After my video ‘FACTORY’ had been selected for a show at the Peoples History Museum, Manchester, the curator asked for some text and information and related works. I sent the following. I hope it might help explain some aspects of the work and my thinking. It might also give rise to some serious questioning from members of the group.
To add complication to obfuscation, scroll down to an article by Dieter Roelstraete from 2009
As to this link and my attachments – was I imitating life or is irony always time based?
For me he most important exhibition of the last decade was this: http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/past_exhibitions/2013/ice_age_art.aspx
Submission for Peoples History Museum
All Work and No Play
Responses to Grafters: Industrial society in image and word
5 March 2016 — 17 April 2016
Some texts and quotes and links when considering ‘FACTORY’ and other works.
“The exclusive concentration of artistic talent in a few individuals, and correlatively, it’s stifling in the great majority of people, is a consequence of the division of labour… in a communistic society, there are no painters, but only people who, among other things, make paintings.” Marx and Engels 1842.
As in Henri Matisse’s assertion that “All painters should have their tongues cut out” I think it in order to substitute the word artists for painters. I note Marx only mentions sculptors once in Capital.
The psychological core of my practice has been relatively constant over the past four decades in that content, context and idea have been imperatives. Aesthetics, formalism and style have tended to coalesce into what is referred to as ‘process’, a term that might cover the three activities I continue to engage in: object making, site/venue specific installation and performance video.
This cross discipline methodology can dilute focus and also compromise technical proficiency in practice, so I endeavour always to ensure content is the bedrock of my work, and the desire to create a mood of intensity and hopefully a raw, if disturbing, beauty. Febuary 2016.
‘FACTORY’ Duration 09.21
This work is made from video material edited from a twelve hour performance at the Poznański Factory in Łódź Poland. The duration of this work references the continuous twelve hour shifts carried by the workers at the factory between 1878 and 1992.
At the beginning of the video sounds resembling the screech of train wheels on tracks can be heard. The Poznański Factory was a short walk from the site of Lodz Ghetto. Of the 204,000 Jews who passed through this second largest and longest running Ghetto, only 10,000 survived the war.
The following are related works which might serve to contextualise the choice of ‘FACTORY’ as a work for submission.
‘Dialectical Flagging’ Duration 4.29
This video is one of a new series relating to aspects of 21st century Marxism, which will be subtitled “Once again the time has come to take Marx seriously”- the last sentence of Eric Hobsbawm’s epic, ‘How To Change the World’.
‘Shoot’ Duration 06.19
Was also made at the Poznański Factory in Łódź Poland, and shot by Jacki Sobiszewski from the National Film School in Łódź, whose alumni include Andrzej Wajda, Roman Polanski, Pola Raksa, Dorota Kędzierzawska, Krzysztof Kieslowski – who said “In believing too much in rationality, our contemporaries have lost something”.
Notes for ‘ SHOOT’ – Processes, terminology and equipment (analogue)
From a list of 70 terms:
Wipe Shooting ratio – Reverse angle shot – Two shot – Rifle mike – Master shot – Pan & tilt head shot – High angle shot – Two shot – Master shot – Shooting script – Low angle shot –Tracking shot – head on shot – Running shot – Passing shot.
BIDEODROMO 2015 Sarean. Plaza Corazón de María, 4.
‘Run Rabbit’ Duration: 07:16
Fatalism, irony and wit drive the narratives and formal characteristics of my practice, which is underpinned by a love of early European cinema and German Expressionist film in particular. References to the works of Carl Theodore Drayer, F.W.Murnou, Fritz Lang and G. W. Pabst have been of critical importance to the development my video performance works.
‘Run Rabbit’ was a Second World War song made famous by Flanagan & Allen, which has been transformed into a dystopian nursery rhyme.
Wiener Library Book Art Competition February 2014
‘K’tuvim’ – A sculptural installation in the Wiener Library’s permanent collection.
Artist’s Statement for Wiener Library project.
The prospect of making a work of art in any form or mode, relating to or concerned with the Holocaust, was one I approached with trepidation and, I trust, a degree of humility.
I realised these qualities taken together might form a barrier to experimentation, risk taking and formal inventiveness, which are aims and qualities I might aspire to as a contemporary practitioner. I therefore decided to work on a series of sculptures with the generic title ‘Stilled Lives’, and in so doing hoped that the practice of making would help in resolving a complex of ethical problems besetting my thoughts.
This strategy might have worked had I not embarked on a programme of research and re-reading. In particular Primo Levi’s ‘If This is a Man’, Theodor Adorno’s writings ‘Cultural Criticism and Society’ and ‘Negative Dialectics’.
However, rather than smoothing the way, the effect of these utterly profound writings compounded my concerns and doubts about the path I was taking, and the potential for a creative blockage emerged.
As is often the case, a simple task resolved this problem. In the course of research for what turned out to be the first completed work, I discovered the Hebrew word for writings, which when inverted appeared to me as flames. Next, I discovered that in essence ‘Holocaust’ means ‘Burnt Sacrificial Offering’.
From then on everything fell into place, resulting in four works from which ‘K’tuvim’ (כתבים w–writings) was chosen for this exhibition.
Nigel Slight February 2014
Sound Devices – Rathmines Library, Dublin 2013
‘Anthem’ Duration 03.47 – A collaborative video performance featuring the singer/actress Bronagh Gallagher.
This work is both a celebration and critique of the enduring and iconic ‘The Red Flag’. It is also an appreciation of its author, the Irish political activist Jim Connell (1852-1929) who wrote the lyrics 1n 1889, originally intending these to be sung to the tune of ‘The White Cockade’ a pro Jacobite Robert Burns anthem.
Maggs beneath the Covers 2012
‘Reliquary’ – A six month commission for Maggs Bros. Berkeley Square, London. The work is intended as both a warning beacon and a critique of religious and political ideologies. A website specific to this project and related material is available at:
Related Publication: Unshelfmarked: Reconceiving the artists’ book. Michael Hampton Uniformbooks 2015 –http://www.uniformbooks.co.uk
Bank of England, Threadneedle Street 2011
‘Bank Job’ duration 04.14 – A collaborative work with the musician Laura Mulhern and sculptor/video artist Ed Jones. The inspiration for this work grew from the notion that capitalism was devouring its own entrails whilst Socialism plays it’s age old tune and sends out a continuous SOS. From irony to bathos and back.
Sculpture in the Wild II Eastnor Castle 2003
‘The Soldier’s Wife – Cinema of Depleted History II’ Duration 2.28
A soldiers wife awaits news of her husband fighting at the front during a long and bitter war.
In referencing a sequence from Carl Theodor Dreyer’s disturbingly beautiful film ‘Vampyr: The strange adventures of Allan Gray’, this work is also intended as a homage to this great Danish director.
Nigel Slight March 2015
The Way of the Shovel: On the Archeological Imaginary in Art
“He who seeks to approach his own buried past must conduct himself like a man digging”. Walter Benjamin
[Preliminary admonition: there is no disgrace in seeking to define either the essence or the attributes of art. For…]
…art is, or at least can be, many things at many different points in time and space. Throughout its history—which is either long or short, depending on the definition agreed upon—it has assumed many different roles and been called upon to defend an equal number of different causes. Or, alternately—and this has turned out to be a much more appealing and rewarding tactic for most of the past century—it has been called upon to attack, question, and criticize any number of states of affairs. In the messianic sense of a “calling” or κλησις—a call to either change or preserve, for those are the only real options open to the messianic—we might locate both the roots of art’s historical contribution to the hallowed tradition of critique and the practice of critical thought, as well as its share in the business of shaping the future—preferably (and presumably) a different future from the one that we knowingly envision from the vantage point of “today.”
In the present moment, however, it appears that a number of artists seek to define art first and foremost in the thickness of its relationship to history. More and more frequently, art finds itself looking back, both at its own past (a very popular approach right now, as well as big business), and at “the” past in general. A steadily growing number of contemporary art practices engage not only in storytelling, but more specifically in history-telling. The retrospective, historiographic mode—a methodological complex that includes the historical account, the archive, the document, the act of excavating and unearthing, the memorial, the art of reconstruction and re-enactment, the testimony—has become both the mandate (“content”) and the tone (“form”) favoured by a growing number of artists (as well as critics and curators) of varying ages and backgrounds.2 They either make artworks that want to remember, or at least to turn back the tide of forgetfulness, or they make art about remembering and forgetting: we can call this the “meta-historical mode,” an important aspect of much artwork that assumes a curatorial character. With the quasi-romantic idea of history’s presumed remoteness (or its darkness) invariably quite crucial to the investigative undertaking at hand, these artists delve into archives and historical collections of all stripes (this is where the magical formula of “artistic research” makes its appearance) and plunge into the abysmal darkness of history’s most remote corners. They re-enact—yet another mode of historicizing and storytelling much favoured by artists growing up in a culture of accelerated oblivion—reconstruct, and recover. Happy to honour their calling, these artists seek out the facts and fictions of the past that have mostly been glossed over in the more official channels of historiography, such as the “History Channel” itself.3 They invariably side with both the downtrodden and the forgotten, reveal traces long feared gone, revive technologies long thought (or actually rendered) obsolete, bring the unjustly killed back to (some form of) life, and generally seek to restore justice to anyone or anything that has fallen prey to the blinding forward march of History with a capital, monolithic “H”—that most evil of variations on the Hegelian master narrative.
