First Encounters: Cafe OTO, Vortex, BFI and National Gallery

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Discovering a venue is like entering a new universe: if they got it right, their identity – the type of art they programme, the values they carry, the experience they create – is palpable right from the front door. This is how I felt recently about Cafe OTO, an experimental venue in Dalston, East London, where I went in September to see Rodrigo Constanzo (with whom I’m currently working on developing his dfscore project) perform with Distractfold as part of the Kammer Klang series of contemporary chamber music.

Here is Rodrigo performing one of his composition, iminlovewithanothergirl, a solo piece for snare and microphone, right at the end of the set.

The austere feel of the venue – basically a warehouse – creates an edgy focus for the music and makes the listening experience that much more intense. The acoustics are not even that good, there’s a loud fan that comes on between each set, and I can’t describe the seats as comfortable, but the space creates an intimacy not just with the performers but also between audience members: I was on my own, but I could easily strike a conversation with people sitting near me.

Not long after, I was at the Vortex, just round the corner, also for the first time, for what I can only describe as a journey through abstraction and emotion with Electric Biddle, a Jazz Shuttle project (Jazz Shuttle is a creative scheme supporting new Franco-British bands that I’ve recently started to coordinate on the UK side). A team from Paris venue Le Triton was there to film a documentary about the band, and here’s an extract from the first leg of the tour, filmed in France.

My latest encounter with a venue is a double one: I was invited to the BFI to watch the latest documentary by Fred Wiseman, who spend 12 weeks inside the National Gallery. He filmed everything from guided tours to executive meetings and restoration work, and condensed 170 hours of footage into a 3-hour film that celebrate both the art and the institution that hosts it, in all its complexity and contradictions.

I’ve never actually been (yet) to the National Gallery, so this was a formidable virtual encounter. The spotlight is of course on the paintings, but also on people: those who make, buy, care for and admire the art. We’re privy to debates amongst staff over the purpose and limitations of restoration, or on the tension between ‘inclusion’ and ‘excellence’. We also get to eavesdrop on the vast array of education, engagement and participation activities that take place within the National Gallery: from guided school tours to teacher training, a life-drawing class, or a session for visually impaired people observing Pissaro’s The Boulevard Montmartre at Night through touch and words.

National Gallery is a journey through art and humanity told with a multitude of fragments that continue to resonate and build a meaning long after the film is finished. The most powerful moments are wordless juxtapositions of masterpiece portraits and the people observing them: a mise en abyme that connects past and present, art and life, and artist, sitter, museum-goer and film spectator, in an infinite jeu de miroir of “who’s looking at who?”.  I was also reminded of Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs, a series of large-scale images showing museum-goers engaged in the process of observing paintings at several institutions, including the National Gallery (below).

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

National Gallery I, London, 1989 by Thomas Struth

The film is out in the UK in January 2015. Meanwhile, I’ve been back to Cafe OTO for another great night hosted by Kammer Klang, I’m off to the Vortex for the Emile Parisien Quartet in November, if not before, and I’m planning a visit to the National Gallery in the next few weeks. I haven’t said much about my experience at the BFI, but it inspired my to start a weekly film club at the Cat’s Back, the South West London pub I run with my husband, so surely that’s their job done!

Meanwhile

Spotlight

I’ve had a busy couple of months since my last post, with professional and personal projects taking over my blogging schedule. A few days ago, I spent the whole weekend on an open space by the Thames, near Vauxhall station, running an event commissioned by the Nine Elms development consortium and part of the Big Draw, the annual month-long celebration of drawing. I was acting as Project Manager for The Brick Box, a Community Interest Company that creates collective experiences in underused public spaces, from Brixton and Tooting to Canning Town and Bradford. Here are a few photos, and there’s now a video available at the end of the 5 Questions to… Eleanor & Rosie, The Brick Box Ladies.

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Drew manhanding the giant Golden Slice that adorns the Toast Temple (photo by Jesus Ubera / The Brick Box)

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The Toast Temple in full swing  (photo by Matt Badenoch / The Brick Box)

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Young Brick Box recruits building a den with Our Hut (photo by Matt Badenoch / The Brick Box)

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Light Labyrinth at night, Nine Elms cranes  (photo by Fabienne Jung / The Brick Box)

 

While I was planning this event – from contracting artists to figuring out how on earth we’d get a portaloo on site – I moved out of the Highbury flat I had lived in since arriving in London 6 months ago to start a big adventure with my husband: we’ve taken over a pub in South West London, which we’ve now been running for a month. As of today, the website is still ‘coming soon’, but here are a few photos. I’ll be looking after the marketing and programming, and as we’ve got pop-up dinners, live music, films and parties in the pipeline, that’s enough to keep me busy outside the day job. There’ll be a monthly newsletter to keep locals in the loop, which you can sign up to here.

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Opening night – Anh, Shane and Strawberry Thief (photo by Scott Kershaw)

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Opening night – Me on mini-pies duty (photo by Scott Kershaw)

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Mantelpiece silhouettes (photo by Peter Martin)

No There There?

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There is no there there.
— 
Gertrude Stein

This non-there is Oakland, California, where author and art collector Gertrude Stein grew up at the end of the 19th century – and there now is a there where there once was no there: since 2005, an eight-foot high powder-coated steel plate twin sculpture spelling out “HERE” and “THERE”, by artists Steve Gillman and Katherine Keefer, marks the border between Berkeley and Oakland.

HERE-THERE_2-900 Steve Gillman 2011

HERETHERE by Steve Gillman (Berkeley/Oakland, CA )

According to the commissioning agency, the Berkeley Civic Arts Commission, “the sculptured letters form a poetic message of hello and goodbye and provide a sense of place”.

Maybe not enough for some residents: the San Francisco Chronicle reported in 2010 that “renegade knitters … sewed a multi-colored tea cozy onto the letter T”.  The knitters were asked by Berkeley’s civic arts coordinator “to remove their handiwork because modifying public art is against state and federal law”, but instead “resisted and … held a knit-in at the sculpture”.

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Knit-in at the HERETHERE sculpture – Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle

One of the artists expressed his support for the knitters, applauding them for “start(ing) a dialogue where possibly only a monologue had existed before”. Unfortunately his views were not echoed by the civic arts coordinator, who pointed out that “he has a right to his opinion (…). But he doesn’t own (the artwork) anymore.”

While this is almost as gripping as the Tilted Arc controversy, and raises many questions of context, appropriation, ownership and authorship, it also provides an opportunity to revisit the Gertrude Stein statement. Here’s a longer quote to give context to this famous ‘no there there’ (punctuation is sic):

She took us to see her granddaughter who was teaching in the Dominican convent in San Raphael, we went across the bay on a ferry, that had not changed but Goat Island might just as well not have been there, anyway what was the use of my having come from Oakland it was not natural to have come from there yes write about it if I like or anything if I like but not there, there is no there there.

…but not there, there is no there there. … Ah Thirteenth Avenue was the same it was shabby and overgrown. … Not of course the house, the house the big house and the big garden and the eucalyptus trees and the rose hedge naturally were not there any longer existing, what was the use …

It is a funny thing about addresses where you live. When you live there you know it so well that it is like an identity a thing that is so much a thing that it could not ever be any other thing and then you live somewhere else and years later, the address that was so much an address that it was like your name and you said it as if it was not an address but something that was living and then years after you do not know what the address was and when you say it it is not a name anymore but something you cannot remember. That is what makes your identity not a thing that exists but something you do or do not remember.

And that is what makes (good) (public) art important: it (can) create strong, lasting, shared memories. Created for permanence, it’s a link to a place and an anchor in time; a landmark, a there that’s always here. If temporary and diffuse, it’s an experience that becomes a reference, a living memory which meaning expands – or fades – with time. Whether or not the first life of the THERE sculpture did provide that sense of place, of ‘there’, the art hackers gesture – tangible sign of a collective spirit – has contributed to creating a futher memory-to-be.

But what if there is really no there there? In an article for Public Art Review entitled Strategies for Defining the Non-Place with Public Art and Urban Design, Ronald Lee Fleming writes:

Stein’s remark has come to be associated with suburban and fringe development since World War II, which has disfigured, with a banal sameness, the edge of almost every city and town in the country. How can public art and enlightened urban policy transform the non-places that one moves through on the way to the airport?

This claim – which takes Stein’s quote out of its eminently personal context and conveniently distorts its meaning to forsake anything outside the centre – is supported by some rather strange statements throughout the article (“Banal places are often full of very average people”, “People in modest neighborhoods are often fascinated by craft”). The underlying assumption is that the North American sprawling suburbs are nothing more that a ‘non-place’ (defined by ethnologist Marc Augé as places of transience that do not hold enough significance to be regarded as “places”, generally the by-product of ‘supermodernity’ and acceleration, places where people don’t meet and where they can’t build collective references) – and that public art can inject meaning in these semiotic deserts – in Fleming’s words, “artists can help redefine the meaning of a site no matter how boring it may appear”.

