Art Ridiculous. Ridiculous, ridiculous, ridiculous. This is ridiculous. How ridiculous? I’ve just spent an hour this afternoon sat on couch in front of a plasma screen in the housing office at The Bullring, sorry, St Andrews Gardens watching a stupifyingly boring art discussion programme from Belgium in the late eighties and when I had finished, after I’d been to the onsite toilet and photographed a copy of the accompanying explanation in the booklet sat on the coffee table in the space, said my goodbyes to the very kind invigilator who’d begun the screening over again especially for me right from start, all I could think was why? Why had I done this?
Apart from the existential realisation, not in a good way, that I’m currently in the place in my life when I can spend an hour on a Friday afternoon sat on couch in front of a plasma screen in the housing office at The Bullring, sorry, St Andrews Gardens watching a stupifyingly boring art discussion programme from Belgium in the late eighties, I have few answers. As the final venue on my tour of the official Biennial exhibitions, the A Needle Walks Into A Haystack cluster, it’s at best anti-climactic. But as I discovered at the last Biennial when I did the venues in numerical order based the figures selected for the map in the official booklet, they’re not meant to be done in numerical order based the figures selected for the map in the official booklet. It just sort of happened that way this time around.
The idea of bringing a curated collection of work by Belgian television director Jef Cornelis isn’t unsound. At least as a student of television history, there’s something potentially enthralling for me about seeing any television from the continent, especially arts television, because it’s something which hasn't been broadcast much in this country. When histories are written and documentaries are made about the history of art television, it’s always from a British perspective and we simply don’t get to see or hear about the Beligian or French or Spanish equivalents of Kenneth Clarke, Melvyn Bragg, Alan Yentob, Caroline Wright or Humphrey Burton.
As the Biennial booklet and website indicates, when Jef Cornelis worked at VRT (the Dutch-language Belgian public broadcasting corporation), he made over 200 films and here we have the ability to dip in and see this voice and see how a different culture reflected back on itself through its own programming. Like a one man Arena, across the decades, which oddly mirror the period "classic" Doctor Who was on the air, not that this is important but is on my mind for some reason, he covered a similar range of topics across many disciplines and titles which stand out from the list of works here in the booklet, including “Things that aren’t mentioned: Alice in Wonderland”, James Lee Byars: The World Question Centre” and “Landscape with Churches”.
Yet despite all of that, my own intellectual justification for why this is relevant, as I walked away from the display, I still asked myself, what is the point? Partly it’s the delivery. There’s no particularly connectivity between the Bullring and Jef Cornelis’s work other than perhaps the deliberate incongruousness of it, in which case to choose this venue in which we’re asked to concentrate on a television recording while the housing office quite rightly goes about its daily, noisy business, is, like I said, ridiculous and doesn’t do the work any favours. If this hadn’t indeed been necessarily subtitled I wouldn’t have had a chance in hell of following any of, let alone the miniscule amount I did latch on to.
On top of that, I’d also ask how we as an audience are supposed to interact with it. If I was following the rules of my own project which was to watch all of the video art on display the Biennial I’d be spending the best part of the next two months at the Bullring working my way through this stuff. I will not. Apart from the fact that we’re in the grey area of whether this is art or commentary on art or both, I can’t imagine the Biennial's curators expects us to either. It's worth asking how much of it they've seen themselves given that the show's been curated by Koen Brams, the director of the Jan van Eyck Academy instead. So how much of this do they expect us to see? Across the hour I was there, I saw three other visitors, a couple and someone on their own and they each stayed for about five to ten minutes, not much of which was spent sat on the sofa or accompanying armchairs watching the programme.
What did they make of it? What did it do for them? You can’t legislate for the reactions of every audience member or visitor but I wonder how many of them have also sat and watched a whole programme, or sat in the back room and watched one of the other documentaries and do they realistically have the time? I’d be genuinely interested to know if anyone reading this has either (through through usual channels please). If all the visitors are doing is wandering through, glancing briefly at a snippet of a seventy-five minute fashion documentary (or whatever), reading the information boards then heading off to another venue, it’s worth asking exactly what the point was in specially subtitling all this material in the first place. What’s it all for?
Container 3: Heine’s Paper Crane (Jef Cornelis, 1989)
The work is being displayed through a weekly screening selection on that main screen and through headphoned screens in a room at the back so it really depends on when you visit as to what you’ll see. This week it’s the turn of the third episode in the producer’s ten part philosophy discussion programme which began broadcasting fortnightly in early May of that year as a way of giving the a voice to the intellectuals of Flanders, who he thought at that point had no particular tradition in that regard. Two regular moderators and two guests hashed around a topic and in this third episode the participants read and discuss the relationship intellectuals have to history as a construct through letters by the likes of Goethe, Marx and Schopenhauer.
Which sounds pretty run of the mill and the sort of thing which might turn up on Radio 4. It’s not that much different to In Our Time. It killed Cornelis’s career. As the accompanying notes describe, “the Flemish press could not find a single good thing to say about Container” and the reason it only lasted ten episodes was because the VRT ended it. It’s not hard to see why. Ridiculously (there’s that word again) the Container of the title is an actual container, designed and built especially for the programme by Belgian architect Stephane Beel. Throughout there are cutaways to outside of the container with these four intellectuals sat around the table inside which entirely tip the viewer out of whatever point is currently being made.
It’s just the kind of experiment that Channel 4 might have carried out in its early days when they were allowing anyone to make programmes and which would later show up being sneered at by Mark Lawson on the A-Z of TV Hell or parodied by Adam & Joe. It’s After Dark filmed on the set of Network 7. And boring, so, so boring. The problem is that unlike In Our Time or After Dark, there’s no attempt to bring the viewer up to speed. Like turning up in the middle of an Oxbridge seminar, we’re expected to know who all these figures are and why their centuries old words are interesting. I would say I managed to follow about ten percent of it (see below), but the rest, what I could concentrate on amid the bustle of the office, was a fog.
The bit I did latch on to at about the twenty minute mark (I could keep an eye on the duration thanks to the massive screen showing BBC News on the wall nearby) concerning the notion of history not existing or rather what we think of as history actually being something cobbled together by academics and politicians, the winners, through the prism of their concerns and interests. This reminded me of the coverage of the World War One commemoration on Monday which included packages about the contribution the then British Empire made to the war, and how the native peoples of the areas of the world participated and died defending the very people who’d conquered them.
Having written this stinging criticism, again I ask myself what it’s for, what’s the point? Container 3: Heine’s Paper Crane won’t in any way be representative of Cornelis’s work and can’t be if he managed to previously carve out a thirty year career at the station it was produced at, like assuming all of The West Wing is like Disaster Relief. If I’d visiting a week earlier or later the previous four paragraphs would have been entirely different. Is Biennial therefore asking me to watch a range of his programmes in order to gain some knowledge of the kind of work he does? Is this art appreciation or screen theory? If the piece had been displayed in a white cube rather than what's otherwise a student common room would I be asking the question in the same way?
The Biennial text suggests he was attempting to work against the grain of what television expects which does make him as much an artist as programme maker but within the limits of being a Biennial visitor, what’s the goal? Not for the first time this Biennial, I’m perplexed by the curatorial choices. On the basis of Container alone, with its artifice, I can see his artistic intervention (in a similar way to the Suzanne Lacey piece from two years ago) but by putting it in an exhibition does it become a piece of art and did Cornelis want it ever to be judged in these terms or was his primary focus simply on making this discussion programme visually interesting in a similar way to Roland Rivron when he decided to present a chat show while floating in the Thames?