Claire Louise Staunton
Following Vessel’s introduction to their contribution to MARCH’s Publishing As Protocol feature, this essay by Claire Louise Staunton reflects on her involvement with Giant Step, a multi-year program organized by Vessel from 2011 to 2012 that aimed to develop the concept of an “ideal” institution, which entails the necessities of supporting and developing culture and creating critical dialogue. This multidisciplinary process was carried out through a “nomadic” symposium and reading groups which allowed the application of efforts to a variety of local artistic communities and audiences.
Giant Step was a project that investigated the conditions of cultural and artistic production within institutions, as well as the possibilities of critical practice resulting in institutional change. As the director of a small institute, I wanted to rethink how to organize, manage, and curate critically. I wanted Flat Time House (where I was Director/Curator at the time) to be a “critical institution”: one that considered how its engagement with audiences could support or generate social change and one that reflected on its actions with others. Hosting the second reading group in our space was a way of inviting others to reflect on these questions together.
Flat Time House (FTHo) is the former home and studio of British artist John Latham. It has operated as an institute for artistic experimentation through exhibitions, residencies, publications, and pedagogical projects since 2006. Programs often use the extensive archive of Latham’s work, his cosmology, and his life as a starting point for thinking and producing. Latham was also a founding member of the Artist Placement Group (APG), a coalition of artists who believed that artists ought to enter industry and institutions to offer a new way of thinking to non-artists and their organizations. Latham’s work sought to reveal “blind spots” as conceptual spaces for imagination and exploration – whether in industry or in art history. As such, he did not seek to distinguish theory and practice but rather to experiment in the metaphorical spaces between categories and institutions. FTHo therefore felt like an ideal environment in which to discuss institutional critique.
FTHo was established with the support of Latham before his death, but his deep suspicion of institutions and authority meant that it could not look, feel, or act like an art institution – as we have come to recognize it. The very fabric of FTHo rejects established norms, yet the curator/directors who have led it had to find a way to fund it, keep it operational in a neoliberal democracy, and demonstrate its worth. This is a difficult task, theoretically and practically. Giant Step Reading Group II became an opportunity for me to reflect on the complexities of a consciously critical institution and how not to institutionalize critique. Using Hito Steyerl’s article “The Institution of Critique” as a prompt, the group asked: What is the internal relationship between critique and institution?1
Building on the public programming at FTHo, I looked to history to consider contemporary problems. I used the symposium GS1: Enter the Artworld? Marginal Establishments, Cooptation and Resistance, which took place in Bari from June 12 to 14, 2012, to examine the activities of the Artist Placement Group. My presentation reframed APG as a critical practice that rejected the institution of art and insisted on art’s value as a disruptive force in governmental and corporate institutions.
The founders of APG, Barbara Steveni, John Latham (her husband at the time), and artists Barry Flanagan, David Hall, Anna Ridley, and Jeffrey Shaw, would never have used the term “institutional critique.” APG’s aim was to give the artist more relevance and power within society, over the long term. They insisted this was impossible if the artist remained closeted in the studio and if the art that they made was siloed into elitist galleries and staid museums. APG argued that keeping artists and their work away from key events and activities of society diminished their power to make lasting changes. Today, siloing and disengagement arguably remains a problem despite curators claiming to create “public spheres” within the gallery space. I wanted to consider if APG’s approach was relevant to a contemporary discourse of institutional critique.
APG was not interested in the “democratization of art” as such, like the community artists movement of the 1970s; instead, it was concerned about the lack of recognition of art by those in positions of power and by society at large. It believed that not enough attention was given to the role of the artist. APG arranged “placements” for artists to spend time in the country’s most significant companies (British Steel, ICI, European Airways, etc.) and institutions (the Department of Health, Scottish Office, Peterlee, and Milton Keynes Development Corporation), where the artist would be involved in the day-to-day activities of the organization. APG attempted to “bridge the gap between artists and people at work so that each may gain from the other’s perspectives and approaches to activity.”2 Latham believed that artists had a special function in society and that they were “Reflective Intuitive Organisms,” capable of seeing the world in a way that was significant and could find commonality between disparate disciplines. The role of the artist as an “observer” was intended to have, in Michel Foucault’s words, a “critical attitude” that could destabilize a framework or system that is otherwise axiomatic, thereby making it possible to think of other realities.3
For example, performance artist Stuart Brisley took up a placement at S. Hille & Co. Ltd. between 1970 and 1971. At Hille, Brisley found a rapidly expanding organization with inefficient channels of communication between workers and management. He tried, unsuccessfully, to alert the management to this dysfunctional communication chain. Motivated by his leftist political views, his close engagement with the shop floor led to more fruitful outcomes, including the installation of notice boards for workers to leave messages for each other. He also encouraged the workers to paint their machines in colors of their choice and worked with them to build Poly Wheel (1970), a circle of 212 Robin Day chairs from the production line, which he saw as a metaphor for the shop floor as a “closed system.”
