Alexander Braun: In your triple function as an artist, publisher of the pocketbooks series, and as a 'inspirateur' animatore?) you inspired and realised two artist projects in relation to football: Football Haiku and the Labanotation: the Archie Gemmill Goal (2002). Let us talk first about Football Haiku. What was the general idea, where did the inspiration come from, and what do you think the general connection between art and sport, especially football is? Is there any general relationship, or is it your personal interest as a fan?
Alec Finlay: In the introduction to Labanotation I printed a text that was adapted from an essay by John Cage, and this suggests, in a rather paradoxical way, something of my own approach ... (Cage’s original text was referring to dance) ”The function of a game of football, and, in fact, the final meaning of football may now be suggested: it is to bring into co-being elements paradoxical by nature, to bring in to one situation ... law elements and freedom elements .... Football then is a problem parallel to that of the integration of the personality: which in terms of modern psychology is the co-being of the conscious and the unconscious mind, Law and Freedom, in a random world situation. Good football can act as a guide to good living’.
For “dance” read “football”, for “football” read “art”.
AB: But it doesn't. A lot of people understand football as a kind of war. The players are in conflict, and the hooligans too. And the "freedom" of the single individuum ends with the next foul. Isn't Cage's idea simply the idealistic description of a fan?
AF: If Cage was a fan, he was always more a fan of taking part than watching. My project was ultimately seeking this idealist imaginative ‘other’ – just as Cage aspires to the dance – the art of his lover and companion, Merce Cunningham –... don’t all artists or writers secretly aspire to work in some other medium, for another medium always seems to offer a sense of completeness, or totality, a sum of possibilities that our own chosen art form can never achieve. This desire for a free-play between art forms, is typically a desire to penetrate between memory and immediacy, and to connect intellectual forms of knowledge, such as writing, to forms of knowledge that have a proprioception, a relationship to the body, or the psyche.
Just as Cage suggests that the meaning dance has for him is a fulfilled image of psychic integration, so the projects that I set out on were not about the football as such, but more they were concerned with the possibility of play.
In fact, there is still a book in my head – isn’t it always the case –, the book that did not get made, in which the aspects of play, word and motion are fully integrated, in a way that can only ever be imaginative.
AB: But what is your special link-function in this process? You're not just writing an essay, you're creating a "three dimensional" social project.
AF: Well, for one thing, I choose to problemmatise that role by being one amongst many collaborators, and for sure that social aspect is crucial. My role is as conceiver and as ‘animatore, the person who brings into “co-being”, in one “situation” – that of a book and an exhibition installation – the elements of poetry, photography, performance, prose, sound, play, event, game and memory.
AB: And is there any personal background? What is your private interest in football?
AF: You know, for me there were personal influences, dimly traceable, not necessarily evident in the final work, but perhaps suggestive of my approach. I’m sure that there was a wish to make up for a childhood ... – you know Morrissey’s line, “Just a boy born on a hillside, will Nature make a man of me yet ...” – a rural isolated childhood, in which a game of football, such as we had in the playground at school, between two sets of tree-goal-posts, had – has – a kind of magical social delight – all ages and sexes mucking in together in a great rammy, a feeling of joyful abandon.
Also, in my 20s, when I lived in Edinburgh, I was often very ill for quite long periods, and I could not walk very well, so the games of football that I used to pass by in the local park, The Meadows, were rather bittersweet events. I always loved the rhythm and the different characteristics that each game had, and it was these social and imaginative aspects of park football that were formative influences on the project. These elements were all much more important to me than being a football fan. I think too that the underlying argument of the book was against professional football and partisan team rivalries, and more drawn towards play than “sport”. There are enough “laddish” football projects out there. No, the social implications of the project are more about Cage’s and my own integrative philosophies, than they are about football, and a similar approach could be applied to other activities I am sure.
AB: Why did you choose specially this Haiku context?
AF: The elements that defined the form were a combination ofliterary and the sporting idioms. The World Cup was in Japan that year. In 1999 I invented a new form of haiku, shorter than the traditional Japanese one, with its famous 5-75 syllable count. This new form has only three words, one word per line. PARK/UNTIL/DARK. it is a hybrid of haiku, Concrete poem, designer text, T-Shirt slogan, and newspaper headline – a form that is simple to grasp, and yet offers many possibilities.
There is a whole performance ritual now associated with celebrations in sport, especially football, – and it is a phenomenon which shows how the cult of the individual now has more importance than the old values of team spirit. These rituals sometimes involve players revealing a hidden text that they have had printed on a shirt – a mesage for the fans, or a loved one, or God – the famous one here in Britain was Robbie Flower’s “Support the Liverpool Dockers”.
I like the private printing aspect of these T-Shirts – people making their own statements and wearing them, as an alternative to the corporate designer label. In the same way, the emphasis that I placed on local park games was a cheeky, and yet serious political statement about the giganticism of the World Cup. There is a delight in the World Cup as a global event, in that sense of nations meeting, and the characters and narratives that emerge, and then there is also the awful aggrandisement, the globalism, the commercialisation of spectacle. So, in a way I devised a local park alternative to the World Cup, one where the narrative element was provided by poetry.
AB: And yet the project had this global character too, because you printed cards to invite artists and writers from all over the world to send proposals.
AF: Yes, I like this mixture of modesty and ambition. The postcard invitation has an ease, and they did perform very well, as we had over 5,000 submissions, from all over the world – from Australia, Norway, Germany, Croatia, Chile. The football project is one amongst a series of such participations that I have conceived, which are open to anyone to contribute to.
AB: Was it an important aspect to "stage" the perforative aspect of the project, the matches themselves, with the help of children in Scotland and Newcastle. Maybe all the intellectual, artistic ideas that lay behind needed this childish, enthusiastic counterpart.
AF: Yes, but it is more imporant to recognise how the ideas emerged from the state of play and then returned to it again – like in most art practice.
Guy Moreton, who made the photographs, also had to immerse himself within the games, as kids ran around him. In a similar way we sought out a rhythm of motion when we art-worked th book.
The best games are those played by just a few kids – its like seeing what the game of football is for the very first time. In these games there are always a number of flexible often unstated rules and laws – you can trip but ankles only; you can play so wide but not that far out; you can tug but not push. Everything is at the same time real and imagined. The height of the invisible bar is an extension of the goalie’s own height. The play is instantly telescoped in the minds of the children into great sweeping moves: dashes from defence, crunch tackles, rasping drives and incredible fingertip saves. And the game isn’t played for winning, not really. Again, this free play of imaginative Laws and Freedoms has a parallel with Art and Society.
AB: Let us talk about the second football-project, Labanotation: the Archie Gemmill Goal. Please tell me what "labanotation" means and explain the German people who Mr. Gemmill is.
AF: Labanotation is a language for notating movement, invented by Rudolf Laban in the 1920s – it can be used to notate any kind of motion, although it is now almost solely used for recording dance. My original idea was nothing to do with football, I simply wanted to discover new languages – languages other than writing – and I began by researching how physical movement can be ‘written’. Looking back now, I see that I had a strong desire to go into the body, to move away from the linear, structured and narrative forms into which the book can easily fall.
Alex, I can’t believe you don’t know Archie Gemmill? He was a small tough Scottish midfield player, most famous for scoring a very beautiful goal for Scotland in the 1978 World Cup, when we beat the great Dutch team of the day. I chose that goal as the single most famous episode of physical movement in my culture, the one that the most possible people would be able to identify with – if I was American it might just as well have been the ricochet motion of JFK’s body as he was shot. In fact, the work did achieve some celebrity, as this goal is still very dear to the Scots.
AB: After the publishing of the book, did you get any reaction by Archie himself?
AF: Archie was very happy about the whole thing, although he is a very modest guy. His one of those contemporary lives which are dominated by an event that lasted less than sixty seconds.
AB: In this project you come much more closer to the idea of a relationship between football and dance. That's really fascinating to me. Mostly football looks very hard and rough. But in your interpretation it gets a light run of elegant movements.
AF: At the heart of the work was a performance by a young German dancer, Kathi Palitz – a woman, which was important, and someone who had no previous knowledge of the goal. I ainvited Kathi to read the labanotation and perform this short passage of movement, as if it were suspended between the two specialisms of dance and football. So, I was determined that the piece should not become a complete or resolved dance performance, as such – it was more important to enact the possibility that anyone – anyone that is who could read labanotation – could discover this particular event – not necessarily rediscover, not ‘become’ Archie, but, in some way, that they could occupy a spatial body memory.
So, it is a metaphysical piece, about a rather metaphysical goal.
I also worked with another Scottish dancer, Andy howitt, and he ran dance workshops based around the goal with young people.
AB: What does it mean, to get this additional second line: the transformation of a wonderful human forceful movement in a abstract diagram. And then again back to the children.
AF: What it means I can’t exactly say, for I have not danced the piece myself , and I cannot read labanotation, and I did not make the photographs, so I rest in the same state of desire and play as you or any other viewer – but surely we are still concerned here with the desire to penetrate between the world of memory – writing, poetry, language – and the the immersed feeling of the body-in-time-and-space, the now of our moving through the world.
AB: Now we have very different levels you are working on: A conceptual and literal beginning. A social fulfilling in participation of other authors and finally in a real performance as a paraphrase of the original (goal). Could you describe the interrelation between all this level? And was it really necessary to create a installation out of the results? Maybe the power of the book is strong enough and all other activities around makes the strong idea "watery"?
AF: In fact, one of the most beautiful things was that two of the boys who were involved in the dance piece became very excited by the whole thing, and “took over”. They choreographed a duo for the final performance, with a series of shadow moves and pauses, like a true conversation. This had exactly this quality of movement-now, and body-memory, for their dancing was a combination of grace and clumsiness, free play, and their memories of how footballers move, from watching television replays.
What a book can always achieve is a direct relationship with the reader, one which is relaxed in a way an exhibition cannot be. But a book does not cohere a group of people, and the exhibition installation was designed to do that. It combined a long book shelf, with open copie sof the book, with an indoor football pitch, complete with a goal, dance floor, a plastic ball, and a tunnel to enter. When you walked in there was a huge roar, which had been recorded at a Ranger v Celtic cup tie. The installation did two things: it brought the still photographs to life, and it invited – challenged even – the adult visitors to the gallery to go into the inner imaginative performative space. The possibility of play was offered, and although I had not realised how difficult it would be for most people to allow themselves to enter into that, it became an interesting question that the game of football asked of art.