Darren Almond

Hamza Walker, 1999

The most significant aspect of George Orwell’s brief but exceptional life (1903 - 1950) is that it has World Wars for bookends. His career spans the last twenty years of his life, from Down and Out in Paris and London, published in 1933, to Nineteen Eighty-Four, published a year before his death. If, as Orwell himself believed, he got a late start, it was because his life was the stuff of his novels and neither of his seminal works—the allegorical Animal Farm and the dystopian Nineteen Eighty-Four, both published after WWII—is an exception. Given the fifteen years preceding and proceeding the year for which his dystopia is named, it is safe to conclude that Orwell was no Delphic oracle. His future is history. The world of Oceania and Eurasia, Big Brother and The Thought Police, Newspeak and Doublethink, can be understood more so for its insights into the years immediately following WWII than its predictions for some forty years hence. Nineteen Eighty-Four owes its cynical outlook to Orwell’s perspective as a British, depression-era socialist for whom fascism was an advanced form of imperialism. By this logic, all industrialized nations had the potential to become totalitarian states, England included. Orwell had seen the worst of the new world orders - the destruction wreaked by World War I, the Russian Revolution, Stalinism, the rise of Hitler, the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, and under several prime minister ships at home, a severely depressed England. From Orwell’s perspective, the Allied forces defeat of Hitler was in no way a guarantee that industrialized civilization was on the road to universal human dignity.

The frank portrayal of poverty and unemployment that was the subject of Down and Out In Paris and London, drew the attention of the Leftist Book Club which commissioned Orwell to document unemployment in the North of England. But Orwell was interested in a picture of poverty that also encompassed the employed. The result was The Road to Wigan Pier (1937). In the first half of Wigan Pier, Orwell delivers with pitiless respect a first person account of the social and working conditions of Wigan’s mining community. Not content with a harrowing description of poverty, Orwell devoted the second half of the book to a critique of Socialism, its dilemmas, and the reason he believed it the only viable alternative to fascism. Although Wigan’s story was that of any British coal mining town in the Lancashire region, Orwell chose it because he believed it had no future. From his perspective, Wigan was the historical terminus of the industrial revolution, the unfortunate precipitate of “progress.” He used Wigan to speculate on the fate of the human subject within a settled, mature and bleak machine age. In Doublethink, Wigan was a future, which was no future at all.

Wigan is the town from which British artist Darren Almond and his parents hail. Traction, a three part video projection starring his parents, could easily have been subtitled, Portrait of a Wigan Couple. Traction whose title is a play on the two meanings of the word, to grip and to suspend one’s limbs following an injury, features an interview the artist conducts with his father while his mother listens in a separate setting. The interview centers around injuries Almond’s father has acquired through both work and play, making Traction a Wigan Revisited of sorts. But beyond the rich and telling biographical context that Wigan Pier lends Traction, Orwell’s life and work provide a much more profound context in which to consider Almond’s disparate artistic practices. This is particularly true when Orwell’s career is taken to mark the close of the industrial revolution.

Almond’s exhibition consists of four recent works; Traction (1999), which is projected in the gallery; Another Fan (1999), the aluminum ceiling fan in the entrance; Darren James Almond (Intercity 125) (1997), the cast aluminum signage featuring the artist’s name, also in the entrance; and A Bigger Clock (1997), the large, ominous, black and white digital clock at the end of the corridor. If Almond can be credited with having an underlying sensibility, it is one based on maintaining discreet relationships amongst his various bodies of work. He often uses his ceiling fan as a metaphor for his various ways of working, with the three blades representing video, sculpture, and pieces done in real time. Almond clearly invites the works in the exhibition to be read in a singular fashion, each addressing such broadly different concerns as time, space and the body. But when all rather than any one of these concerns is brought to bear upon each piece, what emerges is Almond’s interest in the instrumentalized human subject, which is to say the human subject understood in relation to the machine. Clearly Almond and Orwell belong to different technological eras, Orwell the tube, Almond the transistor. Nevertheless, the mechanical nature of Almond’s fans and clocks, in certain respects, places him closer to Orwell than the digital age to which he actually belongs.

