I have reblogged ‘Wall, i’ onto the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe, because it was developed through, and from many of our collective discussions, raised concerns, and learning experiences from our previous exhibitions
Precursor: I developed ‘Wall, i’ as a film intended for exhibitions, and independent screenings, but was encouraged to make it accessible online. The work covers a series of complex contemporary issues, so whilst the film is available to share, I just politely ask people not to share clips of it out of context, as, out of context it may unjustly offend (even in our are of stimulation-saturation!), So, please, share with consideration 🙂
‘Wall, i’, is a young male who is born into a world that tells him he can be whoever he wants to be, that the ‘old world’ of duty, discipline, division and drudgery has gone. Yet the promise doesn’t turn out quite how it was anticipated. In a new world of new technologies and self-help slogans, the past returns with anger, and ‘Wall, i’ becomes trapped inside himself. Unable to connect, he descends into a spiral of…
Admittedly, this is actually a position statement I have just written as I (John Ledger) wrap up my MA Fine Art at the University of Leeds. But at a time when other members of the collective are either also finishing big academic commitments, or just beginning them, I realised that the position statement I have written for the course is totally applicable to how I see my position, and my use, within the collective.
Wall, i – An autoethnography on the ‘cult of self-belief’, and the desire for an exit.
The greatest revelatory outcome from the undertaking of this Masters course has been, to paraphrase Spinoza, an awareness that it isn’t so much a case of what it is possible for my mind to achieve, but a case of what my body can do.
What has a recognition of my past of obsessive eating and exercise disorders, an inability to emotionally connect with others, and a trail of alcohol-enabled regrets got to do with an art practice? Well, kind of everything…
I’ve never known what the hell to do with my body. The fact that I have limbs, a stomach that inflates when I eat or drink, and a face with a mouth that can speak, has been both a cause of embarrassment because others can see them, and anxiety in that I’m expected to do something with them, supposed to employ this body in a social field of forces which are far more powerful than myself. Nonetheless, it would be expected for me to be a recognisable self-actualised adult by the time of reaching 30.
But I fell into being an artist – a side-step from the confrontation in self-actualising. Art became a vessel loaded with a catatonic euphoria in speaking ‘fuck you’s’ to the anxiety-generating command to be such a validated body.
Nonetheless, once art became my ‘skill’, I’d have to self-actualise through it. Yet this didn’t quite happen. I always avoided this confrontation and harboured a sense of doubt over not being a ‘proper’ artist. This is because in art’s professional guise of networking, teaching, business-approaches, I just found the same thing I was trying to escape – the same anxiety. In hindsight I recognise that my ‘intricate dystopian landscape murals’ were not the left wing statements even I came to think they were, but a catatonic euphoria in the freedom to momentarily nihilate the ‘magical voluntarism’ imprinted onto the body in a ‘cult of self-belief’ capitalism.
Yet I wouldn’t be writing this if I thought that this was a satisfactory message to not only others, but to myself.
‘Millennials’ are routinely labelled self-centred; yet in a post-industrial setting, where a sense of duty to the production line is no longer directly impressed on the body, a culture based around individual fulfilment didn’t just raise us, I’d argue it suffocated us. I use the ‘cult of self-belief’ to describe this era as one where at least on the level of cultural stories, the social, extra-personal has given way to a command to constantly believe in our own abilities. Yet what has at one level been a promise of enabling self-care and self-interest, is also experienced as a message that our right to ‘self love’ is conditional upon becoming recognised as a success. self-centeredness becomes suffocating because of the limited space to be anything else.
Yet, conversely, what I’ve now come to realise, within our incredibly socially and politically divided moment, is that I’ve had to retreat from the idea that I should make bold political statements, to look back at myself, my experiences, my mistakes, not only for personal development, but because I believed this story would be a more genuine response to our current crises.
Professor in contemporary performance Dierdre Heddon opposes what she sees as a conventional idea that works that ‘perform the self’ are ‘”merely” narcissistic, solipsistic, egotistical’, suggesting, rather, that ‘the majority of performers who play themselves display an astute self-consciousness’. Adding that ‘the self in performance is no easy subject’, Heddon gives a highly adequate reason as to why my year-long film project ‘Wall, i’ wasn’t merely some self-indulgent endeavour, but the most mature response I could find to negotiate such a partisan techno-framework through which we currently mostly communicate.
Equally ‘Wall, i’ is inspired by the Youtube phenomenon ‘Contrapoints’. Self-identifying transsexual Natalie Wynn, almost performs philosophy by playing herself, her many selves, which, unsurprisingly seems to be a major reason she is attacked by both left and right, accused of self-indulgence. Yet through performing herself she reaches out to many who others can only see as enemies.
Through performing me (in this case the actor Ben Crawford plays a version of a self, collated from my personal and pier experiences, to expand into a hypothetical self) I have tried facing up to things, no longer avoiding the icy validations I long feared. It’s not the only reason I employed what I’d call a ‘pop-form’ to this project, but it is a way of seeking an answer to the dilemma of who the imaginary audience is in my mind whenever I conceive of an idea; am I wanting recognition from the curator, a political ‘side’ or the community of accumulated pub-conversations that still continue in my thoughts? With a pop song structure, ‘Wall, i’ tentatively tries to prompt such validation.
I admit to a weakness as a practising artist: I don’t play with form, learn haptically; a life-methodology I have observed as connecting to a more loving engagement with life. My highly conceptual all-consuming projects never behold their promised magic key to open up my fully self-actualised life. I recognise the difficulty in knowing how to act in the way I make – it often pains me for I can see a great handicap towards meaningful being.
