Plan 9

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Industry & Idleness, 2005

Introduction

“To what purpose is all the toil and bustle of this world? What end of avarice and ambition, of the pursuit of wealth, of power and pre-eminence?” Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

Artists are no different from anyone else in their guilty need to see their own worth reflected in the eyes of others. Nobody wants to suffer the indignity of actually being a ‘nobody’. The hard graft of the who- you-know and the where-you’ve-shown, the time consuming touting of your talent…Is this relentless toil a reflection of a selfless and uncontrollable urge to create? Probably not. At a certain point a fear of failure is added to a fear of lovelessness. With the attainment of various badges of merit (arts degree, inclusion in the ‘right’ show, arts council funding, tenured teaching post and so on) one can’t avoid claiming a certain proficiency. But, while it is ok to fail when you acknowledge ineptitude, no one wants the label ‘loser’ foisted on them for something they are supposed to be good at. The architecture of ‘Industry & Idleness’ is drawn from this squirm of potential embarrassment. The Clean Collective – a disparate, desperately random collection of artists has commissioned the comparatively well-defined duo of Harrison & Hughes to act as artists, builders, collaborators and curators. To build an environment which is – and isn’t – their work and, to incorporate into that, the work of the Clean Collective..which then becomes the work of Harrison & Hughes. Or is it the other way round, and the whole thing is simply the Clean Collective buying in paid help to buff up their chances? Whether collaboration or compromise, for the collective good or personal profit, perhaps it simply is. And may be that’s enough.

The Moment of Quiet

Manchester Bristol contains at its heart, a rather extended commercial district, perhaps half a mile long and about as board, and consisting almost completely of offices and warehouses. Nearly the whole district is abandoned by dwellers…This district is cut through by certain main thoroughfares upon which the vast traffic concentrates, and in which the ground level is lined with brilliant shops…With the exception of this commercial district, all Manchester Bristol proper comprises unmixed working people’s quarters, stretching like a girdle, averaging a mile and a half mile in breath, around the commercial district. Outside, beyond this girdle, lives the upper and middle bourgeoisie. Adapted from Engles, late 19C.

In Engles’ explanation of the urban geography of Manchester we can see easy parallels with Bristol, and many other such cities built around a working centre. Engeles goes on in this passage to recognize that the initial configuration of working and living in Manchester evolved to conceal the ‘grime and misery’ of the working areas from the wealthy. Bristol can go one step further than this and boast of Brunel’s bridge built to a brief that was a spectacular strategy to allow the rich to move from the outer ‘girdle’ of the city away to the purity of the countryside without having to witness the squalor of the working classes.

Following high investment and the gradual increase in land prices, we new see our cities turned inside out, the rich and very rich moving to the once commercial, working centres. The gradual advancement of gentrifications over the last hundred years in many cities constitutes a global trend, a trend around which much contention exists. It’s not just the free market that celebrates these ‘improvements’, this apparent regeneration makes us all feel as though our cities are changing for the better, but is it a mirage? Reasoned voices of discontent regard this onslaught of private investment and public permission with pessimism. The impact clearly creates divided and un-recoursed communities at the city’s edge. This division, combined with a phenomenon that sees these who have been displaced feeling like tourists in their own cities, increasingly alienated from the showcase centres.

The displacement of people remains as it always has, concealed to the extend we don’t feel any individual responsibility. We can see, if we chose to, if we move from one side of the city to another, the impact of this displacement. We can read the statistics, but how many of us do either of these things? Bristol is amongst the richest cities in the UK and still has communities who are amongst the poorest. The only times when we are made aware of the zoning of the places where we live, is at times when a ‘visitor’ from another zone transgresses. May be a car is found stolen and burnt out in a previously unheard location, perhaps less than a mile away, yet divided off from our usual routes.

It is odd that Broadmead, a shopping district built in the late 50’s, has remained the slightly down beat retail experience that it has. The promise however, of a new Broadmead will bring a different flavour to the centre of Bristol. The upheaval offers both long and short term dislocation, seven years of roadworks to cut in the Easton and St Pauls districts of Bristol, and considerable low paid employment in retail to a city already with the lowest unemployment figures ever known. The car park serving the new shops will rise high to mask the view of the tiny percentage of low cost housing from the smart shoppers. So why now have artists been given permission and financial support to move in to the temporarily vacant shop units? Why indeed.

