Artist Mat Jenner’s roaming art project, Foam, opens this week at London’s Project/Number gallery. Unlike many art programmes, this one features no canvases, no video installations, no performances. What we traditionally allow to be named as art is conspicuously absent, and instead Jenner presents an archive of one-off 12-inch dubplates commissioned from over 100 participating artists – including Yuri Pattison, Benedict Drew, GandT, Cecile B Evans, Jaakko Pallasvuo – along a wall of stainless steel pieces that stand like backdrops. The archives, he seems to say, are the art.
In our email correspondence previous to the show, Jenner is obliging and affable, responding promptly even in the bedlam days prior to opening. The only prickle I feel from him is when I ask for private digital copies of the records for the preview that are sure to exist because, well, we live in the digital age. “No to copies,” he answers bluntly, “you have to be with them to listen to them”.
In this way, Jenner’s Foam functions as a response to this modern religion of ours in which everything exists in its digital form – first, after, alongside, but certainly. The name of the project speaks to its expansiveness, its malleability, and that of the archives – Space and time are reborn to us today – to its design. The line, lifted from Naum Gabo and Antoine Pevsner’s The Realistic Manifesto, harks back to the religiosity of this sentiment: we are reborn only because a rebirth is necessary.
The revival to which Jenner alludes is that of physicality, of the reverence we have for those things which we still can hold. The archive, in its components and its entirety, echoes the sentimentality of all those who still cherish the physical copies of the things they love – the frayed edges of the book, the splattered paint of the frame, the smooth finish of the LP. “The insistence on a restricted physical relationship with these records is an attempt to explore the problematised condition of these records as artworks,” Jenner writes in an email. “It is a romantic and futile attempt to negate their dissemination. By doing this I’m hoping to slow down an audience, to make more explicit their spatial and temporal relationship to the work.”
It is an ode to a time past, as Jenner knows, necessarily nostalgic and futile, but it is just as much a nod to a future that Jenner knows is his to create. In positioning the records as art, he revives the act of listening to that of performance, or rather to that of participation in a performative act. Listen to them as though for the last time, Foam seems to say, echoing the sensibility of Gabo and Pevsner in their manifesto. Listen as though your life depends on it.
The conceptual framework of the project functions alongside its more pragmatic, sociable one, through which Foam functions as a catalyst for creativity. The range of archival material is expansive, including spoken word, field recordings, electronic noise, and soundscapes, among others. From the minimal glitch soundtrack of Brian Moran gleaned from the digital data of Snapchat, to the Gregorian church chant style of Mark Dean’s Nico cover, to Paul Purgas’ dark electro sounds derived from 3D stimulations of architectural interiors, it is apparent that the conceptual mentalities of the participating artists have created a breed of sounds all of its own. “It is one of the best compliments I could have had about the project,” says Jenner, “that the artists involved want to run with it”.
And run with it they did. Participating artist Charlie Woolley took his faux metal band idea and made it real with the formation of Lead Pipe, and Jesse Darling took her audio cover of Drake’s ‘Marvin’s Room’ and produced a whole video for it. In that regard, Foam functioned as a creative jumping point for works that continue to live and expand outside the contours of the exhibition. The visual artists participating do not go gently into the good night of their visuals, leaving the making of LPs to established musicians. Instead, they remain all of it: artists, musicians, creators, living out the last lines of Gabo and Pevsner’s text: