Cornford & Cross

In the past, Matthew Cornford and David Cross have ironized their corporatesounding nom de guerre by using a business card that reads “Cornford & Cross: Problems Solved.” “Problems Generated” would be nearer the mark, and their first London solo show (an overdue event, given the scope and ingenuity of their work since 1996) featured eight project proposals their prospective patrons judged too problematic to realize. They include plans to deposit a severed chunk of oil pipeline somewhere in Afghanistan (The Treason of Images, 2001/2002); to erect a section of highway overpass in London’s Green Park (This England, 1998/2002); to half-sink an industrial chimney in a Midlands reservoir (Coming up for air, 2001); to ferry Liverpool Biennial visitors around that city inside the contemporary, privatized equivalent of a Black Maria (The End of Art Theory, 2001/2002); and to fly the flags of three nations ostracized by UK diplomacy—Taiwan, Bhutan, and, of course, Iraq—from the dignified roof of Liverpool’s Cunard building (The Ambassadors, 2001/2002).

These thumbnail descriptions suggest a practice founded on the supposedly obsolete avant-garde strategies of provocation and transgression. Via their completed projects, Cornford & Cross have indeed earned their share of spluttering news headlines, and it’s easy to imagine, say, the 2002 Liverpool Biennial selectors quailing at having to go through the public-relations acrobatics the civic display of an Iraqi flag would have demanded. But if this is a nostalgia trip, it’s an entirely self-conscious one. For example, the artists summarize Avant Garde, 1997/2002—a proposal to reproduce a 1964 photo of overheated mods and rockers mistreating deck chairs as a giant billboard on the Brighton seafront—as “an official commission which aestheticizes youthful rebellion” and “an example of recuperation, the process by which the social order is maintained.” The term avant-garde, their proposal intones owlishly, “became widely used to describe anything fashionable . . . [then] reached exhaustion and fell out of contemporary use.”

At one level, the show probed the commissioning bodies’ requirement that artists speak an officially acceptable language of “dissent” in order to win support for their work. Cornford & Cross are expert at composing critically fluent mission statements; arguably, their core activity is not making objects or negotiating opportunities but skillfully generating and controlling discourse about their projects (via written statements, catalogue essays, discussions, and so on)—winning consensus that a work genuinely “deals with” (in that exasperating phrase) its stated agendas. But the irony is that none of this show’s projects actually hit the funding jackpot. Cornford & Cross’s rubrics, always clever, are sometimes just too corrosively, nastily cynical for selection committees to stomach. A good example is Painting as a Pastime, 2001/2002, a proposal to organize an open-submission landscape-painting competition in the grounds of a stately home. A panel of celebrity pundits would award a prize of ten thousand pounds. The title, invoking Winston Churchill’s 1932 bible of Sunday painting, flags the project’s covertly facetious challenge to its shortlisters’ liberalism.

This reading shunts Cornford & Cross’s work into another supposed cul-de- sac; the practices that have come to be called institutional critique. Yet maybe the problem here is not the work but the globalizing critical discourses that discount this or any transgressive gesture as modus operandi. Generalizing post-avant-garde or “postideological” arguments makes a blanket assumption that transgression and institutional critique do no more than nourish the systems they try to attack. The controlled but evident anger in this work, however, articulates a specific local mood: the bitterness of a UK generation who feel themselves stripped of real democratic rights and seemingly attainable political dreams. This mood demands and deserves expression, and Cornford & Cross prove that allegedly obsolete tactics do the job pretty well.

—Rachel Withers