all images are copyright the artists

essay by Nina Wakeford

“It’s all just a little bit of history repeating”
Anticipation and preparedness seem ever more a condition of contemporary life. Entire systems of commerce - some of which we now know to be highly dysfunctional – are based on regimes of anticipation and speculation. Yet it is not just inanimate and virtual entities such as houses or financial instruments that are mobilized or created in such systems. Human beings can also be the objects of speculation and investment, and bear the responsibility of anticipation. In the sportswear manufacturer Nike’s “The Girl Effect” campaign, widely disseminated through videos on You Tube, an animation of a generic girl from a developing country is featured to persuade us of the effect of possible charitable donation, first through education, and then through business. We are left with the message “Invest in a girl and she will do the rest”.

Contemporary art is driven by its own conventions of anticipation and senses of possibility, a fact that is everyday knowledge to those who frequent its institutions – galleries, museums, auctions as well as educational establishments. Speculators hover over fine art degree shows, in the shadow of large-scale acquisitions by those such as Charles Saatchi, whose choices
of buying and selling are still widely assumed to make or break careers. Graduating artists offer a sense of potential, perhaps part-realized in the final show, but to be consolidated and accentuated in relation to another, yet-to-be-realized, time – the future.

On first consideration we might not think of the future as the central conceit of ex. Surely gathering together a group of former Foundation Course students is to re-articulate a relationship with the past; re-tethering artists who might have been filled with a sense of possibility ‘on Foundation’, but have long since been let loose on their degree courses and the multiple horizons of the art world. Yet a more complex reworking of temporality is present both in many of the works shown here, as well as forming a context for the mechanics of the show selection and realization. For, in reality, is it hard to see ex outside a process of tacking back and forth between present, past and future. It relies on the anticipatory forces at play at the moment that degree students graduate just as much as it plays on a connection with a past experience. We have in the present time and space – the ‘now’ time of the exhibition – works which cannot (at the very least biographically) be separated from any of these times or forces.

The artist Robert Smithson (1938 -1973) was a prominent advocate of reconsidering how we might move between past, present and future – an interest he furthered through the investigation of entropy. Time, for Smithson, was a tangible and material reality, rather than an abstract concept. “Every object, if it is art,” he wrote, “is charged with the rush of time even though it is static”. Out of this focus he produced works such as the large scale earthwork Spiral Jetty (1970), an intervention in the landscape which is best known not because audiences have seen the work as created – it has been submerged and invisible for decades at a time, and been left to decay and discolor true to Smithson’s commitment to entropy – but through the time-shifted medium of film documentation, and the attempts at re-discovery
by artists such as Tacita Dean (Trying To Find The Spiral Jetty, 1997). Smithson wanted to probe the ways in which the art world thought about, and experienced, time. He was keen to bring forth senses of the distant past as well as the distant future; geological time as much as science fiction. He read Vladimir Nabokov who proclaimed “The future is but the obsolete in reverse”. Materials, artworks, exhibitions – all could be thought of as charged with the rush of time in Smithson’s sense.

Smithson’s aim of an expanded sense of temporality has resonances with ex. ex participants are only ‘ex’ insofar as they have also been considered ‘next’. Educational institutions that promote themselves on past successes (Henry Moore! Damien Hirst!) can also speculatively invest as Leeds College of Art does by sponsoring this exhibition. And furthermore temporality – the lived experience of time – does not flow in one direction only. The Foundation Course is only past if time is understood as flowing in a linear manner. Who is to say that foundation courses are not the new MFA?

In the work that constitutes ex, Sophie Percival’s photographs, force us to juxtapose several temporalities at once, including the time at which the image was captured, the time that the artist has spent modifying the file through Photoshop, and, through this work, the seeming return of the landscape to a time before some of the human interventions were made, constructions which we mentally put back into place and time as we are absorbed in the image. The generic communities which are captured in the temporal shifts of Percival’s images, far removed from Leeds, stand in stark contrast to the portraits taken by Rachel Wilson of her fellow ex participants. Wilson’s practice is meticulously crafted in opposition to the informality of a mobile phone snapshot or a joky Facebook portrait. Together the set of portraits becomes a way to recognize a temporary community of which she is part, framed by the locations where those pictured have created art.

The slice of time of the exhibition is short. Nevertheless Wilson’s photos, in their careful execution and formal presentation, seem to want to extend themselves in time. They capture a moment at a singular location – as any single shot might – but embody the solemn insistence of a record that reaches into some unknown future, perhaps already anticipating comparison: what we looked like then, and now. Anticipating a time elsewhere also features in Catherine Jones’ work, which offers us a glimpse of a narrative that we can imagine as ongoing beyond that which is offered to us here. Where is the setting of the story presented to us, and who is speaking? Is this a narration of past experience, or a fictional future? By using a book form Jones enables us to spirit away this alternative universe of characters, making possible a new space outside the exhibition.

Other work reminds us of an enduring desire to see happenings unfold before us – the time of liveness, of the ‘now’ and the immediate ‘next’. The acknowledgement that our bodies are actively present at the site of viewing is the starting point for Romany Dear’s site-specific work For the next eight minutes, I would like to encourage you to fully embrace absolutely everything. (2011) Instructions delivered via portable cassette player give visitors the opportunity of experiencing the space of the exhibition in unexpected ways. Engrossed in their activities, participants - their bodies hijacked, although seemingly of their own volition - become part of a performance played out in full view of other visitors. The time slot of limelight seems slight - only eight minutes, after all, half the fifteen of fame that Andy Warhol promised - yet the piece reminds us of the capacities of bodies and movement to occupy both space and time, and the fragilities (and perhaps anxieties) which accompany such live activities, which may be interrupted, derailed, or even refused.

Dear’s piece enables us to occupy institutional settings in small groups. However for other works in the show it is the intersubjectivity of two bodies interacting that is brought into focus. Ashanti Harris and Emily Ilett’s video installation captures the flow of energies that move between two bodies as they sense each other in space. Referencing the force of magneticism, the two bodies, eyes closed, are captured on camera bending and straightening as one life force feels and responds to the other. We cannot interrupt their actions as displayed, and one suspects neither could we have swayed them if we had actually been there during filming. Unhurried and attentive, the two bodies appear to be experiencing a time that is theirs alone;
a private rhythm.

Looking on at a pair interacting at close proximity in another time and space is also apparent in the work of Jacob Lomas. Attempting to mirror each other in clothing as well as action, the documentation of Exercises in two, having shed everything unnecessary (2011), shows the literal burdens of connection, dragging a body - is it part of you (it looks the same) or another person? - across the floor. Lomas’ other piece shown here is not merely a pile of grey sacks. This artwork is also, at times, a live performance involving two individuals who steadily rearrange the sacks on the pallet. There are no specific instructions. The performers finish by mutual agreement. The piece could be read as a metaphor for artistic labour – are we just moving generic grey sacks around after all in attempt to find some form, or is this Karl Marx’s alienated labour? In current times maybe it is just rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, but at least there is another human with whom you are sharing the experience!

We are interdependent not only with other living beings, but with objects – as Catherine Jones’ also reminds us in her writing. Think of the everyday portable devices that have almost become part of our bodies, and the senses that have to be alert as they make us aware of their presence. Ellen Twinem’s video is a tangle of objects, people and effects of colour, shape and movement. Shapes appear, people come and go, and yet we are never quite sure who or what is in charge. Is this a video about objects with people as props, or the other way round? New infrastructures gradually emerge, but we are curiously unsure what purpose they might serve. Has this all been done before? Is this a rehearsal or the final action of bringing some new setting into being?

Actions that are repeated might bring forth another temporal regime, that of looping, in which we appear to always be experiencing back the same segment of time, again and again. The behaviour of the female body in Zoe Boston’s video loops us back to earlier feminist video art, in particular Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen (1975). Are we experiencing this time again? No longer the grainy image of early video art, and benefitting from the colour image that highlights red lips and yellow washing up gloves, Boston’s work still retains the defiant gaze of the protagonist as she goes about her task. But rather than using the logic of the alphabetic set, Household Abuse (2011) uses repetition of a single action – pulling until the gloves tear. Far more sinister than a mere demonstration of recurring action, the steady destruction of the gloves takes place as we watch. We are not spared any moment of their fate. We see them being ripped apart, minute after minute. Ex-gloves.

