Martin Herbert on SCHOOL OF CHANGE

Martin Herbert writes in October 2012 Art Review…
Jennet Thomas’s School of Change involves a
40-minute ‘sci-! musical’ video, a sculptural
installation and a live performer continually
fabricating stick !gures in the yellow-and-black
that denotes hazards. It’s also a communiqué
from an unstable time and place where swingeing
policy shifts are insisted on by the authorities and
feared by the little people, while physics and
meteorology are fast becoming mysteries. Need
it be clari!ed that Thomas is satirising our parlous
moment and our schizophrenia about the
desirability of change? If yes, get out more.
Getting out is risky at the School of Change,
the surreal, !ctional, girls-only establishment in
which the video is set. During phases of ‘hard
weather’, yellow and black balls and sharp objects
pour from the sky; scary ‘half-presences’ also
apparently lurk outside. During the !lm, a new
girl arrives mysteriously from the outside world,
splitting into three identical selves. Like Alice,
she must master this world’s topsy-turvy rules,
introduced through classroom scenarios intercut
with batty mnemonic songs. Students, for
example, are each assigned a number and tasked
with learning its quixotic, changeable ‘physical’
properties. Science class involves tapping
frantically on computer tablets bearing Chris
Levine’s portrait of the Queen with eyes closed.
‘Sonic-structuring your edible growth’ is
encouraged.
Cracks show. Girls calm themselves in
downtime by singing about being held
comfortingly in place; those who lose their shit
get sent to Control Class, gagged and shouted at.
The psycho levels of admin, a sta”room vignette
suggests, are wearying even the teachers (orders
trickle down from a secret hierarchy, with the
Sponsor at the top). Students’ uniforms,
meanwhile, are speckled with barcodes. A wholly
regimented, would-be mesmerising world with
no tenable ‘outside’, then: this spills over into the
show’s faintly redundant sculptural installation.
Here, amid a black-and-yellow landscape of
hazard tape, mops, cosmoses of balls stuck to
black walls, and umbrellas (in case of hard
weather), the actress playing the New Girl fashions
mannequins into poses that, in the !lm, students
must copy, occasionally snapping into these !xed
positions herself.
Thomas’s tone is winningly acidic-comic
as it takes on a groupthink-oriented reality where
fear is stage-managed and nonsense will stick if
repeated often enough. Super!cially, the absurdist
expostulations recall fellow Matt’s artist Nathaniel
Mellors, but inspiration most probably #ows the
other way: Thomas is a decade older and was
involved in London’s zero-budget Exploding
Cinema collective in the early 1990s; a more
likely in#uence on her art is the long tradition of
British sardonic dissent that includes Orwell’s
‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) and
Swift’s ‘A Modest Proposal’ (1729).
Yet Thomas’s work is less about form than
speci!c content, examining the cultural value of
change through a symbolic microsociety that
insists on alteration through rigorous control,
paranoia and brainwashing. When a teacher tells
his pupil that ‘your #ow is smooth, so little friction,
you’ve been released from your constriction’, it’s
not quite how a minister might address the British
electorate, but there’s a comparable selfcon
!dence that the chickens will be hypnotised.
The irony, of course, is that Thomas’s surgical
strike against instrumentalised change probably
won’t change that reality one iota.
MARTIN HERBERT

Art Review October 2012

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