CRASH! / Urban Islands/ Peter Kennard

ICA / Cubbit Gallery / Gimpel Fils

There is some art that believes that it can change the world. This isn't new; for the better part of the last century, art's role with regard to social change has been hotly contested, and the clashes of the militant avant-gardes of the inter-war period have cast a long shadow on the activities and the thinking of subsequent generations of artists. For the critical art of the 20th century, art's return to grace has depended on the fabled dissolution and merging of art and life. Of course, 'Life' is a broader term than 'art', and it has variously been represented as psychological life, social life, political or economic life, indeed any combination of the above can, and has, served as the foil to art's endless search for the terms of its own agency, once the white cube, the aesthetic object and the commodity proved too compromised to satisfy this demand.

Art as an agent of social and political intervention feature heavily in CRASH!, but the exhibition's subtitle, Corporatism and Complicity signals the limits to the potential effectivity of those interventions, even before a shot is fired. Given that the show was initiated by CRASH! duo Scott King and Matt Worley, this is perhaps not surprising. Their respective backgrounds in the style and music press inflect their accompanying text with the same perpetually defeated but unbowed rebellion that is youth culture's circular stock-in-trade. "We've lost but we'll go down fighting" they write, and go on to list the insurmountable odds they're up against; the reassertion of market capitalism, the commodification of working class culture, the intellectual cul-de-sac of post modernism, and ,most bitterly, "the cross-over of consumer values into creativity/dissent." What CRASH! miss is the simple fact that dissent, if it is manifest only as a cultural product, can only ever be threatened with subsumption into the passive habits of the consumer.

This is of course the central problem of an exhibition like CRASH! Because most of the exhibits document activities conducted outside of the conventional context of art presentation, the effect that they have in their original locations is suspended once they are offered for inspection to the gallery audience. How, for example, does one interpret Matthieu Laurette's systematic use of money-back and exchange guarantees to save money on food and clothes whilst unemployed? Or Heath Bunting's email dialogue with ecologists and Biotech corporations about the threatened release of his genetic mutant 'superweed' into the environment, to force an end to the use of GM crops? As the response of individuals to issues of social concern, they appear quixotic at best. As models for subversion and dissent, their effective limits are evident. But once these works are presented in the gallery, their relative impotence evaporates, as they become models for the recasting the artistic subject as a viable social agent. If Rachel Baker's Art of Work artists' temping agency doesn't 'really' function as such, so what? As a clever didactic joke about the 'useful' work of artists, it works fine. But, as with much in CRASH! the work is at pains to assert the 'non-art' credentials of the activity, to give it the 'authenticity' required to stop it from becoming merely representational, allegorical, 'arty'.

Some works fare better for avoiding this tension. The Inventory group show their movable propaganda tent which, if you believe their home videos, they set up in various locations to distribute texts, broadcast pirate radio and other samizdat activities. In their case the quantity of the material available, and its generally anti-capitalist/situationist tone is engaging enough for you to accept their presence regardless of the artworld location. Similarly Andy Long's image/voiceover presentation The Illusion of Enfranchisement borrows the ICA to say some interesting things about spectacle of democracy, and would still be interesting, regardless of the context, be it art gallery, meeting room or shopping mall. But for all its manifest anti-capitalism, anti-consumerism, environmentalism and generally right-on posture, CRASH! can't survive the realisation that as just another cultural product to be consumed by the stylishly disaffected aficionados of the ICA it works neither as good politics or good art.

King and Worley crop again in Urban Islands, this time stickering the area around the Cubitt gallery with neo-situationist slogans like 'The problem is YOU', 'Fuck off back to Shoreditch', and 'In a world of cheap burger bars, loan sharks and misery, only hatred is honest'. The institutional antithesis of the ICA, Cubitt is being forced out of its current location in the back streets of King's Cross, by the regenerative ambitions of the local authorities and quangos, making Urban Islands a symbolic last stand for the kind of independent, context-driven practice which fought hard to survive in the Brit-Art London of the Nineties. It is also a very real last stand for the independent art-space; Nils Norman has occupied the bill board opposite Cubitt with Why Don't You: Proposal 11, a text/graphic suggesting to passers-by and the occupants of Cubitt studios alternative, non-compromised possibilities for action, from collectively fabricating celebrity artists, to squatting Cubitt against eviction. Norman also proposes the conversion of Caro's Child's Tower Room into a 'PsychoSonic Permaculture Play Tower/Training Module with Children's Rights/Anti-Patriarchy non-violent direct action Kiosk/Library', for a local community garden. Cathy Skene's fanzine, Filther, a colour fold out which presents very ordinary snapshots of ordinary-looking young people in ordinary situations, uses the blurred line between style photography and documentary, but retrieves ordinary life from advertising by celebrating the mundane without trying to sell you jeans. All you're left with are pictures of normal people, of course, but at least these images are for them, as much as of them.

The representation of the marginalised and the violence of capitalism also concerns Peter Kennard, in his exhibition of images from his newly published photopoem Domesday Book at Gimpel Fils. Belonging as he does to an earlier generation of politically engaged artists, Kennard has fewer qualms about co-opting the art work and gallery in the fight against oppression. Domesday Book follows the hallucinatory experiences of the narrator as he approaches the Millennium Dome at night, stumbling across the homeless and dispossessed that cower beyond the razor-wire perimeter of this vainglorious monument to capital. The book mixes old, new and reedited photomontages which offer much of the familiar Kennard iconography; the missiles, gas-masked generalissimos, warships and ruptured globes, along side more recent images of stricken faces emerging from the murky pages of the Financial Times, or imprinted on the remnants of dirty wooden pallets and placards. Above all Domesday Book is a desultory meditation of the (in)capacity of the artist to effect change, bear witness to those who are silenced, and resist the domination of culture by the interests of the powerful. As the book reaches its conclusion, the faces of the silent are invoked to 'speak' by the narrator, as he dismantles and withdraws his own statements, as well as those of the oppressors, the bankers, arms-dealers and politicians. At Gimpel Fils this invocation can be heard emerging from a pile of palettes which form the base of Kennard's own version of the dome, a broken-down skeleton of wire and wooden struts crowned by a twisted and ragged umbrella that offers no shelter.

The trouble with this resurgent activism, in whatever its guise, is that whilst it can propose models for activism beyond the gallery, it returns to the gallery defeated, only to be defeated a second time by the spectacular and recreational imperatives of the art institution. And although it may provoke an audience to reclaim a political and social agency beyond the realm of culture, much of the work on offer serves only to reinforce the deep mood of pessimism which dominates every discussion, from the environment to biotechnology to world trade to personal relationships, whilst denigrating art's real capacity at once to represent and embody humanity's creative overcoming of the problems it faces. A previous generation of radicals may have gone down fighting, but they at least knew they could win.



Published in Art Monthly no233, February 2000 back to top


all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated