Saturday, 17 September 2016


Music-and-sound-art-festival-held-in-fort attending adventures (part of a series)
Newhaven Fort, East Sussex, Sat 3rd Sept

So one night I happen to be watching a documentary on Miyazaki making 'The Wind Rises'. Or more specifically on how he was motivated by the contradictory feelings of being avowedly anti-war while attracted to the aesthetics of militarism. And of course back in the day I was attending antinuclear marches while almost simultaneously listening to industrial music, pretty much militarism for the ears. So I knew the feeling.

And what do I do the very next day but attend (and I quote) “an expansive multi-disciplinary music and arts festival held in the evocative spaces of Newhaven Fort in East Sussex”?

All those stories which reached us from the continent, of people squatting old Car War bunkers to turn them into venues, this must be the nearest to that I've seen. Except it didn't just repurpose the fort but take advantage of it's layout, take it's nest of nooks and crannies and create a spontaneous sound art happening around every corner. Despite it being a mere half hour ride from Brighton I'd never been to the place before. Which made the experience only the richer as I ascended ramparts, descended vertiginous stairwells and traversed corridors so narrow as to resemble some strange Surrealist film set.

There was a programme but in true festival spirit it seemed more appropriate to drift, trusting to run into something you weren't expecting, following the sound trails like some Pied Piper child. At one point, following sounds along a long underground tunnel I eventually realised that rather than some act lying tantalisingly ahead of me they were coming from a string of hidden speakers. I'd gone from Pied Piper child to White Rabbit chaser! (When I did get to the end there was some woman reading earnest poetry while naked. You don't win 'em all...)

The choice of setting was doubly inspired. Music venues are built around old showbiz schematics which map relatively easy to rock and pop music, so we normally don't think to question such basics as darkened auditoriums and spotlit stages. But music such as this comes from a wholly other tradition, which works its magic better in a wholly other environment.

And improvised music (which much of this line-up was) is always site-specific, always based around the mood of the moment and the acoustic properties of the space. I certainly shan't forget Inwards emitting electronica from inside a bunker, viewable only through a narrow slit like the world's most secure DJ booth, while we musical eavesdroppers hung out oustide.

The day was a mix-up of performances, film showings and sound installations. The amount of stuff on offer made for almost an embarassment of riches, and I did find myself passing through the installations rather than letting them sink in, keen not to miss the next happening – resulting in their playing something of a second fiddle.

But at the same time there was an appealing absence of any neat dividing line between installations and performances. For example Alice and Luuma's Self-resonating Feedback Cellos (handily pictured) was “a durational droneduet for elctro-acoustically modifed cellos and no cellists”, essentially self-perpetuating cello feedback. While Hakarl's eight hour performance was in it's way an installation which merely used live musicians rather than mechanisms. As the string trio played slow and repetitive lines from inside a gun emplacement, making for a surprisingly natural auditorium, I watched a passanger ferry slowly emerge over the horizon and pull into town – it seemed part of the thing. (I also liked the way one player sported a Taylor Swift T-shirt.)

Seijiro Murayama's set was a classic case, as it would not have worked so well in a more standard setting. The bare lighting, the way we casually sat around him on the floor matched his stripped-down performance – one drum, one cymbal and one voice. He'd often pause unhurriedly between sections, eyes remaining closed, unconcerned with providing a steady flow of entertainment, doing merely what he was moved to do. I know I always say this stuff is analagous to shamanic ritual. But honestly, I say it because it's true!

There were a couple of acts I found disappointing. Of course there were the inevitable outbreaks of frenetic jazz rock and the like, but as there were multiple opportunities at any one time I just made my way elsewhere. I mean here stuff I sought out, then felt afterwards I'd backed the wrong horse. (And remember I was mostly avoiding stuff I'd seen before, feeling the day was about encountering something new.)

I was keen to see Audrey Chen again, after her enthralling set at Colour Out of Space. (Now some seven years ago!) In that time she's ditched the cello and now relies only on her voice. Perhaps tonsils are simply an easier item to pack, when travelling from one international festival to another. And the sounds she could conjour from those vocal chords, with no need for effects or filters... it was impressive. But those possessed-sounding voices have become something of a genre of their own, while the cello gave her something more unique. Best points were when she sounded the possessed version of a soul singer.

I was equally eager to see Carla Bosulich, and equally disappointed. While I can't claim to know her music well I like it when I hear it – like bluesy songwriting and lo-fi freakery got double-booked but somehow managed to get along. Like a more volume, less laid back Califone. Here, for the first half of her set she kneeled over a guitar which she scraped with found objects while pressing pedals. The second half grew more song-based, marked by her throwing back her hoodie and even taking to her feet. But the result was rather neither-nor, like whichever half we were in was the wrong one – too loose followed by too constrained. It was too much like what a rock star does when they're not doing a set-list set.

But more happily and more often, I stumbled across other things I previously knew not of and was wowed by. John Chantler's electronica set was something like a chauffeur-driven rollercoaster ride, being expertly taken through the most vertigious twists and turns. I especially liked the way he'd skid in and out of beats. Too often when electronica artists turn to beats it's like the fun stuff is over, and the set becomes constrained within their tramlines. Whereas Chantler was their master, not their servant.

When you watch electronica artists hunched behind a line of jack leads, they can seem as remote and arcane as sorcerers casting secret spells. Conversely Pierre Bastien (also handily pictured) took the 'demystifying' approach of the post-punk days in a new direction. He'd built a meccano construction, projected up on the screen above him, around which he'd loop tapes. He'd play along while triggering samples, often accompanied by a video of their making. His enthused stage persona was part mad scientist part children's entertainer, infusing music-making not just with the sense of accessibility but of fun.

At the other extreme, Ewa Justka was lit only by the glare of a flashing white light. She emitted a fusion of electronic noise and dance music for the end of time, the pumping beats giving a discipline over the usual self-indulgent howlaround. By fortuitous scheduling she followed some dippy New Age act, less like night following day than truth winning out over platitudes. In fact as the set went on I came to think of it almost as an antidote and corrective to the blissed-out all-hold-hands feelgood of dance music, uniting us all but by pulverizing us into our constituent atoms. Remarkably, she was able to keep the sonic onslaught up for some forty-five minutes without losing any of it's impact. We staggered out and somehow got the train home.

More of my photos of the day over on Flickr.

You can see photos of the Fort in all it's at the event's website.

A brief write-up and some cool photos of the events at Cutlasses.

That set by Seijiro Murayama...

...and Ewa Juska, though from Warsaw...

… while this short film's of the predecessor event. Which alas I didn't attend, but gives you a good flavour...

Saturday, 10 September 2016


...but takes some last lingering shots of the Scottish isle. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Proper post next week!

Friday, 2 September 2016


The Dance of Machines

Back in the early Nineteen Tens, David Bomberg was pretty much the bad boy of British Modernism. An East End roughneck, it had been his undeferential attitude towards his tutors which had seem him “asked to leave” the prestigious Slade school. But that was pretty much analogous to his approach to art. Typically, the lesson he brought away from the experience was to take things further. He had soon fallen into the company of the Vorticists, self-styled as the most avant garde group in Britain. (Whose antics we looked at here.)

For reasons we'll come onto, the show skates past this early era. But one paintings it does provide is 'The Dancer' (1913/14, above), a classically Cubo-Futurist agitation of lines and shapes in the place of of a fixed image. (On the continent Cubism and Futurism were not just separate but pretty much opposing art movements. But often in Britain, as with Russia, their arriving together meant they were taken as one.) Perhaps what's unusual about the image is it's more muted palette, with that salmon background, and - despite the title – the way it's almost fully abstract. This is Bomberg absorbing his influences, not yet painting like himself.

His most celebrated work, 'The Mud Bath' (1914, below), isn't included here. But it was in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective and now part of the permanent (and therefore free) collection at the Tate Britain, so let's cheat and drag it in. It's hard not to speak of. Not only was it the best of his works from this era, almost everything else subsequently seemed seemed preparatory towards it. And sometimes this was quite literally true, with works like 'Vision of Ezekiel' (1912) and 'Bathing Scene' (1912/13) pointers on the path of reduction which led to it - each time a bit more boiled down. After all, as Bomberg said at the time “where decoration happens it is accidental. My object is the construction of Pure Form. I reject everything in painting that is not Pure Form.”

Famously, it was exhibited on the street outside his first solo show, as if the gallery confines couldn't contain its explosive force. He always maintained it stopped the traffic. (Or scared the horses. The two still overlapped in those days.) With it, Bomberg didn't just reach his apogee but semi-abstraction reached its epitome. (In the same way that Munch's 'The Scream' is the epitome of Expressionism.)

That black column might initially look incongruous. In fact it's literally and figuratively central. It's like the monolith of Modernism, the totem pole of the dance, reducing (or raising) the dancing figures into an undifferentiated geometric mass of angled limbs. And this is perhaps emphasised most of all by the boldly reductive use of colour, that block of bright red, the strikingly solid lines of white and blue. And if it looks coloured rather than painted, like he could have handed the job to a sign-writer, then later artists would do precisely that.

The foot of one figure remains planted on the ground (in the lower right), an attachment leading to it casting a shadow. It probably won't be there for long, soon it'll be caught up in the whirlygig along with everything else. But its inclusion is important. The painting evokes the loss of self that ecstatic frenzy can induce, but seems pitched at the last few seconds before that sense was extinguished.

In has striking similarities to Matisse's 'La Danse' (1909/10). However, it's probably the differences between the two which are more instructive. It's more than Matisse's figures being more humanised. Not just holding hands but twisting their bodies in line with the gesture, the separate figures form a circle - become one. (It's the companion to a piece titled 'Music', reinforcing the idea of the figures as notes in a composition.) 

And with Bomberg the figures also cease to be separate parts. But at the same time they are reduced to separate parts within themselves – limbs detaching from torsos. While instead of being rounded and semi-shapeless they're geometrically precise. They're become like components of some greater mechanism.

Modernism championed the machine as the epitome of the age. This is a dance where the machine is setting the beat. And 'Mud Bath', not about finding the individual in a portrait but reducing the human body to a set of parts, makes that manifest. Bomberg had said “I want to translate the life of a great city, its motion, its machinery into an art that shall not be photographic but expressive”.

And if he'd given semi-abstraction it's perfect form, his experiences of the Great War were similarly archetypical. Not long after exhibiting 'The Mud Bath' he'd enlisted. The painter of such striking colours was no shrinking violet. From the wrong side of the tracks, Jewish in an anti-semitic era, he'd frequently respond to racist abuse with his fists. But his battle experiences, including at the Somme, understandably affected him profoundly.

And not least artistically. Yes, Modernist art had matched its times. Better than anyone had thought. But that now became the problem. Reducing the human body to parts had once seemed audacious and thrilling, now it too closely matched what machine gun fire had done for real, in a war where men had been merely components and collateral. In short war had proven the machine's greater efficiency extended to the act of slaughter. As I said on encountering 'Mud Bath' in the flesh for the first time at the Tate's Vorticist exhibition, “it’s depersonalisation is simultaneously seducing and alarming”. Modernism's success had become its failure.

