Bik van der Pol
Liesbeth Bik & Jos van der Pol brought as their object a framed photograph given to Bik for her birthday by the artist Mels van Zutphen. The photograph is of a small piece of rock removed from the top of Mont Blanc in 1786 by the explorer and scientist Horace Benedict de Saussure. Van Zutphen gave Bik the present just as Bik van der Pol had finished a project at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam where they had been invited by the museum to ‘do something’ as the building underwent a period of intense disruption due to renovation and conservation. In this time Bik van der Pol visited the secret storage depository in which much of the collection had been placed and during this visit were shown a drawer of objects owned by the former prime minister of the Netherlands, Mr Willem Drees (1948–58). In the drawer was a piece of moon rock brought to earth in 1969 by Apollo 11 and given by the American ambassador to Drees. Bik van der Pol were intrigued by this one truly alien object in the whole collection and decided to exhibit the moon rock in one of the empty towers of the Rijksmuseum. Visitors could take a tour up the 221 steps of the seven floor tower with a guide who used a script written by the artists, but who also incorporated visitors’ comments and anecdotes. On arrival at the seventh floor was a vitrine displaying the moon rock. The project was advertised using posters that had an illuminated image of the moon only revealed at night. Finally, Bik van der Pol bought a plot of land on the moon in the museum’s name.
Bryony Bond handed round a piece of rock from the temple of Serapis in Pozzuoli, Italy, a site that revealed how the earth’s sea–level had changed over time. The Victorian geologist Charles Lyell had visited the Roman temple and brought back the rock as a specimen. Bond’s interest in the object was in how it seemed to mediate the very rigorous idea of science with that of the memento, something that represents stories and situations or personal interactions. This related to her own work at The Manchester Museum, bringing artists in through the Alchemy Programme, to work with collections and staff in ways that reflect how museum collections are predominantly about people, and their interests and beliefs. The rock Bond passed around was not only a geological specimen and a memento of Serapis, but a souvenir of Charles Lyell himself, the person who became famous for influencing the ideas of Darwin. Bond went on to describe a project she had worked on at The Manchester Museum with the artist Mark Dion. Dion had been invited to work at the museum by the AHRC Research Centre for Studies of Surrealism and Its Legacies. When he had arrived at The Centre he was surprised by the ordinariness of the office he entered. He decided to create a space more becoming to the study of surrealism. Dion and Bond wrote to all the museum curators asking for objects from their collections that their curators didn’t know what to do with. The office was furnished with all these difficult-to-categorise objects and decorated with wallpaper made with some students at Manchester Metropolitan University based on Rorschach blots. The office itself became an intervention and talking point in the museum raising questions about access, participation and privilege.
Mary Bouquet brought two 1980s music tracks, Everybody Wants to Rule the World and Shout both by Tears For Fears. She used the tracks to draw an analogy between the way music from earlier decades disappears and resurfaces, picking up associations of another time, and the way an ethnographer works in the museum (in collaboration with photographers, designers, artists and educational departments), transmitting and transmuting other people’s associations into different forms. If Everybody Wants to Rule the World is about the museum from the outside – evoking issues of power and knowledge, then Shout is about the agency and animation of the objects inside the museum, speaking of the emotional side of museum work which can be by turns creative and inhibitive. For Bouquet these tracks evoked both the museum at a moment of great change during the 1980s, and at the same time a more contemporary approach to working in museums – combining institutional critique with a sense of the agency of the objects themselves.
Anna Grimshaw showed a clip from the film Peter Murray (1975) by Herb di Gioia and David Hancock, a conventional documentary about a man making a chair. It had fascinated Grimshaw for a long time as this deceptively simple work either has an extraordinary effect on people or leaves them totally cold. Grimshaw said that while writing her PhD she felt very acutely the disjunction between experience and anthropological discourse and was dissatisfied with the translation process of certain things she had experienced and come to know through non-discursive means. Her interest lay in how to communicate or express these in a way that didn't lose what was essential about them. This linked to the reflexive dimension of Peter Murray, the making of which had led its filmmakers to understand their own practice in new ways. How for example might the practice of making a piece of anthropology through working alongside a particular subject lead to one kind of understanding rather than another? Grimshaw speculated that thinking about making in terms of anthropology might open up other ways to explore material processes and give them expression without translating them into a linguistic form.
