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I recently gave a talk as part of a Tate consultation event; they were looking into the possibility of creating a mobile Tate, or rather doing something Tate led that would connect the regions to the Tate and to each other. What I read to be an interesting ambition to make some kind of sense of a host of cultural activity across the UK.
It was a slightly disturbing experience with lots of breakout groups and feed back, some how whatever energy was generate in the breakout groups was instantly quashed in the reporting back bit. I found myself saying the same thing in these groups over and over again but no one seemed to understand it – I was left thinking I was a terrible communicator, I think I assume everyone gets a lot of stuff they don’t. I never really consider galleries or collections, so I guess as a starting point I am already off the beat. I had dismissed the idea of touring a structure and programme before even arriving, these were all things that I think everyone else was focused on. Anyway I can say that a group discussion drawn from the massed directors and curators of regional UK sure is a wishy washy affair. Every discussion group would come back with these crazy statements where a idea would be suggested and then immediately countered with the opposite, so; ‘we thought that the programme should connect with communities or it could be stand alone, the projects could be spectacular, but there would also be room for an intimate scale, could be big or small, long or short, fat or furry’ and so on, so in the end what we are saying is everything is fine? Christ knows what the Tate got from it, multi confusionist seminology.
This one idea I kept plugging that seemed really obvious to me was - to use the existing network of organisations and their connections to communities, organisations etc as the structure of the project. The Tate would then intelligently select collaborators, like 2 organisations with a potentially interesting relationship – not to similar in approach - and initiate a stand alone programme focused on collaborative working between the organisations and their stake holders, thereby linking communities across central and regional locations. For example Grizedale would be part of a programme of work in collaboration with say First site. The projects would be directed/curated by an independent or Tate curator who would have a role to critique and analyse the 2 organisations. The programme would explore the culture of the UK, the prescient notions of identity and all that sort of stuff.
The entire project would be explained and meaning drawn from it through the web site, so a kind of online collection of works – a strong critical analysis of this ‘product’ online forum etc would be good. I didn't really think to much about how this would be come a national marketable spectacle, but that would be relatively easy, opening the projects in a domino effect or all at once or as broadcast series of TV or documentaries, anyway that was my idea, seemed to be workable either small or large scale.
So below is the talk I gave, more or less, I hate reading talks so I didn't really read so much of it, but this was the gist.
A Mobile Tate
Grizedale and Roadshow
This talk might be considered to be along the lines of a dire warning rather than a shining example – which is not to say that I am not proud of the Roadshow project and what it achieved. There are from my perspective some rather less ambiguous dire warnings out there - large scale siting of Big Art in the regions. There is rightly an increased interest in contemporary regional culture. For the first time in history there are more people moving out of cities than to them. The historical precedents with regard to how the regions have contributed to cultural development still apply – the possibility of working in relative isolation, the bringing together of intense groups, the arms length perspective.
With regard to Roadshow the project came from a discussion with other sculpture parks in the UK and a desire expressed by them to do something jointly – The original proposal came from Grizedale and aimed to bring a newish approach to the sculpture park concept. Eventually all of the once interested parties withdrew, the project going against their principle ambitions to get on the map, this project deliberately tried to get off the map. This experience in itself was quite interesting in relation to being critical of the context in which you engage. There is I would say a somewhat uncritical approach in the regions and an awful lot of half-truths about audiences and the success of projects.
A theme that has engaged artists at Grizedale - in particular illustrated by Jordan Baseman’s films from 2000/01 ‘Sun always shine son the Righteous’ and ‘The one about the camel’ I could tell you the one about the camel but it would use up my whole time, the punch line is ‘What are we doing in Chester Zoo?’ you can work out the rest or just bear that in mind as a useful phrase. The films poignantly illustrated the lives and ambitions of people working outside of the mainstream, the complexity and growing dysfuncionality of their lives.
From the cultural high ground of the lake District - think Wordsworth, Ruskin, Schwitters and most importantly Beatrix Potter we found artists were more engaged by the periphery, a local underclass, what could be described as a directly oppositional position to the ubiquitous high culture – this has of course been a powerful theme that artists have long explored and represented.
Road show aimed to place artists in the romantic territory they sought to emulate and engage with, through the culture of being on the road, the references being principally rock and roll touring culture – of the Tom Saxondale variety - the circus and its romantic draw, religious, temperance and evangelical meetings, and all of that sort of outsider material.
The tour aimed to visit venues outside of cultural centres, periphery marginalised places and each venue the touring caravan linked to a local culture/activity often mediated by the host or instigated by the project itself. For example in the Lake District Grizedale linked the programme to a Country Goth and Magic fair and set up a battle of the bands event dedicated to Death Metal. Other venues were rather less confrontational with the Welsh leg linking to a local artist and community education project – that project ultimately was the most confrontational with the children of education burning their work and the marquee that housed it.
The project included around 30 artists in various capacities – the main tent housed a running programme of events, films and performances while a number of satellite projects extended the encampment across approximately 3 acres. Satellite installations were all live and included a 24-hour key and heel bar, a hermitage, a recording studio, a newspaper/fanzine press and a general hangout space. Artists included a broad cross section those interested in working with people and others less so: including Paul Rooney, Olaf Breuning, Colin Lowe and Roddy Thomson, Minerva Cuevas, Juneau/projects, Kevin Reid and Graeme Roger, Nathaniel Mellors, Dan Fox, Flatpak001, Mark Titchner, Guy Bar a Moz, Bedwyr Williams to name a few. Roadshow toured for a month, in an actually on the road way, each weekend a different venue – this was extremely hard on the crew.
The original idea was to forge a team that would work as one, the majority of the artists toured with the programme, erecting the show at the venues, and managing the programme. The principle problem with this approach was the use of alcohol - the project didn't exactly take up any of my temperance ideas. I well remember seeing various artists rooted to the spot apparently forming one half of ‘Bonjour Monsieur Corbett’ hand raised but unable to remember where they were or what they should be doing. The in fighting was a bonus and built factions within the group, gave the content a bit of edge. This hothouse environment is one of the special qualities of touring and rural residency programmes hard to replicate in urban centres.
For the artists the successes of the project were probably mostly in the myth making department, the artists largely shuddered at the close proximity to a ‘real’ audience, they recognised perhaps what they were keen to escape from, the dreaded ‘what’s that supposed to be’ question. Most quickly turned the experience into a series of pub stories and utilised the concept into art world versions bringing the ‘real’ into play with a celebratory amateurism/artist performance. Flatpak001 and Mark Beasley, juneaus, Bedwyr Williams and Gang Hut all having kept the spirit sort of alive. I think the project spawned a whole body of collective activities both locally and within the art/theatre related performance world. For the communities the projects touched it would be well to remember one quote printed in the Roadshow fanzine ‘a fun day out for the all the family ruined’ not sure if this was for real or ironic. It would be hard to see exactly how it could have been a day ruined unless you found the anticlimactic particularly distressing – I would have thought it was a given in a family day out. The hit and run nature of the project has not afforded any tracking of the impact of the project in regard to the communities but if the Grizedale engagement is anything to go by – and it almost certainly isn’t – there are a multitude of happy life changing stories, a lot of this though is generated by the continuing work of Grizedale that supports and offers further opportunities.
One aspect that I note on reading my catalogue text that I had envisaged but that I immediately after the event felt hadn’t worked, was the evolution of the programme whilst on the road, I imagined we would change and develop work, draw new people into the tour extend the life of it. In retrospect this did actually happen to a reasonable level, nothing entirely new emerged but many of the works changed and either got better or worse. Many of the relationships established continued and certainly very many new works came out and are still emerging from those relationships.
I think in terms of the notion of a mobile Tate the question of audience is of course paramount, playing to the home crowd or pushing the boat out for a mixed audience. At Grizedale we have long abandoned the home crowd. Being located in a remote location makes the drawing of a sophisticated art audience almost impossible and catering for a small local art audience relatively pointless – there are lots of contemporary art opportunities that fulfil the local art audience requirements.
The challenge is to connect with existing interests and maybe expand on them – this doesn’t always make for a comfortable relationship, existing niche audiences are not necessarily that open minded about their special areas of interest being explored and as Roadshow discovered there can be quite a proactive response.
The way that Grizedale has most successfully worked has been in initiating activity, establishing an approach and nurturing a participatory audience that will sustain and re work the activity. A good example would be the Consiton Water festival – not a hugely well attended event in the ‘art version’ year but now well established, reinterpreted and thriving without Grizedale management. Similarly it is possible to make an argument for a flowering of arts activity in Cumbria provoked by Grizedale activity – possibly many of the proponents of this activity would not acknowledge the source of inspiration and in many cases may have been provoked by a ‘I can to do better than that’ attitude rather than a desire to emulate. Equally it could be said that much of this activity perhaps plays too much to a small home crowd audience and fails to extend or reinterpret what art making is for, has not critical distance.
