Posted on 15/10/12
The exhibition ‘The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79’ at Raven Row displays two things. These could be characterised as the work produced under the APG, where artists sent out to companies produced work in new contexts, and the work of the APG as its own limited company negotiating and administering the relationships with industry it forged. The show illustrates this double nature: artworks and documentary sources stand at respectful distances from one another in the gallery space. The former are vastly outnumbered by the latter which are mostly in the form of correspondence. In a matter of fact way, and without being defensive, the excellent free catalogue produced for the exhibition attends to the problems this duality between ‘work by’ and ‘work of’ brought about. There were issues around artistic freedom, governance and self-definition from the start.
Of course successful placements did produce what would traditionally be the substance of an exhibition, but with an industrial inflex: amongst photo, video and film pieces, there are sculptural objects made out of ‘cor-tan’ steel, and ‘trichromatic screen print on vacuum formed pvc’. Much of the work was lens based, as would be expected with partners like Scottish TV and British Transport Film Unit.
Yet this picture of the APG is a misreading (on my part, and on purpose) of what the APG sought to attain in the minds of its chief architects. As a ‘discursive project’ the conversations, the collaborations, the films and the organisational proceedings are all one diaphanous ‘practice’. This is a word sloppily used today but which was of utmost relevance to the ideas informing the APG, ideas which have a deeper legacy in the utopic aspirations of the avant-garde; the proposed art-and-industry unions of the constructivists, and the early visions which inspired the Deutsche Werkbund.
The APG seems so perfectly poised between where we find ourselves today and the moment of the historical avant-garde. In being the ‘harbinger of the artist as consultant’ the catalogue tells us, the APG had a lasting effect on the way both artists and businesses work, but one troubles over how to assess our appreciation of this.
There is one other way, at least in light of the current exhibition, that industrial relations manifestly did effect and inform the practice that was the APG, though it was not perhaps considered as a part of the exchange.
The show betrays a secretarial consideration for record, archivisation and data management on the part of the APG that goes beyond concerns for posterity, though it is this that structures how we view the APG here, after many years off the job. The gallery displays what must be hundreds of letters to would-be partners. We read of, rather than see, the evolution of these relationships: they end abruptly, don’t get off the ground at all and of course blossom into fruitful collaborations. In these the APG play-acted at being a corporate enterprise: the branding, the officious tone, the continual board meetings.
At the same time it is as if they imagined themselves a kind of natural resource which could be self-harvested. Thus artists ‘brought in’ to industry could critique companies, offering new perspectives from the point of view of their special and as yet untapped capacity to usefully, rather than ornamentally, ‘see things differently’. Their work exposes myths about capital, most notably that it is somehow a rational exercise rather than one that makes use of a rationality; that thought, and particularly ‘critical thought’, with all its enlightenment heritage, is somehow per seto everyone’s benefit.
There is a sense that what is really on display in the exhibition is the out-sourcing of institutional critique which emerged from what Benjamin Buchloh has called ‘an aesthetic of administration’. In 1990 Buchloh described work like Hans Haacke’s Visitor Profiles(1969-70) as an aesthetic defined by ‘its bureaucratic rigor and deadpan devotion to the statistical collection of factual information.’ One that was produced (so Buchloh quotes Sol LeWitt) as the artist followed his or her ‘predetermined premise to its conclusion avoiding subjectivity… The serial artist does not attempt to produce a beautiful or mysterious object but functions merely as a clerk cataloguing the results of his premise.’
What conceptual art achieved at least temporarily… was to subject the last residues of artistic aspiration towards transcendence to the rigorous and relentless order of the vernacular of administration...
…Paradoxically, then, it would appear that Conceptual art truly became the most significant paradigmatic change of post-war artistic production at the very moment that it
Laying the transparencies of Buchloh’s ‘Conceptual Art 1962-1969: From the Aesthetics of Administration to the Critique of Institutions’ over the work of the APG some things don’t fit. Key to the differing situations between the US and the UK was that the APG (orchestrated through publically funded universities) seemed to labour under the premise that art was not an industry itself, that artists were outsiders to capitalism.
