In 1800, Alessandro Volta made the first electro chemical battery. The 'voltaic pile' demonstrated that a moist, porous material sandwiched between two dissimilar metals can produce an electrical current. The scientist tested several metals and found that zinc and silver gave the best results.
In his experiment, Volta used a disk of copper, covered it with a disk of cloth soaked in brine (i.e., the electrolyte), and stacked that with a disk of zinc. He repeated the copper-cloth-zinc disks piling up until the pile reached a height of about 30 cm. The positive end of the pile is the bottom copper disk, and the negative end is the zinc disk on top.
Volta's experiment was re-enacted on a gigantic scale at the Age of Wonder festival a few weeks ago in Eindhoven. Or maybe i should write that Michiel Pijpe and the Artscience Interfaculty re-enacted the re-enactment of the voltaic pile discovery that media art pioneer Dick Raaijmakers realized in 1995. Raaijmakers (or Raaymakers) is regarded as one of the founders of the Dutch electronic music. He is also closely connected to Eindhoven through his research at the Natlab (Philips Research Laboratories) in the fifties.
Over the course of a several hour long performance, the Volta team built up a giant and foul-smelling pile that alternated copper plates, clothes drenched in acid and zinc.
I didn't stand and stare until the final moments of the performance but I wish i had. The goal was to use the oversized battery to produce enough energy for one light bulb, suspended from the ceiling. I might have missed the grand finale but i've nevertheless been impressed by this over-sized lesson in physics and by the calm, repetitive gestures required to light up a mundane bulb for a few seconds. Also, it's always good to be reminded what a genius Raaijmakers was.
Thus, the audience can experience the relation between the invested labor and the resulting electric energy. And also, how and why the original visual quality of this 'proto-element' has been lost in favor of the efficiency of the modern battery. 'Volta' intends to recreate this lost plasticity, if only for a single moment.
Few people would associate the words "English heritage" with car showrooms, repair garages, filling stations, traffic lights, inner ring roads, multi-storey car parks, and drive-through restaurants. Yet, the exhibition Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England draws our attention to the country's motoring patrimony and shows that the car's impact on the physical environment needn't be reduced to ruthless out pours of concrete and "wayside eyesores".
The first motor cars entered the country in the late 19th Century. New buildings, signage, rules and systems had to be invented for dusty roads that so far had only been crisscrossed by horse traffic. It is only recently that we have started to value the infrastructures that have facilitated their construction, sale and maintenance of cars. "It took the best part of 100 years for the railway infrastructure to be appreciated," argue Kathryn Morrison and John Minnis in the book Carscapes: The Motor Car, Architecture, and Landscape in England, "now it is the turn of the car."
Many of these buildings, road signs and infrastructures have disappeared, others are under threat of being demolished or are decaying beyond repairs but English Heritage has started to list motoring heritage sites in England. The exhibition at Wellington Arch shows archives images, contemporary photos and a series of motoring memorabilia. It also explores the impact that motor car have had on the planning of cities, towns and on the countryside.
Below are some of the most spectacular buildings and road systems i discovered in the exhibition:
Bibendum aka the Michelin Man!! Michelin Building on London's Fulham Road is now a restaurant but it was built to house the first permanent UK headquarters and tyre depot for the Michelin Tyre Company Ltd. It also function as advertisement for the company with its corner domes that resemble sets of tyres and the large stained-glass windows starring the cheerful "Bibendum."
The building opened for business on 20 January 1911.
When the Lex (now NCP) car park opened in Soho in 1928, its architects were catering for the rich men who could afford the luxury of a car. The Art Deco architecture thus also housed a cafe (for car-owners) and a separate canteen for chauffeurs.
The photo above shows one of the earliest filling stations to open in London. It was built by F.D. Huntington in 1922. Each pump was manned by a uniformed attendant.
This was one of the six filling stations built by the Automobile Association in 1919-20, the first to be opened in Great Britain, and originally selling only British-made benzole.
In 2012, English Heritage granted listed status on two 1960s petrol-station canopies - one on the A6 near Leicester (photo on top of the page but check out also this night view) and the other at Markham Moor, Nottingham.
When it opened in 1931, the Ford factory on the banks of the Thames at Dagenham was the largest car factory in Europe. The nearest building in this 1939 photograph is the power station. Behind it, fuel for the power station and furnaces is unloaded from ships via a double-decked jetty.
Coventry Inner Ring Road built between 1962 and 1974 is one of the most highly developed and tightly drawn inner ring roads of any city in England.
The Wellington Arch was built in 1828 but Victorian traffic jams meant that in 1883, the Arch was dismantled and moved some 20 metres to its current location. Between 1958 and 1960, to further ease congestion - this time from motorised transport - Hyde Park Corner was altered and the Arch separated from Constitution Hill by a new roadway.
Metallurgique was a Belgian company which opened the first car showroom on Regent Street in 1913
Carscapes: How the Motor Car Reshaped England is at the Wellington Arch until 6 July 2014.
The largest private estate ever 'owned' by man in recent history was perhaps an area of Africa acquired by Leopold II King of the Belgians in 1885.
For over 20 years, he would be the de facto owner of over a million square miles of central Africa (a territory roughly 76 times larger than Belgium.) He ironically called the country Congo Free Stateand modestly named its capital Leopoldville (via.)
Hiding behind humanitarian and philanthropic promises to develop the region and insure the prosperity of native people, Leopold II acquired the territory and set out to extract its resources. In particular ivory, rubber, and minerals. Nowadays, his rule over the country is associated with the regime of violence, murder or mutilation of the Congolese people. No human right consideration could indeed stop Leopold II's agents in their efforts to meet the growing demand for rubber and maximize profits:
Failure to meet the rubber collection quotas was punishable by death and a hand of the victims had to be presented as proof of the punition, as it was believed that they would otherwise use the munitions for hunting. [...] Soldiers sometimes "cheated" by simply cutting off the hand and leaving the victim to live or die.
When Harmony Went to Hell. Congo Dialogues at Rivington Place in London brings side by side archive photos shot by Alice Seeley Harris while Leopold II was still the sole owner of the land and new work from Sammy Baloji, a Congolese artist who has been investigating the legacies of colonialism in his country.
In the early 1900s, the English missionary Alice Seeley Harris was traveling the Congo Free State with her husband and one of the world's first portable cameras, a Kodak Brownie. Shocked by the contrast between the king's claims of colonial benevolence and the oppressive regime, she carefully documented everyday life as well as the atrocities and brutality towards the inhabitants.
The result is often regarded as being the first photographic campaign in support of human rights. The couple took the images on a tour around Europe and the US. The photos of the Harris Lantern Slide Show were accompanied with powerful lectures which managed to raise the public awareness about human rights violations in Congo.
The Alice Seeley Harris archive was last shown to the public 110 years ago. Her black and white prints are exhibited in an up stair gallery at Rivington Place. The ground floor, however, hosts Sammy Baloji's stunning photos which explore the cultural and architectural 'traces' of Congo's colonial past; in particular, the Katanga province and its capital, Lubumbashi. Some of the pieces exhibited belong to a series of photomontage works that juxtapose post-industrial landscapes with ethnographic archival imagery.
The photos i found most extraordinary, however, are part of Baloji's new body of work. The photos of the Gécamines mining district and of the derelict Office of Post and Telecommunication in Kinshasa are simply jaw-dropping, even for someone who has seen her fair share of derelict buildings. I can't seem to find much images of them so you will have to take my word for it and swing my Rivington street to see them. You won't be taking much risk, the show is free.
I'm going to end this post with an anecdote i read online..
With his ZZ Top beard and his neat outfits, Leopold was also a feisty man and he particularly loved women. His last, embarrassingly younger, and most adored mistress was Caroline Lacroix. She gave him two sons, the younger was born with a deformed hand, leading a cartoon to depict Leopold holding the child surrounded by Congolese corpses with their hands sliced off. The caption said Vengeance from on high!
When Harmony Went to Hell. Congo Dialogues is at Rivington Place in London until 7 March 2014. If, like me, you're a Belgian expat who's never really been taught the whole colonial story at school, you shouldn't miss the show.
The Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool is probably the most exciting photo gallery in England (especially now that Foto8 has closed.) On 22 February they will open a show dedicated to Letizia Battaglia's chronicle of the brutal anni di piombo in Sicily. And right now they have a show that brings together self-taught photographer Alvin Baltrop and 'anarchitect' Gordon Matta-Clark.
I went to see Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here a couple of weeks ago. I had never heard of Alvin Baltrop before. His photography met with very little artistic appreciation until after his death when art institutions finally started paying attention to his portrayal of emerging gay subculture in New York.
At first glance, Matta-Clark and Baltrop seem to have very little in common. In fact, the two men probably never met. But they both turned their artistic interest to the Piers of New York City during the mid 1970s.
They found Manhattan's West Side piers abandoned and decaying as a consequence of the oil crisis that reconfigured the geography of the city along with the international trading system. Left to rot, the vast industrial space on the outskirts of the city was soon occupied by people living at the fringe of society: graffiti writers, artists, drug addicts, prostitutes. the homeless, etc.
Pier 52 is the site of one of Matta-Clark's famous building cuts. In 1975, the artist made large cuts into the floor, ceiling and sides of a derelict metal hangar, exposing the Hudson River and sky, creating a sculpture brought to life by the rotation of the sun. Matta-Clark argued that he had created an indoor park. He called it Day's End out of a decrepit space. However, visitors were afraid to cross the large lacerations, the police shut down the opening event and the artist faced an arrest warrant for trespassing and defacing property.
Matta-Clark described the piers as being completely overrun by the gays. So much so that the piers became the site of at least two pornographic films, Arch Brown's Pier Groups (1979) and Steve Scott's Non-Stop (1983). And while Matta-Clark was seesawing his architectural installation, Alvin Baltrop was documenting men having sex, cruising or sunbathing there. Or corpses dredged up from the river.
Most of the time, Baltrop was hiding from his subject, hanging from steel girders, shooting from afar, capturing the freedom these crumbling spaces gave to their occupants. The images are voyeuristic but, perhaps paradoxically, they are never pornographic.
Baltrop photographed the piers and their residents from 1975 to 1986, right up to the moment they were razed. The result is an archive of thousands of photographs that hover between raw passion, violence, furtiveness and tenderness.
Gordon Matta-Clark believed that art could be used as a tool for urban regeneration and the exhibition offers an opportunity to reflect on that very topic but also on the gentrification of (sub)urban areas that usually comes with the dissolution of underground culture.
Both the Piers in New York and the docks in Liverpool experienced a similar process of transformation during the 1970s. Dispossessed of their industrial activity, the areas were gradually reclaimed by people living at the margins of society (from prostitutes and drug dealers to visual artists, performers and film-makers.) I've never been to what is left of the New York piers but Liverpool's docks, where Open Eye is situated, has now left place to office buildings and luxury apartments.
Alvin Baltrop and Gordon Matta-Clark: The Piers From Here is up at the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool until 9 Feb 2014.
Last week, I was in Liverpool for some overdue FACT action and Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 which examine how the production and reception of art has been influenced by left-wing values, from the French Revolution to the present day.
The main preoccupation of the exhibition is thus not the militant commentaries behind artworks but the effect that political values and social movements have had on the production modes, aesthetics and communication of visual culture. As such Art Turning Left stands out from other shows dedicated to political art or activism.
The left-wing values considered in the exhibition include the empowerment of the working classes, the equality of the sexes, the search for alternative economies, etc. These values seeped into art world where they translated into the rejection of the concepts of fine art and of the individual expression in favour of an art made by or with the help of the community, the adoption of new media, a greater mingling between art and life (through crafts, design and in particular graphic design),
Art Turning Left is a great show under many aspects and i've certainly felt enthusiastic about discovering new politically-engaged artworks that stood up the time. But it has its flaws. On the one hand, i enjoyed the fact that the show is distributed according to questions ("Do we need to know who makes art?" "Can art affect everybody?" "Does participation deliver equality?", etc.) rather than chronology and it certainly is refreshing to find a respectable painting by David between an installation by Goldin+Senneby and a wall of revolutionary posters. On the other hand, being constantly pinballed from one historical period to another and from one geographic locations to an entirely different one gets a bit confusing.
if the show acknowledges that artistic practice in the 20th and 21st century has been 'democratized' as its some of its means of production and distribution have become accessible to all (thanks to photography, printing, digital, etc.), i don't think i've seen any reference to some of the most stimulating features of 21st century culture: free software, free culture, 3D printing, etc. Thinking of it, there's very little reference to what computers/ the internet have done to advance new ideas and practices.
It did start with the best intentions though. One of the highlights of the exhibition is The Death of Marat, by Jaques-Louis David. Both David and Jean-Paul Marat were members of the Jacobian Republican group during the French Revolution. After the assassination of the revolutionary journalist, David had several copies of The Death of Marat produced on various supports in order to relay the political message to the masses. Instead of being displayed at the elitist salon like his other works, David sent them across France for everyone to see.
Art Turning Left is a show i'd recommend to everyone for the quality of the works exhibited, for the ideas (left-wing or not) which unfortunately are in serious need of our attention these days but for all its undeniable qualities, the exhibition remains more academic than its topic deserved.
Also this definitely isn't a show for someone with a 'working class' budget: entrance fee is £8.
Now about the artwork i discovered or rediscovered in the show?
King Mob! The London-based group called themselves 'gangsters of the new freedom' and adopted a confrontational approach to underline the cultural anarchy and disorder being ignored in 1960s-1970s Britain. I read in the gallery that one day, they took over the Christmas Grotto in Selfridges and gave out all the presents to the kids for free. The department stores had then to literally take the presents back from the children's arms before they left. I burst hysterically into laughter when i read that.
In the 1780s mineralogist August Nordenskiöld was employed by the Swedish king Gustav III to discover the legendary alchemical substance Philosopher's Stone and turn base metal into gold. The gold was intended to finance Sweden's military and economic expansion, but Nordenskiöld had a different agenda, he aimed to produce so much gold that its value would be lost and the "tyranny of money" abolished. One of the few remaining artifacts from Nordenskiöld's laboratory is a coal burning alchemy furnace. Goldin+Senneby offer to supply collectors with necessary components and instructions for the reconstruction of a replica of Nordenskiöld's furnace. The manual is produced in a numbered but unlimited edition, and as each edition is sold the price goes up, making the item more expensive the less unique it is.
The best discovery in the show for me was Grupa Zvono. Founded in 1982, the group organized performances that aimed to present an art that was different from the then dominant forms outside of galleries and closer to 'the man on the street.' Or, in one case, in the football stadium.
Cildo Meireles took Coca-Cola bottles and modified them. When empty they look ordinary, but political statements printed on the glass in white are revealed as the bottles are filled with the brown liquid. They range from 'Yankees Go Home' to instructions on how to make a Molotov cocktail. The empty bottles with the messages were then recycled back into the Coca-Cola distribution system.
The artist also stamped political commentary onto banknotes, the most frequent was 'Quem Matou Herzog?' ('Who Killed Herzog?) in reference to a journalist who had died in police custody under suspicious circumstances.
Brazil was then under an oppressive military dictatorship and the Insertions constituted a form of guerrilla tactics of political resistance that eluded strict state censorship.
Meireles said that he sought to use systems of communication and distribution that were not centrally controlled, like the media or press, and that: The Insertions would only exist to the extent that they ceased to be the work of just one person. The work only exists to the extent that other people participate in it. What also arises is the need for anonymity. By extension, the question of anonymity involves the question of ownership. When the object of art becomes a practice, it becomes something over which you can have no control or ownership.
Ruth Ewan compiled hundreds of protest songs in A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World. All of which, visitors are invited to play in the gallery.
Atelier Populaire's posters broadcast the demands and protests of the student/intelligentsia/trade-union of a May 68 Paris charging the French Establishment.
Guerilla Girls anonymously produced propaganda posters that were (are!) boldly drawing attention to the absence of women artists in major art exhibitions.
Emory Douglas worked as the Minister of Culture for the Black Panther Party from 1967 until the Party disbanded in the 1980s. His graphic art illustrated the struggles of the Party in most issues of the newspaper The Black Panther.
