Relaunch Issue One
Introduction September 2018
Digressions can sometimes be the most interesting, memorable parts of conversation; the parts later reused and retold as engaging anecdotes. These fragments, occasionally introduced “let me digress a moment”, can be used to reveal the main flow or purpose of a presentation. They might serve as a means of drawing together multiple narrative threads, overlaying them and pointing towards what might be missing: things that have been forgotten or considered irrelevant; stories that have been hidden or partially obscured by other stories.
Collected in the form of narrative, a “Soanyway River” of supposedly random ideas, these stories suggest a search for an origin or definition. Sometimes it is a single voice, like Skye Shadowlight’s ‘One Small Step’ which attempts to refocus and unite clashing identities through digressive reminiscing. Sometimes it is a place which acts like a multi-layered memory, as Dale Holmes’ ‘The Neolithic Deckchairs of C/Einstein’ tells of archaeological digs for the oldest stories to be found beneath the layers of newer narratives. At other times, it is an object, reused, its purpose redefined, as recounted in ‘Ritherdon and Nicola Ellis’ by Lauren Velvick. Likewise words and images might be reworked like Jean McEwan’s series ‘Collage with found ArtForum magazine’; a new story pieced together from old ones, while suggestions of the old remain visible. In Ulrika Lublin’s ‘Notes from the cappuccino lounge’ there is a search to become a single character and find a coherency in the natural flow of thought, through a play with alternate realities and personae. The frustration of lost trains of thought, interruption, and a reach for definitive correctness, is found in ‘Autocorrect’ by George West which recombines fragments of the familiar, reminiscent of Kurt Schwitters’ Dadaist sound poetry.
In another sense, just as layers of old stories might be found in one place, a palimpsest, there are singular narratives suggesting hidden alternatives. These can be found in the most unlikely of places: Graham Martin’s report speaks of Kaur ChiMuk’s ‘A Month with People’s Tragedy’, a durational performance game, an alternate political narrative of the World Cup. The photographs taken from Millie Elliott’s pseudo-documentary series ‘Order from Chaos’ teasingly suggest alternate stories, obscured memories, of which a singular ‘correct’ one would perhaps be impossible to find. Joanna Craddock’s ambiguous suggestions of movement and stillness in ‘Thank you Estelle’ play upon our notions of balance and perception, drawing supposedly random objects and ideas into communication. As though forgetting its own voice, waiting for the pauses to proffer something more certain, the piano in Maarten Benschop’s ‘Offset I’ hesitantly introduces ideas which fade and play with their own echoes. The viola picks up the fading narrative, encouraging a continuation of digressive dialogue, and a conversation ensues between all the instruments, each contained within their own reminiscing, alternately taking lead, but also inviting complementary interruption.
Familiar objects, ideas and words are recycled; once part of old narratives, they form new or alternate ones, in communication with each other. Tom Edmonds’ dialogue between word and image, and experiments with the materialisation of language, exemplify a call for redefinition and interdisciplinary approach. He uses silence, a form of digression, as his point of focus. Digression is a game: pretending to run away with itself, its journey is often the most worthy of attention.
In Response: a relaunch dialogue after Soanyway
For this relaunch issue of Soanyway, we wanted to create our own discursive narrative, a dialogue of stories about stories, suggesting, responding, and alternating. We wanted to offer a multifaceted way into the “Soanyway River”, the journey of digression, with its “a thousand sides to everything”.
In Silence: a response after Tom Edmonds
Tom Edmond’s In Silence (1966) was shown at the recent Chelsea Space exhibition Astro-poems and vertical group exercises: Concrete poetry at CSA, which presented, as the curator Gustavo Grandal Montero described, a “narrative” of concrete poetry; the adoption and evolution of this cross-disciplinary form by British artists during the 1960s. It included recently re-discovered archival materials and the main space was dedicated to Edmonds whose “unique glass box poems are among the most ambitious explorations of 3D representation of language as art at the time” (Grandal Montero).
