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Xanadu, Stratford City

'In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree...'
S.T Coleridge 1797

Samuel Taylor Coleridge had composed over 200 lines of verse in his mind during an opium-induced dream. He had risen from bed and was fast-scribbling the lines down when, famously, he was interrupted by ‘a man from Porlock’ who wished to talk business. Upon returning to his desk, to complete the poem (he’d only got 40 lines down when the debt collector arrived - I’m assuming the man from Porlock’s business was debt-collection, Coleridge being a poet), he discovered that his climactic verses had evaporated into the ether along with the opium fumes.

I’d speculate that the ‘lost lines’ of Xanadu (a cautionary tale against the vanity of constructing an artificial Eden bounded by walls and domes), might have served as an early blueprint for Westfield Stratford. A crazed, hyper-intense environment, Westfield is constantly abuzz with strange ‘happenings’ and hive activity. A guy sells coffee out of a sawn-in-half Cadillac, people are enticed with a free ice-cream to watch an advert in a fake cinema, deck chairs are available from which to view rolling news; nothing seems too bizarre (or hellish) to contemplate. 

I have a theory as to the pitch of public-mania whipped up at Westfield. Apparently the pavement tiles all around are fabricated from something called PaveGen; these absorb the ‘kinetic energy’ from the shoppers’ footsteps, converting it into electricity to power the vast, flashing advert screens all about. My (conspiracy) theory is that PaveGen also scrambles the brain so that shoppers more eagerly grab at anything and everything they come into contact with, melting credit cards a-flourished.

And yes, excitingly for my research purposes there are regular public demonstrations of ‘how to’: cook noodles, make bead jewellery, bake bread, massage shoulders, and much else.

In the midst of this contemporary Xanadu, (Hieronymous Bosch’s ‘Garden of Earthly Delights’ also suggests a prophetic image), is Shape Gallery where I am currently working with the production team to build the furniture and designs for the eventual staging of my Unlimited commission Demonstrating the World. There’s something nicely circuitous about this since the initial idea for this project was particularly aimed for realisation against such densely-populated public settings as Westfield Stratford. 

Public performance has been the main trope of my work over the years, the thing I like doing best. It’s an unpredictable, feral scenario and I have placed myself at the centre of all sorts of hysteria down the years, from closing down Tate Liverpool with barrier tape (sans permission), to being booted and prodded by a group of learning disabled children whilst lying flat in the centre of a medieval market place in Den Bosch, Netherlands, (home fittingly enough, to the aforementioned Heironymous Bosch himself).

Our ‘exhibition’ - ‘Making Demonstrating the World - in Shape Gallery is what artists call ‘process-based’ since we are using the space, basically, as a workshop to manufacture the intricately designed and wonderfully absurd furniture that has arisen out of the collaboration between myself and the architect Ida Martin. (Hopefully, I will one day be ‘demonstrating’ these pieces of furniture/sculpture from the back of a roadshow trailer at a shopping-Eden near you). 

So the Gallery is constantly in a state of transformation as we add design images to the walls, along with explanatory texts and descriptions of the project; there’s a video of me performing a demonstration piece at Live Art Denmark festival last year, and a large blown-up photograph of the image made with Manuel Vason at Westfield’s hag-horror sister, Lakeside in Essex (see blog 3 in this series).

The passing public appear somewhat bemused as they peer through the glass frontage of the Gallery at the tools and wood pieces scattered about, unsure as to whether or not they are allowed to enter. Those who do are offered goggles and ear mufflers (a health and safety requirement apparently), and mosey about sporting increasingly puzzled expressions. A fairly regular expression of interest goes: ‘and so when will the exhibition be ready?’ to which our intrepid invigilation team, Andrew Cochrane and Kate Mahony, reply politely: ‘this IS the exhibition’.

