A Short Sprint
A Video Project produced in collaboration with Kalaboration 2012
An Artistâ€™s Commentary by Keith Piper
‘A Short Sprint’ is an art work which engages in a commentary on the political path taken by the island of Jamaica during the fifty years since independence. It does this by employing the metaphor of the ‘sprint’; a race to the finish at high speed.
The work came into being as one of a series of three commissions organised as part of â€˜Kalaborationâ€™; a programme of visual arts activities celebrating the 2012 Olympic Games and the 50th Anniversary of Jamaican Independence1 .
1Kalaboration has been devised to deliver a programme of visual arts activities in celebration of the 2012 Olympic Games and commemorate 50th anniversary of Jamaican Independence. http://www.kalaboration.co.uk/about/
A Short Sprint. An Artwork by Keith Piper Featuring the Athlete Christian Byron 11 vintage video monitors and DVD decks displaying continuous video loops Produced in collaboration with Ian Sergeant for Kalaboration. London 2012 - Jamaica 50 Lake Gallery Custard Factory Birmingham United Kingdom 3rd - 17th August 2012
A Short Sprint was a project developed and exhibited at a moment when Jamaican dominance of global sprinting had taken on hyper-visual proportions, beamed in high definition from the 2012 Olympic Stadium in London.
In the space between the screening of athlete Michael Johnson’s provocative documentary ‘Survival of the Fastest’ on the 5th of July (Channel 4)1 and the clean sweep of medals by Jamaican Athletes for the 200m Olympic final of the 9th August 2012, a wave of speculation arose looking for reasons behind the dominance of Athletes within sprint events, who can trace their heritage back to the trauma’s of what has come to be described as the ‘Middle Passage’2 of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Within this field of speculation, an awkward strain of regurgitated racial ‘Darwinism’ has resurfaced. Within these discourses, we are asked to believe that the genocidally brutal conditions within the holds of slave ships and on the plantations of the Caribbean and America’s, literally bred physical weaknesses out of those African captives who survived, allowing them to pass on physical resilience to their off-spring who evolved as some type of bodily ‘super race’. 1 2
The flaws in this argument however seem to lie in the unevenness of ‘world class’ sprinters emerging from post slavery populations in the new world. This is most graphically illustrated for example, by the relative lack of sprinters emerging from Brazil. Historical records indicated that Brazil had the largest slave population in the world, with approximately 35% of all captive Africans shipped to the New World ending up there3. Although black Brazilian’s have emerged in other sporting fields, notably football, their relatively low visibility in the field of sprinting would appear to belie the size of the population (the exception to this would appear to be the performance of the Brazilian sprinting team in the Pan American Games4). This can be read in contrast to the visibility of Jamaican sprinters, a country with a total population of less than 3 million5, which would seem to suggest that factors over and beyond a simple shared slave heritage need to be considered. 3
http://histclo.com/act/work/slave/am/sa-bra.html Although only 6.84% of Brazilians describe themselves as ‘Black’ (compared to 43% ‘Brown’, 47% ‘White’) the ‘Black’ population number 13 million. (source) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brazil
The Brazilian team has won the 4x100m sprint relay in the last four Pan American Games (1999, 2003, 2007, 2011). http://en.wikipedia. org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2011_Pan_American_Games_%E2%80%93_ Men%27s_4_%C3%97_100_metres_relay
In their article ‘What’s Behind Jamaica’s Sprinting Prowess’6, Dr Rachael Irving and Vilma Charlton begin to explore some of the important work around the higher than average occurrence of the ‘577RR’ or ‘577RX’ variant of the alpha actinin 3 (ACTN 3) gene within the Jamaican population. This gene also occurs heavily amongst West African populations. We are told that ‘established research has proven that the gene is associated with fast-twitch muscle fibers that allow for high velocity or power sprinting’7. Clearly, this field of research could be expanded to examine the occurrence of this particular gene within West African derived populations around the New World, as well as the implications of the gene within West African populations in relation to sporting success, especially in sprinting. Irving and Charlton themselves fully acknowledge that “having the 577RR or 577RX variant of the actinin 3 gene does not explain why Jamaicans dominate in international sprint events”8 and that other regional and structural factors need to be taken into consideration. What Irving and Charlton do point towards however is a fascinating clustering of sprinters emerging from the Cockpit Country/Trelawny region of Northern Jamaica. It is from this region that a progression of Jamaican sprinters have emerged, including Usain Bolt, Veronica Campbell-Brown, Donovan Bailey, Marvin Anderson, Ricardo Chambers, Sanya Richards, Ben Johnson and others. If one goes on to factor in the numbers of Jamaican sprinters whose parents hail from the region, then the pattern becomes even more marked. Not only did this region have more sugar estates than any other county, 6 Dr Rachael Irving & Vilma Charlton.
