The art of
The Artist Placement Group 1966-1989
The upsurge in interest around late 60s conceptual art and its correlate
the 'dematerialization of the art object' offers the chance
to make potentially radical conjunctions with layers of history that have
not been fully played out. This renewed interest, demonstrated by large
attendances at the 'Live In Your Head' show held at the Whitechapel
earlier this year, seems to be indicative of an attempt to re-inject some
social combativeness into an art world that is full to surfeit with people
willing to act as the "high priests of show business."1
What is revealed by a glance at this history is that beyond homogenised
categories and stylish mimicry there are practices that are always already
heterogeneous. We discover that the 'dematerialization' of the
art object was variously concerned with a rejection of morphology and
aesthetic scopism, with the rise of a text-based practice and an accent
on process rather than product. The submerged legacy of conceptualism
is one which encourages a rejection of art's ideological role in
Through an examination of language, perception and the entrapment of desire
in representation, the more radical proponents of conceptualism were part
of an avant-garde trajectory that submitted the institutions of art to
a critique. As with their precursors they were led towards actively pursuing
their practice in the dynamics of a social field. That such a 'dematerialization'
of the artist is now only a submerged legacy is, in part, a measure of
how far the art institution has been engaged in a retro-projection that
only benefits the econometrics of the 'yba'.
Historical associations have been seperated and ransacked under the pressure
to produce. There has been a recentering of the spectator upon the art
object which, injected with a knowing style, has restrengthened the divide
between artists and spectators and had the effect of re-privatising the
means-of-expression. There has been the activity of 'nomination'
wherein the artist's agency is only minimally drawn towards the de-specialisation
of his/her own role. There has been a submission to the 'popular'
rather than a testing of the possibilities of what could be accepted as
Those artists who have unquestioningly acceded to their delegated role
as the vanguard of an hyper-real image culture - and as such always
eminently exchangeable - have not only been talked-up as the inheritors
of the cowl of conceptualism, but have bemusedly become as popular as
advertisements. What follows is a critical tracking of just one of the
vectors that could be said to have emerged from the conceptual practice
that was represented by the 'Live In Your Head Show'.
Dematerialization of the art object can only presage a 'void'
if the passing of the art object is mourned. The mourning itself, in substituting
a mimetic trace for the lost object, is, in the case of conceptualism's
adherents, refashioned many times over from this trace to become fixated
on, for instance, the 'pictorialism of a text based practice',
or in the populist adventurism of indexing creative activity that has
escaped the art institution.
For John Latham and Barbara Steveni of the Artist Placement Group (APG),
the potential disappearance of the art object was not an occasion for
mourning but an ongoing continuation of attempts to give art a purpose
'outside' its immediate and overly obvious remit in the art
institutions of gallery and museum.
As a spur to the APG's formation in 1966, Latham's own practice
as an artist and theorist can be seen as part of a wider context of engaged
activity. Examining the boundaries of what constitutes visual art or language
and becoming conscious of the social role allotted to creative workers
as 'exports' for national cultures, he came to view the creation
of art objects (be they novels or paintings) as similar to the creation
of manufactured commodities.
He gained notoriety through his creation of Skoob Towers (sculptural constructs
made from books and burnt in public places). This led to explorations
in jettisoning an object-base for art and, as an outgrowth of his association
with Project Sigma and The Destruction In Art Symposium, led to a desire
to work directly with a "total context of people" via the APG2,
and to developing the 'time-based' conceptual means of resisting
the mono-dimensionality of art as a commodity.
Aligning himself with developments in physics Latham came to view 'events'
rather than the 'particles' as a more apt basis for a socially
engaged artistic endeavour, events spanning micro-moments and cosmological
durations that, it was hoped, could be communicable as spurs to action
and participation rather than as objects of self-referential contemplation.
If the art object was coming to be dematerialized, similarly the concept
of 'artist' was to be overturned and redefined and Latham eventually
worked-up the term 'incidental person' as a description of the
intentions of artists engaging in the social field.
