Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Vigil for the Death of Free Time

Bevis Fenner

Vigil for the Death of Free Time 
Performance installation

Minimalism was originally a reaction to the individualistic excesses and bank-friendly ambivalence of Abstract Expressionism, which Nelson Rockefeller once described as “free enterprise painting”.  If it were to emerge as a new movement in 2016, then it would undoubtedly represent a similar stance towards the flexibility and obedience of today’s instrumentalised artistic labourers. For today’s culture of voluntarism and precarity is kept alive by nothing less than the ghost of modernism.  Whether they like it or not, artists are sustained by their egos and the myth that they are making a difference. In reality, they are instrumental in creating a post-welfare culture of voluntarism, sustained by the endless labour of self-making. 

I present no alternatives or outsides to the labour power that artist’s frequently misrecognise as capital, except for a futile call for the withdrawal of labour. The clock is an ironic counterpoint to this act, representing the end of clock-time in an age of self-regulated / self-surveilled labour, in which there is no ‘free time’ and the tick of the clock is subsumed into the heartbeat of subjective labour. Performing the act of ‘killing time’ highlights the futility of non-participation. However, in the context of a conference, only a fool would refuse the opportunity to network, because without social networks we are adrift in a sea of signs and possibilities, and unplugged from the cybernetic feedback systems that sustain our labour. The performance serves not only as a reminder that refusal of work is a dangerous and potentially suicidal game but also an act of labour in itself; turning away from the shadows of illusion and language, and towards the shadow within and the potentiality of Jung’s “dark night of the soul”.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Politics of the Poetic Imagination

In 1929 Lenin's wife and educator Nadezhda Krupskaya publicly attacked the work of children’s poet Kornei Chukovsky – in particular his famous poem ‘Crocodile’ – for not addressing the social concerns of the communist project and for misrepresenting nature. As a result of a 'resolution' passed by the parents of the Kremlin’s kindergarten, Chukovsky’s work was subsequently banned in the Soviet Union for decades. Similarly, in an article by British children's poet Michael Rosen, he highlights current attempts of governmental control to close down poetic meaning in the national curriculum. After giving a detailed explanation of the infinite possibilities of poetry he describes the new ‘official view of what poetry is for’, in the Standards and Testing Agency, Key stage 1 English reading, sample questions, marks schemes and commentary for 2016 assessment:

First, we discover that we read a poem in order to “retrieve” exact and correct information from it, and we are supposed to “infer” exact and correct meanings from it. This means that it’s not for speculation, interpretation, or for making a connection between the reader and the poem at the level of empathy – that is, sharing our thoughts and feelings. Instead, a poem is a chunk of language to be used for purposes seen as important by government-hired experts (Rosen, 2015).

Here, Rosen seems to be illustrating the open nature of poetic meaning and its tendency to affect partial understandings that are contingent on empathetic speculation. But despite Rosen's laudable motives defend the value of poetry on the grounds of substantive human emotion, it is hard to 'pin down' poetic meaning, even in these terms. The poetic image is an open form, which nurtures what Barthes terms ‘obtuse meaning’ or that which ‘appears to extend outside culture, knowledge, information... opening out into the infinity of language... it belongs to the family of pun, buffoonery, useless expenditure’ (Barthes, 1978: 55). Thus, it naturally understood by children, who do not seek to rationalise meaning in productive or economic terms. Thus in another discussion Rosen argues that poetry is a praxis of philosophical inquiry. Poetry is an opening onto playful dialogue with the world, centred on feelings, philosophical ideas – made simple but not simplified – a way of defamiliarising the familiar, of looking at the world in ‘unfamiliar ways’, of playing with the openness of meaning, ‘suggestiveness, open-ended questioning and ludic approaches to language all disappear under this government onslaught’ (Rosen in Boroditskaya & Dugdale, 2015). The implication that children’s understanding of poetry is merely a means to an ends – of passing tests, which put them on the route to 'success' in later life is deeply concerning as it seems to be bypassing the essence of childhood experience at an early age, which in turn subordinates artistic (if not human) experience, to political and economic needs. It suggests that the ways in which we understand the world might have negative consequences on our ability to succeed in socio-economic terms. Bachelard characterises the phenomenological exploration of the poetic image as being fruitful by virtue of fact that it has ‘no consequences’. He argues that the poetic image is ‘the property of a na├»ve consciousness; in its expression a youthful language’ (Bachelard, 1992: xix). Indeed, Sasha Dugdale’s response to Rosen’s commentary reiterates this point:

After such exercises children will be right to wonder what the point of poetry is. This is sad because my experience in schools tells me that children instinctively know what poetry does, whereas adults have forgotten. Teachers would be better off asking questions which allowed children to show them how to read a poem. Children understand that a poem is a thing to be opened up and entered, and not to be closed and sewn tight with the thread of meaning (Dugdale, 2015).

