Touring the Robinson Institute at Tate Britain

The filmmaker Patrick Keiller has recently joined our department (Geography at the Open University) as a visiting fellow.  As an introduction to the postgrads, a group of us met Patrick at Tate Britain in April for a guided tour of his current exhibition ‘The Robinson Institute’ in the expansive Duveen Gallery. Intended as an adjunct to his latest film, ‘Robinson in Ruins’ the exhibition is a selection of artworks, books and other objects that serve to illustrate themes from the film.

‘Robinson in Ruins’ was developed as an AHRC funded research project, of which the film was one of the outputs.  Patrick worked with a team of researchers, including Professor Emeritus Doreen Massey as part of the AHRC Landscape and Environment project. Patrick was interested in the themes of displacement and mobility in relationship to the English landscape and the film is a complex unpicking of ideas which span history, economics and geography. The film is characterised by Patrick’s static shots of the landscape which are accompanied by the actress Vanessa Redgrave elaborating complex historical, socio-political or economic anecdotes which relate to the landscape in question. For instance, an extended shot of a spider spinning its web is used to illustrate the origins of the current financial crisis.

The content of the exhibition is driven by Keiller’s desire to make connections within the film to its larger cultural influences. It is narrative based and is effectively a progression through the films main themes. Keiller had unprecedented access to the Tate collection and was able to use paintings, drawings and sculpture to illustrate and animate the various themes. His only constraints were the gallery space itself.  In the Duveen gallery, no nails could be used.  The curators got around this constraint by constructing large aluminium structures which display the chosen artworks in sections which span the length of the gallery.  The pieces of work, varying from Turners to large Andres Gursky photographs are broken up into themes which mirror sections from the film. The pairings throw up interesting juxtapositions: Ed Rucha’s ‘Mad Scientist’ of 1975 next to L.S. Lowry’s Industrial Landscape.

The exhibition has a decidedly scholarly emphasis, as excerpts from books including Bruno Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern, Karl Polyani’s The Great Transformation and Jameson’s Seeds of Time. But Keiller’s references are expansive and also include copies of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, the project’s namesake, as well as Tristram Shandy, Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym  and Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Little Pig Robinson.  Copies of the books are displayed in vitrines in the middle of the gallery.

The guided tour was very much like an illustrated tour of the process of filmmaking itself and the film and the exhibition are inextricably linked. To understand the way Patrick’s mind works and the way he finds connections with political and social events in the landscape, take for example his comment when standing in front of the mock up of an oil pipeline marker: ‘from finding this oil pipeline in the countryside, it’s two thoughts away from the Iranian revolution’.

Keiller is a very deep thinker and while the exhibition helps to further illustrate the film, it is best viewed alongside the film. Having watched the film over a year ago, I, myself, could use another viewing.  The film itself is very complex and packed with information and similarly, my experience listening to Patrick explain his choices for the exhibition and how they related to the film was a slight sense of awe at his complexity of thought. But the themes of the exhibition seem particularly relevant to our current economic and environmental concerns even if the connections brought about in the exhibition are not immediately obvious.

The Robinson Institute is on display at Tate Britain until 14 October 2012


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Inspiration and Beuys’ Acorns

Last summer I spent an afternoon in the Surrey home of the artist duo Ackroyd and Harvey, Heather Ackroyd and Dan Harvey. Our wide ranging conversation included discussions about their contributions to climate change art exhibitions, Earth Art of a Changing World  at the Royal Academy and PLATFORM’s C Words at the Arnolfini in Bristol, both held in late 2009. Heather and Dan have long been interested in the intersections between art and science and art and politics and have been vanguards among UK artists concerned with climate change. They are both alums of various Cape Farewell expeditions and Heather is a trustee of Tipping Point.

Dan and Heather infront of their grass wall in their front room

Their piece, Beuys’ Acorns is an ongoing project in which they collected hundreds of acorns, fallen to the ground from the original trees planted starting in 1982 in Kassel for Beuys’ project 7000 Oaks conceived for the art fair Documenta 7.They’ve subsequently planted the acorns and the sapling trees compose the work of art.  The work was shown as part of the Royal Academy Earth: Art of a Changing World exhibition in 2009-10. The exhibition serves as one of my case studies for my PhD research and it was for this reason I discussed the piece with Heather and Dan. In the following excerpt from our conversation, Heather and Dan explain various points of the piece’s genesis, which illuminates the tangled nature of the artistic process itself.

During our discussion, Heather attempted to unpick their original inspiration for Beuys’ acorns which was first shown at the Cube in Manchester as part of the Futuresonic Festival.  Heather says, ‘That piece of work was very much provoked I think from our participation in Tipping Point at Oxford… (although)… it’s quite difficult to disentangle how ideas evolve because they tend to be quite sticky and they tend to attach to a lot of different things that are wandering around in your head’.

Also, as part of the Manchester Festival, Heather had given a talk defending the position that art and politics cannot be separated along with the bigger question ‘can artists make a difference?’ which led them to consider the work of Joseph Beuys. The artists’ encounter with his work is longstanding. Dan recalled seeing a show of his in Venice over twenty years ago.  Heather also had a long acquaintance with Beuys’ work.  She told of dating a student in college who was ‘completely into Beuys’ and ‘he slept for two nights in the old pig pen- he was trying to re-enact a version of Beuys with his coyote.’ So for Heather, her awareness of Beuys comes from a rather ‘formative stage’, but according to her, ‘never really arrived fully feathered into my consciousness until four years ago.’  She goes on to say ‘what is delightful about the artistic process is that it’s never particularly linear, there are things that come out in quite a lateral way’.

This thought leads her to retell the influence of a book which was given to her as a gift from a friend with whom she was staying with in Tuscany.  ‘We had been to stay with some friends in Tuscany and they have a very beautiful olive grove that they’ve regenerated from a disused briar patch and they have lots of oak trees and Kathryn gave me two things as I left. She said ‘here’s some acorns and here’s this book that you have to read by Jean Giono called ‘The Man Who Planted Trees’.’ And on the train journey on the way back, I read the book. I thought it’s such a wonderful fable and it was really quite provocative. But what really seized my imagination was the afterward which was written by Jean Giono’s daughter.  He was commissioned by Readers Digest in America to write a piece about a character who was a local hero.  He was a fiction writer and wrote this fantastic story, sent it off to Readers Digest who said, fantastic, we really enjoy it. Readers Digest were following through all the various facts because I think every other author had given a real story and they came back to him and said ‘I can’t find any account of this guy’, and he said ‘well, you won’t, he doesn’t exist, he’s a figment of my imagination’. And they were really offended, they said ‘well what are you doing, you know you can’t do that.’ He said ‘I’m a writer, I write’. And they said they wanted it to be somebody real. Apparently it was a family joke and they all laughed mightily hard about it over their petit dejeuner in the morning. So he basically had this story and it didn’t see the light of day until he was approached by a German publishing house who said we’d like to publish some of your work, and he thought well I’ll give them this story, so he sent them this story and they published it. That was in the seventies and apparently it just caught off like wildfire and when I read that, in this little book. This is Jean Giono’s daughter, recounting this, it clicked. I thought, of course, that inspired Joseph Beuys’ 7000 Oaks. It just sort of became absolutely clear and at that point I said, ‘we’ve got to go and collect the acorns. We have to go and collect his acorns’. And that’s how it came about. We did more research into Joseph Beuys and his involvement in the German Green Party and his involvement just in terms of the way he spoke about the environment. So that was a real kind of epiphany, through reading that. So actually the divining moment came through a piece of literature. It’s fantastic. In fact that book has probably led to a huge amount of trees being planted worldwide. People turn around and say art doesn’t make a difference, and I say one hundred percent wrong, art can make a huge difference.’

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What is it that art could do for the environment?

The following is a report on the Green Alliance’s summer debate about the arts and the environment originally published on the Ashdenizen blog.

For their summer reception, the environmental think tank Green Alliance hosted an evening of opera and debate at the Royal Opera House. In conjunction with The Opera Group, the evening began with a fifteen minute excerpt of Luke Bedford‘s new opera Seven Angels, is inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost and has environmental degradation as its theme.

Following the opera taster, there was a panel discussion entitled ‘What have the arts ever done for the environment? The panel included a mix of representatives from the worlds of policy, the arts and academia. It was chaired by Julie’s Bicycle’s Alison Tickell, and panellists included: The Southbank Centre artistic director, Jude Kelly, RSA chief executive Matthew Taylor, Arcola Theatre executive director Ben Todd, the sculptor Peter Randall-Page and David Frame, fellow of Oxford University. In her introduction, Tickell indicated that the Seven Angels was one among a crop of new work being made by British artists that addressed nature or the environment among those artists she listed were Antony Gormley, Ian McEwan, Jay Griffiths.