The 1965 exhibition catalogue Between Poetry and Painting, displayed at Chelsea Space, begins with a quote from Arthur Rimbaud. In ‘Délires II Alchimie Du Verbe’ (1873), Rimbaud writes that he has invented the colour of vowels and reserved the right to translation, before declaring: “J'écrivais des silences, des nuits, je notais l'inexprimable. Je fixais des vertiges. [I wrote silences, nights, I noted the inexpressible. I transfixed vertigos.]” The desire to speak to all the senses reaches its culmination in writing silence, in noting the inexpressible. His pen takes hold of elusive liminal or ‘non’ spaces – the space usually only grasped distantly, pointed towards using other entities; the silence suggested between two words, black night realised by the light of day either side, the inexpressible articulated via the expressible. He, the poet, is a still point in the turning world of continuously shifting definition (‘vertigos’); he is the translator, the body in-between, pulling together various threads of possible sense so that it might be pinned (‘transfixed’). The plural “silences” he reaches at this point are not passive, but a climactic unity of all these threads; it is as though there is such a clashing of united sound that it can only be expressed as silence; so loud that it cancels itself out, like an aircraft breaking the sound barrier. The strange concept of ‘writing silence’ points at the nature of ‘silence’ itself written as a word, a silent set of symbols – shapes so tangible that they might be assigned colours and treated as objects.
Tom Edmonds’ In Silence is a glass cube with ten vertical panes of glass at equal distances. Each pane has a letter, red or blue, positioned so that the viewer sees several ‘IN SILENCE’s as 3D statements read diagonally. The letters appear to move, the space inevitably grow and diminish, as the viewer walks by. Effectively placed opposite the entrance to the main room at Chelsea Space, the viewer was immediately faced by it as they turned to see Edmonds’ work. This instant of cognisance seems to invite a momentary pause, a consideration, ‘in silence’. The sense is that the viewer and work are in conversation; the work demands attention and a multitude of possible suggestions seem exchanged. The viewer lends it their ear via their eye. And through this fusion of senses, the work speaks ‘in silence’. This also hauntingly points at the absence of Edmonds, the writer of this silence.
The letters are suspended upon the transparent panes, held by an invisible hand. Unlike flat ink upon paper (the depths only imagined, theoretical, behind the printed word), these painted letters can be seen from behind: there are no secrets, it is fully naked. Here the letters are made tangible not as free-standing sculpture, but via the spaces between which give the words their literal depth and make it 3D. It is the movement, the diagonal placing of the letters, which make it comprehensible as a word. Otherwise it would become like Compromise Poem (1969) – a chaos of overlaid letters impossible to ‘read’. Like Rimbaud, this silence is not passive: Edmonds has made a still point, full of motion, in the turning world; he has held but not stayed “des vertiges”.
Rimbaud had claimed the ‘right to translation’, placing himself in a liminal space as translator. As recorded in Between Poetry and Painting, when John Furnival was asked “whether he considered himself a painter or a poet” replied that he was neither; that a “more accurate term for this sort of work has still to be invented”. The concrete poet rests in the uncertain space between poet and painter, still perhaps regarded with a little suspicion from both the literary and art worlds. Yet Rimbaud revealed his mediatory position as poet, a point of intersection; drawing upon the familiar to experiment with and rewrite the unfamiliar. The hovering letters of In Silence defamiliarise language, writing and shape by delaying cognition, such that the gap between letter and its (usually simultaneous) signification is widened. The work lies in another liminal space, a transfixed point full of movement, an object waiting in silence to speak.
In Everything: a response after Gertrude Gibbons
Gertrude Gibbons’ reflections here on “the uncertain space between poet and painter”, with its wider connections to the space between the literary and the visual or the imagined and the materialised, bring to my mind André Breton’s assertion in his novel Nadja that, “life is other than what one writes”. But the act of writing is nonetheless part of the writer’s everyday life, and this is exactly what makes possible the writer’s ability, as Gibbons describes, to draw upon the familiar to experiment with and rewrite the unfamiliar.
The closure of the space between art and life in an explicitly political sense was at the heart of the Cuban filmmaker Julio García Espinosa’s polemical manifesto, For an Imperfect Cinema (1969) in which he argued that the imperfections of a low budget ‘cinema of urgency’, seeking to create a dialogue with its audience, were preferable to the sheen of high production values that merely reflect the audience passively back to itself. “Art will not disappear into nothingness”, Espinosa suggested; “it will disappear into everything.”
As Gertrude Gibbons and I embark on our joint editorship of Soanyway, the idea of art disappearing into everything is inspirational. What is Soanyway? A definitive answer is, for us, neither possible nor desirable. What we offer here in our first jointly edited issue is a provisional and speculative answer. A negative one too, in that we can say what it is not. Not specific to an art form or a creative method; not for a specialised audience; not academic or theoretical. What we can be definite about is the centrality of narrative. The first iteration of Soanyway (seventeen issues published between 2008 and 2012) set out “to publish words, images and sounds that tell stories, understanding that broadly in relation to fact and fiction, narrative and metaphor, and structure or its absence”, asserting also that “most history, theory and critique consists of stories about stories”. However much the relaunched version of the magazine may change and develop, this remains our focus.
Part of what has always defined us as human is our need to tell each other stories. We live in a world now where the means by which stories can be told and transmitted – not just in words and not only through the bodily means of speaking or writing – is infinitely expansive. The role of storytelling is as important today as it has always been. Stories explain how things are and imagine how things could be. They shape the way we live; they tell us who we are and let us imagine who we might become; they anchor us or set us free. They allow us to journey to another place, another time. They remind us of things, or allow us to forget; cause us pain or dull it; provoke laughter or cut it short. There are more and more stories in the world every day, a proliferation that generates an increasing need to be more aware of the stories we are told, who is telling them and why. To think of the world as made up of stories is to be alert to the often hidden process of their making – all narratives are constructed and it pays to be aware of by whom and in whose interests.
We define Soanyway as a magazine to identify it as a space of variety and diversity. The unifying form of the magazine allows the juxtaposition of the widest range of content – anything can be next to anything else, sparking curiosity and allowing the unanticipated to be stumbled upon. The mundane expression ‘so anyway’, used after digressions in everyday conversation to return to the point, suggests another common figure of speech: ‘and another thing’, taking the conversation off in a new direction. Soanyway aims repeatedly for such new directions; to be a space of unexpected interaction, a multitude of voices, not a single, particular perspective that people are expected to subscribe to in a passive way; an open space, but nonetheless one shaped by us editorially, where each contribution has its autonomy but where its placement in relation to others leaves it open to the construction of new meanings. Hence our reluctance to define too precisely what Soanyway might be. Its existence in the space of the internet, the place that has given ‘cloud’ a new meaning, is appropriate though, since that space might be seen as a non-rigid network, a web or a lace, a fine and complex pattern of threads. Soanyway is a narrative space where multiple patterns of connections and disconnections can exist as sensuous experiences, aesthetic affinities, theoretical proximities, social collaboration and individual imagination.
Millie Elliott - From the series Order from Chaos
Skye Shadowlight - One Small Step
"When I was little, I used to dream about going up into the stars. I mean, we lived right around the corner from NASA over there off Space Center Boulevard. We used to take school trips over there and look at all the rockets and spaceships. I used to climb right there into the cockpit and dream about going out into the unknown…. but Houston, we have a problem.
"It’s a silly thing to remember, but we used to have to bring a pack lunch on those days when we had school trips, but ya see my Momma wasn’t very good at pack lunches. School trips were so fun, we got to miss class and everything but I usually didn’t really get to eat much on them days. I mean I got free school lunches most days so I didn’t have to worry. I even remember when they started doing free school breakfasts, I used to get myself up super-early and go into school before it even started. It was the first time I ever had french toast with syrup…. ya see Momma didn’t cook much neither.
"I can remember telling Momma I was gonna be an astronaut, she just smiled at me and said, “Baby, people like us…. we don’t get to be astronauts. You’ll be lucky to get yourself a good paying job over there at Shell or Diamond Shamrock, that’s the best you can hope for baby….
