Thursday, 13 May 2010


In the course of several ground-breaking books, including Nationalism and Minor Literature (1987) Anomalous States (1993) and Ireland after History (1999) David Lloyd has refined his postcolonial reading of Irish history, literature and culture to the extent that his new work, Irish Times, displays a remarkable consistency of focus and intent. The six chapters of this book are linked through their attention to the two major questions that have now dominate his work.

The first of these is the issue of the precise nature of the relationship between local cultures and the apparatus of colonial modernity. More specifically, Lloyd has set himself the task of tracing the ways in which recognizably local cultures persist despite the massive transformations visited upon them. His second preoccupation is with the formation of the subject, and how alternative modes of subjectivity emerge in the long shadows of colonialism and institutional nationalism. Both questions are clearly central to postcolonial theory, history and literary studies, and it is not the least of Lloyd’s achievements that he uses the specific area of Irish Studies to throw them into new and stark relief. In doing so, he is rightly concerned to note the role that notions of temporality play in the face-off between the local and the colonial, and this accounts for the title of the book, although there is also a droll nod in the direction of liberal Ireland’s Newspaper of Record.

Lloyd accepts the idea that the violent and corrosive structures of colonial modernity demand that local cultures necessarily adapt, and that there can therefore never be any possibility of the retrieval of some kind of original nativist plenitude. Like Fanon he associates such nostalgia with modernity itself, in the form of a bourgeois nationalism that seeks to invent its own amenable traditions. Instead he sees these cultures survive as trace and dispersal, hidden in the interstices of the state’s disciplinary structures. Yet Lloyd has also stated his rejection of Fanon’s scepticism towards the very possibility of a history of this ‘occult zone’, and has ever since been forging the tools to write it. As a result Irish Times progresses by setting up a series of feints and sallies across a difficult terrain, setting out the ways in which subaltern material comes to light while avoiding the kind of linear, developmental history which Lloyd sees as beholden to state ideology. It is an extraordinarily ambitious undertaking, and these essays are continually negotiating the point where continuities of resistance threaten to turn into orthodox narratives.

To take one major example, the traces of the system known as clachan or rundale – what Lloyd calls ‘an older Gaelic system of communal landholding’ – are prominent in the book, appearing in almost every chapter. Despite the many points at which Lloyd asserts the impossibility of the retrieval of pre-colonial cultures, and his acceptance that rundale was a reaction to colonial clearance, there is a clear implication that the spatial aspects of this practice provide a continuity with much older forms of life. The rundale system, composed of widely spread strips of land, and the accompanying clachan settlements, with their elision of public and private space are seen as preserving not (as others might argue) creating, forms of sociability at odds with modernity’s individualism and strict division of labour. There are times in the book when this desire to assert an unbroken tradition of communal forms in the face of their constant transformation seems more an article of faith than an empirical fact.

When addressing his second major concern, the question of the subject, Lloyd makes explicit the link between the unquiet ghosts of occluded histories and possible alternative models of individuation. Extending his previous work on Schiller he argues that the formation of the subject of modernity is predicated upon the positing of a formal potentiality from which a self emerges through a process of prohibition. There is a clear analogy here with the psychoanalytical model, where the inchoate desires of the infant are regulated and located through the intervention of paternal authority. Crucially, however, Lloyd makes the jump from the psyche to the social when he argues that the sense of loss that this entails is compensated for through identification not only with the Name-of-the-Father, but also with the state or its (aesthetic) substitute. Lloyd suggests that the kind of state-sponsored events that took place in Ireland in the mid-1990s, commemorating the Famine, were a ‘therapeutic’ address to the past performing precisely this kind of compensation. By sponsoring a public mourning, such events enabled the Irish to ‘lose our loss in order to become good subjects’: to let go of an unhealthy preoccupation with the past and get on with being a successful modern polity. In this way the occlusion of subaltern histories contributes to the formation of docile subjects.

