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.
It was hard to figure out yesterday exactly which city I was in. A rainy afternoon trip to the cinema was delayed by a traffic jam resulting from an Orange Order Parade making its way through the city centre. Did you have any idea that Manchester had an Orange Order? I didn’t – and unlike back home, I am not sure many of the locals did either! Or at least, not what it all might mean. One fellow passenger (yes, I was on the free bus again) explained to a foreign friend that this “was all part of a big Catholic tradition, mainly associated with Scotland, but also Northern Ireland. It commemorated the time when William of Orange and his men had “battled hard” against the dominant Protestants.” Well. Something like that. I couldn’t help but smile as my own distinct lack of knowledge on the subject began to seem like expertise. The bus driver radioed in to inform a depot manager (or possibly his wife) that he would be back late. I counted the number of policemen shepherding the marchers along their route. Just 3 of them. Wow! And not a single well-wisher to clap them on their way. Overall, I think I agree with the irate girl in front of me, whose frustration was conveyed down her mobile: “I mean, there are thousands of new students arriving in the city centre today and they arrange this ridiculous march! It’s the most stupidest thing they’ve ever done! See you in like, 5 hours!”
Eventually, I made it to the Cornerhouse cinema just in time for the late afternoon screening of John le Carré/Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy“. Only, it was such a popular choice, the tickets were sold out. So I wandered around until the next showing, heading up towards Albert Square for a look at Manchester Town Hall and finding…a big red London bus parked outside the main door. It seemed to be part of a wedding – but anyone passing by was free to get on and pose for photographs when the Bride and Groom were inside the Hall saying (let’s hope) “I do”.
So: to Manchester via Belfast – or possibly Glasgow – and London. Then back to London, with some slight diversions through Cold War Hungary and Russia.
This was my second trip to the amazingly comfy red seats of the Cornerhouse (last week was Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In) – and the second film of Alfredson’s I have seen, after his version of the brilliantly unconventional and atmospheric vampire story, “Let the Right One In“. The characters in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy do not draw you in the way the characters in that film did. They are not meant to. However, his conjuring up of a particular almost spell-binding atmosphere is as good here as it was in Stockholm. For the first half hour or so I must admit to feeling that I was watching a series of beautifully composed studies and stills for an exhibition called: “Britain’s 70s”. Which was fine by me. Then Kathy Burke arrived (with her always slightly Eliza Doolittleish “posh” accent) and reminded me there was a plot I was supposed to be following – rather than just admiring lampshades, suits, cigarette packets, and lovingly recreated typefaces and fonts, some of which were deliberately privileged by the camera. Anyway: the acting was superb and muted and the characters almost pitiably pathetic and lost in a strange sort of limbo world haunted by the memories of World War II and Winston Churchill. As Ricki Tarr says to some of the members of the Circus (Tom Hardy as Tarr and his relationship with Russian Irina add a much needed touch of something approaching fire to the film): “Christ, I do not want to end up like you lot”.
The nicest and most unexpected occurrence of the day was being sold my cinema ticket by an old friend from my time as an Undergraduate at Glasgow University! To L&N: I’m looking forward to that drink! 🙂 I also bumped into my new colleague Jo Bates. It really is a not-so-very-large-after-all world!
At night, the little blue cubes of the Manchester Wheel look like they have been hand-drawn against the sky. It’s a great thing to navigate by, meaning that really, you can’t forget where you are for long.