Category Archives: Writing

Arctic Circle Residency

ARCTIC BLOG

In October 2015 I went on the Arctic Circle autumn art/science expedition to Svalbard, the Northernmost permanently settled place on Earth. There were 26 artists and one climate change scientist on board Antigua, a barquentine tall ship, and we spent three weeks sailing in and around the fjords on the western coast of Spitsburgen.

[The following was written in Longyearbyen just before I travelled back to Manchester]

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Longyearbyen

We flew into Longyearbyen, the largest town in Svalbard, with a population of around 2000. Founded in 1906, Longyearbyen has historically revolved around the coal industry. We arrived at a time of upheaval as the coal mine (the main source of employment in Longyearbyen) had laid off most its employees just the week before we arrived.

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Knowing I would be sharing a very small space with lots of people for three weeks, I decided to spend a bit of time on my own. Longyearbyen is the only place you can wonder around on your own legally, outside the limit of the town you need to be escorted by an armed guard to protect you from polar bears. I hiked up the hill to an old mine which was closed in 1968. It was stunning, with all the old machinery still there and the building being taken over by ice. It was reminiscent of abandoned buildings in the desert with sand blowing up the walls but with ice instead of sand. I met a man from Texas who was out here working for one of the oil companies looking for oil. There were lots of amazing rooms to explore and hundreds of rickety stairs.

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The night before we set sail I was outside videoing the full moon and taking photos of the stars when the aurora started.

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Our Guides

The guides are amazing women, around my age. They all live up here in the far north. Sarah lives in a yurt in the campsite at Longyearbyen – hers is the only tent left in winter. She talks about gradually building up the skills and experience to live in this environment independently. She learnt how to ski so she could go on long distance trails pulled by her husky Nemo. She goes for days at a time, staying in little huts along the way. Her artwork is also great; once during the winter months when it’s dark all day and night, she asked a friend to drop her at a secluded cabin with no way of knowing the time. She wanted to experience being lost in time and was there for nearly 3 months.

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Kristen lives 11km out of town with her boyfriend and 12 huskies. They have no running water so have to bring it from town, and sometimes get completely snowed in. She talks about hunting reindeer and eating every part. You can even eat the antlers if you kill them at the beginning of hunting season while they are still soft.

 

The ship

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I went down to the engine room of the ship to shoot video and take photos. It was great, and reminded me of the boiler room and tech services cupboards at MOSI. They have a little workshop area and it smells like grease and heat.

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I filmed Moritz (the mate) filling in the nautical charts. They need to do this everyday to make sure there’s no new rocks in the path. He normally does this between 4 and 8am when he’s on watch.

Most of the time the ship was powered by the mighty 4 stroke diesel Volvo engine but we were able to sail for 2 long stretches. Utah (the other mate) taught us how to belay so we could help get the sails up. I volunteered to be woken up at 3 am to help reconfigure them.

I took my homemade sextant to try trace our path through my amateur knowledge of celestial navigation.

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The voyage

I spent a number of days being unable to get over the beauty of the landscape. I found it hard to make work as everything I would normally do seemed so insignificant in comparison to the vast beautiful landscape.

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Every day the sun sets 20 minutes earlier. Sunrise and sunset last forever.

Most days we had a morning and an afternoon landing. This involved getting dropped off on the shore in one of the zodiacs. While on shore we had a fixed area where we were allowed to work, with the 4 guides in position looking out for polar bears. Everyone would usually spread out as much as we could, doing various projects. There were people skating on ice, wading into the sea with cameras, lying on the floor. Lots of GoPros and sound recording. We would inevitably get in each other’s shots or recordings. Every few days, instead of a typical afternoon landing we had the choice to go for a hike.

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I did some Engine Maintenance Performances with a little Hero’s engine I made out of washed up junk which spins in the water.

We saw so many amazing glaciers, the blue colour is very intense. Many were very active and there was the regular thunder of ice calving into the sea. Usually by the time you heard it and looked round there was just a large cloud of powder where the ice once was. Sometimes a particularly large calving would cause the sea to first suck in in eery silence before large waves would come right up on shore and crash up the sides of icebergs. In places where there was lots of small chunks of ice in the water there were popping sounds, like Rice Krispies in milk. Older glaciers don’t have the blue colour, but look more like rocks, with the stripes of their geological history.

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It’s interesting to think that every piece of wood you see up here must had traveled a very long way. I haven’t seen a living tree for weeks now. It means that you can’t see the wind on land.

On one of the landings we saw a trappers station. We were able to explore it because it’s currently in the process of being sold. There was a wooden structure for hanging meat and lots of dogs houses. Everything seemed to be there ready to go, even sheds and a boat. It appears up here if you leave, you just leave everything behind.

 

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On some landings there was beautiful tundra (the ecosystem that exists when there’s permafrost). We had to be careful while walking, as it can take years to regrow if trodden on a lot. There was one landing where the light was beautiful, and the tundra was a rich rust colour. I took some videos of the guides from afar.

One of the most memorable landings was at Smeerenburg (blubber town). Smeerenburg is where there was once a settlement of dutch whalers. There were the remains of huge fire pits made from earth and whale blubber where they would melt and refine the blubber. The ground had been stained yellow by all the blubber too. Smeerenburg was also where the walruses were, around 8 of them. We were able to get within a few metres of them and they loved to show off in the water in front of us.

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After one landing I went for a skinny dip! There was snow on the sand and ice in the water. Getting in wasn’t all that hard, it actually felt pretty good. When I got out my body felt great – super warm. But my feet were so painful and I felt very nauseous after I got my clothes back on. It wasn’t until I was back in my cabin taking a shower that my feet started to ‘come back’.

I collaborated with Josh from LA on a little boat project. He’d been making ice boats from a silicon mould (he had to freeze them in the freezer because it wasn’t cold enough outside!). I tried to make a steam engine for his boat with some copper tubing. We took it out on the zodiac and let it go.

After days of complete wilderness and not seeing another person or ship, we went to Ny Alesund, a small scientific research station. There are only around 50 people living there over winter. We arrived late afternoon so were able to wonder around a little. There were some impressive satellite dishes on the top of a hill. The plan was to go back the next day and have someone show us the airship mast and witness the launch of a weather balloon (as well as post postcards from the northernmost post office in the world). Unfortunately a storm came during the night. When we got up the next day we were told that we’d had to leave in the night and weren’t able to go back to Ny Alesund.

Pyramiden

After more days of beautiful wilderness and glaciers and ice formations, we again met civilisation (sort of) in Pyramiden. Pyramiden is an abandoned Russian coal mining town. It was founded in 1910 and sold to the Soviet Union in 1927. It was a model communist community with everyone living and eating together. There was a tower block for single women called Paris, one for men called London, and the families were in ‘Crazy House’. It was the only mine in Svalbard not destroyed in the war so has a mixture of 30s buildings and lots of buildings from the 70s when money was thrown into expanding it. Over 1000 people lived there during its peak and it was abandoned in 1998 after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. We were met by Sasha, who’s one of around 5 people who live there now, all in one hotel. He’s been there for 4 years.

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The town remains basically intact. Everything was left. We were able to explore 3 of the buildings – the canteen, the culture house and the swimming pool. There were so many rooms I soon felt completely alone and much of it was pitch black so I had to use the flash of my camera to explore (on the first day I didn’t have my head torch). I found rooms of musical instruments, changing rooms with rows of sandals, a projection room with reels and reels of film, old offices, gymnastics equipment, large once grand open spaces. The town had a well equipped hospital and was nearly self sufficient with imported soil, greenhouses and a farm. The residential buildings had metal boxes hanging out of every window – fridges. There is the Northernmost statue of Lenin in front of the culture centre and I played on the Northernmost grand piano.

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I made a new Production Rings video in the basement of the swimming pool.

 

This has been a phenomenal experience. I’ve fallen in love with the Arctic, and dream of the darkness and solitude experienced by those that live out here in the beautiful vast wilderness.

Revolution I: Industrialisation

Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Artist as Archeologist

Industrialisation has become an abstract entity rooted in history. You can go to a museum and see machines as artifacts, and hear the stories of the hardships of workers, with the same distancing from reality as a child reading a ‘Horrible Histories’ book. Perhaps the current need of artists to revisit our industrial past stems from their desire to keep it current. After all, industrialisation is only a matter of history for the western world, but in other places industrialisation is happening right now. Even here in Manchester, industry didn’t start properly declining until the 1960s, so it’s solidly fixed in living memory. And of course the effects of industry will continue long after operation ceases through climate change.

Hannah Leighton-Boyce explores history and memory, leading to an inquiry into the legacy of industry in much of her work. She often works with found objects or past occurrences, unearthing things that have been lost to history. The now defunct textile manufacturing of Northern England is a recurrent theme within her most recent works. For this reason she naturally finds herself working with industrial heritage sites. These mill museums represent the antithesis to Leighton-Boyce’s work in a way – they are the very institutions responsible for burying certain memories, whilst turning others into artefacts. Her work deals with these issues in a subtle, non-confrontational way, thereby working within the constraints of these institutions while still preserving the integrity of the ideas.


The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura ©Hannah Leighton-Boyce

Hannah Leighton-Boyce’s piece The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura was part of the exhibition Cloth and Memory {2} at Salts Mill in 2013. The site-specific work was housed within the walls of the Salts Mill spinning room (formerly the largest industrial room in the World). The piece consisted of 7 camera obscuras installed into the ventilation alcoves of the previously windowless room. By revealing these never-before-seen views, the piece reactivates the Victorian sense of wonder. A contemporary art audience could easily mistake the work for light boxes. However the longer contemplation time the viewer is encouraged to take by kneeling on a cushion to view the scenes, means the mechanical simplicity of the camera obscura is revealed (through a slowly moving cloud or a flying bird).


If Walls Could Talk – The Last Yarn




The World Said, And The Consequence Was ©Hannah Leighton Boyce

The Windowless Shed Camera Obscura was the catalyst for two new works by Leighton-Boyce. One was If Walls Could Talk – The Last Yarn. This piece consists of a film by Mary Stark, and balls of wool. The film documents Leighton-Boyce hand spinning wool found within the walls of the room. Wool wasn’t the only thing she found in the walls though. The piece The World Said, And The Consequence Was is an archive of over 100 objects all also found in the walls. The collection contains various victorian industrial and non-industrial paraphernalia – a sewing needle, bobbins, broken machinery, cogs, brushes, trade meeting tickets, a boot, a wrist protector, cigarette packets and much much more. The sense of wonder prevails. For what reason are the walls filled with all this stuff?

Leighton-Boyce describes the piece as a “memorial to the act of finding”. Finding can be a very emotional thing. in this case it was never on the cards – she was faced with a large, clean, bare space. She says:

Within the now vast and empty space of the spinning room, these small dark rooms recessed along the outer walls were, it seems, the perfect space for discarding, hiding, loosing, and preserving not only fragments of wool but also a wide range of objects. Once I began, the event continued to unfold, object after object entangled with wool, rust, oil and dirt raging from centuries old to more recent and familiar lifetimes. It was an incredibly moving experience. Each small room contained an archive, which unlike a typical museum collection, crossed time and hierarchy; from the everyday and personal items to industrial remains, creating a unique portrait of the people who worked there and a narrative of the events around the space.

I remember thinking when seeing her piece East Wing 1939 – 2011 that there is an unnerving sense of precariousness to a practice reliant on ‘finding’, but somehow the finds keep coming. Another interesting thing about this piece is the fact that in a way, it never existed. It was documented but never viewed directly. This is due to the fact that despite found by Leighton-Boyce, the objects of course belong to Salts Mill. The collection has been re-archived. No doubt some items have been discarded as insignificant (given the limited space of a gallery archive, they wouldn’t bother storing hundreds of cigarette packets and sweet wrappers). If any of the items are ever shown again it will be in a new context – one as an object in a museum. So the term ‘memorial’ does seem appropriate. The objects, and the piece with them, have been re-buried within the walls of an institution.