"See, Bubba was never gonna get to be no astronaut. Most of them houses across the street from the trailer park, did you know that they all had swimming pools? Can you imagine? Just going out in your big backyard and diving right in? Sometimes, me and a couple of my buddies would sneak into the public pool under the fence, sometimes we’d get kicked out right away, but sometimes we’d get to stay all day.…
"Well, time passed, the way it does. I never did get me one of them jobs out at the plant. I guess I didn’t know the right people, or speak the right way. Life went on anyway, and it was hard. I think I drank to forget that there wasn’t too much to remember. And I found love on occasion, but I could never hold onto it. To be honest most of the time the beer and my fists did the talking for me in those situations, but that’s a whole other story…. It’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind. Like Neil Armstrong said about landing on the moon, “I didn’t feel giant, I felt very, very small…"
Dale Holmes - The Neolithic Deckchairs of C/Einstein
On the Spanish island of Gran Canaria there is a road which runs between the African desert region of Las Dunas de Maspalomas to the foot of the monumental volcanic rock face of Pico de Las Nieves. A nonessential piece of infrastructure, the road is lined with low rise apartment developments and tall swaying palm trees which rustle incessantly in the hot desert winds. Flanked by the neon lights of bars and night clubs littered with rich northern European holidaymakers, C/Einstein physically stretches indifferently between these otherwise discreet and radically unalike topographies, drawing together a plurality of forms. This long black strip of asphalt becomes plastic, flowing and reforming continuously in the intense desert heat of the islands southern region. This is a road that literally and symbolically makes a connection between the two continents of Africa and Europe without ever reducing one into the other.
Standing at the African end of the road, facing the sea you can survey the rolling sand dunes, within which are the nudist beaches and enclaves populated by gay men, lesbian women and the sexually non-committed. The Neolithic rock formations that run along and punctuate the otherwise endless repetition of the dunes. Like the tips of vertebrae from a giant backbone they snake along the coast into the distance. Massive cyclopean circles of rock built by modern day bathers rhythmically dot along the beach. Hiding places for sexual communications of every type. The dunes, the nakedness of the bathers, the snack bars and the beach discos, the paragliders and the holiday apartments, along with the Neolithic remnants of Guanche dwellings dug and carved into the volcanic rock. Brought together they provide an image of deep time and of now, worlds and epochs crashing together, no one thing any more essential than any other.
Turning from the African towards the European end of the road you are confronted by a rock giant. Monumental and pitiless it rises above the ocean, soaring up 1,949 metres above sea level, challenging and relentless. The sun is inescapable here. It finds its victims with ease. Shade is at a premium and the heat is oppressive. Every surface seems to dazzle and reflect. The man made and geological architectonics are abruptly reconfigured by the sharp shadows cast by the sun’s indifferent light, a searing brightness that suits it almost too well. Black relentless geometries reconstruct the surface of these already violent tectonics.
Between 1868 and 1936 the road was a stretch of dirt track and was the site of numerous archaeological digs. An effort by the Spanish authorities to provide evidence for the invention of a Canarian prehistory. The first known human like creatures, the Guanche appeared on the island during the Neolithic period bringing with them all the technologies typical to contemporary North Africa. The evidence of their society was to be found along this stretch of road. As was the existence of a giant rat species Canariomys tamarani. Evolutionary biologists of the mid 20th century have claimed the monstrous rodent was so large that some were domesticated by the Guanche as a source of meat, milk, leather and fur.
In around 1915 these archaeological digs turned up numerous burial sites, homesteads and religious sites. Human sacrifice was implied but became accepted fact through the speculative theatricalisations and unchecked racist primitivism of overly eager PhD candidates. All this supported by the violence writ upon the numerous skulls and bones of the Neolithic Canarians.
Alongside the human remains were sculptural objects. The experts of ‘primitive’ art were baffled and unable to distinguish what was being represented – animals? humans? everyday objects? The objects exhibited bauplans with twisted forms conjoined to harsh geometries, elongated and shortened limbs, pin sized heads and hellish grimaces folding and looping into themselves. Nothing resembling these had been discovered either in Africa, Australasia or Oceania before. In the end, some precarious agreement was reached that these animal/human/object chimeras were depictions of malevolent eldritch shrieking deities. Or, in keeping with academic trends of the time, childlike attempts and failures of representation made by primitive intelligences. But the truth of these objects’ sophistication proved difficult to suppress for very long. Whilst visiting the dig sites along C/Einstein in 1920, the inventors of Cubism, Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were astounded by the new forms that had been uncovered. The effects and influence of this ‘mythic realism’ was clearly evidenced in the paintings and sculptures they created on returning to Paris.
The troglodyte Guanche gave way to the blue eyed, fair haired Berbers that became the Canary Islands’ aboriginal people, known as the Canarii. This race of statuesque figures began settling on the island in 500 BC. For many centuries, the Canarii were thought to have originated in Scandinavia, the direct unadulterated descendants of the crews from a fleet of Viking ships that had gone astray in the archipelago, disoriented by the sight of the endless North African coastline. The Canarii were sovereign on the island for 2000 years and developed a peaceful and uninhibited culture.
