Edited by Annabel Lucas, with an introduction by Laura Earley and an essay by Elizabeth Fisher. Texts appear throughout by poets Simon Frazer and Tony Mitton.This is the first publication to document the work of Bettina Furnée. It tracks a particular project that has been the focus of Furnée‘s practice since 2004: If Ever You’re in the Area. Now coming to a close, this body of work has been developed inside and outside of the gallery, featuring off-site works along the East coast and exhibitions at firstsite and The Naze Tower in Essex. A complex project, If Ever You’re in the Area explores ideas of war, migration, fear and reminiscence associated with invasion of the coast. Furnée‘s site specific pieces have included lettered flags on the eroding coastline at Bawdesy, Suffolk, and signed Semaphore messages to the Principality of Sealand. The participatory aspects of Furnée‘s work is explored in an essay by Elizabeth Fisher; texts by poets Simon Frazer and Tony Mitton – who worked in collaboration with the artist – are also reproduced throughout the book.
The publication has been developed by Bettina Furnée with firstsite during the project If Ever You’re in the Area and the exhibition at firstsite 18 June – 23 July 2005.
This publication was released on 1st July 2006 to coincide with the exhibition and event day ‘Lines of Approach’ by Bettina Furnee at the Naze Tower. BBC Radio Essex covered this event with a live broadcast 2-5pm with ‘Steve Scruton’s Summer Saturday’.
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Essay by Elizabeth Fisher
Bettina Furnée trained as a lettercutter with David Kindersley, and this experience has distinctly coloured her interests and concerns as an artist. In one sense, her practice is still about giving words physical form, although now she selects the words herself, and frames them in ways that resonate beyond their textual significance. She isolates and recontextualises words, translating them into objects to extrapolate their multiple meanings and uses, historical references and cultural connotations. At the same time, in works such as womb, bomb, tomb, the simple technique of repetition draws on the linguistic, visual and haptic qualities of words to explore the perceptual and emotional interactions between the actual visual form of the words and the images they suggest, between the sound of the words and their meanings.
Furnée’s work invokes a long, imbricated history of craftsmanship and artistic experiment which, in the twentieth century alone, has generated productive tensions and radical shifts in fine art practice – from the Bauhaus to Minimalism. Her work should be seen within a tradition of formally innovative and socially engaged graphic art practice that emerged between the first and second world wars, a period that now epitomises modernity’s avant-garde – when the development of modern printing technology, typography and distribution methods enabled both a new art form and new audiences to emerge. Graphics played a central role in some of the most important artistic movements in Russia and Europe at that time. In Dada, Surrealism, De Stijl, Constructivism and Social Realism, all of which articulated an artistic response to the contemporary political climate, the entanglement of art and language in all of these instances had significant social and political implications – relationships between art and propaganda and art and advertising flourished; artists used graphics to invest their work with political meaning – while the new aesthetic of machine-cut fonts and mass reproduction introduced new formal and conceptual idioms for artistic practice, from concrete poetry to conceptual art.
Indeed, Furnée shares certain aesthetic and conceptual concerns with Britain’s best- known exponent of concrete poetry, the late Ian Hamilton Finlay. Both artists exploit the visual qualities of words and typographical fonts; their practices emphasise a complex web of relationships between a word, the image or object it is inscribed on, and its environment or context. A large part of Hamilton Finlay’s creative output over the last twenty years also involved working with lettercutters to inscribe words and
phrases on natural and hand crafted objects – from boulders and pebbles to plinths, gates, and plaques – placed strategically in the landscape around his home in rural Scotland (which he named Little Sparta) as part of a convoluted and unfolding narrative that embodied the artist’s interest in classical history and philosophy, and his relationship to nature and art.
Furnée’s recent site-specific piece, Lines of Defence at Bawdsey on the Suffolk coast, takes a similarly multivalent approach, using a particular landscape and language to unravel personal and historical narratives – which in her case are rooted in a shared experience and sense of place. The words and the form they took as flags, the duration of the work and the site are interdependent parts of a complex whole, as with Hamilton Finlay’s garden at Little Sparta.
