A white barge was to be seen floating slowly along the Regent’s Canal; nothing unusual in that. If you looked closely, though, you could see a figure standing motionless in the prow pointing ahead as though urging the vessel to maintain its forward momentum.
This was neither a carved wooden figurehead nor the skipper navigating shallow waters, but the artist Alexander Costello performing ‘Making Progress’, a four day journey aboard a barge that doubles as the Fordham Gallery.
For the occasion, he wore a white suit that blended in with the fabric of the boat, so that he could easily be mistaken for a fixture. Copious sleeves hid the steel structure made by the artist to support his arm during the journey; this made his ability to sustain such an awkward and absurd pose over many hours seem little short of miraculous.
‘I’ve never not performed’, Costello tells me. ‘As a boy I was a chorister standing still for hours on end and, later, I became the front man for a band. It’s nice to be live; I like the endurance aspect of being in the moment – feeling the doing, experiencing things in the now. Whatever happens, happens. I like testing myself and asking “How am I accountable?” ’
Attached to his pointing arm, a video camera provided live footage to a screen below deck so that passengers could share Costello’s privileged view of the canal and its banks as the boat glided inexorably forwards into the future. They could also watch people on the towpath responding with surprise, hilarity or dismay as they caught sight of the artist pursuing his apparently pointless task with such determination and focus.
‘That’s exactly what it was’, agrees Costello: ‘a poor sod persisting in nothingness. The whole point of the performance was this steady nothing – in all its metaphorical glory!’ This remark brings to mind Samuel Beckett’s play ‘Waiting For Godot’, in which two benighted fools, Vladimir and Estragon, persist in waiting for the arrival of someone called Godot even when their vigil appears increasingly fruitless. The more time they commit to waiting, the more they feel the need to continue. ‘Beckett is massive’, affirms Costello. ‘Even when people are offered a fresh start, they still want and expect the things they are accustomed to.’
On the one hand, the journey was like any other; it passed the time pleasantly while ferrying passengers from A to B; and like many performances, Costello’s offering was light hearted, humorous and transitory. But while passing the time, like Beckett’s play, it had the potential to stir up the dark silt that lies beneath the beguiling surface of performance and encourage consideration of more serious issues.
Travelling along the canals of north London from Camden Lock to Tottenham Hale, the barge passed through Kings Cross, Haggerston, London Fields, Hackney Wick and the Olympic Park – areas transformed beyond recognition by the ambitious programme of regeneration embarked on in preparation for the London Olympics of 2012. In the process, the empty warehouses, derelict factories and small businesses that once lined the canal banks were refurbished or replaced by blocks of luxury flats that invite the well-heeled to elbow out poorer residents.
Some saw the development as a much-needed improvement; others viewed it with disgust as wanton vandalism. Costello deliberately chose the route and the title, ‘Making Progress’ to provoke questions about the concept of progress – what it means and it’s intended and unintended consequences. Does the notion of progress spur us on toward a desirable future or, in the vain pursuit of unattainable goals, does it encourage the destruction of things we should hold dear? Where are we heading individually and collectively, and what would constitute a worthy ambition, a meaningful journey or a useful life?
‘As a teacher I’m expected to subscribe to the notion of ‘making progress’’, explains Costello, who is a teacher as well as an artist. ‘In life we’re always on a journey – going forwards rather than retreating – but some people need more time to get started and, in the education system, late developers are written off.
“At university I made sure I achieved something every day, but things soon became strained. I didn’t want to force the work, so I taught myself to do nothing, to enjoy the nothing (the empty canvas) – to let things gestate and allow the work to happen. I’m interested in processes; if I know where I’m going – if the idea is already in my head – its no good to me. If I’m too much in control, whatever made it interesting in the first place no longer exists.’
Does he believe that art can change anything? “Yes”, comes the emphatic reply. ‘This project is ridiculously silly, but also very important vis-à-vis social politics. We’re encouraged to equate progress with making things bigger, better and faster, but this acceleration leads to homogenisation; which generates conservatism. And who orchestrates change? Big corporations.
‘Like the slipstream off the end of my finger, progress always remains just out of reach, so I’m encouraging people to question what “making progress” actually means, and the silliness is the doorway. At one time I tried to be funny but it didn’t work, partly because that wasn’t the point, partly because the desire to entertain encourages mediocrity. So now the audience has to take me as I come. I’m interested in ideas; I like hard work, something rich and nourishing, a real chew.’
Written by Sarah Kent