Almond was born in 1972, about the same time as the appearance of the first digital clocks. The scale and placement of A Bigger Clock make it an unavoidably, monumental encounter with time. Clinical and confrontational, it aggressively counters the trend towards miniaturization. It’s quite literally you against the clock. But its flawless production values are offset by its overtly mechanical nature as a dull hydraulic whir signals the endearing, clumsy flip of a stark, black and white numeric flap. Although it has the look of more recent nostalgia, A Bigger Clock seems nothing more than the Grandfather’s younger cousin. The whir, however, is a warning before the sound of a falling flap amplified some dozens of times abruptly crashes from speakers hidden within the clock’s body. This is time turned torture. Anticipation is compressed into 60 second cycles of anxiety that are acknowledged with a shuddering crescendo every minute on the minute.

For Almond, however, we aren’t simply within time; we make time. This is the point of The Guest, a monotonous video shot in jarring, hand held perspective, in which Almond jogs at a steady pace around the perimeter of a penthouse apartment for 30 minutes. Using his body’s revolutions through a fixed space, Almond literally becomes an analog clock. But neither he nor A Bigger Clock is necessarily a better clock. The use of digital in reference to A Bigger Clock is indeed ironic since the term has become synonymous with the frictionless manipulation of information. Digital in its most literal sense simply means numeric, making A Bigger Clock digital with a vengeance. With respect to time, the distinction between digital and analog is somewhat misleading. Digital and analog are both means of representation and our perception of light and sound fall within frequency ranges that can be registered and replicated by either means. Since digital is numeric, it uses discreet units to represent these frequencies, whereas an analog process uses a continuously variable physical quantity. But what we perceive as the seamless flow of moments - a great part of this being our perception in changes of light and sound - should not be mistaken for time. Neither grains of sand nor electrons can truly capture the infinite gradation of moments known as time. Time remains an unbroken analog unit to which we simply assign numbers. It can only be digitized relative to human perception, which in the scheme of the subatomic universe happens within a range of frequencies so narrow as to make the distinction between say a camel and a needle a moot point. The digital in digital clock then refers strictly to the clock and not time. A Bigger Clock is a mirror of technological hubris reflecting our poor attempt to domesticate if not industrialize one of the fundamental principals governing the universe. We are an animal, which more closely resembles the clock than one which embodies time in the objective sense established by twentieth century physics. The time we have digitized and divested ourselves of is subjective simply by virtue of the fact that we can perceive it and in the case of A Bigger Clock, fear it. The imprimatur of Almond’s name - silk-screened appropriately enough in script so as to resemble an authorial signature, the traditional guarantor of the artwork’s authenticity - is a magnanimous announcement that A Bigger Clock is a self-portrait, the sculptural compliment to The Guest. But A Bigger Clock in no way anthropomorphizes the machine. It is neither an extension of bodily faculties and functions, nor is it a metaphor linking us to the cycles and seasons of life. A Bigger Clock is an indifferent, analog, machine whose limits circumscribe and permeate subjectivity. The discrepancy between time marked by the speed of light and its mechanized equivalent nullifies the distinction between an objective mechanical activity and a subjective human activity. Almond’s choice of a clock to blur the boundaries between subjectivity and objectivity, human and machine, could not be more paradoxical in relation to Orwell who was the prisoner of a bigger clock called history.

Although the point of any machine is to do work, the social reorganization of life to occur around the factory and city throughout the nineteenth century made the machine an overt political entity. Orwell attributed the turbulent political conditions of the first half of this century directly to the industrial revolution of the preceding two centuries. Throughout Chapter Twelve of Wigan Pier, Orwell expressed a deep skepticism of mechanical progress, the idea that the machine could bring about a better society. Although he was careful to avoid an anti-modernist stance, he was unable to adopt a radical position along the lines of say the Constructivist, his Russian contemporaries who accepted the machine as an integral element of culture and saw in it the potential to revolutionize human perception. Instead, Orwell accepted the machine, “like a drug - grudgingly and suspiciously.” But again, Orwell’s immunity to idealistic fervor was the product of uncertainty about the future. His skepticism regarding mechanical progress was determined by historical conditions that originated in the industrial revolution and culminated in what he perceived as perpetual class struggle. He clung to the belief that the machine alienated individuals from the “human need for effort and creation” that only work could satisfy. “Cease to use your hands and you have lopped off a huge chunk of your consciousness.” For Orwell, human consciousness extended only as far as the body. Unwilling to see the machine as an extension and reflection of that consciousness, Orwell placed the machine and its products outside the realm of culture. The machine as a critical reflection of human subjectivity was altogether lost in light of the political unrest he believed it had wrought.

The historical conditions which tempered Orwell’s cynical beliefs regarding mechanical progress and its impact on human subjectivity, were identical to those that inspired a range of critical responses from artists working just prior to WWI. The Futurists, for example, fell prey to an absurd and vulgar machine worship, while Marcel Duchamp, in a more sober yet subversive manner, abandoned traditional artisanal practices in favor of the industrially produced ready-made, this in an effort to liberate art’s cognitive aspect from a narrow definition of art as craft. Although the conditions that determined and delimited Orwell’s perspective on mechanical progress were inescapable historical phenomena, the dawn of the nuclear era would radically broaden the scope of the issue so that the machine with its origin in the industrial revolution would be subsumed by a technology of absolute proportions. Encompassing all of human achievement from its beginning to its very plausible end, from the arrow head to the atomic bomb, technology would assume an ahistorical dimension. The philosopher Martin Heidegger, for example, would submit it to a timeless philosophical come philological inquiry in his essay The Question Concerning Technology (1955) and Arthur C. Clark and Stanley Kubrick would submit it to pop-anthropology in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1969) where technology becomes synonymous with the whole of human evolution. Artists working after the second world war, were they to take up the issue of mechanical progress and its impact on subjectivity, would then have to account for the shift from the historically rooted machine to an ahistorical technology. This is precisely the shift separating Almond and Orwell. Under these circumstances it is not that Almond is working post Orwell but more importantly post On Kawara. The consistency with which On Kawara has produced paintings featuring only the date (month, day, year) makes him a seminal precursor to Almond’s activities. The formal and conceptual kinship between A Bigger Clock and Kawara’s date paintings makes a comparison unavoidable. Kawara’s interest in time actually stems from a much deeper interest in objective codes as the basis for subjectivity. As early as 1963, Kawara produced strictly text based pieces exhibiting a fascination with the reduction of the self to factual statements. This would ultimately lead to the series, I Read (1966), I Went (1968), I Met (1968), and I Got Up (1968 -1979), which consists of clippings, lists and postcards objectively chronicling Kawara’s daily habits, whereabouts and encounters. By 1965 he had developed a body of work entitled the Code Series whose paintings were similar to the patterns formed on computer key punch cards. These were Kawara’s first attempts at reconciling painting and digital representation by reducing visual elements to discreet units. It was not until the following year, 1966, that Kawara would bring digital representation and subjectivity together under a singular date. If anything captures the shift from the historical machine to an ahistorical technology, it would be the emergence of systems and seriality in art production. The grid, the re-emergence of the monochrome - this time anxiously void of the idealism and spirituality of its pre-war predecessors - language and, methods of industrial production would figure prominently in art practices of the 1960s. The date paintings are archetypes of the conceptual and minimal practices of their period. But more important, is the manner they deflate the claims made by a previous generation of Abstract Expressionists. The romantic individual swept up in a torrent of emotion and self-affirmation was reduced to acknowledging the stark, irrefutable fact of time. Painting had survived the machine age, but on Kawara’s terms it was to be reduced to the serial production of times most generic index. Yet the scrupulous manner in which Kawara documents and packages the date paintings reveals them to be quite subjective. For the first six years, Kawara subtitled the paintings with either factual statements regarding that days activities or a caption from a newspaper representing the date and location of his stay. Although, this would later give way to simply subtitling them with the day of the week, the paintings would continue to be packaged in boxes containing a section of that day’s newspaper. In addition, Kawara would continue to meticulously document his activities in the “I…” series previously mentioned. These sources make the date paintings an index to life and world events treated as discreet units of information. Whereas Almond’s goal in circling a room for 30 minutes was to become an analog clock, Kawara has succeeded in becoming a calendar by maintaining an integrity to the 33 year production of date paintings which represent his coming to know the world through the assimilation of objective information. However, the date paintings, and indeed Kawara’s overwhelming body of documentation, are not so much a marker of being as they are a marker of having been. They are the remembrance of things past, a trigger for the Proustian subject to reconstitute itself in memory rather than a subject rooted in the ebb and flow of the present. Kawara’s days differ from Almond’s minutes in that the date paintings become static artifacts freezing time. The sum total of change at each viewing instance is zero, negating the present by perpetually calling into question its distance from the past. In this respect, Kawara’s infamous series of telegrams that contains the message, “I Am Still Alive,” begun circa 1970, is the more telling equivalent to A Bigger Clock since both persistently mark the now, again and again and again.