These ‘white’ North Africans were in turn conquered, brutally liquidated through a genocide carried out during the Castilian settler invasion of the island in the mid 15th century. Close to the most northern point of the road next to the cubist surface of the volcanic rock face of Pico de Las Nieves is the village of Santa Lucía de Tirajana. Every 29th April, a ceremony takes place behind the fortress-like rock formation of Fortaleza Grande. It was here on that date in 1483, many Canarii jumped to their deaths rather than surrender to their tormentors.
After the brutal horrors of the islands conquest there were almost 500 years of peace along the road. That silence was shattered by the Spanish Civil War, the fascist General Franco launching the coup that would cause the conflict from his station on Gran Canaria in 1936. But it was the leader of the anarcho-syndicalist Durutti Column – Bueneventura Durutti, exiled on Gran Canaria as a punishment for organising militant anarchists, socialists and communists into strike action and worker disobedience during the early 1930’s – and the philosopher Simone Weil, who could be found in the barras and cantinas along C/Einstein recruiting youthful Canarian anarchists to fight the fascists on the mainland. When hostilities came to a close in 1939, the inhabitants of the island, and particularly those in the area of the road in Maspalomas, suffered greatly for their resistance.
Gran Canaria on the whole was left destitute, abandoned and all but forgotten. Nothing more than a safe haven for old Nazis escaping trial and a holiday resort for rich Spanish fascists. As part of the package holiday boom of the late 1960’s the road between Las Dunas de Maspalomas and the monumental volcanic rock face of Pico de Las Nieves got its first layers of tarmac, and its first street sign officially naming it C/Einstein in 1972.
Kaur ChiMuk - A Month with People's Tragedy
& A Match Report by Graham Martin
I have a game plan. I’ve eaten a light lunch and a cup of tea is on the touchline, by the computer. My old game plan has been abandoned. New information has dictated new tactics and I’m ready to stroll onto the field of writing play. I’m thinking of the reader and viewer of Kaur ChiMuk’s series of artworks, A Month With People’s Tragedy. I have known Kaur for a while. We’ve worked together, and over time discussed various art tactics and had many interesting conversations.
Let’s get down to it. Let’s talk about football and the ongoing madness of global politics. Personally I wasn’t keen on the World Cup, its big money and event spectacle, when it began. I was aware of Kaur’s conceptual art game during the tournament. A ‘durational performance initiative’ over the event which you see here in ‘illustration’ form. After most matches he’d post these poster images along with his text on social media.
After the final, perhaps the most relevant image of the tournament in regard to Kaur’s work began circulating on social media––the Pussy Riot pitch invasion and them hi-fiving the brilliant Kylian Mbappé. That moment broke the spectacle and returned it to the people. Yes, now a month with the people's tragedy I understand. A news story also appeared about Fiat workers protesting against the mega-signing of Ronaldo by Juventus. The club and car manufacturer owner are the same person. So to return… I asked Kaur some questions relating to his work.
G: So, let’s go down the tunnel together… What motivated you to make the work A Month With People's Tragedy?
K: If you observe carefully you can see a new nature and the changes in football politics especially since 1998, post- the French victory against South American football. You can mark how the mainstream oracles and the global appreciation follow a tournament like a World Cup as a platform of new 'gods', from the perspective of consumer. Although they are playing for a nation, it’s not about an emotional state but a corporate body - in the end it’s about Real Madrid vs PSG vs Barcelona. The summer transfer window opens the way for exchanging just after the tournament, and so I can see this as a new wave in the global diplomacies involved! It is not about the game but about the space for a massive stock exchange platform!
G: I’m interested in your combining an event of world spectacle––the World Cup––and the social, economic and political crisis affecting ordinary people in India and around the world. Could you say something about this?
K: I was very specific about the nature of each particular game or rather the strategy of the two nations playing it and the political history of the two states. I also made a comparative board where I tried to compare a significant political conflict from Indian post-independence people's history. I tried to acknowledge them as a space for self-learning and also why that event has an important contribution to the macro-socio-economical contemporary space and time, in the context of activism or livelihood.
G: How do you view this time in socio-political and human and societal terms? Do you think it's important for artists to challenge what's happening? Do you as an Indian artist think globally, nationally or both?
