Commission by Site Gallery for Ben Cain exhibitioin
A temporal project such as this has an apparent beginning and a forced end. But inasmuch as it is an exploration of the occupation of the gallery, the beginning and end are arbitrary. It began before the beginning and the end is an interruption, a cut, rather than a closure. This circumstance is trouble for the writer, accustomed to falling back on description to ground what he or she writes. Here, instead of indisputable facts, things have been different, could be different and will be different. Whatever I am writing about, it is not quite art, or certainly not Art (with a capital A): there is no artwork, no finished project, but instead the workings, or the working out, of something.
The project is open ended. Straight away we are in the territory, and territory seems the right metaphor for a project which is not-quite art, of the conceptual pair of openness and closure. If the project is open in terms of its changes through time, of nothing being fixed, it takes place in a gallery space which is closed off from the outside world: two windowless rooms. There are other parameters: the artist occupies the gallery space as much as possible for the duration; he starts the project by working from a long list of things to do, a list which he wrote before the project began; he runs a workshop with three volunteers. If we are tempted to think of being open as a good thing and being closed as bad, then it is worth remembering that every openness depends upon closure elsewhere. Being closed is essential to agency: to doing something as opposed to entertaining possibilities; to acting against the persistence of time.
At some point in the project, the persistence of time became marked, emphatically, in the space, by a noise. Or two noises: a short mechanical swoosh and an instant bang. These are seamlessly looped, to form an endless mechanical rhythm. It is an insistent noise: relentless, pounding, infinite. Like a mechanical clock, whose tick is simply too loud to ever forget, it is the kind of noise that cannot be filtered out completely. In fact, this noise is itself a kind of clock but one that, rather than symbolising different times, insists upon the unstoppable, meaningless rush of undifferentiated time. It is the perpetual present.
It is a shock to discover that the noise is attached to a video loop: this has a clip of a fragment of a large, strange industrial machine at work, which provides the swoosh, followed, in a crash edit, by two stones being bashed together by hand, which provides the bang. The straight-faced dumbness of the marriage of these two elements, fits the stupid insistence of time itself. The image provides no explanation nor understanding; it is the insistent visual equivalent of the insistent noise. Nevertheless, the noise and the image conjure up the spirit of a productive force, of material and mechanical production. Of course materiality is exactly what is lacking; these productive forces produce nothing except time and their own spectrality. Ben Cain describes this bit of the project as the engine room.
If the engine room produces nothing but time, this time is occupied by a family of shapes. These are simple shapes: triangles, circles, squares, the odd diamond. They are, on the whole, large. Some are painted on the walls; some are painted on boards or printed on paper; some are cut out. Some are in colour but most are black. When looking at the project over time, these shapes can be seen to be multiplying, breeding. There are even rows of little shapes in their cells, like frog-spawn. As the project goes on, they take up more and more space: they sit on shelves; are projected onto walls; attach themselves to free-standing boards of mdf; a couple hang from the ceiling.
So whereas the insistent noise marks out a temporal register, these shapes occupy a visual register. They are blank. They have no frills or flourishes; they just are what they are: simple shapes sitting there being visual. These shapes are so familiar that it is hard for them to take on any meaning; there is nothing for them to do other than be literal. These are the shapes of children’s books, where a triangle is always isosceles and octagons are unheard of. These are the books designed for young children to learn what shapes are: the function of the shapes is to be themselves as much as possible, without complication or distraction. There is, of course, always more to it than this – there always already has to be someone or something telling you what to pay attention to. It is, perhaps, not unsurprising that these shapes also come to the fore in utopian design and avant-garde art, such as happened at the beginning of the Soviet Union. Not only can literalness be opposed to mystification but this blank quality, by closing out existing meaning, can stand for openness and possibility as such.
These shapes are not still. They move about the space. Some are used in the goings-on within the space. One tall, thin triangle has a mouth-size circular whole cut out at roughly the height a standing person’s mouth would be. This triangle can be seen in some of the projected video clips that remain in the space when no goings-ons are going on. A mouth speaks through the whole; someone almost entirely obscured by the triangle carries it towards the camera. The triangle remains blank, just a black triangle.
This blankness has its comedic dimension, although this may not be obvious. It is a comedy of a certain dry absurdity: a deadpan repetition of a running joke and a refusal to show what is behind the blankness, which is the refusal to make things make sense. The surest way to focus a small child’s attention on some specific object is to let them know that you are hiding it from them. This works with adults, too. For example, when we see a detailed picture of a person, we immediately and inevitably make assumptions about that person, based on our knowledge and experience. But, of course, our knowledge and experience have nothing to do with this specific person: we recognise this person according to generic, rather than individual, criteria. However, when this person is obscured by a large black triangle which he or she is holding, then he or she retains the openness of not being known. It is only an apparent paradox that it is often easier to be oneself, as the saying goes, when wearing a mask. Once again blankness is a way of resisting assumptions and keeping hold of possibility. And unexpected possibilities is what comedy needs. Comedy trades on uncertainty: it is something that must take us by surprise. It is no good if we see the punch line coming. Here, as with the driest of comedies, the punch line, or conclusion, is suspended.
There is a third register in the project, that of words. The artist directs a series of workshops. Working with a small group of volunteers, the artist sets a number of task, which the volunteers and the artist do together. These are such things as going for a walk round Sheffield; looking at an image for a long time; watching a film clip; contemplating the shapes in the gallery. Each task is followed by writing, which is also directed by the artist. For example, the volunteers are told simply to describe everything in a picture in as much detail as possible. Thus the purpose of the workshops is to produce writing: words.
This writing is present in the space in various ways at various times. The workshops themselves take place largely within the confines of the space. The writing produced is edited by the artist. The sentences that remained are all in the present tense and all convey the same quality of being some kind of response to something seen or remembered. These sentences are fitted into a structure: twenty six groups, labelled simply A through to Z, each has a few sentences underneath its heading. By the end, these are printed on an A1 sheet and pinned to the wall. They are also spoken in a video by a mouth seen through a hole in black triangle. Another video projects, in a loop, some of the instructions which directed the volunteers in producing their writing.
Despite being presented as a kind of key, in their A-Z form, these fragments of text are strangely detached from what else is going on in the space. Inasmuch as the text is a collection of fragments, all of which are in the present tense, overall they give the impression of immediacy and rationalisation: the attempt to make sense of something in the moment. Removed from a narrative of interpretation, these speculations seem desperate: a wild attempt to find some bearings. The desperate search for meaning emphasises the lack or contingency of meaning. Throughout the fragments there are, for example, repeated speculations as to what shapes might mean: a black circle is read as a tunnel entrance; a green triangle as a mountain. The references to shapes acts as a kind of hinge, which forces the words into a relationship with the shapes in the space; but the words in no sense fit the shapes.
There is another kind of writing in this project: the artist arrives with a list of things to do. This list animates the space; it gives the artist things to do. It is long and detailed and soon abandoned. But this list is testament to the conversations that go on before the project starts: to the fact that the project does not have a beginning but is always already a continuation.