Plywood Utopias

Article excerpt

AN OVERT AND UNASHAMED INSTRUMENTALISATION OF GOVERNMENT FUNDING FOR THE ARTS, together with the rhetoric of 'widening participation' and an opportunistic chasing of the public purse by artists, have conspired together to produce a recent art of politics-lite in Britain: an art that always seeks to 'find new audiences'; to engage with 'local people' (ie ethnic minorities); to uncover, document and record the voices and stories of those populations trampled by industry, displaced by developers and all but ignored by their politicians. Now the galleries and remaining public spaces of our cities are being filled with a babble of oral histories, an illegible kaleidoscope of disposable camera photography, thousands of initiatives all hoping to engage and empower. This great whirlwind of workshops and outreach projects has provided a meaningful economy for many artists, happy to scrape a living and with the added bonus of institutional validation by reflection. It may not be possible to show your own work at the museum but by running a kids' project you can associate your name with it, gain access to the spaces by proxy and bask a little in the glow.

This grass-roots economy has operated for several decades. What's unique today is that, mirroring the exponential growth of interchangeably anonymous education projects, the top end of the art market has also been colonised by relational, participatory pieces that make great play of being 'socially engaged'. So much so that it sometimes seems as if art is being valued purely on ethical grounds above all others. The artists' role as author is usually ostentatiously downplayed--at the same time increasing their stock as speaker, visionary thinker, culturepreneur (see 'Art Futures', Simon Ford & Anthony Davies in AM223). Like a backhanded compliment, this art takes back from the artist as much as it ostensibly gives. Allan Kaprow famously asked if an artist should be a man of the world. But the type of accumulation of cultural capital that he railed against, building up your own unique brand that can subsequently be traded for sales, work, employment, is now so common as to be unremarkable. It's just the way things are. It doesn't have to be like this. I would make a case for Jeremy Deller & Alan Kane's Folk Archive project being one of the most beautifully conceived social artworks of recent times. The touring version is simply huge in its scope, genuinely fascinating to a non-specialist audience in the way that only authentically strange local museums can be, and at the same time utterly contemporary as a conceptually sound framing mechanism within the art world. It is all the more laudable because the artists have successfully hidden themselves behind the archival structure and documentary camera lens. Everything temporarily on display within the archive would have happened anyway without Deller & Kane knowing about it. There is no need to stage an event or to construct a pseudo-public place where reality can happen for the benefit of a gallery audience. Because guess what? Reality is already happening--out there.

There is something wrong when less well-conceived projects turn the spaces between people into just so much raw material. Situations and events are orchestrated with the express desire of allowing 'the public' or at least the audience free reign to interact, order and reorder as they desire. …