be seen at work in another section of the exhibition, one portion of the gallery being devoted to a display of calligraphic drawings and paintings, created and arranged as two calendars, 24 months, and 105 weeks (106 since the start of the exhibition, and counting), referenced to significant dates in the Syrian conflict. Part of these were made, Issam told me, out of record cards dating back to the 1950’s from the old furniture store that used, until very recently, to occupy this very gallery space: “I thought I would like to make a record out of a record!”
But the record here is also the repository of the traumatic, the unthinkable, and the evidence of mankind’s deepest betrayal of itself. I asked how should the artist frame a response to material like this?
“This is the dilemma, how to digest and represent it without being too literal, too angry, too aggressive, how to play it subtly, and I am aware of many artists who have dealt with war and trauma and many of them have put it very boldly, and some more subtly. I don’t know, maybe I am affected by this culture and this climate, and I prefer the subtle side of the story; maybe if I were in Syria and I had to work in reaction to what I saw directly, maybe I would have to be bolder than this; but because I am here and I am seeing it slightly from a distance I prefer subtlety. In 2003 I did a lot of works about the Iraqi war and they were very angry, very aggressive, they were all dealing with the bombardment of libraries in Baghdad, this is why I called it Palimpsest. This time I felt, this is my home, it’s touching something very strongly in my past, in my memories, I cannot let it be too obvious, it’s already in the media, so many graphic images, I don’t want to repeat them, I don’t want to represent them in this environment, I would like to react to them in a different way.”
Two large-scale pieces at either end of the gallery deal specifically with the fate of the city of Damascus. One, based upon a map of the city, is layered with various materials, pages from forgotten texts, photographs, and inks:
“When I looked at some aerial images of Damascus, particularly the old city where I used to live as a student, I noted that it had a boundary, it had a wall around it. It looked like a theatre set of some kind, tiny small houses made from mud and wood, and that is all. They had survived so many histories. Damascus is one of the oldest cities in the world, but now it has been subject to so much destruction, I thought how can I bring this again subtly. So I created many layers, sanding down and adding many layers, so the ink is not one, it’s many inks, some thinner some thicker, some places you can see a written word but you don’t necessarily engage with it immediately, you have to dig for it.”
Once again the viewer is invited to participate in an archaeological endeavour, to spend time, to sift through, carefully to isolate artefacts of interest and to wonder at them, to place them and grant them their significance. The result is a destratification of the space of the city, an overwriting with culture and the productions of culture, an almost defiant refusal to observe its cartography, but in a way that enhances rather than destroys the original integrity of the plan. Obliteration is also deployed in warfare, the transgressing of boundaries and codes in the pursuit of political goals, the violent erasure of domiciles that have survived for centuries along with the human stories that inhabit them. Here the palimpsest of the city is overwritten in a different manner, the adding of stories from many different localities (Issam pointed out to me that amongst the pages included in the assemblage were texts in Arabic, English, Chinese and many other languages), a Sebaldian transliteration of Damascus into a universal symbol of culture and human history, and maybe even the embodiment of a narrative of redemption in the face of the extremities of human trespass.
The exhibition is subtitled, A Tribute to Syrian Mothers, and the opening of the exhibition took place on Syrian Mothers’ Day, 21st March. Kourbaj’s final word: “This is not a political exhibition; it is a humanitarian project, and that is a different thing”. Here is a Syrian son who would surely make his mother proud, not only in donating his very significant talents to the fundraising effort, but perhaps above all in having succeeded in transfiguring his rich and troubled cultural experience through the universal language of art.
Pete Jackson, March 2013
Visualise, Sussex st
It wasn’t in my plan at all to be walking around Cambridge city centre one rather chilly evening, one of ten people holding small wooden boxes that collectively emitted the strains of a “pedestrian symphony” entitled Of Sleeping Birds. I had arrived at Sussex Street to interview Duncan Speakman of Visualise on the occasion of the trial run of an event that in its full form (involving forty people with said speaker-boxes) was to span a week in the middle of June.
When I arrived the kit was laid out on the floor, lids off, wiring exposed, and composers Duncan Speakman and Sarah Anderson were busy setting up ten identical mobile phones, installing them in the carefully crafted boxes and fitting the lids. As each assemblage was completed it was taken to join its counterparts on the stone steps of the monument in the middle of the precinct. Eventually the ten boxes, now emitting a series of tones, were apportioned amongst the small cluster of people who had gathered to participate, and we set off on a pre-planned route around the city centre.
Speakman, whose background is in documentary film making, music and sound production, described Of Sleeping Birds as a “soundtrack for the city”, which was intended to bring a ‘cinematic’ character to the observation of the everyday. I was intrigued to know whether the music functioned in fact in a kind of ‘feature film’ sense, adding or amplifying emotion and intensity, and at all events at least partially fictionalising the events and locations to which it was linked, or whether to some extent it might be described as “indeterminate” music – after the manner of Cage, for example.
