The week of CAST Sundowner 2014, or, the way to make something distant become closer is not to move towards it but to make the distance conspicuous.
We visited the CAST building in Helston for a week in July 2014. Only a few months before, a part of the railway line we travelled along from London was reinstalled, in the Devon town of Dawlish, after it had been destroyed in the February storms. If we’d travelled a few months earlier, the journey might have taken about twelve hours rather than our, more typical, five. The national press coverage upon the railway’s reopening was an opportunity for Cornwall champions to remind the rest of the country that Cornwall was never that distant, in any case. Eden Project founder Tim Smit was quoted in The Daily Telegraph:
"Because we don't have, if you like, the levers of power to make us seem important enough, we get viewed by the capital as if it's still the old days of the Cornish Riviera … But actually it's a really thriving place. I mean, it's one of the hubs of the creative industries in Britain. Yet you wouldn't know that the way we're talked about."
The way to make something distant become closer is not to move towards it but to make the distance conspicuous.
‘CAST Sundowner’ was the title we decided upon as the collective name for everything that was to happen in the week. ‘We’ are nine of the twelve current associate artists of Open School East, the six-year-old son of one, and OSE’s two directors. I say ‘current’, but Open School East is an institution still in its first year. This first year began in September 2013, in a former library space in East London. OSE would allow twelve associate artists, their collaborators and people living in the local area and beyond, to pursue “artistic learning that is experimental, versatile and highly collaborative”. In truth, the year concluded with the associates’ group exhibition that opened a month after our visit to CAST but, as this excerpt from OSE’s website suggests, a week of living, working, eating and travelling together is better described as the culmination of a year spent learning how to work with, around and for others.
CAST has a network that extends throughout Cornwall, the South West, and to London and beyond. With this extended network, we gave our visit a skeleton structure in advance, composed of a series of events to anchor the week. The composition was collaborative, moored at points where our interests intersected with groups and individuals from the network: a stone sculptor completing a PhD about the granite quarry that is his place of work; a philosopher and publisher; an historian of ancient, sacred sites; the residents of Helston who were once schoolchildren and teachers in the CAST building; artists working from the building today; a ceramicist with 150 kilos of sand, woodchip and Cornish clay to make into a pizza oven.
The CAST building is labyrinthine, built in three stages around the turn-of-the-century, and it gave the week much of its form. The mid-point was an evening to invite former teachers and pupils of the school back into the building to share their stories and knowledge of its history. A4 sheets were taped to the doors of the former classrooms, for visitors to make notes of their recollections. Helpers were on hand to give access to these rooms, most now artists’ studios. Panoramic photographs from the 1950s, 60s and 70s of the entire school, assembled in tiers of raking seating, had been sourced and were laid out for the visitors to scan over.
These objects – the papers, the rooms, the photographs – were orientation instruments for the evening. At one point I was on a steep, narrow stairwell followed by three others who once had school lessons in the room that I was about to unlock for them: there were two women, who arrived together and know each other very well, and one man, who they didn’t know. Or, perhaps they had once known each other, but decades ago. We were all a little uncomfortable with this distance we didn’t know the size of. Independently, the groups of two and one recounted anecdotes about the stairwell, and realised their similarities. The stairwell acted as a prompt. All three engaged with it but teasingly, enjoying delaying the 'big reveal' of their respective school years. As it happens, their times in the building didn’t coincide. Or maybe they did briefly, but they certainly didn’t remember each other. I found them downstairs ten minutes later, having a drink together.
The evening was co-hosted by CAST and ‘Wish You’d Been Here’, a project led by two of our group, artists Andrea Francke and Eva Rowson. They developed the project throughout the year of OSE to explore hosting, socialising and partying as frameworks, incorporating the labour and talents of many others along the way. At CAST, we were all involved, guests as hosts.
I happily concede that I didn’t foresee the dynamic this would make for the week. The best way I can think to articulate it is by comparison with Albert Camus’ novella L'Hôte, or rather, the ambiguity of its title. The French word translates into English as both ‘guest’ and ‘host’; it’s only from the context that you know which is intended in any instance. Camus’ story is of an Algerian ‘guest’ in the home of his French ‘host’ in an Algeria that is still occupied by the French. In sum, one can’t be sure whether the title, with no syntactical context, refers to the Algerian or the Frenchman. Is the Algerian a guest in another’s home, or is the Frenchman a guest in a country that isn’t his home? The quirk of language is the perfect expression of the shifting and ambiguous roles of the two men in the novella.
This is the parallel we all enjoyed at Sundowner. What’s at play when the community of a building and their visitors consent to a situation where those visitors host that community in their own building? For one, it doesn’t collapse the distance between them; it’s not an arrangement of horizontality. However the two distinct groups are referred to, two groups they nonetheless are.
Monday night was matchmaking night. It’s a format that makes a lot of people uncomfortable, but on this occasion, the obscurity of guest and host roles did something very odd to it. The ‘guests’ – the visitors to the evening – didn’t consent to the format. In another sense, they did; their decision was prior to ours. A pact had been made before anyone had been introduced and everyone knew this, and so what ensued was an evening in the good company of people who’d never met.
A few days before coming to Cornwall, I bumped into a familiar, outspoken critic of Open School East and briefly described the plan for events such as this one. “It sounds like relational aesthetics” was the disparaging response. The criticism I take this to be was expressed beautifully by philosopher and publisher Robin Mackay in his presentation on ‘accelerationism’ exactly 24 hours after the matchmaking night, in a room upstairs from it:
“Contemporary art has a deep complicity with reactionary politics, particularly in its continuing insistence that indeterminacy is political. That is to say, the idea that producing a situation of indeterminacy where things seem to be open in a local space, somehow has a political valence in anything other than an imaginary register… Given that a large amount of money and power are bound up with contemporary art then it seems to me obvious that it can have some political effect. But what it’s interested in doing is producing political feelings… It’s interested in producing a sentiment of freedom, a sentiment of outsideness which, in fact, it can’t deliver.”
This is the best reason to refer to our time at CAST as a visit, rather than a retreat, or even a residency. The reference of ‘visit’ doesn’t diminish but reaffirms the value of the experience. Most of us ‘visitors’ to CAST work closely with other people in one way or another in our artistic practices, and so a space for small experiments in social being without a responsibility to ‘art’ offers exactly the liberation which references like ‘residency’ or ‘retreat’ are usually intended to imply.
Robin Mackay’s lecture was an extension of the Bad Vibes Club, a research project into ‘morbid ethics’ organised by associate Matthew de Kersaint Giraudeau throughout the year of Open School East. The project comprised lectures like Mackay’s as well as an ongoing reading group, which was also extended for the Sundowner week. Many of us from CAST and OSE read the paper suggested by Mackay, by philosopher Ray Brassier, over two mornings together. Brassier’s paper and Mackay’s presentation had the same question at heart: does what we make change who we are? It comes in the context of ‘accelerationism’, a strand of contemporary philosophy which is anti-dogmatic but generally advocates technological advance so dramatic that we must dispense with the category of the ‘human’ altogether, with the onset of extreme human augmentation, artificial intelligence, and so on.
This was a good preoccupation for the Sundowner week. A few hours before, we had visited David Paton at Trenoweth granite quarry, a site that is, materially, 300 million years old. Paton works at the quarry as he is a quarryman and stone sculptor, but also because he is completing a PhD about the site, The Quarry as Sculpture: The Place of Making. He showed us the results of an experiment in firing granite in a kiln. The results resemble a geometrically cut clod of earth that’s been ripped apart by hand. The object is just the meagerest suggestion of the original, molten, contorted formation of the stone that gave it the vernacular name of ‘Buckle and Twist’.
On first thought, I found something comforting in the counterposition of Paton’s interests with Mackay’s. An unhuman future for humans is a lot to grapple with. Now I think I was just being lazy; an unhuman past is just as difficult. The category of ‘human’, however understood, has little application in either. We can’t bring them closer to us but we can make them appear now, by holding them up in front of us, as happened in this week.
Other, more recent, pasts and futures also came into view. The morning after Mackay’s talk, we had a guided walk around the late Neolithic Tregeseal East stone circle, close to St Just, with Cheryl Straffon, a tour guide of sacred sites around Europe with a deep understanding of her subject.
Over the whole week we constructed a clay pizza oven on the grounds of CAST with ceramicist and CAST community member Michel Francois. At the end of the week, a few hours before leaving, I finally got round to visiting the Helston museum, something I had not previously managed, despite it being only a few yards from CAST. In amongst the ‘home life’ objects on display were several clay ovens, and suddenly the biography of the object we’d been forming extended back from the previous weekend to several centuries before.
After visiting the museum we travelled to the opening of Paul Chaney’s Lizard Exit Plan, a project to imagine a future of the nearby Lizard peninsula in which it is either physically or politically separated from mainland Britain. This was the second time in the week we enjoyed the very generous hospitality of Karen Townshend at Kestle Barton, the first being the closing of the previous exhibition, Box A: Accidents by Abigail Reynolds. As chance would have it, I bumped into Abigail at a festival a few weeks later but she obviously didn’t remember me. To her great credit, she tackled the situation by saying “I’m sorry, I don’t remember you”. I reminded her and we laughed. The way to make something distant become closer is not to move towards it but to make the distance conspicuous.
I’ve managed a 2,000 word account of the week-long visit of twelve people around Cornwall without mentioning landscape once. It’s true that we enjoyed the Cornish landscape on every day of the visit – swimming in the sea, walking along the coastal paths to get there – and it’s perhaps a mark of success that these experiences haven’t been submitted to the same discursivisation as the rest of the week. Alternatively, it may be a mark of failure. We structured the week’s events in advance, so at most times when landscape was passing before us, attentions were generally on the destination – the scheduled event that, by then, felt a long time coming.
Things occasionally happened that penetrated attentions. The occasion when we found ourselves following a house along a road is one such occasion.
Houses – to be clear – are usually static. So the only point of reference I have for the experience of following a house along a road is from the development of video games. Early racing games were in birds-eye view. Then, in the early 1980s, ‘sprite-scaling’ was developed. Now the player could be situated behind the vehicle s/he is controlling, with objects in the distance becoming larger as they enter the foreground – the sprites changing scale. In the very earliest sprite-scaled games, the vehicle in the centre of the screen was uncannily static. Much like a house normally is. Focus on the vehicle and you would swear it is stationary, and the landscape is just passing beneath it. The purpose of the game is to cover distance, as quickly as possible, but the effect has instead focussed your attention on the objects (sprites) in space; in other words, on the landscape you were always already in.
 Many thanks to Eva Rowson for first highlighting the importance of our ‘guest as host’ status to the success and interest of the week.
 The apostrophes are necessary because the Algerian is, in theory, the prisoner of the Frenchman. I hope this is where the comparison ends.