Here again, ‘non-place’ is taken a little too literally: Augé emphasises, throughout his essay, the many ways people ‘invent’ the everyday and create trails of memories and stories in the most unlikely and clinical places, from airports to budget hotel chains and supermarkets.

Fleming continues with further invoking the need for enlightenment for average people in these boring places:

What is needed is an enlightened artist constituency who can move beyond signature works of ego to serve a restive public that wants more meaning embedded in the infrastructure of the banal sites where they live. People want to experience well-crafted elements that often require a team of artisans as well as the conceptualizing artist. This is not the coterie of city sophisticates who value abstraction and the shock of the new.

So average people deserve average public art, something simple, “well-crafted”, that helps them to feel just that little bit less bored. One wonders if they deserve art at all, given the challenge that their abject banality presents for artists:

Working with these contours of meaning can be a challenge for an artist with a big ego—and let’s face it, a big ego is often necessary just to prevail as an artist and to justify the amount of energy that it takes to do public work.

At a time when placemaking is hailed as a remedy to urban ills – be them new and shiny developments or old and crumbly neighbourhoods, places with not enough or too much ‘identity’  -, is there a consensus about the practice at large, its methods and especially its ethos? The term is now widely used by public commissioners, artists and arts organisations, community interest companies, property developers and commercial agencies alike, and as a result seem to range from condescending opinions such as Fleming’s to thinly disguised PR campaigns for property developers (via a whole host of interesting long-term, artist- and community-led projects).

Quality frameworks are currently being developed for participatory arts – such as this paper by Toby Lowe from Helix Arts – and art & health – such as this contribution by Creative Health CIC to the West Midlands commissioning practice. What would a framework for placemaking look like? Has a consensus been reached yet on the term itself? Can a variety of approaches be evaluated against the same standards? Here are three examples in three different countries that exemplify this range of methods and angles, but also a common aspiration for ethical guidelines and for sharing their process and experience.

– – –

The public space activists: PPS (USA)

Project for Public Spaces have been developing a conceptual and practical framework for placemaking since 1975, such as the 11 Principles of Placemaking (starting with “The community is the expert”) and the Power of 10 (“the idea that any great place itself needs to offer at least 10 things to do or 10 reasons to be there”). They are firmly positioned as a civic militant organisation, quoting Jane Jacobs and William “Holly” Whyte as inspiration and mentors, and are currently sharing their approach with over 600 international practitioners through the newly-formed Placemaking Leadership Council, which, amongst other goals, aims to “clearly frame the value and “language” of Placemaking” and “develop a common set of standards and indicators”.

pps.org
@PPS_Placemaking

 

The cultural pioneers: Artscape (Canada)

Toronto-based Artscape have also developed a Creative Placemaking Toolbox, based on their experience of opening and running arts centres and artist studios. It’s a very practical resource, with video seminars (such as this conversation with PPS), tip sheets on how to conduct community consultations and work with an architect, an exhaustive series of guides – from funding sources to feasibility studies, planning charrettes and the role of the project manager – templates and examples. There’s also a glossary of urban planning, legal and property management terms, a series of case studies as well as the Artscape Archive documenting 25 years of creative placemaking.

torontoartscape.org
artscapediy.org
@Artscape

 

The community champions: Mend (UK)

Mend is a social enterprise specialising in responsible procurement, planning and placemaking. With an ethos of “Community as Client”, they are not just delivering consultation and strategic services, but also acting as a convenor of ideas by running networking events for different groups. As part of the “Lab”, they look after three networks, each with a different focus, that feed back into their own practice: Urbanistas, “a network for women who love cities, crowdsourcing support for their project or idea” – Planning in the Pub (“the agenda is simple, let’s talk about planning and cities, whilst in the pub”) – and the soon-to-be-launched Source RP, “Responsible Procurement network for the built environment, with a focus on building social value”.

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Roman Road Vacant Units Project

mendlondon.org.uk
@lianemendsacity
@urbanistasuk
@planninginpubs
@source_rp

Virtual Street Art 2: Promenade Nocturne in Marseille

Spotlight

Google have collaborated with French sound artist and urban storyteller Julie de Muer to create an immersive night walk through the back streets of Marseille using the Google Street technology.

