Matthew Cornford – Takin’ it to the Streets

DATE: April 2008

INTRODUCTION:

Matthew Cornford is employed by the School of Art and Design, University of Wolverhampton, where he leads the MA Fine Art course and overseas the Art, Society and Environment research cluster. As a practising artist, he has collaborated with David Cross since meeting at St Martins School of Art, London in 1987. Cornford & Cross have created a body of work that responds to the problems that arise out of particular contexts or situations. Accordingly, each of their projects has been different, not only in form but in content.

Matthew writes about unofficial public realm projects, through the recent work of Mark McGowan, Can Altay and Sam Curtis and addresses the value of working independently and without official support.

THE ARTICLE:

Previous contributors to the ixia website have identified a number of common frustrations and problems artists encounter when officially working in the public realm. These include: having insufficient involvement in the development process; artists being secondary to commissioning agencies and curators; having to work with limited and constrained funding and being bound by bureaucratically determined ‘good practice’ agendas.

Whilst differing in form, content, location and intention the following three projects by the artists Mark McGowan, Can Altay and Sam Curtis appear to avoid these frustrations and problems and offer a number of alternative strategies for working in the public realm. Their projects are temporary, performance orientated and documented using digital photography and video, then distributed via various on-line networks.

South London, December 2002, grey sky, drizzle, mid morning, outside the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, I join a small group on the pavement to witness the beginning of ‘Rollover’ an ‘extraordinary performance’, by London based artist Mark McGowan. For this performance McGowan intends to roll from the Elephant and Castle across London to an alternative art space called 1,000,000,000mph in Bethnal Green. Whilst rolling McGowan will sing ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’. The performance is intended to get people to be kind to cleaners for Christmas (McGowan worked as a night office cleaner for two years in order to fund his work). McGowan is suitably dressed for the performance in waterproof trousers, anorak, red bobble hat, and Marigold washing up gloves. In the spirit of the true amateur, McGowan has done no physical preparation or planning for the performance and only after a number of false starts does he begin rolling along Newington Causeway towards London Bridge. Five minutes into the journey the local press arrive and approach McGowan. He stops rolling, gets up, walks back to the starting point, happily spends time posing and rolling about for the photographer and answering questions from the reporter.

Wolverhampton, School of Art & Design, Summer 2005, on my office computer an email arrives from Can Altay, an artist living and working in Ankara, Turkey. I had not been aware of Altay’s work but intrigued by the images and text he has sent which detail a project titled ‘Minibar’ (2001). The images show a group of young people hanging out on the streets at night; they are not engaged in doing anything much and the gathering looks informal and transient . Altay’s text describes ‘Minibars’ as “one-night happenings that colonize suitable gaps in the built landscape, the spaces between apartment buildings – and turn them into temporary open-air nightclubs”. Altay joins the gathering and sets out to document the ‘Minibar’ phenomenon in Ankara using video and photography and carrying out interviews with participants. A later part of the project details the obstacles placed by local residents to prevent minibar gatherings, such as the installation of security fences and metal bars. (1)

London Metropolitan University, March 2008, Initiative & Institution symposium. I am sharing a panel titled ‘Question Education’ with Sam Curtis, an artist studying for an MA at Goldsmiths College London. Curtis’s current practice is based on gaining temporary employment in shops and superstores. Once employed he initiates subtle and unofficial interventions within the retail displays, such as rearranging a display of cupboard doors in order of colour. At the symposium Curtis shows a video of his recent intervention titled ‘Be Enlightened’ (2007), which took place inside a vast IKEA shed on the outskirts of London. The video, shot in secret, showed a number of jerky sequences of stacked IKEA products, pillows, coloured tiles and tabletops. But what made this poor-quality video so riveting was Curtis’s voice-over describing how he changed the displays he was being asked to install and his line-manager’s increasingly annoyed response to Curtis’s unofficial rearrangements. When the video had finished and Curtis was answering questions, an earnest member of the audience asked if he was still working at IKEA. Curtis replied in his calm and reasonable voice that he had never actually worked at IKEA and had made the whole story up.

