The Unregarded Digit

Since the new John Hansard Gallery opened last Friday evening, I have already passed through its doors more often than I did in the four-and-a-half years I’ve lived in Southampton and it was resident at its former site on the university campus.  OK, I’ll admit that this wasn’t that hard (it only required the threshold to be crossed twice) but I think it does illustrate the importance of location for a public cultural institution.  After tomorrow, the Gallery closes again until it opens permanently in May.  To my own astonishment, I find I am going to miss it: I won’t be able to just nip in on my way home from the shops or a haircut and I’ll miss my ‘friends’ of the Sampler who will have been replaced by new exhibitions come May.  It seems a good thing that art and culture is integrated with the other stuff of life, not something apart and only for ‘special’ people.

I think the JHG has one other major advantage over other art galleries in attracting passing trade.  Whereas your typical art gallery may boast a more, or less, architecturally distinguished home it rarely offers any taste of the delights which might lie within, except perhaps for the odd piece of sculpture.  At the JHG, a huge amount of the ground floor is comprised of floor to ceiling glass offering any passers-by a full view of some of the art on offer – even when the gallery is closed!  Whilst this exposure to the sun’s all-too-powerful rays wouldn’t suit every artwork, the interactive Sampler exhibits seem perfectly suited to peaking the interest of the public and drawing them inside.  There is a joy in pressing one’s nose against the glass which most art institutions seem to have neglected to their detriment.

When you do enter, you are presented with Huddlehood and the Conversation Station.  Both of these artworks invite the audience to be involved – both with the art and with each other (and also with the staff of the JHG).  On my visit yesterday, I took well over an hour to get past Conversation Station – and even then, never quite got round to playing with the artwork and using its collection of materials of different sizes, shapes and forms to build my own space for conversation.  Instead, I spent my time in fascinating conversation with the artists supporting the exhibit, talking about what role art and galleries might play in society today and what benefits they bring to visitors.  I’m not sure I brought any particularly novel insights to bear, but I will share a few of my thoughts on the matter (if that is not being rather too grand) as part of this post.

I don’t think I come from a particularly arty background.  I don’t remember visiting art galleries as a child and the only art I can remember at home were prints of Terence Cuneo’s paintings of steam trains, each with a mouse hidden somewhere in the picture and I probably wasn’t aware that the pictures were prints at the time.  My childhood was a long time ago, so I may have forgotten some art-based brainwashing by my parents or teachers – but to the best of my knowledge, visiting art galleries is a project I have developed on my own as an adult (in age-terms, if no others).  I’m not really sure how it began but it might have been going to see an exhibition of pre-Columbian art at the Hayward Gallery after reading a book about the cultures of meso-America or it might have been the Neue Pinakothek in Munich as a plausible (and cheap) touristy thing to do in November and where I first saw a Kandinsky: both of these would have been in my mid 20s when I first lived and worked in London.

I value art and galleries as an escape from the always-on, rushing around, instant gratification of much of modern life.  An art gallery is a space where – unless the exhibition is hideously crowded – one can spend time away from the hectic pace of life in just mooching around and contemplating.  You can approach things in your own time, at your own pace and in your own order: unless some over-zealous curator has imposed an Ikea-like labyrinth on the visitor (Grr!  Just because you studied Art History, you don’t have to inflict it on the rest of us!).  Each artwork acts as the start of a conversation with the viewer, but if you don’t want to join in then it won’t be offended if you move on immediately to find a more appealing interlocutor.  There are no comments below the line with an artwork and you can spend as much time, or as little, as you like considering what it is saying to you – which may be entirely unrelated to what the artist imagined it might say – and allowing your mind to wander where it will.  I usually find a few pieces call out to me immediately demanding attention, but it is often a shyer work which ends up becoming my friend.  Sometimes, as with human friends, it is only after spending time with them – and perhaps going away and returning later – that you come to realise that this is the work for you.  Over the my years of gallery going, I think I have come to enjoy a wider range of artworks then I did at the beginning – perhaps this is just age, or perhaps I understand I wider range of points-of-view and approaches to making art than I did.  I’ll usually still encounter work which I view as a complete waste of time and materials – but then again, I don’t like or understand every book, or TV show or film or song that it created so why should I like or appreciate every work of visual art.  Equally, I can’t think of any gallery visit where I haven’t found something which appeals or makes my think or consider a different view point.

Art galleries do tend to have a rather hushed vibe, like a library, and I will admit to turning my mobile phone off when I visit: though this is probably more about the embarrassment of it ringing (anywhere – it’s equally humiliating on a bus) than any need to maintain a sepulchral feel.  I wonder if this puts people off, along with a certain class of gallery goer?  As I’ve said, art is a conversation and, while I often go alone, I do enjoy going with friends so we can have a good discussion about what we see, its merits and what it might mean.  Yesterday, I went alone but as already established bent the ears of the resident artists for far longer than is acceptable in polite society.  This did yield a strong recommendation to head up the stairs to see a video artwork called Don’t Look at the Finger by Hetain Patel.  I am generally rather sceptical about video art and it always seems to have the wrong feel for a gallery somehow: it forces the conversation too much and creates a long time commitment.  As a result, I tend to skip these parts of galleries – but I am so glad I didn’t yesterday.

I can think of few better ways I might have spent 14-odd minutes – and this despite the fact that it was clearly lunchtime by the time the film started. As a work it is tricky to describe: it has elements of sign-language, of dance and of martial arts blended together in a way which could only work on video.  A more traditional staged approached would not have permitted the audience to be close enough, nor to experience the work from teh right places.  It also features the most incredible textiles in the clothing of the participants and, at one stage, these are changed through an origami-like process to reveal even more glorious detail to their design and to reflect a turning point in the piece.  It has also has a strong emotional element, in particular when the main female protagonist smiles for the first time it lights up the whole room and the life of the viewer.  I spent most of the running time in slack-jawed amazement that anything so incredible had been created and I was allowed to watch it, for free!  I shall be returning to watch it again this afternoon, but there is a certain sadness that I can never again see it for the first time…

My other great joy from my visits so far are the leached-out, grey-scale photographs of the play of light and shadow with forms and angles taken of and during the construction of the building.  Seeing them for a second time, I have new favourites to add to my existing friends.  They are such an interesting way of looking on mundane concrete, plaster board panels, wiring and pipes and I’d love to have some at home: I hope the JHG finds some way to keep them as they are beautiful and a document of its rebirth.  If not, I am going to miss them terribly.

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Embracing the grey!

As usual there is no great message here, but if you have a local art gallery why not take a look and, if they are up for it, why not chat to the people working there: you never know what they might introduce you to!

Après le Déluge

It has been a little quiet on here of late, and this is not entirely my fault.  As you will later see, I am placing some of the blame firmly with higher powers (or perhaps with a malicious butterfly).  Some portion of the causative liability does lie closer to home, and with the chronic insomnia that has afflicted the author, intermittently, for the last couple of decades.  My recent, prolonged estrangement from the restorative embrace of Morpheus has left me parted from my muse (or at least the get-up-and-go to translate limited inspiration to textual iron pyrites).  Some days, I do wonder if the bone-deep enervation, combined with such news as I fail to avoid, is nature’s way of telling me that I have passed my natural span and I should exit, stage left: it probably has been too long since last I visited the Swiss.  Still, last night I managed to achieve nearly eight hours of uninterrupted slumber for the first time in weeks and so will probably stick around for a little longer.  Annoyingly, when I did awake this morning, it interrupted a dream in which I was being effortlessly witty in front of an audience – something I rarely manage when awake (perhaps the jarring unreality of the hypnogogic state was what brought me back to reality?).

The last few days I have been lying awake in historic Cambridge: seeing friends and indulging in pursuits both cultural and physical.  It had been six months since my last visit, but the orgy of demolition and construction seems to have continued unabated (or even intensified).  Like London, it would seem that Cambridge is pricing out the claustrophobic young – but still offers reasonable value for any sardines seeking a flat share.  Do young sardines get given the key to the tin when they turn the fishy-equivalent of 21?  Or does that musing date me horribly?

In the wee, small hours of Friday morning, Cambridge was hit by a storm the likes of which I have never seen.  We had continuous thunder for several hours and a prolonged period over which the city was struck by 200+ bolts of lightning per minute.  I had a decent excuse for my sleeplessness, rather than the usual “cause unknown” (though having been between jobs for a little while, I think I must exonerate “the man”).  In the morning sunshine, the city looked rather beautiful with all the building and plants washed clean by the night’s precipitative excitement.    Sadly, this was not the only effect of the storm – with significant flooding across the city, including the basement parlour where my massage therapist plies his trade.  Luckily, the waters had been conquered by the modern day Knut by the time I had my massage later that afternoon and the (as always, odd) conversation with my therapist should generate several posts in the days to come.  The storm also took out the city council’s offices and had a rather serious impact on Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

I was staying in Sidney Sussex College – wisely on the first floor and so above any rising waters.  My room was perfectly comfortable – though with oddly few, badly-positioned power sockets, which must be an issue for the modern student – and the shared shower could offer a force of water to match the previous night’s storm.  The college is wonderfully central and offers a very generous breakfast – and, to-date, has always offered extremely stimulating breakfast conversation.  This time, with an american chap involved in the drafting of NAFTA, covering the Euro crisis and the different models of university on the two sides of the Atlantic.  I have never had a conversation in a proper hotel which can match those I’ve had in a Cambridge college refectory: it is almost worth paying for a night’s stay just for the breakfast.

The biggest impact the storm had on me (and, lest we forget, I am the important one here) was the damage to Cambridge University’s computing systems which meant that I was without internet access for most of Friday.  Even when it returned, it was generally slow and would not load the WordPress website at all (though was quite happy to serve any other site I attempted).  Is there some sort of long-term feud between WordPress and Cambridge University?  Have they published something slanderous about the VC?  Whatever the reason, I was actually unable to blog until I returned home: an enforced period of cold turkey (which I seem to have survived without obvious symptoms, so this is not an addiction – it must be a life-style choice).

It was lovely being back in Cambridge and I remember why I loved living there.  I also remembered some of the frustrations too: Saturday combined graduation with an enormous quantity of foreign language students and the usual shoppers making the city centre hideously busy.  I hid in a variety of bookshops, the Divinity School (aka The “Div” School – which gives a very different impression of its role) and a church before fleeing back towards the relative peace-and-quiet of London’s Southbank and thence home.  I think I could live in Cambridge again – if life were to take me that way – but there is now a lot about Southampton and it environs that I would miss.  My new city has quietly wormed its way into my affections and become home.

The title for this return to the blog, continues the occasional (and largely ignored) conceit of using foreign titles: on this occasion turning to the French poet Arthur Rimbaud (never played by Sly Stallone, so far as I know) and his thematically rather apt work of the same name.

Awkward?

This post is the long-awaited sequel to Ground Zero, covering the continuing adventures of the Blog Soul Brothers, following their first meeting this past Sunday.  Taking my cue from Peter Jackson, I am planning to expand relatively modest source material into a nine hour CGI epic (OK, there won’t be much CGI – but I suppose I might inveigle on my brother to bring some of his critically-acclaimed Paint skills to bear).

When we left our heroes, they were enjoying a responsible half (each – budget limitations did not force us to share a single half) in a public house located in London’s trendy Islington.  What happened next will astound you!  (And people say I’ve learnt nothing from Buzzfeed).

Given that we had both made the trek into London and that I could not be certain we could sustain an entire day in conversation (not, in fact, a problem: I’m now fairly sure the act of talking could carry us through several days, if required – or even if not), I thought it might be an idea to organise some sort of structured activity for the evening.  Given the literary nature of our brotherhood, I naturally thought of the theatre – and while options are limited on a Sunday, the Finborough does offer a performance and via my (paid) friendship I could score us a pair of free tickets (I am an attentive “date”, but may be doing things on the cheap).  Thus it was we made our way, via the UK’s most famous resistance movement, to sun drenched Earl’s Court.  It is at this stage that the attentive reader will be starting to think (probably with some justification) that I have massively oversold what happened next.  Let’s just say that I was directing that particular sentence at those whose bar of amazement (and wouldn’t that be a great name for a piece of confectionary?) is set pretty low, and leave it at that.

