There is a twin challenge in Journey to the Lower World: first, suspend doubt within the rational, workaday world and engage in a magical otherness (not an unreasonable demand of art); second, approach this ‘bookscape’ from a non-linear position, from a number of different directions, incorporating the metaphoric and the conceptual as a form of ‘extended reading’.
The raw material for the book is the ‘film’ of the performance of the same name, in which Coates enacts the shamanistic technique of ‘journeying’ on behalf of residents in a tower block in Liverpool (at the same time the embarrassed audience and the interested clients). It goes something like this: you send your dream body into the spirit world where—all things going well—you encounter power animals or spirit teachers, who will impart wisdom that can facilitate personal growth and understanding. Like in the recipe, Coates uses a tape of drumming to induce certain brain waves leading to altered states of consciousness that are required to travel to the spirit worlds. Oscillating between trickster and social conduit, Coates embarks on the journey, seeking guidance to alleviate anxiety for the residents who are about to be rehoused from their tower block.
Any scepticism as to the authenticity of Coates’ practice is dispelled when considering the continuity of concerns around ‘animal’ and ornithological themes. The work grew out of a project with the artist-led Further Up in the Air, which involved a number of finely tuned residencies in the tower block in question. For the past several years, Coates’ practice has explored ways in which we as humans relate to other species. Many of his video works utilise mimetic performance processes to explore ‘cross-species consciousness’. Examples include ‘A Guide to the British Non-Passerines’, and ‘Singing in the Brain’, a larger project funded by the Wellcome Trust, which explored the natural phenomena of the dawn chorus. Delving deeper into the background information (www.alecfinlay.com) it is fascinating to read that this process of seeking may be a continuation of a childhood hobby: ‘wildlife remained an expectation of an experience for a long time, partially satisfied from drawing …’ and further on that ‘artists are using their “lost” or unresolved childhood experiences as subject matter’. This explains how this imprint of a magical world has evolved into a fascination with the connective relationships between animal and human psyches and helps in accepting the Shaman as a mediator between the material and spirit worlds.
The book (or ‘album’ which might better describe the experience of it) has clearly arisen out of a dialogue and exchange between Coates and the artist-publisher Alec Finlay. The synchronicity is striking and the collaboration is characteristic of Finlay’s generalist approach incorporating a ‘shared consciousness which transcends authorship’. This is the first of a series of ‘bookscapes’ planned for 2006 and publishe by Platform Projects, which ‘encourages a generative and participative approach to all art forms’. They represent the latest instalment in an impressive portfolio of publishing titles, including the near-seminal Pocketbooks series from 2002/3.
It makes sense therefore that ‘bookscapes explore experiences of extended reading and are aimed at being a cross-media collaboration with the mediums of book, audio CD, DVD and website’.
The contents of the book are varied and refreshingly lift the primary source— photographs, poetic compositions, essays andrecollections of the artist. The images use photography as a record of real performance and everyday action although there is something of the constructed narrative in them They are emotionally charged and at other times banal and meaningless.
Finlay’s essay ‘Chthonic Perjink’ takes the form of a letter interspersed with insightful commentary: ‘[The performance] is a work of innocence and experience; it is a self-portrait, a personal text and a critically reflective cultural enquiry.’
There are a number of other contributors, such as Mark Wallinger, but this is really a Finlay/ Coates companionship piece. Ironically,the DVD (the film of the performance, the ‘authentic’ moment?) holds less interest in the end. That is simply the raw material from which the other poetic and elliptical forms have emerged in this exploration, which marks a significant contribution to art publications in the UK. How it will circulate in the world and breathe new life into the networks it intersects with, including distribution ones, is of course pivotal.
Malcolm Dickson is director of StreetLevel Gallery, Glasgow