October 20, 2010

The Invisible Ladder

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Recession, n. Receding, withdrawal, from a place or point; receding part of object, recess; slump in trade.

Strangely enough, and contrary to expectations, a number of last year's creative writing graduates from the Warwick Writing Programme, who I've been in touch with or bumped into in train stations, are thriving. Quite a few of them have turned their back on postgraduate study, which is a shame, but universities are often considered an expensive delaying tactic when the economic weather is excessively short of pula.

By thriving, I mean they're gainfully interning, or even self-employing, paying their bills and feeding their pet iguanas. A couple have managed to pick up contracts to deliver creative workshops in schools. Another couple have attached to the walls of a theatre like the best of the bloodsucking race of giant leeches known to the Amazon, one as a stage manager, the other in a writing collective. Tenacity is what is important now: holding on until the next opportunity reveals itself, either in this place of work, or elsewhere.

Recess, n., &v.t. & i. 1. Temporary cessation from work, vacation, esp. of Parliament; receding of water, land, glacier, etc., from previous limit, amount by which it recedes; retired or secret place (in the inmost ~es of the Alps [as created by Tristan Tzara], of the heart); receding part of mountain chain etc., niche or alcove of wall; (anat.) fold or indentation in organ.

This steady advance across the invisible, while blindfolded, is how career progression in the arts is understood to work, by society in general. A feat of extraordinary proportions is conducted by these individuals, stepping unsurely and insecurely across the abyss of bohemia on the invisible rungs of an ancient ladder. Witnesses swear they can hear the ladder creaking in the slightest breeze and with each footfall they grip their lorgnettes tighter and gasp and cry aloud to themselves about law conversions and mutter curses under their breath, like, "What about a job with a tie?"

Fortunately, along the ladder's invisible-to-the-unimaginative-eye route, are various halfway houses and havens. Whole palaces sometimes exist along branches just a mere rung away from the base of the ladder. Like a bonus Nintendo level, aspiring artists can slip down pipes into the worlds constructed by the lionised survivors of society's despairing conservatism. These havens provide many opportunities, including training, photocopying, ushering, reception management, gallery monitoring, shadowing opportunities, rodents and other snacks one can take home to feed the reptile collection and the chance to upgrade the quality of silk used in one's blindfold.

Hopefully they also provide a small degree of the meditative time in which one can continue to project the scintilliating visions of future creations onto the recesses of the eye's curtains. And the other key benefit is a further private space within these semi-private sanctuaries, containing the key to further palaces, underground coin-runs and mushroom grow-bags. Most novices will find that there's an essential balance to be learned between staying too long in one place, exhausting the creative water level, and moving on to the next opportunity.

-ion, suf. mainly thr. F -ion (also direct) f. L -ionem (nom. -io) forming nouns of condition or action, rarely f. adjj, & nn. (communio), occas. f. vb stems (legio), but chiefly f. p.p. stems in t, s, x, producing the compound suff. -TION, -SION (-xion), -ITION, -ATION.

Access to these innovative wombs of opportunity often arrives through determination and simple awareness-raising. A noun of action must be employed, as the doors are often open, but unattended. The hopeful ladder-walker must make the effort firstly to find the sewer lids of relevant chutes and then to post an interesting enough request through the letterboxes (in the form of a general CV and cover letter, or application to the relevant scheme) to acquire the correct sesames to unlock the portals. Some of these gateways are incredibly crowded, the passwords jealously guarded, while the opportunities within amount to nothing more than a small medal, in the shape of a dessicated kidney bean that one can wear like an albatross to insist upon one's tenacity and willingness to suffer for one's arts career (cf. Penguin summer internship programme).

Other opportunities, often unguarded by anything more than a thin sheet of Japanese wall or theatre skrim, contain such unimaginable heaps of kidney beans and bowls of water in which to soak them, that, even if one is not particularly taken by kidney beans, the urge to share this stash will be irrepressible. Soon, everyone will be wearing their very own kidney bean medal, eating homemade frijoles and teetering gainfully forwards on the endless, invisible ladder. Towards what exactly?

Ideally, an internship at Polarity Magazine UK. These exist only in the mind at this stage, but we are looking for web content, links to exciting personal web pages where things surreal manifest on a regular basis, online video content, suggestions for punishments for the Proposed System of Taxation on the Internal Mind, articles in this vein, creative content and, yes indeedy, marketing support. Heaps of that. We even have an idea of what these might entail. In return, you can expect kidney beans by the coffee cup, critical support for your own artistic development, and immortalisation in the opening pages of the print magazine.

Email us with ideas, suggestions, CVs and feedback.

