Terrestrial Futures


still from “Journey to Orion” part of Terrestrial Futures program, 16 June 2012- ICA London

The first student forum film night, Terrestrial Futures was screened on 16 June 2012 in the ICA’s Cinema 2.  The program was organized by Seth Pimlott, Jane Scarth, and Rodney Uhler.

Exploring the wider implications of television in art and culture, Terrestrial Futures looks back at how artists, filmmakers, and writers used and questioned television. They have been interested in what has been the dominant and collective cultural form – as an artistic device and a political force. A response to the ICA exhibition Remote Control, the program is a snapshot of how politics, science-fiction and art worked with TV. Journey to Orion explores a fictional outer space where media-technologies are used for more sinister ends. The film by Ian Breakwell, One, shows us the ways in which artists began to engage with the issues of television, the broadcasting of mass events, and their removal from everyday life. Death Valley Days is a re-working of news spliced and mis-matched, subverting the images of political leaders.

Gorilla Tapes (1984)

UK, 1984, 20 minutes
Colour, Sound, Video

The writer J.G.Ballard said of Ronald Reagan,‘How could a man so intellectiually third rate, an empty stage set of a personality across which moved cartoon figures, dragon ladies and demons of the evil empire ever have become President of the worlds most powerful nation? Was the image everything now?’ This film was an attempt to explore what politics as a branch of advertising, entertainment and even romance, might mean.

Death Valley days (1984) was the first pro-duction of the British artists Jon Dovey, Gavin Hodge, and Tim Morrison working together under the name Gorilla Tapes. The film uses television news and interview footage of Ronald Reagan(and sequences lifted from his B Movie west-ern of the same title, Death Valley Days) and Margaret Thatcher. Taking advantage of a time when television news in Britain reached between twelve and twenty million people, and images of these two leaders were ubiquitous, Gorilla Tapes re-contextualized familiar images. The film edits this material to highlight and play with the personal and political relationship between the twoleaders. The piece was produced during a particularly divisive time in politics; the Cold War was still running, and Reagan had just launched Star Wars, a missile defense system that seemed like a confusion between reality and a half remembered B movie from his youth.

The film seems conventionally hostile to the two leaders in what is now a slightly cliched way, with a kind of bolshy pop politics that feels typical of the moment it was made. But at the time it was radical, and its wit was original – the techniques it helped to invent in analogue video, with a real political purpose, foreshadowed and has now become the model for anybody playing with content online.

However the film represents a response to J.G. Ballards’ understanding that television produce politicians who confused their position withentertainment and spectactle. His idea – which finds a kind of expression in this film – was that politicians seduced the public, involving the audience/voters in their private fantasies. As a consequence, he said, politicians , ‘could hardly complain if we involve them in ours’.

Ian Breakwell (1971)

15 mins black and white video
Performance. Original 16mm film made in 1971 with Mike Leggett and digitally reconstructed in 2003

On a day when every television shop displayed the broadcast of the Apollo 17 Moon mission, the downstairs window of the Angela Flowers Gallery screened CCTV footage of a performance by Mike Leggett that was taking place upstairs. It was the galleries first anniversary, and what better way to celebrate than to subvert the legitimacy of a space mission. As an endurance piece the performance itself uses the act of digging to trivialize the geological experiments of the astronauts whilst commenting on the current socio-economic climate of unemployment. Ian Breakwell’s film, which both documents and narrates the event, draws out a meditation on the significance of historic events and the effects of our viewing of them.

The banality of the every day activity – digging – when undertaken on the moon has special significance because we are viewing it. We see it and thus believe it because it is recorded and acknowledged. The repetition further enforces the notion that the two digging events happening simultaneously have a pertinent link. In the wider context of Terrestrial Futures, One shows us the ways in which Leggett and Breakwell have tuned in to the significance of widespread cultural images and and potential subversions of CCTV which was only beginning to be introduced in a big way during the early 1970’s.


still from “Journey to Orion” part of Terrestrial Futures

Solveig Nordlund, (1987)

Solveig Nordlund’s Journey to Orion is an adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s short story Thirteen to Centarus, but also a unique piece of short cinema itself. In terms of an adaptation it tells the basic skeleton of Centarus, a curious young boybegins to question and thus disrupt the life he knows on board a spacecraft. Nordlund has only changed names and other small details, but the biggest difference is in the omissions. Nordlund is wise to keep the story simple as Ballard’s Centarus is a particularly loaded short story. Where Ballard forgoes heavy atmospheric description typical of science-fiction he adds psychological weight reminiscent of Phillip K. Dick or Stanley Kubrick. Throughout the story we follow the on board controller as he becomes increasingly aware of one of his pupil’s, Adam, (Abel in Centarus) unique curiosity. As the story progresses we understand the dangers and implications of Adam’s curiosity, but the controller comes to discover new aspects of the mission as well, which alters his perception of the journey. Despite an unusual and complex situation the questions it raises are grand and universal: How do we react when presented with the reality of our existence? What dangers and freedoms does knowledge present? Neither Nordlund nor Ballard attempts answers to these questions but simply raising
them makes for an engaging experience.

Now living and working in Portugal, Swedish born Nordlund has always found particular inspiration in Ballard. She interviewed him for Swedish television and directed a feature-length adaptation of Low Flying Aircraft in 2002. Journey to Orion, filmed in 1987 on a ferryboat between Stockholm and Helsinki, is a moody, atmospheric adaptation that despite omitting certain story elements from Centarus, adds a level of creepiness and mystery. There is no on camera dialogue, instead the story is driven by the Controller’s narration and a few added lines for Abel. The visual element is also strong; the industrial set is frequently awash in large fields of color as if Mark Rothko was the consulting production designer. We’re given hints of other life on board the ship (an aimless old man, some nude sunbathing girls, Adam’s female friend Eve) but the driving personal story is of the Controller and Adam. The Controller’s obsessive observation of Adam gives an eery Death in Venice tone; a game of hide-and-seek between an older man and a cherubic boy. Yet the chase here is not guided by sexual underpinnings; it is driven by the commitment to the upholding of innocence and construction of reality. Still the relationship seems uneasy and we question the Controller’s motives. A powerful tool (and visual device) for the Controller is the CCTV on board the ship. It allows the Controller to observe all areas and also provides mini canvases for Nordlund to present
addition frames. There is a particularly captivating sequence in which we see a lone monitor recording Adam as he swims leisurely. In the film we are often looking at another monitor, an effective visual device that provides a compliment to some of the ideas behind Terrestrial Futures. The power of television both as an artistic device but as a mode of surveillance and control. It’s progression has seen dramatic changes both in its technological and mechanical self, but also in regards to both the content and delivery of content. Nordlund and Ballard present theoretical visions of the future but as we reflect on what has been written in the past and what awaits us in the future it seems inevitable that some of the best science-fiction will become, simply, reality.

The student forum would like to thank Solveig Nordlund, LUX, and Debbie Herring for their assistance with Terrestrial Futures.


Terrestrial Futures – Saturday 16 June


Saturday 16 June, 9.45pm
£5 / Free to ICA Members

For J.G.Ballard, Television was the ‘hardware of the twentieth century’ that determined the software -namely people. Through television, politics became a branch of advertising, fantasy a substitute for human contact, usurping reality for a fiction. Loosely using Ballard’s work as a theme, and responding to the exhibition Remote Control the ICA Student Forum curate a late night screening of short films. They look at censorship and surveillance, and consider how analogue media influenced society and shaped the future we now live in.

This event is initiated by Seth Pimlott, Jane Scarth, Ruth Sweeney and Rodney Uhler, members of the ICA’s Student Forum. To book tickets to the event please visit the ICA’s website.

More information

Remote Control – Interview with Simon Denny and Ira Schneider

The exhibition Remote Control unexpectedly reveals a golden age of artists working with the media landscape that conditioned the late 20th century. There was a ten year period – 1974-1984 – twenty years after television had become the confident, dominant mass-media, when thinking about television was a central cultural concern. If you wanted to think about politics or culture or popular everyday life then you had also to think about television. Reflecting on the power and significance of the ‘19” picture window and engaging guest who’s staying permanently’ became a vital subject for many writers and artists who wanted to try and engage with their time. Their concern was matched – for a moment – in British public service television by the willingness of executives to commission interrogative, experimental work. The ICA’s archive of papers from the period – which we went through – reveals how active it was around this moment (as well as its recurrent financial near death experience). The archive shows an ongoing conversation: it seems as though every other month was dedicated to a six part seminar on the impact of the TV on some aspect of daily life.

In looking at this exhibition it is important to try and understand just how powerful and communal television was, then. There were only four channels, the entire British public watched television. Moreover it was watched together: both in the sense that there was only one screen in the house, viewing was collective and domestic, but also in the sense that half the public often watched the same thing at the same time. Any 9pm news bulletin in 1982 on any ordinary news night would expect an audience of about twelve million – twenty million would be good, but not exceptional.