One of the main themes of the evening was an attempt in the discussion to answer the general question of what it is that art can do for the environment. It was generally agreed that one of the strengths of art was that it was well equipped to deal with the complexities that many environmental issues such as climate change raise. Matthew Taylor saying that art should be one of the many interventions required to tackle climate change.

One of the most eloquent responses came from the scholar, David Frame, who highlighted art’s ability to deal with complexity and tension. He felt that as climate change and environmental problems are so complex in nature, with for instance climate change knowledge dispersed amongst many specialists without a graspable whole. He said that the arts community has ‘a unique ability to convey complexity, delicacy, and beauty and among the things you can do is you don’t need to simplify…’

He pointed to the deficits in mediums such as Twitter or the 1,000 word Op Ed piece and contrasted this with the length of a novel or a film where he said ‘the possibilities for the ideas you can upload to people is phenomenal.’ This type of medium he said was also more able to cope with uncertainties. ‘You leave interpretation open which isn’t considered acceptable in other forms and I think that in doing so you can bring out tensions between these parallel values’.

Changing values seemed to be one of the key roles identified for art that emerged from the discussion. Alison said she has observed what she describes as a ‘palpable’ shift in values taking place rapidly and for her ‘the arts do have a role to play in reflecting and shaping and engaging with those values.’ While Matthew didn’t agree with Alison the extent to which values have already changed in the positive direction Alison described. In fact, he warned that during this current time of disturbance there is a clear dissatisfaction with current values but which way public opinion would turn was not decided. He said the dissatisfaction could lead in two ways, and not necessarily in a progressive direction he lamented that ‘it can go in a dangerous direction as well.’

The question of how politics should be addressed raised differing opinions. Jude Kelly began by announcing she ‘didn’t mind a bit of bad art’ provided that art had some sort of message. She went on to say, ‘I don’t think it’s a hanging offence to produce a message’ However if it’s not particularly interesting it might ‘bore me after awhile’. Further, ‘I don’t mind artists having a go. I really dislike the idea that artists shouldn’t be allowed to take centre stage to comment on things.

While Peter conceded that there was ‘nothing wrong with political art’, for him it was less the politics which art was best equipped to address. He was more of the mind that art’s quality was that it didn’t have a direct ‘purpose’ that it was its intrinsic values alone that made art great. He believes that ‘arts are not well placed to (do) issue based lobbying’ contrasting what he finds often to be the pragmatism of the environmental movement with the arts ability to nourish imagination and the spirit in the way the natural world does. ‘I think the role that I feel for the arts in environmentalism is that it… reminds us that we’re not all bad. If we only feel negative it’s impossible for us to move forward and remove this exclusively pragmatic approach to looking after the world.’

Matthew wanted to introduce a third way of thinking about the issue agreeing that art shouldn’t attempt to kick us around the head. However, he felt art could ‘challenge people to live differently and value things in slightly different ways.’ Providing a vision of how ‘a different, deeper kind of understanding about what makes life worth living and what it is society wants to be.’ This task he felt art was ‘incredibly well suited’. That is, ‘art is there to explicitly to get you to think about what the good life is.’ He concluded this thought saying ‘art shouldn’t be ashamed to say that art is here to help you rethink what our values are and I don’t think that requires you to revert to a kind of crude placard waving.’

In addition to the discussion about art and politics, the panel also touched on the controversial issue of artists lifestyles and the high carbon footprint of the arts. The general attitude on the panel was that this shouldn’t be paid as much attention as it has been. Jude Kelly saying that this arts requires face-to-face interactions and not allowing artists to fly amounts to a cultural boycott. But Matthew Taylor thought artists should be accountable, and if they want to have influence on others they have to take account of their own actions.
Increased collaboration amongst artists was encouraged, suggesting that the problem of the environment is one that artists should attempt to do together. Arts organisations such as Cape Farewell and Tipping Point were highlighted as doing exceptional work, helping to inform artists of climate change and bringing the topic to their consciousness.

