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Rob La Frenais

Dr Rob La Frenais is an independent contemporary art curator, working internationally and creatively with artists entirely on original commissions. He has worked closely with artists such as James Turrell, Marina Abramovic, Isaac Julien, Cornelia Parker, Mona Hatoum, Stelarc, Orlan, Steve Kurtz, Aleksandra Mir, Ashok Sukumaran, Critical Art Ensemble, Marko Pelijhan and Tomas Saraceno as well as many other established and emerging artists, working for European Cities of Culture in Glasgow and Madrid, directing the Belluard-Bollwerk Festival in Switzerland and curating a major programme ‘The Incident’, featuring James Turrell and others, for the ICA in London in 1996.

His most recent exhibition with the Arts Catalyst, Republic of the Moon opened in 2014 on London’s South Bank and aspects of this have toured internationally. As well as producing site-based works, The Arts Catalyst collaborates with institutions such as the European Space Agency, the Natural History Museum, the Science Museum, Tate Britain and the Roundhouse and many other galleries and institutions.

He is a visiting fellow of Bournemouth University, visiting curator at the Maison Des Arts Georges Pompidou, Cajarc, France and visiting curator at FACT Liverpool.

We are extremely grateful to Dr Rob La Frenais for providing the following essay for the Contemplation Seats project.

An Empty Chair on the Varsity Line

‘Marples Must Go!’ This graffitti remained on a bridge on the concrete strip of the M1, snaking through Bedfordshire to the North, Britain’s first fast highway or ‘motorway’ so quaintly named in the 50’s, for decades after Macmillan’s minister of transport had left office. I always noticed it as a young hitchhiker and it remains as a cultural memory among many, though no images exist of it as far as I know. Marples went, but not until after he had commissioned one Dr Richard Beeching to decimate Britains railways, including the ‘Varsity Line’ which intersected the M1, running conveniently from Oxford to Cambridge. Now those aristos and tweedy academics would have to pilot their Rollers and Morris Minors along roads built and financed and concreted by none other than the family firm, Marples Ridgeway, builder of the M1 extension and the Hammersmith Flyover. The closure of the Varsity line was not, in fact an immediate casualty of the ‘Beeching Axe’, but this knock-on effect of large scale closures led to the gradual degradation of other branch lines and lines that did not pass through London by neglect, ushering in the age of concrete and the car, leading to Thatcher’s dark psychogeoraphy of the M25. As for Ernest Marples, the concrete magnate and former Minister of Transport ended his days as a tax exile in Monaco. Sounds familiar?

The M1 is also dissected by – points out artist, curator, all-round psychogeographer and activist of the inner life, Sally Annett – the route of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. Including the Slough of Despond, an adequate metaphor for the corruption surrounding the replacement of Britain’s extraordinarily complex rail system with the current mire of road traffic: “This miry Slough is such a place as cannot be mended; it is the descent whither the scum and filth that attends conviction for sin doth continually run, and therefore is it called the Slough of Despond: for still as the sinner is awakened about his lost condition, there ariseth in his soul many fears, and doubts, and discouraging apprehensions, which all of them get together, and settle in this place; and this is the reason of the badness of this ground.” ‘Carriageway Widening Works’ in another age. There are even more appropriate landmarks in ‘Bunyan Country’, notes Annett, including the Hill of Difficulty, the Vale of the Shadow of Death and the Celestial City, some of which can be visited on the remaining part of the Varsity Line, the Marston Vale Line. On this small line, reactivated by the influx of workers to the contemporary Dark Satanic Mill, the giant Amazon warehouse facility in Ridgmont, we see some of the classic symbols of rail depredation, aimed to make one think again about taking the train such as unstaffed brutalist ‘bus stop’ stations, stripped of any architecture or shelter that may make the passenger comfortable while waiting for the train that may, or may not, turn up. Annett has responded to this state of affairs, including at her own home ‘station stop’ as they are now absurdly announced, by creating a number of ‘Contemplation Seats’ which she is strategically placing along stations of the Marston Vale line.

