I exhibited ‘white noise broadband’ (mixed media on paper, 60cm x 40cm) in Part 1 of ‘The London Group Open 2015’ exhibition at The Cello Factory, 33-34, Cornwall Road, London SE1 (13th-23rd October).
Here, in addition, is the essay I wrote for the catalogue documenting Parts 1 and 2 of the exhibition.
Detached and Open in the Midst
Aaaaah, yet another ‘open’ offered up to an already art-saturated fluid London-without-boundaries!
But what might possibly differentiate the London Group ‘open’ from the plurality of ‘open’ exhibitions offering exhibiting opportunities? Could its biennial re-appearance be repeating a gesture that still echoes, however faintly and idiosyncratically, the Group’s own defining differentiating concerns at its now long distant inception? That it still can perform such a renewing reminder is, of course, precisely the hope of its current members. But such an echo, inevitably distorted by its passage through the intervening years’ strangeness, will also be slightly aslant from the Group’s originating call. We are all only too familiar with the chaotic changes that continue to mark our now senescent modernity’s halting passage through, off, and away.
At its inception the Group’s defining reason was to offer its members’ responses to the inexorable emergence of a distinctive ‘modern’ vision of the arts’ possibilities. In its early years its annual exhibitions sought to show the challenging delights of members’ responses to this emergence. But surely today, a century or so on, the ‘modern’ (including all its supposedly ‘post-’ off-springs) is securely pinned down for us by and in a global apparatus (simultaneously both very solid and ungraspably virtual) that mounts, centralises and endlessly reproduces its ownership and routine control of this vision?
Under this institutional authority the arts of ‘modernity’, far from being strangers in our midst, have become our taken for granted everyday rations; we keep going, even gorge, on what they seem to offer us. We are now carefully trained and state-certificated to recognise, think about, feel out, place, and even, from a safe distance of course, criticise them. And, if they will not leave us alone, we are even encouraged to try to do them for ourselves! By mounting and controlling this inexhaustible flow of models that seem to represent what is to be culturally accredited as ‘absolutely modern’, the institutional machinery sets the official terms for and cajoles us into trying to be just that. Could the Group, caught up like all of us in the machinery of late-modernity’s slippery all-permeating flow, offer a response that, however obliquely, still echoes something of its original differentiating call? We like to think so…
Perhaps the possible ‘difference’, the partial detachment, that the Group’s exhibiting events (and especially its rejuvenated biennial ‘open’ which also doubles as a members’ annual exhibition) seek to perform and display is grounded in the collective commitment that generates its self-sustenance. The Group is a collective held together by an idiosyncratic and perhaps largely implicit notion of detachment. It seeks to detach itself from the authority of all external interests. Yet, simultaneously, it seeks to sustain itself by trying to hold to a paradoxical sense of attachment: its activities articulate a hopeful vision of the virtues of participating in a singular cooperative project. Members cooperate around their shared attachment to the one deeply internalised ‘external’ to which all commit themselves: the legacy offered by the arts’ modern tradition as the challenging open promise to all potential makers of celebrating their difference. The founding moderns made patent their realisation that art-making was to be an open zone of diversity in which pursuing the possibility of art for oneself required each maker to explore and manifest their ‘own’ responsive difference to the tradition’s challenge.
Every cooperative venture of the Group exemplifies this legacy through making explicit the one thing that holds the members together – the absolute difference of each’s felt experience of and response to this challenge. In a sense this is what the Group’s exhibitions, including above all its biennial open, exhibit first of all. In participating in a Group exhibition each piece restates this as its first ‘meaning’; the very act of exhibiting is a display of sharing in, being gathered up into, a cooperative project. This is its defining gesture. Each exhibited piece’s ‘content’ (materials/subject/themes/whatever), while being precisely its way of manifesting its absolute difference from everything else on show, is, in a never quite definable way, subsidiary to this sense of being first of all ‘for’ the collective. In the act of cooperation each piece becomes ever so slightly both less and more than itself!
We thus cooperate only in order to show that the challenge facing every maker-for-art is for each to find, hold to, and show their unique differences aside from all institutional requirements. It is a recognition that the Rimbaudian demand ‘to be absolutely modern’ requires each maker-for-art to pitch themselves permanently into making’s defining tension: one celebrates one’s utterly personal relation to the multiple delights of art’s traditions only by making something that rehearses anew on each occasion the open question of art’s possibility. Whatever emerges from each maker’s performance enacts a response to this open question – have I given this felt-thought thing an outside chance of attachment, of being gathered in, however marginally, to art’s open tradition? By facilitating the chance to pose and re-pose this question collectively in the company of others the Group can, at best, offer a very tentative ‘yes’ in hopeful response!
Thus, if there is a resonating legacy of the Group’s founding concerns this is, perhaps, the one ‘thing’ that still echoes through to us down the years. And if, today, the Group cooperates in trying to maintain some shreds of this vision-for-art, then this is what may put it quirkily at odds with the seemingly authoritative demands made on makers by the surrounding art-representing institutions. Eschewing the totalising and now institutionalised distancing narratives of art history and aesthetics, the Group’s ‘thinking’ about its collective task occurs at and moves out from the indefinable space-time of practice – the zone where makers-for-art, each slightly differently, seek to sustain themselves. The Group’s hope is that its quirky mode of cooperation may just be able to facilitate, however slightly, this sustenance.
Lacking any ‘home’ and operating independently of external financial support, the Group opts for a view of art’s possibility at street level and in the midst of things. In common with the majority of contemporary art-makers it performs as a necessarily vagrant exhibitor relying on negotiating occasion-specific alliances with possible showing spaces. In this way it shares the real recurrent everyday problems of all those committing themselves to surviving as lone makers-for-art in always difficult circumstances. It knows at first hand the extraordinary diversity of media that now characterises making’s diaspora and, even within the limits of its exhibiting spaces, it attempts to respond to this diversity in both its open exhibitions and its recruitment of new members. Its offer to potential members is primarily the possible promise of its idiosyncratic model of cooperation. Occasionally its activities generate bonuses from supporters such as the prize monies offered in the present ‘open’ (for which we are very grateful!) that help to raise its profile. And recently our vagrancy has been temporarily interrupted through the hospitality generously afforded us by Susan Haire at the wonderful Cello Factory. But all members know that such offers have a limited life and do not compromise the Group’s detachment.
Indeed each of our ‘open’ exhibitions re-affirms this detachment by being just a ‘one-off’. No ‘open’ can be taken as a representative sample of a relatively stable population of makers ‘out there’. Nor is it an index of some assumed ‘current state of art practice in London (or anywhere else)’. Each is occasion-specific and sufficient to itself – it is what it does. And therein perhaps lies the possible virtue of the ‘little nothing’ that it performs: its necessarily accidental quality can act as an interruptive reminder that the apparent continuities and self-confident narratives of the surrounding art-representing machinery are fictions constructed out of interests entirely alien to those of makers.
Naturally these thoughts about the Group’s character and focus are simply those of one member! They may be entirely at odds with the views of all the others. But, if so, they would at least be performing yet again the difference which I have offered as the significance of a cooperative held together only by members’ agreement to beg to differ absolutely about how to make-for-art…
Michael Phillipson August 2015