Taller de Grafica Popular ("People's Graphic Workshop" or TGP) was an artist print collective founded in Mexico in 1937. They used posters and flyers as platforms to promote revolutionary social causes.
Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 was curated by Francesco Manacorda and Lynn Wray, is on view until 2 February 2014 at Tate Liverpool.
In a show which title refers to a passage in Marx and Engels' Communist Manifesto, Deller takes a personal look at the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British popular culture, and its persisting influence on our lives today.
This is not an exhibition of Deller's work (apart from his film about glam rock wrestler Adrian Street.) Neither is it a historical treatment of the industrial era. Instead, Deller brings side by side historical artefacts and contemporary works to explore several threads that expose the impact of the Industrial Revolution on British cultural life.
I was particularly interested in the connections drawn between the digital revolution and the Industrial Revolution, in particular working conditions. They were notoriously harsh in the 19th century: low wages, long hours, child labour, etc.
A document entitled Rules to be Observed in this Factory, Church Street Mills, Preston (c. 1830) informed workers that to give their notice they must do so on Saturday only, in writing and one month in advance. Whereas the "Masters have full power to discharge any person employed therein without any previous notice whatsoever." The same documents states that workers are to be at the factory from 6 in the morning to 7.30 at night, with half an hour allowed for breakfast and one hour for dinner.
But accounts from the time deplored the fact that managers did as they liked, with clocks brought forward in the morning and back at night. Some clocks were even made to measure productivity as time. One of the artefacts in the gallery is a two-faced clock that was connected to a watermill at a silk factory and would show 'lost' time if the wheel did not turn quickly enough. The time would then have to be made up at the end of the working day. The struggle to shorten working days was hard fought by successive generations.
Nowadays however, the growing use of 'zero hours contracts' in the low wage sectors of the service and digital economy is shaping a new form of day labourer, imposing another time discipline where the worker is informed often at short notice if their labour is required. A tapestry (by Ed Hall, maker of remarkable protest banners), hanging near the clock, is adorned with the words, 'Hello, Today you have day off', a message texted to a worker on a 'zero hour' contract on the morning his shift was due to start. No work, no pay.
Also next to the clock are photos from Ben Roberts' series that documents the inside one of Amazon's nine UK 'fulfilment centres' where employees spend 10½ hours a day picking items off the shelves.
Visitors have no problem joining the dots by themselves....
The last object on that wall is a Motorola WT4000, a computing device worn on the wrist by people working in a warehouse. Retail giants rely on this kind of device to monitor the speed of orders and the efficiency of its staff in fulfilling them. It can also send warnings if the worker is falling behind schedule.
But as can be expected with Jeremy Deller, there's a great deal of music in this show. Here he is posing next to a jukebox visitors are welcome to activate. Pressing buttons triggers archive recordings from factory machinery, folk songs or quarrymen singing at work.
All That is Solid Melts into Air also looks at heavy metal and rock bands such as Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Happy Mondays and Slade and at how they are the products of the industrial towns their members came from. Many came from working class backgrounds and their music echoed the loud and traumatic rhythm of the factories.
The only Deller work in the show is a film about Adrian Street. Street was born into a Welsh mining family but he refused to follow in his father's footsteps and spend his life working in the coal mines. He left home as a teenager and became a flamboyant wrestler and for a brief time also a glam rock singer.
The photo showing Street posing next to his father in the Welsh coal mine he had fled from embodies a country attempting to get to grip with its new role: services and entertainment.
More images from the exhibition:
All That is Solid Melts into Air: Jeremy Deller is an exhibition curated by an artist so don't expect academic interpretations and rigorous narratives. It is an eclectic and thought-provoking show that confronts with each other elements from our past and present, draws parallels, and triggers all kinds of associations.
All that is Solid Melts into Air Curated by Jeremy Deller is at the Manchester Art Gallery, until 19 January 2014. The exhibition will tour to other cities known for their strong industrial heritage: Nottingham, Coventry and Newcastle.
Related stories: Ed Hall, the art of protest banners and Audio CD review - Jeremy Deller: Social Surrealism.