My interest for photography, working class culture and marginal communities is fairly well documented on this blog. Hence my enthusiasm when learning about the upcoming For Ever Amber exhibition.
The Amber Collective was born in the late 1960s when a group of students at Regent Street Polytechnic in London realized that their education drove them away from their working class background. Resolving to reconnect with their origins and document working class culture in photos and videos, they moved to the North East of England in 1969 and in 1977 opened Side Gallery.
Over the past 45 years, the members of the collective have been documenting the industrial and post-industrial communities living along the river Tyne, the fishermen, the shipbuilders, the people working in the coal and steel industry, but also their families, the unemployed and the marginalized communities. The result is a vast archive of photos and films that present both both artistic and historical value.
In parallel with Amber's own film & photographic production, the collective has also been collecting and presenting to the broad public a series of classic and contemporary international documentary works, presenting similar socially-engaged concerns.
Hi Graeme! Why is this a good time for an Amber retrospective? Does the timing reflect a particular social moment for example?
There's never a time in this country when an exhibition of this kind isn't relevant!
For Ever Amber is actually part of a programme of works funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England to redevelop the gallery, do some digitalisation and make the works more accessible to people.
The work of the Amber Collective is rooted in social documentary, built around long term engagements with working class and marginalized communities in the North of England. I'm curious about the situation of the working class. How has it evolved over the 45 years of Amber's existence?
That changes constantly. A lot has happened over the last 45 years because in the North East of England (and elsewhere but particularly in the North East of England) many of the industries that shaped the identity of the working class communities have closed. When these industries shut down, people send the message out that these industries are not important, that they should be eradicated.
The sense of their identity has changed considerably. This week, members of the Amber Collective worked in a school in Easington. Children there didn't know anything about coal miners even though there is a miner banner hanging in the school hall. It is interesting and important to help children and others find their sense of identity, even if this is an entirely new identity. But having your sense of identity is important. The nature of these communities have changed. It was quite late before you saw widespread immigration in the North East of England. As a result, many of the communities were still overwhelmingly white working class but that has changed since the 2000s.
Whether they are white working class, or marginalised communities, these are people have a lot in common and their voices are denied by the mainstream.
The early members of Amber came themselves from a very working class background and felt that their education pushed them away from the places where they grew up. Instead, they wanted to celebrate their origins and the people who, so far, had mostly been used as material for jokes in films and on tv.
What about the cultural value of the work done by Amber photographers? The photos seem to resonate not just with people living in the North East of England but also with the rest of the country and i think i can also say that they are interesting far beyond the UK borders.
We find that the work resonates enormously with people from other countries. When you go to countries like Spain, France or Germany, you find that people immediately connect with these images. People see that the images depict lives and streets that are not so dissimilar from their own. It's actually much more the case in Europe than it is in some parts of the UK.
In this country, especially in the cultural world, there is a resistance to document these marginalized worlds. The UK has a few difficulties with documentary. I'm not talking about the audience but about curators and funding bodies. They show some interest in documenting the 1930s and the 1940s up until the 1980s but they don't seem to be interested in documentaries about the present days.
Konttinen explained to The Guardian why the photo above is her "best shot."
Do you think that television is doing a better job at representing the working class then?
No, with TV, we've even gone backwards. We are going back to a situation in which the working class is there to provide cheap laughs. But these things come in circles and we need another movement to challenge the current situation.
I was reading a letter published in The Guardian this morning. The street photographer was from Birmingham and he explained that he was often stopped in public and private spaces. Security spots him on CCTV and ask him to stop shooting. I haven't photographed children playing in a public space for many years, and the work of people such as Vivian Maier and Shirley Baker would be impossible these days. It seems to me, from a photographic point of view, that the public space has become privatised, with CCTV everywhere and the lone photographer increasingly unwelcome. Is this something Amber members have noticed as well? Are people still comfortable with being photographed nowadays? Or are they reluctant because of privacy or other concerns?
Yes, when Amber began, street photography was very much a part of what documentary photographers did. But things have changed in a number of ways. Nowadays, people are suspicious that the photographer might be a pedophile for example. Then there is also the issue that part of the public space has been privatized. Almost everyone has a camera phone so, in a way, there is now more street photography than ever. But people are more suspicious than in the past when they see a camera. All of the photographers responded to the challenge in their own way. By negotiating access to people's life, for example, and by making certain that people were genuinely inviting them into their life. If people were not happy with the photo, the photographer would not use it. This in turn enables the photographer to go further and opens up new areas.
In any case, we've lost a significant amount of what is happening in the street. In terms of photography, a lot of questions have been raised as to what is legitimate for a photo to portray.
I was also curious about Coke to Coke, a series of photographs you worked on together with Peter Fryer. The photos were taken in the 1980s and follow the closure of Derwenthaugh coking plant and the opening of the nearby Metro Centre shopping mall. What was the mood of the people then? Where they angry or sad about the end of an era or optimistic of what the new shopping mail represented?
You can't generalize of course but i think that when i accompanied Peter to photograph the opening of the Metro Center, we had a sense of people being dazed by it. It was all bright and artificial and protected from the weather. It was like a place to visit. It gave you a sense of the 'new world.' And it still does because it is so artificial. People loved it. In the States, it was nothing new but it was the first out of town shopping mall in the UK. There was a fun fair aspect to it, with people looking at the shop as if they were at the fair.
At the time, i had just moved to the Derwenthaugh Valley. Derwenthaugh Coke Works was a vision of Dante's Inferno at the end of the Valley. One place was closing, another one was opening. It was a symbol of time changing. That's why we looked at it.
People working at Derwenthaugh Cokeworks were sad but they were also starting to realize that they worked in a cancerogenic atmosphere. Looking back at the '80s, that's when people started to think about the environmental impact of fossil fuels. Before that, these issues were not really discussed.
The opening of the Metro Center was a moment in time. The steel making town was closing its steel factory, the miner strikes had failed and Thatcher's programme of closures was accelerating.
For Ever Amber opens at the Laing Gallery in Newcastle on 27 June and runs until 19 September, bringing together over 150 original photographs and film clips capturing over 40 years of cultural, political and economic shifts in North East England.
'For Ever Amber' is a partnership between Amber Film and Photography Collective and Laing Art Gallery, with support from Tyne & Wear Museums and Archive. The exhibition has been supported by Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.
Publisher Gestalten writes: The Age of Collage is a striking documentation of today's continued appetite for destructive construction. Showcasing outstanding current artwork and artists, the book also takes an insightful behind-the-scenes look at those working with this interdisciplinary and cross-media approach.
The collages featured in this book are influenced by illustration, painting, and photography and play with elements of abstraction, constructivism, surrealism, and dada. Referencing scientific images, pop culture, and erotica, they reflect humanity's collective visual memory and context.
Through confident cuts, brushstrokes, mouse clicks, or pasting, the work in The Age of Collage gives the impossible a tangible form. It expands the possibilities of the genre while turning our worldview on its head along the way.
A book with Yul Brynner on the cover was always going to get my attention.
The Age of Collage adopts the model that made the success of Gestalten books. Plenty of efficient images and a few comments about each of the 80 artists whose work is presented. The intro is more informative than usual (or maybe that's just because i know so little about collages), it says a few words about the strategies of collage, its history and even more interestingly about its presence in contemporary culture from the Beastie Boys' video Sabotage to sampling or mood boards of ads agencies (or even Pinterest i would add.)
And because this book is a visual joy from cover to page 285, i'm going to leave you here with a few discoveries i made while flipping through it:
Jeremy Deller: Social Surrealism, by Brigade Commerz, Audio Arts Archives.
Publisher Verlag für moderne Kunst writes: In 2004 Jeremy Deller was awarded the Turner Prize for his multimedia installation 'Memory Bucket'. His signature work 'The Battle of orgreave' (2001) focuses on a critical moment of the international trade union movement, inviting us to a subtly differentiated examination of history. It forms only one part of a growing catalogue of projects that can be read as an ongoing processional body of work which examines, reflects upon and influences our society. Since his 'Manchester Procession' Deller uses the Term 'Social Surrealism' to describe his practise: 'It's going back to the original idea of carnival and procession, which is about inverting reality and changing reality if only for a day or a week and changing how you look at the world.'
Verlag für moderne Kunst has launched a collection of art audio CDs. I'm coveting the Jake and Dinos Chapman, the David Lynch one and crying my eyes out because the Jonathan Meese is in german only (although i did enjoy listening to the audio snippet in which he talks about stuff that are metabolisch and pornografisch.)
The one i had to get right here right now is the audio CD of conversation excerpts with Jeremy Deller. This is basically an audio book with extracts of conversations with Jeremy Deller and it is charming and fascinating. He has a good voice, a clear accent. He is passionate, at times provocative and he sounds like a fun guy to be around.
The files are fairly short, from 1 to 6 minutes. Each one is dedicated to a theme (political art, glam rock) or a particular work. The information and anecdotes come fast: organizing a procession of blind people with blind dogs that refuse to walk on the road, showing folk archives inside a museum and being misunderstood by art critics in the process, the art funding in Britain, the art world as a 'very middle class place', Jordan aka Katie Price, the annual "wanker of the year" contest, making art without making products, his meeting with Andy Warhol, his dealings with the 'image controlling' music industry while filming his documentary about the fans of Depeche Mode, bats eating moths, Acid Brass, etc. My favourite moment was when Deller talks about a project he had of making a poster for the Labour party that would say "Vote Conservative" and show the face of Rupert Murdoch.
Jeremy Deller: Social Surrealism! Best 45 minutes i've spent this year.
Now i hadn't held an audio CD in my hands for ages. it did feel weird and already retro. It does however have advantages over an MP3 file: the CD comes in a hard paper that you can keep as if it were a book on your library shelf. And there's always the possibility to transfer the files on your MP3 player if you wish.
Just because i love that work so much, i'm going to end with a video of Jeremy Deller talking about Acid Brass, the raves, the connections with 1987 minors strike, and taking a trip to Manchester where we witness the brass band getting to grips to a musical genre they are not used to play.
Another work i discovered at the GAMERZ festival in Aix en Provence a few days ago. And just like yesterday's this one give sound a visual presence. So visual actually that artist Cécile Babiole defines her work as a 'sound sculpture.'
Bzzz! The sound of electricity brings us back to the pre-digital sound, to a time when electric energy was so raw and new, that it buzzed, sparkled and vibrated. The work renders the sound of electricity audible and spread it over the ambient space. Six frequency generators comprising basic electronic components allow the electrical current to be modulated so as to generate slightly amplified sound vibrations.
The soundscape is best experience when walking inside the sculpture, going from one sound to another, seeing how the cables and loudspeakers slightly vibrate as if the electrical current was waking them to an organic life. The sound wave generator itself is at the centre of the circular structure. It was amusing to see how male visitors felt entitled to turn the buttons to control the sound. I guess any artwork that uses electronics is now regarded as being automatically 'interactive.' But this piece wasn't. Cécile Babiole did however use Bzzz! as an instrument for a performance she gave during the opening of the festival
By reinventing an obsolete low-tech sound wave generator in this all-digital age, Bzzz ! serves as a commentary on the history of technology and a tribute to unprocessed, unsampled analog sound : in a word, the raw sound of electricity.
Video showing the installation in action, along with a short interview with the artist (in french):
Also at the last edition of GAMERZ: Macro-videos for musicians in action.
I got back yesterday from another edition of the Gamerz festival in Aix-en-Provence. I don't think there's a festival anywhere in the world i visit with more enthusiasm. First of all, it takes place in Aix-en-Provence which is always a bonus. But more importantly, the festival has a strong, unique personality. Gamerz, the organizers would tell you, is only a pretext to invite artists, designers, researchers whose work they admire. And they even have to do game art. The opening performance, for example, wasn't the compulsory electronic music performance, it was an astonishing concert given by Choeur Itineris, professional choir singers interpreting a repertoire of mobile phone ringtones. The rest of the festival programme involves robots, dipterous experiences, video art, food artists, a 'half ship, half woman' DJ and other surprising works. And game art too.
What makes the festival worth the trip for me is that Gamerz always manages to scout young, talented artists i had never heard about. Before i get back to you with a proper report, here's a brief entry about Geraud Soulhiol's extraordinary drawings. His Arena series portrays existing football stadium that are not only decaying and crumbling but have also been colonized by more traditional icons of architectures such as cathedrals, local monuments, skyscrapers designed by starchitects, fortresses, factories, etc. The feeling of desolation is increased by the fact that the hybrid structures are presented in the middle of an empty white page, like carcasses abandoned in the desert.
The images on this blog post are quite miserable but the large scale ones are spectacular and it takes a few minutes to uncover all the details.
What brings us back to the world of game art is that Geraud Soulhiol was inspired by the spirit and aesthetics of strategy video games, in particular the isometric perspective many of them adopt.
This one is for Zoe:
Video interview of the artist (in french.)
Gamerz festival is free and is open throughout the city of Aix-en-Provence until Sunday, November 27 2011.
Felice Varini named the work he made for the Cardiff Bay "Three Ellispes for Three Locks" but everyone there calls it "The Barrage Circles."
Like most of Varini's works, this one is an anamorphosis, a distorted projection or perspective requiring you to occupy a precise vantage point to reconstitute the image. Think of the skull in Hans Holbein painting, The Ambassadors, the most famous example of anamorphic perspective in art.
You need to stand at a precise point to be able to the three bright yellow ellipses that have been painted onto the working locks, on the ground, the gates, the outer sea wall, etc. The interesting thing is that i had to ask my way to passersby and most of them had passed by the artwork without ever realizing that the splashes of yellow paint they had seen while walking the dogs or cycling to the other end of the bay could form three perfect ellipses. Most of them told me "There's some yellow stuff over there but it looks nothing like that image you have on your guide, love!" But it does. You just have to be patient and find the ideal spot to see the ellipses form. My photo camera didn't agree much though:
From really up-close it looks nothing like circles:
I wouldn't recommend walking to the Barrage Circles. I did it, it's ridiculously long when you're not geared for a long walk by the sea. Take the water taxi, it's charming. Or even better, hire a bike.
The rest of Cardiff's dockland district is all family fun with exhibition spaces, cafes, a Norwegian church but i only had eyes for the carousel with the horses and the red dragons.
And then there is this Pink Hut on the eastern breakwater, originally designed for use by local yacht clubs.
More images on BBC.