These are sobering lessons as the what happens when governmental control attempts to close down meaning and denies free reign of the poetic imagination. However, this is not to say the poetic imagination is apolitical. On the contrary, the opening out of meaning in images and words to give space for the expression of Being, is arguably the single most political act there is.

We live in a time of neoliberal politics, in which we are all self-making enterprises – market players, engaged in systems of choices, which not only produce ripples of ethical consequences within global societies but also impact deeply upon the ways in which we live our own lives. Our choices are not simply of an ethical nature but also involve ontological dimensions as the ways in which we 'choose' to interact with the world determines the potential for being-in-the-world as we open out or close down ‘psychic space’ and the liminal possibilities of spaces (Craib, 1998). Our phenomenological experience of the world is, to some extent, a discontinuum from narratives of self-hood, thus poetic understandings of the world are situated, contingent and liminal. As Bachelard notes, ‘the poetic act has no past... the poet speaks on the threshold of being’ (Bachelard, 1992: xv-xvi). Indeed, it is possible to argue that the poetic imagination is the last retreat for everyday life. For Seigworth & Gardiner (2004), the everyday is emergent form, which mops up meanings from unfolding and fragmented events to produce ‘a whole that reconstitutes itself in each moment... [and moves] alongside all of the other moments of the day-to-day’. The authors also suggest that the everyday moment is not a ‘closed-off’ whole ‘but instead, perpetually opens up: an open totality arising with each moment, a beach beneath every cobblestone’ (Seigworth & Gardiner, 2004: 141-142). In other worlds, the everyday is a sequence of synchronically produced moments, each distinctly different from each other, and each sucking in its own peripheral world of contingent meanings. Yet, the politics of self push ontic existence into an ever narrowing experiential field as consumer representations dominate not only our impetus for creative expression but also the ways in which we understand and utilise time. As Crary (2014) suggests, the reconfiguration of natural temporal flows with those of late-capitalism, marginalises more liminal understandings of the interplay between memory, imagination and lived spatial experience. It leaves no space for the poetics of space. Thus, our habitation of the narrowing discursive realm of late-capitalism can only produce a continuum of ontological loss – as temporal, spatial and representational forms continue to truncate at an accelerated and exponential rate; as the time-frames we occupy, the spaces we inhabit and the meanings we assimilate become increasingly regulated, compressed and superficial.

The phenomenon of media-induced nostalgia for example, supplants the inchoate and nascent meanings of childhood memories, with consensus representations; the joy of remembering becomes the task of never forgetting. Yet paradoxically, forgetting is exactly what occurs as our experiential memories are slowly eaten away and replaced by the tumor of consensus reality. The nostalgic image becomes just more cellular material for the cancerous work of self-fashioning. Bloomer argues that the notion of nostalgia, which has its origins in the notion of homesickness ‘from the Greek, nostos – return home, and algos – pain’, is connected to a desire to return to ‘the first home, that dark, warm, saltwatery, pusing vessel’ of the womb (Bloomer, 1996: 16). And yet, how has a term for the inexplicable feeling of loss and dislocation from primal dwelling become yet another consumer discourse? Our memories of watching a particular TV program, for example, may be more connected with the complexities of dwelling – emergent or concealed meanings housed in the ‘abode’ of the soul – than the need to enact group unity via shared reference points from the nostalgia industry (Bachelard, 1992). In the sleeve notes for an album by the pop group Saint Etienne, music journalist Peter Paphides describes a nostalgic feeling associated with the childhood memory of watching daytime TV when he at home with a cold and couldn’t to go to school:

That Pebble Mill feeling... would set in at roughly 11am when the educational programmes, shows like 'Picture Box' and 'How We Used to Live', would come on. It was kind of a mixture of guilt that you weren’t at school and boredom. Boredom because there was nothing on television, it was cloudy outside and mum was in the kitchen doing things that mum’s did. Then after lunch... an intangible air of melancholia would set in. The thing is, of course, at this age you don’t know you’re feeling melancholy (Paphides, 1997).

