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Networking Communities

I’ve just started a summer research placement project with the Manchester Digital Laboratory – aka MadLab – and it’s already proving to be an eye-opener. The theme of our project is communities – which are MadLab’s raison d’être; but although I’ve heard people talking about it more than once over the past year, I have to admit I’ve never actually been there before now. Seeing the space and how it’s used is pretty inspiring. Around 50 groups use MadLab regularly, with many more hiring it for one-off or special events – performances, workshops, training sessions. At the same time, it’s friendly, down-to-earth and totally unpretentious, buzzing with a relaxed creativity that attracts groups as diverse as android developers, poets, and budding taxidermists, who drop in and out to share ideas, crack on with work, and generally have a nice time doing what they are passionate about with others who feel the same. It could be hard to find space otherwise. So, that’s the sales pitch, right? Well, actually, it’s entirely accurate. So it seems to me anyway. Finding useful and exciting ways to demonstrate what MadLab is all about using data, graphics, and the 9 days we have available to us, is what our MadLab Community Networking Project is all about. It’s going to be an interesting challenge!

Anna at the Wall

Mapping some of MadLab’s diverse communities

With input and advice from MadLab’s Dave Mee and DARE‘s David Jackson, graphic designer/researcher Anna Frew and myself are going to be gathering, organising and manipulating information about the techies, creatives and other enthusiasts who bring MadLab to life. What are the characteristics of these groups and what are the connections between them? Who and what drives them? How active are they and how do they intersect with public or private sector organisations elsewhere in the city? There are miriad ways to look at the data. Sifting through different sources and different types of documentation, we can identify what we know and what we need to know. Then we can start gathering information from the groups themselves, fleshing everything out and filling in the gaps. Our aim is to shed new light on MadLab, mapping and modelling the networks that operate inside and around it and making it clearer how they fit within its ecosystem. My task is to bring some structure to a bundle of data and metadata, and enrich it. After which, Anna will begin to create some at once beautiful and informative visualisations, giving us multiple perspectives on MadLab’s communities. Naturally this will all end up online at some point. Or so I imagine. The details aren’t yet entirely clear since we’re only just getting started. If you want to know more about our emerging workflows and thought-processes, please do go over to Anna’s blog and read her excellent write-up of what we’ve been doing in Weeks 1 and 2.

Dave's notepad

There are multiple ways to diagram…

For me, the project is a great opportunity. It provides a pathway to learning more not just about data visualisations, which have interested me for a while, but also about the challenges involved in creating and maintaining communities, and the value that organisations like MadLab can bring to a city. As you can see, Post-It notes and brain-storming will be just as important as databases and JavaScript to our workflow! Soon we should have a dedicated space on Tumblr, and eventually an article about the project will appear in the TACIT journal although we have a lot of work to do before then! Please do check back here for updates and let us know if you’re a MadLab member who wants to help us out [madlabcommunityproject at gmail.com].

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Wild and Playful Artistry

Raqib Shaw‘s latest exhibition has brought new life and colour to the Manchester Art Gallery – both inside and out. Having draped their railings with flowers, foliage, and the twisted branches of Willows, the museum invites you inside to find Kashmiri-born/London-based Raqib’s work scattered and displayed in various locations. Vivid, fantastical scenes combine real and fictional creatures within sparkling fairytale landscapes both Indian and European in influence; together these conjure up a mythology that feels familiar – like a childhood memory – and highly original – bold and shocking. Surveying his beautiful (and at times slightly macabre) menagerie you can almost hear the sound of wild animals. Of course it’s always nice to look at the more traditional pieces in the Gallery’s collection, but finding one of Shaw’s pieces next to say, George Stubbs, or Charles-August Mengin, makes for an enjoyably startling contrast.

Although given a vast amount of space in the Patron’s Gallery, I’d say that it’s more stimulating finding Shaw’s works amongst pieces from the Victorian era. Seeing them all at once threatens to generate a certain loss of impact that comes from being over-awed by his use of jewels, gold, and enamel. Similarly, Susie MacMurray‘s Widow – a stunning and meditative dress made using black leather and 100,000 adamantine silver pins – is equally helped by being positioned among pieces dealing with life and death in the 17th century. New observations and ideas arise at these intersections. MacMurray’s dress says something about mortality as flawlessly as any of the masters behind her.

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Something I also really like about the Gallery is the space that is devoted to activities for kids/big kids in the Clore Interactive Gallery. Technical problems aside (sadly many machines were out-of-order when I visited) it’s great to find a play space where you can let your imagination wander and your creative side express itself after soaking up all the “proper” artworks. Of course, participation is a big thing in museums and cultural institutions these days and it’s not always done well. Sometimes the best you can hope for is a pile of hastily gathered crayons and a few “give us your comments” cards; not exactly inspiring! For me, the Manchester Gallery has got it spot on. Somehow they manage to offer a range of activities that are as stimulating for adults as they are for children. In fact, I’m fairly sure it was exclusively adults who were “interacting” with the objects in the Clore room on Sunday! By letting visitors climb into a giant rotating “kaleidoscope”, invent their own “free form” still life compositions, or activate a 3-D spinning model of a painting (Marion Adnams’ Lost Infant), artworks are brought to life in a way that encourages collaboration.

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Raqib Shaw’s exotic monkeys – and the lovely staff who let people wander around taking as many photographs as they like! – demonstrate in quite different ways that going to a gallery is definitely not all about tradition, reverence, and intimidating curation. Creativity is, after all, all about a certain freedom.

Creative Change

It’s about time that I posted something on a very impressive exhibition which I went to see last weekend at the Cornerhouse GalleryRosa 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.

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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.

Burning Bright

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.

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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.

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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.

