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Our Mutual Friends

Analogy is what Film and Video Umbrella is looking for in its newly launched online art project, Our Mutual Friends. For the most part the equations, explicit and implicit, are interesting and – perhaps strangely – encouragingly optimistic.

The City of London, with a nod towards Portsmouth, is the starting point for the project, but London can hardly be expected to confine the digital world that the four ‘newly commissioned online artworks’ describe and exemplify. Dickens managed pretty well to stay within the city for 412 dense pages but these days even images of rubble in the streets and the things that wash up with the tide transmit distinctly ‘global’ messages. The two key themes identified by the Umbrella, ‘scrapheaps’ and ‘frenetic social interaction’, no longer define London. The whole world has become a depressingly uniform scrapheap, with stinking digital offal as well as good old-fashioned rubbish, and the making of global online social networks, meaningful and meaningless, is international and without end.

The Victorians were familiar with the ways of ‘mudlarks’, children who survived, or not, from whatever they could find below the Thames tideline. Gayle Chong Kwan is a mudlark for our time and there is much to be admired in her campaign to photograph the wonderful objects that the same tide leaves behind today. Her ‘myriorama’ are delicately coloured collages with backgrounds of pink fingered dawns or sunsets. They work well one with another. In one of them Lizzie Hexam and her father are to be seen in a boat on the Thames, she pulling at the oars – a nice touch. It makes the link that the project asks for and brings to mind a comparison between the black and white Victorian world of illustration and our colourful own. Almost all illustration to Dicken’s novels was in black and white, but the coal encrusted city was more black than white. Working men and women were very often black with the dirt of their labour and even a gentleman wore only black and white most of the time.

Graham Hudson’s rubbly images are intriguing.  They point, intentionally or not, to the limitations of the disrupting ‘works in progress’ in big cities. It feels analogous to the unlimited disorder and true squalor of smoky decay and dusty dereliction described by Charles Dickens in Our Mutual Friend as he led us through London’s Victorian streets and along the waterfront. Graham Hudson is also onto a good thing with his psychedelic images of the mysterious ciphers that engineers leave painted on the tarmac, the colourful nature of which make the same point as above: that, in fact, we can rejoice that we live in cleaner and more colourful cities than our ancestors.

Janice Kerbel’s ‘Doug’ is a blog and is a fictional character who keeps on falling over.  He slips on banana skins. As such he is endearing, as all who regularly fall over are endearing.   One thinks, perhaps, of Miranda or Charlie Chaplin. The connection, however, with Dickens is obscure and Doug seems never to be upright long enough to be a profound character. Enjoy him for his own sake!

The most thought provoking piece of this project is Thomson and Craighead’s Songs of Innocence and Experience. In Dickens’ day some families spent happy evenings at the pianola, singing along, following the words which emerged, upside down, from the cylinder. This was a Victorian equivalent of karaoke, and so are these contemporary ‘songs’ which, less of innocence than experience, take the form of heartrending spam messages. Their combination of covert greed and false sentiment is powerful and remarkably reminiscent of Dickens at his best as well as being familiar to all of us who use the net.

The use of the spoken word with imaginatively presented text being spelled out, letter by letter, across the screen is engaging. There must be a whole world of innovative possibilities using these or similar techniques. Many possibilities are already being exploited but there are infinite opportunities for exciting developments.

Consider for a moment how it has always been a joy to listen to concerts at the Wigmore Hall with the printed text, the lyrics, lying upon your knee, (but please turn the pages quietly!); how it is always a great pleasure to hear Shakespeare broadcast on the radio with the book open beneath your eye;  how a poet reading his own work is so much more appreciated if his audience can follow the printed word. Such intense experiences can now be packaged using emerging technologies that bring together text, image, colour, music and the spoken word. They can be interwoven and tastefully presented, as indeed Thomson and Craighead have demonstrated here. These are four intriguing ‘artworks’. You are invited to sing along with all of them. I would recommend it.

Writer and poet Ralph Rochester blogs at Follow him on twitter or read more about his writing here. He has also written for us on the subject of nineteenth century publishing.

We interviewed the creator of Our Mutual Friends, Steven Bode.

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