The Art and Writing of David & Ping Henningham
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The Southbank Centre have asked us to take part in their Remembrance Sunday, Andrew Motion: Dulce et Decorum est, by doing a 15 minute talk and short Q&A in The Saison Poetry Library at 1.15pm.

We will be touching on the role of the Arts in Remembrance and Memorials, those decent British iconoclasts – the Vorticists, and industrial print technology’s part in an industrial war. Through all this we’ll explain what An Unknown Soldier is all about.

The day begins with Sir Andrew Motion reading Wifred Owen’s Dulce et Decorum est in the Clore Ballroom. Short talks will then take place all over the Southbank Centre. The day closes with Britten’s stunning War Requiem at 3pm, (and don’t miss another captivating 1964 version also available to watch on BBC4 with the man himself – you can feel it is a heartfelt performance from a nation at a crossroads).

Sunday 9 November 2014
10.55am Andrew Motion, Dulce et Decorum Est
followed by numerous interesting talks in foyer spaces

1.15pm Henningham Family Press: An Unknown Soldier talk
Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

FREE

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An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

There will be a FREE Opening Event on Friday 7th November, 7.30pm at which we will be giving out a small, free limited edition print, and reading an extract from An Unknown Soldier with the assistance of James Wilkes and Erica Jarnes. Booking is essential by email to:

specialedition [at] poetrylibrary [dot] org [dot] uk
Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm
Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

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We are very honoured to announce that the Saison Poetry Library, which is the major British library for modern and contemporary poetry, has invited us to stage a solo exhibition of all our work from An Unknown Soldier to date. This will be part of the Southbank Centre‘s programme of First World War Centenary events. This will be a mini-retrospective of dozens of prints and books made between 2011 and 2014, some on display for the first time.

First World War casualties can now be identified with saliva gleaned from postage stamps on their letters home. This DNA technology unintentionally transforms the memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey forever. In his anonymity he had stood for those lost to the destructive power of industrialised war. In our poem An Unknown Soldier we reconstruct him as a body of text, interrupted by trench-like letter forms, and ask: Has the Unknown Soldier, in the DNA age, become a symbol for our failure to learn from the past?

The exhibition will also include the four screenprint editions from our SGM Lifewords commission. The original 43 million Active Service John’s Gospels came off the same presses that printed recruitment propaganda, yet Father God and Fatherland presented contradictory visions of peace, both contending for the allegiance of soldiers in the form of printed words.

Details on Poetry Library website
Details on Southbank Centre website

An Unknown Soldier Project Page
An Unknown Soldier Blog Thread

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You are an Artist. You graduated from art college more than two years ago, but opportunities seem to be drying up, or at least are a bit chaotic. Occasionally local things come up, but you fear involvement with ‘community art’ will effect your credibility with the gallery system. You haven’t achieved gallery representation yet and you suspect you never will. And you’re probably right; research shows that two years on your chances are basically nil. You keep a studio, but it isn’t much more than a status symbol, you barely get there two days a week, what with your part-time job. You still call yourself an artist when you meet new people, but you are beginning to believe you have failed.

Zuidervaart sees things differently. He says that an Artist’s gifts have benefited from training in our Institutions. This creates a calling for all Artists to spend at least some of their time in the paid service of Civil Society, even if they have gallery representation. This is also appropriate because the greatest demand for art is located in Civil Society. Zuidervaart’s version makes sense of this situation by exposing the fact that Art in Public is extremely important and a more natural workplace for most contemporary artists coming out of art school; itself a Civil Society Institution. In fact Civil Society always needs more artists and provides opportunities encompassing local and national institutions. Zuidervaart also dismisses the notion that Civil Society is second-best to the private gallery system, it is more likely to be the other way round, even. This claim is a bit of a wake-up call when you consider how market obsessed Art Colleges have become. It is possible to graduate with a Fine Art MA without the slightest idea of the existence of anything outside the Contemporary Art Gallery System, despite the fact that it will deliver so few opportunities to their alumni. Zuidervaart offers a better standard against which to judge if you are an artist, than selling your art. Consumer choice isn’t especially good at ratifying good art. People often love art, even, that they wouldn’t consider taking home. And collecting art is very difficult. People quite rightly prefer public institutions they trust to collect art on their behalf.

Zuidervaart, instead, refers Artists to the concept of Relational Autonomy and asks them to hold their Autonomy in tension with their Social Responsibility. ‘Art in Public’ asks of us, are you capturing the public imagination to create solidarity, not mere sensation? Are you communicating in a way that simultaneously equips the audience to be able to speak?

Is your art turning conformity into solidarity?

At last! A definition of success that looks at your work, rather than your bank balance. It appears a little vague at first, but I think this partly explained by our dependence on economic qualifications, and also because it is a relational measure rather than an individualistic one. But then measurement is all about relativity.