Nothing could seem a more simple statement of fact than the words I Am Still Alive. This statement, however, contains a redundancy, for Kawara could simply have written either I Am, or Still Alive since both adequately capture being as fact. The two halves together, however, form a binary proposition; if Kawara is not alive then he is dead. But this proposition does not require the word “still” for he could simply write I Am Alive. “Still” destroys the either/or proposition by denoting a persistence that is not binary. It is an objective affirmation of continuity. Although the unit of time for Kawara is the day - he tracks his life in days rather than years - according to his telegrams it is actually a larger, unbroken unit known as a lifetime. The date paintings, like the numbers that comprise the digital face of A Bigger Clock, are simply a disruption that acknowledges being as a state of persistence. But unlike the date paintings, A Bigger Clock advances at which point each of its minutes is temporarily transformed into Kawara’s telegraphic mantra. Although Kawara’s work designates existence as a matter of fact equivalent to the passing of time, his subject is one that constructs itself through language. His paintings use a dating system, month, day, year, that is read and more importantly they reference statements of fact, either autobiographical or journalistic. But if the subject is a linguistic being, one trapped by time, designated by date and statements of fact, then it may also be reduced to simply a name which is the case with Darren James Almond (Intercity 125), the cast aluminum signage featuring the artist’s name. Fabricated by British Rail Darren James Almond (Intercity 125) represents Almond’s dream of having a train bear his name. Whereas Kawara’s date paintings fix time, Almond (Intercity 125) serves to fix the subject, objectifying him through name alone. It presents the most elementary index of his being in the red and silver, eternal gleam of corporate confidence, a gleam that attempts to suspend if not erase the thought of a past, present or future. In short, it represents the institutional desire to transcend time making Almond (Intercity 125) the static counterpoint to A Bigger Clock. Almond (Intercity 125) is not simply a portrait of Almond as a train but Almond as an institution, Almond as the whole of the bureaucratic machinations that constitute British Rail, from its tracks, to its satellite offices, to its central headquarters. He is not simply an instrumentalized subject, one capable of envisioning himself as a tool or machine, he is a body with organs and organization, an institutionalized subject composed of departments. But Almond’s choice of train could not be more telling, for not only does he present himself as time, Almond (Intercity 125) presents the artist as space in its domesticated, industrialized form, the railway system. Just as A Bigger Clock is the sculptural counterpart to his video The Guest, Almond (Intercity 125) shares this same relationship with Schwebebahn, an inverted video-portrait of Wupertal’s floating train, that Almond made in 1995. Set to the beat of techno music, Schwebebahn’s slow, grainy quality is a dreamy memory of cinema’s infancy where some of its earliest footage was in fact of trains, footage announcing it as the artform that had conquered both time and space.

Based on Another Fan, Almond prefers to represent the interaction of time and space in a more direct, mechanical manner. Another Fan is the second work of its kind. Whereas his first ceiling work, Fan (1997), is white, its blades having a nondescript profile, the aesthetic of Another Fan is substantially different, belonging to the 1930s, the era of Raymond Loewy and Buck Rogers. Its broad aluminum blades, small regularly placed rivets, circular motion and the ability of its blades to extend and retract, collectively recall the workings of an airplane. Almond gave a terse and elegant description of the piece saying he wanted to use the number three to describe the number four. He cites music, in particular Ghanaian drummers who can keep three beats with one hand and four beats with the other, as a source inspiring the fan pieces. But the three blades of the fan and four corners of the room also describe the three most basic geometric forms - the tips if the blades, a triangle, their motion, a circle and the room, a square. Although the fan revolves at a constant speed, the blades must accelerate as they extend into the corners with this process reversed as they retract. Since there are three blades, the various phases of activity produce a quirky minuet as a triangle behaves as a circle while describing a square. For all of its mechanical regularity there is still a mesmerizing awkwardness between the forms, the motion and the space. Another Fan clearly has mechanical guts. The sound of its blades sliding back and forth disqualify it as belonging to the mute digital era. Its anthropomorphic quality comes from its sensing the limits of its cell and its withdrawal towards its center. If Another Fan were assigned a human subject it would be Leonardo da Vinci’s man inscribed within a circle, his navel as axis, his limbs as blades, circumscribed happily by the limits of perception. Another Fan’s circular motion, the regularity with which its three components perpetually retreat towards its center allow its metaphorical human subject to be reduced to of all things the ubiquitous smiley face. Another Fan then represents an autistic subject, one whose self absorbed mental activities mark its withdrawal from reality - an acknowledgment of the repressive euphoria that is the consequence of Almond’s equivocation of the human and mechanical.

But the euphoria suggested by Almond is delusional at best. This is made painfully clear in Traction. Traction is first and foremost a portrait of the artist’s parents, one that uses an interview about Almond’s father’s body as a structuring device. The photograph on the poster/invitation is a picture of Almond’s parents on their wedding day - the Marriage of the Arnolfini in the age of mechanical reproduction. Given Almond’s interest in equating subjectivity with a mechanical objectivity nothing would seem more antithetical to his practice than a work as directly autobiographical as Traction. Traction, however, is in many respects, the analogue equivalent to Almond (Intercity 125). In its placement, Almond (Intercity 125) then happens to serve as a very fitting introduction. If Almond (Intercity 125) is an index linguistically subsuming the person of Darren James Almond, then in this case it references Traction, a full-blown portrait of the artist not as a young man but in his preconceived state - a portrait of his roots. As the analogue counterpart to Almond (Intercity 125), Traction unfolds over twenty-eight minutes. The work’s scale and directness are somewhat disarming. It consists of three 10’ x 13’ projections, one of his mother, one of his father and a central image featuring slow motion, grainy, black and white footage of an industrial grade digger, a piece of heavy machinery that Almond’s father operated for many years. Almond’s parents are filmed as head shots that fill the screen, his mother frontal and his father in three quarter’s profile, responding to question Almond poses off camera. Do you remember the first time you saw your own blood? This frightening question begins a recounting of Almond Senior’s injuries, reflections that recall Sartre’s famous statement from Being and Nothingness that the body is not so much the place of being as it is the alienated property of being. Through a thick, northern England, working-class brogue, Almond Senior’s body becomes a geography, each scar the site of an event. Traction is ultimately a mixture of tender mercies and hard knocks as tales involving breaks, fractures and missing teeth are transmitted from father to son while a mother listens at times astonished and at times amused. Despite its gruesome subject matter, Traction is scattered throughout with a Monty Pythonesque humor. On its surface, Traction is the timeless tale of fathers and sons engaged in the transmission of knowledge. It is Almond’s mother, however, who is the star. Although she is reduced to a listener, her expressions from tears to laughter register far more deeply than the dialogue on its own. Her naturalness before the lens, listening attentively, unconcerned with the camera, makes for an exceptionally moving portrait. But it is at the end, when the other screens go blank and Almond’s mother is reduced to tears, her face in her hands, her body gently hiccupping as she sobs, that the piece delivers its impact.

In Wigan Pier, Orwell describes a voyeuristic encounter with a young woman he viewed from a train. The passage is one of many sober and unsparing accounts of misery. The excessive cruelty of Orwell’s description, almost unforgivable for its demeaning, patronizing tone, is matched only by the cruelty of larger circumstances.

At the back of the houses a young woman was kneeling on some stones, poking a stick up the leaden waste-pipe which ran from the sink inside and which I suppose was blocked. I had time to see everything about her - sacking apron, her clumsy clogs, her arms reddened by the cold. She looked up as the train passed, and I was near enough to catch her eye. She had a round pale face, the usual exhausted face of the slum girl who is twenty-five and looks forty, thanks to miscarriages and drudgery; and it wore, for the second in which I saw it, the most desolate hopeless expression I have ever seen. … For what I saw in her face was not the ignorant suffering of an animal. She knew well enough what was happening to her - understood as well as I did how dreadful a destiny it was to be kneeling there in the bitter cold, on the slimy stones of a slum backyard, poking a stick up a foul drain-pipe.

The similarities between Almond’s mother and the young woman Orwell describes are in no way to be drawn directly. The difference in the quality of their lives places them world’s apart. Almond’s mother is proud, cheerful and dignified to be sure. Where there is a genuine correlation is at the end of this passage where Orwell attributes the young girl with a consciousness regarding her destiny, and the end of Traction in which Almond’s mother is captured in a moment of painfully touching vulnerability, a rarely acknowledged remorse about the difficulties dealt one’s lot in life, difficulties that reveal our dignity so often to be a fragile construction. Although Orwell is a figure who beyond all doubt belongs to this century, when Nineteen Eighty-Four and Wigan Pier are put in context, it becomes clear that he is squarely confined to its first half. He was writing about coal when he should have been thinking about uranium. He was correct in assuming that Wigan represented the historical terminus of the machine age but only insofar as Wigan was a future that was ending and not the future that was beginning. Given this, Orwell’s work was never really about the future but always remained firmly within his present, vestiges of which, based on the account of Almond Senior, have lasted a very long time.