A core component of all the Grizedale projects is an analytical approach to contemporary culture – it may not look like it but there is an underlying seriousness that attempts to address change, the omnipresent themes of identity and value. A lot of the work is confrontational and can be seen as quite harsh in its critique, a lot is nurturing, supportive and critical and to me that is all as it should be - the job of an arts organisation.
I suspect that a Tate led programme would work very differently being of a level of professionalism that would place the content and spectacle more into the realm of alien visitation – potentially inspiring/accessible but possibly only to the home crowd. The questions that arise are to do with who this mobile Tate would be aimed at, who and what it would be for – would it visit the provinces and show us how to do International level art (like A levels) - that would be good. It could discover Britain through the spectacular siting of exceptional works - that could be fine.
It could engage with the complexities of UK regional culture, the relationship between centralised and decentralised, the learning/exchange process, the development of emerging identity and cultural relationship. Of course this is where the Tate must have its sights. This would be the difficult route, expensive, probably rather tumultuous and thankless. However the Tate has the brand that can move mountains, the ability to draw down the resources of the multitude of regional agencies, in particular the regeneration agencies and the expertise to engage with the complexities of the agenda. I hope it has the grit to take it on. I am not just being nice here for a change, I want to see the focus on the real agendas, the UK as a whole has the content and the need, I would like to see an engagement with what I have always thought art was here to do.
I was much entertained by the ridiculous quote that seemed to headline the press coverage of the Manchester Il Tempo de Postino theatre performance, it runs;
‘It is like being on an aeroplane in 1978, the whole audience is watching the same screen’
I can’t really imagine what happened here, did the editor think wow Philippe has said something really stupid lets put it on the cover.
It is a kind of possible to make this into an interesting statement, leaving aside the obvious response that surely it’s more like being in a theatre, etc - this fracturing of the audience is not such a common place thing as yet. I did see a news piece on home entertainment the other day which showed a family sitting room, full of kids, each of them was watching or using a separate piece of equipment, their wide screen TV was split into 4 parts and each viewer watched a separate entertainment. The proscenium arch is not really so reflective of a contemporary consumption of culture, that’s not to say contrary to Ill Tempo’s notion it’s not still the primary form of entertainment and you don’t need to go back in time and 30,000 feet up to experience this ‘weird’ phenomena. The other slightly incomprehensible cross reference re the title of the whole thing, this idea of the time of the post, an idea of expectation that seems to hark back to an old age where the arrival of the post was an event to savour, does anyone do that now? I thought postmen were just a bad tempered and sporadic supplier of junk mail and rubber bands.
This valuing of the live experience (theatre) has always seemed odd to me, I would far rather hear or see the recorded presented version every time, live is normally uncomfortable and often painful and that covers everything from sex to skiing. There is I think an idea about authenticity and the historical precedent that we haven’t entirely shaken - where you did have to see the ‘live’ version, the only other option being a ham fisted wood block print of it. Maybe I need to start to value the discomfort and pain of live experience as the product.
Which brings me to my most recent live experience where 10,000 people miraculously (like being in a submarine in 1944) looked at the same thing and collectively found that it was good, sadly for me I was not one of those 10,000 Maniacs.
Prince of Thieves
I somewhat reluctantly agreed to attend a night of Prince – I thought it might be interesting in relation to the Il Tempo Del Postino art theatre, attending something genuinely popular. Prince will play 21 nights at the Dome – so like 200,000 people, that’s popular.
My expectations were high, with a nagging hint that I might be disappointed. I heard the tales of the purple ones hay days of flying beds, smoke and bikes and cars and knob shaped guitars and high heels and light and video shows of extraordinary sophistication and slickness.
I haven’t been to a live concert of this scale before indeed I have never been to any event of this scale and let me tell you people it was a brutal experience. The venue, the transport, the ticket price, the merchandise, the drink etc - all brutal. Karen’s camera was confiscated (the worst thing there being the queue to get it back) and evidently even if you are paying £50 for a ticket the wine although costing the same as a vintage Meursault is about as drinkable as a hedgehog (arse first) and comes in the inevitable plastic glass. The facilities included sitting on a dirty concrete floor followed by a deeply uncomfortable plastic chair with massive drink holders instead of armrests (what will a future archaeologist make of our body shape from these things – we all had massive cup shaped elbows). But ok so the trappings of rock haven’t changed much. The audience was big, white and middle England aged – actually I think we may have been there on roadie night; we were surrounded by Tom Saxondales. I think Karen was disappointed by the mainstreamness of it. For her Prince was a revolutionary experimental cultural innovator/musician who rocked her world – she was extremely cross when I said he reminded me of Jools Holland – it’s easy to forget that for each generation their music is very much more than the light entertainment that it is for the rest of us - it’s a radical revolutionary force. Music is this rather fragile territory, we all know it’s basically light weight inconsequential faff, but it is somehow vital to our identities, our ‘growth’ and when someone points out what you clearly already know it makes for a deadly assault on your very existence - hence people get murdered for asking for Queen’s ‘Fat Bottomed Girls’ to be turned down a tad.
