Inventory: Twenty Thousand Streets under the Sky
The Approach 2nd December 1999 - 23rd January 2000
Fresh from their stint at the ICA's CRASH! in November, the Inventory group presents a new selection of displays, posters and artefacts that continue their militant excavation of the urban everyday. In the centre of the Approach's white cube, a large plywood table, mounted on trestles and marked up with a simple grid, presents several wallets, with what immediately appear to be the contents of each distributed around their respective containers, each item allocated one grid space. As one examines each wallet and its satellite contents, one builds up a forensic profile of its owner; A photo-booth snapshot, a university identity card, credit cards, supermarket discount cards, pictures of friends (one assumes) at parties, love notes, receipts, cash-machine mini-statements, medical warning cards and so on. The haphazard constellation of minor documents that permit the formation of an identity through transactions with the world of systems, institutions, hierarchies, and other people, can which however comprehensive, only ever leave blank the living individual that lies at the heart of these accretions of incidental objects. On an adjacent wall, the photo-booth snaps have been cut up, reworked and enlarged, producing the portraits of non-existent people.
The division between the individual free of constraints and a world whose systems and institutions of power are mobilised to subjugate it is a recurring theme in the work of inventory, who place themselves in a tradition of counter-cultural subversion which harks back to the events of May '68 and particularly to the activities of the Situationists. Many of the Situationists' key interests are echoed in Inventory's various writings and activities. For example, a text on the subject of shortcut paths which develop away from the established pavements in the urban environment draws on the Situationists' ideas of psycho-geography- how instead of following the rationally ordered map of the city, a subject might develop a different map, based on its living desires and intensities, rather than on regimentation of behaviour imposed by those who govern the organisation of lived space, such as architects, planners and politicians. The far wall of the gallery is pasted with a range of propagandistic posters, attacking the deadening effects of consumer society and lifestyle culture, following on from the Situationists' criticism of the 'society of the spectacle'. On the wall opposite are two framed photo-text collages, the first juxtaposing shots of the June 18th anti-capitalism riots in the City of London with pictures of London street names that refer to characters of classical mythology and antiquity, the second alternating various texts on the effects of digital culture on society with medical CT-scanner images of sections through a human hand. Next to them are hung a dozen or so mini-personal headset radios, with instructions to tune them to pirate radio stations.
Dissent, non-conformism and the celebration of the personal or particular in the face of the machineries of Capitalist social order are high on Inventory's list of priorities, certainly higher than producing art for art exhibitions, of which this is their first. Of course it's difficult these days to establish whether such activities should turn up in an art gallery at all, but to their credit Inventory have been busy elsewhere, publishing their eponymous journal through which they pursue in greater depth the range of concerns evident in the show. From their position it matters little if the venue in which they operate is the printed medium, speaker's corner or the space of the art gallery. The only problem is that of the effective propagation of their message, and if the Approach is visited by more people than would have read Inventory's journal, then as far as they are concerned this can only be a good thing. But what this kind of activity throws into question is the specific purpose of the art gallery with regards to how it defines art. That's to say, if these works can potentially be presented anywhere, whether in a magazine, a shopping mall, or a community drop-in centre, then what distinguishes them as things that should need to turn up in an art gallery? One old joke about radical political groups was that they would always hold meetings in rooms above pubs, and no doubt the space of the Approach, located above the Approach public house, once saw its fair share of political gatherings. But these meetings never claimed to be art; why this artworld obsession with presenting political activism as if it were synonymous with art? Perhaps the answer to this question lies in the kind of political activism that the art world tends to engage with; Inventory's style of politics isn't about campaigning for better wages, or reducing greenhouse gases, or any kind of specific demand made of governments and institutions which only make sense in those venues where political decisions are made.
Inventory's revival of Situationist politics is more about how to be a free individual, though not necessarily one that has any capacity to change the world around them; Hence the preoccupation in their work of retrieving the minutiae of personal experience, as a method of reasserting the individual in the face of institutional anonymity and the uniformity of consumer culture. They may not care to admit it, but Inventory's fascination with the seemingly all-encompassing and inescapable systems of Capitalist technocracy speaks more of a deep pessimism regarding the possibility of positive social change than it does of any sense that the current situation can be overcome, however militant their statements might sound. And this is maybe why Inventory's activity is so acceptable to the artworld, a situation which has traditionally given pride of place to the free creative individual, but which has over the past century become mired in self-doubt over art's ability to change the outside world. For the artworld, the kind of radical politics of individualism espoused by the situationists and revived by the likes of Inventory, provides the opportunity to re-legitimise the romantic ideal of the artist-as-creative-agency, whilst placing that agency in the legitimate frame of social intervention, rather than the impotent frame of the artworld's elitist and decadent confines.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated