I probably need to begin with an apology… maybe two? First of all, this is the first JR memorial blog entry from me for well over a year – I don’t know where the time has gone, other than saying that the world has gone quite mad and, like everybody else, I’ve been busy trying to stave off the forces of terminal instrumentalization. Second, and far worse, this blog entry isn’t about DeLorean cars, flying skate boards, sleeveless bubble jackets or the consequences of calling McFly ‘chicken’ (though it has to be said, big JR would have made a good stand in for mad professor type person Dr. Emmett L. Brown). But this is about time machines – or, more accurately, Mechanics Institutes as they were once called. Yes folks, the good folk up at Grizedale have done it again. Just as we thought we didn’t have an appropriate metaphor to think through the process of ‘thinking ourselves otherwise’, up pop Adam, Alistair and Co with a reminder to look in front of our own eyes. And in my case into the history of the very institution I work in/for.
As you probably all know by now, Grizedale took the ‘Colosseum of the Consumed’ to Frieze Art Fair last October. During this multi-media, multi-project, multi-faith fandango, Alistair found time to communicate to us (at The Autonomy School in Liverpool) via the new fangled technology of Skype (something McFly and co could only have dreamed of in their Back to the Future II world of 1989). During this conversation, Alistair began to elaborate on various developments in Grizedale Art’s ongoing project. Most importantly, he invited us to imagine a bell curve of Social and Industrial assent and decline – beginning with the late Enlightenment/First Industrial Revolution and ending in our present economic chaos. If we were to draw an imaginary line back across this bell curve, from our present point in time, Hudson argued that we would find ourselves somewhere around the beginning of the 19th Century – a time in which Europe was beginning to re-define itself along the lines of democracy, emancipation and extended social inclusion. This period probably reached its ideological apogee in the revolutionary year of 1848 and laid the foundations for the ideas of citizenship and cultural value that we are currently clinging on to (and re-defiling) today. Amongst this hubbub of this activity was, of course, the growth of the Mechanics Institute – those utopian expressions of social progressivism funded by self-elected (and usually liberal minded) pillars of society. Amongst this list of alumni was, of course, our own big JR who kindly funded developments in the rural/industrial village of Coniston.
What is important here for Hudson and the crew of the good ship Grizedale was JR’s insistence on teaching art as part of an extensive and integrated education – making it part of a syllabus that would also include literature, the sciences and the acquisition of everyday practical skills. Not only did this kind of syllabus lead to the Mechanics Institutes becoming crucibles of self-organisation and social change (centres of early union activity as well as the foundations for many of our current UK Universities), it also remind us of a time when art was also ascribed a socially integrated use value. For Hudson, ‘the current state of art galleries and museums is still determined by the framework marked out by economic and truth values; where value is ascribed to works of art based upon their operation within a market system and their perceived ability to reveal or lead us to seeing the world as it really is. In this scheme (from around 1848 onwards) the third value of art, based upon its utility or usage, has been largely suppressed, or diverted into the arena of craft, activism, politics and so on’. Re-inventing use value as the crucial third term (against the accepted mode ‘dual mode of advocacy of and advocacy’ – displaying works of art according to a consensus of what constitutes a work of value [as commodities in both monetary and aesthetic terms] and then advocating this value to the museum or gallery’s constituency) then becomes crucial. It becomes the cornerstone for beginning to re-imagine a more permeable and open form of arts institution – one not bound by its physical and geographical manifestation or legislation.
In its humble way, the time machine of big JR’s Mechanics Institute at Coniston begins to open up this possibility, the possibility for re-imagining a socially re-integrated art production which forms part of our productive identity and collaborative notions of citizenship, individual civil rights and access to what we have left of community. Such a time machine also gives us the opportunity to look back to the future, to re-assess the roots of our culture, to sift through what was kept in and what was thrown away in the processes of epistemological construct that were (and still are) our inherited Modernity.
So! In our next issue of the Big JR Blog more on Time Machines - and a big thank you here to discussions with Francesco Manacorda, Director or Liverpool Tate, whose own (and far more elegant) use of the ‘Time Machine’ as curatorial device put me in mind of McFly and Co (and also, if I’m honest, made me begin to re-think the Machines and Machinic illogics/counterlogics of Guattari’s ‘Chaosmosis’). Maybe also something more on permeable institutions? Oh, and we probably need to start a reconsideration of craft at some point I would have thought? Until then may all of your Ruskin beards be trim, may all of your bushy sideburns stay hearty (in a non-gender specific metaphorical way of course), and may your Workers Soup remain forever on low simmer.
