Monday, 9 December 2013

The First Thursday Tour: Whitechapel Gallery's free bus tour of exhibition openings

The First Thursday Bus is a free bus tour that you can take on, unsurprisingly enough, the first Thursday of the month. It has been running a while now and it is part of the much broader First Thursday initiative by which East London galleries stay open late and often hold not so very private views the same evening. The bus tour departs from Whitechapel Gallery and takes you to a selection of participating galleries.  

I was instructed to arrive at 6.45 in order to pick up my ticket. Upon arrival I found the front desk besieged with hipsters as there was another event taking place in the gallery that evening and people were picking up tickets. The staff were ticking off names, answering the phone, handing out different coloured stickers for the various events and answering the inevitable random questions. There was also a 'meet-up group' trying to form amongst those standing around but nobody seemed to know who was and was not part of that group so it  was slow to happen and more than a little self-conscious. Next to this there were book stalls and some people selling raffle tickets for a youth project. It was proper London art bustle.

The tickets for the tour were not all collected so someone from the gallery went around checking to see who was on the waiting list, handing out yellow stickers accordingly. Because it is free to enter into the ticket lottery to go on the tour (you apply a few days in advance) there must routinely be quite a number of people who do not collect their tickets. If you really want to do this tour then, it is probably quite possible to get on it simply by arriving in advance at around 6.30 and adding your name to the waiting list. Nothing beats actually being there.

I don't how it happened but the map of the tour on the official website is wrong. As well as having no number 1, Gallery SO is actually located on Brick Lane and not north of Bethnal Green as shown above. The rules dictating the shape of the tour, as far as I understand them, are 1) it starts at 7PM 2) visits 3 galleries in the East End and 3) returns to Aldgate East at around 9PM or shortly after. This time frame is set so that it works with the timing of the private views most of which are winding down by 9. It is interesting to note that there is another First Thursday tour also available from the gallery and that one is a walking tour which obviously covers a shorter distance. Common to both are these bold red lines which connect one gallery to the next like a teleporter zapping you from opening to opening. For those pounding the pavements they must therefore decide for themselves how to make their way from one point to the next as the precise walking route is not specified. Some roads might present themselves as the obvious path but there is an element of active choice here as it is not always obvious. While at first I thought this an oversight I now see potential in deliberate ambiguity and will have to file this thought away in order to retrieve it at a later point when I need to direct people somewhere but not direct them too precisely.  

The bus was waiting for us outside the gallery. It was a nice comfortable Mercedes.

The 20-odd seat bus filled slowly and there were quite a number of empty seats. It was perhaps a little over half full and I had the whole back row to myself. We left Whitechapel 10 minutes behind schedule, probably the result of the ticketing being so complicated and hoping a few latecomers would arrive to bolster numbers.

First stop was SO Gallery which I was excited to enter because it had already featured in the Sound Map Tour I had taken barely a week before. This overlapping of spaces is what happens when working with several tours that cross a more restricted geographical space. It invited me to speculate whether there was a connection between the Jewish heritage referenced in the previous tour and the art of the current one. 

After the gallery's curator said a few words we then got an introduction to the exhibition from Leo Fitzmaurice, the artist whose work filled the space for his solo show Post Match. He talked about his inspiration and process but generally avoided trying to define the meaning of the work too firmly. The exhibition comprised of the tops of cigarette packets that had been unfolded and modified in order to look like footballer's tops. It was a simple idea that was well realised and which allowed for many connections to be made between the worlds of smoking and football. To me at least, it invited a semiotic reading of these two fields that had been unified in the artwork, and the subsequent rubbing of tangential orders of symbols (eg. the Bundesliga vrs cigarette brand design) against one another to produce new meanings. Thinking about this further the CH N KATZ. sign above the window is not so different, or at the very least, has the potential to create a similar crossover of symbols.

