PRINT December 2008

Emily Pethick

“NOTHING BETTER THAN a touch of ecology and catastrophe to unite the social classes.” This acerbic sentiment—which served as the subtitle of Martin Beck’s autumn show, “Panel 2,” at South London’s nonprofit art space Gasworks—seems quite timely as the ice caps and the markets melt down simultaneously. But in fact the words were written almost forty years ago: The line comes from the 1970 text “The Environmental Witch-Hunt,” by the prescient Jean Baudrillard. While this early critique of capitalism and green ideology (“a Utopia produced by a capitalist system that assumes the appearance of a second nature”) may feel current to contemporary readers, to many who heard it at the 1970 International Design Conference in Aspen, Colorado, it probably just seemed obnoxious. At the time, the IDCA was a prestigious platform for exchange among designers, architects, and industry research-and-development types. The 1970 edition included a younger generation of overtly political practitioners, many of whom, such as Ant Farm and the Moving Group, came from Berkeley, California. There was also a special delegation from France, the French Group, of which Baudrillard was a member. While tension between the establishment (modernists such as George Nelson and Saul Bass) and the hippies led to explosive ideological conflict—particularly when the latter tried to set up experimental theater sets and discussions outside the main conference—the French Group introduced another layer of critique, aimed at both sides. Their statement addressed what they saw as the conference’s embrace of ecological issues, which they perceived as a transparent suppression of the more urgent topics of class discrimination and war. The result was a powerful three-way clash of ideas about design and how it might or might not serve to activate change.

In Beck’s show, archival highlights of this face-off (from Eli Noyes and Claudia Weill’s 1970 documentary IDCA 70, screened here for the first time) were shown on a monitor, and additional documentation provided background for a new video by the artist. Titled after Baudrillard’s text, the work follows a small group of people in contemporary attire who clamber through a Colorado aspen forest, carrying folding tables and chairs. Eventually, they assemble in a grove, where they rehearse Baudrillard’s statement and present it to one another. Sound bites filter through the rustling leaves, creating an anachronistic allegory of political agency in which what is outside (out of doors, “out of” discourse) cannot be assimilated. As writer and artist Kodwo Eshun described it in a talk about the show, in homing in on this particular crisis, the artist highlights a moment when a number of possible futures were in play, one of which we now inhabit.

The exhibition, centered on a manifesto that created a small but irreparable rupture between the cultural/institutional (the IDCA) and the commercial (the corporations scouting the conference), in some ways reflects a key aspect of the current state of affairs in London, which also feels as if it is at a turning point. While the economy is collapsing around us, institutions (of all kinds) are in the process of inventing new structures, exposing the fault lines and frictions between what can and what cannot be institutionally contained. In this context, the need for spaces for open thinking, questioning, criticality, exchange, experimentation, and different positions is perhaps more acute than ever.

But before considering that further, it’s worth looking more closely at the existing structures. Certainly in many respects culture and the economy are not growing any less intertwined. In the run-up to the crash, the bubble of unbridled market confidence was mirrored in the continued expansions of public and private art institutions in London. The Whitechapel plans to nearly double in size next year, taking over the former library next to it; the South London Gallery is expanding into a neighboring house; Tate Modern is working on a Herzog & de Meuron extension. In addition, private exhibition spaces, such as Anita Zabludowicz’s 176, have opened, and commercial galleries have continued to multiply, many with larger and, in some cases, additional spaces, such as Sadie Coles’s second space in Mayfair, and Hotel’s imminent expansion to a new space in Whitechapel in the East End.

Another noteworthy work from this year, Anja Kirschner and David Panos’s film Trail of the Spider, dramatizes this situation, appropriating the western genre to take on the overheated property market that has gripped the East End in the past few years. Depicting the area as a “vanishing frontier,” the film follows a lone gunman as he makes his way through confrontations with corrupt surveyors, lawmen, and thugs to avenge the dispossessed. A parallel narrative details the suppressed racial history of the American West (where one in three cowboys was African-American or Hispanic), underscoring the gunman’s status as a character who remains on the outside and resists co-option. But primarily, the film is set against the barren marshes and wastelands of East London and the gravel pits of the 2012 London Olympics construction site. These are transformed into epic panoramas with the help of special effects, their vastness somehow only emphasizing what would seem to be Kirschner and Panos’s real theme: the shrinking space for social and political agency in the face of an increasingly privatized public sphere.

