Hunkered down in its grounds at the edge of the Chilterns, a squat, 17th-century manor house and its cluster of dilapidated out-houses is home to one of the oldest surviving communes in Britain. Founded in 1950 as an educational trust, the community subsists, perhaps as an oddity but by no means precariously, by running educational courses. For two weeks each August Braziers is a retreat for 20 or so artists. The scheme, set up in 1995 by British artists Simon Faithful (who grew up in the commune), Gill Ord, Bernadette Moloney and Andy Cohen, has become increasingly international, providing something of an ambassadorial role for participants. This year 27 artists from 15 different countries swapped their various urban contexts for the Oxfordshire countryside.
Perhaps naive utopian clichés succeed in the short term if carried out with a belligerent insistence upon individualism. Artists are selected for the retreat on the merits of their work and are all practitioners of a certain standing. Considering that the turnaround time for making art, as opposed to, say, writing a novel, can be quite short, two weeks in the company of peers becomes a competitive but productive decathlon. To be part of the group yet act independently, as well as getting enough food and sleep without missing out on anything, extends the usual conditions of making art. But this is precisely what brings everyone up or down to the same level. Even the British artists, apparently with the cultural and linguistic advantage, had never experienced real communal living in such archaic surroundings; so although it is a 'special' place, Braziers also provides a neutral arena in which no one has a head start.
The estate has a palpable past, yet it releases crumbling layers of nostalgia that place it very much in the present. The almost pantomime architecture and rambling grounds supply a wealth of places for site-specific work. Over the last six years every inch of the house must have been considered as a potential Conceptual space. The work made here often relies on placement, or reacts to Braziers' social history. Someone placed pairs of shoes on a skylight at the top of the stairs, creating an ominous upward view; a swing was hung in the library to pay homage to Ian Fleming, who grew up in the house before it became a commune. The location's inherent romanticism was cranked up by Mexican artist Gonzalo Lebrija, who hired three white horses to graze in the field at the front of the house, while Jorge Mendez Blake, also from Guadalajara, painted the words 'fairy tales are real' on a particularly fanciful elevation of the house. British artist Jordan McKenzie wrestled with the notion of work - can scrubbing a floor cross over between the worlds of art and the everyday? Apparently each year the dog kennel is rediscovered behind the latest crop of undergrowth.
How much you choose to bring with you and the extent to which you make use of your captive audience are the more obvious practical questions. Some artists seemed able to continue with their regular practice, despite the alien surroundings. Painters arrived with canvases already prepared and video artists turned up with full equipment. Few resorted to land art. Bolivian Narda Fabiola Alvarado interrupted the pastoral backdrop with bright plastic T-shirts and flags; Niamh McCann, from Ireland, camouflaged a caravan, hiding a giant spinning glitter ball; and Latvian Vineta Kaulaca made road signs that echoed in print the vistas beyond them. There was an international ambivalence to rusticity - 'bureaucracy' written in hay bales, photographs of artists looking self-conscious in an improvised tin pram, a plaster mummy buried in the garage - all illustrations of a pragmatic attitude towards history and artefact.
But what everyone appeared to be most enthusiastic about was the nightly beer-drinking and story-swapping sessions out by the field kitchen. Away from critical press and gallery expectations, and with only each other as audience, it was process, procedure and protocol that started to take up more time. There were daily visits from other artists and writers to serve as a gauge of the real world. But, like an over-dressed party guest, the visitor was invariably subsumed by the oddity of the place and became another, albeit temporary, disembodied practitioner.
First published in Issue 63