In a conversation on “creative provocation”, British sculptor Roger Hiorns, chair of Visual Communication at University of the Arts London (UAL), Scott King and writer, curator, lecturer and Contributing Editor for Frieze, Tom Morton discuss the corporate art world and the continued importance of self expression.
This is an abridged excerpt from upcoming book The Creative Stance , a set of essays and interviews on creativity featuring academics, critics and creatives including Grayson Perry, Sonia Bryce, Edmund de Waal, Bob and Roberta Smith, Siobhan Davies, Richard Deacon, Neil Cummings, Lucy Orta, Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Nils Norman, Sonia Boyce, Tom Morton, Roger Hiorns, and Scott King. The Creative Stance is published by common-editions and UAL, designed by Sarah Boris and sold via Cornerhouse Publications.
On the corporate art world and provocation
Scott King: For me, coming from a magazine background, and desperately, I admit, wanting to be an artist – this was the mid-90s, the time of the Young British Artists – I was very aware that there was graphic design, commercial design, and then there was proper fine art. But I remember going to see a show – I think it was called Bad Girls – at the ICA, London [7 October – 5 December 1993], and it was very clearly sponsored by an oil company, with a huge fucking logo on the back of the invite. As a twenty-four-year-old, I thought this was a bad joke, because I didn’t understand, but then you realise that this stuff just isn’t mentioned – people just want to get their work out there. In Britain, at least, this is a fall-out of the commercial success of the YBAs, and it’s never been challenged since.
Roger Hiorns: Just a bit of background – there was attrition behind the scenes. A number of artists and a number of curators were consistently debating this issue with Tate, and at a number of levels. And, of course, Liberate Tate was incredibly focused and effective; the publicity war was certainly won with the strongest of messages – a war of attrition that probably made the trustees exhausted. It took too long for Tate to get the point.
SK: But also, it’s everywhere – any artist who’s in any art fair and sells their work is in indirect contact with any arms dealer, or whoever, who buys their work.
RH: The ‘clerk-to-the-regime’ curator, the corporate raider, the arms dealer or manufacturer – these are interesting figures to bring up. Early on, I had a gallery policy, which was not to sell work to people who were evidently profiting from or had evidently profited from anti-humanitarian acts. I think it’s really important to have a sense of your own autonomy, and this perceived autonomy can exist ethically as much as contextually and intellectually. Artists can take a stand. So yes, there are contemporary and historical collections built on grim foundations – on pollution, on asset-stripping and on other versions of systemic violence that infiltrate the common good of the world. Pharmaceuticals too. The art world accommodates, helping people to cross the border into legacy and acceptability. The funding of education departments, academy schools, tie-ins to public institutions, and the discussion about their legitimacy can quite quickly be settled by the art world PR machine. Students – how do they feel about that? That their college department may be problematically funded? Perhaps they feel their silence is bought early on.
Tom Morton: I guess the point I’m trying to make is that the world itself is provocative, and often a lot more provocative than art. Even the apparatus of the art world is a lot more provocative than art a lot of the time. You know, we have institutions that feel, design-wise, quite free and open and like spaces of dissent, but you find out very, very quickly that they’re not and that they reflect vested interests. You have collectors who have very, very difficult associations. So, given how provocative the world is, I wonder if we can move the idea of provocation away from Banksy-type, prodding provocation and towards something else.
RH: Yes, I think you can talk about certain artists who are provocative without a capital ‘P’.
TM: Less ‘noisy’ practices, somehow.
RH: Less noisy, but still trying to redesign the way that we’re supposed to behave. Because maybe the future of any creativity is about opening new sites for expression, redesigning behaviour, perhaps, as the tired-out traditions of painting and making objects, and the need to make attractive art, wane. I suppose that when we talk about problematic actors, or when we talk about institutions that aren’t playing the ethical game one might hope, people who share the supported conditions where art is being made and selected or nominated can become disheartened. As a young artist it’s easy to give up your authority to an arena in which a lot of people are not acting in a way that you find very supportive to a collaborative, progressive future – to a progressive idea of what the new future can be. So what do you do? You have to do two things. You have to make artworks that are provocative and, at the same time, you also have to change the landscape that art exists within. So it’s not just a situation where you’re a passive artist making objects or artworks for the art world. This is important, and has always been the Herculean task – to reshape the world to contain the artwork you make, to create a new reality – because it’s never been enough just to make the art. And change is happening. Whatever the reason, Tate and BP have separated. So you do have this new arena where art can establish itself. I think Tate is reflecting the work that it wants to accommodate in the future. The uptake of the art world is so slow, and there is a lot of art being made now – the institutional juggernaut is taking time to react to the world.
On the Turner Prize-winning Assemble
SK: I was going to ask about this in the context of [London-based architecture, art and design collective] Assemble winning the Turner Prize. Now, how much stock we place in the Turner Prize is for us to decide, but, to me, this decision was an incredibly political act. Not the wet philanthropy that they do, which is political as well, but the fact that they won this thing and what that says about British art and the utility of it. What does it symbolise to you, if anything?
TM: I think it’s a possible misstep by Tate – a dog-whistle signalling something about their intentions: a gesture towards community engagement, perhaps, towards an idea of art having social purpose. It was also a way of injecting life into what had become a slightly moribund apparatus – the Turner Prize. The winners had increasingly become curators’ favourites; whether you like, say, Duncan Campbell’s films or not, this wasn’t the kind of work that was discussed on the top deck of the bus by a vast tranche of the British public. Were you irritated that the winners were people who, however good they may be at what they do, were not artists?