Social geographer Neil Smith talks of gentrification as activism, the activism of the middle classes, ‘We, the middle class authors, recognizing that our own “activism” has become so digressive, desperately reinventing that activism as the magic explanation and justification for gentrification itself. Agency is safely restored to the middle classes – laced through with emancipatory piety – and the working classes disappeared’. The role of the artist as activist invented most notably in the 60’s has backfired. In an attempt to avoid being ‘disappeared’ by the merciless market, we have become complicit, and more; we are encouraging of the conclusion that the artist is a vital component in the strategy for Smith’s version of middle class activism. The New Labour notion of the artists is as the bringer of safety to parts of cities that were once dangerous, and as conduit for ‘creativity’ and ‘healing’ to those who should be ‘included’. Impossible tasks offered to ensure that artists earn their keep rather than question.

There are a number of forms of this complicity; through the taking on of otherwise unwanted shop units at the moment of quiet prior to development, or in our expertise in creating stylish celebration in what would otherwise be a boarded up part of the city awaiting its make over. ‘The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property’ declare artists Mel Jordan and Andrew Hewitt on their billboard text for Sheffield in 2004.

The question now is how do we manage this role that culture and artists are perceived as having. Do individual artists, offered badly needed opportunities for visibility, recognize why they are given ‘partnership’ in the city? Do they consider themselves as having responsibility? Where is the counter activism?

Bristol’s community of artists is becoming stronger and more united, it feels as though there could be very interesting times ahead. Through this period of confidence there is great potential for active people to establish their own agenda – a voice to articulate a position of their own in relation to the dominant agenda of the runaway commercial imperatives of the city.

Lucy Byatt, Director, Spike Island, Bristol

The Future History of the Regions of England or When ‘The Sticks’ was Appropriated as a Term of Empowerment

Like Queer, or Nigger. Said by us and not you. The pejorative now casually bandied amongst us. Said with an ease and frequency that makes you think it is now neutral, the words slipping so fluidly from our mouths that you imagine they no longer bear the stains of prejudice and oppression from your use. Some of you will make that mistake before you can identify the inference that tells you that everything has changed. You will wander blindly into the ambush. It is no longer your vocabulary but ours! You hear the words in our mouths and you know the milk of metropolitan dominance has soured. You look at us and you see the new culture and the new power. You look at us and you see that our future is your nightmare. The posters that start to breed on the walls of the capital read ‘evacuate London’, but it is too late. You have nowhere to run! You will beg when you are caught on the country roads but it will be of no use.

Because the only good description of The Regions is the one that includes mother-fucking Londoners hanging from the trees.

Funny how you have to steal the one thing you think you’d never want to become free. Like swallowing the disease to make a cure. It makes little sense within the logic you have been taught. No wonder it took so long.

For years we believed your lies. Why? Because the drip-drip of falsehoods washed away the possibility of things ever being different. And what lies could not conceal was bought with the titbits of provincial power. How those hungry for validation vied to be top dog in our one horse towns, and in doing so created grotesque menageries from that analogy. They stalked the regions, faces turned to the arse of the capital like it was the sun, chests inflated with self-importance, the words in their mouths a bitter mixture of metropolitan mimicry and parochial carping.

But we were all complicit. We thought we were the same as you. For so long we did not see that we could be different.

No one thought that it would be artists who would lead The Great Change. As a group they were so insignificant, so invisible in almost every way. But it is more than that. The artists embodied the schism at the heart of our existence. They played out the pantomime of a polarised psyche. On the one hand like ostriches, their heads thrust in holes, mumbling small-minded resentments, unaware they were the authors of their own irrelevance. On the other, desperate to be the grist for the mill of consensus, painfully longing to be tossed some minor part in the circus of social positioning that was the metropolitan art world. In many ways they were the worst of us. Fawners and fools. And those that fed off them - the critics, the curators - were no better. They should have been ignored.