October 13, 2010

A few good things…

Intertitle from Aelita, Queen of Mars

A quick survey of spirit lifting oddities, for your delectation...

Aelita, Queen of Mars (possibly one of Guy Maddin's major influences)

The Leeds Surrealist Group

Jan Švankmajer's Dimensions of Dialogue (possibly the inspiration for the Brothers Quay's video for Peter Gabriel's Sledgehammer)

The International Necronautical Society

Esau's wood-saw would saw wood.

The art of collage.

K Silem Mohammed on Jennifer L Knox at Octopus: "If I were a professional literary critic, I would stab myself in the ear with a flathead screwdriver over and over."

My Love for You is a Stampede of Horses, by Kate MacDowell:

A birdskull thing, ribs on display

Sometimes, the internet is beyond enriching.

October 06, 2010

Holey/Holy/Wholly Pockets

Once upon a time, most new cultural forays like Polarity existed thanks to the toner-cartridge pulsing of the government's bureaucratic heart. Used to be, so I've heard, you could walk up to the offices of the Arts Council, or whatever it was called back in those days ('Official Bureau of Questionable Public Spending'?), act strange for half an hour, show a few pencil sketches of your mother having an epileptic fit and pass yourself off as a bona fide Artiste. After which, you walked away with £10,000, or more if you'd washed that day, with which to do something artistic and, hopefully, not blow the money on stacks of jellied eels and a lifetime supply of broken wing-mirrors.

These days, not so easy. Buried within the squawking of New Labour's sloganeering and buzzwording (“Accountability!” “Education!” “Military spending!”) was the germ of the Arts Council's erosion. Now, sadly, public money must be transparently totted up, penny by penny, into a list of targets, effectively or ineffectively attained. Forms forms forms. The application annd evaluation processes are so form-based these days that they even set up a roadshow to try and explain to us poor provincial taxpayers how we're supposed to fill in some of their boxes. Not with a set of colouring pencils, clearly.

(As a side note, I should mention that there are other places that offer start up funding, or loans, who could be considered a little more qualitative in their approach, compared to the Brazilian dystopia that the Arts Council has become. If you're still in puberty, or whatever they call people under thirty these days, The Prince's Trust is a good place to go, but I remember them expecting a high degree of business acumen from me when I met them, several years ago. I also heard about something called IdeasTag recently, but still need to look it up. Also lots of art foundations and trusts around, like The Moose Foundation, or the Paul Hamlyn, but I'm not sure how rigorous they are in their processes now.)

Most of the funding applications I've written involve attempting to learn another language in order to convert an artistic idea into a string of meaningless statements. 'Teaching kids from refugeee backgrounds how to play with language and use their imagination' becomes 'Community outreach in minority ethnic / BME communities to improve language skills, build confidence and increase cultural cohesion'. (Well, my language might be a bit out of date now, but you get the idea.) Done well, a funding application can tickle all the right phrenological zones in a bureaucrat's target lists, but ensure that the artists delivering a project can actually get on and do whatever they want without having to think about the evils of reducing humanity to a stack of statistics. They can just imagine, create and throw tantrums, like they're used to.

Yet the more applications I wrote, or consulted on, the more I felt like I was becoming one of them. My facial features began eroding and dark staining in the shape of a grey tie began forming around my neck, complete with an Arts Council England tie-clip mark just below my sternum. The vocabulary and administration you have to lean begin to colonise you annex your creativity. I've been involved with supporting organisations receiving hundreds of thousands of pounds ('RFOs' as they're cunningly acronymmed to) and peanut-sized writers' bursaries. I no longer feel the offer of money outweighs the price of the administration, in terms of the damage it does to my creative drive; and there's also the question of whether I want the funder's Rottweiler's sphincter of a logo slapped all over my produce. Eventually I made the decision to stop asking government offices for money. I signed up to the idea that if my artistic ideas could not survive independently in society, then they didn't deserve to survive.

The current government might agree with me for different reasons: art should stand on its own two feet, like any industry, without government bailouts propping it up. A free market would allow the public to decide what stays and what goes. The Arts Counci's days may well be numbered and that's ultimately a bad thing - some people are good at writing bids, playing that game and getting some great art made along the way.

In reality, though, artists have survived through community, giving, long before government funding existed – friends, family, other artists, bring support in the form of things other than hard cash and red tape. The Arts Council is very nearly anathema to the spirit of gift-giving and community-building that artists need to survive, in my opinion, and Polarity is one way of proving this to myself. So for the time being it's entirely funded by me and anyone willing to offer me money towards the costs.