2009. Caribbean TrackLife Online Magazine. http://www.caribbeantracklife.com/jamaica-sprinting-prowess
7 ibid 8 ibid
including one owned by George Hyde-Clarke, ancestor of London 2012 Olympic chief Sebastian Coe9, but also, the hills of the Cockpit region, became a major stronghold for the Windward Maroons10. The Maroons were communities made up of escaped slaves and their descendants intermixed with the indigenous Taino and Arawak peoples. These groups would wage wars of resistance against the White Plantocracy during the 18th century under the leadership of legendary figures such as Cudjoe and Queen Nanny.11
10 11 10
One of the opening speculations of the art-work ‘A Short Sprint’ is a poetic reflection on the notion that escape from slavery; ‘Those who ran’, escaping the Plantations of George Hyde-Clarke and others, up to the mountainous regions of Cockpit county to form the Maroon resistance, have returned to us as runners; the great athletes emanating from the Trelawny region.
Some would say Before the race, there was the conditioning The brutal seasoning. Where some say Those who ran Could run Where some would say, those who ran To the hills, To Maroonage To Cockpit County To the heights of Trelawny To resist With Cudjoe and with Queen Nanny Those who ran Came back as runners. 11
Although there is no evidence to support this particular narrative of history, it is one, which extends the simple reading of the Darwinian cane-field to postulate a more radical and proactive reading for the genesis of these particular fast black bodies. Irving and Charlton go on to provide us with another potential explanation of the clustering of sprinters emerging from the Trelawny region, which connects to the nature of the soil and its resultant impact on regional diet. “we postulate that there are special minerals (something like the bauxite in the Cockpit region that affects botany) such as minerals from the Cockpit Country that plants uptake and Jamaicans eat in yam and other tubers”1 This connection with the botany and resultant diet of the region may point us in some interesting directions within the nature vs. nurture dichotomy, which often characterises these types of debates. My own discomfort with arguments that seem to overdetermine physical capabilities or athletic prowess with inherited and intuitive factors, was for me first explored within my 1990 video work ‘The Nations Finest’, and then retold in expanded form in the 1999 multi-screen installation ‘Another Arena’. These works engaged in a critique of notions which saw the black sprinter as a product of some type of imagined genetically prescribed ‘natural order’, as opposed to being the outcome of systematised training, discipline and personal application on the part of the individuals involved. 1
In the case of Jamaican sprinting, the debate has often veered sharply towards the intuitive, embodied and genetic explanation. It has at the same time chosen to ignore the systematic and infrastructural progress which the island has made in terms of establishing what is literally a world beating set of educational and training pathways, through which young athletes as well as coaching staff and other professionals are nurtured and developed. Irving and Charlton point this out in their article that much of the success of sprinting in Jamaica can in fact be attributed to the education system and the â€˜Champsâ€™2 events, which do so much to cultivate young talent. Key within this, they choose to identify the GC Foster College of Physical Education and Sport3, based in Spanish Town, St. Catherine as a key infrastructural player in the development of Jamaican sprinting expertise, especially through the development of specialised teachers and highly qualified coaches. An interesting footnote at this stage would be to point out the GC Foster College was founded in 1980 with the support of the Government of Cuba. The original buildings and equipment to found the college were gifts from the Cuban Government to the people of Jamaica4.
