241 Things

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Studium Generale 1000things lectures, The Hague

241 Things

page from Folk Archive
Snowdrop the Mechanical Elephant by the Clare Family, Egremont, Cumbria, 2004.
page from Folk Archive
page from Folk Archive

The book, Folk Archive, by artists Jeremy Deller (1966) and Alan Kane (1961) is a true feast for the eyes and radiates the pleasure of making. The publication documenting the exhibition on folk art showcases the artists’ love for the phenomenon. Over a period of seven years they collected all they could on “British creativity”. On the BBC’s website, you’ll find a number of video clips in which Jeremy Deller, an attractive young man with long hair, the winner of the 2005 Turner Prize, walks through the exhibition, enthusiastically explaining: “There are two hundred and fifty artworks in this show, and they’re all very different in nature.” He shows a drawing by a prisoner, envelopes for sick notes scrawled daily by a guard who also happens to be an amateur tattoo artist, but also eggs hand painted with eerily realistic clown portraits.

Exhibition view, Palais de Tokyo, Paris, 2008.

With great pleasure and fervour, Deller and Kane collected a range of anything they could find on the broad topic of “contemporary popular culture.” They took photos and videos , received documentation from others, as well as found historical footage of celebrations that have been part of tradition for centuries, such as the World Championship Silly Faces or the Egremont Crab Fair, a week long festival in Cumbria that occurred in 1387 and included a pipe smoking contest, a vegetable show, and an apple-giving parade. Among the exhibition were objects they collected, like embroidered underwear used at certain festivals for wrestling matches. The last retrospective on British folk art had taken place in Whitechapel, meaning a more modern perspective was very welcome.

Tom Harrington, Cumberland and Westmoreland Wrestling Champion, Egremont, Cumbria, 1999.

For a year, the Folk Archive exhibition travelled from museum to museum. Luckily, we still have the wonderful catalogue comprising of a colourful collection of photographs, texts, and screenshots. Each time you page through the book, you’ll come across something you hadn’t noticed before: a giant bear made of straw walking through the high street, an old Cambridgeshire custom in which the villagers would be expected to dance for this “bear” on the town square and feed him honey. Or an old forgotten tradition in Blackpool that prompts young girls to dress as old women for a celebration.

The book has been divided into different categories such as performance (like the silly faces competition) but also into politics, life and death, animals. Included are Ed Hall’s beautifully painted signage and banners used by members of the trade unions during demonstrations. The forward begins on the cover, in which Deller and Kane start explaining their methodology: “a personal selection of images and stories that excited or amused us.” They refrain from using the term “outsider art”, a term used profusely in their art world. These artists shift their choice, their archive, from one context to the next, from the street to the museum.

Deller and Kane explain that they were searching for humour, modernity, a new perspective, refreshing directness, and much more: “We find ourselves in an area between art and anthropology. As artists, we’re going on an optimistic journey of personal discovery (often close to home.) As anthropologists, we hope to describe and experience something worth seeing. For those interested in anthropological approach, we must apologise for the term ‘archive’ which is so often misused. Also, we’ll have to apologise for the artistic nonchalance in relation to details. (Artists have been using the term archive left and right recently, it’s a fashionable term that’s sometimes used to describe meagre collections. Archive apparently sounds interesting. To all those involved in folk or regional cultural scenes, we’d likewise like to apologise for that cheap term, ‘folk’ as well as plundering whole worlds.”

Folk Archive is a journey full of surprises through an unfamiliar England.

Folk Archive, Contemporary Popular Art from the UK by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane (2005).

Pizza Rut, Blackpool, Lancashire.
Tar Barrel Rolling, Ottery St Mary, Devon, 2004 © Jessica Mallock.
Speaker Stack, Notting Hill Carnival, London, 2003.
Line of beasts
Snowdrop the Mechanical Elephant by the Clare Family, Egremont, Cumbria, 2004.

If an idea to research something crazy suddenly befalls you, it’s well advised to go just through with it, complete it, and publish it. I once had the idea to visualise human coitus using an MRI scanner. It was a spontaneous idea; like the French poet-statesman Lamartine said, ‘I never think, my ideas think for me.’

I immediately received criticism. ‘What’s that good for?’ ‘You don’t even have a question! ‘We know everything already.’ But also enthusiasm: ‘if you want to research something that’s never been done, and easy as pie, do it! Why not?’

And so, we were able to conduct this study, but only in secret. Subsequently, the first scan was immediately compelling, iconoclastic even. It turned that all Da Vinci’s drawing proved to be fabrications, without anyone ever objecting (you and me included). The scans showed that the previous depictions had originated partly from the bedroom (before death) and partly from the cutting table (after death).

Seks in de MRI

The article about our research was rejected three times. That’s just how deviant our findings from the scanner were. Even our fourth article was considered to be ‘made-up’ by the British Medical Journal. The article wasn’t considered an actual report of an actual study until the magazine had done a thorough research on the accuracy of it, without us knowing. They even asked to include us in their Christmas edition (where every year strange studies are bundled).

Meanwhile, the study is the most clicked article on their site, while images of the scans weren’t even on the cover of the magazine. The film version of the MRI scan on the ‘Improbable Research’ site has been watched over a million times. It also immediately received the LG Nobel prize, because it makes one laugh before it makes one think.

In retrospect, the study is a classic example of Spielerei nebenbei to Ernst im Spiel and freedom in research.

Like Johan Huizinga argued in his Homo Ludens: play is indeed a higher order than severity because play includes severity, whilst severity excludes play.