The Art Project

In the past few decades the ‘art project’ – in response to short-term funding objectives – has become the standard means of creative production in the art world. As artists, curators and art practitioners we are all too familiar with the constant demands, complexities and compromises made to secure project funding, in each instance compulsorily outlining the outcomes the project aims to achieve. However, if it can be 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; 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.

In Boris Groys’s, 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, while 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 analysing 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’.

At this crucial junction concerning 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 policies, the role of producers and their collaborators, and the nature of the production process itself, are more significant than ever. In order to secure funding it has become increasingly necessary to satisfy the demands for tangible or quantifiable – and therefore ‘successful’ – outcomes at the proposal stage. While the need to carefully assess the value of an art project before investing is beyond doubt, I question whether, in the long run, funding projects where the outcomes are outlined, predictable and easily achievable is the best investment strategy.

Since the early 1960s, discursive and process-based practices have been a deliberate strategy in art. However, by the late 1970s a shift to the for-profit mentality and the disbandment of the welfare state by Margaret Thatcher saw the rise in the art market, putting these more fluid art practices under immense pressure from market forces. Neoliberal ideology has increasingly restructured the goals and priorities of social infrastructure into a theoretical programme of political economic practices that is driven by strong private property rights, free markets and free trade. In the case of publicly funded art this means seeking to counteract the ‘social exclusion’ that, from a neoliberal perspective, emanates from individuals becoming disconnected from the education system and subsequently the labour market, and who are therefore more likely to become a burden on the state. Groys has rightly argued that subsequently art is becoming biopolitical; publicly funded art is now expected to channel art’s symbolic capital towards constructive social change. 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. As Claire Bishop has proposed in her book Artificial Hells (Reviews AM359), 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. There has therefore been a shift in the terminology used over the past 40 years; spending on the arts is now seen as an ‘investment’ rather than what was previously termed a ‘subsidy’.

Drawing on a history throughout the 20th century of artists working in the public domain and addressing social issues, the Arts Council England strategy for 2008 to 2011, titled Great Art for Everyone, 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. Now with austerity measures at the forefront of arts spending forecasts, an overriding emphasis on quantitative cultural consumption has also developed, as outlined in ACE’s subsequent ten-year strategic framework for the arts published in 2011, Achieving Great Art for Everyone. 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 art’s vital role within other aspects of society’s development. This no doubt reflects the fact that the tax-paying public wants to see tangible outcomes for its money as well as the coalition government’s desire to distance itself from New Labour’s social inclusion ambitions for art. However, party politics aside, it should be the ACE’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 ten-point plan to encourage larger philanthropic giving to the arts in 2010, was that ‘philanthropy benefits the donor as much as the recipient’, 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’. While inevitably rewarding for the donor, this incentive for philanthropy only ingrains a culture of immediate results and tick-box funding, where long-term and intangible aims are forgotten for relatively short-term and visible results.

There is little doubt that art can influence the way that society thinks, behaves and develops with little or no funding. Here we need to look no further than the way that activist groups such as Pussy Riot and Voina have recently transformed the international public’s interest and understanding of Russian politics; their subsequent arrests last year caused a global public outcry. But how can we also support those artistic and curatorial practices that seek to provoke social and cultural change not through shock and controversy, but gradually and osmotically within the institutional system. These are practices which need support over a long period, where inevitable failures and struggles are integral to achieving their long-term aims.

My argument here has been influenced somewhat by an exhibition that I worked on last year at Raven Row, ‘The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79’. Established in 1966 by Barbara Steveni and John Latham, APG sought to reposition the role of the artist within a wider economic context. They negotiated ‘open brief’ placements for artists within industry and government departments, employed as what APG termed an ‘Incidental Person’, without any set objectives or outcomes expected, and independent of the organisational hierarchy. They envisioned that the artist working in the midst of the establishment could act as a catalyst for change by introducing new ideas and viewpoints, creating a ‘butterfly effect’ beyond the organisation, across society and into the future. The implication was that it would render both capitalist practice and socialist ideals redundant, instead focusing on a much longer-term vision of social change. Building on the ideas associated with Conceptual Art, 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. Although APG was operating in a very different economic and artistic context, its proposal and subsequent implementation of ‘open brief’ placements provides a possible argument against current neoliberal funding of the arts.

As a case study, Ian Breakwell’s work with the Department of Health and Social Security in the 1970s is a particularly worthwhile example. As social voyeur, Breakwell maintained throughout his life his Continuous Diary, a daily collage of personal observations, verbal and visual, about everyday ‘normal’ behaviour, in which he questioned society’s concept of ‘sane reality’. Breakwell was invited, in early 1976, to work with the Personal Social Services and Mental Health Group (Architects Division). Government policy was attempting to phase out custodial care for the mentally ill within large specialist institutions in favour of new integrated services; Breakwell commented (Features AM40) 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’.

Spurred by the growing anger of the DHSS architects, Breakwell found 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 high-security hospitals; he suggested that ‘words could only describe so much, and that a visual presentation might be necessary’. Along with an interdisciplinary team, including an environmental psychologist, student nurse and architects, he undertook a period of observation at Rampton and Broadmoor psychiatric hospitals and interviewed a wide variety of staff and controversially – at Breakwell’s insistence – many of the patients. The outcome was a large, illustrated and rigorously critical report called the Broadmoor Community Study. Deeply offending both the management of the hospitals and the DHSS, it was subsequently censored by the DHSS and subjected to the Official Secrets Act. The report remains unobtainable.

Undeterred by these stifling conditions, Breakwell continued to attempt to extend the experiences of his placement 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 with his consultation they produced two documentary exposés, called the Secret Hospital about the paranoiac secrecy of these high-security hospitals, including patient’s-eye-view slide sequences made by Breakwell during his placement. Unable to get access to the hospitals, the television team exhaustively interviewed ex-patients and staff, building up a devastating picture of conditions and mistreatment within the hospital. Broadcast nationwide at peak viewing times, the documentaries caused public outcry and made headline news in the media for many days, resulting in a police inquiry and then a government inquiry.

Whilst institutional care in the UK continues to cause controversy, there is no doubt that Breakwell’s initial whistleblowing act, employing visual techniques, exemplifies how artistic freedom within an institutional structure can produce significant social change. Had he been obliged to outline these outcomes from the start, it is unlikely the project would have been authorised or developed in this way. This example alone, however, does not make an argument for non-objective led funding for arts projects; it is no doubt unsustainable if potential supporting institutions fear what they might see as damaging outcomes. Interestingly, though, the DHSS saw the importance and illuminating potential of this artistic, outside perspective, independent from the institutional targets, objectives and hierarchies; it subsequently employed Breakwell on a second placement.

Inspired by a meeting during his first placement, Breakwell chose to work with DHSS architectural adviser Mick Kemp to develop his idea of a ‘Nostalgia Jukebox’. At the time, reminiscence was seen a symptom of pathological and progressive cognitive deterioration. Although psychiatrist Dr Robert Butler had argued for the importance of reminiscence as a normal and essential part of ageing, proposing reminiscence therapy in the early 1960s, development in the field was slow and had been largely ignored by the care sector. The Reminiscence Aids Project, as it came to be known, therefore sought to find an audio-visual method to stimulate reminiscence in elderly people. The goal was to ‘provide a framework for caring interactions’ in order to ‘restore a sense of personal value’ and, ultimately, for older people ‘to regain a fuller perspective of their own past lives, the better to relate to the present’.

A multidisciplinary team was once again gathered, including APG artists Bill Furlong, David Toop and Hugh Davies, a designer, photographer, psychologist and medical student, as well as an advisory committee of health care workers, psychiatrists and BBC broadcasting staff. Pooling their skills in visual, audio and sensory production, as well as utilising their research and process-based working methods, the collaborative group undertook 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 residents, and collecting reminiscence reports and memories further afield through a series of BBC radio talk shows. The project drew immediate interest; articles appeared both in the professional press and mainstream newspapers, including internationally through the news agency Reuters.

The project culminated in a slide and audio presentation pack and publication, Recall, spanning four eras. It provided a realisable and effective means of introducing Reminiscence Therapy into the care sector – a cassette player, slide projector and white wall were all within the means of most institutions and community settings – and it provided care staff with an accessible structure, which could easily be adapted for each individual, which stimulated reminiscence and kept alert elderly people with whom they worked. The demand for Recall packs far exceeded first expectations and the DHSS subsequently began training professionals in Reminiscence Therapy. 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’

Having been republished by Help the Aged, an updated variation of the pack and publication is still widely distributed and commonly used in the care of elderly across the UK. Furthermore, the project has been widely written about academically as a turning point in oral history; oral historian and gerontologist, 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 collection of audio recordings produced by the artists during their placement was the first of its kind; it continues to be used for educational and research purposes in the Museum of London and instigated numerous other such audio collections.

It cannot be argued that Breakwell and the other artists he worked with in the placements were fully autonomous. However, just as those activist artists mentioned earlier acted as a catalyst for realisations in the public sphere, so did Breakwell act within the structure of the DHSS and wider society, causing a revaluation of institutional structure through exposure and shock techniques. However, playing the same role he was also capable of creating equal change through working with the system to gradually influence its course. In the context of current financial constraints on arts funding, as well as other sectors of public services, Breakwell’s work with the DHSS suggests that, instead of outcome-driven projects, there are successful alternative models for art projects that include methods for pooling resources, expertise and energies into developmental processes that can have long-term influence across numerous sectors.

Unfortunately, although the ACE played a vital role in supporting APG in its early years, when outcomes were not immediately visible, APG soon lost credibility and funding was consequently withdrawn; the ACE stated that APG was ‘more concerned with social engineering that with straight art’. Ironically, we have seen this increasingly become the role of the arts in the eye of government policy.

Despite its shortfalls, it is vital to remember that APG was proposing a radically new and controversial position for art and the artist within society. It is at the point 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. 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 unrealised; the Broadmoor report is still unpublished. When considering Breakwell’s work with the DHSS – as is the case with numerous other projects – the terms ‘success’ and ‘failure’ need to be readdressed. 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’.

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.’ As Fisher goes on to argue, it is true that 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 form the outset, the project loses its inherent purpose. If creative production is not allowed the freedom to fail, it cannot be a truly creative process.