In this way Britain was as much an electronic community in the 1970’s as we think of it in the internet age. This gave video a special power at that moment. Video art now sometimes gets a bad name; it is seen as a medium that exaggerates the worst characteristics of lazy work – a realm of poorly produced footage, banal but pretentious ideas where the ratio of thinking to duration is in an inverse proportion. But in the seventies and eighties it offered an apparently radical way of making work and intervening in the mass- media that was television.

But there is nothing in Remote Control that isn’t totally absorbing. It presents an era where artists at the top of their game really grapple with television. The gallery downstairs, lined with original TV monitors (imported from China – because you can no longer get cathode ray tube sets in Europe) shows work that can be loosely divided into two strands. One body of work is interruptive. It either inserted carefully crafted video into the television schedule disrupting the unthinking acceptance of TV – and unimaginably now – no doubt somewhat puzzled the several million people who came across as a part of an ordinary evenings viewing. One example of this is David Hall’s This is a television Receiver, made for the BBC in 1976, to interrupt normal programming with a deeply weird image of Richard Baker. At this point Baker was the most familiar newsreader of the time (who would have been recognisable in every home in the country). He is seen talking about the unreality of his own television image while visually and aurally dissolving to the point of abstraction. The video’s elegant simplicity punctures the unthinking experience and glazed identification with the TV image.

The other strand of work mimics the forms or exposes the means by which TV content – advertising, soap operas or news – was made, taking them apart for closer inspection. Alternatively by cutting and editing found television content, it problematised the flow of TV. It summoned up a latent meaning, and explored the way in which TV was colonising how people thought. In Adland made by the Guerilla Collective TVTV in 1969, falsely chummy interviewers get admen – from the boardroom to the studio – to talk disarmingly frankly about the how they try to seduce the public.

In the gallery upstairs, Farocki & Ujică’s Videograms of a Revolution, shows how state television became the site for revolution – for a brief moment, direct political action involved the appropriation of state media: rather than storm parliament, you stormed the TV network. The revolutions of the Arab spring in 2011 all appeared to need a public space to occupy, a square or even a roundabout would do, and used the digital media for organizing demonstrations. However, back in analogue time, television stations were the public space you had to take over. In Romania in 1992, or Russia in 1989, and in a very different way Serbia (where we controversially bombed the television station), the capturing of a television station was the revolutionary moment. The troubled aftermath of the revolution in Romania – there was no easy transition to decent democracy – is also foreshadowed in the coverage of the brutal end of the deposed dictator and his wife, who are shot in real time on screen.

The student forum spoke to the artist Simon Denny, who played a curatorial role for part of the exhibition, and to Ira Schneider, an experimental videomaker from the 1969 on. Schneider had also played a major role in the politics of video distribution – a radical analogue issue. Denny was responsible for the installation in the gallery of the massive television signal Hub – an exhausted bit of grey equipment which was the engineering behind the distribution of the TV signal in all of north east London. We asked questions and they had a conversation about the different perspectives that working in analogue and digital periods provoked. Ira began by talking about the last time he visited London.

Ira: I was travelling around the world for a project called Timezones, where in one room, on 24 TV screens you could see all around the world at the same time. I was videotaping in London, but also in Papua New Guinea, in Africa, around the world. That’s because there was no global satellite coverage in 1977. Only two-thirds of the world was connected for real-time communications.

Cameron: How have you found the advances in technology have affected your work since then.

Ira: Well that’s why I’m here. I keep renewing… it keeps renewing me. Back then I carried 72 video cassettes that were this big (gestures). Sony video cassettes, in black garbage bags so that you could never see the word ‘Sony.’ And it worked – we never had anything stolen. And the camera was that big (massive) – and this is my camera today (phone-size) and next time in a couple of years I’ll be doing it with just a ring, a ring on my finger.

Simon: Maybe with the finger itself.

Ira: Yeah (laughs) (points his finger at us) ‘Hey you’re on TV!’

Seth: When did you both start working with film or video?

Simon: I was at art school in New Zealand making sculpture but when I started travelling, I started working in video

Ira When was this, the 90s?

Simon: No no, early zeros, not that old!

Ira: Wow

Simon: From travelling, I thought it was kind of ridiculous to be making rooms with stuff in it, so I started working with more ephemeral technology from my computer and that’s when I got into the history of video and started making videos for my own presentations.

Ira: I started doing video in January 1969.

Seth As a student?

Ira: No. I had a master’s degree by then in psychology and made 8 short films.

Simon: You were about my age then? I’m 29

Ira: Yes, actually, I was about 30. I discovered I couldn’t go on making films because they cost too much and I didn’t get a return because they were experimental films and played only in underground cinemas and didn’t return much money. So I switched to video and then suddenly I had sync sound because in film it was too complicated and expensive and you always had to travel around with somebody who held the microphone and did the sound.

Seth: Science fiction writers like Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut were prophetic about the way in the changes in information technology would radically alter or colonise inner space or the mind in some way. They were accurate about the physical way that this technology would come to permeate everything we do. I was wondering about that future that these writers imagined, that we seem – to some extent at least- to inhabit.

Simon: In terms of prediction, one of the main problems that Ira’s generation probably faced when they were first starting to work with video was distribution. Artists didn’t have the same access to distributing information as the main networks did. No one predicted how easy distribution would become. Now all of us have access to distribution but what we might not have access to is the intense marketing tools that are standard in media industries.

Ira: Getting paid for it!

Simon: One of the aspirations of Ira’s generation seemed to me to be trying to use televisual technology to produce less sensationalist, closer to the everyday, more realist, ecologically sound material, to use video in what they felt to be a more positive way and not only commercially. Now the same kind of maybe sensationalist material – that Ira’s generation was working against – still gets pumped out and this is what we all come into contact with. [Digital distribution hasn’t necessarily improved the chances of non-commercial, unsensational material, to find an audience]. So even if I’m wanting to find an audience on youtube, a young kid farting on a mouse or whatever is going to be better suited to finding large audiences than say ammeter social realist documentaries, because of the nature of what viewing youtube is like as an experience.

Ira: Yeah, Bohemian Rhapsody in the back of a police car, singing the whole song, and it got on CNN

Simon: It’s not what I have the impression Ira’s peers were hoping to use that network for.

Ira: There is this crap about ‘Clash of the Titans,’ ‘Revenge of the Titans,’ ‘The Killing of the Titans’ these big monster things. Now, it’s these giant things that come from games. It’s all crap and unfortunately that’s what’s dominating the experience of young kids today.

Simon: I slightly differ on my opinion on that. I think that often the material that is used is not so interesting but the forms are. I know people that do very inventive and progressive things with that kind of stuff. Do you know what I mean?

Ira: With the technology, yes. Not only shooting other people…

Seth: Can the gaming form, where you can indulge fantasies or pathological ideas but without there being any physical harm might have some beneficial social effect?

Simon: Well, there have been studies on exactly that, actually. There are claims that it’s cathartic if people play out those fantasies out, not in reality.

Ira: It goes back to archaeology and anthropology. The human being is born of the Savannah, with wide expanses of flat land where the eyes developed into a tracking tool so that you could hunt the prey. We embody this coordination, this calculus. This is it! I’m reaching and eye and hand (reaches for his glass of water). The ability to track over time the movement and bring things together. Calculus does that and we have it in us!

That’s just the description of what we are doing. How we function. That’s what these games are.

Simon: Some people would argue that any kind of technology is just an extension of people. The body is already a prosthetic and so any other technology that you can put on top of that is just the same as the body.

Cameron: Would you see modern technology as being neutral?

Simon: No I don’t think it’s neutral. In terms of social media for example, my personal position is that social media isn’t necessarily evil but it certainly puts things into a particular environment. Facebook makes money partially by giving very detailed demographics to their advertisers. That’s the fundamental underlying function of that business. The social function that happens between us when we use it is something different.

Ira: Just be careful what you put on it because they own it.

Simon: Exactly, yes they own it, they own everything. There was a guy who requested all of the information that Facebook had on him and a very substantial dossier came and it still wasn’t everything. They have a vast data mine and apparently they’re only just starting find good ways to use that vast amount of detail. I think we’re also not at the moment seeing what will come out of all this knowledge gathering that’s happening because the processing is only starting.

Seth: You have no idea where that information might end up. It might not fall into benign hands.

Simon: Yes, exactly. I have friends who think it’s absolutely fine; this is just the forces of survival of the fittest happening. I’m not sure that I believe that myself and would imagine that Ira doesn’t. If you give all these people this information they have all this power. You’ve got nothing for it. You’re at the whim of a small minority still deciding what they want to do with detailed information from people like us. I’m a bit on the fence with it myself – I can see both ways.

Cameron: People say that the Arab Spring would not have happened without social media.

Simon: Yes, this is true, but it’s only a small part of what that technology’s doing. Ok, you can enable people to do that, but there are other sides of things happening at the same time. There’s this great little meme that I saw on 4chan that’s two chickens in a chicken coup saying ‘isn’t it great that we have all this free food!’ I don’t know if that is the situation but that’s one way of reading it.

Cameron: How would you see your own practice in relation to these technologies?

Simon: It’s something that I’m totally consumed with processing, in a different way and in a different moment, from people like Ira. Ira’s been doing it for a lot longer than I have.

Seth: Artists in the early twentieth century were very quick to recognise the ability of film – or moving images on a screen- to work on the mind covertly, its form analogous to something like the unconscious. Do you see a different relationship to the screen now? How does a kind of complete immersion in moving images affect us psychologically?

Simon: it depends how, where and when it’s experienced maybe?

Seth: What type of content do you look for?

Ira: I prefer reality, abstraction from reality, and juxtaposition. Other people prefer sensationalism. There was a woman – la Fontaine- she did a video installation with 24 screens . Each screen had the same guy on it doing the same dance. What the fuck is that. Nam June Paik had 100 screens with the same image on every screen: what the hell is that about. Bigger sells is what it is,not content.

SD: My reading of what Ira is interested in is human scale, something closer to a human level. Making it bigger and more saturated is definitely not what I think Ira is interested in. He is interested in the capability of that technology to deliver video information, audio information to different place.

Ira: I have a bias in my own work, which for the most part is non-narrative. I don’t do stories. I assemble images and sounds to pass information along in a non proscenium way, whereas the television set is thought of as a stage. I often do installations with one or more screens . Even when I am doing a one screen video, its many different scenes, different people, different locations and somehow I tie them all into each other.

SD: That is where we crossover. I’m interested in the way information reaches us, what our interaction with the world feels like through information. I’m not only interested in video, but this is something that is very common in terms of the way we receive information so therefore one looks at it. I’m also interested in graphics and the way that they speak, and what their content is. I’m interested in looking at what the machinery is for visually and audibly describing ideas is.

Ira: I have a-book to suggest – McChesney,& Nichols : Our Media not Theirs. It’s straight to the point, a good starting point for artists using television.

Seth: Some of your previous bits of work uses found bits of video – often generic content- relaxation videos, self help films, that set up (or are intended to set up) a very personal or emotional relationship with its audience. I was wondering why you look at that sort of material.

Simon:I don’t always work with found material. I make things as well. For one project I used a relaxation video because I was trying to use fish tank imagery that was part of kind of art history dealing with video. The fish tank is often used as a kind of metaphor for the TV box. This was a history I was interested in participating in. On another project I recently finished, I worked with a psychologist trying to devise a non linear time line for a history of work and society in New Zealand (where I am from). That could seem like generic material, but actually takes the style of powerpoint and other formats that are often used to set out this kind of information, but coming to a more interesting way of using that kind of aesthetic. For every project I try and have a very specific aim, what I want out of it, and how I will go about doing it. So I provide myself with a very particular problem, which I then try and solve in the best way possible. It is not a formula that always works, but it is kind of template.

Seth: Is that a formula that you applied to remote control?

Simon; Yes definitely, because I was asked to design this room that would be a touchstone for a number of video art pieces from the 1960’s to 1980’s, dealing with the subject of television. This is why I brought Ira‘s material into it because it seemed to me so poignant/relevant to how people started thinking about dealing with this subject. The focus that Radical Software published by Raindance Corporation [a group that that Ira was involved in] put on television is for me a very useful one for thinking about what came later, especially the emphasis on information distribution.

The moment I got this giant transmitter -TV4 – this huge piece of equipment sitting in the gallery that was only able to happen because of the digital analogue switchover that is happening in London right now. We can only house this huge object that can be applied as a symbol for the mass distribution of media, because it is being thrown out at this moment.

Cameron: How did you acquire this monument?

Simon. While researching for the show I came across the fact that the show was opening at the same time as the switchover – which is a good time to comment on artists and television. I tried to find out who owned this bit of broadcasting equipment, I got the ICA Curator to help me get in touch with go-to’s for that, and its all owned by a private company Arqiva, who donated the equipment to us. They own every single bit of broadcast hardware in the UK. We managed to convince them to give us Chanel 4’s

transmitter for North East London.

Ira: Did they pay for delivery. Because that’s important

Simon: They did, 5 men came down to deliver it so it was quite a big deal.

Ira: What are you going to do with it after? Is it going into your apartment?

Simon: I wish.

Seth: Did channel four reach the entire country through that bit of equipment:

Simon: No, this is one part. The way it works is that you have several signal hubs, and you have this situation where every channel sends their video signal from the studio to this hardware, that then kind of blows it up, amplifies it and then sends it via these giant antennas that are all around. But that is just a fraction of the mass of material – one part for channel four for north east London. It is only part of the line that processes channel four. But I think it visually gives you some sense of scale in the gallery.

Ira: Are there any rare earth metals in there?

Simon: There are amazing copper ones, huge chunks on the transformers. This obsolescence cycle is so quick and happens so much, there is such a mass of things that get used and then re-used.

Cameron: It’s also a kind of abstraction, because you never see this kind of object, you are presented with something that is completely removed from any kind of context.

Simon: Well this is the one of the reasons I wanted to bring this bit of equipment in. It also speaks of Google’s situation, where you have this idea of the cloud, some immaterial resource where you’re information can be stored. But of course it’s not a cloud, its some huge warehouse, packed with enormous powerful machines, using lots of resources and power. This is the idea, to bring that very material force into view.


Get ready to see some new faces on the blog and around the ICA, the first meeting of new Student Forum members took place in the Studio on Wednesday night. Lots of new people from all over London (and beyond!), everyone buzzing with ideas about new projects and what they see for the future of the Student Forum. I would just like to welcome everyone to say it was great to meet you and certainly can’t wait to work with you all!

With the next exhibition Remote Control, opening April 2nd, I am sure we will all have plenty to talk about to get the ball rolling.

We look forward to working towards a number of projects in the coming months and connecting with the ICA programme. More soon!

ICA Student Forum Open Call

Open call for proposals – Student Forum ICA

Interested in curating public events for the ICA programme? Want to become part of a student community? Keen to engage with contemporary art practitioners, student peers and ICA staff?

We are looking for dynamic students to join our Student Forum and shape a public programme of events in response to the ICA exhibition programme, film screenings and performances. Working closely with ICA staff, students will engage with contemporary art practitioners as well as participate in current debates around art practice.

The ICA is a multi-disciplinary art institution that has been at the forefront of radical art practices since its inception in 1947, presenting an innovative and challenging programme of visual arts, contemporary music, international cinema, performance, live arts, talks and debates.

The ICA is hoping to work with approximately 10-15 new participants to the Student Forum.  We are seeking a balance of interests, creative disciplines, undergraduates as well as postgraduates. The ICA is committed to Equal Opportunity and Diversity. If your application is shortlisted you will be invited to attend an open meeting of the Student Forum in March.

If you are interested, please send us a few lines on your current activities, the focus of your course and up to 250 words in response to each of the following 3 questions:

  • What type of events have you attended at the ICA?
  • In your view, what could the ICA become?
  • What would you like to gain from joining the Student Forum?

Please e-mail your responses to learning@ica.org.uk.
Deadline is Friday 17 February at 5pm.

In Numbers: ICA Student Forum In Conversation with Phil Aarons

In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955 is an exhibition that draws from Phil Aaron’s extraordinary collection of zines and independent publications created by artists and produced internationally since 1955. The experience of these very ephemeral, intentionally transient fragments from particular moments and groups transformed into revered cult objects is odd, but remarkable. It feels like an intrusion into the private space of the communities that these publications bound together.

Photo statting, roneoing, xeroxing – words from some science fiction future that have completely bypassed my generation – were technologies that made it possible for marginal individuals and collectives to produce their own material cheaply. Those publications exhibited in In Numbers are physically different from the lavish pre-second world war publications from avant-garde art movements like the Surrealists, such as Minotaure and VVV. Perfectly chic, these magazines could be described in the same way that J.G. Ballard summed up the beauty of the surrealist women, ‘Nymphs from another planet’. By contrast, In Numbers shows publications – works of art in themselves – equally dense with ideas and ingeniously creative, but imbued with a D.I.Y. ethic. These works don’t talk down to a passive audience, but rather assume that readers are part of their community. The thought of receiving Just Another Asshole, Barbara Ess’s post-punk zine or the laugh-out-loud Landslide through the post is enough to make you get out your scalpel, and slap your own zine together. And yet the form also produced the haunting delicacy of Zerokkusu Shashinco’s Photocopy books.

Phil Aarons, the collector and co-editor of the catalogue In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists Since 1955, has recognised that beyond the polemic or beauty of any individual publication, as a whole they represented a new way of making work and a new kind of work. Phil Aarons spoke to us (ICA Student Forummembers) about the social and political role that these zines played for the artists producing them and the communities they were produced for, and how the genre remains relevant and continues to develop.

Seth Pimlott (ICA Student Forum): Tell us where the material comes from, and how it ended up as an exhibition?

Phil Aarons: I have been assembling the material for about 20 odd years, and the impetus for putting it all together was that we wanted to write a book that would be about the history of this phenomenon of artist’s publications.

The first form of the exhibition was shown when the book was published in New York, but this is a different iteration. There are some new things, there are different choices, and there are different parts of it that are being presented, and different parts of the magazines. So this is a unique presentation here at the ICA. 

SP: Can you remember your first encounter with one of these publications?

PA: I’m sure I had seen many of these without thinking about them. A lot of them are very ephemeral in the sense that you don’t come across them and think ‘Oh, this is a major work of art!’ But I do think about them as works of art.

The one that made the biggest impression earliest was the Wallace Berman,Semina. He was a very interesting artist from the West Coast, a little bit earlier than Ed Ruscha and John Baldessari and others. He was sort of off the radar from a global perspective. He produced very interesting work, in fact he was actually arrested and put in jail for one night because of a work of art he showed in a gallery that was considered to be pornographic. And so he became a kind of hero of mine!

There are 7 or 9 issues of Semina, which he hand collated with illustrations of some of his work -all original works- and mailed them to his friends. They were never for sale, never produced to be on a news stand, it was just a very personal and individual publication.

Jane Scarth (ICA Student Forum): I am interested in the way in which these zines can create a community. Another project of yours has been producing the book, Queer Zines. Could you talk a bit about how you see the importance zines hold in those types of communities?

PA: I’m glad you asked that. To me the distribution of this material was as much about the creation of communities of like-minded people and of like-minded interests as it was a presentation of individual artistic production. So the fact that there was a community of people who were interested in getting and passing along the material was part of its real fascination for me. What I was most interested in with Queer Zines is that they were publications that were designed to create a sense of community in the world, for people who were marginalised.

JS: The academic practice of Queer Theory emerged mainly in the 1990’s, with figures such as Judith Butler observing the realities of ‘non-normative’ people and transforming it into something applicable to all kinds of cultural theory. Do you think it would be possible to say that the production of queer zines in the time just before that, during the 80’s, had a significant impact at all?

PA: I’m not an academic expert, but I would have you look at one of the publications in the exhibition by Scott Treleaven –This is the Salvation Army– which is a queer zine coming out of Toronto and done with a punk aesthetic. He’s a very talented queer artist and a good friend of ours.

I think that whole movement going on in Toronto, where there were other zines, other people self-identifying as queer artists, generated the interest of queer historians who said ‘OK. These are people who are not simply trying to be in the mainstream of hetero normalcy, they want to identify with a political culture that’s different’. I found that extremely fascinating. I agree that this self-identification allowed academics to look back and say ‘This is an interesting phenomenon, we ought to understand what it is and what it means’.

SP: That’s what’s really exciting about looking through the show; the exhibit gives you a snapshot of the way people are relating to each other and their work at a very particular moment. They also show moments where music and art come together; it’s a good format for combining those two forms. For instance Just Another Asshole, which has a record with it, and lots of musicians getting involved as well, people like Kim Gordon and Rhys Chatham.

I believe you were around New York during the 70’s and 80’s, were you involved in that post-punk scene?

PA: Yes, but truthfully not as an active participant. I’m not nostalgic; I’m excited about re-discovering it. AA Bronson who was a member of General Idea and produced FILE, he was a part of it but I was never was. I’ve always been outside of it looking back. As a consequence it gives me the ability to appreciate it because it’s different.

JS: I would like to talk a bit about the political aspect because I think a lot of people associate these types of publications with times of change, or people trying to change things in a radical way. I am wondering; have you ever come across a zine that is apolitical?

PA: On that topic there is a zine series in the show done by Tom Sachs who is quite a radical artist. On the whole, I think that artists who take the time to be publishing zines are expressing a personal, political, and artistic viewpoint that is not of the mainstream. You don’t just put in the trouble, the time, and the expense of putting out a zine if you have nothing to say, if you are happy sitting at home watching sitcoms. It’s not what people are doing.

These are definitely direct -and sometimes indirect- political statements by artists about how they view their lives, and how they view the social order generally. Frequently, if not exclusively, coming from marginalised part of society, women and queer artists for instance who are looking for a larger voice and a larger role.

JS: I’ve noticed that many of the artists who publish these are to a large extent experimentally multi-disciplinary in the rest of their practice – Dieter Roth, General Idea, and Daniel Spoerri to name but a few. Have you come across an artist creating serial publications for whom it is their sole output?

PA: There are some artists whose work is only zines, or serial publications, whatever you want to call them. All the artists I know and admire maintain their primary focus in the zine and publication world, but if asked by someone ‘Can you do a work, I’ll sell it in my gallery’, it’s a rare individual of any kind who will say no!The truth is I really don’t know, but I do know many artists for whom a great deal of their work remains the publications. I admire them, and I also admire artists who do both consistently.

We have an artist who you might not think of as radical in many ways, Pablo Bronstein. He’s a tremendous book artist as well as doing museum shows; he had a solo show at the ICA last year in fact. He also does amazing performance work, among other things, yet still he’s definitely an artist for whom publications remain an important part of his work.

SP: The zines in the show are often responding to the places that they exist in. Do you find there are particular ties and concerns of people living in certain cities?

PA: I think in the days before the Internet, the days when the mail was taking material from one place to another, there was more of that kind of regional network and separation. But now, in a completely global world, I don’t see the same. I see less regionalisation.

There may have been some amazing publications in the Middle East in the Arab Spring, or things like that, but none that I have been able to track down or look at. 

JS: On that subject of the Internet, I wanted to ask what that means for the future of zines? For me there are two strands; firstly issues to do with how everyone can now be a blogger, everyone has access to this open, democratic forum in which to air their views. Secondly in relation to the types of people who continue to produce them. In my experience it is almost primarily a pursuit by illustration students who take on the form as part of a ‘retro’ aesthetic.

PA: I don’t think I would call it retro. I do think that the Internet provides another avenue for expression of a certain kind, but it won’t in any sense permanently replace the physicality of having an object that you produce with your own hands, or on your own zerox, or whatever you use.

As you point out, there is something about the visual, the picture, that looks and feels different on the computer screen than holding it in your hand. I think this will continue and I don’t see it as being replaced entirely by the Internet.

SP: It seems that for people who are putting out zines now, it ties in with a broader cultural trend of re-living moments.

PA: I think that there is a nostalgia, and what my wife calls a fetishisation of the book and the object. I think that’s true, and for good reason!

JS: In terms of the book and the object, what are the problems in curating a show like this? For one thing there is surely the same problem that exhibitions at the British Library always have in that someone must pick a page. Furthermore these are very tactile objects, how do you feel that translates into the exhibition?

PA: We have put a screen in the gallery with multiple images running across which sort of reinforces the fact these are fragile things and you can’t necessarily touch them. But at the same time you can get a real sense of their tactile quality by seeing them. What’s more, people are still producing zines, the ICA gift shop has zines you can buy for a pound or less and so the tradition continues.

That kind of connection is more immediate than the illuminated manuscript today. It’s easier to maintain in your own mind what these things are going to look or feel like because you connect with the same things being produced by younger people.

SP: In the text accompanying the exhibition there is the suggestion that zines are social things, which is quite schismatic. The people producing them break off in different directions after having formed one publication. Nevertheless, do you find that people are trying to talk to each other, or perhaps talk to other publications?

PA: Yes there is a sort of web. Take for instance FILE, from General Idea, and then there was another related one I showed in the exhibition, VILE, and then there is another one I didn’t show, BILE, and a million others! They are speaking to one another, trying to engage a response. Any kind of art is about response. Now that could be ‘Hey this is great!’ or it could be a whole other periodical.

That kind of dialogue among the publications themselves is fascinating because it’s a real level of engagement you don’t normally get to see.

You don’t just go to a gallery, then go home and forget about it. Well you might, but say for instance you go home and create a work in response to something you’ve seen, you don’t get to send it to the gallery to put it up next to it. This kind of back and forth is a very important part of many people participating, and its adjunct to the notion of community.

In Numbers is showing at the ICA until 25 March 2012

Everything: Goth Night!

Thanks to all who contributed and joined us for June 11th’s Everything, which ran in conjunction with Template for Terror: The Revival of the Gothic weekend.


  • Felicita http://soundcloud.com/felicita
  • Alex Nikiporenko http://www.myspace.com/alexnikiporenko
  • Michael Slusakowicz http://michaelslusakowicz.blogspot.com/
  • William Mackrell http://www.williammackrell.com/
  • Mary Whitney Vangrin
  • Leigha Mason http://www.leighamason.com/

With a special Reading Tomb residency:

  • Gery Georgieva