20 May


“An art exhibition which collapses form (the collectivity requisite of the Chain and any performative work) and content (collective consciousness).”

While Lewisham Arthouse seems like a fine place, a press release about a day of performances there has once again brought out my inner English professor. I assume curator/perpetrator Candida Powell-Williams also wrote the press release, in which case she’s evidently not averse to blowing smoke up her own arse in the third person. All grammatical errors, faulty reasoning and bad writing are in the original text. I’m not making this shit up. I wish that was the case.

“Chain is a seven hour series of multi-disciplinary performances by artists, musicians and poets at Lewisham Art House, brought together by artist Candida Powell-Williams to investigate collective consciousness. Each participant, prior to the event, has provided the following with a word/ object/ sound or image stimulus to be integrated into their performance creating the Chain. By engaging the practitioners through this arbitrary relation the event will mirror our everyday encounters with one another in the city, it will drive the practitioners’ responses together in a stream of collective consciousness as we interact as individuals within the collective of the city.”

“Investigate collective consciousness”? Please artists, stop saying you’re investigating or questioning things. Questions are what you used to get on your exam papers, but you’re not at school doing your GCSEs now. Most of the supposedly vexing so-called investigations or questions of dim, pretentious artists have already been answered decades (or centuries) ago in an entirely satisfactory and conclusive manner by other artists, by writers, scientists, sociologists and philosophers, by womens’ magazines and by the manufacturers of fortune cookies. Artists have subject matter or areas of interest or aesthetic concerns, they’re not just ticking off a series of answers on some list. How is a day of performance art investigating collective consciousness, anyway, even if it were possible to investigate consciousness?

The second and third sentences are a grammatical, semantic and conceptual bramble that may or may not have some coherent thought process underneath. Engaging the practitioners through what arbitrary relation? What is arbitrary and what is the relation? Each participant has provided the following what? Saying “prior to the event” is redundant because of the past tense “provided”: one cannot “provided an object” after an event that has not yet taken place.

I think the rest of this gibberish is just an extremely puffed-up and pretentious way of saying “we will do stuff and people will look at us.”

“Uniquely, Chain will provide an experimental, rarefied field for the art exhibition which collapses form (the collectivity requisite of the Chain and any performative work) and content (collective consciousness).”

Assuming she doesn’t mean that the event contains less oxygen than usual, “rarefied” means distant from the concerns of ordinary people. Accidentally she’s hit the nail on the head. I can’t think of what word she might actually have been groping for, other than originally she typed “rare” but then thought it was uncomfortably close to honest, plain English that one of those ordinary people might understand.

“Ideas, concepts and feelings will unfold for the duration of the event, between practitioners and audience rather than being communicated a priori through a title or this document. The event will, consequently, allow an unprecedented chance for direct communication between the practitioners and the audience. The individual works will be presented without thematic or aesthetic reasoning, removing pre-conceived ideas or the potential meaning or affect of the works. It is our hope that the event will create a shared space which allows the audience to connect with the collective consciousness created between the practitioners in Chain.”

She seems to be suggesting that we won’t have any ideas, concepts or feelings at any time before or after the event. Of course your performance art event isn’t communicated through a press release. If performance art could be communicated through a press release there would be no point in doing performance art. No performance can be entirely understood a priori. I’m assuming here that she knows what a priori actually means, but I probably shouldn’t.

This paragraph also contains several particularly rancid old chestnuts of bad art writing:

  • Indiscriminate, loose or just plain wrong usage of Latin or foreign terms. (See also.)
  • No, your idea, concept, event and “direct communication between practitioners and audience” are not “experimental” or “unprecedented”, as I would hope you know perfectly well if you’ve been to art college.
  • And we have a fine example of the get-out clause (“without thematic or aesthetic reasoning”) for the whole thing being a visual and conceptual mess from which no particular thought or concept emerges. If your exhibition or show is “without thematic or aesthetic reasoning”, why does it need a curator at all and how can you claim to have curated it? Surely nobody curated it, or the artists collectively curated it themselves? Indeed, surely the very concept of a curator is redundant for a series of unrelated performances conceptualised and controlled by the artists themselves? (See also.)

“Powell-Williams has isolated three key ideas of the collective: firstly, Apocalypse 2012 the possibility of individual fear being transmitted into the collective; secondly, urban planning which utilises street furniture to create spaces which service the different needs of its users, pedestrians, shoppers, drivers and cyclists, creating ‘shared space’ in the city and herd behaviour, when a group of individuals act together becoming a collective. Crucial to each of these ideas is conscious and unconscious communal behaviour, dictated by physical, social or political space. Chain will deal with these ideas through the practitioner’s and participants shared environment, London.”

I’m seeing two key ideas in the preceding paragraph, not three: “Apocalypse 2012” and “urban planning”. That’s two. This is simply bad writing, the kind that bubbles up from lazy thinking like papier mache shit from a blocked toilet. If there was previously a third concept that got edited out, you need to go back and check it hasn’t left dangling thought processes or logical holes in your text. It’s basic craft and diligence that anybody writing in any kind of professional context should be vigilant about. (See also.)

