20 Sites n Years: the documentary

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This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Tom Phillips’ indefinite art project but I thought I’d give Jake Auerbach’s documentary some belated promotion after watching it again. The usual form here would be to link to a viewable copy somewhere. There is a copy online, as it happens, but it’s not in any of the obvious places so rather than link to it I’d encourage the interested to invest in one of Auerbach’s DVDs or watch the streaming version.

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As before, the project details are as follows:

Every year on or around the same day (24th May–2nd June) at the same time of day and from the same position a photograph is taken at each of the twenty locations on this map (above) which is based on a circle of half a mile radius drawn around the place (Site 1: 102 Grove Park SE15) where the project was devised. It is hoped that this process will be carried on into the future and beyond the deviser’s death for as long as the possibility of continuing and the will to undertake the task persist.

The intention is that photographs (35 mm transparencies) be taken at twenty locations each year between May 24 and June 2. The locations are situated on what is (in 1973) the nearest walkable route to a perfect circle a half a mile in radius from the point in the home of Artist 1 (102 Grove Park, London SE5) where the project was devised and where these instructions were written. The circuit is divided into sixteen equal sections in each of which there is a site selected by Artist 1. Four other locations mark the route from the centre to the circumference: these are the former studio of Artist 1, his current home and studio, and the art school where he studied. The project book notes the times of the original photographs of 1973 and these should be adhered to as closely as possible (though all photos need not necessarily be taken on the same day) Artist 1 intends that the pictures should be taken by his family and their descendants, if they are willing, and that the work should thus go on indefinitely: the services of their friends may be enrolled or even from time to time that of professional photographers. Continuity is the most important factor.

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One of the pages from the project manual showing the location of Site 2, the hour of day at which the photo should be taken, where to stand when taking it, and a diagram of the preferred framing.

Auerbach’s 45-minute film begins with a brief description of the piece, after which we follow Phillips in 2012 on his annual excursion around the streets of Camberwell and Peckham in South London. Auerbach juxtaposes the arrival of artist and camera crew at each prescribed location with Phillips’ own description of the changes he’s observed since first commencing the project in 1973. During the narration we get to see many of the photographs, more than the few examples shown in Works and Texts. The film also includes extracts from a couple of earlier documentaries about Phillips, including his appearance on the BBC’s Late Show in 1989 which featured a shorter 20 Sites project report.

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A local street that isn’t part of the project but which does feature street lights and a mural designed by Tom Phillips.

Auerbach’s trailing of the artist shows us aspects of the project that you don’t get in the big Thames & Hudson book or on the Tom Phillips website (where you can see slide-shows of all the views to date), the most prominent being a sense of the space in which each photograph is taken. London south of the river is a vast suburban sprawl that lacks the layered history of the northern quarters of the city. This might seem unpromising material for an art project but Phillips’ photographs remind us that “promise” is a quality dependent on the artist’s point of view, literally in this case with the dogged and very specific attention given to these twenty sites. In place of grand history we have the incremental advance of those changes which often go unnoticed or unremarked in city life: a tree grows, cars (and people) update their styling, a building is repurposed or demolished, street furniture appears then disappears, shops change their appearance and operation, public areas are subject to seemingly arbitrary alterations at the hands of council workers.

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Auerbach shows us further details that we wouldn’t otherwise see, such as the aerosol marks made on the pavement each year showing where the photographer has to stand in order to take a shot that matches the earlier ones. We also get to see Phillips choosing the best shots after they’ve been processed. One of the impromptu conventions of the project has required people to appear at some of the quieter sites, random strangers (or animals) at Site 2, while Site 3 incorporates friends or relatives of the artist. John L. Walters, the editor of Eye magazine, occupies the latter role on the day that Auerbach is present.

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The project becomes self-aware. “Obart” was the name of a mysterious business or organisation that vanished soon after being chosen as Site 15. The name has since been an informal title for the project as a whole. The hashtag is in the window of one of the houses situated next to the original Obart sign.

Now that “Artist 1” is no longer with us, the project moves into a new phase with “Artist 2” (Phillips’ son, Leo) taking charge. Leo Phillips was already on board in 1989 so the annual excursion must be a familiar routine by now. Next year the project will have been running for 50 years which must make it the longest continually-running art project to date unless there’s a more extended one out there. Michael Heizer’s City recently attained completion after 50 years buts it’s debatable whether a work that was a construction site for most of those years should be considered as operating in the same sense as 20 Sites, a project which was functioning as intended from its first year. Meanwhile, I’ve yet to hear about the existence of an “Artist 3” ready to take up the camera after Leo Phillips, but whoever that individual might be they could conceivably take 20 Sites through to its centenary in 2073. Time will tell.

