Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Birds in the Barbican

This piece was first published in the Architectural Review (May 2010)

photo - Galerie Xippas 

I’ve strolled down a couple of beach-side moonlit boardwalks in my time, but never – at least not in my waking hours – have I encountered a flock of zebra finches playing electric guitar at the end of one. French artist Céleste Boursier-Mougenot’s marvellous installation in London’s Barbican Centre shows me what my seaside promenades have been missing.

The sandy boardwalk opens up from the night-time scene to reveal a large make-shift aviary installed in the gallery. But instead of trees, the finches perch on guitars with large cymbals, which serve as food and water dishes. Both are fitted with microphones and connected to amplifiers so that each movement of a bird on an instrument is transmitted throughout the space with perfect clarity.

The experience is utterly enchanting: zebra finches aren’t exactly wildlife, but it is still remarkable to be able to spend so much time looking at them up close.Then there’s the matter of the soundscape itself, which resembles something that the efforts of a sun-averse teenage boy might produce after endless hours of tinkering with a loop machine alone in his bedroom at two in the morning. The finches chirp incessantly. Sometimes they sound more like mewling kittens than birds. It’s all rather strange. Combined with the arresting, minimalist, syncopated rhythms of the guitars and basses – often scratchy, but regularly emitting sustained harmonic tones – it was difficult to believe it was only the random movement of the birds, claws scratching, beaks sharpening, take offs and landings, producing the music.

But what can Boursier-Mougenot’s installation say about music, about sound, about random interactions within a well-constructed environment, let alone about space and architecture? Standing there listening to the bird music, I thought about how the installation was the sort of experience that would give Bernard Tschumi nightmares. Tschumi’s well-known edict that ‘any relationship between a building and its users is one of violence’ is almost precisely the opposite of the dialogue between space and user (even if ‘users’ here means both man and bird) occurring in Boursier-Mougenot’s installation. Strip away the artist speak and press jargon and you’re left with the rather profound problem of chance and variability, of how even the most well-structured environment changes depending on its users.

Boursier-Mougenot’s work allows us to see that this is not about the conflict between beauty and utility or an antagonism between designer and user, but about theory and practice, intentionality and actuality. It’s about engagement as that intangible quality which brings a piece of work into the public consciousness, not as a practical problem to be overcome. The essential point is that we can only control so much. You can construct an exhibition or build a building, but chance and user interaction are the metaphorical cherries on top of a complete and fully realised project. Even outside Boursier-Mougenot’s installation, music means nothing in an acontextual environment – it must be listened to and responded to in order to take its place in society. In this case, though the music is created by the random engagement of zebra finches on guitar strings, it doesn’t make the strength of the concept and the structure of the installation any less important.

Architects can attempt to structure the flow of activity through a space, but cannot control the engagement of each individual with that space. Who really knows how people will interact with a building until they do. Like Boursier-Mougenot’s installation, the built environment is complex web of interactions between designers’ intentions and the reality of users’ actions. Without wanting to lessen the importance of these intentions, sometimes the only thing to do is stand around watching birds play guitar. But there’s beauty and inspiration to be found in doing just that.

photo - Galerie Xippas 

Céleste Boursier-Mougenot - at the Barbican until 23 May

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Milan Salone 2010

72 hours in Milan 

First of all, whoa. I’ve just come back from three incredibly jam-packed days in Milan attending the world’s largest design fair, the Salone Internazionale del Mobile. Actually, right this minute, I’m sitting in Malpensa airport waiting for my delayed flight back to London trying not to fall asleep into my macbook.  Though I’d rather be napping, I want to write down what I’ve seen while it’s all still fresh in my mind. One of the problems with the Salone is that there’s such an enormous concentration of design in one place, after even only a few days, chairs and installations and people start blending together in one large stockpot of design. Thankfully, I think I managed my three days pretty well and saw an awful lot of mediocre nonsense, quite a few incredible installations, and one or two things that absolutely blew my mind.

Because the magazine I work for has limited space, there’s plenty of overflow to talk about here, and while I would have preferred to split Milan up into a number of more easily digestible posts, I’m off to New York on Thursday and I want to post a round up before I leave.

