“The enrichment of life calls inexorably for the analysis of the new forms taken by poverty and the perfection of the old weapons of refusal…”
Raoul Vaneigem: The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967)
“I tried to map a space where the everyday was the focus. An everyday that is at one level a source of massive oppression; but which we know can be transformed, into something liberating, poetic, savage and beautiful – even if we know that this has happened very rarely and very briefly; an everyday in which perception is no longer on ‘automatic’...”
Ron Hunt: ‘Icteric’ and ‘Poetry must be made by all / Transform the World’: A note on a lost and suppressed avant-garde and exhibition (Papers in Art & Education, 2010)
The driving force of English Vorticism, Wyndham Lewis, wrote in his 1914 statement Long Live The Vortex! that “we are against the glorification of ‘The People’ as we are against snobbery.” The relationship of art to a wider public is often felt to fluctuate between these poles: art’s history of aristocratic and Church patronage, alongside artists’ economic and social entanglements with the machinery of power – creating vehicles for Church propaganda and laundering the public image of the Medici family, for example – means that art expressly made by professionals for ‘the people’ constitutes a significant and recent reversal in the artist’s traditional public role.
From the earliest kunstverein and municipal galleries of the nineteenth century, by way of the establishment of funding bodies like The Arts Council in the immediate post-war years, to such influential and still-current ideas as Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002), the general trajectory has appeared progressive: art becomes ever more connected to, and is increasingly made in collaboration with, its audiences. Yet Claire Bishop, writing in the US journal October in 2004, asks with particular reference to Bourriaud’s influential idea, “if relational art produces human relations, the next logical question to ask is what types of relations are being produced, for whom, and why?”
Bishop’s critique suggests that such ‘relations’ benefit the institutions initiating them rather than the communities and artists at their notional core, an observation that implies public art’s role has begun to turn full circle. The medieval Church, after all, had been instrumental in enabling quasi-relational activities like the site specific Mystery Plays performed by craft guilds in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. If contemporary art institutions and commissioning bodies now play similar roles, it’s arguable that relational art is not, as Bishop notes, quite as “intrinsically democratic” as Bourriaud and the artists he cites in support of his theory – Rirkrit Tiravanija, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe, Philippe Parreno – have tended to assume.
If art in the first decade of the twenty-first century has begun to retreat to its historical role of furthering the interests of institutions, the question of whether the institution in question is a Church, the academy, a municipality or corporation, is less important than the way in which what is generally known as ‘public art’ or ‘art in the public realm’ has been heavily, if usually unwillingly, implicated in the shift. The old-style public art of bronze statues and stone monuments dedicated to monarchs, industrialists and military heroes that litter Victorian cities, or the celebrities who have joined them in contemporary town squares, are plain enough in their intended political function to require little discussion here.
But it’s clear that the more radical strain of art that began to leave the museums and enter the public realm in order to implement direct social change after 1968 has found itself in a strangely contradictory position. In 2006, when John Fox dissolved Welfare State International, the pioneering cross-disciplinary arts collective he’d been instrumental in establishing in 1968 as a British equivalent to such US-based outfits as Bread and Puppet Theatre, his stated reasons for calling an end to the group’s activities highlighted deep changes in such art’s perceived social and political function during Welfare State’s 38 years of activity:
“We set out to be Guardians of the Unpredictable, travelling the world, creating site-specific celebratory theatre,” Fox wrote. “We wanted eyes on stalks, not bums on seats. But we realised that making such transient spectacles was like busking in airports. When we flew home, property developers moved in. The dominant culture claimed economic regeneration but missed the inspiration and the community. We wanted to make playful art outside the ghetto, not work three years ahead in a goal-orientated corporate institution where matched funding and value-added output boxes destroyed imaginative excess. The arts tightrope between look-at-me celebrity and surrogate social work became untenable.”
Welfare State’s vision of achieving the old avant-garde objective of convergence between art and life had found its way to this point by way of many factors, one being the increasing commercialisation of the kind of event they set out to deliver as an alternative in 1968: what price a radical ‘site-specific celebratory theatre’ when similar spectacles were the preserve of Cirque du Soleil’s blockbuster marketing campaigns? Identity politics and alternative cultures had been neutered into vehicles for niche marketing, while the instrumentalism of Tony Blair’s ‘Third Way’ after 1997 divided art’s cultural functions into two key sectors: the profitable exports of the Creative Industries, drawn from entertainment, design, fashion and their prestige counterparts; then a whole range of locally responsive practices working to deliver the new government priorities of Social Inclusion and Community Cohesion.
