Visible cracks, real and illusory

Sunday 15 November 2015

(Originally posted on 6 February 2008.)

As has been proved many times before, it is foolish to pass judgement on a work of art before seeing it for yourself. I finally saw Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at the Tate Modern.

There has been plenty of discussion about the artwork since it was first installed – what it means, how it was made, whether or not it’s any good – so much that it is impossible to not be aware of its existence, nor of what the work consists of. (It’s a crack running the length of the floor in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, growing wider and deeper as it descends from one end to the other.) You could picture the entire installation in your head, except for one little detail that I’ve never heard mentioned when people discuss their visits to see it. At close range, the crack is revealed to be an obvious fabrication, with no attempt to conceal the wire forms embedded in the concrete.

For the weekend crowds peering inside its depths, or hopping back and forth over it, Shibboleth may as well be invisible if its success depends on the interpretation given to it by the artist and the museum:

In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. ‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. … In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Even ignoring the fact that the history of racism runs parallel to the history of everything, it’s hard not to read this as a fatuous piece of funding-speak. You don’t have to doubt Salcedo’s personal background and beliefs that support her art to see that her public interpretation of her own art reduces Shibboleth to a one-liner, simplistic and ineffectual. The installation is as much a tourist attraction as the building that houses it. Salcedo may be “keen to remind us” of “the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass”, but Shibboleth, in this context, utterly fails to fulfil her intention.

(Strangely, for all her talk of schisms and exclusions, the only interpretations I’ve seen of the formative mesh in the crack have been either abstractly structural or overly symbolic. I would have thought it made an obvious point that apparently natural divisions in race or religion turn out under closer scrutiny to be artificial, human constructs. Then the art could at least function in its own way as a neat little metaphor, if little more.)

In fact, Salcedo makes out her installation to be less of a work of art than it really is, although its true power may be of a type she did not intend, or even recognise.

The immediate image conveyed by Shibboleth when seen plain, beguilingly forging its path of destruction through the crowds inevitably wandering the Turbine Hall, is not one of division but of entropy. Starting almost undetectable at the high end of the hall, it is allowed to progress, or rather deteriorate, along the floor unchecked until it has opened up into a real tripping hazard for visitors. The image of a cultural institution whose foundations have been permitted to shift, and so decay, is potent; but in the Western World of the early 21st century it speaks to a different dilemma than the artist intended.

The Tate’s claim that the crack “encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves” isn’t exactly true. In truth, its presence embodies our culture’s current readiness to doubt itself, and to question its own origins, validity, and integrity – with little or no outside encouragement. The entropy was built into the system. This self-examination and picking apart of the social assumptions that underpin our culture could lead to renewal, or to disintegration. For a jaded society of sophisticates, the threat of destruction and disaster is extremely seductive. (As one reviewer says, “Salcedo’s cut is always varied and pleasurably violent. I’m not sure the pleasure is intended.”)

Salcedo’s professed aim to expose the dark side of modernity began within modernism itself in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In 1949, Charles Olson reflected on the inability of modernism to cope with the fragmentary nature of reality – it is no coincidence he had invented the word “post-modern” the year before – and wrote in his poem “The Kingfishers”:

When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
               even the stones are split
                                                       they rive

Triumph of the Bourgeoisie

Monday 27 July 2015

If you followed my Twitter feed you’d know I’ve been listening to James Saunders’ assigned #15 and I need to go hear it again right now lying down with the lights out. Blog post tomorrow.



Small melancholia, images and music

Tuesday 17 March 2015

I haven’t posted anything for a while, and just when I thought spring had come the cold and wet weather returned over the weekend. In keeping with the mood, here’s a little piece of music I made the other night and a few of the old photos I’ve been looking through this evening.





144 Pieces For Organ: The Movie

Wednesday 1 October 2014

I was going to write a blog post tonight but I started thinking about creating graphic representations of 144 Pieces For Organ – in Excel, of course.

Four of them are on YouTube now. Any resemblance to John Cage’s late prints is purely coincidental.

End of the Summer Break

Saturday 28 June 2014

Hope you like the holiday snap. Back at last, with a quick update to say that the complete series of Real Characters and False Analogues videos is now online. Big announcements next week.

