Revisiting: Luca Frei – The so-called utopia…

While talking to artist Anthony Shrag, he referenced Luca Frei’s The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg. An interpretation, unaware that it is one of the titles from the Fabrications series I was responsible for, published by Book Works. In turn I was unaware that Celine Condorelli did a reinterpretation of the work at the Southbank Centre in 2007 in a sound piece.

screen-shot-2017-01-11-at-11-21-41Here is the link to it on her website. The screenshot above shows the adapted introduction, transposed onto the reality of the Southbank Centre. I got back in touch with Luca and he informed that there now also is a Portuguese translation of the book, and a variety of re-interpretations of his translation have been made by others. I also came across an interesting analysis of the book here. There is also a review in Artforum and on 3AM and even an in-depth critical analysis in a PhD thesis. With the above-ground Centre Pompidou going in for a proper refurbishment it is time for a reread of the story about the alternative.

Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon

One of the publications I worked on while at Artangel was in relation to Douglas Gordon’s Feature Film. In this work – Douglas’s first feature-length film, produced in 1999 – the camera follows the hands, and the facial expressions of a music conductor – James Conlan – while conducting a full orchestra playing the score to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo by Bernard Herrmann. Therefore the length of Feature Film is determined by the length of Vertigo and its accompanying score. It was first shown on a large suspended screen in a space on Brick Lane, London, with Vertigo on a much smaller screen in the back of the space. The film on its own also did the rounds along the film festival circuit for several years. Since 1999 the work has been shown in many different configurations (I remember a screening at the Royal Festival Hall, for which a sound installation had to be brought in), and in many different settings.

The idea for the book was to come up with something that allowed the different elements of the work to be encountered in different ways – the visual, the aural and the more conceptual. I remember Douglas saying something along the lines of “I want my parents to be able to engage with the images and the sound, without actually watching the film.” In other words, the challenge was to find a way of translating these different aspects into a publication that somehow comprised all of them. These consideration also led to the title: Feature Film: A book by Douglas Gordon. 

As a result, the publication contains a selection of stills (selected in one of Soho’s many post-production studios, which was fun to do, but also highlighted the issue of using stills derived from the film in the sense of print quality – there is only so much extrapolation one can do with 72 dpi) of Feature Film, with a much smaller selection of stills from Vertigo, which together provide the basis for the actual book. The challenge in the selection process was to find visually interesting stills across the length of the film – which has whole periods of very slow panning shots, but also vigorous accelerations, with the hands and arms of Conlan moving in and out of the frame very rapidly – for which we could also find matching stills (i.e. the same moment in time) from Vertigo from various image libraries. In the pre-digital era, for most films there was only a certain amount of stills in circulation for press and publicity purposes. So without wanting to contact the current right holders for the film, our source was a range of stock image libraries across London. Looking at the reproductions now, am also aware of the fact that while Douglas was very specific in wanting to use a particular film stock that would enhance the black that was so present in the footage, while we used the digital edit version of the film to select stills, which has delivered varying hues in the flesh tones of Conlan’s face and hands. This translation back and forth between different mediums is an interesting aspect when considering documentation of  presentation and representation of the work. It was something that also played itself out in the presentation of the film: when it was screened as film, the quality of the image was entirely different from those occasions where a digital version was used.

Each spread in the book has a Feature Film still on the right, while the opposite is black– so to some extent trying to mimic the large amount of black in the film, for which a double run through the press was used, if I remember it correctly – except where there is a matching Vertigo still, where the background is white. So while the unfolding of the film narrative is mimicked – but plays itself out between the front and the back cover – the realisation of this being a book, with its own space and its own conventions, is present. In addition to the visuals, the full orchestra performance is available on a CD, which is attached literally inside the conductor’s ear in the cover. The sound and visuals are accompanied by an in-depth essay by renowned French film scholar Raymond Bellour, and an American Bernard Herrmann expert, Royal S. Brown, which are inserted in the back sleeve as an appendix, allowing the reader to look at the images unencumbered by text, while listening to the music.

The book was designed by Phil Baines, and co-published with Book Works (my first encounter and collaboration with them) and agnès b., while the film was a co-production between Artangel, the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Kunstverein Cologne, in association with Gagosian Gallery and Lisson Gallery. The book in the end had two print-runs, where the difference between them resides in a colour shift in the title.

Translations for industrial designer Alfred van Elk

Through the proverbial grapevine I am occasionally approached by organisations and individuals who sit more in the design and architecture corner than in the visual arts. I always enjoy the challenges that may offer, and certainly when it comes to translations, it keeps me informed as to what’s happening in those sectors now, often specifically in the Netherlands. Holland is by definition to a large extent a man-made country full of design, so one client now may lead me to new clients in future.

Industrial designer Alfred van Elk is one such client: I was recommended to him by someone who was in the process of writing copy for Alfred’s to be relaunched website. Translating statements about his approach, descriptions of products, and considering the differences between the shortcuts often taken in Dutch, while English tends to have to be much more precise in its use of tenses, and verb forms in relation to subject, I got to know a lot about Alfred and his work. His new website is now live and can be found here

Screen shot 2016-01-28 at 17.33.51.

Luca Frei – The so-called utopia of the centre beaubourg, an interpretation

Appearing under the pseudonym Gustave Affeulpin in 1976, and coinciding with the inauguration of the Centre Beaubourg in Paris, Albert Meister’s fictional text La soi-disant utopie du centre Beaubourg imagines a radical libertarian space submerged beneath the newly erected centre-piece of French Culture. In a world turned upside down, the 76 storeys submerged beneath the official centre for culture provide a platform for alternative modes of work and creation. Reporting, in sometimes hysterical, sometimes more poetic language, and with tongue firmly in cheek, the narrator recounts the vacillations of free organisation, in a satire that never takes its eye of the main target: state-sponsored culture.

This is the first translation and publication of La soi-disant utopie du centre Beaubourg in English, a project undertaken by the artist Luca Frei as an attempt to both revitalise a significant cultural treatise incorporating many elements of Meister’s sociological thinking, and to reflect upon the subjective role of the artist in transferring ideas from one cultural framework and era to another.

I really enjoyed working on this with Luca. Himself Italian Swiss, and his French good, but his English certainly not fluid, his translation of the entire text was an interesting basis to start with. We worked in chunks of several chapters at a time. Him sending me a draft, me sending an edited version back, and so back and forth. My attempts at editing something that should on the one hand be really legible for the reader, while on the other hand also retain the sense of being slightly off-kilter – conceptually, in time and linguistically – really highlighted the fact that translation is not something that is purely a literal act. It is an utterly engaged activity, where the sense of how it is being said can be equally as important as what is actually being said, and how it is therefore sometimes fine to not make it ‘perfect’, or slightly ‘deviate’ from the original.

Co-published by Book Works and CASCO, Utrecht. It was the second in a series of co-publishing partnerships initiated by Book Works, entitled Fabrications, commissioned and edited by me. Interpretation and design by Luca Frei.

The Missing Voice – Janet Cardiff

Commissioned by Artangel, throughout 1999 Canadian artist Janet Cardiff realised what was her most ambitious work to date then, The Missing Voice (Case Study B), in London’s East End.

Part urban guide, part detective story, part film noir, Cardiff’s work draws you in as an accomplice in a narrative that shifts through time and space. Seductive – narrated in her own softly-spoken voice – intimate, even conspiratorial, Cardiff’s audio-walks are absorbing – for an audience of one at a time.

Starting at the then Whitechapel Library, visitors were given a Discman. After having initially been directed upstairs to find a specific book, you would leave the building and find yourself transported in time. What was that sound? Who is speaking to you? Where does reality end, and what’s imagined begin…? The confusion between reality and fiction was enhanced by the use of binaural recordings, while visually references were sometimes met in reality by sheer fluke and happenstance (“oh, there’s that banana peel!”)

The Missing Voice (Case Study B), which can now also be downloaded, lasts some 50 minutes, tracing a route through Spitalfields and towards the City of London, with the threads of the narrative being brought to some kind of resolution in a space off Commercial Street.

The Whitechapel Library has closed and the building was absorbed into the neighbouring Whitechapel Gallery. One of many changes the area has undergone since the work was launched in 1999. Whole buildings have gone, shops have disappeared and been replaced by others, or bars and restaurants have sprung up instead. The area around Brick Lane, Commercial Street and old Spitalfields market is one in which regeneration and redevelopment have taken hold firmly. The network of streets The Missing Voice (Case Study B) lets you navigate is still the same, but the way they look continues to change. Doing the walk now, makes you utterly aware of the sheer speed and scale.

This was one of the first Artangel projects in which the question as to what to mediate and translate, and how became primary concerns. How could the core essence of projects be transposed to another medium – primarily books, but many also encompassed sound carriers – so that it would not be simply a set of images accompanied by a couple of texts, and be mere documentation and representation.

In this case Mark Diaper, the designer, came up with a set of propositions that played in different ways with those considerations: the inside of the loose cover contained the entire transcript of the sound piece, so the text could be listened to and read. The meandering route and the notion of being able to follow the narrative visually is embedded through two image sequences, which are printed on both sides of semi transparent paper – where the book has Japanese binding, so the uncut edge is the one that we encounter while leafing through the book. There is a mimicking of the red wig, which plays a key role in the story, as well as the pavement stones we walk on on the outside of the cover, while the foam ‘endpapers’ evoke the foam on the headphones listeners would wear. In the end the CD with the whole story is also embedded. There is a text that places this work in the context of Cardiff’s wider practice (by Canadian curator Kitty Scott), and a brief statement by Janet herself. Overall this project started to go towards what I think has become now a widely practised approach to artists’ books, that combines more ‘traditional’ catalogue elements with that of the book as consider as a work in its own right.