Previously on { feuilleton }
20 Sites n Years revisited
20 Sites n Years by Tom Phillips

Weekend links 648

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The Twittering Machine (1922) by Paul Klee.

• “Thinking of ‘writer Twitter’ as more important than writers themselves is an insult to the profession. People have been trading words for money for thousands of years. They will continue to do so after the death of a platform built on manufactured outrage, social hierarchy, unfunny jokes, stale memes, pornography, and spam. I mention this Atlantic essay only because it echoes what so many people are saying in the ether right now, not to pick on its author. The piece reads like a parody of how writers overestimate the importance of Twitter to their work and careers. It’s frankly a little embarrassing. Your work is the product you sell! Not the shitty jokes you tell with people you want to impress.” Freddie deBoer on the kerfuffle du jour. For “writer” see also “artist” or anyone else working at the intersection between commerce and creativity. From what I’ve read this week about potential technical problems at the pestilential birdcage I’d be less sanguine about its immediate survival. Since I retreated from the place as an active user two-and-a-half years ago all I get from it is the inflated subscriber number you see on the right-hand side of this page, a combination of Twitter followers plus email subscribers. The latter currently stand at some 270 individuals so if you’re among that number you can consider yourself part of a more exclusive group. And thanks for subscribing!

• “…the books of the past, besides adding to our understanding, offer something we also need: repose, refreshment and renewal. They help us keep going through dark times, they lift our spirits, they comfort us. Which means that I also strongly agree with the poet John Ashbery, who once wrote, ‘I am aware of the pejorative associations of the word “escapist,” but I insist that we need all the escapism we can get and even that isn’t going to be enough.'” Michael Dirda makes a case for reading classic, unusual and neglected books. Kudos for the mention of Anthony Skene‘s Monsieur Zenith, a character few of Dirda’s readers will have heard of.

• “While Haeckel’s paintings turn the floating phantoms into baroque spectacles of colour and flowing form, Mayer’s medusae are more sober, their tentacles subdued, their umbellate bells transparent.” Kevin Dann on the jellyfish and other “floating phantoms” described in AG Mayer’s Medusae of the World (1910).

• “The passing of time has added potency to the images, giving this interpretation of the Dracula story the feel of a distant fairy tale, a myth emerging from the mists of time, erupting across the world of cinema, its shadow reaching everywhere.” Martyn Bamber on 100 years of Murnau’s Nosferatu.

• At AnOther: Camille Vivier talks about shooting nude models in the treasure-filled home of HR Giger.

• New music: In Concert & In Residence by Sarah Davachi, and Anglo-Saxon Androids by Moon Wiring Club.

• At Spoon & Tamago: Kimono portraits were popular souvenirs for sailors visiting Japan in the 1800s.

• Mix of the week: Saturnalia: Deep Jazz for Long Nights, 1969–1980 at Aquarium Drunkard.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Clouds.

Dark Clouds With Silver Linings (1961) by Sun Ra | Obscured By Clouds (1972) by Pink Floyd | Firmament (Cloudscape) (1995) by Main

Weekend links 645

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Halloween (no date) by William Stewart MacGeorge.

• Couldn’t Care Less: Cormac McCarthy in a 75-minute conversation (!) with David Krakauer at the Santa Fe Institute, filmed in 2017 and recently posted to YouTube. Not a literary discussion, this one is all about science, philosophy, mathematics, architecture and the operations of the unconscious mind. McCarthy’s essay about the origins of language, The Kekulé Problem, may be read here.

• At Wormwoodiana: Douglas A. Anderson finds a 1932 reprint of an HP Lovecraft story, The Music of Erich Zann, in London newspaper The Evening Standard. The story had appeared a few months prior to this in a Gollancz book, Modern Tales of Horror which reprinted a US collection edited by Dashiell Hammett. The newspaper printing includes an illustration by Philip Mendoza.

• New Hollywood Vs Mutant Cinema: The flipside of US cinema, 1960s–80s. Joe Banks talks to Kelly Roberts, Michael Grasso and Richard McKenna about their new book, We Are the Mutants: The Battle for Hollywood from Rosemary’s Baby to Lethal Weapon.

• At Bandcamp: Rich Aucoin explains the army of synths on his new quadruple album. The battalion includes the bespoke modular setup known as T.O.N.T.O., a rig that few people get to play with.

• New/old music: Malebox, an EP of Patrick Cowley rarities coming soon from Dark Entries.

• Mix of the week: Samhain Séance 11: endleofon by The Ephemeral Man.

• The surreal photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard.

• “NASA team begins study of UFOs”.

Ghost Rider (1969) by Musical Doctors | Ghost Rider (1970) by The Crystalites | Ghost Rider (1977) by Suicide

Weekend links 644

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Yoshitoshi’s Ghosts (2004) by Paul Binnie.

