I would like to share with you two documents. These are two draft project outlines for projects in development which show you the trajectory of our thinking.
The first is the concept I have written out and currently developing with six significant European Museums, who are all looking at this as a way to rethink how their institutions can develop in new and relevant ways for their constituencies, particularly as public funding gets withdrawn, the established value systems and modes of operation are increasingly prone to criticism and cuts.
1848: The New Mechanics
A touring concept developed by Grizedale Arts
1848/1984: The New Mechanics is a long term, multi-faceted project to promote a movement, or growing consensus, to re-establish the idea of use value as a central tenet of art.
On the one hand this project will highlight artists and art strategies that share an ambition to have effect beyond the confines of the world of art, whilst on the other looking to the origins of our present era, signified by the years 1848 and 1984, to offer a new reading of art history that supports the case for a new approach to art, whilst rescuing the best of modernism’s ambitions.
The endeavour will be a mix of historical exhibitions and live projects, making clear links between the emerging arts practice of activism, action and effectiveness with its antecedents in the socio-cultural history of European Culture.
The historical aspect is seen as a rethinking and part of a solution to unlock the current stasis that pervades at a moment of declining Western influence, economic crisis, ecological anxiety and an inability for the arts to make a case for their value in society.
1848 proposes a range of approaches that attempt to reinstate the function of art at the centre of civic society.
The key principles of the project are:
1: To re-introduce the idea of the use value of art, or the usage of art, for social, aesthetic and educational development and as a means to resist the entrapment of art by the idea of the Contemporary and its recognizable forms. In this there is an ambition to open a discourse around the idea of a value system of usage, that could be used to differentiate between the work of artists operating in the social context, whilst reevaluating historical works through the lens of a use-concept.
2. To foreground approaches to art that operate on the periphery of the performative frame of art and present them as viable alternatives to market orientated work.
3. To rethink the standard of the art historical survey and to revisit the 19th century structures and concepts that instigated the Modern era (Ruskin, Mechanics Institutes, European revolution, social re-organisation) as a way to re-read of our current situation of technological advancement, social and political unrest, ecological crisis and to use new readings of time to bear on how we re-think this past.
4: To promote education, in its broadest sense, as central to the process of art, foregrounding and presenting it as a primary function of the institution – to bring the respective educational activities of each venue into centre stage.
The aim of the New Mechanics is to articulate a new, emerging tendency in art; a movement built around the idea of the use value of art and the value of art as tool to see, mediate and effect the world around us.
It is conceived as an ambitious, landmark project and it will look to advance the position of art beyond the conditions that have dominated the last two centuries under the influence of modernism and the Romantic paradigm. This will be achieved through a network of exhibitions, discourse and activity, presenting new emerging art, artists and art-like projects, alongside a re-thinking or a re-reading of the last 200 years of European art as way to help formulate new forms of art that can have a use in present times.
The timing of this project is pertinent; against a background of economic, ecological and cultural crisis as the world moves from an era dominated by European thinking to an era of not just global interdependency, but also planetary thinking – a broader ecology of culture and nature. Furthermore it is being developed in response to the continuing dominance of market orientated work as the ‘main story’ whilst there emerge from the periphery a range of viable other artworlds, or ways of making art, that none the less are part of the continuing history of art. In many ways this is a claim for the role of aesthetics as central to social change.
1848: The New Mechanics is proposed not as a fixed touring body of material, rather a touring concept, an evolving body of work (in the operative sense) and a productive discussion between European partners that will advocate for art as an active agent in society.
This concept has its roots in the early 19th century and the beginnings of industrialisation; as society reorganized itself through Mechanics Institutes, revolution, democracy, environmentalism, social welfare, education, in a moment when art, science and civic society were still fused together. It is subsequently seen in alternate paths that weave through Carlyle, Ruskin, Morris, the Bauhaus, the Utility movement, the Diggers and even current strategies utilized by political activism.
Therefore this project is as much historical as it is current. In order to assert the usage of art, it needs, as part of the concept, to use history as vital and continuous part of our present.
