The Triennial legacy: design and the delight of the random

The Triennial legacy: design and the delight of the random

A few years ago I found myself walking from the “entertainment zone” in Milton Keynes to my hotel near the station. It was a desolate and spooky experience. Milton Keynes, the UK’s city of the future, was designed with cars in mind, with little thought apparently given to its in-between spaces, which at that time of night become empty stretches of concrete, devoid of other living beings. Perhaps the supremacy of the car was an understandable assumption in the 1950s and early 60s, but more interesting in many ways is the evidence in the city’s layout of the dead hand of over-design, the stultifying effect of the organising imagination.

Milton Keynes was created on very rational principles. It’s laid out in a grid. The centre is zoned, so restaurants, theatre and cinemas are grouped together in a single area, while the nearby shopping zone is similarly self-contained. The shopping centre closes with the shops, and as the night comes in it becomes apparent that the vitality of an urban space depends on randomness, depends on there being a chaotic mix of shops, bars, other entertainment and homes, anything that keeps people in sight.

The important word there is “chaotic”. Reacting against the easy sterility of uniformity, contemporary builders are now surrounding us with mock-chaotic estates, with houses of different size and design within the same street, up to a point. This depressing idea seems to have been inspired by developments like Poundbury, Prince Charles’ favoured new “village” on the outskirts of Dorchester. These soulless attempts at “traditional communities” bear as much relation to good design as X Factor performances bear to music, falling somewhere between the laughable and the nauseating. You cannot design the random: it always looks fake, because it is.

I’m not suggesting it’s impossible to “design” good urban spaces. I’m arguing that good urban design works with the grain of the random, the accidental.

Walking one evening recently along the Folkestone Leas, past the ten hour clock left over from the 2011 Triennial, and then one of the more recent “whether” vane cockerels on the roof of the Leas Cliff Hall booking office, it struck me that these objects were themselves beginning to seem random, and in this were taking on an enriched meaning that had little to do with the intentions of their creators. It was always agreed that many pieces would stay in the town, slowly building into a kind of open air gallery of contemporary art/sculpture, but now it seems that over time and in between the usual shops, offices and homes, Folkestone might slowly fill its nooks and crannies with apparently pointless and eccentric objects. The further we move in time from the original conceptual designs of their creators, the more interesting the objects become, not least because they will begin to redefine the character and nature of the town, rather than standing as “artworks” in contrast to ordinary life here.

I’ve written in the past about problems with the pretensions of much conceptual art, and particularly the asinine vocabulary and unexamined assumptions that underpin much of what passes for critical thinking in the visual art world. Let’s put that aside because in the light of randomness a lot of the work that goes into the Triennial is probably more enjoyably appreciated without the pretensions of art.

It becomes a form of street entertainment, an enlivening of our daily experience. Of course entertainment and enlivenment can be part of an artwork, part of what it does, but if the word art is going to mean something different from entertainment then artwork has to do more than entertain. This isn’t an easy line to draw. We might reasonably see an Alan Bennett play as a work of art, but then does it really help to see Fawlty Towers that way? It’s certainly brilliant, but the art label won’t help you understand the brilliance any better.

I’m not going to try to define here what makes art different from other types of endeavour. Actually I think that difference can be usefully discussed, but not rigorously defined (it will, like the concept of consciousness, always be elusive). At the same time seeing the Folkestone Triennial legacy as a growing collection of eccentric objects highlights the need for a term describing a different kind of creative activity. This activity is often design-led, but has either no or very limited designs on us, on our perceptions. It might like good graphic design have a strictly practical purpose, while being nicely executed in its own right, or it might have no real purpose at all, but what makes it valuable is the way it will take on a life of its own as part of the life of its surroundings.

What could this term, this word be? It’s not “craft”, which has its own specificity, often foolishly denigrated by the contemporary art world. But perhaps we don’t need another term at all. Perhaps we should reject the urge to categorise, and respect the spirit of the random, which so often brings us the unlooked-for delights that can make life seem worth living.

Brutal truths

Brutal truths

I caught part of a recent BBC Wales profile of Karl Jenkins, perhaps the most commercially successful “classical” composer of our times. I feel I must put in these inverted commas because the genre is not an easy one to talk about: it denotes broadly a world of virtuosity and rigour, a world of demanding music particularly in its contemporary forms. Jenkins’ music demands the inverted commas because in critical respects it’s not particularly demanding, is in fact resolutely accessible. He has his fans among classical musicians, but I imagine he’s well used to what may seem like an elitist snobbery from his detractors.

