An acquaintance of mine works for a successful video gaming company, producing their short, film preview-like teasers and advertisements. Generating footage using free-floating perspectives within the worlds of the games, he considers his work as factually capturing those worlds, and refers to himself as a “documentary maker.” This is a peculiar spin on machinima—the term used for videos produced from within video game platforms—but video games are a reality we have long invested in, so why not treat them as such? It highlights the fact that our world is habituated and crossed through with digital processes; they don’t exist in opposition to the “real,” but as equal fact on the experiential spectrum. The politics and possibilities of so-called virtual realities have been increasingly explored in galleries and other platforms (the work of practitioners like David O’Reilly, Jason Rohrer, and Benjamin Nuel are notable examples); two recent shows in London presented very different versions of this landscape, to ask where within it we might stand.
Matt’s Gallery, 10 September – 14 December 2014
It is a place, the man says, that is ‘able to inspire messages. Full of energy, full of feeling’. You hear this sitting alone at a desk, wearing headphones, surrounded by high piles of boxes, innumerable files and dusty bits and bobs in the storage area of the gallery. Bronwen Buckeridge’s sound work Occasionally Employing Magic, 2014, is a conversation recorded in situ between the gallery’s archivist and some sort of spiritualist apparently hired to give advice on how to manage the not inconsiderable accumulations from over three decades of exhibitions. The man notes that the spirits in the building have been shifting some boxes: ‘they’re not happy with it all packed away in here.’ Outside, the facade of the building is covered in cardboard with messages scribbled in black paint, creating a jumbled graffiti of facts and commentary. One of Peter Liversidge’s Sign Paintings, 2014, helpfully informs us, ‘Matt’s Gallery is a contemporary art space situated on Copperfield Road in Bow East London. Its director, Robin Klassnik OBE, opened the gallery in his studio in 1979 on Martello Street, before moving premises to Bow in 1993. The gallery is named after Klassnik’s dog, Matt E Mulsion.’ Further down is a list of names that by the end of the exhibition listed 39 people. These transmissions all form part of ‘Revolver II’, which was, on the surface, a set of three month-long exhibitions curated by Klassnik and Michael Newman, featuring installations by ten artists, punctuated by countless ‘trailers’, performances and a bookshop, involving over 50 artists all told. But what is clear, from the shouting signs at the entrance to the trails the works lead you from the back rooms up to the roof, is that ‘Revolver II’ is more about Matt’s Gallery narrating itself.
It is a sacred place. A site visited by pilgrims and tourists, both reverentially hushed. But by the side of the dusty road there is inevitably a line of tables, each covered with the same objects: small figurines of the holy relic in a range of sizes, postcards, picture books. One has a basket filled with small, 2-inch plastic cameras: through the tiny viewfinder is an aerial view of the surrounding countryside. Looking up towards the sun with the machine over my eye, a button turns through a dozen hypercoloured, grainy images, clicking through a quick snapshot tour of the area’s highlights: seemingly deserted postcard views and panoramic shots that give away only a sense of scale, and possibly good weather depending on where I point the toy.
Giving the imitation shutter button a delicate half-push, I get the excited shudder of making the view settle on the black ‘V’ that separates one picture from the next. Half of a green valley can be seen on one side, on the other an abandoned port, the dark no-space sitting uneasily between them. Like thinking about your own blinking, its normally thoughtless and automatic process becoming slowed and intentional, it is unsettling and revealing. It is a boundary, the limitation of how we see what we see; but this image of the material of the picture slide itself is also another view, another location, another entity. It is this liminal space, its uncertain dominion and hazy substance that is explored in the work of Niamh O’Malley.
