No one lives here
Royal College of Art, Kensington
8 - 24 March 2013
Review by Yvette Greslé
We observe a woman: her eyes focus with deliberate intent on something, not yet visible. She stands before a television screen, hammer and chisel in hand, and performs an action. We watch as she strikes the chisel with the hammer, as if to break open the screen (and the surface that holds it in place). We hear the hammer hit the chisel: the unmistakable sharpness of metal striking metal. The gesture is performative: the screen-surface remains unscathed. The hammer and chisel, objects of labour, are laden with historical and political significance. We recall the imagery and sounds of 20th century protest, and revolutionary action. An image appears: at first we read it as an abstraction of line, colour and form, but then we realise it is architectural, and that the space it occupies is a representation of a place (actual or imagined). Hito Steyerl’s film ‘Strike’ (2010) inaugurates our viewing.
‘No one lives here’ takes as a departure point Gayatri Spivak’s assertion that ‘the globe is on our computers. No one lives there’. As a viewer we bring our own dialogues to curatorial departures, and the texts and images that inform them. The exhibition demonstrates the artwork’s refusal to be contained, or constrained by a frame or a text (whether as objects in and of themselves, or in relation to the viewers who encounter them). Curating is a gesture that is social and political in its impetus. It is also distinctly spatial and draws together constellations of ideas, images, sensations and sounds. I spoke to two of the curators within the MA group (Cicely Farrer and Ellen Greig) about how they thought about the visual-spatial-sensory dimensions of the show: ‘We wanted to contain this exhibition within one space and have lots of different layers. We wanted to have different sight lines throughout. We also constructed a diagonal line that runs through the space (we built diagonal walls). Through sound, and the various textures of the work, we worked to build a messy space (we talked about ‘digital rubble’ a lot). At the same time, we wanted a crisp space but also wanted the works to lead into each other. This happens through angular structures but also through the sound’. The screens and surfaces we encounter as we move through the space are immediate and affecting - whether we fully comprehend the many geographies and experiences that brought them into being or not. We find ourselves resisting the idea of the ‘no one’ for in our imagination, screens (from computer to mobile phone) are sites that are not only about dislocation, distance or troubling relations and states of being. They are also sites of intellectual exchange, and human connection in times of conflict, and sociality.
One of the most distinctive aspects of the works on show is their relationship to multiple geographies, political experiences, and languages. We are conscious, as we view the exhibition, of ourselves in relation to others. In a world of frenetic consumption (not only of objects, but also of ideas and opinions) the spaces opened up by contemporary art (and its curation) suggests the possibility of a more considered relationship to the world. Well curated exhibitions produce spaces that disallow complacency, whether intellectual or political. Curating is an act of dialogue and of collaboration: therein lies its challenge (perhaps the greatest challenge of the world today is taking the time to listen, and hear the perspectives of others). There is much at stake for us in political oppression and domination: video footage presented by the Mosireen Collective is a critical re-staging of the so-called Arab Spring, and the Egyptian revolution of 2011. Mosireen is an extraordinary non-profit media collective based in Cairo (a group of film-makers, citizen-journalists and activists). The presentation of footage across 6 separate screens alerts us to the politics of narration (its possibilities and limits) and the insights and astute observations of people whose lives are profoundly affected by the decisions and political abstractions of those who hold and enact power.
The exhibition plays with ideas about screens and surfaces, and their particular materialities. Moving images (their technologies and the surfaces upon which they are projected) vary in scale, and material substance. Neïl Beloufa’s video installation ‘Nice seats and projection - People’s passions, lifestyle, beautiful wine, gigantic glass towers, all surrounded by water’ explores the relationship between place, and 21st century aspirations that blur the lines between everyday life as it is, and as it is imagined and mythologised (in the language of brands and lifestyle machines). Images are fragmented onto paper surfaces, flimsy and apparently arbitrarily placed: paper and cellophane surfaces shape a space that is ephemeral, and fragile. Questions of display enter the ways in which we view the works, and this has been carefully thought through by the curators. We have to look upwards to view Jill Magid’s ‘Legoland’ - a discomforting play on surveillance cameras, complicity and the ethical dangers attached to who looks and how. Magid constructed a Surveillance Shoe: comprised of surveillance hardware and a pair of high-heeled shoes (A CCD surveillance camera with infrared technology is built into the design of the shoe). Wearing this, Magid walks the streets of Boston City at night. The footage staged in the exhibition space entails a looking that is gendered and precarious. We literally look up her skirt, as our looking recognises the banality of surveillance images.
Curating is grounded in the telling of a story. In the 21st century we understand that narratives are not linear or even always graspable. They are phenomena with lives of their own, and they can take on many forms. The most forceful narratives open up a way of speaking about things that are difficult and not easily discussed. Politically, curating (similarly to art) allows for a space in which to speak what may not be spoken. It gives visibility and voice to perspectives that may otherwise remain hidden or repressed, while re-staging (for our critical attention) the conditions, political and social, of the worlds we inhabit.