The answer was ambiguous. The composition, I discovered, was created in the classical manner as a fundamentally emotive response to city sights, transcribed for instruments in a predetermined arrangement and recorded in a conventional studio. Added to this was the triggering of specific passages at predetermined locations by means of satellite positioning programmed into the mobiles. The composers were clear in their choice of instrumentation and cadence at each point on our peripatetic trajectory, however, the element of chance involved in the ‘audience’, who were carrying the sounds around with them at indeterminate speeds, orientations and proximities, meant that the outcome would inevitably entail an element of unpredictability. Speakman freely admitted that the project might descend into chaos. Overall, however, even that expectation implied a judgment about what was heard, and revealed a concern with authorship of the project, which was emphasised further by the prolific note-taking and comparing going on throughout the event by the composers, keen to iron out perceived dissonances in advance of the full performance.
The piece raised several interesting problems, from the musical interpretations themselves (would the subjectivity of the composers’ responses to locale “work” for the audience?), through the juxtaposition, concurrency and possible collision of opposing elements of authorship and chance, to the use of the ‘audience’ as part of the performance – as Speakman framed it, “putting them on display”.
The blend of a quasi-situationist, interactive public art platform with the far more solipsistic activity of conventional musical making was, I felt, slightly uneasy, however it did provide some notable moments. As we entered the Grand Arcade, for example, the soundtrack gained another instrument in the form of some kind of power tool, deployed as part of works being carried out high up in the building, which, added to the exaggerated acoustics of that cavernous location, produced effects undreamed of in the original composition. And there was a magical moment in the middle of Christ’s Pieces where the whole group stopped for several minutes in a transport of enchantment.
An interesting side effect of the action was the typical response from passers-by. It seemed to bring out a notable propensity to feigned insouciance in the face of the bizarre or unusual. You would have thought the spectacle of ten people carrying small boxes emitting symphonic sounds, plus outriders and acolytes, was an everyday occurrence. Relatively few seemed in any way captivated or even curious.
That said, I looked forward to the full performance, involving four groups of ten, weaving and crossing paths through the city, during the official week of its enactment. The piece is innovative, bold, ingenious, and, in places, really rather beautiful.
Pete Jackson, May 2012
Interview with Miranda Boulton
by Pete Jackson
PJ: Do you want to start by telling us a bit about the title, Lost in the Middle?
MB: I think it defines my artistic practice, I work very much between painting and drawing. I like to let the different elements play, so some pieces will be very much painting-based, with oils, with a lot of deep brush marks, and using paint brushes, the actual stem of the brush to make strong strokes, and other times I’ll get a pencil and work into it afterwards, leaving a lot of graphite in there. So it’s really a mix between those two. Also the work I’ve created for the exhibition is very much from my imagination, in some ways it’s a bit of a twilight land, to me it’s the gap between what we have inside and what we show, so I can have an image in my head, or I may also source a visual image, and when I get to the canvas I never prepare anything more than having ideas, little suggestions in my head, that very much play out as I work.
For me painting is very much an opportunity to let out my internal imagination, as a channel for that.
PJ: Is there something of a process-base to the way you work, are you interested in the properties of paint and what it will do when it’s manipulated in certain ways?
MB: That’s the exciting thing about being a painter. I always wanted to be an artist, but I always wanted to be a painter more than anything. To me the interesting thing is the spontaneity, the chance happening, and painting is a medium really for letting that out. That’s the validity of painting still, it makes it alive for me, it makes it relevant.
PJ: That’s nice to hear in a cultural and artistic environment where it’s fashionable to give painting a hard time!
MB: It depends what your process is and what you’re looking for. My work is definitely about expressing feelings and letting things out, and for me the medium is perfect for that, nothing else will do, it’s very immediate, the way I work is very immediate. Sometimes I may take months over them, but usually they are very spontaneous, it’ll come together and gel in that moment, so I’ll do a huge production of paintings, and then I’ll go in and be very severe in my editing afterwards, so the actual painting is a very spontaneous, free approach.
PJ: So the editing comes in afterwards in terms of what you include or exclude from a show?
MB: Yes, how I would curate it afterwards and put it together.
PJ: Is it relevant to talk about influences? Who do you look at?
MB: For this exhibition it would be Peter Doig. I just love his work, I think the colour from this exhibition comes very much from looking at him. Although my work tends to be a lot more minimal, more flat areas of paint, and texture, where he uses a lot of pattern.
PJ: But you know when you talk about the imaginary quality, that’s something I also get from looking at his work as well.
MB: I think he works more from photos, but there are elements of imagination…I work from photos as well, but you probably wouldn’t know they come from that photo once they’re finished. I use them to give me structure and confidence to start with.
PJ: Have you ever been tempted to work really big?
MB: I think it’s a confidence thing…I started off smaller but I’m getting bigger! It actually frees me up, interestingly, the bigger the canvas the more free I get, and found with this exhibition the larger paintings have definitely allowed me to free myself up, use bigger brushes….in fact, there’s less on the canvas, but it’s more gestural.
PJ: I guess the big thing about the large canvasses is you get more of a whole-body experience.
MB: Yes, definitely, I used to sit and paint, but then I have to stand up to paint larger, and yes, it becomes more gestural, which is very nice actually.
PJ: Is there a specific emotion that you’re trying to connect with? Or transmit? Do you want people to feel a certain way when they look at your work?
MB: I think there are themes that I follow, and emotions that are teased out by those themes, I’d like people to feel something when they look at my work, but I don’t think I want to completely direct it, I think it’s about common experience, although some of the emotions are very personal, so it’s a way for me to let them out, but they’re still universal, I think.
PJ: There’s a lot of landscape in there, and landscape itself can be very evocative, and we all have a relationship with landscape, we all have our own landscapes either real or imagined that we’ve visited. But can you say something about the colours you use, it’s quite a restricted palette isn’t it?
MB: It is, definitely, I always use quite restricted tones, but I find it very interesting, you start off doing a few paintings, and then it’s like going round in circles with the colours, tweaking them up, and more and more comes out as you go along, and it’s actually amazing how much you can get from a small palette, but you have to stick with it, you have to study it. In the exhibition I did in May in London, I used much
more light and dark, more contrast. This time I wanted to keep it smaller, but I found with the darker tones you could actually get as much contrast, and just a tiny bit of light within a dark painting makes such an impact, it’s a very interesting way to work, and it just fitted my mood at the time.
PJ: They do strike me as almost a little bit dark in mood…
MB: They’re pensive…
PJ: Yes, good word!
MB: Yes, pensive, but there’s light in there too. To me they’re not dark, I mean emotions are a bit blurry, hazy, and that’s reflected in some of the titles, a feeling of wavering or being in between.
PJ: I guess for me a personal response is they evoke a lot of solitude. I felt I could get very drawn into the pictures, but it would be a very isolated space.
MB: Well we are all very much alone, inside, but, if you engage with the paintings then maybe you don’t feel so alone because somebody else has been there before. It’s a universal thing, art can bring people together, but that’s also why I don’t like to say exactly what they’re about, you can nudge people, but there’s the possibility that everyone feels different things when they see them.
PJ: So you say the landscapes are imaginary, but are they based on any actual places, are there places in the world where those emotions come from or belong?
MB: Yes, definitely, and a lot of my influence is from Northern Europe. My last exhibition I based on photos my grandfather had taken in the 1930s in Norway. When my Granny passed away a couple of years ago I found this book…I never met my grandfather, he was an artist as well, and I used the photos as the basis for a whole body of work, and I got very interested in the landscape, it really hit a nerve with me, as a place to set the scene for these emotions. I’m also very much interested in the Northern European romantic tradition, Caspar David Friedrich is quite an influence, especially this body of work, so that comes together with places that I imagine, or places I’ve been. The landscapes for me are like a stage set for the emotions.
PJ: Good way of putting it. It’s nice to see such committed contemporary painting at a time when painting could be seen to be in something of a crisis, if you look at what’s happening in the art schools! There’s a lot of people chasing the money and chasing the thrill of the next big idea that’s going to get them famous, and it’s really nice to see someone working steadily and honestly on their own track. So, I’m really looking forward to seeing the exhibition, and seeing the paintings in the flesh. Is there one final message you want to put across?
MB: Possibly just that…it’s really about the fun, the play, the coming together in the moment, what happens on the canvas, and as we discussed, the spontaneity of it, and I absolutely enjoy that about it, and I hope that comes through the work.
Pop-up gallery, 100 Regents Street
by Pete Jackson
Curated by Anji Main
Featuring artists: Amelia Poon, Chloe Stein, Ferrucio Potenza, Marina Velez, Manolis Manarakis, Patrick Hurst, Rupert Martin, Russell Cuthbert, Trevor Porter, and the Cambridge Film Trust.
For some, it appears, the film documentary at the heart of this, the third in the cycle of exhibitions mounted at the 100 Regents Street pop-up gallery, is not political enough, which if nothing else demonstrates the intensity of feeling still generated by this signal event in the history of the City of Cambridge.
The footage, shown courtesy of Cambridge Film Trust, was originally shot around 1980 prior to the construction of the Grafton Centre, and documents the controversy surrounding the City Council’s determination to pursue development of the area known as the Kite, ostensibly in order to take commercial pressure off the city’s “historic centre”. Those of us resident in the city at the time can hardly fail to have been aware of the ongoing debacle, the public demonstrations, benefit concerts, and the occupation (squatting) of Kite properties in the forlorn hope of stalling the bulldozers and calling a decisive halt to the march of corporate progress at the expense of local lifestyles and livelihoods.