Yet it won’t be an unqualified relief for artists to be measured against their work (in public), rather than the flow of their personal wellspring of genius or their proximity to the summit of the gallery system. An Artist in Public is thrown into a vortex of political and personal relationships. Artists can’t function like this alone, garret-bound; they need the support and mediation of Arts Organisations. You see Zuidervaarts argument suggests artists be paid for public work, not just for being artists. This satisfies the best of the arguments on the left and right in the States, one demanding public spirit, and the other autonomy. Robust Arts Organisations provide colleagues for an artist. They are essential because they:

  1. connect the artists with Civil Society groups and communities.
  2. make public money accountable, but also free from government interference
  3. give the work credibility as a cultural, non-economic, undertaking

Zuidervaart was president of the very impressive Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids. A group begun by artists that included non-artist members. His experience helps him identify what makes for a good Arts Org:

  1. Involve local residents at every stage of the planning
  2. Democracy is messy and time-consuming, but yields the best long-term results
  3. Think globally; Act locally
  4. Artists shouldn’t be left on the margins, but involved in making a compelling vision

But to conclude, here are some of my own observations of assumptions we can make about Arts Organisations. First, we often assume that artists need to get together for mutual support, which may be helpful. But what Zuidervaart reveals is that this is unlikely to be where an artist achieves most. It is more important for Artists to be spread out and active amongst other citizens, where directly or indirectly their art can create solidarity.

We also tend to see Artists as charity cases, and Arts Organisations as a way of helping them. But the truth is that artists usually have the lowest commercial rents going. Often a fifth or tenth of what a design studio would be paying. There are certain aspects of an Artists work that could actually benefit from a dose of market forces. Exhibiting an Artist’s work in your building isn’t going to help them get a gallery unless you have a great touring reputation and a list of art collectors. What you have isn’t a gallery; it’s a room. What would really benefit an Artist is your purpose. A chance to discharge their responsibility as an artist towards Society with you.

Which leads to our last observation; we assume that Arts Organisations are organisations about art. Organisations to preserve art or make it happen. These do and should exist, but Arts Orgs often tackle a social agenda but are active through art. UICA is a non-profit organisation that ‘fosters’ art in public. They are a public gallery, workshop and film theatre. But their purpose was cultural regeneration of the downtown area. They didn’t want redevelopment at the expense of residents creating a heartless non-community. They wanted a resurrection. They wanted economic improvements accompanied by meaning and purpose, and artists provided that meaning and purpose.

Art in Public, Lambert Zuidervaart
Edited from a lecture I gave in 2013 recommending this book at a symposium on Sphere Sovereignty. The link above will help you buy this book.

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So far Zuidervaart has argued that the Arts are needed, but who should pay for them? And what is the economic argument for doing so? This is what Zuidervaart calls his Public Justice Premise, the second premise of the three found in his book ‘Art In Public’.

Zuidervaart argues that Civil Society should be given the money and space it needs to do its job properly – the resources it needs to produce Solidarity.

The government is only fundamentally satisfied when it knows it has dispensed public justice. For its own fulfilment, the government must discharge its obligation to protect Civil Society from any encroachments on its natural tasks, and provide the resources to undertake them properly. Another example; a judge may demand that prisons be adequately supplied to send people to for punishment and to ensure they don’t appear in front of his bench again. This principle leads to premise number three, the Arts Organisation Premise. Zuidervaart claims that Arts Organisations are the best channel for discharging this government responsibility, which means they deserve some protection from Market Forces and enough money to produce authentic Solidarity.

I like these premises for two reasons. They allow public money to be used for public service without creating a refuge for elitist art at National Lottery player’s expense. Under the current system the arts are paid for by people who neither experience them directly nor can they really afford to pay for them. Their lottery money is capital that could indeed change their lot, if accumulated, but is instead wasted on a fantasy that they might effortlessly escape their lot. The profits subsidise arts that those involved with could afford, but would rather not pay for because they don’t like them that much. But this system continues because it is also true that a system of consumer choice would not improve quality or ‘participation’, and the ghost of something valuable is detectable in the arts. With a consumer choice, if there is a problem you remove yourself and choose a different supplier. But within Civil Society if there is a problem you have to get more, not less, involved.

But most importantly, Zuidervaart has described art as a public good worth paying for, which is my personal litmus test for this topic. Even if art costs money, it is money well spent. Even without attending the arts, all citizens benefit from a climate of freedom. And this is the only book I’ve ever read to argue this persuasively. He dismisses all the efficiency, equity, merit good or market failure arguments, which just try and find an economic excuse for subsidising arts. Despite the good intentions, these excuses just put the arts at the mercy of market values, and remove them from the protection of their own internal logic, like an endangered species put into an economic logic-zoo deprived of its own natural philosophical environment. Instead, Zuidervaart exposes a philosophical reality that we have to protect from urgent demands on the budget or we risk becoming less civilised in real terms.