Yet, as much as I recognise my rigid methodology as contributing to the feeling of life passing me by, we must admit the arts themselves are at the whim of a neoliberal superego injunction to be constantly ready to respond to new challenges: artists are also part of the ‘‘precariat’’. The dominant story of the past 30 years to ‘live your life’, is often indistinguishable from contemporary capitalism’s command to never miss a chance the market throws our way, making it easy to mistake what is good for capitalism for what is good for us (which also applies to many artist opportunities).
Undertaking this course has brought me many realisations for which the term ‘practice’ remains inefficient – creating an idea that the artist can separate themselves from the how they make their work. I hope it’s clear that whether by my own doing, or due to cultural conditions, I am dealing with both the art of life as much as the life of art in for which there is no easy answers, and no obvious successful outcome. Yet, in times where the near future promises little good fortune, ‘onwards and upwards’ remains the only reasonable practical philosophy.
On 31st August, The Retro Bar undertook a day-long residency with Schule Wampe, a subgroup of Midlands-based collective Kuhle Wampe. This was part of their 2019 programme to facilitate links between between exisiting groups and resources within Nottingham and beyond.
RB’s objectives for this exchange were:
To kickstart a new period of activity during a time of structural change within the collective
To make sense of RB’s social, professional and creative purposes and direct this energy towards collective production
To come to a better understanding of our relationship to The Institute™ and our functional purpose within an increasingly austere and atomised arts ecology
The two collectives took part in a problem-solving card game designed by Bek. This helped us to identify our discontents with the current gallery model, the biggest of which being its beaurocracy and obsessive professionalisation of the artist figure. Having determinded some of the structural issues to confront, we isolated several imperatives to act on…
…the need for The Retro Bar to remain artist-led but never artist-only; the skills diversity amongst our membership means we have a healthy chorus of voices and sets us apart from other organisations.
…a concern for the waning relevence of contemporary visual artists in the rapidly networked visual culture of late capitalism in which distributed media like podcasts, video streaming and image posting are increasingly becoming the main site of cultural reproduction. This prompted discussion on possibly shifting focus away from location-based exhibiting and towards the production of artefacts such as video and books which could have a longer “shelf life” and reach a greater audience.
…the idea of a group activity which is social, creative and experimental; a low cost, recreational para-artistic event- a form of jam session- which might lead us down new paths of enquiry.
…our shared appreciation for figures from online spheres like ContraPoints, who has a particular prowess for inhabiting contradicatory personas and exploring tensions between cultural blocs. This form of educational artefact neatly confronts issues of division and alienation, a goal we share as a collective. This combined with point #3 led us to…
… the decision to organise roleplaying sessions in which we “wargame” possible futures, alternative presents and spectral pasts, with a cast of semi/fictional characters. This will initially take the form of a private RPG (system to be decided), with the main focus being to have fun, test new ideas and generate large quantities of research and creative detritus.
This blog page has become far less frequented, and seems to represent a different stage in my (artistic/philosophical) life – a time when I wasn’t so bogged down in the affect of words, not only on others but on how they rebounded onto me. I retain deep core ideals, yet also a muscle memory of mildly traumatic online exchanges, and an awareness that the legacy is arguably our deeply divided, sectarian world – a dividedness few anticipated with the advent of mass internet use.
Equally, part of this change has been a slight sideway shift in the way I make work. Indeed I’ve often recently found myself considering whether ‘making’ is the right thing to do at all, being that the ‘artist’ self-hood I developed in conjunction with coming of age in a neoliberal ‘cult of self-belief’ has often been problematic to say the least.
Members of The Retro Bar, John Ledger, Bek Whitlam and Sam Read will be in Nottinham for a collective microresidency on 31st Aug with Kuhle Wampe, a Midlands-based artist collective who have currently taken over the Zebrarium project space at Nottingham Contemporary.
Contact us if you fancy an art date in Nottingham/studio visit from The Retro Bar Saturday afternoon as we discuss strategies for DIY organisation and collective production.
The Public Secret is by far the largest project undertaken by the collective to date. Quite literally: this disused warehouse is more expansive than many of the nearby major established galleries. The work that culminated in our last show ‘Will The Last Person to Leave The 20th Century Please Turn Out The Lights?’ was of a very different nature: it was largely an exorcism of the persistence of 20th century culture, through a reflection on events in 2017 that seemed to suggest an ending to what the blog Flip Chart Fairy Tales called ‘the long 1990’s’. If the sour-turning culture and ethos of the 1990’s still seemed to grip the first 2 decades of the 20th century, then it was merely a locatable iceberg tip for a prevailing sense that we were being dominated by spectres of the whole of Modern Western culture, which were encasing us in lives unfit for 21st century demands.
This show, in an abandoned pub in the unrealised landscape of West Yorkshire (where nothing – urban, suburban, rural, new or old – seems quite at ease) was apt to leave the ‘what next’ question blank. This was, after all, The Retro Bar at the End of the Universe; we felt so at home there, we could have quite easily sank into this self-made 20th century mausoleum and remained there forever.
For this reason it was an emotionally easy ride putting this project on. We knew the next step would be much harder, because we had to now ask much bigger questions: what sort of world do we actually want to live in? Do we want to be involved in this making? With the size of the task at hand, even a little emotional investment in it can have exhaustive consequences, but what other option was there? We could slowly choke to death on ever more distant and broken reprisals of TLC and SWV records or try to fill in that blank…
Since July 2017, the geopolitical landscape has become more grave; severe ecological disruption has clearly shown signs of coming home to roost, and the live exorcism of the toxicities hidden in Western Culture has intensified in movements such as the MeToo Campaign.