For myself, watching the footage is surprisingly evocative, not least on account of many long-forgotten, and some subsequently well-known faces, looming before me, recalling memories not only of the campaign, but also of the previous life and soul of the Kite itself, with its array of small traders, curiosity shops, and idiosyncratic cafes and bistros, a favourite haunt of times past.
Curator and Changing Spaces director, Anji Main, is adamant on the point of politics: “The exhibition is not about that: it’s about displacement. It’s about what happens to people, and communities, when spaces that people occupy change use”.
It’s also about the physical objects themselves that play the bit parts in that drama. The dereliction and the dilapidation that characterise the run up to the development and transformation of the area tell their own story: displaced and disinherited objects take on their own, albeit rather sad life, and the relationship of people with their objects, and with their spaces, changes.
As Clive James, featured at length in the film, comments, the wounded Kite, for all its dereliction and starvation of municipal resources, is still a more beautiful place than anything that would be brought in to replace it, and that point comes across resoundingly in the film.
The artists who have contributed to this exhibition, with very few exceptions, are too young to have been personally aware of the issues themselves (even if they had been in the city at the time, which most of them were not), and have taken a broad license to interpret the subject matter in their own ways. Main’s curating style is evident here by the conspicuous absence of any over riding directive in terms of the theme and its delivery. But this is not the mere granting of “artistic license” (a common excuse for dilettantism and bastardisation), but an intuitive laisser faire that in Main’s view brings out the best in each individual practitioner. She has assembled, primarily, not a body of work, but a body of artists, many of whom she has worked with previously (in the two previous “Cambridge and Camberwell” exhibitions at the Shop in Jesus Lane), and whom she feels never fail in inventiveness, and openness to the space, the brief and to each other. The result is surprisingly congruent, without being homogenous, even whilst perhaps, to the chagrin of hard-line Kite campaigners, too playful and whimsical for the deep seriousness of the event itself.
But if ‘change of use’ is a theme that reflects aspects of municipal policy, it surely also is a highly apposite description of a certain type of art practice: the use of the ‘readymade’, the appropriation of objects to a different context, is an established principle in contemporary art with a now venerable history stretching back nearly a hundred years to Duchamp’s notorious Fountain. Change of use is also at the heart of the Changing Spaces’ endeavour, the appropriation (duly licensed of course!) of unused commercial property for the purposes of art and craft representing a poignant reversal and hence to some extent maybe even an attempt at atonement for the wounding of the Kite.
Moreover, the playfulness of the pieces themselves is curiously reminiscent of the very soul of the original Kite community, with its craftsmen and -women, its antiques shops, cafes, pubs and meeting places. On the ground floor, Hurst’s kinetic sculptures, which greet you as you enter the space, are at first curiously kitsch and then delightfully surprising as the robotics spring into action; Potenza’s totem pole of discarded clothing seems full of mischievous esoteric import; Cuthbert and Velez’ miniature pub with sound track is itself a haunting evocation of changing times and attitudes; whilst Poon’s trademark newspapers are beautifully transformed into a curtain of paper boats of decreasing size, conveying the dead to their rest.
On the first floor, Porter’s upended hearth with plinth/cupboard and china cat chime beautifully with some of the frames from the film itself, which is showing in the same room; Stein’s quirky kitchen inspires a mixture of mirth and mock horror; Manarakis’ prosthetic foot marches into a blank wall, and Martin’s spread of builder’s sand prostrates itself before you, a synecdochal nod to construction, and a perhaps a metaphor for the passage of time.
It’s too easy to sing the Red Flag and rouse people’s sensitivities about corporations and capitalism riding roughshod over “the people”. Sometimes the point can be made in other ways. This is an art exhibition, and each of the artists here has taken the theme of displacement (which is after all for many of us, at some juncture of experience, a fact of life) and given it their own slant. Maybe there is a place for a more sober inquest into this historical decimation of a community, but maybe also such an event would be too easily an excuse for dwelling on things that can only continue to hurt. In art surely the possibility exists not just to represent, but to substantively change, or even assist in the healing of such trauma?
Interview with Trevor Porter
by Pete Jackson December 2011
Trevor Porter’s installation in the former Galloway and Porter shop window on Sydney Street was attracting significant attention from passers by even as he worked on it. Trevor had imported an assortment of artefacts to work with and was engrossed in a bizarre piece of construction as I arrived to talk to him, involving an old model galleon, complete with masts, stays and sails, which appeared to be in process of morphing into a suitcase…
I had been familiar with Porter’s work previously, and have admired his attention to detail in producing his characteristically fantastical pieces, bending familiar reality into things it was never meant to describe: doors that opened in the middle of tables, table tops made out of flattened chairs, quasi-human figures fashioned from defunct electrical equipment.
For this series he had also brought along a collection of old oil paintings – mainly landscapes – which he proceeded to cut and paste into various compromising positions: one formed the interior lining of a banjo case, another peeped tantalisingly from the folds of a threadbare fur coat. Several more were laid out in various stages of hybridisation, ready to be deployed in some other mischievous invention.
