Sunday, November 4, 2012

Like a Flame

One of the Tone Deaf organizers, Neven Lochhead, put together another interstellar line-up of local Kingston noisemakers just in time to be released in cassette form on the last night of the festival.  Entitled No One Turned Away / No Guest List it also lives on the internet here should you not have been able to pick up a tape. The fabulous artwork on the cover is by Elizabeth Johnson.

I was happy to be able to contribute a track entitled "Like a Flame" under the name Happiness is... for the compilation.  Neven describes it so:  "This is the oddity project of Michael Davidge, artistic director of Modern Fuel for many years. Seeing Happiness is... live is always an unpredictable experience - last time he played the balloon for about 10 minutes." Check out and download the track here.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Smokin' in the Boys' Room

The exhibition "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" was curated by yours truly and includes work by artists Christopher Arnoldin, Jo-Anne Balcaen, and Matt Rogalsky. It was at Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre in Kingston from October 12 to November 24, 2012.  Read the curatorial essay on the Modern Fuel website here, and below.

Image: Installation View "Smokin' in the Boys' Room" with a detail of the work "Discipline" by Matt Rogalsky. Photo by Jennifer Covert. 

Teacher, don’t you fill me up with your rules!

“Everybody knows that smokin’ ain’t allowed in school.” – Brownsville Station.

