Between 10th May and 17th August 2013, The John Hansard Gallery in Southampton presented the work of two leading world figures within the Land Art movement – Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson – seeking to examine a short but significant moment within their working life together. Developed in consultation with curator Ben Tufnell and Dr Joy Sleeman, who together also co-curated a major exhibition titled ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-1979’ at Southampton City Art Gallery from 10th May to 3rd August 2013, the John Hansard Gallery continued a story started in the 1960’s.
In August 1969, prompted by Smithson’s inclusion in the seminal exhibition at the ICA, ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, Robert Smithson and Nancy Holt came to the UK and spent one month travelling together to various sites throughout England and Wales. The John Hansard Gallery exhibition provided an overview of this journey, showing photographic and film works by both artists, made during – and resulting from – their visit.
On 15th June 2013 Bang the Bore presented its contribution; a concert titled Displacement Activity, inspired by the John Hansard Gallery exhibition, featuring compositions by Manfred Werder and James Saunders; a publication by Neil Chapman and David Stent; a sonification of Smithson’s mirror displacement methodology by Seth Cooke; and a special edition of Compost & Height’s Wolf Notes journal. This article collects the documentation of that event.
The above promotional art for Displacement Activity is made from overlaid rotations of Junction 2 of the M3 / Junction 12 of the M25, taken from Google Maps.
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Location Composite #1 – James Saunders
Performed by Seth Cooke, Sarah Hughes, Dominic Lash, Will Montgomery & David Stent
James Saunders’ Location Composite series hides text scores in the environment and makes their location known via geocaching. Those who find the scores are invited to take part in a listening exercise in which they describe the submodalities of what they hear, which then becomes the basis for a new text score to be used for subsequent performances. Saunders’ process is reminiscent of Smithson’s conception of the non-site, in which “one site can represent another site which does not resemble it.”
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2012(2), 2012(4) – Manfred Werder
Click each score to enlarge as a pdf file.
Manfred Werder is a composer associated with the Wandelweiser collective who often works with fragments of found texts. Some of his recent work draws on the writing of Robert Smithson and his inclusion in Displacement Activity arises from similarities in how both subvert conventional hierarchies of representation, positioning their work in between text and specific material instantiations.
At Displacement Activity 2012(2) and 2012(4) were performed together by Will Montgomery.
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Wolf Notes #6
This special issue of Wolf Notes, published to coincide with Displacement Activity, complements two concurrent exhibitions: ‘Uncommon Ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-‐1979’ at Southampton City Art Gallery and ‘Nancy Holt & Robert Smithson: England and Wales 1969’ at the John Hansard Gallery. Together, these two shows combine the largest survey of Land Art in Britain with the first overview of the photographic and sculptural works made by Smithson and Holt during a visit to the UK in 1969.
Smithson and Holt’s journey around Dorset, Wiltshire and Pembrokeshire was prompted by Smithson’s inclusion in ‘When Attitudes Become Form’, a seminal exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, curated by Harald Szeemann, then Director of Kunsthalle Bern, where the exhibition was first shown. It is widely acknowledged that the exhibition helped transform the current discourse concerning the possibilities for contemporary art and specifically sought out artists who were preoccupied with notions of ‘work’, ‘concept’, ‘process, ‘situation’ and ‘information’, as indicated in the exhibition’s thematic subtitle.
As the name suggests, ‘Uncommon ground: Land Art in Britain 1966-‐1979’, is not focused exclusively on the work of British artists but that of international practitioners working in Britain during this period. Shown alongside figures such as Richard Long, Ian Hamilton Finlay and Derek Jarman are works by Susan Hiller, Anthony McCall and Jan Dibbets. The curators of ‘Uncommon Ground’ -‐ Nicholas Alfrey, Joy Sleeman and Ben Tufnell -‐ have acknowledged the importance and influence of Smithson and Holt in a parallel exhibition dedicated to their work.
This issue of Wolf Notes brings together texts by Displacement Activity contributors Seth Cooke and David Stent, alongside writing from Daniel Barbiero and George Charman. These contributions combine to explore interconnected themes of place, space, displacement and site, extending the range of discourse surrounding these two exhibitions to include composition, field recording, writing and research.
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Displacement Activity – Neil Chapman & David Stent
Over a number of years David Stent and Neil Chapman have worked together on inquiries related to visuality and writing. For Displacement Activity their work took as its starting point Hotel Palenque, a publication and audio/visual piece by Robert Smithson in which photographic images are used as cues for deviant narratives. Stent and Chapman produced a pamphlet publication of writing and images made in response to a series of found 35mm slides, using this material for live readings and improvisation. An excerpt from the pamphlet is reproduced above.
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City of London Mirror Displacement – Seth Cooke
Recordings made at Thames Head; tones derived from Feed the Birds (Tuppence a Bag); mirror (contained, broken, scattered)
“If London is different, it is because the creative destruction of its modernity is hide-bound – haunted, one might say – by the ancient commands and ancestral inheritances that live on amidst the mirrored glass and cantilevered concrete.”
Roger Luckhurst, Occult London
Myth locates the Source of the River Thames around ten minutes’ walk along public footpaths from the A433, just outside Cirencester, Gloucestershire. The location is marked by a headstone laid by the Conservators of the River Thames and a signpost positioning the source as 184 miles (294 kilometres) from the Thames Barrier. The source is dry, its veracity contested. London could not exist without the Thames, yet Thames Head outframes the river – and therefore the City – in both myth and geomorphology, standing as an ambivalent monument that could just as well be the Thames’ grave. The Centre of London is nowhere.
“The mirror displacement cannot be expressed in rational dimensions. The distances between the mirrors are shadowed disconnections, where measure is dropped and incomputable. Such mirror surfaces cannot be understood by reason. Who can divulge from what part of the sky the blue colour came? Who can say how long the colour lasted? Must “blue” mean something? Why do the mirrors display a conspiracy of muteness concerning their very existence? When does a displacement become a misplacement? These are forbidding questions that place comprehension in a predicament. The questions the mirrors ask always fall short of the answers. Mirrors thrive on surds, and generate incapacity. Reflections fall onto the mirrors without logic, and in so doing invalidate every rational assertion. Inexpressible limits are on the other side of the incidents, and they will never be grasped.”
Robert Smithson, Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan
An immediate consequence of the run on the bank caused by his son, George Banks’ last dignified walk to work through London’s Square Mile is the fulcrum around which turns Disney’s 1964 family film Mary Poppins. Financial collapse, homeless on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral, a surrender of ideological scaffolding, an idealised London charged with sacred energy – these ninety seconds of celluloid, resonant despite – or because of – their naïvety, trace a pattern that repeats throughout London’s myth and history, most recently recurring in Occupy St. Paul’s demands of transparency and accountability to the City of London Corporation. Beneath the streets, beneath the chalk drawings, a forest.
“Make a doll-baby to represent your enemy. Obtain something personal — hair, clothing, a photo — and incorporate it into the effigy. Break a mirror into pieces, being sure not to look into the mirror or any of its fragments, and glue the pieces into the bottom, sides and lid of a box, just large enough to contain the effigy. Place the doll in the box, seal it, and bury it in a graveyard. Walk away without looking back, going home by a different route than the one you took to get there.”
Mirror box protective spell, luckymojo.com
The churches in which I was raised held 24/7 intercessory prayer vigils. A room would be set aside for a particularly earnest, emotionalised form of pleading with the Christian god, organised as a relay to ensure that the room was never unoccupied. These rooms extend the anonymous mystic’s Cloud of Unknowing into a cathartic sanctuary in which the religious purge their misgivings about a world that terrifies them, validating the activity through confirmation bias, free from grubby, painful causation. The pattern behind this dematerialised inactivism isn’t unique to the church – the same Cloud obfuscates the realities of global systems of capital, drone warfare, likes and shares and petitions on social networks. The sniper prays as he takes aim with his magic bullet. The butterfly flaps its wings and stock markets collapse. London is unmade in the West Country.
“Musicians often hold heartfelt political positions because they don’t have much money, which makes them more likely to care about what is done to them by others. Quite often the reason they don’t have much money is related to pursuing music, and there’s a certain amount of guilt and anxiety that arises from pursuing the latter at the expense of the former. It makes sense to want to direct that anxiety into activism; it also makes sense that musicians might be seduced by the displacement activity of pseudo-activism through music. It maintains the benefits of being a full-time musician without putting them or their spare time at risk through real political activity, while giving them the sense that they’re engaged and ‘doing something.’”
Seth Cooke, forum post, I Hate Music
The video accompanying this piece can neither contain the scattering of the mirror nor represent the work’s focal phenomena. Filming this instantiation proved one displacement too many.
Seth Cooke, June and December 2013
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Will Montgomery works with field recordings and electronic music. His releases include CDs on the nonvisualobjects and Entr’acte labels and a vinyl 12″ on Winds Measure. He is currently collaborating with the poet Carol Watts. He teaches at Royal Holloway, University of London.
David Stent is an artist, writer, curator and musician. His diverse practice draws on various media including drawing, photography, digital and print publishing, film and video, sonic and sculptural installation. He regularly performs with the Set Ensemble and is a Programme Leader for the Sculpture Department at West Dean College.
Dominic Lash is an improviser on double bass, composer and writer. His CV of collaborations reads like a who’s who of contemporary free improvisation, and as a recurring member of the Set Ensemble he has performed many contemporary experimental works, particularly those of the Wandelweiser collective.
Sarah Hughes is a sculptor, improviser and composer based in West Sussex. She performs contemporary compositions in the Set Ensemble, is the co-founder of the netlabel Compost and Height and musical publishers BORE and is the editor of the Wolf Notes journal.
Seth Cooke is a percussionist and sound recordist based in Bristol, UK. He frequently uses improvised, process and location-driven methodologies and often works with materials happened upon by chance. He has been a contributor to the Bang the Bore collective since its inception.
Neil Chapman is an artist and writer. His work explores material textual practices, questions concerning visuality in art and writing, collaborative method, and the histories of these themes. In June 2013 his book Diagrams for Seriality will be published by Copy Press, London.
Thanks to Richard Pinnell for the photographs.
Robert Smithson – Chalk Mirror Displacement