Writing for publication

Moussaka, tamales and the story of the desired banana, Oslo, May 2014

Among us all there are feeders and there are eaters. Most of us are eaters – but only some of us are feeders. In Oslo, at the Migrating Art Academies Food / Biotechnologies / NeoColonialismworkshop in May 2014, most of us were feeders as well as eaters, which, given that we lived and worked together for the entire time, boded well for the week.

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” – JRR Tolkein

Juan & Persa Cooking Tamales, Photo: Brian Degger

Juan & Persa Cooking Tamales, Photo: Brian Degger

Food is, primarily, fuel. Around the back of the Central Stasjon in Oslo, the Fattighuset, thePoverty House, provides food to those who cannot afford Oslo’s high prices, donated by the city’s supermarkets. The recently arrived, the recently evicted and the recently redundant are all welcome without prejudice, with no demand for papers or permission, and the queue for food parcels on every Friday is many hundreds strong.

Food is also love – a connector to our families and desire to nurture and grow. On the first full day of our workshop we visited a seemingly abandoned spot in Herligheten, within sight of the roof of the opera house and overlooked by a busy arterial road that services the city. People have taken over this waste ground to grow their salads and vegetables in raised garden allotments. When we visited it was cold, grey and raining quite hard, yet there was a sole Asian lady tending her radishes in the wind and rain as if they were growing gold. The plastic sheeting she used as a cloche battered in the icy wind as she showed us her young seedlings.

Food is, yet again, a signifier for sophistication, and we can’t help ourselves but to make our judgments upon the desired foods of others. Upmarket Maldon salt from Essex in England had a firm place in the well-appointed kitchen in our middle-class Oslo family house, yet there was no roasting tray to be found and few saucepans. Five tubes of squeezy cod roe lived alongside a bewildering array of Scandinavian condiments in the American-style fridge but the spread for bread was margarine, not butter.

Two cornerstone projects in the MigAA Food workshop in Oslo examined our relationships to food and the identities it can appear to bestow on us – or should that be the identities that we bestow on it?

Persefoni Myrtsou (born and raised in Greece, living and working in Berlin and about to marry a Turkish man and spend some of her time in Istanbul) cooked moussaka for the workshop and for visitors and as she did, she talked about the ingredients, their origins and histories, such as the tomato, which is now a staple of the Greek kitchen but was introduced to Europe in the 1600s by the Spanish conquistadors who’d brought it from Mexico where it had been domesticated after originating in the Andes mountains a very long time before that.

It’s easy to think that moussaka confirms the assumptions we make about it, that it’s very Greek and very traditional, but, Persefoni explained, its modern Greek form was invented by an early 20th Century Greek chef and ideologue, Nicholas Tselementes who, as part of a new Greek modernism, determined to rid Greek cuisine of its long-standing Turkish, Roman and other influences. He sought to “purify” Greek cooking, through the introduction of French cooking methods such as Bechamel sauce, which were much more sophisticated than the peasant foods of old, and he became the darling and kitchen-essential of the Greek bourgeoisie.

Moussaka, as Persefoni pointed out, isn’t even a word of Greek origin – it’s probably Arabic, and different versions of it exist in every country and region across the near and middle East, like hummus and falafel, two other common topics of Mediterranean culinary dispute.  Yet if you asked anyone what they consider to be the most famous Greek dish, there’s a good chance they’d say moussaka, such was Tselementes’ success in “cleansing” Greek cuisine of Ottoman influences, via French technique.

“There are people in the world so hungry, that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Diaz Juan Pablo (born and raised in Columbia, living and working in Berlin) cooked tamales. He’d never cooked tamales before but his mother did, and Juan described to the workshop and to visitors how tamales are very much a comfort food, a dish to be made and shared on special occasions. Like moussaka, except that tamales go back to the pre-Columbian era, a portable food stuff, originally carried and eaten by warring Aztec, Mayan and Incan armies, prepared by the Aztec women they took along with them and now loved by Hispanic people across the Americas. Juan explained that because tamales are eaten across many different peoples, countries and regions, each has their own local ingredients, not least for the masa, the dough made from cornmeal that holds the fillings in place, which in turn, is held together with a wrap made of any readily available, large leaf.

Using cornmeal and banana leaves he found in an Oslo Oriental supermarket, Juan explained that for the last 20 years, nine out of 10 corn crops are now genetically modified, and usually they’re mono-cultured, that is, they’re all the same breed of corn. In 2008 alone, Monsanto’s triple stack corn was planted on 32 million US acres. But it wasn’t always this way. Corn, like the tomato, was first domesticated in Mexico and was taken down to the more southern Americas where indigenous varieties began to grow, such as Black Aztec Corn, Bloody Butcher Corn, Brown Sugar Popcorn, Cancho Blancho, Country Gentlemen, and Dakota Black (1). Genetic modification is a controversial development for a main, subsistence crop such as maize. It has been illegal to grow GM corn in Mexico since 1998 (2) yet in Brazil, GM beans are being embraced wholeheartedly for their national crops, not least to eliminate the hazards caused by local viruses (3). It is likely to remain controversial in the Americas, not just economically but culturally and philosophically, for as long as strong national and regional feelings remain attached to these basic and fundamental ingredients.

Food policy itself remains controversial. We throw away 30 – 40 percent of the food we produce and yet nearly one billion people live in near starvation (4). Panic in the commodities markets in 2008 and 2010/11 forced food prices up by 30 percent (5). In other recent years, failed harvests or poor weather have rocketed up prices of tinned tomatoes, coffee, chocolate and most recently there was a threat to the cost of the humble lentils and rice. When prices rise, they rarely go down afterwards unless there are important commercial reasons for the retailers to reduce and Kim Hachmann and Steffi Simmen (Form Future collective) presented a manifesto for local food production outside of big business in the video piece they made on site in Oslo.

The current vogue for local produce is preceded by the story told by Matthias Roth’s moving image of the cucumber, a common fruit in Cold War Eastern Germany, morphing backwards and forwards with a “morning glory” of tumescence into a banana, a fruit so unattainable and so desired by East Germans that they broke down the Berlin wall to avail themselves of them in the West Berlin shops, refusing to believe that there would be more tomorrow and the day after (6).

Our relationships with the food we rely on or that we love can be odd, when seen by the standards of others. Amber Ava (raised in London, UK and studying in Bergen, Norway) cooks for an office of professionals to make her rent and explained how they are delighted to be fed middle-eastern lunches, for example, but would not be happy with, say, English comfort foods such as cauliflower cheese. Amber offered recipe cards for the bread and the cheese we’d made under Brian Degger’s guidance during the course of our workshop, along with tokens of exchange which could be traded for samples of the food and drink on offer during our public event in the gallery.  To earn these, guests were asked to write a note, a story or a recipe for a food that is meaningful to them, such as their childhood comfort food to their student survival food to the food they’d learned to love while travelling or on holiday.

Lina Rukeviciute and Mindaugas Gapsevicius experimented with bio-techologies to explore directions of travel for organisms with chemical compounds – Miga by finding ways to generate new salt crystals, Lina by setting an apple on a road to mummification.

“Fermentation may have been a greater discovery than fire.” – David Rains Wallace

The art of the kitchen is in understanding bio-technologies. The reaction of acid to alkaline, the emulsion of oil and water, the chemical breakdowns during fermentation are all part of the alchemy that comes about during the making of our food. Brian Degger (Australian, living and working in the UK) ran evening workshops on how to make different fresh cheeses, Finnish sourdough bread and Finnish Sima beer – a beer that blends surprisingly well as a mixer for the rum, vodka and gin that we’d brought in to escape Norway’s punitive alcohol taxes. The rigours of making Finnish sourdough bread are now being practiced in Bergen, Berlin and London from the starter created in the MigAA Food / Biotechnology / Neocolonialism workshop.

Bon Appetit!

Published in KulturkontaktNord, 4 August 2014

http://www.kulturkontaktnord.org/lang-en/nordic-culture/blogs/blog-migrating-art-academies/1823-moussaka-tamales-and-the-story-of-the-desired-banana

 

Circularities, with Lewis McGuffie, August 2012

In the closing decades of the 19th century large numbers of Jewish emigres boarded steamboats in Eastern Europe and set sail for the West. Leaving ports such as Riga, and Libau in Latvia and arriving in London and Southampton, this large-scale migration was as a result of increasing restrictions placed on the Jewish communities in the east. These communities sought refuge from the introduction of ever-more discriminatory laws, periodic assaults on their property and violent state sanction attacks in the form of pogroms. What they were leaving was called the “shtetl”. The shtetl describes the villages and towns, away from the promised land, which the Jews had lived in since the 1700s.1 Amongst the families boarding those steamboats bound for the west were the Grinkers, from Aizpute in Latvia. They would arrive in London and take up residence in a Victorian housing block named Navarino Mansions.

One Jewish family who did not leave the east were the Hoffmans. Until the outbreak of WWII they lived in Poland, were upon they undertook a joinery to the Ukraine to hide the organised tyranny that had spread throughout Eastern Europe at the time. Then in 1945, having returned to a decimated and occupied Krakow, Ewa Wydra was born. In 1959, the Hoffmans undertook a journey similar to the one taken by their relations several generations earlier. They arrived in Vancouver, Canada and 15 year-old Ewa took on the anglicised name, Eva Hoffman. She would go on to become the literary editor of the New York Times, and write in detail on the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe.

Throughout the early 20th century large numbers of Baltic Jews had also made their new homes in Johannesburg. Following the Jewish communities who had been chased out of the neighbourhoods of New York by Irish immigrants, they set about creating a thriving community in South Africa similar to those their ancestors had lived in a century before. In the wake of this migration, taking advantage of their influence in the UK shipping industry, the Grinkers also moved on from Navarino Mansions in London to Johannesburg.

Navarino Mansions, July 2012

Over half a century later, in a gallery next to Navarino Mansions, in 2012, the writer and theorist Simon O’Sullivan gave a talk on the production of subjectivity. At this event O’Sullivan discussed his research into ideas that deal with a search for a new kind of subjectivity. A personal subjectivity, he explained, that moved away from the traditional Cartesian self, that could enable us as individuals, or as communities, to become active participants in the world around us and be able to make our own, independent lives. In essence, he described the concept of migration. Of engagement with ourselves and communities, and of re-imaging of the self through sometimes cathartic means.

In 1997 Eva Hoffman published her book Shtetl: The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews. In this book she speculates on the possibilities of an Eastern Europe that had not first suffered the mass migration of the Jews and then the systematic eradication of the communities that remained. Here are some of her remarks in the epilogue of her book:

The more hopeful lesson of Polish-Jewish history maybe that when conflicts of interest are not exacerbated or extreme, when fanatical notions are not willfully fanned, the instinct of tolerance, surely as basic as that of prejudice, can find breathing space.

Why couldn’t these phases of concord and comity be better sustained? Over the span of centuries, Poles and Jews did not construct an effective underpinning of shared structures and convictions, and it seems to me that what the Polish-Jewish experiment suggests – to put it in the most general terms – is that “identity politics” may be inadequate without a sense of solidarity. If we are to live together in multicultural societies, then in addition to cultivating differences, we need a sense of a shared world. This does not preclude the possibility of preserving and even nurturing strong cultural, spiritual, and ethnic identities in the private realm, nor does it suggest collapsing such identities into a universal “human nature”. But if multicultural societies are to remain societies – rather than collections of fragmented, embattled enclaves – then we need a public arena in which we can speak not only from our particular interests, but as members of a common society, from the vantage point of the common good.

It is difficult to know what would have happened to the Polish shtetl had the thread of its history not been so peremptorily severed. On the eve of World War II, it was a world rife with new energies and potentials. Its descendants in Israel, the United States and Western Europe have amply shown the vitality of the shtetl heritage. Given time and change, Poles and Jews of the small towns might yet have found a new accommodation, and the increasing interpretation of their cultures, as well as the grafting of modernity onto traditional Judaism, might have once again resulted in something unique and rich. (2)

The port town of Libau in Latvia, which had seen a large part of this exodus and later renamed Liepaja, remains a significant port of the Baltic Sea. A short distance in land, on the long road from Riga, lies a village called Aizpute (once known as Hazenpoth). Between and including Liepaja and Aizpute, in towns such Grobina (Grobin), large numbers of the Jewish population who remained in 1941 were murdered in the forests and on the beaches by the occupying Nazi forces and ultra-Nationalist Latvian collaborators. This atrocity was carried out with startling speed and willingness from the local, Nationalist Latvians. So much so, that nearly every village and town in this few hundred square kilometres in the west of Latvia has a mass grave, some marked with memorial inscribed in Hebrew.

One of these graves in the village of Aizpute is marked with the name ‘Grinker’. An ancestor of the family who had moved to Johannesburg. A deeply disturbing reminder that the lucky families are now thousands of miles away. The ones that lacked the means to escape, to leave and create another community elsewhere, are now the subject of memorial after memorial after memorial. By 1942 the Third Reich had been driven from Latvia by the vast Red Army.

The Soviets left in 1994, and in the wake of their practice of militarising the landscape around them, left large-scale combat infrastructure, designed to defend the Eastern Bloc from an invasion via the Baltic Sea. In just over 100 years the landscape had evolved from shtetl to grave yard to military fortress. A cartographic web of trajectories and transitory spaces. The landscape that Simon O’Sullivan might have related to in his discussion near Navarino Mansions about the finite and the infinite.

* * *

At a few of the points on this map, in August 2012, we chose three sites from which to make our explosions: a Soviet surface to air missile (SAM) battery site near Pavilosta, the beach by the northern Czarist forts next to the Nazi bunker sinking into the sea in Liepaja and the airfield in Aizpute, the site where 300 local Jews were taken and murdered before their remains were re-interred after the war in 1950, in the Christian cemetery on Misin Hill, over the Jews’ Bridge by the old synagogue and the mikvah, the ritual bathing house.

As we thought and talked about it, we realized that each of these sites is a base for projection, of weaponry, of sight and surveillance and of our selves, potentially, from land to sea, from land to air, from air to sea. Sites for trajectories of human subjectivity into the liminal spaces between good and evil, sites for passive spectators and, potentially, sites for projection of ourselves as active participants in making our own change.

(1) http://www.movinghere.org.uk/galleries/histories/jewish/journeys/journeys.htm

(2) Eva Hoffman, Shtetl, The Life and Death of a Small Town and the World of Polish Jews, 1997, Secker & Warburg, p256-7

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Which is the real historical memory?

Published on KulturKontaktNord and AbandonedMystery.info, May 2012

http://www.kulturkontaktnord.org/lang-en/nordic-culture/blogs/blog-abandoned-mystery/1441-which-is-the-real-historical-memory

The locations we have visited so far on the Abandoned Mysteries project are often “abandoned mysteries” at first glance – uncared for, left to rot and unmarked. Nature regrows and weather takes its toll.

Of course, these places are not, usually, completely “abandoned” – at least, not by the locals – youth come to play, to drink, to make out and to destroy; entrepreneurs scour them for valuable metal and objects to sell, survivalists live out their fantasies. At every site are constants: cock graffiti, broken glass bottles, recent bonfires.

Other locations are neither “abandoned” nor “mysteries”. Local authorities have adopted their abandoned military sites in the name of heritage, attracting grants and developing facilities for tourists.

Should these wild, remote and redundant military sites become tamed and controlled for the purposes of better disseminating history?

During the first camp, on our visit to the Plokstyne Underground Missile Site it became clear that those sites that have been turned into official museum spaces are safer, more accessible and have historical information to hand. Official displays, roped-off areas and – always a killer – waxwork dummies in authentically re-created scenes. The memories in these spaces seem to have been smothered to death, a version of the history is confirmed and our questions are answered. The moment is preserved, but the site is no longer able to breathe.

In those locations that have been left to rot, can we say that they are still “authentic”? Does theft and damage take away from the site or add to its history? The museums intend that time should be frozen at a particular moment if we are to understand that moment properly. On the contrary though, in the deteriorating remains of, say the Taurage Overground Missile Site, 637 Taurage regiment, the whiffs of the past are all the stronger. We may not know the details of what happened in these spaces, but looking for the clues gives space for more questioning thoughts as to how these sites worked and what they may have witnessed. That copper was stolen is a central part of the history, and that offices were smashed tells us something of the temper of the post-Soviet moment. And was it hostile locals who vented their anger, or the Soviet soldiers who did irreparable damage before they left? Anecdote tells us it was both.

The most satisfying sights were those where the vanity and bombast of the political projects these unloved “indestructible” fortifications were built to defend, have proved hopelessly inadequate against sand, sea and trees. It is surely right and fitting that Hitler’s bunkers at Liepaja and Memel Nord are finally descending into the sea. The Irbene radio satellite dish, built by the Soviets for surveillance and espionage, now adopted by Latvian astronomers researching alongside other European and Russian scientists, has been given a new, useful life. That the surrounding Soviet living and working quarters are still left to disintegrate suggests that the Latvian scientists have, rightly, got better things to do than to hang on to the past.

In making a benign explosion – the first in a series of benign explosions – we set out to eradicate the meanings that have been constructed around those memories. Better than to freeze those sites and the ideologies trapped within them is to allow them, quite naturally, to descend where they belong, into the sea and beneath the sand. Our benign explosions signify our desire to witness a moment in this process of disintegration.

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In August 2010, I joined Doherty International on a Davies Turner haulage job, taking rolls of fabric from the UK down to four different textiles factories in Morocco and bringing children’s winter season garments back.

It’s fashionable to be sniffy about trade. Buy local, re-cycle, be sustainable – these are the rally cries of the righteous. The trouble with trade, goes the argument, is the exploitation. Sweatshops! And what about the carbon footprint? Pollution! And then there’s the plentiful availability of cheap products that we can afford to buy… Mindless consumerism!

Trade has been with us forever – it’s what we do and it keeps us not just alive, but thriving. It is clear that the people who have a problem with trade tend to be those who’ve done quite nicely, thank you. But for the less wealthy parts of the world, trade is the route to development, and ultimately to greater wealth. Thanks to trade, we get to make and produce more, on a greater scale. Without it, the world would be stuck in the rut of small-time local and national industries. That might appeal to the hempistas, but it is not progression.

Driving from the UK, through France and then into Spain and over to Morocco, it becomes clearer and clearer that the only thing in the way of development is decision. Along the main routes of Spain, where new industry is sited, new housing is there. No problem. The roads are pounded through rock and built on sand, they’re built quickly, and they work brilliantly.

Enormous viaducts carve their way through gorges and valleys down towards the Mediterranean. At the brand new Tanger Med port, freight is already passing through before the infrastructure is done. And it matters – Renault will open a new car factory in Tangier next year. Morocco is a poor country – but production is increasing and the people are getting richer, thanks to trade.

The drivers that move freight across borders and between continents are some of the heroes of modern trade. Artic lorries pump economic life-blood up and down the arteries of the world so the rest of us can function – a 21st Century form of a very ancient industry.

We need more trade, not less. More industry, more jobs, more wealth, more development. Sifting through endless deserted roadworks in the UK, I think we have much to learn from countries like Spain and Morocco. Construction work shifts on the new bridge connecting Salé and Rabat continue all day and all night, every day of the year. The work doesn’t stop. There’s much to do, and they’re getting the job done.

*

For the Nida Art Colony Log, Spring 2012, with Sasha Kachur
While staying in Nida we read and thought about the history and of its location, determining a number of ideas that reveal to us how the site holds information about both connections and disconnections, transpiring through local and regional geographies and politics.

Considering Nida to be a site of connection – it was a node, a stopping point, on the historic route between Paris and St. Petersburg. Connecting points across Europe forged stronger communication between countries, establishing the arteries through which the ideas of the Enlightenment spread throughout the 18th century.

A place where movement has been free and restricted at different times, as borders have been placed and lifted and placed again elsewhere. The observation lights of the current border with Kaliningrad are made visible through an extended camera exposure at night from the Parnedis Dune. The former Soviet watchtower on the beach in Nida, where we attached our windsock, is a relic of a time when communication and movement were restricted, an object whose original function served the purpose of regular surveillance.

The association of the Nida Gliding School reminds us of the possibilities created through the development of flight, the great advances in movement as well as communication and what that means for the potential for both borders to be ruptured and new connections to be made. The paper plane and the windsock are signifiers of these potentials.

*

In August 2010, I joined Doherty International on a Davies Turner haulage job, taking rolls of fabric from the UK down to four different textiles factories in Morocco and bringing children’s winter season garments back.

It’s fashionable to be sniffy about trade. Buy local, re-cycle, be sustainable – these are the rally cries of the righteous. The trouble with trade, goes the argument, is the exploitation. Sweatshops! And what about the carbon footprint? Pollution! And then there’s the plentiful availability of cheap products that we can afford to buy… Mindless consumerism!

Trade has been with us forever – it’s what we do and it keeps us not just alive, but thriving. It is clear that the people who have a problem with trade tend to be those who’ve done quite nicely, thank you. But for the less wealthy parts of the world, trade is the route to development, and ultimately to greater wealth. Thanks to trade, we get to make and produce more, on a greater scale. Without it, the world would be stuck in the rut of small-time local and national industries. That might appeal to the hempistas, but it is not progression.

Driving from the UK, through France and then into Spain and over to Morocco, it becomes clearer and clearer that the only thing in the way of development is decision. Along the main routes of Spain, where new industry is sited, new housing is there. No problem. The roads are pounded through rock and built on sand, they’re built quickly, and they work brilliantly.

Enormous viaducts carve their way through gorges and valleys down towards the Mediterranean. At the brand new Tanger Med port, freight is already passing through before the infrastructure is done. And it matters – Renault will open a new car factory in Tangier next year. Morocco is a poor country – but production is increasing and the people are getting richer, thanks to trade.

The drivers that move freight across borders and between continents are some of the heroes of modern trade. Artic lorries pump economic life-blood up and down the arteries of the world so the rest of us can function – a 21st Century form of a very ancient industry.

We need more trade, not less. More industry, more jobs, more wealth, more development. Sifting through endless deserted roadworks in the UK, I think we have much to learn from countries like Spain and Morocco. Construction work shifts on the new bridge connecting Salé and Rabat continue all day and all night, every day of the year. The work doesn’t stop. There’s much to do, and they’re getting the job done.

*
Review of Slade BAFA show, May 2011, published in AN, August 2011
http://www.a-n.co.uk/degrees_unedited/reviews/single/1321528

BA Fine Art
Slade, London
28 May – 2 June 2011

Reviewed by: Fiona Flynn
The Slade BA degree show really gets off on materials, room after room of playful responses to cement, scent, stuffed textiles, rotting timber: enjoyed for their own sakes, rather than exploited to render any particular ideas. Playful: vapid, even. Ashley Howell’s forms have muscle, though – her investigations into the structural and surface qualities of the cement she works with show through and the forms seem to stretch the possibilities of her medium. The Future Took Us, taken from a John Shevlin poster, isn’t the show’s title, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so as it dominates the entrance to the show; though slick, it suggests to me a more passive response to our potential to make action that I’d expect from the final show of the art school that led the fight for arts education in London last winter. Maybe I’m missing something.

The most visceral piece for me is Aaron Angell’s throwaway Farrington’s Folly – graphite coloured paper torn back from the wall it’s glued to, forming marks that echo Yves Klein’s Anthropometries series; more seductive as you back away from the wall to see mushrooms revealed. It faces Bentley Farrington’s Standing Stone (Visitor’s Approach), a column covered in photocopied images on fluttering paper and punctuated occasionally with bubblegum. I’d walked past this monument initially, but seeing that the title of Angell’s Folly referenced Farrington’s column, I returned and paid more attention and was rewarded with a closer grasp of the energy of the piece. Both have plenty more in the show but these did it for me. Ava Ireland’s use of paper and paint like an old carbon blue brings energy to her map. Once you realise how she made the piece, the memory of of her process remains with it. Nice.

Alejandro Cano’s giant animals drawn across standard office A4 white and held with loop-ties are another highlight for me, the whale that once straddled the front portico of UCL now lies crumpled in a heap, others archived in wooden blocks whose thicknesses suggest the size of each creature’s original visual A4 manifestation. And although Ch Gh’s political work can seem didactic at moments, the DIY garden shed tool display of wooden guns, his Peasant’s Revolt, is tucked away but well worth seeking out: a reminder of both our part in embracing the future and Slade’s recent lead in demanding that we roll up our sleeves and take the bastards on. It turns out this piece was made during the Slade Occupation. That’s more like it.

Writer detail:
Just entering the final year of a fine art degree at Chelsea College of Art. I’m a part-time student there and I pay the mortgage through freelance research and teaching.
Venue detail:
Slade
Gower Street, WC1E 6BT

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For Polymer’s Culture Factory catalogue, written April 2010

Typesetting in the 21st Century

Fiona Flynn and Sasha Kachur, May 2010

We came to Polymer in March 2010 to work in the printshop, to learn the skill of typesetting and to make some posters. We heard it was comprehensive but the sight of the press and the trays and trays of letterpress had us overwhelmed. It’s an extraordinary resource, a time capsule in today’s digitalised culture.

The kit, including a 1980s era Austrian printing press, letterpress, including Roman, Cyrillic and Estonian alphabet, from huge woodblocks to tiny hot metal type dating back 300 years, even the immense guillotine, were salvaged from a de-commissioned studio at the turn of the new century and brought to Polymer to start a new life with printmaster Ludja, a veteran of Estonia’s publishing industry. It’s a little-known resource: but if you notice, the posters that advertise gallery shows and cultural events around Tallinn’s Old Town share a distinctive style – because they’re still made the old-fashioned way at the Polymer printshop.

We come from an art college, where craft skills are no longer taught. Chelsea College in London has a handful of workshops along with some technicians, who are there primarily to help us realise our work, but the emphasis is very much on the importance of ideas and contextualising them within contemporary fine art practice.

We arrived at Polymer with a tentative desire to make work, but were unsure as to what we might find in the printshop. How can you plan for work until you know what material you’re dealing with? This turned out to be both an advantage and a problem.

It’s not hard to get excited about the Polymer printshop: it’s cold in the winter, but sweet tea warms your muscles. The sheer physical beauty of the wooden type blocks, even the filler material, inky and dirty, set our hearts racing. Our project: to make posters for no particular purpose. Our goal: to use this traditional skill, this special and disappearing craft, to make work as part of our role as contemporary fine art practicioners.

It’s more difficult than we thought. Posters have a function. They exist to inform. Sasha had spent some time considering ways to combine her native Russian with English and we were both excited about the endless visual possibilities with both text and shape.

Shape. The Polymer printing studio holds lines and shape blocks that descend directly from the Revolutionary period of the Soviet era. Back in our Polymer living quarters, by the home-made wood stove while eating sausage and potato, we went online to consult the work of the Constructivists, and studied how they used type, shape and space to develop their particular aesthetic. Ludja was indispensable here: “Good! This has air flowing through it…” And we learned how to use the type to create new shapes on the space of the paper.

Typesetting is a tough skill to learn. The discipline of it, the methodical work of measuring, both with the eye and with Cicero, the measurement of European (non-English) typesetters from the late 1700s, takes time and concentration. It’s a three-dimensional Tetris, building material around your blocks to ensure a secure fit for the press. The surface that you build has its own aesthetic beauty, shimmering with that patina of years of ink, purpose and labour. “Cicero, Cicero…” is printmaster Ludja’s endless refrain. Always count the Cicero. And one millimetre out is a millimetre too far. Accuracy is everything, everything must be tight.

Eight days seemed too little time to acknowledge what it was we wanted to achieve. The question, function follows concept of concept follows function? During the process an order started to emerge. We watched a screening of “Stranger than Paradise” that informed some of our visual ideas. We acknowledged the Constructivist aesthetic, their use of space and letters. We began to make ideas for posters – fine art posters that have no specific intention other than to acknowledge where we were, in Polymer, who we were, from Chelsea, and the moments we could capture for the time we were there.

Early on, we had visits from Ernest to the studio to see how we were getting on. It was only towards the end of the week that we began to realise how his remark to us, that the business of making is as much a part of the work as the finished pieces, began to make sense. Building your surface for printing, coping with the restrictions of the material and making decisions about how to create and manage visual space is a labour, a skill, that taught us, contemporary fine artists, how to learn the rules in order to bend and, maybe, to break them. But it’s still a physical process. Cutting the paper with the huge and ancient guillotine is physical. Rendering the idea into printable form is physical. Managing the ink, cleaning the press and, essentially, returning the type and material back to base is physical. A discipline that requires knowledge, commitment and attention to the finest of details. With typesetting, there are no short-cuts.

We worked together, advised and inspired by the printmaster Ludja. Co-authoring our work was a natural step. Like the Constructivists, we shared our ideas and more, we had learned from the master. We fly-posted our posters around Polymer and around Chelsea. Connections have been made, between craft and ideas, between Russian and English, between Tallinn and London. Most importantly, the Polymer printshop has taught us how we can learn from the old, to inform the new.

*

Kino night at Polymer
Fiona Flynn and Sasha Kachur

Every Sunday evening in a dark and disused industrial space in Polymer’s ex-Soviet plastics factory building, people from Tallinn gather on a motley collection of old seating to watch a film. Kino is a mix of sofas, hard seats and everything inbetween. It’s a bit dirty, it’s definitely cold – bring your coat. The two-bar heater by the door is inviting, but doesn’t deliver in the winter. Viewers are huddled in coats and scarves, with big paper cups of hot tea. You can buy a cheese toastie for pretty much cost-price at the bar at the back bar, which is optimistically strewn with dark red velvet, suggesting an opulence that the Baltic cold can never deliver. It’s cold, very cold, but the room still smells of industrial graft. Shit, you need layers of clothing if you’re going to be comfy. The vinyl screen takes over the entire front wall – and you know on arrival that the film is the most important thing. After all, Kino night is a central part of Polymer’s philosophy of offering art to a wider public, to engage with bigger ideas about art and life.

Both legitimate and underground free film nights are sprouting up all around the world as technology allows us to side-step the commercial demands of the mainstream film industry. Usually run by artists, free film nights allow us to enjoy some good culture for free, for anyone who turns up, combined with the frisson of an underground event that the establishment does not have a hand on. That a cigarette can be enjoyed during the show probably puts Kino in the deep underground bracket of free film nights and definitely makes the experience a lot more enjoyable.

Polymer introduced Kino nights in 2009. The films, chosen and introduced by one of the Polymer team, are classics, picked for their aesthetic value and contribution to film history. Killian Ochs, a Polymer resident, is presently running Kino, and Killian has chosen films that everyone should see, but won’t find easily at the local rental shop or on the screen of a commercial cinema. Each season takes a topic, from the psychology of crime to the evolution of heroes, myth of the woman and cyberpunk, so that Kino film night regulars are getting, for free, an overview of the most important cinematic creations of the previous century. Killian’s diffident but considered introduction makes you consider the quieter and more subtle aspects of each film’s raison d’etre. You’re thinking before you start watching. In a good way.

Artists pay attention to film. Walter Benjamin said, in Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936) that film, as part of the new, mass, technical means of production, changed the nature of the idea of what a work of art would be – and what a work of art should be. Cinema, a revolutionary art form in the thirties, had at that time no interest in the authenticity of the artwork or the authority of the artist, but it had the capacity to communicate ideas for revolutionary change. Nearly 100 years later, we’re still watching. Why? Film has the capacity to communicate ideas by challenging the political, psychological and social issues within society, expressing the state of our world. Film speaks to everyone, and so film matters, especially the films that have often been forgotten by the mainstream.

Kino night is an open, democratic space, where people are able to enjoy a good portion of cinematic history, together, without the formalities of the queue, the fee and the no-smoking rule. As with much at Polymer, Kino night is a low budget operation, but in escaping the commercial imperatives of a standard night out at the flicks, you get instead a slightly haphazard event where you feel that anything goes and better, anything could happen.

*

Published 15 April 2009 on q-artlondon.com

Art is not hardware

The Government has announced new money to help creatives keep the high street alive. Shouldn’t we be queuing up to get in there? No way, argues Fiona Flynn

Nobody likes boarded up shops. And like every other art student in the land, I’m always on the look-out for places to show the work I’ve made and am excited about.

So why did my heart sink at the announcement by Communities secretary Hazel Blears to help artists and community groups take over vacant shops and keep the high street alive?

The plan is to provide £3million for local councils to provide small grants under £1000 to anyone who can find a creative re-use for empty premises. The gist is that planning rules will be relaxed so an empty shop can be re-used in a way that might previously have gone against local rules for as long as the recession lasts.

Empty shops are certainly a problem. More than 70,000 retail outlets will close this year, apparently, and according to some analysts, retail space has been a tower of capital waiting to keel over. In the last 20 years, 88 million extra square feet of retail space has appeared, but with Internet shopping and out-of-town sheds and shopping centres, the blight of empty shops on our old high streets is worryingly contagious.

Imagine. All that space, just waiting to be used.

But, I insist, art cannot help the high street’s problems and artists will do art no favours by replacing local hardware, carpet and clothes shops with government-sanctioned, short-term gallery spaces en masse. High streets need proper shops that sell proper stuff. And proper shop owners and tenants need lower rates and rents to make it easier for them to trade in difficult circumstances, not the five per cent increase in business rates that was due this month.

Art spaces as alternatives to shops are, I say, no help to struggling retailers who need spending punters back on the high street. Indeed, to suggest that art spaces can act as a counter-balance to retail blight isn’t just mistaken, in terms of helping other shops attract customers. The idea of art as a government policy tool to dampen the effects of the recession and give a cheery outlook on blighted high streets demeans art itself.

Art is important – the best art can be a window looking onto our collective soul or even better, inviting us to step up into a new way of understanding ourselves and our world. And when artists squat old buildings and set up on their own initiative, that’s brilliant. That’s energy, anger and creativity working together.

But more council-encouraged space to show more art will end up, inevitably, being a window looking out onto the mediocre end of the art spectrum. That does favours for no-one – not for the public, the struggling retail businesses or even artists themselves. To put it simply, high streets full of dodgy art where shops should be will just piss everyone off.

You can have too much art. In London, I reckon we already have – with galleries on every corner, much of which is, sadly, forgettable.

Chatting with a boxing coach not long ago about the illustrious history of the Old Kent Road, I mentioned that the Thomas a Becket pub had become an art gallery.

“Not another bleedin’ art gallery,” was his take. He’s right.

http://www.q-artlondon.com/article_archive/art_is_not_hardware

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