The title of this exhibition comes from a Brownsville Station song recorded in 1973 about the pleasures to be found in youthful rebellion, smoking, and rock and roll. As the epigraph, a lyric for the song, explicitly states, the transgressors are fully aware of the rules, they don’t need to be reminded that what they are doing is forbidden, they’re doing it anyways, in exact defiance of the rules. Herein lies the crux of the rock n’ roll problematic: the genre flouts conventions and norms at that same time that it creates its own conventions and clichés, existing as a mode that very often contradicts itself. How about when a beloved underground band becomes a commercial success and is accused of “selling out,” or when fans of a certain subculture, like hard rock, become intolerant of another, like disco, and take on reactionary attitudes that reinforce the same conservative values they were originally rebelling against? The artists in this exhibition, Christopher ArnoldinJo-Anne Balcaen, and Matt Rogalsky, each in their own way take rock and roll as their subject matter or theme and open up a rich area for discussion in contemporary art practice, which can be seen to inhabit similar contradictory positions. Though clearly approaching the subject matter from the standpoint of fans, the artists in the exhibition offer new critical perspectives from which to approach both rock and roll and contemporary art. In a modest way, the exhibition offers a brief history of rock and roll as much as it provides a survey of current practices in contemporary art.
Our history begins in 1954, with the invention of the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar, a mode that has become ubiquitous and is an iconic form for music in the 20th century. Used by countless pop and rock musicians (Buddy Holly was a pioneer), this model has been wielded by some of the most revered guitar virtuosos, including Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, and Eric Clapton. Assuming its widespread familiarity, Matt Rogalsky chooses not to name it in his artist statement for “Discipline,” which features 12 gleaming Fender Stratocasters. Each guitar in the installation is tuned to a single pitch class, so that the 12 together represent the 12 tone harmonic scale of Western music. Each guitar resonates and responds to the presence of its pitch class in the live transmission of a classic rock radio station, which is only heard through the sounding of the guitars by the radio signal. “Discipline” is rooted in a predominantly masculine world and pays homage to guitar mastery and its extremes in prog rock (the title itself refers to a King Crimson album and song). But in spite of the history of great guitar heroes, they are noticeably absent from Rogalsky’s installation, the set-up of which extracts a shadowy shimmering sound from the radio station that suggests less a rockin’ good time than the harmonious music of the spheres. A classical, Apollonian atmosphere prevails, manifesting a platonic form of Rock reaching further back and even beyond the nostalgic era of Golden Oldies. The mathematical mysteries at the root of 12 tone harmony remain concealed, however, leading one to conclude that the random patterns sounding from the chance encounter of Rogalsky’s readymade guitar ensemble with a radio broadcast order rock and roll rebels around according to a predetermined scheme.
From the sharply delineated Apollonian forms of Rogalsky’s Stratocasters, we move to the roiling Dionysian canvasses of Christopher Arnoldin. Taken from the series “Progress Bar 3:52,” Arnoldin’s paintings are based on clips from a video made for the song “Looks that Kill,” by the popular ‘80s hair metal band, Mötley Crüe. The video depicts the band performing the song in a dystopian landscape strewn with rubble and lit by torchlight. This is after they have rounded up into a pen a bevy of scantily clad women dressed in ragged outfits that complement the band’s Road-Warrior-type primitive glam hockey armour attire. Arnoldin depicts the scenes in orgiastic surfaces smeared with pigment, capturing the aggression and sexuality in the music, at the same time evoking the degraded pixelated quality of the video as it circulates on the Internet and gets copied into different contexts. There is a nostalgia at work here too, not only for music once consumed enthusiastically by a certain generation, but also ironically in the conservatism of the form. Rendered permanently in paint, these looks will kill any mortal eyes that fall upon them, outlasting any number of fashion cycles. Arnoldin’s paintings are contemporary, however, not only through their reference to and application of digital technologies, but also in the way that they tap into the drives that continue to jack us into the present.
From the ‘50s and ‘60s through the classic rock of the ‘70s and now ‘80s, our little history of rock and roll brings us up to the twenty-first century with an artefact provided by the artist Jo-Anne Balcaen. “Concert Guitar Pick Rob Metallica” is based on a guitar pick which purportedly belonged to the bass player for Metallica, Rob Trujillo. Purchased by the artist on eBay, it is represented by a large format high resolution print and it is accompanied by a condition report that throws doubt on the provenance of the object. Gallery visitors are invited to ask permission to examine the actual object, which is kept in reserve in the administrative offices of the gallery. If Rogalsky’s Apollonian sculpture finds its antithesis in Arnoldin’s Dionysian paintings, then perhaps the exhibition finds a synthesis of the two in Balcaen’s tragic forms. Having bought into the myth of the rock and roll hero conferring value on the purchased relic, the believer’s faith is tested and made vulnerable upon closer scrutiny. Balcaen’s “Drag” also offers a dialectical riposte to Rogalsky’s “Discipline” as it subjects 12 perfect power chords to an audio treatment that reduces them to ominous rumblings that fail to achieve any semblance with music. As stated by the artist, a central dynamic in Balcaen’s work is the struggle between the contradictory forces of an intellectual drive to be critical of popular culture and an emotional desire to partake of its pleasures. The same struggle can also be perceived in the other artists’ work in this exhibition. This self-division is made most explicit in the mirrored component of Balcaen’s “Drag,” which projects the viewer into two spaces at once, amongst the throngs of admiring fans, and as a god-like performer looking down from above.
By exposing some of the contradictions at work within contemporary artists’ engagement with rock and roll, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room attempts to articulate the object of its study within the framework of a critical history, not an antiquarian one. The exhibition will have achieved this if viewers are led to explore some of the same questions that the artists have posed to themselves in pursuit of their objectives. A critical history examines its objects of study not as received knowledge but as aesthetic creations that are open to new interpretations. Following the school of thought propounded by the philosopher Gianni Vattimo, Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room celebrates neither hard rock nor soft rock but proposes instead a new genre: weak rock. Weak rock accounts for the attendant desires, emotions, vulnerabilities, failings, and contradictions in the form.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

"In Numbers" Review in C Magazine 115

In February 2012, after presenting  Video Surplus/Varied Toil at the Supermarket Art Fair in Stockholm, I was lucky to be able to visit the "In Numbers" exhibition at the ICA in London. My review of the exhibition appears in issue 115 of C Magazine. 

In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955 was at the ICA London from 25 January to 25 March 2012.  My review explores the idea that artists have used self-publication as a form of publicity or marketing tool and as a method of poetic self-creation, with reference to a number of works in the exhibition, specifically General Idea’s FILE megazine, Eleanor Antin’s 100 Boots postcards, and Terence Koh’s Asianpunkboy (APB). The exhibition differentiates the works displayed from garden variety art magazines through the distinguishing features that they do not contain news items, criticism, or reproductions of artworks. Far more idiosyncratic, the serial publications in the exhibition are works of art in themselves.

Largely drawn from the collection of Philip E. Aarons, the exhibition is not comprehensive, but representative. The array of materials on display included slick, mass-produced magazines, cheap photocopied zines deploying recycled materials, and compendiums of objects, prints, and examples of correspondence art. The first significant survey exhibition of a major mode of artistic production that has until now been relatively neglected, In Numbers provides ample evidence that artists have used serial publications to disseminate viral communications about themselves. Their mimicry of mainstream conventions augments not only the public’s perception of their artistic activities but also an aesthetic consciousness of them. To borrow a phrase from APB’s “The Stolen Issue,” a visit to the exhibition induces the viewer into “Seeing pink faggot butterflies everywhere.”