Masked Robbers

The first thing I do before settling down to work in the Geoffrey Manton building is fill up my bottle with a stream of lovely ice-cold water from the Water at Work machine. This is of course essential for anyone used to Scottish “council juice” rather than the harsh and hard English variety. 😛 Trying to stave off a craving for coffee, imagine my surprise when I was greeted by this:

A mysterious visitor at the water cooler

A mysterious visitor at the water machine

A student, armed with a laptop and a cardboard box full of masks and hats, sat cross-legged on the floor. Cheerfully he asked me whether or not I intended to walk down the nearby glass corridor, which leads toward the canteen, a stairwell, and various doors which have, in the past, confused me. “Ah, sorry, I’m not. I’m going the other way”. Which was a shame, because it meant that I couldn’t take part in his Masked Exposures project/experiment, losing my chance to consider “the perception and performance of altered identities” while embracing anonymity.

An intriguing box of faces

An intriguing box of faces

“So how do you make sure you get the masks back?” I asked, as he very kindly let me crouch down to take some photographs of him and his equipment. Another cheerful smile. “There’s a bucket at the end of the corridor for people to put them in. So far only one of them has gone AWOL.” Ah! Such faith in humanity. I wished him luck and went back to Room 118.

It must have been thirsty work because before heading off to TRAUMA to watch excellent film noir The Fallen Idol (sorry for the gratuitous plug but I do have to mention TRAUMA whenever possible) I returned to the water at work machine yet again, empty bottle in hand. The boy and his masks had disappeared. The sign which he’d enthusiastically stuck up on the door had been crossed out with biro and sadly annotated:

Abandoned due to theft

Abandoned due to theft

I found myself feeling disappointed and a little bit sad on his behalf. On the other hand, I wonder if this is all a semi-intentional part of the experiment? He’s certainly learned something about what people might do when they get the chance to embrace “anonymity”. In fact, his pretense was that anonymity when entering that corridor was “compulsory” – so in some ways it might be said that his participants/subjects were executing a certain predictable (?) act of rebellion through their thievery. Okay, okay, I realise that might be pushing it a bit! I only hope the masks won’t be too difficult for him to replace. He also learned a valuable lesson about University security – who told him that masks or no masks, he didn’t have permission to be there and really would have to clear off 😦

I’ll be interested to see Jake’s footage when the project is eventually completed and I wish him the best of luck.

Invisibly Visibile

If it wasn’t for a friend who lives nowhere near me, I would never have known about a little art exhibition currently running at the Everyman Gallery here on Beech Road, Chorlton. In fact, it’s directly opposite my living room! Funny how you can continually walk past something interesting right on your own doorstep; as if proximity conceals, or makes less remarkable. In the Gallery, up-and-coming poet painter Harry Matthews was showing 9 or 10 oil paintings on canvasses full of light and explorations of colour – appropriately enough titled “The Art of the Invisible”, in a nod to Johnathan Swift.1 While we made the most of the complimentary wine, he also treated us to an impromptu reading of some of his poetry.

Matthews’ paintings deal with traditional Romantic themes of nature, transcendence, the hidden, and the sublime, some in beautiful shades of spring green and yellow, others in watery blues or lilacs. Bold impressionistic brushstrokes and thick layers combine here and there with childish animal or human figures cheekily sketched and concealed almost like little palimpsests among foliage or hills or waterfalls. A Christian God is also very much present, more obvious in some places than in others. For me, there was something reminiscent of John William Waterhouse in a few of the works and of course, the spirit of J.M.W. Turner.

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Roses, water, visions, the ethereal. Matthews plays with styles and forms and with the relationships between the abstract and the more specific lines of subjective experience or interpretation. A boy? A girl? A wolf or a fox? A lake full of reflections or a hilly landscape? As the artist, who was sitting casually to one side (with only a faint whiff of opening night nervousness) told us more than once: “Everyone has been seeing something different. We see what we want to see”. In the gorgeous smoky clouds of Earth Dragon, Matthews, quoting Rainer Maria Rilke, suggests that “Only he who can expect anything, who does not exclude even the mysterious, will have a relationship with life greater than just being alive…Perhaps everything fearful is just helplessness that seeks our help“.2

1If anyone knows the source for the quote about vision please let me know!
2An alternative translation, by Stephen Mitchell.
But only someone who is ready for everything, who doesn’t exclude any experience, even the most incomprehensible, will live the relationship with another person as something alive and will himself sound the depths of his own being. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

A Successful Screening

A quick post to say thank you to everyone who came along to Friday’s screening of The Officer’s Wife. It was great to see so many people (over 100 we think) in the theatre, and the Q&A afterwards showed how enthusiastic the audience were about both Piotr Uzarowicz’s film and the work of the Kresy-Siberia organisation. All in all it was an educational, moving, and rewarding evening.

The audience had plenty of comments and questions

Some people present had experienced directly the privations and the horror of Siberian deportation. Others, of varying age, nationality and background, were there to learn about a largely overlooked (and deliberately suppressed) part of history which the film explores skillfully and without bias, despite the deeply personal motivations of the director. Interviews with survivors, historians and activists are combined to great effect with voice-over narration, animation, and an evocative soundtrack by Oscar-winning composer Jan Kaczmarek, so impressed with The Officer’s Wife that he agreed on first viewing to provide an original score.

The film’s director outside Manchester Lecture Theatre

Hopefully Trauma film screenings will host similarly worthwhile events in the future. Tomorrow This evening a new season – hosted by Merlyn Taylor – starts. Coincidentally enough it will explore animated films which deal with stories of war and conflict, including Persepolis by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi, and Studio Ghibli’s Grave of the Fireflies. Hope to see you there!

A still from Grave of the Fireflies