However, one issue seemed to link all of these up; mental health. But we weren’t just talking about mental health from the perspective of the rise of depression and behavioural disorders in industrialised nations, we were beginning to suggest that the entire meshing of contemporary life from top to bottom may not only the product of an unfolding of historically based trauma; but the radically new injection of ‘always on’ communicative devices into pockets of people in an already advanced consumer capitalist culture, is seemingly dredging all traumas up to the surface at a pace our current institutions cannot reckon with.
Interventive measures, of sorts, seemed necessary…
The Retro Bar at the End of the Universe somehow found its body and organs from a rabble of preoccupations, and blunt utopian tools, within accommodating, non-judgemental conversational space.
As much as we are knee-deep in critical understanding of our present moment we are not at home in the arena of full-frontal critique. As much as we more or less agree that the current arrangement of social and political order is obsolete, we are never in unison over a singular remedy. Indeed, since the European Referendum here in the UK, I (John Ledger) as an acting member have felt internally split; not between the clumsy binaries of Remain and Leave, but in how to actively deconstructive the messy torn fabric of a contemporary place like the United Kingdom, with least possible pain.
And so in June of this year, we embarked on The General Election of Governing Emotions (‘#GE18’). A ‘what if’ moment that tried to be somewhere between fictional and actual, #GE18 at its core was trying to circumvent the deep divisions fragmenting our shared experiences of the contemporary, in order to ask people how they would ideally like to feel and how they would like their society to feel. The chosen method of voting tried to take this beyond the realm of mere day dreams and place it in the environment of an actual voting station, which, for the majority of us, the only place we get to participate (even if tentatively) in democracy.
The Public Secret, Whitehall Road Industrial Estate, Leeds
The Public Secret, as a concept for a project, largely took its que from The Institute For Precarious Consciousness Raising’s article on the Plan C website. From here we understand the public secret to be “something that everyone knows, but nobody admits, or talks about”. And “as long as the dominant affect is a public secret, it remains effective, and strategies against it will not emerge”. And for as long as strategies do not emerge “public secrets are typically personalised”, meaning people feel personal shame and guilt for problems that they didn’t cause; big, external problems are internalized.
In keeping with #GE18, it was important that our project aimed to involve others as much as possible. Shared doubt about whether anybody would attend an event 3 miles south-west of central Leeds in the unfashionable West Yorkshire hinterlands, would have to be countered by a wagering on unexpected outcomes for the project’s intent to survive.
The distance, and the ways for engaging people were points of intense debate. Many of us work in galleries with much focus on family participation. So we already had ample experience and opinions on the difficulty of up-keeping a fine line between allowing people to participate in something meaningful and turning a space designed for critical thought into an extended playground (and, cuttingly, an extension of weekend retail therapy).
How could we make a space that was both welcoming to all, but opens us to have discussions about politics and ethics in such a divisive and fraught period?
Designated Empath T-shirts
Designated Empath T-shirts
Collective member Ben Parker, with one eye on retraining as a counsellor, suggested that one of the main problems we have with listening and understanding in our culture is due to the centrality of Ego in much conversation as opposed to Empathy. My corresponding thoughts were that Ego in conversation is largely an effect of the scarcity model, which certainly doesn’t just exist as the mediator of trade, but stretches into heart of every aspect of our lives; we don’t compete in either the job market or opinionated debate out of playfulness and sheer joy, we compete because intrinsically we understand that how we fare impacts on our social standing, which in turn impacts on our life standing/life chances.
We surmised that what is often so exhausting about customer-facing job roles is that this role places the employer in perpetual empath-mode to face the tapestry of frustrations and nuances of a public free to act out their perpetual states of mild-status panic. Most people don’t naturally gravitate towards positions of ego-dominance, but it seems that certain social conditions make it more important for many more to adopt these social strategies.
Although this role wasn’t an idea all of us liked, we saw it as a necessary tactic to employ if we were to earnestly take on the contradictions of the public secret.
For the foyer of this the large warehouse I created a large map, based on a series of walks taken in and around this area of Leeds in July. Over the course of this decade I have developed ways of mapping emotional responses to being in towns, cities and their unwelcoming car-orientated hinterlands. However, with this map I tried to cut out the middleman of social and moral filtering, and write exactly what I was feeling, no matter how pathetic or inappropriate it sounded when reading it back. Ben said this emotion map was almost like a strategy map for the larger works in the main space; opening it to a safe space beyond the moral and social filters that construct the generalised public secrets.
Collective members Sam Read and Rebekah Whitlam took the initiative to build new work for the central space, which was a big challenge judging on the size of the space, and the fact that it would easily swallow what seemed to be ample material supplies. However, what would be produced would be brought into correspondence through a sound installation made by Ben, which would intermittently utter some of the public secrets we had been acquiring through The Public Secret Experiment, an ongoing online project set up by Rebekah asking for our ’21st century confessions’. Ben’s work would sit in between a sporadic growth of small building settlements going around the space.
Sam Read describes these settlements as “an assemblage of models made from paper and wire that resemble simple dwellings. Together these units make a town of indeterminate scale. Amongst the architectural models are soft forms reminiscent of turds which occasionally morph into beer mugs, ashtrays and other material culture associated with leisure and respite”.
Concentrated more in the centre of the space, and following on from “Milly-Molly-Mandy gets Loaded and Other Stories’ Rebekah Whitlam’s semi-autobiographical work MILLY-MOLLY-MANDY GETS A ZERO HOUR CONTRACT AT THE PLEASURE PALACE plays on Édouard Manet’s painting ‘The Bar at the Folies-Bergere’, 1882.”
“…we’re meant to have so much fun but it never is what it promises to be. These new palaces of pleasure, they promise something that actually dissolves in your hand.” – Griselda Pollock, 2018.
“Whilst Manet’s waitress looks out despondently over the bar and into 19th century middle-class leisure society, this satirical twist explores the links between 21st century city development; ‘sugar-rush’ entertainment; temporary living; commodified self-worth; and an anxiety that scaffolds it all.
The work features ephemera from over the past 20 years including FHM magazines from the 00’s and products from a recent closing down sale at Claire’s Accessories.
The aim of this work is not to criticise pleasure, but a comment on how our need for pleasure is used to manipulate our inner self, our collective psyche, and our spending habits.
It is a call for more.”
There still remained intense discussion about the role of participation within the exhibition, and whether or not we were asking too much of visitors by structuring the show to be wholly participatory.
However, we agreed that if was to be about the Public Secret a participatory bent was mandatory.
Rebekah invited visitors to make clay and felt models of who they think would work on a zero hour contract in the ‘pleasure palace’.
In recent years our pleasure palaces of retail therapy and high culture have been exposed for their poor treatment of the staff who run the places on a day-to-day basis. However, despite this being a common experience, it remains a public secret due to zero hour jobs and minimum wage employment still being largely treat as the moral failings of people who simply aren’t pro-active and aspirational enough. As privately we admit our frailties, anxieties, and wish we could be free from the psychological rat race, our public expressions have never been so status obsessed. With the increase in zero hour work and underemployment so too has there been an increase in status cars, body-perfection obsession and niche/exclusive venues. Like a maddening virus, increases in social status anxiety push us further towards superficial that intensifies the status anxiety cycle.
Sam’s settlements largely took on the form of tower blocks. But we had made some more conventional dwelling-shaped templates, which were for the visitors to place where they wanted into the landscape.
We invited visitors to respond to 2 questions…
On the bottom of the templates we ask them to write about which emotions and/or parts of their personalities they tend to hide from society. Whilst on the roofs of the templates we asked them to write about what they have realised about society that they would want to tell others about.
Hanging on the back wall of the exhibition were the ‘results’ from The General Election of Governing Emotions (#GE18).
Every voter in #GE18 had 3 votes rather than one choice from 3 competing parties.
Vote 1 (pink) allowed people to think about their recurrent emotions, and consequential behavioural patterns, in which they would leave behind, if they had the choice. Vote 2, (green, but looks blue due to poor lighting!!!) asked people how they would potentially like to feel on a day-to-day basis, whilst vote 3 (yellow) asked us how we would like society to feel and behave like on a daily basis.
The results of this ‘election’ are displayed on 3 sheets. You can see faint traces of flags of identities that have been party to intensely divisive feelings, especially in recent years.
In attempting to bridge any divisions a makeshift bar was mandatory. Due to the fact that we could only physically salvage the bare minimum (largely palettes from the industrial estate) the bar could only merely parody the aforementioned niche/exclusive venues, whose own parodies are clinical and never quite as haphazard as they seem. Our bar, however, so was haphazard it fittingly looked as much like a frontier boundary.
Located at the bar, The Public Secret Experiment’s 21st century confessions shared beer mats with more conventional ‘self-help’ memes. There is sometimes a fine line between public secret ‘memes’ and self-help ones, the latter usually pinpointed due to their lazy reliance on the neoliberal vernacular of the self-made ‘hero’.
But this fine-line comparison wasn’t a case of point-proving. It was an exercise in trying to see if there is a lie in dominant life-style model of contemporary times, not for sake of being right, but for the sake of wondering how the challenge of the individual finding inner peace and self-worth can be part of a general and collective healing process; because the 2 are so interconnected, the former has been so successfully appropriated by the self-improving entrepreneurial speak of neoliberalism.
But this itself opens up a dilemma the collective – as motley in its collective hearts and minds as it is – needs to interrogate. Do projects that try to create safe spaces to understand everybody’s story risk the fate of the person who drinks so much water they are destroyed due to waterlogged blood? Or likewise if we define a stance for ourselves do we run the risk of falling into an echo chamber where we never communicate with anybody we have fundamental disagreements with?
They sound like extremes, but in our ultra divided times, where people will rarely encounter those holding vastly different beliefs, it can suddenly become very hard NOT TO become classified a Lefty, and extremist, and Brexiteer, a metropolitan elitist, a hard-line feminist, a misogynist, etc etc.
Surely we should refuse to give up on the faint Utopian lining that appears within the fabric current crisis of Mental Health. How do you reverse trauma? How do you reverse misgivings, feuds, and toxic senses of entitlement? There is one certain answer to this: NOT by giving up on our fellow human.
The Public Secret exhibition was installed by collective members John Wright, Benjamin Parker, Rebekah Whitlam and Sam Read, with valuable conceptual input from Liam McCabe, and David Hooppell, who are also involved in the collective.
As an artist collective, something binds us. Speaking frankly, I don’t think we even share the exact same ideals, life goals, or approaches to creative practice, or even a shared understanding of what creative practice means. We really are a motley crew. But this motley crew have converged through finding one another’s company comfortable enough to have honest reflections on what seems to be the grand unspeakable.
Basically, what has brought us together is the public secret: everybody knows this thing we…
I struggle to articulate what I mean by the ‘public secret’. Maybe that’s the problem; we all feel this pervasive, intangible ‘thing’ without the vocabulary to point and call it out. What ever we say never seems to be quite right and gets stuck in our throats. We seem to be lost in a state of frustration, confusion, and isolation.
I suppose that’s the main reason for the exhibition and the accompanying Instagram experiment. To emulate a familiar format like social media, or a bar, or a city, but also create a new space within the Neo-liberal framework that allows for honest contemplation and conversations which are met with empathy rather than embarrassment, or derision.
An anonymous submission for ‘The Public Secret Experiment’ Instagram account.
However, there have been a few other elements that have run through my mind over the past year whilst ‘The Public Secret’ exhibition, and my work for it, has congealed into a solid mass. I’ll try and run through some of them now.
Commodified Self Worth and Individualised Mental Health
Passage from ‘Out of the salon: female counter-spaces, anti-colonial struggles and transversal politics’ by sophie schasiepen
The symbiosis of the internal and external; the individual and the community is complex. What I do understand is to have a healthy connection between the two there has to be mutual support and respect. Late-capitalism blocks this communication, leaving us isolated and toxically dependent on the sugar rush of commodity.
Advertising, social media, retail therapy (“retail therapy”!!!) all play on the ‘be a better version of yourself’. The feedback loop for this commercial-self relies heavily on the not-quite-good-enough. For you to buy into it, it must first make you feel shit about yourself.
Advertisement from Nissan. Your basically a loser,that nobody cares about, unless you buy this car.
Self-worth comes from within, but we’re seeking it from false external springs that fail to nourish us internally – physically and mentally. We’re constantly seeking validation by comparing ourselves to others and its making us sick. How have we ended up in a time where we are having to have serious studies into ‘Facebook depression’?
Sadly, I don’t think we have found a sufficient way to talk about all this sincerely enough yet; its either too uncomfortable, or too sickly. We carry on regardless where it is familiar and safe and we can continue with our self-medicated therapy.
Richard Ford is a guy who came up with a way of predicting up-and-coming areas by looking at a regions current demographic – the Bohemian index and the Gay index. Two indicators that a geographic area will culturally bloom and become very lucrative to home owners, business owners, and property developers (think Berlin and San Francisco).
Post-industrial cities seem to becoming more notorious for cheap property development and depleting local authority budgets – making them more susceptible to gentrification.
Billboards for redevelopment in Sheffield. The shapes, colours, and wording are very childlike and links self-worth to commerce. A lego trail, ‘Bricktopolis’, was used as a promotional campaign aimed at children and families.
Social and affordable housing are at crisis point, due to a mix of government legislation, recession, and some other stuff I don’t understand. Local budgets are desperately low, leaving authorities in a position where they have to sell assets (or in some cases, like with art galleries, rent buildings for free). With that, private ownership – typically in the shape of landlords – goes up, along with the price of rent.
Another effect from central government’s hands off approach is the prestige projects. In an effort to attract business and leasure tourism, local governments come up with multi-million projects in a bid to make some money (they tend to flop spectacularly, leaving the region with a bigger deficit, and a weirdly designed building they have to frantically think up a purpose for. I’m looking at you Sheffield Hallam University Union Bar née National Museum of Popular Music). Also, these projects get passed with very little input from the community. Planning permission favors profit over social contribution.
Whether public or private, developments offer Utopian-like dreams – green space, blue skies, culture, fresh bread, dream jobs, unadulterated ecstasy. But its social mores are cut loose when economic value overrules social worth. It is not accessible for everyone (I’ve reminded myself of ‘city ambassadors’ shooing the homeless out of sight every time I go to The Winter Garden in Sheffield). The original occupants tend to be pushed out of the area due to raising living cost. The only jobs available are zero hour, or on a temporary basis only. The cost of living inevitably further isolates the already marginalised. And we’re back to the commodified self-worth; we are what we get paid to do.
Billboard for a new development on Whitehall Road, Leeds. Again linking purpose with work.
Mark Fisher and Acid Communism
Mark Fisher weaves through almost all of the work and discussions at the Retro Bar. Acid Communism particularly strikes in us some kind of hope for the future of the people on this planet (whatever the timescale). It is an idea Fisher, sadly, never fully completed. I can only offer my interpretation. Put briefly, acid communism is the reconsiderations of 60s counter culture; the raising of the collective conciousness, and sharing of experience as a form of chipping away at the capitalist monolith. I wouldn’t necessarily say this means we all live in the woods, tripping on acid, whilst tattooing inspirational quotes to our eyelids – however appealing that may be to some. I think it just means care more. Listen. Think. Empathise. I think Fisher is so popular with us because he spoke in a way that was sincere and didn’t make you cringe.
Individual Blame and Corporate Responsibility
I also think this isn’t just applicable to the introspective individual, but applies more and more to corporate responsibility. I see so much blame, anxiety, guilt and shame being put onto individuals to take responsibility for their own actions – and yeah, sure. But compare this to the actions and the impact corporate irresponsibility has to our planet and our communities. I’m sure you recycle, and I’m sure there are times when you cant be bothered. But do you incinerate millions of pounds worth of surplus clothing to keep your brand exclusive? My point being, the sum of our individual actions can sometimes feel measly compared to the damage being done by multinational businesses – its exhausting and you shouldn’t feel guilty for just chucking everything in your black bin. But please don’t give up.
Shared experience and Intellectual Property.
I’ll tell you what I love (and i sincerely mean love) about being a member of the Retro Bar and why I want to share the work we do with you.