In tandem with this approach to making objects, the research-based, site-specific and collaborative ways of working that Furnée has developed also bear an ideological relationship to recent conceptual strategies such as relational aesthetics and public art practice. Artists like 2004 Turner prize-winner Jeremy Deller, whose collaborative and community-specific projects established socially motivated and politically engaged strategies as mainstream artistic practice, reflect another important aspect of Furnée’s work.
Apart from being deeply interested in other people’s stories and experiences, Furnée’s practice is inherently inclusive. Having incorporated the input of others for years as a lettercutter, often working to commission, it is second nature to her now to involve other people in the process of making her own work, or “commissioning herself” as she describes it. As a result, her collaborators and sources are wide-ranging – from industry to the internet, local history or personal anecdote – and the work produced as the culmination of a project has an openness to it that invites further participation on the part of the viewer, sometimes prescribed and sometimes implicit, in order to complete it.
There is certain inevitability to this. Language, Furnée’s primary material, is inherently communal and historical. It defines communities by default; but within that shared context of language are the inconsistencies and contradictions of personal and collective narratives that hold Furnée’s attention. She rarely uses her own words in her work. Instead, her work often contains multiple voices; the artist will gather people together to collect
their memories, use literature or chance conversations as sources of material, or collaborate creatively with poets like Simon Frazer or Tony Mitton to conjure phrases, words and whole bodies of text for a project or specific piece. Like Deller, the questions of authorship or ownership seem of little concern to her, although she maintains a clear vision and control over the outcomes and scope of her projects.
A project such as If Ever You’re in the Area highlights the problems of assuming any common cultural context or mutual understanding through language or experience. The title itself refers to the uncertain meaning of such a phrase, and throughout this project, from her work with the local community to the production of objects for the related exhibition at firstsite in 2005, Furnée repeatedly returns to the potential for misremembering, misunderstanding and miscommunication. Working with a group of local inhabitants from an area on the Suffolk coast near Bawdsey, Furnée created a series of text-based installations, Lines of Defence, that layered their landscape. She also drew on her own experience to turn the landscape into a palimpsest of fragmented and subjective histories, temporal and geographical connections between present and past, and between this patch of Suffolk coastline and an area on the coast of formerly occupied Holland, where she grew up.
Such working practices also raise questions about the nature and role of the audience for the work. In the process of developing something as complex as the project If Ever You’re in the Area, of which Lines of Defence was one element, Furnée effectively created her audience among the people who participated in the project. Like Deller’s Battle of Orgreave, which was a reconstruction of a particularly bitter confrontation between Yorkshire miners and police at the height of the miners’ strike in the 1980s, Furnée’s public projects use the shared experience of a specific event to define a community and primary audience, for whom the resonance of the work is inevitably richer and more nuanced than for an indeterminate ‘public’ or the conventional figure of a ‘disinterested viewer.’ The active role of participants and the specificity of the location in If Ever You’re in the Area raises further questions about how, where and by whom ‘meaning’ is produced – whether it is significant or not that the meaning of the work is different for audiences that have not directly participated in its production, and that meaning will alter again according to where and in what form it is encountered in future.
Given that Furnée has produced things – a film, some objects, an oral history archive – as outcomes which exist beyond the life of this project, her work will be seen by other audiences, more likely than not in the hermetic context of an art gallery. The art gallery embodies a history and set of conventions that dictate the way we interact with the art inside. For instance, the prevailing modernist ‘white cube’ method of display, encountered to a greater or lesser degree almost everywhere art is displayed today, uses physical devices such as pristine white walls, pedestals and large empty spaces to isolate the work from the outside world, which has an enormous impact on our behaviour when we enter such spaces and privilege visual perception, Western art historical knowledge and aesthetic criteria over other ways of relating to the objects on display. In many ways this bears little relation to the experiences and processes both Deller and Furnée explore with different communities and collaborators as a fundamental part of their artistic practice. However, while Deller allows aesthetic value to be subsumed by questions of ethics in his work, the aesthetic qualities of Furnée’s work still precede, and frame, its content. Deller’s work rallies against the gallery context, questions its validity. But Furnée uses it, beguiling the visitor with seductive words, tactile objects and strange images out of context. Her work has multiple contexts and it has no context. Without being polemical, Furnée broaches the problems of the place of art today, by testing the various conflicting and complementary roles it can play in our common culture and individual lives.
Exhibitions Organiser, Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge