The office has a spider plant on the windowsill. To its left is a photocopied Victorian photograph of Jessop Lane. This cobbled lane borders the west side of the studios, has been adopted and gated off, and now separates the older studios from the Sylvester works.
The Bloc premises had formerly been used by Granton Ragg Ltd, manufacturers of surgical instruments, trade knives and tuning forks.
The old photograph shows slum housing, as well as small workshops, where the studios now sit. The people lived where they worked, the landscape a vast collective industrial amphitheatre, set in the apocryphal seven hills drained by five enclosed rivers. The rivers described by Carpenter in 1877 as …’running black’2, and by Orwell in 1936 ‘… usually bright yellow with some chemical or other.’3 The lost rivers as apocryphal as the worker fallen into a river of molten steel, mortally burnt but still talking, pushed under by his workmates, out of love.
In 1933 J.B. Priestley wrote …’ Sheffield…below…looked like the interior of an active volcano…. we ran under the murky canopy… the smoke was so thick that it made a foggy twilight in the descending streets, which appeared as if they would end in the steaming bowels of the earth’.4
In Bloc’s project space, Nina Canell’s AS10 installation ‘existed somewhere between an event and an object, communities of objects quietly interacting’ 5. A critic wrote that the ‘…bubbling steaming installation has a Zen-like aura that points to unsuspected volcanic activity beneath an industrial workshop in Sheffield.’6
Perec’s book centres round a Parisian apartment block. At one point he describes the lift descending through the earth ‘…at the very bottom, a world of caverns whose walls are black with soot, a world of cesspools and sloughs…. of forges manned by dazed cyclops in black leather aprons, their single eyes shielded by metal-rimmed blue glass, hammering their brazen masses into dazzling shields.’7
‘Vibration sense is tested for with a 128 cycle per second tuning fork applied to the bony prominences.’8
The sound of the huge steel hammers of Sheffield pulsed through the city day and night. There is hypnotic rhythm to Perec’s writing, from slow lists of disparate words, to sudden dramatic events or reversals. This unexpected change of pace, and juxtaposition of tone is often full of humour, particularly when read aloud.
As hilarious as the AS10 film ‘Full Firearms’ by Emily Wardill, where a woman commissions an apartment block to house the ghosts of those killed by guns from her late father’s arms dealership, striking more and more bizarre postures in the meeting.
Deleuze thought that one feature of affect was that it had a melodious variation between its intensities, a fluctuating rhythm of transforming energy.
Wendelien Van Oldenborgh’s slide montage ‘Apres la Reprise, la Prise’ features two women describing to students their layoff, along with the whole 1400 assembly-line workforce, by Levi jeans. They later became actresses in a theatre production highlighting their story, especially the comradeship, of their immediate protest.
The AS10 ‘extended text’9 highlighted ‘affective encounters’, and the relationship between the individual and the collective. This artwork undoubtedly captures that. It exemplifies the second feature of what Deleuze wrote about affect, (after Spinoza), that it is found in the encounters of individual or social bodies. Corollaries are micropolitics, even the feminist ‘personal as political’.
But to say that LUM also highlights affective encounter is stretching a point. Certainly passages in the novel, like the exhaustive scanning of Madame Nochere the concierge’s office10, paint a tender and multifaceted portrait of her life, but generally the protagonists remain isolated in their chapters, often die alone of neglect after failing. And the act of reading this hypernovel, the difficulty of keeping in mind the previous pages after following a diverting path of new events, or the engaging minutiae of objects, leaves the reader marooned on an island of the present paragraph.
The curators’ premise goes too far. As far out, for example, as the realm of cosmic tuning forks:
‘This set comprises 14 tuning forks tuned to the vibratory frequencies of all the planets in the earth’s solar system. This set is used to balance the body and mind in relation to the universal aspects of our existence’.11
Susan Hiller’s AS10 piece ‘Dedicated to the Unknown Artists’ was closer to Perec. Using a strict anthropological system she arranged 365 postcards of vertical storm waves crashing into promenades; balancing objective distance from, and immersion in, the stormy breakwaters.
Perec wrote an essay in 1978 called ‘243 Postcards in Real Colour’, a list of greetings- ‘ A brief line from Roscoff. Weather good. We eat very well. We’ve made some friends. Home on the 26th.’12
Elsewhere he wrote: ‘to question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t seem to question us…. we live without thinking…but where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? How are we to speak of these common things? …What’s needed perhaps is finally to find our own anthropology, one that will…look in ourselves for what for so long we’ve been pillaging from others. Not the exotic any more, but the endotic.’13
The curators of AS10 adopted Holmes’ utopian ‘affectivist’ manifesto ‘…what we look for in art is a different way to live, a fresh chance at coexistence. Affectivism… opens up expanding territories…. When a territory of possibility emerges it changes the social map, like a landslide, a flood or a volcano do in nature.’14
Rather the third aspect of Deleuze’s view of affect, that of ‘immanence in all the moments and events that a lived subject goes through and that are measured by lived objects’15, which seems a far better fit for Perec’s ‘endotic’. In LUM the anthropologist Appenzzell pursues the avoidant Kubu tribe around Sumatra. They ignore and then evade him, inhabiting more and more hostile environments until both he and the tribe go missing.16
Ruth Ewan’s AS10 piece was ‘Moderately Wrathful’. She left different coloured large postcards at each of the six AS10 gallery venues, one side had a quotation from Trussel’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropist’, the other one of his flying machine drawings. It was really only in her artist’s talk that this hidden structure came to light.
There is always a hidden structure in Perec’s writing. He was a member of OuLiPo, an ongoing workshop group founded by Raymond Queneau, which explores the possibilities of incorporating mathematical structure (or other severely restrictive methods) into literary works17. So Perec in LUM used a system based on permutating: a) the apartment block as a 10×10 arrangement of flats, a Graeco-Latin bi-square: b) a ‘Knight’s Tour’ of a 10×10 chess board pattern to determine the sequence of chapters (to their credit an artist in the fringe “Sheffield 10: Life, a Losers Manual’ based work on this): c) ‘scheduled obligations’ listing 42 themes that must be followed for each chapter.
He described this facet of his writing as ‘…ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for playing scales… palindromes, lipograms, pangrams, anagrams, isograms, acrostics, crosswords etc.’18 Elsewhere he advocates ‘playing with space’. For example ‘…play with measurements…remember that a journal is a unit of space, it’s the surface area a farm labourer can work in a day…start to get used to living in a state of weightlessness; forget verticals and horizontals…’19
Somehow reducing the role of chance, traditionally associated with freedom, and following strict systems can paradoxically produce work of great energy, it is as if only when a secure structure has been taken care of, (by a virtual parent), can we then play.
The structure of this discourse mirrored the four modes of his writing that Perec identified in ‘What I’m Looking For’20; the endotic (part four), the ludic (part five), the autobiographical (part three) and the adventure (part one). And an extra part of my own, thrown in for good measure.
David McNab May 2010
- Perec, Georges (1978) ‘Life a User’s manual’ republished 2008 Vintage ↩
- Carpenter, Edward (1877) letter to Walt Whitman, reprinted in Barnes, J. (1985) ‘Ruskin in Sheffield’ Ruskin Gallery ↩
- Orwell, George (1937) ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’ Penguin ↩
- Priestley, J.B. (1934) ‘English Journey’ republished Penguin 1979 p149 ↩
- Catalogue ‘Art Sheffield 2010, Life a User’s Manual’ SCAF ↩
- Hickling, William (2010) Guardian newspaper 12/4/10 ↩
- see ref 1, p361 ↩
- Draper, I.T. (1965) ‘Lecture Notes in Neurology’ Blackwell p83 ↩
- Art Sheffield 2010, Life a Users Manual www.artsheffield.org extended text ↩
- see ref 1, p164 ↩
- www.raggtuningforks.co.uk ↩
- Perec, Georges (1989) ‘243 Postcards in Real Colour’ republished in ‘Species of Spaces and Other Pieces’ Penguin Classics 2008 p222 ↩
- see ref 12, ‘Approaches to What?’ p210 ↩
- Holmes, Brian http://brianholmes.wordpress.com/2008/11/16/the-affectivist-manifesto ↩
- Seigworth, G.J. (2005) ‘From Affection to Soul’ in Stivale, C.J. (ed) “Gilles Deleuze Key Concepts’ Acumen ↩
- see ref 1, p109 ↩
- Mathews H., Brotchie A, (eds) (2005) ‘Oulipo Compendium’ Atlas Press ↩
- see ref 12 (1985) ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’ p141 ↩
- see ref 12 (1974) ‘Species of Space’ p85 ↩
- as ref 18 ↩
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