As the scale and scope of this endeavour is so large it is proposed that the project evolves over a five year period and is developed specifically in each location in partnership with the staff of the host institution, with each context developing the material and content using the resources (programme, community, collections, learning programmes, etc) at its disposal.
The project is built around a core body of live and documentary material that exemplifies the new work being made by artists and art agencies that have or aim to have a useful function within a socio-economic context.
Each host partner will elaborate this theme with use of its collections, outreach/social programmes and partnerships with its own constituencies, to bring to life the ideas and actions that are pertinent to its own context.
In this there is an ambition to open a discourse around the idea of a value system of usage, that could be used to differentiate between the work of artists operating in the social context, whilst reevaluating historical works through the lens of a use-concept.
This lens would be considered as having three facets, with each of the partners choosing to emphasize one of these three facets or subject sub-themes that demonstrate the idea of the usage
Relating current issues to the 19th century structures and concepts that instigated the Modern era (Ruskin, Mechanics Institutes, European revolution, Thorbecke, social re-organisation) as a way to re-read our situation of technological advancement, social and political unrest, ecological crisis and perceived ‘decline’ and to use new readings of time to bear on how we re-think this past.
Also using historical and modern works to re-write the history of art according to how it can be used, at a personal level (how an individual subject uses a work of art) and at a political level (how a society uses a work of art).
To foreground approaches to art that operate on the periphery of the frame of art and present them as viable alternatives to market orientated work. This ‘new territory’ would include artists whose practice, or rather implementation, functions as rural activism, ecology, social architecture, food supply, political action, architecture, farming, urban planning and sociology – making the case for art as an essential component in a bio-physical and socio-cultural ecology.
To promote education, in its broadest sense, as central to the process of art, foregrounding and presenting it as a primary function of the institution – to bring the respective educational activities of each venue into centre stage, rather than supplement or to the core program or even for the education programme to take over the gallery.
The New Mechanics is formed out of a synthesis of recent work by Grizedale Arts (for the last few years proponents of the idea of making artists useful) around a rethinking of John Ruskin (as an artist, art critic, educator and social reformer), the 19th century Mechanics Institutes and recent work by associate artists around European revolution in 1848.
These historical phenomena can now be read as extremely pertinent moments in our present, offering new insights into current art and particularly the urgency for sociality and ethics in art.
In the case of John Ruskin, for example, this can be re-read as complex body of work that prefigures the issues now surrounding social reform, environment, ecology, capital, aesthetics and politics, combined with the complex, difficult persona of the artist. To date his writings have been subsumed by a formalist story of modernism, which he was partly responsible for, yet he is now emerging as a critical voice in the debates around the emerging calls for art to be more effective in society.
At the heart of this, is the case for restating the use value of art, an idea that has arguably been neglected (and refuted) since 1848, subsumed by the value systems of truth and money in the evolution of the Romantic model, whilst there is an assumption that usage is antithetical to art, or at least an uncultured view.
Four our purposes 1848 is cited as the symbolic date that frames the current conditions, that marks the end of the key period or industrial and social reorganization in the west, dominated by the Machinery Question (1815 – 1848) that identified the effect of technology on social, economic and political systems. In this project we can identify this period as a parallel enquiry to our own in the era of digitized information and biotechnology.
Equally there is at the forefront of this project an emphasis on the new politicization of the rural, ecological or the peripheral. This new ecology, far further evolved from the ecological debates initiated by Ruskin in the 19th century, now includes economics, activism, technology, shifts in global power, rapidly increasing demands on agriculture and natural resources.
This is not a straight forward historical re-evaluation, but an analysis of current art production through a restructured historical context, citing the mid 19th century as a vital and pertinent part of our own critical context with all its human endeavour to adapt and survive. Perhaps this project can be seen as an ahistorical survey for a post-chronological era, history as subversion, a non linear re-evaluation of the social purpose and complex function of art, presided over by artists such as John Ruskin and Liam Gillick.
