Carny Town

Portman Gallery, 10-19 July 2008

Pinned to the fabric wall of Charlie Fox’s Urban Bear Sanctuary is a snapshot of two dogs asleep on a pavement. They’re lying on their side, facing one another, legs in suspended running position as though they’re dreaming of bounding through meadows. The next photo along plays out the same scene but in the imaginary: a saggy fabric lion lies limp on a pavement spilling out of a pile of dressing-up clothes and costume rags, legs set out for running as though it’s a mock-up for the real thing. The two photographs are in cahoots. their similarities work as reciprocal alibis for one another, suggesting a relationship of cause and effect while refusing to divulge which came first and which followed. This purposeful deliberation between hierarchies of representation is a central concern of Carny Town, in which the gap between experiencing events, experiencing non-events, and experiencing documents of events is playfully displaced.

These ideas take form in the context of a carnival funfair theme, around which diverse works by fourteen artists are gathered. The exhibition curated by Jo David and Rachael House of South London’s Space Station Sixty Five, but the show itself takes place offsite at the Portman Gallery, a contemporary art space located at a secondary school in Bethnal Green. It’s an uneasy setting that immediately challenges one’s experience of the works on display. The gallery’s purpose built wooden exhibition panels are open on all sides, and are reconfigured between shows to display the children’s work, or folded against the walls of the school lobby when not in use. For now, school technology projects are also on show in the lobby in perspex cases, perhaps just beyond the indistinct precinct of the gallery proper. Practically and conceptually, setting up shop in a school is an expressly democratic move, and it’s a gesture that Carny  Town extends from the gallery space to the exhibits themselves through a fairground aesthetic of temporariness and interactivity.

Cables snake brazenly through the space punctuated by duct tape, TV monitors, DVD players and a film projector rigged up in a state of unapologetic disrepair. Constructions, maquettes, videos, floor plans, photographs and drawings interrupt the adjustable walls of the gallery in such a way that it’s hard to know where one piece ends and the next begins, This resulting feeling of unfinishedness withdraws the authority of the artists and curators and challenges the audience to grapple with the works face to face. The exhibits – and indeed the moveable gallery walls – feel opened out, and with their seams unstitched we’re all invited to reach inside and meddle with whatever we might find.

Fox’s Urban Bear Sanctuary (2008) is a case in point: a narrow cylindrical booth strung together from lengths of red fabric that don’t seem  to quite match, tacked shower curtain style to a circular rail suspended from the ceiling. A stencilled sign above tantalisingly reads: ‘URBAN BEAR RESEARCH CENTRE”, daring passers-by to become participants by stepping through the curtain. It turns out the bear isn’t in, but strewn around in his absence are the components of his outfit, complete with mask, feet and bits of brown fur to make up the body and limbs. Photographs pinned to the inside of the cubicle show the costume inhabited and interacting with the public. If these artefacts constitute the artwork itself, then the work’s promise is in suspension… an invitation to join in the fun and emerge from the cubicle dressed as a bear?

And if I had stepped out of the dressing room as an unexpected bear, I daresay it would have gone down rather well. the invitation to participate is recurrent throughout the exhibition, setting the scene for continuous exchange between artwork and audience. An appearance from Urban Bear himself was one of many performances at the private view which involved collaboration with children from the host school; co-curator Rachael House invites the public to join her Clown Parade by drawing clown faces on postcards to stick up on the gallery wall; around the corner Lady Lucy welcomes visitors to sit for impromptu watercolour portraits, also pinned to the wall once they are dry. A handful of Lady Lucy’s nearly dry paintings stand propped up against the wall, almost on display but not quite. Until they are hung in place, the drying paintings foreground the process and performance of the painting work, and the effect is to demote the paintings themselves to documents of events that have just ended. Like the empty bear costume, Lady Lucy’s portraits direct the viewer elsewhere, to the gap between events and the things events leave behind.

It’s this gap that unites a handful of video works… And so running parallel to the inclusiveness of the exhibition is a strong sense of being left out – of turning up after the main event has packed up and left town. Videos remembering events, leftover props, a mocked-up stage set and the detritus of performances all add to the feeling that you’ve just missed a really good party. Two such parties are Marisa Carnesky’s Ghost Train and Tim Hunkin’s Ride of Life was a part that never happened at all. Video interviews and a beautifully drawn “proposed layout”are almost all that remain of the elaborate theme park ride once planned for Sheffield’s Meadowhall shopping centre in 1989.

Elsewhere, a television news feature plays a relief model of Carnesky’s Ghost Train ride, along with a floor plan and poster advertising past chances to experience the show first-hand. The life-sized ride itself has never been near a gallery: the 400 square metre fairground attraction complete with ghosts, showgirls and spooky music has appeared at outdoor venues across the UK to the delight of audiences who buy tickets as much for the art as for the carnival fun of the fair. Carnesky’s refusal to settle into a single genre (theatre? art? performance? dance?) is echoed in House and David’s curatorial resistance to categorising her exhibit as either documentation or work in its own right.

This purposeful ambiguity surrounding what does and does not ‘count’ as artwork underlies the exhibitions’s recurrent motifs of interactivity, inclusiveness and provisionality. Do the portraits register as part of the exhibition proper before the paint is dry? Can we directly experience as artworks the individual clown faces drawn by the public, or is their participation in an artist/curator’s Clown Parade the bit that counts? Is the central proposition of the Ride of Life its original premise as a shopping centre fairground ride, or the story of its dashed hopes of completion, or the form of documentation itself? And what about the children’s technology projects which are, after all, just as visible as the items in the gallery’s list of works? It’s in posing these questions and leaving them unanswered that the exhibition is at its most generous. By refusing formal distinctions between art and life, event and document, maker and  viewer, the works defer their authority to beyond their own reach, and in this play of displacement the exhibits are in freefall, open to all, to do with what we will.

Tamarin Norwood 2008

Koba the Bear,  Tbilisi 41° 43′ 30 N, 44° 47′ 27 E

In the warm afternoons and slightly chilled October evening of 2007, on and under the city streets, in parks, next to fountains, in shops and abandoned buildings; international artists engaged the general public of Tbilisi with contemporary art. This was the project “One Stop”, taking place above, or slightly below ground along roughly one stop of the Tbilisi metro. Our idea was to install a temporary structure as a “British Pavilion”, for cultural exchange, and tea and biscuits.

At Pushkin Park, next to Freedom Square, we set up our British enclave, with tables and banners and bunting and Union Jacks. We stopped people and offered them tea. It was constantly on the brew, in a big enamel pot that never got cleaned out, continually topped up with more tea leaves and water, like a tannin accumulator. It was almost undrinkable. The Georgians are not used to tea with milk; and so we served it thick and black, with cups half full of sugar. To all of us this was a fairly foreign way of taking tea, but as they knew no different, they accepted it, along with every other oddness we offered, as typically and traditionally British.

Rachel was swapping pictures of English dogs for pictures of Georgian dogs. Jo was attempting to exchange memories. David, in homage to the street sweepers, tried to offer his services to as an English cleaner. I desperately tried to communicate and delicately offer spindles of wool to people to wind and unwind between us. Charlie did the performance ‘Laughing Bear’. Dressed from head to foot in a white boilersuit, and wearing a white plastic bear mask, Charlie stood on a podium performed a kind of laughing yoga.

Koba was a short, fair haired man with a face older than his years. He latched onto us, getting involved with any aspect that he could. Except to say ‘no problem’, he could speak no English. We didn’t speak Georgian. We communicated through gestures, eye contact, a dictionary and Lado, a charismatic local artist who not only understood English, but what we were doing. When Charlie had finished being the bear, Koba saw an opportunity and wanted to have a go. And so Koba became the bear.

As Charlie’s had been, his laughing was rhythmic and constant and forced. Ha-ha-ha/Hee-hee-hee/Ha-ha-ha/He-hee-hee. Jumping from the podium, he proceeded away from Freedom Square. I followed him with a camera. He approached people, trying to shake their hands, and collect encounters for the camera. He sometimes hid, and then jumped out to scare people (as scaring is what a bear should do). He gathered people. He chased them. He put his arm around girls’ shoulders as they giggled. He clowned with street furniture and vending machines. He danced. And laughed. And laughed. Ha-ha-ha/Hee-hee-hee/Ha-ha-ha/He-hee-hee.

He was so aware of what he should do, to engage with people, to play, to make laughter, and to make images for the camera. He lay down by the fountains outside the parliament building and then marched along, chanting his laughter, until a security guard approached. Koba then laughed his way back to the square. Ha-ha-ha/Hee-hee-hee/Ha-ha-ha/He-hee-hee.

