They’re behind you!: Phelgm’s giants and mining the excess of their event

Phelgm giant

“There is no smoothness without striation. Creation is never free and savage, just as there is no life as a generative principle beyond diagrams. Life or desire is not a romantic substance outside the logic of the norm (which is only a way to reactively confirming it), but rather an inhuman and impersonal potential for relations to emerge. Life, or desire, are always machined, hence the need to explore the real conditions of possibility which simultaneously close and open the smooth paths of creation, rather than simply chanting the glory of transgression.” (Pavoni, 2018: 155)

The van pulls up suddenly, having turned sharply into this side street. The burly driver leans across the passenger seat and calls out to us.

“What’s going on here then?”

There is no reply. Everyone in the line tries to pretend that the question is not addressed to them. And indeed it is not addressed to anyone individually. But a moment later the driver is still there, waiting for someone to catch his eye. The driver’s cab is directly opposite me. Sooner or later our eyes are going to meet.

I surrender to the instinct to not leave a question unanswered. I feel the need to respond.

“It’s an exhibition.” I announce awkwardly. Phrasing that statement in a way that shuns further elaboration.

The driver smiles as something slots into place in his mind.

“Ah, ok. I’ve kept seeing this queue and wondered what it was for.”

And with that he was gone. Gone to the bottom of this shabby road to complete his delivery.

The queue pretended nothing had happened and I stood wondering why I couldn’t bring myself to say the words that were really in my head. I had settled for the worthiness of ‘exhibition’ rather than the exclusiveness of ‘art installation’. Even in a queue of self-selected art fans this didn’t seem the kind of thing to shout out too loudly in this neck of the woods.

The queue moved in slow pulses, one rhythmic shunt forward every 20 minutes as another batch of 35 punters were marshalled inside the former Sheffield cutlery works to see street artist Phelgm’s ‘Mausoleum of the Giants’ installation. As we waited we were kept updated by the volunteer guides on today’s and otherday’s waiting times.

“It was three hours waiting time yesterday. We had to close the line early”.

Entry to this free event would be paid for by its own trial of ordeal – queuing. It felt appropriately ritualistic, our waiting our turn to pay respects to the giants in their mausoleum.

This event – a temporary occupation of a factory-building-soon-to-be-refurbished-as-apartments – has attracted considerable local interest, drawing the arty types into the heart of this backwater zone at the bottom of the city centre, disciplining our bodies and minds to the locality and its potentiality as we stand on display to passers-by. Here we are an incidental installation of sorts. We’ve come to experience the area. But the area must experience us too, it must sniff us out, just as we sniff out fresh cultural fare. We – temporarily at least – must learn to inhabit the same space and make sense of each other.

Entry

This post opens with a quote from Andrea Pavoni’s (2018) book, a complex text that I’ve been reading this week. The book is about many things and can be read (used even) at a variety of levels of abstraction. Put simply Pavoni’s key point (building on the work of Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos (2015) regarding lawscapes and their engineering of atmospheres) is that law (in its widest sense, as normativity) is always present. Sometimes its presence is clearly evident, whilst at other times it is harder to spot. But it is always there, and modes of engagement that try to deny or destroy its presence will simply lead to a (slight) reorientation of law’s form of presence. Pavoni, then extends this logic to urban events, arguing that contemporary capitalist urbanism will always co-opt (increasingly as eventful “brandscaping” (Pavoni 2018: 168)) any attempt to subvert itself, and that anyone who thinks that they can create spaces that are autonomous from this milieu is deluded.

Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos each try to rescue some progressive potential from the bleakness of their conclusion. They seek to do so through a form of play – a tactical embrace of multiplicity that works with the inevitable excess that any place or situation holds. Just as law is always struggling to consume its own excess, so any experiencescape engineered or co-opted by commerce will inevitably have its own excess, something that is both an opportunity for differentiated engagement with the event or place (simultaneously something pleasurable and painful: the openness of possibility (of ‘happening’) for the participant and the anxiety of unpredictability for the place/event manager, who has to try and anticipate all of the potentialities that could spill as excess from the intended event/place).