Conversely conceptual art’s modernist legacy of self-criticism guaranteed, at least for a time, immediate radical reformulation of both art and industry as they were revealed as being one and the same in the art work of Warhol, Haacke and Buren.
Of course conceptual art was different, certainly not an industry outreach initiative. Rather it ‘mimed the operating logic of later capitalism and its positivist instrumentality in an effort to place its auto-critical investigations at the service of liquidating even the last remnants of traditional aesthetic experience.’ In other words, instead of attempting to spread artistic sensibility on one hand and make art out of industrial sensibility on the other, it posed one against the other internally. Perhaps this then put interaction with otherindustries, when they occurred, on clearer terms: ‘know thyself’ the philosopher said.
And there were, in fact, similar groups to the APG at this time in the United States, and to which conceptual artists contributed. This was most notably the Experiments in Art and Technology program which ran from 1967, while another example was Robert Smithson’s work as artist-consultant to the architectural and construction firm Tippets-Abbett-McCarthy-Stratton (TAMS). In these collaborations companies offered their materials, technological expertise and facilities to the artists to experiment with. (Incidentally one of the results of Mel Bochner’s work under the E.A.T, his Transparent and Opaque (1968), is on show at the Whitechapel Gallery now.) While the situation in the states seems quite transparent, there is awkwardness about the mutuality of the relations and contributions between the APG and industry. It is striking how, though the initiatives were practically similar, in the UK the APG saw themselves as doing industry a favour and not the other way around. At the same time, as the negotiations were considered part of the practice of the APG, and this implies a discursive ownership on the part of the artist-administrator, one might go as far as to say that the APG attempted to lure industry into the fantasy world of artistic play, rather than involve itself in the ‘real world’ of industry and business. APG artists can be seen to at once attempt to embody what was seen as industry’s rationalism and coldness and at the same time foster rather romantic relations, through art work, with their new co-workers.
There is something almost uniquely British about the APG, its bossy middle-class didacticism, the fantastical naiveté in its have your cake and eat it approach to big business and its dour seriousness and wastage of well-meaning energies: but perhaps we have had to go through New Labour for this sense to have emerged.
In the political economies which emerged as state and market forces consolidated themselves into a singular late industrial machine, the archival and administrative instinct that I am drawing attention to on the part of the APG had, in the developed industrial countries of the Global north, a rationale that exposes the exact nature of political economies themselves. This is that in capitalist society, the rights of the capitalist to proceed with the subjection of the worker to the strictures of proletarianism, are enshrined in law which the state upholds. When a major corporation documents all its business in memos, minutes and receipts, it does so because it has reason to believe the law will be on its side should claim be brought against it. In doing so it writes its own history, it makes its existence a matter of scientific determination. The law watches over business, it is its self-anointed guardian angel. This is despite the recent court cases brought against the police regarding Hillsborough and the dealings between Sky and the Conservative Party: these are exceptions that prove the rule (of law).
Therefore, in assuming the role of administrator – the shameless indiscretion of the clerk – is to assume the same authority and enfranchisement as the capitalist; to welcome in the angelic presence of the law is self-capitalisation: it doesn’t mean you can cash it in though.
Dr Thomas Morgan Evans
Dr Thomas Morgan Evans is the LUX writer in residence for September 2012. He completed his PhD under the supervision of Professor Briony Fer at the University College London where he is now a Henry Moore Institute Post-Doctoral Research Fellow, working on a book project on Andy Warhol and contemporary sculpture. Besides this he has previously been writer in residence at the LUX/ICA Biennial of Moving Images 2012 and is pursuing a number of writing projects ranging from fiction to art history and theory and philosophy. He is a keen cyclist and lives in London.
The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79 continues at Raven Row, London to 16 December 2012