ADDRESSING THE CRASH ITSELF, instead of the real estate boom that preceded it, was London artist Melanie Gilligan, whose online video work Crisis in the Credit System, 2008, is a wry take on the dark side of banking. In London, as elsewhere, the extent of the crisis’s impact is hard to predict. But particularly considering that it now appears that the lion’s share of public money is being used to prop up banks and to finance construction for the Olympics, not to mention the increases in national debt, there’s no doubt that there will be some impact. Cultural and institutional forms will surely be reconfigured by the economic foment. But here it’s a good idea to recall the skepticism of “The Environmental Witch-Hunt.” As Baudrillard observes, in the decades following “the great 1929 crisis,” “the capitalist system succeeded in reviving production and in restructuring itself by means of an immense injection of publicity, of services, of public relations into consumerism, enterprises, and social life.” In other words, there’s no guarantee that these new forms will work against the increasing imbrication of art and economy; on the contrary, another “restructuring” of capitalism in the wake of the great 2008 crisis may have the opposite effect. With this in mind, the search for forms of speculation, risk, and uncertainty that are not linked to capital seems that much more essential.

There are promising developments in this vein in London’s nonprofit arena, where a gradual reshuffling of directors and curators—Bart van der Heide at Cubitt, Polly Staple at the Chisenhale Gallery, Anna Colin at Gasworks, and Sarah McCrory (joining Joe Scotland) at Studio Voltaire, to name a few—has helped create a fresh diversity of voices, positions, and approaches. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I was also appointed director of a nonprofit London art space, the Showroom, this year.) In addition, self-sustaining independent spaces like FormContent in Hackney and Between Bridges, Wolfgang Tillmans’s project space, consistently focus on practices otherwise underrepresented in London.

Accompanying this search for distinct artistic voices is an impulse to carve out space for conversation and connectivity. In recent years, London’s most concentrated discursive spaces, online and otherwise, have been created by independent, self-organized networks taking shape around such initiatives as Mute magazine and the collectives Public Works and Micropolitics Research Group, all of which have built strong constituencies. This year, Mute responded to the financial crisis with a series of discussions on the economy, including a debate at the annual Anarchist Book Fair. Public Works (run by Kathrin Böhm, Sandra Denicke-Polcher, Torange Khonsari, and Andreas Lang) has been hosting informal weekly talks and presentations on themes ranging from feminism to “how vermin are shaping our future cities.” And the Micropolitics Research Group (founded by artist Susan Kelly and curator Janna Graham) organized an “urban drift” with Brian Holmes, as well as a series of events on “Pimping and Counter-Pimping,” with cultural critic Suely Rolnik. Within academia, other sites of critical reflection and exchange have emerged. At Goldsmiths, two practice- based Ph.D. courses—Eyal Weizman’s Roundtable: Research Architecture and Irit Rogoff and Jean-Paul Martinon’s Curatorial / Knowledge—have become meeting points for researchers from different backgrounds and disciplines.

Paralleling these initiatives were curatorial projects that brought practice and discourse into closer proximity. The arts agency LUX has pursued this course both through the development of a new associate-artist program, led by curator and artist Ian White, and through its opening of a temporary exhibition space as the fulcrum of a yearlong investigation into the production and reception of artists’ films and videos. Here in particular, Gregg Bordowitz’s June reading of parts of his then-unfinished Volition (to be published this spring by Printed Matter) gave voice to a refreshingly speculative and compelling torrent of questions that appeared to reflexively invoke one another. His text opened up a thought process that resisted resolution and foreclosure, exposing conflicting impulses and contradictions, and offering a suspended form of doubt as a space of potentiality: “What if I disregard any topography—in or out, up or down, before or after? Is this possible? Is this desirable? Is this my end or can I return?” “Am I a means to an end that exceeds the totality of my senses—a sum that’s never totaled?” “How does a question exist apart from its source? What is the source of any question? Certainly not the person who poses it?”

