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Dead Reckoning – Ellie Harrison and The Art of Austerity

Featured image: “High Street Casualties: Ellie Harrison’s Zombie Walk” event at Ort Gallery on 11 April 2015, photograph by Marcin Sz

Like all of the best horror stories, this is a story about something that refuses to die. Despite, or perhaps because of being slashed and burned, prodded and poked in a laboratory and being raised from the grave at least three times, artist Ellie Harrison’s project, High Street Casualties, lives to fight on another day, perhaps with a number of sequels to come.

Our protagonist Ellie Harrison not only stars, directs, writes and produces High Street Casualties, she is responsible for a cast of thousands and hours of dragging an idea through the ups and downs of trying to bring an artwork to some kind of fruition.

I am one of those thousands, playing a small part at the start of the story. I had been interested in Harrison’s work for a few years, especially works such as Toytown featuring a dilapidated 1980s kid’s car ride which starts up and offers people free rides when news relating to the recession makes the headlines on the BBC News RSS feed. Works like Toytown, and Transactions, where Harrison sent an SMS message to a phone installed in a gallery every time she made an economic transaction, triggering a dancing Coke can every time a message is received, seemed to make immediate political statements to a wide audience and be accessible, and, dare I say it, fun.

Toytown by Ellie Harrison
Toytown by Ellie Harrison

By early 2013 there was spate of high-profile shop closures and the media was full of Death of the High Street scary stories. Blockbusters, Jessops and HMV all closed within months of each other along with other High Street regulars, being replaced by poundshops and charity shops (although Jessops and HMV got injected with some strange green elixir and brought back to life, lacking what small amount of soul they once had).

I was now commissioning public art for Art Across The City, Swansea, a job that until recently saw 36 temporary commissions in three years including Jeremy Deller, Emily Speed, Ross Sinclair and Jeremy Millar. I’d put forward Harrison at interview stage so was happy to finally commission her. As a former Blockbuster’s employee, who proudly fires off her years of service ‘1997-2000’, Harrison was keen to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the start of the global recession, taking the reported death of the high street as its subject. Following a week long site visit and research period, Harrison proposed a city wide participatory event that like many of her works, are ‘data visualisation’ projects.

This included researching every shop that had closed in the city centre and how many employees had lost jobs, and, hopefully tracking them down and getting them to stage a Zombie Walk through the city, inviting the public to join in, to make the high street and place for creative activity and raising community spirit. This wasn’t a Swansea problem, it was a UK wide problem, the blunt end of day to day global recession. Harrison was aiming to raise awareness and bring people together in a positive action.

"High Street Casualties: Ellie Harrison's Zombie Walk" event at Ort Gallery on 11 April 2015, photograph by Marcin Sz
“High Street Casualties: Ellie Harrison’s Zombie Walk” event at Ort Gallery on 11 April 2015, photograph by Marcin Sz

Sadly, just three months until launch day, the powers that be in a muddled chain of command, from Swansea Council, Swansea BID and ultimately Art Across The City pulled the plug. It was a small condolence that I managed to make sure Harrison received an ominous sounding ‘kill fee’ of £1000, which would barely scratch the sides of the time spent not only on this, but of not working on other projects. It’s a credit to Harrison that she managed to raise the project from the dead, although even that process has not been without its own silver bullet, crucifixes and garlic bulbs.

After dusting herself down, Harrison proposed the idea to Glasgow International as a collaboration with award winning documentary film maker, Jeanie Finlay. The proposal, probably suffering a hangover from its Swansea cancellation was not selected. Harrison was then approached by Josephine Reichert from Ort Gallery in Birmingham about doing a project which “engaged with the local community”. High Street Casualties perfectly fitted the bill. Again, this was not critical of any specific city, just documenting what was happening globally. Reichert was more than keen to make it happen and submitted an application to Arts Council England to fund the project (on a greatly reduced budget), as part of Ort’s annual programme of exhibitions and events. This first application was unsuccessful but with Reichert’s enthusiasm and passion for the project it was successfully resubmitted. High Street Casualties was to become the last project in the Ort Gallery’s programme with a date finally fixed for April 2015, slap bang in the middle of the General Election Purdah, like a stake through the heart.

While some horror film productions like to promote the hype that filming on set was cursed, High Street Casualties seemed to attract all kinds of uncalled for and ill-informed bad luck. Birmingham City Council declared that they did not want to fund or be associated with the project. They continued to fund the rest of Ort’s annual programme, but withdrew money just from High Street Casualties as they thought it was, and just let this glide through you like a ghost, it was ‘making fun of unemployed people’.

