Writing / Grizedale Arts Blog

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

Back to the Future!


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.

Posted by John Byrne on 12/03/13 at 15:58

Can Art be Useful?

During the recent ‘Terminal Convention’ Symposium in Cork, our erstwhile Ruskinite-Reformer and keen Big J R blogger Alistair Hudson began his own presentation by showing David Shrigley’s animation ‘An Important Message About the Arts’. Intended as a useful propaganda tool for yet another UK institution threatened by massive government cuts – in this case the Arts Council UK – Shrigley’s animation used the characters of a farmer and his son to make a case for Art’s economic viability (as a key driver in both the Creative and Tourism/Leisure Industries) and, perhaps more predictably, for Art’s assumed cultural and civilising values. As Alistair pointed out though, the twin towers of economy and truth tend to overlook the question of art’s use-value.

In the light of this, Alistair went on to pose a series of key questions which tend to loosely underpin the Grizedale way - what kind of thing would artist’s do if they decided to make themselves useful? What can artists begin to do as citizens? What would art look like if it wasn’t reduced to monetary imperatives on one hand or the need to ‘inform’ the masses from the dizzying heights of culture on the other? What would happen if artists didn’t necessarily commit to producing luxury consumer goods for London centric art market? In other words, what happens if we began to re-look at the possible use-value of art?

As it turns out, these are also questions that big J R had begun to ask in the latter part of his career – the bit where he moved to asking questions about the morality of aesthetics (and also the bit where people began to think he was barking mad started to ignore him). It seems these questions also drove some of big J R’s thinking behind his support for Mechanics Institutes: as educational centers for the working class, as places where art, science, theatre and music would all combine to provide a rounded education.

These questions of art’s use value, and the role they can play in education, are perhaps more pertinent today than they were in Ruskin’s time. As Universities are now asking students to take up 9K loans per year to cover their Higher Education fees, and as the UK government is proposing ‘employability’ league tables for every HE course in the country (to help prospective students and their parents chose the courses of study most likely to get them a job), it’s maybe time to give this all a little more thought? Being involved in Higher Education myself (running the both the Fine Art and History of Art Degree Programmes at Liverpool School of Art and Design – part of Liverpool John Moores University which, incidentally, can trace its roots back to an Arts and Mechanics Institute that was set up in Liverpool in 1823) I’m really interested in continuing a critical Ruskinian re-invention by beginning to pose two key post-Ruskinian questions myself – Just what kind of job is to be done by artists in today’s increasingly instrumentalised and economically driven society? And, in the light of this, what kind of work does making art become?

So, over the next months I’m proposing to ask these questions, Flip camera in hand, of anybody who is willing to attempt an answer (admittedly this may not be many). I’ll also try to link this to some of the goings on down Coniston Institute way and, of course, attempt to seek some help and guidance from the legacy of Big J R as I go. I also have a feeling that cheese, vegetables and soup may figure prominently in this analysis.

Posted by John Byrne on 05/07/11 at 11:16

Haunted by Ruskin

Hi All,

The long lost John Byrne here.

Sorry it been quite a while since my last blog entry but, amongst other things, I blame the recession inspired cuts to the arts - and the coalition hell released upon Higher Education.

Like most people in the arts I've had to try extra hard over the last few months to make anything like a positive move. Then again, like most people involved in the arts, that hasn't stopped my trying.

One thing that has stuck with me over the past few months, I'm more than mildly surprised say, is how badly I've been bitten by the big JR bug. So far, the conversations I've been having with people, and those that I've recorded for this blog, are really pointing towards a re-thinking of my relationship to art (and to art's relationship to me). The video I've popped up today is a case of this. As I grabbed a few JR interviews at the end of Grizedale's 're-Coefficients Club' event in sunny Sheffield last April, I couldn't help thinking of Alistair Hudson's prophetic flight of metaphoric fancy - that if big JR were to be around today he'd be wearing a hoodie and getting straight up the noses of the current art industry glitterati (and not, me thinks, in a necessarily neo-conservative way either). After all, just because much of today's off-the-shelf avant-gardism seems dull, vacuous and fascicle, doesn't mean we have to 'return' to traditional norms - unless, of course, those traditional norms are those long lost values of radicalism, activism and a will to coherently re-evaluate the present worth of our artistic and political efforts.

I guess some things just keep cropping up, re big JR, which I want to find out more about. Craft is one of them. Maybe not the usual idea of craft (as the pseudo hand whittled mass production of tourist tattle and middle class Sunday supplement escapist fodder), but the idea of Craft as a hands on approach to trying to do something different, something against the grain. After meeting up for a Jonathan Meese event at Grizedale almost a year ago, I had a really exciting conversation with about this with Charlie Gere. It's really stuck in my mind. I need to follow this up with Charlie and spend some more time reading Richard Sennett.

