Aims without Objectives: Artist Placement Group and The Potential of Uncertain Outcomes
As public funding for the arts in the UK becomes increasingly vulnerable to Neoliberal attitudes, the demand for tangible, and what are seen to be ‘successful’, outcomes are ever more necessary to determine at proposal stage in order to secure funding. In this essay, I pose the question of whether funding predominantly projects where the outcomes are outlined, predictable and easily achievable is the best investment strategy in the long-run.
If it is assumed that a key function of contemporary art in an open society is to test concepts, assumptions and boundaries, it can also be argued that it is in the discussion, dialogue and debate produced that the political and social value of art lies. Crucially, these qualities do not only exist in completed works of art, as they were initially conceived. I will explore how projects where outcomes are uncertain, intangible and sometimes unrealised, can have an equal – if not a greater – cultural and social impact than those that are predictable or predefined. The focus of this argument therefore lies in endeavour and process, and crucially positions the evaluation of artistic outcomes within a long-term perspective.
From the 1960s to 1980s, the Artist Placement Group sought to reposition the role of the artist within a wider economic context, through the structure of ‘open brief’ placements for artists within public and private organisations. APG envisioned the artistic presence within these non-art organisations to have a ‘butterfly effect’ across society and into the future. Whilst interest in APG has begun to emerge over the past few years, contextualisation of their practice within social and political theory has been minimal, and perhaps more importantly there has yet to be evaluation of the long-term effects of their work, either by the artists or by others. I will attempt to trace the influence of some of these placements over the past forty years, to propose how our current support of the arts could learn both from the successes and failures of APG’s proposition.
For the ancient Greeks the idea of success was intrinsically linked to the idea of perfection. In such a world view, no idea could be more foreign than that expressed by those dangerous new religions that glorified the potential of the child or the imperfections of a repentant sinner. The shift in values was profound when, suddenly, there was not the ‘finished’ man who was ‘chosen’, but the imperfect disciple – when the sick, the afflicted and children were no longer despised. For us, thousands of years later, the conflicting ideas of ancient Greeks and early Christians operate within us simultaneously rather than sequentially. This should not be possible, but it is. The result is that we sometimes review success as finished perfection – at other times as the perfectibility of growth.
Judgment and Purpose, Joel Fisher (1987)
At what is a crucial moment in the future of arts funding in the UK, when arts funders are reassessing their criteria and new philanthropic strategies are being instigated, this matter is of pressing importance for the future possible contribution of the arts in our society. As public funding for the arts in the UK becomes increasingly tight and ever more vulnerable to Neoliberal attitudes, the role of the producer, their collaborations and the production process is more significant than ever. The demand for tangible, and what are seen to be ‘successful’, outcomes are ever more necessary to determine at proposal stage in order to secure funding. Whilst the need to carefully assess the value of an art project before investing is beyond doubt, in this essay I wish to pose the question of whether funding predominantly projects where the outcomes are outlined, predictable and easily achievable is the best investment strategy in the long-run.
In 1966, seeking to counteract the conception of the of the artist as producer of the luxury object that inevitably marginalised them in society, Barbara Steveni and John Latham established the Artist Placement Group. Along with Barry Flanagan, David Hall, Anna Ridley, Jeffrey Shaw and others, they sought to reposition the role of the artist within a wider economic context, negotiating ‘open brief’ placements for artists within industry and commerce, and later in government departments. APG envisioned the artistic presence within these non-art organisations to have a ‘butterfly effect’ across society and into the future. Whilst interest in APG has begun to emerge over the past few years, contextualization of their practice within social and political theory has been minimal, and perhaps more importantly there has yet to be evaluation of the long-term effects of their work, either by the artists or by others. I will attempt to trace the influence of some of these placements over the past forty years, to propose how our current support of the arts could learn both from the successes and failures of APG’s proposition.
Influenced by his time spent with astrophysicist Professor Clive Gregory, John Latham’s theories around what he termed ‘Time Base’ provided a framework for APG’s central premises. Gregory’s cosmology work, The O Structure, envisioned ‘a conceptual sphere of ultra-vast proportions whose centre represented the primal moment of our universe’2. Latham described this moment as the ‘least event’ and advocated that we consider all dimensions in terms of time rather than physicality; he proposed that by shifting our perception in this way all things are transformed into event- structures. From the point of ‘least event’ radiated a tree of conceptual alternative consequences in all directions, ‘until at the surface of the sphere their accumulated consequences finally represent the current known universe as it now exists’3. For Latham a conical ‘pie slice’ of the sphere, from the edge into the very centre, represented a ‘chunk of space–time’ charting all that had happened previously to get there. This had particular importance when considering artwork; transcending the materialistic conception of art, it recognized the phenomenological experience of the viewer and the temporal character of the creative act.
Latham further developed this into his theory of flat-time, which he illustrated through Time-Base Roller. On a simple roller system, the lateral dimension represented a measurement of the effect of ideas and actions, from the ‘least event’ to infinity, what Latham called the ‘time-base’ of any conceivable event. As the roller winds down, representing the passing of time, the marked events seep through to the reverse of the canvas; traces of history visible from the perspective of the present. By combining the lateral ‘time-base’ and the vertical ‘passing time’ of anything, whether an event, object, person or idea, one produces a rectangular area that represents its existence in time as a totality. It is then possible to conceptually represent and therefore compare absolutely anything within the same frame of reference. For Latham and APG this was crucial as it meant that an almost infinite range of realms could now be compared that couldn’t previously, including the non-verbal, the non-visible, the transcendent, the sonic or even the conceptual and imaginary.
REPOSITIONING THE ROLE OF THE ARTIST
Arguably, since at least the 1840s, artistic trends can be seen to have mirrored changes in the composition of labour.4 On the eve of May ‘68 and the fundamental changes in international economy of the early 1970s, APG both responded to and pre-empted transformations in the power relations of labour in the new post-Fordist condition. Knowledge production and cultural content was emerging as a valuable and sellable commodity; APG sought to establish the artist as a player within this economy of what has since been termed ‘immaterial’ labour and production, which is now so integral to our contemporary context.
During the 1960s, there were a number of artists who, expanding on the ‘arts and technology’ collectives of the previous decade, began to explore the potential of collaborations between art and industry. What differentiated APG from these other practitioners, such as Robert Rauschenberg and scientist Billy Klüver’s Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), was its focus on mutual benefits rather than one of purely artistic development. APG saw that creative thinking would become increasingly important to help industry capitalize on developments in technologies. However, rather than contributing their creative skills to the restrictive roles of industrial or commercial designer, APG placements were offered on the basis of an ‘open brief’, where the artist was not expected to produce tangible outcomes based on an agenda set by the organisation but instead acted as an outside perspective (what APG termed an ‘Incidental Person’). The artist was paid a salary equal to that of other employees by the host organisation and was involved in its day-to-day mechanisms, whilst remaining autonomous in their work there. They hoped that the artist working in the midst of the establishment could act as a catalyst for change, both within the organisation and in society as a whole, by introducing new ideas and viewpoints. Building on the Conceptual Art movement whilst employing the language and administration of the business world, APG pioneered a newly professional and socially responsible role for the artist, steering the focus of their artistic production away from the art object and towards a time-based creative process [Appendix 1].
The concept of process-based art practice was in the air when APG first came together; the following year two seminal texts appeared that continue to have significant influence in art production. John Chandler and Lucy Lippard wrote ‘The Dematerialization of Art’ stating that the intuitive processes of art-making, characteristic of the previous two decades, had ‘begun to give way to an ultra-conceptual art that emphasizes the thinking process almost exclusively’5, later exemplified by works such Robert Smithson’s earth works and the instruction pieces of Robert Barry.
Meanwhile, the revolutionary Situationist International group were encouraging collectively produced ‘situations’. At the time of the May ‘68 revolts, their influence peaked with the publication of Guy Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle. Debord argued that, given the market’s near total saturation of our image repertoire, artistic practice can no longer revolve around the construction of objects to be consumed by a passive bystander. He proposed that, in order to counteract the alienating and divisive effects of capitalism, art must therefore take on an active role in society. In many ways, APG acted as forerunners to artistic practices inspired by Debord and Lippard, which subsequently proliferated throughout the 1990s, under categories such as ‘socially engaged’, ‘relational aesthetics’, ‘dialogical’, and has since become widely theorised as the ‘social turn’ not only in visual arts, but increasingly in diverse fields ranging from theatre and activism to urban planning and health care. As with APG, these art practices, where artists devise social situations as dematerialised, anti-market, politically engaged projects, can be seen to continue the avant-garde ambition of making art a more vital part of life.
Due to the unfaltering determination of Steveni, and despite the complexity of persuading organisations to accept such radical notions, artists were successfully appointed by private companies, and later by government departments. Adopting the language and administrative techniques of the industries they worked with, placements consisted of an initial feasibility study, lasting one or two months, followed by a longer engagement, which constituted !the placement itself, each stage producing a report of the artist’s experience and proposed ideas. Whilst it was left up to the host organisation to adopt these ideas or not, many of the placements illuminated how the artist could act as a catalyst for change within organisational workings and wider society. Take for example three diverse placements: Stuart Brisely’s placement at Hille & Co. Ltd. introduced new communication channels between staff; Roger Coward’s placement with the Department of Health established value of artistic insight and contribution to urban planning; and John Latham’s claim of oil-shale ‘bings’ as time-based monuments during his placement with the Scottish Office has since seen the preservation of others, now acknowledged at both a local and national scale ‘for their contribution to local biodiversity, their historical importance, their education value, their social significance and their recreational function’7 [Appendix 2]. As an outside perspective, naïve to the workings and assumptions of the organisation, the artists acted to influence decisions through accidents, initiatives and discoveries, those interruptions that Foucault has claimed to be the ‘raw material of history’.
The concept of the Incidental Person was completely unique to APG; outside the hierarchy and promotional ladder (and hence could not be subordinate to anyone), they were seen as autonomous from any company or personal agendas. Presented as neutral figures, outside of any power groups within the company, in theory everyone could speak to them freely. They functioned as ‘ubiquitous data-miners of otherwise invisible, suppressed or undervalued information’ and, armed with an unpredictable array of creative skills, were in effect sophisticated ‘Professional Outsiders’, able to give a fresh diagnosis of the company’s short fallings, whether or not it was what the company wanted to hear.9 Causing this interruption was key to the role of the Incidental Person, and was proposed by APG to be of value to both the host companies and to the development of society as a whole.
THE POLITICS OF THE INCIDENTAL PERSON AND THE OPEN BRIEF
Whilst the concept of the ‘open brief’ placement was a groundbreaking one, it was not without its flaws. At a time when the New Left was questioning institutional structure to its core, APG’s proposal to work within these structures, most controversially some of the country’s largest industrial corporations, came under intense scrutiny. Despite John Latham and other APG artists’ personal involvement in the anti-establishment movements of the time10, and the early affiliations of politically engaged artists, such as Gustav Metzger, publically APG maintained that they did not have a political standpoint or any specific social aims. This stance attracted much heated criticism from the politically active art scene of the time. It was also the cause for ongoing unrest among the group itself, most notably resulting in Stewart Brisley leaving the organisation and his public denouncement of the group in Studio International [Appendix 3].
The validity of the Incidental Person came under particular attack. Brisley’s eventual fall out with APG added fuel to Marxist Peter Fuller’s scathing criticism of what he perceived as APG’s naïve claim of the artists’ autonomy within the organisations. Their contractual promise not to harm the host companies prevented the artists’ ability to find fault [Appendix 4]. Furthermore, APG’s premise in securing placements was that artists would take on roles at a management level within the organisations, something that Brisley felt strongly against, preferring to work alongside workers on the factory floor in his placement at Hille. For Fuller, Latham and Steveni’s disinterest in Marx and Trotsky prevented him from taking the organisation seriously, stating ‘one would have thought that for anyone intent on transforming capitalism, and imposing an alternative value structure not based on the commercial premise, or the ‘profit motive,’ at least a minimal knowledge of Marxist theory would have been obligatory’.11 However, APG claimed that their work transcended politics; Latham himself claimed to be beyond party politics seeing it is a ‘form of sectional interest civil war’12.
For APG, political and social objectives were combined into a greater ambition for change that would see larger and lasting effects over a significantly longer time frame. In Latham’s Report and Offer for Sale presented at the Inno70 exhibition at the Hayward Gallery (1971), he proclaimed:
‘It should not be unreasonable to predict that as a result of carefully directed dissemination of the basic concepts, in 20 years some thousands of millions of people will have their lives significantly improved, qualitatively, as compared with their condition today; many major policy-decisions have been altered and innovations introduced of a kind which will be fundamentally democratic on a wider base than is possible under the present short-term considerations of power’
The basis of all APG activities were formed by this concept, aimed at establishing of an influential yet indefinable activity; Brisley described it as ‘an inviolable force capable of transforming the hearts, minds, and practices of individuals, groups, organisations, societies’. The implication was that it would render both capitalist practice and socialist ideals redundant, which were seen by Latham as ‘mere stratified habits of thought that had little to do with change’.
AIMS LACKING EVALUATION
The theoretical basis of APG provided the group with extremely ambitious, universal aims, which both hindered the practical operation of APG and subsequently provoked hostility, as outcomes were not immediately visible. Although the Arts Council played a vital role in supporting APG in its early years, when APG failed to meet ambitious self-set targets, they soon lost credibility and funding was consequently withdrawn; the Arts Council stated that APG was ‘more concerned with social engineering that with straight art’16. Ironically, this has increasingly become the role of the arts in the eye of government.
Latham’s time-base theory provides a visual aide to what APG were trying to achieve, however their disinterest in any other political or cultural theory left them extremely vulnerable to criticism, even dismissal, by their peers. There is no doubt that to have aligned themselves with such strong political views and agendas as other politically and socially engaged artists at the time would have inevitably hindered the possibility of placements, scaring off potential host organisations. For example, after Brisley’s nine month placement with Hille, where he created considerable controversy, the Managing Director, suspicious that APG was an organisation of political activists, proclaimed ‘if a man wants to overthrow the capitalist system I don’t see why, as a capitalist, I should provide him with the money to do it’.17 However, it is nevertheless surprising that there has been such limited re-contextualisation within political theory since, either by APG or by others.
Furthermore, bearing in mind the grand statements made, there has been no attempt to prove the theory over time. Whilst Latham’s claims of such widespread impact within twenty years were seen by many as over ambitious, perhaps even laughable at the time, it is worth reconsidering in retrospect, with the benefit of hindsight to properly evaluate the influences of APG placements. APG’s evaluation of each placement has only ever been reflected on through the final reports written by the artists at the end of their appointment by the organisation. Despite their conviction in the influence of the Incidental Person over the long-term, they failed to build in further evaluation to their working structure. Although some artists maintained an active interest in the following life of their work (most notably Stuart Brisley’s involvement with the on-going social archive he instigated during his placement with the Peterlee Development Corporation in 1976), APG as an organisation abandoned projects once funding for the placement ended, and for most parts took a hands-off approach once the artist was successfully appointed. This was inevitably partly due to lack of administrative resources at the time; their minimal income couldn’t even provide part-time administration. Forty years on it is now difficult to trace these influences, but is nevertheless vital to attempt if APG are to be evaluated against their long-term aims.
It is important to separate the achievements of the placements from Latham’s theories, as these often overshadowed the work of the individual artists. His theory of the least-event wrongly elevates the importance of the artist’s intervention as the starting point for an unfolding future. APG’s basis for establishing the placement structure was their axiom that ‘context is half the work’, however they only took into consideration the current and immediate context, rarely considering the wider history that resulted in it. Whilst this was not necessarily the attitude of each of the individual artist’s approach to their placement, it was nevertheless the way that Latham and Steveni – and therefore official APG publicity – represented the placement structure.
Although Latham’s approach was radical in many ways, it was based on a traditional view of history as linear – with each event consequential on its precursor. Foucault, writing at the same time in France, was proposing a counterpointing view using an analogy of history as sedimentary strata. He proposed that the surface is one of political mobility descending down to the slow movements of ‘material civilisation’, in each lower level the rhythm becoming broader than the previous. Within these rhythms, ruptures, mutations, and transformations can occur, acting as a catalyst for change and re-directing the course of history. Whilst these interruptions can operate both in microscopic or macroscopic scales, and vary considerably in their status and nature, Foucault argues that they ‘suspend the continuous accumulation of knowledge, interrupt its slow development, and force it to enter a new time, cut it off from its empirical origin and its original motivations, cleanse it of its imaginary complicities… towards the search for a new type of rationality and its various effects’18.
Bearing in mind this alternative perspective, the value of the Incidental Person’s presence within an organisation is to create a discontinuity in its history and APG, in theory at least, provided a platform for the generation of these interruptions. Just as those activist artists mentioned in the introduction act as a catalyst for realisations in a public realm, so did the APG artist, as Incidental Person, act within the structure of organisations and institutional operations, capable of both causing a reevaluation of institutional structure through exposure and shock techniques. However, they were also equally capable of creating change through working with the system to gradually influence its course. Although all APG placements have a degree of each of these, perhaps the most distinctive variance can be seen between the two Department of Health and Social Services placements, exemplifying opposite ends of the rhythmic spectrum of APG’s interruptive capability. In 1974, with the support of Tony Benn, the then Secretary of State for Industry, APG were introduced to Barbara Castle, the Secretary of State Health and Social Security, and subsequently embarked on two of the most fruitful placements.
