Daniel Jewesbury, 'Limits of Silence', review, CIRCA Magazine, Autumn 1997

The regular, and seemingly random, release of artists 'into the community' is beset with dangers: how will any project construct a view of its audience, its 'community', and how will it choose to address them? There are two poles between which most other projects can be placed. At one end is the traditional approach to public art, where the audience, inasmuch as they are conceived at all, are presumed to be grateful for the intervention of councillors and artists to provide them with a new statue, monument, or other hefty agglomeration of building materials. At the other extreme one finds artists immersing themselves completely in 'the community', in order to 'give the people a voice'. Both extremes are problematic; one fetishizes the community, one ignores it altogether; both, therefore, impose their own view of what that community should comprise and what its desires must be. If a community-based project is to be successful it must first establish what Hal Foster calls a 'critical distance' between itself and its audience (that which it has identified as 'the community') [1].

Govan's Pearce Institute is a vast community centre in the heart of a massively deprived district of Glasgow's southside. In Limits of Silence, a show in various rooms at the Pearce, curated by Theo Sims and Nicola Atkinson-Griffiths, distance indeed surfaced as an important concern on a number of occasions. Mary McIntyre's series of lightboxes, Interim, shown in the Fairfield Hall, was conceived entirely at a geographical distance from the Pearce itself. The three images she showed were photographs of a space in the Playhouse in Derry; such was the similarity, however, between the room portrayed and that in which the images were sited, that for a second the viewer believed them to be one and the same space. This momentary schism again echoed the 'critical distance' that McIntyre had incorporated into the work. She did not make an explicit statement about the users of either building, rather about use itself; she attempted to link each room through an awareness of this use. Slightly jarring was the suggestion that 'the communities' which used each building might easily be invoked through a formal representation of those buildings; and a claim by the artist to have linked the communities in the act of linking architectural spaces was a little disingenuous. The users were, if anything, suggested more by their absence, since the works were only accessible when the room was not 'in use'; also, McIntyre herself emphasises the fact that her images do not contain people.

Mark Orange's sound installation, Toor O' Fable, was situated in the café of the Pearce. A large photograph of the former Lyceum cinema, around the corner from the Pearce and now County Bingo, was placed on one of the tables. The sounds that accompanied the image appeared to be part of a radio documentary, and indeed they were playing through a radio that sat in front of the photograph. However they were fed to the radio's speaker from a concealed CD player; Orange mixed excerpts from a 1930s newspaper article about the cinema with reminiscences of a Govan oral history group, and an interview with a local architect. Implicit in his use of the radio format, and in his presentation of the radio as the 'source' of the sounds, is an attempt to question the authoritative nature of the 'interview' as an expository device. The radio acted as a slightly playful element, a decoy which sent up the dry, factual tone of the interviews. Another subtly tongue-in-cheek component was the photograph, which had been digitally manipulated to intensify the colours and emphasise the wide angle of the shot, a reference perhaps to the distorting effect of nostalgia on 'objectivity'.

I was aware of another, counter-productive, distance that the work created. In supposing to engage with the users of the building in such a direct way, Orange inadvertently lent an air of spectacle to the piece. Any viewer of the piece from 'outside the community', that is to say, a non-user of the building who came specifically to view the exhibition was viewing not just the piece itself but also the piece being viewed by the café's regular users. In this way 'the community' became part of the piece, in an almost anthropological way. However, if the physical nature of the piece initially created this tension, sited on one of the tables that would normally be supporting someone's lunch, then this also worked in its favour. The need to sit at the table as one listened to the piece, focussing very intently on the radio and the photograph, evoked the similar situation of sitting in the cinema/bingo hall described in the 'documentary'. On the whole the piece sought to involve, rather than simply to depict.

Oral history often focuses on loss, or perceived loss through change. The central concern of an anthropological project is often to document a culture before it disappears forever. Orange subtly questioned this fear of loss or extinction in his use of the Govan Reminiscence Group; Susan Philipsz evoked it in a quite different way. Her sound installation, Red Shift, in the Macleod Hall, took the room's enormous, now-silent organ as its subject and sought to 'breathe life back into it'. Philipsz positioned speakers around the room; each one played a recording of her blowing through one of the organ pipes. This layering of individual sounds, and the polyphony it simulated, emphasised the dislocation of the sounds from the organ itself, seeming to insist that the viewer look more closely at the rest of the room rather than at its most grand, and most obvious, feature.

However, in choosing to 'restore' the organ, albeit abstractly, Philipsz's installation seemed to be figuring the present too rigidly in terms of the past. One wondered whether she decided that such a recuperative action was appropriate because the Pearce is a community centre, sited in some less sophisticated present-past. If the piece seemed to 'other' the 'community' it envisaged at the Pearce, it did so no more than Orange's installation. Of course the piece was not wholly immersed in any notion of the past, and in reconfiguring the sounds of the organ in such a deliberate way Philipsz obviously created a new, aural space with what already existed.

The success of this show was thanks, then, to the participants' unwillingness to generalise about what 'community' might mean. Each devised different stratagems for working this conundrum, and each was largely successful. Notably in such a venue, however, any over-arching curatorial intention was difficult to identify – the title of the show in particular was something of an obscure non-sequitur. It might have been helpful in assessing the success of the individual artists' responses had the original question been made more explicit.

[1] Hal Foster, The Return of the Real, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1996.

Daniel Jewesbury

Daniel Jewesbury is an artist based in Belfast.


CIRCA 81, Autumn 1997