For her object, Rosalind Nashashibi showed a 5 minute film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul called The Anthem. The piece was commissioned by LUX and Frieze Art Fair Projects, designed to be shown before feature films and picking up on the Thai convention of playing the royal anthem before screenings as a blessing to cinema. Nashashibi used The Anthem to introduce a project she was involved in, in East Jerusalem. It was there in 2002 that she met the British ambassador and was struck by the power of his embodiment of the idea of Britishness abroad, having an almost magical affect on his surroundings. In Glasgow, cycling through the same park everyday, Nashashibi saw a swing structure that struck her not as a childish thing, but a totemic thing influencing its surroundings. She filmed it at different times of day in changing light and called it Park Ambassador. Another project by Nashashibi, made in collaboration with Lucy Skaer, involved filming the British Consul in Hong Kong and presenting him as an enigmatic exoticised figure within an un-exoticised context. The presentation connected what a work of art does, what a film does and what filming in itself does to reveal things; and what an audience might take from a work that leaves an opening for an action to happen.
Daniel Peltz brought a letter received from a 9-year-old girl Veronique, the youngest of eight children of the family with whom he’d lived in Yaounde, Cameroon as a student of anthropology in 1996. They had exchanged a couple of letters but then he heard nothing until ten years later when he received another letter from Veronique saying that her brother Eric had been killed driving home late at night while studying at West Point Military Academy in the U.S. Daniel and Veronique began a long correspondence, prompting him to apply for a grant to return to visit Veronique and her family in Cameroon. Once he arrived the family asked him to act as translator for another visitor, a friend of Eric's who was now stationed in Iraq and who turned out to be a devout Christian. Outside of the house, Daniel noticed people using cell phones to communicate for free, using a system of context-sensitive 'beeps’, calls which were terminated before being answered. He decided to set up a group called S.D.C.D. with Veronique and some of her friends (Society for Direct Communication with the Divine). Daniel posted a two-sided chalk sign on a busy city street that read, 'Here it is, God’s number, Beep him!’ and set up a video projector hooked up to God’s phone. When you beeped God, an image of God’s cell phone would appear on a city wall near the sign and the caller’s number would appear. Part of the aim was to see how this could be used as a means of promoting dialogue. Daniel then showed a video clip of interviews with people based on the spontaneous debate that had ensued around the work.
Amanda Ravetz presented a plimsoll, a reminder of something that had happened during fieldwork. A young woman had recounted her experience of trashing a house, and in the frenzy of that action, stepping on a nail and losing her plimsoll. Although Ravetz had not written about this in her fieldnotes it was one of the most persistent images she had retained from that time. It had become something of a lyrical sign, like those of which Kathleen Stewart writes, arising from the ‘gap’ between language and experience and having the appearance of something that cannot be reduced or explained. The importance of such signs in the lives of the women Ravetz was working with, and the problem of how to talk about these in anthropological terms, led Ravetz to want to pursue further the connections between anthropology and art.
Paul Rooney showed a clip from the film A Man Escaped by French filmmaker Robert Bresson. The film is about the French resistance in the context of Nazi occupation. The clip Rooney chose was of a scene depicting a temporary escape from a car during which the camera rather than following the unfolding events remains within the vehicle alongside another prisoner. The remaining prisoner’s face displays no reaction leaving the audience to try to imagine from the soundtrack what is happening outside. Rooney was interested in Bresson’s acknowledgement that to try to contain experience, for example to represent the anguish of the prisoner left in the car or the pain associated with the whole context of Nazi occupation, would be stupid. ‘Stupid’ was also the word used by Roland Barthes when talking about the limits of representation in relation to the weight of history. Similarly, Rooney’s work as an artist concerns the problems of representing the un–representable. It is a truism to say that by leaving enough to the imagination, the experience of a reader, viewer or listener is enhanced. But there is also an absurd, humorous arrogance in thinking the human imagination is capable of ‘filling in the gaps’. Something happens when the viewer is left with their inability to imagine others’ experience, something that in turn becomes a complex experience. In his own work Rooney wants an audience to actively participate imaginatively but not to think of participation as all about providing answers. Audience engagement is also a failure, an impotence, and an arrogance. In order for the audience to reach an awareness of this, Rooney’s work emphasises its limitation whether formal limitations, starkness, absurdity or emotional confusion.
Erika Tan had two objects, a brief which was part of an artist’s contract and a number of ‘anthropological’ photographs. Reading between the lines of the brief, questions were raised about how to engage with the conflicting demographic of groups that artists are asked to ‘target’ (in this case with the Chinese community in Brighton and Hove); and how to respond to the instrumentalisation of art in the delivery of social inclusion programmes. Tan observed the different dynamics that permeate socially engaged projects, depending on how lines between client/artist/participant/audience are drawn. Given this, she questioned how the artist was meant to work in socially engaged ways?
The photographs were a reminder for Tan of her migration from anthropology to art, in part a response to anthropology’s dichotomising tendencies between ‘us’ and ‘them’, which she also sees repeated to some extent in the division between ‘artist’ and ‘audience’. While Tan’s practice involves finding ways to collapse these differences, the contexts and frameworks described at the beginning of her talk make it necessary to continue to hold open a space for an artist’s perspective.
Lucien Taylor showed the 13 minute film A Joking Relationship made by John Marshall. Released in 1962 it shows a moment of flirtation between a young San woman, N!ai and her great uncle. The white American filmmaker John Marshall lived with the San Kalahari people in Southern Africa on and off for fifty years. Having worked in a fairly classic expository style, Marshall became concerned with questions of subjectivity after his ‘adopted’ San sister who he hadn’t realised was pregnant, returned from the bush after a brief time away, having given birth to a child. For a short period Marshall’s work had focused almost exclusively on single shot long duration works invested in exploring the sensory dimensions of life and the reciprocal dimensions of objects and places with peoples’ sense of self. Taylor was particularly interested in the erotics of the encounter played out in A Joking Relationship between the protagonists N!ai and her great uncle, but also involving the third element, of John Marshall himself, behind his camera. The film displayed the aesthetics of the fragment with hints of things not explained. Taylor himself was excited by the aesthetics of estrangement or de–familiarisation rather than by anthropology’s more usual practice of domesticating knowledge. The film gave him hope that anthropology could do something more interesting than make the strange seem overly familiar.
Soumhya Venkatesan brought a number of fine mats woven by Muslim craft workers in Pattamadai, South India, where she had begun her doctoral fieldwork in 1996. Inviting everyone to touch and handle the mats her question was ‘How much context would you think is required to appreciate an object like this?’ She then showed a film made by herself and a friend several years after she had learnt to weave. Venkatesan explained that she had become interested in the weavers partly because of an old mat of her mother’s which had made her wonder about the transformation of the rough sedge grass used into such a fine form. Her anthropological studies had raised questions about the way, following Ghandi’s valorisation of traditional industries, the weavers were celebrated as craft producers, even while at the same time they were treated with suspicion because they were Muslim. Understood in this way, the mats allow the weavers to make a place for themselves within the Indian nation. Venkatesan’s reason for asking about context was to underline the tension between these two different understandings of the mats, on the one hand as instrumental social agents and on the other on as beautiful and sensuously exciting objects.
Chris Wright showed a ten-minute clip from the film Kranky Klaus (2002) by the artist Cameron Jamie. Part of a trilogy of films commissioned by Artangel it is usually screened with a live performance from the band The Melvins. The film follows a group of Krampus Monsters, the sinister and often violent companions of Father Christmas, as they go from village to village tormenting those who misbehaved the preceding year. Contextualising information about where exactly the ritual takes place and how it is understood by those involved is omitted from the film, forcing viewers to piece together clues and plunging them into a confusing and violent filmic experience. Wright talked about his reasons for showing the film to anthropology students, along with two images by Stephen Feld of Kaluli men from Papua New Guinea ‘becoming birds’. Wright frames this film and Feld’s images by emphasising the visceral character of the viewing experience, allowing students to discuss the need or not for a mediating explanatory discourse.
Lesley Young chose her object – the pens and pads people were using to take notes during the conference – by applying the same approach she and James Hutchinson have developed in their recently established curatorial and educational project, The Salford Restoration Office. The Salford Restoration Office has been established to initiate conversations, nurture ideas and support dialogue with institutions in Greater Manchester equally through modest and large–scale projects, and in support of artists based in the area. The simple intervention of the writing pads was emblematic of the ethos of The Salford Restoration Office’s work.