'B TO S'
GUIDE TO LADYWOOD
the IKON Gallery, 1997
"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon, Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its highest."
The National Lottery
The Arts Council of England
West Midlands Arts
Birmingham City Council
B - Birmingham Art Trust
The project was in Ladywood, the district that the Ikon had relocated to. I decided to concentrate upon a small area that was bounded by lines of communication - rail, canal, and major roads. I was interested in how people in that area communicated with each other. This was particularly in relation to everyday conversation; it seems that often more positive action is achieved over an informal cup of coffee, than in a formal situation.
In walking round the area the BT tower is ever present, sending and receiving messages. I saw the Ikon as being a repository of ideas, and sending out messages on contemporary art - what opportunity was there to receive messages?
The first stage was to find locations that were open to talking to me. The next stages related to how I had made contact - leaving messages on answerphones, talking live on the telephone, then meeting face to face.
The five locations had access to mobile phones and left messages for each other. Then they talked live with each other by teleconferencing. Then everyone came face to face at a party at the Ikon!
This book and accompanying audio tour is the next stage - and after that? Who knows!
The Imp(a)ssable Connection
'Only Connect!' The title of Jo Robert's project is astonishing in the cynical 90s. Can anyone still believe that "all we need is love"? The artist too carries an infectious air of almost na‘ve optimism. But if this has been a decade of cynicism, it has also seen ambitious utopian projects. What place has the nay-sayer in the current peace processes? We need more Jo Roberts, who give a hundred reasons why something will work, rather than relishing the obstacles. We need more artists who cast critical caution to the wind and work from their unique subjective desire, rather than for the 'goods' of critical acclaim. After all, art is, necessarily, an impossible project. It steps into the gap left by the lost cause, but it doesn't fill that gap: it articulates the loss, and becomes the spark that bridges the void.
Of course Jo Roberts's impossible desire is tangled with fantasies - like those of discrete and unified communities, and of these communities connecting. But because these fantasies are configured by her desire, we can follow its trajectory - represented in the artist's map, appropriately, by a vector - beyond the fantasies, beyond the communities' fences. The aim of 'Only Connect' is dynamic, rather than a static goal of 'building communities'.
I think the participants in 'Only Connect' sensed this energy circulating among them. One of the most talked-about topics was the analogy of radio waves with brain waves. Rather than betraying a "Johnny Mnemonic" fear of technology, this analogy provided the terms in which the participants could express their experience of something more than just the mobile phones' radio waves passing among the nodes in Jo Roberts's network: something like brain waves, and as intimate to the site of subjectivity.
At the same time, topics that demanded their conversants assume entrenched positions, fixed identities, were avoided. There was no response to one participant's denunciation of racism. Not, I would suggest, because the other participants didn't care about racism, but because the terms of these messages were laid down in stark binary oppositions - 'you' and 'us' - even as they asserted the individuality of all people, and the fundamental incompatibility of the unique subject with the fantasy of homogeneous, unified communities, racial or otherwise.
"Please remember" the artist wrote to the participants, "as is often the case with mobile phones, not all of your messages might have got through." As 'Only Connect' tracks the fantasies of the central Birmingham residents through their calls to the impossible Other (the one supposed to be at the other end of the mobile phone's radio waves), another way of reading the project's title emerges: the art work can "only connect" imp(a)ssible communities; it cannot, and should not, efface their differences.