Autonomous Grace by James Newrick at Generator Projects – April 2018
by Alison Philp

The screening of Autonomous Grace by James Newrick at Generator Projects presents a mesmerising yet chilly melancholy of light and space from within the interior of Newcastle’s Civic Centre. Twin dual-sided screens are suspended in the centre of the gallery. A pervading solemn mood is set by the looped scene of a tree branch wafting gently in a breeze where enigmatic, leafy form is delineated from darkness by means of diffused light. The parallel screen, meanwhile, plays a tableau of edited shots taken from within the palatial civic centre, in which the trees outside are echoed in incidents of dappled shadows cast onto interior monoliths of marble and stone. Placed together the natural outside is thus brought into dialogue with the man-made inside, a tension of relationships characteristic of 1960’s post-war Utopian Modernist architecture and a juxtaposition of worlds that has very different environmental connotations today.

Carefully crafted shots tell of singing colours and bouncing light and of the beauty of simplicity in interiors. The sense of the building as a place of prosperity and success is captured in symmetries of stairways, polished corridors, radiating golden statues, curlicued patterned textiles, veins of marble, resplendent tapestries, opulent fabrics and brocaded edges. Cables and ropes are also included as part of its processes, traditionally imposing spatial and temporal divisions to organise and maximise production.

Cordless headphones are available for the audience to listen to a soundtrack of mournful cello music and gentle lapping waves overlaid by a hypnotising voice inviting listeners to find peace, relaxation and cultivate success within their inner mental space. This soundtrack is recognisable as that of the manufactured and packaged voice of calming capitalism prevalent in our era of overwork. An intermittent whispering voice, however, seems to haunt the inner world of the executive mind (typically attired as he is with Rolex watch and patent brogue shoes), and is perhaps an indication that unlike the logical and functional rows of switches and dials that control the building’s lights and speakers, human minds cannot so easily be switched on and off at will.

Newcastle Civic Centre is a place that seems stuck in time, preserved with only a glimpse of cracked stone and flaking paint hinting at time passed. Many other Brutalist, Modernist buildings of the same era have since fallen into ruin, for instance, St. Peter’s Seminary in Cardross, itself the subject of a film by Murray Grigor in 1972 and revisited in 2009. Seen within the space of a contemporary art space Autonomous Grace, prompts the viewer to consider the purpose and the values associated with such a public building and whether these are models we wish to continue into the future? Or perhaps unlike the modernist architects of the 1960’s or the current preservationists of such buildings, we would do well to heed the philosophical proposal by Ludwig Wittgenstein and imagine a future of public buildings in which “it is clear that however different from the real world an imagined one may be, it must have something – a form – in common with the real world.”