Whilst, it is valid to argue that the above anecdote is very much a re-presentation through discourse, it has a deeply poetic content hidden in its mundane descriptions of home. Although the language itself is not particularly poetic, the narrator seems to be doing more that producing discourse – he is tracing the emergence of being in order to preserve it. For Bergson (2008), the ontological function of art is defined as a kind of auto-translation of being. It is a translation of the ontological into the epistemological: the how we be, into the how we know. This draws strong parallels with Husserl’s notion of a primal impression-retention-protection process (1964), by which we preserve our sense of being in the pre-discursive realm. In other words, it is not simply a banal translation into representation:

What is the object of art? Could reality come into direct contact with sense and consciousness, could we enter into immediate communion with things and with ourselves, probably art would be useless, or rather we should all be artists, for then our soul would continually vibrate in perfect accord with nature (Bergson, 2008: 71).

This process of auto-translation has a private ontological function. It unconceals being and at the same time shelters it. It operates in covert ways to hide its ontological meanings from representation. In Heideggerian terms, the relationship between the ontological and the material (or earth), shelters world or the world as we know it pre-discursively, and ‘on which and in which’ we base our dwelling (Heidegger, 2011: 107). Thus, discursive relations with the ontological as illustrated in Paphides description, are not merely representations but are attentive praxes, which require a double-consciousness of the need to conceal being in order to unconceal it: the being that stands in the Being of beings. This intuitive understanding allows us to draw being out of Being but not to uproot it completely – instead gently sheltering it in words and images, simultaneously hiding it, both from and in discourse. However, the simplification of such a complex, paradoxical and responsive process into commoditised discourse is a triumph of Cartesian semiotic space in which the world becomes a series of objects to be manipulated to achieve a subjective ends – a discursive and symbolic realm of representation – over an objective semiotic space, which Kristeva (1984) terms chora: that which Edge describes as ‘a 'space' which holds the presignifying impulses, drives, feelings and sensations which predate the subject's entry into the symbolic and gendered subjectivity’ (Edge, 1999: 33).

Capitalist re-production (or simulation) of ontic reality has become embedded in the fabric of everyday life or that fugitive field that was once seen as area for contestation, d├ętournement and dissent in which the rules of play were there to be twisted and reshaped in the totality of each moment (de Certeau, 1988; Lefebvre, 1991; Debord, 2007). Debord, for example, suggests that ‘[t]he critique and perpetual re-creation of the totality of everyday life, before being carried out naturally by everyone, must be undertaken within the present conditions of oppression, in order to destroy those conditions’ (Debord, 2007). However, how are we to determine what is meant by carrying out ‘naturally’, when all our natural drives are diverted into the multifarious technological instruments of late-capitalist systems? Temporal and spatial experience seem unquestionably 'natural' and yet as Urry notes, ‘capitalist accumulation is based upon the annihilation of space and time’ (Urry, 1995: 7). For Crary, this questions not only the global ethical consequences of everyday production within the temporalities of late-capitalism, but also their personal ontological impact as the perpetuation of individual historically narratives of belonging is replaced with technological mediation of a perpetual stasis:

Individual habituation to these tempos has had devastating social and environmental consequences, and has produced a collective normalization of... ceaseless displacement and discarding. Because loss is continually created, an atrophied memory ceases to recognise it as such. The primary self-narration of one’s life shifts in its fundamental composition. Instead of a formulaic sequence of places and events associated with family, work and relationships, the main thread of one’s life-story is the electronic commodities and media services through which all experience has been filtered, recorded, or constructed (Crary, 2014: 58-59).

For the poetic imagination to function it must operate on the fine line between loss and retrieval. Poetic meaning is vulnerable and always at risk of negation. And so it should be, because there-in lies the task of the poet or artist – to mediate the processes by which meaning is opened-out or closed-down – to maintain a dialogue with the world. For Macleod and Holridge, art is ‘a fort-da game of playing out loss and retrieval as the artist comes to terms with meanings which are transient. What art offers, above all, is a speculation’ (Macleod and Holridge, 2005: 198). Thus, an art form such as a poem, film or painting must sustain its speculative state rather than fix it in object-hood and representation. If poetic meaning were not vulnerable, then it would be closed-down, lifeless and without nuance. The poetic imagination cradles the fleeting, the contingent, the ephemeral, the playful, the heterogeneous and the nuanced; for as film maker Albert Mayles alerts us to, “tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance”.