Systems (1)

Thursday 5 June 2014


I’ve been thinking about generative systems a lot lately. Like, how can I make a series of videos to accompany these microtonal piano pieces I wrote years ago? I want combinations of intersecting colours relating to the harmonic relationships in each piece…

Or I want to make a series of short pieces for organ, written in a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet…

Each organ piece is 12 measures long (each measure a different tempo), using 12 organ stops, each stop playing 12 notes. 144 notes in each piece. Each measure begins with a note on different organ stop, all other notes can appear at any time in the piece. Moving from one pitch to the next is done by a crude approximation of flocking behaviour. Within these parameters, all outcomes are determined by chance.

I saw the Webdriver Torso videos last week and thought, “Damn, I wish I thought of that.” Then I read Greg Allen’s blog post about them and…

What you need is a system. To keep you going, to avoid artist’s block, to keep the pipeline filled.

I’ve never thought about artist’s block. That’s not an ego thing, it’s just that I hate inspiration. If I have to insert an aesthetic element into a piece then I consider it a failure. I’m thinking of that idea in mathematics of the elegant proof: that great richness of detail can be drawn from a relatively simple interaction of underlying principles. If the system’s good, there should be no need to fudge or tweak to keep things interesting.

Like that paragraph above describing the organ pieces. A brief set of instructions: the sentences are easily understood, the results produced are not easily imaginable. It would seem appropriate to write 144 of them, but I could break off the series at any time.


Thoughts at the front bar of the Hotel Lincoln, Carlton (with a schooner of Coopers Pale)

Tuesday 25 March 2014

I’ve been catching up with friends in Melbourne. We’re getting to the age where we can legitimately reminisce about good old times. Back Then it felt like an exciting time and place to be making music, art. Yeah yeah everyone feels their own little scene is special when they’re young, but what we were really talking about was that there seemed to be a big conversation going on. Doesn’t seem that way now. Is there a conservation still going on, and if so why aren’t we taking part in it?

Back in London, where is the conversation?

I always feel awkward about going back somewhere I know people. After an absence, they’ve moved on and I’m going to keep trying to put them back where they used to be. (This worry disappears as soon as we meet, of course.) Went to the Melbourne Now show at the Ian Potter Centre and enjoyed it for the wrong reasons, then met a friend for lunch. She disliked the show, finding it disappointing, superficial. I told her too much London art was even shallower. What had gotten me inspired was just seeing so many people back from the old Conversation still making stuff. Still not sure if this is a misguided thought.

Running with the pack is one thing, but what I miss is the feeling of competing against everyone at once – or at least of trying to hold up one’s own end of an ongoing discussion.

(Wanting to contribute to an interesting dialogue is the main impetus driving my work.)

End Of An Area

Monday 24 February 2014

Back in 2008 I wrote about the web site for Grey Area Art Space Inc. This was the artist-run space in Melbourne where I got my start in making exhibitions and giving performances. The collective and their exhibition space was wound up in early 1999, but the little website for the gallery just kept on going. At the time I wrote last it had stuck around for almost ten years unattended, log in and password long forgotten, almost entirely intact. “I wonder if it will last another ten years?” I asked at the time.

It turned out that the stray query I’d received in 2008 was the last time I was ever asked about exhibiting in a long-defunct space. I’d check up on the site every now and then to see if it was still there and it always was, until last weekend. After 15 years of uninterrupted rest it was finally cleared away on 31 January 2014, along with everything else hosted on the server.

If only I’d contacted them in November, I might have been able to preserve the web location in perpetuity. As I feel partly responsible for this I’ve uploaded a mirror onto my website, complete with the original tilde in the address. If you want a brief journey back in time please visit

Experimental art and failure

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Had a discussion with some people last week about “experimental” music. I think everyone knows what this means, kind-of, sort-of, but lots of people don’t like it. Because I’m impressionable, whenever the term comes up I think of John Cage’s statement on the subject, from 1957: unfortunately I only ever remember the first part where he says he used to object to the term and forget that he immediately goes on to say he no longer does. He then goes on to talk about music being nothing but sounds and tells the story about the anechoic chamber again and I kind of blank on the rest of the talk. After that, all I’m left with is Cage’s initial objection, “that the experiments that had been made had taken place prior to the finished works, just as sketches are made before paintings and rehearsals precede performances.”

Surely every success is the consequence of a series of failures, and any “experimental” art presented to us is in fact the result of a successful experiment, to some extent. Really, I don’t have a problem with the term because everyone knows what it means, kind-of, sort-of, and we gotta use words when we talk to each other. My problem is this: I keep hearing people saying that a Good Thing about experimental art is that the failures can be as interesting as the successes. I really don’t think this is true.

