A pair of apprehensive performers, occupying either side of a two-metre high accordion, glance at the sheets of music in front of them. As the instrument moves mechanically in and out, they play the enormous keys, stumbling over the timing and making their way eventually, and with a sigh of relief, to the end of Peggy Seeger’s song, ‘I’m Gonna Be an Engineer’ (1971). The original is a deceptively upbeat ditty lampooning women’s opportunities in the workforce. Here, it’s resurrected as a haltingly melancholic song, animated by a hulking iron lung of a musical instrument.
The performance was part of Squeezebox Jukebox (2009), British artist Ruth Ewan’s contribution to the recent Tate Triennial, ‘Altermodern’. Each day during the exhibition a small selection of songs were performed, chosen from the ongoing archive the artist has compiled since 2003. A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World is her collection of compositions that loosely fall under the banner of ‘protest songs’: these include Hebrew folk songs, tunes by Robert Burns, Leadbelly, and Joan Baez; Crass’ ‘Bloody Revolutions’ (1980) and Louis Lingg and the Bombs’ ‘Madonna is a Corporate Whore’ (2008). Ewan’s recent solo show at London gallery Ancient & Modern presented visitors with a classic wall-mounted jukebox; you could choose to hear songs from categories including ‘Ecology,’ ‘Military’ and ‘Central America’.
Several of Ewan’s projects have focused on the lives and work of activists, such as musician Ewan MacColl, and a resident of London’s Archway known only as Fang. But Ewan’s work as a cataloguer and archivist of the left-wing merely set the stage for a series of encounters that pose questions about the changes these people yearn for. The artist chooses particular moments from the past and releases them into the present – as with the giant accordion performance – which changes the impact of their original intentions. What Ewan seems to share with the folk music ethos her work draws from is the belief that listening – and by extension, looking – are in themselves a form of involvement and activism. But unlike the ‘call to action’ of many of the songs in her jukebox, Ewan’s recontextualisations acknowledge that the effects of such activism, if any, can only ever be decidedly ambiguous and internal.
In her 2007 project Did You Kiss the Foot that Kicked You?, 100 buskers were taught MacColl’s ‘Ballad of Accounting’ (1964) to work into their normal routines. For one week throughout London, rush-hour commuters might have caught some of the song’s confrontational demands: ‘Did you learn to keep your mouth shut, were you seen and never heard? Did you learn to be obedient and jump to at a word?’. A similarly problematic, though funnier, process of transposition took place in Psittaciformes Trying to Change the World (2005–6). Having recorded chants and slogans shouted at the protests accompanying the 2005 G8 summit in Gleneagles, Ewan attempted to teach a set of parrots to shout ‘Drop the debt!’ and ‘If you want true justice clap your hands!’ In both cases, new contexts question the efficacy of the original statements, but at the same time allow the words to hang in the air unanswered, possibly to be picked up again.
While the history of subversive propaganda plays a prominent role in the background of Ewan’s work, each piece is presented independently of its origins, left hanging either to inspire anew or fade again into historical obscurity. Ewan’s series of drawings illustrate her method: she gave books, postcards and illustrations to children to colour in, draw on, and interpret as they see fit. In William Blake (Wallace) (2009), a postcard of Blake is drawn over in white marker, his face blotted out by some scatty, ghostly figure that now sits next to him. Creative Revolution (2007) is the title page of a book of the same name (with the subtitle ‘A study of Communist Ergatocracy’), on which a seven year-old named Fred has drawn a small stick man gesturing towards a large, striped diamond shape that rests atop a golden square that could be a sculpture of some sort, or an escaping air balloon. Whether the results of such a revolution, or simply its defamation, the drawings provide the ideal encounter of past and present in Ewan’s work. Where at points her attempts at populist dissemination of folk ideals is elegaic, mapping the branching and dying of forgotten strands of history, the drawings present one possible outcome where the thoughts of the past are re-interpreted into a new symbol of continued relevancy and potential change.
Listen to 'Ballad of Accounting' (part of Ewan's 2007 project Did You Kiss the Foot that Kicked You?) here