The furniture is starting to look great though, and one unexpected development is that we have already received two expressions of interest in purchasing pieces, the ‘Selfie Chair’ being a particular item of desire. Unexpected, because Edd Hobbs the producer of the project and myself have never considered any of the stuff we are throwing together, as yet, to be ‘for sale’. It would be a matter of dark irony if, by the alimentary logic of Coleridge’s opium-dream poem I was to arrive at a second career as a furniture salesman.

Posted by Aaron Williamson, 28 August 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 1 September 2015

On Location: the Melting Model

In a pre-meeting with the artist-photographer Manuel Vason, we drew up a plan to grab a single dramatic image, guerilla style, by which to communicate the spirit and style of Demonstrating the World during the period prior to the production work itself being realised. We would shoot spontaneously around the vast Lakeside Retail Park in Essex to create a contrast between the retro-futuristic ‘alien’ surroundings of Lakeside, and an arrangement of everyday ‘familiar’ props that I would pose with.

What we were looking for was a dynamic composition formed from: 1) a discordant, jarring setting, 2) an unusual, odd pose of some kind, and 3) a collection of familiar household objects. Firstly, as the model in the photograph, I devised a pose that required me to stand square-on to camera, feet splayed as though prepared for a body search. Then, grasping the hem of my T-shirt to pull it overhead as though removing it, I would hold the pose there with my head inside the shirt. Thus, my identity would (as so often in my work) be crudely masked or effaced.

Having established this aspect of the eventual image, my producer Edd and I went on a location- scouting mission the night before around Lakeside (a 200 acre Ballardian prophecy-realisation built in the late 1980s), and identified several ‘alien-looking’ landscape backgrounds. These ranged from: the top of a disused carpark roof, a traffic island that housed an inexplicable menhir standing stone, and a corner of a vast furniture retail shop that appeared to be modeled on fantasy rocket-shaped contours.

We all met – Edd, Manuel and our assistant Kate Mahony - early the next morning at my flat near to Lakeside to discuss and plan the shoot. We had been looking at iconic album covers by Dtorm Thorgerson for Hipgnosis in the 1970s, for the likes of 10CC, Pink Floyd Hawkwind, Genesis et al (think of a photographic sci-fi flavoured classic album cover and its probably by Hipgnosis). The LA band Sparks also produced vivid covers for their albums that drew heavily on strangely synthetic Los Angeles settings depicting the images’ models caught in curiously other-wordly dilemmas

Over a quick coffee, Manuel wanted to us to define the concept of the shoot/image in one word and that word immediately came up: ‘displacement’. Having nailed the one-word concept we set off to race around Lakeside in our cars, with Manuel appearing none-too-impressed with mine and Edds’ suggested locations. However, we were fortunate on that day for the pseudo-LA sunlight effect we sought, it being the hottest day in ten years in the UK. 

Eventually we pulled up at a vast abandoned retail warehouse that was bright blue with nothing but weeds cluttering its abandoned forecourt. The sun was almost straight overhead and the shadows still short and very dark. Kate raced off in her car to find more all-important domestic props (an ironing board, a potted plant), whilst Manuel swiftly set up his camera and began arranging the angle and positions of myself as the figure/model standing confrontationally in front of the imposing, brutalist building.

Once we had all the objects together, Manuel began making a series of compositional arrangements around me. The design of my appearance required a black undershirt to contrast with the white t-shirt I was yanking (frozenly) overhead and the only suitable garment I could find for this was a long-sleeved thermal vest. And so for the next two hours or so (with short merciful breaks for water to be poured over my head), I held the pose to camera in the ferocious heat.

This was a new experience for me as an image-maker. Generally, I rely upon snapshot moments from documentation to convey the ‘informational’ content of a performance; to convey setting, arrangement to audience/public and the central activity of the work and hopefully to capture some sort of response to it – all in one snapshot or video frame, sometimes file-shared from random attendants or passerby. My approach to generating imagery is pretty much DIY or ‘anti-aesthetic’, which of course as any experienced photographer would tell you is a whole aesthetic in itself.

