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They Call It Idlewild (Interview)

2 March to 2 July

"You'll have to learn to resist the fascination of Idlewhatever-you-call-it. When I tell you to come in at a certain time I mean that time and not half an hour later. And you needn't stop to discourse with sympathetic listeners on your way, either." Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, 1908.

As part of Wysing Arts Centre’s 30th birthday programme, in 2019, we commissioned They Call It Idlewild, a new film and text work from Turner-Prize-winning artist Helen Cammock. During the Autumn and Winter of 2019/20, Cammock was in-residence at Wysing responding to the organisation’s archive. Inspired by histories, photographs and artworks uncovered in the archive, Cammock’s new work acts as a reflection on the politics of idleness and what it means creatively, emotionally and culturally to be idle.

The exhibition’s centre-piece is a new short film, They Call It Idlewild, occupying Wysing’s gallery. The film begins as an evocative account of the artist’s explorations in Wysing’s archive; intuitively opening boxes and searching through photos as she uncovers forgotten names, histories and artworks. Reflecting on these findings, Cammock’s poetic voiceover begins to see the organisation in new terms, as a place where artists are free to engage with idleness, and to take things at their own speed. She sees this as the foundation of a thirty-year history of creativity at Wysing.

Formally, Cammock’s film unwinds from a series of short, poetic reflections on her findings to a more expansive essay, drawing on writers such as Audre Lorde, Mary Oliver and James Joyce to consider what it means to be idle. She quotes Jonathan Crary’s warnings about capital’s encroachment on our sleep, reminding us of the sweeping societal and political changes that have run parallel to Wysing’s history. 1989, the year of Wysing’s foundation, also saw the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of actually existing socialism in Europe, the emergence of the internet and the maturation of a new muscular and accelerated form of capitalism: neoliberalism. Hyper-productivity and hyper-connectivity are the new normal and so are the associated physical and emotional costs. If artists need to be idle, they will need to find a way to stand outside of these currents, if only temporarily.

At one point during the film, Cammock begins to sing Johnny Mercer’s depression-era song “Lazy Bones”, drawing an explicit link between several historical periods and reminding us of the pervasiveness of racial stereotypes around laziness. She takes aim at the hypocrisies of the slave, business and land-owning classes, across history with a long list of the supposedly idle whose labour allows their easy, idle lives.

Outside, two large-scale billboards make a fleeting demand on the attention of commuting passersby, asking them to interrogate their own idleness. When was the last time you did nothing?, drivers are asked on their way to work and When you last did nothing, how did it feel? on their way home. Together with Cammock’s film, they ask: who gets to be lazy?

Helen Cammock's residency and exhibition were supported by Arts Council England and Art Fund.

Video: Wilf Speller

Helen Cammock was the joint winner of the Turner Prize 2019 and her exhibition The Long Note, has been presented at Turner Contemporary, Margate as part of Turner Prize, 2019. She was winner of the 7th Max Mara Art Prize for Women. Her subsequent exhibition, Che Si Può Fare (What Can Be Done) premiered at Whitechapel Gallery, London from June – September 2019 and was on view at Collezione Maramotti, Italy until 8th March 2020. 

Her new film Concrete Feather and Porcelain Tacks, has been commissioned with Film and Video Umbrella, London; Touchstones Museum, Rochdale, and The Photographers Gallery, London and will be exhibited in solo exhibitions at The Photographers Gallery and Rochdale Museum in July and October 2020 respectively. This summer, Serpentine Gallery, London will present Cammock’s project Radio Ballads, a radio programme and series of live performance events.

The Long Note premiered at VOID, Derry, Northern Ireland; and showed at The Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2019. Other solo exhibitions include The Sound of Words, Reading Museum, UK (2019) and Shouting In Whispers, Cubitt, London (2017). Her work has been included in group exhibitions at; Somerset House, Hollybush Gardens, London and FirstSite, Colchester and she has staged performances at The Showroom, Whitechapel Gallery and the ICA in London.

Cammock was born in Staffordshire, UK in 1970 and lives and works in Brighton and London. She is represented by Kate MacGarry, London.

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