The Great War had acted like an accelerator on the conveyor belt of human progress, whether artistic, social or technological. But what hastened the pace of art shortened the lifespan. When it was over the conveyor belt suddenly stopped and artists were thrown off the end, tangled up in themselves, unsure what to do next. Solutions usually involved some combination of 'back' and 'out'.

The Desert Years

At the Slade Bomberg had been part of the 'Crisis of Brilliance' group. Having been told by their tutors to stay away from those continental Modernist exhibitions, the bright young things had taken that warning as an invitation. And, to varying degrees, the War induced the same crisis in all of them. And once it was over, they all went somewhere new. (Though for Paul Nash and Stanley Spencer that “somewhere new” was the English countryside.)

Bomberg went to Palestine and took up landscape painting. Given his previous avant garde reputation, these works were at the time dismissed by critics as a retreat. Figuratively, he was out in the desert. The bold blocks of colour, the quest for pure form – all seemed gone. They even abandoned those evocative titles for flatly descriptive names. (As a rough and ready comparison, think of when Dylan swapped electrically charged iconoclasm for crooning Country standards.)

But are they as conventional as this suggests? 'The South East Corner, Jerusalem' (1926, above), a sedate, recognisable landscape, is not an obvious successor to 'The Mud Bath'. But then look at the way it is painted – quite literally with broad strokes. While it is clearly of somewhere, there is no effort at all to disguise the fact it is made up of marks upon a canvas. It's only the way the composition is so light in palette (as the opposite of bright), and made up of gradations of tone, which initially obscures this.

We all know that 'Mud Bath' was inspired by life, it was a scene from public baths. But we know that because we've been told it. The resulting work is universalised, sanded smooth of any localising signifiers, part of a movement which saw itself as internationalist. Whereas this post-war turn, as the title of the show suggests, is back towards art which evokes a sense of place.

And that place can be seamless. 'Jerusalem, Looking to Mount Scopes' (1925, below) places at patchwork of terracotta roofs in the lower foreground which are then echoed in the patchwork of fields in the upper background – the city effectively blending into the landscape. (The roofs' triangular formation virtually points up at the fields, with only a couple of verticals in the composition as a counter-measure.)

While alongside place comes moment. There's an attempt to capture time of day reminiscent of the Impressionists. Look at the long shadows running alongside the figures and down the building on 'Outside Damascus Gates' (1923, below). Early morning, late afternoon and bathing moonlight became his favoured times.

These works have been reappraised in more recent decades, a process of which this show would seem a part. Some then take this talk of place further, and suggest the Jewish artist was returning to his homeland. (A question the show does not weigh in on.) It may have been a factor in his choosing Palestine, when others in his group picked Paris or New York. We're told he had even originally planned a series of 'Jewish return' works. But these were abandoned. The figures in 'Outside Damascus Gates' are rare, and even they are reduced to incidental blobs and ciphers.

The truth is simpler. He simply painted what he saw. And what he saw most, as ever, was what was unfamiliar to him. Which explains the works' fascination with light. He'd joke that, after an East End upbringing, it was something new to him. Palestine was to Bomberg more muse than homeland.

”The Spirit in the Mass”

In 1929, Bomberg visited the Spanish mountain town of Toldeo. The show suggests this became his new 'place', and by 1935 he'd moved to Andalucia. Certainly it precipitated what Alexander Graham Dixon, in a BBC documentary shown in the exhibition, called “a whole new phase in his art”.

Take 'Valley of La Hermida, Asturias, Spain' (1935, up top). It's not just that the vibrant colours are back. If 'Mud Bath' was pure blocks of colour and the desert paintings made up of an elegant sufficiency of marks, the brushwork here is a flurry of frenzied strokes. This can reach such a fervour that the works almost become semi-abstract all over again, take for example the blur of marks in the lower half of 'Ronda Valley' (1954, below).

If the desert paintings in some ways referred to the Impressionists, this time we're right back with the Romantics and their evocation of the sublime – nature experienced as an overwhelming force. And if the last great Romantic to get a British show was Turner, then there seems something of a similarity. See for example, 'Sunset, Mount Hilarion, Cyprus' (1948, below).

Except a frequent feature of Romanticism is vertiginous scale, often achieved by incorporating diminutive human figures. Whereas Bomberg leaves the works as unpopulated as the desert paintings, while they are not physically large (particularly compared to his often gargantuan early pieces). Which then throws the emphasis elsewehere, onto the power of nature as a set of forces. These forces are present in Romanticism too, but they’re often depicted transiently – as Turner's sea storms, and so on. Whereas Bomberg paints forces which are inherent, and therefore unabatable.

If the distilled essence of early Bomberg lies in the quote about “pure form”, there's another which sums up this era - “our search is towards the spirit in the mass”. What Bomberg really does is paint solid objects as though they're not. Because of course they're not. Look again to the hillsides of 'Valley of La Hermida', they're not painted as something stable or steady, for walkers to plant their boots upon, but by vigorous downward strokes.

David Sylvester, one of the first critics to rediscover Bomberg, commented “the scene under our eyes… shifts about as we watch it. And we realize, with a sort of transport, how intuitively true this is of landscape. It is not still. It has its own weird anima, and to our wide-eyed perception it changes like a living animal under our gaze.”

