Monday, 29 October 2012


'Often an artist will focus so much on the painting that he forgets he is in the act of painting' muses Michel, in one introduction of The Collaborative Drawing Machine to a group of soon-to-be collaborators at the Worlds Together Conference last month at Tate Modern. The Machine is one of several projects formulated by Brazilian couple Michel Groisman and Gabriela Duvivier which focus upon the performative experience of the self in the act of drawing.  In this work, the process of producing is more important than any finished product, as participants are given the chance to paint 'as one' with seven other people.

The Machine has a DIY aesthetic and is made with modest materials. A tangle of pulley mechanisms, ropes and pipes link up around a large steel frame. Eight emptied plastic milk bottles of paint are hung in pairs at each top corner - three hold the primary colours, two black, three white. All of the components converge in a single needle held a couple of centimetres from the floor. 

Simple harnesses are looped around four of the participants who together determine the position of the needle. The other four are given two valves, which, when opened, release paint down to the needle. A higgledy-pigglydy network of rainbow coloured lines snake across the slab of thick paper. A full kaleidoscope of incredible turquoises, emerald greens, clementines and pinks cross, combine and blend; when the needle stops, they pool into psychedelic lakes of colour. 

Different groups react differently to the task. Some want to take control of the process by vocalising instructions, others set themselves tasks - attempting a circle was a popular ambition. Most groups however work silently together, deep in concentration and strangely mesmerised by the invention on the floor that they have created in conjunction with the strangers around them. Everyone watches the needle. Only when it stops or the inks stop flowing through some unspoken decision of all of the collaborators do we look up. The spell breaks and we are all in the room again. 

The experience is a deceptively simple one and one that has less to do with drawing than with re-imagining social structures and investigating ways of communication. I asked Michel a few questions about the history of the Machine and the ideas behind it.

       S P E C T A C U L A R U M: How long have you been working on the Machine? To what extent does it relate to other projects or past performances?

MICHEL GROISMAN: It was in 2009 that we began to develop the Machine; since that time it has undergone several changes, both in its appearance and mode of functioning. During this time we also went through transformations, because each time we would find different ways of how to guide the public and different possible games to accomplish with the machine. However, the idea to use the act of drawing as a pretext for playful interaction between people came long before that. Perhaps the first time we tried this was in 2006, using pieces of wood which allowed two or more people to draw together. But this idea of proposing an interaction between people through games started even earlier, with other projects such as Octopus and Help Yourself, games where the purpose is not to win but to have fun in discovering oneself through the relationship with the other.

       S P: Which other kinds of art practices would you align your work with? Whose work in particular has served as a strong influence?

M.G: I understand art as a field of self-research and the world. In this sense our greatest influence has been experiments related to art and education, Buddhism and Alexander Technique. To mention some names: John Cage, Chögyam Trungpa, and Keith Johnstone.

       S P: What does the future hold for the machine following the conference at Tate? Did you set it up in Paris and will you be using it again in Rio?

M.G: Our participation with the Drawing Machine with the Worlds Together Conference was great! Several people have contacted us asking for some more information, but we have not yet confirmed anything. But as soon as we receive any confirmation you will be the first person we tell!!

Watch this space for updates on Michel and Gabriela’s fantastic projects. I will certainly follow their work with great interest! For now, here are a couple of videos that give a sense of the way in which the Collaborative Drawing Machine was presented at Tate Modern - Michel tinkering with the mechanics of it between drawings, and, throughout the painting process, Gabriele translating Michel's poetic explanations and metaphors from Portuguese. (My particular favourite was his comparison of the experience to a football game ‘…but with eight players...and there's no goal...and nobody loses...’)

The Collaborative Drawing Machine, Tate Modern, September 2012 [listen to Michel at 03:48]

The Collaborative Drawing Machine, Tate Modern, September 2012

Tuesday, 23 October 2012


Last Sunday evening, down in the deep red-walled basement of The Book Club, independent illustration and poetry magazine inc. threw an Interactive Poetry Party. Under a low ceiling crowded with light bulbs, we listened to and collectively wrote poetry, drank, drew and were drawn at this homespun-style underground event. The crowd seemed equally in awe as I was of the acts and of the setting. The energy was palpable in the room – intermittedly tense as we held our breath listening to Zena Edwards’ melodic tones, loudly and cheerily released in shared laughter at Raphael Attar’s surreal variety hour.

Throughout the evening, illustrator-animators Phoebe May Halstead and Hannah Simpson captured the punters and performers in a series of quick pen and ink sketches. The super-talented duo transformed the night into beautifully composed, expressive little drawings teamed with lines of verse lifted from each performance.

I highly recommend a browse through Phoebe May Halstead’s animations found here. There are some really strong line drawings to be found on Hannah Simpson's site here. See also an animation by the two girls in collaboration here; it has something of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine and BLU street art without wholly committing to either and successfully holding its own style.

Learn more about inc. magazine and its brilliant, innovative founder-editors Will & Anya here. The next issue will be out later this year and will be found in stockists across London, a list of which is on their website.

Hannah Simpson and Phoebe May Halstead

Saturday, 20 October 2012


The Whitechapel Gallery have recently opened their doors to spectacular new exhibition Mel Bochner: If the Colour Changes. Last week I was lucky enough to be accepted onto a small seminar at the gallery, which included a preview of the show before a Q&A session with the seminal conceptual artist.

The exhibition includes pieces from the 1960s to work made this year. ‘Once you recognise that my work is an analytical attempt to rethink painting’s meanings and functions,’ Bochner writes in the foreword to the exhibition catalogue, ‘you realise that it is all one continuous investigation’. But it isn’t only painting he investigates. Over an illustrious career of nearly half a century, Bochner has returned again and again to unpick the various systems of representation that we rely on in trying to make our world comprehensible. Using different media, or ‘delivery systems’ as he terms them, Bochner layers, juxtaposes, or combines these systems; cancelling or disrupting their legibility, and questioning their reliability.

Actual Size (arm), 1968 

In a formative early work, Bochner took a photograph of his arm. Recognising that in photography, ‘there is no mechanism to say what size anything is’, he placed his arm next to a line marked with a length of twelve inches. But the verifying measurement in the photograph is impossible to verify in its photographic reproduction; what is more, it is of course now false. How are we to know if it was correct in the first place? This was the last photograph Bochner ever made, but it had a decisive effect on his work as he began to consider the relationship between measurement and belief.

Three decades later, in 1998, Bochner would make Event Horizon: a series of differently coloured canvases carefully aligned across a wall, inscribed with various horizontal measurements. Bochner related how a ‘very important’ German reviewer had walked out of an exhibition of Event Horizon, furious about the artist’s use of imperial measurements. He took out a metric tape measure and exclaimed angrily, ‘But I can’t measure it! How do I know the dimensions are correct?’ Although Bochner lost the much-coveted review, he delighted in this, the ‘perfect’ response to the work: ‘[the reviewer] was seeing it as pure meaning...he realised that measurements were built on trust. At that moment, I got into his head. That’s got to be a good thing’.

Event Horizon, 1998 (section of larger work)

Many critics are keen to situate Bochner’s work in the 1960s ‘period of doubt’, a questioning of the claims made for painting as a vehicle for ‘truth’ of the psyche of the individual (Abstract Expressionist) painter, further expanded to question the ‘truth’ or objectivity of accepted systems of measurement and communication. I asked Bochner what he felt about this. Did the realisation that we had only belief in, not knowledge of, established systems have to be ‘momentarily chilling’ (Weiss) or induce a ‘nauseating vertigo’ of uncertainty (Borchardt-Hume)? Or, could his work in fact be understood as a neutral or even celebratory reflection on the communal systems we have set up around ourselves in order to better communicate with one another?

Bochner’s response to this was evasive, and somewhat unsatisfactory. ‘I don’t listen to what critics say about my work, in case it changes how I feel about it,’ he replied; then, laughing, ‘but I’m not as good natured as I’m appearing!’

This was Bochner’s response to many of the more probing questions of the afternoon. He’d start: ‘well, I’m not sure about that, but...’ and then go on to tell a relevant anecdote from his career history. At first I found this frustrating – why wouldn’t he engage us in these debates? His regular retreat to these simple stories and events seemed to be totally at odds with the deeply philosophical nature of his work. But Bochner’s refusal to reveal his own interpretations of his work is a manoeuvre to regale any notion that his ideas should be any more valid than anyone else’s, and to have his work speak for itself, rather than serve as an intermediary for the artist’s expression.

This resistance to ‘self-expression’ is seen again in Bochner's thesaurus paintings, where he ‘lets the language speak for itself…without interference’. In these works, Bochner uses Roget’s Thesaurus to generate colourful word chains. The language deteriorates as the eye follows the text downwards, as the terms become increasing colloquial and often vulgar: ‘I start with a formal, neutral word’ Bochner explained, ‘and let it fall apart’. The language is active, and the paintings almost performative – whether spoken out loud or read silently the words and phrases seem to have a voice of their own. And yet of course we imagine or project the tone of this voice through our own associations.

