Rhona Warwick, ‘Fantoun’, Stills Gallery, Edinburgh, 2009
3 Here and there in Fantoun
‘Strange smells – like dirt or soil would stay in my penthouse for weeks […] I could sometimes hear a very low frequency and words like “sleep” and “obey” from under my breakfast bar.’1
Somewhere near the beginning of all this is Rhona Warwick’s parmagined, Fantoun: a familiar and eerie city, born from drifty entanglement of her observations of urban schizophrenia: now our mind’s eye is focused on a wistful survey of baked goods; nostalgia for cosy Greggs umbilicalism: now it pictures an antiseptic utopie of monoform show homes; each with fully-lined panic room to reassure petit aspirants.
Grateful as it is for coordinates bequeathed by Lettriste strategies of social analysis and for the inheritance of an earthy Scottish literary imaginary, Warwick’s work keeps a perspicacious watching brief on our surroundings and our qualms. Text, image and performance throw into relief those memories which delineate the here and now, and treat contemporary everyday being with all the puzzlement and respect of a Debord or a Gray.
We live in Fantoun and we know like Fantoun – Warwick so accurately envisions our environs by clarifying the knotty and poetic simultaneity of information and imagination which structures the architecture of knowledge.
1 Thanks to the unordinary
‘Someone said that a good story makes the ordinary seem strange and what would be seen as strange to be ordinary and acceptable. Both these approaches seem to be right.’2
Writing about the motivation of the great Scottish intellectual, Patrick Geddes, the historian, Walter Stephen described his persistent need to ‘irritate the complacent’.3 Geddes as irritator was driven by a compulsion to make people see anew, not so much by presenting them with never-before-seen sacred artefacts as compensation for everyday routine, but by inspiring creative re-engagement with the very sights and sounds of immediate and familiar localities. In so doing, an irritatee might connect at home with matters human and common and triumph over the threats of a lackadaisical life.
For Stills and public, as endpoint to the walking tour of the city, in a re-enactment of Geddes’s legendary tutorial on urbanism and knowledge, up the Capital’s Outlook Tower rush Warwick and mischievous artist-accomplice Jim Colquhoun. With attendees gasping and enlightened in the dark, Warwick and Colquhoun summarily vanish. After a fashion, disorientated and inspired, the walkers return to ground level. Everyone then disappears back to the ruts which connect their own coordinates – altered.
The ordinary is a gateway to the extraordinary, for that is what the ordinary is. The extraordinary moment is the moment of that simple recognition.4
‘Day Survey Form (EH4), Observer 114, Fantoun Institute of Behaviours:
At approx 10.43am I was walking down Eglington Street towards city. At the corner of Maxwell Drive I spotted a lone tortoiseshell cat without collar or tag. […] Followed creature into Barrland Street (next to new Utopia housing complex) and observed cat lapping up white paint from an overspilled litre can of household emulsion’.
2 Frosty theory
‘The contemporary artist is a semionaut, he invents trajectories between signs.’5
So said Nicholas Bourriaud, in the patois of art theory. It is a good idea, though, that an artist is a brave explorer, like a cosmonaut; that pioneering journeys are taken by courageous creatives; that things are connected in novel ways; that inspiring patterns are gifted to interested folk. Geddes would endorse all of that.
Art is but frosty theory, however, when journeys are made only between the signs and symbols of art practice itself: when art talks vainly to its own representations in the mirror, tracing at the same time the thin worry lines of trajectorised theory: an indoors art, unventilated.
Warwick and Colquhoun prepare for the journey around the Capital. With trepidation and suspicion, but more trepidation, participants devise sigils: picto-crypto emblems invested with residue of deep personal desires. The walk will connect in circuitous ways the individual wish and the material of the city as public. Sigils are daubed, posted and set free. Smiling, the necromancers make a poor job of hiding rich anticipation.
‘The most noble kind of beauty is that…which infiltrates slowly, which we carry along with us almost unnoticed, and meet up with again in dreams.’6
The conventional relational interactions facilitated by the facilitators of contemporary art are too often too tepid – in contrast to the heat of Geddes’s mental and physical risk. Journeys between art-as-signs are often tightly circumscribed by the technical conventions of such interactions, corroborated as they are in the mirror. Warwick’s work reinstates opportunities to recover variegation and difference in an artworld too quick to systematise in a matrix of icy templates.
To find something ex-trajectory beyond the lines of thought of normative art making is a privileged opportunity, one which Warwick warmly extends and one which keeps art from freezing under its own gaze.
4 human Thaw
‘Univocal scientific strategies, made possible by the flattening out of all the data in a plane projection, must replace the tactics of users who take advantage of “opportunities”.’7
Theorism in contemporary art lends itself very well to univocal scientific strategies. Technics overtakes poetics: infrastructure, process and strategy become the component parts of post-art analysis, a scenario exemplified par excellence by the substitution of art criticism with project evaluation.
Warwick stands with the willing irratatees, staring stock-still at the street sign. Concentrated attention on a familiar iota of Edinburgh: Cockburn, Cockburn, Cockburn, Cock Burn. The attention heats the interaction; process gives way to discovery – giddy, the group tumbles down a side-street.
The icy superficiality of contemporary living is Warwick’s target. The human thaw of Situationist Unitary Urbanism is brought to bear. In the language of the journal, Internationale Situationiste, ‘true urbanism is the destruction of contemporary conditioning and simultaneously the construction of situations. It is the liberation of the boundless energy trapped under the surface of everyday life’.8
‘Let’s agree the world is one helluva mess. What do you think will improve it?’
‘A memory and a conscience. I hate the heedless way it puts on life without noticing or caring.’9
Fantoun is a place of glorious opportunity; it surrounds us in all its everywhere indifference, waiting to be seen again from our animated outlook.
1 Character, Robert Laing in, High Rise, J.G.Ballard, London: Flamingo, 2006, first published 1975, quoted in, Fantoun, Rhona Warwick, Glasgow, 2008, p.10.
2 Alasdair Gray in interview with Douglas Clifford, guardian.co.uk, Friday 17th August, 2001.
3 Walter Stephen, ed., Think Local Act Global: The Life and Legacy of Patrick Geddes, Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2004, p.18.
4 Rhona Warwick, Fantoun, op.cit., p.53.
5 Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, Dijon: Les Presses du Reel, 1998, p.123.
6 Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human, London: Penguin, 1984, p.104, first published 1878.
7 Michel de Certeau, ‘Walking in the City’ in, The Practice of Everyday Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p.94.
8 Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘Formula for a New City’, Internationale Situationiste, Issue 1, 1953, reprinted in Chris Gray, Leaving the Twentieth Century, London: Free Fall Publications, 1974, p.30.
9 A father and son converse in, Lanark, Alasdair Gray, Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2007, p.296, first published 1981.