Writing / Grizedale Arts Blog / 2014 / -

The Nuisance of Landscape


A review of the show The Nuisance of Landscape by writer and art critic Jessica Lack:

“The ecstasy of drudgery” says Adam Sutherland, quoting Eric Gill, with only a hint of the fanatic in his eyes. We are standing in the hall of the Coniston Institutive in the Lake District and Sutherland, Director of Grizedale Arts, is telling me what artists can expect when they come on residency here. Over the past 15 years, Grizedale has become the most radical arts organisation in the country. “Which is odd,” says a bemused Sutherland surveying the craft-making workshop going on around him “because what we are doing is actually very ordinary”. But then sometimes it takes an extraordinary effort to be ordinary.

Grizedale Arts, as it is known today, began in 1999 when Adam Sutherland was appointed the new director of a small arts organisation based in the forest of Grizedale. It is now a research and development agency for contemporary artists, running a curatorial programme of community events and artist residencies. Inspired by places like Dartington Hall in Totnes, which embraced the philosopher Rabindranath Tagore’s ideals of progressive education and rural reconstruction, and John Ruskin’s early workers’ education movement, Grizedale promotes art that is useful to society.

From the start Grizedale Arts caused controversy, splitting locals into two camps, those who embraced its cultural democracy and those who saw the organisation as cynically exploiting the community. Sutherland, ever the belligerent optimist, devoured all criticism, even going so far as to invite the inhabitants to decide the fate of a much-hated public art work commissioned by Grizedale. They did so with rueful pugnacity by burning it to the ground.

Its impact on the art world was also immediate. Grizedale offered an alternative to the neo-liberalism dominating contemporary art at the time and became a place of refuge for a group of young, post-yBa artists who were at odds with the prevailing climate. Artists like Olivia Plender, Nathaniel Mellors, David Blandy and Bedwyr Williams. By 2004, when Alistair Hudson joined as deputy director, Grizedale had become something of a right-of-passage for socially engaged artists.

A kind of Grizedale aesthetic began to emerge, often involving animal costumes, craft and subversion. Marcus Coates confronted rural romanticism, literally head on, by attaching dead birds to his skull in an attempt to excite the Sparrow Hawk population, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane started their Folk Archive*, Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope won the Northern Art Prize for work made as part of the Grizedale commission The 7 Samurai in which seven artists traveled to work with a local community in Japan.

Then, five years ago, Grizedale stopped encouraging artists to make art. They were still invited on residencies, but were expected to dig in the garden, print tea towels for the honest shop or run activities in the local village. What happened? Did Grizedale become anti-art? “Not at all”, says Sutherland, “I think art can change people’s lives, but for me creative success is the practical application of an idea that is integrated into the everyday and then sustained by a community inspiring involvement and development”.

Grizedale’s fifteen years are currently being celebrated with an exhibition in multiple venues across the Lake District called ‘The Nuisance of Landscape’- a suitably truculent title for an organisation that’s impossible to get to without a car. The exhibition starts with a blurred photograph of Marcus Coates crawling across a field in one of his many attempts to commune with nature. I’ve always enjoyed Coates’ art, he does no harm, although he invariably puts himself in potentially hazardous situations, politically, physically and emotionally, yet everyone comes out with their honour in tact, and as Grizedale’s longest serving artist resident it is fitting he starts the show. There is also a video of Sutherland describing the public burning by the local community of the contentious piece by Roddy Thomson and Colin Lowe.

A retrospective is a great way of testing the waters of contemporary art, and what becomes apparent is how much of an impact Grizedale has had on the British art world, not just for its humour and DIY punk aesthetic, but its collective subversivism - they even make a key cutting shack look political (we don’t do Chubbs). But mostly I like the fact that Grizedale is a respite home for art’s superannuated Trojans, those who have fallen foul of contemporary cultural Imperialism. There’s a great film of Olivia Plender earnestly attempting to rehabilitate the late Ken Russell as an auteur while he barks on about tits and ass and John Ruskin is celebrated for his progressive ideals, rather than his pathological fear of pubes. In many ways, Russell and Ruskin are good mascots for Grizedale. Both were uncompromising bastards who spent much of their lives in conflict with the prevailing orthodoxy.

As Sutherland says, “Why should the shit version win? Lets reclaim a role in art; we will give back to people's lives what is missing and it will act as a catalyst to get other disconnected activities back into dialogue.” For those in the public arts sector, crippled by cuts and directed by a deluded government into approaching an utterly indifferent private sector for money, Grizedale suggests there might just be another way.

* Jeremy and Alan's Folk Archive definitely didn't start at Grizedale although they did come to stay during the collecting phase and decided that any local folk art was tainted by the proximity of so many artists so consequently inadmissible.

Posted by Maria Benjamin on 12/12/14 at 14:59

The Office of Useful Art


On the 8th of November 2014 Grizedale’s ‘Office of Useuful Art’ (or OUA) opened at Tate Liverpool as part of the show ‘Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013’.

This was the first of several manifestations that the OUA has had over the next few years. As Alistair describes it, “The Office is part classroom part propaganda machine for the idea of Useful Art, recruiting for the Useful Art Association and working in parallel to the Museum of Arte Util at the Van Abbemuseum Eindhoven where we will also be press ganging people into Useology from December 7th”.

The OUA at Tate Liverpool provided a complex, multi-purpose space in which ideas could be discussed and plans for futures could begin to be hatched and materialized. As well as providing an open drop-in space for visitors to the ‘Art Turning Left Show’, the OUA also provided a bookable space for anybody to hold discussions, talks, interventions or re-thinks about the show and/or the possible use of art.

The OUA at Tate Liverpool also provided a very successful model for integrating students within the infrastructure of a live show. Around 25 undergraduate BA (Hons) Fine Art students from Liverpool John Moores University signed up to work in the office and to recruit exhibition visitors to the Useful Art Association. Also, a group of my MA Fine Art students have become very interested in how the OUA attempts to work and rethink the conventional gallery/museum space as a site for information, intervention and exchange.

We also used the OUA as a location for a first meeting of the L’Internationale Mediation group who will be develop a series of seminars, interventions, discussions, publications and collaborations with us over the course of the ‘Uses of Art’ project (which will run for the next 5 years). The OUA itself, as an ongoing, developing, changing, mutating phenomena will also act as one of the key examples of how we can begin to rethink the role and relationship between art, education and use.

Although we are only beginning to look back at the impact, successes and pitfalls of the OUA’s first manifestation (as it will soon be travelling to different locations, in different guises, and working in different ways) it has already acted as a real means to think through complex and overlapping issues surrounding the production, distribution and reception of art. Rather than acting as a simple ‘information point’ – by which visitors to the exhibition could re-affirm their experience of the show by accessing the official ‘rationale’ or have the show ‘explained to them’ in ‘layman’s terms’ – the first iteration of the OUA has acted as a real space in which ideas of education and the production of meaning began to happen within a traditional galley space. As different people, from a wide variety of backgrounds, began to use and re-use the propositions found in Art Turning Left both the show, and the Office of Useful Art, began to act as a toolkit for producing new meanings. As Steven Wright argues in his recent book ‘Towards a Lexicon of Usership’ (which can be downloaded at the online Museum Of Arte Útil) we, passive spectatorship is currently being replaced by active usership. This, in turn, enables a more radical re-think of how institutions can begin to re-think or re-invent themselves as civic institutions for the production of knowledge.

The link between the OUA at Tate Liverpool and the simultaneous presence of Grizedale Arts at Van Abbemuseum’s ‘Museum of Useful Art’ show is crucial here. This has also begun to offer ways of thinking through different kinds of simultaneous usership, in different locations, and across different timescales – offering a way of beginning to think of alternative and overlapping temporalities (of uses and re-uses of histories and imagined futures, as well as contemporary materials that are ready to hand, which overlap and replay themselves as non-linear possibility). This also offers an opportunity for us to re-purpose and to revivify the role and function of the art institution (be it museum, gallery, education or production based) as a collaborative maker of histories and futures, one that relies on its users to help produce and reproduces an active civic role.

Posted by John Byrne on 24/03/14 at 14:24