What tends to happen – what's always happened, I reckon – is that heads turn when you do something ambitious. Some of those heads will like what you do, and some of those heads will choose to give you something – a handful of lentils to keep you going to the end of the week, a free website redesign, or maybe some money towards print costs. You then become responsible to them for certain other things – maybe a list of patrons on the wall of the theatre, or free tickets to performances, and so on.

Did I mention Lewis Hyde's The Gift? It's a great answer to all this.

September 29, 2010


It isn't normal to be putting out a specialist literary magazine in print these days. Everything is online. Supposedly. And online is cheap, gets more readers, can be nicely designed, etc. It's especially not normal to be doing this in the surrealist/absurdist tradition, which is exactly why it needs to be done. (I'll save raving about why surrealism needs to come back into the public eye for another blog.)

We have to think about where our edges are. Being in print isn't unique, but can become so if done well enough. Most printed literary magazines fall into a small range of sizes, the primary two being A3 folded or royal octavo, roughly (bigger than A5, not quite A4), saddle-stitched (that's stapled in lay terms) or perfect bound (with a spine). These formats are standard for a reason – printers have the equipment to put these out at a reasonable price, with less hand-finishing. Prose magazines like The Idler or Granta actually look more like books than magazines, but they're called the latter instead of compendiums or anthologies because they're published regularly.

So Polarity's shape and feel was an important distinction to be made. Our models have beautiful looks – magazines like The Believer, with its slightly-off standard shape, retro-vibe, or McSweeney's, published by the same independent team, which has a unique design every issue, from mock-broadsheets, to a travel-case shape complete with haircomb and a story by Robert Coover printed on one suite from a deck of cards. We went for a solid 21cm x 21cm for two reasons: firstly, it came to me in a dream that Polarity was a square magazine and secondly because the width allows us to fit the magazine in standard A4 envelopes, without fussing around with larger sizes and postage costs.

Since starting, we've found a few closer competitors than we imagined were out there. I've not yet looked it up properly, but there's a Leeds-based magazine called Phosphor, run by people connected to the Leeds Surrealism Group. Also something we found on a recent foray to Foyles, called Patricide – a new, Wales-based mag, printed roughly royal octavo with spine. It's long, intense and produced somewhat on the cheap side, with a colour cover, but black and white inner pages and thin paper stock.

Patricide's an interesting case because it employs some of the USPs Polarity went for, but in slightly different ways. It runs thematic issues with the material graded through the magazine under chapter headings, with little emphasis on the contributors' personalities, as it's about the content. They also use quotations to intersperse the new content.

Polarity has two themes per issue, and the material is graded according to how closely each piece of writing or art fits one theme or the other, with a grey area in the middle where the work loosely fits both or neither of the themes. We also have 'provocations' – quotations from various sources (newspaper articles, stories, essays) that suit the themes. And we have archival material – longer extracts from out of copyright texts to add a wider, pre-surrealism scope to the magazine.

One place we differ from them, and from most magazines out there, is in not including biographical  details for our contributors. Most magazines are an ego-fest of fame and famished, mouldy gratings from the cheeseblock of contemporary celebrity culture. Polarity is designed to try and look like the content is more important than the people writing it – we can celebrate (thank) the (unpaid) contributors in other, better ways, such as by making the magazine gorgeous and not letting any typos slip through. At the same time, readers are a curious species, and we've chosen these people's work for our first issue for a reason, so we went for a 'Further Reading' list at the back instead. This means people can read other work by our contributors and hopefully chase up more surrealism-connected work.

USPs are a business point, something I personally tend to refer to ironically when talking to creatives about Polarity. Yet these have all been important factors in getting the magazine noticed – we mentioned Tenderproduct, and we've another place stocking the magazine in London, the independent and thoroughly exciting Intervention Gallery, based in the middle of Kilburn Cemetery, near Kensal Rise Tube. Without any hard work on our parts, they've both shifted copies of the magazine to people wandering in. Ditto feedback from word of mouth: everyone who's picked the magazine up to look at has said good things about the design. It's making it much easier to build up early  interest than it was for previous lit-mags I've been involved with.

But at the same time, the real reasons for thinking Polarity is a good idea, in the middle of a recession, is based on gut instinct. I've been asking people for years if there's anything in the UK like The Believer, or anything which publishes the kind of weird stuff that the surrealists were into. Everyone says no, which doesn't mean it's not there, but that whatever is there isn't quite right for what we want to read.

So, like most literary movements and manifesto groups, if no one else is putting out the work you want to see, you create it yourself. These groups – the vorticists, the imagistes, surrealists, situationists and all the other little private clubs – have had little more to ride on than the shared sense of being 'different', coming from a sense exclusion or disillusionment with existing magazines,  before diving in to the world of publishing. There's a degree of ESP about it, a gut feeling that there are other people out there who feel the same way. So far, I'm being proven right, it's just finding out how to reach all those people we haven't yet.

