Art Sheffield 2010 - Life: A User’s Manual

click here for the downloadable pdf (220kb)

The title of Art Sheffield 2010 – Life: A Users Manual - refers to Georges Perec’s 1978 novel which minutely itemises the lives of those living in a single apartment building (i). He builds a picture of these individuals, the spaces in which they live, the objects in their apartments, the photos and paintings on the walls. There is something to this concentration on scale and the relationship between the individual and the collective that seems timely to explore when we experience as never before – especially with the current crisis - the effects of economic and socialized control within our society. Attempting to grapple with such global changes and not be overwhelmed by them – venturing to ask ‘where am I in this?’ – is where art and the encounters it creates can be most powerful.

Life: A Users Manual attends to this idea of the individual but also the collective experience  - that in order to live one literally has to use life second by second minute by minute - to embrace it, engage it beyond the cerebral and more important beyond the purely emotional.

A key concern overall is to explore the notion of ‘affect’. Often used interchangeably with the experience of feeling or emotion, it refers more precisely to an intermediate state of being distantiated and fully immersed, of perceiving and understanding (ii). It has the potential of transition: when you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn, and in a slightly different way than you might have been the moment before. Affecting or being affected are not two different capacities — they go together (iii).

Professor Sara Ahmed in a paper from 2000 on the affective economy explains:  “Affect invokes relations of difference and displacement.  It is through affective encounters that objects and others are seen as having characteristics.  It is through affects that individual and social bodies surface in relationship to each other… .” Herein lies the extraordinary potential in thinking once again about notion of affect as an extremely present experience which literally allows us to perceive and know the world.

As Andrea Fraser noted in a recent discussion on the topic, in art discourse especially, the notion of affect tends to have as its referent some kind of authentic experience.  She asks rather - how do we engage anew with the term without being reduced by the romance of catharsis which affect in art so often promises?

Affect without catharsis might be an appropriate description for Haegue Yang’s work for Art Sheffield 2010. “The use of the prefabricated ordinary objects is still recognizable in Yang’s new work: in the installation you see objects that are industrially produced for daily consumption. Their constellation, however, does not seem to aim at the materialisation of social critique by means of displacement. These objects rather create a very particular atmosphere. There is no singled-out object placed against the white cube background, presenting itself as social signifier. Instead, her work creates an environment; exploiting and disguising the space, and enveloping the viewers. (iv) One might try to interpret the meaning of these sensorial resonances, but this does not lead to very precise identifications.

Haegue Yang says, “I would like to play with the notion of conditional settings for spaces for art and to address the viewers’ physical senses, expanding on the notion of “sentiment”… I would thus like to open a hospitable platform for the senses and thus offer a great deal of immediacy and accessibility to the audience.” (v) Looking at Yang’s work, we can begin to delineate a new, sensorial conception of ‘abstraction’, in which objects may initiate a process of reference wherein meaning depends on personal, sensual association.

Affect can also be viewed in terms of form - Susan Hiller’s work Dedicated to the Unknown Artists, 1972-76 is included in the show as an important instance of the marrying of the contradictions of the conceptual and the emotional, between immersion and distance. At the time of its production Hiller was accused of inappropriately bringing elements of pop, the sentimental and the Romantic into a pure conceptual form which dealt with control and rationality. Hiller talks about the potential for classic conceptual work to be ‘flat – there’s no affect, it doesn’t introduce any contradictions’ (vi). It is these contradictions that Art Sheffield 2010 - Life: A User’s Manual aims to explore.

There are three areas of concentration for this citywide exhibition. The first is what Brian Holmes terms ‘affectivism’. He argues affectivism is art and activism, and is becoming more and more necessary. He draws attention to the extreme economic and socialised control within our society and his is a call for art and/or the affective to help us find a way out of this bind: ‘What we look for in art is a different way to live, a fresh chance at coexistence. How does that chance come to be? Expression unleashes affect, and affect is what touches. Presence, gesture and speech transform the quality of contact between people, they create both breaks and junctions. Artistic activism is affectivism -  it opens up expanding territories. These territories are occupied by the sharing of a double difference: a split from the private self in which each person was formerly enclosed, and from the social order which imposed that particular type of privacy or privation.‘ (vii)

Yael Davids developed a project with inmates at Mechelen City Prison in Belgium which included a series of workshops around the idea of ‘circus’ (including theatre, magic, illusion, acrobatics and storytelling) given by professionals in the field. What was intended as a workshop, eventually led to a video piece in which there applied an important restriction, namely that the inmates’ identity wasn’t allowed to be exposed. This became an important feature of the film. “In the book – Life: A User’s Manual… the writing circles around details of the lives and objects in a single apartment block, creating the sensation of an eye traveling around the space… When it comes to rest on a detail such as a painting, the eye focuses, gradually zooming in on each little detail, opening up a vivid narrative spectrum. In film, often a close up; either of another part of the body or an inanimate object is used similarly as a replacement for the face.” (viii) In this work, this encounter with another through the close up, through a detail, is transposed to a live moment. Davids replaces the close up with a spotlight, lighting up certain details of the performance. The inmates perform magic – silently with balls, ropes and cards. The spotlight illuminates their hands, the surfaces and textures of the body.

In a new approach to the performance Learning To Imitate for Art Sheffield 2010, Davids explores rendering physical the nature of affect – delivering a lecture while her body is moved/put under duress by other people – “both breaking and creating junctions“. This new performance evokes a sense of community, or Holmes’ ‘split from the private self’, and examines the possibilities of the plural to share and carry a single voice.

Ruth Ewan’s Moderately Wrathful (developed for Art Sheffield 2010 as part of a residency) draws on Sheffield’s radical history and consists of a series of images distributed via all Art Sheffield venues and a collection of archive material. In a pamphlet published by Sheffield’s Holberry Society, a man called Sam Holmes describes how, at the age of 14, upon becoming a builder’s apprentice, he was presented with a copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (1914) by Robert Tressell (1870-1911). Sam Holmes refers to the giving of this particular novel as a common gesture towards new apprentices, not only as a welcoming gift but also a handbook of sorts. Referencing the work of Robert Tressell, Moderately Wrathful combines images and text, cross referencing polemic extracts from Tressell’s novel, with several lesser-known drawings by the author of early aircrafts and hot air balloons.

No Fixed Abode’s previous projects encompass affectivist approaches to current global issues. A previous project on urban land ownership, eventually lead to the performative group construction of a one-night house in Alexanderplatz, Berlin, working on the globally recognised legislative loophole, that if a house could be built in one night on common land then the structure must be allowed to remain. Their project for Art Sheffield 2010 - Ain’t no love in the heart of the city takes Sheffield’s ‘Heart of the City’ regeneration project as starting point and this lament provides the point of departure for a work which looks at the play of various collective identities that are being manufactured for Sheffield at the moment.

Hito Steyerl, with Red Alert I and II, refers to the power/affect relation that is symptomatic of our current society. Steyerl’s Red Alert is a new media translation of a work by Aleksandr Rodchenko, which was first exhibited in 1921. With his three monochromes, each in one of the primary colours: Pure Yellow, Pure Red, Pure Blue, he believed that he had taken leftist painting to its logical conclusion and refers to this work as ‘the end of painting’. Red Alert is an attempt to translate this piece into the present. But at the moment there is just one primary colour, namely the red-orange used by US Homeland Security to indicate the highest threat level on their colour based terror alert scale. In her lecture The Empire of Senses: Police as art and the crisis of representation Steyerl says:

“The current politics of fear have added a whole new dimension to this scenario. With the introduction of permanent terror alerts, the red light zone has now broken its boundaries and flooded the whole world. In the age of permanent alarm, the red light district is everywhere”. As Brian Massumi has argued in his text Fear (The Spectrum said), the terror alert system is an instrument to synchronise the affects of the American population. “There is no need for explanations anymore – just flash a colour at the people (anything between red and yellow that is; green is not an option) and modulate their moods. Fear is the LSD of the present. Fear is addictive and also attractive. Fear has lots of qualities we like. It is intense, abundant, it multiplies, unlike people it travels freely and swiftly. Similar to digital information it can be copied not only without loss of quality but even substantial improvement. It is subject of intense enjoyment, a paradoxical desire in disguise. Fear feels real -unlike reality itself.” The work uses computer screens, which are chosen to replicate Rodchenko’s proportions as faithfully as possible, to project a single video still. Red Alert is a reflection on the end of video; as well as a crisis of representation, which affects the aesthetic as well as the political and refers to a collapse of the distinctions between both spheres.