You would think the more we disappear into screens, the more we would forget about our bodies. Judging by the shows on this summer in London, the opposite seems to be the case. Whether it is the right sort of attention is another question, but it was filled with floating heads, phantom limbs and more 3D-printed objects than you can shake your e-cigarette at. Artist Will Benedict’s ‘Nuclear War: What’s in it for you?’ at Vilma Gold began with bodies on the streets of Berlin. Encountering the figurative, heavily allegorical public sculptures of Czech artist Ludmilla Seefried-Matějková from 1984-85 found in places like the facade of the criminal court, it’s as if Benedict gathered these six artists to retrospectively recreate the laden Cold War atmosphere which led to their creation. The title comes from a 1982 book informing readers about the facts of the impending fallout, and a bomb alarm echoes from a bunker built in the middle of the gallery. Inside, Seefried-Matějková’s On the Edge (1976-77) is a full-size polyester sculpture of a half-naked woman sitting on a bed, looking dejectedly into infinity. The sound comes from a small television in the corner playing KP Brehmer’s short black-and-white video Madame Butterfly (1969) reimagining Puccini’s opera as a raucous essay on transgression: at its close, we see a bottle of Coca-Cola on the ground and a communist star flashing intermittently on the screen. A naked woman walks over the bottle, squats, and begins moving up and down on top of it. This desolate bunker is surrounded by four of Brehmer’s large matter-of-fact statistic-based geographic paintings. Geography 3 Colours Localisation of Yellow/Red (1970) is a simplified map of South America with countries coloured pink, red, yellow and orange under the typeface heading ‘Investment Climate’. An adjacent key explains that Brazil in pink means ‘uncertain’, while Chile in red is ‘troubled’; Argentina and Colombia in orange, it seems, are ‘best’.
Cabinet Gallery, London, UK
21 March – 26 April 2014
“Write down a desire,” comic book writer Grant Morrison advised in his wildly engaging talk at the 2000 DisinfoCon, “take out all the vowels and the repeated consonants, and turn that into an image that looks magical.” Coming up on drugs, speaking to a crowd of conspiracy theory devotees, Morrison describes a simple entryway into magic, trying to revive the sigil practices of people like artist and occultist Austin Osman Spare, a spell of sorts meant to focus a wish into something realisable. “This shit works!” I tried it once. It didn’t work, but it says a lot about the self-fulfilling determination of magical adherents: if you’re looking for something hard enough, you’ll find it in some form. An undecipherable glyph of jumbled letters – an e, an i, a backwards c and k – painted in faded reds and blacks adorns the stained cloth banner of Elijah Burgher’s Mictlantecuhtli’s grin (2013), which presides over ‘Alms For The Birds’, an eight-person group show curated by artist (and Turner Prize nominee) James Richards. This compact but pleasurably elusive exhibition is filled with remnants, tokens and traces that, like Burgher’s sigil, leave us to imagine the desires and strange rituals that led these artists here.
The end, as always, is nigh. There is a murky spy-versus-spy world of data liberationists and anti-terror absolutists sprouting around us, and a Neo-Cold War on the horizon, so surely the days when the drones finally decide to take over is just a fortnight away. As Justin Jaeckle points out in ‘opti-ME*’ at Auto Italia South East, Dolly Parton once wisely sang: ‘We’ve been living in the last days ever since the first day, since the dawn of man.’ But what’s happening at Auto Italia and simultaneously at Banner Repeater’s group show ‘Snow Crash’ are two shows attempting to find the productive possibilities while we anticipate the supposed digital apocalypse, in what Jaeckle termed the ‘#memewhile’. Maybe, these shows suggest, instead of just being passively and unwillingly co-opted into the incipient networked world, we should be actively co-opting ourselves. Maybe, they suggest, we should be looking for the dawn of something else, a being that can take the cyborg ideology and just vamp with it.
MOSTYN, Llandudno, Wales
January 18–April 6, 2014
“It ain’t where you’re from, it’s where you’re at,” rapper Rakim once claimed. Curator Adam Carr disagrees. Treating “geography as biography” for Return Journey, he assembles more than 20 artists to testify to the potency of the birthplace. Perched on the north coast of Wales in the faded seaside resort of Llandudno, the exhibition title refers to a Dylan Thomas radio play of the same name, Carr thus acknowledging the show’s gambit: Thomas made a career waxing lyrical on a homeland with which he had at best an ambivalent relationship. (He once wrote, “Land of my fathers. And my fathers can keep it.”) Filled with images of abandoned bikes, rusty sheds, empty shopping malls, and missed connections, Return Journey has a similar tone of self-distancing and resignation.