Jeff Wall, Fieldwork. Excavation of the floor of a dwelling in the former Sto:lo nation village, Greenwood Island, Hope, B.C., August, 2003, Anthony Graesch, Dept. of Anthropology, University of California at Los Angeles, working with Riley Lewis of the Sto:lo band, 2003. Transparency in lightbox, 219.5 x 283.5 cm. Collection of the artist. Courtesy Marian Goodman Gallery, New York.
The reasons for this oftentimes melancholy (and potentially reactionary) retreat into the retrospective mode of historiography are manifold, and are of course closely related to the current crisis of history both as an intellectual discipline and as an academic field of enquiry. After all, art’s obsession with the past, however recently lived, effectively closes it off from other, possibly more pressing obligations, namely that of imagining the future, of imagining the world otherwise (“differently”). Our culture’s quasi-pathological systemic infatuation with both the New and the Now (“youth”) has effectively made forgetting and forgetfulness into one of the central features of our contemporary condition, and the teaching of history in schools around the globalized world has suffered accordingly.
[This diagnosis of a “crisis of history” may strike the informed reader as unnecessarily alarmist and overblown: indeed, even the most cursory glance at the groaning bookshelves in the “History” section of one’s local culture mall—or its counterpart on Amazon.com—seems to suggest the opposite to be true. True, there is plenty of historiography out there, but it is of a very problematic, myopic kind that seems to add to the cultural pathology of forgetting rather than fight against it. It is a type of writing that prefers to hone in on objects (the smaller, the more mundane, and the less significant, the better) rather than people, the grand societal structures that harness them, or the events that befall them and/or help bring those structures into being. Virtually every little “thing” has become the subject of its own (strictly “cultural”) history of late, from the pencil to the zipper, the cod, the porcelain toilet bowl, the stiletto, the potato, or the bowler hat. It does not require too great an imaginative effort to discern the miserable political implications of this obsession with detail, novelty, and the quaint exoticism of the everyday (best summed up by the dubious dictum “small is beautiful”). Indeed, it seems sufficiently clear that the relative success story of this myopic micro-historiography, with its programmatic suspicion of all forms of grand historicization, is related both to today’s general state of post-ideological fatigue as well as to the political evacuation (or de-politicization) of academia, of which the “crisis of history” is precisely such an alarming, potent symptom.]
Roy Arden, Versace, 2006. Archival pigment print, 25 x 21 inches.
In this sense, art has doubtlessly come to the rescue, if not of history itself, then surely of its telling: it is there to “remember” when all else urges us to “forget” and simply look forward—primarily to new products and consumerist fantasies—or, worse still, inward. Indeed, this new mode of discursive art production boasts an imposing critical pedigree, a long history of resistance and refusal: the eminent hallmarks, as we know, of true vanguardism.
One geopolitical region whose recent (and rewardingly traumatic) history has become especially prominent with art’s turn towards history-telling and historicizing (its turn away from both the present and the future), is post-communist Central and Eastern Europe—the preferred archeological digging site (if only metaphorically) of many well-read artists whose work has come of age in the broader context of the globalized art market of the last decade and a half. Ironically enough, the region’s triumph was wholly determined by the demise of the system of state socialism that so many of us now seek to memorialize.
[It is perhaps unnecessary to add here that the majority of these amateur archaeologists hail from the “West,” where there may still exist certain pockets of nostalgia for the ideological clarity, among other things, of the Cold War era, when Central and Eastern Europe could be imagined as something radically “different,” belonging to “another” political world entirely—hence also its quasi-inexhaustible appeal to critical art: art that is committed to “making a difference.” Obviously, a similar type of nostalgia is also felt by a younger generation of artists from the former Eastern Bloc—but differently so, and the generational shift is of crucial importance here.4]
In their cultivation of the retrospective and/or historiographic mode, many contemporary art practices inevitably also seek to secure the blessing (in disguise) of History proper: in an art world that seems wholly dominated by the inflationary valuations of the market and its corollary, the fashion industry (“here today, gone tomorrow,” or, “that’s so 2008”), time, literally rendered as the subject of the art in question, easily proves to be a much more trustworthy arbiter of quality than mere taste or success. Hence the pervasive interest of so many younger artists and curators in the very notion of anachronism or obsolescence and related “technologies of time”: think of Super 8 mm and 16 mm film, think of the Kodak slide carousel, think of antiquated, museum-of-natural-history-style vitrines meant to convey a sense of the naturalization of history, or of time proper. Perhaps many artists use these tried-and-tested methods of history as a science, or as a mere material force (the archival mode ranks foremost among these methods), in hopes that some of its aristocratic sheen will rub off on their own products or projects, or otherwise inscribe them and their work in the great book of post-History . . .