The way in which we work, from initial meetings to actually seeing the ideas come to fruition is based on open conversation, shared ideas, and mutual support. I love when someone suggests an idea – even if its for their individual practice – and we all get hyper about it. I feel like I have found a place of nourishment and inspiration, of purpose, and hope for the future.
And I wish a happy and healthy future for all DIY spaces and artist led groups. We dwell in temporary and precarious places, which can be a breeding ground for competition. But, can also be a place of pulling resources and creating stronger networks of collective care.
Thanks for listening.
I’m by no means as well read as the other guys. My ideas are shaped by snippets of this and that roughly selotaped together with badly placed punctuation. But I’ll include some of my sources below if you want to check anything out.
PAUL SNG – Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle. A film that takes a look at the reduction of social housing and the reasons why.
As well as the above ideas here are some other sources of inspiration to me that have contributed to the work I have made for the ‘Public Secret’ Exhibition.
GRISELDA POLLOCK on Edouard Manet’s, The Bar at the Foiles Bergere, 1882. I saw this video quite late into the process, but I found Griselda (and Manet) articulated something I was trying to say far better than I ever will and she has helped me to frame my work.
EDWARD PAOLOZZI – I really like this artist and his critical irony through collages of mainstream media, imagined cityscapes, and bright colours.
Its a Psychological Fact Pleasure Helps Your Disposition, 1948
”As exchange-values, all commodities are merely definite quantities of congealed labour-time” – Karl Marx, Das Kapital, 1867.
The commodification of every aspect within society is an inevitable progression of a capitalist based economy. Marx expressed the potential contraction at the heart of this mode of production. The surplus-value, which is unpaid labour through production of commodities, is taken as profit by those with the means of production. These ‘means’ (which hold power) have been enshrined within society through centuries of class development and exploitation. We are beginning to truly see these contradictions played out on a global scale because the working classes (which includes a great generalisation of the stratifications in different societies) cannot afford to purchase the goods and services which they produce. As Marx pointed out this leads to constant boom and bust. Hence, the boom in the 90s perpetrated by de-regulating markets, improving production techniques to decrease the labour required to create products; and then the subsequent global financial crash in 2007-08 perpetrated by de-regulated markets selling to people who could not afford to buy services and commodities.
What does this abstract economics have to do with The Public Secret project?
The short answer is everything! The human concept of ‘value’ is at stake within this discursive web. What value do we place in relation to art? There is a long history attached to this question from Aristotle to Hegel and Svetlana Alpers to Claire Bishop the ‘worth’ of art, and subsequently its position within the ecology of culture and society, has been debated for millennia. This is a complex question as there is an obvious set of economic values including exchange-value and labour-wage value in the art market. These values are monetary and do not necessarily correlate with use-value or moral-value i.e. ethics. This distinction is important and the blurring of such boundaries within the collective consciousness of contemporary society is central to a gross public secret. Let me explain. The semiotics at play within the current form of neo-liberal capitalism, which is packaged in a gloriously glossy cellophane and sold to us on a daily basis, are neurotic.
My reasoning for the above statement is complex, and needs further discussion and debate beyond this text, and indeed plays out in the collective space created by the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe. I would like to add a pre-requisite at this stage, that, just as Marx and others have pointed out the processes at work within capitalist accumulation are not inherently good or bad. It is an empirical system, the problem occurs with its distribution, and the hierarchical systems of deep exploitation which has only accelerated with the neo-liberal ‘branding’ of capitalism on a global scale. It is to such an effect that a form of neurosis has occurred in which ‘we’ as a society attribute the word, ‘value’ almost exclusively to signify ‘monetary’ value. Indeed our motivations are entirely governed by such significations. Whether we admit to it or not, we are constantly comparing and weighing up the monetary value of commodities. This plays out in its most distilled form on the international stock exchange, built on risk -reward scarcity. It plays out on social media, particularly through Instagram, and the rising cult of the ‘celebrity life’ story, which is rewarded with increasing monetary value. The image = value = money.
Historically, there is a discourse within art which has opposed the capitalist system. The development of Conceptual art of the 60s and 70s, which aimed to de-materialise the art object not only in an attempt to deconstruct the forces of the art market, but also to finally liberate art from its own materiality. However, the forces of capital and a market driven art world managed to circumvent such a critique and re-appropriate its resistance into the commodification of ‘ideas’. The strangest, most outrageous coupled with the most banal was the name of the game. Figures such as: Sol Lewitt, Joseph Kosuth and Marina Abramovic became prominent within the art world and beyond. It is precisely this phenomena or the ‘cult of the artist as celebrity’ which the market could sell. It did not matter how problematic the theme of the artwork was or how ‘de-materialised’ the object; the art world was dealing on reputation and on endless novelty. Of course, many artists before and since have played on these notions of the art market including, Warhol, Hirst and Duchamp to name a few. Their practice was to recognise this problematic at the centre of the art world and not to resist openly but dance on the razors edge between appropriation and co-option.
