With apologies to Belinda Carlisle, heaven is not a place on Earth, but hell is. I was once told that, in the Mersey Maritime Museum, you were welcomed by LCD screens showing a video loop. This doesn’t sound so bad, just the sort of thing cooked up by your typical creative advertising goons in their Meth Lab of unthinkable thinking. There was just one problem: there was a receptionist present at all times who had to endure the five minute loop throughout the day. Soundtracked to The Farm’s All Together Now.
When I heard of this, I struggled to comprehend the sheer mental suffering being inflicted. Surely, in these enlightened times we’re not doing this to innocent people? Are we so cold and monstrous as a race?
Can you feel that pulsing ice of terror running through your veins at the thought of having to hear “All together now…all together now…All together now…In no-man’s land…” hundreds of times a day with no respite? Listening to the fading sound of Peters Wylie and Hooton wailing away knowing that the Pachelbel-cribbing opening bars are about to remorselessly start up again and there’s nothing you can do to stop it? You couldn’t even put headphones on as that would look ‘unprofessional’.
It’s not dissimilar to the NHS trick they’ve got nowadays, where every bed has a screen that runs a loop of advertising until you’re driven so insane you have to pay up to watch normal telly, as depicted by Charlie Brooker.
It’s bad enough being forced to listen to, say, Juice FM when you’re over the age of thirty. At least there are lots of different songs (well, at least for the first hour) and there might be something you quite like. But the same song, over and over? Isn’t this the sort of thing crazed American torturers do to break the spirit of captured terrorists? And I’d argue that the Barney the Dinosaur theme is no better than All Together Now.And no worse.And the person on reception at the Mersey Maritime Museum hadn’t even tried to bring down Western democracy. At least, not to our knowledge.
I was thinking about this now that the Biennial is over. As with a lot of Biennials past, the settings were far more interesting than the art itself. The wonderful Cunard Building with its echoes of people boarding ships to new lands and never returning. The ghostly Copperas Hill Sorting Office, which felt like it had stopped service the day before. The view across the city from Everton Park.
But I always felt a slight disquiet when I toured these places and it was the shudder of recalling that All Together Now anti-madeleine that brought it to the surface. I was feeling for those poor ushers who sit in the corner of the galleries, making sure that nobody is going to Umanets any of these particular Rothkos.
It sounds like a sweet job. Just sitting in a gallery all day, contemplating life and art – a small traffic island of calm in the busy motorway of modern life. But as we ponder around the modern gallery it can’t help be noticed that art doesn’t just sit on walls any more. It comes out of tellys and video projectors and makes a noise. And most of it is on loops, often as short as a few minutes.
Yep, that’s right. Artists are now inflicting the same unwarranted punishments on the custodians of galleries – there to protect those same artists’ works – as whichever unfeeling bastard mistreated that poor receptionist in the Mersey Maritime Museum. Can you imagine two months of sitting in a room with a tape loop intoning a series of disconnected words and ugly sound effects? Now the Biennial is over, these unfortunate volunteers will be doing a lot of eye-twitching and getting involuntary urges to lie in a dark quiet room. And unlike the forsaken receptionist at the Mersey Maritime Museum, they weren’t even being paid to endure this.
Do the artists consider this when they make these masterworks? I doubt it. But I hope they are at least forced to consider their actions. Whilst making their next video installation that features a woman constantly screaming or chains being dragged over a rusty gate, think; some poor sod has to listen to that. Continually. Otherwise, we may need to send them to The Hague.