zombies + austen in ancoats? the cutting-room experiment

I'm currently intrigued by the buzz around The Cutting Room Experiment. This unique new project is “an attempt to create the world’s biggest user generated event in the world.” Taking place right here in Manchester on 20 June, it’s going to transform Cutting Room, a new public space in Ancoats, into a unique events space for a one-day, one-off “mass participation event” which the audience themselves will design and shape.

By logging on the interactive website here, anyone can submit ideas for events themed around everything from art, design and architecture through to music and film: once they are submitted, people can vote for the ideas they like best, and the twelve most popular events will make up the programme on 20 June. There isn’t much time left to suggest or vote for ideas though: this Friday 29 May is the deadline for idea generation and voting, and the final line-up for the “experiment” will be announced next week!

It looks likely to be an entertaining day: ideas already submitted range from space-hopper racing to lego art to guerilla knitting to experiments in relay film-making to a mass performance of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video. I’m particularly looking forward to finding out which of the literature events will take place on the day: will it be writing a collaborative novel, enacting Where’s Wally? around Ancoats, or (my personal favourite) fancy dress, Pride and Prejudice-meets-zombies stylee? Who knows what will happen - but there's no doubt it's going to be an interesting one - Ancoats may never be the same again! Check out the website here to find out more more.

not doing well: blog vs diary

I have not upheld my pledge to write here more in May. It’s already the 23rd (how did that happen, exactly?) and I have but two measly posts.

I've been wondering why it is that I don't seem to be writing this blog quite as much as I once was. Perhaps it's partly because, in the last couple of months, I've got back into writing a diary much more regularly. I have long been an avid writer of diaries: I started writing when I was twelve, and have continued ever since. But I do have 'on' and 'off' phases with it - and at the moment I'm definitely in an 'on' phase. I've got back into the habit of writing every day, and perhaps that has absorbed some of my need to write here.

But that in itself is interesting. I have always felt that a private, paper diary and a blog, however personal, were inherently different, separate spaces - one very much for yourself alone, and the other, whether you acknowledge it or not, by its very nature designed for an audience, for a very public readership. But maybe they aren't really so very different: perhaps secretly our 'public' blogs are for ourselves before they are for anyone else, after all...

I'd be interested to know what others think. Do you keep a diary, or write a blog, or both? Which do you prefer and why? What do you think the real differences are between them as formats - and what is it that motivates you to keep going?

Meanwhile here's a few other things:

Emily started a very interesting discussion about blogging and anonymity, writing and autobiography on her blog which Jenn and Max joined in here and here and here.

Ben unmasked himself as the author behind not only the Although I am not as delicious as I once was... blog by the mysterious 'Rosetta Hampshire,' but of a whole Patchwork Labyrinth of slowly-unravelling blog-based metafiction! I am looking forward to reading more...

Booooooom! and Design for Mankind’s Free Encouragement project (which I blogged about back here) has now launched its much-anticipated second stage. Take a look at their beautiful Free Encouragement postcards here.

I have another book review at Bookmunch – this time for Anne Michael’s second novel, The Winter Vault. You can read it here.

Manchester Writing is a new and most useful blog bringing together news and reviews of writing and readings around Manchester. Check it out here.

Main things I am doing at the moment: eating, sleeping, reading obscure 1920s prose poems for my dissertation, playing the piano (item number seven on this list), rock pool dabbling, baking cakes, watching the kittiwakes, contemplating whether or not to buy myself a bicycle with a basket, admiring bluebells and paddling in the sea.

[Pictures are via We Heart It here and here]

the art of with: a new avant-garde?

I was interested to read Charles Leadbeater’s new essay for Cornerhouse, The Art of With, earlier this week. Taking Leadbeater's influential notion of "We-Think" - a new collaborative, participatory way of working rooted in Web 2.0- and applying it to both the arts sector and contemporary arts practice, The Art of With asserts that we are increasingly moving away from a notion of art that is predominantly “for” or "to" towards a new and inspiring 21st century “art of with” that turns spectators into producers, breaks down conventional hierarchies and promotes sharing and openness. Leadbeater suggests that artists and arts institutions should be “critically and creatively engaging” with this new culture, “exploring, probing, questioning, challenging it, opening up possibilities within it that commerce will not entertain,” citing works such as Martin Creed’s Work 850, Anthony Gormley’s plans for the 4th Plinth and Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave as examples of collaborative artworks.

Leadbeter’s essay makes for intriguing and often inspiring reading, but what especially interested me was his use of the term “avant-garde.” This term recurs numerous times throughout the text, with Leadbeter positing the participatory “art of with” as a new, 21st century avant-garde in opposition to that of the 20th century, which he defines as an avant-garde characterised by the principles of “separate and shock.” But what does Leadbeater really mean when he talks about a new “avant-garde”? He doesn’t clearly define what he means at any point, but it’s certainly a courageous choice of terminology, raising a whole number of interesting questions. 

The term “avant-garde” is often used in a very general, conversational sense to denote more or less anything that’s considered new, innovative or experimental. But in the academic territory that Leadbeater seems to be negotiating in this essay given his references to thinkers and theorists such as Walter Benjamin and Guy Debord, it is often used with a rather more precise (though contested) definition. There are whole books dedicated to what we mean when we talk about "the avant-garde," perhaps the most significant being Peter Bürger’s influential Marxist analysis of the character and function of avant-garde art, Theory of the Avant-Garde, which remains central to our understanding of this loaded term.

To vulgarise his argument hugely, Bürger asserts that the avant-garde artwork is that which represents a protest against the nature of art as an institution within alienated bourgeois society, challenging the conventional notion of art as autonomous, elevated or rarified, detached from everyday existence. For Bürger, an artwork such as Duchamp’s Fountain can be considered truly avant-garde because it mounts an attack on the status of art, through challenging the conventional modes of its production and reception, revealing the institution of art to be ideologically determined, and using a variety of strategies to attempt to integrate art into everyday life itself. Bürger describes how the avant-garde artworks of the Dada and Surrealist movements reflect the desire to dissolve the boundaries between art and life, integrating art into everyday existence and bringing about a state in which “praxis is aesthetic and art is practical.”

So much for the theory bit. Now, many people have challenged and criticised Bürger’s definition: some feel it is too limited or dogmatic, others that it is just too pessimistic - after all, Bürger essentially asserts that post-Dada and Surrealism, 20th century artwork has been merely “neo-avant-garde” - a repetition of the failed gestures of the earlier avant-garde movements - and denies the possibility of any subsequent avant-garde. He’s also been criticised by those such as Manchester University’s own Amelia Jones, who have identified the failure of his arguments to consider how works such as Fountain have subsequently been re-appropriated by the institution of art, ironically becoming representations of the very notions of “artistic genius” that Dada sought to challenge. But whether or not we “buy” Bürger’s definition of avant-gardism, or the various others set out by historians, critics and theorists, all this is at stake when Leadbeater employs the term “avant-garde” in The Art of With.

Read from this angle, Leadbeater’s notion of the 20th century avant-garde as being characterised by the desire to reinforce the separation of art and life, and by the idea of art as elevated and autonomous, seems a rather odd one. Like Adrian Slatcher (whose response to The Art of With you can read on his blog here) I would absolutely question the idea that the avant-garde could ever be considered non-collaborative. For me, it might be more interesting to interpret the participatory and collaborative artworks Leadbeater references as attempts to re-invigorate the ideas of the 20th century avant-garde movements such as Dada, Surrealism and Situationism: perhaps the "art of with” could in fact be better configured as not the opposition to but as the continuation of their project in its attempt to integrate art more closely into the fabric of everyday life. 

But can we really accept Leadbeater's assertion that the "art of with" has the potential to become a 21st century avant-garde? It may be new, innovative and challenging but within this specific art theoretical framework, avant-garde it probably isn't. But in the end, does it really matter? As with so many things, all this really comes down to is semantics. Yet all the same, it would have been interesting to see this essay take a closer look at the term Leadbeater uses to structure his account - its complexity, its contentiousness, its multiple definitions - as part of this otherwise engaging and pertinent essay about the possibilities for a 21st century art practice characterised by collaboration, a new participatory “art of with”.

If you’d like to read more, you can check out the draft essay here, comment on the text paragraph by paragraph here or join the wiki here. There will be also be seminar on The Art of With at Cornerhouse in June.

spring and all

May is here, and skies are blue. I’ve been busy working on my MA dissertation, which focuses on the early poetry of William Carlos Williams (hence the title of this post) as well as the writing of the poet and visual artist Baroness Elsa Freytag-Loringhoven. Doing all this work for my dissertation perhaps also explains why I’ve not written much here recently - a paltry 4 posts in April! I hereby resolve I will do much better in May.

What else? I’ve been enjoying sunshine and sea views. Marvelling at the wonders of Scottish cuisine (blue cakes? white pudding? unidentified deep-fried objects?). And writing a review for Bookmunch for Helen Oyeyemi’s new novel White is for Witching which you can read here.

More to follow soon...