For the first placement, Ian Breakwell was invited, in early 1976, to work with the Personal Social Services and Mental Health Group (Architects Division). As social voyeur, Breakwell maintained throughout his life his Continuous Diary, a daily collage of personal observations, verbal and visual, about every day ‘normal’ behavior, in which he questioned society’s concept of ‘sane reality’. Breakwell’s practice was seen to have a possible relevancy to the attempt to phase out custodial care for the mentally ill within large specialist institutions, in favour of the new Government policy of integrated services. Breakwell commented that ‘as a professional observer of so-called ‘normal’ everyday life it was considered that my involvement as a commentator on everyday ‘abnormal’ life might be illuminating’.
After his initial feasibility study, Breakwell was invited to join a new interdisciplinary team brought together by the DHSS Architect Division. The architects involvement in the development of high security hospitals, had spurred anger over the conditions and attitudes prevailing in these institutions and over years they had become more involved in how the built environment affected the people within it. In response to their frustration that not only the general public, but even members of the medical, architectural and social services professions had no real conception of conditions within the hospital walls, Breakwell suggested that ‘words could only describe so much, and that a visual presentation might be necessary’.20! He joined an environmental psychologist, student nurse and architects, in undertaking a community study of Rampton and Broadmoor psychiatric hospitals. After a period of observation and interviewing a wide variety of staff and controversially – to Breakwell’s insistence – many of the patients, the team produced a large, illustrated report called the Broadmoor Community Study. Along with a vigorous critique of the organisation and its management, it outlined their recommendations for the design, staffing, patient population, treatment programs and daily organisation of the building, as well as a proposal for a new experimental treatment unit. The report deeply offended the management of Broadmoor and embarrassed the high levels of the DHSS hierarchy. It was subsequently censored by the DHSS and subjected to the Official Secrets Act. The report remains unattainable.
Under these stifling conditions, Breakwell continued to attempt to extend the experiences of his placement with the DHSS through his own artwork, publishing Diary Extracts 1968-1976, both in print and through tape-cassette, and presented it at APG public events and exhibitions, including Documenta 6, and exhibitions at the Whitechapel Gallery. Subsequently, Yorkshire television approached Breakwell in 1977, and on his advice made two exposing documentaries, called the Secret Hospital, about the paranoiac secrecy of these high security hospitals, including a patient’s-eye-view slide sequences made by Breakwell during his. Unable to get access to Rampton Hospital, the television team exhaustively interviewed ex-patients and staff around the country television team built up a devastating picture of conditions and mistreatment within the hospital.!The programmes were broadcast nationwide at peak viewing times, causing public outcry and making headline news in the newspapers, radio and television for many days, and resulted in a police enquiry, followed by a Government enquiry.
In comparison to the controversy caused by the first DHSS placement, Breakwell’s second placement in 1978-80, produced a body of work that was enthusiastically embraced by the institution.
During the Feasibility stage of his first placement, Breakwell and APG artist Hugh Davies collaborated with DHSS architectural adviser, Mick Kemp, to develop Kemp’s previously ignored idea of a ‘Nostalgia Jukebox’. Along with artists Bill Furlong, David Toop (both also APG artists) and Carmel Sammons they proposed the research project ‘Audiovisual Reminiscence Aids For Elderly People Including Those With Mental Infirmity’, which Kemp then secured funding for. The project sought to find an audio-visual method to stimulate reminiscence in elderly people and develop a realisable way to incorporate this into the everyday care service. A multidisciplinary team was once again gathered, this time consisting of a photographer, a writer and filmmaker, an audio artist, a designer, a musician, an architect and a medical student, as well as an advisory committee of health care workers, psychiatrists and BBC broadcasting staff. The Reminiscence Aids Project, as it came to be known, consisted of a great deal of practical research, such as testing out compilations of imagery and audio in care homes across London, resulting in 152 interviews with elderly residence, and collecting reminiscence reports and memories further afield through a series of BBC radio talk shows [Appendix 5]. The project drew immediate interest; articles appeared both in the professional press and mainstream newspapers, including internationally, through Reuters. The placement culminated in a slide and audio presentation pack, spanning four eras, and a supporting publication, called Recall. It provided care staff with an accessible structure, which could easily be adapted for each individual, which stimulated reminiscence and kept alert the elderly with whom they worked.
A paper written by psychiatrist Dr. Robert Butler in 1963 argued the importance reminiscence and life review as a normal and essential part of ageing, and legitimised the intervention from nurses and care workers, who had previously been discouraged from promoting reminiscence. Prior to this, reminiscence was seen a symptom of pathological and progressive cognitive deterioration. Although Butler is credited for starting the social movement of reminiscence therapy, development was slow, and between his paper being published and DHSS placement there only been one study undertaken to advance his theory (Charles Lewis in 1971). The long-term objectives of the Reminiscence Aids Project were to ‘provide a framework for caring interactions’, to ‘restore a sense of personal value’ and older people ‘to regain a fuller perspective of their own past lives, the better to relate to the present’21. The Reminiscence Aids Project, and the subsequent Recall pack, made a dramatic intervention in the realisation of these aims, raising general awareness of reminiscence as an activity. The DHSS began using Reminiscence Therapy as group therapy and training professionals in the therapeutic process, and continues to be used today. The demand for Recall packs far exceeded first expectations and Help the Aged were amazed at the response that came from all over the British Isles. Pam Schweitzer, Artistic Director of Age Exchange Theatre Trust, recalls that:
‘[she] watched people who had been reluctant to attend the group because they were shy or felt that they had nothing to contribute, take themselves and everyone else by surprise. Memories flowed as a result of the sounds and images of the recall pack, and people triggering each other’s memories with vivid recollections of local incidents’.
