Kahoon Projects

Curators’ Reflections

It was remarked to me during the documentation of Kahoon Projects that many artists could be divided into two categories: those who leave their wires on display and those who hide them. To a degree the two Kahoon Projects exhibitions, Do the Twist and Word of Mouth, demonstrate these opposing philosophies. Do the Twist was a sprawling maze, more like a burrow of the mind with chambers of artworks: here a video of a figure becoming yellow; there a single balloon slowly losing its altitude. Whilst Word of Mouth laid carpet over its insides, papered posters over its back, and offered one monolithic screen to consider two consecutive videos: Manoeuvres and It’s still banging in 2019. The metaphor may also be extended to the artists themselves, with a distinction drawn between those who expose themselves, their personal wires in their work, as well as those who are in the business of the careful laying of trunking.

Kahoon Projects was conceived of as a project investigating the term, the reality and conception of “working class”, and its relationship to art, in the 21st Century. In the one sense this was done in a fairly simple way: providing a funded opportunity for artists from workingclass backgrounds to develop an exhibition after a residency in SET’s project space in Alscot Road, Bermondsey. Yet combined, these exhibitions succeed in presenting something far more complex and intriguing, and through investigating what it is to be working-class in the 21st century, the works are testament to the diversity of working-class cultural experience.

The two consecutive exhibitions were set up as pairings of artists – the idea being that a dialogue would develop between the artists in the residency weeks preceding the installation of the exhibition, and that the exhibitions would both be products of this. One of the interesting aspects that was perhaps not considered before are the threads sewn across the two exhibitions: for instance, Maria de la O Garrido’s and Mitchell Vowles’ works both utilised autobiography as the basis of their work, they exposed the wires of a personal-political conception of a certain colour; the act of laying carpet; videos of musicians (edited archival footage or self-filmed); family home-videos; or music made by friends. Garrido’s and Vowles’ artworks were both firmly situated in the “I” of the artist. The works of Short and Tipping ostensibly took a third person approach, removing suggestions of biography to, in the case of Short, tuck the cables away in order to consider the wider lens of the language and conception of the working class. Tipping’s work, on the other hand, zooms in on two specific narrators to allow their voices to carry a narrative over carefully curated images of the Gloucestershire countryside at night.

Olivia Laing, in her book “The Lonely City”, quotes the artist David Wojnarowicz: “To make the private into something public is an act that has terrific repercussions on the pre-invented world”. For Wojnarowicz the “pre-invented world” is fairly self-explanatory – an accepted reality which is anything but real. Laing, Maggie Nelson, Chris Kraus and other ‘auto-theorists/fiction writers’ incorporate personal narrative into theoretical texts both as a means of undermining the norms of the pre-invented world, as well as politicising the self – by using themselves as the “I” within their texts they raise questions about “who” is writing in situations where the “I” is supressed. It’s a very handy argument that the artwork or text has such primacy that the creator themselves should be removed into dissolution. And a natural reaction of theorists, especially those who have hitherto been silenced, is to decide to make themselves the subject matter. They come to question the “I” in reference to the collective self that is mediated and taught to us in so many ways: through the media, language, daily oppressions, and the dominance of social values that dictate the use of so-called ‘public space’.

As part of this process of examination and discovery, the underlying mechanics of the label ‘working-class’ is exposed. The term ‘working-class’ is plagued in contemporary Britain, not only by discriminatory judgements (as comprehensively illustrated for instance in Owen Jones’s Chavs), but also by predominant stereotypes that, whether positive or negative (though most often the latter), frequently combine to form a tainted and reductive ‘working-class aesthetic’. Here the vision of the working-class is dissociated from a profession, community or culture, referencing instead a certain style: a form of realism, and straight-forward, no-nonsense representations that reject abstraction and intellectualism. While many of the pieces commissioned and/or presented by Kahoon Projects adopt this aesthetic in some form, questioning and deconstructing it, others reject the aesthetic entirely, instead looking for freedom in more abstract languages. The work developed by Shonagh Short and Maria de la O Garrido for the first exhibition, Do the Twist, was a harmonious meeting point between these two approaches.  

Despite having never met before the start of the residency, the two artists quickly developed a strong working relationship that brought together their seemingly divergent ways of thinking about the concept of class in contemporary Britain – one influenced by a childhood in Spain followed by life and studies in London, the other inspired by socially engaged practice with working-class communities in the North of England. This truly collaborative installation was cemented by the artists’ burgeoning professional relationship, and their mutual willingness to adapt to the other’s ideas and ways of working, even if that way seemed, on the face of it, to be the polar opposite to their own. Short and Garrido’s collective way of working, thinking and creating can be understood as an invisible yet transformative social sculpture contributing not only to the successful realisation of this collaborative exhibition, but also to the broader relationships with individuals, collectives and communities forged during the course of the residency. Here they both relinquished a preconceived “I”, as present in their working practice, for the sake of the collective aim. The result, for the exhibition, was an explosion of yellow.

Certain colours are often understood by their symbolic significance. Red is widely recognised as the colour of communism, green for contemporary environmentalism, black as an historical symbol of anarchy. Yet while one can find examples of yellow as ‘a site of resistance’ – as Garrido describes it – looking for obvious historical precedents or clear cultural lineage almost misses the point. Instead, the viewer is invited to enter the exhibition committing themselves to this way of thinking, to submerge themselves within a world of yellow in which liberation is achieved through small, daily acts of resistance. I am here reminded of the work of Mathew Sawyer, whose acts, intended to be performed without an audience, therein become covert subversions of accepted behavioural norms. (I go to sign on at the job centre / No one there but me is aware / All my pockets are full of sugar.) But if the acts themselves in a person’s daily life can be understated, the exhibition that Garrido and Short present is anything but. The maze-like installation, created from yellow walls, divides the warehouse into a space to be navigated. It is a subdued, almost dream-like cacophony, with films providing changeable soundscapes in different sections of the room, and bright yellow lighting distorting the narrow spaces. Hidden behind corners you find miniature sculptures of bathroom furniture, a corridor of poetry, a functioning yellow climbing wall, and a rolling pin mounted on a plinth as a ‘weapon of class destruction’. At the centre lies the ‘Inner Circle’, lined with gold, where you can apply for non-membership, choosing to be liberated from the social norms that confine each of us.

There is an element to autobiography which is always myth creation, and there is a long lineage of developing semi-private languages. In the case of Garrido this is the conception of yellow. In Garrido’s idiolect, the word comes to signify acts or even feelings of personal liberation – small moments of defiance: mentally switching off from the aggressive boss; or taking a company’s property. Though the term escapes a priori definition, the idea of yellow is defined demonstrably. It is used, indeed almost to the exclusion of any other, within the context of the exhibition: in the yellow of the mazelike walls; the yellow of the tiny sculptures; the yellow of the warm lighting and the yellow of the outfits of the musicians playing. Similarly to Vowles, as discussed below, Garrido seems to take personal possession of a term as a means of pulling in far-reaching tendrils. Her films are steeped in ritual – that of music making, costume wearing, and seeming psychedelic odyssey. Each video is itself a ritual or a rite of passage: in one, the protagonist (the artist) ‘becomes yellow’, following certain repeated actions to shed their previous clothes and adorn a new yellow. In another, a troupe of yellow clad musicians celebrate an ancient image of a sculpture of a Golden cat, with a yellow mop.

If Garrido’s yellow world constructs an all-enveloping alternative to more recognisable working-class aesthetics, Short’s fascination with language further pulls apart the accepted norms. Garrido’s work could be considered as physical definitions of her conception, where ritual and imagery suggest the meaning potentiality of the term, rather than try to delineate it. Similarly, Short’s work defines terms by and within their spatio-temporality. By visualising the concept of class in terms of the spatial metaphors that are present in the English language, she confronts the discrimination and othering that underpins everyday expression: the high arts and the upper classes are raised above us, metaphorically distanced from the lower classes, the dirt poor, closest to the ground. The climbing wall, almost impossible for the visitor to complete (I think only 3 or 4 people managed to get across it), is a physical mockery of idea of “social mobility”, and also questions the metaphors buried in our language: up is good, down is bad, the future is ahead. Try your best not to fall. In approaching the subject of class from abstract and deconstructionist perspectives, the audience is trusted to engage in a non-didactic way, invited to form their own methods of ‘doing the twist’, breaking free from the oppressions of their own particular life.