Firstly, there is the objection already mentioned, that the failed experiment is not presented as the finished work – the finished work is a successful experiment made as a consequence of the failed experiment. But when people cite failures as being potentially productive as successes… does this ever actually happen? There are fortuitous accidents, but that’s a different matter. The “useful failure” seems to be a case of the arts borrowing a concept from science that doesn’t really fit. The most glaring difference is that scientists want their experiments to be replicated by others; artists do not. Artists don’t present a new work with the proviso that it’s actually no good and provide detailed instructions on how it was made, in the hope that someone else will use this method to make a better piece.

Given that artists keep it to themselves, do they ever make an experiment that fails in a way that turns out to be interesting? Again, I’m not talking about fortuitous accidents, I mean failure. An artist makes an experiment that fails, but that failure itself leads them to some sort of creative breakthrough (“not doing it that way” doesn’t count). Can anyone think of examples where this has happened?


Monday 4 November 2013

I’ve been thinking about Daniel Wolf’s composition 100,000,000,000,000 Pieces for Clarinet and my anxiety over the use of multiples in my own work.

One of the few things I remember about Wittgenstein: “It is questionable if when he died he had ever come to any understanding of the number 2. Two what? Two things would have to be identical, which is absurd if identity has any meaning.”

Something else that sticks in my head: the criticism that the sole distinguishing, even redeeming, feature of the architecture of the World Trade Center towers was that there were two of them. This is where I start to worry about my own stuff. Do I make multiples of things because I think that each individual element is inadequate as a work of art or music in itself?

Write a short, dull, awkward chorale for piano and it’s no big deal. Preface it with the instruction to repeat it 840 times and you become a musical visionary. Make a small, nondescript object and (probably) no-one bothers with a second look. Turn out thousands of identical objects and fill the Turbine Hall and you pull 4.7 million visitors per year.

I will take as a given that I produce substandard music and art. Does this inadequacy at least partly reside in the reliance on duplication, repetition and scale to add the semblance of artistic distinctiveness? I suppose I would rather believe that I am using “the work” as mere material, a vehicle in which to convey the true artistic substance, which somehow emerges from the sense of difference, repetition, scale and duration.

There is a species of art whose meaning and effect is that it is. The use of multiples is one of the clearest ways of making this point: they raise the question of their own existence and leave the speculation to the audience, while the more fundamental dimensions of time and space do the real work on the darker recesses of consciousness.

As for making them, it’s best to plough ahead through the process as something that needs to be done, because the outcome cannot be imagined. This is why I’ve started work on writing out neat versions of 2000 Guitar Solos again.

Further re-reading (for self): Konrad Bayer, “The Mosaic through the Centuries”.

A gentle reminder

Sunday 20 October 2013

Still busy at work, so here’s a photo to tide you over

Wednesday 18 September 2013

79% of those interviewed agreed that Britain has become a ‘surveillance society’ (51% were unhappy with this).

YouGov / Daily Telegraph poll, 4 December 2006.

Safety Zone (Richter Variations) detail

Monday 12 August 2013

I finally had a C-type print made from one of my photos. There was an old picture frame left by the previous tenants, which was doing nothing except housing a rather grubby Fidel Castro calendar for 1997. It had to go.

The trouble is that I’m so pleased with it I want to make another variation and get it printed, too.

This is going to mean finding another frame exactly the same shape and style, or starting all over with two matching frames. I spent months getting round to this and I still think I rushed it.

Capitalists and Music For Bionic Ears Redux

Tuesday 11 June 2013

Just a quick update to say that I AM THE PRESIDENT OF CAPITALISTS INC. now has a proper page of its own on the website. An update with the thrilling sequel to this historical non-re-enactment will be coming as soon as I get my hands on a decent slide scanner.

Also, you can now hear for yourself This Is All I Need, my contribution to the Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear project. This was the concert of new music made especially for listeners with cochlear implants, who can understand speech really well but have a hard time making sense out of music. People without technological augmentation can enjoy it just as much. I’ve gone into some detail about the project and the thinking behind the music.

Another box post, plus new video!

Tuesday 23 April 2013

I’m off for the boat train to Belfast tomorrow for Sonorities 2013 at Queen’s University. I’ve prepared a new mix of Third City: Walking on Red and Blue to present at the Sonic Lab on Thursday, 25 April.

In the meantime, I’ve received a new toy in the mail, delivered in an oversized, passive-aggressive box with a warning label defying me to bend it.

I was so excited with my new mini recorder I left it out on the window while still plugged into the speakers and turned it up a little too loud. Please enjoy this video I made by accident.