John Adams, speaking from his experience using the Recall pack when working as a care nurse, asserted that ‘nursing staff found that reminiscence activities [Recall pack] provided information about the life experiences patients which help to explain the present attitudes and tastes’24. According to oral historian and gerontologist, Joanna Bornat, who has written extensively about the history and effects of reminiscence work, the importance of Recall lay in its apparent simplicity; a cassette player, slide projector and white wall were all within the means of most institutions and community settings.
It also played a crucial role in the development of oral history, Joanna Bornat, has described the Reminiscence Aids Project as a ‘launching pad’ for a ‘social movement’ that combined the revolutionised care of the elderly with the championing of reminiscence work as a valuable resource for historical writing. The project has been widely written about academically as a turning point in oral history, and the collection of audio recordings produced by the artists during their placement, recently digitised, are currently used for educational and research purposes at the Museum of London.
Arguably more significant to the development of health care practice, including the sensitive understanding of reminiscence of the process, has been the subsequent observations of psychologists, nurses, social care workers, gerontologists and other professionals, however there is little doubt that the project acted as a catalyst for the development of a new approach in social care. Having been republished by Help the Aged, an updated variation of the pack and book is still widely distributed and commonly used in the care of elderly across Britain.
In both of Breakwell’s placements the artist has been forgotten in the retelling of the body of work, however the projects exemplify the lasting effects of different rhythms of interruptions that the unassuming, un- egotistical position of the Incidental Person is capable of causing.
RECALCULATING THE POLITICAL EFFECT OF THE INCIDENTAL PERSON
In the 1960s, the Aristotelian division of human experience between Labour (poiesis), political Action (praxis) and Intellect was accepted as common sense by political thinkers, including many of the critics of APG. However, since the emergence of the post-Fordist condition, contemporary labour introjected into itself many characteristics that originally marked the experience of politics; as Virno stated ‘poiesis has taken on numerous aspects of praxis’. Virno’s theories emerged out of the illegal labour movement of the 1960s and ‘70s in Italy, where he became the figurehead of the Italian Marxist movement. Whilst APG would certainly not have aligned themselves with these politics and although they came out of a very different political and economic condition, Virno’s theories are extremely useful in considering a reassessment of the political potential of the Incidental Person.
For Virno, politics no longer existed in the workings of local party headquarters, but generally within human experience; ‘an intimate relationship with contingency and the unforeseen, being in the presence of others… Labour has acquired the traditional features of political action’26. He continued a distinction between Intellect and political Action, as ‘political action is public, consigned to exteriority, to contingency, to the buzzing of the ‘many’’. APG’s placements however present the possibility of merging intellectual reflection into this equation, so that their position as Incidental Person, in its entirety, takes on the role of political Action.
Virno uses virtuosity to explain the subsumption of political action into labour process; this is also a useful tool to analyze APG’s creative and productive yet immaterial role. Virno describes activity of virtuosos, or performing artists, as ‘an activity which finds its own fulfilment (that is, its own purpose) in itself, without objectifying itself into an end product, without settling into a ‘finished product’28. Importantly, he also states that it is an activity that can only exist in the presence of an audience, and quoting, Hannah Arendt’s implicit reading of Aristotle’s theory, makes the integral link between the performing artists, the virtuosos, to those who engage in political action. Since the performing artist necessitates a public space for their work to exist, a strong affinity with politics must be inherent.29 With the sense of contingency, the absence of a ‘finished product’, and the unavoidable presence of others, the APG artist can be seen as a virtuoso. By replacing the pianist, orator, or priest with the APG artist, the audience becomes those people with whom they interact with on their placement – their co-workers, board members or publics – and the public space becomes their place of work. Whilst I do not want to suggest the reduction of the APG placement to a mere performance, reframing the artist as virtuoso enables the innate political nature of the placements to become apparent.
Whilst this was inherent in the industry placements, the role of the APG artist as virtuoso arguably didn’t become explicit until the negotiation of the first Government placement in 1975, when documentary filmmaker Roger Coward worked with the Department of the Environment [Appendix 6]. The DoE had initiated six urban studies with the purpose of developing a more comprehensive approach for local authorities in their urban regeneration plans. Coward was invited to carry out research for the Birmingham Inner Area Study, which was specifically concerned with the problems of inner-city areas, analyzing over a several years the functioning and the needs of the area.
Coward’s attention had been drawn to the way in which the various groups from street-level up to the Town Hall – and even to government – talk, both amongst themselves and to each other, and was particularly interested in aspects of ‘communications processes’, ‘decision making’, ‘corporate management’, and so on, that influenced understanding between different groups. Working with local people in the Small Heath district of Birmingham, Coward found that despite the residents’ resentment at the failure of the Council’s renewal programme and his effective employment by them, they were receptive to his position as an artist without agenda. Confidence had suffered; there had been a great deal of activity and talk, but few signs of real action31. Taking this as his starting point Coward aimed to find a format that would help identify the problems of communications, from local grievances to government policy making, and to find more effective methods of dialogue; the project was concerned with ‘what happened when people try to understand a problem, convey their understanding of it, organise to get something done about it’.