For the complete review, check out C Magazine 115, available at the finest bookstores, newsstands, and libraries near you.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Elrond Lives!

I will be presenting my work, and a related presentation, entitled "Elrond Lives," at the opening reception for the "Princess Towers Notions" Exhibition at the Artel on August 16, 2012.  Information about the exhibit is as follows:

Exhibition Opening Reception
August 16, 8pm
Featuring a performance work by Michael Davidge
The Artel
205 Sydenham St.

Kingston, Ontario

The Princess Towers Notions Group presents an exhibition that engages with the question, "What is to be done with Princess Towers?" It features new works by artists who have created improvements to, fantastical re-imaginings of, or other responses to the 16-storey brick and concrete anomaly, "Kingston's tallest." The exhibition will be on view from August 11th until September 1st. Gallery hours: Thursday to Sunday 12pm-4pm


Jeff Barbeau
Michael Davidge
Decomposing Pianos
Christine Dewancker
Megan Hughes
Sunny Kerr
Cedric Le Floch
Neven Lochhead
Josh Lyon
Marc Piccinato
Milosh Rodic
Matt Rogalsky
Heather Smith
and others

The Princess Towers Notions Group is a small group of Kingston artists investigating the contemporary meanings of the building and its compelling legacy. Current members include Jeff Barbeau, Ben Darrah, Michael Davidge, Christine Dewancker, Sunny Kerr, Matt Rogalsky, and Su Sheedy. 

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Pretty Vacancy at Silver Platter

This summer "Pretty Vacancy" is installed at Robert Hengeveld's Silver Platter Contemporary Art Projects.  When in Toronto, stop by 34 Silver Ave. and look up at the roof.  "Pretty Vacancy" will be up there all season (save rainy days).  And summer will be over before we know it!

Each exhibition of the sign establishes a new context for it, and a new spin. Check out the previous installations, when it was exhibited at the Swamp Ward Window, at the Art Gallery of Peterborough, and the Verb Gallery.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Pretty Vacancy in the Swamp Ward Window

As part of the Art in Public Places Kingston project (APP Kingston) curated by the xcurated collective, "Pretty Vacancy" is on display in the Swamp Ward Window (448 Bagot Street) from May 12th until June 8th, 2012. (Information about the Swamp Ward Window project can be found on its website.)

APP Kingston consists of six thematically related visual art installations in public spaces across the city of Kingston. Each installation is situated in a different space throughout the city creating a unique context for each work of art. The project consists of three locally-based artists (Catherine Toews, Shayne Dark, and me) and four artists from outside of Kingston (Steven Laurie, Robert Hengeveld, and Millie Chen and Warren Quigley.)  The intention of this project is to stimulate discussion about the role of the visual arts and creativity in civic development, while enriching and expanding Kingstonians understanding of public art in all its forms, and through these efforts, to contribute to the development of a successful and viable public art policy in Kingston. More information is available on xcurated's website.

The curators of xcurated (Matthew Hills, Jocelyn Purdie, and Riva Symko) provided the following interpretive text about "Pretty Vacancy":

Kingston-based artist Michael Davidge’s Pretty Vacancy, directly references two things: the 1977 song, “Pretty Vacant” by seminal punk rock band, the Sex Pistols, and the ubiquitous neon (NO)VACANCY signs of roadside motels. While the former inflicts raucous snarls about political unease, recessionary poverty, and youthful unrest, the latter symbolizes a safe place for physical relief from the stress of the highway, and a temporary vacation from the realities of home and working life. Both, however, contain an underlying current of anxiety. The kind of cultural anxiety that has become apparent with the past few decades worth of rapid growth in spectacular capitalism – some might say at the expense of spiritual or intellectual reflection. And the kind of personal anxiety that is present when facing the uncanny strangeness of a blank motel room – like a mixture of the Bates Motel from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the sterile luxury of a Hilton. Residing somewhere between these two currents, lies Davidge’s desire to captivate and confuse us with his puzzling – and pulsing – textual game.
Davidge’s use of neon is certainly not without precedent. In fact, it has proven to be an attractive and compelling medium for a substantially large number of contemporary artists (including Bruce Nauman and Ron Terada among many others). Perhaps it is that neon is a surprisingly complicated and dialectical substance, which makes it so artistically seductive. Indeed, it can appear both retro and futuristic, it can be tongue-in-cheek but it can serve as a serious mode of communication, it is impossible to ignore and yet it is also an invisible part of our everyday urban-scape. When placed in the context of this otherwise quiet, residential neighborhood in Kingston’s Swamp Ward, is neon an obnoxious imposition or an amusing curiosity?

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Message Pictures Part Three

My column, "Message Pictures: Adventures in Reading Images," concluded in the Winter 2012 issue of BlackFlash.  The content is not on-line, so here is the unedited text below:

Message Pictures
Adventures in Reading Images, Part Three
By Michael Davidge

The following is the third and last in a series of three texts that focus on the pleasures and frustrations, the rewards and dangers, of reading images and imagining readings.

A triptych of images from the Toronto-based conceptual artist Erica DeFreitas’s series A Teleplasmic Study with Doilies (2010-11) portrays a young woman who appears impassive and calm, but her expression is hard to read. One element disrupts the fabric of these images, and that is the multi-coloured knit doily that emerges from her mouth in each instance. The stillness of the poses retain the kernel of an action; though perfectly motionless, viewed sequentially they appear transitional, transformative, and a stuttering or shuddering rhythm is suggested. In an artist’s statement, DeFreitas links these images to both the silence of grief and the silence after the expiration of breath from one’s body.  Part of the fluency disorder of these images is established by the visual echo of early spiritualist photography, such as those explicitly cited by DeFreitas that were conjured up by Dr. T.G. Hamilton during séances in Winnipeg in the early 1900s. The mechanical processes and low-resolution appearance of early photography were exploited to create ghostly images that were proffered as empirical proof of the spirit world. DeFreitas tests the suspension of disbelief by supplanting the early ephemeral cottony otherworldly appearances of ectoplasm with her own high-resolution depictions.  They couldn’t possibly show with less clarity that the subject of her digital images has a doily stuffed in her mouth or draped over her face. And yet a tension remains and the images retain a haunted look. 

Considering various aspects of reading in specific images, I have championed both master readers and deliberate obfuscators in a bid for control over the meaning of their work. The cartoon character Tintin has guided me so far, as a dashing and handsome young man who is able to solve every mystery no matter how occult.  Tintin is a sceptic and a pragmatist, and he has a knack for uncovering the reality of a situation: For example, the sounds haunting a house in Tintin in the Land of the Soviets, he discovers, are generated not by ghosts but by a hidden gramophone.  Tintin’s mechanistic worldview cannot account for the supernatural, however.  DeFreitas’ images are beyond him, and they take us beyond the role of the reader and reading in images and introduce us to the spooky mystery of the act of expression in the first place. Uncannily, a quick look at a reference book shows that spelling is found at the very root of casting a spell and that grammar has links with black magic.

Darker and more occluded than the role of the reader is the role of the writer.  Writing is closer to the occulted source.  Though there are problems attendant to reading, at least there is a primary text to start.  Writers have to conjure up something that has never existed before.  It is as if one has to enter into a pact with the Devil to do it.  The primal scene of this conflict is the process of language acquisition.  The great mystic Antonin Artaud decried the moment he learned the name given to him by his family as the moment when he lost his original identity.  The psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan had a droll way of illustrating this process with the phrase “Nom du père” or Name-of-the-Father and also No-of-the-Father.  The Father is a strict authoritarian, and entry into the symbolic requires interdiction. First and foremost, the thing that is denied is communion with the mother.  Having acquired language, the subject is divided, cut off from a womblike immersion in the world but compensated for this dismemberment by the ability to speak and make known what he or she lacks.  The fact that speaking directly addresses this lack in countless ways on a daily basis hardly gives pause.  The torturous blank page for the blocked writer, however, is the scene for a struggle that gives off a whiff of sulphur: in order to write, one must simultaneously recognize the laws that structure language usage but also fail to recognize the other voice that speaks it as anything but one’s own.  The horror lies less in the realization that the voice may not be your own, but that your own voice is completely lost and foreign to you, monstrous and disfigured.