This can be seen as relating to one of conceptualism's 'advances'
in terms of the artists' own 'individuality' becoming the
subject of art. But rather than produce a static subjectivity where the
artist's person, commodified, becomes an institutional currency,
the hope for the incidental person it seems, was that the performative
aspect of work within industry and government departments would not be
seen through the prism of the art institution. The conceptual activity
of the incidental person, in becoming immersed in the unfurling dynamics
of the workplace, in maintaining a fluid position of independence and
'affectivity', would come to "generate maximum public involvement
and maximum enthusiasm" so as to "release the impulse to act."3
This impulse to act, which raises desire but leaves it unexpressed, could
have become an area of concern and dissension within the APG, in that:
not foisting a 'brief' upon the potential placements, but nonetheless
holding them to 'feasibility studies', leads to questions around
the desires of the incidental persons themselves and of what it was the
APG as an organisation wanted to act upon in order to change what?
That the incidental persons, free from having to make an art-object, could
have been in a position to examine the flows of desire within the social
relations of workplace and government departments is, in terms of the
dematerialization of the art object, one of the most efficacious 'materials'
there could be. But any 'success' in such a direction is not
the nomination of desire in such an environment as a surrogate 'art
piece'; but what that desire, as a material force "releasing
the impulse to act", brings into being once it is conscious of itself
as an active force in conjunctions with the desires of others. What it
was that the APG, as facilitating administrators or as incidental persons,
intended to change becomes crucial. Did they want to change society or
did they want to change society's attitude to art?
In constituting a move away from the art institution and in encouraging
artists to "take determined control of their social function"4
the APG seemed to offer a radical direction. Their placements in industry
(1968-1975) were only minimally negotiated through means of a funding
body. Eschewing expectations about a resultant art work, they could be
autonomous enough to develop lines of enquiry about social dynamics. The
very 'aimlessness' of the APG's brief could swing a focus
onto the aims of commodity producing industries; the incidental persons
could also bypass that layer of administration and curatorial mediation
that still censors social art today.
The APG were working around areas of dissolving the 'divide'
between the artist and the public and moving further towards 'dematerialization'.
The problems, much vaunted at the time, as to who or what constitutes
the 'spectator' of conceptual art, could, with an APG practice
that involved itself with submerged social dynamics, come to materialise
desire and work-relations as the conceptual objects of group participation
and personal responsibility that unfurls over time, rather than as the
contemplative still-lifes of an institutionally directed spectatorship
that undifferentiatedly repeats the limits of its own confines.
A release of the "impulse to act", the materialisation of desire
in the social field as a rhythm between restraint and possibility, is,
so the APG thesis implies, no longer a matter of spectators being grouped
by an institution but more a matter of bringing into rhythm the differential
speeds of spectatorship, contemplation, self-expression and production,
and pursuing the resultant activities without seeking their artistic legitimation.
Whether or not this is an idealistic projection onto the APG's industrial
placements is maybe besides the point. If we take into account the strike
wave creativity of the working class of this period or the potentiality
of an 'imagined' APG then the actual outcomes of an APG placement
will always pale.
However, as a concerted response to a still activated neurosis of artists
to feel 'alienated' or 'outside' the wider society,
the APG was one endeavour that sought to take conceptualism into a more
engaged, inter-disciplinary, direction rather than take it towards its
ever-impending 'individualised' canonisation. The resultant
'work' of an APG industrial placement could have been labour
itself or, exoticization of the working classes, or desire and social
relations, or a union meeting, but it was also a practice that insisted
upon the de-specialisation of the artist's role and the transformation
of the exhibition into a zone for social research.
This latter point seems to be the case with the 1971 show Art & Economics
which the APG staged as a 'going public' with its activities
to that date: a melange of displays, time-based documentation, the sound
of steel manufacture and discussions with "artists, industrialists,
trade union representatives, MPs and others."5
Bringing such people into the public sphere could have made-for an injection
of accountability and democracy by extending the placement to utilise
the art space as a forum. However, the previous quote attends to a case
of the workers themselves becoming subject once more to dematerialization.
The compromised nature of the APG endeavour which takes on a radical semblance
when it is contrasted to the object-based aestheticism of the art institution,
comes across as increasingly naive when it is a matter of articulating
what it is that the APG sought to change.
In providing a space in which the 'incidental persons' could
operate independently of government directives the APG was actively encouraging
"context related concepts"6 which
would in many circumstances be the autonomous province of the 'incidental
persons' themselves. In this way much of APG's activity would
rest with the personal testimony of the various 'incidental persons'
and the people with whom they worked. In the absence of such information,
where it seems that the 'micro-event', as a means of registering
desire, can come into fruition as the apt subject of discussion as to
APG's efficacy on a smaller, intimate scale, we are left, in this
piece, with the retrospective views of Latham and Steveni and with the
visibility of APG's move towards Governmental Department Placements
after 1975. This demarcation point, coming roughly at a time of growing
working class militancy, and with the retrospective subsumption of worker-participants
by their trade union representatives is, perhaps, illustrative of the
artist-as-professional and hints that, underlying the open-ended application
of an incidental person's transversal and intuitive knowledge, there
is, in the organisational 'unconscious' of the APG, a mindset
that seeks legitimation for an art practice not from the art institutions
themselves but from industrial and government professionals.
Latham's keenness to reference Rauschenberg's blank canvas as
a 'turning point' in the shift from an object-based art brings
forth two other works of the 50s that were similarly intended to make
art reflect upon its social purpose: John Cage's 4'33"
and Guy Debord's Howlings in favour of Sade. These two precursors
of 'dematerialization' highlight potential areas of radical
conjunction for conceptual art: music as eminently 'dematerialized',
communicating in a "counter-literal" way, and after Debord's
filmic experiments, revolutionary politics as the very process of combined
work in the social field to effect wide-reaching change. Both these pieces
raise the notion of duration.
In contradistinction to Cage and Debord, Latham's 'time-based'
theories, whilst functioning to illustrate the dematerialization of the
art object and leading to the "micro-event of desire and the "impulse
to act", come, perhaps, to be satisfied with finding a new status
for art as that which, when the theories are extended to a cosmological
level, forms the basis of a Grand Universal Theory or a 'meaning
of the world'. Latham's time-based theories, being content with
the fixity of a specific turning point, a conjunction between art and
physics through the Einsteinian auspices of 'all matter being at
a dimensionless point', falter quite considerably when we sense that
what is being removed from the 'time-based' approach is the
notion of history as the social continuum we are actually living.
Whilst such an approach may allow for the effects of an APG placement
to be seen over a longer duration of time than is normally allotted an
artist-in-residence, whilst it admits to process and reflexive reassessment,
it does not appear to take account of what occurs prior to the placement,
the very history that the incidental person would bring into a situation
and the very history of that situation itself. If Debord and Cage looked
elsewhere for their legitimation, if they raised the concept of duration
and, in leaving it empty, gave it political overtones by inferring into
the silence and blankness that it was necessary for its recipients to
take action to define time in a space-time continuum, then, perhaps Latham's
error, with half an eye turned towards eternity, was to show duration
and attempt to fill it with an overarching theory that may have functioned
as a 'brief' to which the incidental persons were encouraged
When it is a matter of groups seeking common objectives and directions
for action, it is perhaps such over-arching theories, with their undertow
of disciple-inducing didacticism, that have the negative effect of one
group member waiting for others to get up to 'speed'. Furthermore,
to what extent do such theories, in their channelling of multiform desires
in the direction of the theorist as 'expert', give rise to a
situation in which the "impulse to action" is fettered by considerations
of 'correct' adherence? Such problems could be seen to have
been operative not only with the APG but with Debord and his Situationist
This hum of contradictions is probably the fate which would befall anyone
who attempted to sell a 'situation' to the government. Indeed,
in terms of those situationist ideas disseminated in the early 60s by
Project Sigma8, Latham's time-based
move towards what he calls 'event structure' is synchronous
but fundamentally divergent from the Situationist International's
notion of 'creating situations'. However, it is just such a
concept that Rolf Sachsse informs us that the APG deliberately adopted
and adapted: the lack of a contract between incidental person and the
host agency, the de-materialised nature of the work with social relations
and the impassioning of the participants towards a "release of the
impulse to act" could all combine to bring about a situation.