But they were not. Somewhere in the heart of The Bureaucracy lay a fear. An old fear that the creative spirit was inseparable from the critical mind, that their very nature questioned the norm. The fear fed a need - the need to pacify all that stood outside of the project of The Centre. And The Bureaucracy thought it had found the weapon to neutralise what they feared. They would flatter the artists and the writers. They would sing them songs of expertise and commitment. They would teach them how they could become Professionals.

For we were almost all Professionals then. At one time people had talked of ‘the professions’ and when they did so they described the heart of the establishment - the church, medicine and law. But that was a very long time ago. The Centre saw economic and social structures shift and stretch and so they bent them into new shapes and curled language around them. They expanded the idea of the professions and in doing so they pulled more and more towards themselves. The Centre grew and most of all it grew in our minds. They told us many things were as vocational, as specialised, as the original professions. They allowed the boundaries between expertise, commitment, success and renown to blur as if they all described the same value until you could be a Professional no matter what you did to earn a living. We all strove to be Professionals and in doing so we all became the same. We all subscribed to the project of The Centre.

So they taught the artists and the writers and the curators to be Professionals too. They taught them The Rules. They taught them how what they made and what they said and where it was seen and who it was seen by would influence how professional they would be. They taught them to be fluent in the mechanisms that would impact on the advancement of their careers. They taught them about the systems of endorsement and the hierarchies of interest.

And Oh, how clever they were. They had anticipated the flaw in their own project, and had moulded its language to conceal it! For the expertise and commitment of the Professional had always been remunerated and The Centre knew that there were few places at the table for the artists that would serve up anything other than words. Would they earn their livings from their expertise and commitment? A few perhaps, but only a few. Like a reverse miracle, the 5000 would sit down to eat and find the expected feast transformed into a few crumbs. So what did they do? They persuaded us that we lived off words! Off promises of what might come! So we sat down at their table and were happy! We became adept at turning crumbs into feasts! We garnished crumbs with possibilities! We even learned to grow them ourselves!

Oh, how well they understood who we were. They knew that we had yet to realise that we could be different. We looked at them and saw ourselves, only better. We looked at them and understood the way things worked and that it was only our failings that held us back. We were complicit in the consensus of aspiration. The ambition to emulate spread like a disease. We wanted to be them - to aspire to their goals, to be ratified by their systems of endorsement, to be public in their arenas and in their ways. And with consensus came disempowerment. It was not that the synchronisation of desire breed a lack of belief in the possibility of alternatives, it was that there soon became no need for alternatives.

The consensus took firm hold. It was the way out of our inadequacy and our irrelevance. We had been shown how we could be like them, how we too could join The Centre. The Centre was in our minds, all we had to do was think it to be it! And so we did. Soon The Regions were spotted all over with little outposts of faux-metropolitan artistic activity. The bastions of provincial artistic authority (that were nothing but colonial outposts in which metropolitan art was wheeled before the ignorant of The Regions for our education and edification) were now joined by all manner of makeshift organisations, loose groupings and solitary endeavours. In Newcastle, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol artists colonised unwanted spaces or displaced their own homes to enact plays of presentation, professionalism and possibility. With every new exhibition consensus grew stronger. And so The Centre would throw out another titbit to some fortunate believer and the artists and their circle saw that all the promises were true!

So how did it change? And when did it happen? No one can really say, because on the surface nothing seemed to be different. The activities of the artists still played out the consensus of aspiration, the balance of power did not appear to shift. But somewhere, somehow, the slow birth of The Alternatives took place. Slowly within the continuation of the structure the artists had been taught to reproduce the germs of contagion began to spread. Many amongst us have longed to link The Great Change to one story, to find a hero and a myth for the beginning. Some say that it started with a single artist, one who had found his way to a few more crumbs than most and would be paraded at the London soirees like a pet by his sponsors. Some say that the artist was asked where he came from by a powerful patron. The artist was wily and had noticed the patron’s tone of voice. He had realised the patron knew very well that he came from The Regions and that he was expected to provide the punch line to the patron’s joke. Some say that when the artist mouthed the insult ‘The Sticks’ he was demonstrating his awareness of his position within the joke, and in doing so staking the first claim for a new self-consciousness. Others say it was simply defiance - the first, solitary call to arms that would start a chain reaction of empowerment that became unstoppable.