SK: No, that didn’t annoy me. What annoyed me was that it appeared to be a complete negation of the real politics. Assemble are such an easy fit in what Robert Hewison calls the ‘age of lead’ [Robert Hewison, Cultural Capital: The Rise and Fall of Creative Britain, 2014]: this post-funding period that we’re now in, this total denial of funding for the arts. Assemble are such an obviously easy solution after the gigantism of Gormley and Kapoor – these lovely, middle-class people bringing tofu and brown rice …
RH: It’s well-meaning and you feel uncomfortable, in that you know you’re being manipulated. There’s always been that theory within politics, that if a protest group is occupying space, no matter how effective or ineffective their protest is, protest space is at least being occupied and the public perception is that something is ‘being done’. But it’s a placeholder for effective protest. What happens is that you have this generation who feel that a position of social usefulness – a very legitimate position to take within agitating for social progress or development – has been occupied by unimaginative poseurs.
TM: The ‘provocation’ in this is actually not the provocation Tate intended. The real provocation is a message to artists saying, well, you’re not as effective social actors as architects. It’s saying, we really want people who have a measurable impact. You can’t measure the numinous.
On the importance of self-expression
RH: Yes, there is a legacy to provocation. If you’re going to talk about provocation, as we’ve discussed, you’re talking about the present. You’re talking about that moment when the present is understood in a very specific way, in order then to be prodded, pushed, pulled and coerced – and then people respond publicly. I suppose that’s the mechanism of provocation. You’ve got to question how useful that is nowadays. On the other hand, it’s also something for each artist to hang something on … I’m thinking of someone like [nineteenth-century French poet] Arthur Rimbaud. I suppose that, in 1870s Paris, people were perhaps putting their sexual motivations on show, through the indirect medium of poetry. Then Rimbaud arrives on the scene and writes about cum and the receptive anus. You have that moment within poetry when one might understand the zeitgeist, and how to push at its limits at that exact moment in history, and understand how the authorities push back. I find it fascinating, for example, that the elasticity of the anus was tested using a device by those charged to investigate. We have to look at society as a whole and see where the same illiberal attention is present – a place where we have to push against authorities. Of course, the problem is that authority now has very effective shape-shifting abilities and it remains difficult to pin- point the actual area where authority should be challenged. The art world might be such a place. When I did a work about the human disease variant CJD [part of Hayward Gallery exhibition History is Now: 7 Artists Take on Britain; see above], it was really important to prise open the archives and understand how authority worked at a recent moment in time. At one point during the construction of the work, I wanted to borrow a piece of film from the BBC – a famous moment of John Selwyn Gummer attempting to feed a beef-burger to his daughter, Cordelia, and Cordelia refusing and saying, no daddy. I received a letter from the head of BBC News, explaining that it was politically challenging for the BBC to lend the film. To this day this film still holds political influence, and so it is to take on an archive, which is essentially ‘power left lying in the street’.
TM: I always wonder when you use that phrase, because you use it often. It’s Lenin’s and Lenin is not a neutral figure!
RH: Hannah Arendt used it too, though. And I find it useful as a tool – yes, power is left lying in the street by authorities and you just have to identify it, pick it up and reuse that power. You can open up the archive and re-present the information, which no one is aware of any longer, and, once light is shed upon the materials, you will care about it once again because it is genuine and shocking, and symptomatic of why we are where we are now.
SK: We all do different things in a different way. For me, the best advice I can give to design students, and I know it’s corny, is actually to be yourself. That’s something that’s lost within professional graphic design, because people are so desperate to make the generic and the contemporary. That’s a completely different perspective, of course.
RH: It’s important, because it’s not obvious to be yourself. I think the thing that squashes most people is homogeneity. You can look at your phone and you can understand what is being made on the other side of the world within seconds. How are you supposed to make a new work in this environment of effective communication – to establish a style of substance, when you’re surrounded by the globalised manufacture and promotion of art? How are you supposed to find your stream?
TM: There’s also a difference between self-expression and the cultivation of the self, and I think this is an important thing. We live in a culture in which the self is very central and, supposedly, being able to have one’s say, to express oneself, to be creative, is also central. It ends up in an awful lot of bullshit being generated, and we now have the Internet in which that can land. Self-cultivation seems to be something different. [Mid-twentieth-century poet] René Char has this line:
“Companions in pathos, who barely murmur, go with your lamp spent and return the jewels. A new mystery sings in your bones. Cultivate your legitimate strangeness.”
That seems to me an interesting way to think about this rather than looking at the untrammelled self, which is interesting if you’re living in Freud’s Vienna – you know, sort of sticking a spike in your head and seeing what comes out – but doing that in the age of Twitter is something very different, I think.
SK: That’s a good point. Having been on Instagram and feeling less every time I look on it, less of myself, I feel that it’s so easy to be distracted from the pursuit of self-education, pursuit of what you actually might want. It’s so easy to become lost, I think. I think what Tom just said is very true – the importance of perhaps, rather than trying to provoke, trying to alienate yourself to some degree and then, you know, seeing what happens.