In some ways then there is an APG alignment with one extrapolation of
'creating situations' which Guy Debord made in 1957:
"If we take for example the simple gathering of a group of individuals
for a given time, it would be desirable, while taking into account the
knowledge and material means we have at our disposal, to study what organisation
of the place, what selection of participants and what provocation of events
produce the desired ambiance." 9
On inspection, the APG's 'situation' is more closely confined
than that of Debord's open-ended description. If we bring in Debord's
later comparison of a constructed situation as a means of making our own
history10, our own times, then the APG construct
a situation whose ambiance is professional. Bringing together people from
various disciplines (civil servants, industrialists, architects etc.)
whilst still orbiting such terms as 'contract' and 'art-object'
did not amount to an active pursuit of de-specialisation but brought forth
the 'incidental person' as a specialist in his/her own right.
For Debord the ultimate situation would be a revolution, an insurrectionary
event. For such 'situations' to come about means that its participants
must be passionate enough to desire a change of social structure. A passion
which becomes an "impulse to act" precisely because it is de-specialised
and seeks not to be allotted a professional role but the polymath role
of remaking a society. The starting point for Debord was that participation
is essentially open to the degree that it becomes creativity in the social
field regardless of its being defined as an 'art' activity.
What remains unrecorded is how the ramifications of this latter speed
of endeavour, the releasing of passions and their inevitable confrontation
with authority, were overlooked or strategically omitted from the overall
approach of the APG.
On record as renouncing a "Frankfurt School orthodoxy of apartheid
between artists and government",11 Latham's
disgruntlement with what appears to be a continual criticism of the APG's
tack is worthy of sympathy to the extent that 'leftist purity',
in refusing the testing practice of contradiction, can often remain at
a level of ineffectual idealism akin to the ghettos it lambasts.
Latham, speaking before the time-based theories took a firmer grip on
him, referred to knowledge as being for experts and as that which renders
thought unnecessary.12 In many ways this
encapsulates the success and failure of the APG endeavour in that he was
prepared to uproot himself, almost make himself blank, and enter a situation
knowing nothing about it at all. As a blueprint for the incidental person
it may not have been realistic but it was a means of charging a situation
with Kafkaesque inquisitiveness:
"They certainly had no wish to listen to my questions, but it was
precisely because I asked these questions that they had no wish to drive
me away." 13
The conscientious bureaucrats of a Governmental Department could, by means
of an APG placement come to gain some 'outside' knowledge about
their operations and the social relations they were concerned with managing.
An APG placement was not one-sided: just as the danger of bringing about
the release of a "latent public impulse"14
can be steered back on course by a combination of 'specialists',
a wilful ignorance can not only be welcomed as a surface to project upon,
but can be exploited.
The APG intended to "promote a public interest independent of the
interests of the parties involved."15
The blank space necessary for such an endeavour makes the competing definitions
of what constitutes the public interest too simple. With this promotion
of an 'independent interest' the incidental person becomes,
once again, the transcendental artist rising above politics. Paying next
to no attention to the historical make-up of the State as that body which
seeks to maintain sectional class interest as the public interest, is
as idealistic as the leftist purity that recoils from the often invigorating
contamination of contradiction. When married to other ex post facto assertions
such as the claim made that art should be a work "complementary to
rather than as opposed to that of governing bodies... the source of a
new equilibrium",16 it is tantamount
to seriously underestimating the connection between capitalism and governments
and making such linkage invisible.
Such an operation, then, reveals that the APG was not seeking to change
society but society's idea of art:
"Artist placement was intended to serve art... assuming that art
does have a contribution to make to society at the centre."17
Serving art as if to serve some article of faith and assuming, perhaps
through wilful ignorance, that power lies at the 'centre' in
the offices of government is to re-collapse the advances made by the 'dematerialization'
of the art object in the direction of a work in the social field and is
to deny the power of a government's subjects to change their situation.
As such it touches upon the problems of the APG approach in that the incidental
person is turned back into an artist by means of their 'professionalisation'.
This makes for an accord between APG and the Government Departments in
that the incidental person as a 'salaried' rather than a 'waged'
employee becomes identifiable as a management representative involved
in the 'decision making' concerns of the government department.
If this perhaps removes the contradictions of the industrial placements
between 'shop floor' and 'top office' - in that
outcomes emanating from the incidental person's presence are more
of a policy making kind - it does not remove the sense that the APG
were seeking legitimation from the authorities by ultimately proving their
responsibility to the aims of that authority: "a new component necessary
to parliamentary democracy."18
Given this compatibility between the APG and the left-liberal strands
of Government Departments, it is telling that after lengthy negotiations
and the legitimating assurances of the "civil service memorandum",
it took Steveni and Latham years to get the placements up and running.
Prepared to sacrifice their own careers, they put themselves through the
machinations of a capitalist democracy intent on keeping control over
cultural activities through the auspices of the Arts Council. They were
witness to having their projects filched and their input erased from the
historical record. The overtoned echo of the APG is such that its most
socially effective work seems to be submerged either in the desiring effects
of a placement's 'micro-effects' or in what Sir Roy Shaw
(then General Secretary of the Arts Council) dubbed as a 'spoof work':
the exposure of a state-controlled culture, extensively documented through
correspondence by Latham and Steveni. This 'spoof work' began
in the unprecedented situation of an art initiative, that of the APG,
being brought to fruition in the governmental placements without the financial
assistance or political backing of the Arts Council.
By the early 80s, when the term of the governmental placements had ended,
the APG doggedly persisted in seeking representations to the Arts Council
and other government departments to continue their work. The Arts Council
continually rebuffed their approaches, cutting not only their access to
funds but cutting the APG out of the historical record, refuting the existence
of correspondence that was in the APG's possession and becoming increasingly
obstructive to the APG's appeal for funds from other bodies. This
situation led Latham and Steveni to appeal and reappeal against decisions,
to consult their MP and eventually to meet with the Shadow Arts Minister.
At all turns their dogged persistence, after some ministerial support,
met with a brick wall. In 'Report Of A Surveyor', Latham paraphrases
a letter from Sir Roy Shaw, to the then shadow Arts Minister in which
the APG is misrepresented and maligned to the degree that, it is inferred
by Latham's paraphrasing, the Shadow Arts Minister reconsider his
supportive interest in the group. This letter, under special protection
of the Art Council's Royal Charter and consequently, Latham informs
us, to take effect unchallenged leads Latham, not unduly, into detecting
the whiff of a conspiracy: "it may have been the assumed threat to
administrator's own careers that is the chief factor, or it may be
that some internal state security is believed, or imagined, to be threatened."19
The "public interest" which the APG hoped to serve independently
is, in this 'spoof work', revealed, at the first turn, to be
the site of an inevitable conflict that even the most informed and combative
of artists could not compete with alone. Whether this unchallengeable
edict from on high was informed by a wariness as to the perceived challenge
of APG placements to the APG-inspired Arts Council 'residency'
scheme or whether it was a fear of the subversive potential of the incidental
person strategy is not a choice to be made; it is both at the same time
and maybe more. This 'spoof work' reveals - unhealthily for
those who believe the state is run by the half-wits who front it, that
the threat implied by the incidental person was being taken more seriously
by others than it was by the APG themselves:
"If there is thought to have been a thread of intent in APG activity
in any way suggesting plots to undermine the system, then may it be brought
into the open."20
The ramifications of this 'spoof work' may be seen to be pessimistic
and to offer no further strategies of continuation for a radical 'event'-based
practice that seeks to release the "impulse to change" by tracking
the desires in social situations. But maybe such pessimism is itself strategic.
The governmental route has perhaps been tried and tested and seen to be
a route that is hopelessly compromised; not least by the fact that the
APG through the 'spoof work' reveal, in the space of their practice,
the presence of other 'incidental persons' who do not have the
encumbrance of an artistic identity to shake-off but who, as functionaries,
personifications of their job description, would presumably make sure
that such a re-occurrence of the APG route would meet with short shrift.