If the desert paintings are about capturing a moment, tied to a time of day, these take things which seem solid and immutable to us (as in expressions such as 'solid as a rock') and portray them as convulsive and ever-changing. And those geological forces are never at rest, they only seem solid to us because we are so fleeting. Bomberg said at the time that he found the past and the present indistinguishable.

And in this way, even if Toledo did act as a kind of muse, they're not about place. Or at least only in the sense that nature has to be instanced through place. Place implies a presumption of permanence, somewhere that could be departed from then returned to, which is being over-ridden here. Bomberg only left Spain when the Civil War drove him out. But he subsequently painted across Europe, notably visiting the Romantic hotspots. In Britain for example, his favoured locations were Devon, Cornwall and Wales. And the results are remarkably similar wherever he roved.

It's easy to see how those concerned with notions of linear progress in art, a frequent pitfall of Modernism, would have been as tempted to overlook these works. Furthermore, the Modernist notion that we have changed the world, or even that we could, lies buried beneath his brushstrokes. But chiefly, Modernism set itself the task of becoming universal, a global reach whose spread left it uninterested in time. It's defining value was 'now'. The longstanding genre of history painting was effectively brought to a close. Cubism, as mentioned a huge influence on the young Bomberg, was about flattening time into a single image - as if taking to it with a blacksmith's hammer.

The past was gone, and I'm not sure Modernism was all that concerned with how history would perceive it. Some of its movements, such as the Futurists, explicitly stated their fervent wish was to be supplanted by the still-more-modern, and then forgotten. Whereas from Spain onwards, all of Bomberg's work is about the inescapable force of time.

'The Mud Bath' could be described as a hit single - a combination of “the most purely distilled essence of something” and “the one everybody knows”. But musicians will tell you a hit singles can become an albatross, and indeed it came to overshadow Bomberg's later work. Few thought to ask what the bad boy did as an adult. In this way, it's an advantage it's absent from this show. An audaciously large work, it would dominate over the others even physically.

Perhaps the desert paintings are not as exciting as his early years, rating a very good rather than a great. But with the 'spirit in the mass' works Bomberg finds a whole new direction which is fully compelling. Alas, no-one at the time thought so. He died in 1957 virtually forgotten, sidelined by Wyndham Lewis in the Tate's Vorticist retrospective, none of his works in national collections, his plans to resume art tutoring come to naught. Badly malnourished, he effectively died of poverty. Only gradually was his work rediscovered, first – perhaps inevitably – through Vorticism and then the later years. Which in a sense is fitting. 'Mud Bath' struck people there and then. The rest took us time...

Saturday, 27 August 2016


Plot spoilers ahead!

Part-way through this film Deadshot (played by Will Smith) stumbles on one of those top secret folders (you know the ones), and discovers what's really attacking New York. Turns out it's the Enchantress, who used her original enlistment into the Suicide Squad as her chance to go rogue. In other words, the action of recruiting the Squad generated the enemy they now need to face. It's a neat irony. A flashback handily confirms all this.

Except the 'flashback' almost entirely reprises scenes we previously saw in real time. Which kind of scuppers the surprise element a little.

And things are often like that here. Expert critics have spotted that this film is thrown together in an often haphazard way. But then so has everyone else. The rest of the Squad, bar Deadshot and Harley Quinn, occasionally up and do something significant-seeming, in the firm belief they're adding to their backstory. Not in this movie, they're not. (Diablo comes closest, and luckily his back story is so predictable it doesn't need much screen time.) 

And it bizarrely manages to combine repeat load-tipping of info dumps with the assumption the cinema viewer will know their comics lore. Some things we're told twice, others not at all. Harley jumping into the chemical vat, those not familiar with the Joker origin story find that a particularly mystifying moment.

(Me, I'd have started the film with the conference room scene, where the Suicide Squad project is first announced. The aide to Walker, the Black Ops boss, would then have manifested as the Enchantress to the audience the same time as the Generals. Then the rest of the Squad could have been introduced, one by one. All of whom within their own unique personalised holding cell. But I digress...)

Critics (and everyone else) rightly point out the way the soundtrack sounds so slapped on they might as well have stuck an i-Player on shuffle. And that Cara Delevingne might look the part of the spooky Enchantress, but acts just like a model. Which becomes a particular problem in the finale, where instead of commanding proceedings she gyrates like she's in a really bad music video. And when your cast is all bad guys, you need to a pretty good antagonist to up the ante of evil on them.

While Deadshot is projected as the primary protagonist, getting the nearest there is to characterisation, it's Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie) who really dominates. It's hard to find a publicity image where she's not centred. If he's intended as the heart of the film, she's its face.

She actually gets a back story. Trouble is, it isn't just bad, it's about as bad as it gets. As if the career woman who throws it all in for the bad guy wasn't bad enough, the scene where the Joker tortures her into her new identity is effectively a euphemistic rape scene, so we even have the 'conversion through rape' trope.

Much of this has been said already, and ably enough, so let's make just one further comment. Notably, both Deadshot and Diablo are conflicted over their bad guy status. Deadshot is shown sniffing gunpowder like a crackhead with a pipe, yet at the same time he's motivated by love for his daughter. That's some... not much, but some indication of an inner life. Whereas both Harley and the Enchantress are simply split, the well-behaved good girl (Harleen Quinel and June Moone respectively) alternating with the sexy bad girl. Not depth but appearance. Times two.

And Harley leads us on to the next common criticism of the film, the way the Joker is reduced to such a cameo role. (See for example this YouTube review.) Most likely, this is another thing down to poor structuring and edit wars. Actor Jared Leto has confirmed he not only shot a whole lot more scenes, he was less than pleased to find how few made it to the finished film. (Asked if any of his scenes were cut, he's responded by asking if any weren't.)

But actually, that's one thing which works in the film's favour. Had the Joker been onscreen more, Harley would have once more been relegated to his girlfriend and sidekick – the Batgirl of the crime world. As it is, his being remote from the plot but forever trying to force his way back in all but reverses things. He comes to represent her desire to be out there, driving recklessly round town rather than being stuck in boring detention. In short, the essential nature of Harley necessitates that the only way the Girl Joker can dominate the film is to keep the Boy Joker at arm's length.

But then again, that's what they do. It doesn't atone for the egregiousness of her origin story, of course. But when we complain about superhero films being so concerned with the heroes, and the heroines always shunted into supporting roles, isn't this something to cheer? (Me, I'd have given Harley none of the unnecessary backstory, and almost no scenes together with the Joker save the brief moment where her rescue seems to be working. But that's probably another digression.)

The conceit underlying both characters is that crazy counts as a kind of super-power. It leaves the wielder so unconstrained by social norms, so ready with the unexpected it becomes an ability akin to the ability to set light to things or be a crack shot. (Neither has any particular powers beyond this.) And then, just to throw you even further, they toss in the notion that crazy might just be an act after all, there to distract you while they get on with their scheming.

And this is accentuated with Harley, who also delights in playing the part of the bimbo stripper. On release her very first action is to toy with the guards' minds, leaving them unsure whether she's lunatic or player, goofy simpleton or corkscrew-minded schemer. Her costume is less the... well, the harlequin image of the original cartoons and more a cross between the peeling facepaint feral joker of 'Dark Knight' and the punk kinderwhore look - both of course designed to sew confusion among those they encounter. And she pretty much keeps up that act throughout. It's her not Deadshot who dispatches the Enchantress, a victory she achieves through cunning and deception.

The one time we see her without the make-up, so to speak, is when she believes the Joker died in trying to rescue her – and we see her crying in the rain. But only we see this. By the time the rest of the Squad have walked up, the act is back on. (Admittedly for this to be true you have to disregard the risible scene where the Enchantress tempts her with the fantasy of becoming a stay-at-home mom. But then you have to do a whole lot of mental re-editing with this film.)

All of which is sold by Robbie's performance, which could without exaggeration be called scene-stealing. It's everything Delevingne's isn't. As she repeatedly sidles up to other characters, they can never be sure whether she'll screw with them, try to snog them or stab them.

And here we've hit the upside. When it works, which in fits and spurts it does, the film treats you just in the same way Harley does. No wonder she's the face for it! You're never quite sure what it is, what it will do to you next, what angle it will come from - dark or comic, dramatic or surreal. The film itself behaves like a lunatic let loose from the asylum. That may well be because the film doesn't really know itself what it is. But it can still press that into service.

And there are times where it does seem to froth with deranged invention. The Joker's henchmen conduct a raid in ludicrous fancy dress, one machine gunning guards in a panda costume. And shouldn't it be like this? if superhero films try to up characterisation, they're still going to be lagging behind in the Academy awards. They're simply not playing to their strengths.

And the concept of a motley collection of bad guys is actually a pretty good one. It's often said the strength of a superhero title is the strength of it's rogues gallery. So why not have just the rogue's gallery? “Let's do something fun”, asserts the Enchantress early on. And something fun does sound a more inviting prospect than another two and a half hours of sour hero grimdark. This ragbag army follow a very crooked path indeed, sometimes doubling back on themselves, at others leaping blocks ahead. A route map they're not. But at least they're moving in the right direction.

Sunday, 21 August 2016


The Green Door Store, Brighton, Fri 19th August

Featuring both the guitarist and drummer from Bo Ningen, pyschedelic noise purveyors and Lucid Frenzy fave, Xaviers might seem their side project. But they're dominated by the keyboards of Kenichi Iwasa, the guitar lines often as metronoic as the drums. In fact for the one section the guitar takes to the fore he immediately switches to secondary drums.

To this day, there are those who associate space rock with prog. Yet his child's-play stabs couldn't have been further from their sophisticated swooshes, a buzzing biplane against a Red Arrows display. His cheap, insistent and off-kilter lines lead the band through one long improvised number.

They're strongly Krautrock influenced, never a bad thing in my book. And Krautrock of course can mean either the propulsive rhythms of Neu!, so much a forerunner of the repetitive beats of dance music, or the deranged freak-outery of Faust. Except Xaviers somehow manage to cover both of those styles at the same time. It's a set which lurches forward like a drunken robot. Imagine the clanking castle on chicken legs of 'Howl's Moving Castle' combined with the humanising imperfection of Wall-E. (This analogy is handily pictured.) You were never quite sure whether it would be able to keep going, while it actually assaulted your senses for a full set length with none of the longeurs impro can lead into.

From listening you'd have no idea how proficient the musicians were or even if they had any idea themselves how it was working. It might have been propelled by sheer forward motion for all we knew. And it's refreshing to see such a safety last approach to taking to the stage. The band name comes, I would assume, from the psi powered head of the X-Men. And they certainly seem possessed of advanced telepathic powers.

An earlier, and less keyboard-led, set from London...

Saturday, 13 August 2016


...on the west coast of Mull. The nearby Calgary Art in Nature trail was also encountered. As ever, full set on Flickr.

Saturday, 6 August 2016


NB This review boldly goes into plot spoilerific territory (as surely as it splits infinitives)

If I haven't written much about the Star Trek movies so far (only a brief response to the first one here) it's partly because I felt responses were hard-coded. It just came down to have much of a classic Trek fan you were. Hardcore fans of the original series hated the reboot with a vengeance, whereas I... well I was never that much of a fan, so was more amenable to change. Which suggests at different perspectives, rather than different analysis. Which would make any debate purposeless.

It's true, for example, that the the original series was powered by the Kirk/Spock/Bones triangle. But that seemed effective because of the chemistry between the three actors, the way some bands can only work with a classic line-up, making it something of a fool's errand to try and reproduce. Better to vary from it. Admittedly, they strayed too far, and made films too much about Kirk and his supporting cast. But it's better to go in the right direction and overshoot than the wrong.

This time the script conspires to divide the crew into twos, but is only interested in the effect of this on Spock and Bones. And it's actually handled reasonably well, Spock suddenly finding a joke funny and Bones worrying he's become delirious, Spock attempting to say he'd always assumed their relationship to be based on an underlying respect and Bones firmly insisting it doesn't need saying. It's reminiscent enough to work, without being trapped inside imitative.

And when Kirk's two-hander with Chekov yields nothing similar that's probably just as telling. Kirk's job is to move the plot along, and anyone with him is an audience or sounding board. There's some feints to give him one of those 'atonement-with-the-father journeys' out of Scriptwriter's Basic, but that tends to lurk around the film trying to find some sort of purchase. And, surprise, his 'arc' is his considering giving up being a starship Captain only deciding to stay one after all – meaning he comes out of the film just the way he was on the way in. Phew, that was close!

We're clearly intended to connect to him by him being coded as connected to our era. So much so you half wonder if there's a director's cut scene where he wakes up in the future, Buck Rogers style. Perhaps what's significant is how this is played. He's a rock'n'roll Starship captain, riding a motorbike round an ancient planet to distract the enemy, and later seizing victory by blasting the Beastie Boys at them.

If these moments are annoying, rather than goofily charming as they seem intended, it's most likely because they're so absolutely unearned. At the close he tells another character, now enlisted with Starfleet, she doesn't have to obey all the rules. Because, you know, he said so. There may well have been eras before ours which had lower levels of personal freedom. But the gap between perception and reality, the idea of how free we are compared to the way our lives really function, that must be unprecedented. Short of some truly dystopian turn in history, nobody is going to look back on us and say that was the time you didn't have to obey all the rules. And consequently our heroes have become coping strategies, ways by which we can lie to ourselves.

And the flashy, frenetic direction of the film (by Justin Li, who's previously directed things like 'Fast and Furious' sequels) makes the perfect accompaniment for Kirk. As it leaps, giddyingly and unrelentingly from one set-piece to the next, its almost a trailer extended to film length. At times the flash-cutting is so unfollowable you end up just guessing what must have just happened, and you're normally right.

That said, the set-piece scene where the swarm attack the Enterprise, effectively slipping under the radar of its mighty weapons to literally dismember it, is genuinely effective. It's almost like the opposite to the classic opening of 'Star Wars', where a great big spaceship is shown to be chased by an even bigger one – this is death by an army of minnows. The scene's even given a neat fillip later, when it's revealed that their peer-to-peer inter-ship communications jammed the Enterprises' in themselves rather than through a deliberate plot, like they attacked us with their very unlikeness.

It's one of those classic moments where you can watch a Hollywood movie and root for the bad guys without having to rewrite much in your head. In fact it's virtually Negri and Hardt's theory of multitude versus empire, laid out on the screen. (Not, it must be said, a theory that's particularly convincing. In fact it's quite possibly no more than rock'n'roll autonomism the same way Kirk's a rock'n'roll Captain. But for all that it's fun to see it on the screen.)

And of course at the very same time the film seems cheerily innocent even of the concept that the 'bad guys' might portray positive features. In the standard clash-of-values conversation with the villain Kraal, he snarlingly mocks their “unity” as a “weakness”. Yet not only are his crew as unified in purpose as Kirk's, they are defeated precisely by having this unity disrupted.

Even if we weren't already expecting a plot twist over Kraal, Uhura is given a line to tip us off that one's incoming. And the way it's delivered is effectively handled, suddenly fixing on a clue which has been hiding in plain slight just as we've been looking elsewhere.

Yet it's this twist which truly scuppers the film. It turns out... I said there'd be plot spoilers, didn't I?... it turns out Kraal was himself a Starfleet captain, who wound up marooned on a distant planet, became convinced he was dumped there and consequently got a little embittered. And okay, aliens in science fiction are never going to be truly alien. That would make them beyond imagining, and then no-one would be able to imagine them. They're always going to be our shadow selves in some form, us at our worst so our best can get in a fistfight with them.

But there's a question of degree. Making them our literal shadow selves and no more turns them from disturbing shapes into mere reflections. It's taking those shadows and wringing the darkness from them, it robs them of any element of alienness. Historically as the Earth became delineated to the inch by spoilsport cartographers, the edge of the map was pushed further out and finally space became the place for the weird and inexplicable. This is more less what lies behind the rise of science fiction as a popular medium. It's where the strange can still be strange, where the unknown rears up at us. If you don't honour this then the science fiction becomes just a setting, a desktop background interchangeable with any other.