Language systems, like measuring systems, are in Bochner's work revealed as fallible, and subjective: ‘That language is a direct conduit to thought, short-circuiting emotion: this is a fallacy. Language is not transparent; it is full of ideologies’. In seeing so much of Bochner’s work brought together in this new exhibition, it is impossible not to join the artist in his interrogation of these ideologies and accepted ‘truths’. Definitely worth an afternoon’s deep thinking.

Mel Bochner: If the Colour Changes runs until 30th December.

Babble, 2011

Sputter, 2010

Die, 2005

Oh Well, 2010

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


To coincide with the Frieze weekend and the consequential influx of art collectors to London over the next few days, Los Angeles-based OH-WOW are exhibiting some of Scott Campbell’s works in a pop-up gallery on Hanbury Street E1. Go past the glass-fronted space and you see some strikingly high-shine, high-resolution C-prints of the moon - fifteen in all – showing sequential stages of its waxing and waning. Is this another work that takes interplanetary relations for inspiration? Could the meditation on the galactic be a recurrent preoccupation of artists of 2012?

But wait – go inside, draw closer and everything changes. The works are not glossy photographs of planetary craters but thin, unevenly carved discs of foam sunk into resin. Look closer still to find that what you thought were the untouched surfaces of a remote landmass are apparently not so remote – they have been defaced, with the type of amateur graffiti found on the back of a toilet door or in a teenage diary. ‘I MISS YOU GUYS’ etched on a gravestone, crossed hearts, rainbows, NO WAY JOSE in bubble writing, a scrawled LOL ASAP 4EVA.

Scott Campbell is a tattoo-artist by trade (to the stars apparently), but he has made a whole host of artworks that play with the tropes of popular culture. His works aren't anything particularly groundbreaking in their contribution to critical theory perhaps, but they can be quite entertaining – at least for you to say ‘oh wow, that’s cool’ and then be on your way. That was my experience today anyway.

I’ve ruined the surprise, but only to get you to go – OH-WOW will fly back across the Atlantic after 13th October. See their press release for this show here.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012


The longest-running and most broadly-spanning of the monthly late-night openings, East London's First Thursdays came round again last week. Visitors were welcomed (often with a glass of beer or cheap wine) into a breadth of exhibitions extending from Hackney Downs’ E8 to Canary Wharf’s E14, from the EC1s of Clerkenwell over to the extreme-easterners of E15 - all until the ripe old hour of 9pm.

This month I bypassed the trendy-artistic hubs of Hoxton and Shoreditch to visit Bethnal Green. Just down from Cambridge Heath train station, multi-purpose arts and events gallery Oval Space were showing Joint Ventures, an exhibition to showcase the collaborative practice of seven different artistic partnerships. The works are varied: of watercolour, C-prints, video and Super8, photography, sculpture, installation  and performance, none forego representation. Perhaps the diversity of the works is due to the focus of the exhibition on process rather than product. Interestingly however, the process of collaboration itself is not evident from the pieces’ appearances, neither do any of the participating artists treat it explicitly as a theme.

Two particularly ambitious works caught my attention. Xavier Poultney and Hannah Barton hired a walk-in cooler into which we were invited to walk, one by one, with only a small, handheld night vision apparatus as an ocular guide. It is pitch black, and the temperature is -20°C. In other words, you are near-blind, alone, and it is extremely cold. After gaining confidence to move, you crash into a box in the centre, or think you see something on the wall. Temporary terror strikes when, briefly, you cannot find the handle to the door. Lost in this nothingness, even your body seems to have dissolved; I kept trying to find my shoes through the weak eye of the night vision monocular.

Elsewhere in the exhibition, a work by the ARKA group (a collaborative practice between Ben Jeans Houghton and Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau) also plunges us into darkness. Viewers are invited to put on a thick felt hood and ‘listen to a conversation between themselves and the universe’ through large headphones, holding a small meteorite in their hands. The meteorite is heavy, and warm from the previous person; the rumbling voice (male) growls: ‘you cling to the rock, as it clings to you’. Again we are made to pause and think of our relation to our environment, this time on a galactic scale.

Of course, not all of First Thursdays’ visual offerings will be as stimulating. Just up the road The Arch Gallery exhibited Jonathan Parsons’ slightly bland colour-pencilled graphics and A-Level standard symbolism (letters spelling ‘live’ or ‘evil’ depending on your position in the room and dripping with red paint); nearby Cell Project Space showed a video by Mark Aerial Waller, which was either terrible or brilliant, I couldn't decide (have a look for yourself here).

Whatever your conclusions, First Thursdays provides excellent exposure for lesser-known spaces and artists. The next will be, perhaps predictably, on Thursday 1st November 2012. See this map for participating spaces...plan your trip well!

NIL, Xavier Poultney + Hanah Barton 

Beginnings, The ARKA Group

Joint Ventures runs until 14th October 2012.