September 22, 2010

Reconstructing Michael Minahan, by Martin Green

First baseball cap

for Michael Minahan

Three lines of tamed oil
transferred from folded tin foil rims,
           four oblong spaces;

gaps fill easily with windows, balconies, doors.
Homes observed from alibi dusk, 
           a coveted order.

Turmeric edged clouds spread across the nose,
eyes retain the shock of prison conditions,
             separate from blanched skin.

The stripe that bled the most,
incorporated as shoulders and an undone button-
              down collar.

Lost hat leaves forehead pleats,
spinning zoetrope figures wane
            to a furrow 

and the thinnest stain, imperfectly transparent,
sketched around in dark pastel, disguised
             as a worry line.

Second baseball cap


Brown elastic hair tie,
flattened into the shape of a human ear.

A not entirely happy doorbell.

The most predictable object,
turned upside down to expose a surprise.

Confetti rabbit floating in a rain-filled bottle top.

Bright pink cocktail stick,
in the shape of a swashbuckling sword.

The blue plastic end of something.

An incomplete arm from a pair of spectacles,
dark grey with delicate inlaid flowers.

A metal nut with a small white stone lodged inside.

Two rectangles with a hoop,
oxygen tanks for a diving figure, or,
a pair of doll’s house fire extinguishers.

Fragment of a bowl with a black and white pattern.

Shield from a broken dummy,
without handle or teat.

Red plectrum, Jim Dunlop, USA, Jazz 3.

Baseball cap folded in on its self,
sleeping like a grey cygnet.

Third baseball cap

Party, Party, Party

Flattened champagne wire cages
sewn onto triangular and crescent panels
unpicked from a baseball cap
strung into short lengths of bunting
unaffected by a curious breeze.

White, scratched,
scuffed into something purer,
kicking thousands of imaginary goals
until hexagons flap and fall,
making star and snowflake shapes
from a peeled football.

Shredded confidential documents
strewn like the jettisoned innards
of a party-popper battle
adopt the part forms of plates
and place names.

Fourth baseball cap

September 15, 2010

At the Office by Jessica Vickerage & George Ttoouli on The Prose Perspective

At the Office

UNDERNEATH THE CUPBOARDS it looks like snow after driving forward from your fortnightly shop (that’s how many times I have my hair done) the floor is left straightly dried – this is where we bury the bones Mr Policeman Sir. Think of a diagram of a skeletogram (he doesn’t take his clothes off) and you see the bricked up part of the machine – “there will be no charge for this service” and “I don’t have the Latin”: this is what you want, to carry the load, higher a little – “it has been over a year now”: radio waves.

Peeling fingers from the clam ledger and trace up to 100 with breathy remembrance – “Officers! (chairs rolled up) The fan and whir next time (Betty) Thank-you Betty.” And (oh) I have the dandruff back (after a bottle of pills) – whole shoulder blades – thinking back, deposit, wriggling fingers through the batter to find the cod, back to the undersides and bellies to the previous kitchen cupboards gummed and sealed from the rain and robbers now – they hold the crystal, dum dum da dah, and the crock(ery).

Half the world draws a pension whilst the other presses a ribbing hand against the hipbone of this outfit and you just squeeze until the money runs damp dough. “We used to have a shelf above the fire to store the teapots, Betty,” singing as my hobnail boots tap the rhythm of the dales, Granny stop stuffing the sofa with your dosh. I see Japanese girls dressed as red brides in the park and I have three pencil pots and not a scrap of lace to rub together whilst they ballerina into a two up to down with the one.

From the look of your lineage (unbalanced) you’ve been thinking about jumping for a while now (stepping from the television to violins), did you swim to this ledge? (hand on wet shoulder – comforting like). Quite bad with their minting this high up – “it’s been a year now,” I remember last week repeated over and over, but, “you can’t really can you?”

To the Sunday spread now, they’ve stamped my house one and house two: spokes (tick), pinecone fresh (tick), sprung (tick); line us up will you, but the gold bars stop us from being accidentally cooked (the paper said fried) in the microwave – now there is a thought – a jam(med) door would stop those dribberly fingers from sticking to the forms – “ah, but they leave no trace (Betty)”.