By contrast Lloyd implies that the refusal to give up on loss can produce alternative modes of subjectivity to the state-identified, atomized individual. The crux of his argument concerns the conjoined notions of potentiality and temporality. Lloyd equates the abstract potential (or in Freudian terms the infant’s polymorphous perversity) which is sacrificed as a consequence of subjectification with a kind historical virtuality he sees present at every historical moment. This key idea, familiar from Walter Benjamin, suggests that although every event erases innumerable alternative pathways into the future, a fidelity can still be maintained to the possibility of those pathways. Thus the subject, by attending to the traces of past, refusing to cede his or her loss and the lost potential which shadows it, is able to preserve the hope of ‘an alternative track of human unfolding’ that is outside the normative forms of identification with Father, State, Capital or Telos. 

In a strategy typical of the book, Lloyd reworks this process from a different angle in Chapter Three, ‘The Indigent Sublime’. Here a subjectivity which refuses identification is again considered, although this time the fascination is not with the ghosts of the past, but with the spectres of Famine victims as they appeared to contemporary onlookers. Lloyd argues that Victorian travellers experienced the scenes of Irish starvation as instances of ‘the unrepresentable in representation’. Yet the debt to Lyotard in this last phrase is immediately qualified when Lloyd argues that this is not a Kantian sublime. Rather than an aesthetic experience which serves to reinforce a universal subject, the relation to the famished other is experienced as an invasion of the self by scenes of human life at its most nakedly corporeal, unadorned by the social-symbolic trappings of everyday existence. It is to Burke that Lloyd turns to grasp this process, arguing that such encounters inspire a Gothic register of ‘vertigo, panic, hallucination’, again exposing the limits of the transcendental subject of modernity.

Lloyd’s recourse to a Burkean sublimity, and his accompanying insistence on the impact of famine scenes is worth noting in the light of his many references to another Gothic image, that of the ruin. Lloyd associates the ruin with myth, arguing that it ‘is that part of a past that lives on to find its place and meaning in a relation with the present, as myth is that element of the meanings of the past that find significance still in the present’. Yet his equation between the material persistence of the ruin and that of meaning, whether in the guise of myth, or as what the book refers to more commonly as popular memory, is somewhat disingenuous. While the ruin exhibits an undeniable material continuity, perduring into the present as a tangible form, meaning persists in a considerably more volatile way. This elision is symptomatic of a tendency to conflate two aspects of the past’s communication with the present. While Lloyd is able to pursue the material forms of non-modern practices up to the end of Nineteenth century, their subsequent survival is tracked through oral histories, Joyce’s modernism or James Connolly’s political writings. Thus at some historical point – undoubtedly the Famine – a shift from the actual to the virtual is implied as the pre-eminent way in which the ‘non-modern’, as Lloyd terms it, survives. If this is accepted then there is clearly a considerable distinction to be made between the lived import of such forms of life for their participants and the ways in which the same forms register later through memory, artistic practice or indeed postcolonial scholarship.

‘Throughotherness’ is the colloquial Irish term Lloyd elects to use to describe the mentalités corresponding to rundale’s spatial practices. It is also a good term to describe the intricate structure of this rich and rewarding collection, the way it operates through allusion and implication, each of the essays playfully echoing and counterpointing its neighbours, subtly redefining and nuancing key concepts and terms. In this, in its invention, its generosity and solidarity with others, in its stubbornness and implacable contrariness, Irish Times itself channels the spirit of the recalcitrant cultures it so movingly evokes.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Thomas Zipp: White Dada

White Dada is composed of two areas: a replica lecture theatre and a period gallery filled with the repertoire of Dadaist gesture. Where the former space is large, high-ceilinged and bright, the latter is small, dark and low. Zipp’s distinctive aesthetic is immediately recognizable in both. Muted colours, fluorescent ‘chandeliers’, faces with silver tacks for eyes, a portrait of Luther: all are familiar from recent installations. At the same time Zipp summons the frisson of historical authenticity. To enter the windowless smaller space, with its benches and hessian-covered plinths, is to remember that the talismanic sites of avant-garde activity were often back rooms in dingy cafes.

As always Zipp alludes to a range of conceptual systems. In the smaller room medical images are prominent: wards, nurses, surgery and a page from a textbook detailing procedures for dealing with mental illness, including electric shock and ‘narcotherapy’. This latter term then connects with the drug references of the dried poppies and tea-spoons nearby. The effect is to suggest a continuum between state control and transgressive behaviour, one implication being that these practices are linked rather than antithetical. Such assertions of complicity between elements normally seen as opposed are common in Zipp’s work. In its overt evocation of the avant-garde, however, White Dada makes explicit its concern with the relationship between radical art and other social and political forces. It is in the conjugation of the show’s two spaces that this relationship is most succinctly examined.

The lecture theatre’s wood paneling and tiers of uncomfortable seats suggest some nineteenth-century Mittleeuropean institution. Rather than the recalcitrance of the Cabaret Voltaire the mood is one of aspiration to power and the intellectual mainstream. Botanical paintings are regularly spaced on the walls, interspersed with a repeated manifesto. An imposing light-coloured semi-abstract figure (the eponymous White Daddy perhaps) stands to the right, the abstract Arp of its head balanced on a Jacob Epstein torso. Hanging above it is a Constructivist diagram of fluorescent tubes. The connotations are of a confident utopian Modernism: it’s Year Zero in the circular hall and the large sculpture is a template for the New Man.

If Zipp is careful to distinguish between two forms of the avant-garde he does not assert a banal opposition between an emancipatory Dadaism and its rivals. This would contradict the notions of complicity implied in the smaller room. Hence the disciplined atmosphere of the lecture hall is in turn complicated by the tokens of adolescent rebellion that occupy its centre: drum kit, organ, distortion peddles, microphone and amp. Zipp and his band DA (Dickarsch or fat ass) showcased their improvised rock on the opening night with a torrent of screaming that Hugo Ball may well have approved of. As a result the austere theatre and the shabby backroom cannot be seen as independent. Rather the latter – with its benches along the walls – is a kind of antechamber for the former where the band waited, incubating their performance. In this way Zipp implicates each historical (and political) space in the other while reaching forward to touch us in the present.

For the amp is emitting a powerful hum, letting us know it is live, and so inviting the viewer to take up the instruments and perform. By doing so we may perhaps maintain some kind of fidelity to the event that took place here, traces of which can still be seen: the carpet stained with ash and alcohol, the wooden tiers covered in dusty footprints. And yet this is at odds with the melancholy the empty lecture hall exudes. We are too late, the players have left the stage, and the audience for anything we might do ourselves has already departed. Such ambivalence extends to the status of the band’s performance. By connecting with them through performing ourselves can we really channel the distant creative event of Modernism? Or was the gig, like its surroundings, simply a facsimile, history repeated as farce, a kind of Actually Existing Modernism that traduces and perverts the ideals in whose name it justifies itself?

The excesses of DA’s performance may have suggested the latter, seeming merely to assert tired Bataillean ideas of art as transgression. Yet Zipp’s conception of Modernism as constituted though a contradiction between creativity and control demands a more complex analysis. The performance stands or falls on the question of whether it is grasped under the mannerist sign of irony or as part of a larger, more properly tragic exploration of the contradictions at the heart of both Modernism and the last hundred years of German art and society. Indeed Zipp’s very ability to pose this formal question suggests that his work does indeed afford a useful purchase on the receding event of Modernism, even as it dramatizes the problems and tensions endemic to it.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Forsyth and Pollard (Lux Interior RIP)

Walking Over Acconci (Misdirected Approaches): Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard at Kate MacGarry

‘Wakey, wakey, hands off snaky!’ The young woman shouts into the camera, kicking off a fifteen minute tirade addressing an absent ex-boyfriend. Although this new piece by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard is based on Vito Acconci’s 1973 monologue Walk Over, its opening suggests a reference to Seedbed, the infamous performance where Acconci secreted himself under the floorboards of a New York gallery, moaning and masturbating while visitors walked above.

The irreverence of the allusion is typical of the video as a whole, which affirms the importance of Acconci’s early oeuvre while also suggesting its limitations, not least the notions of gender and authenticity with which he worked.

At the same time Forsyth and Pollard’s piece is far from simple pastiche. Although the work does treat Acconci’s conceptualist heroics ironically at times, it also deftly traces the distance between the 1970s of the original Walk Over and the present dismal conjuncture. The thirty-five years that have elapsed since Acconci stalked a dingy corridor, humming to himself and baring his soul to a Super-8 have seen massive transformations in the political, cultural and technological landscape. Forsyth and Pollard register these changes in a number of ways. That said, the previous scenario remains substantially intact: although the script has been updated, we are still watching a lone figure approach to and recede from a fixed camera, alternatively obsessing over a failed relationship and tensely humming a short refrain.

The most obvious difference is the way in which Acconci’s grainy black and white is replaced by the crisp colours of high-definition video, a substitution that has immediate consequences for the genre of the piece. Rather than high-modernist Verité, the colour images of the new work recall the mediations of reality television, the gangsta Noir of music promo or the dumb theatrics of webcam exhibitionism. By accommodating the new ubiquity of the digital image, Forsyth and Pollard situate their piece in a much broader frame than the original’s confessionalism. In doing so they highlight the way that Acconci’s equation of truth with the speaking body is compromised in the present mediascape, which authorises itself through the constant circulation of pseudo-revelation.

Walking Over Acconci is also much more specific about the relation between viewer and onscreen figure than the original, which strongly implied a face-to-face relation between Acconci and an off-camera addressee. Here the narrator bends towards us, filling the screen with her mouth, then stepping back and straightening up to reveal her whole face. This suggests that we are watching an image on a monitor, relayed from an intercom unit at the entrance to a flat which may or may not be occupied. The effect is to introduce further notions of surveillance, privacy and siege, and to reframe the young woman’s impassioned monologue within an echoing, affectless realm. Rather than occupying the position of the addressee, as Acconci’s original bade us do, here the viewer identifies with the inhuman gaze of the recording apparatus itself.

Finally, where Acconci placed himself at the centre of the work, Forsyth and Pollard have substituted a female electro MC. Once again this removes the piece from the temptations of confessionalism. More striking, however is the way in which Miss Odd Kidd’s bodily economy is haunted by the gestures and mannerisms of bass culture. Although the young MC attempts to give this story of a relationship and its breakdown the naturalistic delivery it clearly demands, she cannot help but revert to her more accustomed mode of performance. The rhythmic movements of her head and hands, her feints and shifts in posture constantly betray her day-job. It is as if consciousness is periodically invaded by another more cartoonish, pop-cultural persona, one which has to be visibly restrained. This interruptive quality to the piece is reinforced by her constant recourse to the strained and almost catatonic humming. Here again it is as if the narrator is momentarily colonised, this time by floating fragments of the entertainment complex. Rather than Acconci’s emphasis on his own presence then, what we have here is a persona seemingly distributed across a range of competing registers.

Forsyth and Pollard are well known for restagings such as File Under Sacred Music, their recreation of a 1978 performance by The Cramps at the Napa State Mental Institute. More recent work, such as the predecessor to the present piece, Walking After Acconci (Redirected Approaches) featuring the Brit-Hop artist Plan B, or 2007’s Kiss my Nauman more clearly complicate the aesthetics of the remake. By forcing the austerity of classic video work into a strange conjuncture with the promotional tools of contemporary music culture this work radically defamiliarizes both, opening up a productive space between the present and the past instead of collapsing the two.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

An Ice Bar for Dead Souls

Roger Hiorns’ Seizure is the third Artangel project, after Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993) and Gregor Schneider’s Die Familie Scheider (2004) to use a domestic London space as its canvas. It’s worth contrasting the three pieces. When Whiteread materialized the inside of a Victorian house in Bow, it was her foregrounding of the subtle traces of familial life – a scrap of wallpaper or the imprint of a light fitting – that enabled the work to speak so eloquently of the past. Likewise, when Schneider mirrored a family home across two adjacent houses in Whitechapel, the work drew much of its power from a forensic reconstruction of the details of bourgeois privacy and its traumas.