Once the gloves have been torn apart, we can’t imagine how they might be reconstructed. There is no reversing or rewinding for the objects themselves. For Megan Hoyle, on the other hand, taking things apart is the prelude to putting them back together again. Hoyle also repeats her gestures – the careful unpicking of canvas that is then dipped into oil medium before being used to create new forms - but her work has a reparative and generative energy. The process takes time, and Hoyle often produces her work as a performance in the exhibition space, painstakingly unweaving and reconstructing the surfaces which otherwise might be taken for granted. The artist wants us to pause and contemplate, for us to make time to consider the deconstruction and reconstruction. In the rush of the present, perhaps this again is an attempt at pulling the forces of what has been and what is about to be, closer to us. Changing the experience of places is similarly explored by Martha Richardson, in her intervention in the college architecture. Richardson’s work relies on gestures that draw curious attention to themselves. Rather than reparative, these could generate a gentle sense of paranoia. How has the space changed? Was this here yesterday? Will it return to ‘normal’?

Another perspective on the work in ex, although this doesn’t abandon the temporal altogether, is to consider the way in which the group of artists are involved in a system of reciprocity – of giving and taking; ex-change. The books produced by Catherine Jones, available for us to take away, enact art literally as a gift. The generosity of this gesture is of course both on the part of the institution – in supporting the printing – but also on the part of the artist for producing work in this mode. We don’t have to stare at a long text on a wall, perhaps uncomfortably sharing the reading experience with others. Rather we can take the art home.

Nevertheless, gifts, as any anthropologist will tell you, are just as much about establishing or maintaining social relationships as they are about mere physical or financial exchange. For this discipline more important than studying individual behaviour is analyzing the culture of the group – so what of the exhibition as a whole as a gift?
Further remote still from contemporary Leeds than the landscapes of California represented in Percival’s work are the Highlanders of Papua New Guinea as written about by anthropologists in the 1970s. The accounts of how public displays of reciprocity function amongst these peoples came to mind as I considered the circulations of giving and taking which happen at ex. Amongst the Highlanders there was documented a ceremonial gift, called ‘moca’. Moca was a gift not just from one person to another, but from a whole group to another group, and inbuilt in the gift was the obligation to return a moca that was bigger in size. If one group offered a hundred pigs, some birds and a motorbike, then the recipients would have to find even more pigs, birds and motorbikes in return. The aim was to overwhelm an opposing group with your generosity, and to do so publically in a ceremony to which everyone came. Fame and status came from giving the biggest moca possible, and a leader could only assemble one in his lifetime.

The desire to bring such a worlds apart example to bear on a contemporary art exhibition is full of difficulties, not least the impossibility of incorporating the ways in which anthropology itself has now distanced itself from earlier versions of seeing and writing about ‘the other’. However the point is to invoke a system – real or imagined – in which there is gift giving which is public, overwhelming, and, most importantly, that generates a sense of the need to increase the gift given back. This isn’t so remote from ex. The selected artists are giving a collective gift, a wealth of talent, possibility and energy, as well as emerging reputation, back to the institution. They are repaying, but also magnifying, the contributions that they were given. Both groups are, even if tacitly, encouraged to perform their exchange in public. However if we follow the logic of the Highlanders, the challenge that ex poses back to the institution is that the exhibition is not a repayment, but actually calls for another moca. ex points forward into an unfolding future that never quite frees itself from the present or the past.

The word is about, there’s something evolving
Whatever may come, the world keeps revolving
They say the next big thing is here
That the revolution’s near
But to me it seems quite clear
That it’s all just a little bit of history repeating

From “History Repeating” (Propellerheads featuring Miss Shirley Bassey)