I knew Toby Huddlestone would be slippery. He implicates innocent passers-by, bumps into them, makes them trip. Gets them to protest about nothing and then turns it into everything.
Despite loathing commercial radio, for art I was willing to endure two hours of aural discomfort. After all, the artist was promising a Serge Gainsbourg love song. Determined not to miss this steamy encounter I scribbled down every ad, every inane voice over, every trashy hit…
Like a Duchampian pawn, I waited to be moved.
10am: Hoax collar bomber arrested in Sydney. Dollar down against US currency – Tourism Australia predicts more holidays in Queensland as a result. Pope Benedict meets Catholic Church sex abuse victims in Germany. Collingwood are into the Grand Final. A Wallaby fractured his cheekbone thrashing the US in the rugby. Possible showers later.
…home of variety one hit wonders weekend presented by euphoria furniture love plus one haircut 100 think fresh think tasty think national pies great oozy pies cheap cheap cars at tilford trade clearance centre better sport a better way to bet on sport drop into local tote ready to go panic at the disco ho fm hobart’s home of variety another one hit wonder born to be alive patrick hernandez one hit wonder sale euphoria furniture garden supplies tolosa quarry tolosa street better sport from the tote a better way to bet on the footy yes yes yes luxury seven seat suv big savings performance autos flooring kingston instore for specials floor world coogans famous no deposit terms good sports fishing tackle toys bridges brothers visit telstra store northgate savage garden I want you ho fm price breakthrough panasonic limit one per customer…
By 11am I was feeling desperate. It was an impenetrable fortress of commercially successful social engineering. Could Huddlestone’s twenty two seconds of love in a foreign language somehow cut through?
The first time I sat through a performance of John Cage’s 4’33” the experience of observing time passing was profound. Consciously attentive of every passing car, footsteps in the corridor, the distant strains of sudden laughter, each moment was rich with the sound of human existence.
This was not like that.
This was a portrait in sound of a world bloated by consumption and informed by sensationalist, commercially driven headlines, where people who just wanted to enjoy watching the footy on a new 60” plasma were being persistently encouraged to gamble on the outcome. A portrait of a world without silence, without reflection and heading for bankruptcy, signed by the artist.
Huddlestone announced that on Saturday October 1 he would hand deliver two thousand postcards within a four kilometre radius of the political centre of Hobart. The artist was once again attempting to intervene in people’s Saturdays, this time by disrupting their leisurely browsing of glossy junk mail catalogues, community newsletters, lost pet notices and Hobart City Council election leaflets.
Although I live in the designated zone, no postcard arrived. Had my street been missed? Had he delivered them to anyone? What was I missing?
The next day at the Iteration:Again Hub the postcards, along with photographs of the artist posting them into letterboxes, were on display. They were white with the four proposed Interruptions listed in plain black text.
For some time this was my only experience of the work, and it relied on knowledge accessible only through the documentation provided by the artist. But instead of acting as proof, the photographs and postcards instead emphasised Huddlestone’s action as unverifiable. Should we believe the artist’s claims? Unless we witness the action ourselves (as I later discovered others had), we only know that Huddlestone undertook this activity because he tells us so. And we know that he is sometimes unreliable.
In engaging with Huddlestone’s work it is impossible to ignore his conceptual predecessors. Vito Acconci’s Following Piece (1969) presents a similar public/private performance for which the only evidence is ephemeral documentation, and in thinking about Huddlestone’s work the first question which arises is, in what way is this work contemporary? Is it merely a derivative re-working of an old idea, or perhaps a deliberate homage to his conceptual art heroes from the ’60s and ’70s? A deconstruction of what artists do? A cynical satire of the contemporary art world?
Perhaps it’s just advertising, nothing more than the artist’s shameless self-promotion. Or maybe it was a discrete co-opting of this border zone between public and private as political space. If so, in my neighbourhood several mayoral candidates beat him to it.
In the end I’m left asking, what is it that Huddlestone really delivers?
It is difficult to bungle a good idea.
Huddlestone’s postcards set me off on a journey to revisit conceptual art’s finest moments. Among other seminal texts I read Sol LeWitt’s Sentences on Conceptual Art, and for this iteration Sentence 33 seemed particularly apt.
Like LeWitt, Huddlestone understands the power of a line to make us aware of space. For Interruption: Newspaper, the artist printed an eight centimetre line horizontally at random in a number of Tasmanian newspapers. Positioned centrally on page seven of The Mercury, Huddlestone’s line didn’t jostle for attention among the strident advertisements, shrill headlines and narrative-laden photography. It was still, perfect, eloquent in its silence. Surrounded by a slim border of white, it commanded the entire page.
I was reminded of the Futurists who printed their Manifesto on the front page of the French newspaper, Le Figaro, in 1909. Was this line a representation of Huddlestone’s own manifesto? Is he perhaps some kind of anti-Marinetti, proselytising principles of calm and consideration, order and linearity?
LeWitt’s method for his line drawings was to devise a set of instructions, such as ‘50 randomly placed points all connected by straight lines’ (Wall Drawing No.118), which could be implemented by assistants, or in fact by anyone. His approach attempted to remove subjectivity from the thought processes of art-making, but in carrying out his instructions the expression of individuality through the handmade mark returned.
In his practice Huddlestone explores an awareness of our surroundings and the power of mediums of communication. In Interruption: Newspaper he reworked LeWitt’s approach by providing an instruction to several newspapers to print an eight centimetre horizontal line randomly, entrusting the work’s execution to the layout department. The power of the piece comes precisely from this handing over of the creation of the mark to others. Regardless of where the line appears Huddlestone knows it will create a clear break in the relentless transmission of media messages. His simple line creates a space of consciousness that brings its surroundings into sharp relief. Among the entertainment, the petty political machinations, the births and deaths and public notices, the systems of trade and commerce, it acts as pointer to the communication mechanisms which mediate our engagement with the world. Huddlestone’s line points to itself, then its surroundings and ultimately at us.
Unsurprisingly, I missed Huddlestone’s television interruption. It was to be broadcast on a selection of stations and so I diligently sat through an hour of ABC TV which included a blonde presenter tasting rotten herrings and other Scandinavian delicacies, and a no-nonsense gardening show. At a broadcast rate of 25 frames per second, seeing four frames of a test pattern was always going to be a challenge. Perhaps I looked away at the wrong moment, perhaps I blinked, perhaps my vision just isn’t that acute.
Perhaps it just didn’t happen.
Huddlestone did make an appearance of sorts the next day at the Iteration:Again symposium. During a session in which his project was to be discussed, he participated via a written statement read out on his behalf (he was in London).
I wasn’t there, but apparently it caused quite a stir. Allegedly he accused the other participating artists of lacking generosity.
Later, during post-symposium drinks at a waterfront bar, several people who may or may not have been at the session, may or may not have had the following conversation…
…He wasn’t criticising the curatorial premise, he was criticising…/But it mostly seems to have offended the other artists because he’s said there’s no generosity between them/But that’s completely in keeping with his practice, which is to say something, or to promise something which he doesn’t deliver/But this is not a non-delivery, this is a …/Does he have a kind of slacker practice?/No, no no, incredibly diligent, incredibly well thought through/So how does he frame the notion of non-delivery?/He delivers. He actually delivers but sometimes it’s so subtle you might miss it/I should have gone to the session /It’s like a proposal, a proposal that I will insert this music on the radio or I’ll insert this line in a newspaper. So it’s a prospect, it’s a possibility, and it’s up to your own knowledge to understand whether it did or didn’t happen, to go beyond the aura. But this is different, it’s not…/Did you say go beyond the aura?/ …of the possibility. And, you know, it’s critiquing…/Go beyond the aura??/Yes, but to say that people aren’t generous is a whole other thing/Yes it is!/So it’s not delivery or non-delivery, he’s making a criticism/Yes, but at the same time, when Toby Huddlestone says one thing, you need to read it as the opposite. But as I wasn’t in the session I don’t really know what he was saying/ You read it as a possibility because you went home to watch it on TV, or listen to it on the radio because you believed it might actually happen/Yes, and I believe it did happen, but perhaps not on the TV station I was watching because there were multiple possibilities/…I know the answer to all these questions/Right/And what is the answer?/ I’m not going to tell you the answer. What I can tell you is Toby is a very lovely, generous person/So it’s confusing. The avant garde rhetoric that he utilises is confusing because there is a genuine interest in the idea of giving something/ But that doesn’t quite explain it, not that you have to explain it. If he’s very generous, is he then critiquing someone else? One of the artists? Is that like a backhanded compliment to the artists and critiquing the curators, or what?/Have a look at Toby’s website, I think it’s great work/I’m not saying it’s not/Are you ready to order?/ Salt and pepper squid for me/Thanks, I’m having the duck/Mmmm, the duck would be good/This doesn’t taste like sauvignon blanc…