In any case, I was extremely excited by the results we were achieving as Manuel occasionally brought the camera over to me (I was stuck in the pose throughout the shoot just with shirt lowered between shots), to show me images on his camera monitor.

So here is what we arrived at: see the image attached to this blog. For me it perfectly encapsulates the ‘displaced alien’, sci-fi ambience we were hoping to achieve. Indeed, if ‘Demonstrating the World’ was printed atop it in a sort-of-coy futuristic logo-title, then it might well pass as a 1970’s mind-melding prog/metal album cover.

If any readers have feedback as to its effects – good or bad – please leave comments below! So what does everyone think?

Posted by Aaron Williamson, 14 August 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 21 September 2015

An Alien Dream-Logic Capsule

As described in the first blog in this series, the discovery of a ‘contemporary folk archive’ of ‘How To’ videos on YouTube, set me on course to devise the central component in Demonstrating the World for Unlimited 2. The sheer volume of this unofficial, seemingly endless archive meant that ‘the world’ was practically my oyster (Yes, there are a few ‘How To Shuck/Open Oysters’ videos, such as this one seemingly presented by Star Trek’s Capt. Jean-Luc Picard).

So what in the world would I be ‘Demonstrating’? The physical context for the performance was established early on with my producer Edd Hobbs. Since the final work would primarily focus on being a public-intervention performance, we decided that some sort of attention-grabbing ‘roadshow’ vehicle or float would suit us. As in some of my past works, Demonstrating the World would have a high public-camouflage aspect. We wanted shoppers and passers-by to both identify the mode of performance (i.e. a public demonstration of some kind of commercial product), but with it also being absurd enough to make audiences take a closer look. A key theme established from the outset was the figure of the ‘alien’ or ‘other’, someone who appeared to have fell to earth and landed in the market places and shopping centres of our towns and cities to demonstrate worldly functions back to the earthlings.

We had then, to decide upon what my goods atop the demonstrating platform would be. Potato peelers, remote-control toy helicopters, new flavours of ice cream: all were familiar tropes of public pitches and indeed find their counterparts as ‘folk performances’ on YouTube. To take us out of that box, Edd proposed a collaboration with Ida Martin, a Copenhagen-based architect. Ida came to London and an instant rapport was established with decisions being made quite quickly in the way that good collaborative work falls together. We wanted the platform to be both domestically identifiable whilst being slightly ‘off’, not quite right. We talked about the ‘strangely familiar’, the ‘unheimlich’, and started thinking about the work taking place within a room arrangement housed inside a trailer, its fourth wall exposed to the public.

We started to design the ersatz contents of this the trailer to imitate the manner of an IKEA-style display room. However, the room’s furniture would be elaborately detailed with innovative and absurd features. These would be designed to operate as collapsible or concertinaed fold-out designs with components that are capable of being transformed from one domestic function into an entirely unrelated other. A side table can be opened to form an ironing board. A cabinet would incorporate pull-out steps to reach a small cupboard in which an old-fashioned radio can be tuned and its aerial adjusted. A picture on the wall converts into a table for two, and a clock transforms into a vacuum cleaner. 

For inspiration we watched Buster Keaton’s ‘The Scarecrow’ (1920) and ‘The Electric House’ (1922); and Snub Pollard’s ‘It’s a Gift’ (1923). Each of these silent comedies depict a young inventor demonstrating ingenious labour-saving gadgets and fittings by which to transform a house into an alien dream-logic capsule.

We also talked about the mode of the performance behind the demonstration. I’d already developed a ‘running commentary’ style for a work-in-progress presentation of Demonstrating the World for the Association of Medical Humanities at Dartington Hall in June, and this version included detailed descriptions of handshapes and postural movement required to perform the simple domestic activities I was enacting (tying shoelaces and so on). Now though Ida and I decided to formalize this conceit by devising a ‘vocabulary’ of hand-shapes. You can perhaps picture these hand-shapes by the names we assigned them: the cliffhanger, the crab, the gun, the hook, the pecker. . .