It was edifying to see an organisation such as the Green Alliance, who normally deals with more policy related issues such as building a sustainable economy, investigating climate and energy futures, designing out waste and political leadership to host a conversation with the arts community. A cursory glance over badges of audience members saw representatives from business and policy, including the Department for Energy and Climate Change and The Environment Agency, so the wider these issues can be encountered and discussed the better. It’s time the arts community made it’s voice heard in the conversation about climate change. Peter concluded well, stating that it is artists who need to create metaphors and narratives which make it possible to go into the future.

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Craftsmanship in Chicago

On a brisk March afternoon as I was returning from Chicago’s MCA I found myself meandering down Oak Street, a small boutique filled thoroughfare which runs adjacent to Michigan Ave.  It was the last place I expected to find an art exhibition, well an exhibition of sorts.  As I passed one of the empty store fronts I was greeted by a doorman who inquired whether I would like to see an exhibition.  I was intrigued.  Quickly, I was ushered inside a disused shop floor.  I ascended a curving staircase to the first floor where I was met with groupings of various craftspeople clustered in colourful displays of scarves, handbags, watches and even saddles.  The exhibition was Hermes’ Festival des Metiers: A rendez-vous with Hermes craftsmen.  The majority of the craftspeople had flown in from Paris, and some from New York and were demonstrating the skill required in the creation of Hermes plethora of luxury goods.

I spoke with a watch craftsman who had spent 10 years with Hermes and he felt working for Hermes represented the pinnacle of quality in the watchmaking field and he exuded pride in his job.  There was a scarf maker demonstrating the scarf screen painting process, dressed in a white lab coat.  The scarves’ intricate patterns are achieved by multiple printings and it is an art to have the pattern aligned exactly to achieve the final design.  As I watched, the printing frame was misaligned, by perhaps a few millimetres, but as a consequence he said the entire scarf would have to be discarded.

Richard Sennett, in his book The Craftsman points out that this quest, the quality-driven nature of the pursuit, is what distinguishes the craftsman from the everyday worker.  Not only did I see pride in their work on display by these craftspeople expressed pure joy.  Nadine, the woman whose job it was to transfer the scarves patterns onto the screens, and was characteristic of all the craftspeople at the exhibition, spoke enthusiastically about the process exuding enthusiasm and pleasure in the work she does.

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Mardis Gras Adventures 2011

My friend and host Benjamin Morris wrote about my trip to visit him in his adopted city of New Orleans for Mardis Gras 2011 for the online magazine Rumpus. He did so in a far more eloquent way that I could ever hope to do.  Not only being a top notch writer, Ben is also the consumate host and king of hospitality.

Throw Me Something, Mister: Mardi Gras Dispatch #3

Recurring dispatches from Benjamin Morris covering New Orleans Mardi Gras, 2011:

My first set of beads including all 3 colours: green, gold and purple

“I thought I’d be happy with just one!” Kellie says, her slender frame weighed down under two full pounds of beads. Around her neck they gleam in a perfect rainbow: red, purple, blue, green, pink, gold, and even white. “What happened to me?”

Answering the question is the easy part. Figuring out what to do about that answer, however, is a different matter. We’re in the middle of the Ancient Druids parade, early Wednesday evening, having raced down St Charles at Napoleon where we caught it the first time it passed, to St Charles at Louisiana where we caught back up with the head. We’re slightly out of breath—I’ve just finished a soccer match (2-2, for the record), and Kellie’s been eating beignets. She’s only got 36 hours in New Orleans, and we’re making every last one of them count.

If the parade is any indication, it’s been a successful trip: within the first five minutes the Archdruid himself, whose identity forever remains a secret, has given her a silver doubloon, and by her own account she’s been pelted in the face with her first-ever pair of beads. Half a dozen floats pass by and soon we’re both laden down with goods—whoever out there in Carnival-land accuses the Druids of penny-pinching their throws must be standing in a different zip code. At one point the parade backs up and the floats stand stock-still; eager revelers rush the side of the nearest float (the football float, in our case, sporting a certain local quarterback in papier-mâché) and the riders greet every outstretched hand with some kind of token.

Mardi Gras Art Bus

The kids, of course, get the best throws; the signature acorn-painted plush footballs are tossed to loud acclaim, and the boys and girls who catch them hold their prizes aloft like trophies. Not so easy for us; after we’ve run back up to the head of the parade and crossed St Charles to the other side, a masked rider emerges from the side of the upcoming float. He’s holding a football, arm cocked, ready to throw. We’re the next in line. Then he sees us, looks me square in the (unmasked) eye, and yells, “You’re too old!” A girl half my height muscles past me and plucks the ball from his hands like a defensive end.

