‘Trying to change the world’ has been the nominal subject of at least two of Ruth Ewan’s past projects (Psittaciformes Trying to Change the World, 2005–6, and A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2003–ongoing), but the implicit intention underlying the effort of ‘trying’ cuts throughout her entire body of work, as was demonstrated by her first major solo exhibition in the UK.
Meticulously researching and assembling these tangents of muted and fragmented attempts toward social change, Ewan’s research was presented for reconsideration in a multifaceted exhibition. Titled ‘Brank and Heckle’, the show provided numerous entry points into a shared sense of Utopian potential. Running in two streams, as the voices of the oppressed and the voices of the discontented, Ewan did not present a discrete sample of social injustices within any single issue. Rather, she made no distinction between presenting a secondary school student’s hand-drawn portrait of Dundee activist and singer Mary Brooksbank alongside a newly commissioned sculpture of the African–American singer, actor and lawyer Paul Robeson. The former was created during a workshop that focused on Dundee’s radical history, and the latter is a reincarnation of the original by Antonio Salemme after it was censored by The Philadelphia Art Alliance in 1930 on the grounds of race and nudity. While both works suggest a precarious attitude toward production and exhibition, their relation to each other and to the rest of the exhibition exists only in as much as they are two examples pulled from a vast range of lost figures and symbols who have all tried to effect change. Moving fluidly across all mediums, Ewan uses sculpture, video, installation, paper, prints and songs to narrate a living history of social consciousness.
One of the most striking examples came from the recent Folkestone Triennial, for which Ewan placed ten decimal clocks throughout the town (We Could Have Been Anything That We Wanted To Be, 2011). Here, Ewan presented a single decimal clock from the series, hanging high above the main hall. As the mandatorily imposed time keeper for revolutionary France for two years, the decimal clock was adopted after the newly formed French Republic abandoned the Gregorian calendar to rid them of all former order imposed by the Ancien Régime. Each day was reduced to ten hours, with each hour divided into 100 minutes, and each minute into 100 seconds; the new ideals of the Republic of France translated directly into the lives of every citizen. The clock as a working timepiece inside the gallery effectively existed as a testament to how change can seep into time itself and lead to a new world order. While injustice and inequality emerged as common threads throughout ‘Brank and Heckle’, works by a number of youths who had participated in past workshops featured prominently, and it was their Utopian idealism rendered through simplicity and sincerity that best echoes Ewan’s ideals.
The earliest work in the show, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, remains the epitome of Ewan’s efforts, collecting and cataloguing a diverse range of voices and stories of protest and change in a functioning jukebox that combines both digital and analogue technology. The songs are all socially progressive – be they directly political, vaguely Utopian or chronicling specific historic events. With more than 1,500 songs, and with no more than two songs by the same artist, A Jukebox … becomes an active archive, whose tracks can all be played and replayed according to the public’s choice.
While the exhibition’s title conjures up ‘brank’ in reference to the barbaric scold’s bridle, a medieval instrument for torturing men, but mostly used on women accused of gossip, speaking out and witchcraft, the silencing force of contemporary social norms has become far more ideological, and thus invisible, rendering all the more need for a multitude of heckles.