Review by Ruth Hogan
Jerwood Visual Arts, London. 7th November - 9th December 2012.
In 1969, as part of his ‘Useful Art Manifesto’, Argentinian artist Eduardo Costa described the term ‘useful art’ as art that should have a direct social utility and claimed that the artworks he ‘should attack the myth of the uselessness of the arts and make a modest contribution to improving the conditions of urban life’. Here, Costa echoes the theories of 19th century art critic John Ruskin, advocating the importance of the social value of art.
With ‘Now I Gotta Reason’, the new exhibition at Jerwood Visual Arts, the functionality of art and how artists can perform a civic function is teased out through its participatory events and communal spaces. Co-curated by artist Marcus Coates and Grizedale Arts, the intention of this show is to offer services of value to the public and cultivate a nascent, engaged community throughout the exhibition’s duration.
A rolling programme of events is being scheduled daily, with the participating artists developing socially engaged projects in situ. Marcus Coates will provide individual life tutorials for those seeking personal guidance in an intimate, soundproofed booth. Birmingham based design duo ‘An Endless Supply’ will offer their printing services at competitive rates to produce and print material for visitors, and artists Amy Feneck and Ruth Beale are collaborating on a project that will rely on administering a ‘skills exchange’ between participants. Fernando García-Dory, whose practice involves creating sustainable agro-ecological projects, plans to work within the expanded site of London to deliver required practical services to the community.
In the main gallery space, a long table constructed from slabs of recyclable, structurally-insulated wood forms the hub of the social activity. A Lunch Club convenes here daily, where the exhibition participants and the gallery-going public can eat together and discuss a topic suggested on the blackboard on the adjacent wall. The subject of today’s debate is ‘could unpaid labour be represented on the budget’‘
Director of Grizedale Arts, Adam Sutherland informs me that the exhibition budget plays an important role in determining which projects will be realised throughout the exhibition. Here, it is incorporated into the exhibition’s framework as a wall display in the main space. The exhibition team are responsible for all the expenditure and income and must, through collective negotiation, decide which prospective commissioned works are economically viable. All profits generated through the artists’ bartering systems will be split 80% towards the artists’ labour and 20% towards the exhibition budget.
A free library is located in the work area off the main space, where the public can contribute books and read those donated by others. Several titles on the bookshelves such as David Harvey’s ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’, ‘The Rise and Rise of Meritocracy’ and ‘Adhocracy’ (any form of organisation that crosses bureaucratic lines to capture opportunities and solve problems) indicate the principles underpinning the exhibition’s objectives: purpose through self-organisation and practicality. These actions also pose the question that if artists are working towards performing a social function and not producing aesthetic objects for commodification, how are their labour and their modes of production valued’
It is Sutherland’s aspiration that this organisational model of working will question the current culture in contemporary art market that operates strictly on the commodification of goods, and not on the value of labour. The exhibition itself acts as a social commentary on the practices of unpaid or undervalued labour in the creative industries.
Opposite the onsite library, the Honest Shop offers members of the public the opportunity to buy or sell handmade goods, with 80% of profits going directly to the seller and 20% going to the exhibition budget. It features a variety of homemade knitwear, potted plants, jars of chutney and an array of assorted charming oddities. The promotion of local arts and crafts is central and it seems that the exhibition curators are all about ‘fair trade’.
Public participation is key to the success of ‘Now I Gotta Reason’, and as the show progresses, the currently sparse walls will gradually be filled with the fruits of collaborative labour. One such addition is the ‘International Village Shop’, a trans-global network for local producers that offers a range of unusual products originating from local communities and customs. These vary from horsemilk capsules and horsemilk shampoo from a farm in North West Friesland, to ‘tinned clay’ and ‘butterspoons’ - a novel take on ‘sporks’ - which combine a soup spoon and a knife in one utensil. These were all produced in collaboration with a women’s group in Höfen, Germany. These holistic products are embedded within the local community and such represent not only a craft but also their culture.
‘Now I Gotta Reason’ presents an interesting alternative to the purely aesthetic contemporary art exhibition. Its ethos of the functional over the ‘aesthetic’ places the needs of people and community over profit and consumption. The emphasis on sustainability and the promotion of the usefulness of art stresses the relevance of immaterial labour and socially engaged practices in a broader context. Art, indeed, has a purpose.