"High Street Casualties: Ellie Harrison's Zombie Walk" event at Ort Gallery on 11 April 2015, photograph by Marcin Sz
“High Street Casualties: Ellie Harrison’s Zombie Walk” event at Ort Gallery on 11 April 2015, photograph by Marcin Sz

This left just £2000 for an 18 day production, not taking into account the work done over the previous year. Harrison points out that it worked out at £4.50 per hour, which is what she earned whilst at Blockbuster. A further grant application for Glasgow Visual Art Scheme was rejected leaving a limited budget for the make-up artist, photographer and designer. A huge amount of goodwill was required, not just from Reichert and Ort Gallery, who works in the café when not resubmitting ACE applications; the student who helped make the film as part of a placement and of course all of the 60 participants who were involved in a Zombie Walk across Birmingham in their old uniforms, receiving food and drink and make-up tutorials for their time.

Harrison is more than well aware of paying artists and unhappy that the project was compromised on more than one occasion. The original idea about it being a realistic “data visualisation” of redundancies had to be loosened a little as they were at the whim of the number of people who showed up on the day.

60 people is a good crowd given the circumstances but only around a fifth of the number of people who would have lost their jobs from 13 stores. Despite having to cut important corners to the project’s integrity, Harrison is relieved that after two years the initial idea is a reality. The event was not only a success, but proved an alternative form of creative protest in a major UK city. The watching audience, due to the popularity of such Zombie Walks responded well, commenting on old shops and where they used to be. Harrison believes it was popular, radical and subversive, which is a hard trick to pull off.

"High Street Casualties: Ellie Harrison's Zombie Walk" event at Ort Gallery on 11 April 2015, photograph by Marcin Sz
“High Street Casualties: Ellie Harrison’s Zombie Walk” event at Ort Gallery on 11 April 2015, photograph by Marcin Sz

Following a blood stained finale, the end credits have rolled. I was made redundant recently following Arts Council of Wales cuts. Harrison created Dark Days, a post-apocalyptic communal living project in Glasgow Museum of Modern Art; exhibited an immigrant friendly golf course at the Venice Biennale and continues to campaign on many fronts, including Bring Back British Rail. The High Street carries on in some form or another and Conservative vampires are sucking the life out of the UK and we all limp on, like zombies in Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, visiting the shopping mall out of habit.

In these days of austerity, it is important to reach out to the widest audience and speak outside of our own bubbles of influence. High Street Casualties isn’t about criticising what has happened, although it uses that data. It is about making more people aware of why it happened and how we may be able to affect some kind of creative change, however small. High Street Casualties deserves a sequel, a big budget reboot and should tour to every town and city, bringing gore, blood, and ripped Blockbuster uniforms to outside a multiplex near you…


Gordon Dalton is an artist, curator and writer based in Cardiff. He is currently coordinating the inaugural Plymouth Art Weekender
www.gordondalton.co.uk
twitter.com/Mermaid_Monster

We Demand The Impossible: An Interview with John Jordan and Gavin Grindon.

Marc Garrett interviews John Jordan and Gavin Grindon about their collaborative publication, A Users Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible.

Published by Minor Compositions

“This guide is not a road map or instruction manual. It’s a match struck in the dark, a homemade multi-tool to help you carve out your own path through the ruins of the present, warmed by the stories and strategies of those who took Bertolt Brecht’s words to heart: “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”

Marc Garrett: In the introduction of your publication it says that it, “was written in a whirlwind of three days in December 2010, between the first and second days of action by UK students against the government cuts, and intended to reflect on the possibility of new creative forms of action in the current movements. It was distributed initially at the Long Weekend, an event in London to bring artists and activists together to plan and plot actions for the following days, including the teach-in disruption of the Turner Prize at Tate Britain, the collective manifesto write-in at the National Gallery and the UK’s version of the book bloc.”

I think readers would be interested to know how the ‘teach-in disruption’ and the ‘collective manifesto write-ins’ went?

John Jordan: I was not at the first Turner teach-in so can’t give first hand account. From what I’ve heard it was a wonderful moment where the sound of the action penetrated into the room where the Turner Prize were being held, as the back drop of the channel 4 live link up. Kind of perfect, because it was a sound artist who got the award.