I felt the kick on my shin upwards stairwards, I went up with the tobacco and the fumigation – (PLEASE READ WITH A BLOCKED NOSE) – “I’ll calculate your time remaining, a matter of tabulation, oh, estimates for the better, but will we find the mean, I think, sticking with the average size of an electric pylon, a suicide to tip the scales and repetition along the rail – “Now I’ll be Beachy Head and Bedlam for a while and you do the sums.” DEFINE ME ELEPHANTINE LETTERS YOU KNOW WHAT IT IS I ASK. The Priest is mine for a day; no matter just strap it to the coffin in the final bolt forward.

“Please do pass the bank I need more money for cream.”


The Prose Perspective

One of the benefits of working in a creative writing institution is the ability to mould the minds of the next generation of readers. But not writers; no matter how much leverage one applies to another person's style of writing, they'll always return to their own way of doing things, after a few unsatisfying imitations.

Luckily, Jessica Vickerage turned up at the WWP's doors possessed by the ghost of Gertrude Stein, and towing a seven-inch eyeball on a leash. I made some of that up, but the point is, everyone is steeped in the baggage of alternative reading histories, even if they prefer Wayne Rooney's autobiography to Tender Buttons. Those few who have succeeded in overcoming mainstream sandblasting to find their way into a small, safe cave of obscure delight are the kind of writers, and readers, Polarity is interested in. Better still if they've done it before formally engaging with these immersions in an institution, where good habits will be mutated, possibly damaged, by over-analysis and self-consciousness.

I should qualify 'interested in' with 'exploiting their work in return for early publication.' The Warwick Alumni in Polarity (in alphabetical order: Scott Anthony, Ivan Juritz, Siavash Pournouri, Jessica Vickerage, not to mention the yoked co-editors), are already part of a community which the magazine is a sub-division of. And the magazine is secondary to the community.

There are examples, path-forgers, for us to follow. Some writers, like Frank Key, have dug their way deep into the network of tunnels under Mount Parnassus. (Prose writers are content with the dark underbelly of language, while poets are sun-worshippers, playing mostly with the superficial level of text and leaving meaning to chance.) One recent delight was tripping over a copy of a magazine founded by Chris Cutler in 1985, Re-Quarterly, in which Frank Key featured alongside artwork by Peter Blegvad. People who've been merrily complicit in their own financial exploitation for decades, yet also supported by community, cult fanbases, people who offer grateful boot-kissers like us the patronage of a few fleeting typo-free stories and images, and the hope of survival.

This isn’t so much an aesthetic explanation, as a pointer to the aesthetic tradition’s recent practitioners. But I suppose the key aesthetic explanation for what I’m looking for in the prose is ‘delight’, the 'enchantment' of Nabokov's declaration. That's what's missing from most of the stuff I read these days, include in a lot of leftfield experiments.

September 08, 2010

Issue 1, ‘Death vs. Taxes’: Neeral Bhatt on the visual arts perspective

J.G Ballard and Eduardo Paolozzi together in 1968

The screeching acid yellow of the cover is a bit too much, don’t you think? Under test conditions it has actually proven to attract wasps.

Actually, everything about this magazine is wired with hysteria. Its look, its themes, the intent. This hysteria took a year and a half to reach its ne plus ultra, and now the physical object and all its planned web-peripheries are the exposition of our lovely little problem.  Which is striving to be as alive between the pages as possible. Awkward, sensual and as slippery as a bolting rabbit.

Art editors have a strange role. You often have to speak up for the inexpressible. Images are psychic objects made of heavier material than hieroglyphs. I categorically did not want to make a literary magazine that contained images as window-dressing for the writing. I wanted to give respect to the artists as equal contributors to the concept of the magazine. This is a puzzle I have yet to solve. For me it is the main interest of the project. Identifying the problem is hopefully the first step.

“There should be a magazine for every state of mind” – Antonin Artaud

I have noticed that there are very few high-profile artist-writers, or people whose multi-platform work is packaged and consumed together as one holistic practice. Call it attention deficit culture, marketing  pragmatism or a conceptual fracture between individuals working in different traditions and markets. This honest, integrated practice: was it ever thus? Perhaps it was never thus, or perhaps contemporary separate academic training grounds for aspirant writers and artists deepen the fracture. Perhaps this mixed state of mind needs a mixed magazine.
Hazel Atashroo, ‘Heroine (pulls herself together)’

Hazel Atashroo, ‘Heroine (pulls herself together)’
Clandestine performance to camera
Photograph, 5cm x 4cm negative

There’s space here to introduce just one piece of artist’s work. You’ll have to buy the magazine to see the rest.  Hazal Atashroo’s ‘She reveals/conceals’ series at first appears to be a very quiet kind of exposure*. Violent, flash-revealed nature. A pair of hands feyly clutching at stage velvet. And is the girl on the rooftop a bedroom superhero, a suicide commando or a diver abdicating through and away from the waking, domestic world. All forms of passage, rite, exchange and sacrifice. This is what ‘Death vs. Taxes’ meant to me.