In stark contrast to Do the Twist, the second Kahoon Projects exhibition, Word of Mouth, was a pared down, seemingly minimalist presentation of two films and a sequence of adjoining photographic slides. Despite the apparent simplicity, the installation was relatively complex, with much attention paid to the quality of audio and visuals in this naturally bright and echoey warehouse space. Thanks to training in carpet-fitting through his family’s business, Vowles installed carpet throughout the gallery space, including along the sides of the free-standing projection screen, and on audio-buffer pallets hung upon the walls. The cheap, durable carpet, ubiquitous in the space, gave the feel of a post-industrial open-plan office with grey carpet tiles and fluorescent lighting – the likes of which now sit empty and abandoned on the edges of cities, or converted into cheap, high-rise, lightless flats due to the government’s recent deregulation of housing.

Also in contrast to the earlier exhibition, Word of Mouth’s two films directly confront the issue of class in a more recognisable way. While one focuses on the working-class cultures of the South West of England, the other examines issues in the South East: the former with recent threats of mass unemployment due to the imminent closure of car factories, the latter with long-standing unemployment and well-publicised social deprivation. Told  through interviews with the artist, Morgan Tipping’s Manoeuvres focuses on the culture of car meets in South West England, an area highly dependent on car industries at risk of failing, with factories threatened with imminent closure. Discussed by those within the community, the film reflects empathetically on the role that car meets and modifications have had on the lives of those involved, from education and employment, to community, commitment and sense of worth. 

Yet, despite the centrality of community, Tipping’s work is interestingly devoid of human figures. Aside from the few who meet in the dark of parked car lights at the beginning of the film, the imagery is wide-angled tableaus of liminal landscapes, where the small sites of human artefact meet the majesty of woods, gorges and rockfaces. The two narrative voices of the film speak sequentially about the subculture of modifying cars, and throughout the film the viewer comes to realise that the beautifully shot landscapes are the sites that these people go to in order to race. While we see the epic landscapes of the Cheddar Gorge, run-down car parks, and broken road signs illuminated with a car’s artificial lights and LEDs, the narrators highlight the lack of public spaces for marginal communities that are incompatible with the values of mainstream society. We are asked to question who has the right to inhabit public spaces, and to dictate the behaviours displayed there.

This clash of cultures has only been accentuated since the film was produced, with the Cheddar Gorge car meets a particular point of focus throughout 2020. Accused not only of anti-social behaviour – with up to 100 cars meeting to race along its winding streets – but also of environmental damage, the culture links to wider reaching issues, not least concerning necessary societal changes due to the climate emergency. Implicit within this discussion is what these changes will mean for the communities and people whose cultures, interests, and professions are at odds with newly emergent social paradigms. Which cultures have a place in the new world, and which will be sacrificed in the name of progress? 

As if paralleling the juxtaposition of the raucous car meets in the idyllic West Country landscape, the serenity of Tipping’s shots, and the softness of the voices of the interviewees, is intercut with graphics of auto-phantasmagoria, 90s rave cars flashing at the screen and samples of jump-up, the preferred music of the second voice. The film further mirrors the testimony of the two voices in its amendments to the landscape. By adding coloured lights and strobes, and the image of the disco ball placed within the abandoned bus shelter – all conjuring the sense of illegal parties and raves – Tipping responds to the men’s passion for their craft, altering these natural spaces as they would mechanically alter cars.

Both men develop narratives about their work, telling of their position in society and their enjoyment of a pastime which is so widely condemned. The older narrator, an Automotive Lecturer, offers an ‘upward mobility’ narrative, describing not only how he moved into a more prosperous career, but how he hopes to inspire higher aspiration in others. This narrative of social mobility is undercut by the second voice: the narrator speaks more quickly about driving fast and being thought of as a “yobbo”, something he defends by reference to his driving ability. He also talks about racing being demonised, and goes on to suggest something darker: when explaining that he thinks there should be areas set up for legalised racing he says that, had they existed in the past, “I may not have done what I done”. What this is, is left unsaid. It’s a classic narrative trick – the viewer presumes the interview went on and this is explained. Perhaps the interviewee asked for the details to be left out. The words bring one back to the story of the older interviewee, who speaks about his “nan’s sister or nan’s mum, or something like that” being the first woman to own a car. He says she was a wealthy actress who could have bought an expensive house but never bought anything apart from the car. Tipping leaves this narrative hanging as well before breaking into another section. Both stories suggest something about the consciousness of the person being interviewed – the first speaker explains their situation in terms of their family history – the love of cars, their socio-economic position. Whilst the second wishes to justify their existence, or their passion, by reference to wider structural inequalities: why is his subculture vilified and unable to exist?

Seen alongside, Mitchell VowlesIt’s still banging in 2019 offers a view of a possible future for the communities that are left behind. The film is created in a moment of transition for the UK, in which the narrative of class-based communities and the retelling of national histories is mobilised for the sake of political gain. Within this context, the film ends with original footage set in Jaywick, a town in Essex which in 2019 was named the UK’s most deprived town for the third time; and which in 2018 was cited in US Republican attack ads as the kind of deprivation that would result from economic recession should Donald Trump not be elected to a second term. 

Intercutting between archive footage and homemade family films, the work presents a highly personal reflection on the artist’s family relationships growing up, and their connection to the broader cultural landscape. Historical footage of counter cultures – drinking, clubbing, and graffitiing toilet walls – is juxtaposed with tender moments from the artist’s family archive, inviting the audience to question accepted cultural stereotypes. The video tracks the development of the sub-culture of British Mods, terrain well-trodden, but in this case seemingly re-assigned to the artist himself. Playing with the idea of personal authenticity, it offers a haunting vision in which the past, mediated through video footage, becomes a more tangible reality than the lived present.

While Garrido, as described above, takes ownership of yellow as a ritualistic and emotional concept, Vowles’ use of archival footage of youth music subcultures in the UK has therefore been adapted and re-edited to become his own. The timeline within the work – from the birth of the artist under the sun to early Beat Club footage through to other youth subcultures, driven to electronic dance music by the soundtrack – is undercut by family home videos: of the Dobermann, Benson, the father holding the artist’s newborn sister, the voice of the mother capturing these intimate family moments. In this central section to the video, there is a shift in tone and tempo. The soundtrack morphs to a strange, de-tuned version of a Nina Simone song, instilling the image of the man holding the child with an emotional weight. The image is one of beauty, the music tender, and thus attempting to relay a level of authenticity: this is my personal history. What previously seemed like a paean to Mod culture, an “isn’t this cool” tour de force of nostalgic footage, becomes sadder and immediately more personal.

This leads us into the end of the film. A desolate town where all the roads are car names, most of which have ceased to be produced; Union Jack socks on the shoreline; walking on a wall; and finally dancing next to the body of a car. The silhouette is a shadow, and this shadow which haunts the film reaches its logical conclusion, entirely reduced to symbolic socks and gloves and the soft dance. A film which seems to celebrate a male workingclass sub-culture – drinking; cars; Union Jacks; fights – in the end gives you the socks and hands of the hollow dancer, behind the beatenup cars of a town built on cars and still haunted by their now-rusting aesthetic. The film thus ends, as it starts, on the British seaside, with uncertain optimism and an unromantic acceptance: a disembodied figure dancing to an original soundtrack quoting denials of this community’s right of existence, telling repeatedly ‘this town shouldn’t be a town, shouldn’t be a town, shouldn’t be a town…’ And all along the artist has edited himself into this narrative, claiming the history and the current context as his own: the title It’s still banging in 2019 reads less glibly now, and rather wilfully defiant.

Such defiance becomes part of the genetics of Kahoon Projects. At a moment when working-class identity is coming to the fore, and often marking division lines between sections of British society, the art works presented here collectively offer empathetic, recalcitrant, and at times unexpected reflections on the issue of class as it is lived in the 21st century. Much of the focus of the project was collaborative and in that sense inventive: each artist reappraising their work, their own preconceptions about their practice and how creative production should be displayed. Indeed, each artist had to consider how their cables were laid and to what end. In the most literal sense: how their artistic production impacted on another’s. The works produced offered an exploration of how two different practices can be presented as one: overlapping, produced together and often held apart. In each exhibition of work there is frustration – in the derogatory metaphors at the heart of language, structure of society, or the erosion of culture. And there is new endeavour – the languages created, clubs founded, new rituals developed, cultures and landscapes reclaimed. In its very nature the act of making an artwork is counter-factual: in the very least it is a modification of the world, or the pre-invented world. The act of collaboration, and the size of the 1,200 sq ft warehouse in which the exhibitions were designed, enforced this further. The project invited the development of new environments in which the current world is interrogated, and new ones forged with their associated new languages.

Oxford and London
January 2021