The fifth Middlesbrough Art Weekender (MAW) brings together the work of over seventy-five artists to form the North East’s largest annual contemporary art festival. This year’s title, power POWER, couldn’t be more relevant and urgent, and comes at a time when allegations of governmental and institutional incompetence and corruption are constantly circulating and when the cost-of-living crisis, ingrained inequalities and injustices are triggering anger and fear for many people. Drawing together artists who disrupt ideological, economic, class and gender structures, curators Anna Byrne, Kyp Kyprianou and Liam Slevin have co-constructed a dynamic programme of exhibitions, public interventions, talks and workshops which questions how official power is wielded and how unofficial power is expressed.
The work of renowned artist and ‘anarchitect’ Gordon Matta-Clark, whose Day’s End (1975) and Splitting (1974) were highlights of last year’s MAW, is once again present for 2022. Less spontaneously performative, but perhaps even more subversive and conceptual, Matta-Clark’s Reality Properties: Fake Estates (1973) was made concurrently with his large-scale works that cut into abandoned buildings on empty lots and demonstrates a sense of social awareness and direct engagement with the urban environment that is echoed in MAW’s curatorial approach. Matta-Clark burrowed deep into an examination of New York as site and subject, uncovering the fragility of the delineated urban grid and the official systems that support it. Central Middlesbrough itself is laid out on a traditional grid system, diverging from the more historic part of town that used the winding river Tees as a starting point. Like many parts of New York, the town is the site of a string of building projects on land long dormant, which opponents to regeneration have labelled vanity projects by elected officials. In common with other UK coastal sites, Middlesbrough also sits in a sub-region where the ownership, regulation and governance of a potential freeport is currently a highly debated subject.
Back in 1970s’ New York, Matta-Clark purchased ‘gutterspaces’ at auction in order to critique the material and symbolic value systems of territory and real estate that still operate today. He used urban mapping techniques to document these voids or gaps between buildings, to produce an absurdist concept of impossible future construction. Matta-Clark died before realising his plans and, in an ironic loop, the plots were taken back into city hands due to non-payment of land tax after his death. Matta-Clark’s work for Fake Estates, which can be seen during MAW as photographs and facsimile documentation, was eventually reworked by his wife, Jane Crawford, emphasising the importance of archives to our relationship with the past and harnessing the power of resistance to the closed-loop of market forces, even in the posthumous absence of the artist. A new site-specific installation by Bobby Benjamin, Teesside-based artist and co-director of Middlesbrough art space Pineapple Black, will build cross-generational connections with wider themes found in Matta-Clark’s practice through the reclamation, remediation and reuse of found objects and graffiti from specific Teesside sites and workplaces. This will be further contextualised in a panel discussion around power and the built environment.
In contrast to MAW’s established relationship with Matta-Clark’s work, Scottish artist Rachel Maclean’s exploration of identity, privilege and politics can be experienced during the festival for the first time. Through the fantasy narrative of her VR video, I’m Terribly Sorry (2018), Maclean constructs a computer-generated urban architecture from souvenir tat that dissects the idea of the ‘tourist-gaze’. The signature over-saturated colours of her radical experiments with new technology are replaced here by those of the Union Flag and ominous dark rainy skies, echoing the tense Brexit-era of I’m Terribly Sorry’s making. Wearing a VR headset, MAW visitors can navigate a landscape filled with huge objects representing ‘London as Britain’. The place is populated with ‘stranger-danger’ characters with Received Pronunciation accents and mobile phones for heads, who spin increasingly threatening back stories, where requests for money turn into demands. This reversal of working class/ middle class stereotypes reflects the current relationship between the individual, big business and the state. Trapped in this dystopia, Maclean offers participants agency through the video game standard of the ‘shoot ‘em up’, where they become actively complicit in the menacing game.
Once notorious as a zero-tolerance town with speaking CCTV cameras, Middlesbrough’s relationship with surveillance technologies and their imposition of behavioural norms is a charged one. power POWER addresses this through the work of artists such as Matt’s Gallery’s Leah Capaldi, whose ‘performance sculptures’ question accepted ideas of active/ passive observation, artspace hierarchies and the (male) gaze. London-based Capaldi references the political body art of the late 1960s and early 1970s by setting up surreal installations that mimic domestic and art institution sites, where participants, objects and site itself become blurred. For MAW, Capaldi presents Overlay (2015), where a series of participants slump, seemingly motionless, against two wooden poles which in turn lean unsecured against the gallery wall. The increasing awkwardness and tiredness of each participant is occasionally relieved, relay-style, by another, as they change positions. The points where self-awareness, behaviour and understanding of surroundings collide produces a work that reflects on the complicated power balances between object, subject and observer within sites that are themselves not neutral.
MAW 2022 is a festival where the parody-laden work of internationally recognised artists such as Fischli and Weiss can be experienced and where new art discoveries can be made. Look out for the intricate work of New Graduate Award 2022 winner Lauryn Brede (ex Northern School of Art) and for the powerful social commentary painting of veteran artist Cliff Hindmarsh. The always-intriguing North East Open Call exhibition will once again feature in this year’s MAW and a specific children’s ‘MiniMAW’ of workshops and events led by artists will take place at a variety of town centre venues.
Each generation has to breathe new life into the struggle against the conformism of their time by refusing to be sucked into the sense of powerlessness and apathy promulgated by those who benefit from a complacent status quo. This is the case now, as it was for artists making work during the protest movements and counterculture of the 60s and 70s, but this repetition should not be viewed as a cynical or detached déja vu. Thankfully, the MAW curators draw attention to critical, embodied experiences of social and political hierarchies and marginalisation in 2022, echoing ideas of a collective, playful game in Henri Lefebvre’s ludic city that highlights the striking division between public and private space, or indeed mirroring the specific satirical, surreal humour found in places like Teesside, where a suspicion of official power lives on. This is evidenced in the work of international and locally-based artists which mocks, contests or provides alternatives to systemic power that can be felt to operate noisily, secretively, without responsibility or through deliberate inaction. At this time of national crisis, MAW 2022 highlights strong practices that face down hegemony, inherited prejudices and stereotypes, and that celebrate the art of resistance alive and well in a Northern town.
Middlesbrough Art Weekender runs from 22 to 25 September 2022.
Annie O’Donnell is an artist based on Teesside.
This review is supported by The Auxiliary.