THINGS.

A blog artwork by John Rogers.

97. The Comments Book

Aside from a handful of flyers and stuff like that, this comments book is the main remnant of a piece of live art called Stare.

It was a performance that happened five times in total. The first time was in York at the Impressions Gallery - I had just moved back to the West Midlands, and so travelled up from Wolverhampton with a couple of friends. It took place at the opening of a show of wall-based work by another artist - two chairs were arranged in the middle of the space, a few feet apart and facing one another, with me in one chair, and the participant in the other. A helper went around asking people if they wanted to take part, and explaining the rules: namely, for me and them to maintain eye contact for three minutes without speaking, or looking away.

It was designed to be an experiential piece in nature, and so there was little documentation. Pictures and videos didn’t feel like the right media to represent the piece. Instead, each participant was asked to write in this comments book.

There is a little bit of video, however. The third time this piece happened was at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham, and Central News called them up about the press release for Stare. They were interested in running an item about it, so a camera crew and newscaster came down to the gallery to shoot something. I explained a bit about the piece; about how it was about holding someone’s attention, offering an intimate first-hand experience, and stripping away all of the obstacles that traditionally lie between artists and their audience. Then, the news lady sat down to do a three minute Stare with me. She found it very difficult, and jumped up out of the chair squealing after less than a minute - the only person who failed to carry out the piece in it’s entirety. I think perhaps that she was very much about cultivating a professional, breezy facade or persona - but staring into someone’s eyes is very personal and revealing. She couldn’t enter into that quite genuine, intense moment of connection by letting her guard down on camera.

The same happened in New York at the D.UM.B.O. Arts Festival, where a boisterous American chap insisted on talking at me throughout, sarcastically saying things like “yeah I see what you’re doing here - very clever. You must think you’re very, very clever”. I looked back blankly, tilting my head at him, just taking in his response. Afterwards, I felt a bit sorry for him, because the level on which he decided to engage with me was hostile and suspicious. On one level, the piece acts as a kind of mirror by making the participant notice their own responses.

It was a different experience with every single person. Sometimes, they would start off laughing, from embarrassment or nerves, before sinking into a kind of restful trance, then start smiling again. Some people were so shy they could barely keep eye contact, and seemed to fear my gaze as if they might give away some secret without meaning to; some people seemed to see me as an opponent, and leaned in aggressively as if trying to “win”, once or twice to point where I felt quite threatened. Some looked on, calm and open, gazing happily into my eyes, and it often felt like there was a mutual and subtle psychological probing taking place. Sometimes, the air seemed to fill with sexual tension, with both me and the participant smiling and blushing.

With every single person, there was a connection. It’s amazing how much you can learn about someone from looking at them and gauging their unspoken responses, actions and reactions, facial expressions and physical tics. It felt like a huge amount of communication was occurring without using a single word.

After a couple of hours of staring into people’s eyes, moods and minds, I felt oddly calm, but often mentally exhausted. It took a lot of emotional and psychological energy to engage with so many strangers in that quite intense way. I love looking back at the comments now - from “that was weird” to “a beautiful experience” to “it’s amazing how long three minutes can seem” to “any longer and I think I would have fallen in love”. It forged a direct and unusual connection with another person in a way I’d found frustratingly difficult via object-based arts practise.

Since then, the work that’s had the most genuine audience involvement and feedback is this blog, via social media. Tweets, “likes”, messages, comments, online chats and Tumblr re-blogs all feed into what the piece is, and how it lives and grows. “Things” tries to forge a different but equally direct type of intimacy, using personal experiences and the internet instead of eye contact.

96. The Blackberry

This phone took almost every picture in this blog series, apart from this one, and the old photographs from Oslo and Wolverhampton. This ‘phone portrait’ was taken by my flatmate Simon - on his phone.

I had the idea for this blog on the move. It was inspired by finding the gold button, the first object in the series, but also by the the years of collecting things, being fascinated by objects, and the comments of people who come into my room for the first time and spend half an hour just looking at all the little things. It just clicked together in one moment, standing at a bus stop.

And writing on the move means writing on this phone. It became habitual after a few entries - first of all, a morning routine to write an entry on my hour long underground commute to work, and before long, another one on my way back, leading to this sustained burst of productivity. A lot of people who write seem to struggle to find their process. Finding the ideal conditions in which working feels easy and natural is a huge part of the task of creating anything, and somehow, underground and tapping the words into a tiny phone keyboard in an enclosed and crowded space, I found mine.

When I had to take time off work sick, my routine was broken, and I have found it hard to write ever since. It seems that the time and place, and some alignment of stars, is what makes creativity and application spark together.

95. The Kinder Toy

Everything in my eight-tall stack of ‘memory boxes’ has at some point seemed significant. But when I, on rare occasions, look through them, it’s actually quite a small selection of things that really leap out to conjure up a moment or memory.