The show goes on: dancers march past—the Majorettes from John Ehret High School in Marrero, and the famed Muff-a-lottas (“All You Can Eat”) all-female step troupe from across New Orleans, strutting their stuff between the musicians’ floats and the krewes. The Druids are accompanied tonight by horseback riders, also tossing beads and doubloons and roses, but a few of the horses get spooked from time to time, shying left and right as they march. One near St Charles and Louisiana jumps a full two meters out of line; a father standing next to us instinctively pulls his kids back onto the sidewalk. “It’s their eyes,” he quickly explains, as the rider calms the wary beast back down. “They can’t see you when you’re so close.” His children nod sagely—then return to the fray.

The same is true of many of the human; as the US Navy rolls past I race up to the side of the float, a mock USS Constitution. The offers in full dress uniform—no masks—are happily tossing beads into the crowd from up on high. “My dad was in Vietnam!” I yell up to them, jogging alongside the vessel. “Something for an old Lieutenant Commander?” My cries go unheard—they’re just too high up, and their brass band accompaniment upon the poop deck is just too loud—but an officer smiles and drops some beads onto my head. (This is tonight’s lesson: to get the best throws, if you don’t have a kid, bring two things: eye contact and a reason. With the Navy float I had one but not the other; with the Coast Guard float I luckily had both—their float was right at eye level. Dad, you’re now the proud owner of a monkey stuffed inside a plush banana. Semper paratus!)

After the second wave, we feel full of beads and throws—cups, medallions, Kellie’s sweet St Patrick’s Day shamrock necklace—but empty of stomach, so we duck into the bar where I work. The place is staffed up, everyone switching shifts—the cook on the door, the dishwasher as barback, the barback as bartender—and the place is rocking. But Kellie didn’t come to see the bar, so after we’re fed and watered we slip downtown, down into the darkness, down into the glare of Bourbon Street.

Bourbon Street

Had Dante lived to see it he would have written an extra bolgia just for this: not three blocks in and already people are scrambling on the pavement for loose beads, even though they’re wearing dozens around their neck. Men and women of every age, shape, hue and size prowl the blocks between St Peter and Canal, holding Huge Ass Beers and Hand Grenades, everything the cameras say is true. Where a balcony is full a pack of tourists form a circle underneath it, hooting and cheering and looking altogether thrilled at their good fortune: to be here, in this town, on this night, with these fine revelers around them. As we enter the neon jungle, parting shoulders to weave through the crowd, Kellie yells above the din: “It’s like America! As if Disney had designed it.”

She’s closer to the mark than she knows—Disney has designed the Quarter, but in Anaheim, and in so doing made a critical mistake: it drew the streets to curve. This design flaw would be unremarkable except that for its one brief cameo in the no-hilarity-barred electoral contest in 2006, when it exposed a mayoral candidate for using a photo of the Disneyfied Quarter as her campaign photo. Needless to say, the majority of her votes came from her family, Nagin was re-elected, and the rest, they say, is history. But what the ‘real’ Quarter is up to us: so for a moment of calm amid the storm we step into Galatoire’s, which is just that minute closing. The front-of-house manager graciously invites us to have a look at the historic dining room, and on the production of my own restaurant affiliation, and Kellie’s last name—his own—we’re soon fast friends. Disney may lay claim to the ‘small world’ idea, but they sure as hell got it from us.


The house is closing, though—Babylon, which will be rolling the following night, has just finished dinner upstairs—so after a quick word of thanks we’re back on the street. We slip briefly inside the Carousel Bar at the Monteleone, another landmark, before heading back to Frenchmen, where we’re parked, and calling it a night.

There’s a certain way of looking at a city that only comes from swift dislocation from it. On the drive back home, we take the interstate, and as we pull onto the elevated stretch the skyline of the Crescent City leaps into view: the sight is breathtaking, a salve for us both, as we run both through and above the sights that we have seen. In a few hours Kellie will be on a plane back up north, but not before she’s packed her bags with beads and cups and cans of coffee laced with chicory. Everyone finds their own New Orleans when they visit—regardless of when they do—and leaves part of themselves behind to find again the next time. She’ll be back, we both know it, and she’ll find the same part she left behind when she does: the slender strands of beads she gave me, dangling from the mirror of my car.

This post was originally published on the Rumpus website: I highly recommend you read the entire series of Ben’s  six dispatches on Rumpus. You can also check out more of Ben’s writing on his website:

Ben on the steps of his local library


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A night on the couch at the Barbican

Last Thursday, I traded my usual Milton Keynes Gallery Scratch night activities for an evening ‘On the Couch’ at the Barbican Surreal House exhibition.  I’ve always had a lot of time for Surrealism.  The first piece of art work to really transfix me was a painting by Rene Magritte which I remember sitting and staring at for a long time in a gallery in Sydney as a teenager.  I therefore look forward to any exhibition on surrealism with particular interest.

There were two events I attended at the Barbican Thursday night on the topic of Freud and Surrealism.  The first was a talk by Independent curator James Putnam who has curated a number of exhibitions with contemporary artists at the Freud Museum in Hampstead, including exhibits with Sophie Calle, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw.  There was then an hour break to look through the exhibition.  Even an hour seemed a bit rushed for me to see the entire exhibition.  The ‘hook’ with this particular exhibition is the idea of the ‘house’, and the house as a metaphor in psychoanalysis for the mind.  There is a particularly impressive piano installation entitled Concert for Anarchy by Rebecca Horn which the exhibition guide describes as being ‘reminiscent of an airborne castle and is principal among the phantoms of the house.’ This had an interesting relevance for me considering a recent performance I attended at MKGallery staged by their current artist Giorgio Sadotti where the French whip cracker Fanny Tourette attacked a grand piano in the Middle Gallery.  I’m not quite sure what to make of these two different uses of pianos, but both certainly left an impression.

The main performance that evening was by recent Booker long listed novelist Tom McCarthy’s avant-garde performance group the International Necronautical Society (INS).  The group is described as creating ‘vehicles for interventions in the space of art, fiction, philosophy and media’ and create ‘manifestos, proclamations, reports, broadcasts, hearings, inspectorates, departments, committees and sub-committees.’  The evening’s performance was a hearing by the INS commission on Crypts: Architecture, Neurosis and Death.  Its panel included Tom McCarthy, the INS General Secretary, and two external assessors, novelist Chloe Aridjis and scholar Richard Martin.  They ‘heard testimony’ from architect Patrick Lynch and psychoanalyst Darian Leader.

What proceeded was essentially a panel discussion: two presentations by the architect and psychoanalyst giving evidence and then questioned by the panellists.  Taking the standard form of a panel discussion, the INS transformed this well known form into a performance.  But I struggle to see what the artifice of applying the interrogation tactics, or evidence gathering added to this particular talk.  To be fair, the venue didn’t help to create the ambience of a serious commission gathering evidence.  Cramped into the foyer of the exhibition, the discussion was often interrupted by crowds gathering outside the gallery having drinks, laughing and talking loudly.  The two hearing monitors, dressed in navy suits, severe hair styles and red lipstick gave the air of gravity attendant to the proceedings.  But by conducting an interrogation, the role of the audience became slightly unclear.  Were we to be silent observers? Was this the type of commission which under the circumstances created by their artifice would normally be done behind closed doors? By taking on this form, the audience wasn’t encouraged to participate or ask questions at the end. Rather, the performance/interrogation ended and Tom said, ‘well we can all now go get a drink.’

I liked the idea of playing with the form of the panel discussion.  It made it unique and memorable.  Perhaps taken with the INS’s other activities this particular commission’s performance would become more clear. But, it did make me question the relationship between panellists and audience members in panel discussions. I’ve concluded that while applying these different techniques to make the discussion into more of a performance, this can add interest for the audience members. However, if it’s not well explained it can actually distance audience members from the panellists and the proceedings. The audience likes to feel it has a stake in what’s going on, and be allowed to share their views.  If they’re not invited to participate then the unique dynamics of panellists and audience members learning and sharing with one another is lost.


