August 2012: Sarah Browne @ Contemporary Art Gallery


Sarah Browne, Second Burial at Le Blanc (2011–2012) Still from 16mm colour film, sound Courtesy of the artist and
Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC

Sarah Browne, How to Use Fool's Gold
July 13 to September 2, 2012
Contemporary Art Gallery

Vancouver, Canada 

                                 I wonder about these accretions of tiny units of labour – knots, frames- and what they add up to.
                                                                                                                                                                 - Sarah Browne

By Caitlin Chaisson

In order to use fool’s gold, you listen. In the foyer, approach the freestanding frame that binds the electrical wire in a large diamond shape, place the bakelite headphones over your ears, and listen to the sounds conducted through the palm-sized rock of pyrite that has been pierced with an unfurled safety pin. After adjusting to the static, you will be able to follow along to the tunes that have been resourcefully recycled from the airwaves by this tiny mineral.

The Contemporary Art Gallery’s survey of the Dublin-based artist Sarah Browne includes a body of work that refuses to listen; constantly interrupting the claims the present financial economic structure ostentatiously makes. One of her most vehement interruptions is against the claim that economics is a scientific discipline, with laws and rules governing phenomenon. She presents case studies that document communities whose alternative methods of exchange challenge the stronghold of the financial system, presents subversive strategies by way of a formulaic method of bootlegging, and what can be done with the remains of wool at a leftover weaving factory, to name a few. Browne convincingly demonstrates how collective intentionality and social agreements between human beings (as opposed to elemental laws), complete with all the myths, stories, sentiments and imaginations that are inseparable from social behavior, foreground any economic system.

One of the first case studies in the exhibition is of the small merchant town of Le Blanc in France. Second Burial at Le Blanc is a 16mm film that documents the termination of the use of the French franc in the town, ten years after the introduction of the euro. Le Blanc resisted the new currency for nearly a decade, prolonging the internment of the coinage. The ability for a community to function on a null currency for so long is successful for no other reason than their collective agreement to do so. The film follows the procession of a small object, the hybrid of a ticker-tape (originally used in the stock market) and a countdown clock, as it moves through the streets. Centered on a platform carried by a funerary party, the object is encased in an overturned glass vase, as though it is already a precious relic. Weaving through buckets of daisies, crocuses and bouquets of roses, it passes underneath vendors’ canopies, which under these circumstances, seem to take on the role of burial shrouds. The procession ends by abandoning the clock in an empty room, where it is left to produce its own epitaph on a long ribbon of paper, marking the days, hours, minutes and seconds it counts down until the franc is officially redundant. The running of the reels through the projector in the gallery produces an echo of the ticking of the clock in the film. But whereas an echo tends to dissolve, the projector is incessant. While muffling the narration of the film, its accelerated tick is very near. And though the franc no longer exists, the ticking is continued. Both the creation of, and the resistance to currencies are based fundamentally on the same principle. From collective intentions, we may either choose to bury or resurrect, and determine when the ticking begins and ends.

How to Use Fool’s Gold (Pyrite Radio) (2012) (detail) Pyrite, Plexiglas, safety pin, paperclip, bulldog clips, variable capacitor,
  plastic drainpipe, electrical wire, bakelite headphones (passive crystal radio set, earthed to the building’s lightning rod with aerial
extending outside) Courtesy of the artist and Contemporary Art Gallery, Vancouver, BC

In the adjacent room, Browne’s piece How to Make Muscha in Vaasa is comparable to a sculptural form of an Encyclopédie plate. Formally recorded, the instructions and diagrams for illegally brewing moonshine underground in Scandinavia sit on the wall as placards. This forms the background for the crate, used as a plinth supporting the milk churn. What would seem an unassuming object in a rural community, the churn sprouting copper piping, rubber tubing, a glass condenser and thermometer, immediately arouses suspicion. An activity that undermines both the social and economic order, Browne once again presents a case where the regulatory power of capitalism wavers. She shows how linked resistance is to social customs, with the instructions including “Acquire good recipe: seek out local knowledge,” and “Either follow or ignore all folklore on the subject.” Leaving the instructions as detailed outlines of possible actions that could or could not be taken, they are not intended for the fool. They require a certain amount of decision-making to be followed. Browne also refuses to uncritically accept the idea of illegal activity as a powerful form of resistance. Her final instruction “Consider a defense for illegal domestic tinkering” places this type of opposition right in the center of national laws and regulations. Browne seems to be suggesting that without taking into consideration how forms of resistance play into the current state of affairs (how selling moonshine will be penalized in the court of law), the possibilities for long-term change are idealistic at best, or stuck in the cellar at worst. She neither discourages nor condones the behaviour, but highlights how one may go about it.

These days talk of the economy is greeted with tired ears, and complaints seem to fall upon deaf ones. The conversation is both diverse and dispersed, yet it remains incredibly rehearsed. Consistently ignoring one of the most important subjects: how can it be otherwise? With the premise of the exhibition – how to – Sarah Browne addresses this absent topic, ensuring How to Use Fool’s Gold is not just another dissatisfied critique of the economy, but a critical reconsideration of what the causes and the responses to financial capitalism may be. Her works involve an element of ‘learning by doing,’ which is something that has fallen to the wayside of late, a result of relying on formulas and hypothetical predictions. To learn by doing, you can begin by listening, but then your feet begin to move.



Caitlin Chaisson

Caitlin Chaisson is an artist and printmaker based in Vancouver, Canada. She earned her BCom with a Minor in Art History and Theory at the University of British Columbia, and continued studies through the Fine Art Foundation Degree program at the University of Brighton. Alongside her practice is a serious engagement with writing, predominately art criticism and prose poetry.

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