The venue was brutal to the music as well, terrible sound, the supporting act, a London African rap group sounded absolutely dreadful, brutally the audience of 10,000 Mexican wavers actually booed them off. During the extended wait for Prince we were entertained by a tiny video screen showing a series of appallingly made promotional videos for tacky merchandise available in the foyer, interspersed by the Prince logo rotating against a cloudscape – cheapo cheeseo.
Finally after 3 brutal hours of hanging around while the audience whistled, waved and were broadly irritating - a short Hall of Fame documentary puff film was shown, a multitude of people saying that Prince was the greatest thing on earth and all without any qualification. Prince finally appeared through some dry ice and worked through his multitude of MOR hits. It was like seeing a good R&B band, I was most reminded of Ike and Tina Turner complete with ghastly whirling dancers in skin tight britches, looking a lot like a couple of frogs undergoing electric shock therapy. The band was made up of some legendary figures, legendary because they can play their instruments well, a skill that for me doesn’t really deserve legendary status, I mean if you’re a musician surely it’s not asking to much that you should be able to play other peoples music well - however that’s another subject. Maceo Parker took his traditional sidekick role getting the James Brown treatment from Prince, i.e. being wheeled out to fill out songs when it just would be unbearable to hear yet another hard rock guitar solo (the bit about Prince I have never liked). The live versions of the songs were massively inferior to the recorded versions and additionally ruined by the audience singing along. I was placed it would seem in the centre of a choir assembled bit by bit by the legendary Dr Frankenstein, another key, another planet, ‘whern dubs kurwhy’ it did make me laugh but Jesus after a while I was keen to punch something and the those tiered seats do offer a tempting target at just the right height to really get behind the punch and I am guessing that might have helped the Stigs make those high notes that Prince does so well. As you can imagine by this point my partner Karen was livid with me, furious that I couldn’t just join in and be lost in the mass event instead of standing up there with my fingers in my ears stroking my pseudo intellectual beard and pontificating on ‘ the interesting phenomena’, as Karen pointed out maybe if anything that I was involved in was even a micro fraction as popular. Of course this is right, the Grizedale performances, all the work I’ve ever been involved, added together would not touch this single performance for numbers and mass enjoyment. In fact I wonder if anyone has ever enjoyed anything I have ever been involved in. I could say that enjoyment is not exactly the ambition but would I in reality like to generate this stomping appreciation?
Leaving the gig entailed a lot of queuing furiously. With Karen now not on speaking terms I listened to the conversations around me, most were not about the gig, those that were tended to deal with practicalities of how Prince got under the stage (he rose on a lift through the stage) apparently he was brought through the crowd in a black box. There wasn’t really anything to say, it was, this event like a football match, an endless repetition of the same thing, same physical actions, like when footballers do that weird physical theatre, pointing and shouting, ritualistically adjusting their waistbands, theatrical spitting etc, Prince made all the traditional rock language moves, offering the mic to the audience, cupping his ear, endlessly introducing the band, it was church for Neds. But this is a reality of humanness, the capacity/requirement for repetitive ritual, all sport, most arts. I finally realise after 48 years that most people don’t want something different every time. Il Tempo did something a bit different from either the normal art or theatre experience and it wasn’t entertaining but it was more interesting than Prince, I remember it better, I have thought more about it and I have reacted to it. It was disappointing because it seemed it should and could have been better, Prince on the other hand did not disappoint his fans, but he didn’t add anything either, even minutes after the experience they had nothing to say about it.
As we left the stadium the audience football chanted ‘Nothing compares, nothing compares to you, apart from some of the things Adam compared you to’.
public works - the artists (also doing stuff for Agrifashionista)- have made this fantastic customized milk float which tours about showing memorabilia and collecting new stuff over the next 6 weeks. Here's a pic of Outreach Office george impressing the local kids with it.
Our next big event is the Silloth Beer festival then the seminal Crab Fair in Egremont - maybe see you there?
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