'Making Progress' by Alexander Costello by Claire Mander

Alexander Costello,  Making Progress , performance, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello, Making Progress, performance, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

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. 

Alexander Costello,  Making Progress , performance, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello, Making Progress, performance, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

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.

Alexander Costello,  Making Progress , performance, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello, Making Progress, performance, 2014, photo by AK Purkiss

‘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

Notes from the studio - Alexander Costello by Claire Mander

How important is the written or spoken word to the conception of your works?

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

AC: The faults, oddities, devices, misinterpretations and slippages that exist in language are the unconscious, subliminal foundations to ideas that find themselves re-presented in my more solid visual work.

Who are the artists you most admire and which have had the greatest impact on your thinking and your work?

AC: Big hitters for me are Manzoni, Baldessari, Tati, Prince, McLean, WC Fields, Bas Jan Ader, Salvatore Scarpitta, Laurie Anderson, Beckett, Abramovic, Yves Klein, Robert Rauschenberg, de Chirico, Pettibon, Bukowski, Herman Hesse, Kurt Vonnegut, Fontana…

Your Sculpture Shock residency is called ‘Making Progress’. What do you perceive as ‘progress’? 

AC: I don’t actually know what progress is supposed to be, what it looks like or what we should be doing with it, but the idea of it dominates how we value and locate ourselves today. I suppose getting somewhere with something, wherever that is or whatever it looks like, and coming to terms with what happens was always going to happen. Not to be confused with making things better though. There is nothing better than being inside the moment of making, time spent pushing at things, teasing confidence with doubt, and just keeping going. Because of that, endings interest me and the anticipation of the next thing. There is always the next thing.

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

In the wider social (western) context, progress often skips hand in hand down the street with pro-activism the mighty slayer of inertia, and as such is perceived as something positive for society. I am uncomfortable with this perception, as much as I am also uncomfortable with progress being linked to the importance of accountability, when accountability concerns a race to the bottom. Steve Aylett  said that “progress accelerates downhill.” I am happy to know that and keep it in mind. As such, progress concerns ideas to do with ‘moving forward’, be it as an individual or society, which is perhaps a flawed consensus. Who is progress for? is a very important question to ask. 

You said that the film The Bed Sitting Room based on the play by Spike Milligan and John Antrobus provides the context for your residency. Can you elaborate on this?

AC: The world has been destroyed by a nuclear war which lasted only 2 ½ minutes and only a few survivors remain. The landscape is a desperate environment of cutlery, mud and rubbish. There is nothing to look forward to. Dudley Moore and Peter Cook appear as the police, floating over the heads of the survivors in a hot air balloon and insist that everyone keeps moving - moving forwards - as if that is what is required and is the necessary default position, in the given circumstances. The fact that it means absolutely nothing goes unquestioned. The world is a tabula rasa. Despite having the opportunity to start again, the survivors cling on to their perceived, ingrained and oppressive social norms and aim for and rely on the same mundane things like a Tesco, a bank, etc. when rebuilding their world. The absurdity is that having being given the world, they cling to their ideals and habits of progress.

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Alexander Costello in the Sculpture Shock Studio, photo by AK Purkiss

Humour and the absurd are cornerstones of your work. What do you hope to achieve by using these ‘tools’ and how do they help convey your message?

AC:  Humour is where the circle of seriousness and gravity comes to an end.  Deadpan is at that fine point, and it is the means of entry and engagement with my work. All art is funny, and as such should always be taken seriously. Humour is a way of communicating something that is both funny and critical, an unwelcome observation or the uncovering of an embedded but dysfunctional social norm. Utterly ridiculous in delivery, utterly serious in content.    

What impact do you hope your work to have on the viewer? What is the importance of public spectacle to you?

AC:  I do not expect people to immediately understand what I am doing or what the point of the work is but I do hope to create strong images which lodge a future thought in their heads. Sometimes people need some thoughtful respite in order to progress.

How important is site specificity to your work? To what extent do you tailor your pieces to a particular ‘public landscape’ as you put it?

AC: The ‘public landscape’ is like a live canvas and back drop to my performance and video work. All my work is a response to people or places that punctuate the brusque contingencies of the everyday. I choose to respond, either by challenging these experiences or reflecting on them. I suppose there are 2 types of artistic process I engage with. The work you make as a process of making one thing after the other, where work itself generates ideas for new work and development. The other is making work in response to the site specific, whether it is a space, an incident, an object or environment. The site-specific is often a peopled space and experienced differently, person to person. As such, there is a greater chance to interact, interrupt, subvert and play with it through the types of interventions I design.

How do you feel about the impermanence of the performance components of your work in contrast to the more lasting nature of the text based, video, object making, drawing and painting elements? Are these intended as the documentary part of the piece, standalone works, or perhaps both?

AC: One of my firm beliefs is ‘It’s Not About The Thing. It’s About All Of It And Doing Things.’ Everything informs everything else. As such, my performance work does not need to be anything else it is not. As an impermanent medium I’m all right with it occupying the very moment it is supposed to, as that is the moment. In fact, it lends itself well to making sure that ‘What something is, is exactly what it is, and what it was always going to be.’