If you are in doubt as to Civil Society’s importance, in keeping the democratic air we breathe unpolluted, let me refer you to the alternative. In May, a memo from the new Chinese president Xi Jinping was leaked (Taipei Times Wed, May 22, 2013). It referred to “seven evil subjects” to be driven out of Chinese universities. Included was the phrase “civil society”. Today’s debate, which we take for granted, will not be permitted in China. It will, however, be debated at Harvard where Prof Michael Sandel teaches, and it is rumoured Xi Jinping’s daughter Xi Mingze has been studying since 2010.

Edited from a lecture I gave recommending Lambert Zuidervaart’s book ‘Art In Public’ at a seminar on Sphere Sovereignty (June 8th 2013). One more part will follow.

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Imagine this scenario. Two children come running into your kitchen, screaming and shouting over each other. The first child is shouting ‘He pushed me! He snatched my scooter!’ And the second one is shouting ‘It’s mine, it’s not his. He shouldn’t be touching my scooter!’ Now on the face of it, these children are totally opposed to each other. They certainly aren’t conscious of any agreement between themselves. But if we take a big picture view, we see things a bit differently. Just one example: they both have a claim for ownership. One says the scooter is his by title, the other by use, so they agree that it is possible they can own a scooter. But these children don’t have jobs, where did they get the money for a scooter? They don’t know how to get to the shop, and even if they did, how would they get there? I think if we suggest that the scooter really belongs to the person who bought it and drove it home we might suddenly reveal some agreement between the two children.

A similar type of argument exists in the USA and the UK over government arts funding. The American National Endowment for the Arts, and Arts Council England, both face arguments over their budgets. In America, the Left wingers argue that autonomous artists are essential for free speech. No consumer will pay to hear their critical voice, so they need government funding. The Right wingers reply that these artists are not impartial; they are misanthropic degenerates who deliberately try and offend the public and undermine the values that they rely on. And if you are going to spend public money on art it should be for art that the public likes. Now, neither of these positions are completely without merit. In the UK things are less clearly defined, but we have, on one side, the artistic elite who claim that if the refined arts are going to survive they need economic protection, and others on that side argue that art is a vital x-factor for redevelopment of cities and, given the small amount invested by the government, we make a massive profit as a country from the arts. We can call this the ‘culture is our biggest export’ argument. On the other hand you have a lot of people who claim that art diverts money needed by more necessary budgets. We can call that the ‘how many incubators could that have paid for’ argument. It is an idealistic argument; you’ll notice that nobody ever asks how many abortions a piece of art would have paid for.

These arts fuding factions disagree as violently as the kids with scooters did in our scenario, so if we take a step back, what do we see? Well, Lambert Zuidervaart in his book Art In Public suggests that if we examine all their competing economic justifications, we see

“A binary political-economic system where government funding pump-primes an art world dominated by corporate business interests.”

This means that these factions all assume that the Artworld is a kind of market or industry that needs government stimulation to encourage investors, such as museum sponsors. So the Unilever series of commissions in the Tate Modern is normal for the contemporary art system. Or the large art collections of major banks are normal. So the only useful questions one can ask become about how much money the government spends or how much access sponsors can get. And where is the artist in all this? Well he seems to be an edgy individual, a celebrity floating in space, who lives on cigarettes dipped in red bull. You’ll notice that there is a lot of confusion about boundaries in this debate. Zuidervaart points out that the most striking omission from all of this are the mainstream museum activities, academic institutions, libraries, arts trusts and charities, religious groups, and so on. The non-economic institutions that are variously called Civil Society, the Third Sector, or Non-Profit Organisations. Zuidervaart settles on the name Civil Society to describe these Institutions for which financial gain is not the main ambition. So let’s look at what happens when Zuidervaart includes Civil Society in the argument. This also introduces the first of three premises that Zuidervaart defines, which justify government arts funding; the Societal Need Premise. (In subsequent posts I’ll describe his “Public Justice Premise” and “Arts Organisation Premise”).

Societal Need Premise:

Let’s imagine this time that you have three children. They are going away to stay with relatives, and are travelling alone on the train, so you need to give them rules that will get them there safely and help them settle in with the relatives.

The first I’ll introduce is Verity, the middle child. She is very honest and fair-minded, so you tell the others that when they have discussed everything together, Verity will make the final decision. And it is Verity who will make sure everyone has what they need.

