The Camden Bench has quickly become a symbol of the hyper-restricted object, a form defined by the avoidance of uses deemed undesirable by a certain, powerful, portion of the population. Its design uses corners and contours to make it impossible to use the bench for sleeping, skateboarding, putting up posters, leaving litter, or indeed anything except sitting for the civilisedly short period of time allowed by its subtle but insistent angles. Its surface is coated and formed so that graffiti and posters will slip right off, its form and aesthetic defined by denial.
In just this way our street corners and walls are covered with patchworks of repaintings executed by councils or responsible individuals, covering the latest tagline or scrawl with a dripping flat retort which serves not to erase but to re-tag, to re-assert this corner as belonging not to names or doodles but to flat surfaces and straight edges. These daubings do nothing for neatness but their intention is clear – to reassert the false ‘neutrality’ of a public space, an aesthetic of maintenance. This place is not for you – it is for everybody, and that means something different.
In this fascinating article about Brewdog et al’s appropriation of anarchist aesthetics, Jonathan Moses talks about the fetishisation of hyper-clean space, “totalised spaces, continually erasing you in preparation for the next transient consumer, denying any relationship which might be built beyond whatever can be rented for the tiniest of periods.” In our carefully plastered walls and sanded surfaces is a denial even of the hands that created them, “an obsession, as new production materials like steel and glass made it possible, to erase any sign that space might bear a relation to labour altogether. Buildings appear as though by immaculate conception, unburdened by the contamination of the individual.”
This perfection however never exists. Brutalist architecture we now see weathering and staining, showing its age, gently slipping back into the landscape. Shards of plastic combine in dumps to create a dirty multicoloured melee, their shiny surfaces reduced and faded by the world. To my mind, there is nothing sadder than an object that manages to remain untouched by the chaos that surrounds it, and those remain thankfully rare. And though objects are designed to be only a particular thing, they are not safe from the contrary opportunism of the people whose lives they inhabit. Such objects still have mass, shape or form; they remain present in a physical world, to be used to prop open a door, to fix a hole in a window or to save a parking space, as noticed and given a name in Richard Wentworth’s Making Do and Getting By series. Even the angles of the Camden bench could prove perfect for some unforeseen task in a suitably uncivilised scenario.
I would love to see a reply to the Camden Bench, a specially-formed foam sleeping mat to transform that surface into a comfortable bed for those that need it, an anti- anti-object formed by the negative space around that negative thing. Or perhaps a new skate move only executable on such a surface, every barrier turned into a challenge for the kinds of bright minds that take down the most sewn-up of websites just for the sake of it. But I also don’t believe in its perfection, because though we may strain and strain we cannot remove any hint that humans have once been here.
The work by Zimoun for the Brighton Festival now filling the downstairs gallery at Brighton University exposes just such an impossibility in a roundly unexpected way. Dozens of spinning wires whirr against the wall, dashing it over and over with their thrashings. This year’s various Brighton Festival exhibitions seem united in a certain kind of homogeneity, rows and multiples filling spaces with an obsessive repetition that removes it from a human scale and places it somewhere different, in the realm not of the individual but of the mass. The constant reiteration is stronger than an attempt at blank cleanliness, taking ownership of spaces filled with history and interest with hundreds of pendulums, ribbons and weighing scales, this repetition of a single idea misleadingly complex in visual information but simple and minimal to absorb.
Zimoun’s rotating wires however have a different effect. Their spinning creates not just a chaotic landscape built up through each dash against the white back wall of the gallery, it also reveals something of the history of the wall, a palimpsest painted white and white and white again for a long succession of shows, high hopes of second-year students, long-dead directors and political photographers all arrayed along the same long boards. These boards carry a memory of all of the drilling and filling which is revealed by the drumming of these wires, circles and knocks standing out stark where once they blended in. This wall has been deliberately dehumanised over and over again but now it is the random swerving of a machine that brings out its lumps and bumps, the history of the hands that have tried over and over to make it perfect.
That perfection they will not make, and I am sincerely grateful. I look forward to seeing the first image of the everything-proof Camden Bench besmirched by something or other, a tag, can or watermark, anything of this world whose messiness we are denying ourselves the right to see.