There appears a sort of revelry in the unorthodox fate of these artefacts, a gleeful disregard for their original integrity, a wanton interpretation of the Duchampian readymade that operates through the subversion, rather than the apotheosis, of the objects thus press-ganged into service, but revealing a world-view that is at once playful and interrogatory. I was keen to learn how the artist saw his creations.
TP: “I’m interested in the boundaries between sculpture and painting, and object and image, playing about with those, really. I like to work with a combination of found objects and construction, adjusting the found object, presenting something familiar in an unfamiliar way”
PJ: “What I’ve liked about your work previously too, is this idea that reality as we see it is a sort of skin, and that you can penetrate that to reveal different stuff ‘underneath’, so to speak.”
TP: “Yes it’s just questioning reality in a really simple way. Some people might see the painting as reality because it depicts a scene, others might see the object as real because it’s three-dimensional. There are so many different ways of viewing it. I just like playing about with that sort of reality.”
PJ: “But there’s also something quite challenging about using other people’s art to make your own in this way, you know, people have put their time in creating these pieces and you come along and just cut them up and force them to comply with versions of reality they were never meant to inhabit.”
TP: (laughing) “yeah I know, I just come along and destroy them. But to me everything is, uh, usable, if you know what I mean, you can’t get too precious about things.”
PJ: “Yes I agree, people can be very precious, but you’ve just appropriated someone else’s art, I mean, there are turf wars in London about that sort of thing, you know, if someone comes along and over-paints, overwrites someone else’s graffiti, people get mugged and attacked…”
TP: Yes I see what you mean, I guess that’s true..”
PJ: “I mean you probably do rely rather a lot on the fact that the original painter is never going to come along and see their work used in this way, but because it is someone else’s creative act, what you’re doing is you’re literally overwriting it, aren’t you?”
TP: “I see, yeah, that’s really interesting…I’d like now to get a kind of a tag on this one, you know, keep the process open!”
PJ: “Is the age of the object partly the attraction? Looking at a lot of the stuff here, most of it does hail from another epoch, is that part of the interest to you? Do you set out specifically to acquire older pieces?”
TP: “I don’t really set out, when I go out and buy these objects….I just find one object and keep that in my mind, then have a walk round and find something that connects with it and see how they combine.”
PJ: “There is another juxtaposition here too of course, in that the plinths are quite contemporary, but then you’re using them to display this collection of bizarrely presented ageing bric-a-brac.”
TP: “Yes I do like the contrast.”
PJ: “Would you also see these pieces as kind of site-specific, in that some of the plinths are actually retail display furniture, so it’s as though you are creating a sort of commercial window display?”
TP: “Yes I’m very conscious that this is a shop, and that’s part of the attraction. It’s also the fact that people are engaging with the display as I create it, so it has almost a performance aspect to it as well.”
PJ: “Yes I note that you didn’t necessarily come here with pre-set pieces, you are creating them onsite.”
TP: “That’s right, I had maybe one or two pieces ready prepared but the rest I’m just really making up on the spot to see what goes with what and how I want them to be seen. It’s not a set display either, the plan is to come in and vary it over the course of the weeks. And it’s really fascinating to engage in conversation about the work as I am creating it.”
As we were talking, indeed, several people stopped to look and make comment. Trevor ducked out on a few occasions to survey his work in progress, and inevitably was drawn into debate with his onlookers, answering their questions and observations.
This installation has been a highly appropriate and very full engagement with one of Changing Spaces’ central outcomes – that of facilitating meetings between art and the public in an accessible local forum. Porter also undertook to take up temporary residence in Cambridge during the life of the exhibition, where he was to be seen monitoring public responses to his work and even interviewing people about their reactions, as well as making on-the-spot changes to the display itself.
Trevor Porter’s exhibition combines a few concepts in one installation. Beyond the gallery interest of the pieces themselves and their aesthetic and conceptual intricacy, the installation is also both site-specific and durational in nature, offering the streets of Cambridge a glimpse of artistic sophistication beyond the usual.
There will be another opportunity to view Porter’s work in the New Year, when another Changing Spaces project, this time a “pop-up” gallery at 100 Regent’s Street, makes its appearance during the months of January and February. A combined exhibition featuring artists from Cambridge and Camberwell will run from 6th – 16th February 2012.
Pete Jackson, December 2011
Interview with Louis James Parker
Pete Jackson, August 2011
Interview with Louis James Parker
Pete Jackson, August 2011-10-24
Louis James Parker has just graduated in Photography from Cambridge School of Art. His highly original take on youth culture utilizes a selection of elderly people dressed in typical contemporary youth garb, riding BMXs or sporting skateboards, and hanging out amidst graffiti-plastered public spaces. The poses are startlingly authentic, each tableau wholly believable – a real double-take kind of image that at first deceives as to its urban ordinariness, until the contradiction dawns on you.
I caught up with Louis just after he had hung his photographs in 75 Regent Street this summer.
PJ: Louis, I’ve actually seen your work before, at Cambridge School of Art, and I was quite taken with it, so I’m really pleased to have the opportunity to talk to you about it. My first question is, regarding the subject matter that you have chosen, does this come from personal interests of yours?
LJP: It was actually from my granddad, he’s quite a grumpy old man, and I always thought if you saw that in the street, how different that would be, and how old people see us as so different now, which is understandable, but some people get the wrong idea about the younger generation, which is kind of why I wanted to do it.
PJ: Have you ever done BMXing or skateboarding yourself?
LJP: I do an extreme sport called weight-boarding, which is why I chose those sort of things as well, and because those sort of people wear hoodies, that’s why I went down the line of thinking about this sort of thing.
PJ: yes, so I suppose there’s social comment there as well…the whole hoodie thing…
LJP: Yes there is, with everything that’s happened now I’ve been thinking of maybe carrying it on and going down different lines of thinking.
PJ: I suppose one of the things that appeals to me personally about it is I’ve got a sixteen year old kid who’s a BMX rider, and he’s been doing breaking and skating and BMXing and one thing or another since he was about five, so when I saw those pictures, you know as a parent, when you see these kids doing that stuff you think, if I were twenty years younger I might be doing that, d’you know what I mean, so for me when I saw those pictures I thought that was what it was about…
LJP: Yes I suppose there weren’t so many of those sports around then…
PJ: No, that’s right…
LJP: Those sorts of things have come on a lot more now, you see them around in English towns, but yeah, I didn’t really look at the work from that point of view.
PJ: Which is interesting isn’t it, that there are different ways of looking at the same work, it means different things to different people.
LJP: Yes, I’ve heard lots of different takes on it.
PJ: You must have done! The generation thing is quite an interesting one I think, I was talking to our photographer about this a little earlier, because I think a lot of the time the sort of stereotypes of generations are actually perpetrated by the media to a large extent, and they’re not real, we end up believing in them , but they don’t actually reflect who we really are.
LJP: No, the stereotypes are definitely something to be taken on.
PJ: And what does your granddad think of it?
LJP: He’s actually in one of the photographs, he’s the one that looks quite mean, with the cigarette, and he actually, when he did it, he actually quite enjoyed doing it, even more than I thought, in fact I thought he wouldn’t want to do it, but in the end I didn’t have to tell him much, he just went ahead and did it and was just his normal self, which was really good.
PJ: Obviously these are staged pictures, there must have been quite a lot in terms of the resources you would need to put that together?
LJP: Yes, it was probably one of the hardest projects from that point of view. It was really hard to find the people to volunteer, I did put posters up to try and get people to come in but I didn’t have any response at first.
PJ: Were you looking for any particular qualifications, I mean, they weren’t actors or anything?
LJP: No, no actors at all, just friends or family.
PJ: And the kit?
LJP: The kit was all borrowed from shops and friends, mainly.
PJ: You’ve got some serious BMXs there!
LJP: Yes, they were borrowed from shops, and from friends, obviously with no budget it was a lot harder, and if I had money to throw at it I could have done it on a bigger scale, got more people involved, but because it was for a uni project I didn’t have those resources.
PJ: But I think the nice thing about it is it looks as though it’s well-resourced, and obviously the presentation helps with that, but the tableaux are believable, actually, and they’re authentic.
LJP: Yes, I think because I used my friends, it was more believable, because I was using stuff that they were using.
PJ: (laughs) were there any sizing problems? People tend to get bigger as they grow older!
LJP: It wasn’t too bad to be honest, because nowadays people tend to wear their clothes baggy anyway, so no, I didn’t really have that problem.
PJ: Good! So what next with it then?
LJP: Well right now I’m doing some freelance work, having just left uni, but I’d like to take this project further, but it would just be whether I have the time and the money to do it, to push it to the next level, so I’d have to get some funding. But right now I have to work really.
PJ: are you interested in doing post-graduate at all?
LJP: I’m not, to be honest, I don’t know why, I think because having done three years now, I’d rather just get out there and work, quite honestly.
PJ: Talking about the kind of work you do, this project is the only example I’ve seen, I don’t know your other work…
LJP: I’m doing a lot of extreme sports photography, a lot; I do all sorts of photography. Projects like this one mainly relate to uni, as that’s the sort of project that we had to do, and I really enjoy those sorts of projects, and I’d like to do more, but because they’re really hard to set up, that I suppose there aren’t so many opportunities, for example to display them.
PJ: So I guess you must be quite pleased at this opportunity?
LJP: Yes I am, when I got the email I was really pleased to go ahead with it.
PJ: Well that’s one of the things Changing Spaces is there for I guess, people coming out of uni who want that kind of opportunity.