The proposed work Tenter Lines [working title] also deals directly with the historicising of industrialisation. The work will respond to the site of the tenter fields above Helmshore Mill and will explore the shifting relationships between people and place, culminating in a ‘happening’ this summer marking the sites of where the tenter frames once stood. Tenter frames were used in wool production to keep cloth under tension whilst drying so it wouldn’t shrink. These large frames and expanses of fabric would once have been a dominant feature above Helmshore Mill, as well as the constant flow of workers carrying cloth up and down the hill. But where the frames once stood is now a housing estate; built in the 1970s, the estate coincides with the decline of industry and birth of the digital revolution. Like many Mill towns, Helmshore, which once had a strong local economy, is now primarily a commuter village, and the estate shows no indication of its industrial past – not even a street name. So Leighton-Boyce is unearthing a hidden history and again creating a kind of memorial. By mapping the site with an action, the work will mimick the the fact that it was the action that marked the place previously, not any permanent structure.

www.hannahleightonboyce.com

Production Lines

There are many examples of artists referencing the aesthetics, repetition and persistence of production lines. But when discussing artwork in relation to production lines, it’s hard not to also think about the working methods of artists and their manufacturing practices. in this blog I have highlighted projects that reference the factory production line directly in content and also more indirectly in process – the projects chosen all rely on the work of others in some way. Cohen Van Balen employ actual factory workers to perform their piece, Paul Granjon enlists volunteers from the local community, Carlos Amorales wants the gallery visitor to manufacture the art, and István Csákány makes his artwork so delicate that it relies on constant maintenance from gallery technicians.

Many artists employ the skills of others to manufacture their art, acting as overlookers; they reside over a project, taking full intellectual authorship over it, but enlisting workers to do much of the making. With a clear distinction between physical work and intellectual work, labour can be divided into separate skill stations in order to increase production speed and quality.

But what about when artists use unskilled labour, as is usually the case when enlisting volunteers, or gallery goers? There is clearly more going on than just exploitation. Relying on others is problematic, especially when the successful completion of a project relies on the work of unskilled, unpaid workers.

The term ‘carry the can’ is thought to derive from cotton mills, as it was someone’s responsibility to physically move the partly processed cotton from one part of the mill to the next. Although basic unskilled labour, it carried a great deal of responsibility as workers relied on being supplied with product in order to do their work; if a link in the chain was broken it effected everything in front of it.

In Oriel Factory, Paul Granjon is the classic socially engaged artist, trying to give something back to the local community. He has relinquished control over the project in order to maximise the experience of others. The workers are taught skills and are free to define their own tasks and product. The artist’s responsibility has shifted from a pure making role to a managing one; he takes responsibility not only for the creation of a successful exhibition but also for providing a beneficial experience to others. If the unskilled, unpaid workers neither perform nor benefit, the project surely fails. Although, the intellectual labour is still clearly defined (the participants take authorship over their own pieces and these are displayed in a separate part of the gallery), the physical content of the final exhibition is left unknown until the worker’s labour is realised.

In the case of Flames Maquidadora by Carlos Amorales, the unskilled labourer is not an enlisted participant but the gallery goer. The artwork is the process of making in the gallery context and the gallery goer experiences the art through making it. By purposefully hinging an artwork on a potentially unwilling participant, Amorales seems to be highlighting the problems with relinquishing control to an unskilled workforce. This is played out by the fact that the visitors didn’t manage, even collectively, to produce one finished product.

In the spinning rooms of cotton mills, the person in charge was the spinner. He was the only person actually paid by the mill owner and would then enlist workers to help him, paying them out of his salary. 

István Csákány is also handing over responsibility in Ghost Keeping, but this time to his advantage. The art world, like a factory, involves different people taking responsibility for different aspects of a project, and the different parts having different pockets of money. Artists often get commissioning fees which cover both payment for time and manufacturing cost. What so often happens is that artists have to sacrifice part of their payment in order to put more money into the manufacturing costs, therefore essentially working for a minimal wage. In Ghost Keeping, Csákány is capitalising from this system by manufacturing the work using very cheap materials that are easy to shape quickly. This then transfers the major cost of the project onto the artwork’s upkeep. This maintenance cost would come from an entirely different budget, and would be the responsibility of the gallery, not the artist.

The Owl Project do a similar thing with their iLog Workshops, by taking the responsibility of making from themselves and giving it to the collector. Instead of just paying for a piece of artwork, the collectors have to come to the artists’ studio and make it for themselves. They go away with an Owl Project artwork, but the Owl Project haven’t made it, they have. This model bypasses the problems with enlisting unskilled labour faced by artists such as Granjon. If the artwork doesn’t get made properly, or even completed, the consequences lie on the maker/collector, not the artists.