McGowan is a shameless attention seeker, who encourages the documenting of his work by the media, his audience and passers by; he makes no attempt to produce a single definitive image of his actions. These fragmented images, texts and sound recordings then become archived on various websites. The clash between the highly composed media images, amateur snap shots and video is often jolting. Yet this mass of media unnervingly manages to capture the pathos inherent in the work and the bemused reception it receives.

Altay’s relationship with the ‘Minibar’ crowd is unclear. Armed with camera and recording equipment he appears to be both a catalyst for the gathering and social anthropologist recording how young people organise themselves to fill a social and architectural void. Altay trained as an architect before exhibiting work as an artist and it is his observations and documentation of ‘Minibars’ that bring to mind ‘The Child in the City’, a book by the anarchist and architect Colin Ward. Ward’s book explores the relationship between children and the urban environment and concludes on how children manage to — “colonise every last inch of left-over urban space for their own purpose, how ingeniously they seize every opportunity for pleasure”. (2)

Curtis presented an amusing, light, self-initiated project, the core part of which he then admits to making-up! I wonder if Curtis would have revealed the faked narrative if he had not been asked? This confession both destabilised and enriched his project by raising questions on the importance of genuine social engagement, the expectations of artists to be truthful when working in the public realm and the status of documentation. An interesting and important precedent for Curtis’ video and made-up commentary is John Smith’s seminal film ‘The Girl Chewing Gum’ (1976), in which a voice-over appears to be directing and ordering the panorama of people and cars on a busy street.

How have McGowan, Altay and Curtis managed to carry out projects that avoid the frustrations and problems associated with public realm commissions?

Insufficient involvement in the development process: For many artists inclusion in the development process can be very productive and these opportunities are to be respected. Such opportunities, however, do not come without certain terms and conditions. Those selecting artists to work on a public development with town-planners and architects will understandably choose candidates who are able to work within these terms and conditions.

By choosing not to engage with the development process at all, McGowan, Altay and Curtis are liberated to carry out their own enquiry, their own research, make their own mistakes and work in their own time. Their projects involved the public and took place in the public realm, but were not responsible to any one. This avoided the need to fulfil various stakeholders’ agendas and needs (such as those of architects, planners, developers, educators and councillors). Their disengagement from the development process is not a cop-out or abdication of responsibility, but a reconnection with a tradition of independent public realm projects going back over forty years. A very short list might include:

Wall of Barrels, Iron Curtain, 1962, by Christo and Jeanne-Claude. During 8 hours on the evening of June 27, 1962, Christo and Jeanne-Claude closed the Rue Visconti with 240 oil barrels. The art barricade was 4.3 x 3.8 x 1.7 meters (14 x 12.5 x 5.6 feet). It obstructed most of the traffic of the Paris Left Bank. The artists did not alter the industrial colors of the oil barrels, leaving the brand names and the rust visible. http://www.christojeanneclaude.net/fe.shtml

Graffiti Truck, 1973, by Gordon Matta-Clark. With this work the artist invited residents from the South Bronx to spray-paint his truck, curiously named ‘Herman Meydag,’ with brilliant colours and baroque tag lines. Object to be Destroyed; The Works of Gordon Matta-Clark, Pamela M. Lee, MIT Press, 2000, p. 164.

Half Slave, Half Free, 1987, by Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler. Artists-initiated project with private homeowner, Hawley, Pennsylvania. A homeowner was compensated to not mow half his lawn for a two-month period. America Starts Here: Kate Ericson and Mel Ziegler, MIT Press, 2005, p. 78.

Cat and Watermelons, 1992, by Gabriel Orozco. A photograph recording Orozco’s witty and ephemeral installation in a New York supermarket, for which he rearranged cat food tins, on top of watermelons.