Another example included Ian Breakwell’s placement between 1975 and 1976 within the Architecture Unit of the Mental Health Group at the Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS).4 Breakwell submitted his diary observations of visits to the Rampton and Broadmoor high-security psychiatric hospitals. He also produced a slide sequence for members of a “Special Hospitals Internal Seminar,” which graphically portrayed the ignominy of the patients’ living standards, after which he was asked to join an interdisciplinary team tasked with improving not only Broadmoor’s physical structure but also its impact on healthcare. The team’s report advocated better living conditions for high-security hospital patients, suggesting that “the new building should be the opportunity for new thinking about treatment.”5
Immediately repudiated by Broadmoor’s conservative administration, the report was censored by the DHSS and, following standard procedure (since Breakwell had signed the Official Secrets Act), it remains banned. To circumvent the official silencing of the report, Breakwell wrote that he “began to extend the experiences of [his] placement with DHSS into [his] personal artworks, and to present them publicly.”6 He published extracts from his diary observations with reference to “an Institution in England” (but based on his visits to Rampton and Broadmoor) and in 1977–78 made the film The Institution, featuring an improvised performance by singer/songwriter and ex-therapist Kevin Coyne. Breakwell’s first-hand knowledge of high-security hospitals eventually found its way into the public domain: The Institution directly inspired Secret Hospital (1979), a two-part television documentary on high-security hospitals produced by Yorkshire Television, which included Breakwell’s original slide sequence.
In my symposium presentation, I proposed that the activity of APG was a form of proto-“criticality,” borrowing a term from Irit Rogoff. Rogoff defined her use of the term “criticality” in 2008 as a (curatorial) method for the embedded and embodied practitioner. Rogoff echoes Foucault when she writes, “modernist critique was a judgement from a distanced position and, thus, ineffective, and too concerned with a resolution.”7 “Criticality” insists on an embeddedness within the structures that one seeks to critique and attempts to “smuggle in” different possibilities.
In my presentation at GS1, I brought into play Chantal Mouffe’s notion of agonism and considered whether APG’s approach to embedded criticality fostered a kind of agonistic encounter with producers from different fields of practice (art and industry) working productively but in opposition and in conflict with one another.8 I think now that the presentation was naive and problematic. In the first instance, I think it is problematic to use terms that are specific to the contemporary moment to analyze historical practices – not impossible, but without due attention and care to the specificities of the terms. I am also, now, not sure that Rogoff’s and Mouffe’s terms are at all helpful for the analysis of APG, whose work was barely concerned with a “public,” let alone a “public sphere.” Nonetheless, Giant Step was a place where I was able to try out ideas and face constructive criticism. I did, however, feel heavy with the legacy of the APG and the expectations of an institution that (in part) represented them, FTHo. Giant Step allowed me to think and experiment with ideas around the critical institution and what it might mean to institute critically.
Like the organizers of Giant Step, I was frustrated with the ineffectiveness of direct critique of a system that was oppressive and exploitative. Critique of neoliberalism often serves neoliberalism since, as Marina Vishmidt claims, it is too easily co-opted by the capitalist (art) institution as a cybernetic system – an institution that renders itself both unreceptive to radical change and conducive to the neoliberal hegemony.9 We urgently need alternative models, but we must first have a better understanding of the internal relation between the institution and critique, as Steyerl also claims.
As Director/Curator at FTHo and in my presentation on the APG, I wanted to highlight the importance of history when looking for new ways of producing cultural forms. I was not interested in presenting a historical survey or a nostalgic view of the past. I do not think that the activities of APG would have any critical currency if they were re-enacted in the contemporary context. Their activities were, in the 1960s and 1970s, unquestionably radical but have since been professionalized and neutralized by their institutionalization as “artists residency” programs. Following the rule of New Labour in the UK during the 1990s, socially engaged artists working outside of the gallery context were further instrumentalized as part of a large-scale project of social engineering, which is well documented by Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells, published the same year as Giant Step.10 APG as it was in the 1960s and 1970s could not function critically in the 2010s.
I refer to APG and other histories in what John Roberts describes as a speculative artistic process that is a “rehistoricization of the future pasts,” as a constitutive force of an imagined futurity.11 The terms “belated,”12 “deferred action,”13 and “anachronisms”14 refer to a method for practice that reaches into the past for residual revolutionary potential to address contemporary political concerns. Doing so dislocates an argument from the past to challenge the present order. The argument was too early, too short-lived, or too rare the first time around, and the plan is to actualize it in the present to supersede its own role in history. This is an unashamedly avant-gardist call for renewal, invoking art as a revolutionary force. A belated practice would regard (art) histories as pre-enactments of political forms. Pre-enactments – which invoke the tradition in political movements of prefiguration – are artistic rehearsals for political enactments.15
Could, then, the residual energy of the APG’s (failed) experiment to place artists in positions of power and influence inform contemporary cultural and institutional practices? How might we rethink art and its capacity to critique and change society? And how can a “critical institution” revisit these histories in a productive and political way through exhibition and educational programming? This is perhaps the most important role for radical histories – to ignite and propel present political movements. And it is the art institution that can exhibit them and prepare the ground for a “belated” revolution.
Giant Step was a collective learning experience between the people working in institutions, producing for them, and writing about them. I had never before been involved in a discussion involving institutions critiquing and questioning themselves. The Giant Step project made it clear to me that the boundaries between academia and the public institution must be porous, with theory and practice informing each other and reciprocally reflected upon. It is through networked projects, organized by critical institutions such as Vessel, that such exchange is possible. My involvement with Giant Step was the first time I had experienced cross-European collaboration and allied programming around the continent. Could this even happen now? In our post-Brexit and post-pandemic reality, perhaps without the involvement of UK institutions and mostly via Zoom. It was through Giant Step that I first met several very special people with whom I have since collaborated and continue to call friends.
Claire Louise Staunton is an academic researcher, community organizer, and curator. Her expanded research practice addresses the intersection between art, politics, and housing development. Staunton is currently co-editing a book on Artist Placement Group (Koenig Books/Raven Row), curating a long-term project on housing associations for Three Rivers in Bexley, and lecturing in Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She was formerly Research Curator at MK Gallery, Milton Keynes, Curator with Inheritance Projects, and Curator/Director at Flat Time House. She holds a PhD from the Royal College of Art, London.