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Under The Canary

Corporate art sponsorship

'Docklands development' and 'contemporary art' are not terms which chime in my mind with a great deal of resonance. More of a dull thud. The two terms do not sit together comfortably. Rather the opposite: they suggest either a non-relationship - the terms simply have nothing to do with each other - or an antagonistic relationship - they point in different or opposed directions. No major surprises here: after all 'Docklands' has become a cipher for a certain kind of culture, one which has defined itself in part through a negation of just those values we associate (rightly or wrongly) with art. The London Docklands Development Corporation, and the jewel in its crown, Olympia and York's Canary Wharf development, is as close as you will get to a physical embodiment of the spirit of modern Conservatism. There was even a point, at the beginning of April, when the financial ruin of one looked as inevitable as the political collapse of the other...

In France, a couple of weeks after Canary Wharf's much publicised debt problems were revealed, Euro-Disney was opened. It occupies a vast site on the derelict edges of Paris. Dumped on a sceptical city by another large North American corporation, it took about the same time to build and cost a similar amount. Like Canary Wharf, it has towers, waterfronts, rustic cottages, fantasy palaces, architectural quotations from past ages and far away lands, and, according to its developers, lots of people wanting to visit it. Furthermore, Euro-Disney operates a highly restrictive dress code for its more lowly employees, just as Olympia and York do at Canary Wharf. There's also a story that certain Euro-Disney executives came to London looking for a suitable transport system for their creation. They tried out the Docklands Light Railway and went off shaking their heads and muttering something about mickey-mouse trains.

Canary Wharf is a kind of joke. But it has also paid for artists to make and exhibit work under the shadow of its vast pointy tower. But then, the presence of artists is, in one respect at least, just another marker of Docklands' failure. A year or so ago it was the mandarins of the financial boom - banks, insurance companies and advertising agencies - who were being flattered by the attentions of the developers. Artists represent something of a lowering of their sights. Oh well, in times of collapse there are always cheap gestures. Discretion was one such gesture, a tiny space filler: five artists and a couple of hacks in an absurd post-modern shell, stand-ins for the 47,000-odd office workers who haven't turned up yet, a little comfort (perhaps) for the 3,000 lonely souls knocking around what was meant to be a teeming urban metropolis. It doesn't raise the spirits a great deal. But as long as we take Docklands and all it represents as our starting point, I don't see a lot of room for optimism.

But we may also start from another point and work in a different direction. Instead of looking at the relationship in terms of the progress of Docklands towards modern art, we might look at in terms of the progress of art towards Docklands.

One of the enduring hallmarks of modern art, one of the defining characteristics of the avant-garde, has been the organisation of artists into independent, self-sustaining groups. We tend to assume a connection here: When artists and other members of the cultural intelligentsia began to perceive their interests as distinct from, or in opposition to, those of the academy or official art, they were forced to look for some independent framework within which to pursue those interests. Such a framework would have to provide space in which to work, intellectual space in which to develop and defend the interests of the group, but just as importantly, actual space in which to publicise, exhibit and, not least, sell work.

Almost every moment in the history of modern art is marked by moves of this sort. Courbet's independent ‘Realism’ exhibition at the 1855 Paris Exposition Universelle is a pretty good starting point. He was followed by the eight Impressionist exhibitions (the first of which was held in a photography studio); the Pont Aven group round Gauguin; the Fauve room in the 1905 Salon d'Autumn; the Brucke exhibition of the following year (which was held in the showrooms of an electric lighting factory); the Blaue Reiter exhibitions and publications; the Cubists, Futurists, Dadas, Constructivists, Surrealists and many others.

But the process of separation from the structures of official art was at the same time largely the process of art's incorporation into the now familiar network of independent commercial dealers. That is to say, in spite of its attempts, art in the West has never occupied a position free from the vulgar machinations of commerce and power. As Clement Greenberg put it in 1939, avant-garde art is tied to the bourgeoisie by ‘an umbilical cord of gold’. In due course, as the Salons and Academies atrophied and decayed, so the commercial galleries and dealers have in turn become the principal sites for the distribution, exchange and ratification of art. And we are left in the paradoxical position where what was the avant-garde is now the mainstream: the avant-garde is the official art of our culture.