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Promenade Nocturne / Night Walk takes the virtual walker in Julie’s footsteps, through the narrow, graffiti-covered ruelles of the Cours Julien neighbourhood in Marseille. The walk is guided by Christophe Perruchi, musician and street art enthusiast, who shares his personal insights. A map shows the recommended route, but also some off-track options in dotted lines, and the location of the 34 “secret” landmarks to check out.

Walk start

The Marseille-by-night atmosphere is conveyed by field recordings – echoing footsteps, music spilling out of bars, buzzing conversations on terraces – and a soundtrack composed by Perruchi.

Artworks and other points of interest to explore are signaled by icons to be clicked on.

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Selected artworks can be explored in more details, with a mini-gallery and a few words about the individual artists.

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It’s not all about street art: historical and cultural facts are part of the visit, such as this quote by Schopenhauer on Marseille.

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A stunning scrolling panorama of the city at night, with clickable points of interests, is also one of the ‘secret’ treasures to unlock.

Panorama with click points

A few 1-minute films – a timelapse video of a mural painting (below), street musicians, a chef describing his favourite dish, an elderly Marseillais recalling a personal story – are interspersed in the walk like as many chance encounters.

Part immersive virtual urban walk with great sound and visual effects, part video game with a territory to explore and treasures to discover, part interactive tourism trailer for Marseille, this first Promenade Nocturne is a captivating experience with many layers to explore.

The walk is available in French and English

 

John Tusa’s Arts Management Anti-Lexicon

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The need to find and use language about the arts that belongs to the arts is as great as ever… The language of the arts must not be the language of management, business or the civil service. We need our own words to define our needs and activities, not an externally imposed lexicon of objectives, outcomes and deliverables in which a sense of purpose becomes a ‘direction of travel’, a difficulty always becomes a ‘challenge’, a dilemma mutates into an ‘issue’, serving your audience becomes ‘maximising stakeholder value’, and clarity and meaning dissolve into fogs of evasion or obfuscation.

John Tusa, Pain in the Arts

Just as I’ve finished to read Engaged with the Arts: Writing from the Frontline, a 2007 series of essays by John Tusa reflecting on his experience as an arts leader after a decade at the helm of the Barbican Centre – a lucky find in my local Oxfam bookshop – he’s already published another book, titled Pain in the Arts, to add his two cents to the debate about the future of arts funding.

The Arts Desk has published a few extracts, from which I’ve borrowed the following anti-lexicon – a damning take on recent developments in arts management lingo.

  • Assessment: “Employed as a justification for excessive intrusion and attempts at supervision.”
  • Benchmark: “A reductive notion that eliminates creative differences and variations.”
  • Customer: “Gone are ‘audience’, ‘listener’, ‘viewer’, ‘passenger’, ‘patient’, ‘traveller’, or any of a dozen different activities and relationships that define a myriad of distinct and particular transactions. ‘Customer’ is literally a one-size-fits-all concept, diminishing particularity and difference.”
  • Discourse: “A pretentious, poshed-up kind of word to describe discussion, debate or any kind of extended intellectual exchange.”
  • Engage: “Why not ‘get involved’?”
  • Holistic: “A grand-sounding word inviting approval of an elevated underlying concept but meaning less than ‘taking many things into account together’. Speakers who use ‘holistic’ are usually trying to bolster a threadbare argument.”
  • Impact (as in “impact studies”): “Here intellectual or artistic activity must demonstrate its case for support by proving in numerical terms that it yields a real ‘impact’ for society, usually social or economic.”
  • Legacy: “Increasingly deployed as a wrap-around word to demand support for a long-term project that it usually failed to deliver.”
  • Narrative: “When I heard an interviewee saying he had been advised by his HR director to improve the way he ‘edited his personal narrative’ – that is, ‘talking about himself at interview’ – it was was clear how far this rot had gone.”
  • Synergy: “A purely hopeful, pre-emptive word, inviting support for actions that claim to deliver hyped claims of success. Whether ‘synergies’ are delivered is rarely examined after the event.”
  • Transformational: “It very rarely proves to be.”

And this is – already – how John Tusa concluded, 7 years ago, his “New ABC of the Arts” in Engaged with the Arts, an update on his 1999 “A to Z of Running an Arts Centre”:

Maybe it’s just me but the shift in the alphabet towards a much fuller, more rigorous, more comprehensive, more demanding set of administrative and managerial criteria is real enough. Some are nonsense. Some are needlessly onerous. Some can actively distort the core purposes of the arts. But they won’t go away. The skill of arts management is to turn the awkward, obfuscating and bureaucratic alphabet into a language that truly serves the arts and their audiences.