Art students staging an anti-cuts protest on the night of the prize giving ceremony. Photo: Andrew Winning. From FREE ART LONDON LIST. December 8, 2010.
Art students staging an anti-cuts protest on the night of the prize giving ceremony. Photo: Andrew Winning. From FREE ART LONDON LIST. December 8, 2010.

As for the National Gallery event – this was held during the evening after one of the big days of student action. Having spent the day being trampled on by her majesties police horses, a load of us went up to the National Gallery and mingled in front of Manet’s Execution of Emperor Maximillian, opposite a corridor that held a Courbet painting. It was a perfect placement as Courbet of all the 19th artists was really the one who understood the role of art within an insurrection, putting down his paintbrushes to apply his creativity directly to the organising of the Paris Commune of 1871 just as the impressionists fled the city to the quiet of the countryside. Only to return a few years later when Impressionism was launched, as a kind or artistic white wash over the massacres of the Commune, a return to normal bourgeois representation. Courbet had used the rebel city, a “paradise without police” as he put it, as a canvas to create new forms of social relationships and new ways of public celebration, including the destruction of the monument to Empire and Hierarchy, the Vendome column.

Several hundred artists and art students at a given moment sat down and occupied room 43, telling the staff that we would leave once a collective manifesto had been written. Which is what happened. Small groups of 10 or so were formed as the guards and director of the gallery paced up and down unsure of how to react, each group worked on points for the manifesto which were then read out and merged in ‘The Nomadic Hive Manifesto’ – http://www.criticallegalthinking.com/?p=998 – it was an extraordinary moment of collective, emergent intelligence, a reclaiming of a public cultural space from the realm of musefication and representation.

MG: ‘A Users Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible’  features quotes by individuals and groups, who have inspired many of us in the networked, Furtherfield community. But, I am also aware that you may be part of a younger generation, presently experiencing the brunt of education cuts imposed by the current government coalition. Could you explain how these cuts are effecting you and your peers?

JJ: Well I wish I was a younger generation !!! I’m 46 years old, it was written for the youth !! You should talk to some arts against cuts folk, I can put you in touch if you need to?

Gavin Grindon: I’m not exactly ‘the younger generation’ either, but I guess I’m in a strange position between. I recently finished my PhD, so a lot of my friends are either students or just becoming teachers. There aren’t many jobs about, academic or otherwise, and most of them are doing multiple part-time, short-term jobs to make ends meet, without the assumed security or career progression of a generation before, and the cuts are only going to exacerbate that situation. I guess what’s new is a recession on top of these kind of precarious work conditions, which extend far beyond the University. With part-time, hourly-paid and non fixed positions, replacing real jobs.

Of course it’s damaging, but it’s also been inspiring to see students responding to turning over lessons to discuss the cuts and seeing them on the streets. It’s politicised a lot of young people, and there’s an opportunity there. At one of the University’s I work at, it was great to see the art students working together to make protest banners, not in their studios but in the foyer, where other people could see and join in. And when I started talking with them, we began to realise that with all the technical resources of an art school at their disposal, it was possible to be much more ambitious and imaginative than just making banners or placards, the standard objects of protest. But the history of a lot of art-activist groups who had these kind of ambitions isn’t taught, never mind the more popular history of the arts of social movements itself. And it’s not just about knowing and being inspired by some great utopian tales of adventure, or understanding yourself as part of a historical legacy – it leaves you strategically disadvantaged about what can be done. So starting a conversation with these students, was, as JJ says, kind of the idea behind the guide.

MG: There are various other creative protest groups such as UK Uncut (http://www.ukuncut.org.uk/) and the University for Strategic Optimism (http://universityforstrategicoptimism.wordpress.com/), whom I interviewed live on Resonance FM, December last year (http://www.furtherfield.org/radio/8122010-university-strategic-optimism-and-genetic-moo). Are you connected to any of these creative activist groups, and are there any others in the UK you would like us to be more aware of?

JJ: Yes – I’ve worked with UK Uncut, and was unfortunately arrested in Fortnum and Mason, whilst recording the BBC 4 afternoon play, but that’s another story! There are lots of interesting groups that work on the edge of art and activism, right now a space to keep an eye out for and to visit is THE HAIRCUT BEFORE THE PARTY – http://www.thehaircutbeforetheparty.net/ – set up by two radical young art activists who have opened a hair dressers that offers free hair cuts and political discussion about organising and friendship, rebellion and the material needs to engage in it. The salon is in 26 Toynbee Street, near Petticoat Lane and open till November. It’s an interesting example of a medium to long term, art activist project that attempts to create new forms of relationship and affinity, and sees itself as building radical movement and not simply representing them.