The Nations Finest. Keith Piper. 1990 2 http://www.golocaljamaica.com/champs/ 3 http://www.gcfostercollege.edu.jm/ 4 http://toocoded.angelfire.com/history.html
an unstable run
Early on within the development of the work ‘A Short Sprint’, a decision was made to articulate Jamaican political history against the framework of the often violently fluctuating party politics of the island, and within that, to take up what is an unapologetically partisan position in relationship to the Peoples National Party (PNP)1 and the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP)2 . This is because, what emerges from an examination of the programmes, symbolism and articulation of the ideas of these two opposing parties, is that they faithfully follow the key fault-lines and contests of ideology, which have characterised politics both in the immediate Caribbean region, and globally. In many respects this goes beyond a simple ‘Left/Right’ divide, although the PNP is clearly a party of the political ‘Left’ and the JLP occupies positions towards the ‘rightwing’ and ‘Conservative’ end of the political spectrum. In wider terms it becomes a contest of alignment, a dispute around the key question of whether Jamaica aligns itself with the ‘poor south’, both regionally and globally, or positions itself as a compliant occupant of the declared ‘back yard’ of the superpower to the north, The United States.
However, to take a slightly longer political perspective, it was during the brief moment of pan-Caribbean political union, which saw the establishment of the West Indies Federation in 1958, only to end in its acrimonious dissolution in 1962, that the two key political figures who would shape Jamaican politics emerge into view. In a foretaste of things to come, the competing figures of Norman Manley and Alexander Bustamante emerged as key organisational figures in the two main Federation wide political parties. These were the urban based and left leaning ‘West Indies Federal Labour Party’3 (WIFLP) in which Manley played a leading role, and the more rurally based, anti-leftist ‘Democratic Labour Party’4 (DLP) led by Bustamente. In a sense, this set a region-wide pattern for developments, which would soon play themselves out across the post independence landscape of Jamaica. The decision of both Manley and Bustamente to not stand for office in the West Indian Federal elections of 1958, (along with Trinidadian Premier Dr Eric Williams) is seen in retrospect as one of the key death knells of the impulse towards Federation, and is testament to the political importance of both figures, as well as signalling a retreat from regional, to local imperatives. However, it is clear that within this retreat, Norman Manley remained far more wedded to the idea of ‘Pan-Caribbeanism’ through the political vehicle of the West Indies Federation, and saw it as a necessary political precursor towards eventual regional self determination and independence. Bustamante 3 4 16
however emerged as both sceptical of Independence and overtly hostile to the idea of West Indian Federation, famously stating that ‘the perpetuation of colonial rule was a far better prospect for Jamaica than to be yoked with ‘the pauperised territories of the Eastern Caribbean’5
However, following the declaration by the British Government that “with or without Federation, Jamaica would be given its Independence by the end of 1962”6, Bustamente and the JLP moved quickly to whip up popular anxieties both over Federation and over the socialist credentials of some leading members of the PNP. These anxieties were used in order to engineer a referendum in September 1961, which resulted in 54% of Jamaicans voting to secede from the West Indian Federation. When Bustamente and the JLP then succeeded to once again out manoeuvre Manley’s PNP and regain power in the national elections of April 1962, the region was faced with the irony of a conservative, proColonial, pro-British 78 year old, becoming the first Prime Minister of a newly independent Jamaica.
5 http://jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20070806/news/news5.html 6 Ibid
In the work, ‘A Short Sprint’ an attempt is made to draw a comparison between this as the opening moment of independence, with the actions of a sprinter coming out of the blocks. Rather than moving directly into an up-right position, the sprinter remains ‘bowed’ in what is described as the ‘Drive Phase’. This denotes the first thirty metres of the race in which the sprinters body is ideally moving forward, whilst inclined at between a forty-five and thirty degree angle from the ground. This position, during which the sprinter moves with his or her ‘face to the ground’ is, in sprinting terms a period of maximum acceleration, but within the metaphor of the ‘short sprint’ is seen as a period during which Jamaica remains ‘bowed’, looking down and not ahead. This is characterised as a period under the leadership of a procession of conservative JLP Prime Ministers which, I propose to be reminiscent of the fading plantocracy; Sir Alexander Bustamante (April 1962 – February 1967), Sir Donald Sangster (February 1967 – April 1967), and Hugh Shearer (April 1967 – March 1972).
(The Staggered Run) The people of Jamaica didn’t elect Hugh Shearer, Prime Minster from April 1967 to March 1972. He had inherited power following the untimely death of Donald Sangster, who had himself taken over the mantel of the JLP from the ageing Bustamante in 1965. Sangster finally stood for election in February 1967, only to die in office three months later1. In the closed, dynastic, and at that time racially coded world of Jamaican politics, it was Shearer’s charismatic cousin Michael Manley2, who, having taken over the leadership of the PNP from his father, Norman Manley in 1969, defeated Shearer in the elections of 1972 to become the fourth Prime Minister of Jamaica. In terms of our sprinting metaphor, this represents the transition from the ‘Drive’ to the ‘Stride’ phase of the race. 20
After 30 yards you become upright you can look ahead Set a new stride You can Locate yourself You can begin to strategize And be transformed By Strategy
Despite being, like his predecessors, a member of the Jamaican racial and economic elite, Manley reintroduced a set of dynamics back in Jamaican ruling party politics, which had been absent ever since Bustamante had out-manoeuvred his father, Norman Manley, to take Jamaica out of pan-Caribbean Federation and onto a pro-American developmental curve following independence in 1962. Michael Manley, in his early incarnation (1972-1980) could clearly be seen as part of a wave of social radicalism, which was sweeping across Latin American and the Caribbean during the 1960’s and 70’s. His was a generation of political leadership which was inspired both by the anti-colonial and national liberation struggles being waged across Africa and Asia, and by the facing down of US imperialism by the peoples of Vietnam. Equally, his was a generation who were outraged and cautioned by the transparent toppling of Salvador Allende’s socialist regime in Chile in 1973 in what is widely understood to have been a US sponsored right-wing coup. This seemed to clearly mark the CIA’s intent to destabilise non-compliant, ‘Left leaning’ regimes globally, but most specifically within the region, which according to the particular worldview prescribed through the ‘Monroe Doctrine’3, the United States viewed as their exclusive ‘backyard’. 3
The fact that Jamaica was also by far the largest Anglophone nation within this region made it even more important from a US perspective. Clear in the memory of the US authorities would be the demonstrable history of the impact of Jamaican radical thought articulated in English, communicating directly with, and thereby energising, Black Americans. This had already happened, principally in the form of Marcus Garvey and his ‘Universal Negro Improvement Association’ of the 1920s, a mass movement coupled with a political message of Afrocentric militancy, which famously inspired the racial paranoia of a young J. Edgar Hoover. This theme was famously expounded by the then Grenadian Prime Minster, Maurice Bishop in his address to students at Hunter College, New York in 1983. In his speech Bishop explains that in the eyes of the US authorities the revolution in Grenada was ‘worse’ than similar movements in Nicaragua and Cuba in that the peoples of the Grenada were ‘English speaking’ and ‘Black’ and therefore able to communicate directly, and have ‘a dangerous appeal to 30 million black people in the United States’4 We should therefore not underestimate the threat that a regime such as Michael Manley’s PNP government of 1972 – 1980 represented to the US authorities. Active within the ‘Non-Aligned Movement’, Manley passionately cultivated links with other progressive world leaders, and most controversially from a US perspective, formed a strong working alliance with Fidel Castro of Cuba. There is a murky arena laced with conspiracy theory and speculation as to the extent and intent of the CIA’s cultivation of local forces willing to 4 22
The Grenada Revolution Documentary- part 1 In his 1983 Hunter College speech, Bishop mockingly paraphrased a State Department report, bringing down the house: “Grenada is a particular threat as an English-speaking, Black revolution that could have a dangerous influence on Blacks in the U.S.” http://vimeo.com/9958883
violently disrupt and undermine non-compliant ‘Left leaning’ governments around the world. However, in the case of Jamaica, the evidence and its aftermath seem to be borne out by subsequent developments. According to historian Gary Webb in his book ‘Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras and the Crack Cocaine Explosion’5, the political violence which distorted Jamaican society during the 1970s and 80s was a direct result of the CIA’s efforts to destabilize the leftwing Manley PNP government. Specifically, a narrative emerges in which a notorious gang called the ‘Shower Posse’, emerging from the Tivoli Gardens neighbourhood of Kingston, powerbase of JLP leader Edward Seaga, received specific CIA training, sponsorship and weapons. Webb describes how ‘Norman Descoteaux, the CIA station chief in Jamaica began a destabilization program of the Manley government in the late 70s. Part of that plan consisted of assassinations, money for the Jamaican Labour Party, labour unrest, bribery and shipping weapons to Manley’s opponents’6. These ‘assassinations’, according to Timothy White in his biography of Bob Marley ‘Catch a Fire’7, included the 1976 attempt on Marley’s life, which left him with a gunshot wound to the arm8. It also left Jamaica with a legacy of gun violence, and an over-powerful network of gangs, fuelled by the proceeds of drug dealing, who would subsequently follow the diasporic pathways established by previous generations to surface and wreak havoc amongst Jamaican expatriate communities in North America and Europe in the shape of the so called ‘Yardies’.
5 6 7 8
http://www.amazon.com/Dark-Alliance-Contras-Cocaine-Explosion/dp/1888363932 Ibid http://books.google.co.uk/books/about/Catch_a_Fire.html?id=h4nfr2cYAMQC&redir_esc=y http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2006/jul/16/urban.worldmusic
The conditions of political violence and destabilisation, which forced the PNP Manley regime to declare a ‘State of Emergency’ in 1976, and sign a destructive loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1977, are well documented. Of particular resonance, in respect of its examination of the crippling legacies of the stipulations of the IMF is Stephanie Black’s 2001 documentary ‘Life and Debt’9. This period, and the subsequent election of JLP government under the leadership of Edward Seaga in November 1980 is characterised within the narrative of ‘A Short Sprint’ as ‘the trip’, ‘the slip’, ‘the lose of momentum’, ‘the stagger’, ‘the twisted run’, ‘the loss of ground’.
The Photo Finish The image of Usain Bolt banging his chest and gesticulating to camera, as he sailed past the finish line in a world record time of 9.69 seconds during the Beijing 2008 Olympics, has become one of the iconic sporting moments of all time. As a metaphor for the Jamaica that he represented as an athlete, and had also come to epitomise as global symbol, it is uniquely powerful. It went on to become an iconic moment amidst a series of iconic moments as Jamaican athletes announced the arrival of a small island in Caribbean as a super-power of international sprinting on the world stage of Beijing. This feat would be emphatically repeated four years later in the London 2012 Olympic Games. This could also be seen to act as a metaphor for the reassertion of Jamaica as a national entity on the world stage. Following the violent disruption and derailing of the first Manley Government in 1980, and the era of Edward Seaga which included a boycotted election of 1983, the return of softer, more contrite Manley to office in 1989 acted as prelude to a period of slow oscillation between more centrist versions of the PNP and JLP. The cruel realities of Globalisation in the 1990â€™s and beyond, 27
saw a Jamaican economy struggling to slowly regain equilibrium under the relatively progressive leadership of P.J Patterson, who took the PNP through three successful elections before handing power to Jamaica’s first female Prime Minister, Portia Simpson-Miller in 2006. The September elections of 2007 saw the PNP narrowly lose power to a JLP led by the arch conservative and homophobic1 Bruce Golding. However, the ghost of Edward Seaga’s complicity with the violent gangs of Tivoli Gardens came back to haunt Golding in his initial resistance, and then acquiescence to the US Government request for the extradition of Christopher ‘Dudas’ Coke, leader of the notorious ‘Shower Posse’ in 2010. The communal violence that followed, led to Golding declaring a ‘State of Emergency’ and to being subjected to a ‘vote of no confidence’ over his suspicious links with US lobbying firm Manatt, Phelps and Phillips2. Perhaps exhausted by the process, Golding declared his intention to resign, handing Prime Ministerial Office and leadership of the JLP to a thirty nine year old Andrew Holness in October 2011. Holdness went on to call a general election on December 29th 2011, at which the PNP led by Portia Simpson Miller, was returned to office by the Jamaican people with a large majority3.
Famously, during an interview for the BBC Hardtalk in May 2008 with Stephen Sackur, Golding stated that he would not allow gay people to serve in his cabinet. He justified the illegality of homosexual acts in Jamaica by citing ‘Christian values’ and the “integrity of the family” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Golding
On 29 December 2011, the JLP lost at the polls to the People’s National Party, which gained a large majority of 42 to the JLP’s 21 parliamentary seats. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Holness
“As we celebrate our achievements as an independent nation, we now need to complete the circle of independence.. We will, therefore, initiate the process for our detachment from the Monarchy to become a Republic with our own indigenous President, as Head of State” Portia Simpson Miller 5th January 20121
The historical significance of Jamaican Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller’s declaration of the 5th January 2012 cannot be underestimated. In simple terms it declared the symbolic closing of a process, which began in 1655 when the English seized the island, which had been named by its indigenous Arawak peoples ‘Xaymaca’, from the Spanish, who had renamed it ‘Santiago’. The return of symbolic ‘headship’ of the island to an ‘indigenous’ citizen, be it an indigeneity which fully reflects the multiple overlapping diasporas which comprise contemporary Jamaica, is an essential moment in the maturation for the island State. It symbolises for us, and within the metaphor of ‘a short sprint’, the reaching of a line, the photo finish, the declaration of a process, ‘done’. 1
“Portia: I love the Queen, But…” http://jamaica-gleaner.com/latest/article.php?id=34362
A Short Sprint. An Artwork by Keith Piper Featuring the Athlete Christian Byron 11 vintage video monitors and DVD decks displaying continuous video loops Produced in collaboration with Ian Sergeant for Kalaboration. London 2012 - Jamaica 50 Lake Gallery Custard Factory Birmingham United Kingdom 3rd - 17th August 2012
A narrative on the making of the work ‘A Short Sprint’ was initially imagined as a further engagement with issues around athletics and the black body, which I had previously examined in works such as ‘The Nations Finest’ of June 1990, and its follow-on work ‘Another Arena’ of July 1997. Both of these works had used a dense video montage of archival and live sequences shot with young black athletes as a way of interrogating issues around sport and national belonging in the context of evolving notions of ‘Britishness’. This was part of an interest in the politics of ‘hyper-visuality’ and symbolic spectacle in sport originally triggered by an early encounter with a work by Antoni Muntadas, entitled ‘Stadium III’1 at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham in 1989.
The Nations Finest. Betacam SP Video. 7 mins 1990
It was also part of a wider body of work that looked at the iconography of sport specifically in relationship to the black male body, principally in the arena of boxing. Work such as ‘The Boy who speaks with his hands’ of October 1988, ‘Step into the Arena’ of May 1991, ‘Another Step into the Arena’ of October 1992, ‘Transgressive Acts’ of March 1993, and ‘Four Corners’ of July 1995, all took the iconography of heavy-weight boxing and the dichotomies and tensions generated by the hyper-visuality of its key figures in their ability to shape prevailing perceptions of black masculinity as their core theme. Most of this work focused on the figures of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, as icons who were both representative of, but also transgressive within, the epochs during which they enjoyed their greatest visibility. However, in ‘Four Corners’ of 1995 and its virtual re-rendering within the ‘Relocating the Remains CD-Rom’2 of 1997, the equally iconic figures of Jack Johnson and Joe Louis were added to this attempt to re-encounter and reappraise these four highly complex sporting figures of the twentieth century. Beyond the paint and mixed media that made up the 1988 work, ‘The The Boy who Speaks with his Hands. Boy who speaks with his hands’, all of these works also utilised the Mixed Media. 1988 darkened space of the gallery as a key mechanism for orchestrating dramatic effect, either through the use of lightboxes, video monitors or projection. This was initially the intention for ‘A Short Sprint’. Originally depicted as a multi-screen projection piece within a darkened space, the work would have carried the influences both of my own earlier multi-screen video projection works such as ‘Another Arena’ of 1997, and ‘The Perfect City’3 of 2007, but also the multi-screen video installation work of artists such as Isaac Julian and John Akomfrah.
