Tuesday, September 30, 2014


Still from "I Got Life", copyright by Vivi-Mari Carpelan 2014
This was another fiddly project to finish, lots of technical issues that stretched this project over a period of a couple of months rather than weeks. I have vowed never to make anything similar again with somewhat unsophisticated software! I wanted to create something ironic around the song "I Got Life" from the musical "Hair" (1967) and then decided to combine it with my latest sound piece, "A Long Way to Heaven", mostly based on machine sounds that represent the mechanised, industrialised aspects of our lives that we have clearly not yet come to terms with. At the time, I was losing a lot of hair and ended up cutting it all off. Hair is, of course, a strong symbol of individuality, confidence and strength. I also didn't feel I had much life to speak of, as my condition and the insomnia was getting the better of me.

I decided to make an emotional film about the modern age conundrum of surviving inhuman amounts of stress. I used some footage of my own to express feelings of stress in our modern lives, yet mostly looked back to old footage of WWI and WWII, for an authentic document of war related stress. Since I have no way of using modern war footage, this was a self-evident choice that also fits in with the 2014 commemoration of the Great War. There is an obvious correlation between day-to-day stress in modern times and war related stress. Stress affects most of us in one way or another.

Stills from "I Got Life" copyright Vivi-Mari Carpelan 2014

Warfare defines our life on Earth. The war mongering mentality that gives rise to this regrettable fact pervades all of society and poisons every aspect of the human life experience. There is nowhere to escape from the feeling of being targeted, chased, threatened and hunted down. The unconscious stress reactions that follow aren’t confined to the battle field or the besieged city, but arise everywhere and anywhere throughout our lives. The majority of illnesses are generated by stress, and over time, they are increasingly likely to become chronic. It isn’t just our immediate physical survival that is at stake, it’s also the body’s ability to sustain life in the long term. The mental and emotional repercussions are disastrous and the survival of the authentic self is eventually also at stake. Severe disability will no doubt soon become the norm within the framework of society as we know it today.

In the film “I Got Life”, war is presented as a fact as well as a metaphor for a stressful life that has undertones of constant warfare. Life has become a traumatic struggle to manage the invisible forces that manipulate our bodies and mind, and the joy of being alive is gone. Moreover, when humans do break down from the effects of chronic stress, society is quick to jump on more guns to finish off the ones they consider weak and useless. The irony is that it’s often the shallow and dull individuals who are able to withstand stress the best. Are these the people who should lead our world?

“I Got Life” is based on old footage from the World War I and World War II, as well as footage of myself as the civilian narrator. The circular shape is indicative of the feeling of being targeted. The black and white, as well as negative effect, underline the timelessness and starkness of the affects. The film has been constructed around a sound collage I made called “A Long Way to Heaven”. It features machine sounds, radio sounds from the Cold War and other war related sounds. I performed the song “I Got Life” from the musical “Hair” from 1967 and added it to the track. It was sung on a day I felt quite tired in the same tempo as the song in the 1979 film version. As it is fast and quite a tongue twister, it makes the performance sound shallow and panicky. At the time, the musical was a radical criticism of religion and warfare that met with a lot of resistance until entering pop culture for good. By using this highly energised song about the good things in life in the context of stress and war I was hoping to further reinforce the sense of irony and how difficult it is for severely exhausted and ill people to feel that joy of having a body and being alive. Yet this should surely be everyone’s birthright?

Saturday, September 27, 2014


Selfie in Aberystwyth - Martin is now enrolled in the art school and 
has been allocated a studio in the beautiful building in the middle.

I have been thinking about the meaning of contemporary art and my relationship to it. My thoughts aren't complete but I'll present a few anyway as it all reflects my desire to find a new way and a new niche. Finding one's niche is of course essential to one's mental health, and finding oneself in some kind of state of transition and change in this respect can be hard. I feel a need to transition but uncertainty of the way to go and whether things will work out in the end is quite wearing. I don't feel very confident I'll find a niche again. It frankly makes me quite anxious and a little manic. 

If you look at the evolution of consciousness, it's only natural that the most progressive art of today should be conceptual. Concepts are of the mind and preoccupation with the mind and its contents marks society today. Emotions are often set aside in favour of rational analysis. It's of course simplistic and shallow way of dealing with reality, and tends to fall short in the face of the real on goings of human life.

I find conceptual art quite tantalising because it is of this moment in time and a mirror of society, but also quite frustrating because of its general lack of emotional input (it's not a rule of thumb but in my opinion a frequent occurrence) and because it indirectly says a lot about negative values in today's world. The problem with lack of emotional input is sometimes corrected within the framework of performance art, which normally uses the body to convey messages, but it's also an art form I rarely have a chance to witness.

Conceptual art often takes the form of installations and usually employs a philosophical approach that tends towards an objective and intellectual stance. It's a cerebral rather than an emotional process. Emotions are usually commented on indirectly through intellectual analysis. In fact, most things are commented on indirectly, which is why it takes a while to work out what it's all about. That's why this kind of art can be intriguing, but often fails to touch people on a deeper and more instinctual level. In other words, it's not intrinsically emotional but rather points to events and situations while saying they are a reason for emotional reactions. I do find the concept of intellectualism disguised as art quite scary and can see how it is becoming the new conventional. I've no doubt emotionalism is considered somewhat passé by many. I'd argue it's time for a higher level of emotional intelligence, a more synthetic approach than what we've seen before. People on a specific evolutionary level won't be able to recognise it as valuable because it's of a higher order than they are capable of comprehending, but I realise this viewpoint isn't well understood by the general population and won't go into it here.

I'm not saying contemporary artistic comments are useless, as I'm sure every comment ever made about life and reality contributes like a shallow stream to a much deeper river, but unfortunately it's still often just poor philosophy that leaves you feeling a bit indifferent (though I'm sure it depends on your own level of consciousness). It's a strange phenomenon that people with no education in certain scientific areas such as philosophy, political sciences, social sciences and so on, feel they can make art about questions that belong to these fields of expertise. I have seen some ridiculous info graphics in books about contemporary art, they are just graphic tables illustrating phenomena without any artistic input whatsoever. And when Jeremy Deller re-enacted a miner's strike - well, where's the art, where is his personality and artistery? It seems more like a social study. Worse still, intellectualism tends to represent a fragmented view of reality, one that doesn't reference the wider context or even take the whole into consideration. You can't take the whole into consideration if you don't have a complete and solid worldview. This is very typical of Western society of today. It's why, when I went to University, I found most modern Western philosophy very boring. It's often bitty, exclusive and pedantic, and often seems a bit trivial in the grand scope of things because of its failure to touch on a human level.

Every day, /.../, people rely on the cognitive clutter in their minds—whether it’s an ideological reflex, a misapplied theory, or a cradle-born intuition—to answer technical, political, and social questions they have little or no direct expertise in. (David Dunning: We are All Confident Idiots)

There's always talk about art pushing boundaries. While it's true that it's the hallmark of some contemporary art, I wouldn't consider this its primary function. Pushing boundaries so easily becomes an end in itself, missing the actual point about communication and sharing. Take for instance the recent winner of the Jerwood drawing price. It's a sound piece! This is by no means the worst example of the breeding process of the fine arts, but it's an illustrative one.

This sound piece by Alison Carlier describes the act of looking at an object while drawing it. Sure it's a clever idea, but it's also somewhat ridiculous. I mean, what's the point? There's a kind of modern day flatland where everything has to be made equal, which I think leads to a tendency to obliterate qualitative distinction between different disciplines. I believe that the modern day idea that "diversity" should be respected often ends up meaning that everything has to be the same. It's one thing to cross boundaries and let disciplines interact, it's quite another to mix it all up in some kind of mash up where things are no longer respected for their intrinsic uniqueness. I know it may sound stuffy, but I do think this is sometimes a real concern. It's basically saying that one discipline can be substituted for another. I have mentioned this problem before in the context of sound art, where very often people are trying to equate an image with sounds, such as a particular colour with certain notes.

There's a real danger that art becomes just another arena that reflects the dry world of Western scientific discourse, that is, cold and often very contrived objectivity using quantitative rather than qualitative research, where data are always seen from a very reductionist black and white "either-or" perspective. All this is well illustrated on the funding scene, where it's all about ticking as many boxes and getting as many bums on seats as humanly (or non-humanly) possible.

All this flatness seems further enhanced in the way you're supposed to present yourself on your artist's website. Aloof, lofty, minimal and cryptic - I still find it hard to find my way on these websites and often end up missing the real work - if there is any at display, that is. There is a clear trend that prominent art must only be shown in approved spaces and the idea that all and sundry could access the work in some way is horrifying to the elite. The contemporary artist's website is clearly geared towards galleries, rather than being a source of enjoyment and exploration for the lay person. And moreover - it all makes me feel increasingly embarrassed about who I am, because I'm unable to be  like that. I just wish conforming was easier...

Of course how these issues come across depends on the context. In the case above we're talking about a drawing contest that people enter with the understanding of what the official definition of drawing is: "The art of representing objects or forms on a surface chiefly by means of lines" (The Free Dictionary). While there is nothing to stop people from taking this definition further within the framework of their own practice, I do think that allowing for a medium that has nothing to do with surfaces and the physical world is very unfair in the context of a drawing contest. While challenging people's collective assumptions is fine as art, it's not fine as an unspoken framework for an exhibition entitled "drawing contest". I have heard that it's common practice within competitions to focus awards on only certain categories of work - it means everyone else misses a chance that specific year. I don't find this very appealing. It's like pulling the carpet from underneath people's feet.

The sound piece was obviously chosen because it was breaking boundaries and therefore considered innovative, however that's quite a contrived reason that presumably has little to do with the actual quality of the work. It's clearly an intellectual decision rather than an emotional one. I'm sure it has its place in the grand scheme of things but it only goes to show just how far from emotional truths that contemporary art has strayed. The real point sort of eludes me.

More interesting than pushing boundaries between disciplines I find the act of asking questions and probing our emotional selves and challenging functional fixedness (habitual thinking). Still, having grumped about contemporary art, I do also in some ways find it all a bit liberating, and even in some ways quite attractive. Even though I may not feel comfortable in the elitist art world, at least there are new ideas and perspectives about. At best these new currents arouse our curisosity and challenge our habitual mental patterns and ideas of what constitutes an artistic exposé. They can bring together many disciplines and aesthetic expressions under one roof, instigate dialogue and discussions and gradually enter ordinary people's consciousness from all sorts of directions. In spite of a tendency towards exclusivism, I see art in all its myriads of forms as becoming a more integral part of society rather than less. It's all rather exciting, but the worrying trend is that as there is lots of it, most of it isn't going to be very good.

The art market is really like an enormous big supermarket of consumer goods, that come in and go out in rapid succession. I get the sense that people hardly ever stop to really ponder a piece of contemporary art, it's rapid consumption. It means the message has to be easy to take in. I find this trend very worrying, but the upside is that art is probably becoming much more of a part of ordinary people's lives. Also think about how difficult it was for avant garde artists of the past to get their work accepted - only the initiated would "get it", and the mainstream would follow suit a lot later. Now it seems art authorities are desperate to be on the beat, the initiated member of an exclusive club who have complete control over the very newest in the arts. I think this desperation to be the first to recognise the latest and best can lead to a lack of sound judgment and a heck of a lot of "noise". After all, only some time and perspective can give us clues about the real value of trends, and not everyone can always be in the right. There are also an awful lot of copycats who have discovered what the trends are, as for instance in the present case of small blobby abstract paintings in muddy colours that you find in every contemporary open at the moment. Thanks to the internet, it's quite easy to stay in tune with the fashions.

This is how it is, in the art world today. If you want to make it and get funding, you should have lots of energy to create a performance or installation, and to engage with the general public and make them feel they are contributing to the piece in some way or another. It needs to be socially relevant in some way. You should also be able to handle many media and create it all on a large scale. Being young or an emerging artist is a bonus. The following is an example of a typical call out for artists - as usual, you have to be extremely extroverted.

Exhibition proposals are invited from self-defined practitioners at all stages of their careers with new single works or collections in any medium, including participatory or performative works, to test in the public domain. We are looking for evidence of experimentation and ideas that push the boundaries of contemporary practice, and a commitment to artistic and critical enquiry. Practitioners should suggest how the exhibition would benefit both their own practice, students’ research, and the wider public, indicating how the opportunity would be maximised and whether further developments may be anticipated. (Hardwick Gallery)

I found this description of a recent installation and thought it somewhat amusing, as it really seems to tick most of the boxes of what contemporary art should look like. Multidisciplinary using film, sound, physical objects and strange constructions, the play of light - and there's even a glance at a disability! And a title that doesn't mean too much. Perfect! Which is not to say it isn't any good of course - I think it looks arresting enough.

As part of this year’s Outcasting: Fourth Wall artist moving image festival, Richard Bowers was commissioned to make a new installation piece that combines complex film and sonic techniques. Drums suspended from wooden branches on the ceiling and on a wooden structure are rigged with lights and play/light up in response to events on screen. The film itself blends a background from a classic film, with action slowed down and overlaid with hand gestures (a combination of British Sign Language, piano fingering and dance gesture). As the hand moves gesturally the drums/lights are activated throughout the space. (CCQ magazine)

I have to admit that I find currents that are stuck in modernist art (the first half of the 20th Century) very tedious. An expressionist artist who paints dark Kyffinesque paintings of landscapes, seascapes and still lives has won the MoMa Wales Open twice! It's as though the gap between traditionalist 2D work and conceptual art in the form of performance, moving imagery and installation is just widening, like the gap between rich and poor. What I find so difficult about today's world is the incessant tension between opposites - for instance, this is a country with a terrible power battle between two opposite political views with insufficient balancing forces in the middle. Perhaps this is reflected in the arts, which seems to favour one or the other ends of an extreme spectrum (raw art being very introverted and conceptual art being very extroverted). Dual thinking is how our brains operate - we can only liberate our attitudes by challenging this habitual tendency to put opposite forces against each other. To me, the only way of changing anything in a fundamental way is to realise that we're dealing with paradoxes, i.e that the oppositions are equally valid and fundamentally illusory. 

I wish to approach the contemporary art scene through my own work at least in some way or another, albeit without losing track of who I really am. I feel real pressure to conform, to be as lofty and conceptual as everyone else. Because if I'm not, then on what rubbish heap will I end up again? It's all reflected in an identity crisis of sorts. So I'm going through this process of trying to figure out ways of expressing something essential without falling into on the one hand the trap of ingratiating triviality and on the other the trap of exclusive intellectualism. I want to steer away from representational art without completely losing touch with it. I doubt whether I could express emotional truths in a satisfactory way using only an abstract pictorial language. It's no doubt as easy to fall into pictorial cliches while using abstract forms and colours as it is using figurative imagery. I'm no doubt looking for some kind of synthesis of different approaches. There must be a way that makes emotional sense. A way that doesn't comply with a need to be extremely extroverted and socially engaged.

I want to minimise the role of figures or landscapes as I mostly find them quite trite. Of course these are the highways to a person's emotional brain but I feel they reinforce habitual perception and are therefore ones that can prevent us from seeing other aspects of reality from a more emotional point of view. I'm also tired of 2D but I guess one is stuck with it while unable to do performances or unwilling to start creating installations (both of which consume masses of energy some of us don't have). In the meantime I'm playing around with my new smartphone (as I finally decided they are good enough and updated to the modern age) -  exploring shapes, texture composition and atmosphere through snapshots and interesting filters. It is such fun, which I guess begs the question why real art is usually not a lot of fun. There is too much pressure to conform and to impress through cleverness.

The Artist

I did finally manage to finish a project using my latest soundscape "A Long Way to Heaven". More about that in my next post. Last week we saw an exhibition with sculptures by Tim Shaw (RA) . I was hoping it would prove a bit more emotionally satisfactory, and it did. I enjoyed his expressive red figures at the RA Summer Exhibition which I had a chance to see this year (albeit unimpressed by the standard of the work from the public). The work is of course representational, but the expressive materials used make it all out of whack in a good way. And of course, he is conveying relevant messages in a sincere and direct way.

Tim Shaw: Casting a Dark Democracy