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Art for ads' sake

Unless you have just arrived from another part of the world, you will have heard about the defaced picture of Myra Hindley in Sensation, the Royal Academy exhibition of works by young British artists from the Saatchi collection. Setting the surrounding controversy to one side for a moment, let us look at the works on display in purely aesthetic terms.

One thing that can be said without controversy is that these rooms contain an eclectic crop of exhibits, ranging from abstraction to hyper-realism, from painting and sculpture to installations and video. Yet one gets a sense throughout of the advertiser-turned-art-patron - Charles Saatchi - who is the presiding genius of the show; not least because the bulk of the work obeys the premise of advertising (not art) in one important aspect.

Successful advertising is based on a clever idea which has a succinct relationship to the thing being sold. Bringing that idea to its final form is a largely technical matter - the presentation being merely a vehicle for the message it promotes. In art, on the other hand, conception and realisation cannot be so neatly separated. The 'idea' is not self-contained but must be worked out as the exhibit is made. The end result is not merely a vehicle for an idea, but the idea itself fully realised. Hence the sense of discovery and spiritual struggle, first undergone by the artist himself and then re-experienced in contemplation by the viewer.

Sensation is full of clever ideas but short on this kind of (re)experience. Instead one can almost imagine the artists going to Saatchi with an idea to see if he would back it through the production stage. 'A cow's head in a glass case with thousands of flies around it? Go for it, Damien.' There are some talented painters here, such as Richard Patterson, Jenny Saville and Marcus Harvey (he of Myra fame), whose surviving pictures have a kind of pornographic vigour. Nor are you likely to find the other exhibits boring, provided you do them at a quick pace, 'getting' the ideas and not lingering for deeper meanings. This is the kind of show that you check out rather than engage with.

Louis Ryan

Sensation is at the Royal Academy, Piccadilly, London W1, until 28 December 1997

Myra, 1995, Marcus Harvey/Bullet Hole, 1988­93, Mat Collishaw

Technical fault

Lucy Kimbell deplores the gimmickry of digital art

Recent examples of digital art, such as those included in the Serious Games show at the Barbican, prompted me to ask why much of it is so bad. One possible explanation lies in the roots of developments in computer technology. Driven by military and corporate needs, computer graphics and connectivity were often developed by technicians with poor visual design skills. The focus has been on achieving improvements in display rather than asking what should be displayed.

Another reason is that many visual artists using computers tend to do things just because they can. They may get pleasure out of sticking some pages up on the Web, designing an interactive multimedia interface, and having it come up on a computer monitor plonked in a gallery; but there is little or no artistic investigation in such activity. Artists who would not exhibit bits of fiddling with trad- itional media are happy to show the results of their toying with computers. In the current intellectual climate this work is tolerated and, even worse, billed as 'experimental'.

Moreover, artists doing these bits of fun tend to take technology itself as their subject. Now there are painters whose concerns are primarily the practice of painting, but their skills and their attention to detail speak of much more than paintbrush, oil and canvas. This is not the case with many of those making digital work, whose range of investigation is limited to technology itself and what it can do. As a result, it is difficult to view shows of artworks made with digital technology without feeling a compelling desire to know how they were made. What is on show is the technology, not anything that might be art. The preoccupation with technology on the part of artists is then reproduced by art critics. Compelled to focus on the technical basis for a piece of work, many critics fail to engage with what (if anything) the artist is doing.

These problems were evident in Serious Games, a group show which contained a variety of interactive works. The experiences on offer ranged from pushing buttons which determined what popped up on screen, to navigating, by leaning and inhaling, through a virtual world viewed on a headset, to writing down your thoughts about money on a piece of paper and 'planting' it in an organic, evolving installation. The gadgetry seemed to be all that was available here.

Over the river at the Hayward Gallery, Tatsuo Miyajima's solo show Big Time included works of various sizes all employing slowly-counting numbers in the form of LED lights. The largest work comprised a vast dark hall, crossed by a metal walkway below which a number of barely visible toy vehicles moved around. On top of each vehicle was an LED display counting from one to nine and back again. The trucks bumbled around the hall, occasionally bumping into each other, changing direction and carrying on, as people passed through on the walkway above.