Since then we have established a further collaboration with furniture makers Emma Leslie and Wilkey (Studio LW), who, together with myself Edd and Ida will be occupying the Shape Gallery at Westfield, Stratford between 19th August - 4th September to build, as a public exposition, the furniture for our eventual Demonstrating the World vehicle. Do feel free to call by and check how we are proceeding and learn more about the scope and aims of the project.

Posted by Aaron Williamson, 12 August 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 15 August 2015

'Don’t Forget The Wrists!'

‘Demonstrating the World’ is a project for Unlimited 2 (delivered in partnership by Shape and Artsadmin) which had a Research and Development phase and now, in collaboration with producer Edd Hobbs, a production commission.

Sometime midway through the R&D phase I encountered the wonderful contemporary folk-archive of amateur demonstration videos on YouTube. (That’s my descriptor: they do not, collectively – as yet – think of themselves as forming an archive).

In these short enthusiastic films an aspect of our everyday lives that we would normally consider banal and unworthy of very much attention, has been given a rigorous and elaborate instructional depiction. You can test the depth of the ‘archive’ by searching ‘how to’ followed by almost any random task or activity, and someone, out there in their bedrooms and kitchens, will have taken it upon themselves to make a short informative film illustrating the activity in question. I love these films, although I can’t fully imagine why they exist.

If you’ve ever seen Nic Roeg’s ‘The Man Who Fell to Earth’ starring David Bowie then you’ll recall that the eponymous Man (‘Newton’ – a name with some gravity to it), prior to falling to Earth, had learnt everything about living on our troublesome planet from watching videos of us humans doing things. Thus, by extension, my conceit is that the YouTube demonstration videos might similarly be considered to be addressed to some alien entity who is preparing to come and live amongst us.

This blog then, since it is focused on the YouTube ‘archive’, will double as a Video Jockey gig. So let’s start the ball rolling. Or at least, let’s learn ‘How to Roll a Skein of Yarn into a Ball’

Actually, I’d recommend some degree of selection upon your, the blog-reader’s part, when clicking on the links I’ll be offering: that ‘ball-rolling’ film manages to extend to almost 14 minutes and any potential entertainment presented by the stated concept of the film is pretty much exhausted after seconds rather than minutes (I myself have watched it right through, though. Twice.) So with the links below, I will list the films’ duration so that you can instantly appraise how much life-reduction time is in the balance).

Before the onslaught, a short pause. Unlimited 2 is a disability art commission so it is reasonable to ask: what is the relevance of demonstration videos to disabled people? Actually, I reckon that question might be more puzzling for supposedly ‘non-disabled’ people. If you have an experience of disability, either yourself, or through people close to you, then you’ll be aware that the world, our Earth that is, isn’t a self-evidently transparent, unthinkingly-negotiated environment. No it’s not.

Ornery stuff as depicted in films, TV and popular media generally, can be fiendishly complicated for those of us with the crip gene. For example, I myself need to be vigilant against the build up of wax in my ears, since, being deaf, there is no concomitant loss of hearing either way, earholes stuffed full of wax or not. So, here’s a big-up to a certain Dr John Kiel for his short film (1 min. 51), demonstrating how to remove ear-wax

Moving forward to let’s say, ooh. . . um. . . (YouTube Search in progress). Hand washing. Here’s a lovely little film (1 min 19) that includes the warning/legend that I’ve extracted to serve as the title of this blog: 'Don't Forget The Wrists!'

So you’ve washed your hands and are all ready to pull on your shoes and head out into the big wide World. Shoe-lacing can be tricksy though, so thankfully, presuming you wear shoes (which this DAO-bound blog does not), AJ Nickell’s opus (2min 16) has got the juice. The way he does it goes like this

Shoes on, ready to set off, perhaps to a meeting? Maybe one about securing a funding commission for some crazed artistic idea you’ve been gestating? If you’re a fella or Diane Keaton in ‘Annie Hall’, you might want to wear a tie.

