In the autumn of 2011, the Schools and Teachers Team at Tate Modern approached me, proposing involvement in a collaborative project with the artist Harold Offeh. The project was extremely open-ended. The initial idea was to investigate the work of the seminal performance artist, Vito Acconci (who had been an extremely important influence on Offeh’s practice) and use his ideas as a starting point to work together with students from Welling School to create a collaborative performance at the Tate Modern.
Conversations ensued between staff at the Tate, Harold and me. Harold came to Welling School to meet the students and took part in a crit of their work. In January a group of students visited the Tate Modern, with myself, Becky Heaton; Head of Faculty of Visual Arts at Welling School, as well as Nicky Field, an ex-student of Welling who was undertaking work experience in the faculty at the time. Harold gave a talk about his own work and the influences of Acconci on his practice. The group also visited the display of Acconci’s work and a discussion took place about how the project might develop.
The following week a smaller group of five students were decided upon and another trip was arranged. The group visited the archive at Tate Britain and were privileged to see some of the incredible objects housed there, including Turner’s paint box. They were given a box of material relating to Acconci and spent a while discussing the way in which performative work, such as his, is archived and evidenced. They then travelled to the Tate Modern and spent the afternoon experimenting with responses to the work of Acconci and creating one-minute sculptures based on instructions by contemporary artist Erwin Wurm.(1)
They experimented with generating ideas for their own performative pieces, which involved following unsuspecting members of the public around the museum and being taken to see whatever works they were going to.
Over the following weeks, the group visited the Tate twice more. Each time we explored ways of performing within the spaces. We played a game of tag in the turbine hall, encouraging school children on a trip to join in. We rolled down the slope in the turbine hall.
We queued for video pieces, leading to members of the public joining the queue too, and we contemplated discarded objects in the gallery space. All the time, discussions continued about how the project might manifest itself.
The intention had become, to produce a performance at the Tate Modern. Something that, whilst inspired by looking at the Acconci work, and also by Harold’s practice, was a genuine collaboration between the different people involved. Harold had, early on, expressed his interest in the climate that the crit he’d observed at Welling School had taken place in. He talked about the notion of the art salon, a place where ideas and theories were discussed. Several of the students had expressed a desire to do something unusual in the gallery space and had fixated on the notion of some sort of party. The group agreed that a public discussion, a sharing of ideas, would be the best way forward. Slowly an idea began to form, and when it became known that Nicky’s actual birthday happened to be on the day the performance was planned, the idea of a birthday party was suggested.
It was agreed that each participant would bring along a gift of some kind. Nicky would unwrap each gift in turn and we would then use the following quarter of an hour to discuss whatever had been given, whether this be an object, a work of art, a set of instructions, a piece of text or something else. We would use an alarm clock that would go off every 15 minutes, to time our conversations. Alongside this performance we would display ephemera related to the past couple of months, transcripts of the email conversations and recordings of the previous sessions that evidenced the development of the project.
The performance took place on Friday the 9th March. The gallery space was organised and the students spent some of the morning handing out invitations to members of the public.
At 2pm the doors to the gallery opened and the performance began. During the next two hours, the event was visited by a continuous crowd of spectators. Some people hovered at the doors, experiencing the spectacle from a distance, others entered the space and made notes and drawings. On two occasions people interacted with us, most dramatically when a Dutch man joined the party and explained that he knew Nicky and had been invited, something which turned out to be an invention of his own.
There were awkward pauses, uncomfortable silences and stilted dialogues. But for much of the time the conversations flowed naturally and there were many incidents of fantastic coincidence. Though none of us had spoken about the gifts we were bringing, they led to interesting connections and everything ‘made sense’. This performed dialogue operated in much the same way as the developmental dialogue had, through the process of the workshops we had been undertaking.
