Karen Verschooren on Helen Cammock's 'They Call It Idlewild'

Part of ONE WORK

A still from ‘They Call It Idlewild’ shows a miniature model scene with brown trees and silver cars, with a dusty blue background.
Helen Cammock, 'They Call It Idlewild', 2020. Courtesy of the artist and Kate MacGarry.

ONE WORK is a series of online discussion events to think more deeply about how an artwork came into being. Focusing closely on a single work, these generous discussions provide space for an artist to present a recent work and talk through the work’s creation. The events are accompanied by a month-long online screening and specially commissioned written response published on the LUX Scotland website.

Helen Cammock took part in a ONE WORK event with us in April, presenting and discussing, They Call It Idlewild’ (2020). Inspired by the forgotten histories, photographs and artworks uncovered in Wysing Arts Centre’s archive,​‘They Call It Idlewild’ acts as a reflection on the politics of idleness and what it means creatively, emotionally and culturally to be idle at a time when the questions are being asked more widely about the physical and emotional cost of hyper-productivity required by Neoliberalism.

We commissioned curator Karen Verschooren to respond to They Call It Idlewild’ and we are delighted to publish Karen’s response below.

Karen Verschooren (1982) is a contemporary art curator based in Belgium. As Head of Exhibitions at STUK Arts Centre, Leuven (BE) she curated solo exhibitions with a.o. Robbert&Frank Frank&Robbert (2022), Helen Cammock (2021), Angela Washko (2021), Mircea Cantor (2020), Sebastián Díaz Morales (2019), Mika Taanila (2018), Nevin Aladağ (2018), Omer Fast (2017), Joachim Koester (2017), Emre Hüner (2016), John Akomfrah (2016), and Bjørn Melhus (2015), as well as group exhibitions such as Wired for Empathy (2021), AND& – Look at Us Now (2021) Alone Together (2020), Parallel Crossings (2019), This Rare Earth – Stories from Below (2018), On Alchemy and Magic (2017), The Act of Magic (2017), and Up in the Air (2016). From 2008 to 2015, she was a curator at Z33, House for contemporary art, Hasselt (BE). Verschooren holds a Master degree in Communication Sciences from the Catholic University of Leuven (2004), a Master degree in Cultural Sciences from the Free University of Brussels (2005) and a Master of Science in Comparative Media Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge USA (2007).

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So the day dream can create idle space – and that space is host for both ideas and feeling to co-exist and multiply or intersect – there is nothing inactive about that.’ – Audre Lorde

I’ve always had a weak spot for artistic work that takes me on a journey; that draws me in on a sensorial and emotional level, whilst feeding me intellectually as well. My journey with the work of Helen Cammock began in preparation of her solo exhibition Beneath the Surface of Skin (Fall 2021) at STUK Arts Centre in Leuven, Belgium, where I am heading the exhibition department. After having been granted permission to look at screeners of all her films, I jotted down:

very strong and dense work;
essayistic musings combining own and borrowed text, archival and newly created images; connecting the personal and intimate to the political, the lived and experienced to the theoretical;
in an attempt to grasp, to understand.’

Seemingly without effort, Cammock moves from personal and intimate stories to a lucid explanation of the histories and power structures that make up the scenery in which these stories take place. At the same time, her practice makes explicit how these histories continue to live on, and are embodied in people and their stories, waiting to come out.

They Call it Idlewild is perhaps one of Cammock’s most personal works. Having been created during an on and off three month residency at Wysing Art Centre, it originated from a specific moment in Cammock’ s life, a specific place and a question. The moment was one of incredible productivity and intense work schedules following the Turner Prize and Max Mara Art Price. The place and question came from Wysing Art Centre, who – on the occasion of their 30th birthday – invited Helen to work with their archive. Landing in that space, both physically and mentally, Cammock found herself sitting still for the first time in a long time. Just that moment, sparked the question of what it means to be idle or still; what it means to be given time and to take time, or be allowed to take time, to just be. Originating from this personal moment in time and space, the development of the work launched Cammock into conversations with voices, both in the flesh and in writing, in literary, philosophical, historical, political and cultural fields as she started to explore the manyfold dimensions of the concept of idleness. A close reading of the work indeed will take you from observations on personal creation, to the context of slave labor and the racist stereotype of the irresponsible lazy black person (in a cultural dissection of Johnny Mercer and Hoagy Carmichael’s 1933 Tin Pan Alley song lazy bones”) to recent research on the mechanisms that make sleep unnecessary, in an attempt to enter the last place of ultimate idleness. And a very close reading indeed I had, as my colleague and I together went through it word for word, still by still, as we pondered over and had animated discussion about the Dutch subtitle translations. But that as a sidenote.

However, it is not just or only the richness of the text’ in Cammock’s work that makes it stand out. It is rather the doublefolding of the auditory and visual elements, like a millefeuille, that turns the work into a mesmerizing piece of art. Cammock’s voice indeed is supported by a steady stream of images derived from the interior spaces of the Wysing Arts Centre and the local environment, creating a soft rhythm, a gentle movement that is almost immediately tangible; grass swaying, a hand turning a pottery wheel, steam escaping from a fan, a car driving up and down. Interspersed are images of children’s drawings, which Cammock found on 35mm slides in Wysing’s archive boxes marked unknown”. The visual elements are an invitation to observe what Cammock observed, to join her in the thinking time that the residency offered her and that allowed her to let her gaze wander over the details of her immediate surroundings. Experiencing the film, you indeed feel time slowing down. The pacing of images and words are just right. Content and form seem to have found each other in the only possible way in which this work could exist.

Ultimately They Call it Idlewild, and by extension most of Cammock’s work, primarily addresses you through an emotional and sensorial connection. In this, I would argue, her work very much feels like music – an artform where being concerned with resonance rather than meaning is more common. Yet, within visual arts, this is – perhaps lamentably so – not the case. When it does happen, in particular with work that is clearly so rich in content, it is incredibly powerful. Because once you are touched by a work of art, you can start scratching its surface, dive deeper into it, and discover layer after layer of meaning. For me this process continues long after my screening. Its components linger in my mind like auditory and visual earworms. They Call it Idlewild is a work that keeps on giving.

Audio Version

Karen Verschooren on Helen Cammock's 'They Call It Idlewild' (2020)

Part of ONE WORK

ONE WORK is a series of online events that focus closely on a single work. These generous discussions provide an opportunity for an artist to present a recent work and talk through how the work came into being. Each work is available as a month-long online screening, followed by a specially commissioned written response that serves as documentation of both the work and the discussion.

Learn more