I will admit that I had not massively researched the play in advance, beyond the convenient nature of its timing, and so it was that we attended the World Premiere of A Third by Laura Jacqmin.  The staging was very interesting, with the theatre re-cast as the interior of a New York apartment.  Most of the audience were perched around the edge, but some had to sit on the apartment’s furniture.  Having been set up by my brother (who nabbed the last edge seat), I found myself sitting at the dining table (though I didn’t remain here for the whole performance).  The “third” in the title refers to an established couple bringing in a third person (initially singular but later plural) to boost their enjoyment of the activities associated with, what I will in future (thanks to Adam Rutherford) be referring to as, gene flow events.  In consequence, all of the cast (of four) spend a substantial amount of the play in their skimpies (though the play also boasted the most costume changes I’ve ever seen at the Finborough) – and, given the very modest size of the theatre, the audience is very close to the “action”.  At various times, I found myself little more than an inch from some of the cast, and at one stage was moved from the dining table to the couch so that two of the characters could get physical (to quote Olivia Newton-John) without me becoming the unwanted meat in their amorous sandwich.  My brother found this very amusing, though I was far from the worst located of the audience when it came to close contact with the cast (and being at the edge was not as secure a defence as some had assumed).  Part of the joy of the play is watching the rest of the audience and their reactions to what is happening: the staging makes us all really rather complicit in the events portrayed.  It also became important after a certain stage that my brother and I did not look directly at each other for fear of collapsing in inappropriate laughter.

The play is rather good and deliberately funny in many places – and I had a chance to enjoy much more comfortable seating than is theatrically traditional.  The moral, if one exists, is probably that you want to be very sure you are the sort of people who can handle it before you invite a third party (or parties) into the marital bed (not just wish that you were such folk).  One of my main takeaways was the sheer size of the feet of one of the actors – they were massive: long, wide and tall.  I’ve seen smaller examples gracing CGI giants, and the rest of his body did not seem proportionately huge.  How the poor boy acquires shoes – or even socks – I don’t know, I suppose he may have them made specially.  Or perhaps he is allowed to keep his foot-based costume after each acting job?  Was it this hope of a regular supply of footwear which drove him to follow Thespis, I wonder?

Writing this post, I have been struck that my choice of play could be considered a slightly awkward one, given its thematic content and the fact this was the first time two people had come together in the flesh (as it were).  I would like to reassure readers that there was no underlying motive (and I have cross-examined my subconscious very closely on this topic) in my selection and I am not attempting to force anyone into a ménage-à-trois (or even à-quatre) against their will.

If I am honest, the real revelation of our evening at the theatre was the joy of going with a friend.  I have always gone stag to the theatre in the past, but discussing the play afterwards with my brother – first on the tube and then on the Southbank over a hot chocolate – was an absolute joy.  I suppose it probably helps that, as a writer, he is full of interesting insights and questions – but I had no idea what I’d been missing out on all these years.  I may start dragging him to the theatre on a much more frequent basis.  Perhaps this largely anti-social stance to culture of mine has been a dreadful mistake?

All good things must come to an end (as I believe the Second Law of Thermodynamics insists – it also has little succour to offer bad things) and so a little before eleven, we caught our separate carriages (as supplied by BREL and Siemens) home.  Conversation had to move to the form of SMS text messaging and my inadequate thumbs were pressed into service.  I am slightly surprised (and disappointed) that giffgaff have not emailed me to check if my phone has been stolen: in a twenty-four hour period I sent (and received) more texts than usually occurs in an entire year.

Is this the end for our heroes?  Did Southwest Trains defy expectation and actually deliver them to their respective homes in a manner congruent with its timetable-based promises?  Did anyone think to drop an unaccountably vitreous item of footwear before the clock struck midnight?

To be continued…

Always talk to the bar staff

I am currently enjoying Incarnations, Sunil Khilnani channelling Neil McGregor and taking us through the history of India via 50 lives (rather than 100 objects).  I had previously read an overview of Indian history (many years ago, when there was less of it) but the series is full of surprises – in particular, how many supposedly modern ideas arose (or also arose) in India in the distant past.  We have reached the 15th century and the life of Guru Nanak – the founder of Sikhism.  I have had a soft spot for the Sikh faith for many years and this episode only added further reinforcement.  If I understand correctly, the Guru started a system of inviting people of all religions, castes and genders to come to the temple and sit down together for a free meal: which must be one of the finest ideas ever generated by a major religion.  I have a strong feeling this work continues to this day here in the UK, supplementing the role of food banks in these parlous time for many families.  I worry that society is becoming ever more segregated into groups that never meet each other which can’t be a positive for the future of the (only semi-mythical) social contract.  Perhaps we need to take this Sikh idea on board much more widely, tackling some of the worst aspects of deprivation and improving social cohesion at a stroke.

But what has this plug for Radio 4 and the Sikh faith to do with chatting to barmen?  Well, I was just coming to that – but feel it is important in this era, so often characterised by instant gratification, to allow for a more gradual unfolding of today’s thesis.

I have, for many years now, been the bane (OK, a bane – the long hours, poor salary and working conditions might also be considered banes) of those working in service industries by insisting on engaging them in conversation, normally against their will, during any face-to-face transaction.  I have just enough self-awareness to recognise this is probably all about me and my desperate need for human contact to fill the howling pit of loneliness at my core, but I also like to imagine that it might enliven the working days of those unfortunates I pick on.  It is also good to treat people as such, not as some sort of robot lackey.  Some (maybe most) fend off my conversational advances through some combination of disinterest, embarrassment and terror, but enough engage with the process that I keep on going.

Actually, proof-reading that last paragraph has led to a minor epiphany.  As previously established, what I most want in life is an audience and the poor folk serving me are (for a brief moment) a captive audience – constrained by their professionalism (or fear of disciplinary action) from fleeing my company (which would be the response of most right-thinking folk with a greater degree of freedom).

For most such audiences, my one-man-show is a fleeting, never-to-be-repeated experience and the trauma fades with time, but not for those working at my regular haunts.   The most frequent victims of my attempts at verbal intercourse are the staff at 10 Greek Street and at the bars of the Nuffield Theatre and Turner Sims – and it is the latter which will detain us here (and justify the title).  There are now a few staff with whom I have chatted on multiple occasions: not only providing me with some bonus pre-show (or even interval) entertainment but also some valuable information.  Most of the staff are (I assume, or by now know) students – which is very much my core demographic (I like to view the near 30 years since I left university as having been spent perfecting my student-hood) – and so have shared local cultural tips, including pubs!  This may have reached its peak on Sunday afternoon when I was given a hot tip for a combined CAMRA-recommended pub and music venue – and even an upcoming free gig.

So it was that yesterday evening I cycled down to the Talking Heads – just a little beyond Waitrose in the wilds of the Portswood Road – to watch (though not invigilate) an examination.  As part of their final exams, music students perform (no huge surprise there) and the public are allowed to watch for free.  For the jazz/pop students their ensemble exams took place in the backroom of a pub – which strikes me as excellent preparation for later life and provides a great deal more atmosphere than any of the exams of my own youth.  The Talking Heads seems to offer live music almost every night – so I shall definitely be adding it to my roster of local, cultural haunts.  Three ensembles performed across the evening, with the ensemble size growing as the evening went on – and with the final one borrowing some forces from both of its predecessors.  The evening was enormous fun (and did I mention, free!), though I did observe that no-one else in the audience or on stage seemed to have direct experience of the first half of the 1990s (I have no idea where the examiners were hiding).  I felt very old –  like someone’s dad (or worse) – but did re-learn the applause rules for jazz-inflected music (rather different from its classical counterpart) and was surrounded by music students (to copy off) when rhythmic clapping was required.  All three acts seemed pretty good, but my highlight (by a jazz mile – like a country mile, but less depressing and more freeform) was the evening’s final ensemble Muteight (snaps for the name!) – which did have eight members (we didn’t have to count the ship or computer) and at least one mute.  This was good news as my bar friend was the keys-man (if that be the phrase) for the band, so I can honestly say (next time we meet) that I loved them.  I have a significant birthday in the annoyingly near future and, if I mark this with some sort of “event” (other than sobbing alone into my beer), they would be an excellent choice to close the evening.   Last night, even I was tempted to dance: fear of being judged – and found wanting – by a large group of people nearly thirty years my junior stayed my dancing feet (the young can be so judgemental!).  Still, unlike the rest of the audience, I could remember the seventies influences that informed a fair chunk of their music and could wallow in a nostalgia denied my fellows: sometimes age does have its benefits!

