Freee – Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, Out, Out, Out!
DATE: February 2008
Freee are artists Mel Jordan, Andy Hewitt and Dave Beech. Recent projects, taking place on billboards, in galleries, as performances and on postcards, include The Function of Public Art for Regeneration is to Sex Up the Control of the Under-Classes (2005), Manifesto for a Counter-Hegemonic Art (2006), How to Talk to Public Art (2006) and Protest is Beautiful (2007).
In this conversation, the artists introduce their work as a mode of distributing, activating and declaring ideas and challenge us to rethink the role and possibilities of passive, polite spaces that artists continue to quietly and predictably occupy, whether that is in ‘public space’ and/or in a ‘gallery’.
◊ Have you seen David Osbaldeston’s interview for International Project Space?
◊ I’ve not read it yet, why?
◊ He says we are part of that avant-garde tradition that negates its own position by bringing the work back into the gallery. Instead of thinking of the avant-garde as aestheticised by art’s institution it should be thought of as anaestheticised, he says.
◊ David Osbaldeston makes a classic mistake there doesn’t he?
◊ I think a lot of people make the same mistake.
◊ …thinking that there’s a primary location for the work which corresponds to worthy political intentions to leave the gallery behind which is then negated by going back to the gallery.
◊ Richard Long has been doing this for years, saying the work exists outside the gallery and all you get in the gallery is a document or some kind of secondary thing.
◊ Christo has a similar position.
◊ I think our work doesn’t just exist elsewhere but everywhere.
◊ There’s a performance tradition as well that says the work exists here and at one particular time and all you have left – in the gallery and in books – is documentation.
◊ Land Art says the same thing.
◊ It’s important that we point out that the stuff that we do outside the gallery, like the billboards and the mini-protest performances in Manchester (which were staged in front of cameras) were always intended to be seen elsewhere and at other times, including in the gallery.
◊ Yeah, we always knew that the work wasn’t intended for passers-by. We weren’t trying to stop people in the street or anything.
◊ We were always interested in other audiences.
◊ It’s not for that audience. It’s performed again and again, every time.
◊ It’s never for that original moment. So the photos that get into the gallery or in a magazine or something are never merely a document of the original moment. It’s always designed at the beginning to be seen in another place by another audience later on.
◊ All these various things that we do – stage a performance, print a billboard, paste a billboard on the wall of the gallery, put some photos in a book, publish a manifesto, read the manifesto aloud – these are variations of the same work.
◊ David Osbaldeston is saying that the conceptualists were naïve in their attempt to leave the gallery.
◊ I think that’s what a lot of conceptualists did.
◊ What you’re seeing in the gallery is not the actual work for a lot of conceptualists.
◊ Yes, there’s a lot of that in that period.
◊ We don’t belong to that. We’re critical of the idea of that original moment or an original audience or event. We’re more interested in the time lag and the spatial shift as the work moves from one place to another, not belonging more to the first place than the second or the hundredth.
◊ It’s like an MP giving a speech just before 1pm because she wants her speech to be on the lunchtime news. You know, she’s speaking to an audience in front of her but she’s got more than half an eye on the cameras and the television audience that isn’t there. In effect, it is that absent audience that is primary.
◊ But the audience that is there is like a stand-in for the television audience.
◊ I think that’s much closer to the model we’re working with. Using technologies of distribution that shift you into other audiences, other publics, other spaces, other times.
◊ The documentation doesn’t come second for us – it’s built into the idea of making something that was always intended to be distributed elsewhere and to others.
◊ And that’s why the titles are the same as the slogans in the works, so that the work exists again whenever the work gets named or referred to.
◊ It’s like publicity. The slogan is publicity for an idea or position.
◊ That’s the answer to the puzzle that David Osbaldeston is struggling with. If you say the slogan is the work then there is no original or proper place for it to be. And there’s no compromise or opportunism if the slogan is repeated and appears somewhere else. The slogan is there in the performance; it’s also there in the photograph; it’s also there on the billboard; it’s also there in the gallery. The work is intact at every single stage. If we focus on the slogan then we don’t get into those problems. The slogan changes its body but the slogan itself doesn’t change.
◊ No matter what physical manifestation it comes in.
◊ I think modernism fetishised all those differences of format, style and everything that was supposed to have more significance than the content. So, if you put the slogan in a painting, it’s not the same slogan as the same text in a photo. So, you’re less likely to think that the slogan remains the same if you’ve come from an art background, if you’ve been a good student of modernism.
◊ I’m thinking about the authentic moment. I want to get over that. And I’m concerned that people think that the gallery negates that authentic moment. David Osbaldeston says that having a discussion in the gallery negates the function of the work in some way. I mean, for me it’s just another function. Every sitting of it has the same function in a way. Again and again and again.
◊ Yeah, if you say ‘Maggie Maggie Maggie Out Out Out’ and then you hear someone else saying it, you don’t stop them and say ‘hold on, you’re not allowed to say that – I said that!’ You don’t stop someone from copying you. You don’t tell them to ‘say something new’ or ‘say something in your own style’ or anything. You want other people to say it. As many as possible. That’s what a slogan is …
◊ That’s the difference between a slogan and a unique modernist art object.
◊ … you want it to be repeated and spread. Repetition brings life to the slogan whereas with modernism – where the copy is taboo – the idea is that if it gets repeated and reproduced too much it loses its power. What you want with a slogan is for it to be repeated, repeated, repeated.
◊ Conventional ideas about public art, socially engaged art and relational art carry forward some of those modernist ideas. There is a particular way about thinking of public art as rejecting the gallery and therefore just having a different unique original place. The most naïve way of putting that is that you want to move art from the gallery to the street.
◊ So you get different associations, contexts, viewers, publics, encounters and so on.
◊ Yes, but it’s just a different set. And it’s just as singular as the modernist one. There’s still a sense of this being the right place or even the only place.
◊ Rather than thinking about dispersal and dissemination.
◊ And this is where the David Osbaldeston critique comes from. If that’s your place, if your place is in the public – and he’s looking at our billboards and thinking that that’s where our art belongs, and he’s looking at our performances in Manchester and thinking that as well – and then you go back to the gallery you’ve gone back on where you think art ought to be.
◊ And what we’re saying is that the work exists in all these places. The work gets to build by being repeated and distributed and dispersed across lots of different spaces and different times and different audiences.
◊ Yeah, you get criticised for the work existing in both spaces because they think that you must have decided which is the right place for it to be so the other place must be a compromise.
◊ I think people think that art in the public sphere, or relational art especially, starts in the public and ends up or finishes in the gallery.
◊ Maybe a lot of it does?
◊ The public sphere is key to this. If you’ve got the idea of a public sphere instead of a public space then your argument or debate can take many forms – you can make a speech, and it can be aural and live or you can record the same speech, print it in a pamphlet or a book or something – so the public sphere can be pursued in many different ways. And not all of them exist in public spaces.
◊ A discussion can be had privately and still be part of the public sphere. When you stop thinking about public space then the division between the inside and the outside starts to collapse.
◊ Yes, Habermas included private gentlemen’s clubs as part of his conception of the public sphere. Just like the gallery. Private commercial galleries are not excluded from being part of the public sphere. Just as publicly funded galleries are not any more involved in the public sphere.
◊ In fact, Habermas’ conception of the public sphere is defined precisely as existing in-between the private and public – it’s what you get when private citizens, for the first time, are able to publish their opinions to a public that is limited neither by the state nor commercial self-interest. The public sphere is neither public in the way that the state is, nor private in the way that business is.
◊ And anyway, public space is not this glorious democratic space that people think it is. We’ve got something to say to them.
◊ You can’t make that distinction in terms of space. Our notion of public life and public debate doesn’t correspond to those spaces.
◊ Of course, there are lots of public sphere activities that are quite private but are circulated among a specific public.
◊ Ideas get transmitted from face to face and from hand to hand, not necessarily in public spaces or to a public body as such.
◊ That’s right, I mean, if you think of the Communist Manifesto – it’s a commodity. You own it. It’s a private object. You probably read it at home. You don’t read it aloud in the subway or on the street. You read it to yourself. But it is still part of the public sphere.
◊ And it might even get redistributed through your conversations with other people.
◊ Or even physically, you might let somebody else borrow it.
◊ It doesn’t get to be part of the public by where you read it but through the way it activates you as a citizen. That’s how it gets to have a public life. Not by being a public object in a public place.
IMAGE CAPTION: How to Talk to Public Art, video stills, Freee, 2006