When I stepped out of the gallery I saw someone I know, Hydar Dewachi, being dragged into a disagreement with a man on the street. It seemed to be about the right to take photographs and the man on the left appeared to be angry and looking for someone to shout at. I was about to jump in and come to Hydar's defence but the tour bus was waiting for me (I was last person to leave the gallery) and my intervention would probably have only escalated the tension. I later heard that thankfully things resolved themselves OK. It was for me a moment that popped me out of the First Thursday Tour and into a very different situation. I guess most conventional tours function like worlds unto themselves and such events do not happen though I did notice that on the Winterthur Tour people taking it bumped into friends of theirs who happened to be passing in the street, so this is not unprecedented. 

Developing this idea, it amuses me to imagine tours that encourage this fluidity more, either by deliberately going to places connected to the individuals on the tour or going to public meeting spots where such things happen as a matter of course. This First Thursday Tour did already have something of that quality as First Thursdays is, for people connected to the London art world, a significant monthly socialising event. I did in fact bump into another person I knew while waiting at Whitechapel Gallery and met him again later in the evening on the street outside. This happened because I  was in a context I have a place within. As for general public meeting spaces, those are few in number in London as the city is large and anonymous. In smaller cities these function better, such as the pedestrianised cafe zone in the centre of Zagreb. Even there though, it is not a hub for everyone but it does function far more effectively as a random meeting zone to the extent that if you are in a hurry it is a place best avoided. 

Dave Roberts, of Dave Roberts Foundation was our tour guide. He gave a brief introduction at the start of the trip and said a few words about each space, like he is doing here, before we arrived at them and the coach emptied. The coach was in fact very well equipped for guided tours, there was even a microphone just to his right that he could have used in order to look and sound like a proper tour guide. He was never going to go there however.

Beach, the next gallery we stopped at, was smaller and much more crowded. They were showing the work of an artist usually associated with street art who had recently moved into making ceramic 3D works. There was also another event taking place simultaneously in the gallery and a woman was handing out bottle after bottle at the entrance. I was less excited about the work, indeed there was less of it on display, this place was more about meeting people and taking advantage of the drinks. On leaving I took one for the bus ride.

By the time we were back on the bus and moving agin we were running late and our last stop was still a little bit of a drive away and the traffic was inching along Brick Lane. By this time a few people had dropped out of the tour and a new couple had joined us as there was plenty of space. There was in general a more informal atmosphere on the bus with the drinks flowing and people chatting to one another who an hour and a half ago had been strangers. Drawing close to our destination Chisenhale Gallery, we were given another short introduction as to the sort of gallery it is, namely a publicly funded space that typically offers rising artists their first major solo show in London. 

We entered and were immediately asked to take our shoes off before proceeding any further. I have heard of performances at which the audience is required to be fully nude, fortunately this was a more modest request but one which changed our relationship to the space nonetheless.

We entered the gallery proper and sat on the carpeted floor in front of the screen and watched the video. Unlike the other galleries there were no drinks and there was no scene, in fact we were the only people in the gallery. We watched a video work of Jordan Wolfson that was a mix of animation and exterior shots mostly taken around SoHo in the artist's native NYC. The work was OK and reminded me of when I briefly worked for a SoHo gallery in the 90s but I found myself drifting off and asking myself how this piece of work ended up in front of me. I came to the conclusion that this is a two part question the first part of which is how I ended up on the First Thursday Tour: how the tour came into existence and how Chisenhale Gallery ended up on this tour. The other side of the question is how did this video end up being shown in this gallery and that is also a rather complicated issue, particularly as this was not the work's first showing and Chisenhale usually commissions. Both these questions are basically questions about the mechanics of the London (and global) art world where private and public money mix and different interests are served. A woman from the gallery talked a little about the work and why it was here when we were back outside but I felt there was a lot more to this encounter that was left unsaid. To really get inside of a seemingly simple question such as "how did I end up looking at this?" could easily be a PhD study in itself so I will not go any further here as I've probably already said enough.  

The evening ended when the bus dropped us off at Aldgate East a three-minute walk from Whitechapel Gallery. My over-riding impression of it is this is the sort of tour that does not feed you that much information but instead is rather open-ended and you can make of it what you like, depending on what you bring to it in the first place. Someone who hates art and thinks it pretentious will most likely come away thinking it was evening spent amongst tossers while someone interested in contemporary art and the edgy fashion of the London art scene will be right in their element and return bringing their friends next time round.


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