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Disparate Times… | Marianne Templeton

So many things have been produced and accumulated that they can
never possibly all be put to use… So many messages and signals are
produced and disseminated that they can never possibly all be read.
– Jean Baudrillard , The Transparency of Evil : Essays on Extreme Phen omena

So I spent the day walking; churning strides. A sequence of repetitive
thoughts each defined by a sequence of repetitive images ran through
my head. My mind felt like a living blotting paper, picking up stuff
but never quite managing to process it fully and draw conclusions
as to its value. So all I was left with was a mass of images stuttering
towards articulation.
– Katie Cudd on, press release for ‘I no longer kn ow what the money is ’, Alma Enterprises , 2010

London is a place of constant entry and exit: outwardly stable, yet harbouring a deep sense of displacement and uncertainty. Disoriented by the global financial crisis, rising unemployment, numerous social issues and its own unwieldy size, the city nevertheless maintains an ungainly momentum. The art recently surfacing in London’s artist-run initiatives — skewed, dislocated, and slightly misshapen art — has come to mirror the strange form of its surroundings. This art isn’t perfect, and deliberately so. Frustrations, set-backs, innumerable false starts and failures are all valued. These are not the conditions for smooth, self-possessed technique, but a breeding ground for the fragmented, messy and transitory.

This does not mean to say there is uniformity among all artists currently exhibiting in London. Yet several conspicuous trends point towards a general shift. Boxcopy’s own overarching curatorial sensibilities — an emphasis on playfulness, humour and experimentation; a penchant for DIY and hybrid works; and a preference for art that physically and critically interrogates the limits of the space itself — are not out of place here. These traits characterise Boxcopy’s unique curatorial vision, but also situate its conceptual strengths in close relation to the current field of London-based ARI practice.

And the field itself is marvellously diverse. The label of ‘artist-led’ covers a vast range of spaces, from industry stalwarts Cubitt and Matt’s Gallery, to smaller projects such as Supplement and the two Jonnys’. There are also the shades of grey: the sharp-minded, minor commercial spaces that display more than a little ARI spirit (Seventeen; Sutton Lane; Ancient & Modern), and the lively larger galleries that subsist largely on Arts Council grants (Camden Arts Centre) or charitable patronage (Parasol Unit).

Such a bulky and heterogeneous art scene is fated to be as uneven as it is energetic. Sifting out the good and the wonderful from amongst the rotten, poor and dull cultivates headaches, blisters and a take-no-prisoners critical approach. Additionally, it is not always easy (or productive) to isolate the practices of non-profit art spaces from those of high-end commercial and public galleries, as a symbiotic relationship has long existed between the two ends of the spectrum.

Two recent large-scale surveys illustrate this connection: Nicolas Bourriaud’s Altermodern, the 2009 Tate Triennial; and Newspeak: British Art Now, a two-part exhibition at The Saatchi Gallery in 2010–11. Both exhibitions attempted to define the artistic present, with questionable success; the one conclusive outcome was to confirm the continuing reign of the super-curator. Newspeak distanced itself from YBA shock-and-awe by presenting a subtler and more reflective generation of work, while Altermodern, as the first Tate Triennial to incorporate non-British participants, emphasised the statelessness of contemporary art.

The convergence of Altermodern and Newspeak with current ARI trajectories occurs on the level of the language of strategy. Skimming through Bourriaud’s catalogue manifesto, familiar words stand out: fragmentation; displacement; re-enactment; mixing. This same language recurs within the discourse of both emerging and established artists, indicating a tendency towards perpetually roaming, open-ended work. Though his efforts to promote the term ‘altermodern’ are laboured at times, Bourriaud’s central point is sound: the notion of today’s artist as cultural nomad, a re-invented flâneur whose works reinterpret existing histories and signs.1 These surveys may seem a long way from the ARI scene, but the key traits they identify — a resourceful eclecticism, a starting-point based in global culture, and a nomadic transportation and transformation of signs — are certainly familiar to many emerging artists in the UK, Australia, and elsewhere.

This same enterprising spirit has led to an inventive sourcing of premises. In Brisbane, a number of ARI’s are born in suburbia; in London, they are often intimately connected with buildings of industry and commerce. The clusters of papered-over windows and empty shop-fronts that accompanied the first wave of the recession in 2008 reflected the general atmosphere of uncertainty, but also served as a reminder that artist-led initiatives thrive in such abandoned spaces, and continue to do so. In addition to the usual converted shops and warehouses, London ARI’s have made use of an eclectic range of sites: an old ice-cream factory (Utrophia); an empty police station (Do-It-Yourself Art Centre); rooftops (Shed & A Half ); shipping containers (Squid & Tabernacle); and the back room of a pub (Another Roadside Attraction), to list a few.

Equally resourceful are artists favoured by Supplement and Waterside Project Space, two initiatives with a curatorial focus on work that playfully interrogates the language systems and codified structures of daily life. These artists have multidimensional practices and will use whatever is at hand to make their point. Eclectic recent work by Supplement’s Luke McCreadie have ranged from Review, a video of two conflicting music reviews written simultaneously with two pens held in one hand; to Secret, an illegibly jumbled pile of white wooden letters and punctuation marks; and Richard & Chris, thinly sliced and interlaced magazine portraits that seem to vibrate and melt before the eye. Waterside Project Space exemplifies a DIY aesthetic through lo-fi group exhibitions whose titles — Unfinished Business; Phoney Language; Traveling Alone; Empty Sets — emphasise the gaps that exist between meaning and understanding, use and potential, cause and effect.

Other initiatives provide platforms for work exploring institutional conventions. Artists managing their own gallery are often acutely aware of the function and structure of the space itself, and both Vulpes Vulpes and Alma Enterprises invite artists with rigorously critical practices to engage directly with the gallery structure. Over time, Alma Enterprises has morphed from an ARI into a curatorial project, which hosts installations, screenings and performances in a dynamic and visceral vein. I no longer know what the money is, a recent exhibition by Katie Cuddon, enacts the artist’s frustrated struggle to express herself. Her too-rapidly projected drawings and their awkwardly positioned sculptural accompaniment force the visitor into a self-conscious navigation, of both the gallery space and Cuddon’s visualised linguistic stumblings.

Hoxton’s Standpoint Gallery delivers intelligent and often wryly funny exhibitions showcasing the ‘artist’s artists’: Daniel Pasteniner, with his delightfully geeky pseudo-science assemblages; Jeanine Woollard, photographed heroically (and nakedly) braving the fearsome panthers and stallions printed on kitsch novelty blankets; and most recently, Indiana Audunsdottir, who captures on video her own awkward yet oddly charismatic reworkings of cave-woman myths, complete with ridiculous prosthetics, fake fur loincloths and liberal lashings of spray-tan. These works are rich with signification, ritual and stylistic references, yet not weighed down by them: Standpoint’s artists are marked by their ability to edit, and edit well.

Most spaces take advantage of social media sites for publicity, documentation and debate. Some initiatives further blur medium and message: the two Jonnys’ commission artists to redesign their webpage on a rolling basis, while Furtherfield — an online platform which also hosts its own real-world site, HTTP Gallery — presents innovative digital and collaborative net-art projects. How To Talk To Images, Richard Wright’s 2008 project for Furtherfield, used a database to compile 50,000 images from the internet as a comment on the increasing tendency ‘to search rather than to see’.2 The question at the heart of Wright’s project — how do we cope with the awareness of the vast and incomprehensible mass that surrounds us? — is a classic philosophical concern that still resonates strongly within ARI discourse.

In The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard claimed that ‘Nothing (not even God) now disappears by coming to an end, by dying. Instead, things disappear through proliferation or contamination, by becoming saturated or transparent… Rather than a mortal mode of disappearance, then, a fractal mode of dispersal’.3 This ‘fractal mode of dispersal’ has a keen relevance to those increasing numbers of artists who rework and renovate pre-existing signs. Matter is never truly created or destroyed, only endlessly broken down and reformed. Rather than catapulting towards extremes in the manner of the Sensation! brood, these artists travel in circuits: they remain in orbit, scouring the globe for unusual perspectives, curious signs, and strange alignments of phenomena. The resulting art is, perhaps, a little tamer; but surely subtlety is not a bad thing.

With characteristic literary arm-flailing, Baudrillard also warned against the inertia that threatens a society sunk in surplus signs.4 The difference between the theory and the way emerging artists are approaching this overload is that artists seem less concerned with dystopian outlooks and more focused on direct human responses: the ‘stuttering towards articulation’ that Cudden describes. Immensity is to be accepted, rather than competed with or tamed. In reaction to an excess of signification, these artists no longer seek new languages, but instead rake through the junkyard, rescuing the useful and interesting bits and bending them to their own purposes.

by Marianne Templeton

1. Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodern: Tate Triennial, Tate Publishing, London, 2009, p.13.

2. Richard Wright, How To Talk To Images, HTTP Gallery, http:// http://www.http.uk.net/exhibitions/ HTTTI/index.shtml, 2008.

3. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, Verso, London, 1993, p.4.

4. Ibid., pp. 35–36.

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