World Unite!

WU LYF. Image:

I had originally intended to make this a piece about WU LYF, the Mancunian hipster darlings known first and foremost for their “carefully designed anonymity”. Specifically, I was interested in the self-directed video for ‘Dirt’, the first single from their debut album ‘Go Tell Fire to the Mountain’, which was released last month. The song is nice enough, but it was the way that music blog ABEANO framed the video that really got me thinking:

“WU LYF get riotous in the video for ‘Dirt’ soundtracking footage of the recent London protests with mounting tension and extra helpings of dissatisfaction lacing Ellery’s vocal. Handily, they’ve also included the lyrics so you can start a singalong next time anarchists start smashing up banks.”

All of which warrants some pretty close scrutiny. Yes, I know it’s the prerogative of hipsters to be flippant about more or less everything, but I can imagine this blurb pissing a lot of people off. It seems, at first glance, to turn the spirit of youthful rebellion against the genuine aims of politicised youth by converting the whole sad affair into a kind of apocalypctic mood-lighting, complemented neatly by the persistent appearance of WU LYF’s cultic logo. Wasn’t one of the problems encountered by the anti-cuts movement around the time of Millbank the manner in which the cause became all too readily bound up with classical vocabulary of insurrection rather than a living one? Didn’t images of the calibre reworked by WU LYF – one thinks immediately of the image below, which featured on numerous front pages on the 11th of November –  have a tendency to steal the show a bit? Weren’t they guilty of, while explosively revealing the current of anger running through society at many levels, simultaneously drastically undermining the focus and specificity of a truly vital and wide-reaching movement by commodifying it? (I’m thinking here of a quote I read from the San Francisco Diggers, who accused the luminaries of 1960s psychedelic counterculture for creating ‘bags for the identity-hungry to climb into).  WU LYF’s case is not helped by the fact their brand came not out of the aesthetics of an underground scene so much as out of the commercial creative agency four23: the founder of this agency, Warren Bramley, is also the band’s manager.

Protester at Millbank, 10/11/10. Image:

It then struck me that – 1. It’s unquestionably more complicated than this and 2. I don’t know enough about the anti-cuts movement, besides a few local points of interest, to really hold court on a discussion of this magnitude. I was in Cardiff when the Edinburgh march took place, in Edinburgh when the Cardiff march took place, and either too overdrawn or too lazy to go to London. I want someone who was there to write this piece, then, because I think it is a crucially important issue of our shared historical moment, which I reckon can be summed up thus: what are the politics that arise when direct action, rebellion and counter-culture become an issue for aesthetics?

In the meantime, I return to Cardiff’s Chapter for a second post in a row.  ‘A Fire in the Master’s House is Set’, which opened yesterday and which features the work of such luminaries as Adam Chodzko, Ruth Ewan and Melanie Counsell, presents an aspect of the conundrum detailed above which I can more readily engage with. Upon reading the show’s press release I immediately recognised the extent to which its concerns overlapped with mine about WU LYF, as succinctly expressed in the second paragraph:

“A Fire in the Master’s House is Set suggests a somewhat contradictory space — a space where ideas of political, social or youthful resistance are invoked but simultaneously overlaid with the idea of the latent or the mute. It sets out to create a proposition where ideas of opposition, social defiance, protest, hedonism — so often the social language of music culture — are distanced or enfolded within abstracted forms.”

As well as getting to meet Chodzko, who featured prominently in my MA dissertation (which I will upload here in reviewed and digested form in due course) and who I hope to work with on something for this blog (he had a lot of very interesting things to say about playlists and mixes), I was lucky enough to get 15 minutes on opening night with the show’s curator, Simon Morrissey. Our discussion was interrupted before it had time to properly develop, but Morrissey’s answers offer the beginnings of a method for properly measuring and assessing artefacts like the video for ‘Dirt’, as well as a nice insight into the show (to which I can heartily recommend a visit).

Ruth Ewan, ‘Squeezebox Jukebox’, 2009, performance documentation. Image: (Gallery assistants were enlisted to play a repertoire of protest songs collected by Ewan on this giant Castelfidardo-manufactured accordion throughout the 2009 Tate Triennial, ‘Altermodern’).

LH: I thought I’d had all my ideas made up about what this show was going to be from the press release, but it’s more enigmatic than I was expecting…

SM:  That was important for me. When I first starting thinking about the show – Hannah [Firth, Chapter curator] has an early proposal from me – it was about protest and politics, then that bled into music culture in some way, but when I put things together it was too…direct? Something that was there at the very beginning of my thinking was this space between the desire to express yourself politically, by going on protest marches and so on, and the fact that although that feels very exciting and everyone gets really involved, very little changes afterwards; how there’s this disconnect between people being drawn towards political action, and simultaneously that sense we all get that nothing will change because of it…I was thinking about this disenchantment with a direct idea of protest, and how a lot of the artists that I like present work that isn’t immediately digestible, that seems a little enigmatic or mysterious.

 I suppose it asks ethical questions about the role of the artwork…It seems that when you follow questions of political efficacy to a logical conclusion in reference to artists, the only stuff that really works is that which is more lateral, which takes a step back…

I was trying to bring together a group of works – I wrote this in the guide for the Chapter staff – where an idea has been folded in and in and in on itself, like origami, where it’s become this dense thing that is also very encoded. Similar to when you’re really into music or some other sort of subculture when you’re growing up: there’s a language that is understood, and a set of codes, ways of acting, that’s completely understood within that group but to outsiders appears nonsensical. I wanted to use the work in the show in a similar way – maybe the rhetoric around the work would present it in a certain way but then when you encountered it, it would appear more beautiful or more quiet or more abstract than you were expecting…To some degree I borrow from an idea that Adam [Chodzko] talks about a lot, that idea of bringing different ideas, different materials together as if making some kind of spell. I really like that idea of there being this connection of seemingly ordinary things, that when combined in a particular way, if they’re thought about and inhabited in a particular way, may achieve this unusual process.

Adam Chodzko, ‘Plan for a Spell’, 2001, still. Image:

It reworks this idea of art’s aura, in a way…This idea took on negative connotations in criticisms of capitalism, through Walter Benjamin and associated figures, but I feel there’s something beneficial to be had through a concept of the aura that can be reimagined and reinscribed in the wake of these criticisms…

For me it’s important to separate the theoretical hierarchies you mention from those encounters you have with cultural material – especially when you’re younger, when you encounter a certain artwork for the first time, or when you hear certain music for the first time, or when you read a novel by x and are completely blown away…That genuinely revealing moment you can have with a piece of art, anything from a rock song through to a Rothko painting…It’s not about the aura in the way that Benjamin talks about it so much as a very personalised connectivity, which is dependent on the person, the object, time, all these concentric rings of context that can exist around a particular thing.

 Why I say aura is because it was an idea opposed by the conceptualists when they tried to turn everything linguistic, and we’ve come out of the other side of that…

Exactly, we’re in a moment where we’ve digested both of those arguments. The work of somebody like Adam is interesting in that it has clearly digested both viewpoints – it’s deeply conceptual and yet…

 Or Ruth [Ewan]– when you look at her work there’s an immediate affective, aesthetic connection, and yet it also thrives on these layers of textual meaning, she’s having it both ways…

That’s what happens – you have a dominant position set out, and then a reaction, and then often after that head to head what you get is a reassessment. Maybe we’re in a process of accepting that there are valid parts of both situations, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive. We’re in an artistic moment that is both less ideologically defined than was the case with previous generations and more complicated, and we have artists producing really interesting work that takes on multiple, supposedly contradictory positions all at once.

 When I was talking to Adam about playlists and mixes, he repeatedly brought up the idea of contradicting or undermining himself, and this is a tendency which can be found in his work as well. I also recall a Frieze round-table discussion in which the artist Seth Price asserted that “I like work which carries within itself conflicts of interest that risk being self-defeating”. Where can this sort of approach lead?

I tried to bring this idea out in the show…The fact that it talks about music and there’s very little music in the show, and so on. I remember when I was younger being drawn to really tight conceptual circles – arguments operating on the principle of 1+1=2. very quickly after that phase it struck me that I never really went back to them…The things that we go back to and go back to over time and the things that we find hard to unpack and describe straight away. If something is contradictory and obtuse and mute or confrontational or hard to understand, often it means that it establishes a self of sense against you as the viewer, and then you have this dialogue where it won’t completely give itself to you, and that’s very important…The idea that you might not be able to walk into a show and say ‘Oh, I get it now’, and walk away, but that things might haunt you or annoy you or frustrate you and you come back and ask ‘ok, why is that Michael Dean poster of the concrete sculpture that’s cut in half with a pound coin underneath it here?’…and you’ll find that there’ll be subtle connections, like how it formally echoes Roger Hiorns’ sculpture for instance.

Michael Dean, ‘Untitled’, 2009. Image:

 I like that you use the word ‘haunt’…there’s a lot of work to be done with that word, a lot of exploration…’Hauntology’, the idea that ideas can only really be semi-present in the way that contemporary culture is constructed…

One of the things I’m really interested in is this idea that you might give to a piece of work, through it being complicated enough or unpackaged enough, a sense of self separate to you, so you’re almost having another encounter with another person, a thing that you can’t completely package and own. We’re so completely immersed in a consumer culture, where the dominant ethos is that everything should be immediately and totally digestible, that I feel this is one of the most important oppositional positions that art can occupy.

A Fire in the Master’s House is Set runs at Chapter until 4 September

by Luke Healey


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