And this fault line is blown wide open by the ending. In'Into Darkness' we returned to Earth for a final battle with a terrorist bad guy intent on blowing up stuff. And here... okay, it's the futuristic city of a space station, but that's pretty much the same thing. And it's worse than repetition, it's even worse than the nagging sense we never really went anywhere, it runs counter to the most basic premise of 'Star Trek' – the bit spelt out up front about boldly going. Significantly that fabled opening monologue is now relegated to the end of the film, like the franchise is permanently being thrown off course and trying to get back on track. This film should really be called 'Star Trek Back Again'.

Because Star Trek is inherently about frontiers not home bases. Roddenberry's well-known original pitch for the show was “Wagon Train to the Stars”. Starfleet can be referenced, but needs to be kept in the background of a story. Kirk should land on an alien planet like a Marshall bringing law to Dodge City, explorer and policemen simultaneously. In short, this film is not without it's moments. But it's reached the point where they made Star Trek so unlike itself, that even a non-fan like me thought of throwing in the towel.

Friday, 29 July 2016


(Yes, twice in a row! Reviews of art exhibitions which are still on!)

”I want the work to have a strong formal presence, and through the physical experience to activate a psychological and emotional response.”
- Mona Hatoum

The Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum is effectively a double exile. Her family had been forced to flee Palestine for Lebanon before her birth. Then, visiting London in 1975, an outbreak of civil war effectively cut her off from home. Such themes, it's generally held, pervade her work.

Which they do. But rather than the polemical artist this might suggest, her work is actually strongly influenced by Surrealism. Of all Modernist art movements, Surrealism may be the one of which people have the most skewed impression. As it's most successful self-publicist Dali came to characterise it after himself, portraying the idea that it's something frenzied and shrieking. Yet Hatoum has none of this in-your-face shock but is instead quietly disturbing, to the point it's sometimes hard to work out how her works have their effect. For example her frequent use of domestic objects, in the show's words, “find the unsettling within the everyday... making the familiar uncanny”.

And at the same time as it unsettles Surrealism can be genuinely funny. It is to society what the Joker is to Gotham city, looking at a mad world and deciding the best response is to laugh. Her performance pieces do sometimes seem set to shock. Her notes for 'Live Work for the Black Room' (1981) even promise “DEATH, DISASTER, DOOM & GLOOM”. But many works have the Surrealists' impish humour, for example with titles which echo their love of wordplay.

'Grater Divide' (2002, above) for example is a food grater blown up to the size of a room divide. While 'No Way' and 'No Way II' (1996) are respectively a colander and sieve with the holes uselessly plugged, form's link to function broken. Both are reminiscent of, for example, Man Ray or Meret Oppenheim. While a chair conjoined with a desk, part of the installation 'Interior/ Exterior Landscape' (2010), recalls Magritte.

Put together these two influences and what results is art which has a political impetus without being politically assertive. It may be relevant that the scale of her work can vary, from large-scale room-sizes installations which can look like grand public statements to very small pieces which we more associate with personalisation.

Hatom herself has said “I’m never trying to make a direct political statement. There are issues in my head, but they’re in the background; they’re not foregrounded in the work, and they’re not specific to my own history... The tension is between the work’s reduced form and the intensity of the possible associations.”

Or “each person is free to understand what I do in the light of who they are and where they stand... I don’t want to pin a single meaning on each one.... I want to make use of... contradictions, play on ambiguity, never take anything for what it appears to be.” And to be political without polemical is in itself a hallmark of Surrealism, as in for example their response to the Spanish revolution.

In the early performance piece 'The Negotiating Table', (1983, a still above) she lies prone and plastic-wrapped on a table, surrounded by empty chairs. It's akin to Gilroy's classic cartoon 'The Plum-Pudding In Danger' but here the artist has substituted her own body as the prize to be carved. Her becoming Palestine (and by implication all occupied territories) makes the point in a visceral way – for many, this is a flesh-and-blood issue. It's common for Hatoum to place her self physically in her work in this way. Even in her more conventional artworks, where she's not personally present, she'll use her hair and nails as materials.

But the chairs being empty, that's as significant as the table being full. The politicians and diplomats who decide our fate don't occupy the same space as us, they are absent from our lives the same time as they devour us. The chairs become totems of power, magnifying it through absence, like the master’s boots in Strindberg's ‘Miss Julie’.

And in general in Hatoum's work, the absence of the human body can be as significant as its presence. Take for example, 'Homebound' (2000, above). It's a domestic situation, kitchen utensils scattered on the table, children's toys on the floor. But nobody's home. Even the clothes rail is bare of clothes. With the empty hangers and mattressless wire-frame bed, it looks like some kind of bare skeleton of a dwelling. This is perhaps the closest to her signature work, the domestic situation shot through with something defamilarising until the scene becomes menacing. And in this case, it's literally true. An electric current runs through the scene at intervals; it's hum rising to almost a shriek, the lights building to a glare them dimming away again. You hear that hum before you encounter the scene, like the thunder of an oncoming storm.

The show states “the title plays on ideas of domestic confinement or house arrest”. And perhaps the bare bed does suggest torture by electrocution. While a small cage, for a pet mouse or gerbil, is recursively placed within the scene. (And watch out for that cage motif.) But overall I think the opposite. Literally, our perspective is outside, looking in. Of course we can't enter the scene, at least not without getting ourselves fried. But the bars between us and it seem less required health-and-safety initiative than part of the work. Many Palestinians have been driven out of their homes in precisely this way. In some cases it has been forced on them so suddenly they have had to leave almost all their belongings behind, creating a scene not unlike this one.

