Interview with Beatrice Gibson discussing her recent collaborative project
'if the route': the great learning of london
AM: Could you tell me about your recent project 'if the route' based on the process of taxi drivers learning The Knowledge?
BG: 'if the route:' the great learning of london was a live performance piece and radio work in seven parts, developed in collaboration with musician and composer Jamie McCarthy. It was based on the tradition of calling over in the knowledge. (Calling over is the principle mnemonic technique trainee cabbies are taught at knowledge colleges and entails that after completion of the day's routes or 'runs' cabbies must call them out to each other, using recital and repetition as a means to remember the city)
The live performance was held at Studio Voltaire. It involved ten trainee cabbies, nine men and one woman, calling out the city streets to one another accompanied by an improvising string quartet. The radio work was a work in seven parts aired on resonanceFM. We invited and commissioned seven participants to make an hour's work in sound, using and translating our score for the project according to their own personal interpretations. Participants included artist and architect Celine Condorelli, artist and author Tom McCarthy, musician and composer Kaffe Matthews, taxi driver and poet Simon Philips and architect and theorist Eyal Weizman in collaboration with Peter Mortonboeck and Helge Mooshammer of Networked Cultures.
The project took its title from the experimental 1960s British composer Cornelius Cardew. Cardew was a deeply political figure. He wrote music for non-musicians and attempted to challenge the rigid hierarchies of performer and composer. In the late 1960s he founded the Scratch Orchestra, a kind of radical musical laboratory in which music making became a micro society and micro social experiment based on a set of collective social bonds. The Great Learning, the title of Cardew's perhaps best known score, was one of the first pieces written for the Scratch and used the Confucian text of the same name as the basis for its acoustic structure. Playing on the title of the great learning as it related to the knowledge and its own system of learning, 'if the route' borrowed from the methodologies, structure and political intent of Cardews original by using both aural and non aural elements of my research into the knowledge as the generative principle behind its own composition and was developed primarily for non musicians.
AM: How did this idea originate and develop?
BG: I stumbled into Knowledge Point on Caledonian Road one day while researching the taxi network for another project called taxionomy and found a classroom full of burly men in pairs singing the city to each other. It was beautiful, a kind of aural landscape, a symphony performing the city as text. I immediately rang my friend Jamie to ask if he'd like to collaborate on a piece.
AM: Do you feel the project was successful on your terms?
BG: I think talking about the project's failures rather than its success is the most productive response to this question. The performance was definitely beautiful but it didn't produce anything like our original intentions for piece. My recent practice has been concerned with the idea of art as proposal, that is to say with the transformation of everyday social and spatial systems and into proposals for the rethinking of space and its inhabitation. So initially I saw the knowledge as a kind of gently subvertive system that might propose a different way of being the city, in terms of its independence and self-sufficiency. I had wanted to celebrate it and elaborate it in this sense. But re-contextualising it by relocating it into the gallery space, kind of allowed me to see it afresh and gave me a critical distance from it. It revealed the real nature of it as a practice and model of community and the fact that really, it's got little to do with knowledge and little to do with emancipation. Essentially it's a geographic fiction and the model of sociality it represents is obsolete. It's actually a deformed impression of community, one based on a reductive rather than expansive logic, not dissimilar to a sort of citizenship exam, a kind of 'can you do this, yes you can, right you be in the gang' kind of community. So without intending it, the piece ended up becoming more of a memorial to the knowledge that a celebration of it. But not in a fetishistic sense. Rather, at the same time as pointing to the complexity of its social life, it also revealed its inherent old fashionedness. The same revelations occurred with Cardew and the methodologies of 1960s experimental music practice that we were attempting to employ. Producing the piece, it became apparent to us that notions of authorless or multi-authored systems are in fact deeply flawed as participatory strategies. There were lots of points in the production process in this respect in which we cheated. Processes that we had intended to leave quite open we ended up framing much more tightly. It was simply more productive and more enjoyable that way for everyone involved. At the end of the day we wanted to produce a specific piece and had to compromise these kind of utopian notions we had of what might constitute participatory, collaborative work in order to do that.
AM: How do you position yourself within the ongoing debate around Relational Aesthetics? How were questions of authorship resolved?
BG: It's a really interesting question and one I've really been considering from having worked on this project. I read a piece recently by Claire Bishop published in Artforum that really hit home with me on this front. In it she talks about the kind of rock and hard place between ideas to do with aesthetics and ideas to do with consensual collaboration and how these two positions are seen as fundamentally opposed to one another. From my experience of producing if the route - a project that became much more about working with participants to realise a specific idea, than it did about proposing a completely open structure in which participants could do what they wanted - I would say that for me, a more interesting direction is work that thinks politics through aesthetics. And this is largely because, as Bishop points out, the oppositional practices of the sixties have lost their punch. Notions such as participation have in the contemporary context been recuperated by neo-liberal and political agendas, by corporations for instance, as a means to improve workforce moral. So aesthetic experimentation remains the one realm that might allow us to question and upturn these models rather than simply reproduce them. And to go back to Cardew quickly on this front, this is why he is so interesting to me, because, despite the fact that his specific methodologies might now be considered somewhat dated, his use of parables and enigmatics as occasions for social transformation in peoples lives represents exactly this meeting of politics and aesthetics. So I think there is a really productive middle territory to be inhabited between attention to both democratic social process and aesthetic form.
AM: It sounds like you enjoyed researching 'if the route', is yours a research-based practice?
BG: Yes definitely. I have to really inhabit a subject first, to think through it, before being able to transform it somehow. Research allows me to do that. But it's also more that I see research as a territory for practice, as opposed to something that simply informs it. Before doing if the route I learnt to ride to a motorbike, took my test (three times) registered for the knowledge and did about 1/4 of the runs, documenting each one. I wanted to understand how the knowledge worked as system. I got totally lost and it was hell. But it was as a kind of piece in itself. I guess in this sense my practice is iterative and question led. Each piece produces the next. I'm interested in how we might bring together form with discourse and politically engaged questions, and building up a kind of line of argumentation through practice, so theoretical sources for me become a way to sustain and complicate practice. But again, mostly there isn't such a hard and fast distinction for me between theory and practice, often my practice actually reveals the topic of theoretical enquiry to me and at the same time becomes the tool of its investigation.
AM: What are you working on next?
BG: I'm working on a performative lecture that is also the bibliography for my Ph.D. at the Centre for Research Architecture, Goldsmiths. It traces a relational itinerary based on a series of loose associations through an archive of cultural artifacts around the theme of sound and social space - from the theoretical, to the artistic, to the propositional. I love the idea of appropriating academic structures for use as an artistic medium. I've also just formed a band, called support band, that only ever performs in support of something or somebody else, and I'm about to spend the next 10 months as a studio artist at the Whitney Museum in New York, where I will be looking further into the idea of performance as research and exploring ideas around aurality and public space.
AM: Where can we find documentation of this fascinating project?