LJP: Yes I know, it was really good, and I hope more comes out of it. I did get this work published in Turning Pro magazine, which was also really good.
PJ: They are such compelling images, they’re very arresting, I can see them going a long way, for me, they should be seen, definitely. They would work very well in magazines as well as in the gallery.
LJP: I would like to do more projects where they could be used for advertising, or to prove social behaviour etc…but it’s just a question of whether I get the opportunities or not.
PJ: Well, the best of luck with that!
Pop-up gallery at NICHE, 90-92 Regent St until 6th August 2011
Interview with David Ryan
By Pete Jackson
Dr David Ryan is Reader of Fine Art at Cambridge School of Art, Anglia Ruskin University. He has been responsible for the Art School’s involvement with Changing Spaces from the earliest days. I caught up with him on campus to talk about this, and about the latest CSA offsite project at the Niche, 90 – 92 Regent Street, Cambridge.
PJM: I know you’ve been involved with Changing Spaces since it’s beginning in 2009. Can you tell us how that relationship began?
DR: Actually before it was called ‘Changing Spaces’ which was initiated by the City Council and property agents, we had been doing offsite projects in the art school. When I first came to ARU in 2004 one of the things I wanted to do was for students to see the work in a very different context, and just by chance I happened to contact the City Council, and didn’t think I was going to get very far, but they were very enthusiastic actually. I think it was the head of buildings or someone, and we were able to get spaces to do this in. There was one particular place on Gwydir Street, where the deal was that we would decorate the space and get it into a better condition than it was in, and in exchange we’d have the space rent-free, so from my perspective that’s where it began. The great thing about being aligned with Changing Spaces is that it’s given us more opportunity in terms of commercial properties, which we didn’t have previously, when we just worked with the council. Occasionally we’d strike it lucky and get somewhere that was a good, accessible spot, but most often it would be places that were quite hard to get to, so there was an isolation factor that sometimes worked against putting on a show. But what it didn’t negate, for me, was the actual idea of trying to test something out, for students to make decisions and looking and thinking, you know…they do that for the degree show, or the MFA show, but it’s not often they have a sustained go at it in a context outside the university.
PJM: Do you think there’s a place for the windows aspect of Changing Spaces, is that something that is of interest to you as well?
DR: Yes, I think there have been some very interesting windows interventions and displays and I think in some ways it’s harder to pull off, because of that shallow space. But you’ve got the advantage of it being literally public-facing, and there’s more of an opportunity to engage with the public. There’s still a nervousness as soon as the space gets converted into a gallery, as to how do you build those bridges with the public, but if you’ve got the window spaces, it’s on the street, nobody feels that nervousness about looking or going inside a space. It’s quite interesting because the public are looking all the time, in shop windows, so it’s got that immediacy.
PJM: Do you feel that it might limit the kind of work that can be shown in that context, for example there was a video project that ran for a time in All Saints Passage, how did that go?
DR: Yes, I believe it went well, though it was a funny time, it was just before Christmas. The thing with the time slots is you haven’t always got the choice, it’s hit and run in one sense, you get the timings and you have to go with it, and that can be a challenge. On the one hand with that project it was a good timing, as it was dark at least for the film projection, but maybe not great in terms of you know, the commercial focus of the season. But I think in terms of the windows projects, there is that limitation of the shallow space, but people are always inventive about how they negotiate that. But it’s variable.
PJM: Do you think there’s also a benefit to students in benefit to students in terms of getting a visibility for Cambridge School of Art?
DR: It’s the big thing of getting work out there to the public, and there’s so many ways of thinking around that now, so that’s become a fascinating problem, can I call it a problem? I think it is still a problem, you know, of how to make accessible work, or how to make difficult work, or how to get people engaged who aren’t perhaps conversant with the latest contemporary art, that’s an issue, but I think it’s one that a project like Changing Spaces at least can attempt to engage with from different perspectives. I think it’s important that difficult work is shown, that we’re not attempting some kind of community art, I don’t think, though some works might fit that bill, and that’s fine. It’s about different ways of testing things out.
PJM: Have you managed to get much feedback into this process from the wider community?
DR: Only in terms of the obvious ways, like comments books and so forth, and surprisingly – though I shouldn’t say surprisingly – they are very positive! Sometimes these can be quite destructive for the artist if you get a bookful of negative comments. But the projects we’ve engaged in I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how positive the comments have been. We did one in the Grafton Centre that got lots of people through, and again, very positive.