My ‘ultimate’ right now is the sensualist fantasy with socialist concerns. The serious unpacking comes after the experiencing, if you like. Make the cycle longer. Give yourself some lag time for enjoyment. I am into fantasies. I want to extricate why I have the fantasies I have, but I will try not to feel guilty that I am, initially, very prone to those fantasies.

China Mieville, who teaches Creative Writing at Warwick, said something wonderful about Louise Bourgeois’ much loved sculpture ‘Maman’ when I interviewed him back in June:

'Maman’ is very, very much part of the world.  Because it’s ready to stalk, ready to walk. It’s just we haven’t quite worked out how it got there. Whereas, as these other pieces are saying, ‘we are in ourself, we are of ourself, that’s it, the edges are closed’. That kind of event-ness I like a lot.

The visual arts-centred interview concerns China’s favourite cult illustrators, his feelings about contemporary art and how he personally chooses to navigate internet culture. You can read the interview in the upcoming Issue 2 ‘Arms vs. Song’. We’re looking at ways in which we push the interview format in future. Perhaps we’ll select subjects outside of the arts : canvass the imaginations of the non self-selectors and see what these conversations throw up.

Our first stockist is Tenderproduct. A shop with an exhibition space attached (Tenderpixel).  Chief curator Lisa Slominski has very kindly decided to take a chance on us. If you want to buy a copy of Polarity in person and check out an exciting new show in the process, then their new exhibition ‘Traverse Tourist’ takes place from the 7th to the 26th of September. The exhibition aims to unthread the complex theory of ‘globalisation’ through a display of artist and designer’s interactions with the souvenir-object.

A sample Tenderproduct

by Tarjan Patel

*I would soundtrack Hazel’s work with Fever Ray’s cover of ‘Stranger Than Kindness’

September 01, 2010

Landscapes of the Surreal

Alexandra Szydlowska on an exhibition of paintings by Paul Nash, earlier this year.

I have seen the most frightful nightmare of a country ... It is unspeakable ... I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger...- Paul Nash (1889-1946) writing to his wife from the Western Front, 16 November 1917

25 May 1917 was a turning point in Paul Nash’s life which saw the reluctant second lieutenant return irrevocably back to his original calling. While serving in the trenches at the Ypres Salient, the 27-year old junior officer tripped and fell in the middle of the night, breaking a rib and guaranteeing safe passage back home. Six months later he was back at the Front, this time as an official war artist for Britain’s War Propaganda Bureau. His sketches of the war-torn landscapes of Zillebeche and Vimy culminated in his first ever set of oil paintings, among them the iconic We Are Making a New World.

We are making a new world

As a modest studio artist before the war, Nash had been limited in scope and vision, imitating the Pre-Raphaelites and traditional British landscape painters. As a war artist, however, he was forceful and indignant, his paintings suffused with a technical mastery which seemed to thrive in balancing rage with melancholic ruin. A letter to his wife in 1917 reveals the sense of artistic purpose which trench-life renewed in Nash: “I am no longer an artist interested and curious. I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on forever. Feeble, inarticulate will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth and may it burn their lousy souls.”

By the mid-1930s Nash had begun to branch out into modes of avant-garde and modernist art. In 1936 he became one of Britain’s earliest champions of surrealism, pioneering the form as a member of the British Surrealist Group, whose first exhibition opened in Paris in 1936 and included artists such as David Gascoyne and Roland Penrose.

Landscape from a dream

Landscape from a Dream remains one of Nash’s most notable works from that period. Set on the coastal line of Dorset, Landscape from a Dream blends a rich history of British landscape painting with elements of surrealism, the two styles streamlined to present an allegory to be interpreted along the lines of William Blake’s poetry. As with many of Nash’s surrealist-style paintings, a portal is opened into the unconscious world which reflects ordinary life back to the viewer, albeit in a skewed way. In the case of Landscape from a Dream, the material world is reflected in the predatory bird which perceives freedom within the red skies framed before it but cannot pass through to that vision.

The exhibition earlier this year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London attempted to present Paul Nash’s work in context by showcasing his works according to the theme of ‘elements’ – be they in conflict, harmony or refuge. While many would argue that Nash’s work resists such categorical thinking, the exhibition did show the creative process by which Nash framed objects of personal relevance against a surrealist backdrop. He was captivated by the familiar and overlooked features of everyday life: a particular tree in the back garden, perhaps, or a pattern of cumulus cloud in the sky. He then inserted these domestic elements into strange and uncanny landscapes where they gained what Nash described as a relationship of ‘equivalence’ within their surroundings, with each element playing a crucial part in what can best be described as an enigmatic visual drama.

