It’s about time that I posted something on a very impressive exhibition which I went to see last weekend at the Cornerhouse Gallery – Rosa Barba’s Subject to Constant Change. Dealing with many of the themes currently preoccupying me as I delve into explorations of technology, Barba’s work thoughtfully and coolly expresses much of what 21st century academics are busy analysing – the essence(s) of digital and “post-digital” environments. Viewing her work, we are invited to consider materiality, memory, technology, technique, the relationship between past and present and the problematic nature of linear narratives. Complex relationships between text/performance, reader/viewer, the fixed and the slippery, are all considered, for instance in Time Machine, which is part script, part novella, part invention, and which looks like a projection although really it’s a print.
In one darkened gallery space, colour films run on projectors modified so that the speed and intensity of their wheels and their light alter in ways not possible on the unmodified original equipment. A series of statements and phrases apparently detached from all context appear flickering on the wall – and as I enjoyed the playful hints of meaning evoked by their flowery italic script, I also found myself fascinated by the mechanics of the projectors themselves. How much does the technology used to display these words contribute to their possible meaning and our interpretation of them? What associations are created when new and old approaches are combined? When rhythm varies and intensity is altered? Can we appreciate the past more fully by melding it with the present? At the same time we realise how both will forever evade being cemented.
In the second gallery, a pair of projectors work together to show us the two parts of Subconscious Society. A crowd of local people dressed somehow “timelessly” appear to haunt the neglected interior of the Manchester Albert Hall, moving around it as though defiantly detached from some imagined authentic context and accompanied by a soundtrack of fleeting observations. One staff member (who was very keen to get feedback and discuss the installations with us) revealed with a little amusement that some visitors have been puzzled. “Why are you not doing it all on digital? Why are you using this old equipment? Isn’t it more difficult and expensive?” Well, yes. And there have been some problems – bulbs overheating, projectors stalling, film getting caught. Such difficulties are in themselves a thought-provoking part of the exhibition. The medium is as much a part of the message as is the content. Really. Barba’s refusal to embrace a lazy and straightforward “logical” modernity is what gives her exhibition its power.
Former configurations of society – and technology – may appear to be obsolete but the point is that their imprintings and patterns remain to resonate in our own time, reimagined, reasserted, reinterpreted. Using such techniques will be less possible for artists in the future. It’s hard to find not only the spare parts and the film – she is using some of the last of Kodak’s old stock apparently – but also the technicians able to handle and maintain them. In an era where digital technology lets amateurs do almost everything at the touch of a button (this blog is just one example!), it is nice to reflect on the highly skilled and patient operators/artists of the past who understood both the physics and the metaphysics.
For reasons unknown I have never yet visited one of Manchester’s most treasured and beloved tourist attractions – the stunning neo-Gothic John Rylands Library, part of the University of Manchester. Considering how long I’ve been here now, this is a strange omission. Not just because of the library’s ultra-convenient city centre location (it’s on Deansgate) but also because of my life long love of all things library related. On Saturday, prompted by good weather, a visit from my Mum, and the presence of an exhibition called Burning Bright, I finally went along to take a look. Burning Bright (as you might guess) focuses on William Blake – arguably the most versatile and visionary of the English Romantics; and in particular, on his book engravings and etchings.
I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that to see some of Blake’s work up close is to be truly stunned by not only his craft and his technical prowess, but by the ability of deceptively simple two-dimensional scenes to conjure up a myriad of spiritual, moral, and mystical associations. A version of Edward Young’s popular poem Night Thoughts, containing over 40 specially commissioned watercolours by Blake, is one of the most memorable exhibits. Published in 1797 and a commercial failure, only 26 copies of this first part of the poem were ever produced, making it a truly significant gem in the Rylands collection.
Another exhibition called An Inventory of al-Mutanabbi Street presented a “re-assembled” imaginative “inventory” of reading material destroyed in a 2007 car bombing in Baghdad’s revered (and still under pressure) literary and cultural centre. Although a thought-provoking and original idea – the brainchild of poet Beau Bosoleil and researcher Sarah Bodman – I felt that a more modern and minimal gallery environment would have allowed the works on display here to shine far more brightly. Somehow, they did not have the power to displace the overwhelming symbolism and the hushed, spiritual atmosphere of the library itself.
John Rylands is certainly a thing of wonder, regardless of any exhibitions on display. Built in the 1890s and funded by Enriqueta Rylands in memory of her late husband, it’s actually pretty hard to believe that the building is so modern. With its medieval style and quiet, church-like atmosphere, you imagine it must have been here for far longer. This was of course the architectural fashion of the time but apparently Enriqueta was a rather unconventional woman and actually asked that they tone down some of the psuedo-religious features of the library. Standing at either end of the spacious but nook-filled reading room, Victoria and Albert style statues of the Rylands themselves are just a little bit self aggrandising.