Art Artist Chris Evans’s “I don't know if I've explained myself” is a series of works in which a group of observers sit in a room with an artwork watching, relayed from a different room, a group of interested parties discussing the work based on their own experiences and tonight the latest iteration was organised by Tate Liverpool and Liverpool Biennial and held at the home of James Moores, art collector and Biennial founder. The process of booking had the whiff of a 60s happening, 90s illegal rave or 00s Secret Cinema (depending on your generation), with the location of the event only emailed to participants a few weeks before hand. I’ll not say where it was exactly other than it’s one of the more affluently owned dwellings in a similar vein, if a lot smaller, to the now National Trust owned The Hardman's House, though oddly in layout it also reminded me of the digs I lived in during my second year of university, we audience members sat in the front sitting room or as was the case when I was at university, my bedroom. So as well as the art, there was the curiosity of finally seeing inside one of these houses, though the couches and armchairs I’d expected to be sitting in had been replaced by rows and rows of chairs facing an inner wall, presumably to maximise the number of audience members.
At an appointed time, a projector at the front flickered into action to reveal on the far wall five people sitting around a kitchen table, two on either side and one at the head and the audience, who had the perspective of sitting at the other end of the table, a position we retained throughout the action shown from this single camera position without cutting to close-ups, hushed ourselves, aware of a discussion just in progress. Participating were the typographer Will Holder, freelance curator Lucy MacDonald, curator of the Grundy Art Gallery Richard Parry, the writer Marina Vishmidt and Vanessa Boni, Public Programmes Curator, Liverpool Biennial (most of them have a thorough biography here). They’d already made their mark on the table, its black table cloth containing a jug of water, half full drinking glasses, scraps of paper and a smart phone, all of which means as Lucy MacDonald kicks off the discussion, we're not quite sure how long they’ve been sitting there, how much preparation they’ve made. Some have prepared questions, conversation points jotted down either by them or the artist, but now and then it’s clear that someone is referring to something they’ve mentioned doing or saying before the camera turned on which has in and of itself a distancing effect which only adds to the distancing effect of being in an audience watching five people having a discussion in another room.
As was soon identified within the discussion, in a moment which led the audience and the discussion participants to giggle simultaneously proving the feed was indeed live, the audience is sharing the room with two different artworks. Chris Evans’s projection and the piece under discussion, a work by Pádraig Timoney, a kind of topographical landscape painted from above with limpet shells carried by parachutes attached to it at right angles. Who is the more important voice, whose biography is best annunciated within this semi-review? In the context of the event should the audience disregard their own perspective on the Timoney piece in favour of interpreting the discussion of the piece and the perspectives of the participants? Is the content of the discussion itself even important or the simple fact of its existence? I think Suzanne Lacey’s similarly artifical discussion piece, Storying Rape, which was my favourite of the last Biennial, was probably easier to parse because the topic under discussion and the discussion itself were at the thematic core of what was being achieved. Evans’s piece is complicated by the fact of the discussion being just the sort of thing the Biennial might run anyway as a matter of course.
The explanation on the Tate's website helps. It says that the artist’s “work evolves through conversations with people from various walks of life. He has conducted similar discussions with a number of different people: from the directors of a leading champagne house to a former member of the British Constructivists and the CEO of a Texas pharmaceutical company. Sculptures, letters, drawings, film scripts and unusual social situations are created as a result of these talks, exploring how Evans deliberately confuses the roles of artist and patron, genius and muse.” Which suggests that the content of the discussion is simply part of the artifice, that what’s being said is beside the point, except when it isn’t. But then one also wonders if what we’re watching is the only time this piece will be available, that it only exists as we’re watching and unlike the Lacey work won’t be shown in some other context at a later date and whether that makes it a form of performance art. Does that also mean that unlike a few other Biennial events this discussion won’t appear on the website for viewing later because we all didn’t attend because we wanted to find out more about Timoney’s painting but because we wanted to watch another artwork inspired by Timoney’s painting? Or just to see the interior of the house?
Confused? Try being in the room. If all of that is or isn’t the case, what should be draw from it? Are we allowed to talk about the discussing group, observe their interaction? Will Holder at one point noticed that he was, the “plumb” somewhat becoming verbally besieged because he was the only one of the five who’d seen the painting within the context of an exhibition, bashfully admitting that he didn’t know enough about the history of painting to really offer a perspective. Richard Parry spent his time leading the discussion, from notes on his lap beneath the table. The discussion was punctuated by pregnant pauses as a collective thought ended and all five waited for one of their number to jump in with another point or observation. Sometimes they found themselves hitting against the edges of whatever ground rules the artist must have outlined as a rather interesting tangent into James Moore’s purchase of the work and how it fits into the context of his collection was quickly deemed to be straying too far away from the point. Similarly, the title also came into play as one of the participants interjected with a quite fascinating jumble of words to capture their thoughts but pointedly then failed to entirely explain what that meant.