There is little doubt the story is apocryphal. Few historians believe The Great Change can be attributed to the actions of a single individual. Instead they chart the incremental shift of attitudes and action. They describe the slow emergence of alternate models to that of Professionalism - the voices that began to quietly draw attention to philosophies of Play, or who excavated the original definition of The Amateur, or who defined the value of The Periphery and spread them bit by bit amongst their peers. They spell out how it was the young who began to see parallels to their own situation in the great struggles enacted by those oppressed for their ethnicity and sexuality. Of how our children learnt the strategies used by black and gay to slowly fill the container of their oppressors culture with their own content. They tell us how the container then became a crucible in which attitudes turned to form and broke the old mould asunder.

The metropolitan classes looked from The Centre and thought nothing had changed. And then it was too late. They had let us eat the scraps from their table but when they looked again they saw Barbarians within their gates! Like a fifth column we moved meekly amongst you until the tipping point and then before your very eyes we seized the reigns of power! We mimicked your structures but had discovered our own values, and in your complacency and your conceit you did not see we had made a trojan horse for you! You realised too late. One day you looked into the faces of your children and you saw our eyes! You had thought the new language was at most a pressure valve, more likely an ironic acknowledgement of the structures of power. But your children thought they were being told how the consensus had been renewed! They ran to us, desperate for the embrace of The Regions! Their pale bodies were born of The Centre but their hearts longed for the validation of The Sticks! Willingly they handed us their minds! It was our beginning and your end....

Simon Morrissey is a curator and writer on contemporary art. He is Senior lecturer in Fine Art at Bristol School of Art, Media & Design, UWE.
© Simon Morrissey, 2005

 

 

Not for Sale

With the faded glamour of a seaside town out of season, the marketplace of a run-down shopping centre, where mass-produced objects are circulated at knock-down prices, is far removed from the designer accessories and high-end customised vehicles of the wealthy.1 By contrast, the marketplace for art has long been exalted as a glittering, rarefied place, its allure reserved for the privileged consumers of luxury goods. The evangelists of the art market charge artists with the project of customisation.2 They celebrate the exclusivity of art objects and the libidinous freedom that their acquisition entails. They describe ‘a mythic image of the market system which transforms the greed that drives capitalist accumulation into desire; a natural and even emancipatory component of human subjectivity’.3 Champions of the private market deride those who seek to protect art from market forces and its stalwart public defenders would seem to concur.4

Commissioned by Arts Council England, a new report underlines the assimilation of public into private by unequivocally placing the flourishing private market at the centre of the art system and examining how that market could be better exploited, identifying a further 6.1 million potential collectors of contemporary art, whereby: Under the jurisdiction of the state, the burden of provision, valorisation and autonomy is moved onto a carefully modelled, differentiated social system in which the relationship between individual artist and educated consumers moves to the centre ground. 5 Placing ‘special emphasis on the sales of ‘cutting edge’ contemporary work, which is critically engaged’ the report identifies ‘subscription […] the process by which art is filtered and legitimised’ thus: Networks of art world professionals, including academics, curators, dealers, critics, artists and buyers, provide advocacy and endorsement for an artist’s work through exhibitions, critical appraisal and private and public purchases. The value of an artist’s work increases in direct proportion to the subscription it attracts and sustains.6 All activities, therefore, in what has been regarded as the public sphere – from art school and artist-led activity to public gallery – are rendered subordinate to the market. This move is part of the steady erosion of distinction between public and private interests, within the art microcosm as elsewhere, with a mesh of interweaving solidarities ensuring that there is an ongoing symbiosis between the two realms. By potentially finding a private home for even the most contentious artwork, it could be assumed that Arts Council England is pre-emptively exempting itself from support.

