Wrestled up the grassy knoll, dragged through the graveyard and then placed inside the building to tower over pews like an icon, the piece is a tribute to industrial modernity exhibited within an archaic religious structure. Coley has appropriated the words from George Bernard Shaw (a known atheist) and is now installing his views in the sacred space of believers. The philosophy of architecture is Coley’s recurrent theme, with his work always asking us: What is my relationship to this space? What does this structure represent in relation to the society in which it was built? The piece is visually bold, politically rude and endlessly thought-provoking, well worth the uphill trek.
On Tuesday, I went to see Coley in discussion about his work at St. Nicholas’. He opened with a disclaimer along the lines of hating being asked to justify himself because the Art should speak for itself. Arrogantly insisting that he was “not trying to be provocative”, that “he didn’t care what viewers thought”, Coley, a Glaswegian, seemed most concerned with repeatedly congratulating himself on keeping his vote in the Scottish referendum on independence a secret. In response to questions from the public about ‘You Imagine What You Desire’, he said the statement was “ambiguous” and that he “wasn’t sure what it meant to him.” Fair enough I thought, but if you haven’t got anything to say, don’t take the stage.
Actually, I briefly considered asking for my six pounds back but then decided I like it when public figures don’t behave. It wasn’t quite as thrilling as that time Tracy Emin ripped off her mic and stormed out of a live channel 4 broadcast about the Turner Prize, but I did find myself fancying Nathan Coley, just a little bit, for having the ego to be so unduly hostile towards innocent fans of his work.
Here you can imagine what it might be like to be a drone pilot, watching grainy landscapes on screens and looking for people to kill whilst you fiddle with a joystick, just like you do at home on your PS4. It is both intriguing and disturbing to experience the limited dimensions of reality that envelope the desk-job militia, and again, one is presented with many questions about ethics in relation to digital technology. Popper has added the context of reimagining the landscape of The Grand Hotel during the 1984 IRA bombing, bringing an awareness of terrorism right back to our doorstep.
Last Thursday, Popper spoke about his work at Lighthouse, the Arts Council funded organisation who commissioned it in partnership with Open-House 2015. We, the audience, were treated to video clips showing the practices used in the making of the command-centre, from the destruction of sponges in a blender with green paint added to make trees, to the Iphone wielding robot-arm used to film the faux-environment. Watching Popper and his cameraman in their studio ‘playing at making war’ was akin to experiencing the installation from the point of view of a pilot; invoking the dangerous notion that ‘it’s all just a game’. For the sake of my belief in the goodness of humanity, I was relieved to hear someone at Lighthouse mention that PTSD is as common in drone-pilots as it is in fighter-jet pilots. Of course I hate the notion of anyone suffering, but when we have the power to cause death from afar with the flick of a switch, our moral conscience is the only thing stopping the descent of our entire world into violent chaos… better stop there for now.
Huge flatscreen televisions hang from the rafters of the church-turned-gallery. The space is lit only by the glow of the screens, each of which presents us with sped-up footage of ordinary British people sitting in their mundane habitats: living rooms, a chiropractor’s waiting room, an underground carpark, a bathtub. In addition to this depressing vision of everyday existence is a multi-layered soundtrack of singers imitating Springtime birdsong, a paradoxically cheering sensory experience.
Obviously, like all the creatures in Mother Nature’s queendom, birds and humans use their voices to get their needs met. It would be easy to draw parallels between the mating-call of a wren (100 notes in 7 second) and the drunken innuendoes of a horny pub-goer, if you wanted to, but I’m not sure this line teaches us anything new about anthropology. There’s an incongruent mish-mash of ideas in Coates work, with the video footage seeming to bear forced relation to the sound by proxy of the time-sequencing. But whilst making someone’s head twitch in the manner of a hungry sparrowhawk has certain comedy value, I wouldn’t say it provoked deeper thought.
The value in the work is that we are treated to focussing on some of the beautiful sounds found in nature that we might otherwise not have noticed. Coates created the piece in 2007, working with expert in animal behaviour Peter McGregor and wildlife sound recordist Geoff Sample to document accurately the times and places in which specific birdsong can be heard. The RSPB, BLDB and Sussex Wildlife Trust are supporters of the piece and if it draws attention to the need for us to protect the habitats of our wildlife, I’m in full support.
Once a market venue, just as the name suggests, Circus Street Market makes an excellent art space with its expansive concrete structure illuminated by natural light streaming through acetate-clad rafters. Gauge comprises eight puzzling installations spaced at regular intervals and unless you’re a keen environmentalist, or really in the mood to read a lot of exhibition blurb, it’s impossible to tell what they represent. Which makes the whole experience of guessing loads of fun and very child friendly.
My favourite ‘bit’ is Cameron Robbins ‘Cloudscape’ (sucks thumb whilst typing with one finger): a giant vinyl paddling pool, ultrasonic humidifier, fan and 2,700 litres of rainwater / his ‘Plutonic Waters (bubble chamber)’: loads more rainwater, compressor, gauges, timber, lightbox, acrylic. They look like a mad-scientist’s experiments blown-up in scale to make the viewer feel like they are in The Borrowers listening to the soundtrack of Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Despite wild urges, I managed not to push my companion into the steaming waters, but if you do take kids with you to see this I would recommend keeping a close eye. I’m not going to go all environ-mental on you now but there is a lot of information on site worth devouring.
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By Rachel James