He played the bear with total commitment, making the performance his own. When he removed the bear mask, it would reveal sweat pouring from his face, and he would simply wipe it off and then replace the mask. He persevered, even in the face of hostility. He invented. He didn’t stop to ask why, or what it was for, or what he would get from it all- it just made sense to him to do it.

Charlie left before the end, and told the others to hide his bear mask, concerned that Koba would not be able to stop the performance, and that somehow it might lead to trouble. It was difficult to know what he understood about what we were doing. Along with the pleasure of his involvement, was a discomfort- of an erosion of boundaries, and an uncertainty of the effects of his involvement. But despite our differences, and lack of shared language, I felt a kinship with Koba, in his outsider-ness and un-rootedness, his vulnerability, and his commitment to play. There was a belonging and not belonging, rawness, and a warmth and longing with a loose connection. And here he was, from nowhere, made visible, in a sense, though becoming invisible, hiding in the guise of a clowning bear. He was a brilliant performer. As it came close to leaving, I wanted to find out more. And so, with Lado as translator, I interviewed Koba the Bear of the Tbilisi streets.

Koba was a man from Soukhoumi, Abkhasia, a refugee. He had lived in Tbilisi, for 14 or 15 years, changing places when he got bored. He lived on the streets. In the winter it was hard. By day he would try and sleep in the metro stations, because the metro was always warm. At night, he found other places. Sometimes, in the city, it was possible to make fires. He did get lonely. He told me how he kept his distance from people, because he could not afford to get close to them. He told me that sometimes people were kind to him. He told me how difficult it was to find work. He told me about how he wanted to get a passport, so he could go to Turkey and find work. He told me how difficult it was to get this, and that he could not handle the procedures. He told me how much he enjoyed the performance. It was for pleasure. It was some kind of funny things. It is play, games. He felt like it should continue, and wanted to continue with the game with us. When he was the bear, people were very good to him, and he felt normal. Also, in the performance, he met lots of people. Before, people would not approach him, but after he had taken the mask off, people paid more attention, talking, chatting and making contact with him. Physically, it did not hurt to be the bear, but sometimes it was very hard to laugh. But once he was in the game, when he had the costume on, he could not stop. He had to continue to laugh, and to get attention from people. But in real life, the main attention he needed was help from the government to get him a passport. They would not give him one without a piece of paper from Soukhoumi, which he could not travel to get. For the time being, he was stateless, and without official identity. He was illegitimate. He didn’t, officially, exist.

Had we not arrived and set up in such an informal manner, had we demanded registration forms and evaluations, had we had anything more official other than just permission to be there, I am sure Koba would have stayed away from us. He was far from feral, but conditioned by living loosely for so long, and being displaced. As fellow outsiders, striving for connection through play, we were in a safe territory- and he had no fear of trespass.

We sat on Freedom square and I asked Lado and Koba what freedom was to them. Lado said that in Georgian the word ‘freedom’ means something like ‘to be director of your own head’.  If you are a really good director, then this is freedom. For Koba, to be without a job, he said, this is a kind of freedom. You can go anywhere, he said, nothing is stopping you.

Except, I said, the lack of a passport. He wanted to know if he could come to our country. He wanted to join us, and to continue to perform. I said he couldn’t. It would be too difficult.

We couldn’t smuggle a bear home. I, however, was free to leave, and leave I did, in my metaphorical ship. I sailed back home from the east but at home I felt out of place and still adrift. When art and life are so mixed up together, you can become lost, and what I was doing- well- it didn’t really fit in places. What emerged from it was so fleeting, and so uncertain, so mutable and resistant to being framed, or anchored down. Its value could not easily be recognised, or capitalised. And so I cast off, for a while, from making art and then abandoned ship.

Helena Bryant 2010

Say Now ‘Shibboleth’ 

“And said now unto him, ‘say now Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Shibboleth’, for he could not frame to pronounce it right.” Judges 12:6 (King James Version)

There is a passage in US presidential TV satire ‘The West Wing’, where President Bartlett attempts to discover how well-up his staff are on cultural buzzwords. “You guys know what a Shibboleth is?” he asks them,…

extract Angeline Morrison 2007

‘The Event of Shibboleth’

What is right but what we prove to be right?

And what is true but what we believe to be true?