K: I don't know what is really important, but my impulse knows what is significant and politically relevant without any binaries! I don't think that I did it because I am an Indian, rather a person who born and brought up in a historical cosmopolitan town, a town of labour and workers… so for me, this is more important than nationalism. It is like my childhood, or maybe a space where I felt easy and comfortable. Who knows how 'Indian' artists think!
G: Your accompanying notes refer to all sorts of ideas. You talk of a time of loneliness, of the need to find a format for communication and that there is a game element to the making of the work. Could you explain that more?
K: In my everyday text, one Bengali quotation (my mother tongue) is always there. I think that was the only hint that I was not alone in the journey, I was talking with an invisible character constantly throughout the performance, more than to myself or in isolation.
G: On the posters you refer to it as 'a performance initiative' by yourself. In what way is this a performance? Are you referring to the performance of drawing or something within the whole project?
K: I think this is really important for this project, that I have no urge to illustrate the World Cup, and I am not even a football fan. So the day I felt something about this ignorance, I decided that I will at least see one game every day with an open perspective and try to read the contemporary politics from a metaphorical view of the game. So here making illustrations was not the performance, but the way it was made, that was performative in itself.
G: I notice that each match retains the name and score of the losing team but the winners are all replaced by an event in India. In relation to this, is there something about nationalism, colonisation, empire, the losers, the oppressed?
K: Kind of… Also for me not to see the winner from within the glorified space, rather a space of tragic memories, I felt that makes the space more balanced, and more than anything I found the winning moment also had a different kind of energy which is important as a solidarity with all those people who suffered due to man-made national interest.
G: Thanks! Do you realise there are others are on the pitch at this moment? People and readers with flair, skill, creativity, intelligence and presence. On the field of play and discourse. Hi-fives to them all!
George West - Autocorrect
Fragments of voice have been pieced together to suggest something of the frustration of conveying unintended meaning; the hysteria of constant repetition, error and automated overwriting in communication.
Ulrika Lublin - Notes from the cappuccino lounge
Jean McEwan - Collages
Collage with found ArtForum magazine, 2018
Ready in the morning
Collage with found ArtForum magazine, 2018
Blue blue electric blue
Collage with found ArtForum magazine, 2018
Down for you is up
Collage with found ArtForum magazine, 2018
Maarten Benschop - Offset I
This piece for clarinet, viola and piano (Incus Ensemble 2017) is a balancing act: whether it’s in different metres stacked on top of each other, canons or simply overthrowing balanced predictability. The instruments are in dialogue with each other; an alternating and contemplative exchange.
Lauren Velvick - Ritherdon and Nicola Ellis
© A.J Pretorious and GS Visuals
© A.J Pretorious and GS Visuals
The National Festival of Making takes place annually over a weekend in May, in the Lancashire town of Blackburn. Using the term ‘making’, as opposed to craft or design, allows for the festival to include manufacturing and factory-based processes, rather than focusing on and elevating the handmade. As part of the wider festival, and in collaboration with Super Slow Way, a series of industrial residencies take place with seven local manufacturers, of which Nicola Ellis’s residency with Ritherdon was one. Ritherdon are a manufacturer of metal boxes, that is, industrial enclosures for outdoor and underground electrics, and you will have almost definitely seen their products before without knowing it.
The Art in Manufacturing residency series and Nicola Ellis’s practice are a fitting match, with an antecedent interest in value, exchange and circulation, Ellis is well placed to scrutinize and reimagine the inner workings of Ritherdon, Darwen. The proposal that contemporary artists would have something to learn from industrial manufacturers, and vice versa, places the two in opposition, or at least in contrast with one another. To contextualise this within current discourse, much has been made of ‘artistic thinking’ as discussed by Luis Camnitzer and the power of creativity to solve problems, with commentators insinuating that this is desirable in a simplistic, noncommittal sort of way. Correspondingly, there are misconceptions and exaggerations around the kind of work performed by firms like Ritherdon which is well articulated in Richard Sennet’s ‘The Erosion of Character’, “Sennett suggests that the “weak work identity” of contemporary workplaces — distinguished mainly by computerisation, in his treatment — results from the utter illegibility of the work processes to the workers themselves.” Indeed, many of the processes at Ritherdon are computerised, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are illegible to the people who perform them, and there is in fact a policy of ‘multi-skilling’ in the factory, whereby staff are trained in all areas. Ellis’s work and experiences at Ritherdon problematise distinctions between the spheres of culture and manufacture, exposing interesting meeting points, and surprising discrepancies between common assumptions and lived experience.