Cars on screen

As a somewhat regular filmgoer, I often fall prey to the motor industry’s marketing messages.  Yes, we the cinema going public are apparently gagging for a new car, strong liquor and something to treat our terrible acne (mostly recently interminably promoted by a CGI goose) – which does feel less than ideal as a combination.  On the whole, the ad reel is entirely independent of the cinema or film – but I did recently discover a couple of exceptions.

  • Before the Shaun the Sheep movie (U), the ad reel was really very different, nothing to dull the pain of existence or excise my spots, but full of much brighter colours and mysterious products which I presume were aimed at much younger viewers (and left me begging for strong liquor).
  • In Scotland, an ad for the NatWest morphs into one for the Royal Bank of Scotland, losing the dulcet voice-over tones of Rebecca Front to be replaced by a someone with a Scottish accent and changing the corporate logo in the branch at the end (but nothing else).

But, I should return to the plot (such as it is) and the attempts by car makers to flog their wares.  What I have come to realise in these visual offerings is that the vehicles always have UK licence plates, but are clearly not in the UK (and frequently admit that the model shown does not even exist in the UK).  Why is it so important to maintain this flimsiest of fictions?   Would the actors’ skin tones be darkened for sunnier markets as well – or have they been lightened for cloudy Britain?

More importantly, the cars are always being driven either on entirely deserted streets or in some barren wilderness (the latter is normally true if the vehicle is a 4×4).  Clearly, we are being sold some entirely spurious idea of freedom which the automobile is supposed to deliver – and I suppose if we go back far enough in time, once did.  However, to me it looks as though motor manufacturers are in complete denial about the existence of traffic or are hoping their clients will only wish to use their cars after the recent detonation of a neutron bomb (or perhaps in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse).  This gives all the ads a somewhat dystopian feel which seems at odds with the desire to shift product.

A few recent ads, show a “classic” car from a company’s product line and then show it driving near to its latest incarnation.  Without exception (for me at least) these make the older car look much the more attractive – but that may be down to my age.  However, the message seems to be: look how ugly our new car is, why not try and find a decent second-hand example from when our cars weren’t designed be a committee of accountants?

I think this demonstrates why (a) I am a poor target for advertising (I insist on taking home the wrong message) and (b) should never be hired to work in marketing – or perhaps I am the small boy pointing out the emperor’s nudity in this scenario?  The ads rarely look cheap (though clearly are recycled across multiple markets) so I assume someone has checked whether they actually do any good?  Still, I probably shouldn’t complain as they must be subsidising my cinema-going habit – though I must try and curb the desire to laugh (or at least splutter) at some of the more egregious examples.

In a related topic, I have noticed the frequency with which characters on both film and TV will have a conversation whilst in a moving vehicle.  The only problem with this idea is the apparent difficulty of doing this in real life on both safety and continuity grounds (I would guess) means that the world outside the vehicle is usually faked.  My issue is that it tends to be faked really badly – even on otherwise high-budget productions.  It is usually a little better at night, but would still rarely fool anyone who has ever been in a vehicle while in possession of functioning eyes.  Entire series are made leaning heavily on (often quite convincing) CGI, but somehow no-one can create a convincing backdrop for a moving car.  Given this clear difficulty, surely it would make sense to hold fewer (or no) conversations in moving cars? It is not as though (in the real world) people only talk in cars, there are lots of alternatives!  Is the “moving” of the vehicle supposed to distract us from some slightly dull (if plot critical) exposition?  Or is it just down to a failure of the teaching in film school?  Is avoiding this issue part of the allure of period drama?