Some things I’ll take out and turn over in my hands, trying to place where I picked them up. There are things like birthday cards from years I don’t remember, all of them blurring into one. A pocket calculator - is it that first one I got, which had to have some non-standard function to be usable, at the time an expensive education implement? A Chinese-style notebook - was it picked up on an NYC street-stall, or just in a pound shop somewhere?

This silly yuppie-poodle kinder toy, still held in it’s plastic egg, is one of those things. I obviously thought it was a keeper at the time, probably happy that someone close to me had bought it - maybe an ex, a friend, a crush, who knows. Maybe my teen best friend and (unrequited) first love Clare bought it for me - we often used to exchange treats, letters and trinkets. Or maybe my ex girlfriend Anna - she was into the humour of wryly presenting student-budget gifts.

But now, whatever made it memorable has gone, and I just find myself looking at at and groping around in the dim corners of my memory, frustrated.

94. The Plastic Ass

During the year I spent working in a clothes shop on York, me and a couple of the younger shop floor guys were asked to go and clear out the attic. It was a break from the usual dreary routine, but I had so much trouble extracting the faintest flicker of pleasure from that job, it really didn’t matter.

There were piles and piles of heavy, dusty shelving, reams of old posters, a huge bale of tangled hangers, broken frames, perspex sheets, bags of screws, miscellaneous allen keys, and heaps of unidentifiable scrap plastic and metal  - all the clutter and ephemera that goes into making the high street shop environment look how it does. Most shops probably have a room like this - a store room that looks more like a junkyard.

But there were, buried amongst the rubbish, a few finds. There was an elegant white plastic female forearm and hand that stood vertically, for displaying jewellery. There were packs of unused A0 catalogue images on glossy card, that had never made it to the shop window. And this, which I can only guess would have been for displaying underwear.

I snuck these things out, because they seemed visual, sculptural and interesting to me. The cards I used to make an artwork, in which in idealised catalogue family sat around a knotty old dining table with ripped up pages of books as their meal; a comment about how we form and codify meaning and identity. The hand ended up being used as a stage prop and drum stick as part of a music project, and lost all it’s fingers in the process, unfortunately.

Since then, this has sat on top of a bookshelf in various rented flats, the last thing to remain from those scavenged leftovers. I guess it’s become an appropriated pop art ornament.

93. The Aeroplane Flies High

Smashing Pumpkins were my favourite band for a really long time. Siamese Dream was the first CD I ever bought, before I even had a player - I wanted my copy to be on the format of the future. Ironically, I listen to tapes and vinyl more regularly now.

When it came out, I’d been into metal - Sepultura, Pantera, Suicidal Tendencies, Anthrax, that kind of thing - and the whole grunge movement acted as a kind of a bridge into more melodic guitar music. Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana came from different spheres of music to those metal bands, talking about everything from Tyrannosaurus Rex to Thin Lizzy to Leadbelly to Sonic Youth to Jimi Hendrix to Daniel Johnston in interviews, and so that all kind of came along with liking them. It was a really exciting time of broadening out and listening to all sorts.

The slightly mystical aesthetic of that album was different too. Twins, cherubs, stars, sleep, magic - very different to all the machismo of metal, but with a similar kind of power and noise. They were psychedelic and dreamy, with aspects of proggy lullabies and hippy-ish balladry, but with distorted riffing, screaming and soloing too, often combining all of it on the same song.

Reading what was going on within the band at that time - Billy Corgan suffering from suicidal depression, absentee drummer Jimmy Chamberlain on heroin, label pressure, derision from their alt-rock peers, and a messy relationship breakup between the two other band members - it’s amazing anything good was made at all, never mind one of the best albums of the 1990s. 

This box set is a collection of the singles and extra tracks from Melon Collie & The Infinite Sadness, the swollen two-disc follow-up that still couldn’t hold all the songs written in this period. The band’s sensibility had changed, Billy having shaved his wispy hair and started dressing in lots of black leather and Victoriana - like he’d recast himself as a pantomime-villain rock star who would be successful to spite his detractors. The longer Smashing Pumpkins went on, the more distant those early nods to flower-power seemed - the lyrics got increasingly jaded and self-referential, and started sounding like a tirade against critics, exes, and the scene in general. The sense of wonder found in some of those earlier recordings drifted away, the band’s music now charting Corgan’s negative life experiences.

I guess this boxed set is also a pre-internet music relic. It would be pretty rare for a band to splurge on this kind of elaborate packaging now that music is widely available for free. Collectables like this and EPs with exclusive b-sides were a way for labels to ask fans to put their hands into their pocket again having bought an album - now, it’s hard enough getting people to buy something once.

92. The Bottle Of Leaves

All of Muswell Hill used to be covered in ancient woodland.

Wiki describes The Forest Of Middlesex, which stretched for miles outside of the city walls of the time, covering what is now North London. It was used for hunting boar and deer, and there was just one real road carved through it, Watling Street, now the A2.

There are just a few patches of wood left in North London, but three of them are close to where I live. Highgate Wood is the biggest and most landscaped, with paths, a cafe and a playing field. Queens Wood is maybe the most dense, with mud paths and wooden steps leading down into a dark valley under a high canopy. My favourite, Coldfall Wood, feels really wild, but also bright and airy - a few steps in, surrounded by knots of graceful, narrow tree trunks, and you could forget you’re in London, surrounded by nature and colour.

There’s also an abandoned elevated railway, now a semi-secret “parkland walk”, that leads all the way from Alexandra Palace to Finsbury Park. I found this by accident while exploring the area on the day I came to look at the flat. There’s a short section starting at Ally Pally that leads across the front of Muswell Hill, with views across the city, ending around Highgate, where it leads back onto the main road. Somehow I managed to pick up the path again on a sidestreet by Highgate Station, not realising what I’d stumbled upon until passing the empty platforms at what would have been Crouch Hill train station. You can see across the rooftops of North London, and aside from a few dog walkers and cyclists and the muted sound of the city in the background, it’s really peaceful.

Some of these places have less cosy histories. Highgate Wood was formerly more functionally known as Gravelpit Wood - it was a source of shale used for road coverings, in a time when forests were not so scarce or treasured. Queens Wood has quite a disturbing history, having formerly been named Churchyard Bottom Wood after the discovery of human bones buried at the deepest point in the valley. It’s thought to be the site of a burial pit, one of many that were scattered around London in the 1300s, for the cremation of bubonic plague victims. Now, there’s an adventure playground on that spot.

These broad oak leaves were picked up on one of the many woodland walks I took last autumn. They are totally dried out and brown now, and if you touched them they’d disintegrate, but I still like them just as much as flowers.

91. The White Vase

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These are two stems of oriental lilies bought yesterday on Fortis Green, near my flat.

I’ve had a soft spot for lilies for years, after not really getting them. If you see them in a florist when you’re young, these big closed buds look much less appealing than all the sprays of carnations, elegant roses and voluptuous tulips. But part of the pleasure of lilies is in the waiting: watching them part at the tip, splitting slowly and letting their scent seep out as they open into large, graceful flowers over days.

They always go into a white glass vase bought for next to nothing on sale at Crabtree & Evelyn a few years ago, when me and an ex, Alice, were out shopping for new year bargains. There was a big stack of them going for just a couple of quid - maybe the shop had expected it’s clientele to be into buying vases, but everyone walked straight past them to the soaps and toiletries the chain is more famous for.

I like Crabtree & Evelyn. The shops feel old and traditionally English, in that 1940s way, with smartly uniformed, super-polite staff doing gift wrapping and helping out confused gents who are trying to buy presents for their wives or mothers.

I bought my mum a box full of different bath soaps as a Christmas gift a few years ago, and now she hints for a resupply every year. It’s become a tradition to walk down Regent Street in mid-December to pick them up, getting the gift shopping done, taking in some Christmas atmosphere, the lights and the crowds, and then going for a couple of pints at the John Snow.

Inside the box, there was a smaller glass vase sitting over the top of the main one, for clipping off unopened buds at the end of the lilies’ life span, and letting them spring open in their own time.

When I’ve had to spend a lot of time indoors during various previous forced “staycations” brought on by illness, having lilies on display has cheered me up a lot. It’s not nice being sick, but it’s nice to have the time to enjoy the lilies opening. Little things like this can make a huge difference to your attitude when things aren’t going great.

90. The Pastry Cutter Tin

There’s a point when kids have a ‘what’s yours is mine’ attitude to posessions. There has not yet been any separation or pulling away - the family home is the only home, and the things within it are sort of communally owned. You all exist together, in the same space, the same rooms, eating the same meals and using the same things - the house is the child’s whole world.

This tin used to to sit in a kitchen cupboard reserved for rarely used things like empty jars and spare chopping boards, and it never contained pastry cutters. I remember finding it there whilst just looking at stuff, probably bored on a summers day and exploring the nooks and crannies of the house.

There was a mirror too - a circular mirror on a blue and white round plastic sphere, that sat on a little round tin tray for trinkets. It was 1960s style, probably a little make-up mirror that my mum had put down there and forgotten about. I appropriated it and put it in my room, attracted already to decoratively designed objects.

When I moved out for the first time, a couple of these things with me, including an unused Hornsea Heirloom coffee jar from the garage that turned out later to be quite a desirable 1970s antique. It had been given as a wedding present, brand new at the time. My mum and dad had no use for it, but I did - it reminded me of home.

I didn’t take this pastry cutter jar with me, though. It came along much later. When my younger brother moved to Australia, he gave me a lot of stuff to “look after”. A bag of computer game consoles (one of which is now in use as a DVD player), and some bric-a-brac like this jar. Maybe he’d appropriated it in just the same way - functional, but also a memento.

It was full to the brim of coins - pounds, fifties, twenties, tens - and must have had £50 or so in it. I guess he didn’t have the time or inclination to get it changed. Since then, it’s been used for the same purpose, holding silver change that later comes in useful for popping over to the shop for something.

When mum came to visit a while ago, she noticed it and smiled, exclaiming “oh, it’s your grandma’s cutter tin!”. It seems this humble thing is an heirloom too, three generations old already.

89. The Rainbow T-Shirt

This is a new t-shirt, worn once.

All my favourite clothes belong to the autumn and winter. The Icelandic lopapeysa, the long tweed coat, the purple scarf, the black suit - all warm, all woollen, all protective against the elements but utterly useless when the sun comes out. I’ve welcomed the rainy spring of 2012, a welcome extension of the gray skies and crisp air in which I feel most myself.

But summer comes in the end. And despite the blue skies, the warmth, and the natural kick of hormones and endorphins, I feel uncomfortable, like I want to escape into some shade or cool. My breath feels short in the long, light nights out, even despite the reemergence of (to quote an Arab Strap song title) “The Girls Of Summer”, in shorts and shades and smiles and good moods and painted nails. Despite even the best bits, in summer my chest feels tight, and my mind feels slowed down by the dense, swampy air.

You have to roll with it, or resist, and pretend summer isn’t even happening. Resisting isn’t much fun - I always think of a set of pictures of the Velvet Underground resisting in LA looking like fish out of water, black clad and sweating in drainpipes and leather jackets, failingly foraging for wisps of scant shade against the trunk of a palm tree. Or just the uneasy, squirming indie-kids on the beach, with jeans rolled up just above their white ankles, tightly gripping a pair of bright new trainers lest a grain of sand should enter.

So, I roll with it. Finding t-shirts feels an effort, but it does happen. There’s the shirt bearing the Bob Marley logo with a print of Jimi Hendrix’s face beneath - a joke based on a bad-tattoo internet meme, which has before had tourists stop me in the street to take a picture of it. There’s the Naked Ape t-shirt, bought on Laugavegur in Reykjavík, with THNKDPRYKJVK written in big drippy pink and black block letters, which Icelanders sometimes squint at trying to read. There was, for a while, an ironic piano-tie t-shirt, and a tuxedo t-shirt - tropes of bad taste that belied sarcasm in the choosing. And, more recently, the “Why Always Me?” Mario Balotelli goal celebration tee.

The rainbow t-shirt is another one for this motley collection - six differently coloured stripes made out of just three colours. The failed attempt at purple is represented by red ben-day dots over a blue background, and an even less convincing green is made of blue dots on yellow. Orange, or yellow dots over red, fares perhaps worst of all. It’s a print cost-saving measure that unintentionally and brutally undermines the objective of the design, like Roy Lichtenstein making a joke.

Maybe they should be called failshirts, or something - an internet sub-genre of garments with glaring errors in their obscurity, construction or just general taste. But if I’m gonna have to wear t-shirts this summer, they might as well be ones that make me smile.

88. The Palmistry Book

This is an old book bought in a library sale.

Mystical things were very interesting to me as a kid. As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, there was something in the otherworldly that was much more magnetic and resonant to me than anything to be found in religion or science. Horoscopes and palm reading seemed like points at which fantasy touched reality, not in the pages of a paperback, but in my own world.

I used to take this into school sometimes, and it was equally fascinating to the others. A crowd of kids would gather round the desk as I pored over what the different little lines, crosses and circles might reveal about the future. Whether they might have children, and how many; whether their lives would be unimpeded by disease or tragically cut short. The Venusian Cross showed life-altering heartbreak; the Lunar Star showed that imagination would lead to success; small lines running parallel to the lifeline illustrated great future travels, and the length and thickness of the fingers and quadrangles on the palm identified traits and personality types.

Our hands were still young, and didn’t have many lines at all, meaning we spent as much time trying to discreetly wrinkle our palms and squinting for things that weren’t there as we did identifying any relevant marks. But when something was spotted, the subject would run off proudly exclaiming the book had told them they’d one day be a business tycoon or a mother of three.

And just as people who laugh at horoscopes tend to sometimes read their own, even the most cynical kids would come over eventually and slowly extend their hands, eager for hints about their future from this dusty book and the centuries-old diagrams it contained.