GG: Yeah, again the idea of the text was to build on the connections that are already there, which THBTP does too in a more informal, social way. And for sure, you shouldn’t be seen at the June 30th strikes or UK Uncut’s support actions without a flash new haircut. I should also get a plug in for Catalyst Radio – http://www.catalystradio.org/ a new 24/7 DIY UK-wide activist radio station, which started up the other week and is still growing, and brings together a lot of radical radio projects from around the country.

MG: Do you share a mutual empathy and respect for other protesters elsewhere such as those in Spain and in Greece, and in the Middle East?

JJ: Of course. Although it feels like the camp protests are lacking a conflictual approach and without the mixture of conflict and creativity, protest can easily be ignored, which is a bit what has happened with all the European camps. Although sitting here in the British library its easy to be critical ! Whatever happens, those involved in the camps will have tasted politics, new friendships, alternative ways of organising etc… As for the middle east, its all still in flux, who knows what will happen and the role of artists and musicians has been pretty key in setting the powder kegg alight there..

GG: Yeah, though I think there’s a tension between the symbolic solidarity of occupying city squares and the strategic differences between activist practices in different countries. I think solidarity between these struggles is massively important, though I’m personally not sure how it’s best to manifest that here right now.

MG: In the User’s guide, it mentions the workshops in art and activism at the Tate Modern, held by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination (Labofii), entitled it ‘Disobedience makes history’. And that Laboffii “was told, in an email, by the curators that no interventions could be made against the museum’s sponsors (which happen to be British Petroleum) [..] decided to use the email as the material for the workshop. Projecting it onto the wall they asked the participants whether the workshop should obey or disobey the curator’s orders.”

What I find interesting regarding this episode is both that a big institution would take the risk of inviting in art and activist culture to their usually, protected environment whilst being sponsored by British Petroleum; and the different forms of controversies reaching the public from such situations. I am surprised that Laboffii would even consider doing such a project in the Tate Modern in the first place, but also pleased, because of the dialogue that has come out of the clash of different political contexts. So, isn’t it the case that we need  to explore issues of corporate corruption further within these big institutions so that those who would not usually consider such things are suddenly faced with the issues?

GG: I’m sure JJ has plenty to say about this. But more generally, it depends *how* they function as a platform. An art gallery or a university can be a great discursive space to explore issues, but the bounds of that debate are also strictly limited in lots of ways. This is a problem with the idea of a bourgeois public sphere. Most often, that boundary is that you can debate whatever you like but questioning the basic systemic assumptions on which such spaces rest isn’t possible, at least not in a practical way. The lab’s workshop at the Tate tried to question exactly that kind of assumption about what culture is for, and who it benefits. But for many activists from social movements, who have less faith in the public sphere and its institutions to resolve issues by discussion, that neutered debate is more of a problem than a benevolent gift to the public, and they have to take a different approach. Its not necessarily opposed to those institutions as a whole, but just asks them to make good on what they claim to be.

JJ: It’s a long story, but the key is to be able to put one foot inside these institutions and to be not frightened to KICK. But not to KICK symbolically, to really kick, to really shake them up and to be able to let go of one’s cultural capital. The Labofii will NEVER be re-invited to do anything at the TATE, bang goes all our chances of a retrospective in the fashionable art activism world !!! 😉 But, what we gain is that we were free ! When the curators told us that we could not do anything, could not take action against BP and we refused to obey them, we were free, we could do what we wanted because they could not give us anything in return. The Zapatistas say, “we are already dead so we are free” – when power can give you nothing you want, you can do anything.. this is a very powerful moment. To see the faces of the curators, the head of public, the head of security etc during the meeting where they tried to censor the lab, was priceless – they had always had power over artists, because artists will normally do ANYTHING to get their work in the Tate, but we did not care, we cared about the politics, about the actions, about climate change and social injustice – we were more powerful than the institution in that moment because we were no longer dependent on them.. it was one of the most beautiful moments… and now the movement against oil sponsorship is spreading everywhere. The message is simple, give up your cultural capital throw away your dependence on these institutions and be free…

5 minute clip excerpt from a longer documentary in January 2010. During 2 week workshop at London's Tate  Modern entitled 'Disobedience Makes History' (labofii). View Video here - http://vimeo.com/12664991
5 minute clip excerpt from a longer documentary in January 2010. During 2 week workshop at London’s Tate Modern entitled ‘Disobedience Makes History’ (labofii). View Video here – http://vimeo.com/12664991

MG: I come from a background of hacking, social hacking and D.I.Y culture, and instead of going to University I chose to be self-educated, creating alternative groups for self discovery and art with dedication to social change. And even though, many are fighting the education cuts right now, what are your own ideas around self-education, do students really need to go to college now that there are so many different forms of information and ways in creating one’s own place in the world ‘with others’?

GG: A lot of experiments with autonomous self-education have sprung up recently which ask just this question, like the Really Free School (http://reallyfreeschool.org/), there are even some more institutional business-model experiments online with peer-to-peer education. But at the same time the catchment of both of these is relatively narrow at the moment, so I think there’s still a place for these kind of education institutions, and there are interesting radical experiments going on all over, either by individuals or whole departments, although the cuts to institutional funding for education by the government changes the playing field again, so there’s an opportunity for something like this to become less marginal, both inside and outside the university.

MG: JJ, In 2005 you wrote, Notes Whilst Walking on “How to Break the Heart of Empire”, in it you write “Radicals are often vulnerable souls. Most of us become politically active because we felt something profoundly such as injustice or ecological devastation. It is this emotion that triggers a change in our behaviour and gets us politicised. It is our ability to transform our feelings about the world into actions that propels us to radical struggle. But what seems to often happen, is that the more we learn about the issues that concern us, the more images of war we see, the more we experience climate chaos, poverty and the every day violence of capitalism, the more we seem to have to harden ourselves from feeling too much, because although feeling can lead to action we also know that feeling too much can lead to depression and paralysis…” How the hell do you remain positive when you know how many horrible and disgusting things are being done to decent folks and the planet all of the time?

JJ: Unfortunately there are no magic recipes that can protect us from such feelings, a lot depends on context on our particular situations etc. But here are a few tips that have helped me keep the despair of capitalism at bay:

1) Resist the spell of individualism that capitalism tries to weave around us, a spell that chains us to the fantasy of autonomy and keep us in a state of sadness and paralysis. Break this spell and its toxic chains by realising that you are part of a greater whole, that working with others gives us strength, that seven minutes making real friendships (face to face) is more political than seven days glued to a computer browsing social networks in a trance, that inevitably fails to shake the loneliness of modern life.

2) Build a gang, a group, a collective, a crew – remember the joy of plotting things together, the power and possibilities when work and imagination is shared. In fact, imagination finds it’s insurrectionary potential when we share it, when it’s freed from the privatised ego, escapes from shackles of copyright and the prison’s of the art world.

3) Learn the skills to work together with others, consensus decision making, group facilitation, conflict resolution etc. We need to re learn collective working methods, capitalism has destroyed all our tools of conviviality and we need to reclaim them back, recreate new forms of being together.

4) Redefine Hope. Not as something that will come and save us, like a saviour, but as something that comes from not knowing what will happen next, something that takes place when we act in the immediate moment and don’t know what will happen and trust that history is made from acts of disobedience that did not necessarily have any idea of what the next step was…

5) Remember that victory is not always what happens, but what did not happen. Social movements tend to forget this. Look at all the nuclear power stations that WERE not built, all the wars that did not happen, the laws that were never passed, the free trade agreements that were never agreed on, the repressions that the state could not get away with, the gmo’s that were never planted. One of my favourite books, what I call prozac on paper, is Rebecca Solnit’s HOPE IN THE DARK (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/28048.Hope_in_the_Dark) – it’s a lovely little book which redefines hope in the most beautifully optimistic way, recommended reading when capitalism seems irresistible.

6) When everything appears useless, try to change your conception of time… think deep time, not shallow modern now time, but think about the generations that went before you and those that will come after you. Try to imagine what the generations of the future will think about your actions, imagine those from the past that fought for the emancipation of slaves and yet never saw the results of their actions, those who died for the eight hour day, for the right to build a union, the right to vote or publish an independent magazine. Spend time imagining how those alive in 50, 100 years will view your life and work…

MG: In the publication, you mention Marx and Debord. “We can all be engineers of the imagination”…”that our “general intellect”, all the collective knowledge and skills we use in making things, are taken away from us and embodied instead in the machines of our work. What would happen if we somehow re-engineered these machines if we did what Guy Debord argued and started, “producing ourselves… not the things that enslave us.” Do you see the recent cuts across the board as an example of how the powers that be are actively dis-empowering the working classes?