Goshka Macuga, When Was Modernism, 2008. Mixed media, installation at Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MuHKA). Courtesy the artist, Kate MacGarry and MuHKA
One of the ways in which this historiographic “turn” has manifested itself lately is through a literalized amateur archaeology of the recent past: digging. Archaeology’s way of the shovel has long been a powerful metaphor for the various endeavours that both spring from the human mind and seek to map the depths of, among other things, itself. Perhaps the most famous example of this would be psychoanalysis (or “depth psychology”), in which the object of its archaeological scrutiny is the human mind. Throughout a history that stretches far beyond the work of, say, Robert Smithson, Him Steinbach, or Mark Dion, psychoanalysis has long been a source of fascination and inspiration for the arts. Certainly, one could conceive of an exhibition consisting solely of artistic images of excavation sites, of “art about archaeology.” The truth claims of art often quote rather literally and liberally from the lingua franca of archaeology: artists often refer to their work as a labour of meticulous “excavation,” unearthing buried treasures and revealing the ravages of time in the process; works of art are construed as shards, fragments (the Benjaminian ciphers of a revelatory truth), traces preserved in sediments of fossilized meaning. Depth delivers artistic truth: that which we dig up (the past) in some way or other must be more “real” and therefore also more “true” than all that has come to accumulate afterwards to form the present. This also says something about why we think the present is so hard to explain.
Likewise, the scrupulous archaeological ethic of unending patience and monastic devotion to detail—seamlessly mirrored in its preferred optic, that of the clinical close-up—is, in spirit, close to the obsessive labour or “science” of art-making that often requires plodding through hours, days, and weeks of menial rubble-and-manure-shovelling before something that may (or may not) resemble a work of art emerges. Michelangelo’s sculptures of dying slaves wresting themselves free from the marble in which the artist “found” them captive continue to provide what is perhaps the archaeological paradigm’s most gripping image.5 Furthermore, there can also be no archaeology without display—the modern culture of museum display (if not of the museum itself) is as much “produced” by the archaeologist’s desire to exhibit his or her findings as it is by the artist’s confused desire to communicate his or hers. After all, the logical conclusion of all excavatory activity is the encasing of History’s earthen testimony within a beautiful, exquisitely lit, amply labelled glass box—an apt description, indeed, of much artistic and meta-artistic or curatorial activity of the last decade and a half.6 Finally (and most importantly, perhaps), art and archaeology also share a profound understanding—and one might say that they are on account of this almost “naturally” inclined to a Marxist epistemology—of the primacy of the material in all culture, the overwhelming importance of mere “matter” and “stuff” in any attempt to grasp and truly read the cluttered fabric of the world. The archaeologist’s commitment is to earth and dirt, hoping that it will one day yield the truth of historical time; the artist’s commitment is to the crude facts of his or her working material (no matter how “virtual” or, indeed, immaterial this may be), which is equally resistant to one-dimensional signification and making-sense, equally prone to entropy—yet likewise implicated in a logic of truth-production.
Mark Dion, The Birds of Antwerp, 1993. Mixed media, installation at Museum voor Hedendaagse Kunst Antwerpen (MuHKA).
In this critical Bataillean sense of a “base materialism”—a materialism from which all traces of formalist idealization have been evacuated—both art and archaeology are also work—hard and dirty work, certain to remind us of our bodily involvement in the world. The archaeological imaginary in art produces not so much an optics as it does a haptics—it invites us, forces us to intently s cratch the surface (of the earth, of time, of the world) rather than merely marvel at it in dandified detachment. By thus intensifying our bodily bondage to a world that, like our bodies themselves, is made up first and foremost of matter, the alignment of art and archaeology compensates for the one tragic flaw that clearly cripples the purported critical claims and impact of the current “historiographic turn” in art: its inability to grasp or even look at the present, much less to excavate the future.
© 2009 e-flux and the author