There is course a metaphysical trace in play to this narrative. Philosopher Jacques Derrida articulated this in Structure, Sign and Play (1966). Derrida suggested that, ‘the whole history of the concept of structure, before the rupture I spoke of, must be thought of as a series of substitutions of centre for centre, as a linked chain of determinations of the centre. Successively, and in a regulated fashion, the centre receives different forms or names. The history of metaphysics, like the history of the West, is the history of these metaphors and metonymies’. Derrida is referring to a history in which societies have always assigned an abstract anchor or centre for belief such as: Magic, God, Man, Science etc. in which to build their entire society. Derrida suggested that we are limited by the language of the past, of our ancestors, as we must constantly destroy and remake their systems again and again in different ways in order to create ‘new’ structures. However, the ‘event’ which Derrida is referring to is when we began to question the centre and the structure revealed itself to no longer be a structure but a system of substitutions of signs. This is particularly important to our current question of the public secret, as a growing secularity within societies across the world is resulting in religion being expelled from the centre of belief. It is for this reason that many people are simply motivated by the prospect of gaining more capital, more social power bought through the accumulation of wealth. As they are no longer subjected to the moral codes imposed by religion. This of course, is not the entire picture but nevertheless the importance of gaining wealth as a motivational factor is a vital discourse.
It is paramount that as individuals within a society we have a centre of belief, even if we know rationally it is not a ‘real structure’. This is essentially an ideology. Our collective wellbeing and mental health relies upon it, as the complete ‘free-play’ of significations, which Derrida suggested is taking place, implies possible infinities. As humans we cannot greatly conceptualise infinities, we almost gravitate to forms of structure and limitations with the goal of proposing forms of order. It is this fundamental pattern making, that is both socially and culturally ingrained within metaphysics. It is also why we accept models such as capitalism and socialism, as they impose some order which we can break and remodel to some extent without giving in to complete anarchy. Indeed the word ‘society’ implies a meta-structure to our human relations.
What is left?
In an episteme, in which time is out of joint and the past is constantly returning in ghostly and spectral forms. This state of play is both created and reinforced by the ‘consciousness’ streamed directly into our hand-held devices. We are always on and always sharing information in a never before globally connected way. Everything seems to exist simultaneously in this non- stop, neoliberal nightmare of a capitalist realism. However, just for a second, if we follow this logic then perhaps the ‘thing’, which can aid in managing this situation is already available. The key is recognising such a moment when it smacks you on the forehead.
For me, it is the collective- or, a notion of the collective. This notion of collectivism, what Gregory Sholette and Blake Stimson call ‘the new collectivism’, resists the full blown authoritarian form of state based collectivism implemented in the last century to devastating effect in both the then USSR and in Hitler’s Germany. This new collectivism, or ‘isms’, is your local ‘hacktivist’, it is your full blown terror cell and simultaneously your ‘freedom movement’- as we have witnessed across the Arab world. It forms micro community land trusts, which are fighting corporate and governmental ‘gentrification’. It also, coalesces to form activist groups, artist-led collectives, self-help groups, flash mobs and plugs the gaps in diminished welfare through charities and ‘junkyard’ initiatives. This new collectivism doesn’t identify with Marxism, Communism or Leninism. It is a product of global neoliberal capitalism, but at the same time it resists through a smorgasbord of the new and old forms of autonomy. These forms of collective activity are re-modelling a failing system- the distribution of power is beginning to see nano-shifts in its organisation. We are witnessing this shift in power through political events such as: Brexit, Trump’s America and Catalonia’s struggle for independence etc. These re-alignments appear random precisely because collective activity doesn’t have a one specific identifiable ideological basis. Each collective is different, however, they all share a trace. This trace is political, they are endeavouring to collectively change some element of the world we live in. This change is always ideological on some level, and they do it together, as a tribe. However, different they are as individuals, the collective can act as a form of catharsis against an increasingly individualised and isolationist structure of the neoliberal.
Collectivism may not be ‘the’ answer to the world’s problems, but it sure is a start. Personally, I find that the Retro Bar at the End of the Universe is increasingly becoming a support group constructed through mutual respect and collective endeavour to actively tackle social and political problems in society. It is a place, both physically and virtually, where I feel comfortable testing ideas and discussing issues. I feel my mental health is better for being a member, because I feel I belong to something greater than myself. Friendship and solidarity are loaded terms, but they belong in the Retro Bar. What is most rewarding within the Retro Bar is the unspoken role in which each of its members have undertaken. Everyone has organically taken up certain responsibilities. On a personal level, I have developed an exclusively curatorial role within the collective as I feel that is most appropriate both for the collective and also my individual practice.
Finally, the public secret is one of those oxymoron’s. It might even be the ultimate example of an oxymoron. It is through its contradictory nature that we might begin to address our collective failings and eradicate our toxic prejudices. Thus the value of art and the value of collective forms of art go beyond the fiscal. They are searching for the ethical, for a new set of parameters in which to create equilibrium. This is an unfinished project and it has a long way to go! However, the journey has begun.
Physical toil has been a common experience in this installation. Hand-printing, cutting and assembling the paper “houses” to create a vacant cityscape has been an act of minor industry. Given the setting: a warehouse on an estate at the fringes of Leeds, one of the great former industrial cities of the North, this feels totally appropriate.
Work has been on my mind; the unrecognised time spent in art production and the ambivalent “value” of artwork made with hours of toil from cheap materials, which will be seen by few and will never see the inside of a respectable white cube.
Repeated failure (shall I say, unexpected outcomes?) has haunted this production as ideas fail to take form so must radically adjust day-to-day. This is, I remind myself, necessary and the reason why art is work.
Accepting unexpected outcomes and embracing the non-value of these objects has freed me somewhat and turned the repetitive slog of (unwaged) labour back into play.
Using my body’s labour to process this waste paper into sculpture is what led me to think about ideas surrounding consumption, digestion, excreta.
More on the grotesque element later.
