‘A sea eagle screams from the rock, and my race began like the osprey, with that cry, that terrible vowel, that I,’ a female narrator intones evenly over waves crashing against a rocky shore. It is the opening scene of Helen Cammock’s short video There’s a Hole in the Sky Part I, 2016; that ‘I’ invoked goes on over the course of the video to visit a sugar factory and a sugar cane plantation turned tourist destination in Barbados, musing all the while self-consciously about what she sees and is told, occasionally breaking into mournful song. The video carries many of the threads that run though Cammock’s work, such as using photography and documentary film methods to explore the intimate bonds of history, often of colonialism, racism and cultural appropriation – in this case, tracing the slavery trade created to prop up the now-disappearing sugar production in the Caribbean – and first-person accounts of the disjointed experience of those ‘subjects’ who moved from the West Indies to the UK. The voice that narrates and binds these images shifts from spoken-word poetry-like litanies of evocative phrases to confessional anecdotes. When she asks at one point, ‘What can I see when I look, and through whose gaze do I see?’, the fact that this is not just one ‘I’ becomes clearer – it is an impossible ‘I’, a multiple ‘I’. The voice is the artist’s, but the ‘I’ being spoken constantly changes, shifting from her own lines and a patchwork of quotations, such as the opening lines which come from the late Saint Lucian poet Derek Walcott’s ‘Names’, 1976, and authors like Maya Angelou and Jamaica Kincaid. This fragmented narration underlines Cammock’s videos, performances and installations – quoting, singing, ventriloquising, a procession of voices that successively inhabit the artist. Continue reading
The Death of the Unreliable Narrator
‘Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!’ So the flustered old man shouts while fidgeting with the partition that kept him, and the controls for his distracting light and sound displays, hidden. The old man is, of course, the supposed Wizard of Oz, the scene from the 1939 film providing the starting point for countless books and essays on the qualities of sound and narration in film (yes, including this one). The authority of the wizard, an apparent god-like power, who is revealed to be merely a nervous man tinkering with an amplifier and a smoke machine, gives a concise and classic example of the trope of the unreliable narrator: when what we are being told is bending things a bit, misleading us, or just plain untrue. The unreliable narrator is a concept with which we are all familiar – whether in the form of boastful exploits in the Life and Exploits of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, 1759-67, or in Kevin Spacey’s voiceover from the grave in American Beauty, 1999. The dissonance between what we are being told and what is being made revealed has long been used as a tool in fiction and art; but what happens when the unreliable narrator becomes ubiquitous and all narration is untrustworthy? What happens when the unreliable narrator becomes the only narrator in town? Continue reading
All buildings are predictions.
All predictions are wrong.[i]
The Fun Palace, Cedric Price and Joan Littlewood’s proposed centre for London’s Lea Valley, was to be a fluid framework that would engage and educate the masses liberated by incipient technology. It was to be a ‘university of the streets’[ii], with one promotional pamphlet for the space promising ‘Kunst Dabbling, Genius Chat, Clownery, Fireworks, Rallies, Battles of flowers, Concerts, Science Gadgetry, Juke Box Information, Learning Machines.’ The project, begun in 1961, was a descendent of the idealist modular, mobile structures of Constant Nieuwenhuys and Yona Friedman, and heavily formed by the still-new discipline of cybernetics. The building itself was essentially a hollow structure which would hold building units that could be shifted around the site with gantry cranes as needed.
These units were the central essence of the project; Price’s design relied on the compartmentalisation of activities and individuals. Reyner Banham regarded this ‘containerisation’ of architecture as appropriately anti-monumental, and necessarily adaptable for an age uncertainty.[iii] His notes were prompted by the fact that that very same characteristic was transforming global trade networks, and rendering the architecture of transportation at ports and rail stations that had preceded it obsolete. Standards for international shipping containers were agreed in the late 60s, not only intertwining sea, rail, and road in a way that had never been done before, but also further regulating and restricting the human labour required to run that system. Artist and theorist Alan Sekula’s wide-spanning Fish Story (1989 – 95) project maps these movements; in his essay, “Red Passenger” he writes: ‘Factories become more mobile, ship-like, as ships become increasingly indistinguishable from trucks and trains, and seaways lose their difference with highways.’[iv]