Tom McCarthy: ‘To ignore the avant-garde is akin to ignoring Darwin (Guardian)

Welcome to the mad house: A monument to the world of the surreal (Independent)

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Asleep at the wheel

‘We are culturally asleep at the wheel’ Janek Schaefer

Inside car
View from the inside of a car

The inaugural International Festival in Milton Keynes is a 10 day festival bringing international artists to Milton Keynes.  Having recently relocated to the city of cars and roundabouts, I was interested to be invited along to the opening of the festival’s artist in residence Janek Schaefer’s installation ‘Asleep at the Wheel’ on Thursday  15 July.  The installation is housed in a disused Sainsbury’s store in the Milton Keynes Food Centre.  It is a unique response to the strange new city of Milton Keynes.

There are three elements to the installation.  The cars themselves which are located at the far end of the store, the ‘alternate route’ library and the services, the former cigarette dispensary offers free tea and coffee and sells other fair-trade refreshments.


10:10 Services

All of the store’s windows have been blackened, so there is nothing in particular to indicate the installation inside.  Using the entirety of  the large abandoned shop floor, Schaefer has created a virtual three lane highway where he has positioned ten deserted cars.  Inside the cars audio systems have been programmed with Schaefer’s blend of interviews, radio programmes and clips from documentaries and films such as ‘The Story of Stuff’ and ‘The Age of Stupid’.  If you are to start at the last car and work your way to the front, a type of story begins to emerge.  It’s a story about the condition of consumer driven oil and car dependent society and its fate.  Schaefer is careful to consider the entire story, he doesn’t merely bemoan the consumer society without considering alternatives.  The alternatives offered are positive and considered, and include work from Transition Towns and the 10:10 initiative.


Poster outside the store

It’s a strange prospect to enter the abandoned cars in order to listen to the sound pieces.  You realise that cars are very personal spaces, and it’s astonishing how the cars all have different smells, particular car smells developed from years of use by their various owners.  In fact some of the comments in the guest book noted the strange smell of the cars. The car wind shields have been treated so that there is an effect which looks like water.  It’s difficult to see out of the cars, as though you were stuck in a rainstorm.  All of the cars are parked with their hazard lights on, leaving you wondering where are the drivers? What happened to them, why did they abandon their cars? Schaefer incorporates the sound of traffic and rain into the mix of atmospheric music and audio clips mixed with the static that comes from tuning a radio.

The cars
Three lanes of cars

The first car features a clip from the film ‘The Age of Stupid’ with the voice of Pete Postlethwaite bemoaning  ‘we could’ve saved ourselves’ and it is this initial lament that sets the scene for Schaefer’s narrative.   Messages have been printed onto the rear view mirrors and have statements such as: ‘Does our future have a future’, ‘None of us are as smart as all of us’, ‘Taking a fresh look at the world, good lives don’t need to cost the earth, indeed they offer our best hope of saving it’, ‘Every action creates ripples of change personal action is meaningful even if no one has heard about it’, ‘The world does not have to be this way, we can change it’, ‘A good life is a conscious life, one lived with awareness.’

rear view mirror

Rear-view mirror

Having attended the exhibition the first night without listening to the sound works in the cars and then returning later to listen, Schafer’s talent as a sound artist is clear.  The work’s depth and power is located in the audio clips in the cars.  It enriches and layers the work in a way that the assemblage of cars in space and the other elements can’t do alone.  These other elements lend to the atmosphere of the sonic piece itself.  The piece is successful because these two elements really work in parallel.  The cars, lighting and location add to the ambience and strangeness of the piece which is enhanced once you begin to interact physically with the cars.

The use of the audio clips, staggered between the cars allows Schafer to build a distinct narrative about our current consumer/oil based/ car centred society, the problems and unsustainability of this lifestyle and offer alternatives to it.  This is enhanced by the visceral, emotive power of the cars themselves.  Sitting in cars once owned and driven, with the associated banal and familiar feel, one is haunted by their own memories of car culture and the role of cars in their own life.

By virtue of these cars being so familiar, we are implicated, reminded of our own role as participants in this society.  Fortunately, Schafer doesn’t seek to merely confront us with the problem.  Solutions are offered in the informational videos and library of books about sustainable living and the information on the 10:10 programme.  This part of the installation is carefully thought out and well researched.  This completes the story suggesting ways we can improve our lives, make changes,  and positively introduce sustainable behaviour into our lives.

library table

Alternative routes library

This installation will be open until Sunday 25 July.  If you are unable to visit the installation yourself, information and resources from the exhibit are available on Janek’ s website:

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Filed under Climate Change, Installation Art, Milton Keynes IF, Sustainability, Transition Towns