Category Archives: Art

Crisis Management

My two-penneth on the financial crisis- by way of a gay art house club night in Stoke Newington- as published by The Londonist Club Watch: Queers in Crisis @ Vogue Fabrics.

I’m Only Sleeping

Visitors to this site in the last six weeks or so would be forgiven for thinking the proverbial Post Its have lost all their rainbow lustre and subtle adhesive quality, shrivelled up and floated to the ground, like so many trampled Autumn leaves. Not so. Well, not quite. This blog-beast is merely hibernating whilst its keeper offers her services beyond her East End comfort zone; which isn’t to say that a bit of local knowledge hasn’t served her well up town, as this post for Time Out’s blog Now Here This hopefully testifies:

Burning Down the Haus: Arthaus Bonfire Lounge

Burn baby, burn.

Bonfire Lounge at Arthaus © Galerie8

Cultural Vandalism

Scrap Club in action

Art meets rage meets destruction meets catharsis meets clubbing- in a car park.

I talked to artist Joel Cahen for my Londonist preview of Scrap Club‘s first outing to Hackney Wick, just a sledgehammer’s throw from the Olympic Stadium,  on 9/11.

The aftermath

Debris/ exhibit

Lock in

On my first outing for The Londonist this week, I found myself locked out. Read my debut review of artist Ryan Gander’s installation Locked Room Scenario on the capital’s favourite blog.

Locked Room Scenario – Ryan Gander

Photographer Julian Abrams

Commissioned and produced by Artangel with the support of Londonewcastle and the Lisson Gallery


Face Value: Purge by Brian Lobel

The first time I saw Brian Lobel perform, he was dancing non-stop to his own silent disco of show tunes, wired up to a monitor and VHS in an approximation of his teenage bedroom, inviting you to join him and bop along. The second time he was daring a squirming, smirking audience to ‘appreciate’ his genitals (in the medical as well as the colloquial sense) and the third time he was soliciting 60 seconds of the lives of the good people of Brixton, in order to sell them back a week later, via vending machine lucky dip in the form of a DVD.

His latest work, Purge, is equally generous, democratic and confrontational. A commission for MotiRoti’s ‘What Counts?’ season in response to the 2011 census, it’s another marathon of a show, elapsing over 24 hours and divided across four days, building on the preoccupation with time and value he explored in Carpe Minuta Prima. Billed as ‘the world’s most brutal game of friendship maintenance,’ Purge is intensely social and inherently collaborative, as Lobel tours four cafes across London and asks the coffee-drinking public ‘keep- or delete?’ In keeping with Michael Landy’s Breakdown (2001), a work Lobel cites as a key influence, he uses his own Facebook profile and its supporting cast of 1300 Facebook friends as his raw material. Just as Landy systematically destroyed each and every one of his 7000 possessions, painstakingly inventoried over three years, Lobel ruthlessly deletes a contact from his friend list if the state of the relationship doesn’t make the grade in the eyes of the panel. The original YBA was left only with the clothes he stood up in, so is his devotee playing it safe by sticking to the virtual world? Yet the distinction is becoming increasingly blurred. We may not have become any less materialistic in the 11 years since Landy’s installation in a disused branch of C&A on Oxford Street, but we have become exponentially more nodocentric, with 750 million of us projecting ourselves to the world via Facebook profiles. The ‘tyranny of the nodes’ has prompted academic Ulises A. Mejias’ damning proclamation that in today’s world ‘if you’re not a node, you don’t exist.’ And at times, the stakes do feel that high, with the artist admitting that for a good proportion of his friendship group, Facebook is his only point of contact and without it, he is essentially erasing them- if not from his past, then from his future.  Part fast-paced game show, complete with score cards, buzzers and timer, part social experiment, Purge gives you an irresistible insight into another person’s social network, only to shine an unflinching light on your own.

This performer in profile is a self-confessed ‘active’ Facebooker, but you don’t need quite such a formidable online presence for Purge to resonate with you. The scale of Brian’s undertaking is daunting, as he attempts to give a 60 second ‘defence’ of each and every friendship testified by his Friend List, but as ever, the devil is in the detail. During my 40-odd compelling minutes spent on the ‘keep or delete’ panel in a cosy corner of the elegant Off Broadway on Broadway Market, E8, I shared with my two fellow panelists a clutch of priceless (albeit second hand) moments from the artist’s life. With staggering memory recall, Lobel recounted at break neck speed the time when he witnessed a school friend’s wrap skirt fall off in the cafeteria, or when he and a friend hustled their way into watching Sex and the City the Movie in a stranger’s apartment in New York City, or smoked shisha together with Pink in 2001… Then there were the idiosyncratic character sketches- ‘he makes the best chocolate and banana muffins I’ve ever tasted… we shared a bunk together at summer camp… we sat next to each other in band… he was the first man I ever fell in love with… I was her cell phone message for a year and a half.’ And we aren’t only asked to look backwards, but to look ahead- ‘we’ve only met once, but I think he’s potential… if I delete her, it’ll be really awkward next time we’re at the same party.’ With a less charismatic, less articulate host in the hot seat, the anecdotes would undoubtedly be less effervescent, less punchy. Delivered against the clock, there’s no time for the nostalgia to get too syrupy, and no chance for the panel to duck out of their decision-making. Half the fun is in second-guessing your colleagues’ responses, or analyzing your own as you bow to popular opinion or stick to your guns on hearing that ‘we haven’t spoken since college’ or ‘I don’t remember what he does for a living’ or ‘she’s my parents’ friend’s sister’s daughter.’