Key to Coward’s working method was to introduce feedback and group authorship, new creative practices which he had been involved in developing at the Tavistock Institute in London; this was the first time the strategy had been used in a non-art context33. After a period of informal discussion with residents, making an effort to integrate himself into the social make-up of the area, Coward worked with three different community groups, training them to use film, in order to present their perspective to the City Council officers, whilst others used group authorship techniques to improvise or collectively write four publicly performed plays. Coward would occasionally ask participants questions in order to focus their attention, but as far as possible took a hands-off approach, so that both the content and the form of the tape were a ‘direct and honest reflection of the people who made it’:
‘We jumped at the chance, although we had never done anything like this before. It took us about two hours to learn to use the equipment and we spent about a month doing all the filming’
Madge Davis (a local housewife and one of film team)
The body of collaborative works emphasized the problems of communication between the local residents and the various levels of government; the video tapes in particular arose out of a general dissatisfaction in the response to their legitimate needs and aspirations, and revealed a polarisation of ‘them’ and ‘us’. Equally important however was the process of making the material: ‘the creation of an ‘image’ of the community in fact helps to make the community by presenting its identity to people themselves’. Although the placement resulted in finished plays and films, Coward’s role was one of inspiring virtuoso through his discussions with the local residents, and not as a producer commissioned to create works. Product and process together work in an attempt to make ‘the entire theatrical event: experience, authorship, production and presentation into an organic whole by all participants the authors, subjects and presenters’. In this way, he passed on the role of virtuoso to those participants who continued an active role in representing the community, activators of political action. As Peter Walding, the Birmingham IAS Project Director, reported: ‘Initiatives were undertaken … which have stimulated a greater degree of community organisation and self-expression. This has been of lasting benefit.’ Although the impact of this is inevitably difficult to trace, it is clear that there was a shift in the expectations and attitudes of the local people. For example, Frances Viner reported that Birmingham’s architects were being challenged by a local carpenter; ‘He was perceiving his right and his responsibility. He was really getting plugged into a larger context – seeing the possibility of implementing it’. Perhaps most importantly, the projects highlighted the value of forming a residents Association, an uncommon concept at the time, in order to articulate a collective voice. The Small Heath Tornado reported: ‘After almost a three-year wait for some kind of action, from first being an urban renewal area and then this year housing action area, a group of householders decided that it was time a residents Association was formed to fight action on what residents wanted in the way of housing and environmental improvements’. The Association evolved directly out of the group of people that Coward had brought together for the projects, and it continued in strength long after his departure.
Although there was no finished product at the end of the placement in quite the form the sponsors originally had in mind, the whole project turned out to be an example of step-by-step adjustment by all parties to a constantly evolving process. For Coward, the success of the project was not to do with the specifics of local operations and urban deprivation but with the fundamental nature of ‘participation’, the reality of people as ‘disparate individuals combining together by means of politically structured relationships (i.e. relationships of power, influence, authority) to reach collective decisions’. The placement was not intended to be an ‘aid-centre’ for local causes, the Department’s purpose in financing the study was to ‘learn about the workings of Inner Areas – not to bring benefits Small Heath. The actual benefit to Small Heath is to us a welcome bonus’. The placement report includes a detailed description and evaluation of the project by the consultants; they discussed lessons learnt from it and made recommendations about supporting community arts in Inner Areas and artists in government organisations. Significantly, the report advocated a move towards political devolution, administrative decentralisation and community organisation in order to advance a form of neighbourhood democracy. Coward concludes that ‘there is surely a place for this kind of program to make its contribution, however small, in both community education and government training towards preparation for genuinely more participatory form of democracy?’
The influence of the report has had notable longevity; the final report, Unequal City, published a year later by HMSO, has informed numerous other studies on urban regeneration, including major recent government studies, and remains influential and in circulation. Whilst artists’ involvement is now common place in urban regeneration projects, it is important to remember that the significant value of the Incidental Person approach is the artist’s ability to challenge the accepted attitudes and hierarchies of power; the artist’s possible contribution risks being rendered superficial unless given the position of virtuoso.
THE RISE OF NEOLIBERALISM AND THE APPROPRIATION OF THE ARTIST
Drawing on a history throughout the twentieth century of artists working in the public domain and addressing social issues, the Arts Council strategy for 2006–11 solidified the recognition of the social function of art. However, its endorsement saw a shift in focus from the artists and arts organisations as producers to the audience and participants as consumers.
Neoliberal ideology has increasingly restructured the goals and priorities of social infrastructure into a theoretical programme of political economic practices that proposes that ‘human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade’44. In the case of publicly funded art this means seeking to counteract the ‘social exclusion’45 that, from a Neoliberal perspective, emanates from individuals becoming disconnected from the education system, and subsequently the labour market, who are therefore more likely to become a burden on the state. Boris Groys has argued that art is now becoming biopolitical because it has ‘begun to produce and document life itself as pure activity by artistic means’46; publicly funded art is now expected to channel art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change. The political urgency of this social task has led to a situation in which all socially engaged practices are perceived to be equally important to repairing the social bond, each art project necessarily proving its worth to the social aims of the current political agenda.47 There has therefore been a shift in the terminology used over the past forty years; spending on the arts is now seen as an ‘investment’ rather than what was previously termed ‘subsidy’.
Comparing the 2006–11 Arts Council strategy to the current one, now with austerity measures at the forefront of arts spending forecasts, an overriding emphasis on quantitative cultural consumption has developed. Supposedly key ‘long term’ goals include ‘every child and young person has the opportunity to experience the richness of the arts’ and ‘more people experience and are inspired by the arts’. These aims neglect the wider importance of the arts, focusing on experiences within a specific arts context and severing arts vital role within other aspects of society’s development. This no doubt reflects that the tax paying public want to see tangible outcomes for their money and the coalition government’s desire to distance itself from New Labour’s social inclusion ambitions for the art. However, party politics aside, it should be the Arts Council’s responsibility to place art within the larger and longer-term context.
