In 2009, John Berger donated sixty years’ worth of his papers, accumulated in his stables in the French Alps, to the British Library. The exhibition of that archive, Art and Property Now, begins with pieces from the Forties and Fifties by Berger, Leon Kossoff and others, and runs up to the 2009 collaboration with Alan Kane and Artangel, Life Class. To celebrate John Berger’s 86th birthday, openDemocracy is this week inviting you to a daily guided tour of the exhibition, which is divided into five sections, by room, connected by the photographer Jean Mohr’s sequence of portraits of Berger. This week also sees free activities, discussions, workshops, screenings and collaborations in the exhibition: redrawingthemaps.org.uk.
Room 5 invites you into this company, as part of a series of participatory collaborations.
Room 5 takes its name from Geoff Dyer’s introduction to Berger’s Selected Essays (2001). There, he argues: “It is not enough simply to lobby for Berger’s name to be printed more prominently on an existing map of literary reputations; his example urges us fundamentally to alter its shape.”
But as the programme for Redrawing the Maps says further down:
“It would be easy to have spent this week celebrating the literary reputation of John Berger, but to do so would have been to miss the point he has made in so many ways, with many collaborators and from different angles. Instead, we took his work as a point of departure - a landmark for some of us, a new discovery for others - from which to question the maps we have inherited and to try sketching out other maps that might make sense of our experience and the situation of the world today.”
During the run of the exhibition, Room 5 has offered visitors an opportunity to take up the invitation offered by Room 3: ‘To be continued by the reader…’. There have been life-drawing classes, talks and letter-writing workshops, inspired by the mystery and warmth of the archive – Berger added one to the collection himself when he visited:
Letter from John Berger.
– but also a space for visitors to sit and talk about what they’ve seen.
Starting on his birthday (November 5) and running until the close of the exhibition (November 10) Redrawing the Maps invited suggestions via an online form; the programme has been brought together by Arthur Swindells, Ben Vickers and Dougald Hine, who have a shared history of involvement in ‘Free Schools’ such as the Temporary School of Thought and the Really Free School. In an introductory text, Dougald explained:
“There are certain writers whose work acts as a landmark by which people find their bearings in the world. From the 1950s to the present day, Berger has played this role for generations of readers. To take his work seriously is to be led into a process of redrawing the maps: not only, as Dyer says, the map of literary reputations, but of art, politics, time, place, the situation of the world today. Over the course of this exhibition, Redrawing the Maps will bring together conversations between people from different generations and different worlds to whom Berger’s work has mattered. In the final week (5–10 November) – inspired by the “free schools” and informal learning spaces where art and activism meet – we will host an open programme of conversations and workshops, to revisit the paths which his work has opened up for us and to follow them in new directions. The aim is not to create a spectacle with an audience, but to offer an open invitation to anyone who wants to host or take part in a conversation, collaboration or workshop within this space. For more information about how to get involved, visit the Redrawing the Maps website: www.redrawingthemaps.org.uk ”
Writing this on Wednesday night, there have already been a wonderful range of sessions, from Chris Erskine leading a discussion of Jacques Lacan and activism, to Viv Goodings’ “lesson in not taking ourselves too seriously”: and the three hours’ worth of dancing of varying degrees of wonkiness I had to leave early to write this article. As Dougald writes, this isn’t Berger Bible-study; many of the sessions have passed without any specific mention of the exhibition’s subject, but they’ve all been united by the warmth and openness that characterises his work.
The poetry evening on Tuesday night, which you can watch here is a particularly good example. After the organiser, Harry Burke, opened with his own poems, it featured Amarjit Chandan, the Punjabi poet who persuaded Berger to donate his archive to the British Library, reading a selection of his poems, including ‘Lassan (Garlic)’, once read on camera by the man himself. Cristina Viti read translations, as well as her own poems. There were also readings by Siddhartha Bose, Caleb Klaces, Sam Riviere, Rachael Allen, Daniel Barrow, Crispin Best, Gordon Peters and an impromptu reading by James Byrne.