Lobel, not for the first time, is tapping into the zeitgeist here- not only through the modish conception of the Facebook  ‘cull’ that carries many of the Aristotelian associations of catharsis as cleansing and renewing, but also by toying with the less benign act of ‘F-rape’ in freely surrendering his network, the annals of his social and professional life, to the scrutiny of strangers. In her essay ‘Generation Why?’ Zadie Smith argues that in ‘interfacing with the mind of Mark Zuckerberg,’ that is just what all of us Facebook junkies have done. We have relinquished control of our images, our identities, even our thoughts- or at least over the way in which they are represented, through a medium which necessarily inculcates conformity. We should beware the limits of the software, she writes, and not confuse them with the mutable contours of our sense of self:

‘When a human being becomes a set of data… he or she is reduced. Everything shrinks. Individual character. Friendships. Language. Sensibility. In a way it’s a transcendent experience; we lose our bodies…’

But Lobel is alive to this. In his own words he ‘makes work about bodies; politicized bodies, marginalized bodies, dancing and singing bodies, happy bodies, sick bodies…’ not least the memory of his friend and first love Grant, who was let down by his body. After the physical death of his friend, Brian was forced to mourn a virtual death when Grant’s Friendster profile was deleted, in a corporate ‘cull’ of the site’s content in May of this year. And what’s more, he discovered that at some point during their tumultuous relationship, Grant had ‘de-friended’ him on this now defunct social network. A virtual shrine, a narcissistic archive, a status symbol, an inescapable palimpsest, an inadequate identikit of selfhood; Purge is a parlour game that scratches beneath the programming.

Minute Man

In February of this year, Stoke Newington-based artist and performer Brian Lobel asked the good people of Brixton Market to put a price on their time. He offered to purchase 60 seconds of it for the sum of £1- a more lucrative rate than the London Living Wage, which works out at a mere 13p per minute. If the shoppers and passers by agreed (and some didn’t), Brian filmed them doing whatever they pleased for exactly a minute; some sang, some danced, some wept, some slept.

Once they’d signed on the dotted line, their latterday Faustian pact was sealed, and like a tech-savvy Mephistopheles for our times, Brian proceeded to burn the exclusive minute to DVD, flogging it back to the public a week later for purposes both virtuous and nefarious- it was down to the consumer to decide.  Outside the cosy Book Box cafe on  Thursday 3rd March I filmed the grand unveiling of the Carpe Minuta Prima vending machine (or should that be time machine?).

A meditation on exchange, ownership and value, to chime with the private and increasingly public obsession with time management, precious time, spare time, free time, the time rich, the time poor… ad infinitum.

Scratch n’Sniff

Usually suffering from the tail end of a cold, or riding the heady waves of hay fever (depending on the season), I’ve never set much store by my sense of smell. The one occasion it served me well was in greedily identifying my surprise dish of fish pie from a distance when dining effectively blind-fold in the pitch black of Dans Le Noir in Clerkenwell. My hitherto neglected nostrils have since been roused from a lengthy torpor by Scratch n’ Sniff– a revolution in sociable scent appreciation. This series of events are the brainchild of the fragrantly enterprising Odette Toilette and have been running since early 2010. My second-ever foray into the esoteric field of olfaction was courtesy of Scratch n’Sniff’s fourth outing, the literary-inspired Scent and the Pen on 23rd November. A chatty evening spent in the basement of the quirky Book Club in Shoreditch in the company of one’s undergrad cronies is always a pleasant prospect, but the added interactive ‘smell-o-vision’ dimension promised true edu-tainment.

More than just a flouncy gimmick, the concept-driven scents are central to the given theme of each event and serve to unlock the cultural mores and artistic conventions of the period, place or person they evoke. Ms.Toilette is in the business of making the high-brow accessible and fun to boot. Scratch n’Sniff debuted by laying a scent-trail of fashion through the ages, has since sniffed out cinema icons and will be turning its well-tuned nostrils towards the eaux de colognes and toilettes aimed at the masculine and adolescent markets in the New Year; Kurt Cobain having bequeathed a gift of a title in ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit.’ All the perfumes on offer are hand-picked from the stocks of Les Senteurs of Belgravia. The SW1 perfumery, which specialises in rediscovering and retailing vintage scents, provide the miniature sample bottles which are bestowed on willing sniffers as the evening progresses.

