2015 July: Sporadic Research in Leeds


As part of my current pretty random approach to research, I came across a book, Internet Art by Rachel Greene (2004). A really straightforward, but highly informative historical-critical tour of art responding to the internet as medium and subject up until the date of publication. Being an internet baby, born right into the time when the first internet artists were establishing themselves as something of a movement, a lot of their work is already outdated due to the rapid growth of the internet since then, and it is hard to appreciate what was being made at the time without being introduced to it. It was a fascinating read, and I feel like I relived my childhood years as an adult. Many things I take for granted about the space of the internet were put back into check: everything about it is based on protocols (browsers, desktops, connections between servers and clients) that are today convention and rarely questioned. Yet from the start, this sudden vacuum of communicational potential invited a great need for ideas on how to construct and present that space for usage. So almost everything about the internet is malleable, and a lot of experimentation with the basic concepts of browsing, archiving growing information online, and the human-computer interface were brought into question in fascinating ways by artists who dabbled in the technological developments of their time as they were happening. I was introduced to Heath Bunting, Alexei Shulgin, Olia Lialina, RtMark, Shelley Jackson (My Body), Yael Kanarek (World of Awe), Jodi.org, Mouchette.org and so many crazy takes and obsessions and experiments practised by these artists.

Of particular interest to me were the ways in which the internet provided a basis for reinventing the nature of narrative. Hypertext, I learned, was the notion of “non linear archiving” – a concept that preceded the first computers and provided a model for creating digital libraries which could be accessed and edited by anyone at any one time. That in itself immediately implies a release from the predominantly linear narratives we are traditionally exposed to (although, not exclusively. Think oral storytelling traditions that transcend generations). Then there is also the multimedia potential of the internet, that can extend itself to the format in which we tell stories. And finally, there is the psychological space of the internet, into which we seem to teleport while using it, and in which we are called to consider projections of self when we interact with other users/audiences online – ultimately transforming perhaps the way we narrate our lives and identities offline as well as online. These three aspects of the internet have long converged with my interests in storytelling.

In this regard I found of particular interest the site mouchette.org, which explores the interface of a website (with its interactivity, clickability, multimodality, and information storage capability) as a tool for construing a narrative by misappropriating the image and character Mouchette, a 13 year old teenage protagonist of 1967 French film of the same name, directed by Robert Bresson. The capabilities of these new tools and interfaces provide a playground for telling stories and engaging a “reader”. Started in 1996, the project became iconic, and like so many other online creative enterprises, gained notoriety and raised intellectual property issues – especially due to the degree the original Mouchette character is perverted into new forms via mouchette.org. I went on this site myself, and found myself engrossed. The non-linearity of Mouchette’s story and identity was all the more real because of its distributed nature – even when my exploration got down to gritty juxtapositions that forged unsettling, unnameable sentiments regarding the character. I am much in agreement with the Gell/Stratton notion of the “distributed person”, and find this model of the person coming into full practical force when stories are told in a pattern that mimics this distributed characteristic. Certain things about Mouchette were not told to me explicitly, allowing for unusual, ambiguous sentiments to emerge within me about her, a bit like connecting the dots about real people I meet. The disturbing page asking you to come “closer” and “lick the screen”, or leave comments about what Mouchette tastes like in an HTML form, moments from which a button entitled “meet my parents” leads you to yet another unexpected and dark page. On this page images of pulsating raw meat are tiled across the background with texts suggesting an incestuous past. The hysterical imagery and suggestive text produced such a sense of taboo darkness that it felt strangely intuitive, although nothing explicit was said. Waiting for a page, the contents of which you know are wholly unexpected, also produces a small sense of regret, that you ought not to venture too close to this character by clicking inviting buttons. There is a page full of Mouchette’s “poetry”, in which the author (who for a very long time remained completely anonymous) had devised a program that jumbled 3 letters in each word of a text fed into it, and produced a totally incomprehensible rewriting of, say, an old English poem, that nonetheless still bore distinctly recognisable rhythms and lyricisms characteristic to the language of the original text. The resulting poems were a bunch of automated jibberish, that nonetheless sounded distinctly French, Dutch or English. Then there is a page in which Mouchette invites you to suggest appropriate ways for a 13 year old to commit suicide, and another inviting you to find an invisible button on a dark page that leads you through a secret link. This is a world balancing the mute darkness of suppressed childhood trauma with the lighthearted pink glitzy joy of a thirteen year old girl’s bedroom – a balance I found disturbing, but to be struck awfully well, and innovatively.

RtMark has twisted conventions of narrative online in a more politicized manner, by impersonating the sites of big corporations and political bodies online, and harnessing the simple copying technology enabled by the web and computers to offer guerilla alternatives to rules and notions established by corporate/political powers. My favourite example is their online invitation to participants to buy Barbie and GI Joe dolls, and swap their respective fitted electronic devices eliciting gender-charged catchphrases. The barbies (now with the voices of GI Joe dolls) and vice versa, were carefully inserted back into their packaging and returned to stores to be resold – causing (understandably) many families to complain on behalf of dissatisfied or disturbed children! This only exacerbated the media attention this intervention received, and a campaign was launched to “save” GI Joe and Barbie from the voices they were fated with. It was possibly unethical with regards to the kids, but it really made stark the issue of hyper gender indoctrination via children’s toys and icons, and the really quite perverted and hysterical ideals these images compel children to fixate on.

Anyways, there were loads of cool examples of internet art challenging preconceptions of value, intellectual property, virtual reality, our corporeal existence, the nature of narrative, technocratic elitism, and the countless other parametres this tremendous technology influences, with regards to our lives and culture. I am very interested in my own presence on the internet, and what I mean on there, in my various guises. Having learned to write in HTML earlier this year, I think I am going to have a little fun with non linear narratives myself. But the internet is far more sophisticated now than in 2004, when this book was written, and I am really keen on seeing an updated overview of internet art in my subsequent research, and perhaps keeping up to date with festivals like Ars Electronica.

The Village Book Store, Leeds

Janus, Lala Albert (2014)

One great discovery in Leeds was the Village Book Store up in the Corn Exchange. One of my favourite places in the city centre now. The best overview of current zines and artist’s publications I’ve come across to date, I could spend forever in there. I was really enjoying the various formats they came in, and came across a small comic with interesting imagery – I didn’t find the drawing ability amazing but there was something eerie and interesting about the depictions and almost wordless narrative that reminded me of my novel-in-progress. It was called Janus by Lala Albert. A lot of the zines were heavily based in fashion, or putting up a front of young, spirited “attitude” and I wasn’t particularly interested in those, although the variety of everything was intriguing. I am not convinced however, that in this age I want to go printing loads of copies, or make people pay for them. I think I am inclined to provide most if not all of my digital material for free, and make ebooks of the written works. I have a feeling that our society is evolving into one which can accommodate an open attitude to art production and sharing, and I do hope my art can be separated from notions of a career as I progress in my practice.

Lucy Beech, The Tetley

I have by now developed a substantially detailed (though of course, forever significantly incomplete) map of the art scene in Leeds, and I’ve developed a kind of mechanism for keeping updated on all kinds of music and arts events in the city, which to me was and is a big hurdle both here and in London. I constantly feel out of the know and somehow barred from the frontiers of contemporary culture. But breaking down into the research, and getting to know people, though requiring at first baby steps and diligence, slowly nestles into a comfortable rhythm that you can follow and enjoy, and that can continue to develop as you continue staying in the loop and sharing ideas. I do believe a network is important for me in art, for the sake of pure sanity if not producing relevant work too. I am glad to say I think I am getting the hang of it, and seem to be much more up to date than I was.

One of the events I attended led to a wonderful discovery: the opening of Lucy Beech’s first solo exhibition at the Tetley, Leeds. I’ve begun to like going to shows without too much prior knowledge of what I will see. She had two single screen film works and a couple more shorts on screens that faced each other. I delighted in all the films, which took such a familiar, mundane and arguably rather gloomy subject matter and turned it almost into some sort of sci fi spectacle. That subtlety in estranging the viewer to her own environment is a balance I greatly enjoy in art, and one I often try to strike myself.

Me and Mine, Lucy Beech at The Tetley, Leeds (2015)

All the films featured a cast of women working for a funeral service, with various rolls (funeral director, embalmer, undertaker…) and took as a premise their female circle, professional concerns and interrelationships in particular, but more broadly explored the communities maintained by women, support groups, community effort, and the ways in which traditionally perceived female faculties of care and empathy factor into these contemporary communities. The films were shot with artisan directorial care, and were as such instantly immersive. The spectrum of ladies was familiar, their characters somewhat archetypal and differentiating from one another. The show leads you round through each of their perspectives as they meet and engage in slightly unorthodox spiritual communions. One woman organises an “empathy circuit training” session, in which women sit at various stations equipped with tools with which to carry out the act of empathising, while an aurator tells her story. One station provides a cigarette for smoking. One station provides a cup of water that must be gargled for the duration of the confession and spat out at the end. Another provides electrodes to be plastered to thighs, administering a small current of electricity to keep quads vibrating while the confessor tells her strange story; how she found it difficult to give up online poker, for instance. Then the group of five women rotate, a new speaker relates her story, and the others take their places and prepare to systematically empathise in this manner. Filmed with an unassuming gaze, and dramatised in a manner that stayed as true as possible to the social code of real social gatherings of a similar nature, gave the whole piece a fantastically unnerving character. The humour steered clear of parody, the ridicule adding only a hint of satire. This balance of loyalty and critique to subject I find to open up to me a whole world that seems so contemporary, so relevant, and which had been right under my nose all along. It does what art should do, it tickles something latent and unquestioned back into my attention, such that even now as I struggle to find the words to explain the relationships between the women, or what these empathy activities represent, I have a means of quantifying sentiments that have simmered invisibly within me in my very living all along. It is most interesting when art targets something seemingly so terribly normal as female support groups. This gentle environment of cushioning tolerance and compassion has a safety-net and mending function in society that goes unquestioned – yet in these films it is turned into something of a carnivorous feast, and attributes some strange violence and quasi-religious atmosphere to their proceedings. The process of enunciation through to retirement within one of the films, is even described by one “course leader” as a “three course meal”, in which new members are received as starters, mature members main courses, whereas the course leader preparing to back out and retire, “get(s) to be dessert”. An iconography pervades in the videos, recalling mysticisms of sacrificial ritual and dark magic. The women become less motherly and more witchy. The organisation of females exploring new territory – in the form of slightly off-the-wall psychological therapies designed to train the funeral workers’ assumedly natural capability to provide care – calls to mind the way in which females with unusual power, or females organising themselves to harness power in collective protest, is considered to have historically given birth to the idea of the witch. What is this strange thing this woman – or these women – are doing? What are they huddling around for, what are they getting up to? What are they using their strange powers for outside of motherhood? I don’t know what to conclude, only that it was a fascinating show, and I greatly look forward to hearing her talk about it in September.

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