Bottle-19: Message in a Medium

On 7th March, 2019, Bottle-19 came out of nowhere. Well, not strictly true, it came from the edge of a disused quarry in the environs of Setmurthy, Cumbria. Not strictly true, it came from a bottle manufacturing plant somewhere in the UK. Again, not strictly true, it came from a conjunction of circumstance, or happenstance. It came out of the aether, and it had a message.

I spotted the bottle there in the undergrowth as an anomaly. There wasn’t much litter in the woods, and it glinted in the low winter sun. When I got closer, I realised it was one of those classic Coca Cola contour-bottles. Not only that. It had something growing in it, delicate tendrils reached up towards the light, protected from winds, floods and chills by the bottle, but watered (just enough) by the rain angling in through the opening. Like a miniature terrarium, a natural experiment re-appropriating a numb and thoughtless human gesture and transforming it into a tiny miracle of micro-ecological perfection. I was in a quandary. Leave it there in abandoned isolation, or intervene in order to follow how things might unfold otherwise. Since it seemed possible that another numb being might come along and smash it, as they do, or—perhaps worse for the life inside—a more well-meaning soul might tidy it up and pop it in recycle, I decided to take it home and see what happened. It thrived.

If the mosses and algae looked a bit dry, I added a few drops of water I had bottled from a stream near where I found it. Apart from that, it seemed to survive on its own, given a bit of sun. I never actually thought of it as a piece of art, it was more of an experiment in displacement. I watched it change over the seasons, as its overall constitution has got less verdant and tendrilly tending towards yellowy brown mush, but it is certainly still alive and loved.

It was on 7th April, exactly one year and one month after it began, when Bottle-19 acquired its name and underwent a major transition. This was when I decided to exhibit it in the outdoor/outwindow Out-O-Space gallery that had popped up the previous month (14th March), as a response to Covid-19 lockdown. Over a century after the first readymades, it’s commonplace to call something a piece of art simply because it is chosen and exhibited in a gallery, but I felt the experiment had moved into a significant new dimension as it became involved in a wider assemblage intimately tied up with our experiencing of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This small piece of isolated life had been let loose again. Literally becoming something out there.   

When I composed a photograph of Bottle-19, a shadow was cast onto the dusty window glass and the sun shone brilliantly though the bottle highlighting the shape of the life within. Although intensely three-dimensional, the set-up rendered itself as an almost flat assemblage, encouraging me to think more about the abstract properties of light and glass, and ideas of open and closed systems. The open system of Bottle-19 was already processing itself when I found it, but now the emerging layers of processing were building up, including me now, in an ever-widening set of circles… up to and including you. 

The genie lies not in the bottle. Exhibit A+ in the Out-O-Space Gallery. I found this bottle at the edge of a disused quarry over a year ago. It had life in it at the time, and I thought it might be interesting to see how it survived indoors. It thrived. It is still alive but looking somewhat murky.Insta post.

The whole process of intervention started to mirror the onset of the pandemic we are all enduring, raising questions of the impossibility of closed systems, of control (taken back or not), of social distancing, safe viewing, negative space, of the powers that move us, of messages, of mass production and natural re-appropriation, proliferation, the small things like dust, the tender tendrils reminding us that we’ll be reclaimed soon enough whether we do the recycling, or not, and with spotless or spotted hands. We all move in a mysterious dance of light and dark as we try to set things in directions that encourage the survival of our/the/a system. Or anti-system, this time perhaps. 

It seemed for a moment that, as in some Tarkovskian film, a certain intricate configuration of things, objects, beings, or whatever, could bring about a precise miracle. An indication that there might even be a vitalist-materialist logic of miracles creeping beneath the surfaces of all these manifestations. An equivalent to the invisible tide of dreaded virions creeping over our outer surfaces. A double-skinned reality. A locked down reality of restoration and redemption. Into the tinyRevolution. There is no normal to go back to, and we’ll have to be a whole lot more imaginative as we attempt to construct a new one inside the Virarchy. 

Cover pic courtesy Ursula Troche

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