The second I want to introduce is Adam, the youngest. He is in charge of the purse. Adam is a natural choice because he is very gifted with money. He gets good value for money, keeps a good account, and isn’t afraid to use money. With holiday time and hapless relatives at their disposal, they will almost certainly come home with more money than they left with.

The third child is the oldest; Sophie. When people first meet her they sometimes think she’s a bit of a daydreamer, but although she isn’t very decisive, in reality she is actually very perceptive, and is very good at remembering what it was they were doing when they get distracted. She is even very perceptive about herself. The kids always enjoy each other’s company if Sophie is there.

These three kids represent the three macrostructures of our democratic Society, as Zuidervaart describes them. Verity represents the government, and her priority is Public Justice. Adam represents the Economy, or Markets, and his priority is Resourcefulness. Sophie represents Civil Society and her priority is Solidarity. Our judgements about these three parts of our Society should be based upon how well they attain their own priorities. The government seeks public justice, the economy seeks resourcefulness, and civil society seeks solidarity.

We can see that these three parts of our society are not subordinate to each other. Verity needs money to ensure justice. Adam needs the other two, because without consumers, there is no business. Adam and Sophie benefit from the freedom Verity protects. Without Sophie, the other two lose their perspective and their purpose and become argumentative and frustrated.

But Zuidervaart emphasises that even while they need each other, they inevitably encroach upon each other’s territory and undermine each other. Adam thinks he can do Sophie’s job much more quickly and efficiently, and he is willing to do it for the right price. Sometimes he doesn’t want to give Verity her share of his profits, after all, she relies on a cumbersome voting system, when consumer decisions are much more rapid indications of what people really want. These are both examples of what Professor Michael Sandel calls our shift from having a market economy to being a market society, where the ultimate values are market values, and everything must mirror the speed and productivity of the market economy (What Money Can’t Buy).

So these kids rely on Sophie to constantly remind all three of them of their priorities. As they bicker in the train station she re-introduces solidarity by capturing their imaginations and describing where they could be and the wonderful time they will have there. She reminds Verity to pursue Justice rather than popularity, Adam to pursue resourcefulness instead of pure profit, and herself to pursue Solidarity, even when she herself hankers after power or plenty.

But this is where we find the chief weakness of Zuidervaart’s book. He wants Sophie to redirect Adam to ‘Resourcefulness’, but Adam thinks the purpose of the Economy is to seek ‘Profit’. They are liable to bicker. Zuidervaart admits to a lack of economic expertise, and points us to Bob Goudzewaard and Harry de Lange’s book Beyond Poverty and Affluence to fill the gap. What Zuidervaart’s short-cut misses out is the way that our consumption accelerates the process of providing for more people with less wastage, in an industrial cycle. In short, pursuing profit inevitably leads to pursing efficiency; but pursuing efficiency alone can very easily restrict prosperity to the richest countries. There is a reason for pursuing profit that benefits everyone indirectly, which is why we no longer have British famines. However it is true that pursuing profit will also increase pollution if laws are inadequate or badly enforced. So my question for Zuidervaart is this: why bother to constrain the economy’s territory if you are then going to constrain its purpose? Yes, Capitalism without limits must be redirected to Resourcefulness. But regulated Capitalism is free to pursue profit. That’s the whole point of limits. Normal behaviour on the rugby pitch is frowned upon in the aisles at Sainsbury’s. However, inequality and exploitation are fair targets for criticism. But I would suggest they are also indicative of very poorly executed Capitalism.

The reason I’m identifying this is that it calls the whole idea into question. How are Arts Organisations supposed to redirect our Society if artists don’t understand other people’s business? We see lots of examples of this over the years, of artists who have grasped their obligation to speak, but not done so from an informed position. I saw one artist make a project attacking the pollution caused by Capitalism where the example she used was from a natural disaster that occurred under Gorbachev. Yet the answer is quite simple. Although our society will have to rely on commonplace assumptions minute by minute, these are challenged or supported by professionals who use reason, science, or imagination to change these assumptions over time. This is part of a process of turning conformity into solidarity. These professionals, including scientists and artists, must research what it is they want to talk about exhaustively. Not just confirming their opinions, but challenging them. They can then innovate productively. But on everything we haven’t researched we must have a professional vow of silence. No matter how stupid it makes us look, or how obvious a thing seems to everyone else, if we haven’t gone and looked, we can’t speak.

So, with this qualification, I think Zuidervaart’s depiction of simultaneous need and conflict between the government, economy and civil society rings true. And it forms the basis for Zuidervaart’s ‘Societal Need Premise'; that our Society needs robust Arts Organisations within our Civil Society that will redirect our institutions to their priorities. They provide the imaginative communication that succeeds in helping us examine ourselves and remember where we are going. However, Artists must take this responsibility seriously.

Zuidervaart is arguing here that by nature, what he calls “Art in Public” belongs in Civil Society. It is Sophie’s territory. Solidarity is the best fit for the purpose of the Arts in our Democratic Society, because they help people discover meaning and purpose. But it is not just that they redirect society on our behalf. Instead, as the arts are practised in public they renew our ability to take part in Society. For example, when a Shakespeare play is studied in a school, the pupils aren’t just taught by rote to remember the plots of the plays so they can pass an exam and get a well paid job. No, the teacher asks them to also look at their own life in the light of what happens to Romeo and Juliet. And in the process of doing so, they become able to articulate themselves generally, so they are now able to form views and describe them without resorting to violence. The arts are like one of those road-building vehicles, with the same tracks as tanks. They bring their own path with them, falling infinitely in front of them, and they leave a polished road behind for others to use.

Edited from a lecture I gave recommending Lambert Zuidervaart’s book ‘Art In Public’ at a seminar on Sphere Sovereignty (June 8th 2013). Two more parts will follow.

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The recent collection of WG Sebald’s biographical writings, entitled A Place In the Country, invites us to consider the influence of six great writers that were dear to Sebald during his life, the implication being that he too belongs on the list. The six greats are ‘tormented souls,’ and it is ‘their absolute failure to accommodate life and art, to which Sebald returns again and again.’ The priority for this collection is the window it may open onto Sebald’s own corpus through his analysis of ‘those who devote their lives to literature, “the hapless writers trapped in their web of words.” Caught between a ‘nostalgic utopia’ and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’. But I was surprised to find there was a far more definite connection running through these essays than that of the clairvoyant Romantic artist cliché, who apparently risks being claimed by this generation of scholars as a sort of first-trimester-Psychogeographer. The floppy word ‘life’ in the introduction obscures the word economics, a concern which comes up metronomically in these essays; the chief repetition that makes it clear that they form a complete work together.

This is economics in the specific sense of coming to terms with the demands of nature upon us; οἰκονομία (household management). Sebald meditates on how the artist should arrange their living while the shifting terms of our truce with Nature exacerbate an already precarious position. This very valuable book oscillates between two poles, the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution. As we pass (roughly) chronologically with the six authors through these paradigm shifts Nazism looms, of course. But when we reach it Nazism is viewed through the lens of a German Agricultural political heritage, managed with a mailed fist.

Yet what is most interesting is the way in which Sebald returns so deliberately to this economic theme in each essay but completely fails to interrogate its significance, like a face-blind man confidently and repeatedly showing you a photographic portrait. What is absent is an account of the role capital has to play in making utopia affordable; some would say inevitable. The commemorative arts in antiquity encircled the Polis, and belonged to a way of life where ‘household management’ had been taken care of. For the Greeks this was when you could enjoy the scrutiny of your peers, or in the Modernist era, when you could afford a room of your own. Literature is life After Wealth. In these essays Sebald erroneously applies the Romantic Sublime to the overbearing endurance of capital; wealth that outlives its accumulators; a financial process that has been impiously elevated to the immortality of nature. The tiny human figure in this new picture doesn’t stand on top of a mountain – he stands on a mezzanine overlooking a vast Chongqing factory floor.

What inspires Sebald’s vertigo inducing vision of capital is his conflation of the Terror of political revolution with the Industrial Revolution:

There lurks the fear of the chaos of time spinning ever more rapidly out of control. When the young Mörike (1804-1875) begins writing, he has at his back the revolutionary upheavals of the end of the eighteenth century, while the terrors which herald the new age of industrialisation are already silhouetted on the horizon, the turmoil unleashed by the accumulation of capital and the moves towards the centralisation of a new, cast-iron state authority. The Swabian quietism Mörike subscribed to is – like all the Biedermeier arts – a kind of instinctive defence mechanism in the face of the calamity to come.

In the short-term this is an opinion that has its merits. The uprooting and redistribution of muscle power around the British Isles was a social calamity with effects that some argue are still felt today (I have no idea if the same was true in Germany). Political revolution and Industrial revolution both open up periods of innovation and experiment that bewilder and exploit those that live within them. Yet it seems clear enough that Sebald sees this ‘spinning out of control’ as an inherent and enduring property of Capitalism, rather than an extension of the disdain that landowners had already felt towards the working classes for generations. Yet the ‘precariousness’ of life in this new paradigm seems to me to be nothing more than the experience of its novelty.

Sebald’s view that capital is destabilising and spiritually corrosive is unconvincing given all the energy that has been harnessed and labour saved so far. I doubt any system has liberated more individuals to be able to enter education and spend time on the arts as Capitalism. I am one of those fortunate enough to have received the general life-long bursary of industrial commonwealth. Even unsuccessful artists like myself can persist in making art without starving to death. Mörike’s ‘defence mechanism’ is merely an inability to understand the forces at work, and the same nostalgic ‘wishful utopia against progress’ we find amongst the Stoke Newington Set.

But Sebald is not without insight into the ways that humanity can practice old sins with new capital. Keller’s character Heinrich describes the elaborate domestic rituals by which his mother lives on almost nothing. Sebald demonstrates ingeniously how this tale, which deliberately evokes saintliness and the legendary, does not provide an alternative to capitalism as it first appears, but is an exemplary case of capital accumulation. Keller (1819-1890) was ‘obliged to experience first hand how what has been painstakingly saved up by means of self-denial is carried over to the next generation as debt.’ The mother has created a perverse kind of ancestor worship whereby she can watch over Heinrich for the rest of his life even though they both know she cannot see him beyond her grave.

Yet Sebald goes on to repeat the erroneous mantra of this book, ‘Keller was one of the first to recognise the havoc which proliferation of capital inevitably unleashes upon the natural world, upon society, and upon the emotional life of mankind.’ The irony is that Keller’s critique does not go far enough for today’s reader. If one were to scale up the mother’s mode of living on almost nothing, as we find in the slums, we would discover it is in fact a highly inefficient and polluting way of life. Not only does she hand over an emotional debt to the son, these legions of modest dwellings deforest and pollute the natural world. What Sebald fails to appreciate in all of these essays is that Industry is the art of making a high standard of living available to billions, while reducing their effect on the environment. Capital creates thriving cities which reduce the area humanity occupies, while providing for their needs with far less energy. Capital dissolves social castes and provides myriad alternatives to prostitution in deprived zones. Capital allows people who were destined for the production line to obtain an emotional, intellectual life. The question isn’t how capitalism can be slowed down to an acceptable pace for middle class Europeans, but rather how we can get over ourselves more quickly while capital gives access to commonwealth for these others we once, perhaps we still consider inferior to ourselves. The more people involved in this process globally, the sooner climate and conflict can be resolved.

The middle class fear is that if all mod cons are given to everyone the planet will choke, but this is wrong-headed. The process of delivering technologies to the masses demands their constant reinvention – new forms that do the same work with less effort.

True gold, for Keller, is always spun with great effort from next to nothing… False gold, meanwhile, is the rampant proliferation of capital constantly reinvested, the perverter of all good instincts.

No. These common sense instincts are factually flawed, just as the observation that the sun goes round the earth is an anthropocentric illusion. Keller’s alternative to capitalism is a system of barter exemplified by Frau Margret who owns a junk shop. Junk is brought by customers who pay tribute to her with consumables, their pre-capitalist Matriarch (also idealised by Engels). No, Keller can keep his tribal obsequiousness. And his junk can be sorted into the fruits of Work and Labour, the latter to be scrapped and recast in better, life-affirming forms.

This praxis of living on nothing is reprised in Sebald’s praise for Robert Walser, (1878-1956) a transient exigence imposed to some extent by the Nazis. Walser’s life story testifies that when the world goes mad you must enter the asylum. Walser was key to Sebald’s realisation that ‘everything is connected across space and time’, which is the true kernel of his writing practice; currently being trudged into the mud by the new breed of professional psychogeographers. They can even obtain a Chair in Psychogeography in a respected university, not that they would dream of sitting down. One such synergy is ‘Natural history and the history of our industries’ – this is a profound connection of two categories usually treated as opposites, prominent in After Nature, and this is surely Sebald’s most rewarding observation about capital – that the rigours of nature, harnessed, are at the heart of Industry. This seems obvious, but most people behave as if nature is a gentle equilibrium that needs to be defended from our interventions. Sebald sees nature as something temporary on the face of the Earth, a senseless botcher that undoes the marvel it achieved blindly moments before. Industry exports this chaotic genius from the automatic operations of our cells. Motor proteins are directly related to motor cars. Sebald’s error is to be intimidated by this and join with these other great authors who claimed Agriculture as a stalemate; a compromise with nature. The allotment garden seems a good place to get off, and it is no accident that many academics hope to be allotted a quiet room where they can tend their books and papers like vegetables in a greenhouse. But there is ‘never a stop’, and as successive generations of engineers take it in turns to kick Malthus in the balls, we will find widespread equality, freedom and cooperation demand automation.