As television viewers and radio listener's we're trained to watch and listen to discussions which tend to have a particular grammar and usually feature experts. This was like hearing an episode of In Our Time crossed with Just A Minute, the participants only having been given the topic just before being faced with Melvyn Bragg or an attempt to fulfill Glenn Gould's philosophy that in order to reveal what a person really thinks or feels you should find someone who is an expert in something then ask them a series of questions about something else. We didn't know how long before the discussion the participants had seen the painting. Perhaps it was only minutes before the audience arrived within that context and not before. In that sense, as audience member's we're almost put in the position of judging their contribution, leading us unconsciously towards the less salubrious end of the broadcast discussion format (#bbcqt, #kyle) even though, as then, it's entirely unfair to do so and we wouldn't if this discussion was happening live in front of us, rather than project. As I suggested earlier, if the participants hadn't heard us laughing from the room above and then reacted to that, we might have suspected it was prerecorded and considered if it this would have mattered if it had been.
I was in constant state of fascination and tedium and not a little bit uncomfortable. In his book Hollywood Cinema, Richard Maltby says that an extended take “forces us to wait, watch, and grow more nervous as the movie deliberately refuses us the luxury of escaping back into a more comfortable, edited narrative time or a safer vantage point.” He goes on to explain that for all that there is still the matter of context, and that “while a musical’s use of the long take allow the audience to celebrate the performers’ skill, suspense movies are usually much less benign, turning the audience themselves into victims of the movie’s manipulations.” But this wasn't just a long take, it was a single take without cutting and with the exception of the moment when Holder took an empty water jug to the tap for a refill, almost entirely without any action to speak of and although the context wasn’t fictional, we were watching content beamed in from another room, the apparently deliberate longuers and stilted interjections created an unsettling atmosphere. At various points, the participants seemed to have simply run out of things to say. Towards the end, Holder glanced off camera as though expecting the discussion to have ended already and all had a brief flicker of relief when it finally did.
Did I fidget? I’ll admit to fidgeting. The small, metal fold up chair we were given to sit on had a smooth surface which led to me slipping downward in my jeans and the need to constantly sit back up again. I also kept getting a trapped nerve in the back of my leg, which led to it vibrating. At one point I leaned towards the painting, which was on the wall above my head to see what the parachutes were made of, revealing paper mache. Sat at the front, I looked backwards around the room to see what the reaction of the rest of the audience was because you can tell a lot about anything from the live reaction of an audience. I glanced along the line to the wrist of the nearest person in sight wearing a watch, I thought surreptitiously, to see what the time was, to see how far into the discussion/piece we were but couldn’t make out the hands which the golden glare of the supplied lighting camouflaged against the face. This distracted the person sitting next to me and before I knew it I was miming by pointing at my wrist and they were whispering the time to me. I think I may have annoyed them a bit overall, which I genuinely didn’t mean to do which is why this paragraph sounds not so much like autobiographical observations than excuses pretending to be autobiographical observations.
The ending was abrupt when it came. I’d misheard the time when it was whispered to me, and had thought there was plenty more to come, or more time to wait, still not entirely sure which part of the experience I was supposed to be paying attention to. I still don’t. But as is so often the case with the Liverpool Biennial it was an experience, which is I suppose the real point. After saying hello to a few people I wandered out into the hallway were I was handed a small, white circular disc made from the same paper as a beer mat. On one side was a tiny line drawing by Peter Wachtler, perhaps also inspired by the Timoney piece featuring, I think, an ant flying away in a hot air balloon his friend having fallen out, and on the reverse the news that the next Biennial, the 2014 number, opens on the 5 July which is amazingly early. Last year’s ran from 15 September which is one of the reasons I missed most of the opening weekend due to work. Next year’s is right slapbang in the middle of the Summer holidays, and the very fact that I have Summer holidays is another clue you can add to the mystery of what my job actually is (assuming I still have it then). Out on the street, I glanced through the frosted windows into the basement where the discussion had apparently happened, not that I could see anything because of the frosted windows. July!