Event on the Downs

One example of this method is in Event on the Downs, which depicts the view from Nash’s Dorset farmhouse. In this painting three of the artist’s common motifs – a tree stump, tennis ball and a cloud – hang suspended against a placid English landscape of rolling hills and chalky cliffs, displayed in strange proportions and hiding a seemingly obscure narrative taking place far from the 'real' setting.

Yet on closer scrutiny the three objects are in fact closely related, with the corresponding shapes of the cloud and stump echoing the yin-yang symbol half contained within the tennis ball. Only after the viewer has exhausted themselves in unlocking the various clues left behind by the artist, does the painting suggest that heaven and earth are balanced in harmony – and this, at least for Nash, seems to be the point of surrealism. After war has reduced landscape art to stark images of bloody skies and burn out trees, surrealism with its subtlety of form and mysterious symbols remains an obvious form of revolt.

Paul Nash: The Elements showed at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in Feb-May this year.

Further reading

Dulwich Picture Gallery

Tate Collection

Elisabeth Bletsoe, Landscape from a Dream

August 25, 2010

Essential Definitions

Some riffs off the chord sequence set by Georges Bataille, in his Critical Dictionary.

A Book

A device for determining correlations between time and thoughts. E.g. the rate at which seeds planted in childhood can blossom into: werewolves in sundappled glades flirting with vampires wearing duck's asses; arguments urging the ascent/descent of creationism along the staircase of human progress; warnings about the dangers of sexual relations with one's mother / one's siblings / egg-laying land mammals / people dressed as animals / people imagining one dressed as an animal / a shark.

Essential characteristics include: multiple facets containing legible squiggles that can through time be made partially illegible, thereby enhancing the Hyper-Mysteron Rating of a Book (Harrumb); limpeting procedures allowing the attachment of facets; portability (when one is able to carry away); transportability (when one is able to be carried away by). The depth of a Book's squiggles are measured in Meanings per centrimetre of Subtext.

A Magazine

When a book-related phenomenon lends itself to transition measurement in any of time's directions, periodically released.


With lasers for eyes, these golems are said to be forged in dark caves by magi descended from the first human shamans. Their primary function: to create books and magazines. First recorded instance discovered near Hasankeyf approximately nine millennia ago. They are thought to be excellent gardeners, able to manufacture seeds in their stomachs which excrete into political and artistic movements. Many Editors have clocks instead of hearts, whips instead of hands and in their skulls a switch that allows them to turn all moral decency on and off at will.

Contributing Editor

Peripherally constructed Editors in the formation of a pentagram, carrying a natural protective incantation. Smaller in scale to full Editors, the magi often inject these creatures with holistic levels of relevant seeds, permanently infecting them with Book DNA according to need.


Ancient Editors, their maturation marked by the smell of Book dust. Through time an Editor's skin naturally manifests tattoos from their creations. These tattoos can be harnessed and recorded by adolescent Editors given the correct cyphers, yet the process is costly; Advisors bear fruit once per year at most.


Beings whose skin is a non-Newtonian liquid, born with multiple hands. In the presence of an Editor, a Designer will melt, allowing their internal organs to be reforged according to need; hands will transmute into crustacea, legs into wheels, or in the case of incompetent moulding, mallet heads and tree stumps respectively. The brain must remain at the top of the reforged Designer form, with eyes radiating in all directions, to allow efficient operation.


Winged messengers made from woven speed. The surface of their hands can perfectly meld with the surface of books so as to deliver the produce of Editors and Designers without causing damage. They have many mouths and their ears function as radiowave antennae, allowing a psychic affinity with Designers. Naturally the Marketeer is a gregarious being, yet they also occur in isolation. Their wingspeed increases in packs, but the frequency of radio waves produced by individuals' antennae is not always consistent, causing disruption to their subvocal communication.

Polarity's Team

Editors: George Ttoouli, Neeral Bhatt, James Brookes

Contributing Editors: Zoe Brigley, Luke Kennard, Simon Turner, Theo Chiotis (TBC)

Advisory Board: Peter Blegvad, Frank Key, Carol Watts

Designer: James Harringman

Marketeers: Michael Wilson, Alexandra Szydlowska

August 18, 2010

Small is Beautiful, or Strategic Map for the Reconstruction of Atlantis

Micropublishers have been undergoing a minor revolution in the past decade or so. Digital printing techniques came of age with print on demand publishing – the principle of being able to print one copy of a book per order. This cut away the need for advance print runs and storage, hence the need for predictive publishing, capital forecasting and warehouse overheads. The quality isn't quite level with traditional print techniques yet, however, and digital print has been fast overtaken by the e-book market and digital readers, from i-pads to Amazon's Kindle.

The effect on the book industry is to streamline more clearly the function of certain books and retailers. Mainstream bookchains attract general readers and non-readers, with a strong market hold on the idea of books as gifts, with two sales peaks in the year, around summer holidays and Christmas buying. Meanwhile, digital books, more disposable, less user-friendly in ease of reading experience, tap into the functional, necessary end of the book market: text books, manuals, reference texts and so on. This streamlining creates more space for small, focused task forces, with well-defined readerships, to leap in and start doing good work.

This is a gross simplification, but the big issues for people starting a niche audience magazine are finding out where they fit in and how to reach their target audience. Not only is digital printing still behind in terms of quality, but decent paper is harder to source, or non-existent. Many ink-based printers are reducing their overheads, particularly in labour costs, by standardising their processes, from, for example, the availability of acid-free paper, to a publisher's ability to include image inserts in a primarily text-based book, or the sizes available to publishers. Some print on demand servicers, like Lightning Source, have a set list of formats which they can produce books in, and that's your lot. Even the glue for perfect binding isn't as good as it was. Standardisation is a subtle thing, and publishers who can afford to vary the size and shape of their books from the norm will stand out on a shelf.

If you take a long-running small press like Enitharmon Books as an example, you can see how micropublishers are better able to specialise for niche audiences than larger, commercial houses. They run a line of excellent traditional (in terms of publication quality, size shape, and relative to what larger houses output) poetry books, alongside top quality, limited edition art books, 'coffee table' books. The poetry goes for a fairly standard £8-£12 for a single-author collection. The art books for £100-£500, perhaps, depending on size, production costs and so on. The art books sell extremely well relative to their limited runs and prices (last time I checked, anyway), paying for themselves and feeding into the poetry list.

Sure, it's not worth talking about profit margins in these presses. The work is half the reward and the most these passionate (perhaps even fundamentalist) publishers can hope for is to break even in most cases. Yet they're operating in a way that the publishing industry used to a few decades ago, before entertainment corporations, largely driven by the huge profits of the film industry, began moving into book publishing and raising the stakes to 15-20% growth. Micropublishers have lower profit margins, of 0-5%, which gives them greater flexibility in content, greater opportunity for risk, and ultimately, greater rewards should that risk-taking be rewarded. Essentially, they're terrorists, waging guerilla warfare and often winning the battles over top slots at Christmas, or on major prizes like the Mann Booker.

Some micropublishers try to mimic the corporate methods of the industry – the big end of the wedge. They employ things like the 'long tail' model, trying to develop backlists in a short space of time, building a large, low- and slow-sale range of titles and a smaller proportion of good sellers, to guarantee a degree of turnover and allow them to monitor growth effectively. Established presses are bolstered by an archive of dead, a corpse-ridden army of syllabus-listed writers and their estates, which ensure a steady stream of sales. It's the long tail method on a larger scale. The fast-build up of titles by newer micropublishers like Salt Publishing don't have the brand loyalty or reputable writers to shift units in sufficient numbers, bu they're trying and proving that reach is not impossible.

Salt's main strength is their competitive, sharp PR. They make waves, picking up shortlistings and prizes on major awards, hit national and specialist press outlets and they're challenging mainstream, established presses on their own terms. A side example, from the microbrewing industry: Brewdog make all the right moves, employing creative marketing and quality of product to catapult themselves far beyond the scale of their operations into great financial success.

Polarity doesn't have the business, marketing, or PR acumen to achieve this, or the time needed to really pull something off that will make the magazine sustainable in the short term. Arts graduates rarely have a decent business head. All this business talk doesn't really mean much to people who really just want to put out something strange, something they want to read. The drive behind what we do is cultural, not financial, like with many small arts magazines.

I'm reminded of a story (posted by Frank Key, Polarity advisor) about Peter Blegvad (also a Polarity advisor) being kicked out of cult band, Henry Cow. The reason: being asked to write a political song, and coming back with some flippant lyrics about “a woman throwing raisins at a pile of bones”. Give me that song, that woman, those raisins. Make the bones those of a Jabberwocky, the woman Eurydice, have it happen in an underwater parthenon, witnessed by Architeuthis, in a sprawling, sea-slug-laced, puce sargasso. I am the audience for that song, and if it doesn't exist, I'll make it myself. This is what drives us to create the magazines we want to read. We are the architects of Atlantis, of the utopia the world hasn't yet provided. Money, at some point, might catch up with us.

September 2022

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