The coalition government’s push for philanthropic funding of the arts also needs re-evaluation in order to overcome the possibility of a culture of instant gratification. One of Jeremy Hunt’s key arguments, when outlining his 10-point plan to encourage larger philanthropic giving to the arts, was that ‘philanthropy benefits the donor as much as the recipient’48, quoting long-time English National Opera patron Vernon Ellis, as saying that ‘the joy and satisfaction that comes with seeing the results of an investment like that is something that keeps getting greater and greater’. However, this incentive for philanthropy only engrains a culture of immediate results, tick- box funding, where long-term and intangible aims are forgotten for relatively short-term and visible results.
Since the early work of APG and their peers working in the 1960s, discursive practices have become a deliberate strategy in art. However, by the late 1970s a shift to the for-profit mentality and the disbandment of the welfare state, encouraged by Regan and Thatcher, saw the rise in the art market, putting these discursive practices under immense pressure from market forces. As neoliberal attitudes have established themselves, artists have been increasingly expected to operate as ‘cultural entrepreneurs’ in the market and within a cultural industry. Not-for-profit and publically-funded organisations cannot take a position outside this power relation, the market indeed being driven by biennials, large museums, galleries and art journals. Simultaneously, social welfare services that were previously taken for granted have been replaced with social engagement initiatives, often employing short-term arts projects to compensate for the lack of dependable provision.
Whilst APG were working in a different economic context for arts development, many industries were either still nationalised or were benign to arts in a way that is less obvious today. Nevertheless then as now funding was illusive and defined by expected outcomes. For example, the Arts Council, as is still the case, based their funding awards on quantifiable outcomes, which inevitably did not marry with APG’s aims: ‘the idea of statistical criteria when evaluating the works potential is unacceptable to APG in any circumstance; for one thing it would support the idea that quality is subordinate to quantity.’49 However, the development of a democratic, prosperous and inclusive society is the ultimate end goal of both APG and government arts policy; they vary only in strategy.
It is for this reason that I have chosen to reflect on the work of APG. As I have demonstrated, APG’s approach has succeeded in making significant social influences in the direction of these long-term goals. Unlike ACE current short-term objectives, APG’s influences have taken place over a long-term and sustainable manner, integrating the work into the folds of society. So how can we now try to achieve similar success looking forward?
ENDEAVOUR AND THE POTENTIAL OF FAILURE
In the past three decades the ‘art project’ – in response to short-term funding objectives and in lieu of the physical artwork – has become the standard means of creative production in the art world. In Groys’ essay, ‘The Loneliness of the Project’, he argues that, with a lack of communication and integration with the rest of society, the project constructs isolation. Exterior factors, most commonly influenced by funding criteria, impose a time frame and structure, preventing the project from evolving organically into society. Furthermore, whilst the formulation of diverse projects is a major preoccupation of the contemporary artist, the project is in fact a very vulnerable creation, too easily abandoned if unsuccessful in securing funding approval. Groys proposes that each project represents a draft for a particular vision of the future and that this negligent treatment of the project is ‘highly regrettable since it bars us from analyzing and understanding the hopes and visions of the future that have been invested in these projects and which might offer greater insight into our society than anything else’50.
Despite their shortfalls, it is vital to remember that APG were proposing a radically new and controversial position for art and the artist within society. It is when an artist’s work proves a true challenge to the institutional structure that they are most likely to cause a rupture and therefore influence institutionalised thought and practice. Ian Breakwell’s Broadmoor placement acts as a direct, illustrative example of this, causing a complete reassessment of institutional practices in hospitals. However, it is also those projects which face the most opposition that are most likely to fail and to remain unrealized; the Broadmoor report is still unpublished. The risk of failure – of which there were many – has added value to APG’s successes.
When considering APG placements – as is the case with numerous other projects – the terms ‘success’ and ‘failure’ need to be rethought. As Breakwell has argued the success of a placement cannot be measured ‘merely by the degree of mutual backslapping between the host organisation and the artist’. He continues:
‘A timid artist will produce timid work, and this will be acceptable to a timid host organisation. An artist with a radical attitude may well produce radical effects, and this may not be acceptable to the host organisation, or if it is then the effects may not be acceptable to the host organisation’s clients. A third party might perceive however that the latter was the more meaningful (‘successful’) placement because it brought big issues to the surface, even if in the process it caused trouble and turmoil.’
Barbara Steveni approached hundreds of organisations [Appendix 7], the vast majority of which did not result in a placement, however those that did often had a continued influence that would have been impossible to predict at the start of the placement. Even companies that would not take on an APG artist, were often in correspondence with Steveni over several months, or even years, and there is every possibility that – once again to refer to the virtuoso, this time Steveni playing the role – these dialogues nevertheless at times had an influence on their organisational practices and thinking [Appendix 8]. The unrealized or incomplete project is too often undervalued and overlooked.
These aspects of risk and the uncertainty of outcomes are important for us to consider when reassessing current funding criteria and considering the way in which we support contemporary art practices. In Joel Fisher’s essay Judgment and Purpose, he quoted a Silicon Valley executive as having said: ‘We tell our people to make at least ten mistakes a day. If you are not making ten mistakes a day, you’re not trying hard enough.’52 Fisher goes on to argue that if it is true that only failure or anticipated failure is the author of change, a list of failures is of more value than a list of successes: ‘sometimes the failures of big ideas are more impressive than the successes of little ones’. This is the worry of encouraging a support system for the arts that plays it too safe, determining outcomes before a project has even started. When the course and outcomes of a project are inevitable and obvious to everyone involved from the outset, the project loses its inherent purpose. If creative production isn’t allowed the freedom to fail, it cannot be a truly creative process.
WORKING FROM WITHIN
In proposing a contemporary reassessment of APG’s strategies for the integration of the artist into the wider processes of social change, it is vital to reimagine their methodology in the contemporary Post-Fordist condition. Recent theories around social criticism and political action have encouraged critique as a form of negation and withdrawal from existing institutions. Having identified the shift from a ‘disciplinary society’ to a ‘society of control’ political theorists, such as Virno, Hardt and Negri, advocate desertion and exodus as the only answer to the liberation of the Multitude in the new paradigm of power. However, this poses a problem even within their own theories, since in the new condition of Empire there is no longer the possibility of an outside position; we are always implicated.
Through an exploration of APG’s influence within institutional structures, Chantal Mouffe’s theory of ‘critique as hegemonic engagement with’ as opposed to ‘critique as withdrawal from’ is a useful starting point to evaluate how curators, arts organisations and funders can better support those artists seeking to influence social and political change through their practice.
For Mouffe, society and social institutions are the product of a series of practices that aim to establish order in a context of contingency. Since every order is the ‘temporary and precarious articulation of contingent practices’, each is therefore susceptible to being challenged and disarticulated to form a new hegemonic order.55 She draws on Gramsci’s writing about ‘hegemony through neutralisation’ or ‘passive revolution’ to refer to a situation where challenges to the hegemonic order are recuperated by the existing system, satisfying them in a way that neutralises their subversive potential. Rather than desertion or exodus, Mouffe suggests the opportunity to manipulate this process of recuperation can be a more effective strategy for change. In this way, art practices intent on influencing social and political change have to engage with the current institutional structures in order to re-articulate its constitutive elements into a new configuration, they can never be merely oppositional.
Instead of broad terms such as ‘Empire’, or even ‘Capitalism’, Mouffe defines hegemonic power in terms of ‘nodal points’ in power structures that can be targeted in a multiplicity of sites and transformed in order to create the conditions for a new hegemony. She argues that this can only be done by establishing links between social movements, political parties and trade unions, to create a collective will, to engage with a wide range of institutions, with the aim of transforming them.56 When looking at the APG placements, those that were most successful in rearticulating the practices of the organisation were those placements that brought together practitioners from different fields, and subsequently different understandings of institutional structure and practice. Whilst this was the initial intent with a single artist working within the midst of a company, those projects that also collaborated with architects, town planners, psychologists, for example only multiply the number of different standpoints that can be used in the critique, which in turn multiplies the possibility of the project’s influence over the hegemonic practice in that particular institution.
If then the approach of working within the institutional structure is accepted by artists, it is also imperative that the institutional structures allow artists the freedom to work creatively, to an open brief as much as possible, in an attempt to free practices from the constrictions of neoliberal policy.
Superficially, APG’s endeavours might appear to have been a failure, incapable of persuading the Arts Council, who should have been their closest ally, of the significance of their work [Appendix 9]. Common to theories of political action is the idea of breaking with or withdrawal from mainstream social relations; equally it is common for contemporary artists, intent on political or social impact, to remove themselves from the institutionalised art system to avoid compromising their practice. APG’s tactic of doing the exact opposite to this was, for Brisley and other critics, the major downfall to their methodology, resulting in the inevitable lack of autonomy of the artists in their placements. Working in an economy still based on material exchange, this criticism was justifiable. Interviewing those involved in the placements outlined in this paper, their compromised autonomy is something that is readily admitted by both the artist and those championing them within the organisations. However, as I have traced the history of the placements over the subsequent years, it is clear that a compromised position can still have great influence. Whilst it cannot be argued that any of these placements were fully autonomous, each artist was able to find for themselves a position where they could develop and realise their ideas, influencing others along the way, both within the institutional structure that they were working in and those outside it.
The open-brief format successfully leant itself to cross-sector collaboration, particularly apparent in the government department placements. The hybridity of the placement projects – later illustrated by David Toop’s exploration of amphibious creatures as a metaphor for APG during his placement with London Zoo – was an important quality of APG’s work and went some way in demonstrating Latham’s theory of a least-event radiating outwards in numerous possible directions. This is particularly apparent when considering the vastly different, unconnected forums in which I have discovered are still effected by APG’s influences. In the context of current financial constraints on arts funding, as well as other sectors of public services, it seems appropriate to find ways to pool resources, expertise and energies into developmental processes that many of the APG projects exemplified.
There is little doubt that, as early pioneers of socially engaged practice, APG’s employment of corporate language played into the hands of neoliberal tendency; their placement reports emulate what is now expected across the board from artists’ and arts organisations’ funding evaluations. It seems that APG was caught in a double bind, their organisational practice inevitably doomed to failure; on the one hand they claimed art practice had an unquantifiable, intangible influence, but yet at the same time they sought to capture these influences in the outcome driven language of industry.
Equally they were trapped in a paradox of wanting to influence widespread social change, whilst avoiding having a political agenda. One industrialist remarked: ‘If APG is what I think it is about then I would not allow the group into my company under any circumstances. But if APG is not what I think it is about the group is of no importance’57. If the group was too politically subversive, then it would become powerless; yet if it was not subversive enough it would be irrelevant to social or political change.
Nevertheless, APG’s work was not simply as a defensive tactic against commodification but was a positive and creative moment, where emphasis was shifted from art object to a process of socially and politically productive interaction. Their overall approach to patronage and their dialogue with private companies is worth reconsidering when thinking about the current coalition government’s current push for corporate philanthropy in the UK. And, perhaps more importantly, there is a need to evaluate the long-term influence of APG placements, beyond their immediate impact and the shortsightedness of the Arts Council in the 1970s, in order to reassess current strategies of public arts funding.
Despite APG’s claims of the long-term influence of their placements, they failed to review their work within their own timeframe, and neither has this been done by art historians writing about their work since. Throughout this paper I have traced the influences of some of the placements and discovered some interesting outcomes still present and at work in various different social and political fields. It is lamentable that these long-term influences have not been given the attention that they deserve, and I hope that this paper can in some ways help to reevaluate the importance of the work of APG and the potential of the ‘open brief’ in contemporary art practice.