In 75 Watt by Cohen Van Balen it is not the artist’s but the labourer’s responsibility that has completely shifted. Instead of acting as ‘man-machines’, they are now performers. Just like the actual machines discussed in my last blog, by not accomplishing anything, the act of working becomes exposed. Although any artwork referencing production lines is clearly commenting on issues surrounding capitalism, workers rights, distribution of wealth and the general socioeconomic situation, it seems questions around the labour of artists also emerge. The factory worker and the artist seem immediately completely at odds, with artists generally being from more educated, affluent backgrounds, and not having to work to a strict pattern or production speed. But unlike an office worker, or indeed most other jobs outside the manufacturing sector, artists are actually involved in the production of a finished object (in the loosest sense of the word). In 75 Watt similarities to the work of artists are clear; the worker/performer carries out the action of making, produces a useless item, only to begin the unavailing activity again.

Aversion Management

Essay for Aversion Management, Rogue Project Space, September 2013

Aversion Management looks at productivity from the side of the manager. The work of artists is more often than not self-directed unpaid work. The pressure to produce is, for most artists, strong but there is often no external source of this impulse. As Adorno says, the artist “embodies the social forces of production without necessarily being bound by the censorship dictated by the relations of production” 1. For Aversion Management we want to bind the artists to the relations of production and see how they perform. We are exposing ‘work’ – both the work of artists, and the work involved in running a space.

Artists have to fit art-making around the demands and deadlines of other aspects of their lives. Will artists be more productive by subjecting art to the same strict structure and deadlines as other aspects of life? As OTCOP 2 say in ‘A Living Body Performing its own Autopsy…’, “Individually, we can be better or worse at managing time, prioritising processes and planning production. These are key capacities required to make any post-Fordist collaboration function efficiently and without apparent conflicts”3. The work of an artist is not just the production of artwork, but all of the meetings,  networking, emails, applications and marketing that goes along with it. The exhibition aims to highlight this work by making it the object of critique – an artist is paid in relation to their work efficiency, not on how established they are, or how large the work is. The exhibition is a classic ‘project exhibition’, a term coined by Marion von Osten  4, in that the ‘what’ becomes secondary to the ‘how’, as opposed to a thematically curated exhibition. As Liam Gillick says: “Art production and work methods are not temporally linked or balanced because the idea of managing time is not a key component of making art, nor is it a personal or objective profit motive for artists. Unless they decide that such behavior is actually part of the work itself” 5. The ‘what’ in this case is the control of the artists’ working methods.

Quite surprisingly we found this method very successful. Just by making artists aware that they were being scrutinised seemed enough to spur them on to become high-achievers. They went above and beyond to produce labour intensive, ambitious artworks. Under normal circumstances this is all that is asked of artists, and would be more than enough to secure them a full artists fee. But despite all of this extra labour, they still managed to slip up on their basic targets – Thomas Yeoman’s artist bio is now three weeks overdue, and Adam Renshaw’s tarmac is still wet (being dyslectic is no excuse!). As charming and hard-working as they are, we have no choice but to reduce their fee accordingly.

1 Adorno, T. (2004) Aesthetic Theory, London: Continuum, p. 55

2 OTCOP is a research group, OTCOP stands for On The Conditions of Production.

3 OTCOP, “A Living Body Performing its own Autopsy…” in Engqvist, J. et al (eds.) (2012) Work Work Work: a Reader on Art and Labour, Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 223

4 von Osten, M. (2010) “Another Criterion… or, What Is the Attitude of a Work in the Relations of Production of Its Time”, Afterall issue 25, Autumn/WInter, pp. 20 – 22

5 Gillick, L. “The Good of Work”, in e-flux journal (2011) Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and the Labor of Art, Berlin: Sternberg Press, p. 71

Performing Machines

Using machines to produce artwork is an easy concept to grasp – since Andy Warhol’s Factory we are used to the idea of art as a commodity, and artist as facilitator, not necessary the single-handed producer. But what about when it is the machines that are the artwork, and no longer work to produce, but work as a performance. It is not the artist doing the physical work (or even their assistants) but the machine. In physics the concept of work can be interpreted as the measurement of the accomplishment of a task. To do work, effort (force) is required. However effort does not necessarily mean that work is done. The effort must accomplish something… a displacement must accompany the effort. But when a machine does not accomplish anything, as is the case in the examples I’m exploring, the act of working then becomes the work. There is no end commodity except work itself. With no end goal the ‘work’ is exposed.

Architect Helena Mattsson discusses this exposure of work in terms of the relationship between public space and work space. Work is turned into a commodity: “By introducing a public space into what is normally a closed structure, the organisation is opened up and the internal parts of its machinery are laid out for public inspection. This exhibitionistic display aestheticises everyday life, as well as work, by making it into entertainment”. In Manchester, our rich industrial heritage often seeps into our art. The once private cotton industry has become aesthetised by museums, and reinterpreted by artists. The cotton industry was famously dangerous and unethical; factories were tucked away, just outside cities, with the workers housed together, also hidden. By making machines perform, artists (like museums) are exposing the beauty of industry whilst also dismissing the pressure of production (a pressure felt by both factory workers and artists alike). In this blog I have found examples of artworks that involve machines as artworks, working to no end other than to perform.


The Reversing Machine (A Theatre of Kairos and Chronos) 2012Sam Belinfante and Simon Lewandowski

The Reversing Machine is a time-setting mechanism which can be connected up to different machines, acting as a drive shaft to power them to run forwards, then backwards. First shown at Art Laboratory Berlin at part of the exhibition ‘Fantastic Time Machines’ 2012, where it powered machines such as a turntable, a drawing machine and a slide projector. The work will be shown at the new Project Space Leeds (soon to be the ‘The Tetley‘) in December 2013, for which the artists are looking for musicians to submit palindromic or bi-directional compositions.


Almost Certified (grade A noise for non-discerning consumers), 2004, Kelli Cain and Brian Crabtree

This bizarre sound machine consists of a series of eggs of various unconventional varieties and sizes. The eggs are tapped by an aluminium mallet, and amplified. The process is operated by an obsolete 1993 Mac LC III. The piece was first displayed in 2004 at Machine Project Guide to Cultural History and the Natural Sciences, Pomona College Museum of Art, California.

Interesting blog article here


Physical Echoes, 2013, James Medd

This drawing machine makes marks responding to real-time sound. It initially produces drawings that echo the ambience of whatever space the machine is in, but over time these drawings become a scribbled block as the pens move back and forth over the same space. The more the machines work, the less meaning their output has. First displayed at Digital Performance Lab at the University of Salford.

video:

http://www.jamesmedd.co.uk. Blog about the project here:


Homage to New York, 1960Jean Tinguely

Sometimes the most iconic artworks are the ones that fail. In 1960 Jean Tinguely undertook the hugely ambitious Homage to New York, a self-destructing artwork constructed in the sculpture garden of MOMA. The piece was enormous (27 ft wide and 23 ft high) and consisted of many intricate mechanical elements including a weather balloon which inflated until it burst, a painting machine, a player piano, a bottle smashing machine, and a recording of the artist explaining the work. It whirled, smoked, smashed and burned, performing for 27 minutes but failed to completely self-destruct.

Here’s an excerpt from D.A. Pennebaker’s film documenting the event:

Audio lecture about Homage to New York here. There’s a Tinguely museum in Basel:


When Robots Rule : The Two Minute Airplane Factory, 1999Chris Burden
Another famous mechanical failure. The Two Minute Airplane Factory was on display in Tate Britain in 1999. The machine was supposed to make a paper airplane every two minutes, launching it 20 m high so that it circled the Duveen galleries, before gently coming to rest on the floor. The planes would then be for sale in the Tate shop. The machine failed to produce one paper airplane. The viewers, instead of watching the beautiful efficiency of a completely mechanised factory line, could watch the Tate gallery technicians trying in vain to get the machine to work. The only plane on display was the one made by Burden – by hand. Many think the mechanical failure was part of the piece; it may have never meant to be a performing machine, but rather performing management.


http://www.gagosian.com/artists/chris-burden-2. Also see David Barrett article: