At Wysing Arts Centre throughout 2016 a new programme of exhibitions, residencies and events, ‘Wysing Poly’ will be reflecting on the current status of art and education, seeking to create an environment where diverse ideas and approaches can be supported. The programme has been inspired, in part, by the energetic and interdisciplinary range of UK-based artistic activity in the 1970s and 80s, which coincided with a surge in popularity of the now defunct national network of Polytechnics. Drawing their name from the root ‘Poly’, meaning ‘many’, these education centres were unique at the time in offering vocational degrees alongside academic subjects, in particular valuing the practical application of ideas. This ethos, and their breadth of courses and resources, created fertile spaces for cross-disciplinary approaches and a major support for artists’ activity inside and outside of the institution. Wysing’s current programme draws parallels between then and now, looking at how independent and artist-led initiatives operate as a support structure for artists today.
‘Poly’ launched last month with ‘The Practice of Theories’, a group exhibition which brings together a collection of works that attempt to communicate complex, and at times intangible, theories and ideas as concrete actions and forms. An archive presented by sound artist David Toop is an example of such an embodied knowledge. Made up of nearly 200 tapes recorded from 1973 to 1995, the archive forms a ’sonic diary’ of Toop’s musical interests and relationships through this period of intensive experimentation, collaboration and production. Shown here together publicly for the first time, hundreds of hours of rare material, from the BBC’s vinyl archives, field recordings, interviews, references and rehearsals are displayed, while listening stations offer a small window onto the era and energy captured on magnetic tape.
Alongside Toop’s archive, Andy Holden’s installation ‘The Dan Cox Library for the Unfinished Concept of Thingly Time’ (2011), is likewise offered as a public resource. Bracketed by a series of bookshelves, once inside it is possible to both scan the titles and sit down with a book, and to find elements of Holden’s sculptural projects interspersed amongst the shelves. Through this arrangement of ideas, objects and art, Holden seeks to open up the concept of ‘thingly time’, a theory that he and Cox, who passed away in 2011, had begun to develop together. To further expand the concept of ‘thingly time’ into an ongoing dialogue, Holden hosted artists Heather Phillipson and Erica Scourti, who also feature in the exhibition, and poet and blogger Steve Roggenbuck as part of a live event within the library. The evening included Roggenbuck reading from his poetry collection ‘Calculating How Big Of A Tip To Give Is The Easiest Thing Ever, Shout Out To My Family & Friends’ (2015), and Scourti presenting a new work, ‘Tertiary Sources’ (2016). For this performance Scourti shared excerpts from her sketchbooks, partially rewritten by the glitching algorithms of YouTube’s subtitling software, as her speech simultaneously set off a voice-activated strobe light that caused her to appear, in rapid alternation, as a blinding illumination and indeterminate silhouette.
Outside of her participation in the live event, Heather Phillipson’s voice is a regular presence within the exhibition, broadcast via speakers into the gallery every twenty minutes. Somewhere between poetry and song, Phillipson’s audio work ‘splashy phasings’ (2013) compounds news items, advertising, overhead conversation and interior monologue into an outburst of overflowing language. Focusing on a different set of sensory information, Ami Clarke explores the limitations of human visual processing-power, presenting a selection of collage, print and video animation, each associated with her ongoing script, ‘Error-Correction: an introduction to future diagrams’. Drawing on the research of German physician and physicist Herman von Helmholtz into the mathematics of our optical instruments, Clarke exploits the exceptionally error-prone eye with images that disrupt and demand our re-adjustment, such as her hypnotic animated video loop of a jaguar swimming, or running, or swimming, through a pool of pixels.
In this exhibition, the archive, the library, the artwork, offer access to concepts that are elusive and abstract, and yet also fundamental, from the nature of perception to the near-infinite possibilities of sound. Communicating in a polyphony of languages, the artists each speak to the potential of knowledge sharing, even while acknowledging and subverting its limitation. The Polytechnic, as a space in which the acquisition and application of knowledge can be expansive rather than restrictive, offers a model for supporting the development of new work that tests and challenges concepts, taking risks and moving across multiple fields and disciplines. A ‘Poly’ approach, as this exhibition suggests, can create paths through multiverses of complexity, embracing the theoretical and practical un-hierarchically, and extending an open door policy to the dabbler, doer, generalist, polyglot and polymath alike.