The event of Shibboleth provided an intimate collaboration between the audience and the artists in a choreographed melding of staged and chance encounters. The opening night began with the sudden arrival of the Alien Abduction Rapid Response Team. Clad in a huge orange survival suit, Maurice O’Connell forced his way through the crowd and disappeared down a hidden hatchway to the side of the deconsecrated altar space, into the bowels of the church. Then, as the audience swelled and circulated, Harald Smykla began Reprojection, drawing as if into the air onto the Shibboleth Tower.

The audience now clustered round a single oboe player whose solo performance heralded the beginning of Shibboleth the Opera. The haunting sound of the oboe was answered by a disembodied voice, singing in Hebrew. At the same time a pair of singing legs materialized as the Tower was slowly raised up. Two other singers now joined the soloist in the tower. Then all three appeared out of the tower’s skirt, singing, shouting and squabbling. The crowd followed the Opera to its anticlimactic conclusion – the cry of “the end is nigh” and the distribution of glasses of sloe gin – with a warming applause. For now the biblical weather added its own intervention, as cascades of rainwater poured through numerous holes in the roof. A virtual waterfall flowed over the blue and red body parts of the Kollaborators Mount, making any attempt to scale the wall impossible.

The climax of the night was provided by Mia Fernandes’s Kiss me. Guided outside into the darkness of Southwark Park, we waited patiently behind a thin plastic tape, to witness a final display of a hundred Catharine Wheels. Fire and water somehow combined to vaporize 1000 paper birds trapped in two burning cages.

A small candle-lit gathering outside Peckham Police Station quietly opened the final night’s events. Mark McGowan’s Vigil for Harry Roberts slowly made its way from the high street to Dilston Grove where a makeshift shrine was erected in the entranceway. Then from the far end of the chapel came a dull drumming. Ernst Fischer had begun an extraordinary Passion, beating his bare chest rhythmically. He sat white faced, deadpan, directly below the crown-like thorn of Keith Harrison still smoldering. His passion growing ever more intense, he beat longer and harder until a small patch of blood appeared on his heart. Now, as he packs away, a woman appears dressed in a flowing white dress. Alys Williams Direzione varie in 2 Languages overlapping begins, an angelic figure staring heavenwards, motionless apart from tiny curious set of hand gestures. And all the while there is a barely audible singing, emanating from beneath her billowing costume.

Then Dilston Grove is plunged into darkness, until a single bright spot focuses all attention on a tiny figure suspended from a trapeze high above the concrete floor. Andrea Meneses Guerrero twisted and turned, held and slipped. Then without drawing breath, we watched spellbound the slow icy melting of Elliot’s and Smykla’s Shiboleth Plot. A life size ice puppet, taken limb by limb, from a freezer and assembled on stage. The puppet then performed an awkward yet beautiful choreography, accompanied by intricate dreamlike projections. This performance came to an inevitable conclusion when the puppet, curled up on the floor, dissolved finally into its own watery puddle. And so the show ended, the event having penetrated the fabric of the building with what remained: the faint traces of accumulated artworks, icy water and brilliantly coloured house paint.

counterproductions 2006

Koli text – from newspapers:

‘Koli is one whole artwork for Charlie Fox’

<The resident of Koli’s Ryynanen” in July, Charlie Fox, has used materials found from nature in his work. A big ‘forest megaphone’ made from twigs and pine tree bark is about change, as a megaphone too, alters the voice.>

Charlie Fox, an UK Performance artist, has been a visitor this July to Koli’s ‘Ryynanen’. With his art, Charlie wishes to get people to see and think of things in new ways. The artist came to the remote Koli Ryynanen to search for this same way of observing, looking and thinking of new things.

Time spent in Ryynanen has allowed for a certain freedom for Charlie, which he has used to think and experience new ideas and problems. Whether all this will be achieved, and what he will take home from his month in Koli, will only be known in a few months time. But as concrete outcomes there are a multitude of good memories and new ways of working and thinking which Charlie will take with him when he leaves.

Richness of Culture revealed:

The artist is a qualified archaeologist. He is particularly interested in diverse cultures and the ways they might be preserved and carried on into the future. He has been able to witness all this in Koli National Park. “There are lots of living culture here, and people work hard to sustain it. Although you might not be able to see it at first, its bubbling under the surface and its spirit is constantly there,” Charlie continues to describe his experiences. “The whole of Koli and the work done by METLA there, stacking the hay on the hay poles, keeping the meadows open, slash and burning, the growing of rye and turnips,” Fox admires this as a piece of living art created by many people together, and it has made a big impression on him. How an old way of living is being brought to life, and the manner of presenting the richness of this culture. “Although it’s ‘re-done’ now, it’s still so alive’, Charlie says.