These activities were grounded in the successes of earlier, politically radical models of culture as a tool for initiating social change, making improvements in access and opportunity for communities beyond the reach of more orthodox State provision: prisoners, the elderly, rural communities, young people, refugees. Now it transpired that the artists concerned to widen the remit of art, leave the galleries and strike root in everyday life, were deployed as surrogate social workers, teachers and agents for regeneration. They were asked, in short, to deliver work whose objectives were a marginal amelioration of social, ecological and economic conditions rather than a radical transformation of the society that had created these conditions. The tools were workshops, educational projects and participatory events.
The convergence of art and life sought by the early twentieth century avant-gardes had come to pass but on terms that were entirely at odds with its original objectives. As John Fox explains, “all our intentions of 1968 – access, disability awareness, multi-generational and multi-cultural participation – are established. Now, though, they come before the art.” With this shift had also come an increasingly prescriptive demand for risk assessments and measurable outcomes. As Fox put it in 2006, “the final straw was the day we were told we needed a ‘hot work’ permit for a bonfire in a field. Had we swept the floor and were the overhead sprinklers working?”
The dissolution of the border separating art from life was an objective pursued by almost every avant-garde grouping of the early twentieth century, with Dada and Constructivism, the Bauhaus, De Stijl and Surrealism, all concerned to stake out a central role for artists, writers and film-makers within the more orthodox revolutionary political and social movements of the 1920s and 30s: Marxism and Anarchism, but in some cases (as with the former Vorticists, Wyndham Lewis and Ezra Pound) certain shades of Fascism. In the post-war era the interest continued, reaching a kind of apex with the playful rigours of the Situationist International but was visible, too, in the activities of Beat affiliated artists like Ed Keinholz and Bruce Conner, in Allan Kaprow and Carolee Schneemann’s Happenings, in Neo-Dada, Fluxus, Underground Cinema, Arte Povera, Conceptualism and Land Art.
As Claes Oldenburg put it in his 1967 Store Days manifesto, “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap & still comes out on top. I am for an art that helps old ladies across the street.” Adrian Henri points out in his influential 1974 survey, Total Art: Environments, Happenings and Performance, that it’s often a category error to regard some of the last century’s wider-ranging cultural manifestations as ‘art movements’ in any conventional sense:
“Surrealism shares with Constructivism the consistent misinterpretation of critics and historians who see only formal and aesthetic end-products in a movement which was aiming at political and social revolution,” writes Henri. “The artefacts left behind tell us only as much about the lives of their creators as do, say, the potsherds we dig out of prehistoric villages.”
With this in mind, it’s clear that the familiar Suprematist paintings of Malevich, the posters of Rodchenko and Mayakovsky, the maquettes and sketches for an unrealised Monument to the Third International of Vladimir Tatlin, tell only one part of the story of a broad-based movement like Constructivism. Perhaps it’s significant that it tends to be the part containable within a specialist discourse of art, the history of images and objects whose makers are assumed to have been above all else engaged with the formal and aesthetic possibilities of their chosen mediums.
Constructivism’s social concerns were more than merely symbolic. Representative of the movement’s wider political objectives is Arseny Avraamov’s Symphony Of Factory Sirens, a sound-work composed not for orchestra but the entire industrial, naval and transport resources of the city of Baku, a port city that in 1922 was the capital of the Soviet Republic of Azerbaijan. Performed twice, the second time in Moscow, to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the 1917 Revolution, Avraamov’s score marshalled all the sonic possibilities of its location into a prototype musique concrete spectacle involving thousands of people. The end result might be read as authoritarian, with individual performers submerged in the whole, but it might also be seen as a practical demonstration of the potential that could be realised through collaboration on a mass scale.
Avraamov’s absorption of individuals, even whole regiments and shipping fleets, into his singular vision may seem at odds with the collaborative and carnivalesque ventures proposed by Welfare State International in the decades after 1968, but it’s arguable that a more current mass spectacle like Danny Boyle’s London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony can best be understood as a merger between the disciplined choreography of Avraamov in 1922 and the more democratic ideals of John Fox, with both models co-opted into the service of an instrumentalism that demands a range of contradictory results: a unifying national story and a celebration of individualism; a showcase for British export industry to run in parallel with a self-justifying carnival; an inclusive participatory event and a corporate media spectacle.
Albert Speer. Lichtdom, 1936 Olympics
Boyle’s opening ceremony returns us to the question that Claire Bishop asks of Bourriaudand Relational Aesthetics: what types of relations are being produced by public artworks? Any tendency to assume that the relations created by participatory works are intrinsically democratic is debatable, especially in the very literal shadows cast by Albert Speer’s Lichtdom, or Cathedral of Light, an undeniably participatory construct that arrayed anti-aircraft searchlights at the edges of a Nuremberg stadium to cast a magical aura around the Nazi rally it accompanied. The impressive effect is recorded for posterity in Hans Weidemann’s 1937 propaganda documentary Festliches Nürnberg, yet Speer’s rally shares many aesthetic qualities with both the more bombastic sections of Boyle’s opening ceremony and such media spectacles as the mass-choreographed nude bodies of photographer Spencer Tunick.
If Bourriaud’s intention is to resist this kind of orchestration of human materials, arguing for the destabilisation of the standard institutions and autonomous processes of art by opening them to new dialogues, then relational aesthetics can be viewed as a calculated unsettling of artists’ traditional relationships with audiences. Even so, while participants in relational works are rarely allowed to remain entirely passive, relational work tends to operate through staged encounters between artist, situation and audience: less an open and equal dialogue than a set of laboratory conditions designed to elicit responses within a controlled range.
This can be powerful on its own terms and in a work like Artur Zmijewski’s Them(2007), in which the artist brings together a number of often violently opposed groups to discuss the things that divide them in post-Communist Poland, the encounters staged are both revealing and capable of navigating dangerously volatile situations and issues in unpredictable ways. Yet there’s also little doubt that however high the level of risk in the situations documented, the end-result of a project like Them (in Zmijewski’s case, usually a video work designed for gallery screening) is easily recuperated into standard academic, curatorial and institutional contexts; an object for discussion, critique and viewing within the white cube. The transformative effect of Zmijewski’s encounters on the institutional framework is absent.
This probably reflects the widespread absorption into the academies of radical political discourses in the years since 1968, where they were destined to be endlessly debated and critiqued but not, in any meaningful way, implemented or acted upon. It’s certainly the case that works by the early twentieth century avant-gardes, the precursors of those ideas, are now undermined by the mere fact that while they successfully bring their social concerns and fascination with everyday life into the institutions of art, only rarely are the transformative qualities of art brought into play in life outside those contexts. As Raoul Vaneigem, author of the 1967 Situationist text The Revolution of Everyday Life notes, “people who talk about revolution without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints; such people have a corpse in their mouth.”
Vaneigem’s line was written on walls in Paris during the events of May 1968, the year John Fox established Welfare State International and many other artists abandoned the making of objects to show in museums, choosing to work instead alongside activists, organisers and a range of communities. More than 40 years on from that historical moment the merging of art and life occurs, but art too often succumbs to a social and educational instrumentalism, the imaginative and transformative qualities that constitute its distinctive functions shorn from the engagement with everyday life. The social, ecological and critical discourses so many artists moved to embrace after 1968 become a body of material, theoretical formalism and documentary naturalism the work’s primary modes of presentation and interpretation.
Contemporary public art of this kind becomes a genre as potentially complicit in maintaining a status quo as any bronze statue, and the convergence of art and life on terms as yet unknown, each transformed by the other, as sought by the last century’s disparate avant-gardes, seems to have been abandoned as a viable project, leaving much of the art that shares these concerns in a relationship to its audience that largely echoes and serves existing economic and institutional models. If artists create work from audiences who remain only the spectators of their own participation, or engage in dialogues that are then used to make works over which institutions and curators retain control, the results might productively engage with key issues and problems but they also leave the more potent radical potential recognised by the early avant-gardes only, at best, very partially realised.