Communal revolution

Text by Christabel Stewart & Ajay RS Hothi

If, as the 17th century Rationalist Spinoza argued, God is nature then we should all rethink our position, because we are essentially properties of the same organic material. True egality is derived from social levelling, and this is what the Enlightenment philosophers coveted most. Spinoza speaks of sensory perception as first-rate knowledge. While it can be universally accepted that there is no objective truth, sensory perceptions can be shared or translated to others. Rousseau picks up this theme in Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men (1755), though he examines the effect of individual consciousness within established societal hierarchies.

Rousseau went further than Spinoza when he outlined applied theories of building political communities within commercial society. The Social Contract, Or Principles of Political Right (1762) begins with the now commonplace:

"Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains."

As a symbol of irony, it is perfect in its completeness. Here, "man" should be taken as an adjective for all persons and is, in this sentence, equivocated with the "chains". "Everywhere" is a vague and indistinct land. It is unfortunate that its usage here is profoundly more disquieting and emotionally more resonant than "somewhere" or "anywhere".

If the philosopher's place is to question society's attributes, it stands to reason that there are apparatus that have been designed to ensure complicity among the major population. The philosopher-artist is no conspirator. Indeed, it is their job to recognise those macro ideologies of which we may not realise we are even a part of.


The series of exhibitions curated at Rooseum, Malmö, between 2000 and 2004, under the directorship of Charles Esche, were devices to shift the organisation's remit and to create intentional dialogues with the gallery's visitors. Esche and a small group of European curators at the time were interested in incorporating audiences into their exhibitions-in-progress. They sought to instigate a reciprocal dialogue with their audiences in order to affect the way that art was read and interpreted. Visitors, then, were less passive observers and more active participants in the exhibition itself. Without the inference of viewership, the work of art remains incomplete - it has neither been read nor received.

This mode of exhibition became popular in Europe at the turn of the millennium. Termed "new institutionalism", it was a form of public programming that was both display and research, and research into audiences and habit. Its intention was to create a work of art that fulfils its remit to satisfy all stakeholders: artists, curators, viewers - even the spaces in which the work of art itself was created and in which it is displayed. Speaking in 1980, performance artist Vito Acconci said: "A gallery could be thought of as a community meeting-place, a place where community could be formed and called to order." When Esche took directorship of Rooseum, he took this further by stating: "The institutions to foster [art] have to be part community centre, part laboratory and part academy, with less need for the established showroom function."

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The museum is a carefully designed building. It presents itself as a communal, public space, though it can be a site of rigorously enforced hierarchy and a space of consumption. By incorporating its audiences as a key facet of the exhibition programme, the new institutions sought to dismantle the structures that make the museum and gallery a politicised site. It was vital that the art exhibited within these spaces connected to a general public. Though almost impossible to disassemble the entire established exhibitive apparatus, the aim was to enable audiences to participate within these set structures.

Ironically, a series of political and bureaucratic factors caused the decline of "new institutionalism". However, its influence has played a large part in developing the identity of the public gallery in the 21st century. Its tenets present galleries with the opportunity to widen forms of pedagogical and informal learning with the necessary critical foregrounding and at a relatively low cost. Today's contemporary art museum must represent, serve, question and affirm a specific community. It must act as art gallery, library, civic centre and education site. In order to do so, it must question its own structures and methods of display, exhibition and interpretation. It lays itself bare as an organisation and offers itself up for scrutiny and even the potential to be undermined. This surprisingly tactile approach is far removed from the digital revolutions that affect our daily lives, and is a return to the self-organised art spaces of the conceptual period. A model for the 21st-century art institution?  Ultimately, that is up to the viewers.


Hidden Curriculum was an exhibition by German artist Annette Krauss held at Casco - Office for Design, Art and Theory, Utrecht in 2007. Casco describes itself as a "platform for experimental art", specifically how art can interact with the public within specific social and political environments. Hidden Curriculum involved the participation of students from the nearby Gerrit Rietveld College and Amadeus Lyceum, and was developed over a three-month period both in the gallery and in the public realm. The project explored learning processes that occur in schools but which are not a part of any formal curricula. In other words, the aspects of learning that, in schools, are forms of socialisation.

Director Emily Pethick left Casco in 2008 to take charge at The Showroom, London. Pethick extended Krauss' investigations by commissioning Hidden Curriculum  for The Showroom, this time alongside Invisible Spaces of Parenthood: a collection of pragmatic propositions for a better future, by Peruvian artist Andrea Franke. The latter project explores the non-formalised social regulations that surround childcare. In collaboration with local nurseries, childminders, children's centres and parent groups, Invisible Spaces of Parenthood attempts to project new models and possibilities.

Under the combined title (in)visibilities, this exhibition was a part of Communal Knowledge, an ongoing programme of artists' commissions that utilise the very singular community and diverse sets of audiences that surround The Showroom: Edgware Road and the Church Street Market neighbourhood. The Showroom works closely with local groups and individuals. Franke's project, in particular, is specifically aimed at encouraging viewers to participate, revealing how to design, build or fix something changes your relation to the world. In this context she applies that notion directly to the current issues of children, parenthood and economy. A library of books made available on homemade display "hole-board" around the space reflected her research on these issues, and opened her personal collection as a research library. Many of the books are manuals for building (furniture, areas of play, garden equipment). Others, such as You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier, are included for their influence on the current discourse about the importance of knowing how to make - one of the aspects of DIY culture that remains pertinent. Though the book focuses more on the digital disconnection we have as users, the questions Lanier raises also apply to our relation to the physical world. Franke is a programmer, too, and identifies the implicit DIY nature of hacker spaces, though these are not specifically developed as strategies in the invisible childhood theme. The Open Design book is a collection of ideas Franke has gathered from various contributors - instructions to be published and distributed under Creative Commons, a project that revealed there are already several designers working in that sphere. The library, here, was an artist's attempt to keep the process as open as possible.


From the late '70s onwards, artist Jo Spence took a very particular journey towards questioning, understanding and revealing her own self and societal perceptions, and in understanding and revealing received notions of representation. She was certainly a pioneer of work that brought attention to the "invisible" work of women, and issues of childcare - particularly in her seminal work, the Hackney Flashers, Women and Work and Who's Holding the Baby? The Flashers encouraged each other towards DIY, seeing self-reliance as a way to both question and bypass industry and received thought.

2012 is the 20th anniversary of her death, and has precipitated an intriguing curatorial venture by two London based not-for-profit institutions. Studio Voltaire, run by Joe Scotland, and Space Studios, under the direction of Paul Pieroni, have embarked on a joint venture examination of her work and legacy. The success of their project came not only in the timing and the fact that no maturer UK institution had tackled a project on this scale. A potentially controversial artist, as the organisers note themselves, Spence's work could have been relegated to its historical era because of its biographically issue-based nature. Not everyone is ready for the "warts and all" feminist body politics that her images deliver. Post-mastectomy breast scarring and middle-aged portraiture being the antithesis of the media's predilection for youthful perfection. In looking to engage a new audience for this work, they sought to look beyond the considerations of the already converted.

A two-year research project, Not Our Class is the key to their advanced engagement with the material. Ostensibly a programme of education and participatory projects, a key aspect so far has been a publication newsletter or "reader", Not Our Class. Issue 1, May 2012 begins an examination of Spence and her ideology and legacy through contemporary artists' research and thought, throwing new light on her writing and putting previously unknown aspects of her thinking into a new context. X Marks The Spot1 is the name given to the group formed to conduct research.

Also published within Not Our Class is the Reciprocal Archive. Artist Marysia Lewandowska and graphic designer Luke Gould look at how we share information and what the archive can provide, and is published online to "encourage others to participate in creating their own responses, by extension making the archive into a live, conversational resource." Again, the implication is that this is not dead historical issue, or coincidental cross-currents in issues due to cyclical economic recessions. This is also a fundamental shift in artistic practice - owing a debt to the open, process-based "dialogical" (in dialogue) practice of Jo Spence - but which takes research, historical thought, process, discussion and the learned outcomes and discussions as equally pertinent and worth publishing.

All these strategies, from within artistic practice and reflected in curatorial and institutional "policy", are contemporary versions of a manner of reading conceptual art that led directly into philosophies of avant-garde learning and postmodern critical analysis. As demonstrated in Jo Spence's work, biographical elements underpin the entire interpretive process.

A core facet of post-conceptualism was the eagerness with which galleries adopted these postmodernist tropes. In the seminal anthology Thinking About Exhibitions, Bruce Altshuler writes of how from the '80s avant-gardism infiltrated the modes of display, it was no longer good enough to show these works within the museum. The museum must deconstruct its established exhibitive framework in order to truly mirror the concerns of these works. Suddenly, it wasn't good enough to acquire art works, analyse their contexts and display them within a gallery. The audience must be made aware of the intricacies of the site of interaction and that comprises the work itself.

All of this boils down to a few essential assets. At the core are artists who seek to identify distinct aspects within a specific body politic. The gallery is thus charged with the clear communication of this message. Ultimately, there is the desire to reach as wide an audience as possible. Despite the work itself taking a multitude of forms and otherwise unconcerned with appearing within an established aesthetic, this is art for everyone. Within sociological analysis there is a perspective that reads how communities can be classified as either "bonding" or "bridging". Bonding communities bring together people who share common interests. They are defined as being insular and closed.

A bridging community is defined by its populous taking an interest in what one another does - specifically because they think and believe different things. For some, it means being taken out of a comfort zone. It is a fundamental aspect of learning, development and growth. §



  • Christabel Stewart – Ajay RS Hothi #1
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