The elegantly dilapidated basement of a Regency-era town house in Brighton seems a strange setting for a series of films shot in the very depths of the South West Indian Ocean. But in a sense it’s a neat encapsulation of the colliding themes of public art and domestic space which the city’s HOUSE festival has sought to explore since its inception in 2008. Originally formed as a kind of curated supplement to the highly successful Artists Open Houses, and taking place this year at the same time as the much broader Brighton Festival, HOUSE sees a range of contemporary art installed across the city: from a crashed airship in St Peter’s Church Gardens to an immersive video in an old shipping container.
That HOUSE is funded by the Arts Council, National Lottery and Brighton and Hove Council means that the role of public art is of implicit relevance, something that the range of locations only serves to reinforce. David Wightman’s idealised landscape – painstakingly hand-crafted out of wallpaper – (perhaps too) neatly traverses this domestic/public opposition, housed in a clear glass box on the seafront. Nearby, a hotly intimate shipping container hosts Emma Critchley’s hauntingly immersive video piece. Produced through collaboration with a free diver and an opera singer, Aria gradually upends our relationship with gravity, water, and the breath that brings the outside inside (and back again). It’s beautifully disorientating.
Meanwhile, Andrew Kotting’s exhibition of autobiographical artefacts (strange rituals in French caves, Swandown with Iain Sinclair, a near-fatal motorcycle accident) enacts a strange overlapping between the intensely private and the painfully public. Pin-hole photographs taken of Kotting, unconscious in a hospital bed, by Anonymous Bosch, explore through invasion this knotted issue of privacy – unconscious, in bed – within a public, institutional context – hospital, publicly funded art exhibition.
I’m less sure how Dylan Shipton and Ben Fitton’s crashed airship – Monument to the Excluded Middle – really fits in here, and I think I prefer Shipton’s solo work, but what the massive wooden installation does do is draw attention to the process of exclusion that increasingly impacts upon our concept of public space. Carefully protected behind a high metal fence, the airship inadvertently (or not) draws our attention to a nearby sign. In the shadow of St Peter’s handsome Neo-Gothic mullions, it declares that Church Gardens is now “a designated public space where alcohol restrictions apply”. Members of the public must relinquish any alcohol when asked to by a police officer or, it states, “other designated persons”. Signed with the logo of the local council’s Safe in the City ‘community safety partnership’ the sign reminds me of Robin Bale’s essay “I know thee not, old man” in volume three of Critical Cities. Who, we might ask, is this “designated public”, these “designated persons”? And who is doing all this designating?
Nature here functions as a kind of public archive, a freely accessible store of information and memory.
But it’s the works in the Regency Town House – part of a series entitled Heterotopias and Other Domestic Landscapes by Mariele Neudecker – that most extend this conception of the ‘public’ and its relationship to domestification, in the broadest sense. Arising out of collaborative work with marine biologists at Oxford University and informed by research trips to the Arctic, Azores and Australia, the project includes work across sculpture, video, photography and architectural models. The layout turns the house into a kind of cross-section of the earth: the top floor showing a series of photographs of the Greenland sun – unnervingly straight ‘vapour trails’ scratched into the surface. Down in the murky light of the basement is a selection of videos – robotic scouts trawling the ocean floors, finding sometimes nothing (just three red laser beams triangulating up ahead); sometimes life; sometimes simply the detritus of mankind – a shark net, an old lobster pot. Even in the unknown depths of the oceans – less explored in parts than the our solar system – there is evidence of human residue. And over this, the process of mediation: footage filmed and edited, clipped, curated. Two pairs of screens face each other, an inch or so apart – reflecting back, forcing an awkward viewing engagement (a very different approach to the same question explored by the likes of Kelly Richardson).
Across town, Lighthouse is also playing host to an exhibition of works by Neudecker. Taking its name from a quotation by Charles Babbage, “The air itself is one vast library” extends Neudecker’s ideas around perception, control and landscape into the realm of the militarised. Stemming from a residency in California in 2010 during which Neudecker made several visits to the historic Nike missile site, the exhibition includes graphite rubbings of the colossal Hercules missiles as well as photographs (eerily reminiscent of some kind of deep-sea life form), sculptures of ‘black box’ recording devices, and archive photographs of warplanes tipexxed half out of sight.
The exhibition is supplemented by James Bridle’s Under the Shadow of the Drone, commissioned by Lighthouse for the Brighton Festival. It’s a fascinating, and timely topic, and Bridle’s discussion of the “deliberate invisibility of technology” is genuinely insightful (we’re lucky enough to chat to him on the press trip). “Surveillance platforms always become weaponised,” he argues, in a sentence that drapes itself ominously across many of the other works on show throughout the city. But, the work itself – an outline of a MQ-9 Predator B, or Reaper, drone painted on the pavement by the seafront – seems only to function as a trigger for discussion, and perhaps Bridle’s research may have been better disseminated through an article in the Guardian. The accompanying video on show at Lighthouse – with sundry hi-vis-vested workmen – suggests it may also have been a considerably cheaper use of public funds. I’m not sure.
Back to Babbage, and a sentence that continues in well-wrought formal prose: “The air itself is one vast library, on whose pages are for ever written all that man has ever said or woman whispered.” Nature here, in this conception of it, functions as a kind of public archive, a freely accessible store of information and memory. Nature as library, as public property. If our relationship with nature is therefore to be understood as textual, then perhaps we’re simply in need of some close reading. So let’s return to the Regency Town House, where stands a large fibreglass cast of a semi-idealised iceberg: large, but massively scaled down in order simply to fit through the door. Heavily cropped, domesticated for public consumption, it reflects its double in a grand Regency mirror that reaches right to the floor. Light floods through the window, laying a crooked grid of shadow over its blue-white shimmering surface, and the gentle grain of creaking wooden floorboards. “Delicate artwork. Please do not touch.” reads the nearby sign. Ah. If only it were so simple…
HOUSE is taking place across Brighton until 26th May 2013.