Bachelard, G. (1992) [1958]. The Poetics of Space. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Barthes, R. (1978). 'The Third Meaning: Research notes on some Eisenstein stills'. Image, Music, Text. New York and London: Hill & Wang.

Bergson, H. (2008) [1914]. 'Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic'. Rockville, Maryland: Arc Manor.

Bloomer, J. (1996). 'The Matter of the Cutting Edge'. Desiring Practices: Architecture, Gender and the Interdiciplinary. London: Black Dog Publishing.

Boroditskaya, M. Dugdale, S., (2015). 'Michael Rosen and Marina Boroditskaya: Children’s Poetry and Politics: a conversation'. Modern Poetry in Translation, No.2. 2015.

Craib, I. (1998). Experiencing Identity. London: Sage.

Crary, J. (2014). 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. London: Verso.

Debord, G. (2007) [1962], 'Perspectives For Conscious Changes in Everyday Life'. Situationist International Anthology. Edited and translated by Ken Knabb. Berkeley, CA: Bureau of Public Secrets.

Dugdale, S. (2015). 'Editorial'. Modern Poetry in Translation, No.2. 2015. Oxford: MPT.

Edge, S (1999) ‘Photography and the Self’ CIRCA Irish and International Contemporary Visual Culture Vol. 90: 30-35. Dublin: CIRCA.

Heidegger, M. (2011) [1978]. 'The Origin of the Work of Art'. Basic Writings. Edited by David Farrell Krell. London: Routledge.

Macleod, K. and Holdridge, L. (2005). 'The enactment of thinking: the creative practice Ph.D.'. Journal of Visual Art Practice, Vol. 4 (2;3). London: Taylor & Francis.

Paphides, P. (1997). Sleeve notes for Saint Etienne – Continental. Tokyo: L'appareil-Photo.

Rosen, M. (2015). 'Dear Ms Morgan: your guidance is a mini-syllabus on how to wreck poetry'. Guardian Online, 7th April 2015. Accessed, 29/07/2015: http://www.theguardian.com/education/2015/apr/07/key-stage-1-poetry-assessment-wrecks poems-for-children

Seigworth, G.J. & Gardiner, M.E. (2004). 'Rethinking Everyday Life: And then nothing turns itself inside out'. Cultural Studies Vol. 18, No. 2/3: 139–159. London: Taylor & Francis.

Urry, J. (1995). Consuming Places. London: Routledge.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

The Imaginative Tourist Trail for the New Forest Arts Festival 2016

The Imaginative Tourist Trail is a social art project I am currently running as part of Everyday Tourist Collective (ETC) with Noriko Suzuki-Bosco and Dr Yvonne Jones. The project was commissioned for the New Forest Arts Festival 2016 and explores the notion of authentic experience of place when it is seen through someone a fictitious frame. We have produced an edition of 200 Interactive Trail Guides / maps in the hope that visitors will engage with the 2.6 mile trail, beginning at The Fighting Cocks pub at Godshill in the New Forest, to produce alternative narratives of the area. We printed the guides using risograph technology and included a series of prompts indexed to eleven alternative tourist sites on the trail. The prompts have are not drawn from historical facts or official narratives relating to the sites and were designed to trigger the imaginations of participants and to inspire them to see the seemingly mundane through new eyes. We hope that the project will help visitors to re-image mundane rural sites and to generate a rich, multi-layered palimpsest of experiences indicating the complex nature of our engagement with place as mediated through both official narratives and emergent and unfolding understandings of our temporal, spatial and imaginative relations to site. All responses are submitted anonymously and have been used to conduct artist-led misguided tours, which have been taking place every Saturday during the course of the festival.

Noriko Suzuki-Bosco and Dr Yvonne Jones

Based on the understanding that tourism offers a way of shaping people’s experience of reality through narrative, the two week project hopes to bring into question the notions of authorship and authenticity in both art and tourism. Specifically referring to Foucault's concerns about who authorises the author within 'the functioning conditions of specific discursive practices' (Foucault, 1998), we have attempted to facilitate an imaginative environment in which participants are able to mediate between personally authentic place meanings and those authorised by cultural and institutional discourse to develop their own versions of ‘truth’. Indeed, our belief in narratives or histories as absolute truths, limits our experience of reality. Experiencing a place through a fictitious frame not only questions the authenticity of experience but also allows us to engage with reality as imaginative play.

ETC's Tourist Misinformation Station

The Imaginative Tourist Trail 

Interactive Trail Guide (edition of 200)


Sunday, 19 June 2016

Collaboration, Conversation and the Intertwining of Material and Immaterial Worlds: a reflection on the Mothership residency

In April this year I began a four week residency as part of Anna Best’s Mothership Residencies project. I used the opportunity open up the notion of conversation to the possibilities of collaboration both with humans and non-humans. Drawing upon Deleuze and Guattari’s ideas of affects and becoming, and Karen Barad’s explorations of human and non-human agents, I set out to start a conversation about the nature of conversation and collaboration in the art-site relations of the artist’s residency. At the Mothership person-site relations became part of an affective praxis in opposition to alienating and dehumanising effects of neoliberalism – individualism, competitiveness, exchangism, deskilling, social atomisation and so on. Harriet Hawkins (2014) stresses the importance of shared labour – literally collaboration – in transforming individual and collective consciousness. She uses gardening – a key aspect of my residency – as an example of a ‘grounded’ practice that has the power to disrupt and reconfigure the habitual relations of everyday life:

We could suggest that the physical, discursive, and haptic experiences of shared labour… was part of the creation of a rupture in everyday practices from within which new identities and shared consciousness could emerge (Hawkins, 2014: 170).

The unique labour relations of the residency were an initial source of suspicion as I adopted the cynical post-human perspective of trying to analyse the power relations between host and guest and the exact terms of labour exchange. However, in attempting to calculate and quantify these relations, I found that rather than reflecting the neoliberal idea that altruistic acts are are often thinly veiled opportunism and that everyone is ultimately self-serving, the residency provoked a sense that the reciprocal nature of the collaboration had far more humane dimensions. It seemed that the more I tried to quantify the exchange, particularly in relation to labour value, because I was not paying money to be there, the more the things shattered to reveal human truths and a qualitative value way beyond any kind of contractual arrangement. Thus my attempts to provoke a breakdown of assumed neoliberal labour relations were unjustified as the layers fell away to reveal a very human conversation about not only the need for people to live together but also the importance of bringing things together that are usually held apart. Instead of finding an illusionary micro-utopia sustained by privilege, which masked true power and property relations, I found a situation of honesty – a genuine attempt to make new worlds and recuperate old ones. Small-scale organic farming is an uphill struggle where the old binaries of the humans pitted against nature are initially reinforced, however, in responsible and ethical engagement with complex ecosystems, culture / nature binaries are eroded. Pestilence ceases to become a non-human enemy to be wiped out with petrochemicals when ecosystems are in balance. The context for the residency was not only thought-provoking but also provided a space for dialogue between humans and non-humans alike – “a potential space for collaborative thinking”, as one of my friends put it. One of the key things that emerged from the residency on reflection was the notion of ‘maternal space’ – of how, out of necessity, things of difference are brought together. Instead of seeing disruptions as inconveniences that break our ‘trains of thought’, by being open to ‘external’ factors and intrusions we are able to open out to new and emergent ways of being and seeing that foster generative creative processes. My challenge was to move beyond provocation as a means of ‘exploding’ power and property relations, and to embrace collaborative conversation as a means of gently unpicking the complexities of context without ignoring tensions and differences. In the words of Harriet Hawkins (2014), to develop truly collaborative art-site relations we must ‘remain open to the generative complexities of a given site… to be able to recognise the problematics of context, without sacrificing the ability to work productively within the community…’ (Hawkins, 2014: 166).

Hawkins, H. (2014). For Creative Geographies: Geography, Visual Arts and the Making of Worlds. London: Routledge.

You can read my feedback to host artist Anna Best on her Mothership Residencies blog.


Remains of Spring Cleansing Ritual (installation views)

Figure of Eight (installation views)

Flesh of the World: Powerstock / Abu Ghraib (installation view and details)


Asymmetrical Codependence (installation views / details)

Discarded bath tub found on Anna's land

Perfomance stills from Spring Cleansing Ritual II: #cleanforthequeen

The Tower (Inverted)

Figure of Eight II: site / interface (video still)

Figure of Eight II: site / interface (HD video)