When I was a schoolboy I was interested in some of the whackier jazz fusion combos, including Soft Machine. Jenkins replaced the Softs’ sax player Elton Dean in the early 70s, and was important to the band’s evolution, but I always felt he didn’t quite fit, that there was something detached about him. It didn’t come as any great surprise when a few years later he left experimental jazz behind for the lush embrace of advertising soundtracks.

I’m not a fan, but that’s not particularly important. Praising Jenkins on the documentary the ad mogul Sir Peter Hegarty claimed that there was no greatness in making difficult music for an audience of 40 people; that truly creative people absorbed what was going on around them, and redeployed it somehow, in a way that had integrity but could appeal to a mass market (I paraphrase).

I guess it’s no great surprise to hear that coming from an ad man, but it only illustrates how denuded the idea of “creativity” is in the advertising world, which in many ways has shaped our culture, our mainstream sensibilities (entirely to their detriment).

Some great art is popular. Much of it isn’t, because, pace Hegarty, popularity or the lack of it is pretty much irrelevant to the quality of a piece of art.

Advertising requires imagination, and technical skills, but it is never creative in the way good art (let alone great art) must be. That’s because advertising is ALWAYS safe, and has to be, even when it seems to court risk (what it offers is the manner of the risky, but never its substance). Advertising is rooted in cliché, because advertising needs its instant hooks, the easy pull of the familiar; it needs to reassure even when it’s promising adventure. The focus groups wouldn’t have it any other way. Good art on the other hand, however it works, mostly takes us to places we wouldn’t normally go. It unsettles us to move us, not to buy something, but to re-experience in a new light some aspect of what we already have, or give us something perhaps we didn’t know we wanted.

Art and advertising are diametrically opposed. It’s not then surprising that in his recent TV paean to Brutalist architecture the great Jonathan Meades should in passing take a swipe at the stultifying influence of advertising. That said, Meades’ real target as so often was our cultural veneration of mediocrity, the safe, the undemanding. He traced a line from the the perceived grotesquerie of John Vanbrugh, through High Victorian Gothic, to the Brutalist design of the 1960s and 70s (or thereabouts). This, he argued, was an architecture which felt no need to apologise for itself, an architecture of ideas and the imagination, an architecture capable of refashioning the space it occupied. All this sits in contrast to the unassuming orderliness of Georgian building, beloved by the conservative mind, easily harmonious in its proportions, which some would see as elegance or even beauty, but others like Meades would find oppressive in its bourgeois lifelessness.

It would be unwise to argue that a design was good just because it was adventurous, or exciting. It might be these things and still not work, for other reasons. Assertiveness is exhilarating when you have something worth asserting; without it assertiveness is most likely to bring us bathos, or vulgarity.

Brutalism is a misleading term, suggesting something thrustingly hideous, but then what we think of as Brutalism isn’t even a style. Like most architecture it was a response to its times, a determination to find an adequate form for conflicting senses of hope and darkness, those apprehensions themselves born out of a feeling for the blankness of the natural world, the dependence on ourselves to make what meaning we could in our lives, at a time when religious faith appeared to be necessarily collapsing into the confines of the lunatic fringe. In many ways we’re still struggling with these darker apprehensions, all the more so since any optimism bubbling up around our emergence from the Second World War seems to have fallen by the wayside.

Instead we have a society increasingly polarised between the crushing and the crushed, where private and corporate wealth, protected from the consequences of its own grotesque misjudgements by public handouts, now commands shining and vapid temples to itself, the new towers of London evoking not so much awe as the vaingloriousness of San Gimignano’s merchant princes.

Through the ministries of consumerism we’re offered the consolations of constant undemanding distraction, whether through sanitised mysticism, or the forced and prurient excitement of Reality TV (never was a genre more ironically labelled).

That’s not the fault of Karl Jenkins, or any other creative soul working to do something good in these conditions; just because something’s not great doesn’t mean it can’t be good.

Unfortunately the danger seems to be more the other way round; so our apparent desire to shirk the serious or the difficult means we settle for consolation when we could do with confrontation, when we debase our own judgements to claim greatness where there’s only a kind of slavery.

I find advertising almost impossible to watch or read these days, no matter how well-crafted. I find it hard to look beyond the manipulative motives, the unsustainable pointlessness of it all, much as though this is the world in which I make my living. But at least when I’m making my living I know what I’m doing (in every sense); I’d never mistake it for something more important, something enduring. And I hope I’d never mistake the sentimental for the truly sentient, never mistake sensation for sense.