|Babes in Toyland
becks new contemporaries '97
Cornerhouse, Manchester, 31 May20
Camden Arts Centre, London,
1 August21 September '97
CCA, Glasgow, 12 December '9731
I suppose I started thinking, not
unlike the Turner Prize, another year, another newcontemporaries exhibition.
Reading through the catalogue my initial feeling was that this year there
at least appeared to be an attempt to address the parameters of the New
contemporaries exhibition ethos. This is currently situated as 'a' highly
publicised (as regards the art world) selected exhibition of newly graduated
and soon to be graduating artists. Parallel to this, there seemed to be
an inquiry into the purposes and conditions of the art educational institution
within a European context today. The catalogue consists of discussions
between the selectors of the exhibition: Sarat Maharaj, Hans Ulrich Obrist
and Gillian Wearing, and responses (invited letters) to the selectors'
statement: "The art school closes in 1997; imagine its reinvention". These
are by students, critics, artists and educationalists, based predominantly
However, this feeling of optimism
was short lived. The amount of actual examination appeared a flippant gesture.
There are deep rooted issues concerning the intertwining relationships
of how 'culture' is defined and affirmed through the processes of education,
together with the consecrating power of 'commercial' publicity. To represent
this with a simplistic 'survey'--where nearly all the reproduced invited
responses cover one A4 sheet or less--all for 'nothing more than' reproduction
in a catalogue with little intended follow up, is tokenistic. This criticism
had some presence within the pages of the catalogue. In a reply to the
requested response to the possibility of the reinvention of the art school,
Stephan Dillemuth replied "...as if it were possible to reinvent the art
school just for the sake of a funny curatorial mood...it becomes issue
surfing as diversion".
The selectors' actions, through
concentrating the catalogue 'deliberation' not on the individual artists
and their works but in a limited way on the systems and structures that
led them to be exhibited, could be interpreted as a means of distancing
themselves from being individually identified with the specific artists
and works chosen. As suggested by Sarat Maharaj in the catalogue discussion,
reasons for taking this approach may be because the means by which the
participating newcontemporaries artists are selected have led in recent
years to an 'outright', unquestioned endorsement of their work by our ever
vigilant cultural commissars. A quick and easy celebration of this year's
new model, the 'only' qualitative judgment undertaken being grounded on
the artists' 'natural' inclusion in the 'hallowed halls' in the first place.
The accusation is that this 'phenomenon' not only forecloses on the possibilities
of a more expansive dialogue to exist around the 'presentation' of artists'
'work', but also on what forms/strategies the production of 'work' may
take and what a relationship to an 'audience' may be.
Over the newcontemporaries' various
incarnations, from the Young Contemporaries through to corporate sponsorship
with BT and now Becks, it has ossified into a template of patronage. The
artists/critics/curators on the selectors' panel over the years, perhaps
through the expression of their own particular 'tastes' within a group
dynamic, have appeared, sometimes blatantly, to select applicants who best
reflect their own practices and positions--a legitimising, 'naturalised',
historic linearity the result.
"The establishment of a canon in
the guise of a universally valued cultural inheritance or patrimony constitutes
an act of 'symbolic violence'...in that it gains legitimacy by misrecognising
the underlying power relations which serve, in part, to guarantee the continued
reproduction of the legitimacy of those who produce or defend the canon."
Where has this left the spaces within
newcontemporaries for 'anything else' to happen when there appears to be
no challenge to the circus of the myopic exhibition circuit?
Within the catalogue there is a
challenge to the newcontemporaries' applicants' belief in a 'formula for
success' (that belief being interpreted as the apparent mimicking of recent
work and approaches by 'leading' contemporary artists), and the college
and market encouraged 'artistic practice of repetition' (the artist emerging
from college with a 'whole', 'complete' practice, their years spent in
education in perfection of it and continued thereafter in the production
of easily quantifiable and advertised commodities). Instead of this, Sarat
Maharaj desires work that is "eccentric", "erratic", "obsessive", "quirky",
and "plain daft". This in itself has no escape velocity, if that is the
intention. Given the product placement of 'the' young-british-artists,
such work (if we see it as "eccentric" etc.) has been consolidated in just
such a formulaic way. Hasn't the 'unique artist genius' been reinvested
under the guise of the 'integrity of the individual'? In a market that
values originality as an expression of authenticity isn't novelty 'the'
prime trading point? The same fetishism of originality, originality for
There is also the feeling from the
newcontemporaries catalogue discussion that a shifting, dynamic practice
is 'just' that of the student in search of 'their own' voice, implying
that they will find this most perfect and personal means of expression,
in time--the value of the process only being legitimised by the evidence
of the final product in 'the' marketplace. However 'understated' in presentation,
this is re-enforced by Gillian Wearing's confession that she was rejected
four times from the newcontemporaries: from not fitting in, somehow her
aspirations and newcontemporaries' seem to have magically converged.