So without further ado, here’s a rough top ten of my Milan Salone 2010:

1) Yii at Trienalle: To be painfully honest, for some reason I still have this impression of East Asian design as sub-standard. Even though I love, in particular, Japanese fashion designers and architects, I think the ‘made in Taiwan’ and ‘made in China’ labels on cheap clothes and furniture have somehow sunk into my subconscious. So when I saw the Yii Taiwan design pavilion in the Trienalle (Milan’s design museum) on my second day in town, I realised I needed to seriously adjust my thinking. The pavilion was beautifully constructed and all objects within the pavilion beautifully presented. Plus they had tea. I love tea. 

Some of the best pieces I saw at the festival were on this pavilion, in particular the brick plan vase by Rock Wang and the Tertial by Pili Wu at Yii:


2) The Lambretto Art Project was one of the best things I saw during my time in Milan. You go to the Salone expecting to see a bunch of chairs and you fall in love with a random building in the middle of god-knows-where on the outskirts of the city. Maybe it was the incongruity of seeing this surprisingly modern tower in the middle of an industrial wasteland, I'm not sure, but I love it and there's nothing anyone can say to change my mind. There's something about the shape that reminds me of the Baltic in Newcastle, but the materials are considerably more modern. 

(left) interior of LAP                                  (right) Hotel RCA
It was built last year by Mariano Pichler on the site of the old Lambretta factory. Two of the factory's old buildings still survive next door - one of which was the old paint studio, you can still see splashes of paint all over the walls, also the venue for the RCA's group show, RCA Hotel. The LAP is in the Salone's newest design district, Venutra Lambrate, primarily focused on Dutch design groups, but with a far more relaxed atmosphere than the more corporate Tortona zone and plenty of interesting work to occupy the prowling design junkie.


3) Best canape: despite the fact that I forgot to eat anything between the hours of 10am and 8pm two bloody days in a row, there's an awful lot of canapes and booze going around during the Salone. The nicest thing I ate for free was in the Ventura Lambrate, a delicious apple pie, hand crafted and cooked on site, by the wonderful public pie. They peeled, cored, and chopped the apples; made, rolled out, and baked the pastry from scratch; covered with a honey glaze and topped with fresh whipped cream. As tasty as it is gorgeous.

4) Think Tank: Run by Italian design magazine, Interni, this massive exhibition (held within the stunning grounds of the University of Milan), was billed as a small-scale preview of what Milan might get up to during the Expo in 2015. I wasn’t impressed by everything, but Paolo Caputo's prefab house was interesting, Jean Michel Wilmotte's 'hedgehog' structure just bizarre (though it looked great from the inside), and Pawson’s stone house were especially interesting. I even snuck up on the balcony to get a closer look at Liebskind’s sculptural, future architectural archetypes (your guess is as good as mine). I got yelled at, of course. Despite the many questionable installations, after a day of walking around looking at an endless sea of products, it’s rather nice to see the larger architectural installations, breaks up the monotony.


5) Established & Sons bag: This is very, very silly, but I got one of the E&S screen printed number 5 bags during the London Design Festival last year. I was wandering through Tortona on Tuesday and saw a girl carrying a number 6 bag and got ridiculously excited (especially as I was carrying my 5 at the time). I didn't think I was going to have the time to stop by E&S as there was just so much to do, but I managed to swing by a quick trip to pick one up. Strange how such a silly, little thing can make a person's day (though the canella gelato I had about ten minutes later helped too).

6) Tutti a Tavola at Villa Reale: Apart from the Lambretto, this was my favourite experience at the Salone. We went to the opening and there was actual food and an awful lot of it. After plenty of schmoozing were about to leave for the Deezen party at Bar Basso when we ran into David Kohn, the London-based architect responsible for the massive dining table in the courtyard, as well as the other major installation within the exhibition. David insisted on taking us round the museum on our very own personal guided tour - I can tell you it makes a difference when you have someone who knows what they're talking about take you around. Inspired by food and the art of dining and integrated within the museum's permanent collection, the whole thing was splendid, interesting, and exciting. 


7) Three chairs:

Jehs+Laub 'Cloth' chair for Cassina

Martino Gamper’s ‘Sessel’ chair for Established & Sons

'Wanders' Tulip Chair' by Marcel Wanders for Cappellini

8) Wooden church in Tarnow, Poland by Beton at Young Creative Poland in the Triennale:

9) Hot Water Bottle by Wendy Legro at Design Academy Eindhoven in Ventura Lambrata: I know it's a hot water bottle, but I thought it was a classic example of making a worn-out, but still very useful object, a thing of extraordinary beauty. Even though I wasn't taken with everything at this show, it was one of the few places where I actually saw designers asking critical questions about the role of design in society and then trying to actually answer these questions through their products. It didn't always work, but at least they took the time to ask.


10) Everything else: a visual diary of other things I liked

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

the rightness of wayward sentiment

People often ask me where the name for this blog, the rightness of wayward sentiment, came from. I suspect they think it's symbolic of my massive ego slash perception of my self as a bit, and I quote, off beat.

There's a clue to its origins in the very first post I ever posted on this blog. At the time I began RWS I was borderline obsessed with the work of the marvellously mental Modernist post, J. H. Prynne, who incidentally is still one of my favourite poets and the phrase is taken from, "A New Tax on the Counter-Earth", one of my most-loved poems in his collected works (get a copy if you can, it's wonderful).

Here's the last stanza from the poem:

Then the possible seems
a paltry art: "the perceptual events of the dream
produce a partial or temporary reduction in the
state of need current in the organism." Whether
partial or temporary they release gratitude, the
moment of joy self-induced as desire turned back
into a globe itself infolding like a sun, or like
a moon, or like a universe of starry majesty.
"The spot was the one which
he loved best in all the world."
And such affection curdles the effort to be just,
the absolute perception spreads calm into the air
and the air works like a sea. The horizon is lit
with the rightness of wayward sentiment, cash
as a principle of nature. And cheap at the price.

There you go. Mystery solved. Now you know my secret.

Monday, 12 April 2010


Contributed a rather long winded piece about digital/old school manipulation of UK 2010 election posters on the rather wonderful election aesthetics blog.


Read it here.

Friday, 9 April 2010

your nation loves you

It's early last Friday evening. I've cycled down to Waterloo Station and am sitting next to my bike outside a door on Leake Street. Leake Street isn't really a street, it's a tunnel under the station. One of the best kinds of tunnels: every inch of wall space is covered in graffiti but it's lit well so it feels more like a street art installation rather than a scary place you don't want to walk down. I'm waiting to go inside the tunnels under the station for a site-specific theatrical production called Your Nation Loves You, produced by the young company, :DELIRIUM.

Like pop-up shops, pop-up galleries, pop-up everything, site-specific theatre is all the rage these days. Though plenty of companies do site-specific theatre or theatre in odd places, it is perhaps Punchdrunk who has done the most to bring site-specific and interactive theatre into the mainstream. I'm not really the person to comment on Punchdrunk as I've only been to see one of their productions, It Felt Like A Kiss, at the Manchester Festival last year, which didn't really hit my t(heatre)-spot. The rather unfortunate thing about Punchdrunk's popularity is that every other theatre company doing anything remotely similar gets weighed and measured according to their standards, and is invariably found to be wanting. 

So what if YNLY is a promenade piece of theatre that takes place in a tunnel. Let it exist on its own merits instead of comparing it to Punchdrunk or to Shunt. Yes, it makes you as a reviewer look clever and clued up and plugged in, but it doesn't give enough credit to the sheer amount of work that went in to the production of this play.  Not that it was a perfect production, far from it, but it's the debut performance by a brand new company and everyone screws things up a bit along the way. So let me briefly say that with such a fine story, brilliant location, and talented cast, the last thing a production like this needs is interpretive dancing. I'm crusing happily along the highway of pathos, when bam, you hit me with a totally disorienting slow-motion dance break. Not the greatest of ideas, but I don't want to dwell on the hiccups when the core concept of the production was ripe as a peach.