Step into the Arena Video Installation with Four Monitors. 1992 http://www.iniva.org/piper/Cdrompage.html
Step into the Arena Video Stills. 1992
Transgressive Acts. Mixed media installation with computer generated lightboxes. 1993
Four Corners Still from interactive CD-Rom Relocating the Remains 1997
However, an early encounter with the cavernous space of the Lake Gallery suggested that a different approach would be needed for this work. It would need to be one that acted more in sympathy with the physical nature of the gallery. This was a large, physically ‘rough’ space with skylights across its many roofs, which would have made the task of ‘blacking out’ difficult and time consuming. As an artist, I prefer conceptually not to engage in challenging the physical architecture of a space, but rather to try to tease out, and adapt to, the specific possibilities presented by the particularities of location. In this instance, I therefore decided to forego the dramatic appeal of large-scale projection, in favour of some other approach that worked with, rather than in opposition to the gallery space. The idea of working with multiple video monitors therefore began to take on a particular appeal, especially in their ability to occupy space sculpturally. This interest heightened when I was made aware of a large number of old CRT4 video and television monitors, which were available from The School of Art at Birmingham City University. These devices in the wake of the progressive rise of flat screen plasma, LCD and most recently LED monitors, have become increasingly redundant, and are as a result beginning to take on, I would argue, a ‘retro’ appeal. This could be seen as an act of nostalgia for the ‘objectness’ and physical presence of the ‘Television Set’. As the pristine ‘High Definition’ screen emerges as a wafer-thin visual plane, these bulky boxes speak of a past iteration of modernity, one of plastic, wired circuit boards and heavy glass vacuum tubes. As in the robot figures of Nam June Paik5, we are now drawn to these objects for a ‘quaintness’ and individuality of design that renders them almost ‘anthropomorphic’.
4 5 40
Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cathode_ray_tube
An example of which would be ‘Family of Robot, Aunt and Uncle’ (1986). New Media in Late 20th Century Art, p55. Michael Rush. Thames & Hudson 1999
To work with these objects, with their varied sizes and designs, sculpturally and spatially, is to recognise this implied ‘anthopomorphism’ as an echoing of the varied bodies that inhabit the sporting arena. An early idea to deploy an arrangement of stepped plinths upon which individual screens would sit, immediately referenced the stepped medal podium, reinforcing the relationship between the athletic body and the precious art object. However, the final display solution, which saw a simple line of monitors placed directly on the gallery floor, was deployed to conjure both a direct and unadorned encounter with the ‘objectness’ of each monitor within the gallery space, whilst at the same moment echoing the athletic ‘starting line’.
The content of the multiple video streams displayed on these monitors has been discussed in previous chapters: however, in this section I would like to discuss the aesthetics and ‘texture’ of the montaged video material, in particular its relationship to Hito Steyerl’s notion of ‘the poor image’6 In the November 2009 edition of e-flux journal, Steyerl writes ‘in defense of the poor image’ that: The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates, it deteriorates. It is a ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution. This was an acknowledgement of the extent to which the researching, accessing, consumption, manipulation and redistribution of archival images, sounds and fragments of video footage had been accelerated by our expanding access to on-line search engines such as ‘Google’™ and open digital repositories such as ‘YouTube’™. However, it was also acknowledging that as a trade off against the easy flow of these images and sounds across global digital networks, and in exchange for their open malleability and duplicability, we had become accustomed to a reduced ‘fidelity’. We had become accustomed to the idea that these easily circulated resources would by necessity be ‘poor’, be ‘jagged’, be ‘pixelated’, be a bastardised and fuzzy echo of their pristine copyrighted ‘pregenerators’. Steyerl also points to the hierarchical relationship through which the supremacy of the so-called ‘rich image’ was reinforced through a process within which ‘Resolution was fetishised as if its lack amounted to castration of the author’7. The counterpoint to this therefore becomes a celebration of the poor image and its democratising potential. She writes, ‘The economy of poor images, with its immediate possibility of
Hito Steyerl ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’. E-flux. Journal 10. 11/2009 http://www.e-flux.com/journal/in-defenseof-the-poor-image/
worldwide distribution and its ethics of remix and appropriation, enables the participation of a much larger group of producers than ever before.’8 In many ways, this celebration of the radical and democratic potential of ‘the poor image’, has outlived the ‘slow’ channels of distribution that made them necessary. The rapid acceleration of high speed broadband, especially, but not exclusively in the urban centres of the ‘overdeveloped’ world has led to ‘high’ resolution images, sounds and video becoming available through the open channels of spaces such as ‘YouTube’™, making the distribution and manipulation of pristine ‘rich’ images almost as easy as that of ‘poor’ ones. Added to this, when Nokia released the N8 Symbian Smartphone with its ability to shoot high definition video in the 720p format in September 20109, followed in October 2011 by Apple’s iPhone 4S with its ability to shoot in ‘true’ 1080p high definition10, it could be argued that a particular watermark had been passed in our ability not only to circulate, but also to generate ‘pristine’ images using increasingly common and personalised devices. What becomes interesting therefore is that at this moment within which what Steyerl identified as the ‘fetishisation of resolution’ arguably arrived at its zenith, a nostalgic desire seemed to take hold for a re-engagement with the textures and artefacts associated with the ‘poor image’ and its predecessor; the flawed, crumpled, scratched, flared and distressed ‘poor analogue image’ associated with an earlier photographic era. As seen within the rise and popularity of iPhone ‘Apps’ such as ‘Hipstamatic’11 and ‘Instagram’12, which seek to re-inscribe the pristine digital snap-shot with the textures and artefacts reminiscent of the ‘low-fi’ and ‘domestic’ end of the era of analogue photography, we witness the embrace of what could be described as ‘Retrophilia’. This I would argue is connected to what Laura U. Marks identified in her book ‘The Skin of the Film’13 as the ‘haptic’ sense which film or photography can take on in order to evoke the memory of touch, smell and embodied presence.
8 9 10 11 12 13
Ibid http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia_N8 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smartphone http://hipstamatic.com/ http://instagram.com/
The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Laura U. Marks. Duke University Press. 2000 p163 ‘The Memory of Touch’.
Therefore, I would argue that the aesthetics of the screen employed within the work ‘A Short Sprint’ are informed by a celebration of the notion of the ‘poor Image’ viewed within the age of Retrophilia. The re-circulated, re-sampled, re-montaged, ‘cut and paste’ strategies within which ‘found’ images and footage accessed through the open on-line repositories of YouTube™ and Vimeo™ are overlaid, blurred, re-pixelated and retextured to form a ‘televisual’ field that is both optical and tactile. To add to this visual field, footage was shot of young West Midlands based athlete Christian Byron at the Alexander Stadium in Perry Bar, Birmingham. This saw him going through the process of ‘warming up’, focusing and rehearsing the various ‘phases’ of the sprint which, within the work, stand in as metaphors for the developmental stages of Jamaican political history described earlier.
What becomes notable about this footage in this context is that it was shot using a high definition camera with its expanded visual frame. However, in-line with the notion of the ‘poor image’, a postproduction act of zooming in to key elements within this larger screen is undertaken. Key parts of the image, such as a hand, a foot, a face, neck, shoulders etc, are isolated, closely cropped and ‘followed’ around the screen in a quotation of Paul Pfeiffer’s ‘John 3:16’ of 200014. Through this act of ‘panning and scanning’, a tension is created between the section of the original video image that remains visible and those sections that are placed outside of the ‘cropped frame’ and are thereby excised from the final narrative. This, in itself, then becomes a commentary upon the focused gaze, both in terms of spectatorship within sport, and in relationship to the notion of creating a singular narrative of political history. Both of these are concerns that the work ‘A Short Sprint’ attempts to scrutinise.
Keith Piper 2013 Thanks to Ian Sergeant & Cindy Hubert
ÂŠKeith Piper 2013