Monthly Archives: September 2014

Open House failure, Thompson success

The professionals booked their favourite Open House events weeks ago, and entered the various ballots, and probably planned their weekends. I didn’t even pick up a paper copy of the programme until last weekend, during a trip to the not quite so local library I’m having to use while the local library is being blessed with a gym. Hmm. In fact, I brought it with me a couple of times this week, thinking I might read it and make a Schedule. This didn’t happen, of course. None of my ballot entries succeeded. Hmmph.

The thing is to have a Theme, I suppose. Perhaps only go to things in Redbridge, out of municipal loyalty. Or only go to the strange private houses that are considered important enough to commemorate their opening. Or pick a borough and see as many things as possible there. Or be a grump and avoid it entirely. Oddly, I woke up about two hours later than normal, which wasn’t propitious. I did want to explore Waltham Forest Town Hall, which looks so enticing when going past on the 123. It was only open on Saturday and last entry was at 12pm. Bah. The evening was to be taken up with Emma Thompson talking about screenwriting at the BFI, so I tried to work back from there. Maybe the Crossrail site at Canary Wharf and then something else in that vicinity, then up to Camden Arts Centre then back down to Waterloo.

I started with that vague intention, briefly thought of Canning Town things instead, then swerved to the Thames Barrier Information Centre. Through haste and optimism, I had some idea that there would be tours of the Barrier itself, which I’d seen from the West at the end of a riverboat trip a few weeks before. The Greenwich Peninsula seems to be riven with construction and demolition and enormous shops and cinemas. At least there was a walk through a pleasant little park to the river bank, rewarded by a view of the Barrier, then the Information Centre. There were banners for Open House London and I saw people wafting their guides about, meaning there would be something to see, something would happen. In the event, below the café was the Information Centre. A video about the construction of the barrier was showing on a loop.

“How to create a hole in the river? The engineers had the answer.”

It had a tone somewhere in between a public information film and a promotional video, and included lots of synthesised incidental music, worthy of Gelg, covering a range of tones from sprightly to concerned. I can remember seeing the opening on the news. Why did it take 8 years to build, though? That seems a little lackadaisical. Elsewhere was a model of the operation of the barrier, which started when you moved your hand in front of an optical sensor, another strange touch. Lots of notices warned sternly that filming and photography weren’t permitted. Security-based theatre/paranoia? Anyway, it gradually sank in that this free admission to the Centre was the extent of Open House here. No secret doorway to the Barrier, even via an unlikely convoluted tunnel, could be found. Eheu.

Pigeon takes ownership of factory-turned-studio

Flickr set for the Thames Barrier Information Centre

The bus stop for the Barrier was Royal Greenwich University, and it referred to the University Technical College, which was in fact also participating in Open House. Even though it had visible photovoltaic cells on the roof, I didn’t explore and took the bus back to North Greenwich instead. On the way I saw a massive Makro. Does that still exist? It was a feature of my childhood, trips to Makro over the bridge, near the Manchester Ship Canal. The objective here was Ravensbourne College, the last tour of which was at 3pm. On the way I saw a big queue of people at what looked like a gallery, perhaps, based on the sign at the front, something related to the London Design Festival. They were all brandishing green and yellow folders. Something to investigate later.

An interior design student took us (me and two others) around. It was interesting that the emphasis was on everything being flexible and open-plan, whereas I thought it had been pretty well established by now that open-plan offices are actually a pretty bad idea. The facilities she showed us were very impressive, especially the prototyping lab on the ninth floor, with lots of 3D printers and scanners, laser cutters and various other fabricators. She was keen to point out that it wasn’t a finished building. Lots of changes had been made since it opened five years previously, and they would continue. Some open areas had been turned into new office facilities, the equipment loan service had been expanded, what looked like foam had been added to the overhead trays to reduce noise and blinds had been added to some of the windows, because of excess light. Instead of too much overt promotion, select items of students’ work are left around the building, so that visitors and commercial clients can see what they’re capable of. Apparently the redevelopment around the building will mean that in a few years their only external views will be of the O2, which is a shame. One thing I noticed was how many power sockets there were in the floor, the better to charge those phones and laptops with. I hope the students there realise how lucky they are… They gave me a nifty USB stick forming its own pouch, and an Oyster card holder which made me smirk with its embossed “” URL.

Back outside, I investigated the queue I mentioned earlier. The student showing us around mentioned that some of her peers’ work was exhibited at the NOW Gallery and I could see a sign for that within this building. However, when I asked the man refilling piles of the blue and green folders, he explained that the gallery wasn’t open and that there were some show homes inside, relating to the “regeneration” that’s so prominent in that area.

“They’re queueing up for houses, basically.”

When he asked whether I would be interested, I pointed out the financial barriers in my way.

“Why do you think I’m standing here?”,

he said. Back at the station, I saw a couple, with those folders, embracing – with the joy of possible property ownership, everyone’s Dream? It was a little deflating that my thought of very keen Design Festival attendees was so totally wrong. I think it was here that I saw a boy holding a single wrapped red rose, waiting for someone to emerge from the platforms.