“Powell-Williams’ choice to work outside a thematic, omits her decision to include only artists, poets and musicians who work or study in London. By drawing on practitioners from such a vast cultural field, the event seeks to craft a space where diverse voices and practices can co-exist and cooperate; where the rigid definitions of a discipline do not apply, where influence (whether significant or insignificant) is manifested through sharing.”

Outside a thematic what? Her choice omits her decision? She omitted to include certain people? Or she included an omission? What is that stray comma doing between “thematic” and “omits”? Does the first sentence mean that she omitted to make a decision, or that she omitted to make a choice?  Does she mean that she included only Londoners, or omitted only Londoners? I think she means the former, but this isn’t a vast cultural field; it’s actually a very small one, as anyone who works in the arts will tell you. Artists who don’t work or study in London is a genuinely vast cultural field, because it includes thousands and possibly millions of others who come from all of the Earth’s nations and cultures and not just white upper middle class English people who are rich enough to have done an MA at a London art college and yet are still too thick and ignorant to know how to use their own native language properly.

Maybe Candida wrote this press release in a rarefied field, i.e. one with limited oxygen and no access to reference basic materials. It would explain a lot.


  1. Lee Devonish 20/05/2012 at 2:21 PM #

    I’ll play devil’s advocate on a few points and run the risk of a savaging, just for the sake of shredding this poor bit of writing a little more.

    “Each participant, prior to the event, has provided the following” – “each participant has provided the following participant with” is what she’s trying to communicate. “Provided… prior to the event” – is this really so bad? Would it be less objectionable if she’d said something more specific, such as “provided… two weeks before the event”? This particular one doesn’t make me want to eat my own hair. Also, “arbitrary relation” may have been better off as “instructions”, but that doesn’t sound very impressive. I dunno, just asking really.

    “Powell-Williams has isolated three key ideas of the collective:” – the last is herd behaviour, barely distinguishable as she has dropped the requisite “thirdly”. Yes, fairly shabby, but decipherable if you can be bothered.

    However, “Powell-Williams’ choice to work outside a thematic, …” is equally as mystifying to me, and that stray comma does make me itch, and I was actually hoping for more light to be shed on how, precisely, form and content are “collapsed”.

    Accepting these valid criticisms, I shall henceforth refrain from questioning or investigating anything. Cut me some slack if I do, though; we all know it’s all about just how smart you can make insecure people believe that you sound, rather than how smart you are.

    • Alistair 20/05/2012 at 4:00 PM #

      The first point is just a plain English issue: there’s no need to say (for example) “I’ve previously been to…” because “I’ve been to…” conveys the same spatial and temporal relation of a person to a place without redundancy. Conversely, neither the English language nor the course of a normal human timeline allow a person to “have been afterwards to” a place. The simple “provided” is perfectly adequate. Adding tautological frills like “previously” just makes people sound like strangely posh police officers in an old Ealing comedy: “HAs I was proceeding along the thoroughfare upon which I ‘ad previously been earlier, I observed a gentleman proceeding in the opposite different direction whilst driving in a motor vehicle…”

      I can see your point about the three (sic) subjects. If it was the only error I might let it slide, but I’d still say the third subject that you picked out- “herd behaviour”- is actually not conceptually far enough away from the second thing (i.e. how people behave in shared public spaces) to warrant being a separate thing. As you probably guessed, I CAN’T be bothered!

      Seriously, though, if somebody wants people to read, parse and respond favourably to anything they write, their text shouldn’t leave the reader feeling as if they’re having to untangle an endless ball of string just so those readers can tell what the writer’s trying to say.

      … and finally, yes, good catch: it’s that “collapses” (x) and (y) formulation again. It’s a variant of “hovers between” (x) and (y), which is also bullshit. I’m 100% with you in wanting some explanation of how exactly this works. Maybe it’s a bit like a prolapsed rectum. My form and my content are prolapsing, take me to hospital.

      To have one’s form collapse may be regarded as a misfortune, to also collapse one’s content looks like carelessness.

  2. Alistair 20/05/2012 at 4:06 PM #

    See https://careersuicideblog.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/outright-barbarous/ for George Orwell’s wise, simple and plain English words on the subject of conveying meaning like an adult, without posturing, evasion or obfuscation.

  3. Lee Devonish 20/05/2012 at 6:58 PM #

    Good grief – I wholeheartedly apologise for my fourth paragraph’s punctuation and inherent hypocrisy. My own stray commas have made me come out in a nasty rash – I must have been distracted by something shiny.

    • Alistair 20/05/2012 at 7:08 PM #

      I’m making people paranoid now, aren’t I?

      • Lee Devonish 20/05/2012 at 7:12 PM #

        Haha! No, it serves me right – I’m usually the one who makes other people paranoid!

  4. Sarah Perry 22/05/2012 at 10:01 AM #

    Dear Alistair –

    I could not read further than the conclusion of your first paragraph, in which you fail to use the subjunctive.

    • Alistair 22/05/2012 at 3:26 PM #

      Ha ha! But seriously, Sarah, nobody likes a smartarse who isn’t me.



    […] 7 AN EXPERIMENTAL, RAREFIED FIELD FOR THE ART EXHIBITION “Please artists, stop saying you’re investigating or questioning things. Questions are what […]


    […] original commentary on this text is here: An experimental, rarefied field for the art exhibition. Scroll down for the video. As usual, I’ve beeped out the perp’s name because I find it […]

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