A second sphere of reference is the ‘affective economy’ which refers not only to Sarah Ahmed’s explanation of how affect actually circulates and works - but also leads into an exploration long opened up within feminist discourse on the notions of affective labour. What Michael Hardt terms ‘Affective labour’ (domestic or caring labour which involves the production of affects such as ease, well-being, satisfaction and pleasure) involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference into the other’s, despite the impossibility of really knowing another person.

Wendelien van Oldenborgh’s Apres la reprise, la prise connects the labour of work with the labour of art and both are implicated as being precarious jobs. The piece tells the story of a group of women who, after they were fired because of the bankruptcy of a Levi’s factory in the North of France, protested heavily but without result. Subsequently they decided to make a theatre play that recounts the story. The piece becomes very successful, they start touring and for a moment they believe they have entered a new world. The film presents the moment where two of the former theatre group members visit a technical school and tell their story which merges with that of the students, supposed to learn a profession, but instead busy dreaming of future fame.

Becky Shaw’s radio play A: The Christmas Party, 2010 – was written during a residency with Age Concern, Chelsea and Westminster. The script records the six times that a care worker and artist visit an elderly dementia-sufferer in her home. ‘A’s language has been severely disrupted by dementia and when the carers try to engage her, ‘A’ speaks in rhyme, combining a small number of popular songs and nursery rhymes in ever-varying combinations. Through her limited words ‘A’ manages to communicate many things, most obviously that she is lonely, frustrated, tired and bored. Through her cheeky responses and strange observations, ‘A’ also manages to repeatedly embarrass her visitors. The efforts of the care workers to engage her fail many times, and end with a Christmas party, designed to stimulate ‘A’s senses, but ending in near-disaster. The play is intended to communicate a number of things: firstly it presents the tragedy and, often surreal, comedy of care, and the extraordinary determination people have to communicate.

The works by Jo Spence exhibited are posters from the many collectives she helped establish – Photography Workshop, Half Moon, Camerawork magazine, the Hackney Flashers and the Polysnappers as well as a number of publications, such as Spare Rib magazine, which frame her socially engaged practice.

In her work Rachel Koolen brings into play and confronts administrative society. She engages with bureaucratic structures, the residue of modernism sometimes found within them (such as prefab design structures) and finds a certain elegance in their attempts to implement and make concrete ‘ideologically’ driven policies. For Art Sheffield 2010 – Life: A User’s Manual she is showing work that takes this subject matter to act as a chameleon in the reception area of Yorkshire Artspace; speaking the rational, dry language that she recognises as her own and simultaneously evoking a specific humour. One image in the installation, which is also the departure point, refers to her research into the Welfare system – an ink-jet print from a video still which documents an interview between a client and a social worker (1986). Even though everything seems quite familiar in this scene, it functions like an index for this sort of administrative space. By rendering this moment as matter (an ink-absorbed print), the original incident seeps into its own documentation and the technocratic space of history.

Thirdly, the exhibition aims to explore the intimacy of scale augured by the title and Perec’s novel - a strategy of dealing with global issues with a degree of detail and intimacy.

Katarina Zdjelar in her piece Shoum points quite clearly to the complexity of this global life referring specifically to language. In this work two buskers are trying to experience a well known song:  Shout by Tears for Fears - in a fully capacitated and engaged way by creating their own fantasy language and yet they are utterly estranged from the songs meaning and its language – as they say “damn English!”. This could be considered an affective moment - a moment of embodied experience.

