2016 in review


‘How did I become a virus?’ Anohni asks on the title track of Hopelessness. It’s an album I found myself almost reluctantly returning to, with its blunt, generalising lyrics; but there was some weight to its directness, or more its insistence that we have somehow moved beyond metaphor. In a place where things felt like fiction, or bad science fiction, the power of allegories and idioms to illuminate felt dim underneath the realities that unfolded. In this place, language revels instead as an infection that simply seeks to self-replicate, and this year has given us ample evidence of that power: of bystanders asked for voxpops, to reply that they simply want to ‘take back control’, to ‘make great again’, as if the phrase just popped into their heads. The US president-elect’s advisor Stephen Bannon (a box-ready character out of Thomas Pynchon’s dark-side-of-hippydom novel Vineland [1990]) well understands this infection, internalises it – he cast Brietbart’s activities itself as a meme (‘We’re honeybadgers, we don’t give a shit!’). But he also constructs it as a self-feeding cycle, funding his right-wing stoking with royalties from Seinfeld episodes that more liberal leaners worldwide have enjoyed for three decades.

In this post-metaphor landscape, I guess I was drawn to its edges; in brief musical forays listening either to things like the calm, aural and awareness-sharpening of Eleh (places simply without words); or the raw, angular and unfettered shouting of Les Harry’s ‘Ggots‘ (which my scant French allowed for another kind of release from sense). One evening, settling in to another numbing night of dead-eyed scrolling the news for the latest UK political infighting and self-drop-kick White House appointments, a little window in social media depicted a deep burnt-orange terrain and asked me to move my phone: half standing on my couch, I had a small 360-degree view of Mars. A mind-blowing literal escapism, brought to us by Facebook 360™.

What are ‘highlights’ in the place we’ve come to? Things that still shine despite the bruising our sense of humanity took this year? Or just things that we can still remember, after so many shared losses? In no particular order, and inevitably incomplete, some of the things I was glad to have experienced this year:

  • A joyous gathering: one of Artschwager’s blps, lurking above a perfectly opaque, colourful Etal Adnan landscape painting and documentation of a walk retraced after 40 years by Hreinn Fridfinnsson, all in one room of ‘Frequent Long Walks’, put together by Christopher Green at Hannah Barry in the spring.
  • Seeing Stena Vasulka’s glitching smile over her violin again in Violin Power (1978) as part of the Stena and Woody Vasulka show at Raven Row.
  • The hesitant occupation of a mostly empty Cityside house in Whitechapel by Dori Deng and Meta Drčar’s performance Rhythm Series, Work No. 4 in July; in part, a set of dancers methodically playing with projected and plastic strips of colour, but the building – soon to be a part of the area’s redevelopment – turned it into a pointed mulling on a changing (read: doomed) city.
  • Colleagues (and, admittedly, friends) upping their ante: Anne Tallentire’s ‘As Far As’ at Hollybush Gardens, asking audiences to step unwittingly into the quiet politics of how we occupy the places we find ourselves, alongside the casual and precise videos and photos a cardboard outline on the floor delineating the smallest legal dwelling size in the UK; Dennis McNulty’s fragmented eco-archi-tech system – part exhibition, part  performance, part app – ‘Homo Gestalt’ as part of the Liverpool Biennial.
  • Artists raising their own bar: Michael Dean at the SLG (more so than his Turner Prize installation) was a great backhand punch to the space, and felt like Dean finally shaping a new paragraph with the non-language he’s been building over the years; Yuri Pattison’s ‘user, space’ felt like a giving over to the potency of fiction, to let the ‘real’ stories melt away into a creeping backdrop that gives the set of the exhibition a nameless, working unease. Looking forward to where both go next.
  • Unknown countdown: seeing a performance of Julius Eastman’s dual piano piece Gay Guerilla (1979) as part of the LCMF. Starting punctually, monotonous and prodding, at first it was a slow endurance test; at some point twenty-odd minutes in, the disparate pieces locked together and the whole thing just took off like a massive, intricate hovercraft. The lesson seems worth holding close in mind for the coming year: the prodding and setbacks and irate jabs are actually base layers of an instructional map of sorts, and can become the tools with which to reconfigure the whole goddamn kit and caboodle.
  • Process, for want of a better word, or maybe just long-term attention and care: the publications of Jonathan Hoskins, Jessie Brennan and Linda Stupart all out this past year are each cumulative evidence of needed forms of work – using conversation, community meetings, advocacy, storytelling, passion and magic as ways of facing down and owning the way we will have to shape the world to come. Here’s to the future.

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