The smell of cinnamon buns to take home with him.

Also the proximity of the Russian border fascinates the British artist.  “The thought of there being a border drawn by man, but in reality nothing finishing there, but carrying on as far as the eye can see,” Charlie laughs. He reminds us that experiences are completely based on senses when plunged into another culture and surrounded by a foreign language. “All experiences are based on smells, tastes, feelings and colours when you don’t understand the language”, Charlie explains.

The world of senses has also brought along new surprises and acquaintances. The smell of cinnamon buns wafting from the downstairs cafeteria has been an exhilarating experience to Charlie. It has been a surprise to him that after the strong smell of cinnamon the buns do not taste nearly as strong as they smell.

Yet since the sense of smell imprints the best memory of all the senses, Charlie will have a memory of the smell of cinnamon buns with him for the rest of his life.

Open doors to art making

While in Koli, Charlie has utilized materials that he has found here. Thanks to the ‘everyman’s rights’ there has been no shortage of material. Among other things spread out in the studio, we find hay, pinecones and pine tree bark, described as the skin of the tree by Charlie.

There is one artist living in the Ryynanen studio , but four working there. Charlie Fox says that the other three artists are his alter egos. Each alter ego works on different materials. While one builds a large forest megaphone from twigs and transparent bark, another works with more modern technology, using a digital camera.

Outcomes of these working methods can be viewed in Ryynanen as one passes. The work can be viewed whenever Charlie is in. On this coming Thursday, Charlie holds an event for everyone, where there is a performance programme, including getting to know the artist, an outing in the national park, participating in a piece of living art and a picnic.

Strengell, Varpu (2005) trans. Rikke Lisa, Vaarojen Sanomat 26/7/2005

‘Four Artists, only one resident…’

Refined English can be heard inside the log walls of the artist residence  Koli ‘Ryynanen’. In July, artist Charlie Fox arrived from busy London to make new artwork in ‘Ryynanen’. The Brit, who’s in Finland for the first time, is bewildered by the new surroundings. The Koli village centre is a lot busier than he imagined it would be.

Most importantly the artist has finally time to concentrate on his creative process. “I haven’t had this kind of time for a long time, so that I can get to concentrate on my work. In fact this time here is quite brief”, Charlie says. At home, in London Charlie Fox teaches art and tries to find time to do research as well. The 37-year-old artist is a father of two small children. A French wife works in the same field: she is an artist too.

The idea was shaped in Koli

Charlie’s attention was drawn to the artist residency in the Koli centre when he was browsing a-n, a publication for artists. On a gloomy October day he wrote a letter to Tiina Hallakorpi, the head of Visual Arts in the region, and inquired into the possibility of coming to Koli.

Charlie emphasizes that he has always been interested in remote places, the so-called border areas. Being on the edge of the EU, and the proximity of Russia fascinates him.

“It is a great opportunity to be on this journey of discovery, somewhere totally different”. He describes the change of scenery arriving from a big dirty city to Koli where only a few hundred people live. When he opened the door of the large ‘Ryynanen” studio for the first time on the 1st July, he still didn’t have a clear idea of the artwork that might be created in Koli.

Dimitri, Sylvie, Raoul

There are many work corners in the studio. On a table by the door there are beautiful watercolour paintings on display that are about Koli and its surroundings. In the middle of the room there are ready-made pieces of art made from wood, hay and other natural materials. A gigantic megaphone is the centrepiece; made from twigs and pine bark hanging down from the ceiling. All the pieces of art are very different. Charlie explains that a man called Dimitri Terre has been painting the watercolours. Sylvie Harms has helped Charlie to build the wooden megaphone. Also the artist Raoul Brodsky works in the studio on his own project.

“There are four artists here, but only one of them stays here,” Charlie grins.

Charlie hopes that people will pop in to see what kind of artwork has been created in the studio. He has organised an event on the 21st and the 28th of July, and everyone is welcome. Charlie gets animated when he’s asked whether passer-by can pop into Ryynanen anytime.

“Everyone’s welcome. I think its important that many people know of this!”

Kallio, Lotta (2005) trans. Rikke Lisa, Lieksan Lehti.

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