The principle is to tour, not an exhibition, but a concept and a range of methodologies that in each location will elaborate on and adapt the theme working closely with the host institution’s curatorial and education teams. It will use some historical material to make points, whilst showcase current artist, curatorial and ‘art-like’ projects that operate actively within a social context, to have, at least, an effect, or that seek, in the face of multiple ethics and dynamics, to keep going, to try to make the world a better place.
Alongside a profile of exemplar projects, the project would bring the host’s education and social programmes into centre stage, the activity to be the exhibit itself and return the gallery to its origins as a public classroom in the Mechanics Institute model.
The different manifestations of the project will add to the whole endeavor rather than repeat the programme. Therefore it might be that in each location the ‘volume’ of the different aspects of this programme are turned up or down accordingly. For example in the UK the emphasis might be on education, in Spain ecology and rural activism and in the Netherlands historical re-evaluation.
In terms of content, the project is used to channel much of Grizedale Arts’ and the collaborators’ ongoing programmes. Particular attention will be focused on artists’ projects that can be read through their use value or ‘double ontological status’ (Stephen Wright) – having applications that are valid and visible outside of the frame of art.
In this respect, there is a case for highlighting projects in which there is an element of co-creation by author and audience or which enhance social activation processes around the direct management of resources. This would inevitably reveal a range of projects that are currently working outside the market orientated art world in ‘peripheral’ zones outside the metropolitan context and present them as strategically advanced ground.
The key issues of history, education, sociality, periphery and ecology addressed by this project are designed to shed new light on the wider political scenario of economic crisis, de-growth, technology and the decline of Western influence. In one way or another, many of the artists or projects that The New Mechanics puts forward, are attempts to adapt to these circumstances and to push for a change in art and the way it is used.
Suggested Exhibition Components
To create a barricade using works of art from an institution’s collections for practical purposes, as was the case in 19c Paris, a provocative method of display and action.
A new art history
Commissioning research and new writing to re-evaluate the History of Art, 1848 – 2012 through the lens of use value. This is intended to develop a more sophisticated language to describe and evaluate current art practice; particularly those are now operating in the social sphere and to differentiate between the multiple strands of this work. Some ideas are being currently being developed with the RCA Critical Writing course.
A core exhibition
A set of historical and contemporary works that can travel between venues for the purposes of education and interpretation. To be developed with the curatorial committee of the project and the host venue.
Developed by each partner in relation to the themes
A number of artist commissions that are operative in the respective venue contexts.
An education programme
To devise a model education programme that will take centre stage at each venue, turning the gallery in to a classroom. Working with project partner education teams, universities, night classes, community projects and artists. This is in some ways intended as a challenge to each participant institution, to present their own social programmes as centre stage, rather than as complement to the exhibition programme.
The Mechanics Institute
A series of projects that looks at the Mechanics Institute as a model for the future development of the civic function of art within society, including the profiling of the Coniston Institute project by Grizedale Arts and associated artists. The Coniston Mechanics Institute was originally conceived by John Ruskin and WG Collingwood as the ideal education for the working man, but also the originating framework for social organisation, democracy, education and art centres in the UK.
The Secular Church Service
A reinvention of the service format created by artists, curators, writers, musicians for a social dissemination of philosophy, music, art, etc as a curated event.
Re-Coefficients Dining Club
Discussion and dinner performance event tested by Grizedale Arts that combines lectures with the banquet format
Club night by the legendary Liverpool dance club for one night only – Chartism meets Situationism meets Ibiza
The Touring Audience
Rather than touring an exhibition, the touring of a group of people to experience the project in all its venues and manifestations.
Coniston Mechanics Institute and Online Library
The new Library for the Coniston Institute, designed by Liam Gillick, will act as a fully functioning Cumbria County Council Library (a meme for rural libraries) whilst doubling up as the ‘research centre’ for the 1848 project.
As part of this there will be an online library that will be an accumulation of texts essays and ebooks that frame the project, considering the use of art, education, social change, ecology, history, politics.
As a key part of the project there will be a network of academic research that will develop the themes pursued with 3 European Universities.