This review might initially strike the more eagle-eyed readers of the art press as a little late to the party. Maurice Carlin’s ‘Performance Publishing’ is a work that was originally installed in this former storage warehouse near Manchester’s Islington Mill in 2013. It consists of 136 CMYK scale prints that map the space’s floor, produced over three months using Carlin’s own relief technique derived from ancient Chinese stone rubbings, and all streamed live on a webcam. The resulting prints are lavishly textured with peeks of psychedelic colour – ancient and inimitably 21st century, obviously connected to each other yet (thanks to the intentional randomness of Carlin’s technique) arrestingly individual.
So far, so fascinating. But why, you may ask, has ‘Performance Publishing’ been reinstalled two years later? It turns out that, for Carlin and curator Helen Kaplinsky, the piece has the potential to explore some different, tangential conceptual terrain. It was their discussion about the prints’ fate that led to its current iteration as part of the jointly established ‘Temporary Custodians’ project.
Rather than simply selling, donating or storing the individual prints, Carlin and Kaplinsky decided to use them as an opportunity to delve into new and contemporarily relevant ways in which they might be distributed or owned. The pair were inspired by the utopian concept of the ‘shared economy’, in which redistribution of goods and services are enabled using peer2peer technology. If we’re able to access and donate open source content, use eBay or exchange time or skills with each other online, they wondered, can’t we apply the same generosity of spirit to the ownership of an artwork?
Kaplinsky has worked widely with municipal galleries and museums who still use historical modes of collecting. These places often ban the ‘deaccession’ (sale) of a work in their collection, but also don’t always want to display it, meaning much of their stuff sits in an odd limbo – taken care of in storage or an archive, but not enjoyed – and it’s these modes that she and Carlin wanted to rebel against.
After conversations with lawyers, other artists, technologists and regeneration consultants among others, the pair have hit on the idea of distributing the prints through a trust, and are now actively searching for ‘trustees’ – people willing to hold one of Carlin’s prints in an experimental capacity. They hope that this layering of a philanthropic legal structure with strong historical connotations (the Victorians, most obviously, were keen on placing assets in trust for public benefit), might change participants’ views about what it means to be in possession of an artwork, to hold it but not own it.
There’s something intriguingly foreign about this employment of a cold, legal structure to think about how we approach our relationship to an artwork. How, I wonder, would it feel to take home one of these prints – all just one element of something much bigger – and know that you’re looking after it, rather than handing over some cash and being done with it? Will these future trustees take better care of it than they would if they simply owned it, and how will their role change the way they engage with it? How essential is an ‘owner’ to an artwork’s value? It looks as if the Temporary Custodians’ latest venture will provide some answers, and no doubt a host more questions.