The Dark Times

I had an exhibition at Supercollider in Blackpool in January 2009: The Irony of Seeking Refuge in a Fictive History is Not Lost On Me.

Supercollider is run by my old friend Tom Ireland, who wrote this piece - The Dark Times - to accompany the show:

Do you worry? If not, why not? You should shouldn’t you? That’s what everyone does these days, isn’t it? You should worry, these are dark times.

If you access Fiona Shaw’s website and make your way to the work section you will be greeted with similar sentiments of anxiety and enquiry. ‘Do you get worried? I worry. There are many things that can go wrong’ [1]. Is Shaw’s dystopian paranoia misplaced or are we really that close to the edge? As we stand here at the dawn of 2009 we are faced, as a people with a wealth of things to worry about. Remember the good old days when everything was Technicolor and beautiful or is that to far gone to remember anything beyond fear for our lives and our futures, or our children’s futures?

Her website continues, ‘At least we can talk about them… that helps keep things working. Just don’t talk too much’ [2]. Perhaps it’s this next line which is the key to our worries and anxieties, which seem to have intensified over the first decade of this millennium.

Maybe we do talk too much? For Shaw, the television is a particularly potent medium to investigate, but more notably the absence of television. The tension in the presence of the television set and the absence of televisual information is for Shaw a microcosmic version of the most millennial paranoia. The television, more than any other medium has over the last 60 years been pivotal in the dissemination of information about the world at large. For the most part, without television (and printed media and recently the internet) the world wouldn’t exist beyond the self. The television is the home of the 24 hour news channel; the centre of the universe within popular culture, spilling out real time hyper real nuggets of woe.

The recent Channel 4 series Dead Set follows a similar premise in which a group of Big Brother contestants are isolated from (albeit completely immersed within, literally) popular culture and the news media. During their isolation society crumbles in the wake of apocalyptic virus. The contestants are isolated, cocooned in the safety of the Big Brother house; they’re blissfully unaware of the horrific events unfolding outside [3]. This type of isolation is at the heart of Shaw’s concerns and anxieties surrounding the television and its position within our lives and our anxieties.

It is the television that has been at the brunt of this dissemination of information. Since its integration into the fabric of culture during the 20th century it has been the constant bearer of tidings, both good and bad. It is important to note that the integration of the television into popular culture during the 1950s and 1960s was played against the backdrop of cold war anxiety. As a medium, it is as old as fear itself.

Fear and anxiety play a huge role not only in Shaw’s artistic practice but in the world at large. The past decade has seen acceleration in the dissemination of information via television. As a society we are sound tracked by fear. Knowledge breeds fear, a culture of fear.

“The culture of fear is not a spontaneous reaction by the public to a truly dangerous world. The worldwide anthrax panic sparked by a handful of anthrax-related deaths in America shortly after 9/11 was not caused by a genuine and widespread mortal danger facing US and European citizens. Our propensity to panic about everything from child abductions to mobile phones does not come from the fact that modern life contains more risks than ever before - on the level of everyday reality, the opposite is the case… . The culture of fear comes from the top down. It comes from society’s leaders, and their inability to lead… . the media, rumour-heavy and analysis-lite, has faithfully reflected the depth of confusion that characterises the current times.” [4]

Society’s relationship to television is one fraught with dangers and insecurities. Perhaps Shaw already has a solution, ‘At least we can talk about them… that helps keep things working. Just don’t talk too much’ [5].

The title for Shaw’s installation, The Irony of Seeking Refuge in a Fictive History is Not Lost On Me, offers up interesting questions about levels of reality, fear, knowledge and the relationship between society, culture, language (another strong motif in Shaw’s practice) and fear. If a culture of fear is propelled by dependence on real time news media and the lacklustre critique and scrutiny within, then surely to remove the self from the realm of sound-bite heavy news programming would offer less to worry about?

As prelude to the Supercollider installation Shaw has been reading a lot. Rather than allying herself with pop culture modes of distraction, she has chosen not to be subjected to the torrent of bad tidings and tales of global woe. Shaw has found solace in the escapism of literature. Not a bad thing, maybe. Shaw’s choice of literature however, seems to corrupt, or question the nature of literary escape; Shaw is a fan of post apocalyptic sci-fi. She has chosen her escape vehicle, but how far from the troubles can she ever hope to get, drifting from reality to unreality and back again, in a perpetual loop bound by dystopian outlook? In the main, elements of the brand of fiction Shaw has chosen to investigate are prophetic investigations into very contemporary issues. Their resonance is intense at times. Conceived as scenarios within a realm of fantasy, the narratives present within seem to mirror these times, the bad times, the dark times. Escapism in this instance is a double-edged sword. Linguistic systems are the reason that Shaw is so worried, so to turn to the same system in a quest to find solace seems alien. Here Shaw’s relationship to language is like a relationship soured by infidelity and mistrust but hope, need and belief will have her running back wanting to try again.

Does this proximity between fantasy and reality render the act of literary escape redundant?

As the title of the installation suggests however the irony of escaping to a world as bleak, if not bleaker, a world which in many ways mirrors our situation and/or destination is not lost on Shaw. As redundant as this approach to ‘escape’ seems, perhaps Shaw’s got the right idea? A pessimist is never disappointed.

On closer inspection things become clearer, Shaw doesn’t just escape into a world of apocalyptic sci-fi, she is there to learn from it. It’s a survival mechanism, a system.

Systems are a big part of Shaw’s world. A piece from 2007 states ‘I’ve got a system to keep me alive’. Nothing can go wrong when there’s a system in place. Systems are reassurance. They present logic, which in turn present rationality and safety. Language is a system close to Shaw’s heart. Shaw uses linguistics and the system of language like a comforter, in Shaw’s world apocalyptic science fiction exists beyond a mere escape pod. It’s an instruction manual.

For her installation at Supercollider Shaw has constructed a series of new works. In typically bleak fashion (for both her and for the times) their origins lie within a culture of fear, paranoia, systems, linguistics, the premise of complete annihilation and contemporary coping mechanisms.

Shaw’s installation presents the audience with a series of related propositions. Set against an implied backdrop of a post apocalyptic condition, Shaw has transformed the space into a host for her musings, presenting the audience with a space layered with autopsy and implied diagnosis. Shaw has played particular attention to the physicality of the space at supercollider with its brutal, cold, concrete shell; the raw plaster of the walls and the cold grey concrete of the floor placing the space somewhere between gallery, bunker, and storage unit.


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[1] www.fiona-shaw.co.uk, accessed 10/01/09

[2] ibid
[3] http://www.e4.com/deadset/story.html, 10/01/09

[4] Bristow, Jennie, 26/03/03, https://www.spiked-online.com/2003/03/26/how-did-we-get-from-9-11-to-here, accessed 10/01/09

[5] www.fiona-shaw.co.uk, accessed 10/01/09

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