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Art Sheffield 2016
16 April – 8 May 2016
Interviews by VERONICA SIMPSON
Filmed by MARTIN KENNEDY
Martin Clark, the director of Bergen Kunsthall, Norway, has created Art Sheffield 2016: Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm, entirely around sound and video art. His aim is for the three-week event to inspire and provoke a connection between different parts of the city – from derelict pubs and abandoned factories to veteran nightclubs and modern gallery spaces – and the musical, cultural, social and political events that have helped to shape this once prosperous industrial hub, as well as propel it into its modern day version, where former factories have transformed into galleries and student housing, and the knowledge economy is king.
Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm could be seen as Clark’s love letter to the city where he spent his formative years as an art student, embracing its vibrant music scene, and branching out into DJing in the city’s clubs and bars before he made the switch from sound decks to gallery specs.
Clark has drawn on his deep knowledge of the city’s musical and visual culture, as well as its social and political history, to animate key spaces around the city purely with sound and video art. He chose the title - it refers to the six “flavours” or types of quark, which make up the building blocks of the material world – to reference both the ephemerality of its physical landscapes and because, he says: “It seems to me that music and film have a physical presence, even if they are ephemeral.”
This is the first time either Clark or Art Sheffield have deployed singular works strategically in off-site spaces. And Clark describes it as “more like an exploded group show than a biennial, where you pick one overarching theme … The city is as implicated and as present as the works themselves … (It’s all about) the experience of being in that space and walking around and seeing other spaces.”
Working with the Art Sheffield team to cherry pick and then secure the sites he was interested in – incorporating the derelict, the iconic and the rehabilitated – Clark then chose the artists whose work resonated most intriguingly with those spaces. Although most of it is pre-existing work, there are new commissions from Hannah Sawtell, Steven Claydon, Mark Fell and Richard Sides.
As with every biennial, the idea is not just to reflect aspects of the local and parochial, but to amplify the host city’s presence on the global art stage. And the work is a mixture of the specific and the universal, the local and the international. At polar extremes, in this respect, are the works by Mark Fell and Beatrice Gibson.
Mark Fell’s Structural Solutions to the Question of Being is being exhibited at The Link pub on the Park Hill housing estate. Fell, who describes himself as a “Rotherham-based music producer and artist”, brings a wealth of local knowledge to this site-specific installation: a loving recreation, in a derelict brutalist housing estate pub, of the heady days of the 1980s and 90s underground music scene, as well as a far from rose-tinted recollection of the politics of the day.
Among the dangling, cheap chandeliers, the ruined wallpaper and flashing blue and red disco lights, Fell plays a broadcast from a pirate radio station that used to operate from the Park Hill flats, from one night in 1992 – when Fell would have been a regular listener and even contributor. Elsewhere, that evening’s DJs – Rebecca Seager and Solid State – are interviewed about the musical landscape of the day, while, on one wall Fell charts a “timeline” in fluorescent Post-it notes of the 80s and 90s, featuring pivotal moments in sound and recording technology, as well as drug and music culture. Scattered across the floor are postcards emblazoned with upbeat slogans, reminiscent of the euphoric dance tracks of the day, which contrast powerfully with televised and transcribed verbatim Conservative party broadcasts (most notably Peter Lilley’s 1992 speech in which he described New Age Travellers as “locusts”).
London-based artist Beatrice Gibson’s film F for Fibonacci, at Bloc Projects, evokes the chaos of contemporary capitalist economics via a child’s Minecraft fantasy, contrasting the simplicity of the child’s-eye view with the grotesque and sometimes surreal aspirations and machinations of global finance.
F for Fibonacci is one of a series of films Gibson has made, inspired by William Gaddis’s epic 1975 capitalist satire JR. The novel follows an 11-year-old boy who creates a vast financial empire, with the help of his school’s resident composer. This film is structured around a conversation between Gibson and a real 11-year-old, Clay Barnard Chodzko, as he escorts her around his own Minecraft fantasy playground, built for his imaginary billionaire, Mr Money.
Inevitably, there’s a sense of zoning in and out, as the visitor traipses from one venue to the next; a sense of shifting perspectives – both literal and figurative – which complements the dynamic of the show. Works also zoom in and out of time zones.
New pieces for the show include Hannah Sawtell’s @dividend_plus - a decentralised peoples’ cryptocurrency, which went live at the opening of the exhibition. People can invest in and exchange this currency through http:/dividend.plus, with the resulting fluctuations in its value visible in an interactive, tumbling coin graphic on the right-hand side of the large screen installed at Site Gallery. On the other side of the screen, Sawtell has created two fictional digital animations, one of a bare-knuckle fighting grandmother, the other an expanded representation of a tardigrade (a micro-animal resistant to blight).
Highlights among the older pieces include a powerful work by US video artists Pat Hearn and Shelley Lake, Seizure (playing at Dina). It shows Hearn dancing naked and holding a strobe light, which unexpectedly triggers an epileptic seizure halfway through the session, with the subsequent arrival of emergency medics and paraphernalia included in the sequence. There is also a welcome showcase, in the Arundel Street venue, for the pioneering “Scratch video” artists of the 80s, including George Barber, Duvet Brothers, Gorilla Tapes and Sandra Goldbacher.
There is newer work from long established artists, such as New York’s Charles Atlas’s Painting by Numbers, 2011, shown in the Sheffield Institute of Arts gallery, a work that pulsates with swarming numerical figures. It is shown alongside two earlier pieces made in collaboration with long-time associate Merce Cunningham – Channels/Inserts (1982) and Blue Studio: Five Segments (1975-76).
One of the most atmospheric spaces is Portland Works, a disused Victorian steel cutlery works – apparently, the place where stainless steel was invented – which has only recently been rescued from dereliction. Here, in a stripped brick and whitewashed empty hall, US-based sound artist Florian Hecker progressively annihilates our ability to distinguish human and machine sound with his piece Hinge. Two streams of text – one human and one machine-made – gradually collide and then disintegrate into each other.
But the glorious culmination of Studio International’s tour – and, I would suggest, one worth saving until last on anyone’s visit – is Steven Claydon’s viscerally affecting installation in the ultimate iconic building, the Grade II listed, brutalist Moore Street electricity substation.
Steven Claydon’s newly commissioned Infra-idol Assembly is set within the vast, bunker-like, top-floor space of the Moore Street substation, designed by Jefferson Sheard and constructed in the 60s, when it was thought that Sheffield’s industrial star was still on the rise, and would require a power station of this size. Thanks to the dismantling of the city’s steel industry, this top floor has never been used. This, its first occupation, has only been made possible due to the substation’s annual three-week shutdown for maintenance – an event that dictated Art Sheffield’s timing.
Accessed via a winding concrete and glass staircase, the physical presence of this huge room – and one’s insignificance in relation to it - is augmented by a projection at the far end of the room, on which Claydon is broadcasting an animation made from atoms. Claydon has clipped excerpts from IBM animation A Boy and his Atom, a film made to demonstrate IBM scientists’ breakthrough in being able to control the movement of atoms from one place to another. It is accompanied by the actual soundtrack of these atoms being moved, interwoven with words sampled from tapes of early computer-generated poetry. The soundtrack itself is amplified by a large, sculptural reverb unit, constructed from plate steel manufactured in the city.
To those of us who live in “cultural capitals”, such as London, the pace of urban transformation has become so rapid that there is barely time to bear witness to the discarded monoliths and monuments that went before. Sheffield is not one of those cities. Its economic scars and socially seismic events are still visible, from the many still-derelict warehouses to the grey concrete modernist flats that squat behind Park Hill’s one, newly refurbished block. They offer up a poignant architectural memorial to boom and bust in one 360-degree sweep of the eye. They chart a trajectory of social, political and cultural optimism (the 1970s), when inhabitants of the “people’s republic of Sheffield” flocked to occupy these local government-built, centrally heated apartments, with their fitted kitchens and panoramic views, through the Thatcher years of disinvestment, privatisation and deprivation, with just a little up-curve of regeneration visible in the single, lovingly reupholstered, habitable building.
It is a wonderful canvas on which to paint a festival of visual and sonic culture that looks back to the city’s glory days, when it appeared to lead the country’s music scene in electronic artistry and invention (70s, 80s), but also celebrates the enduring spirit of vitality and solidarity which permeates Sheffield’s culture, visual, intellectual and social, despite its resolute status as “ungentrified”.
A whole range of exhibitions and events are programmed alongside and during the festival. Whether they act to convince any local sceptics about the value and benefits of sonic and video art, who can say; Yorkshire folk are possibly the least easily impressed by art world rhetoric and fashions. My vote for the work most likely to lead to a withering declamation from the Yorkshire naysayers would be Anna Barham’s 000998146-horizontal-panning-empty-fashi_prores/böhm-on-dialogue-ch5 (2015) – a jpeg of an empty fashion catwalk whose coding has been corrupted so that it judders and shifts, accompanied by its jarringly disjointed soundtrack. I would happily hand out 20 Sheffield @dividends to anyone who could be bothered to post themselves outside its venue to harvest feedback, in the hope of catching a choice putdown akin to one I overheard last year at the Sir Anthony Caro retrospective in the Yorkshire Sculpture Park: a Yorkshireman emerged from the Longside gallery, having pondered the great man’s late works – unexpected collisions of plastic, rusty metal, moulded and painted steel – and said to his waiting wife: “Eeh, you don’t want to bother going in there, love.”
What it will undoubtedly do is convince Sheffield citizens and visitors of the importance of a vibrant homegrown music and visual culture to the city’s past as well as present.