GG: Definitely. The cuts aren’t just about an experience of ‘austerity,’ however long term, but constitute a historical attack on poor and working people. They’re an attempt to technically recompose the material of the institutions, structures, ideas and habits people live through, in order to limit their ability to resist and remake them for themselves. In factory production, that involved the local restructuring of machine-labour, but later at a wider level Keynesian economic restructuring. This neoliberal restructuring of education is an extension of capitalist discipline into a new area, an attack on a social space which has historically been a base for social change. The government has made this pretty clear by, for example, David Willetts’s dictate amidst these massive cuts, to the Arts and Humanities Research Council, that the Tory party’s vacuous advertising slogan “the big society” become a core research area, replacing the less ideologically narrow area of ‘communities and civic values’; and the Department for Business and Innovation’s concomitant rewriting of the 1918 Haldane principle, that research directions are best decided by researchers through peer review.

The optimistic take on this is not that it’s an inevitable recuperation of resistance, which was the position Debord tended towards in the end, but that capital is always on the back foot – that its own developments are driven by and a response to social movements. That it’s an open dialectic (or if you prefer, not a dialectic at all). There’s a kind of neurosis to it, although rather than excluding the other to maintain its ego, the state is including everything to stave off other possibilities – you can see this in the language. The whole discourse of ‘participation’ and networks in business (and since the 1990s, also in art), is as Boltanski and Chiapello observed in their book the New Spirit of Capitalism, a recuperation of the language and terms of 1960s social movements – movements which first properly gave birth on a mass scale to the kinds of self-consciously autonomous and creative politics, or art-activism, which we talk about in the guide. Likewise, the big society is focused on mutuality, and there’s a strange recuperation of libertarian and radical thought by the thinkers behind it like Phillip Blonde. In this case, you’re left with a stunted vision of the anarchist idea of mutual aid, without any institutional aid, and structurally limited mutuality. But rather than simply critique this, I’m interested to look at how we might otherwise structurally and materially embody other kinds of social relation. Obviously this starts on a much smaller scale, and is often more directly materially embodied. University departments’ attempts to support radical philosophy within existing institutions and setting up new autonomous radical art institutions are two possible, but not mutually exclusive, directions here. As, of course, at the most local, accessible level, are the art-activist practices and objects we discuss in the guide.

Our new book-film is out “Les Sentiers de L’utopie”
Free online (in french) : http://www.editions-zones.fr/
Our blog: http://lessentiersdelutopie.wordpress.com/
our twitter: @nowtopia

Some info for A Users Guide to (Demanding) the Impossible.

3 different links to download the publication:
http://www.minorcompositions.info/usersguide.html
http://artsagainstcuts.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/a-users-guide-to-demanding-the-impossible
http://www.brokencitylab.org/notes/required-reading-a-users-guide-to-demanding-the-impossible

The Font used was Calvert is by Margaret Calvert, designer of our road signs.
Words: Gavin Grindon & John Jordan Design: FLF Illustration: Richard Houguez Original Cover: The Drawing Shed Produced by the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, London, December 2010. www.labofii.net Anti-copyright, share and disseminate freely.

More about Minor Compositions – a series of interventions & provocations drawing from autonomous politics, avant-garde aesthetics, and the revolutions of everyday life.
http://www.minorcompositions.info/

Other Info:

Crude awakening: BP and the Tate. The Tate is under fire for taking BP sponsorship money. Does corporate cash damage the arts — or is it a necessary compromise? We asked leading cultural figures their view. Interviews by Emine Saner and Homa Khaleeli. guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 30 June 2010. http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/jun/30/bp-tate-protests

Mocking the Arts Establishment? In Italy it can be an expensive ordeal

Featured image: Walled out and hammered by Marc Garrett

A young guy in his early Twenties becomes curious about the world of the arts. He decides to do what others would do in these circumstances: he picks up a few arts magazines from a local newsstand and browses their content looking for the latest trends. However, he increasingly becomes frustrated with the amount of advertisements that fill these magazines, that appear to prevail over any sustained discussion on the arts. He dislikes the way art looks more like a big commercial circus than the honest display of creative talent. He grows disaffected with the patronizing tones of editors and so-called authorities in the field.

