Collaborative projects seem to be more ubiquitous than ever, but there aren’t many – if any – like that of TOTALLER. This mythic guild lures artists into their fold with the promise of anxiety free practice, before proselytising their newfound apostles with shamanic chants, transcendental journeys and plenty of snacks. They teach their disciples how to forge weapons from an ethereal furnace and lay siege to the metaphysical walls of reason. These warrior-artists have banded together to take over The NewBridge Project: Gateshead, where you can hear their triumphant battle cry: TOT-TOT-TOTALALAZOLA!
This boisterous campaign is being waged in the name of experimental collaboration: to break the encumbering shackles of reservation and upend the hierarchical structures of curatorial power (all while having a bit of fun, of course). Leading the march are the four founding members of TOTALLER – Lesley Guy, Dale Holmes, Lea Torp Nielsen and Chris Fielder. To aid them in their mission they enlisted the services of eleven further artists: who over the course of several months were initiated into the arcane world of TOTALLER. The new recruits were taken on field trips, guided meditations and vision quests. Their rigorous, esoteric training revealed to them the liberating agency that lay within TOTALLER’s fantastical methodology: a creative-destructive approach that uses mythologies, historical narratives and fictioning to dismantle and reassemble our perceptions of the world – often with hilarious or/and revealing insights.
Under the protective guise of TOTALLER, they could embrace whimsical personas to access new creative places; casting aside their doubts, their ego and the external powers that dictate how and what they create. All that was asked of them, was that they contribute a weaponised artwork to the TOTALLER arsenal.
TOT-TOT-TOTALALAZOLA! has assembled the zealots and their weapons at The NewBridge Project: Gateshead. The gallery walls have been drenched in a striking coat of crimson, perhaps the blood of the brigade’s vanquished foes. It adds energy, vigour and a revolutionary feel to the space; the vibrant hue breathing life into the behemothic structure that occupies the floor. Like a chimera, it is built up from disparate objects and distinctly incongruous parts. A canvas hide stretches tight over a misshapen body, angular compartments of exposed wood jutting out here and there; scale-like panels crawl across its back, faux-concrete steps fan out like a tail and upon its crest is a huge multi-coloured battle horn. The monstrous construction serves an artistic ordnance cache for the troops but is imbued with an animalistic aura.
The installation is crafted like a den, with various nooks and crannies demanding closer inspection. Smoke belches forth from one dark recess while others emerge elsewhere, spiral out of sight or loop back on themselves; an allusion to the portals the mind delves into during meditation. In some, you can sit, sheltered within the belly of the beast as you listen to TOTALLER’s shamanic chants and watch a video of the artists burning carved wooden ‘T’s; the wood infused with a ‘magical powder’ so the flames lick a kaleidoscopic spectrum. In another hideaway, you can listen to the audio tour of the group’s field trip to the Segedunum Roman Fort, at the eastern end of Hadrian’s Wall in modern-day Wallsend. You can follow their footsteps as they reinterpret the spatial and temporal axis of this archeological site, reimagining its layered history within the mythos of TOTALLER.
Retracing the artists’ initiation allows one to better understand a journey that was equally playful and spiritual. The artists embraced the ethos of TOTALLER, the anonymity it afforded and the opportunity to deviate from their usual practice. Although there was no spoken consensus, there is a common theme in how they weaponised their work. Their creations are not designed to bludgeon or cleave but rather to confront, cleanse, expunge or warp the malefic and inauspicious entities that cloud our minds.
The weaponised artworks alternatively sit on the installation, are attached to it or are embedded in its structure. This is the case with a tape-recorder that appears to be emerging from ectoplasm, which – inspired by William Burroughs – loops back the ambient sounds of the preview install to diffuse and negate pent-up apprehension. Two nearby works are also submerged in the solidified remains of a once goopy substance, though this matter was once the ever-present leaflets of 2018’s The Great Exhibition of the North. One work takes the form of a healing crystal perched on a ball of turmeric coated Blu Tack, inside of a wishing well. The other has the ill-fated work of a previous exhibition encased within a piece of resin that has been shaped into a Neolithic hand tool. Whether it’s using satire, the anti-inflammatory qualities of turmeric or the hardening of one’s will, there is once again a desire to exercise the shadows.
Other works include a knitted collar, which is a far more comfy and chic replacement to the slave collars of old; an ebony berserker mask; and a three-pronged plug-cast that channels energy between the spiritual and the mundane. Secret messages have been entombed in an ornate Christmas cracker / fortune cooker composite, while other secret objects have been reduced to ashes; their presence but a carbon memory. Party kits are on hand to lighten the mood and evoke the millennial pagan gods of hedonism, and there’s a collection of TOTALLER-related fake news that ties in nicely with a ‘fake’ Segedunum review emblazoned on the wall and the far-fetched field guide that can be taken home as an enlightening souvenir.
The zealots will return on 25 February to decorate the installation in a private ceremony of music, dance and paint; meaning the slumbering beast will take on a new complexion for its final few days. Before this celebratory makeover, the group will convene on 22 February (6–8pm) for a de-initiation ritual that is open to the public. Niki Russell and Susie Henderson from art collective Reactor will also be in attendance, to give a talk and be temporarily initiated into, and de-initiated from, this mythic guild. Experiences will be shared, and questions will be asked about how and why artists collaborate. But perhaps the real question is: if you take the artist out of TOTALLER, do you take the TOTALLER out of the artist?
TOT-TOT-TOTALALAZOLA!, The NewBridge Project: Gateshead, Gateshead, 25 January – 28 February 2019 (Wed – Fri, 12 – 6pm).
Christopher Little is a writer based in Newcastle and NE Editor at Corridor8.