A reflexive approach to practice as an evolutionary, open-ended process was evident, too, in van der Heide’s programming at Cubitt, where many of his events fed into and reflected back on one another. The June program “Seven Times Two or Three/On and Beneath Communication” arose from discussions between van der Heide and Netherlands-based curator Binna Choi around Haegue Yang’s 2008 exhibition at Cubitt, “Lethal Love” (also a particular highlight of the year), provoking a series of installations, presentations, performances, and dialogues that developed over the course of a week. These varied activities aimed to explore miscommunication and what the curators called dysfunctional time, and to question the contemporary tendency toward information overload. (The press release dispiritingly cited the average person’s expenditure of “3.5 years of his/her life answering irrelevant emails.”) Jan Verwoert’s lecture “Exhaustion & Exuberance,” first published in Dot Dot Dot, critiqued high-performance culture and its creation of unsustainable, exhausting forms of overperformance. “Living this life of high performance,” Verwoert notes,

we are constantly facing two questions: “Are we (still) in charge?” and: “Are we (still) happy?” They are the questions of agency and the good life, and both are implied in the first question of political ethics: “How can we know what would be the right thing to do to make a better life possible for ourselves and others, now and in the future?”

His articulation of the politics of high-performance time was countered by a public reading of Mladen Stilinović’s text “In Praise of Laziness,” by Frieze online editor Sam Thorne, in which the artist describes the slowness of the Eastern European way of doing things, declaring, “Laziness is the absence of movement and thought, dumb time—total amnesia. . . . It is sheer stupidity, a time of pain, futile concentration.” The Eastern European approach was not the order of the week at Cubitt, where there was an intensive schedule of three to four events per day. By assembling these conflicting ideas and actually testing them out (one had to be high performance to keep up), the program let subtle, layered content take shape gradually, and allowed practices and ideas to lead the investigation in different directions.

ONE DEVELOPMENT that seemed to symbolize the changes in the London landscape with particular clarity was the replacement of the defunct Beck’s Futures prize for young artists with Mark Sladen and Richard Birkett’s “Nought to Sixty” at the Institute of Contemporary Art. In contrast to Beck’s Futures, a conventional prize, “Nought to Sixty” aimed to profile avenues of exchange among artists and artists’ groups outside the commercial mainstream. More distributed and inclusive than Beck’s Futures, the program helped build a community of mostly young artists, with music events, performances, and discussions. Like Cubitt’s “Seven Times Two or Three . . . ,” Sladen and Birkett’s endeavor was rooted in the idea of the one-week exhibition—except that instead of just a single week, “Nought to Sixty” presented a series of seven-day programs that unfolded over six frenetic months.

Many of the participants (among them, Kirschner and Panos with Trail of the Spider) enjoyed the freedom of a fleeting slot in the galleries. But one couldn’t help noticing that the program imposed a set of institutional parameters that militated for a relationship between artist and institution—essentially, one in which the institution hosts and frames practice rather than allowing itself to be led or transformed by it—different from the one evinced in the ICA’s earlier years: Founded in 1947, the institute was conceived as a discursive laboratory where artists, writers, and scientists could debate ideas outside the traditionalist confines of the Royal Academy. A sense that there has been a shift was somewhat self-reflexively addressed in a series of monthly commissioned essays by writers and critics, which produced an ongoing discussion around institutionalism, criticality, and the trope of the “emerging artist.” JJ Charlesworth remarked on the fact that “artists only emerge when institutions allow them to,” and Paul O’Neill and Mick Wilson made reference to Raymond Williams’s use of the term emergence as “the site of dialectical opposition to the dominant—the promise of overcoming, transgressing, evading, renegotiating or bypassing the dominant.” While the varied program had numerous highlights, including artist/designer Will Holder’s event celebrating Marcel Duchamp’s birthday, and Duncan Campbell’s new film Sigmar, it was hard to trace this kind of emergence at the ICA. Sarah Pierce’s essay “We Spoke About Hippies” perhaps got to the heart of the conundrum, rather poignantly articulating the difficulties institutions have with addressing forms of (un)certainty, and noting that “institutional work requires us to project a level of certitude, despite our doubts about how to proceed.”