He decides to denounce this publicly by creating an online fake of Flash Art online, the current leading contemporary art magazine in Italy, choosing the telling URL of ashartonline.com (as opposed to flashartonline.com), and filling it with his own content. Following the magazine’s distribution (for a fee) of a publication that claims to contain the contacts of over 30000 galleries and curators (the Arts Diary), he decides to compile his own list of 3300 artists and art dealers contacts searchable online and to make it available for download (for free) to anyone. Noticing the patronizing tone and the rude replies that Flashart director, Giancarlo Politi, dispenses to whomever objects to his artistic and editorial choices, he creates a forum (letters to the Director, part 2) that encourages disgruntled artists and critics to voice their discontents. The website grows and receives a considerable number of hits. Not enough for being properly considered mainstream, but still a pesky doppelgänger and a welcome critique of Flash Art. The success that this modest détournement enjoyed during the six months of its existence showed that Luca Lo Coco, the young creator of ashartonline definitely had a point.

At this point the story sounds a lot like many other stories of netartists and netactivists who have directed their criticism towards institutions and corporations, or towards other fellow artists and arts databases, by cloning, hacking, spoofing, and mocking websites to short-circuit the usually lethargic and cynical flow of information that characterizes institutionalized outlets. Countless groups and collectives like the Yes Men, 0100101110101101.org, and later Ubermorgen, Paolo Cirio and Alessandro Ludovico, to different degrees, have practiced and supported this and similar tactics for years. Posing as WTO representatives or Spokespeople of major corporations, The Yes Men have made the fake as their main tactic since the mid-nineties to draw attention to the shady practices that organizations such as the GATT and WTO were conducting under the nose of unaware and apathetic individuals; operating within the independent art world and often turning their attacks towards this very domain, the 0100101110101101.org have perfected the practice of forgery of logos, artists and artworks to unveil the laziness of an art establishment more interested in the popularity of the artist signing the artwork than in the quality of the artwork itself, more focused on ways to sell art rather than honestly evaluating it, more preoccupied with establishing powerful networks with other equally powerful art critics and dealers rather than actually doing some genuine research. Inspired by Andy Warhol, Dadaism and the avant-garde and empowered by the technical potentials of digital media, the pranks and actions of these artists and media practitioners have become well-known among anyone interested in media activism and artivism, or among anyone who finds at least some cursory interest in media creativity.

Given the precedents, Luca Lo Coco’s take on Flashartonline is not an exception. Ashartonline was a website that exploited the spoof against the formulaic and uninspired direction of the arts publishing in Italy and the condescending attitude of a bunch of self-elected gate-keepers of the arts. In a typical situation however, maybe this site would have been remembered as one among many actions, a grain of sand in a desert. Maybe, the website would have enjoyed some short-lived popularity among a relatively limited supporters, but as it often happens in these circumstances, it would have likely been ignored by the director and the magazine it was criticizing, or just forced to shut down. In the end, Ashartonline was a clever website, but it was also fairly innocuous, barely scratching the surface of the colossal enterprise it was targeting.

Disregard, or pretending nothing has happened, has always been the most effective reaction of a targeted institution against spoofs, parodies and fakes. Unsurprisingly, when the Yes Men appeared on BBC posing as Union Carbide reps announcing that the company was ready to take responsibility for the Bhopal disaster on its twentieth anniversary, the real reps retracted the announcement but then didn’t bother going after the pranksters, behaving as if the episode hadn’t even occurred. They knew that starting a legal action would have drawn too much negative attention to the company and given free publicity to the Yes Men [1]. When the 0100101.org recently revealed that an installation of a cat in a cage [2] had not been executed by art star Maurizio Cattellan but had been created by the duo themselves, no fuss was made and no legal charges were issued. Instead, a simple disclaimer was issued [3]. The piece, as the artists themselves explained, went “back to the Internet,” from which the idea (and the picture of the cat) had originally emerged.

However, for reasons that we all fail to understand, the story of ashartonline took quite a different direction. Luca Lo Coco found himself at the center of a vicious attack initiated by the director of Flash Art Giancarlo Politi himself: not only was the website shut down, a surprising, but not totally unexpected outcome, but a judicial case which lasted for over three years ensued. Politi, it turned out, sued Lo Coco for infringement of intellectual property and other counts of damage for a total amount of 200,000 Euros. Even the judge didn’t find Ashartonline damaging enough to justify the absurd indemnity. However, he admitted, the website could have been the cause of a certain confusion (meaning that it had achieved his goal, a small consolation for Lo Coco). Thus, Lo Coco was given a deadline to pay a much smaller, yet still unaffordable fee of around Euro 7,000, a mix of legal fees and other bureaucratic expenses. When he did not produce the money, officers showed up at his door to confiscate his furniture.

