Grand Union, Minerva Works, 158 Fazeley St, Birmingham B5 5RS

They Are Here: Precarity Centre

Grand Union

5 February - 26 March 2016

Review by Anneka French

Precarity might be an unfamiliar term but it is not an unfamiliar state. Precarity is characterised economically as relating to working conditions that are temporary, casual and intermittent – a state that is recognisable to many artists and other creative industry workers. Precarity, from the Latin ‘to pray’ and ‘to plead’, also parallels the status of many migrants and other low income social groups around the world.

The project, ‘Precarity Centre’, at Grand Union, is organised by collective practice They Are Here (Harun Morrison & Helen Walker). Described as an interdisciplinary framework and an experiment in social space rather than an exhibition, it sets out to be a much more fluid entity – one that is unfolding over time, has multiple points of access and a sense of precariousness to its content and form. ‘Precarity Centre’ features the international contributions of multiple artists, writers, academics, and even a psychiatrist and astrologer. It also seeks to connect with the wider public and local residents surrounding the gallery.

Helene Kazan’s video work ‘Masking Tape Intervention: Lebanon 1989’ (2013), for example, is presented on a small, wall-mounted tablet. The video includes interviews with Kazan’s parents, archival news footage, newspaper articles and photographs from her family history, specifically that of their escape to the UK from Lebanon’s civil war. In her photographic animation, a large kitchen window is layered with masking tape to prevent shattered glass piercing her home. The play of light within this at risk domestic space is effective, not least because the shadows appear like prison bars. To trust one’s safety to masking tape seems like an incredible risk, something the artist described in a performative lecture at ‘Precarity Centre’ as “small-scale actions [that] are precarious attempts to fortify the home.” The video’s scale and relative isolation within the gallery emphasise its vulnerability – an effect that is especially apt given the political complexities and sensitivities of its subject. Quietness and breathing space are required for the best viewing of Kazan’s work. Another work will be shown in this space soon, as part of a changing programme of film and video.

A newly commissioned sculptural installation by Greek-born, New York-based Ioanna Pantazopoulou dominates the gallery’s physical space. Composed of 600kg of foam scraps sourced locally and stacked up to the ceiling, the sculpture, titled ‘M.A.S.S.’ (2016), is a kind of anti-monument. The size of the form and weight of the material suggest a sense of permanence, while the soft, malleable and fading foam scraps point toward something altogether more fragile. The latter is emphasised by the confectionary-like appearance of the foam, dyed with pastel shades to denote individual densities and the fact that such material is more commonly covered by outer layers of protective fabric. This time, however, the interior is revealed. Following de-installation of the work, the scraps will likely be sold back to their factory source for a lower value, a process which draws out further, unresolvable questions of economic exchange and material value.

On the opening night of ‘Precarity Centre’, two live performances took place. As well as an improvised audio-visual performance by Iranian artist Pouya Ehsaei that included the distortion of recordings of dissident speech, Rosalie Schweiker gave private tarot readings in the gallery’s AV store room, embracing unorthodox knowledge for speculating on the future. Schweiker’s work is marked by a playful probing of social regulations, of personal encounters and frequently, a sense of confusion. Her custom-made tarot deck is no exception. Cards include a mermaid, odd socks, a lightning bolt, feminist heroine Mary Beard, and Fischli and Weiss’ daydreaming Rat and Bear characters. The intimate performance itself is disconcerting. The viewer always reveals too much. The cards, not to be taken too seriously, are props to begin conversations, says Schweiker.

Dialogue is critical to ‘Precarity Centre’. ‘21 Variably Sized Blocks of Foam’ (2016) by They Are Here, for instance, doubles as a modular furniture system within the gallery – objects that can be adapted and activated in various ways. The project is as much about conversations and discussions, about questioning, analysing and pushing against something, as it is about presenting artworks within the artwork that is ‘Precarity Centre’ itself. ‘M.A.S.S.’ becomes a touchstone for conversations. A weekly stew club invites members of the public to use the space of the gallery and the project to speak openly about the city, economics, class, mental health and all manner of other issues. At the time of writing, there are fifteen discussions, workshops, screenings and performances events taking place during ‘Precarity Centre’. More events are being added all the time.

It is hard to predict the future, just ask Schweiker. One thing that is certain, however, is that it’s likely to be precarious.

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