A relatively long journey from there to Finchley Road, from where it was a short clomp up the hill to the Camden Arts Centre. Having given up on more Openness that day, I thought I’d take in the Shelagh Wakely show that was in its final week, thereby, as promised, improving on my usual final day system. On the way there I couldn’t resist taking a look at a black cat nonchalantly having a wash in the doorway of a Russian health food shop. The cat will reappear later in our story.

When I visited the café there with a friend in August, we’d heard intermittent chimes from the garden, which we surmised must be part of the exhibition. I heard them again when I had some food there, but thought it best to see the show itself first, before the responses to it. As usual, kids were roaming about, finding the grassy slope irresistible. So much so that a sign had been erected to ask that the children were prevented from damaging the artworks in the garden.

“Everyone. Everyone? Where have you all gone?”

cried a boy plaintively, with his hoped-for minions all dispersed.

“Chocolate chocolate rabbit poo”

was another simple verdict.

There’s something interesting about the layout here, with the atrium from which the three main galleries sprout, meaning you can dip in and out, if you wish. I liked the gilded plums and limes in one of the atrium vitrines, which looked like ritual skulls. The videos Rainsquare and Aguadorado were typical of her interest in weathering/decaying, and shiny metals. A lady watched them too and asked me if I’d been to the South London Gallery, though I didn’t understand the question at first.

“I suppose not. This is North London, after all.”

This was a bit miffing, because I range all across this ridiculous city for Art, and have been several times to Dulwich Picture Gallery, Peckham and Clapham, but not the South London Gallery. And I don’t live in what she perhaps thinks of as North London, anyway. That would have taken far too long to explain, and would have stretched her level of interest, of course.

Another video, further into the atrium, and shown on another of these TVs that only exist in galleries (Sony, at least, rather than some totally obscure brand), was The Practice of Enchantment. Here there were her floral patterns on the floor, comprising small photos of fruit. The end of the video revealed the end of the show, when large fans were deployed to disrupt the patterns formed by those photos, sweeping them up into chaotic piles, and the paper walls of the gallery were ripped off. The people watching tinkled their glasses in appreciation.

A group of three women were breezing through, alternately dismissive:

“Let’s do this and call it art. It’s just loads of doodles. She might be horrified at some of the things we’re looking at”,

and enraptured, as they were by the stencils composed of perfume adverts in women’s magazines.

Shelagh Wakely: A View From A Window

I liked the preparatory drawings, replete with ideas and slogans, that they seemed to be disparaging, and I liked the way you could see ideas being explored and refined. Wakely kept returning to shape motifs inspired by flowers and leaves, which reminded me of Matisse’s ubiquitous “alga” forms in the recent cut-outs show at Tate Modern. I couldn’t smell anything in the room filled with the pattern on the floor in turmeric.

In the garden, the café and the entrance were responses to Wakely and her work by various artists, including some who collaborated with her. I heard the end of the chimes and found the sign describing them. They were by Susan Hiller, and were repeated on a changing cycle, every hour, half-hour and quarter-hour, the speakers being hidden within a bush. I took in the rest of the pieces in the garden, then waited a few minutes for the Hiller cycle to come around again. I came away with a strong appreciation for Wakely’s themes and obsessions, which is the sign of a good show, I think, particularly given I didn’t know anything about her beforehand. The show is on until 28th September.

Flickr set of Shelagh Wakely at the Camden Arts Centre

On the way back to FInchley Road, I passed the health food shop again and by now the black cat needed a lie down.

Cat at Beryezka, Finchley Road

Because of my usual trip to Foyle’s, I passed through the Royal Festival Hall and the presiding demographic for Joan Baez was rather different than that for Jon Hopkins, the previous night.

It was lucky for me that I was early enough to go to NFT1 when the ten minute call was announced. Emma Thompson was already on stage, though I didn’t realise at first it was her. What I did notice was the palpable excitement and fluttering amongst the audience. She was wearing an informal outfit, in which she:

  • briskly cleaned her writing table
  • paced about muttering
  • wrote something then screwed up the paper and threw it to the floor
  • lay with her head in her hands, on the table
  • lay down on the purple yoga mat and executed some positions and stretches
  • at last, pulling out a hoover from behind the back of the stage and started to clean up

Emma Thompson

All this was accompanied by laughter and applause from the crowd and was, of course, her documentary recreation of what writing a screenplay is like for her. While she changed, we watched an episode of the Magic Roundabout, the voiceover for which was written and performed by her father Eric Thompson. I don’t actually know who the interviewer was, but he seemed to know her well (he referred to her as ‘Em’) and they kept recapitulating what was clearly an extended pre-performance discussion. She was just as warm and engaging as I’d expected, though stern when she needed to be, such as when she said that an audience member’s question about when a character in a screenplay would tip over from feminine to masculine was in itself the problem. Several women were leaning as far forward as possible in their chairs, with constant smiles on their faces, appearing to me to want to get as close to her as they could. Advice she’d received that she passed on included that when adapting a book, you should dramatise everything, then leave in only the scenes that work, and find some way of joining them together. One thing she stressed repeatedly was the need to have a reprieve from the process and, related to that, the need to put a draft aside for a month or two, in a drawer. While it’s in the drawer,

“something happens in the drawer, and something happens in your mind.”

She referred to a drawer because she writes the first drafts by hand (she had a box on stage containing all the drafts for Sense and Sensibility, in folders). When writing out each new draft, things change automatically, because of the imperfections of the process and when they stop changing, that’s the time to commit them to the computer. She referred to Alfresco, which I remember watching in my bedroom on a black and white TV in the 1980s and she quoted Agnes de Mille:

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”

The concluding clip was the final scene from The Apartment, the end of the script apparently reading:

“That’s the end, screenplay-wise.”

and that was an exemplar of the dictum for how to make a film:

“Have all the good scenes, no bad scenes, and one great scene”.

Over the past two years I’ve seen many discussions at the BFI and I think this was the one I’ve enjoyed the most.

At home, I put on 6 Music, only to hear a discussion about the Magic Roundabout theme tune, which they’d just played…

Taking the same way home as the previous night, I was waiting at Waterloo. A couple were taking photos of the tunnel when the train arrived. The woman boarded the train but the man dallied, and ended up stranded on the platform, as she moved off in the carriage with us. Realising nothing could be done, she started laughing, and others laughed with her…


Jon Hopkins

With unusual prescience, I bought tickets to see Jon Hopkins at the Royal Festival Hall in June, having only a vague awareness of him (“ooh, that sounds interesting”) from the radio. When I mentioned this, friends were rather envious and extolled his most recent album, Immunity, which I did actually listen to before the show.

The support act was Blanck Mass, just a black t-shirted diffident man with his gear hidden behind Jon Hopkins’ table. He was unfazed by the shameful lack of attendance in the hall, and the extreme rudeness of people who left halfway through to go to the bar (Super Tsk). At points his head was swaying intensely, and he took nervous swigs from his beer bottle. This experience of not knowing anything about the music I was hearing was more familiar to me, and I rather liked his stuff, my taste for droney-ambient not being sufficiently indulged at the moment. It would have benefitted from being louder. Always I’ve thought that full volume was denied to the support act and perhaps that was the case here. I’ll be investigating.

The preparations for Jon Hopkins on stage were fairly minimal, during which someone behind us explained the nature of his relations:

“We’re not together together, are we?”

Hopkins was white and quietly exuberant when he came on stage, in contrast to Blanck Mass’ introversion. He had a guitarist picking out heavily-effected hums, who left and re-joined for different songs, along with a violinist and viola player. His own gear was laid out on a wide table, including what must have been trigger pads (Kaoss pads, I read later), effects units and a mixer, plus the inevitable Steve, albeit with the white logo obscured by a black sticker.

The visuals on a large screen behind him were triggered by what he was playing, simple shapes of colour at first, then more complex geometric shapes. He’s clearly rehearsed a lot because he was controlling live breakdowns and fills beautifully, and he was bodily expressing himself, which is pretty unusual for an electronic musician, jacking and jerking, though always with a steady eye on what he was doing.

He would move from a heavy, beat-driven song abruptly to a contemplative piano piece (there was a grand at the left of the stage), the latter usually accompanied by the string players on the other side. This stylistic disharmony shouldn’t have worked, but it did. What gradually happened, as the inducements took their toll, was that people in the audience started standing up, then some of them took to the aisles and to the space by the front of the stage, dancing, for the upbeat songs. They would then, maybe a little self-conscious, drift back to their seats for the quieter ones, waiting for the chance to thrash around again. At points the bouncers tried to intervene, probably for “fire safety” reasons, and to stop the dullards plonked at stage front taking video on their phones. The visuals were very good actually, the most memorable ones embodying a skateboard-based journey, a woman (Imogen Heap?) in a spacesuit-helmet on a 2001/Gravity-style journey, and a woman who was both ecstatic and estranged. I suspect the hollering, whooping and pointing audience missed the person burning in the tyres of the former, for which insight I’m indebted to my co-attendee. One of the encore songs more compelling videos, including what looked like drone-eye views of a bleak landscape, later transforming into a red palette, which reminded me of Richard Mosse’s The Enclave.

The string players and guitarist came on for the last time, then as they departed the violinist walked over and triggered something via one of the machines on the table, so that things were running when Hopkins arrived back there from the piano.

It was a stunning performance, and the crowd’s reaction bordered on the disturbing. My little joke was that they were all happy about the Scottish referendum result. I think this was what people had craved when I went to see Derrick May during Meltdown, and they weren’t really satisfied then. They certainly were last night.

Mind you, the exclamation of

“the Royal Festival Hall will never be the same again”

was a little ludicrous. Again, I must credit my co-attendee for the observation. In the Clore Ballroom afterwards there was the incongruous site of people making packed lunches, which I realised was part of Maggie’s Culture Crawl. They were being serenaded by the Letherette DJs, in the Central Bar. Outside, I was handed a flyer for another Jon Hopkins performance in April next year, which I think I may go to. There, that’s commitment.

I think the songs included at least Vessel and Wire from Insides, plus We Disappear, Open Eye Signal, Collider and Abandon Window from Immunity. Waiting to take the Drain to Bank on my way home, there was a couple discussing their impressions:

“I liked it the first time he built it up, then it became a bit generic. I prefer it more melodic.”

[Ed.: quite wrong there]

A guy in front of us told us to shut up, and then they were the first to stand up.

One of their friends suffered a tragic memory loss:

Lance forgot about it, so he missed out.

On the train itself, the discussion moved to more mundane matters, involving workplace promotions and rivalries. One “colleague” was to be:

“cut down to size like a m*th*rf*ck*r.”

Apologies for the cuss-word euphemism.



Tennessee Akerman Plath

Unlike the professionals, I was far too slow to buy a ticket for A Streetcar Named Desire at the Young Vic, so I settled for one of the two remaining seats for the live broadcast at the Barbican. It was pretty frantic, the place never having been so full in my experience. People in thrall to the Coffee/Wine Imperative. Maybe I hadn’t read some instructions. I assumed the usual pre-show blurb would be at the scheduled time but in fact the play had already started when I took my seat. I’ve seen a few Williams plays at the theatre before, but not this one, only the Brando/Leigh film version. The staging, with the rotating set and the open walls emphasising the claustrophobia of the flat, would have been much better in ‘reality’, of course, swinging around just in front of you. I thought Anderson got her role just right, her delusions and deceptions and inability to cope with the world leaving her committal, brutal as it was, almost inevitable. The portrayal of Kowalski was quite prosaic. Very plausible, though. I’ve enjoyed all the theatre broadcasts I’ve seen. Nevertheless, they perhaps rub in the inferiority of the experience. At the interval someone in the circle at the theatre waved a white LED pen in the camera that was fixed on the set, perhaps as a taunt to us mere cinema viewers. My eye was caught by a comment card in one of those transparent boxes, complimenting the cinema café on its

brilliant boutique layout, unlike the grim restaurant in the main building.

Tonight I went to the latest A Nos Amours screening, part of their monumental Chantal Akerman retrospective which, we were told beforehand, might be endless, given Akerman is working on new material that might be finished before the survey has completed. The card machine crashed when I tried to pay for my ticket, though at least this meant I saw the little smiley face that appeared on its screen when it rebooted, happy to take our money once again. As we waited for it to start, people behind me were discussing Yahoo mail accounts, including the fact that they’re

useful for giving to people like British Gas.

Probably not the legacy for which Jerry Yang was hoping. The film, Letters Home, was introduced by Claire Atherton, who edited it and collaborated with Akerman in other ways, including helping to choose the soundtrack (probably the first film I’ve ever seen to include Gavin Bryars). Needlessly self-deprecating, she described how she met Akerman. She was focussing the camera for the first attempt at capturing the play Letters Home, for Antenne 2, before Akerman said she couldn’t film there and asked Atherton to film instead. Sadly, all that footage was out of focus, and couldn’t be used… There was another attempt, with 3 16mm cameras, again a filming of the play, which wasn’t regarded as a success, before the transformation of the play into a film, which was what we saw tonight. It was recorded on U-matic, without timecode. This meant that they had to

edit without a net.

They never went backwards while they were editing, unlike the usual practice today, with endless takes, always hoping to find the perfect Platonic edit. They had to keep the feel of the film in mind as they moved through the footage, trusting their instinctive reactions. She has worked with Akerman on many films since then and you can see why they would fit together so well.

Editing isn’t to explain, it’s to make the film live,

was her final comment before the showing began. I only read The Bell Jar last year, so I’m keen to consume anything Plath-related. The film was a re-rendering of a play, itself based on letters Plath sent to her family, mostly her mother. There were live subtitles, composed and triggered by Charlotte Maconochie. What a Sisyphean task, both writing them and then having to watch the film in a strict way so as to display them at the right time, which must in some way ruin her enjoyment. Delphine Seyrig played Plath’s mother and her niece played Plath, in a very small set. As Claire said, you could listen to Delphine’s voice for hours anyway. She conveyed supremely well the fearful helplessness of the parent, while her niece had an amazing amount of energy, transmitting the wild excesses of Sylvia Plath. They spoke over each other, completed each other’s sentences, transmuted the words into embraces and exclamations. I can’t imagine how any other way of filming this would have worked so well, spare and yet voluble. Even though we all knew how it would end, it still celebrated Plath’s courage and brilliance, and you were hoping that her pride at wanting to confront all the negative forces would prevail somehow. It’s such a privilege to have the chance to see things like this.

Afterwards I was able to pick up a handout that Adam from A Nos Amours had kindly brought for Sátántangó, which I saw in a full ICA a few weeks ago. I do plan to write about that soon – my first 7 hour film… He said they were mortified when Evil P*werp*int crashed during tonight’s film, twice, but I don’t think it spoiled it at all. Needless to say, an error report was not sent to Microsoft.


