The Learning Web:
Thoughts on William Noel Clarke’s God Dead Confused

At one point in his God Dead Confused ‘flash show’ at serf studios, William Noel Clarke pressed himself between two walls barely a half-metre apart. He spent about forty minutes in this spot, less a white cube than a white crawl space, before ending the performance on account of feeling faint. Tired after a week of setting up his solo exhibition, the endurance piece pushed Clarke to the edge.

As befits someone who works as a secondary school teaching assistant, many of the other pieces in God Dead Confused concerned themselves with teaching or knowledge sharing. A projector beamed a live stream of Clarke’s friend Paulina clicking through the info-sprawl of the Tate website (‘Tate Site Recording [Live]’, 2017), pausing occasionally to read the write-ups on certain works or artists. Ten sculptures made by Clarke’s GCSE students were lined up along a low ledge. Around thirty laminated prints of everything from genitalia to avocados spread themselves across a tabletop, and visitors were invited to arrange the images into new combinations and take the prints home.

The show was also notable for being the first occasion that international artists have shown at serf. The second half of God Dead Confused featured ‘There Might Be No Show Tonight’ (2017) by Annabelle Binnerts (or rather a performance by a laserjet printer conducted by the Netherlands-based artist) and a screening of Yashar Azar Emdadian’s ‘Des-Integration’ (2012). The latter was intended as a show of solidarity with Iranian resident Emdadian following Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban, implemented a few weeks before Clarke’s exhibition.

With the abundance of other artists on show, God Dead Confused was as much a showcase of Clarke’s curatorial instincts as of his own practice. Prior to the flash show, Clarke informed me that two major concerns of his practice are performance and pedagogy. On paper these appear uneasy bedfellows: if one understands pedagogy as ‘the profession, science, or theory of teaching’ (OED), why investigate how best to teach via a medium as open to interpretation as performance art? Why not present one’s ideas unambiguously, sticking to traditional curation and giving detailed explanations of each piece? As Clarke left the room and sat down, ashen from his exertions, I wonder what points he had intended to get across.

Throughout the evening, I was continually drawn back to one particular piece. Clarke had suspended four transparent orbs from the ceiling, dangling at head height. About the size of cricket balls, each was filled with tiny cubes of white plaster. Friendly and inviting, a section was cut away from each orb so that one was tempted to reach in and handle the contents.

The white micro-cubes formed a playful relationship with the larger white cube of the gallery space. When Clarke later told me of his continued fascination with white-walled spaces, how their serenity allows objects to transcend their traditional functions and become poignant works, my mind went to Russian theorist Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of defamiliaristion. ‘The purpose of art’, Shklovsky wrote in his 1917 essay ‘Art as Technique’, ‘is to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known’. Although writing about the difference between poetic language and the language of the everyday, Shklovsky was interested more generally in art’s potential to ‘remove[s] the automatism of perception’, allowing the viewer to recover sensation in life and refocus their understanding of the world around them.

In the notes Clarke gave me prior to God Dead Confused he speaks of his admiration for Friedrich Nietzsche, particularly the philosopher’s tendency to question everything and ‘rethink our place in the world’. This quotation tallies neatly with Shklovsky’s argument. Similarly, Clarke’s inclusion of pieces like ‘Tate Site Recording [Live]’ evince a willingness to refigure the everyday in artistic contexts. It seems that his intention to teach through his practice calls not simply for engagement but also for re-evaluation and ‘re-cognition’ in a literal sense. Perhaps the way Clarke seems to invite the viewer to pick their own little white cube out of the orbs is his way of asking them to consider what they might take away from the show in a more ephemeral sense. That said, a show as abstract as God Dead Confused maintains an inevitable disconnect between any intended message and what visitors may find therein. In this instance, artistic intention was the beginning of a dialogue.

Outside of writing for magazines and playing in bands I am also a budding poet. I find poems one of the best ways for me to organise my thoughts about the world, and I sense that my attraction to writing poetry may stem from the same impulse that leads Clarke to make art. For me, poetry is one of the only artforms to have evaded being roped into the service of late capitalism. Beyond the doggerel one finds in Valentines Day cards, poetry has largely been left to its own devices, evading homogenisation and commercialisation. I think this is because poetry often evades quick cognition, requiring time and deep thought to be understood, and generally leaves space for the reader’s own opinions by not giving itself away in the same manner as prose. Emerging from a discourse with a poem, one finds oneself enriched in the manner earlier identified by Shklovsky, able to face life with fresh understanding and new perspective.

While more money can be made from art than poetry (the spectre of the million-dollar-sale hangs over God Dead Confused in the form of Paulina making her way through the Tate website), their rules of engagement are similar. Though works are often ‘short’ (a painting can be seen in a second; a page-long poem takes only a minute to read) one tends to spend far longer with them to allow the alchemy of a response to take shape. When it comes to performance art this temporal aspect is heightened further – if you’re not there to witness a piece, you won’t be able to respond at all.

In his exhibition notes, Clarke engaged with the time poverty faced by creative people working in 2017. He detailed how recent Trade Union Centre figures put the average UK working week at 43.6 hours, the highest in Europe. Clarke’s exhaustion at the end of a week off from his job spent not at leisure but working on his creative practice is one example of the stress this places artists under. As a way of dealing with this problem, Clarke encourages us to engage with the puzzling or time-specific artworks in his show as distinct from the pressures and monotony of the world of work.

The following Tuesday I join a group of serf studio holders for one of their monthly ‘serf School’ discussions. Fittingly for a seminar held so soon after Clarke’s show, the weekly reading focusses on teaching. Dorin Herlo’s ‘Paragogy: A New Theory in Educational Sciences’ (Journal Plus Education X:1, 2014) discusses de-centred learning practices, the shift from vertical to horizontal ways of teaching and the notion of ‘paragogy’, or ‘analyzing and co-creating the educational environment as a whole by the peers.’ As members of the co-operatively managed studio discuss what they might take from the essay into the running of their space, I think back to Clarke’s show.

God Dead Confused not only presented Clarke’s own pieces but celebrated the work of others and encouraged audience members to involve themselves by watching a one-off performance, interacting with the works and taking parts of the show home with them. In light of the Herlo text, it seems best to view God Dead Confused as less of a traditional exhibition and more of what philosopher Ivan Illich termed a ‘learning web’, a system of knowledge exchange that allows for two-way education between peers. Bearing in mind Clarke’s stated interest in pedagogy and curation, I sense that he may have figured his show this way all along.

In a culture heavily invested in blind positivism and overly long working weeks, creating something that evades easy comprehension can be a small but useful of opposition. As Shklovksy noted, ‘the process of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged’. Artworks as quixotic as Clarke’s may not be able to teach content by rote, or predict an audience member’s response, but from my time spent with the artist and observing his practice I don’t think this is his intention. Rather, by first refiguring the exhibition space as a paragogical environment, he is then able to use performance to initiate conversations with the viewers. The time they spent contemplating the work and testing it against their expectations was calculated to allow for new meaning to take root, and for them to potentially form new ways of being in the world beyond the white cube.

God Dead Confused was a one-day ‘flash show’ by William Noel Clarke in serf’s project space on 17 February 2017; a ‘serf School’ discussion and crit was held on 21 February.

Fred Mikardo-Greaves is a writer and musician living in Leeds.

Images: all installation photos and details courtesy of the artist.

Published 04.04.2017 by Lara Eggleton in Features

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