Like many “flexible” creative sector employees and self-employed artists, I have a complicated relationship with leisure. I am always working and never working, the threshold between work and downtime is very blurry indeed. This is a common source of anxiety for artists but increasingly with the casualisation of labour, it’s seeping into industries also (at least, for those like us on low pay). By extension, the relationship with leisure and self-medicating habits like smoking and drinking becomes complicated also. There’s an underlying desire to connect with others through pleasurable, sensory experience and temporarily escape capitalist drudgery through what Mark Fisher called “Acid Communism” after the utopian spirit present in the counter cultures of the 60s and 70s. My public secret is that whether we realise it or not, we are all looking for a form of (small “c”) communist experience when we raise a glass with strangers or share a cigarette break. These are temporary, microscopic utopian moments.
I don’t refer to my artwork as utopian. There’s little specific political or historical points of reference. What I do try and convey is that the primary experience of utopia is never escapism or nostalgia but longing. This is however, a topic that has been put through the wringer enough in recent art writing so I’ll try to be specific and brief in articulating my own thoughts on the matter…
“Utopia is not already an alternative, just as Carnival is not an alternative to work. But like many carnivals and certain so-called riots, it screams of the need for a total alternative and more dangerously still, it reveals the latency of the alternative in elements of present social life. The ‘social safety valve’ function of carnivals, utopias and riots is well known, but the effort and money spent regulating, recuperating or surpressing them betrays the authorities’ fear that too much steam might be let off, leaving a dangerous void or worse, the idea of an engine. That threat lies in a refinement of the question: no longer simply ‘why must Carnival end, why doesn’t all life look like this?’, but: “what latent power, which in Carnival/utopia we PROVE is real, is so unbearable to see shut down? And how shall we perpetuate it: how could it be switched back on and not cut off again?”
-Matthew Hyland on the utopian impulse in Carnival and riot, from Self-Insufficiency
A touchstone of my work is Francois Rabellais whose novels were important expressions of the optimism, utopian longing and the most radical desires of the common people at the time of their writing. In late medieval Europe, any form of laughter or free spirit was not condonable by church or state and common humour was pushed out of official spheres. By necessity it coalesced in self-organised events in the marketplace and during peasant celebrations, motivated by consumption, production and community participation.
Under the theocratic rule of the Middle Ages, pleasure-seeking and jubilatiom was viewed as a dissident act unless performed in a sanctioned Festival settings.
(Above: installation shot from “Colony” at Hutt Collective)
As such, comical folk culture of the middle ages had its own self-governing territory and time, creating a second world within the official feudal order where behaviour became untethered from the confines of etiquette and where profanities and blasphemies were temporarily permissable. Festivals and the market were places of frank speech, this informality eventually extended to religious parody in the form of passion plays and although mocking of sacred text was not approved by clergy it was tolerated when deemed to be instructive (providing a “grobian” fable against sinful behaviour). This was the moral backdrop to which Rabelais wrote his five books about the giants Gargantua and Pantagruel in the early to mid 16th century. Unlike other works of the grotesque e.g. Brant’s Ship of Fools or Lydgate’s Order of Fools, Gargantua and Panatgruel was not preventative fable. Despite Johann Fischart’s assertion, Rabellasian fiction is actually the opposite, it is the singlemost comical and comprehensive celebration of the grotesque and enjoyed huge popularity with all classes.
The natural territory of the Grotesque is parody. Parody is more powerful than satire as it is an all-inclusive, all-mocking form of laughter. Satire is exclusively bourgeois rhetoric whereas parody is an ancient and transcendental social-leveller.
The culture of marketplace and carnival was impressed upon Rabellais in Fontenay le Comte where he spent his youth in a the Cistercian Abbey. A famous carnival came to Fontenay three times a year along with foreign itinerant salesman. We know that carnivals such as this were important sites of bookselling both for “serious” publishers and hawkers of chapbooks. This concentrated availability of literature both “high” and “low” attracted students and clergy who contributed to the folk culture of carnival by (often anonymously) writing their own recreational literature. In this way, carnival became a place in which the normally stratified social classes intermingled along with foreigners and nomads in a time-sanctioned melting pot.
This is the essence of Grotesque Realism which Mikhail Bakhtin attributes to the transformative humour of Rabelais and the anti-feudal, popular truths of carnival. To a lesser degree he applies Grotesque Realism to Cervantes’ Don Quixote and Shakespeare’s King Lear due to their explorations of class flux and madness.
Wolfgang Kayser describes the grotesque as “the estranged world” and an expression of the the id essential to “invoke and subdue the demonic aspect”. When we lampoon the source of our fear we overcome it temporarily. The essential nature of laughter underlines the power of the clown and fool in grotesque culture. In carnival, the fool is an inversion of the king, madness is a gleeful parody of reason, this explains the utopian importance of The Feast of Fools and the Feast of The Ass, which are comic counters to Lent and Corpus Christi. At these specific festivals, commoners are awarded titles for a day including King of Fools, Lord of Misrule and Abbot of Unreason. In this way, jocularity and the mimicry of madness or foolery muddles class and provides a pretext for liquidating the staid social order. “Every joke is a tiny revolution”.
Foucault also wrote on the disarming power of the madman’s laughter: “When the madman laughs, he already laughs with the mask of death, the lunatic, anticipating the macarbre, has disarmed it.” Mocking of existential threats and suspension of official “reason” were necassary coping mechanism for an overworked and de-powered medieval working class. If we believe Umberto Eco when he says we are living in a second middle ages, similar tactics may have to be deployed in order to bare the onslaught of nationalistic politics and perpetual austerity.
“Come and see the violence inherent in the system! HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!”