Contrary to my now-normalised modus operandi of not spoiling things for lovely readers by 'reviewing' them, there's no need to keep secrets this time because this particular production only ran for four nights, so if you didn't see it, you ain't gonna. 

Conceptually, YNLY has a strong starting point in that they've got an amazing, atmospheric space. So what are they going to do with it? YNLY imagines that 12 unlucky bastards have been plucked off the streets of various UK cities and dropped into the tunnels by Big Brother, sort of a humanity's last hope for survival in the face of an impending 28 days later type crisis. 

The brilliant thing about the production is that you don't realise there are 12 people in the cast until about half way through. I was talking to one of the guys after the show and he told me that half of the audience get a text 30 minutes before the show directing them to an alternate entrance to the tunnels. So half of the audience follow six characters who are resigned to the fact that they are humanity's hope for the future if it does indeed all go horribly wrong (this was the group I followed). The other six characters are supposedly less idealistic/keen on living indefinitely in scarry tunnels and spend the duration of the play trying to escape/make connection with the outside world via an answering machine that doesn't seem to work. There's a little bit of asking the audience to suspend disbelief and go with the fact that a group of people might somehow be able to make contact with the world above via an answering machine, but whatever, I'm at the theatre. This is where I go to get exposure to different realities. I'm going with suspended disbelief. 

What really struck me as I left is how remarkably easy it is to manipulate an audience, for I'm certain the people who spent their time with the six characters trying to escape felt just as strong of an attachment to their group as I did to mine. This is partly because the acting was fantastic. I mean really, really fantastic. The characters were wonderful and so well developed: the ring-leader of the group has a near obsessive immaginary friendship/mentor thing going on with a makeshift projection of Winston Churchill, the kid from Sheffield who cheers up immensely when he gets his hands on a compass so that he always knows where North, i.e. Sheffield, is.  One of my favourite scenes in the whole play was when these two characters pass the time by pretending to heat food up in a microwave.  Of course the microwave doesn't work and god only knows how they came across a microwave in the tunnels of doom, the scene bears no actual relevance to the plot, but it's so warmly affectionate and funny plus it shows serious strength of direction that such a scene made it into the final production.

Both sets of actors and audience members are brought together at the show's conclusion for a rather strange scene in which all the actors leave a message (for posterity?) on the voicemail machine. This scene probably shouldn't have worked. It doesn't really make sense or properly close off the play's narrative, but I have a good immagination and I'm perfectly comfortable with filling in my own interpretation - I don't need to be spoonfed. In any event, I felt such attachment to my characters that I was completely swept up in the emotion of the scene. The closing moment in which the ring-leader of my group was the last to leave a message but ultimately refused to do so because it was against his convictions - he just couldn't bring himself to do it - was so powerful and so unbelievably moving that I was just blown away. This is the power of site-specific productions: total engrossment in the world of the characters. If done well, it's like being that fly on the wall of a documentary. A great site can't do all the work though, so it's a huge credit to the company for pulling off the production with such elegance. Not that it was flawless - far from it - but it was ambitious and clearly crafted with care. Sign up to their mailing list. Go and see whatever they do next, because it this production was anything to judge by, they're only going to get better.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

seed cathedral

I know this has been everywhere: in all the papers and on all the blogs, but I just think it's so incredible that I want to put it here too, especially for my USA friends who probably haven't seen it yet.

For those (few) who don't know, it's Thomas Heatherwick's UK pavilion for the World Expo, opening in Shanghai next month. I would happily replace my teeth with a set of whale-bone dentures to go to the Expo, but I'm still working it out. I've got a post card of the original visualisation on my desk and it makes me happy every time I look at it. The same way that I wonder in amazement at how in the hell the Romans managed to build the Colosseum (yeah, I know, lots of slaves...still, it's pretty damn impressive), I'm surprised and pleased that someone had the audacity to build such a ridiculous, new-fangled contraption. It looks amazing on the outside, amazing on the inside, and I'm betting the photographs and the video footage just doesn't do it justice.

I, for one, cannot wait to see the thing up close. Fingers crossed.







(all photos from UKTI)