Demo Week presentation of 'Mussons Coupee' Museum.
For those who could not be at the presentation of my Test Beds 'Demo Week' presentation, I would like to share it with you here...
The Mussons Coupee Museum
and Art Gallery
10.30 – 11.30am
Friday, 12th May 2017
Before I proceeded with this presentation, I asked those in attendance to remain silent for the ‘Mussons Coupee Museum’ anthem, which I shared… ‘The Internationale’…(played on a wind-up music box)
I am Stephen Whiting. I am a Lutonian and an artist, probably in equal measures.
I think I have become more of a Luton artist, as time goes on, mainly due to my desire to preserve the more idiosyncratic details of the town in my work.
I was born here in 1967, just prior to a period of disproportionate alteration.
A time when demolition contracts were handed out like confetti, (in my opinion).
So, by the time I was in school, the modern era for Luton was well underway.
Why my work has come to focus more greatly on aspects of the town is down to a desire to share with the townsfolk the plus points that I feel need to be celebrated and appreciated.
I don’t want to pickle Luton, but rather I would like to know what we stand to lose in the future, if the future means gentrification, bad planning, unsympathetic renovation, rebranding, reframing, and other terror-inducing sound-bites.
I would rather this than wake up one day, surprised to find that what we thought Luton represents is no longer here.
It is, in a sense, a race against time, to know what we should keep active, in our shared psyche, and not just confine our treasures to the record-books or the rubble.
The choice for me at least is ‘Gentrification’ or ‘Alchemy’.
At this next crucial interchange of new and old Luton, the unofficial scheduling of the gentrifying process needs to be addressed.
In light of the way London has been bought and sold, and ‘maximized’, so too will Luton, and we need to be prepared.
So, why a museum? Why now?
Because the town seems to have woken up to its heritage. It has two amazing museums at Stockwood Park and Wardown House, which you should visit if you haven’t already.
In direct response to these treasure troves, and their recent re-imagining, I have declared myself the instructor of my own ‘Museum’ project; the ‘Mussons Coupee’ Museum.
I think the museum format is as popular now as ever. In fact it seems to be having a resurgence, possibly because a museum has such large quantities of primary material,
first hand evidence, which offers a sort of relief from the worlds of internet and social media, which represent worlds that are built on sand, in comparison.
Museums began as places of ‘wonder’, where the show was all about encouraging wonderment; the fifteenth and sixteenth century European ‘Wunderkammer’ projects for instance.
Curiosity shops, and an effort to educate through objects, and a method of guarding the truth, or at least a very free interpretation of the truth.
In New York, ‘The City Reliquary’ in Brooklyn gathers together fragments of the city, with a broad, funny and liberal interpretation.
The Mussons Coupee installation is my response to the Luton street.
A process of ‘digging’ amongst the material, some of it not even buried yet.
True, some of it was buried in rubble, but some of it was buried in junk shops; still it represents treasure to me. The jewels of local identity and local wealth.
As part of our duty as Lutonians, we should be latching onto, fastening ourselves like limpets to the raw matter of our town.
In this role, and without exaggeration, I see myself as a 100% spiritual guardian of Luton.
I excavate items, and elevate accordingly.
It’s the resurrection of the commonplace.
The imbuing of inanimate objects with significance; a self-generating wealth.
It’s like printing money, building magic.
It is not beyond people, these sacred treasures are not beyond us; they are in and around about.
We’re all in the soup with them.
The Museum name:
Primarily for me, it was important to raise awareness, in particular of some of the town’s less celubrious alleyways which include among them ‘Mussons Path’, and ‘Coupees Path’.
Both names have their origins in the names of local families associated with the Abbey in what was known as the ‘Pepper Hill’ area of High Town.
In French, the word ‘coupee’ means ‘cut’ / ‘cut-through’ or ‘gangway’.
Musson Path was used as a service road for the hat workshops, but now languishes as a bizarre, amost masochistic ‘scenic walk’ for local ‘flaneurs’.
(More about flaneurs later).
Whether my job as a Council dustman and road-sweeper gave me an interest in ‘picking up the pieces’ in Luton, I don’t know exactly. I have always hoarded things away.
These things that I gather, accumulate.
Objects, photographs; they all layer themselves into a sediment of local artefacts.
What I have been left with are items fit for the local museum style. Not just in terms of subject, but in the manner of their making. ie. the crystallising of human and mechanical momentary actions, and the evidence unearthed in the places we inhabit and where I tend to hang around.
The smallness of mark, the accumulation of gesture are important to me.
I celebrate the humanity of daily life and social documentary.
I dwell in the remnants of local culture after the day-to-day living is done.
To emphasise the smallness of interventions that I prefer over the grandiose gesture.
As the Spanish artist Antonio Tapies said of his own work:
“I prefer ‘ant’ art rather than ‘elephant’ art”.
If you don’t look too closely at the world, everyday objects inspire a certain disinterest.
Objects only really become strangely, surreally unfamiliar when allocated our intense scrutiny.
So, pay attention.
While an archaeologist can analyse rocks and minerals, objectively, it is the lives of people that complicate analysis with ritual, religious experiences and human perspectives.
So, back to the ‘Flaneur’:
A flaneur is a person who walks the city in order to experience it.
This french term has its basic meaning as a ‘stroller’, a ‘lounger’, a ‘saunterer’, even a ‘loafer’.
A flaneur, per the definition by the French 19th century poet Baudelaire, is really an investigator of his or her city surroundings.
While it is a physical activity to drift through an urban landscape, it opens up and encourages thought, observation and emotion.
It is a connecting activity. You suddenly see your relation to architecture and space, which a brisk, puproseful movement might bypass.
In more modern days, ie. the 1950s and 60s, the term ‘drifter’ and ‘the idea of urban ‘drifting’ has replaced the ‘flaneur’.
I always had an aspect of the strolling artist in me, not even knowing that it was an actual term, (or even a life-style choice.)
Imagine how delighted I was to find that there have been real-life, actual philosophical statements to support this approach to exploring one’s urban environment.
What comes of this?
Art and poetry have emerged this way. It is a distinctly Modern past-time.
It provides ways of tackling alienation and detachment.
This flaneurism was later updated by theorist and drinker Guy Debord, in the mid-twentieth century.
He was semi-responsible for the ‘Situationist International’; an artistic and literary movement that sought to counter the exclusivity of the arts and literature.
It was trying to place the emphasis back on people.
His term was ‘psychogeography’, which links with a playfulness of spirit and an appreciation of the subconscious, and the imaginative. It claimed to offer a new awareness for its disciples.
I think it’s fair to say that it envisaged a freeing change in people’s attitude and behavior.
Guy Debord at this time said it was
“necessary to create in order to provide the setting for less mediocre games.”
It looked for an ‘atmosphere’ that we could wake up to, within the architecture we live. Geography meets psychology, with the product of art and play. Culture should be produced closer to its audience, invovling its audience.
Cultural production should be moved away from the markets.
I would like to recommend a book by Geoges Perec at this stage.
Titled “Exhausting a Place in Paris” it is basically a description of a single location over three days. It is a visual record of the author, an ‘eye-ball archaeology’, of sorts, in which he attempts to flood the page with every single thing that confronts his eye; buses, pedestrians, etc.
He did it from a series of cafes, so he wasn’t stupid. All in the name of research. I like that. I have spent many hours drawing the interiors and customers of Luton cafes, not only to capture the heart of Luton, but to also indulge my semi-addiction to tea. So I totally agree and encourage in my own work, this intense focus on the immediate.
Culture as a powerful force worth preserving:
History has shown, and is still showing, that attacks on people, individuals and creeds often starts with the dismantling of their culture, and their language.
Assuming that culture is power, and a museum is a protective space, a place for preservation, it follows that it is an establishment for the defence of a sort of ‘folk’ quality.
The first thing the English did when they moved into Wales, apart from building loads of National Trust castles, was to dismantle and outlaw the Welsh language.
This action would cut through the Welsh culture.
The Mosul Museum, opened in 1952, the second largest museum in Iraq, has more recently been the scene of destruction, knowing, as the perpetrators do, of the significance of cultural domination.
Further back in time an exhibition was staged, which you may already know about; the ‘Degenerate Art’ series of exhibitions across Germany in the 1930s.
They served as an attack on the Modernist Art movement, holding up new ideas in painting and literature as though they were the work of the mentally ill.
Museum directors at this time were removed from their jobs.
Art was confiscated, but not before being lampooned on special white-washed boards of the Munich galleries. (Oddly, this is where the concept of a white gallery wall began.)
These lampooned masterpieces were also hung crookedly, as if to emphasise their crazyness, and the museum curators who had aquired them in the first place were derided by the Nazi authorities.
Here at the Mussons Coupee, we see a creation of culture, not an invention, although the culture here has been established, sometimes on the slenderist of tiny details.
But it is being ‘built’ nonetheless, and once it becomes established then that is that.
It is another centre for learning, preserving and experiencing life via primary matter. We are happy for it to sit alongside our well-established museums.
Acknowledging culture, and even clutching at straws is fine by me, and welcome, when we consider the rampages of history in architecture, incurred by a town like Luton.
This museum work of mine is a rebuilding from roots up, of an identifiable culture formed from the seemingly familiar, and the commonplace.
Hopefully this installation might overcome some fears or misunderstandings of museums in general, and I hope it encourages more accessibility. I hope it can be related to, knowing the commonality of the exhibits, and their material qualities, making for a familiar yet empowering experience.
At the time of blogging, the show is still currently in place, and there will be further news about the proposed extension of hours soon.