Art Sheffield

For its fifth incarnation, titled Up, Down, Top, Bottom, Strange and Charm, Art Sheffield staged a takeover of the city. Described as an ‘exploded group show’ the biennial brought together work from thirteen artists, many of which are informed by Sheffield’s industrial past, economic climate and, in a sense, its chemical makeup (the title lists the six types of ‘quark’, the elementary particles that comprise atoms). Unlike a typical group show, however, the exhibitions were assigned to different locations across the city and it was left to the visitor to track them down.

In asking for tips on where to head first, I was repeatedly pointed towards Steven Claydon’s Infra-idol Assembly at Moore Street substation. This is the the kind of Sheffield landmark that locals recognise — by night it is a beacon of red, yellow and blue light — yet few have ever been inside. In a city whose architecture can often feel sluggish with disuse, it may come as a surprise to find that the building is still a fully functioning power station, snatched up for Art Sheffield during a scheduled closure. These carefully selected venues have a real impact on the work itself, drawing the viewer deeper into the city’s industrial core. The space itself is so vast that it takes some time for the viewer to travel through the darkness towards the single monolithic screen looming at the far end.

Claydon’s work features a fragment of A Boy and His Atom, a short IBM animation which uses a stick figure boy made up of atoms to illustrate molecular physics on a nano scale. However, where IBM’s original clip was conceived as ‘a fun way to share the atomic-scale world’, Claydon’s rendering is darker, reminding the viewer of the ways in which scientific advances can exert an unspoken power over the population. Meanwhile an audio track of shifting atoms and electronic speech, created using a plate reverb unit, pounds through the space. One imagines that the score was composed by machines, not unlike the music of Sheffield’s pioneering electronic act, Cabaret Voltaire.

At Bl_nk Space, Anna Barham’s video 000998146-horizontal-panning-empty-fashi_prores/böhm-on-dialogue-ch5 experiments with the language of error. The work features a flickering image of a catwalk which the artist has disrupted and distorted by inserting passages from the physicist David Bohm’s text ‘On Dialogue’ into the coding of the jpeg. This distortion extends into an audio track, filling the room with an abrasive, mechanical clanging. To accompany the piece, Barham compiled all of the code into a thick manuscript which the invigilator flipped through to show me the literary structure of its composition. But just as staring numbly at text in a language you don’t recognise can leave you feeling disorientated, the work as a whole has a somewhat alienating quality. I couldn’t help feeling that I might enjoy the work more if I had been born a computer.

The language of machines is key to many of the works at Art Sheffield. Paul Sietsema’s film Abstract Composition (2014) reflects on mechanical production by taking online auction descriptors – ‘hat-shaped bowl’, ‘glossy white’, ‘white textured’, ‘porcelain soldiers’ – and displaying them on a CGI strip of cardboard suspended in the air. The objects themselves are never depicted; despite the allusions to physical matter, they remain in the abstract. Furthermore, the piece is displayed using a 35mm projector, while the corrugated and embossed cardboard is a hallmark of manufacturing. For all its sophisticated digital rendering, the materials of Sietsema’s work hint at obsolescence. This discrepancy is amplified by the work’s setting at Biggins Brothers, a metal-plating workshop which remains distinctly industrial: the hum of generators fills the air and ladders dangle from the ceiling. Yet the knowledge that this is one of few survivors in Sheffield’s metal trade gives the work a feeling of being of suspended in time.

Another highlight of the programme was Beatrice Gibson’s F For Fibonacci (2014), screened in Bloc Projects. Though the short film features various overlapping themes such as mathematics, musical composition and Wall Street, the main narrative is that of an eleven-year-old boy guiding us through the digital empire he has created on Minecraft. While attending to his livestock and surveying his estate, he responds politely to the artist’s questions about the environment he has generated, and specifically about one of his characters, ‘Mr Money’. Mr Money, he explains, is a tycoon from LA who likes gadgets and speaks with a Japanese accent and has commissioned a rollercoaster to be built especially for him. Of course, the idea of children dreaming up their own landscapes is familiar, but the work highlights how technology has allowed them to imagine these worlds down to the last nuanced brick.

There were plenty more works on show across the city, with viewers invited to make their own odysseys into less trodden areas and unique buildings. Whether this meant wandering through the Park Hill estate in a blizzard or wrestling open doors that look like they have been sealed shut for decades, the nature of the programming forced you to interact with the city, adding depth to each work in the process. It was a challenging and complex programme that revealed a portrait of Sheffield that’s quite unlike what appears on its surface.

Art Sheffield, 16 April – 8 May 2016.

Images: Steven Claydon, Infra-idol Assembly, Moore Street Substation, Sheffield.

Orla Foster is a writer based in Sheffield.