Bexhill Reprise

These days, I’m trying to see things before the final weekend. That would have been a poor plan for Digital Revolution, which was completely sold out (I saw it twice before that). The Bikeriders at ATLAS Gallery was a collection by Danny Lyon, about Chicago bikers in the sixties. The fact that Lyon had embedded himself within the group showed through in the unexpected candour, and the openness of the subjects. They were clearly relaxed around him. It was interesting to see the vitality of America at that time, supporting such strong subcultures, and refreshing to see the prominence of the women. The nice lady printed out the press release and image guide for me, because they had run out. It’s on until 19th September. A successful visit.

My next two attempts were completely unsuccessful. I had actually planned carefully, for once, and walked from ATLAS to Baker Street, where I travelled to Euston Square for the Crypt Gallery. Only been there once before and wanted to make up for that. There was a couple ahead of me with the same idea, who remembered about the idiosyncrasy of the entrance to the churchyard better than I did, and two women behind me. Unfortunately, it was closed, even though, as the man bewailed:

It said on the website it would be open.

The two women looked like sisters and one of them made the surprising observation:

Why is it always shut when we come here?

This dejection made me feel a little better in my failure. The next stage of my plan was to walk back to Euston Square and from there travel to St. Lawrence Jewry next Guildhall, for the exhibition of mosaics, originally part of the City of London Festival. Now I’d been burned there before in a similar way i.e. arriving and finding it not open. There’s no way that would happen again, even after the failure at the Crypt… At least there was company again, though this time I tried the door by the pond, to find it quite unyielding. Hmmph. There was time for a brief look around the Guildhall Gallery, with its incongruous security scanner. I’d only seen temporary exhibitions there on previous visits, so I had a look at the permanent collection, which was organised around themes of Victorian life. The atmosphere was slightly odd because the staff were arranging tables for a corporate event.

The ingenuity of my plan was that the church was close to the Barbican, where I was due to see Saint Etienne performing How We Used To Live. (My first association of that title is primarily with an old schools’ programme, that I think was set in the 1930s). Around this time last year I’d seen Bob Stanley and Paul Kelly introduce What Have You Done Today, Mervyn Day, and I think I saw another film of theirs at the Leeds Film Festival in 2005. The film was witty in its juxtapositions of image and voiceover, making its political points to the audience’s amusement. I much preferred the live soundtrack to the film, compared with the short set they performed beforehand, though I’m not sure why. As usual, I didn’t know any of the songs, so that can’t be the reason. In any case, the soundtrack was excellent and Pete Wiggs even coped rather well with an equipment or software glitch towards the end. One of the things I’ve noticed since moving to That London is that it’s always talking about itself, in a way that other cities don’t, but in this case it was at least a monologue worth hearing. At the end I did think it was a bit of a shame that one of the drones from John Cale’s show in the theatre hadn’t escaped and interfered somehow…

I’ve yet to write about my trip to Bexhill to visit the De La Warr Pavilion on 1st September. Wider impressions of the town and the building will hence have to wait. The reason for another early Sunday morning trip, after the previous Sunday’s Matisse-related excitement, was to see Cafe Oto’s contribution to the Dear Serge series there. I originally found out about this at the DLWP (ahem), seeing a poster about upcoming events (I was pleasantly surprised to see how much music they do have there), then there was a mailing from Oto. My original plan for this Sunday was to go to Liverpool to see the accompaniment to the Mondrian show I’d caught at Margate (again, as yet unrecorded here). That’s now been postponed. One of the games I could play during the journey was to predict which people would be joining me at the show, and I was mostly correct. Another game was trying to work out whether I was in the correct carriage, because the train was due to split at Eastbourne and the display system wasn’t working, so it was hard to know which carriage I was in. I didn’t know any of the artists but that’s usually a good thing. The first sonic intervention of the day was actually from the large collection of boats resting on the beach, their rigging thrashing about in the wind. Approaching the building itself, I saw Izabela Brudkiewicz preparing for the final roll her big ball, the arrival of which would close the day, a bit like the end of a marathon at the Olympics. When she did start rolling it in front of the pavilion, people eagerly went up to her to ask what she was doing, and she was able to recruit them easily to the task of writing their notes in response, which would be pinned to the outside of the ball.

Café Oto at Dear Serge

It was quite difficult to eat my middle-class packed lunch from Waitrose, because the wind was quite impertinent in its strength, such that components of each forkful were at risk of blowing onto the table. Meanwhile my hair was losing some of its carefully sought style unity. Cowering in the lee of a pillar, I heard a member of staff talking to some old ladies who were taking a table just around the corner:

There’s about to be some music, I think it’s improvised jazz, which might be a bit noisy. You’ve probably heard the drums. Just to warn you.

Strange drones and bangs could be heard at this time, so to that extent he was correct. Exploring after the buffeted lunch, some of the artists weren’t quite ready. Hence I asked where the Sun Parlour was, the location for lll人. They were an alto saxophonist, who kept his eyes shut a lot of the time, a drummer who obscured his vision with black shades, and another man also with shades, alternately deploying a coiled spring and what looked like a gumdrop microphone. Officially, his instrument was “raw feedback”.