I've also become fascinated with Grizedale's idea of re-inventing the 'Mechanics Institute" as roving art and education intervention. It's not just that this idea appeals to me on the level of something I'd quite like to help out with (after all, tagging along with an itinerant bunch of art bedeviled educators may be my only option if cuts to Higher Education bite much harder), it's that John Ruskin's ideas seem to allow for a very contemporary re-appraisal of what education actually is and can do. Also, the Art and Design School that I currently work for at Liverpool John Moores University can, apparently, trace itself back to a nineteenth century mechanics institute… more of this when I check it out.

However, I have to admit that the biggest 'big JR' haunting has happened when I've been looking at contemporary (and historical) issues of how artists can simply find a way to do something different, worthwhile, against the grain. Alistair kindly joined us for the Autonomy Summer School at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in July and it was both surprising and exciting to find out how many Ruskinian strands of thought kept re-emerging. And, as well as this, 1848 has taken on more of a significance than I thought it would! Hmmmm…....

So, I have the big JR inspired bit firmly between my teeth now. Expect more interviews, musings, idling, rambling and surreptitious attempts at fitting square pegs into round holes as winter draws in and the long nights await. But what better way to spend nights beside the fire than with a laptop and the continuing ghost story of big JR?

Posted by John Byrne on 31/10/10 at 17:48

Ruskin and Beauty at the Van Abbe.

After the first meeting of 'The Autonomy Project' at the Van Abbe Museu in Eindhoven (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en), I caught up with Van Abbe Director, Manchester City supporter (and all round good egg) Charels Eshe and asked him for some thoughts on Big JR. Being from Manchester (or a 'Manc' as we call those of the Manchester persuasion here in the UK - Alistair Hudson is one too) Charles' first memories of Ruskin were associated with his influence on 'News from Nowhere' and other 19th Century radical free press. It is also interesting that Charles also saw some parallels between Ruskin's struggle with the aesthetics/ethics question and the difficulties of making a meaningful socially engaged practice in today's neo-liberal economy. Charels also has some very interesting things to say on the show he would work on with Ruskin - should the big man himself come back to work with us today.

Posted by John Byrne on 25/03/10 at 09:48

Autonomy and Ruskin @ The Van Abbe

Today's blog entry is a video diary as I sit in an Eindhoven Hotel waiting for a meeting at the Van Abbe Museum (www.vanabbemuseum.nl/en) about the coming launch of 'The Autonomy Project' which I've been working on for nearly two years with Charles Esche, Annie Fletcher, Steven Ten Thije and Clare Butcher.

I've been thinking a lot about what Alistair has been saying in this Sao Paulo blog entries about the difficulty of meaningfully engaging as an artists without collapsing innovative work back into the pre-requisite formulae of international Biennial Land (or Airport Art as I call it). It's a tough one and no doubt!

But it also strikes me that any questions over the possibility of autonomy today are no longer circumscribed by bankrupt Modernist debates about 'self-referentiality', or 'art for art's sake. Nor can they be sustained in the aftermath of an equally bankrupt postmodernism without some radical re-negotiation. What does remain is the question of how to be an artist, thinker, writer, curator, teacher or whatever meaningfully? How to develop a practice within the existing globalized neo-liberal economy that can still function in an oppositional sense? How to negotiate new perspectives on better ways of living? All of these seem questions that were (and still are) rooted in the problematic of John Ruskin's complex relationship between art, aesthetics and ethics?

Posted by John Byrne on 21/03/10 at 09:46

Ruskin at the Restaurant

I recently caught up with Alistair Hudson in Manchester after we'd given a presentation on 'Creative Partnerships' at Manchester Museum. In a state of some despair, brought on mainly by experiencing an update on the turf wars in UK Arts and Education Funding (which seem to be increasingly blighting the possibility of cultural experiment) Alistair took us to his family's favourite Chinese Restaurant. After eating the hottest food I have ever had in my life - a really funky Szechwan Black Pudding and various forms of Offal Soup - debate turned, as always to Big JR. Alistair went on to elucidate on the complex relationship between Grizedale and Ruskin, between Grizedale and the world and the possibility of Ruskin Returning as a Cultural Hoody stalking the self-satisfied debates over art, ethics and social engagement (Oh, and the X Factor too).

Posted by John Byrne on 21/03/10 at 09:23

Dutch Landscape and Simon Cowell.