It is hard to explain why Sebald sees frustrated wisdom in these agricultural obsessions. He even goes on to explain that allotment settlements in Berlin in Mörike’s time were created as an expression of a desire to extend the Fatherland and create German colonies in Africa and Tahiti. In this case it is Agricultural idealism, not the manic stock market, which is fertile ground for nationalistic tyranny. Nazi Germany hid a beating industrial heart behind an Agricultural screen of blood and soil. German factory workers would mail-order peasant outfits from Nazi periodicals to wear at the weekend. So why does Sebald double-back and describe centralised state authority and capitalist accumulation as bedfellows when they have an inherent antipathy? Surely Germany was a very peculiar case in harbouring both. Without the failure of capitalism, stock market crashes and war reparations, it is hard to imagine Nazism would have had so much appeal. The slavish sameness of the Nazi production line isn’t one of productivity worship – it is emblematic of the death of the individual, consummated in death on the battlefield. The robot is their ideal citizen. The Nazi attitude to butter is famous: I can’t believe it’s not bullets.

This German heritage of agriculture and aristocratic authoritarianism is hinted at in Sebald’s essay on Hebel (1760-1826). He was the editor and principal contributor to an almanac, the Hausfreund, which can be considered emblematic of the importance of ‘household management’ to that particular writer.

At no point were his hopes and philosophy directed at a violent and bloody reversal of the status quo. His concern was only ever for the practical improvement of the living conditions of the people, such as promoted by Karl Friedrich, Grand Duke of Baden.

This member of the Aristocracy advocated the ideas of the French Physiocrats, whose ‘economic philosophy’ centred on Agriculture. Sebald’s judgement is that this group wished to inoculate the German Aristocracy against revolution with a dose of ‘Bourgeois rationality’, conserving the natural order of benevolent despotism. Germany would become ‘a large and flourishing garden’, where the lower orders were too blessed and busy to think of a revolution that could only return to terrorise them in turn.

Everywhere peace and satisfaction would reign, “If only all men would cultivate the fields and provide for themselves with the work of their hands”. In such nostalgic utopian views was the educated middle class wont to articulate its discomfiture at the rapid spread of the economy of goods and capital it had itself created, and which was now proliferating year on year.

These astute comments on middle class hypocrisy remind me of the comments of Engineer D in After Nature, who has lost his belief in the science he always served:

the revolutions of great
systems cannot be
righted, too diffuse are
the workings of power,
the one thing always
the other’s beginning

Again both Industrial and Political revolution are invoked in one stroke. But further, in Sebald’s marvellous poem the natural process of evolution, both iconographer and iconoclast, becomes identified with the technical ingenuity conjured up by the human mind. Industry is an extension of Evolution in the mass of interconnected entities. This is true. Metabolism is at the heart of cells, combustion engines and household management. Sebald demonstrates that evolution is not the more gradual, comfortable cousin of revolution; great systems cannot be righted. Nature has always threatened to overwhelm Civilisation, but now the same powers have been invited within the city walls by Industry.

Perhaps the life of Rousseau (1712-1778) weaves these threads together best. He shared the Physiocrat faith in Agriculture. When invited to draft a constitution for Corsica his ideal was to create a non-hierarchical society administered through rural communities. Bartering, again, would replace the monetary economy, and agriculture was seen as the ‘only possible basis for a truly good and free life’. Luckily for Corsica, Rousseau couldn’t face the journey from Ile St-Pierre that would be necessary to realise this dream. ‘A utopian dream in which bourgeois society, increasingly determined by the manufacture of goods and the accumulation of private wealth, is promised a return to more innocent times.’ But by depicting this as an ‘inherent contradiction’ between utopian nostalgia and the ‘inexorable march of progress towards the brink of the abyss’, Sebald overlooks the possibility that the powers unleashed by capitalism may improve the standard of living generally, and that ‘private wealth’ may increase individual freedoms. The question is really how these benefits should be managed with equity, and it seems inevitable Rousseau’s rural communes would become a way to distribute lack fairly rather than create prosperity.

Even the Bible, the handbook of so many Agrarian idealists and Adamites, bars the way back to Edenic innocence with a flaming sword. The future is a Holy City, furnished with parks; Eden was always a peaceful garden surrounded by wilderness under the rule of nature; its natives plucked fruit in the equatorial fashion; Adam didn’t need to delve or Eve to spin until they were in the muck. Agriculture has just as much toil about it as Industry, and the labourers in both field and factory either receive a safer, easier working life from machinery, or the chance to go to University. The word unemployment implies that employment is the natural order of things. I suggest disemployment. It makes it harder to justify these elitist tuition fees.

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I was embarrassed by the cover of a DVD I borrowed recently from my local library.  The DVD cover design was totally different from the one I had seen online, giving the friends I was with the impression I had just hired a Rom Com starring George Clooney, when the cover I had seen online had promised alienation, satire and punchy dialogue. See for yourself:

Library Rental Cover

Library Rental Cover

cover viewed online

The latter turned out to be the case when I watched the film. So I wondered, was the rental copy given a different design to target a different kind of audience? One more afraid of commitment, perhaps, just like the jet-set central character Ryan Bingham? No, what the Library has unwittingly uncovered is not just an alternate cover; it is the cover of the film playing inside Ryan Bingham’s head while we watch his life unwind.

Bingham feels at home on long-haul travel, preferring its flux, isolation and homogeneity to intimate relationships. He experiments with teasing his polythene wrapped life open a little and falling in love with fellow high-flyer Alex Goran, the woman drinking with him on the rental cover. They assume the roles of screwball comedy lovers, a story Bingham writes, directs and stars in himself. The rental copy is the cover he chooses for his own version of the film, where they meet, sass each other into bed, and reacquaint themselves with the homely lives they have rejected. Bingham expects prodigal childhood nostalgia and the synchronised ticking of their biological clocks to deliver them to the church on time. They will have their wedding cake and eat it. But the director, Jason Reitman, has other ideas.

Reitman exposes the vacuity of Bingham’s life, everyone except Bingham can see it coming, and by the time he meets ‘god’ (airline mascot Maynard Finch) he already knows his life’s work has been a poor investment. A Neitzschean cycle of eternal return thrusts him back above the clouds, yet a long way short of heaven. Assuming the role of a Bodhisattva, if you like, he turns back from Nirvana to help his novice, Natalie Keener, escape the hell of long-haul travel herself. (Dear reader, does any other blog use obscure Buddhist references to avoid film spoilers?) Perhaps Reitman dropped the ball here by not including a scene where Bingham ignores the safety advice found in the leaflet and attaches the oxygen mask to Natalie’s face first? But anyway, you can see why Reitman chose the cover he did for his film, where the bankable Clooney is reduced to an inch-high silhouette facing away from us, a one-man black hole, a shadow to be scraped from the interior of a cut-price reactor. Glass panes reflect his compartmentalised life. A floor, polished, is ready to slip him up.

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Devolution Union Flag

September 16th, 2014 | Posted by David in Fine Art Prints - (0 Comments)
Union (screenprint)Henningham Family Press

Union (screenprint)
Henningham Family Press

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An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

An Unknown Soldier: An Exhibition by Henningham Family Press

Tuesday 4th November 2014 – Sunday 4th January 2015
Opening Event 7th November 7.30pm (booking essential)

Open Daily Tuesday – Sunday 11am – 8pm

Poetry Library
Level 5
Royal Festival Hall
London SE1 8XX

We are very honoured to announce that the Saison Poetry Library, which is the major British library for modern and contemporary poetry, has invited us to stage a solo exhibition of all our work from An Unknown Soldier to date. This will be part of the Southbank Centre‘s programme of First World War Centenary events. This will be a mini-retrospective of dozens of prints and books made between 2011 and 2014, some on display for the first time.

First World War casualties can now be identified with saliva gleaned from postage stamps on their letters home. This DNA technology unintentionally transforms the memorial to the Unknown Soldier in Westminster Abbey forever. In his anonymity he had stood for those lost to the destructive power of industrialised war. In our poem An Unknown Soldier we reconstruct him as a body of text, interrupted by trench-like letter forms, and ask: Has the Unknown Soldier, in the DNA age, become a symbol for our failure to learn from the past?

There will be a FREE Opening Event on Friday 7th November, 7.30pm at which we will be reading an extract from An Unknown Soldier with the assistance of James Wilkes and Erica Jarnes. We will also be giving out a small, free limited edition print. Booking is essential by email to:

specialedition [at] poetrylibrary [dot] org [dot] uk

 

The exhibition will include the four screenprint editions from our SGM Lifewords commission. The original 43 million Active Service John’s Gospels came off the same presses that printed recruitment propaganda, yet Father God and Fatherland presented contradictory visions of peace, both contending for the allegiance of soldiers in the form of printed words.

Details on Poetry Library website
Details on Southbank Centre website

An Unknown Soldier Project Page
An Unknown Soldier Blog Thread

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The Erroneous Disposition of the People Project

The Erroneous Disposition of the People Project

After their kind invitation to be the profiled press onstage last year at Conway Hall, we have booked a table at Free Verse 2014. This year we will also be doing a reading, ably assisted by James Wilkes (Palgrave Macmillan, HFP, Penned In The Margins, Veer)

We will perform a version of ‘An Unknown Soldier’ arranged for multiple voices. This will be preceded by our poems from ‘The Erroneous Disposition of the People’, inspired by the Table of Contents in Sir Thomas Browne’s Pseudodoxia Epidemica.

Reading: 10.30am – 11am
Garden Cafe outside in Red Lion Square

Saturday 6th September
10am-4.30pm
Conway Hall
Red Lion Square
WC1R 4RL

ALL FREE

Details Here

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