It was also an example of the kind of conversations across generations and backgrounds the week aimed to set up. A preliminary discussion a few weeks earlier, Remember the Future? raised the question of whether or not there’s a comparison to be made between the current state of political activism – not least, in the context of a University-owned space, student activism – and the situation after the revolutionary defeats of 1968. What Are We Fighting For, a session between 5-6 on Saturday, invites a closer look at the situation people seeking change find ourselves in.
In 1968, ‘the road was cleared,’ Berger reflected, ‘for what, later, would be called normalization.’ He explored this in a collaborative film with Alain Tanner, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976),which shares much with Jean-Luc Godard’s 1972 film Tout Va Bien, not least in its use of the image of a hard-discount supermarket as a way of describing the socio-political system which emerged triumphant. Berger calls this ‘economic fascism’ these days, and most recently revisited it in a supermarket scene in Bento’s Sketchbook (2011).
The context for the film was set up by the 1973 essay ‘Between Two Colmars’ which describes how visiting Grunewald’s Isenheim altarpiece was, for Berger, an experience that profoundly differs in 1973 from what it had been in 1963. ‘In a period of revolutionary expectation’, he writes,
“I saw a work of art which had survived as evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured, I see the same work as miraculously offering a narrow pass across despair.”
The essay stops short of this despair; in its metaphorical economy, hope is a lens that assists focus, rather than obscures it. With his 1963-tinged lens of hope, he had no need of the side panels, which were painted to offer a hopeful contrast to the suffering of the central altarpiece. But in the Seventies, this hope comes from moments of beauty like the altarpieces’ side panels, and from the next generation: the eponymous Jonah, whose conception and birth provides a way of imagining the future the soixante-huitardes are going to bequeath him.
In the shorter term, the film explores how people might perhaps find non-damaging social roles again – for example on a market garden-cum-Montessori School rather than in a supermarket. In response to the demand Berger made in the novel G. that ‘never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one’, the script does all of this by weaving together the lives of characters connected both arbitrarily – their names all start with M – and by love, work and friendship. As part of a film programme curated by Gareth Evans, who brought together 2005’s Berger celebration Here is Where We Meet, we’ll screen Jonah on Saturday at 2pm, prefaced by a session at 12 noon by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, director of Estate, a project that applies Jonah’s vision to the parlous state of housing – and everything that implies – in early twenty-first-century London. Focusing on a community in Haggerston, and the buildings that shelter it, the film deserves its own blurb:
“An iconic East London housing estate (Haggerston),
already transformed by a landmark public artwork, is set in its last days to
become the star of a bold new non-fiction feature film. As an old building is
bulldozed a new construction rises in its place. On this site of creation and
destruction, past and future stand for a moment face to face. The film inhabits
Capturing a moment of imminent transition, the artist's film Estate: a Reverie, directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, reflects on urgent matters of regeneration, gentrification and architecture; its reasons, possibilities and consequences. But more importantly, it is a film about time and place, dreams and wonder. During this moment, where one structure has broken down, and a new one is about to form, another space unfolds; a space of proposals, of uncertainty, and of absolute initiative. In this opening, how might we ask important questions of our ideas of home, of history, always in the making, and of our capacities of imagination; that which influences not only how we’re seen, but also how we see.
Estate, a reverie - an artist's film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate - is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist in residence Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists' book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.”
Redrawing the Maps will end between 7.30 and 9 with a general discussion bringing together all of these themes with Mike Dibb, who has recently made a film about the jazz musician Barbara Thompson’s struggle with Parkinson’s, (Playing Against Time (2011), showing at 2pm at the Queen Elizabeth Hall as part of London Jazz Festival). Besides his work directing Ways of Seeing, Dibb collaborated with Berger on A Telling Eye (1994) and About Time (1985), which are showing at 10.30am and 5pm respectively. Come and join us!
Detail from a large wall chart planning the action of Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), British Library John Berger Archive.