Post-Utopian Narratives

Post-Utopian Narratives

Britain’s Ocean City is a test-bed for a new contemporary art festival, The Atlantic Project. Part of Horizon, delivered by PVAPG (Plymouth Visual Art Programming Group), this internationally-minded event is an opportunity to engage with Plymouth’s identity as a deep-water port flecked with relentless associations of utopian visions of the future. From the mapping of new territory and colonialism to the Mayflower Pilgrims’ voyage and the construction of Western-Europe’s largest naval base, Plymouth has been at the forefront of so-called “progress” for centuries: even after its extensive bombing during WWII, it maintained momentum by vigorously rebuilding a post-war concrete version of itself.

The Atlantic Project’s pilot edition, After the Future, addresses today’s era of uncertainty, where progress for progress’ sake has halted and society deliberates over what remains to be seen in this globalised epoch. The Atlantic Project does not provide an antidote for contemporary-living nor a manifesto for the future, but an opportunity to question our present condition – and the role which artists might play in times of political, societal, economical and environmental uncertainty. In his catalogue essay, Artistic Director, Tom Trevor, asks: “how will the role of the artist function and change – drifting in wake of the utopian imaginaries?”

Throughout, the programme infiltrates Plymouth’s ad-hoc architecture by staging exhibitions and performances in spaces which are old, new, purpose-built, repurposed, academic – the list goes on. It’s an incredible feat to acquire such dynamic and diverse spaces. In the city centre, Nilbar Güreş’s large-scale photographs are nestled between civic foliage on the pedestrianised Armada Way: here, she visualises her growing relationship with Plymouth’s Kurdish community through monotone images which playfully discuss experiences of displacement and “exoticism.” Through the gestures and scenes Güreş depicts, she instantly engages with the festival’s themes of globalisation and the impact of the civic.

Time is spent reflecting on Plymouth’s post-war civic spaces: the inclusion of Hito Steyerl’s Is the Museum at Battlefield? (2013) is apt, if at first a little disjointed. In the film, Steyerl discusses art institutions’ regression into archaic feudal systems and their connections with weapons manufacturers: shown in Plymouth’s The Civic Centre, it addresses changing notions of the civic and property ownership. The Civic Centre itself was bought for one pound by Urban Splash in 2015 after the council’s departure in 1975 and its subsequent recognition as a Grade II Listed Building in 2007 – thus dispelling council plans for its demolition.

 A second, significant space of the post-war movement is House of Fraser (formally Dingles, the UK’s first new post-war department store). Here, Yan Wang Preston’s colour photographs of ancient trees transplanted into new cities (from Forest 2017) perplex those passing by the store’s street-level windows – some mistaking them for an advertising campaign. Liu’s Buying Everything on You (2005-) placement on the fifth floor, ensures each viewer undergoes the headache of walking through the beauty boutique and up four sets of escalators before laying eyes of Liu’s display of personal items bought from two individuals. Perfectly in-situ, the participants’ identities are laid out through the commodities that they held on their persons.

 Calling upon maritime narratives is Shezad Dawood’s Leviathan. Films, sculptures, paintings and tapestries all hang, disparately, in a disused chamber in The Dome, united only by their shared concepts of migration, mental health and marine welfare. To the side, a small clay model of a spear-studded whale lays limp on a plinth, its viscous material gleaming under a spotlight as though to melt under the weight of history. Outside, Postcommodity’s Repellent Eye redirects our attention to Drake’s Island – once a military fortification, now a privately owned plot of land prepped for a hotel complex. The six-metre tethered balloon seemingly wards off the bad spirits that come with the commodification of land: in using the “scare eye” motif, Postcommodity draws comparisons to the cultures of indigenous peoples across the Americas, whose land was seized as a result of colonialism.

Colonialism’s deep traces are central at Royal William Yard (the Navy’s main supply yard for 150 years until its closure in 1992), where Khadija von Zinnenburg Carroll and Keren Ruki’s performative-procession reimagined Captain Cook’s departure ahead of his discovery of Australia and New Zealand in 1768. A video, along with remnants of the participatory procession to Devil’s Point, are scattered throughout the ground-floor of an outbuilding: Māori references, sand drawings, consumerist plastics and fluorescent fabrics all punctuate the rustic interior in a bid to interrupt the cyclical nature of history.

Jane Grant and John Matthias undertake an alternative approach to Devil’s Point: their hyper-immersive installation, Fathom (Atlantic), produces a “sonic surface” (a soundscape of pre-recorded underwater audio mixed with live acoustics transmitted direct from the River Tamar) that fuels our everyday curiosity. Eight ominous speakers, standing in circular formation, relay the river’s live groaning. The experience is near-otherworldly: it’s raw and primal but encased in technology – these are notions which flow through to KARST’s I Am My Own Primal Parent. It too echoes with a mythological euphoria, but in a more visual and vivacious way: the KARST show puts forth an elated expression of the present in a bid to upend capitalist hierarchies.

In a similar vein, Carl Slater’s Echoic Candy celebrates the Millennium Building’s former status as a clubber’s mecca by digitally relaying fragments of archival content. The audience’s sensibilities ebb through synthesised material: the aim? To imagine an updated club culture and the euphoric sensations that society still seeks within it. Upstairs, Ryoji Ikeda’s mega-sized AV-installation, The Radar, spans the width of the ex-dancehall’s cinematic screen: eardrums vibrate while eyeballs attempt to navigate undulating reams of sine waves and pixels. Occasionally, bands of colour obliterate the monotone projection of digits and data, lavishly illuminating the dancehall’s rudimentarily painted fixtures.

The Atlantic Project responds to “how the role of the artist will change” with its impressive artistic scope, focused thematic-curation and infiltration of city-significant, derelict buildings. There’s a good balance between new commissions of older pieces as well as entirely new productions. The festival is conscious of its location’s identity – not only as an “Ocean City”, but as a former driver of colonialism and subsequently, of a globalised society. It asks audiences to reflect on the wider implications of Plymouth’s maritime activities and its post-war civic expansion, as well as the reverberations that these shifts have had on its current identity. Superflex’s FREE BEER, a brew and branding project, puts forth a lasting dialogue on the application of free speech (rather than free beer) – through it, we’re reminded that voices in the present outweigh ubiquitous visions of the future.

Selina Oakes

The Atlantic Project. Venues across Plymouth until 21 October.

Find out more here. @AtlanticPlym.

1. Images by Yan Wang Preston.
2. Shezad Dawood, Leviathan.