When the Grid Goes Soft

When the Grid Goes Soft
MOT International
London, U.K.
December 14, 2013−February 1, 2014

Writing in the early 1980s, British artist Ian Breakwell noted a faddish obsession for long distance running. For Breakwell, this was aligned to a renewed individualism under the economic policies of Thatcher and Reagan. We can see the efficient figure of the runner as a cypher for the neo-liberal subject — at once individuated, disciplined, and highly competitive — running is rarely a team sport. Similarly, the modern city is built for the purpose of efficient mobility and the movement of people, objects, ideas and, ultimately. money.

When the Grid Goes Soft is a group exhibition that explores how the body moves within urban environments. Curator Persilia Caton brought together four artists (including a duo) who explore a more erratic choreography between the city and its people. We can look towards the Situationists’ interest in the dérive as a historical antecedent. Of course, social protest has often attempted to disrupt the efficiency of the metropolis, replacing it with something more aberrant.

The irregular and meandering figure of the dancer, rather than the motorik movements of the runner, are a binding motif of the exhibition. The Canadian artists Cedric and Nathan Bomford have responded to their commission by creating an ad-hoc structure made from construction materials scavenged from local building sites. Filling the space, the work turns the tiny gallery into a labyrinth. Local architectural topologies such as ramps, gas towers and hoardings are echoed. The structure forces the body up against the perimeter of the gallery; navigating it, we are asked to step over, kneel under and squeeze between it.

The work houses Tracer (2013), a three-channel video by U.K.-based Melanie Manchot. Originally commissioned by the Great North Run, the films present a group of parkour runners in Newcastle and Gateshead traversing local landmarks. Roof tops, empty roads, sports stadiums and housing estates are deftly navigated. Supple and agile, the runners, alone and in groups, flip over walls and enact gravity defying summersaults with alarming dexterity. In marked contrast to the habitual and humdrum commute of your average city dweller this simple act can be read as a subtle negotiation of the urban fabric.

Alongside this, the Danish artist Jacob Kolding provides two take-away posters piled neatly at the front of the gallery (as well as flyposted across East London). The artist has collaged imagery from the British film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962). The film, based on the book by Alan Sillitoe, tells the story of a rebellious but gifted athlete who ultimately refuses to compete; in one famous scene, the character leads an important race and then refuses to finish it.

Sillitoe’s story, like the exhibition, is an apt metaphor for strategies of liberation. This is further articulated by text emblazoned down the side of one of the posters: “A Plan for Escape”. Taken collectively, When the Grid Goes Soft illustrates an attempted to bend heavy architectural lines into something pliable and more humane. The ad-hoc aesthetics of the Occupy movement, the promenade of political protest, as well as the parkour runners, all offer disparate responses to the same issue. It is ultimately a refusal of competition, configuring new social forms in an attempt to claim back space. In the context of last year’s London Olympics and the aggressive gentrification of East London, the exhibition is a sharp analysis for the social potential of the erratic and misbehaving body.