"Nothing may not be happening"
David Toop 1
"There is really no difference between objects and events, that is, an object is something that is just held together in a slower way and if you could speed yourself up you could see an event as being bounded in time , in that object type way of being"
"I see explosives as my paints... there is an instinctive paranoia about explosives, my show concludes the opposite of this, they are not being used for all the dire things they can be used for . Some very gentle things can come from explosions"
1,3,4. David Toop: Stephen Cripps Pyrotechnic Sculptor (ACME 1992)
2. Susan Hiller interviewed in Talking Art 2 (ICA 1993)
5. Vitto Acconci interview (Flash art Dec 1993 )
All other quotes as 1.
Thanks to Ally Raftery.
Stephen Cripps Pyrotechnic Sculptor
Stephen Cripps died in 1982 at the age of 29. For much of his career Cripps lived in a shed in his studio on Butlers Wharf before property developers moved him and other artists on.
Cripps built things and blew things up. His sculptural work often incorporated an element which meant that the sculpture destroyed itself which made for easy comparisons with the auto destructive work of Jean Tinguely. But as David Toops points out in the Monograph (published by ACME) the essential difference between Cripps and Tinguely was that "He wanted the world he created to work, even if the outcome was unknown".
His performances were dangerous, exhilarating, atavistic and seismic. But little remains of a body of work the central component of which was ephemeral. There remain photographs of his exhibitions, performances and also drawings for elaborate projects which were never realised (and some which were unrealisable).
This reliquary nevertheless give us a strong flavour of his obsessions: The melancholy of the post industrial, military hardware, fireworks, light, smoke and amplified sound. There is also the recurring idea that sound is a thing which can be realised as a form as if an alchemical shift can take place when the elements of sound and light are organised in a particular way: Two instances of this from Cripps' Notes : "Sound: Physical air waves tangible visible "and" A speaker being subjected to extreme distortion throws out ball bearings onto percussion [instrument]" David Toop refers to a piece in which Cripps collaborated with Paul Burwell as "the visceral impact of sound as airoglyph, the sculptural movement of vibrations, the play of base elements". The most interesting of the accounts by those that saw Cripps working refer to the physical and psychological effect of Cripps' work (rather than the "ooh-ahh" responses one might hear at a fireworks display) they refer to a displacement and blending of sensory responses.
The drawings include similar attempts to disrupt boarders: An underwater ballet involving divers and an anti-submarine net at the mouth of a harbour. A mechanical garden. The "Decipher-Recipher" in which the graphs from a brain scanner (Cripps' notes say "world trade figures etc":) would be transferred on to magnetic tape and played back as music. Firework boats (which have since been partially realised in extravaganzas such as River Crossing at Greenwich in 1993). An organ powered by a turbo Jet engine. Speakers with very long leads to a microphone attached to rockets which are projected into the sky. The element of collaboration is also vary strong and Cripps worked consistently with the London Musicians Collective, who in the spirit of John Cage and LaMonte Young sought to give due attention to the musicality of the everyday, and with a mysterious body of Cripps' invention called the Distinctive Sound Bureau who wore official DSB armbands whilst recording elements of the urban cacophony.
In "Machine Dances" (three performances between 1974-76) Cripps connected himself with ropes to the various moving, exploding, rotating elements of the piece so that he became simultaneously the puppeteer and the marionette in the performance. This provides us with a perfect metaphor for how Cripps worked; the divisions between the sculptural elements and the artist were indestinct just as the divisions between sounds and things were open to question.
For Cripps to explode a bag of flour (just to satisfy a particular curiosity) was as much a part of his art as his performances. In the same sense that his studio was as much a gallery as it was a laboratory. The elements of his life and art were constantly renewing and recycling themselves, as the component parts of one sculpture would become a new piece.
"As soon as I have rehearsed," said Cripps "everything's gone. By experimenting at each performance, I'm seeing for the first time along with the audience." It is a world where art is a process of being, a transitory moment and not a defining commodity.
Nowadays when we talk about artists setting up their own spaces it is easy to of forget that we are discussing a perennial. A quick spin through London's recent history will throw up the Inica Gallery in the sixties and in the mid and late seventies; AIR, Matt's and the studio space organisation ACME (43 Shelton St) where Cripps held three one person shows between 1978-81. These shows allowed him to develop a series of events which could be perfected in a public arena and which would lead Flash Art to describe him as one of the most significant artists working in Britain. Although Cripps did not overly concern himself with the debates of the time (whether to regard the gallery as a site of ideological conflict, to set up your own or to sell out to the "system") the fluid context provided by non-commercial spaces meant that Cripps work could be realised and made visible (and audible) to a wider audience. Moreover within this context where divisions were blurred it made perfect sense for Cripps to stage a pyrotechnic performance in a gallery full of Jackson Pollock pictures ( Museum of Modern Art: Oxford 1979). Pollock's paintings were records of a transitory moment which had been captured by the world of commodities, set against Cripp's work which would successfully elude it.
This was all before the decade of the 80's which, like all osemendian eras, provided us with permanent monuments with exchangeable value in the form of objects, multiples, curatable, palpable stuff and at the end of which the aura of the avant garde would itself become a saleable commodity. Just as the situationalists had predicted - sooner or later all opposition (art included) would be incorporated into the "Spectacle".
Vito Acconci: "We thought we were destroying the gallery system- or at least inter fearing with it..... Our work didn't sell, but it did provide window dressing, which tied right into the business interests of galleries. " 5
Cripps is relevant to us today for a number of reasons. We live in a time where artists are less likely to recognise boundaries and are using spaces outside the gallery with a variety of medium which are not prescribed or encumbered by a particular practice. It is again current to think of life as the medium and the boarders between studio, gallery, warehouse and art as less distinct. Furthermore, the points where those borders are recognised are often the points where the most interesting art happens.(See in this issue the intervention by Rear Window and review of Terry Smith's show at 179 Fillbrook Road and the interview with Paul Noble and Jibby Bean).
There is always something liberating about someone who refuses, or cannot recognise boundaries, it helps us realise that boundaries are just another human creation and that there existence is always open to question. In the end, of course, contradictions will happen and it's interesting to speculate on what Cripps himself would have thought about pontifications on ephemera a decade after his death. It's impossible to predict what new contradictions will be found or where new boundaries will appear, but surely creating situations in which such paradoxes can operate is part of the fun.