During the recent ‘Terminal Convention’ Symposium in Cork, our erstwhile Ruskinite-Reformer and keen Big J R blogger Alistair Hudson began his own presentation by showing David Shrigley’s animation ‘An Important Message About the Arts’. Intended as a useful propaganda tool for yet another UK institution threatened by massive government cuts – in this case the Arts Council UK – Shrigley’s animation used the characters of a farmer and his son to make a case for Art’s economic viability (as a key driver in both the Creative and Tourism/Leisure Industries) and, perhaps more predictably, for Art’s assumed cultural and civilising values. As Alistair pointed out though, the twin towers of economy and truth tend to overlook the question of art’s use-value.
In the light of this, Alistair went on to pose a series of key questions which tend to loosely underpin the Grizedale way - what kind of thing would artist’s do if they decided to make themselves useful? What can artists begin to do as citizens? What would art look like if it wasn’t reduced to monetary imperatives on one hand or the need to ‘inform’ the masses from the dizzying heights of culture on the other? What would happen if artists didn’t necessarily commit to producing luxury consumer goods for London centric art market? In other words, what happens if we began to re-look at the possible use-value of art?
As it turns out, these are also questions that big J R had begun to ask in the latter part of his career – the bit where he moved to asking questions about the morality of aesthetics (and also the bit where people began to think he was barking mad started to ignore him). It seems these questions also drove some of big J R’s thinking behind his support for Mechanics Institutes: as educational centers for the working class, as places where art, science, theatre and music would all combine to provide a rounded education.
These questions of art’s use value, and the role they can play in education, are perhaps more pertinent today than they were in Ruskin’s time. As Universities are now asking students to take up 9K loans per year to cover their Higher Education fees, and as the UK government is proposing ‘employability’ league tables for every HE course in the country (to help prospective students and their parents chose the courses of study most likely to get them a job), it’s maybe time to give this all a little more thought? Being involved in Higher Education myself (running the both the Fine Art and History of Art Degree Programmes at Liverpool School of Art and Design – part of Liverpool John Moores University which, incidentally, can trace its roots back to an Arts and Mechanics Institute that was set up in Liverpool in 1823) I’m really interested in continuing a critical Ruskinian re-invention by beginning to pose two key post-Ruskinian questions myself – Just what kind of job is to be done by artists in today’s increasingly instrumentalised and economically driven society? And, in the light of this, what kind of work does making art become?
So, over the next months I’m proposing to ask these questions, Flip camera in hand, of anybody who is willing to attempt an answer (admittedly this may not be many). I’ll also try to link this to some of the goings on down Coniston Institute way and, of course, attempt to seek some help and guidance from the legacy of Big J R as I go. I also have a feeling that cheese, vegetables and soup may figure prominently in this analysis.
The problem with working in the country is that it’s so easy to lose perspective. There is less resistance and the world around you becomes the world. Before you know it you’re showing all the signs: shuffling around in a dirty fleece, complaining a lot about how busy everywhere is and thinking what you do is really important, international, high quality, significant, great and all those other words that provincial arts organisations love to use.
I’ve been on the road for the last week, but on a trip that entailed me being locked in rooms with artlike people for days on end. Tuesday through to Wednesday was spent in London with the Plus Tate group of directors and Thursday to Saturday locked in to the disused terminal at Cork International Airport to speak at Terminal Convention. I didn’t see any of these cities (in that ill-conceived sense of place way) but it was certainly more rewarding than standard travel usually is, in terms of clarifying what we do and don’t do when back home and, well, getting some perspective.
Both events entailed full days and evenings of sitting in a room talking about or listening to people talking about the value of art.
At Plus Tate I disagreed with a curator from the Whitworth Art Gallery about this, quite fundamentally. My point was that what art missed greatly, particularly in this time of economic tailspin, was getting the point, or having a point; that it should be useful. She couldn’t disagree more, based principally on an outdated Kantian position – arguing that art’s greatest asset was that it is useless and that was its use – the Kantian Paradox. (Interestingly our Ruskin show for the Whitworth was cancelled, we suspect, for this very reason; that the curators refuted this post-Romantic, post-market, post-subjective, post-historical approach to art and its history.) We agreed to differ.
At times like this you do have self doubt, that maybe you are just a deluded country bumpkin going mad. John Ruskin probably had this thought at least twice, surely. Most people outside the 604 people who are The Art World would, I suggest, have the view that art is useless. From a non-Kantian perspective.
So I was grateful for the excellent Terminal Convention (see what they’re doing there?) organised by the sharp and spikey Static Gallery in the disused airport terminal at Cork. It’s a weird thing to land at an airport and not leave it – although we did change buildings to sleep at the Cork International Airport which is the most incredible frou-frou of postmodernity and indeed worth flying there just for the hotel. They could do with a better strapline though, like We make Terry Farrell look like John Pawson.
I arrived with powerpoint in pocket, slightly unsure to be honest, concerned that the idea of the use value of art would be received with equal dismissal. But as the symposium unfolded it became clear that that it had been orchestrated to make this very point, with each speaker progressively re-enforcing this very idea as the next paradigm shift in the venerable history of what we understand as art. Which is reassuring.
Rather than regurgitate the proceedings (you can go to the website and I do have other things to do) I shall merely point you in the direction of the key interlocutors, as they say at art symposia:
Team Van Abbe Museum – Annie Fletcher, Steven ten Thije and Charles Esche
Look out. We are witnessing the end of history and modernity in all its forms and we better come up with an art solution that can handle this and give the economies of money and truth and run for their money. Charles says that we don’t particularly need artists any more and they’ve stopped doing temporary artist shows and maybe don’t need a museum (Steven looks worried). This also however opens up new possibilities for a performative idea of the archive. Oh and sooner or later we gonna have to kill the super-rich.
George Yudice, University of Miami
In order to operate beyond the entrapment of the market art must look at the established mechanisms of distribution. His book the Expediency of Culture looks a must read.
Stephen Wright, European School of Visual Arts, Paris
Not the DJ, comedian or ex-Derby County defender but a very interesting academic promoting the usership of art, art as double ontology, art as non-discipline, art without artworks, new coefficients of visibility - this guy should be run the Arts Council for a day just for the hell of it. Might make the world a better place too. His web project Plausible Artworlds is an access point to projects that actually do something. Note: Would like to make cheese too.
Aislinn O’Donnel, GRADcam
Making philosophy useful in society. Good Job (read in a US accent).
These and all the other speakers confirmed all my doubts over the Whitworthian position and was a good excuse the show the funny but wrong David Shrigley campaigning film for the Save the Arts campaign as an introduction to my talk on what and why we do it. What the film says is that we should support the arts because of their economic and, effectively, spiritual value. What it misses is that if people could use the arts rather than look at them or buy them, they might just have a future.
Now back to the farm.....
The long lost John Byrne here.
Sorry it been quite a while since my last blog entry but, amongst other things, I blame the recession inspired cuts to the arts - and the coalition hell released upon Higher Education.
Like most people in the arts I've had to try extra hard over the last few months to make anything like a positive move. Then again, like most people involved in the arts, that hasn't stopped my trying.
One thing that has stuck with me over the past few months, I'm more than mildly surprised say, is how badly I've been bitten by the big JR bug. So far, the conversations I've been having with people, and those that I've recorded for this blog, are really pointing towards a re-thinking of my relationship to art (and to art's relationship to me). The video I've popped up today is a case of this. As I grabbed a few JR interviews at the end of Grizedale's 're-Coefficients Club' event in sunny Sheffield last April, I couldn't help thinking of Alistair Hudson's prophetic flight of metaphoric fancy - that if big JR were to be around today he'd be wearing a hoodie and getting straight up the noses of the current art industry glitterati (and not, me thinks, in a necessarily neo-conservative way either). After all, just because much of today's off-the-shelf avant-gardism seems dull, vacuous and fascicle, doesn't mean we have to 'return' to traditional norms - unless, of course, those traditional norms are those long lost values of radicalism, activism and a will to coherently re-evaluate the present worth of our artistic and political efforts.
I guess some things just keep cropping up, re big JR, which I want to find out more about. Craft is one of them. Maybe not the usual idea of craft (as the pseudo hand whittled mass production of tourist tattle and middle class Sunday supplement escapist fodder), but the idea of Craft as a hands on approach to trying to do something different, something against the grain. After meeting up for a Jonathan Meese event at Grizedale almost a year ago, I had a really exciting conversation with about this with Charlie Gere. It's really stuck in my mind. I need to follow this up with Charlie and spend some more time reading Richard Sennett.
I've also become fascinated with Grizedale's idea of re-inventing the 'Mechanics Institute" as roving art and education intervention. It's not just that this idea appeals to me on the level of something I'd quite like to help out with (after all, tagging along with an itinerant bunch of art bedeviled educators may be my only option if cuts to Higher Education bite much harder), it's that John Ruskin's ideas seem to allow for a very contemporary re-appraisal of what education actually is and can do. Also, the Art and Design School that I currently work for at Liverpool John Moores University can, apparently, trace itself back to a nineteenth century mechanics institute… more of this when I check it out.
However, I have to admit that the biggest 'big JR' haunting has happened when I've been looking at contemporary (and historical) issues of how artists can simply find a way to do something different, worthwhile, against the grain. Alistair kindly joined us for the Autonomy Summer School at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in July and it was both surprising and exciting to find out how many Ruskinian strands of thought kept re-emerging. And, as well as this, 1848 has taken on more of a significance than I thought it would! Hmmmm…....
So, I have the big JR inspired bit firmly between my teeth now. Expect more interviews, musings, idling, rambling and surreptitious attempts at fitting square pegs into round holes as winter draws in and the long nights await. But what better way to spend nights beside the fire than with a laptop and the continuing ghost story of big JR?
So having made it back, without any volcanic hindrance, from Galsgow at the weekend (thank you Mr Webster for a lovely do) we now embark upon our next feat of mass catering.....it's the....
Re-Coefficients Dining Club
Millennium Galleries Sheffield
St George's Day
Friday 23 April 2010
7.00 - 9.00 pm
Booking details: please call the Millenium Galleries Bookings Administrator on 0114 278 2655 or email email@example.com to reserve your place.
Book early to avoid disappointing us on the day.
Helpful hint of the day:
St. Georges Day is formally recognised by wearing a red rose in the buttonhole.
"Making John Ruskin Dull" Quote:
(John Ruskin used St George to brand his vision for a micro utopia/escape from modernity.)
"We will try to take some small piece of English ground, beautiful, peaceful and fruitful. We will have no steam-engines upon it, and no railroads; we will have no untended or unthought-of creatures on it; none wretched, but the sick; none idle, but the dead."
(None dead but the idle, none sick but the wretched - almost everything Ruskin wanted came to pass but backwards. John Ruskin was surely the world's most disappointed man.)
THIS IS WHAT THIS EVENT IS ABOUT
This entire event is an artwork - for want of a better description; you are part of it, we are all implicated in everything.
We (Grizedale Arts) want to create several short films that make us think about the systems under which we have tried to live and think about some systems we have yet to try. We want to construct systems for living that suit us as community animals, systems that help us for a time, in this next moment; accepting there are no ultimate solutions. What is certain is that the idea of freedom of the individual is unnatural, unhealthy and fantastically destructive to the species.
There is at hand a reappraisal of John Ruskin, how and why he's been forgotten since he stopped talking (and stopped breathing), whilst the world got on with absorbing so much of what he opposed. He now seems to be emerging again as a complex thinker with a strangely contemporary mindset, contradictory, nascent, tangential.
Let us set up clubs, societies, make up stuff and force some ideas on others - they'll love it once they get going.
What was the Coefficients Dining Club?
In 1902, in the shadow of John Ruskin's death, the leaders of the Fabian Society, founded the Coefficients Club to bring together the most powerful figures in the British Establishment with social critics and idealists to discuss and make plans for social reform and a new, unified liberal new world order. And eat.
Just over 100 years later we plan to re-form the Dining Club format, using this forum for discussion, to bring together six new voices to give speeches on social and cultural reform over a socially pointed menu.
The Coefficients' principle aim was to ensure the continued growth of imperially driven, liberal capitalism in the 20th century. As this idea has seemingly run its course, this event asks what are options and ideas for this century?
Members you will have heard of include H G Wells (the experience inspired The Shape of Things to Come), Bertrand Russell (who left in a bate), Alfred Milner (one of Ruskin's Road Builders) and many militarists, politicians and economists who's names will have largely slipped from public consciousness. The whole endeavour lasted seven years.
Grizedale Arts will continue to use this format until it breaks.
WHAT IS GRIZEDALE ARTS?
A residency organisation based on a farm in the centre of the Lake District. It tries to develop the way art thinking and art practice impact on society, through projects exhibitions and events developed through an extended community of artists and creative people associated with it.
What might be annoying
We are filming the dinner and making short films of each of the six speeches that can be downloaded from Grizedale's website, these speeches will be used to explain and support aspects of the Grizedale programme and we will be encouraging schools and colleges to use them as propaganda in their own education process.
The point of this dinner is to provoke action. We all talk too much about what we feel and think - who cares - just bloody get on with it.
The evening will be punctuated by interruptions, starts and stops, for the filming and audio recording, the performance will be dominated and controlled by the gathering of material for dissemination: this is part of the point.
There will be 24 invited diners at an elaborately dressed dinner table partaking of five courses of soup. The audience will sit around, cabaret/"Later with Jools Holland' style, with soup and bread and drink.
SCHEDULE (WHICH MIGHT ALSO BE ANNOYING)
Each of the speakers will give a 10 minute presentation at the head of the table. Subjects will centre on visions for ways of living. Between each speaker there will be a musical interlude provided by a Rock Orchestra (a 19th century slate harmonium) and a barbershop quartet - both tributes to John Ruskin's musical taste.
The Rock Orchestra will play the instrumental bridge from James Brown's early 60's stage show between the speeches and finish with a composition by the musicians.
The Barber Shop group will sing from the Polecat, a series of songs known to all Barber Shoppers of all races, creeds and colours - hence a common language that can be dropped into at the drop of a hat.
Writer, individualist and pike fishing hedonist Simon Crump will write a critical text about the evening, available on the blog shortly after the event. He likes to be provocative and doesn't take kindly to criticism. Try not to sit next to him.
Cristina Cerulli - School of Architecture, Sheffield University
John Atkinson - Cumbrian hill farmer and commons campaigner
John Byrne - Head of Fine Art at Liverpool School of Art, John Moores University
Alexandre Singh - New York based artist
Inderjit Bhogal - Methodist minister and CEO of the Yorkshire and Humber Faiths Forum
John Ruskin - Polymath with a dodgy reputation (played by an actor)
The Musical Stones of Skiddaw is a very large tuned percussion instrument made of a type of rare hornfels rock found near Skiddaw in Cumbria, England. Constructed between 1827 and 1840, the instrument was played all over Britain including Buckingham Palace for Queen Victoria in 1848 and generated a fortune for the family that built and played it. The instrument has been housed at the Keswick Museum and Art Gallery in Cumbria from 1917 to the present day. Ruskin had his own stone xylophone made, now housed in the Ruskin Museum, Coniston.
Jamie Barnes works as a freelance Curator, artist and musician. Jamie was the Curator of Keswick Museum and Art Gallery between 2004 and 2009. In this time he helped Grizedale Arts in the revival of playing the Musical Stones and has continued to perform concerts throughout the country.
Gavin Bradshaw is a composer and musician. The majority of his output is made through his alias QXTC, and is predominantly electronic sequenced and synthesized music.
Chris Stones (no really)
Musician and coordinator of SoundWaves music programme. Chris was inspired to work with the stones by his interest in the Indonesian Gamelan tradition.
The musicians will be dressed - by their own volition - as your old school Geography teacher.
Barber Shop is a revival movement established in the 1930's to save the rapidly disappearing Minstrel Music - a black phenomena centred on the church - as it transformed into the much harsher and emotional black gospel style. Barber shop is a white American phenomena that revels in the accappella chord and is itself the base for white gospel quartet singing.
Ruskin is reported to have particularly enjoyed the touring Minstrel shows (the Georgia Minstrels amongst others toured England) performing the standards at home. Yes he was in effect a gangster rapper, eschewing the high-minded for the popular.
Bandwagon Barbershop Quartet - Bob, Andrew, Jim and Glenn, formed in April 2009 and as well as competing in the national quartet championships, provide entertainment in the form of close harmony singing in the barbershop style, through shows, at weddings and other private gatherings and at public events. All four singers also pursue their love of the genre through membership of and active involvement in the Sheffield Barbershop Harmony Club and its six times national championship winning chorus 'Hallmark of Harmony'. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Bandwagon-Barbershop-Quartet/131752356536
T 0114 2630945 and Mob 07899 808479
Each of the speakers has a set of bowls and flatware made by contemporary crafts people working in Sheffield - all based at Persistence Works.
Contact - Persistence Works, 21 Brown Street, Sheffield S1 2BS
Ruskin saw Sheffield as being like Rome (with its seven hills), he was also keen on the idea that it was a hot bed of old-school craft skills - i.e. medieval - hence the collection for the Working Man, now housed in the Millennium Galleries as "The Ruskin Collection".
Stefan Tooke, (silversmith) - soup spoons and ladles.
Stefan has a passion for food and focuses his work around the theme of dining; he is particularly interested in spoons. The work references labour and craftsmanship by retaining the making marks. Each of the spoons has a specific eating function as well as fitting the contours of the hand.
Charlotte Tollyfield, (silversmith) - hand spun bowls.
Charlotte's work focuses on the process of forming; destroying and re-creating three-dimensionally shaped vessels.
Hanne Westergaard, (ceramicist) - Porcelain bowls
Hanne will be creating a set of ceramic bowls that will incorporate the influence of Rockingham Porcelain- a 19th century high-end manufacturer of porcelain based in Rotherham between 1826 and 1842. Hanne will incorporate the decorative style of Rockingham into the Danish Modernist aesthetic that informs her work.
Emilie Taylor, (ceramicist) - slip and scraffitto decorated bowls
Referencing the Arts and Crafts period consistently featured in her work, overlaid scraffitto drawings depict scenes from the 'Soup Summit' of 2008. The end of a three year period of wrangling between Westminster Council, the Church and London Voluntary Sector Organistaions as Westminster Council tried to amend byelaws that would mean soup runs would be illegal. The Soup Summit met at Tate Britain in 2008.
Penny Withers, (ceramicist) - Thrown ceramic wood fired bowls
The work references The Arts and Crafts in the making processes and the pattern used to decorate the bowls, overlaid with Penny's fluid style.
The rest of the diners will be using ceramics designed by the Marquis of Queensbury and Jessie Tate for Midwinter with further crockery by Kathie Winkle for Broadhurst.
Queensbury was a descendant of 'Bosie', Oscar Wilde's lover. Oscar Wilde claimed to be a member of Ruskin's Road builders, 'The Diggers', several of whom were members of the Coefficients Dining Club.
The audience will use and enjoy the complexity of Ryan Gander's 'Love Cups'; a rustic Japanese interpretation of Josef and Anni Albers' Bauhaus glass, silver and ebony 'Lover's Teaglass', itself based on the designs of Christopher Dresser for James Dixon and Sons, which in turn were copies of Japanese sake vessels collected on Dresser's 1876 tour of Japan. See what he's done there? But why?
Bread knives, butter knives and table tea lights made by the students of the Freeman College, Ruskin Mill Charitable Trust
'Shape' by Gerald Benney for Viners of Sheffield
Benney trained under Dunstan Pruden - of the Eric Gill Ditchling utopian Arts and Crafts community (Gill being a Ruskin disciple). He worked as a designer for Viners throughout the 60's, creating commercially successful designs of which the 'Studio' range of cutlery is the most famous, utilising his trademark 'Benney Bark Finish', now an industry standard.
Benney's legacy lives on under the unfortunately-named brand 'Benney' (Crossroads, ABBA, Hill, Jets,)
Roadside flowers - 'there is as much beauty in the planarium worm as in the neck of a swan'
Projected as a background/context for the event
Our Daily Bread - Nikolaus Geyrhalter - 92 minutes (no dialogue)
"It's not the easiest film to digest-but it's intensely important, and impossible to look away from or forget." -Andy Aaron, Very Short List
A true vision of utopia, a brave new world reality where it is the animals and plants that have been automated. The occasional visceral moments act as reminders of humanity - having a religious feel akin to the martyrdom images of the Catholic Church. People will look back on this film and wonder at the intimate nature of the relationship between people and animals it portrays.
This is the reality of what we all depend on to survive whether we eat it or not, the genius of man's supremacy over nature, in many ways a thing of great sophistication and beauty. What many have in the past strived for, buying us the time to develop so much and do so little with it.
Soup is the basic staple of any rural community and an 'al deskco' staple, John Ruskin in his blog Flors Clavigera (which means, roughly, a jolly good clubbing) repeatedly promised the ultimate soup recipe, one that would afford all a good healthy diet. He never delivered it.
A meal of five courses in five soups (entirely vegetarian) will be served to the 24 invited diners. The audience will be served Soup of Theseus from a soup kitchen, with bread and drink.
Here we will offer five possibilities on what he might have had in mind:
Gaspacho - cold tomatoes, garlic and wet bread - maybe not exactly what Ruskin was thinking.
Toge Soup - a mixed vegetable soup from the village of Toge in Northern Japan. Eaten three times a day by the rice farmers of the village and unique to their village - seaweed is the stock base.
The Soup of Theseus - Ministrone/Fassoulada - the most famous of farm soups, probably close to what Ruskin had in mind, Ruskin's reference was to the soup that Theseus prepared for Hercules before his labours.
Stilton and cauliflower - some hideous 80's invention still popular in Edinburgh and Bristol.
Ile Flottante - sweet soup with the floating island of Jonathan Swift's Lauputa in the middle, a satirical observation on an effective form of state control - sit that state on my face, calm me down a bit.
Bread hand made by the students of the Freeman College, Ruskin Mill Charitable Trust
There are a lot of men involved in this event - there does seem to be a gender disparity in the urge to create systems for living, the gender with the least experience of the actual systems taking the lead. Could be a clue in there somewhere?
Graphics by Karen Guthrie
Filmed by Maria Zeb Benjamin
Technical management and web by Dorian Moore
Edited by Alistair Hudson - the arbiter of the reasonable
Concept by Grizedale Arts Commune
Detail by Adam Sutherland
Helpers: Lucy Livingstone and Ed Bailey
Cooks, servers and cleaners - all the above
Thanks to Richard Greer, The Millennium Galleries Sheffield, John Moores University and Media Arts Northwest for supporting the event.
This is a Media Arts Northwest Action Research Project
To comment, criticise, commend or discus use the blog on http://www.grizedale.org
1. Ruskin's Roadbuilders
In 1874 Ruskin proposed to a select group of Oxford undergraduates that they endeavour to build a flower bordered road between South and North Hinksey - to assist the two communities. The group we lampooned in the press and on campus, being nicknamed the 'Diggers'. Notable members of this group included, Arnold Toynbee (social reformer), Hardewick Rawnsley (co-founder of the National Trust - lifelong Ruskin interpreter), Alfred Milner (economist and member of the Coefficents) William Powell (Whitefriars glassworks and model village) and Oscar Wilde (a lifelong Ruskin fan - but possibly just for the day). The road was not completed as the work was interrupted by the holidays, the villages of North and South Hinksey remain unconnected but an allegory exists.
2. Oscar Wilde's possibly rather embroidered version
We were coming down the street-a troop of young men, some of them like myself only nineteen, going to river or tennis-court or cricket-field-when Ruskin going up to lecture in cap and gown met us. He seemed troubled and prayed us to go back with him to his lecture, which a few of us did, and there he spoke to us not on art this time but on life, saying that it seemed to him to be wrong that all the best physique and strength of the young men in England should be spent aimlessly on cricket ground or river, without any result at all except that if one rowed well one got a pewter-pot, and if one made a good score, a cane-handled bat. He thought, he said, that we should be working at something that would do good to other people, at something by which we might show that in all labour there was something noble. Well, we were a good deal moved, and said we would do anything he wished. So he went out round Oxford and found two villages, Upper and Lower Hinksey, and between them there lay a great swamp, so that the villagers could not pass from one to the other without many miles of a round. And when we came back in winter he asked us to help him to make a road across this morass for these village people to use. So out we went, day after day, and learned how to lay levels and to break stones, and to wheel barrows along a plank-a very difficult thing to do. And Ruskin worked with us in the mist and rain and mud of an Oxford winter, and our friends and our enemies came out and mocked us from the bank. We did not mind it much then, and we did not mind it afterwards at all, but worked away for two months at our road. And what became of the road? Well, like a bad lecture it ended abruptly-in the middle of the swamp. Ruskin going away to Venice, when we came back for the next term there was no leader, and the 'diggers', as they called us, fell asunder.
3. Ruskin takes the piss out of those that worship the 'Goddess of Getting-on':
Your ideal of human life then is, I think, that it should be passed in a pleasant undulating world, with iron and coal everywhere under it. On each pleasant bank of this world is to be a beautiful mansion, with two wings; and stables, and coach-houses; a moderately-sized park; a large garden and hot-houses; and pleasant carriage drives through the shrubberies. In this mansion are to live the favoured votaries of the Goddess; the English gentleman, with his gracious wife, and his beautiful family; he always able to have the boudoir and the jewels for the wife, and the beautiful ball dresses for the daughters, and hunters for the sons, and a shooting in the Highlands for himself. At the bottom of the bank, is to be the mill; not less than a quarter of a mile long, with one steam engine at each end, and two in the middle, and a chimney three hundred feet high. In this mill are to be in constant employment from eight hundred to a thousand workers, who never drink, never strike, always go to church on Sunday, and always express themselves in respectful language.
"All movements go too far."
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After the first meeting of 'The Autonomy Project' at the Van Abbe Museu in Eindhoven (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en), I caught up with Van Abbe Director, Manchester City supporter (and all round good egg) Charels Eshe and asked him for some thoughts on Big JR. Being from Manchester (or a 'Manc' as we call those of the Manchester persuasion here in the UK - Alistair Hudson is one too) Charles' first memories of Ruskin were associated with his influence on 'News from Nowhere' and other 19th Century radical free press. It is also interesting that Charles also saw some parallels between Ruskin's struggle with the aesthetics/ethics question and the difficulties of making a meaningful socially engaged practice in today's neo-liberal economy. Charels also has some very interesting things to say on the show he would work on with Ruskin - should the big man himself come back to work with us today.
Today's blog entry is a video diary as I sit in an Eindhoven Hotel waiting for a meeting at the Van Abbe Museum (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en) about the coming launch of 'The Autonomy Project' which I've been working on for nearly two years with Charles Esche, Annie Fletcher, Steven Ten Thije and Clare Butcher.
I've been thinking a lot about what Alistair has been saying in this Sao Paulo blog entries about the difficulty of meaningfully engaging as an artists without collapsing innovative work back into the pre-requisite formulae of international Biennial Land (or Airport Art as I call it). It's a tough one and no doubt!
But it also strikes me that any questions over the possibility of autonomy today are no longer circumscribed by bankrupt Modernist debates about 'self-referentiality', or 'art for art's sake. Nor can they be sustained in the aftermath of an equally bankrupt postmodernism without some radical re-negotiation. What does remain is the question of how to be an artist, thinker, writer, curator, teacher or whatever meaningfully? How to develop a practice within the existing globalized neo-liberal economy that can still function in an oppositional sense? How to negotiate new perspectives on better ways of living? All of these seem questions that were (and still are) rooted in the problematic of John Ruskin's complex relationship between art, aesthetics and ethics?
I recently caught up with Alistair Hudson in Manchester after we'd given a presentation on 'Creative Partnerships' at Manchester Museum. In a state of some despair, brought on mainly by experiencing an update on the turf wars in UK Arts and Education Funding (which seem to be increasingly blighting the possibility of cultural experiment) Alistair took us to his family's favourite Chinese Restaurant. After eating the hottest food I have ever had in my life - a really funky Szechwan Black Pudding and various forms of Offal Soup - debate turned, as always to Big JR. Alistair went on to elucidate on the complex relationship between Grizedale and Ruskin, between Grizedale and the world and the possibility of Ruskin Returning as a Cultural Hoody stalking the self-satisfied debates over art, ethics and social engagement (Oh, and the X Factor too).
Grizedale regular Wapke Feenstra (www.wapke.nl) reads out her favorite Ruskin quotation from 'The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art'. According to Wapke, Ruskin reads the paintings he is talking about from a peculiarly British viewpoint and, in doing so, completely misses their point (form a Dutch perspective of course). Was this just another case of a Victorian Englander attempting to apply his world view to everything? - no change there then I hear you say!
However, whilst I was listening to Wapke read her quote (and it is her favorite Big John quote) there does seem to be a sweeping confidence in Ruskin's assertions - kinda hard not side with him on some levels. He talks of the Landscape containing a human element that can't be denied - and that would weaken art by its absence. I can't help beginning to thinking of him as some kind of Victorian moralist crossed with Simon Cowell, an ethical critic running his informed but detached eye over the runners and riders in the new business of art. In view of Alistair's recent adventures in Sao Paulo, there seems a crucial importance here. How could one even begin to conceive of a contemporary global landscape without the immediate necessity to confront the ethical as well as the aesthetic? Despite all this, It's hard not to agree with Wapke's conclusions though....
In the evening we go to see the boxer Jesus Carlos. Jesus Carlos runs a gym, boxing school and library under a flyover. He too has a mission. In Sao Paulo the spaces under the numerous concrete flyovers are a honey pot of vice, drugs and violence. Jesus Carlos has taken on the task himself of changing the society that surrounds him by establishing open air gymnasia where once there was pile of trash - in every sense.
He wants to get the wasted souls off the streets and through physical exercise and education, turn the drug addicts and gang members into citizens of healthy mind and body. Jesus prides himself on the fact that he has done this himself, without aid from the government, just with good will and determination. He calls his mission Human Recycling.
He has now established two gyms and we go to see the latest first. Sandwiched between two roads, it is transparent and open to the elements on all sides, save for a fence and the roof above provided by the freeway. There is a boxing ring, homemade exercise equipment and punch bags made from gas canisters and fridges and of course the library. This started when the kids started to bring their homework along and grew into a library to expand the minds of all its members.
Opposite the gym is a small park where the drug dealers and prostitutes make their trade. He wants to turn this area into a communal allotment, but this may take some time. Recently one of the dealers came over to kill Carlos for taking away his clients, but he didn't succeed of course; Carlos, with the looks of a Tarrantino star, is hard as nails and doesn't give up.
Whilst we talk to him there is a commotion going on over at the park; flashing lights, police, a child in handcuffs. This is the first meeting I've had in the middle of a drugs bust.
Afterwards we go to the first Gym, which is much bigger, under a bigger fly-over. It is now dark and cinematic in the sodium glow of the lighting. At the entrance, a a gap in the chain link fence, there is a reception desk made from junk furniture. The whole thing is like ghetto Edward Acland, nothing wasted and piles of spare, saved materials stacked up in neat piles. Here there are two boxing rings, extensive gym (with gas bottles and rocks for weights) a skate park, another library with lounge area and even a few tents for the eager. Now, evening the place is busy, maybe 50 or more people working out, reading, watching TV or doing spectacular stunts on BMX on the skate ramps. It looks like it's doing it's job.
Calos wants to go on. He wants a gym and library under every flyover in Brazil. He wants it to become a free university for the underclass. That's a long way off, but I wouldn't be surprised if it happened.
The parallels with the Mechanics Institute (both here and at UNAS) are direct and startling, inspirational. But the real question is how we work with all this stuff. What do we make for the Bienal that doesn't just fall into the trap of Bienality and just pointing at all this stuff, like the first colonists drawing and measuring every plant and animal and native they clapped their eyes on.
Jesus Carlos is already well known - even the AA are coming to see him for a summer school fro crying out loud.
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