To fast forward into the near future and examine the effect of diminishing public subsidy, we need only to look across the Atlantic, where the institutions of art rely for their survival on savvy dealings with corporate sponsors and tax breaks for wealthy patrons and the success of art is evaluated entirely according to its commercial value. Interestingly, it was in New York, primarily through the activities of the Art Workers’ Coalition in the late 1960s, that artists first attempted to protect their work from a deregulated art market.7 Rather than refusing to sell their work, artists sought to control the terms of the sale, which gave rise to the Artists’ Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement in 1969. Contemporaneously, the collector was identified as ‘someone who enters into a conspiracy with the artist that is beyond the issue of accessibility, an agreement that the sensibility is an important one’.8 Complicity with the market is thereby legitimised through a relationship, presumably developed over time, with an idealised patron who seems to fully understand the artist’s intentions and regard them as paramount. However, this delicate relationship is only sustainable for as long as dedicated collectors of an artist’s work are nurtured.

Traditionally, when art has entered the public arena of privatised space, it has done so through infinite mechanical reproductions,9 in the proportions of the Renaissance, the watery shades of the Impressionists and the chocolate-box Vettriano. Flat and lifeless, shopping centre modernism never reaches beyond the masculine confines of abstract painting, with allusions to the current rendered safe in unknown hands, never more challenging than an Escher print. Occasionally, contemporary art finds its way into the empty spaces of faltering shopping environments through the live presence of artists. Regular visitors idly watch the animated negotiations of creatures in a vitrine, charting the progression of days as something is created, and then destroyed, for their amusement. Happy of the distraction, the brief rupture in the space-time of consumption, someone will eventually venture across the threshold. Unencumbered by protocol, children are the pioneers, chasing curiosity as reluctant parents watch them relate to objects in new ways. For others, primed for acquisitiveness, encountering the sparseness of art in retail territory does not compute. Resenting the intrusion, they scuttle past, hoping that something approaching shop fitting will be in place by the time they return. It is the feeling of disjunction that gives art its meaning in this context. By defining itself primarily through its proximity to all that it is not, art draws attention to everything around it. But, as art and commerce are compelled to coincide, this equilibrium may not be maintained for much longer. If the predictions come true, the division between contemporary art and commerce will dissolve and anonymous collectors multiply exponentially. Far from an egalitarian attempt to bring contentious art to a new public, this will force the audience to recalibrate and view art only in terms of its potential to be possessed. Art-commerce will be distinguishable from arch-commerce only through its inability to compete. By staging art in the heart of consumption, the Clean Collective are making a last stand, twisting subscription and enabling art to sit below the commercial radar for a bit longer. This gesture would seem to be a portent of what is to come, the calm before the storm.

Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt is a writer and co-founder of salon3 (based in Elephant & Castle Shopping Centre 1998-2000).

Footnotes

1 For a thorough consideration of shopping centres, see Miller et al. eds Shopping, Place and Identiy (London & New York: Routledge, 1998) and Koolhaas et al. eds The Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping (Köln: Taschen, 2001) which begins ‘Shopping is arguably the last remaining form of public activity’.
2 See Dave Hickey, ‘The Birth of the Big, Beautiful Art Market’ in Air Guitar: Essays on At and Democracy (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1997).’
3 See Grant Kester, ‘The world he has lost: Dave Hickey’s beauty treatment’ in Variant, Volume 2, number 18, autumn 2003, pp. 11-12.
4 See Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Taste Buds: How to cultivate the art market (London: Arts Council England, October, 2004). (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/information/publication_detail.php?browse=recent&id=416). This move has been paralleled by Arts Council England funding being frozen, which represents a shortfall of £30 million over the next few years, the Welsh Arts Council being scrapped in favour of centralised control and the Scottish Executive undergoing a major review of its cultural provision that is likely to see the replacement of the Arts Council with local and/or central control.
5 See Anthony Davies in ‘Basic Instinct: Trauma and Retrenchment 2000-04’ in Mute, issue 29, Winter 2004 which identifies the emergence of a New Art Consumer:
6 Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, Taste Buds: How to cultivate the art market (London: Arts Council England, October, 2004), p. 3. (http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/information/publication_detail.php?browse=recent&id=416)
7 See Andrea Fraser, ‘What’s intangible, transitory, immediate, participatory and rendered in the public sphere? Part II: A Critique of Artistic Autonomy’ (see http://home.att.net/~artarchives/frasercritique.html).
8 Douglas Huebler, Prospect ’69 (Düsseldorf: Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, 1969), p. 26.
9 See www.artretail.com and www.athenaonline.co.uk