Grizedale regular Wapke Feenstra (www.wapke.nl) reads out her favorite Ruskin quotation from 'The Lamp of Beauty: Writings on Art'. According to Wapke, Ruskin reads the paintings he is talking about from a peculiarly British viewpoint and, in doing so, completely misses their point (form a Dutch perspective of course). Was this just another case of a Victorian Englander attempting to apply his world view to everything? - no change there then I hear you say!

However, whilst I was listening to Wapke read her quote (and it is her favorite Big John quote) there does seem to be a sweeping confidence in Ruskin's assertions - kinda hard not side with him on some levels. He talks of the Landscape containing a human element that can't be denied - and that would weaken art by its absence. I can't help beginning to thinking of him as some kind of Victorian moralist crossed with Simon Cowell, an ethical critic running his informed but detached eye over the runners and riders in the new business of art. In view of Alistair's recent adventures in Sao Paulo, there seems a crucial importance here. How could one even begin to conceive of a contemporary global landscape without the immediate necessity to confront the ethical as well as the aesthetic? Despite all this, It's hard not to agree with Wapke's conclusions though....

Posted by John Byrne on 16/03/10 at 17:43

Ruskin Soup

Ruskin Soup

Now we've established that big John Ruskin is worth saving from the dreaded Heritage Vampires, how do we sustain and nourish ourselves on his memory? Ruskin Soup of course!

According to Adam Sutherland, Ruskin was always a man with a plan - and this went as far as having an idea that the working man should always have the recipe for a perfect soup on hand. Cue the ruthless pursuit of a food metaphor by yours truly while Adam cooks. What was Ruskin Soup? Did Ruskin have the ingredients? Could soup - or art for that matter - really sustain and nourish the Ruskinian working woman or man? And how about their fractured and fissured twenty first century counterparts? Can Ruskin's recipes really help us find the way out of the post-postmordern stew were slowly simmering in? All - or more likely none - of these questions will be answered in our culinary homage to the late, great Big John Ruskin (and Keith Floyd).

Posted by John Byrne on 17/01/10 at 16:52

Zombie Ruskin Takes On The Heritage Vampires.

Charlie Gere wants to do wonderful things to the corps of John Ruskin and, to my surprise, I don't just want to watch, I want to join in!

Charlie, like myself, thinks that the heritage vampires have tried their hardest to reduce Ruskin to nothing more than an anachronistic token of neo-conservative Victorian Chic. In thier eyes, nothing remins of Big JR and his legacy besides a sign-post to a lost past and dreams of medieval craft-based evangelism.

In this interview, shot in the heartland of the academic Ruskinian heritage industry - Charlie outlines his conviction that Big JR may still be able to influence us positively from beyond the grave of museology. Tipping a wink and a nod to Derrida's book 'Spectres of Marx' (in my hazy left-wing mind his finest work), Mr Gere asserts that Big JR haunts us still, like a spectre of the undead, reminding us that ethics is at the heart of any re-assessment of what art actually is and can do.

Posted by John Byrne on 09/11/09 at 06:25

John Ruskin is Big Leggy

Big Johnny Ruskin strode the Victorian art world with balls of steel, a heart full of moral invective, keen critical sensibilities, dubious/unconventional/repressed sexuality (delete as appropriate) and a penchant for spotting and supporting young talent. Oh, and don't forget those sideburns. If he were alive today he would probably be a judge on the X-Factor.

Such a flippant view is, hopefully, anathema to supporters of the heritage industry - that specialist sector of the culture, tourism and leisure industry whose job it is to produce a dewy eyed retro market for Past Time franchises, Laura Ashley wallpaper and endless TV regurgitations of period and costume dramas. You are not the guardians of history. You are the producers of a marketable image which is just as crass, tacky and removed from the 'reality' of culture (whatever that might or could be) as Father Christmas and Sonic the Hedgehog (on second thoughts, apologies to Sonic).

This blog intends to help wrestle the memory of John Ruskin away from those who wish to fix him as a definable historical identity - all medieval moralism and anti-technological rant. Instead, it intends to return John Ruskin to the land of the living - as a complex cipher for understanding our current dilemmas with ever changing relationships between art, artists, culture and society.

Lofty stuff I hear you cry!

But manageable if you are prepared to work with me (and indulge me a little) in the production of a meandering text/video blog whose singular intention is to uncover what Ruskin might mean to artists, curators, producers and publics today. So here's looking forward to an amusing and possibly informative culture clash of the old, new, borrowed and often simply made up.

Posted by John Byrne on 01/11/09 at 18:22