During the 60s and 70s, some of the work of Conceptual Art and its contemporaries - Earthworks, Performance, etc - represented an attempt to engage with this paradox of the official avant-garde by actively problematising the relationship between artwork and site, or between artist and artwork, or between art and objecthood. The so-called dematerialisation of art into actions or ideas, or its relocation outside the traditional sites of art - in deserts, dumps or doorways, was done, so the story goes, in the spirit of critique of aesthetic or institutional convention. And, at least if it was any good, we would have expected to see a strong relationship in this work between its new form (or antiform) and its new site (or non-site). But, again, the radical, oppositional, counter-cultural work of then has steadily turned into the respectable, mainstream culture of now. Either that or it has largely ceased to exist. Some of the reasons for this are not too hard to trace. There was generally a sense that this type of work was somehow tied up with a wider, 1968-ish, culture of social and political transformation. Given the failure of much of that project, it was perhaps inevitable that art would get drawn back into existing aesthetic categories and institutional structures.

But so much for the pre-history of contemporary art. What about more recent times? Within the last decade the commercial sector has been on a massive binge. Good times - at least for those who were invited to the party. At the same time, many of the publicly funded or state supported institutions - galleries, colleges, etc - which kept artists visible (if not exactly viable) during the very lean years of the mid- to late 70s, have struggled to survive. Many have withered away, others are having their exhibition schedules drawn up by accountants in the name of populism. It is a fairly precise trace of the wider reshaping of the British economy which has been the political and ideological programme of consecutive Tory governments.

These twin developments which characterised the mid- to late 80s - the increased promise of commercial success and the increased problem of survival for non-commercial sites - effectively prepared the ground for the emergence of a spate of independent initiatives in London, and in particular around the Docklands area. First a sequence of group exhibitions were organised by students in spectacular derelict warehouses. These were highly successful, at least in the sense that they attracted a huge amount of critical and commercial attention. It is not surprising, given that these shows took place close to or within the area paternalistically managed by the LDDC, that the rough idea was taken up by some developers and PR companies. Here was an opportunity to fill up and advertise unlet office space and retail units, and to look like you are contributing to culture and the community at the same time. Cheap too...

It would be a mistake to lump together all the projects - from Freeze to Discretion - which have taken place within this general arena. There is a world of difference between a student show in a hollow concrete shell, and the low ceilinged, airconditioned interiors on offer from the developers. Nevertheless, all these various shows do raise a range of serious questions about where, how, why and for whom we make art. I have no intention of offering any attempt at a systematic answer to these kinds of questions. I don't think it is either productive or possible to establish a set of moral protocols prior to art; to say why it should or should not be made, who it should and should not be made for, where it should or should not be exhibited, and so on. But neither am I about to say 'anything goes'. Rather, the point is to avoid generalisations of this kind as much as possible. The only way to proceed, I believe, is to judge art case by case, to look at examples of it, and to see whether or not it confounds or confirms ones expectations.

My own experience of these various Docklands shows has been mixed. I went along with some (no doubt pious) forebodings about the political and moral value of working in this arena. What I found was that these kinds of anxieties were largely eclipsed by the practical scale and difficulties of the ventures. In the case of the shows in derelict warehouses, the containers themselves were often so spectacular that their contents were utterly overwhelmed. Unlike Richard Serra or Donald Judd, few artists in this country are able to command the resources to occupy a space of this sort successfully. It was noticeable how often artists had to rely on dealing with quantities of cheap material (from paper and cloth to sound and light) simply to fill the space. Much of this work had the look of someone struggling to survive. Only in a very few cases was a strong or a necessary relationship achieved between the work and the site.

In the case of new or redeveloped sites - usually open plan offices, foyers or shop-fronts - the problems are often worse. Low suspended ceilings housing miles of strip lighting and deathly air-conditioning systems, acres of pink carpets with teak-effect skirting board contours, tinted aluminium mouldings around tinted triple-glazed windows: these are not everyone's idea of the perfect exhibiting space. Under such conditions the issue of course is not whether the space can be dominated but whether it can possibly be exploited. Again there are instances where people have developed strategies for working successfully in these conditions, but it isn't surprising that the rate is not that high.

