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Interview: The Age of New Babylon

The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018
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Published date
30 November 2018

Currently on view at Central Saint Martins, The Age of New Babylon is the Lethaby Gallery’s first student-led exhibition. Through a series of actions and interventions, it examines notions of ‘otherness’ through the lens of difference and seeks to go beyond the frame of images. Curated by Central Saint Martins BA Fine Art alum Samboleap Tol and final-year student Sara Gulamali, the exhibition features the work of 22 artists, including students and graduates from colleges across London. Here, Tol is interviewed by exhibiting artist and MA Contemporary Photography; Practices and Philosophies student Abbas Zahedi. 

Abbas Zahedi: OK, so how do you want to intro the show?

Samboleap Tol: Well, The Age of New Babylon is the first student-led show at the Lethaby Gallery, which I am co-curating with Sara Gulamali. Perhaps the reason I chose to go with New Babylon as a reference is because I am keen to blend what art and life is – like how people did in the post-war period. I think I’m kind of doing the same thing.

AZ: Can you explain why this reference in particular? Because I don’t think anyone in the College was thinking about New Babylon until you came along.

The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Yili Liu

ST: I’m Dutch and when I was in the Netherlands – one of the rare times that I was in my native country – I saw an exhibition by Constant Nieuwenhuys, who was part of the avant-garde movement COBRA and the Situationists. He was a Dutch architect and artist and he created this imaginal world – an anti-capitalistic city in which people could only play. I think he was really attracted to this idea of play and what that could really do for the future of humanity.

He translated his idea through an effort which took years to complete. He made all these architectural models, which you really couldn’t scale, along with thousands of sketches. Walking into the exhibition was like walking into his mind. That was very inspiring, just to experience this almost insane commitment to realising an idea. I was really attracted to that. So when I initially made the exhibition proposal in March, I was thinking about the energy one could get from just expressing how you could view the world. Maybe in this time we’re all very careful that. So I think I get a lot of energy from taking the risk to express how an individual can imagine the world.

Zeinab Saleh, Trevi Fountain, 2018
The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Colin Buttimer

Abbas Zahedi, Neo-Babylon Juice, 2018
The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Colin Buttimer

AZ: So is this what the show is? Your own imagining of a new world?

ST: No, I think I’ve always been more interested in the tool of imagination rather than what the outcome is. As opposed to what Constant did, where he is very specific about wanting to have an anti-capitalistic world where you only play, I was mostly inspired by the tool of imagination. This was the emphasis of my approach to the show and the selection of artists. We portrayed it as something that’s constantly in flux.

So imagination almost becomes like a verb rather than a static, fixed idea that should be realised. I think it’s the sense of unrealised potential that I’m most attracted to.

AZ: The works in the show include different disciplines and practices. Are you then saying that the thing that ties them together is the imaginative potential, or the use of imagination within each work?

ST: Yes definitely, and maybe the imaginative potential does tie into what Constant talks about in terms of play. What do you think about what you’ve seen so far from the show?

AZ: When I think about imagination, I think of what an image is. I see it in the sense that an image is anything that activates imagination. So the “images” in the show really play into the idea that anything can be an image – text, sound or performance. For me, these function in the most interesting way, in terms of how they activate the imagination of a viewer and that’s actually where the performance is happening.

Yili Liu and Mingjing Yu, Rowing in the Desert and Ploughing in the Wave, 2018,
The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Yili Liu

ST: Yeah, it’s exactly that – the performance is happening in your head when you view the works in the show. For example Yili’s work, she’s rowing in the desert and it’s a wide shot of her in the Sahara, where she brought this boat and she starts rowing. You look at the image and you don’t know whether it’s real or unreal, whether it’s photoshopped or not. Then when you discover that she actually went there and smuggled her boat into Morocco, you start imagining what that journey must have been like and what drives a person to commit to an idea like that. It also shows this feeling of potentiality, in terms of being interested in what she might do next as an individual. I think this is one of the qualities that makes someone a really interesting artist, having the feeling of excitement of not knowing what comes next. This applies to all the artists who we have in the show.

AZ: It seems there’s a lot of opportunities to bring people together and establish ephemeral communities or gatherings of togetherness. Was it always your intention to have this convivial aspect to the show?

ST: Togetherness as a concept is something that I’ve been researching for a long time. I bring it into the gallery to try and put it under a “microscope.” When we look at sociological reports, such as the recent BBC report, we learn that we are very lonely, in a situation often referred to as networked-solitude. As a child of parents who survived war as orphans themselves, I’ve sensed a particular feeling of being isolated because I wasn’t part of any community. So there’s this almost tribal desire to be with people and to feel connected and in-sync with people. There are contemporary artists, such as Hito Steyerl, who talk about the quality of being contemporary as being out of sync and being fractured. The current situation seems so fragmented.

Amina Osmanu, tell me, 2018
The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Colin Buttimer

AZ: When you talk about this tribal desire to be part of something in a collective sense, it brings to mind aspects of the show which relate to music and the performative elements of club culture and live shows which you find sort of repeated here.

ST: Yeah, there’s a music video in the show and there’s also a band which I put together with my friends, in which we really explore this idea and “technologies” of togetherness and intuition. The tribal reference in particular comes from psychoanalyst Erich Fromm who wrote a book called The Art of Loving, in which he considers how mankind was part of nature but got uprooted from it. He writes that we can still remember what it was like to be a part of nature, to not be so self-conscious and then he talks about being in the womb and how that is also still in our memory, also a feeling of what it’s like to just be part of nature. He then talks about how we try to find our way back to that feeling, by going to clubs, taking drugs, having sex, through mad rituals, but I don’t know whether that’s all necessarily true.