Perhaps in some quarters there is
also a backlash against what appear to have been acceptable, not unadvantageous,
distortions of an '80s critique of 'masculine' 'originality' (a critique
perhaps 'typified' by Sherrie Levine) and Roland Barthes' 'Death of the
Author' (where the 'viewer' is seen as an active reader of the work, integral
in constructing meaning). The distortions being "everything's been done,
therefore..." and "it's a free-for-all" 'respectively', saw the lines of
individualism redrawn, the specificity of history evacuated, and the 'empty'
husks treated as nothing more than entries into a visual backcatalogue
for re-use, ready to be 'personalised' with a new 'charisma'. But perhaps
far from being a 'fad', a blip, this is the culmination of the contradictory
constitution of UK arts education: of socialised learning, still not overtly
dissimilar to the apprenticeship tradition; of the therapy session reinforcement
of the imperative for 'unique' individual expression--which together 'happen'
to reflect the markets' requirements for peculiarity while maintaining
The apparent distancing by the selectors
from the actual act of selecting this year is perhaps also an attempt to
generate precisely a space in which to 'entertain' the thoughts of 'other'
artistic practices and activities, other than what is presently 'encouraged'
symbiotically through newcontemporaries and 'the' educational system: to
'explore' other forms of 'exhibition' strategy that don't 'just' lead to
a validation of the international-bright-young-thing, quick sale mentality.
Sarat Maharaj's comments in the catalogue best pursue this, for example,
on the changing role of the tutor, the critic, the visiting artist and
the historian he states: "It seems to have become less easy to distinguish
their ideal function of offering critical challenge and debate, of raising
difficult, sticky issues from the rather more narrow business of promotion",
and his view that newcontemporaries should not become, "...simply a site
for high-speed endorsement of work with an eye to market trends", which
I take as a polite suggestion that he feels it already has. Unfortunately
this year's show does little to counter this. In at least raising the spectre
of art education, the catalogue starts to bring to the fore the questioning
of the specific process of cultural transmission and training, and "the
process by which the realisation of culture becomes 'natural'." 2
There appears to be a presumption in the catalogue, though, that all discourses
in art schools (within the UK) are the same. That presumption is the universalism
of 'the' London experience, an ignoring of geographical specificity. However
spurred on by the government through a replacement funding system based
on prescriptive research assessment (where colleges are attributed points
primarily on the grounds of staff 'performance' through exhibiting and
publishing, and, in a game show manner, these points converted to cash)
and art colleges half-hearted attempts at imitating a mythologised 'London'
model of 'success', this is 'simply' not the case.
Gillian Wearing states that "...the
show should function as a kind of snap shot-transcript of art activity,
making and thinking about art in the late 1990s...a show which is saying
'this is the state of play among a sizable swathe of young practitioners
in the country today'". This though is also not the case. It is a selection
by a selected panel of four individuals of work by finishing and recently
graduated students who decided to apply. Newcontemporaries may actually
provide an opportunity to focus attention on selected activity within this
designated slice of producers throughout the UK, as opposed to just the
familiar focus on London psychoses. Whether in the resulting collating
of work it does or not is up to the selected selectors' tastes, particular
interests and relations to teaching establishments and students, and the
desired participation by those who are deemed eligible (both selectors
and students alike). All of which is overseen by the exhibition strategy,
where the artists' work still has to be both 'transportable' and 'transposable'.
While questioning the lack of idiosyncrasy
in practices within the applications to the show, what is left out of the
discussion within the catalogue is the actual questioning of what effects
the social, economic and political barriers erected over the past 15 years
have had on art school/college intake. It is problematic for the newcontemporaries'
selectors to query the range of the work represented in the applications
without also querying the racial, social, sexual, geographical and gender
representation within art schools. Undoubtedly, the government 'imposed'
changes to the financing of Higher Education have further resulted in the
privileging of education to those who can afford it.
