"we understand space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity." - Doreen Massey
Performance is often described in terms of the body, spectatorship, duration, the spoken word, narrative. In art institutions it is included among what has come to be known as time-based practices or live arts. Amelia Jones, for instance, notes that performance has been “privileged precisely through its ephemerality and immediacy”. The current anxiety about the documentation and reenactment of performance confirms the perception that performance is impermanent in a strong sense. Everybody knows that performances occur in spaces but typically the performance is seen as something separate that is brought to the space and disappears from the space once it is over. In this way, performance has been theorized as primarily temporal rather than primarily spatial.
William Mackrell’s work combines sculpture with performance (including print and photography too) in a way that not only adds a temporal dimension to the sculptural sphere of objects, but adds a spatial element to it, as well. Not the kind of spatiality that animates installation art (a sort of extrapolation of the ‘spaces’ within paintings and sculptures) nor the bounded concept of space that attaches site-specific art to physical spaces. Mackrell’s work traverses the spatial dynamics of geography. I am not thinking of the traditional conception of geography as the study of territory or the poststructural misconception of space as the “domestication of time”, to use Ernesto Laclau’s words. Mackrell’s works respond to place and space through an embodied reflection.
Deux Chevaux (2011-2015) consists of a Citroën 2CV harnessed to two horses and driven, or ridden, through various specific places. Given its original purpose to supply motorized transport to farmers still using horses and carts in 1930s France, Mackrell’s montaging of these two modes of transport into one functional vehicle is an historical conundrum. If conceptually it is a temporal folding of history upon itself, it has a strong geographical significance in its realization. A great deal of Marckrell’s time was taken up in negotiating with the local authorities to obtain written permission to take the horse drawn car along specific routes at specific times.
His walking piece, Going to the Gallery (2013), is a spatial study. Writing the words ‘going to the gallery’ on a roll of paper as he makes his way on foot from the studio to the gallery, Mackrell links two places not only through his action but through his mantra. While still outside the studio he writes ‘going to the gallery’, as if the two spaces were already, through his intention, bridged and bonded. As well as the movement of the artist from one place to another, a roll of paper, now absent from the studio is left in the gallery. This work thus transposes the experience of space into what might have once been called a piece of text art, which appears in the gallery as a little heap, not unlike Robert Morris’ iconic piles of felt, of displaced material.
At least since the early eighteenth century a man who walked from his studio to a gallery would be a bearer of spatial displacement. Daniel Defoe celebrated this in his panegyric to trade: “The cloth for the man’s coat comes from Yorkshire;… the waistcoat … from Norwich. The breeches are … from Devizes, Wilts … His yarn stockings are from Westmorland. His hat is a felt from Leicester. His leather gloves come from Somerset, his shoes from Northampton”. Today, David Harvey asks where your breakfast comes from (sugar, coffee, milk, cups, etc), saying that these products link you with millions of workers around the globe. He calls these ‘spatial linkages’. Mackrell’s works create spatial linkages that make visible the invisible threads that connect places together.
Gaps, glitches and speed bumps commissioned by RBS for the Ambulatory category of Sculpture Shock 2015 makes its way, eventually, to the gallery but it takes place largely on public transport. Sat upstairs on the bus, Mackrell draws lines that are scattered by the swaying, stopping and swerving that jolts all the passengers. He draws on a print of sheet music in which the rows of lines have been bent into a circle. At the same time, four singers chart the journey with improvised sounds, stopping abruptly whenever the bus reaches a stop or a red light. Fellow travellers turn to listen and look, pointing and whispering, giggling and smiling.
“The real import of spatiality”, critical geographer Doreen Massey says, is “the possibility of multiple narratives”, or what she calls “coevalness”. Gaps, glitches and speed bumps is Mackrell’s most coeval work to date. The bus has a fixed route and is timetabled according to a semi-rigorous schedule, but the people who jump on and jump off have their own destinations and their own narratives. Buses are public not in the Habermasian sense of places where opinions are exchanged and public opinion is formed collectively, but in the sense of a zone in which people come together temporarily and share space, like a park, a zoo or a shopping mall. Like the scenes portrayed by Manet, then, the bus is a conspicuous reminder of the city as a place of coeval existence. Mackrell’s intervention in the bus, by adding just one or two new narratives to the scene, highlights the fact that there were multiple narratives here all along.
Mackrell did not hire a private bus to realize his drawings and improvised singing. It would have been reasonable to do so but if he had then the work would have remained spatial but would have been far less coeval. The route that the private bus took would have been determined solely by the artist and the fellow passengers would have been there to witness the work. By joining a public bus on its regular journey, carrying passengers to their individual destinations, Mackrell’s work inserts itself into the space that others occupy for their own purposes, mid-stream so to speak. The work belongs in the same space, in the same intersection of journeys and narratives, that any passenger would encounter walking down a busy street, catching a train or stepping onto the bus.
Taxi drivers famously enjoy the full benefits of coevalness but taxi passengers do not. If we do not typically experience the coevalness of bus journeys in full, this is because our journeys are shaped by the polite avoidance of fellow passengers. In fact, coevalness is generally not something that we experience directly. It is a background feature that structures contemporary life. Like the spatial linkages that pins your breakfast to the world without you necessarily having any idea about what these linkages actually are, coevalness is structural not phenomenological. Mackrell makes coevalness phenomenological by assigning the movement and noise of passengers to the score of the work.
James Clifford roots the practice of traveling in the Greek term theoria: “Theory is a practice of travel and observation, ... a product of displacement. To theorize, one leaves home.” Aesthetics is the result of a similar process, applied to objects and subjects alike. The modern institutions of art - including the public museum, the emergence of an art public and the publishing of art criticism - were unprecedented but can be understood best as based on the modern experience of Greek and Roman artefacts displaced from their original contexts. Art and aesthetics are born when crafted objects left home, or, more precisely, were seized by foreigners. Art is in a perpetual state of leaving home. What Gaps, glitches and speed bumps demonstrates is that the displacement of the aesthetic from the museum does not return it to a pre-aesthetic function or utility, but percolates the aesthetic through small pockets of the everyday.
By Dave Beech