“When art is located outside the gallery, the parameters that define it are called into question and all sorts of new possibilities for thinking about the relationship between art and architecture are opened up. Art has to engage with the kinds of restraints and controls to which only architecture is usually subject. In many public projects, art is expected to take on ‘functions’ in the way that architecture does, for example to alleviate social problems, comply with health and safety requirements, or be accessible to diverse audiences and groups of users. But in other sites and situations art can adopt more critical functions and works can be positioned in ways that make it possible to question the terms of engagement of the projects themselves. This type of public art practice is critically engaged; it works in relation to dominant ideologies yet at the same time questions them and explores the operations of particular disciplinary procedures – art and architecture – while also drawing attention to wider social and political problems; it might then best be called ‘critical spatial practice’.” (Rendell, 2009)
My work has largely been in response to sites outside of the gallery. Residencies at Camperdown Wildlife Centre in Dundee and Attenborough Nature Reserve in Nottingham as well as the York Open Studios (YOS) exhibition have required me to locate my research and outcomes within nature reserves and public buildings, with largely non-art audiences.
Within these contexts, I aim to develop a “critical spatial practice” as described by Jane Rendell in her essay of the same name, which takes into account the site and my own practice while still questioning and provoking them. As Rendell puts it: “My hope is that the work of artists critically engaging with sites outside the gallery can help develop an equally influential terrain of spatial understanding through critical practice, as well as critique through spatial practice.” (Rendell, 2009)
Rendell’s analysis of publicly sited works as interdisciplinary, sitting between art and design, speaks to me as over the course of the Attenborough residency I have created works that have been described by myself and others as ‘designed’. While this has never seemed incongruous to me, there has at times seemed to be a question over whether these works might be too designed/functional to be art. This question is very relevant in a year when art and design collective Assemble won the Turner Prize for their social architecture project; perhaps the boundaries between art and design practice are dissolving in social and public art practices. Rendell argues that “public art should be engaged in the production of restless objects and spaces, ones that provoke us, that refuse to give up their meanings easily but instead demand that we question the world around us.” (Rendell, 2009) By working in an interdisciplinary way and creating pieces which actively seek to open up dialogues my recent work, whether designed or not, has all been building towards a ‘critical spatial practice’ that questions the contexts in which it has been made.
The idea of ‘restless spaces’ is echoed in Doreen Masseys text For Space where she sets out three propositions for recognising space: “First, that we recognize space as the product of interrelations; as constituted through interactions, from the immensity of the global to the intimately tiny. Second, that we understand space as the sphere of the possibility of the existence of multiplicity in the sense of contemporaneous plurality; as the sphere in which distinct trajectories coexist; as the sphere therefore of coexisting heterogeneity. Third, that we recognize space as always under construction.” (Massey, 2005) These propositions frame space and context as something which is continually changing, I have had first-hand experience of this over the course of the residency, not only in the ever changing environment at the reserve due to seasons, species migrations and visitors but also in the structure of the residency as it progressed.
Dealing with these changes has also lead me to think more deeply about my “self” in the research which brought me back to Morwenna Griffiths text Research and the Self which I read last year. In it she describes the self in similar terms to Massey’s propositions about space: “(1) Each self is unique and its response to circumstance is not determined. Further (2) the process is continuing: we are always in a state of becoming, always unfurnished. (3) We make ourselves in relation to others.” (Griffiths, 2010)
In an art historical sense my work follows on from the socially sited work of John Latham’s Artist Placement Group (APG), in which artists were placed within industry as “incidental people” there to provide new insight from their artist perspective. The artists who took part in APG were not under obligation to produce work for the placement (though most did in some form or other) and so had a certain freedom of experimentation. Although the work I produced for the Attenborough residency has been self-directed, it had to be approved before I began making it in order to release the funds and, unlike APG, there was some expectation that I would produce ‘deliverables’ that would form a legacy of the residency period at Attenborough.
My work also sits alongside contemporary social practice such as that of Ellie Harrison, whose community based performative works have been an inspiration to my own work. In January 2016, however when Harrison launched her new project, The Glasgow Effect, I got a taste of what social practice can mean for an artist in the age of social media. The project, which received £15,000 of funding, aimed to look at what it takes to work locally as an artist. Many artists rely on paid work outside of the place that they live and must travel to put on exhibitions and undertake opportunities. For this project Harrison would remain in her residential town, Glasgow, for a full year, taking sabbatical from her job at the art school in Dundee and only working with and setting up local projects. Unfortunately, the press reported the project as ‘poverty safari’, there was outrage that an artist would be ‘paid £15,000 to live in Glasgow’ and the image of chips used to promote the project only added fuel to the fire. The social media backlash had a distinctly anti-art flavour and even other artists were enraged about their perceived ‘unworthiness’ of this project. It brought home to me a modern phenomenon that is a real issue for social practice and art in general: social media can be a great tool for dissemination and promotion but it can also be used to take work out of context and be an extremely negative, even dangerous, space. The majority of the comments Harrison received seemed to be reactionary to the headlines and other comments, few people actually seemed to have looked into the project or even read the articles. This was an extreme example but it got me questioning, what happens when a community reacts badly to social practice? How can a project cope with that and how can an artist recover from such as experience as Ellie Harrison had and still deliver the project they set out to do?
Griffiths, M., 2010. Research and the Self. In: B. a. Karlsson, ed. The Routledge Companion to Research in the Arts. London: Routledge, pp. 167-185.
Harrison, Ellie., 2017. The Glasgow Effect. [Online] Available at: https://www.ellieharrison.com/tag/glasgoweffect/
Massey, D., 2005. For Space. London: Sage Publications Ltd.
Rendell, J., 2009. Critical Spacial Practice. [Online]
Available at: http://www.janerendell.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2009/06/critical-spatial-practice.pdf
Tate Archive, 2004. Artist Placement Group. [Online] Available at: http://www2.tate.org.uk/artistplacementgroup/