The APG work in the social field, whilst compromised by an inchoate belief
in democratic capitalism and by a proffesionalisation rather than a de-specialisation
of artists, has, nonetheless continued to keep open a concern to effect
social institutions other than art institutions. Their escape from the
self-referentiality of art may have been successful in terms of a refutation
of the art object, but it has been won at the expense of reconvening the
art object as governmental reports which, in the case of Ian Breakwell's
placement for the DHSS in the area of mental health, has been and perhaps
still is, subject to the official secrets act.
This tangible outcome of Breakwell's placement as a 'textual
work', in perhaps revealing the ultimate sanction that a Governmental
Department could wield over a placement in order to make sure desire didn't
break out in the social field in unmanageable proportions, does not therefore
undermine the slow seepage of effect that the placement had for those
who participated in it and, who knows, led to a growing distrust of those
institutions where social control and governance is practised like an
Such exposure is the APG's legacy and this is where Latham's
time-based theories work at their most efficaciously. As he says:
"perhaps we have to consider that all action is potentially, if not
directly linked to what happens on the subsequent enactment."21
For subsequent enactments to keep occurring there needs to be a variety
of follow-throughs which would include the testimony of the incidental
persons and other APG members through to an embracing of the political
potential of desire as a material force in the examination of social relations.
Such a desiring presence of people who neither identify as revolutionary
initiates or artist-professionals, is crucial in widening the scope of
"subsequent enactment" if such enactment is to escape from reifying
its experience in predetermined categories such as 'art' or
'government' and, as a result, limiting the range even of its
Such a 'revolutionizing' of daily life, a process much concerned
with making social relations visible, needs the continuing uprooting of
the 'experts' rather than their continuing attempts at lead-weight
coherence, an uprooting that enables those who feel they have access to
the means of expression to give encouragement to those who are coming-to-expression.
An improvisatory element, in which all begin from 'zero', could
be one ramification of a conceptual art practice as could be the lent-momentum
made possible through those 'dematerialized' forms that carry
along with them the "rejection of any a priori identity of the artwork."22
With no prescriptions in place, that activity could escape the purview
of any and all institutions and in immersing itself in a socio-historical
continuum in which desire can come to be 'materially' visible
as 'radiant energy' is perhaps where dematerialized artists
meet with imaginative revolutionaries: desires outstrip their confinement
within institutions and build their own. Practice becomes invisible but
1. Joseph Kosuth: Introductory Note by the American Editor, Art &
Language No.2 in Lucy Lippard: Six Years - The Dematerialization of
the Art Object, Studio Vista, 1973, p148.
2. Jeremy Blank: Unpublished Interview With Latham, London, 17/12/91 (courtesy
of Matt Hale).
3. Latham: Report Of A Surveyor, Tate Gallery, 1986, p59.
4. Barbara Steveni: Will Art Influence History?, 'And' Journal
of Art No.9, 1986, p18.
5. ibid, p19.
7. Rolf Sachsse reports that a great deal of dissension arose within APG
members over the issue of adherence to these time-based theories which
have been further developed by Latham and Steveni in the late 80s and
coincide with the APG's being renamed O+I. See Sachsse, ibid, p49.
8. For Project Sigma and its dynamo, the 'novelist' Alexander
Trocchi, see the reprints in Break/Flow No.1 or Andrew Murray Scott (ed),
Invisible Insurrection, Polygon, 1992.
9. Guy Debord: Report On The Construction Of Situations in Situationist
Anthology, p25, Bureau Of Public Secrets, 1981.
10. Guy Debord: Critique Of Separation, ibid, p35.
11. Latham, ibid, p49.
12. Latham in Terry Measham: Latham, p14, Tate Gallery, 1976.
13. Franz Kafka: The Great Wall Of China And Other Short Works, p152,
14. Latham: Report Of A Surveyor, ibid, p59.
15. Latham, ibid, p40.
16. Latham, ibid, p35.
17. Steveni, ibid, p18.
18. Latham, ibid, covertext.
19. Latham, ibid, p60.
20. Latham, ibid, p52.
21. Latham quoted by Ina Conzen-Meairs: Art After Physics, ibid, p29.
22. John Roberts: The Impossible Document, p12, Camerawords, 1997.
An unedited version of this article will be downloadable from www.infopool.org.uk