The context and procedures of Hiorns’ piece could not be more different. We move from the East End (an area of London whose poetic resources have surely peaked after years of overexploitation) to what is by comparison the Terra Nullis of Walworth in South-East London. Rather than the previous projects’ Victorian houses, one enters the courtyard of a two-story block of 12 council flats, part of the Lawson Estate, a mixed development of high and low-rise housing typical of the 1970s. As with Whiteread’s house, the block is due for demolition, but instead of summoning East End ghosts, these scrofulous facades and weed-choked gutterings materialize the decay of the dream of public housing.

After collecting your regulation rubber boots you enter one of the flats. Straight in front of you, at the end of a short hallway, lies what must have been the living room, which Hiorns has left unaltered, its atmosphere that of neglect and entropy prized by pychogeographers. So prized in fact, that it’s become a cliché, which is what makes Hiorn’s piece such a timely departure. For while walking towards the melancholic living room one glimpses to the right its absolute antithesis.

The rest of the flat is furred with blue crystals, finger-thick, poking out from walls and blocking windows so that the only light comes from small spots on the ceiling. The uneven floor is pooled with a sump of the copper-sulphate with which Hiorns coated the rooms four weeks ago, and one can hear the suck and plash of other wellied visitors. This, together with the blue aquarium light, produces an immersive, underwater affect, with the crystals seeming to crust around you like a reef of impossible polar coral. The dankness and coldness of the space thus soon belies its initial sparkling attractiveness. What had seemed a kitschy cave becomes a mineralized womb, an ice bar for dead souls.

One attempts to allay this discomfiture by tracing elements of the original room. Hence the waist-high, horizontal band of crystal must be the moulding you noticed in the living room, while this quartz rose hanging from the ceiling was once a light-shade. At every turn, however, the urge to reterritorialize the space is frustrated by the multi-planar surface of the crystals. The gaze is distracted, unable to settle, continually relayed from point to point.

Once again it is worth contrasting this tension with the hermeneutic that the Whiteread and Schneider projects, in their different ways, encouraged. Both of the latter implied a forensic, metonymic reading, with the meaning of the whole dependent upon the cumulative, incremental registration of minute traces of a lived existence. Hiorns takes the opposite approach. His crystals have colonised the flat to efface any sense of the details of lived material histories, substituting instead a sumptuous, tactile surface that activates a series of pop-cultural registers: pound-shop baroque, pulp fairy-tales, B-movie alchemy.

In doing so Hiorns successfully eliminates the dangers that can threaten work which attempts to document repressed or forgotten lives through the textures of the built environment. Pious notions of authenticity, or a pseudo-elegiac pathos of memory dissolve here in the face of the opulence and high drama of the flat’s interior. Social realism is dialectically undermined by science-fiction and vice-versa. Yet it is in this very movement, through the void the piece opens up between familiar genres and strategies, that it so precisely attends to the unfathomable strangeness of other people’s lives.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Svidrigailov's Eternity

You see, we always see eternity as an idea that can't be comprehended, as something enormous, gigantic! But why does it have to be so very large? I mean, instead of thinking of it that way, try supposing that all there will be is one little room, something akin to the country bath-house, with soot on the walls and spiders in every corner, and there's your eternity for you.

Fydor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment , p. 355.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Scholars and Vampires

'Not every question seems to me worth asking. Scientific curiosity and omnivorous aesthetic appetite mean equally little to me today, though I was once under the spell of both, particularly the latter. Now I only enquire when I find myself inquired of. Inquired of, that is, by men rather than by scholars. There is a man in each scholar, a man who inquires and stands in need of answers. I am anxious to answer the scholar qua man but not the representative of a certain discipline, that insatiable, ever inquisitive phantom which like a vampire drains him whom it possesses of his humanity. I hate that phantom as I do all phantoms. Its questions are meaningless to me.'

Franz Rosenzweig

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Local Velophobia

Walworth Road, London SE17, 20th May 2008.