• “The later Grand Etteilla series, printed well into the nineteenth century, and the present-day proliferation of Tarot decks, following ephemeral fads and fashions, all trace their origins to this beautiful and beguiling creation from the enigmatic Egyptophile at 48 Rue de L’Oseille.” Kevin Dann on the Livre de Thot Tarot (ca. 1789) by Jean-Baptiste Alliette, better known as “Etteilla”.

• “Death is not a subject he has ever shied away from, in his fiction or conversation. Indeed, he has measured other writers by how seriously they address it.” Richard B. Woodward on his friend, Cormac McCarthy, and McCarthy’s new novels. There’s an exclusive extract from The Passenger here.

• “…addicts, psychopaths, lovelorn outsiders, cult leaders, lesbian and gay icons…you name it, the vampire has become it.” Christopher Frayling on the perennial popularity of the vampire, and a new book collection of vampire film posters.

Robert Wilson‘s new production of Ubu Roi by Alfred Jarry is “a sinister, multilingual pantomime bathed in red light and looped in noise…fittingly violent, absurd, ominous and infantile”.

• “What kind of music goes with a show that originates in deep space?” Aquarium Drunkard on Sonny Sharrock’s final recordings, the soundtrack music for Space Ghost Coast To Coast.

• At Wormwoodiana: Mark Valentine takes a fresh look at the health of secondhand bookshops in Britain.

• Tokyo nightlife photographed by Hosokawa Ryohei.

• New music: Approach by Lawrence English.

The Passenger (1977) by Iggy Pop | The Passenger (1987) by Siouxsie And The Banshees | The Passenger (1997) by Lunachicks

Weekend links 641

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For mysterious and eldritch reasons the Republic of Palau has minted a Cthulhu-themed 20 dollar coin. Via.

• “Pre-gap tracks are a CD-specific phenomenon, paralleled only by DVD Easter Eggs, or hidden levels in a computer game. On the one hand, they’re only possible digitally, on the other, they seem to be an attempt to add some mystique to a circle of plastic.” Daryl Worthington on the 40th anniversary of the Digital Audio Compact Disc. Regular readers will know that CD has been, and remains, my favourite musical format for reasons I won’t bother arguing here. Related: Wikipedia’s list of albums with tracks hidden in the pregap. Also: “There’s endless choice, but you’re not listening”: fans quitting Spotify to save their love of music.

• “Meek’s use of sound effects and swathes of ghostly reverb, woven into seemingly innocuous pop songs and rock and roll instrumentals—as if the BBC Radiophonic Workshop was directed by Phil Spector—created a sense of the sublime and hinted at strange realities beyond our own.” Mark Pilkington explores the strange world of Joe Meek.

• “Structured as a ‘dream within a dream’, the narrative weaves together mythological, biblical, and occult references to construct a universe filled with ruinous landscapes and orgiastic celebrations.” Demetra Vogiatzaki on the enigmas, architectural and otherwise, presented by Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (1499).

The man who made this absurd noir was answerable neither to studio nor Shakespeare, but only his own monumental whims. Thus, Mr. Arkadin sends Citizen Kane (1941) through the looking glass—the action transposed to post–World War II Spain and given a spin somewhere between metaphysics and megalomania…

If Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus recast myth as pulp, Mr. Arkadin elevates pulp to myth. It is the most Borgesian of Welles’s movies. Writing in Cahiers du cinéma, the young Eric Rohmer compared Mr. Arkadin to Jules Verne and Fantômas: It creates something that is ­nearly impossible today: a romantic fiction that involves neither the future nor any removal from one’s usual surroundings…

J. Hoberman writing in 2006 about Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin (1955). I was rewatching the film earlier this week in its guise as Confidential Report, the version re-edited by its producer to try and create something with greater commercial appeal. I’ve yet to see the recent restoration but even in its butchered form it’s a fascinating piece of work

Early Cormac McCarthy interviews rediscovered: “Between 1968 and 1980, he gave at least 10 interviews to small local papers in Lexington, Kentucky and east Tennessee, a region where he lived and had friends.”

• New music: Perceptions by Model Alpha (Jonathan Fitoussi & Julie Freyri), and Epektasis by Nicklas Barker.

Dreams of Space: Books and Ephemera; “Non-fiction children’s space flight stuff 1945–1975”.

• At Dennis Cooper’s: Roget Malot presents…Spirit Photography Day.

• Mix of the week: A mix for The Wire by FOQL.

Spirit (1978) by Frédéric Mercier | Spirit (1990) by Jah Wobble’s Invaders Of The Heart | Spirit Level (Lost In Space) (1992) by Horizon 222