PRINT October 2011

On Site

the Piccadilly Community Centre

Participants in the “Latin Elders party” at the Piccadilly Community Centre, London, July 2011.

THIS SUMMER, a fully functioning community center operated from Hauser & Wirth’s landmarked premises in the heart of London. There was a cafeteria on the ground floor, a bar and disco in the basement, a space for dancing and music on the second level, and, on the third, a thrift store run by a charity for the blind. Smaller rooms were dedicated to computer classes, prayer, and counseling; there was also a locker room and a gym. The larger spaces were in more or less continuous use. One day in July you could learn about international letter writing at ten before participating in “Knit N Knatter” at eleven, engaging in “Biodanza” (a blissed-out, new age form of contact dancing) at midday, and taking part in “Renaissance Fencing” at five. Another day’s sessions were devoted to time banking, face painting, antenatal yoga, Hula-Hooping, Algerian baking, a tea dance, and aromatherapy. All of these events were organized by volunteers from community organizations that, as someone from a branch of the Women’s Institute explained to me, found the offer of a central location for free too good to turn down.

Not everybody seemed to know or particularly care that the Piccadilly Community Centre (PCC) was also a 2011 installation—or, technically, “project initiated”—by Swiss artist Christoph Büchel. The artist and the gallery had gone to great lengths to disguise this fact: If you hadn’t been to the space before, you wouldn’t have realized that the entire second floor had been built for the project. The fiction continued beyond the installation itself. The gallery’s own signage had been removed, and all official notices for the exhibition replaced the artist’s name with PICCADILLY COMMUNITY CENTRE. Hauser & Wirth’s website referred its visitors to the PCC’s site, which was a perfectly conceived digital counterpart of the installation itself, with appropriately lo-fi, garish graphic design under the slogan SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE. That the PCC was understood by many as an artwork at all proved the point that a century on from Duchamp’s invention of the readymade, artists no longer need rely on the art system’s visible syntax to transubstantiate bits of life into art; as Andrea Fraser has argued, the institution of art lives immaterially in the heads of anyone who recognizes it.

With the PCC, Büchel pushed this principle to the limit. His main means of doing so were the community center’s users; the apparent ignorance of many of those taking part in the events on offer was indispensable to the work’s reality effect. Some critics had remarked that the verisimilitude of Büchel’s previous tour de force in London—Simply Botiful, 2006, which appeared to be a black-economy recycling plant and sex hotel—was undermined by frequent encounters with fellow denizens of the art world rather than with the space’s implied laborers and occupants. As if in response to this, the PCC was fully functioning: People used it to eat for free, to clothe themselves cheaply, to pursue sociable hobbies, and to acquire life skills.

The Piccadilly Community Centre had a double ontology. This was its conceptual achievement: It was an artwork that didn’t negate its reality as a working community center. But this meant that, despite the variety of activities taking place within it, there were two distinct categories of visitors: community-center users and art viewers. The former inevitably—and sometimes uncomfortably—became the objects of the latter’s spectatorship. This hierarchical distinction, moreover, coincided with and was expressive of a socioeconomic divide. Many of those using the installation as a genuine community center were obviously among society’s most vulnerable and least visible: first-generation immigrants, the poor, the old, and the infirm. When the center was in full swing, however, gallerygoers found themselves in the minority, which curiously made the project’s conditions of reception as artwork virtually nonexistent.

Somewhat jarringly, one of the nonprofits operating within the PCC, right across from the Geranium Shop for the Blind, was the Conservative Party Archive, a rather triumphalist display of Tory advertising and propaganda. It was through this allusion to the recently installed ruling party and its reactionary genealogy that the installation potentially began to acquire real political and ethical purchase. Prime Minister David Cameron has promoted the idea of the “Big Society,” which many on the left suspect is a smoke screen for the Conservative Party’s hope that volunteers will replace public-sector workers made redundant by government cuts. Ironically, however, government funding of voluntary and community organizations will itself be cut by an estimated three billion pounds over the next five years. Indeed, some of the people such groups serve surely made up a large part of Hauser & Wirth’s atypical public this summer.

Büchel’s community center included a few hidden and unoccupied spaces of the kind familiar from his other installations. One resembled a room in a squatted house, which you had to access from a ladder through the tiniest of apertures. The scene was one of superficial rebellion and absolute squalor. A lone Socialist Worker poster advocating unity in the face of cuts was crowded out by hackneyed rock posters: Hendrix, Marley, Bowie, the Sex Pistols. The floor was littered with soiled mattresses, beer cans, fast-food detritus, and a foul toilet. Büchel’s image of opposition in this part of the installation was unfortunately as clichéd, in its own way, as the Conservative Party Archive. The Piccadilly Community Centre was an extraordinary installation, but like the mainstream media’s response to this summer’s riots, it was ultimately far from rising to the social and political challenges facing Britain today.

Alex Farquharson is director of Nottingham Contemporary in the UK.