Underscoring the 'entertaining'
of the possibility of change in art education within the catalogue is the
rash premise that the principles and purposes of education are removed
from state authority and its interests--free floating in a utopian bubble.
That production is socially determined, the result of a long and complex
historical process, is jettisoned, for the ease and simplicity of ... 'discussion'?
The prime obstacle in any shift within the educational system as a whole
are the institutions' immersion in the broader ideological state apparatus.
The late '80s closing down and merging
(or is that downsizing) of art schools within London were the outcomes
of the Conservative government's 'vocational education' drive, presently
being expanded upon by the 'new Labour' government. This includes the privatisation
of Further Education funding and the advancing of competition, rather than
communication, between institutions through the research point funding
mechanism, amongst other things. This competition is just as strongly reflected
in the internal struggles between departments within those very institutions
in the annual pillar to post pursuit of funds and studio space.
Within the schools and colleges
full time staff are increasingly having to take over greater administrative
functions, the result of imposed structural changes, bizarre course assessment
procedures, increasing financial pressures, intensifying student numbers
in relation to staff student ratios and available studio space. The resulting
outcome is all too often makeshift or makedo.
Part time staff have been 'drafted
in' in an attempt to shore up the 'teaching' shortfall, partly as a cheaper
alternative to full time staff and partly in response to the institutions'
need for research qualifications--these predominantly 'young' artists through
their own activity in the areas of exhibiting and publishing and their
relative numbers 'produce' more convertible research points.
The employing of part time staff
and visiting lecturers is not new. It is a commonplace activity within
arts educational institutions, but perhaps some of the emphasis for their
inclusion in a course has shifted. This is not to undermine the potential
of such relationships and the benefits to those artists/critics in having
'employment', however sporadically, and access to the 'zest of youth'.
Part time staff and visiting lecturers may allow for a broader representation
of interests and practices within schools/colleges, being either a balance
to the 'dead wood' or to supplant the student contact time of the actual
educational full time staff. However, with part time staff often being
on 'fragile' contracts, they have little leverage to create concrete changes
within the educational environment. But they are able to make small inroads
in raising the expectations of students and encouraging 'other' ways of
working. The student, though, is still left to challenge the institutional
monoliths alone. And let's not forget, part time staff, as with full time,
can also be drafted in to support 'the Department's position', effectively
foreclosing on any 'other' activity.
In the most cynical regimes, specifically
employed 'research members' may not necessarily be intended to have any
contact or execution over the college's existing day to day educational
activities, being there simply to concoct the research points, annexed
in relative isolation.
In the UK art education system students
are at an institution for between 2 and 4 years (undergraduate, postgraduate),
once understanding the system within which you are enveloped and delineated
by, there is only so much time in tenure for students to attempt to affect
the actual educational institution itself, perhaps unintentionally through
trying to cross departmental boundaries in the processes of experimentation.
The continued fanciful pigeon-holing of 'legitimate' practices into separate
compartments within art schools, painting, sculpture etc.--despite broader
institutional acceptance of a diversification in what constitutes a practice--may
well serve the interests of departmental jerry-mandering but do nothing
to encourage such exploratory multiform work.
Once in the school/college door,
there are also specific funding difficulties for students in challenging
the institution, in whatever way, especially today. As individual schools/colleges
have the financial responsibilities of students previously undertaken by
government and local government dumped on them, and as the student 'grant'
rapidly vanishes, internal school/college grants and bursaries become an
ever more essential aspect of day to day survival for students. The expectation
that students are going to demand a better 'service' for the education
they 'purchase' doesn't reflect the continuing disproportionate power structures
within academic institutions. The National Union of Students (NUS), the
supposed watchdog for students, was ineffectual in defending its members'
interests against the last government and has shown little backbone in
doing so in the face of the present one. Hardly surprising when the NUS
seldom looks more than a grooming parlor for the 'official' left. Any student
within, and wanting to continue in, Further Education is ultimately reliant
on the institution for endorsed qualifications as those qualifications
are the bureaucratic bench marks within the present and proposed Further
Education funding systems, not to mention private bursaries and grants.
These qualifications may actually take on even more of an importance within
this circuit, from foundation level and its equivalents onwards, as the
financing of the Further Education system is progressively privatised and
private funders look for some form of guarantee of return on their investment,
sanctioned qualifications acting as just that.
Not to conflate the 'relatively'
independent existence of newcontemporaries and the state subject educational
system, but problems that arise for transitory staff in effecting change
within the educational system in some ways parallel any one newcontemporaries
panel attempting to effect change within its exhibition structure, as perhaps
this years did. Newcontemporaries' selectors are only there for a short
period (one show), and they also effectively reflect the broad tastes of
the overseeing panel who selected them. In this instance the onus for change
within the newcontemporaries lies with having a progressive directorship/management.
(Newcontemporaries' 'personnel' are faintly listed within the opening pages
of the catalogue as: chair--Sacha Craddock; Vice Chair--Jill Ritblat; directors--John
Huntingford, Rebecca King-Lassman, Dez Lawrence, Andrea Schlieker, Mark
Wallinger; company secretary--Tony Paterson; administrators--Bev Bytheway,
Andrew Critchley.) And as Gillian Wearing suggested in the catalogue regarding
art schools/colleges at the present time, one way of removing some of the
barriers to allow for more experimentation by those already in college
is in having good flexible relations between defined departments, or in
removing the regulatory departmental fences altogether. This, though, does
nothing to breach the widening financial moat surrounding access to education
in the first instance.
While the newcontemporaries catalogue
serves to raise questions of both art education's and newcontemporaries'
broader involvement in the placement of young artists in the market, the
underlying managerial structure of newcontemporaries is left intact and
the selectors' own authority within this system of consecration remains
largely unquestioned, if not tactically sidestepped. This year's newcontemporaries
exhibition suffers from the very same annual ills supposedly under question.
The difference being this year that the exhibition reveals the symptoms,
the catalogue readily diagnoses, suggested cures are sought, the body lurches
The changing panel of selectors
for the newcontemporaries, as chosen by the management committee, this
year allows for a range of individual artist's, critic's, curator's diversities
of tastes. But the newcontemporaries' annual shifting public face, within
a general field of practice, has gone without any real questioning of its
present day purposes, and still has a limited ability to 'represent' due
to its exhibition structure and continuing constraints on practice. It
currently appears to be unable to challenge the assumptions of what an
'artistic' practice could be. At least the dialogue and responses within
the catalogue may begin this process, something more than is tolerated,
never mind generated, within the present 'backs to the wall' educational
environment. One question arising is how willing and able are educational
establishments to critique these 'competitions' when they are so heavily
involved and reliant on them as markers of 'their own' success and endorsement
within the vocational framework--how many students from their courses get
chosen for newcontemporaries, or how may newcontemporaries artists apply,
and get on, to postgraduate courses. The education system at present is,
after all, based on a system of competition (there are winners and losers
in games of college and departmental 'profiling' and 'suitability') which
the newcontemporaries is itself an active participant in. Any questioning
of one is implicitly a questioning of the other.
The panel made its choice of artists
and work and effected the few events and discussions that surrounded the
exhibitions. But perhaps it is acceptable to vaguely discuss the reinvention
of the art school precisely because it is insubstantial and because next
year it will be a different issue surrounding the newcontemporaries, given
the change in the selectors, a new tail to pin on the donkey, more grist
for the mill.
Within the catalogue it is suggested
that possibilities for an expanded framework of participation (by both
practitioners and public) may lie in the inclusion of 'new technologies',
CD ROM and Web work. The newcontemporaries' application form for this year
(1998) includes such media. Hopefully this is not the stuff of technological
utopianism as the technology itself does not necessarily escape the dynamics
of the systems supposedly under question. 'New Media' is now able to be
brought into the fold in this way precisely because it is able to "...overturn
the hierarchy of the field without disturbing the principles on which the
field is based. Thus [the] revolutions are only ever partial ones, which
displace the censorships and transgress the conventions but do so in the
name of the same underlying principles".3
1 The field of Cultural Production,
Pierre Bordieu; Editors Introduction, Randal Johnson: Polity Press 1993
2 The field of Cultural Production,
Pierre Bordieu: Polity Press 1993