PJM: Talking about the latest project, the Niche, because this piece will probably be published during the life of the Niche, which I think hopefully will encourage a few people to go and take a look, has that been especially problematic in anyway? First of all I know we were looking at 38 Regent Street, and that didn’t happen, and then the Niche came up and it was very much a case of scramble, now or never sort of thing…
DR: I think again if there was a problem it’s been more to do with the timescales. There are pros and cons to the timescale thing, because on the one hand it’s quite nice having a Summer project, but the downside is that a lot of students go away, so some of your audience have left but so have some of your potential participants. But I think apart from that it’s a very interesting space, it’s a space that’s got lots of different characters in terms of the different rooms. Maybe it’s a little intimidating to the public, because of its shape, or perhaps because of its history, I think when you feel you are entering the space you are really entering it so to speak, it’s not like the Grafton Centre which had a more informal fluidity to it, and that’s interesting, those different patterns of how a potential audience might react. Almost like the architecture of the space and how you negotiate it. But in terms of getting it together it’s been a very small core of dedicated people who have done a really good job.
PJM: Yes, I think it’s been extremely well-done, I was in there earlier today…
DR: The idea for this was that we have an initial show that then mutates, it’s a bit of an experiment really…
PJM: So this is curated by the students themselves?
DR: Yes, I kind of co-ordinated the first one just to kick start it, but then hopefully it will just evolve from that.
PJM: Would you like to see the pop-up idea becoming part of the regular student calendar, do you think there’s a future for it, depending on availability of property clearly…Is there a particular advantage for example for third years leaving?
DR: Yes I think so, I think the hardest time for a student from my own experience was just having left college, that’s the really challenging time, and if you have something that engages what you’ve learnt on the course, your own work, how you think about it, how you display it, I think that can be a real kick-start for your own practice, giving you the courage, because it is courage sometimes, just to say, OK I know what’s going to happen next. Sometimes you can leave and it’s a shock, no-one’s knocking on the door! Those bridges are really crucial for students, and I think if we had more of that it would be great.
PJM: Maybe this is just me, but I’m sometimes aware of a slight tension between the art school – which is clearly an academic institution as well as a practical training – and the wider community. You were talking about difficult work, and how it affects the public who encounter it. Changing Spaces has a very wide remit, it does a lot of community art, charity art, and local artists who might be up to pretty much anything: do you feel within that broad spectrum that CSA and the students are holding their own? Do you feel that tension at all, does it perhaps result in students being reluctant to exhibit in Changing Spaces because it’s too variable, too unpredictable?
DR: there’s always that potential, but from my perspective I think students really want to make their own space, so I don’t think it’s a question of them becoming snobbish or whatever. I think it’s important to realise that you are going to be operating in that wider space. Obviously students are going to have a more academic approach in contrast to a more community-oriented work. It’s crucial I think that all these different focuses are represented in Changing Spaces. I’m interested in how works operate, not just formally, but really thinking about how something exists within a space, how somebody is going to encounter it, all those things are important to me; where they might not be important to somebody whose remit is more about engaging the pubic in very different ways.
PJM: What about selling stuff? Does that come into it at all?
DR: Well we try! Selling stuff, yes, things have sold from Changing Spaces. I think it’s very difficult with the whole idea of buying contemporary art, or buying students’ work. Often pieces sell at the degree shows but they don’t sell in the Changing Spaces shows which is kind of surprising in a way, but maybe that reflects the kind of audiences, maybe it isn’t the kind of audience that would snap up contemporary art, although having said that, as I just said, things have sold, and people from other arts organisations have bought things from Changing Spaces shows. So you never know, and that’s one of the great things about putting something in the window….
PJM: I notice in the Niche there’s a bit of merchandising going on..
DR: Yes there are some catalogues and things – at very generous prices, I have to say…
PJM: Grab them while you can! Plug it! Is there anything you’d like to add?
DR: Come and see Niche! And to underline the transformation element that is going on there, what’s interesting about this project it is going to mutate…
PJM: So come more than once, you mean?
DR: Yes, absolutely, and buy a catalogue – buy more than one catalogue!
PJM: Thanks David!
(The NICHE project is open until early August at 90 – 92 Regent Street, and features works by undergraduate and graduate students of Cambridge School of Art.)
15th – 22nd December 2010
Light and Shadow
Group exhibition curated by Changing Spaces curator Anji Jackson-Main in the shop on Jesus Lane showing sculpture and installation by students from Cambridge School of Art and Camberwell College of Art London.
Tuesday, 14th Dec. 2010
6 – 8 pm
The Shop, XVIII Jesus Lane, Cambridge
16th June 2010
“The Lost Books”
“Adam Kyne-Lilley, Beth Hague, and Russel Taysom investigate the ideas and space surrounding the books in this bookshop and the influence they have on each other. The three artists have developed the exhibition together, each drawing from their own backgrounds as much as the space to create new work which draws the viewer round to explore this exciting alternative space. The work both instructs and asks questions of the viewer, the space and the work itself.”
Opening Event on Wednesday 16th June, 4 – 6pm at Plurabelle Books, Purbeck Rd. Cambridge – map
11th June 2010
The Stories that Follow Black Pictures – a literary exhibtion
Closing Event with wine and reading on Friday, 11th June, 6 -8 pm at Plurabelle Books, Purbeck Rd. Cambridge – map