The video work 'Measures of Distance' (1988, still above) explores similar themes. In the soundtrack, Hatoum reads out correspondence between herself and her mother. Voices in Arabic can be heard beneath, apparently a conversation between the two. The video images are of her mother, but they're indistinct, not the equivalent of the neat and arranged family snapshots you'd stuff in with a letter. (Her mother's actually in the shower, but you only know that once told it.) And, much as the soundtrack is layered, they are then placed behind a screen of Arabic writing.

The screen becomes not a portal but a membrane, likened by the show to “a curtain or veil”. With her mother speaking of her “being born in exile”, it seems a much more personalised work. But perhaps, like 'Homebound', the point is that we the audience are outside the picture. The distance to us is immeasurable, the experiences unknown and unknowable, the English translation only marginally more comprehensible than the Arabic.

But, as is common of Hatoum's work, at the same time it hints at a universal experience. As Thomas Wolfe said, “you can never go home again”, and so it's significance takes on a positive feedback loop with it's inaccessibility. The more we can't get back, the more we want to look. We all have Fall myths about how we lost our close connection to things, whether religious or political. But perhaps they all come down to the personal, our veneration of our own childhood perpetuating the sense of that childhood being external to us.

'Light Sentence' (1992, above) is formally reminiscent of Conrad Shawcross' 'Slow Arc Inside a Cube IV' (2009), shown as part of the Hayward's 2013 Light Show exhibition. In both a light bulb is remotely moved within a wire cage, to change the play of shadows on the walls. Yet beyond that formal similarity the works are entirely different, as different as two canvases might be while still using oil paint.

Shawcross uses a much smaller cage, across which the bulb travels proportionately further. The effect is almost like a simulated fairground ride, as the shadows fly around the walls you have the feeling of hurtling through space even as you stand stationary. In Hatoum's work the bulb moves slowly, up and down between two banks of wire-mesh lockers. And what's evoked isn't a ride but an entrapment. The cages suggest containment without refuge. They reminded me of the way soldiers are given their own kit to look after, but are expected to have it not just arranged in a determined way but available for inspection at any point.

Similarly, the title suggests at imprisonment. The shadows playing on the walls around the viewer create a double layer of wire mesh, as if we the viewers are being enclosed by the work. But it also suggests the modern open-plan office, granting you a small square of territory but at the same time opening you up to scrutiny. As with 'Homebound' the absence of the human figure creates menace, as if we're looking at a space created for people which gives no consideration to them.

When an artist's biography is, to us, exotic there is a temptation to turn it into their Rosebud. This may be exacerbated when that artist is Palestinian, due to the drastic nature of their situation and the media's tendency to reduce them to either terrorists or victims. Our antennae can be out for 'Palestinian voices', who might interpret the situation for us.

Yet exile is a double-edged affair, and Hatoum has said quite explicitly that her work is as informed by arriving in London as it is by leaving Beirut; “My first impression was the control on the individual, the surveillance issues, cameras pointing at you all the time. That’s why these things came into my work right from the beginning... At the Slade, my first encounter with a big institution, I was shocked by the coldness, by all the rules. I was this chaotic person who wanted to find space. But they wouldn’t give me any.” And sometimes it takes an outsider to show your own country to you. She's also commented that the Slade contains the mummified body of Jeremy Bentham, deviser of the omnipotentPanopticon.

'Cellulites' (2012/13 above) in many ways reprises these themes. Open metal 'cells', something like metal lobster pots, echoing the wire mesh lockers, contain glass-blown red hearts. The hearts look as though their shape may be conforming to the imprint of their cages. Or alternately they may be squishing themselves through the gaps, unlike their prisons unconfined to a fixed shape. And then the biological-sounding title suggests at another possibility – the human heart is kept in a cage, we even call it the ribcage.

'Performance Still' (1985), as the name might suggest, is a still from a performance work where she walked around Brixton dragging Doctor Martin boots behind her which were tied to her feet. It feels as internal as 'Homebound' and 'Light Sentence' are external. Perhaps analogously to the proverbial monkey on the back it suggests that we can never really remove our boots – we always drag behind us the dead weight of ideology.

The exhibition shows us both this still and a video of the performance, but strangely at quite separate points. And perhaps ironically the close-up still is much more effective than the video. The video cannot help but highlight the difference between her and everyone else on the street. Some laugh at her, while she's straightfaced. But even when they just ignore her it's still too reminiscent of the Jesus-like suffering artist, bearing the world's sins on behalf of others more concerned with frivolous things.

'Impenetrable' (2000) is again reminiscent of the wire mesh cages. A block of thin rods appears to float etherially, reminiscent of marsh reeds or a bamboo forest – simultaneously substantial and insubstantial. It's immediately aesthetically enticing, in a way that's unusual for Hatoum. It's only when you go up to it do you realise that the smooth-looking rods are barbed. I kept trying to parse this and finally realised the point was that you can't. As the name suggests, it calls to the eye at the same time a meaning can't be hung on it.

If this is not a perfect show, Hatoum is not a consistent artist. Some of her work does stray into the post-modern. (For example, 'Don't Smile, You're On Camera', 1980, a performance piece where she video-scans herself and then members of the audience.) And too many pieces are commentaries on another artist's work, when that work is not even particularly well known.

Plus the show is over-reliant on boards to document her performance pieces. Which reminded me of when museums just line up broken bits of pottery along a shelf. If Hatoum has spoken of the effect upon her of the cold, institutional world of Britain some stills of her work place them in haunted institution surroundings. These work so well it suggests the best place for this exhibition would be the peeling paint and exposed piping of some disused post-war office block, rather than the neat and clean tourist trap of the Tate galleries. The above does focus on the highlights. But then the highlights... well, they're high...