My previous visit to the 1920s-themed night had yielded the nugget of social history that during the Jazz Age, fashionable men wanted to smell like women and decadent women wanted to smell like they’d just had a fag (what with the pleasures of tobacco being considered the preserve of their male counterparts). Gender-bending meets social shock tactics, to the tune of the Charleston, perhaps. I’d felt the urge to secrete the appropriate tester sticks between the pages of my favourite Waughs and Fitzgeralds, so that I might return to them for a synaesthetic bedtime read. In my haste to pour effusive congratulations over Odette Toilette’s already anointed head, I had abandoned all testers and samples in a slapdash muddle. This time around I was determined to be more methodical in my smelling, labeling and reflecting- all participants being invited to record their impressions of the aromas on headed note paper, to encourage sharing of ‘Smelling Notes’ throughout the evening.

Taking a good nasal swig of the nearest glass of coffee beans on offer to cleanse the olfactory palate of any residue of Great Eastern Street, I delved in to the first scent- Eau de Gloire. A Corsican perfume created in honour of Napoleon: I have to admit to only truly connecting with its bergamot, lemon and rosemary when someone mentioned really succulent Sunday dinners. Ah well, on to Bendelirious. A bit more to my taste and reminiscent of YSL Babydoll that I was wont to douse myself with before tripping the light fantastic in the Noughties nightspots of South Yorkshire. It was in fact conceived as something a little more exclusive- ‘a Jean Harlow kind of perfume,’ as Les Senteurs would have it. ‘An homage to legendary New York department store Henri Bendel,’ via Love Hearts and bubble bath and Britney Spears, as interpreted by the Scratch n’Sniff contingent.

Now for the literary bit. With our noses warmed up from the cold, Cambridge English don Dr Rowan Boyson guided participants through a whistlestop stench tour of the 18th century- think Horrible Histories for grown ups with a dash of Blackadder the Third. The central paradox for any writer setting out to capture scent in words is, she explained, the very lack of vocabulary at their disposal, unlike the myriad adjectives for colour, texture and taste. The entertaining Dr.Boyson quoted Locke, noting that ‘the variety of smells… do most of them want names…’ I learnt that for the early part of the century, smell was considered a ‘low-ranking sense’ and when it did get the poetic treatment it was reserved for expressing disgust, as in the ‘sour flatulence and rank armpits’ peppering Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker. In 1738 Pope declared that ‘perfume to you to me is excrement,’ and it wasn’t until Rousseau and the Romantics that writers were able to muse sincerely on the more delicate vapours of rose water and violets. It was with Shelley’s ‘The Sensitive Plant’ of 1820 that ‘the connection between smell and the imagination was made,’ Dr.Boyson told a captive audience drinking in Carnal Flower. An intoxicating floral number made with tuberose, it’s attributes closely recalled the poet’s description of mimosa: ‘music delicate, soft and intense… felt like an odor.’

Noses were given a break over refreshments at the bar (the smelling atmosphere being somewhat corrupted by notes of nachos and guacamole) before we heard from Dr.Ian Patterson, poet and Modernist specialist from Queens’ College, Cambridge. Charmingly clad in cords and hoodie, Dr.Patterson invited us to ruminate on the potential of the poem to ‘fill the hole of the indescribable.’ He proceeded to discourse on Swinburne, Tennyson and even T.S.Eliot’s inability to move far beyond the descriptive smell-by-association or substitution model that still prevails today. He aptly quoted the latter’s ‘Rhapsody on a Windy Night’- ‘her hand twists a paper rose: That smells of dust and old cologne.’ With that I found myself quite content to make do with such elegant comparisons in the face of ineffable whiffs.

Suitably inspired, the assembled party fell into a haiku-writing parlour game to be judged by the two guest speakers. Taking any of the five proffered mystery scents as stimulus, we toyed with similes ranging from the mundane (elastoplast, Savlon- Vierges et Toreros) to the indulgent (chocolate, chilli, cannabis, Shiraz- Coze) to the outrageously pretentious (alpine mist, pot-pourri chintz, cat sex- Nuit de Noel). The assorted scribbles have been assembled by Odette for the delectation of smell fanatics here.

I’ll never be the next ‘nose’ of the perfume houses of Caron or Chanel, but my senses were certainly invigorated and a few hours spent inhaling such potent infusions did my sinuses the power of good.

You can catch a whiff of the next Scratch n’Sniff on Tuesday 25th January with ‘A Scented Journey Around the World’, a nasal flight of fancy of global proportions.