In its simplicity and depth of contemplation, this exhibit achieved what most other digitally-based works fail to do: it worked as an artistic investigation into an idea, into the stuff of information itself. But for want of editorial endeavour, in reviews it was often bracketed with the Serious Games show, resulting yet again in the conflation of art with the technology.

How might artists approach digital media? One strategy is to acquire software and hardware and begin to develop something approaching a technique, a field of practice and a language of expression. This is a continuation of the Modernist model of being an artist, in which digital technology is just another tool or material or frame, or all three; and with this strategy, it makes sense to apply the label 'digital art'.

Another approach is to grab bits of technology which intersect between everyday life and its cultural representation, and use them to interrogate the distinctions between the two. This seems to have the potential for a deeper investigation into aesthetic concerns and a closer engagement with contemporary art practice. And if it works, it is just art - the 'digital' label is redundant.

Lucy Kimbell is a member of Soda Creative Technologies (www.soda.co.uk), whose show at the Lux Gallery 2-4 Hoxton Square, London N1, opens in January 1998

Signs of the times

'In the bible belt, if you wear women's panties, you're unacceptable.'
American sports consultant commenting on the demise of Marv Albert, legendary ginger-toupee-wearing basketball commentator, accused of sexual assault while wearing women's underwear. Go tell it to Frank Bough, Marv.

'I walked through the crowds in St James and realised this was no longer a country I understood'

former Tory cabinet minister, quoted anonymously in the Sunday Telegraph

Harrow School has banned touchline chanting at its rugby matches, following 'loutishness' during the fixture against Merchant Taylor's School. Headmaster Nicholas Bomford commented, 'We have a number of school chants, some perfectly harmless. Others, however, are more tribal'. Angry letters have been sent to the school magazine, including one signed 'Lagerlout'.

Westminster Council has outlawed children under 12 from its meetings. This is a ruse to prevent councillors such as Kate Pritchard from breastfeeding their babies. A special sound system has been installed at a cost of £3000 to enable Ms Pritchard to follow proceedings from an adjoining room.

Meanwhile East Riding Council has erected curtains around its tables to hide the legs of women councillors. LibDem councillor Dave Ireland explained: 'I brought the matter up because the female members shouldn't have to go to a meeting and worry about the way they are sitting. I think it is extremely distracting for male councillors with reasonable levels of testosterone to sit there, especially if you have legs like one or two of the councillors do.'

House of Commons Speaker Betty Boothroyd has been accused of discriminating against the new women MPs. Boothroyd is alleged to be unfairly strict with the women when correcting them on matters of commons procedure. One Labour MP burst into tears after being lectured by Boothroyd. Others are up in arms about this sort of 'humiliation', and the matter is to be raised at Labour's women's committee.

The Royal Mail has decreed the catalogue of the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition too obscene to handle, leaving the gallery to dispatch them by courier to its academians.

'We have few contemporary words for the act and the parts involved, and if you should find yourself listening one night to a farmer's daughter from West Wales talking dirty to you, it's striking how similar it is to reading a catalogue of seveneenth century farm implements. The word for a woman's nether regions is "ffrwrch" which means furrow as in field and a word for penis is "coes bach" or little leg'

Jon Gower, producer of the Welsh Union of Writers' newsletter and delegate to the 'Sex: The Great Welsh Not' conference, which addressed the problems of dealing with modern sexual issues in the context of Welsh culture

Visitors to the Penscynor wildlife park have been confronted by a cage marked 'DANGEROUS', containing a selection of men. The typically depressing nineties message is that human males are 'the world's most dangerous animal'.

'I did it for Britain'

Gerard Moorehouse, explaining why he punched Fabio Piras, the man convicted of stealing a teddy bear left as a tribute to Saint Diana

The new B&Q superstores in Glasgow and Merseyside have been designed in accordance with the teachings of Feng Shui. 'There is a buzz about the place', says Glasgow manager David Ingliss.



20 November is the opening date for an exhibition of Bruce Weber's photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, St Martin's Place, London WC2. The 200 prints on show will include portraits of Sean Penn, Juliette Lewis, Leonardo de Caprio and Ewan MacGregor. One strand of Weber's work refers back to the Beat Generation which came to prominence 40 years ago this autumn with the publication of On The Road by Jack Kerouac. In his advertising campaign for Pepe jeans, in his films Broken Noses (about boxers) and Let's Get Lost (about jazz trumpeter Chet Baker), and in portraits of Robert De Niro and underground cinema star Gena Rowlands, Weber continues to make images which correspond to Kerouac's definition of Beat as both 'beaten' and 'beatific'.

Andrew Calcutt

Photo: Gena Rowlands, 1992, Bruce Weber

E and after

The tenth anniversary of the 1987 'Summer of Love' prompted plenty of commentary. But the tone was decidedly downbeat, and smiley faces were noticeable by their absence. At the Institute of Contemporary Arts recently, the screening of Coming Down, a film by D*Note's Matt Winn, and the subsequent discussion entitled 'Have we come down yet? E and after', revealed a high level of insecurity among the 'chemical generation'.

Coming Down depicts a group of twenty-somethings re-entering reality after their night's retreat into drugs and dance music. They try to establish a meaningful rapport, but remain dazed, confused and alienated. By suggesting that even hedonism offers no escape from reality, the film identifies a void at the heart of the clubbing experience. Winn is asking where a decade of necking Es and dancing has got us. Not very far, seems to be his answer. The same bleak conclusion figures in some of the contributions to the recently published anthology Night Fever: Club Writing in The Face 1980-1997.

Citing the illicit raves of the early nineties, some participants in the ICA discussion saw clubbing as part of a counter-cultural tradition stretching back to punk, Haight-Ashbury hippies and the Beats. Panellist Miranda Sawyer dismissed such extravagant notions, suggesting that people go to clubs just to be with other people. She likened clubbing to the funeral of Princess Diana - opportunities for an alienated nation to experience a ghost of togetherness.

The forced 'positivity' that accompanied the rave scene has indeed disguised an ex-perience which emphasises personal isolation. Hugging strangers while 'off your face' is as hollow as communing with 'the people's princess'. Perhaps the last 10 years of club culture have always been about myth and mourning - for the original 'Summer of Love' that never was.

David Panos is a researcher for club culture inc.

Night Fever: Club Writing in The Face 1980-1997, edited by Richard Benson, Boxtree, £9.99 pbk


Screenwriter Julian Mitchell tried to convince Brendan O'Neill that Oscar Wilde is still a rebel figure

The Wilde one?

'There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about', wrote Oscar Wilde in 1891, 'and that is not being talked about'. In the centenary of his release from Reading jail, everybody is talking about Wilde. He has been commemorated in Westminster Abbey, a campaign to erect a statue in London is gathering strength, and new books about 'his exquisite life' are filling the shops. Riding high on this wave of interest is Julian Mitchell, who wrote the screenplay for Wilde, the new biopic starring Stephen Fry.

'Wilde has been a constant nagging presence in British culture for 100 years', says Mitchell, 'which is partly to do with the fact that he was always an outsider. Not only was he a sexual rebel, he was also a socialist and an Irish nationalist. These were not good things to be in Victorian Britain'. At the end of the twentieth century, however, the outsider and victim commands more respect and greater respectability than any other cultural figure, as demonstrated by the canonisation of Diana. Perhaps that explains why Wilde, a rebel a century ago, can be so widely revered today.

In 'writing Wilde' for the cinema, Mitchell was keen to present him as one who speaks to us today: 'Wilde should be seen not simply as a figure from the past, but as someone whose life and work has continued to be painfully relevant to British society.' The best man to render this relevance on screen, Mitchell believes, is the 'modern day Wilde', Stephen Fry. 'When people see the film they will know why everyone says Stephen was "born to be Wilde". He is the right age, the right height, the right girth, he is funny in his own right, he is a wit, a writer. He is just perfect. In fact the only thing wrong with Stephen is that he has got a broken nose.' Some might add that Fry has only a tenth of Wilde's talent. But he does have a considerable fortune, the sympathy of the media for his personal problems, and a prime slot on nationwide celebrity showcases like Elton John's fiftieth birthday TV special. Wilde died in homeless exile in Paris, an ex-jailbird and outcast.

Mitchell's screenplay starts in 1882 with Wilde's return from a triumphant lecture tour of North America. After marrying, and fathering two children, Wilde, then approaching the pinnacle of his playwriting fame, is shown in pursuit of young men. 'The film does not concentrate exclusively on the gay relationship', Mitchell explains, 'so much as on Wilde's array of emotional relationships. I thought it was important to portray him as a good husband and a loving father. Firstly, because it is true; and secondly, because the notion of Wilde as a great gay god is completely false. He led a very "heterosexual life" until he was 35'.

The film depicts Wilde trying to place his liaisons with young men within the classical tradition of Platonic friendship. But his passion for Lord Alfred Douglas (Jude Law) could not be passed off in this way. 'Here', says Mitchell, 'was a man leading a successful London life with a wife and two children whom he adored, and he suddenly fell in love with this absolutely disastrous young man. That has the making of a great drama'.

After his affair with Douglas came out in court, Wilde was jailed for 'acts of gross indecency with other male persons'. Some of the most moving scenes show his spirit being crushed by a prison regime that proved too much for him. But Mitchell maintains that 'Wilde's trial and tribulations changed public perceptions. That is another reason why he has continued to stick in the throat of British society. His downfall paved the way for all kinds of questions about why people should be able to do what they want and with whom they want'.

Wilde's trial and imprisonment were, Mitchell says, 'extremely important historically'. He might also like to reflect that times change and the Wilde men of yesteryear can sometimes be transformed into the respectable role models of today. In an age when the government includes an 'out' gay minister of cabinet rank, Wilde has become so respectable that he might not recognise himself.

Wilde is on general release. Julian Mitchell's screenplay is published by Orion Media, £16.99 hbk

Sheffield's harmless heroes

Out walking the other day I stumbled across yet another film crew taking shots of my city. Suddenly Sheffield is a sexy location, especially after the success of The Full Monty, a black comedy about six unemployed former-steelworkers who become strippers.

The film explores the demise of the old culture which dictated that Sheffield men should be as hard as the steel they used to make. The crisis of masculinity is a central theme; and to make sure you get the message there is a scene where a woman stands up and pisses into the urinal at a working men's club.

Recasting the steel city into a cultural showpiece has been an ambition of the local authority for years; and the recent spate of Sheffield movies suggests that the city is indeed turning into a film set. Arizona has the desert, Liverpool has derelict buildings for film-makers to blow up, and we have steel men, Ward's bitter and brass bands. Judging by the glossary issued by the distributors of The Full Monty, which proved to be a successful gimmick in the USA, even the local accent is now a marketable commodity.

The Full Monty is a copper-bottomed feelgood film. But it strikes me that Sheffield's men of steel are the film world's flavour of the month only because their way of life is anachronistic, and therefore harmless. Yes, there are plenty of healthy male specimens in Sheffield; but we want to be more than exhibits in a celluloid museum of crumbling working class life.

Craig O'Malley



The mushroom season is the one time of year when I appreciate the benefits of having a dog. Wandering through the woods shortly after dawn, armed with wicker basket, walking stick and Swiss army knife, I cannot help but feel self-conscious, especially on those occasions when, after several hours hunting, the basket is still empty. Pretending to be walking the dog would at least provide some cover. This autumn, though, a dog would have been useful for transporting my rich harvest of porcini and birch, larch and bay boletes.

Prized as a delicacy in every other European country, in Britain mushrooms growing in the wild (or 'toadstools' as we call them - a term which has no equivalent in French or Italian) are ignored, trampled underfoot or even despised as 'spawn of the Devil'. I am not complaining. Like all mushroom hunters, I prefer not to have too much competition.

Of course there are certain risks associated with the consumption of fungi, ranging from mild stomach upsets to death from liver and kidney failure. I was recently told the story of a young French girl who, denied mushrooms at dinner as a punishment for some misdemeanour, turned out to be the only one of her family not to succumb to fatal mushroom poisoning. But the risks should be put into perspective. According to Antonio Carluccio in his excellent recipe-book-cum-field-guide A Passion For Mushrooms, in Europe there are about 5000 species of wild mushroom; of which 1200 are thought to be edible (though only about 20 are worth eating); 30 are highly toxic and a further 30 are dubious.

If you observe the basic rule of never eating anything which has not been positively identified, either by a mycologist or through careful research based on several sources (consult your local library), you should come to no harm. Alternatively, you could always buy them. But with prices for fresh porcini, when available, in the region of £20 to £30 per kilo, you might have to get a dog and go hunting instead.

Mushroom risotto (Serves four as a first course)
300g carnaroli or arborio rice
300g porcini, sliced; or large field mushrooms, sliced, and a handful of dried porcini, soaked in a little warm water for 30 minutes then rinsed and chopped
1 small onion
2tbsp olive oil
25g unsalted butter
1.2 litres chicken stock

To finish

25g unsalted butter
60g freshly grated Parmesan

Bring the stock to the boil (if using dried mushrooms, add the soaking liquid, strained through a tea-strainer). In a large, heavy-based pan or casserole (with a lid), sweat the onion in the olive oil and butter. Do not allow to brown. Add the mushrooms and cook until the liquid has evaporated. Add the rice and 'toast' for two minutes, stirring carefully to prevent the grains from sticking to the pan.

Add a ladle of stock and stir until the liquid has been absorbed. Continue in this way, a ladle at a time, stirring gently to release the starch from the rice, until the rice is almost cooked (the grains should still be distinct and slightly firm to the bite with just a hint of chalkiness at the centre). This will take about 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the remaining butter and half the Parmesan, check the seasoning and place the lid on the pan. Allow to stand for three minutes. Serve in warmed soup plates with the remaining Parmesan.

© Neil Haidar BBC1's Masterchef 1996


Tamagotchi gotcha

I am the sort of bloke who would buy a tamagotchi just to watch it die. But the potential of cyberpets to develop, using existing and upcoming technology, is very sexy. By next year, they will have audio DSP chips that can classify tones of voice, so you will be able to talk to them soothingly instead of pressing buttons. They will respond to the name you gave them. They will communicate with each other by micropower radio, as Cabbage Patch dolls have been doing for some time, so they will be able to tell each other how well they are being looked after, or grass you to the tamagotchi social services. Thermistor sensors will be able to tell whether they are warm enough, and they could be equipped to cough petulantly if you light a fag.

Fresh data will be uploaded to them when you put them in front of the telly, during the same interval between video frames that carries teletext, and they will receive it through simple optical sensors. They will be able to ask to watch reruns of This Life, and they will know if you do not tune in or at least tape it for them. Mummy and daddy tamagotchi will live on the Internet and in the phone system, and encryption signatures will, like DNA, establish their lineage. So it will be possible to work out if your tamagotchi is related to that of anybody famous.

A few years down the line, they will merge with your cellphone and your Internet agents and your personal digital assistant (a filofax for techies). Embedded biosensors based on the electronic noses now being developed for food quality and medical diagnostics will respond to the aroma of the food and drink you offer them. They will learn to analyse your behaviour and play on your emotions. They will try out different personality-riffs derived from your choice of films and music. Lovers will split up because their tamagotchis do not get on. No problem - the first tamagotchi to reward a devoted owner with sexual services has almost certainly been built already.

Nigel Burke is a dissident technologist

Reproduced from LM issue 105, November 1997

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