Perhaps this is the reason why the most striking examples of language acquisition in popular culture feature females as the protagonists whose literal entry into the symbolic under the name of the Father is altogether alienating and horrifying. The Exorcist, for example, portrays the bad education of the young girl Regan, who, in the first bloom of puberty, is often left to her own devices, since her mother is working and her father is absent.  One of these devices is a Ouija board, through which Regan communicates with a being she calls Captain Howdy: “I ask the questions and Captain Howdy gives the answers,” she says.  The answers are spelled out as the communicating device under Regan’s hand travels across the board, letter by letter.  It isn’t long before Regan begins swearing like a sailor and then spewing things even more vile, like buckets of vivid green vomit and steaming sputum.  Howling, ferocious and grotesque, Regan speaks in a legion of voices, often male and often backwards.  It must be Regan’s own being that writes, in raised welts on her stomach, the phrase “Help Me.”

Another film based on a book that features spelling as a crucial turning point in the plot and a moment where the female protagonist begins her terrifying entry into the symbolic is Rosemary’s Baby. Rosemary figures out the true nature of what has been transpiring in the apartment block where she lives by using wooden Scrabble tiles to unscramble an anagram in a message from a friend that has consequences more dreadfully serious than a high score.  Ironically, her act of spelling leads her even deeper into the clutches of a witches’ coven that has designs on her.  Rosemary may try to resist the prescriptions of the paternal authorities in her life, but she ultimately embraces them by assuming the role of mother to her child.

What makes these stories so terrifying is the degree to which they are rooted in a world that is familiar to many viewers.  When Regan first begins exhibiting erratic behaviour, the first impulse is to examine her according to scientific principles of Western medicine.  But Regan’s condition cannot be diagnosed by her doctors, and as time passes the horror of the unknown begins to tear the family apart.  Under an X-ray, Regan is a perfectly normal, healthy child, but that does not mean that her problems don’t exist.  Similarly, incidental details ground the events of Rosemary’s Baby in a very specific time and place: New York City in the winter of 1965. Involved in a bizarre sequence of events culminating in a truly Satanic orgy, a drugged but lucid Rosemary cries, “This isn’t a dream, this is really happening!”  Rosemary’s declaration is a newsflash at time in New York when there was a newspaper strike.  If, as Hegel wrote, the newspaper was the atheist’s morning prayer, then this horror film as cinéma vérité would be the atheist’s black mass. 

The mind’s proclivity for magic and its relationship to representation was spelled out by André Bazin in an early essay dating from the 1940s that is still relevant today: “The Ontology of the Photographic Image.” Of course, now that digital manipulation has entered the picture, doubt plays a greater part, but the image still retains its objective nature just as the French word for camera lens is still the objectif.  The “quality of credibility absent from all other picture-making” that Bazin found in photography still exists. The photograph, despite all that we know about it, like a fetish, still contains, as Bazin describes it, an “irrational power to bear away our faith.”  Bazin notes that photography was a key Surrealist activity because of the way that it blurred distinctions between the imaginary and the real: the Surrealist image was “an hallucination that is also a fact.”  Extraordinary images, as in Defreitas’ series, or in the scenes from The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, are presented as matter-of-factly as a reality of nature. Conscious that she is living a nightmare, Rosemary is only able to say, “Unspeakable. Unspeakable. Monsters. Monsters.”

When I set out to write this series of texts, my source of inspiration came from the spelling scene in Rosemary’s Baby.  I was sure that my adventures in reading images would lead me to make a conclusion such as Walter Benjamin’s in his “Little History of Photography” and that I would extol visual literacy as an important skill in the age of mechanical reproduction where the captioning of images is crucial to their reception.  But I have only just now arrived at the starting point and I find myself both spellbound and undone.  One can simply read images, but the thought of writing them is more problematic, especially if you think of photographs as thresholds that breach the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic.  In DeFreitas’ images we witness instants where breath becomes an object, like a misshapen word. The gasps, stutters, gestures, grimaces, and flatulence that connote an antechamber for language work to unravel a message as much as they constitute it.

(By the way, part two is on the blog here, and part one is here.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Pretty Vacancy at the AGP

Okay, so, "Pretty Vacancy" is at the Art Gallery of Peterborough until April 29 as part of the AGP's inaugural Triennial Exhibition which opened March 9 with a reception on the 11th. My Uncle Mark and Aunt Jacqui came to see it. There is a downloadable exhibition catalogue. The link can be found here.