I probably need to begin with an apology… maybe two? First of all, this is the first JR memorial blog entry from me for well over a year – I don’t know where the time has gone, other than saying that the world has gone quite mad and, like everybody else, I’ve been busy trying to stave off the forces of terminal instrumentalization. Second, and far worse, this blog entry isn’t about DeLorean cars, flying skate boards, sleeveless bubble jackets or the consequences of calling McFly ‘chicken’ (though it has to be said, big JR would have made a good stand in for mad professor type person Dr. Emmett L. Brown). But this is about time machines – or, more accurately, Mechanics Institutes as they were once called. Yes folks, the good folk up at Grizedale have done it again. Just as we thought we didn’t have an appropriate metaphor to think through the process of ‘thinking ourselves otherwise’, up pop Adam, Alistair and Co with a reminder to look in front of our own eyes. And in my case into the history of the very institution I work in/for.
As you probably all know by now, Grizedale took the ‘Colosseum of the Consumed’ to Frieze Art Fair last October. During this multi-media, multi-project, multi-faith fandango, Alistair found time to communicate to us (at The Autonomy School in Liverpool) via the new fangled technology of Skype (something McFly and co could only have dreamed of in their Back to the Future II world of 1989). During this conversation, Alistair began to elaborate on various developments in Grizedale Art’s ongoing project. Most importantly, he invited us to imagine a bell curve of Social and Industrial assent and decline – beginning with the late Enlightenment/First Industrial Revolution and ending in our present economic chaos. If we were to draw an imaginary line back across this bell curve, from our present point in time, Hudson argued that we would find ourselves somewhere around the beginning of the 19th Century – a time in which Europe was beginning to re-define itself along the lines of democracy, emancipation and extended social inclusion. This period probably reached its ideological apogee in the revolutionary year of 1848 and laid the foundations for the ideas of citizenship and cultural value that we are currently clinging on to (and re-defiling) today. Amongst this hubbub of this activity was, of course, the growth of the Mechanics Institute – those utopian expressions of social progressivism funded by self-elected (and usually liberal minded) pillars of society. Amongst this list of alumni was, of course, our own big JR who kindly funded developments in the rural/industrial village of Coniston.
What is important here for Hudson and the crew of the good ship Grizedale was JR’s insistence on teaching art as part of an extensive and integrated education – making it part of a syllabus that would also include literature, the sciences and the acquisition of everyday practical skills. Not only did this kind of syllabus lead to the Mechanics Institutes becoming crucibles of self-organisation and social change (centres of early union activity as well as the foundations for many of our current UK Universities), it also remind us of a time when art was also ascribed a socially integrated use value. For Hudson, ‘the current state of art galleries and museums is still determined by the framework marked out by economic and truth values; where value is ascribed to works of art based upon their operation within a market system and their perceived ability to reveal or lead us to seeing the world as it really is. In this scheme (from around 1848 onwards) the third value of art, based upon its utility or usage, has been largely suppressed, or diverted into the arena of craft, activism, politics and so on’. Re-inventing use value as the crucial third term (against the accepted mode ‘dual mode of advocacy of and advocacy’ – displaying works of art according to a consensus of what constitutes a work of value [as commodities in both monetary and aesthetic terms] and then advocating this value to the museum or gallery’s constituency) then becomes crucial. It becomes the cornerstone for beginning to re-imagine a more permeable and open form of arts institution – one not bound by its physical and geographical manifestation or legislation.
In its humble way, the time machine of big JR’s Mechanics Institute at Coniston begins to open up this possibility, the possibility for re-imagining a socially re-integrated art production which forms part of our productive identity and collaborative notions of citizenship, individual civil rights and access to what we have left of community. Such a time machine also gives us the opportunity to look back to the future, to re-assess the roots of our culture, to sift through what was kept in and what was thrown away in the processes of epistemological construct that were (and still are) our inherited Modernity.
So! In our next issue of the Big JR Blog more on Time Machines - and a big thank you here to discussions with Francesco Manacorda, Director or Liverpool Tate, whose own (and far more elegant) use of the ‘Time Machine’ as curatorial device put me in mind of McFly and Co (and also, if I’m honest, made me begin to re-think the Machines and Machinic illogics/counterlogics of Guattari’s ‘Chaosmosis’). Maybe also something more on permeable institutions? Oh, and we probably need to start a reconsideration of craft at some point I would have thought? Until then may all of your Ruskin beards be trim, may all of your bushy sideburns stay hearty (in a non-gender specific metaphorical way of course), and may your Workers Soup remain forever on low simmer.