The oyherman oometh
After ten years of bashing metal in Test Department, Angus Farquhar’s work with NVA became less overtly political; now he‘s found the Internet. Has the hardware artist turned soft? asks Eddie Gibb.
Photographs by Chris Blott.
he career ofAngus Farquhar. one of the
most interesting performance artists
currently working in Scotland. can be
divided into a game plan of two halves:
Before and After Internet. ‘I was never
a computer buff.‘ he says. biceps still bulging after years of heavyweight percussion. ‘but then the penny dropped and I suddenly realised that it [the Internet] does offer tremendous possibilities. For the cost of a local phone call I can be in touch with ten people in ten different countries. It so effortlessly crosses borders.‘
There's a simplicity to the idea that discovering the Internet was the turning point in Farquhar‘s life and work. As a founding member of industrial percussion group Test Department, who hammered out a tattoo of political resistance through the 803. Farquhar was an intensely physical performer. Now, reborn as a cyber-surfer riding the third wave of the information age. he‘s making ‘head art‘ for on-line computer freaks. Has the hardware man gone soft as the muscular. collective approach ofTest Department days gives way to a network of digitally-linked individuals? Well. sort of.
Although it’s true that Stormy Waters is the first piece of Internet art by Farquhar‘s Glasgow-based company NVA. the transition from industrial to technological is not quite that clear-cut. NVA‘s 1993 production Sabotage was more about ﬂesh and blood than machinery. while Test Department‘s use of samplers showed an interest in digital technology that belied the image of a bunch of guys battering lumps of scrap iron. Though Stormy Waters will exist in cyberspace. as the work of a group of international artists bounces round the world. like much of Farquhar‘s previous work it is rooted firmly in Glasgow‘s post—industrial heart.
NVA has continued Test Departrnent‘s knack for borrowing that sense of awesome power which haunts industrial buildings long after the last worker has been laid off. From the disused Rover car plant in Cardiff which was used for Gododdin. the epic story of an early Celtic people. to the St Rollox locomotive works in Springburn where Test Department made their ‘valedictory address‘ The Second Coming in I990. they always drew strength from the performance space.
Now Stormy Waters will be lent some of that same epic grandeur by the massive brick-built Meadowside Granary on the Clyde. continuing Farquhar‘s preference for site-specific work which steers clear of established. and Establishment. arts venues. Interestingly. Farquhar has been co-opted onto a Scottish Arts Council buildings committee which will advise on how National Lottery funds should be spent. Almost certainly he will argue against the construction of grandiose arts temples.
A major theme in Farquhar‘s later work is the
18 The List l~1-27 Jul I995
way Britain‘s industrial past is being turned into a new heritage industry. replacing ‘rcal‘ work with a service economy based on tourism and
nostalgia. However. there was always a sense of
romance. if not downright nostalgia. in Test Department‘s celebration of a heroic working class. using imagery borrowed from the early Soviet filmmakers like Eisenstein. With work like The Second Coming. weren‘t they just appropriating a piece of Glasgow history that
‘You cannot be anything but active. I like the idea of people linking up across borders, irrespective of the politics of their individual country.’
didn‘t belong to them (Farquhar was born in Aberdeenshire and raised in Edinburgh) as a backdrop for his large-scale dramas'.’
‘I think as a company we were sensitive enough to the way we were dealing with the issues not to feel that we were borrowing.‘ he says. ‘but reflecting some of those very strange cultural initiatives of re-creating the past which was initiated by Thatcher.‘
Ah. Thatcher — it was only a matter of time before that spectre made an appearance. Farquhar. now 33. spent the lirst ten years of his adult life raging against the leaderene‘s systematic destruction of organised labour. The miners‘ strike of 1984/5 was Test Department‘s great moment when their brutal. rabble-rousing rhythms becatne the perfect rallying cry for militant and (Militant) trade unionists who thought their time had come. Although they manned the barricades at Orgreave in solidarity. it was Test Department‘s music that sent the clearest message. What better way to protest at industrial
decline than make an industrial-sized racket?
Test Department fragmented the same year that Thatcher fell to a cabal of backbenchers. increasing the sense of a group whose whole raison d'etre was to oppose her. Although Farquhar had other reasons for returning to Scotland. homesickness not the least of them. he remembers how the group‘s elation at having outlasted their deadly enemy was quickly replaced by a sense of ‘what now‘?‘ as the political landscape turned a Major shade ofgrey.
‘There was a definite disillusionment with oppositional politics.‘ he remembers. ‘Everything we did was defined by Thatcher and everyone was reeling in shock afterwards. which started the whole reappraisal of what it was to be a socialist. It‘s was obvious there was a need to find a new language. I‘ve got no interest in traditional politics at all now.‘ So does he still describe himself as a socialist? ‘Er. I don‘t know . . . not really.‘
Farquhar returned to an artistically invigorated Glasgow gearing up for the European City of Culture celebrations and set up NVA (Nacionale Vita Activa) as a loose umbrella for large-scale performance art events. Though his earlier projects had a technological dimension. Stormy ll’aters represents the first attempt to engage directly with the information age. Farquhar believes there is simply no alternative.
‘You cannot be anything but active.‘ he says. ‘It really demands you get involved and do your bit. When I formed NVA. what I kept was my obsession with the idea of networks and this isjust a tool for extending that way ofthinking. I like the idea of people linking up across borders. irrespective of the politics of their individual country.‘
Since the days of Test Department. when the workers united was regarded as the strongest possible unit. Farquhar has moved towards a style of single-issue politics which rejects an over- arching ideology. Working on a ‘think global. act local‘ basis. Farquhar has been high profile in recent protests against Glasgow‘s clubs curfew and the M77 motorway extension.
‘Cradle-to-grave employment has gone and we are entering an age of uncertainty as society atomises.‘ he says. ‘Personally I believe we should embrace that uncertainty. The protection of labour is a real loss. but in terms of actual freedom to do what we want with our lives there are tremendous opportunities within that uncertainty.‘
At this point. l‘tn strangely reminded of a comment by America‘s New Right guru Newt Gingrich who suggested. in a quip reminiscent of Marie Antoinette‘s famous cake-eating invitation. that the poor might be given tax credits to buy lap- tops. So. like Gingrich. does Farquhar see the info-balm leading us towards a bright. Utopian future shared by all? ‘l‘m not naive enough to present this as a brave new world.‘ he replies. ‘but that said. you have to take on the possibilities. That‘s what Stormy Waters is trying to reflect — that process of transformation we‘re living through.
‘lt‘s us doing this — a small arts company in Glasgow. not the BBC or Sky.‘ he says. ‘We‘re being our own broadcaster for the night in a politically disenfranchised nation setting up our own network on a global level. I think that is symbolically important.‘ '_I Stormy Waters at the Meat/oii'side Granary. South Street, Partiek. Glasgow Friday 2] and Saturday 22 July. 7iekets from The Tie/vet C entre. Candleriggs £8 (£5). Credileard bookings on 0/4 I 227 55/]. For more information call 0/4] 353 3223.