Sally Annett, in her ‘Snakes and Ladders’ project has previously broken new ground in conducting large-scale investigations of the ‘inner voices’ of artists and scientists, probing at their religious, anti-religious, philosphical and pyschological backgrounds, to find out what they may all have in common in terms of notions of the self and processes of meta-awareness. In ‘Where Will Your Journey of Contemplation Begin’ she has initiated an unusual public art project which puts a new slant on the notion of ‘waiting for the train’ by strategically placing chairs, virtual and occasionally physically real, of different types and design in a guerilla fashion, in places where there is no seating. But they are not just functional. Annett describes the chairs as a way for the public “ to see familiar environments in a reflective and self-reflective way, through the written word and archetypal symbol of a chair or seat. The work uses the human body as a vehicle or mediator for consciousness and tries to develop methods of creating time and space for thought. They encourage a dialogue with a ‘still small voice’”.

The chair is an important symbol in contemporary art and stands as a powerful metaphor for human presence. A well-known example is Ai Wei Wei’s ‘Fairytale’ project in 2007, where he brought 1001 chairs from the Ming and Quing dynasty to Documenta 12 in Kassel. He also arranged for 1001 Chinese citizens to accompany them, who responded to an announcement in his blog, who had to answer 99 questions, including one about their dreams and who then inhabited the town of Kassel en masse in what Ai Wei Wei described as an ‘Eastern Wave’ along with the chairs. Another significant ‘chair’ work, which I was involved in curating was Simon Faithfull’s ‘Escape Vehicle No. 6 (2004) which took place at the first Artists Airshow at Farnborough, organised by The Arts Catalyst, where a life-size replica of a chair was launched to the edge of space. Faithfull described the flight of his chair as “first rushing away from the fields and roads, ascending through clouds and finally (against the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space) beginning to disintegrate… the empty chair invites the audience to imagine taking a journey to an uninhabitable realm where it is impossible to breathe…” Annett eventually aims to be able to install her Contemplation Seats permanently on the stations but for now they will appear occasionally and provocatively as ‘ghost chairs’ on the empty platforms, accompanied by discreet aluminium plaques, illicit stickers and a bespoke/interactive website – an ethernet contemplative trail which in the absence of full permissions, circuits from the real to digital and then imaginal worlds.

Riding the line between Bedford and Bletchley is a jolly affair, a friendly 2 -man train taking schoolkids, elderly shoppers and others who for whatever reason don’t use cars.  Once on, the train affords some interesting views of the post-industrial landscapes, with their gravel pits and abandoned brickworks. My previous experience of Bedfordshire has always been of the inner-city prejudiced variety, ie “get through it as quickly as possible to get to a real place”. We have now been taught by the likes of Ian Sinclair to value these apparently liminal non-spaces in the English hinterlands. Sally Annett, who lives here, is no exception, talking eloquently of the history of brick-building, local myths and of course Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress which she is artistically (currently) enchanted/obsessed, pointing out the landmarks on the Icknield way and little corners of the landscape that are reflected in the life of the dissident evangelist who lived and worked here.

With Annett I have actually climbed the Hill of Difficulty, viewed the spire of the Church of the Village of Morality (which now with centuries old irony looks down onto the ‘Satanic Mill and Motor-highway’) and entered the actual Slough of Despond. I am not sure if I have seen the Celestial City, unless that is Bletchley Park, with its rebuilt Colussus and Enigma Machines, the ghosts of Alan Turing and his mainly female human ‘computers’, at the end of the line, boffins travelling there by rail in each direction from Oxford and Cambridge on the Varsity Line. Moreover, at the edge of the Slough of Despond there is Light at the end of the Tunnel, to stretch a metaphor till it squeaks. The East-West Rail Consortium project has been funded and is aiming to re-open the Varsity line, at least from Bedford to Oxford again by 2020 (the Cambridge section has been built over), hence the support for accompanying public art projects like Sally Annett’s Contemplation Seats.

It is always difficult to do art projects that engage with large-scale infrastructure like railways, without becoming illustrative and decorative additions to the travelling environment. Somehow health and safety issues and anxieties about public perception always become magnified around trains and those who operate them. Sally Annett’s simple statement of a chair on a platform should be seen as a straightforward but evocative gesture, suggesting waiting and a sense of personal time as part of a unique individual journey. I hope they will appear.

Rob La Frenais
March 2016

Rob La Frenais is an independent curator and writer: www.roblafrenais.info

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