A third use of such buildings has been to turn them where possible into approximations of art galleries and then to display more orthodox types of artwork. In these cases no particular relationship is sought between the specifics of the container and the nature of its contents. And such work is not very relevant to the immediate discussion: it does not contribute to the tradition I sketched out above which treats a change of the physical terrain of art as intrinsically connected to a shift in its intellectual and aesthetic terrain.

We are left with a question: can the conditions which prevail in Docklands provide such a space for art to exist and develop? Or more simply: can good art come out of such a bad place? My answer is that you can't know in advance. The question suggests that artistic value can be established in moral terms. It can't. If art could only grow in a morally hygienic culture there would be no art. But then some cultures are more barren than others... A better question would be: has the work made for and shown in Docklands succeeded? Does it count as a contribution to the tradition of critique and dissent? Certainly some striking and imaginative solutions have been found for dealing with some extremely unforgiving surroundings. There have been instances where artists have managed to make art that looked necessary to the site and the site look appropriate to the art. There has been work which was ironic and awkward.

There has also been work which became the victim of the ironies and awkwardness of its site. I suppose this is inevitable. But it may also have had something to with the general absence in these projects of much critical or 'theoretical' production. The avant-garde has always made a lot of noise. Each moment of distancing from the mainstream has been accompanied by verbal and textual work of various kinds - from the artists themselves more often than not - issued against the status quo. From the Futurists' aggressive manifestos and Picabia's high parody, to Judd's criticism, Buren's essays, Smithson's prose, Morris's remarks, LeWitt's sentences, Art-Language and The Fox, via the writings of Matisse, Mondrian, Malevich, van Doesburg, Newman, Reinhardt and many others, this aspect of their work remains highly significant - another defining characteristic of the avant-garde, one might say. Part explanation, part propaganda, part inquiry, such material spelt out - for the artists themselves as much as for any wider public - the conceptual, aesthetic, geographical or political shifts which necessitated their work, or which their work necessitated.

These days there's a lot less noise of this kind, and a lot more catalogues.

In recent years it has become increasingly common for groups of young artists in London to show their work in non-gallery spaces. What began as a necessity, with the failure of established galleries to provide spaces for the non-establishment artist, has become a vogue, with shows taking place in more and more unusual locations ranging from derelict warehouses to empty commercial buildings.

It is tempting for critics and commentators to consider all such shows together, even to describe them as the beginnings of a movement of young artists away from the establishment towards a situation where control rests with the practitioner rather than with the dealer or agent. One could even try harder and read a political message into the apparent rejection of the dominant commercially-orientated art world. But to do so would be a mistake. It may be that somewhere there are odd groups of dedicated artists determined to stay outside the geographical confines of the mainstream who, until their dying day, will make work only in hitherto undiscovered sites, but the majority are clearly colonising space in an attempt to capture the uninterested, the dismissive or the myopic inside the very structures that are rejecting their work. The found spaces are being used as a springboard from which to jump back into the gallery.

And why not? It is entirely understandable that an artist, trained or otherwise, should seek the approbation of his or her peers in the places where it is most easily found. Critical acclaim, public appreciation and financial rewards are all to be had by those who succeed in making their way in the world they have been educated to understand. To be denied access to that world by a system that is oversubscribed and where value is endowed through a controlled form of inaccessibility, is to find oneself on the wrong side of a closed door. Like a naughty child, shut out for being disruptive but not really understanding why, our young artists desperately want to be let back into the grown-ups' dinner party. And like any clever naughty child they have quickly learnt that the best way to get the door open is not to drum their heals against it shouting 'let me in, Daddy, I'll be good, I promise' more and more loudly, but quietly to make something of their own, on the wrong side of the door. Sooner or later the grown-ups will leave their poached salmon and their idle chat and come and watch. And very soon the door will be opened and an invitation extended. At first the grown-ups may only watch, but slowly, slowly they may offer advice or practical help, or criticism and eventually even praise. Suddenly the naughty child will be at the dinner table partaking of the idle chat and the boiled fish along with all the rest.

This alternative path for the young artist is, by now, very well accepted. Indeed, it is almost as normal, as orthodox, a route to progress as the historically more established pathways to recognition. But, while the artists may appear to have satisfactorily discovered a new way of reaching their goals, it is important that critics pay attention to the new developments which make up the stepping stones which underpin this process.

Not all non-gallery spaces and not all non-gallery shows exist in an identical context. The derelict warehouse, the abandoned crypt, the unlet shop front and the empty office are all different in atmosphere, in their political resonance and in the frequency and and likelihood of their attracting a wide section of the general public. It could be argued that spaces to which the public are generally denied access, either through the dangers inherent in the state of the building or through an economic decision to keep them closed, are unlikely ever to generate a naturally visiting audience. The public will find its way to them because it knows that something unusual is going on; because it has heard that an inaccessible space has been made accessible through the efforts of a group of artists. Some people will visit the show to see the work of the artists; some will visit to see the interior of an undiscovered space; the non-gallery going public will do neither. They will neither know nor care that an exclusive opportunity has been made available to them to view the most up-to-the-minute outpourings of the contemporary art world. They will simply pass on by. And neither the artist, nor the cognoscenti, nor particularly the critic, wrapped up in his own set of value judgements, will give a damn. The work is not really created to reach out of the gallery and interest those would never set foot in such hallowed ground. That's not the point at all.

But it is precisely the point of running a programme of contemporary performance and exhibitions in a place like Canary Wharf, where exhibitions and concerts are part of an on-going series of events designed to attract and interest a largely non-gallery and non-concert going audience. There are a lot of things to be said about the enormous office developments of the 80s, both about the political context in which they were created and the commercial forces that sustain them, but it is dangerous, and frankly, boring to rehearse the received view that all commercial activity is bad, and that therefore all money from commercial developments is tainted, that any artist working in such a place is liable to be corrupted and that nothing of value can come from their activity. While such dogma can be stated, and it is with tedious frequency, it is by no means the only thing worth saying.

The programme of arts and events at Canary Wharf was conceived long before the development opened either to visitors or tenants. It was predicated on the example set in Olympia & York's Manhattan development, the World Financial Centre. Since 1986 a programme of changing exhibitions and live performances has taken place in the public spaces of this development which is fully let, where the developer has no need to conceal empty unleased space, where the company could easily charge the visiting public for admission and make money from the opportunities that they offer to the visiting artist to work in their spaces. 'Ah,' we hear the critic say, 'but it's different here in London. And Canary Wharf is the physical embodiment of the spirit of modern Conservatism. And as such, any nod in the direction of artists is simply a move by the cynical developer using another vulnerable, underprivileged group for its own questionable ends. In the well-publicised financial troubles of the property sector, and Olympia & York in particular, all we are seeing is the inevitable nemesis, the triumph of the forces of good over the forces of evil.'

And perhaps in some of these things the critic would be right. But he would be ignoring a whole lot else which can be positively achieved by artists exploiting the opportunities they are offered, when they are being encouraged - even commissioned - to make and show pieces and ideas to a public who would not choose to seek them out in a gallery, let alone in an inaccessible warehouse.

The aim of the programme at Canary Wharf is to animate the public spaces. Yes, this helps the business of the developer. But it also creates opportunities for artists to work in unusual locations - and most of the locations are just that. It puts the work of those artists in front of a public who have a fresh and curious approach. It provides a public platform for critical appraisal It provides finance for the artist. It provides opportunities for local children in an economically deprived area of London to have access to art in a place which is not a temple to it. It provides educational opportunities. For these and a whole number of other reasons, the programme works. Perhaps not in the sense that a rarefied programme of contemporary art works in an exclusive gallery, but it works for the people who most commonly use it.

A recent exhibition mounted in the gallery at Canary Wharf attracted 28,000 visitors in six weeks. 'Probably not very good art,' I hear the critic muttering. Well, maybe or maybe not. But, he wouldn't know, because he didn't choose to come. He, like so many of the young artists, like the older artists, like the gallery-going public seem only interested in recognising that which they already know and understand. They will only validate those things which fit easily into a recognised structure and can be judged with the least effort. God forbid that they should actually put those critical faculties to use and investigate what is really happening outside their own closed world.

Issue 5

First published in Issue 5

Jun - Aug 1992
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