Café Oto at Dear Serge

With the latter, I wondered whether it was magnetic, because it would oscillate rapidly between the bare can and the speaker, thereby creating an impressive racket.

Café Oto at Dear Serge

Occasionally the microphone would do something unexpected, and he’d raise his eyebrows in surprise and satisfaction.

There were quite a few families with young children about. A lot of them had presumably just come on a day out, as opposed to those few families that crave abstract noise of a Sunday, and at this point I saw the first of several children who made a big show of protesting by scrunching up their faces and holding their hands over their ears.

Next I headed to the North Stair, site of Rie Nakajima, whose interventions were electro-mechanical.

Café Oto at Dear Serge

At this stage, she had deployed only a few creations, producing intermittent noises. Back to her later.

On the ground floor, I first saw Shelley Parker in the Meeting Room, who went for a “fag break” not long after I arrived, though she did take care to leave a drone running in her absence. Next door Oren Ambarchi and Johan Berthling had been allocated the main auditorium. (I wondered about the decision process – were they widely thought the most popular artists? Were they the only ones with the confidence to fill the largest space for four hours?) By now the conundrum of the day was apparent: stick with one of the performances and see it “properly”, developing over time, or move around the building, dipping into them all throughout the afternoon. No doubt some of the real Café Oto crowd who’d come from Dalston knew all these artists already, and some of them probably stuck with their favourite. In my ignorance I thought it best to flit around.

Going to the roof again, where Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides, from my home town, hadn’t quite got going, I heard someone exclaim about the sky, and looking inland it was brooding and intense:

Café Oto at Dear Serge

while out to sea all were skipping along happily:

Café Oto at Dear Serge

On the stairs, Rie Nakajima had consolidated her infestation and the accumulation of overlapping clinks and irregular bangs from her progeny was noticeable:

Café Oto at Dear Serge

I liked her use of special batteries:

Café Oto at Dear Serge

Many of her self-built gadgets consisted of a machine turning around and then becoming frustrated as it built up pressure against an obstacle, then finally breaking free, only to repeat the whole cycle. Others span around freely and then punished a cup or a bowl or some tin foil for an arc’s worth, then carried on.

On to Shelley Parker again. It was impressive how little equipment she needed to make a punishing boom (approximately a rucksack’s worth). Her approach seemed to be along the lines of what would have happened if Basic Channel had been inspired by Noise rather than Techno. She had one of those Akai MPC devices, so it was clearly (to some extent) loop-based, but there was so much processing going on that it certainly wasn’t repetitive and for once the manic twiddling of the mixer knobs and faders seemed justified (I sometimes people think people do it on stage so as to look busy…)

Café Oto at Dear Serge

In fact it sounded as if she was doing some real scraping and grinding, which shows her skill, given the sound generators were all digital.

Back to the Sun Parlour, where at one point part of the drums self-dismantled, which I don’t think was planned. A few tables behind me someone mentioned Showadywaddy and recalled an episode in which the choice offered had been:

Champagne, or cocaine, with your sausages.

In the auditorium, I felt a little cheated because there still hadn’t been any action I’d seen on the drums. However, it was clear that their’s was by far the most emotionally engaging of the performances, extremely simple as it was, mostly drones with treatments. The most accessible, perhaps. By this time, they were both using guitars (as sound sources, rather than instruments).

On the North Stair, you increasingly had to tread carefully, so as not to disturb the increasing proliferation of rattling creatures. Everyone was smiling and she still had lots of raw material for further efforts:

Café Oto at Dear Serge

On my next visit to the meeting room, which was blessed with the deadeningly familiar trunking with power sockets, she was on a break again but had left noises running for us. Though her site was the smallest, she did have the benefit of the reverberation and echo effects of the narrow corridor outside the room, which funnelled the sound out and funnelled people in.

Next door there was some serious concentration, even then, after several hours of performance:

Café Oto at Dear Serge

and I did get to see them play the drums in the end.

Café Oto at Dear Serge

By this time Rie Nakajima had a marvellous accumulation of wayward automata. As well as adding more, she’d been perfecting the ones she’d already deployed, adding extra items to clink, or changing their orientation. The overall effect was making everyone giddy and full of grins.

Café Oto at Dear Serge

The Auditorium performance came to an end. They had to signal that it had in fact finished by ostentatiously switching off their amps, and fading out the final background humming drone. Towards the end of their set one of the players started oddly reminding me of Tom Paulin, which didn’t seem appropriate. At this point, people were crowding around the Meeting Room, where Shelley Parker introduced a beat, as a reward for persistence. The laconic feedback-saxophone-drums people had already finished, so the mad noise hounds congregated on the roof for Part Wild Horses Mane On Both Sides, who were the last to stop. Again, they had to confirm to the audience that they’d actually finished, which illustrates how different all these performances were from “normal” gigs. I felt sorry I hadn’t checked them out more. The actual final finale was from Izabela Brudkiewicz, who completed the rolling of her ball around the promenade, into the main foyer, to applause, and close inspection of the ball.

Café Oto at Dear Serge

After seeing the ball for myself, I felt a bit bereft. There was silence, (ignoring people’s chatter), which seemed Rubbish, after a whole afternoon of varied sounds and noises. Is there a trick to keeping traditional song structures at bay? Or maybe all musicians would prefer this kind of improvisational freak out, rather than song strictures. I really liked the diversity of the chosen artists, which encouraged an itinerant approach amongst the audience. It was a pleasure to see the building again, and I’ll keep an eye on future Dear Serge events.

Flickr set from Dear Serge

Inexpertly curated video playlist on YouTube


Woolf elides into Cale

Unusually, I arrived at the Barbican in good time. There were lots of people milling around, confused by the closure of the usual downstairs ticket office, and others trying to interact with the drooping plastic creatures of Petting Zoo, part of Digital Revolution (which I’ve now seen twice, and which is now sadly sold out). Few of them realise that the thing to do isn’t to touch them, but to stand in the right position for the monitoring cameras, when they will curl up and their lights will activate. I felt a little sad for the creature nearest the explanatory blurb, because it probably learned over the course of the run that people just stand there, unresponsive. There was a special extra queue in operation for that exhibition, which was good to see. I haven’t written about it yet but it’s very good.

What to do before LOOP>>60Hz: Transmissions from The Drone Orchestra? 5 pages remained in Mrs. Dalloway, after my reading during this morning’s commute, so I finished that. There were probably some Sally Seton characters in the Barbican, even an Ellie Henderson or two. It’s tempting to align myself with Peter Walsh, of course…

There were stern notices warning about the drones, the nets to protect the audience from the drones, and the need to, yes, switch your mobile phones actually off no not just on silent. Inside the theatre, ushers had to wander around repeating this injunction. There were indeed nets above the stalls, and to each side, anchored at the corners of the stage. If this show were to be repeated in five years’ time, would the confidence in drones’ safety be such that there would be no perceived need for similar netting, or would the insurers insist upon them anyway? I wondered whether they’d practised a drone crash, with staff primed to rush across and retrieve it from the net.

When the ‘curtain’ lifted, John Cale and his band were waiting, with a gap in front of them, beneath the stage level. It was from here that the drones emerged, the first one being quite large, with illuminated tubes coiled around the centre. The hair of people at the front was buffeted in the downdraft, which became a regular feature, only rarely extended to those like me as far back as row J. It was almost as if there were two bands performing: the musicians on stage, and the pilots plus crew beneath. You could see the heads of the latter, watching their craft with great concentration, looking a little sad and relieved when they landed, out of our sight.

As is quite common, I didn’t know many of the songs (though see later). (In some ways, is that a more pure form of appreciation? Or just an excuse for poor research?) There was John Cale himself, singing and orating, playing keyboard and viola, a guitarist, bassist, drummer and keyboard/computer man. At times, they themselves had enough spare capacity to watch the drones flying, in what the handout described as an act of “autonomous choreography”. Why the need for pilots then? Were they just monitoring? It’s true that the high-speed jerking twitchy shimmies of one of the drones, in time with the music, seemed a bit too good for human control. However, I liked to think that the pilots (as they were listed) were responsible.

During the second of third song, an unexpected very bright white light started flashing on me directly from above, such that there was a strange pulsing effect, as my vision recovered each time, exacerbated by the effect of my glasses, with the light collecting at the edge of the lenses. While this made watching the stage and the drones rather difficult, it was a pretty novel experience. Later on, the light shone steadily on my leg, which warmed up a little, given the heretofore unheralded heat absorbing properties of my black trousers.

The full fleet of drones was revealed across the set, comprising four small, nimble ones with four blades, plus several larger ones with more decoration, and six blades (hence, more noise). Some of the four appeared for portions of most songs, and I liked to think that the larger ones, called something like Hector, would ascend to keep an eye on them (possibly Kevin and Betty). Meanwhile, the music was great. I’ve always loved Cale’s voice, and his dogged, hefty obscurity, combined with occasional beauty. What I had never expected was that I’d see a performance of Sister Ray, from one of its original composers (I spurned the revival tour of the Velvet Underground, twenty years ago). This was amazingly good, a totally transformed version, though true to the insistent, throbbing spirit of the original, and formed the end of the main set. The encore was Strange Times in Casablanca, during which one of the large drones (Gerald) appeared, with a bag dangling beneath. During the song, somehow the bag opened, and the front of the audience received a tinsel drenching. A man in front of me gleefully picked up one of the strips and put it away in his bag, the better to add to his collection.

After that, the band went off stage again, Cale thanking the audience and noting that there had been

No casualties.

The applause continued, and then a platform gradually raised, on which lay all of the drones, with their various adornments and illuminations activated. Then Cale re-appeared, with Liam Young, the band members, then the four pilots and other crew. The pilots looked a little overwhelmed by the reaction, perhaps unused to the public gaze.

It was a show unlike anything I’ve seen before, and not just that, it was very good. I only felt it was a shame that the drones were constrained to a relatively small airspace. The Sister Ray ambition I didn’t know I had, was realised.

On the way out, I overheard someone exclaiming that

there’s someone small, dark-haired and Welsh,

the full significance of which remains obscure.

From Ambleside to Margate part 1

During an officially-sanctioned period of recreation, part of the schedule of a work-related trip, I wanted to explore Ambleside. Naturally, it was raining, which attenuated any small desire I had to climb the hills. I had thought of going to the Armitt Museum, where I’d enjoyed the exhibition about Royal College of Art students being evacuated to the area during the Second World War, a few years ago. However, the current show was about Beatrix Potter, which was a little less appealing. I decided to explore Lake Windermere a little and took the Green Cruise launch, the “Queen of the Lake”. We passed by a castle, where the family sailing with me descended and a couple of people boarded.

Ambleside August 2014

At the next calling point, Brockhole, I got off and walked towards the Lake District Visitors’ Centre. Other than the view of the gardens and the house itself,

Ambleside August 2014

Ambleside August 2014

the main thing I noticed as I approached was the sound of people whirring down the zipwire, in the woods. There was a small exhibition, though the main focus seemed to be on “family activities”, mitigated a little by the climatic inclemency. In past epochs I might have gorged on fudge and/or Kendal Mint Cake, but of course such things are now Verboten. Mainly.

A little frustrated, I wandered around outside, making sure I’d seen all of the gardens indicated on the map, when I spotted a sign for a “bird hide”. Mindful of the precedent of Bill Oddie, and wondering exactly what this would be, I followed more arrow signs to a small hut which enjoined quietness upon those who entered. There was no-one else there, so I could spend as much time as I liked, enjoying the spectacle of the birds in the clearing festooned with feeders. The first lesson was not to make noise when opening the windows, because a slight creak sent the birds flying off to their hiding places in the trees. I liked the way that the birds’ persistence and eagerness would cause the feeders to rotate, creating a nutritional carousel, and they appeared to compete even though there were enough feeding points for all. There were identification aids posted inside the hide, though I mainly just took in the strange and rather pleasing mixture of quiet and intermittent activity.

Ambleside August 2014

Ambleside August 2014

The next day, after the work had finished, I took the train to Manchester, having sought the advice of people who Know About These Things that I could “break” my journey like this, and take a somewhat indirect route back to that London, over several days. Two tables of people in my carriage had broken through passenger reserve and already had nicknames for each other: Prosecco Man and Scones Man. One of the young women was told that she would make a good tram driver, while the older table tried to explain to the others about racist TV in the seventies:

YouTube love thy neighbour.

We have to accept that verbing now, I think.

I had 90 minutes free before the rendezvous with my local host, so I alighted at Oxford Road and entered Cornerhouse to see what was on. Unfortunately, they were in between exhibitions. Hmmph. At least I bought a couple of magazines (Jackdaw and The Modernist). With the Whitworth still closed (and a little too far away), I walked up to what will always be for me the City Art Gallery. Downstairs there was a display of jewellery by Bernhard Schobinger: The Rings of Saturn. This was quite a traditional show, with the old-school glass cases, contrasting with the attempted iconoclasm of the pieces themselves, which I must admit I found rather facile, albeit intermittently witty. Much better was the exhibition upstairs – Sculptural Forms – A Century of Experiment. Whenever I’m passing through TCR station, which is quite often, I try to savour the Eduardo Paolozzi mosaics, marooned as they are in such a morose environment, and I liked his contribution to this show, as I did pieces by Toby Paterson, Victor Pasmore, Michael Challenger, Ron Arad and Cecil Stephenson. There was a tribute to Alan Turing, that included an artist’s idea of a circuit board, which was endearingly naive. An excellent idea to show some of the pieces from the Whitworth collection while it’s being refurbished and extended.

The show attracting most of the publicity was up a level – Ryan Gander’s Make every show like it’s your last. Unaware that I’d have this opportunity, I’d seen an episode of the normally wretched Culture Show (every time I see it I lament the loss of the Late Show, even if I was one of the super-served 250,000 who watched it every night…) about him, which consisted of edge-free encomiums, for the most part. It struck me that he has a lot of clever slogans, which make for good blurbs, but the art to which the slogans and blurbs refer is mostly rather insubstantial. I confess I did smirk to see a computer case fan with red LED illumination inside one of his “useless machines”, while I actively liked the chess pieces based on industrial design, nestled in the Design gallery.

The next day, during my journey from Manchester to London, via Sheffield, there was quite an extended conversation between a man who must at most have been in his early twenties and a middle-aged woman. He wanted to go to the school in Croydon that “Jessie J and Amy Winehouse” went to. His backup plan was “celebrity journalism”.

My vocabulary is very good. I do actually use very good words, and a lot of them I learned from famous people. It was in the Lady Gaga music video. She sounds so smart in that video.

When we arrived at St. Pancras, a man asked me to confirm that it was the quiet coach. He hadn’t realised…

Flickr set from Ambleside