Inventory: 'Requiem for the Empty Quarter'
The Approach, 31st January – 3rd March 2002
‘LIFE IS NOT ENOUGH!’ shouts a poster on a wall at The Approach, part of Inventory’s exhibition ‘Requiem for the Empty Quarter’. Inventory’s activities have over the last five years gained them some notoriety, bringing their idiosyncratic brand of Situationist interventionism and nomadic theorizing on the limits of life under Capitalism into contact with the circuits of contemporary art. Part of their success has to do with the art world’s recent enthusiasm with models of practice that fall beyond the institutional and formal traditions of art, and which offer the possibility of a direct role for art in social life. This supposed revival of politics and/or social responsibility in contemporary art has effectively broadened the art gallery’s remit for the time being, allowing in a range of heterogonous activities whose common motif is a politicised rhetoric, railing against commercial culture, media systems and corporate power.
That these approaches have a lot in common with the so-called ‘new protest movement’ is no coincidence. The growing disaffection within the artworld with the conventions of commercial and institutional art in the 90s, spurred by a more general sense of social disillusion, prompted many to look outwards for alternatives. Concurrently, many in the new protest movements, having lost and rejected older forms of organisation and intervention, developed tactics of direct action that addressed the formations and circuits of commercial culture. The artworld, a venue looking for an agenda, happily discovered an agenda looking for a venue.
The tension of this current cohabitation isn’t lost on Inventory, whose project crosses both situations without quite settling in either. ‘Requiem for the Empty Quarter’ offers differing accounts of the limits and opportunities of different contexts of action, one moment squatting the gallery with declamatory slogans and reading materials, in the next instance presenting documentary video of an intervention into public space, then creating objects that operate closer to the conventional terms of sculpture. Nevertheless their common energy lies in Inventory’s highly literary, anarchic subjectivism, which wends its way from Baudelaire to Debord via Walter Benjamin and Georges Bataille, with all its quixotic rage against alienated existence, consumer culture, the regimentation of urban space, all the while celebrating and archiving acts of subjective and collective resistance to the established order.
‘EVACUATE LONDON’ demands the lettering on another wall, in front of which is a Modular Propaganda Unit, 2002, a knackered assemblage of old furniture that allows visitors to read issues of the Inventory journal, with essays on such diverse questions as ‘Passionate Architecture’ or ‘Autocatalytic Art’. Also installed are small monitors, presenting Coagulum, 2001, a video document of a recent intervention. Members of the group and others gather to form a rugby scrum, on a recent busy Christmas shopping day in Oxford Street. The scrum wanders in and out of shopping malls, HMV record store and Nike Town, repelled by perplexed and frustrated security guards to the amusement and surprise of passing shoppers. It’s a brilliant and comic gesture that neatly sums up Inventory’s belligerent attitude to the banality of urban living, and sharply exposes the swift intolerance that greets even minor disruptions to civic order. Obstructing the highway is easy enough to do without much theory, but Coagulum is both poetic and didactic, the practical expression in embryo of the possibility of collective intervention, into the already present conventions of daily experience.
The other works in ‘Requiem…’ transpose much of Inventory’s polemic onto the surfaces of found and modified objects. A dirty Venetian blind presents a scrawled list of outraged and improbable Demands, 1999, whilst an old park bench is inscribed with A Short Treatise on Methomania, a chaotic scratching of declarations and musings on the liberating subjectivity of alcoholism. Elsewhere Requiem for the Empty Quarter, 2002, a stack of computer keyboards modified so that their letters offer such utterances as ‘Your Order My Chaos’, and ‘Economic Imperative Ossified Touch’, provoke further connections between information systems, power, and conformity, with a disarming formal poetry that goes beyond clumsy propaganda. Likewise, The Terminal Delineation of Space,2002 borrows a perforated steel shutter of the type used to secure empty property from squatters, bearing the image of a big fish gobbling a smaller victim. Nothing obscure about the message, but again, the playful combination and modification of elements, the charged significance found in the ‘found object’ is both evocative and elegant. What these objects share in common is the inscription of the mark of the outsider, both as objects beyond sculptural or artistic intent, then as objects that bear the monologues of the marginal and the silenced and Inventory’s polemics of resistance.
But although entertaining and often provocative in their own right, these works tend to function as incursions of Inventory’s greater project into the troublesome contexts of contemporary art. Inventory is still more interesting in print, video and performance than as objects in a gallery, perhaps because these activities maintain a clear autonomy and self-coherence, yet their presentation also points to their vulnerability and homelessness outside. It is to Inventory’s credit that they keep this tension open, unlike the many recent artists who have simply refurbished the gallery as a fashionable and contained shop for the consumption of cultural dissatisfaction, or who have bought into state-sponsored policy and transformed art into an instrument of social policy. Inventory’s sometimes autonomous, sometimes parasitic interactions with the artworld highlight rather than easily resolve both opportunities and limits of the gallery as a vehicle for effective intervention. These are questions that affect not only Inventory, but everyone working between art and social engagement currently. Since September 11th, with the protest agenda losing momentum and coherence now that Western Capital appears more under siege than all-powerful, it is now critical that a clear distinction be made between the agenda and practice of an effective progressive politics, and the content and form of a new progressive culture. It’s true that life is not enough, but then life can be more than we imagine, and the point is, as always, to change it.
all material copyright JJ Charlesworth 2009 and original publishers where indicated