Beyond the machinery at the Ritherdon factory, which is fascinating to an outsider, one of the most striking things is the way that spaces are universally kept to a standard of neatness. This is true from the shared staff kitchen to the factory floor, and is enforced partly through a system of photographs of how a space should look. While at first glance this might seem overly strict or oppressive, it is entirely pragmatic because there is no leeway to deal with each others’ mess. Ellis notes that this high level of efficiency, which allows little room for manoeuvre or error, means that even the slightest intervention into the making process can yield significant results. In line with this, much of the new work that Ellis has produced utilises the factory’s off-cuts and their minimal wastage, with some of the materials slated to return for recycling once the ‘Festival of Making’ exhibition is over. There has been a focus in recent years on the etymological root of the term ‘curator’, “Origin of Curator: Latin, from curare to care, from cura, care”, emphasising the importance of care within the production and display of contemporary art. Considering this idea in terms of spaces of industry, mine and Ellis’s observations of Ritherdon both noted the care taken in shared spaces, of equipment and of each other. Of course, in a work place that’s full of dangerous equipment, health and safety aren’t something that can be joked about or left until last, an accident can easily result in tragedy, but that’s also the case in galleries. There are numerous accounts of technicians and others being injured or even killed by artworks, with artists who work with heavy materials in large quantities, like Richard Serra, springing immediately to mind. The canon of monumental sculptors who make use of industrial materials, including artists like Serra and Judd is the one that Ellis’s work most obviously fits into, but Ellis’s acknowledgment and foregrounding of the manufacturing and recycling processes that attend to these materials introduces an ecological and economic dimensions. Ellis mentions a particular rule within the Ritherdon factory, that if you see somebody doing something unsafe or if you know there’s a better way, you have to tell them. This indicates that the factory staff must be better than most at taking criticism impersonally, and leads me to reflect on the continuing crises within art criticism. Perhaps if artists and other cultural practitioners were able to conceive of criticism in the way that Ritherdon’s staff do, a more open and fruitful discourse could be established.
Having outlined the important role that rules, and a mutual understanding of how to enforce them, operate within a factory like Ritherdon it is crucial to also acknowledge the importance of personal discretion and aesthetic judgement. In particular, harking back to my earlier invocation of Sennet’s analysis of modern-day labour, it is pertinent to note the way that performing similar tasks repeatedly does not seem to degrade aesthetic enjoyment in the way we might assume. Ellis recounted how the entire Ritherdon staff would be excited about the finish of a bright new colour, or a one-off shade for a specific client. In this way, everything about colour, surface and texture that might excite an artist or connoisseur is also exciting to those who manipulate these materials on a daily basis, even in order to produce products that are not recognised for their aesthetic value. The powder coating method that is used to colour the majority of Ritherdon’s products involves using electrostatic energy to cover objects in a loose powder, which is then cured with heat in massive ovens and cooled on slowly rotating racks. Powder coating is preferred to using wet paint because it gives a more even, harder and thicker finish, and it is this desire for a tough, smooth surface that informs the aesthetic sensibilities of Ritherdon’s staff. One of the colours that was in use when I visited was a muted sage green, a shade that wouldn’t be out of place in a fashionable homewares shop, and so I was surprised to learn that the small cabinets that had been coated with this shade were actually designed to go underground and would rarely, if ever, be seen.
Whilst Ellis’s interventions at Ritherdon were largely sympathetic to the factory’s processes, it was in experimenting with powder coating that a little conflict arose. With a system that has been designed to overcome the issues of a previous method, in this case the dripping and sagging of wet paint, to introduce the possibility of imperfection is understandably jarring. During her residency Ellis produced ‘paintings’, made by powder coating custom made sheets of steel and brackets to suspend them with, and due to the specialised nature of powder coating these had to be manufactured by Ritherdon staff on Ellis’s instruction. The artist describes a process of choosing colour and finish through written correspondence, inviting those skilled in the medium to advise, and mixing colours for the first time in the factory’s long history. However, despite the new colours and gradients producing attractive results, in the end Ellis opted to use only the shades that were already in use at Ritherdon; a variety of greens, white, black and red. The resulting works make use of the characteristics of powder coating, particularly in how the electrostatic method achieves mark making that would not otherwise be possible. In one painting a smattering of dark red on a white background looks like an inverted celestial visualisation. These works preserve the gloss and some of the evenness that is satisfying about powder coating, simultaneously troubling this with marks that look like flour thrown sideways, or bumps and grooves in otherwise smooth planes of colour.
In considering the kinds of making that depend on a degree of automation, it seems self-evident that there would be little room for improvisation, although as discussed above in terms of power coating, it is a possibility. At Ritherdon the TRUMPF CNC machine dominates the first space as you enter the factory, which is itself a decommissioned tram shed. TRUMPF machines are programmable processors for sheet metal, that can cut and bend in two and three dimensions, and there is a prototyping area at Ritherdon as well as the circuit via which the products are produced, where small innovations are attempted by hand. If they are successful they can be scaled up and programmed into the machines, which reinforces the philosophy of care articulated earlier, that if there is a better way of doing something you are duty bound to share it with everyone else. The way that the production process in the factory is arranged into a circuit is also significant, indicating that the spaces have been designed around how they are used, and so make instinctive sense. This is another interesting contrast to purpose-built art spaces, which are often designed by architects around idealistic principles with less thought given to practicalities. This circuit formation also means that we follow the sheet metal as it is processed from its raw state into the finished product, first being cut and shaped, then welded and polished, powder coated and baked, and finally assembled. One of the most remarkable things about this is the changes in tempo that attend to each stage, so much so that they barely seem to relate to each other at all; fast and loud, slow and hot, fast and bright, achingly slow.
In the tram shed, the TRUMPF machine flings sheets of steel across the room at speed, stamping shapes out of them from above. This is the entrance and exit, so there is also a machine for shrink wrapping products that spins them around until they’re coated in plastic. Everything in this part of the factory is fast and loud, and it is also where you’ll find the off-cuts that Ellis has used as sculptural material to produce the large, hollow boxes that dominated her exhibition at the Festival of Making. Working with one of the factory staff who had commented that if she asked him to make anything, she would ‘end up with a box’, Ellis formed porous, cryptic structures. With light streaming through perfect circles and contorted rectangles, these forms bring to mind lace or gothic architecture that has been recreated by an artificial intelligence. These new works also emphasise how fleeting, but profound aesthetic enjoyment can be engendered by objects and materials that are not intended for this purpose, and left with unpolished welded edges alongside little patches of rainbow tempering, their purposeful imperfection is further reinforced. The hooks that Ellis has suspended in a curtain from the girders in her exhibition space also communicate a sense of dormancy, being obviously industrial in origin. In the factory these simple, folded pieces of metal carry the separate components of Ritherdon’s cabinets through the powder coating system, ovens, and around the gently paced roller-coaster that dries them. This is why the ones that Ellis has used are coloured with layers of the powder that coated their cargo, and so relate to the large paintings in tone, if not form.
This dawdling drying process was also exhibited in the form of a film that depicts, on a loop, the slow progress of a series of doors on the hooks mentioned above. This juxtaposition of the aestheticised leftovers, that are made in house and aren’t deemed particularly important by Ritherdon’s staff, with footage of their use is characteristic of Ellis’s approach to this residency. Whilst her manipulation of available materials and processes can stand on its own, it is essential to her ethos of exchange, and an acknowledgement of value, that at least part of the process be made visible. It is also relevant in considering the coated hooks that Ellis made a replacement for each of the ones that she took from the factory. This adherence to an environmentally-informed ethic is as important as the objects that Ellis has produced through the Art in Manufacturing residency. The sharp edges of the powder coated paintings remind us of their materiality and don’t allow for a disinterested viewing while the roughly welded corners of the ‘AI lace’ boxes emphasise their impermanence. We are left with a sense of the concurrence that already existed between elements of Ellis’s practice and the company ethos at Ritherdon, offering a rare insight into the function and expression of aesthetic sensibilities and care in industrial environments.
 https://www.e-flux.com/journal/26/67920/editorial-artistic-thinking/ accessed 03.06.18
 https://seattleareaarchivists.files.wordpress.com/2016/01/definitions-list.pdf (accessed 01.06.18 6:27pm)