Obstruction of a freeway with a truck’s trailer, 1998, Santiago Sierra. Anillo periférico sur, Mexico City. We asked for permission to borrow a company’s truck without hiding the way in which it would be used. The driver was not troubled when he was asked to block the sides of the lanes of one of the city’s busiest roads for five minutes. This piece consisted in positioning a white prism perpendicular to the road, generating a traffic jam. Santiago Sierra, Works 2002-1990, IKON Gallery, Birmingham, 2002, p. 112

Being secondary to public art commissioning agencies and curators: By choosing not to work with specialist agencies or curators, or not being invited to, McGowan, Altay and Curtis did not need to take into account agendas and criteria external to the ambitions they had for their work. They could also afford to alter their projects without damaging their relationship with a commissioning agency or curator (such unprofessional behaviour could of course jeopardise future opportunities). It is important to acknowledge, however, that there are a number of experienced and well informed agencies and curators who recognise the tensions and problems artists experience working in the public realm. David Cross and myself have had the privilege of working with a number of agencies and curators who do a brilliant job organising, accessing funding and facilitating the production of new work, often in difficult conditions and trying circumstances.

Working with limited and constrained funding: As the examples given show, there is no correlation between the amount of money a work costs to make and its subsequent impact and critical acclaim. Carl Andre’s ‘ Equivalent VIII’, an arrangement of one hundred and twenty firebricks in a rectangle, is impressive because of its economy. In attempting to compete with architecture (grand monuments), advertising (billboards) or social services (community engagement) many public realm projects require large budgets for their production and realisation. Funding is applied for through public organisations and/or through private sponsorship. If awarded, the artist agrees to certain conditions and outcomes. Given the visibility of public realm projects the chance of attracting negative press attention is always present, so whilst challenging and critical projects can provoke public debate, they are difficult to manage and risky. The relative rarity of funded, critical public realm projects suggests funding organisations may consider such ventures more trouble than they are worth. The projects produced by McGowan, Altay and Curtis received no public funding or sponsorship and the artists did not have to meet any terms and conditions, other than those set by themselves.

Bound by bureaucratically determined ‘good practice’ agendas: With official approval and funding comes the requirement for the project to be properly planned, budgeted and administrated. The artist will be expected to explain, justify and rationalise what they are trying to do and work with various representatives of officialdom. Public realm projects are expected to demonstrate ‘good practice’, the artist should be aware of the particular audience the work is intended for and be sensitive to the environment they work in and the communities they engage with. Whilst these requirements and restrictions can provide a productive context in which to develop new projects, for artists who do not deliver what is expected, wanted or asked for, but aim to provoke us into questioning our expectations, ‘good practice’ can become something to be avoided.

Conclusion

Whilst I note the frustrations and problems of working officially in the public realm, there are also significant logistical, financial and artistic benefits and I am obviously not against artists applying for and receiving these benefits. But it is refreshing and constructive to see other public realm projects succeed with limited resources and without official support. The projects by McGowan, Altay and Curtis provide useful alternative models for working outside official commissions and are distinguished by their economy and wit.

Note: My thoughts on these issues are indebted to my ongoing dialogue and work with David Cross; I would also like to thank Sophie Hope for encouraging me to write something and being such a patient and constructive editor.

LINKS:

Cornford & Cross http://www.cornfordandcross.com/

Sam Curtis http://www.scurtis.co.uk/

Mark McGowan http://www.markmcgowan.org/

IMAGE CAPTIONS:

Mark McGowan. Rollover, 2002; digital photography
Image courtesy of the artist

Can Altay. Minibar, 2001; video still
Image courtesy of the artist

Sam Curtis. Be Enlightened, 2007; video still
Image courtesy of the artist

NOTES:

1. Altay’s images and texts documenting the ‘Minibar’ have subsequently been assembled and presented as multi-media gallery installations.

2. Colin Ward, ‘The Child in the City’. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.