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'Changeover' at Hweg with Ben Victor Waggett

Martin Holman



Ben Victor Waggett’s project at Hweg in Penzance created itself during the artist’s two-week residency at the gallery. By that I mean that while Waggett brought to the space the technical ‘tools’ to construct a sound piece with some visual imagery, the material that composed the piece was gathered inside the gallery itself. Waggett arrived empty-handed with an open mind and an open mic. What happened then was as much in the hands of visitors as it was in those of the artist. The collaboration was collaged into a 20-minute soundscape presented at the closing finissage.

Waggett set up his equipment at more or less ground level. The far corner of the room harboured the artist himself during opening hours, a two-and-a-half chord miniature fan organ, some whistles, an accordion, a portable cassette recorder and a few tiny bells, all of which had visible retro credentials. And that was as material as the project went; every physical element was ancillary to the main event. The instruments had the same collateral relationship to the eventual collage that brushes and pigment assume to an exhibited painting.

Nonetheless, the bells and whistles, keyboards and tape machine snuck into the overall experience. For instance, had Waggett wanted to generate some visual impressions for his audience, one could have been of the popular era of home recording in the 1960s. Another might arise from the similarity his angular encampment implied with the stealthy installation of listening devices by ghosthunters in search of evidence for paranormal activity.

I strongly suspect, however, that diversion into that class of allusion was accidental. Such notions anyway clashed with the technology of the digital age manifested in the midst of the bygone apparatus by the artist’s sleek, silver lidded laptop, a microphone and speakers, plus a small-scale mixing desk emitting coils of black cable tidied into colour-coded tags. None of those details appeared to be included as aesthetic choices. Instead, practicality prevailed: the computer was loaded with video and sound recording software for editing. And overhead a palm-sized video camera attached to a ceiling beam caught the entire scene in its sights.

This gathering of instrumentation and paraphernalia is aimed at immateriality. As an artist, Waggett demonstrates a supreme sensitivity to his surroundings. He has described aspects of his wide-ranging practice as a kind of exercise in field recording, translating and transcribing ‘psycho-geographic walks, location- specific associations, confabulations, found artefacts and field recordings into semi-fictitious landscapes’. Transcription can take a variety of forms; for instance, he describes using drawing as primary research methodology. Graphite powder, putty, eraser and emulsion on canvas might constitute a drawing, but so might drawing a line on a wall with chalk while walking, filming the walk and recording the ambient commotion. Chalk, pencil and microphones become substitutes for human senses, for the susceptibility of the individual to a place and for how that place is experienced.

It strikes me that Waggett’s work is absorbed in observation and recording – both carried out somewhat askance. At Hweg visitors involuntarily activated the environment with their presence. Their voices in dialogue with Waggett and others, and their footfall continually remodelled the atmosphere. Their contributions were not given passively; the purpose of the project was known to them. By participating in the opportunities offered them to utilise the objects set out about them, the reality of that space was embellished by their consenting agency. The equipment assumed the role of the acritical witness, the seeing eye and listening ear that remembered. The soundscape emerged from how the interior was used by the people who briefly occupied it in the transient fashion of everyday life.

Waggett, who is now based in Penzance and previously worked and studied in London, has form in this regard. Last year, under the moniker of Burhlap, he assembled an aural impression of a damp and draughty cabin on the Hayle Towans overlooking St Ives Bay. Such diversions suggest a rural, sound equivalent of poet Charles Baudelaire’s nineteenth-century flâneur, the casual wanderer, observer and reporter listening to the kaleidoscopic manifestations of the life (in Baudelaire’s case) of a modern city. In the first half of the last century philosopher Walter Benjamin transformed him into an observer of the damaging effects of modernity and capitalism. However, Waggett, similarly drawn to the l’éternel du transitoire, adopts a less commentative position, alert instead to the communal value of the same pursuit, an intuitive comprehension of a place .

‘A science of relations and ambiences’ is how psychogeography is often defined. ‘Psychogeography is the fact that you have an opinion about a space the moment you step into it,’ wrote Wilfried Hou Je Bek. ‘This has as much to do with the space as with our hardwired instincts to determine if it is safe.’ Waggett is a psychogeographer by inclination, a traveller whose map of a place is drawn differently to the cartographer’s because roving instinct is more important than fixed positions. Psychogeography grows from observing emotions and behaviours, and the art gallery is a prime location for its study. As a shared collective setting, it is a covered micro-plaza where consciousness and the unconscious, past and present, new and old, question and discovery intermingle, where those properties and more are forever animated, re-animated, re-collected and recollected.

On Friday, 3 February, Waggett performed the soundscape edited from hours of recordings. In the same way that his contributors among the Penzance public had helped build it, his presentation was not passive but responsive. Eschewing the obvious role of artist-creator, he built upon the edit he had made by assuming the role of one more participant in the project. As the music of the past two weeks played and interwove itself around layers of casual talk in the gallery, the passing street noise and occasional calls from Koyangi, the resident house cat, Waggett improvised his response in live performance, using the same objects that visitors had handled during their visits. The outcome was strangely mesmeric. Often atonal and, above all, exploratory and revelatory. The performance might not have captured the music of the spheres, but Waggett had distilled the sound of existence, confirming that there is no such place as nowhere, that everywhere is sonic and audible.

Hweg is outstanding for the clarity of its shows, where work is installed in an uncluttered space that is nonetheless warm and invested with character, all qualities in rare supply in too many commercial and public venues in Cornwall. The gallery is establishing itself as location for explorative contemporary art practices. Its independence is its strength and that arises from the open-mindedness and energy of its owner, Joe Lyward. He accepts the risks as well as the opportunities, and to him should go both the thanks of visitors and the credit of the region’s community of artists inspired to work in interesting ways. That approach does not limit Lyward’s ambitions because they are centred on the artist and not the sometimes apparently laboured task of being a gallery. He provides space for exchanges to happen in an atmosphere that is cooperative and welcoming. The outcome is seldom less than creative and memorable: people take away with them after-images that can themselves lead to the new.

'Changeover' was one example. Alongside Waggett’s project, the room hosted a stack of books contributed by curator Julia Gros. The book, titled ‘Rather Fly than Walk’, documents in diary form two French photographers’ (Alex Peneau and Romain Moinier) immersion in Californian skateboarding culture. Behind the books hung a repeated, representative photograph from the photo-project that Gros had facilitated. Two pieces of borrowed red furniture, generous in their proportions and inviting repose, completed the installation that dovetailed into Waggett’s part of the residency fortnight, ensuring that something new was going to arise. Decamped in opposite corners, the two corresponded across the space of the gallery, two entities in the same community.



Changeover: Julia Gros and Ben Victor Waggett took place at Hweg, 34 Causewayhead, Penzance, between 21 January and 3 February 2023. https://www.victorwaggett.co.uk

Martin Holman is a writer based in Penzance. He is a regular contributor to Art Monthly and the Burlington Magazine.