One of the huge advantages of public arts subsidy in the UK, when compared to other civil societies is that you can be confident that a UKIP voting, full blooded Brexiteer will have provided the lottery money that ‘enables’ the artist to be commissioned to devise a political placard and slogan project that in turn ‘enables’ the public to deliver an alternative message – it could be transgressive, counter-political, humourous or elliptical. But one thing is reasonably certain, the disconnect between the intentions of gambling (yacht, pay off mortgage, buy a big house) and that of the participatory project will be distinct. Such, inverse laundering of money on this scale will not, for example, happen in Donald Trump’s spiralling Disunited States of America. In a similar way the National Health Service provides a reasonably assured level of access to health care irrespective of lifestyle. This civility and connection to welfare, including artist slogan projects, gives us our national identity.
Why, we ask in the above paragraph, is ‘enables’ in inverted commas? Is this to create some nominal distance and snide perspective only known to the critic, or is it aimed at questioning the integrity, authorship and intentions of the artists creating these projects? This requires a detailed answer. The least well-known but perhaps most effective exponent of art activism in the UK is John Jordan. Jordan, by his own admission has moved from art, over to activism, as his integrity and intention clearly aim towards political change. In Jordan’s case too, his effectiveness and creativity put him firmly on the security service’s radar. His best work has to be the Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army, a tactical and clever protest mode with the aim of creating a ‘gateway’ to radical protest. In this way Jordan and his comrades are closer to ISIS than Tate Britain in method. Jordan would no doubt cite the importance of his collaborators and the political contexts he has found himself in, yet unquestionably his fertile mind has gone much further down the creative line than most artists. On top of this he is not trying to carve out an art career or gain profile, now living in an activist community somewhere in Brittany. Off the social radar.
Larger programmes like ‘We The People Are The Work’ take this fetishised sloganeering context into cultural branding, with good intention. Simon Morrissey, the curator of the whole programme, clearly states that the project explores ideas of power, protest and the public. He asserts “how do we as individuals, and collectively as ‘the public’, get our voices heard within, or even against, the structures of power that govern our lives and claim to speak for us?.” He goes on to talk about how artists get the public involved in what they are doing. Here we enter into the realms of ‘participatory determinism’ or indeterminism. At what level is the authorship or action invested in the artist, perhaps as social puppeteer, and at what level are the actions attendant to social or political change? The danger of course is similar to that of social media, where the activity perhaps leads to expressions of polemic, sidereal change and then the roadshow moves on to another city of culture. Mark Waddell gave us ‘Give Me a Sign‘ for Hull City of Culture in 2017, Bob and Roberta Smith gives us a steady flow of counter-establishment, pro-art messaging and Jeremy Deller hit jackpot with a series of slogan projects, most recently ‘Strong and Stable My Arse‘. The question then moves from voices being heard to dialogical practice – demystified as the making of the thing with others and then the representation of it in some other location or form. Deller and the others mentioned are experts at this and the assertion of authorship may get blurry, but mostly the artist is at the head of the roll call.
Deller’s ‘Battle of Orgreave’ re-enactment project stands as an important milestone in this appropriation of the people (back into power). In her book ‘Artificial Hells’, Claire Bishop points out that rather than healing the wounds for the miners involved in the re-enactment, it actually served to open up trauma and bitterness still residual in the mining communities, following Thatcher’s political actions. She goes on to assert that Mike Figgis’s film hovers uncomfortably between the spectacle of ‘menacing violence and family entertainment’. The role of the artist then in this case is not fully projecting the reality and parables of the dispossessed, it is ambiguously dealing in the hard currency of political turmoil and destruction of a way of life. In hindsight, Deller’s project operates at a new point of spectatorship, remaining problematic and partially exploitative.
We The People Are The Work includes a banner project devised by artist Peter Liversidge. A publicity image says ‘Take Control of your choices’ – the rendering of control artfully wrapped to ‘contr’ and ‘ol’. We are then fully within the simulacrum of signage. Baudrilliard and others refer to this as ‘hyper-reality’, where reality and simulation mingle. We have the appearance of protest, in the semiotic sense but in a different context. The participatory elements behind the project are of course ‘sound’. They create direct connections into homeless people, primary schools and museums. This is the way that arts engagement practice is conducted and the work is a ‘celebration of communities and cooperation’. Kester calls this ‘dialogical art’ – we have to be careful in critiquing the artist on aesthetic merits, he would argue, because there may be more behind this in the working process – others involved in making, building confidence, entering art for the first time.
The American artist Suzanne Lacy was an early pioneer in dialogical art in the early seventies and eighties working in Oakland, California. Lacy’s work deals in the hard currency of empowerment, education and diversity politics. In this case the artist firmly takes an emboldened and determined stance to create impact within, through participation, and then to relocate the outcomes in major art galleries. The works may also involve slogans, protest methodologies or as large scale performances. Of note, in Lacy’s work, is the representation of women and feminist thinking, addressing the historic masculine bias in contemporary art. Lacy would argue you can do good and build an art career.
Looking across almost 50 years of protest art, we can then see many tropes and methods re-emerging. It is asinine to say for example that protest banner art is hackneyed or recycled for engagement convenience. Why don’t you try oils, would be equally worthless? In our present state of affairs, within the ‘new normal’, we can strongly argue that more artists need to engage with people and in turn curators need to investigate these concerns of empowerment. But this must demonstrate real change and impact, as opposed to surface level appropriation from one disempowered space to the relative empowerment of an art gallery. We The People Are The Work of course takes all of the above on and Liversidge suggests that the people of Plymouth have the power role in the messaging. So, similar to Suzanne Lacy’s work, the artist is the intermediary or facilitator and, as the exhibition notes suggest, ‘the power of its success lies in the hands of the people’.
#TakeBackControl has become one of the enduring mantras of our time and it conveniently returns us to the oddities of who determines the finer aspects of our English way of life. Sloganeering and messaging of this kind has clearly enabled and empowered voices that have not been heard in Northern English towns and cities. The mystery of this ideological manipulation of the ‘will of the people’ unfolds before us outside of cultural projects too.