Characterised by the notion of “creative resistance”, Chelpa Ferro utilise performance, audio and installation modes, often commenting on our collective commercial mores, in particular that of mindless consumerism. Their work is in direct opposition to those artists who strip-mine popular culture for easy content and this gives them an interesting stance that has led to considerable success in a relatively short period of time. Their CV includes an array of Biennales: Venice 2005, Sao Paulo in 2002 and 2004, Havana in 2003, and they won the 4th MTV Video Music Brasil prize in 1998.
Conceptually, their art is set against a Brazilian background of political upheaval, fast social and technological change and rapid commercialisation – all elements present to some extent in Liverpool as it literally builds towards its Capital of Culture year. (The £920m Grosvenor Development is currently remodelling a sizeable section of the city centre to make 154,000 metres squared of new retail space). In a first for the UK, FACT has commissioned Chelpa Ferro to make a piece specifically for the Liverpool context.
On paper this commission looked terrible: the use of disposable plastic bags attached to motors to recreate the “rhythms of Liverpool’s streets”. It is almost impossible to imagine the aesthetic, unless you have seen previous works by the collective, (notably Nadabrahma, 2003 for the Sao Paulo Biennale, which uses a similar model). The publicity blurb also reheats the tired inward-looking paradigm of Liverpool as a mythic centre of outsider genius. Or perhaps the collective were slyly suggesting, given the preponderance of plastic bags and other litter on the streets, Liverpool as a rubbish city?
But these prejudices evaporate immediately on entering the Gallery. Jungle Jam creates a Zen like environment that envelops the visitor and triggers instant and genuine pleasure. It is immediately charming, working on levels that are firstly sensory and only afterwards intellectual.
Thirty unbranded plastic bags, alternating in black and white, are ranged at equidistance and similar height around all four white walls. There is a pleasing minimalist visual aesthetic. Bags twist and rustle, hit the wall with a quick thud and continue their furious crackling perambulation against a soft background hum of whirring motors. Several more bags twiddle on opposite walls, the sound directional like early stereo. A half silence, a couple more flaps, then many, all, revolve at once, a cacophony from all four walls. It richly evokes the sound and image of a flock of birds on a telephone wire, shaking out their wings at will and in various combinations, getting ready to fly. The sound is crisp, determined, rhythmic.
Programmed by computer in group sequences on a ten minute loop, each motor is set to turn at slightly varied speeds, allowing for unexpected texture. Aurally, it is rhythm, not melody, but harmonious, in pitch, resonant. Visually, the motors work to animate these bags to a surprising degree, so that they become something weird, more than their banal actuality. They are at once completely recognisable as functional commercial detritus, and yet transformed into some far more interesting other. It is an aural and visual representation of experimental sound, well executed and effective.
These are all well trodden themes from Chelpa Ferro, and Jungle Jam combines seamlessly with their previous body of work. It is a useful and pleasant introduction to these artists for a northwest audience, but it doesn’t progress the Chelpa Ferro oeuvre much.
FACT, on the other hand, is fast becoming the coolest venue in town, with the visual art equivalent of reliably high production values. Under the guidance of Director of Exhibitions Ceri Hand, it has been curatorially sure footed in the last twelve months, mounting bold, critically convincing exhibitions that have also proved accessible to big audiences. Since opening its shiny new city centre building in 2003, it has relished the role of being Liverpool’s fifth visual arts institution, dedicated to commissioning and presenting film, video and new media art forms. It is now coming of age with some style.