Katerina Šedá’s work involves the performance of community. For Der Geist von Uhyst (The Spirit of Uhyst), Šedá worked with people from the village of Uhyst in northern Germany to discover and capture its essence and inner energy. Šedá sees this spirit as something which is shaped and affected by all of its residents, but which tends to be elusive. Šedá asked each villager to use a single line to depict that which he or she regarded as being special about Uhyst. The result is a large-scale collective drawing, an accumulation of all of these individual lines, signed by all contributors. By examining community rituals and behaviour, geography and landscape, Šedá uncovers Uhyst’s complex history and generates a sense of belonging. Šedá will also be creating a new work for the city’s Visual Art collection, Her work on the commission will start during Art Sheffield 2010.

Nina Canell produces “communities” of objects in improvised formations quietly interacting with each other through ramshackle radiation or electromagnetic energy involving neon, water and other debris. Provisional objects conspire together, and modest objects are afforded the same attention that Perec allows them. Her solo presentation here itself represents a temporary conjunction and community of objects, whose slow interaction plays out over the duration of the exhibition, for example as water affects concrete, and together questions the reliability and fixity of physical forms.

Ruth Buchanan’s film Several Attentions is part of the ‘trilogy’ Lying Freely in which Buchanan set up ‘meetings’ between herself and the practices of three well-known female literary figures – Virginia Woolf, Agatha Christie, and Janet Frame – in order to ask how one speaks as an artist today and what kind of space it is that this voice makes. Understanding that each of these women have dealt with what it means to have an artistic life in public in highly specific ways, Buchanan explores the tensions between private need and public expectation, and individual desires and collectively received legacies. It is through entering into an intimate negotiation with these configurations, that notions of ones public and private presence are contested. Several Attentions takes the 1928 essay A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf as its departure point. The essay sets out to address the relationship between women and fiction but equally becomes an investigation into the conditions under which the production of a work of art can occur. Buchanan takes what she understands as the turning point in the essay as a catalyst for the film. In Woolf’s essay, ‘the character’ sets out for the British Museum in the ‘pursuit of truth’ and compiles an unnerving collection of quotations and thoughts after making a catalogue search under ‘Woman and Poverty’. The books she cites are now housed at the British Library and it is from these same citations that Buchanan constructed the film.

Life: A User’s Manual proposes that unspectacular acts of everyday ‘affect’ might be a way to chart a path through current circumstances. Affect, not understood in the romantic sense as the catharsis often promised by art, but as the potential for embodied interpersonal experience which may suggest the next possible step within the bigger picture.


(i) Participating artist Yael Davids, who refers to Perec in a text on her work The Hand is Quicker than the Eye, inspired the curators to revisit this seminal novel and to choose its title for Art Sheffield 2010.

(ii) from Things that Matter in Contemporary Art, Jorg Heiser

(iii) Brian Massumi on affect: By ‘affect’ I don’t mean ‘emotion’ in the everyday sense. The way I use it comes primarily from Spinoza. He talks of the body in terms of its capacity for affecting or being affected. These are not two different capacities — they always go together. When you affect something, you are at the same time opening yourself up to being affected in turn, and in a slightly different way than you might have been the moment before. You have made a transition, however slight. You have stepped over a threshold.’

And also: ‘In my own work I use the concept of ‘affect’ as a way of talking about that margin of manoeuvrability, the ‘where we might be able to go and what we might be able to do’ in every present situation. I guess ‘affect’ is the word I use for ‘hope’. One of the reasons it’s such an important concept for me is because it explains why focusing on the next experimental step rather than the big utopian picture isn’t really settling for less. ‘

(iv) from text by Bina Choi, commissioned by If I Can’t Dance for forthcoming publication.

(v) Binna Choi and Haegue Yang, “Community of Absence: Conversation with Haegue Yang,” in Unevenly, Newsletter 2006 #2, Utrecht: BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, 2006, p.10.

(vi) From in interview with Jorg Heiser and Jan Verwoert in Romantic Conceptualism, ed Jorg Heiser

(vii) Brian Holmes

(viii) From the text The Hand is Quicker than the Eye, Yael Davids