And risk assessment – a modelling of those potentialities – and event planning is how that excess is identified and controlled.

So, back in the queue, and as we approach the entrance I’m ruminating on this (and was this – the ruminating academic who might get so wrapped up in his thoughts that he trips on the factory’s uneven floors – factored into the risk assessment and its resulting management plan?). You can never think of everything. You can never cover-off all eventualities.

sign layers

This event is enabled by the developer. They have made the space available. It helps to raise the profile of their development, it gives them a funky urban edge. It has certainly mobilised Sheffield. Is this co-option bad? Would the installation be better, more authentic if it was illicit, unsanctioned? Why would that make any difference?

I sense that Pavoni would point out that co-option is inevitable, and there is no ‘free space’ beyond it. The productive challenge is how you multiply meaning within it. Pavoni suggests how this working-within might be done. His argumentation is targeted at law but his examples are mostly instances of arts practices and (re)interpretive effects applied to abandoned buildings. He characterises tactics that seek to activate the “inoperose” potential, from working within it. Likened at one point to gardening, the inoperose stance would notice the weeds, and find a role for them too.

duty of care

I’m still chewing on Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos’ thoughts on modes of engagement with the inescapable within and the potentialities of its excesses. Their work – in part – grows out of Gilles Deleuze’s writings, in particular his idea of the ‘virtual’ as the source of this excess and its potentialities and his interpretation of action as fuelled by networks of desire rather than knowledge/power. I need to dig in further and work out how it can fit my needs (and desires!). But there’s already an analogy here: academic thinking is a process of digging into and reconfiguring concepts into new combinations to see what effects that releases from the as-yet-not-quite-captured-by-others swirl of potentialities within any field’s excess. But that production has to work within existing canon and interpretive communities. In short, games have to be played within the board or on the pitch, norms conformed to, pacts entered into with commerce. There is no other, pure uncaptured space outside of these already striated spaces.

So, why should the ‘meanwhile use’ equation of art + empty buildings + commerce be any different?

And maybe the acid test (after Pavoni and Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos) should be how well the event has left open the possibility of other readings – of cross-readings of the situation’s excess, by looking behind Phlegm’s three dimensional creatures.

Phelgm juxtaposed

So, for my part, my perusal of the mausoleum / old factory was trying to spot where the building’s two identities were juxtaposed.

 

And to read the weary, battered signs of health and safety compliance as a parallel event, one showing that the lawscape never fully leaves the scene. Instead its indicia now beat out a contrapuntal rhythm alongside the art – a strange place-jazz, speaking to two different pasts: the past of the labouring bodies regulated here and the invented (but foregrounded) past of Phelgm’s giants. 

 

This is not to say that the safety signage would have been invisible to the other art-visitors, the ephemera of deactivated signage and its authenticity is a stable of industrial ruin aesthetics – and already commodified and aestheticised as such. But even so, the relations of these signs to each other and to the otherwise invisible lawscape is something that only comes fully to the fore if the place is read with a certain forensic background knowledge. So, my inoperose investigation was a legal archaeology of sorts. As I wandered around I was starting to piece together which sign would have originated when (based upon when the legislation requiring them to be put up was enacted) and thinking of them as another slow moving processional movement – this time the year-by-year implementational actions of a likely foreman (perhaps later re-titled as ‘health and safety manager’). What was the object of his desire? Maybe he was driven by a sense of pride in keeping up to date with “the latest requirements” and mapping these onto his establishment. Perhaps he drew his power and authority from this ‘writing onto space’ and his desire was for respect or purpose. Or maybe his desire was actually anxiety: he laid out this sedimented trail out of perennial fear of the accident (the ultimate excess of risk, always waiting to leap violently out from the grinding wheels and presses).

More conventional, front-facing, images of Mausoleum of the Giants can be found here: https://mausoleumofthegiants.co.uk/

References:

Pavoni, Andrea (2018) Controlling Urban Events: Law, Ethics and the Material. Abingdon: Routledge.

Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas (2015) Spatial Justice: Body, Lawscape, Atmosphere: Abingdon: Routledge.

Image credits: Mine, all mine.