Now, some might contend that Politi, might not responsible for the cruel epilogue of this story, an extraordinary and strangely efficient move by the justice system, especially considering that the whole story takes place in Italy. Apparently, it was Politi who insisted that the confiscation went ahead as quickly as possible. This last bit adds even more outrage to this already absurd story, whose unfolding has already catalyzed a number of incendiary discussions on various Italian-based listservs and arts magazines [4]. In fact, to add insult to injury, the value of the furniture confiscated from Lo Coco falls short the amount he owes Politi. One wonders whether this is the end of the story or we should expect more surprises.

What makes this ordeal especially controversial and absurd is not the style Lo Coco used to splash his criticism on a website. It is the exaggerated reaction of the director  of a respectable arts magazine who should have known better, but went all the way against an individual who was no particular threat to the publishing giant and who had no way to seek protection against his ire. At least a couple of reasons should have prevented Politi from keeping going at Lo Coco: first, if the precedents set by the egregious examples of 01001.org and the Yes Men may teach us anything, no counterattack has ever turned out to be the best reaction against spoofs and satires; second, as most of these examples have been recognized as forms of creative activism or as arts interventions, they should have been known to an arts publisher who claims to be knowledgeable on the emerging and most recent contemporary arts. Why this ridiculously ruthless reaction? Did Politi really fear (mistakenly) that Lo Coco website could constitute a threat to his magazine and its readership? Why didn’t he stop once he had obtained to have the website obfuscated? Did he think that letting a lone challenger have his way would have unleashed a whole horde of jackals just waiting for the right opportunity to disrupt his undisturbed realm? Was this an exemplar punishment?

Lo Coco, with his young age and, at the time Politi pressed charges, with a limited experience of the arts world as well as a almost non-existent network of allies to consult for mentorship and advice, was a really easy, too easy target. Thus, this action appears to be a rather gratuitous show off of power (both symbolic and material) towards someone who was virtually defenseless. Even more disturbing is the ludicrous amount of money that was asked from Lo Coco for the so-called damages caused to Flash Art. Politi’s move to silence (and of course defeat) Lo Coco using financial superiority is a trend that actually reveals the director’s personal view of where power resides, confirming exactly what Lo Coco wished to demonstrate with his website: power in the arts business is not measured on the basis of some cultural, or intellectual value and skills, but on money. 

Second, Politi’s exaggerated reaction appeared to become gradually an act of intimidation directed to the whole independent arts community rather than a personal affair between him and Lo Coco. The latter, on the other hand, was the perfect scapegoat, the sacrificial lamb that would serve to re-affirm loudly and ostensively the power of BIG ART, authority, hierarchy, and institutions against the younger, subversive, independent emerging arts. The message sounds loud and clear: see what happens when you dare criticizing the powerful and dare not playing by the rules established by the Artsworld? This sounded like a warning to all young and independent artists, just in case they have the temptation in the future to challenge the existing power dynamics hierarchies. Had art star Maurizio Cattellan created something similar to Lo Coco’s, asks journalist Helga Marsala in an article dedicated to the episode, “…what would have happened? Clearly, no accusation, no lawsuit. On the contrary, Politi would have even dedicated a magazine cover to this work [5]”

Ultimately, what happened might have been a source of great (financial) discomfort to Lo Coco. He probably would have never thought that such dispute would be taken this far. However, the circumstances of this episode unleashed a great deal of solidarity and sympathy towards Lo Coco-David fighting against the taxidermized and conventional Politi-Goliath. Many individuals offered to get the voice out or to write notes and articles about this outrageous episode. This means that there exists a –somehow—unified network out there ready to take action when such crises ensue. In the long run then, this unexpected cohesion might cause more discomfort to Politi. He thought he would just get away with annihilating his enemy. However, if Lo Coco really bothered him, suing him might have just been the wrong move. In fact, If he had done his homework he would have probably known what happens when you try to defeat your adversary in this way: you might inadvertently create more publicity for him. This story has already given Lo Coco much more visibility and respect than he would have gotten, had he not being sued and humiliated in this way. In other words, this story has already put his name among those subversive artists who have no problem challenging the system. In addition, the same sudden emergency that cost Lo Coco his furniture and that initiated the just mentioned encouraging wave of support, also caused a great deal of thinking and brainstorming on how to react (creatively, of course) against Politi and other’s bold attack. Thus, we should all thank Politi for having given us an idea for future critical (and humorous) actions against his magazine and his arrogant attitude, as well as for having reinvigorated and definitely strengthened our network.