In the same way that being out of sync is quite interesting, I think the variety of works in the show that are physical or ephemeral portrays this too. There are some elements which extend beyond the physical place of the gallery, such as calls from Mati who is undertaking a performance for three years as a flight stewardess and will use the show as a check-in point. So she should be calling every now and then for the whole three weeks. And then there’s Imann who is in Senegal and she’s sending updates through a monitor.

AZ: I’ve been involved in the development of the show from quite early on, so everything you’re saying to me sounds familiar, but how do you envisage someone who has no relationship to this reacting when they walk into the space?

Imann Gaye, Can you dance Mblax?, 2018
The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Colin Buttimer

ST: It depends on when they walk in, but when they do they might think, “okay this is different” because of how the show is designed aesthetically. There are cut flowers in different nooks and it kind of feels like there’s been a flower intervention. Also there are no plinths and there are no frames. Stuff is on the floor – a monitor, for example, is not hung up. It’s curated and un-curated.

Abondance Matanda, We will be Dead Tings, 2018
The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Yili Liu

The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Yili Liu

Maybe in terms of the exhibition design, people might think it’s different or interesting but it’s also quite familiar. A lot of the things that are happening in the show, people are doing in real life too. Again, like with Mati – she calls via Skype. There’s a little shrine with shoes and an empty vase and a birthday card by Abondance Matanda. She just uses her life and then puts that on show. She says this is her artwork and I  resonate with that. There’s a bottle of rum in there and when I look at that I guess I get memories from when I was 16 being drunk off my first bottle of rum. I’m not saying whatever is happening is what you should put inside a gallery but, instead, these are works which talk about life and so they elicit this familiar feeling but sit quite differently in here.

AZ: It’s interesting when you talk about the plants and the role of nature in the show, going back to the previous reference to Erich Fromm, but also at the same time we’re talking about performativity and images having a fluidity. So there’s this relationship between nature as something that changes throughout the course of the show, but the technological interventions are also changing. For instance, Neale’s speaker is an automated response to the information about the institution’s finances and there are other video works which are updated and changing throughout the course of the show. So, this kind of reaches this point where the distinction between nature and technology is being lost, just becoming about movement and change.

ST: Philosophically I like the idea of things being in flux – maybe it’s my Buddhist background. Looking at life as linear means that something happens in the past and which determines what’s happening in the present and the present determines what will be happening in the future. I see life as a bit more cyclical. That said, nature and function in that way for some reason – they are networked and reacting to each other, it’s interpenetration. I don’t resist this. I am banking on my intuition and being in the moment. The work that I am presenting in the Private View is all of us asking to be that way.

AZ: When I think of the approach of the sixties and seventies, where we talk about Fluxus, I feel there was a kind of banking on everything being hyper-fluid and maybe a lack of acknowledgement towards the archival aspect. Would you agree?

ST: Yeah I think the proliferation of the fixed, of being fixated on the fixed, had a really big backlash after the second world war. What happens after such a destruction is that everybody starts from scratch in some sort of sense and they know what they don’t really want. I’m really inspired by these post-war art movements because they have a real sense of potentiality; they really want to do something but they do not necessarily want to do what their ancestors did and I feel kind of the same way.

AZ: I think now when we talk about it, there seems to be a reaction to their reaction in the kind of identity discourses borne out of the same power dynamics that gives us this resurgence of right-wing fascism. These movements are trying to find a centre or trying to fix what is apparently very fluid.

ST: I have so many thoughts on this but I’m aware of time and would like to ask what you think is exciting about the show?

AZ: I think there’s a sensual aspect that has to be felt. If we look at the whole show as this spread of latent potential, then when a body is in the space it activates the imagination in a very strong way. For me that’s really exciting and especially when the physicality of the works are fairly minimal, there is enough of a gesture to activate a sense of the uncanny. This brings me back to Neale’s work, an anthropomorphic noise-making device running off of the information contained in UAL’s financial statements. It’s kind of bonkers but at the same time there are humans whose job it is to maintain those records so this machine has a kind of mirroring quality to the institution and what these spaces can do to bodies.

Hannah Smythe, Postcards, 2018 (Detail)
The Age of New Babylon, Installation View, Lethaby Gallery, 2018. Photo: Colin Buttimer

ST: Yeah and a similar work that’s less automatic is Hannah Smythes’ work where she asks Central Saint Martins alumni and Diploma in Professional Studies students who are away from the College but still have a close relationship to it, to send postcards to the Lethaby Gallery. She asks them how they feel about the institution and so this work talks about this exchange between the bodies and the structure, which is also similar to Moza’s work – the email exchange regarding her palm tree.

AZ: I think it’s interesting how when we think about the kind of technological future that’s looming, everyone seems to be worried about the whole robot reality and often artists are presented as being in a very precarious position because if you can automate creativity well then why do you need artists? But at the same time it seems that artists are really responding in a playful way to this foreshadowing.

ST: Artists are the hackers really and they will find the cracks and they’re going to sit on the cracks and chill there for a bit. Then they will ask their artist friends to come and chill in these cracks and they will open up the crack further. Then on the other side of the world there’s more cracks, so artists will always sit on some sort of crack – whether it’s technological, social, economic or political instability. They will always sit somewhere uncomfortable just to find out what it’s like and then call their friends to come over. I think that’s exciting; I want to be that person.

AZ: I think I can see that in the show.