I would love to go back to the old house: Paul Rooney and Susan Philipsz

In Room Three: the Eating Parlour on the front ground floor, infancy is awakened by enlightenment, and – as in adolescence – opinions are formed and sides taken. The room consists of bold contrasts; back or forth – even the colours complement the ‘clink-clank’ of the primitive brass clock: black or white, green or white, blue or white, red or white. Like Baroque politics in the wake of the Civil War: Catholic or Protestant, ‘Whig’ or ‘Tory’ – ‘King George or King James’, Man or Nature, Man . . . or Woman – no peace: black or white – nothing between.

Denis Servers, ‘Notes to 18 Folgate Street’, Spitalfields, London.

A rich cultural inheritance written on mobile psychic foundations is a mainstay of the art of Paul Rooney and Susan Philipsz. For both artists, space is not objectively physical, but subjective, psychological, projected. Geography is unstable, subject to memory and narrative. Spaces are gendered, scented, poetically nuanced, never merely empty. Topographies are hybrid, informed by music, art, folklore, fiction, geography, history and philosophy. Both produce work comparable to comprehensive critiques of the environment based on re-articulations of spatial and temporal meaning found in postmodern critical social theory, anthropology and geography explored by figures such as Marc Augé, Anthony Vidler, Doreen Massey and Edward Soja. These critiques draw attention to the ways in which environments are engendered, empowered and contested by subtle and palpable means, building on earlier ambient texts such as Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception (1945), Otto Friedrich Bollnow’s Mensch und Raum (1963), Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1969), Robert Harbison’s Eccentric Spaces (1977) and Jacques Attali’s Noise: the Political Economy of Music (1977). Having said this, it should be obvious that neither Rooney nor Philipsz can be said simply to illustrate theory, or produce academic art. They weave adventures and narratives around spaces, leaving us feeling that there could be no other way of responding to the environments that they animate. Their brooding art is a contemporary adaptation of aestheticism; denying the innocent eye by becoming the place it describes. Like the late great Dennis Servers, their focus is squarely on the pleasures of the imagination, on seeing and sensing with historical licence.[1]

Rooney’s Let me Take You There (2003) is a vocal guide to be listened to while standing in a field in Calderdale, Yorkshire. A black and white photograph of this unremarkable snowy field featured on the twelve-inch cover for Joy Division’s Atmosphere (1980), designed by Peter Saville. The single was released shortly after the suicide of Ian Curtis, the group’s lead singer; its funereal imperium thought to exploit Curtis’ untimely demise. As the use of minimal Roman lapidary font suggests, Saville was in fact going through a neo-classical phase. Inspired by the postmodern antics of architects such as Philip Johnston, this style was applied rigorously to the majority of his work in this period. Nevertheless, the myths of dark creative genius continue to haunt both the sleeve and the band. Rather than simply dispel these Chinese whispers, Rooney embellishes them, acknowledging that all forms of knowledge include their own history of mistakes. Adopting the non de plume Alain Chamois and the tone of an avid fanzine writer, Rooney produces a reading of the field that inscribes it within a wider field of cultural meanings.

Rooney combines the discourses of the municipal museum audio guide and romantic rockumentary geography to create a hybrid reading of the Yorkshire landscape. On the one hand, the guide has an educational role, yet it clearly functions as a veiled critique of a society in which the ruins of the industrial revolution, aristocratic privilege, Paul McCartney’s semi, and the studios of contemporary artists all form part of the tourist trail. As regions fight it out for inward investment and Sunday cash, neo-liberal concepts of ‘heritage’ and ‘education’ are seen as having real financial benefits. Since the collapse of heavy industry, cultural tourism had been used as a plaster to over over Northern England’s social and economic woes. Cities such as Liverpool and Manchester have made great capital from their association with popular music. Saville’s work can be found in museums, notably the CIS Manchester Gallery in Manchester Art Gallery, where, alongside Lowry and the Happy Mondays, it is displayed as an example of Mancunian creativity. His work is currently touring from London’s Design Museum to Dundee Contemporary Arts and Manchester’s Urbis, before heading off around the rest of the globe.

Today, such cultural baggage is used to spearhead gentrification programmes such as the Hacienda Apartments in Manchester’s Deansgate (the sales slogan quips ‘Now the Party’s Over, It’s Time to Come Home).[2] Pop escapism is the North of England’s carrot. Rooney filmed Something Happening: After The Human League (2003) from a window in the Bradford and Bingley bank in the High Street, Sheffield, the former entrance to The Crazy Daisy club, the very spot where the extraordinarily ordinary girls Jo and Susanne of The Human League were ‘discovered’ by Phil Oakey. The cultural autonomy of the Northern England is tied to such entrepreneurial and nostalgic readings of its pop culture. The myth has always been that pop will allow talented working class kids to escape from the drudgery of working for the bank (somehow Cilla Black slipped through the net). Erstwhile Hacienda DJ Dave Haslam goes so far to suggest that the economic regeneration of Manchester will emerge only from its creatives, from labour practices and economies fashioned by DJs and designers working in the Northern Quarter around Oldham Street.[3] This imaginary has even been adopted by the Labour Party, who advocate the adoption of sweat equity popularised in the fashion, music and art industries as a model for multi-tasked labour in contemporary Britain:

 

This sector, the argument runs, provides Britain with the possibility of re-invigorating a distinctive national economy of pop music, fashion and the arts by drawing on both indigenous and migrant traditions of popular culture which have gained currency since the early 1960s. In a talent-led economy, the individual alone is to blame if the next script, film, book or show is not up to scratch. Or as Anthony Giddens puts it (Modernity and Self Identity, 1991), individuals must now ‘be’ their own structures.[4]

 

Faced with the corporatisation of the remaining vestiges of public cultural space, many contemporary artists are bearing within, returning to the old house of their youth in an attempt to surpass annexation.[5] History and psychology cannot fully determine such space since it is constantly re-articulated and subjectified. In this sense, the political economy of Susan Philipsz’ work lies parallel to the spaces occupied by Rooney’s.

 

Joy Division were a band that I used to lock myself in my room to for hours as a young teenager. They subsequently became a source of inspiration for my work in later years. I am interested in how sound can be a trigger for memory and the mental space you enter while alone. I try to evoke solitude in my work.

 

Philipsz’ work establishes space as an introspective,  private zone, hermetically sealed from the threshold of the adult world; a territory demarcated by adolescent narcissism and moody existential teenage angst. Philipsz’ mines her subjective teenage recollections, excavating a spatial imaginary of her formative bedroom years from sounds that resemble passages from old records.[6] Using a carillon, she produces a “crystal ring of chimes, like the aural equivalent of frosted branches suddenly shifted by a gust of wind,”[7] an echo of Martin Hannet’s closing sound effects on Joy Division’s Atmosphere. Philipsz attempts to de-familiarise by re-creating these sounds on her own terms, stripping them of their established aural context. The performative aspect of the original recordings is lost, but the memories of the imaginary spaces they suggest remain for most (thirtysomething) audiences. Songs Sung in the First Person on Themes of Longing, Sympathy and Release plays on a loop Isolation by Joy Division, Hang On, by Teenage Fan Club, How Much I Lied by Grand Parsons, Please Please, Please Let me get What I Want by The Smiths. The egocentric space of this pop narcissism is not negated or transcended. As a part of the cultural industry tied to historicity and power, pop fails to provide the authentic experiences it covets.

 

I would love to go
Back to the old house
But I never will
I never will …
I never will …
I never will …[8]

 

Since the time and space demarcated by such records is non linear, the personal problems they evoke without resolution; they represent a world without catharsis. The past is pictured as a ruin or a folly to play in, a haunted house to explore, one open to new possibilities and exchanges.


[1] See Servers, Dennis, 18 Folgate Street: The Story of a House is Spitalfields, London: Chatto and Windus, 2001.

 

[2] More promisingly, the musical heritage of the North West of England is being used as a catalyst for a the establishment of a regional parliament, a campaign led by former Factory supremo Tony Wilson.

 

[3] See Dave Haslam, Manchester, England: The Story of a Pop Cult City, Fourth Estate, 2000.

 

[4] See Angela McRobbie, ‘Everyone is Creative’: Artists as New Economy Pioneers?, unpublished conference paper, 2002. This process has occurred globally. See Anne Bowler and Blaine McBurney, “Gentrification and the Avant-Garde in New York’s East Village: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” Theory Culture & Society. Vol. 8, No. 4, (November 1991): 49-77.

 

[5] Michael Bracewell identifies this process of regression as ‘cocooning’, something that he sees as a key component of art in nineties Britain. See Michael Bracewell, When Surface was Depth: The Nineties, London: Flamingo, 2003.

 

[6] Like Bracewell’s notion of ‘cocooning’, this reading of the past is gendered, presenting space as offering womb-like protection. In Philpsz’ work, the bedroom is a specifically adolescent space, one resistant to work, death or sex.

 

[7] Alain Chamois, Let Me Take You There, 2003.

 

[8] Morrissey, Back to the Old House, 1983.