Pierce’s accompanying one-week exhibition echoed the tensions between institutions and practices that do not assimilate themselves easily into the institutional context. She presented a display of material from the ICA’s archive that made visible the institute’s engagement with radical practices, in shows like “When Attitudes Become Form” (1969) and in the 1978 conference “The State of British Art,” where the professionalization of artists and the relationships between art and society were debated. Pierce connected these legacies to contemporary debates around artmaking and organization on different levels, displaying the practical apparatus of institutional organization, such as pedestals, vitrines, and archival documents. The broader concerns of political organization, protest, and teaching were foregrounded through documentation and audio interviews. These were accompanied by a video of a workshop led by Pierce in which participants acted out gestures from various political demonstrations, looking at the different ways in which protest is legible. The absence of solidarity or common cause among the participants was conspicuous, but was countervailed by the enjoyment of taking part, and by the inhabitation of certain gestures in temporary moments of togetherness.

TOWARD YEAR’S END, the Serpentine Gallery’s Manifesto Marathon resurrected another typology of protest. The marathon took place in the gallery’s Frank Gehry–designed pavilion over two days in October, during the Frieze Art Fair, and drew on the Serpentine’s proximity to the original Speakers’ Corner, England’s first formalized free-speech zone, situated on the other side of Hyde Park. More than fifty people, including Stephen Willats, the Otolith Group, Karl Holmqvist, Marina Abramović, Vivienne Westwood, and Jonas Mekas, performed personal manifestos, the multiple voices creating a cacophony of issues, one after the other. The playfulness of many of the individual takes on this mode of declaration and uninhibited speaking was undeniable and, like the workshop, enjoyable, yet these qualities overrode any clear set of principles or sense of urgency. The more analytic takes of Charles Jencks and Eric Hobsbawm reflected this. The two historians lamented the replacement of the manifesto by a now-ubiquitous form, the mission statement; Hobsbawm also pointed out that manifestos were once group statements but now tend to be individualistic. One striking moment, perhaps underscoring some of Jencks’s and Hobsbawm’s qualms, occurred when artist K8 Hardy derided the event’s pricing of free speech with a twenty-pound entrance fee. She proceeded to pull down the red rope barriers that were manned by security guards at each end of the pavilion, creating a brief moment of openness—before the barriers were reassembled during the break. This could be described as a case of what the Micropolitics Research Group terms “content without consequence.”

Or, as one rebel designer from Aspen declared, “Nothing is real unless you do something about it.” Looking back at the footage from the Aspen conference in IDCA 70, one feels the tension between the optimism and the energy that is generated by a space of appearance. As Eshun said, the conference could have gone in any direction, yet it is clear that the designers gradually realized that what they were facing was too big to negotiate. At one point, designer Jivan Tabibian declared that “if everyone sign[s] the petition . . . it will have absolutely no effect on anybody.” London itself often seems too big to negotiate: While the city’s sheer scale produces many different constituencies and microsites of activity, these often remain on the peripheries, within their own spheres. But when these spheres do interconnect or interpenetrate, the frictions, tensions, agitations, disturbances, and uncertainties that are produced have the potential to create different kinds of change. Finally, as Pierce remarked at the ICA (taking up an idea put forward by Liam Gillick), “In taking account, we circumvent what is at stake: other discussions, elsewhere.” Even if, in attempting to account for London’s year in art, one inevitably circumvents what is at stake, hopefully that very circumvention helps delineate what is most crucial—those other discussions and those elsewheres.

Emily Pethick is director of The Showroom, London.