Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Top 10 Contemporary Political Artists: 7 Charlie Woolley

I heard Charlie Woolley, who shows at David Risley, speak at the Saatchi Gallery on Tuesday night and immediately knew I had to include him in my Top 10. 

Woolley is an interdisciplinary artist who often works in collaboration with other artists, and other organisations.  His last such venture was We Have our own Concept of Time and Motion with Federico Campagna (who had previously organised the excellent conference Radical Publishing: What are we Struggling for? at the ICA), Huw Lemmey, and Michael Oswell at Auto Italia South East last August.  It featured a temporary bookshop run by the new cooperative organisation Book Bloc.  Woolley made the furniture for the temporary bookshop... from the (no longer needed) wood from local shops boarded up during the August Riots.  The full title of the exhibition, We have our own concept of Time and Motion: a four day event devoted to the idea and practice of self-organisation, gives us a good idea of what happened.  Woolley was very clear, at the Saatchi Gallery, that the making of art (any art) is a political act.  But his use of materials, the fact that he got them for free and in order to help out another local group further politicises the work.  The space became became a base for the production of new work and new ideas.  Workshops were held by the gallery, Book Block and by the Deterritorial Support Group (a self professed ultra-leftist propaganda machine).  The line up of speakers for the workshops was impressive, here's some examples Mark Fisher, Nina Power, Franco "Bifo" Berardi

 Woolley himself has stated aims of radical and autonomous politics and aesthetics and is interested in how artists engage with radical politics - what better arena?  He spoke of a crisis of aesthetics in politics - a refreshing change from the constant news of political crises: "there is a crisis within certain forms of aesthetics, and political propaganda is one problem and it's taking place on the internet" (artists' talk at the Saatchi Gallery 3/10/2011 - "Francesca Gavin - 100 New Artists).  Woolley never saw himself as an internet artist until asked about internet art for a project.  It was his wife who reminded him that he uses Google image searches to generate some of his work (digital and traditional collages), broadcasts his radio show, from gallery spaces, on the internet etc.  In this way we can re-consider what internet art is.  As Woolley said, what we think of as internet art has already happened and something new is already happening.  One hour of YouTube footage is uploaded every second - we're already, always so far behind!  Artists like Woolley are of the last generation to remember a pre-internet work.  Lilah Fowler - who also spoke at the event - agreed saying that art is now generally seen online (or on screen), not in the flesh. Students bring images of their artwork into college, lecturers view the work on students' laptops, people don't have time to visit the gallery so they look on the gallery's. 

Woolley's series of digital photographs of TV screens The Flicker Effect are also political.  When blown up, the images of black and white films and TV shows reveal that they are anything but black and white.  The television set, from which the photographs are taken, broadcasts in RGB and a rainbow of colours appears in the photographic image.  This serves to remind us of subliminal messages and that we don't always know what we see on TV, but also it allows us to reflect on how often images are re-translated from one medium to another, from one context to another - and what affect this has on meaning.  Of course, once these photographs are documented, appearing online or printed in catalogues, they are reduced back down in size and become black and white again ruining the effect, or further reinforcing the message (you decide). 

The notion of the artist as collaborator and activist came up at times during the talk.  Apart from the example above, Woolley spoke of how he makes flags, in the tradition of the political banner, using family members.  His mum is "really good at sewing" and another family member is a weaver - so he makes the flags with them.  Woolley thinks it's only right to use skilled labourers, and t credit them for their work.  Woolley spoke about artists' squats on more than one occasion - once with reference to the crisis of tired aesthetics in Belgravia flats: bedsheets hanging from the windows emblazoned with the word "occupied" (how does this engage the Belgravia community?)  When an audience member asked a question about Art Schools Woolley again demonstrated his activist credentials arguing against Francesca Gavin's claim that "some people look at your work more seriously if you've got an MA from the Slade, the RCA or Goldsmiths" by asserting that the big name schools don't produce anything special, except for the peer group.  Woolley told us that he thought the most important course he had studied was his Foundation, (a sentiment with which I agree - the Foundation is the most important course for an artist) followed by his BA, then MA then PhD.  For me the MA came next in importance.  Of course, you can't (or shouldn't) do an MA without first studying for a BA, and my BA was good, but I never progressed at the same rate that I did on the one year intensive courses that are the Foundation and MA.  The Masters was also a chance to reflect on my experiences as an undergraduate: returning to education after several years working as an artist was an extremely rewarding experience and the peer group, of mostly BA Fine Art graduates made for interesting debate and shared learning.  The single most important part of my education though did not occur at University, but through travel.  I think travel is political.  Travel to Europe or the US and you are confronted with people, in many ways very similar to us in Britain, but with different philosophies about how to live their lives - different political opinions.  Travel outside of North America and Europe, beyond the white western world and you will find the space for political reflection and space for political alternatives to arise.  Woolley did not speak of travel and this is not a major factor in his work.  Collaboration is, but could this be stronger if he were to collaborate with people beyond his immediate surroundings, both geographical and in terms of the art word?  I have a feeling that travel will reoccur in my Top 10.  Woolley ended by reminding us that you could get a good art education, if you're savvy, just by attending free events in London. Working together we can overcome capital.  The internet helps us make art and distribute art without the need for (much) capital.  Helping friends, setting up your own parties, visiting each others' houses (instead of buying into the commercialisation of leisure) doing things not for financial gain - these are ways to overcome capital and, in my Top 10, I will endeavour to find artists who do this. 

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