It’s worth considering the duration of ‘How to Tie a Tie’ (a pleasingly tautologous title for a rather trying 7 min 16 work), before becoming click-bait, but as a document it mostly creates bafflement that our presenter ‘Ben’ has definitely not sat through a film demonstrating how to match a shirt to a tie (he does pre-emptively ward off criticism though by stating ‘This Video is for Beginners’

Something more directly disability-relevant? ‘How to Climb Stairs’ (just 37 well-spent seconds) from the ‘Alexander Technician’ Leland Vall is here

More exactingly, (8 min 46) is ‘How to Climb Stairs Without Hurting Yourself’ from ‘The PostureDoc’

Almost as entertaining as the demonstration videos themselves are the comments offered by their viewers. Most often these take the simple form of an acidic troll, (‘Dude, I know how to fucking breathe, ok?’); but there can be moments of levity such as this response to the aforementioned ‘How to Climb Stairs Without Hurting Yourself’:

After numerous attempts of trying to climb the stairs in my current home. . . I have somehow managed to get my penis stuck in the ceiling fan. Any information on how to get it out?

As suggested by the stricken appendage mentioned in that comment, it has to be noted that the great majority of ‘how to’ demonstrators and their um, ‘demonstrees’ are male. Particularly when the activity is gender-neutral, (washing, walking, fixing pesky stuff), whereas female Demonstrators -I’ve only scratched the surface of this vast archive so could well be wrong here - seem to concentrate on applying make-up, hair-fixing, cheerleading moves and so on.

I don’t have a theory as to why that might be, although recently the phenomenon of ‘mansplaining’ has been picked up on in the media, this being the condition by which certain men feel it necessary, entirely unbidden, to ‘mansplain’ rudimentary, obvious things to women. I’d hazard an opinion that demonstration videos’ are demographically a ‘guy thing’, then.

Sometimes maddeningly so. There’s a sub-genre of videos that smugly assert and attempt to definitively demonstrate that ‘You’ve Been Doing It Wrong’. (‘It’ being almost everything: you’d be surprised at how many things are done wrong, including, in this precise instance, using words ‘wrong’ when you should be saying ‘wrongly’. But anyway.) I love ‘You’ve Been Using Ketchup Cups Wrong’, but am finally going with ‘You’ve Been Pouring Juice Wrong’ (3 min 17) as my curatorial peach of an example.

Somewhat related, but more on the side of being helpful rather than just plain objectionable, we might consider the ‘Life Hacks’ genre. These short films do not say you’ve been doing stuff wrong, but that you might like to consider doing them a little better, more efficiently. Again there’s a wealth of material in the ‘Life Hacks’ sub-genre and you may want to explore this archive further, since they can be genuinely useful. I never knew that if only I decided upon purchasing white duck eggs rather than brown ones from hens, I could add the discarded shells to my towels wash for a brighter, whiter finish. (Steady as you go: this compilation of 20 ‘Life Hacks’ is 7 min 56, although the useful/helpfulness is testified to by the views – in excess of 1.5 million!).

Like these Demonstrators, I could go on at much further length but I’ll close this blog with a creative, perhaps alarming thought. It might be possible to (re)construct an entire, reasonably typical human day from these videos, a visual Joycean ‘Bloomsday’ perhaps: how to get out of bed, how to use the bathroom and so on, right through to how to switch the light off and then fall asleep.

In the next blog, I’ll outline how I’ve been deploying this ‘contemporary folk-archive’ of demonstration videos to inform my work as the artist at the centre of the Unlimited 2 commissioned artwork, ‘Demonstrating the World’.

This is my third blog-series for DAO now, each of which have provided me with the opportunity to recount the progress and process of an art venture. You can read my two previous blogs for DAO by clicking on the following links: The Eavesdropper and Spike Island Residency


Posted by Aaron Williamson, 7 July 2015

Last modified by Colin Hambrook, 11 July 2015