Saturday 19 July 2014

The Function Room

I went recently to The Cock Tavern in Somers Town, between King's Cross and Euston stations. 

It's a working class Irish pub run by Sheila from County Sligo, a pub of the type I thought had disappeared entirely in London - cavernous, with sticky fitted carpets and a glum sodality of exclusively male boozers doggedly sinking pints of Carling Black Label, watching a large TV screen above the bar. The place seemed stuck, attractively, in 1976, and only the lack of smouldering fags and heaped ashtrays gave the game away. Low evening sunlight bounced off the beer taps, the glasses, and balding pates. Therewas no music, but the atmosphere was that of dance hall the morning after. You could while away an afternoon here. You could while away a lifetime.

The Cock Tavern is now at the centre of a campaign against property developers who want to close it down and connivery the building into expensive flats. Do support them (the pub owners, I mean) and one way you can do so is by attending events upstairs.

The reason I was there was to visit, not for the first time, The Function Room, a space run by the artists Anthony Auerbach and Marlene Haring. It's a light and airy place that may be the coolest interior in  the capital, not so much for what it is - a plain white room with windows on three sides - but for the type of thing it does.

It was certainly the place to be on that humid Wednesday evening. A keen-eyed observer would have detected something was out of kilter on entering the unabashedly shabby downstairs bar - some blue and white beermats were scattered around bearing the logo of the INS. These appeared incongruous in the wilderness of empty tables and collapsing banquette seats. fresh and contemporary. A minor re-purposing of the room, you might say. 

That evening The Function Room was hosting the AGM of the International Necronautical Society, chaired by Tom McCarthy, novelist and (with philosopher Simon Critchley) co-founder of the INS. This is an art movement in the tradition of Tzara's Dada and Breton's Surrealisme - it issues manifestos, expels heretics, arranges exhibitions and takes itself very seriously indeed. Or rather, it appears to, although it's not a spoof. The INS has affinities with Lewis Carroll, taking a lead from the line in The Hunting of the Snark that encapsulates the sceptical view of the things that make up the world:  "they are merely conventional signs."

They aim, they say, "to do for death what the Surrealists did for sex", which is intriguing (if one assumes that the Surrealists demystified and secularised sex)." They also like to produce ironic corporate products which of course are, in spite of the destabilising and subversive intent, covetable features of late capitalism - mugs, bottled beers, ID tags, T-shirts and so on.)

Have a look at the Function Room's current installation, created by Auerbach. The two lecterns (designed by Laura Hopkins, the INS Environmental Engineer) look quite solid and noble from the front (invisible to the 'speaker' but seen by any hypothetical audience). From the 'privileged' side (i.e. that of the  speaker) they are tatty and unprepossessing - cheap woodgrain sticky-back plastic over MDF. Points are being made about authority, communication, authenticity, surfaces and decay. The lecterns featured in an INS event at Tate Britain (see below) in which two actors stood in for McCarthy and Critchley ( although this may not have been apparent to the audience).

The real Tom McCarthy (author of Men in Space, Remainder, C, and the forthcoming Satin Island) called the meeting to order (there followed the usual minutes, apologies, news of expulsions and deaths and so on) and then reported back on the latest INS project - fronting a show at the Dusseldorf Kunsthalle.

On arrival visitors were greeted by INS staff (sporting lanyards, like the young retailers at an Apple store) and were then directed to a large black table, there to sign disclaimers - very official looking - forfeiting their individuality and freedom as a prerequisite to entering the main exhibition. A conceptual prank - visitors were invited to use false identities. Of the 18,000 or so attendees, a few hundred refused (some angrily) as this challenged their (banal) concept of art as no more than an expression of personal freedom (although the same folk willingly and regularly make such concessions in everyday life, as do we all). So another point was made, and points scored.

INS works a Situationist seam with style and grace and a prankish undertow, its work expressed in gestures of monumental inconsequentiality, provocative and engaging and (at times) exasperating. I happen to like much of this - we haven't had a British art movement punching above its weight beyond our borders since Wyndham Lewis's Vorticists in the 1920s, and the INS is (as it's initial letter confirms) International. I admire the high-mindedness of it, the absolute rejection of the middlebrow, the intellectual doggedness. It's all very . .  continental?

The INS in action at Tate Britain

In response to a question from the floor McCarthy offered an INS perspective on the loss of Malaysia Airlines MH370, which disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing on 8 March this year and has yet to be found. He used Hamlet as a way in and likened the lost aircraft to Polonius, stabbed in the arras by Hamlet, whose body is hidden within the 'framework of grid' of Elsinore, the smell rather than the physical presence of the corpse is the giveaway.

Where is Polonius?

In heaven; send hither to see: if your messenger
Find him not there, seek him i' the other place
Yourself. But indeed, if you find him not within
This month, you shall nose him as you go up the
Stairs into the lobby.

KING CLAUDIUS (To some Attendants)

Go seek him there.

He will stay till ye come.

The loss of flight MH370, observed an audience member. 'an event without collateral" (cold comfort to the friends and relatives of the missing, presumed dead) but again a point was being made - that the aircraft's complete disappearance gives commentators little purchase on the event (unlike, alas a more conventional air disaster). There's nothing at all to show, nothing to look at. There's certainly a stink coming from the stairs into the lobby.

Does this, I wonder, make the destruction of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17, shot down over the Ukraine with the death of all on board, an equivalent to the slaughterhouse that is Elsinore at the end of the play? The INS would have a view - and I suppose it's as legitimate as any other.

McCarthy dazzled with more off-the-cuff analyses of the zeitgeist, paid tribute to the influence of Mallarm√© and the meeting came to a close. Food and drinks were served and the small but seriously cool and cerebral audience mingled, coolly and cerebrally. I clumped downstairs, back to the huge and sparsely populated bar, pocketing an INS beermat as I left.

Image © the International Necronautical Society

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