The team at the Tate were overwhelmingly pleased with what had happened. During a de-brief meeting a few weeks later, members of the Schools and Teachers’ Team expressed their excitement at how the event had become a work of art that existed within the gallery on a par with the collection. The project had worked in a different way to other artist/schools projects. The key element was trust. Harold and I struck up a good relationship immediately, made all the more fruitful by his interest in what our students were doing when visiting the school. But we had ended up being trusted to create something that wasn’t a derivative response to existing artwork, or a pale shadow of the “artist’s” work. Instead we had genuinely co-authored something new. As we left the Tate Modern after the performance one of the students asked, “So can I call myself an artist now?” Whatever we began the project as; artists, teachers, ex-students, students; we had completed it as equally responsible for what we had produced; as co-authors.
Because of its success we we’re invited to re-enact our performance at the Tate Modern in September 2012, as part of the Tanks (2) events. Discussions immediately began as to how we would re-enact the performance, especially as part of the original had centered on it actually being Nicky’s birthday. We decided to reverse the dynamic of the first iteration. This time Nicky would create gifts for each of the participants, responding in some way to the gifts he had received from us during the first performance.
The success of the first, somewhat subversive, enactment in the galleries had led, on this occasion, to a more substantial involvement from the Tate in how our second performance was to be presented. As it was part of the autumn Tanks schedule we were given a specific time slot, included in the official programme and to be supported by an AV team. The performance took place on the 27th September and was filmed by the Tate. We wore the same outfits, white shirts and bow ties, as we had the first time. On this occasion the performance was only 45 minutes and in place of the alarm clock, used to indicate when a new gift was to be opened, we used a lighting cue. Nicky had spent the summer making a series of extremely well thought through gifts, each one enabling us to develop an interesting improvised conversation that referred back to the original enactment. Just as on the first occasion, the performance was interrupted by a member of the public. This time a young man proclaimed to know me, and indicated that he was an ex-student. We spoke briefly about the way that the school had changed and he attempted to involve himself in the game that we were playing at that point in the performance. Only afterwards did Nicky reveal that he had set this up, in order, he stated, to give me ‘the gift’ of the experience he’d had on the first occasion.
Following a symposium in December of 2012, where we took part in a panel discussion entitled “In Site of Conversation” and talked about our experience of the project, we were invited back to the Tate to create a film version of our table discussion performance as part of a project about animating the archive. The Tate are in the process of digitalizing much of their extensive archive and to promote this they have commissioned a series of films that showcase projects that link to, or have been inspired by, the archive. So we returned in June 2013 to re-enact the performance once more, this time for an audience of cameras. Using a series of prompts that related to the various stages of the project we engaged in improvised conversation once more, this time intending to unpick the processes we had gone through in the development of the work.
The film will be screened at Tate Britain and also on the Tate website. We are now negotiating for the ephemera generated by the project to be placed in the Tate archive.
- Since the late 1990s Wurm has been developing One Minute Sculptures, an ongoing series in which we see the artist or his models pose in spontaneous ways with everyday items, inserting pencils in ears, propping chairs on eyes, and bringing a host of inanimate objects to life. (www.openeye.org.uk)
- The oil tanks that once fed the power station were turned into performance and film spaces for a period of time between Wednesday 18 July and Sunday 28 October 2012.
HAROLD OFFEH & HENRY WARD
Thursday 20th June 2013
Henry Ward: Could you talk about how the project started from your perspective, how you got involved and how we came to end up doing what happened?
Harold Offeh: So initially it came from an invitation from Alice and Leanne, who are school and teachers convenors at Tate Modern, and part of their initiative to try and get artists more at the centre of the schools and teachers’ programme and the learning programme, this whole repositioning of learning at Tate and the idea that this would be at the centre of all forms of output and process, which seems pretty obvious but, anyway, is relatively new to the Tate. So they invited me, and a number of other artists, to develop research questions relating to my practice and my starting point was thinking about performance, the status of live performance art, archival performance, also the notion of the Tate starting to collect performance works and looking across the institution at that and how audiences engage with that and what those different levels of engagement were. So initially it was just me looking at stuff in the archive, the store, talking to various curators, looking at stuff in the collection, but also talking to external people as well, people like the Live Art Development Agency, and then I was asked to distil that, trying to intersect those questions with the schools and teachers’ programme, how I might engage a specific audience or group in a particular process.
HW: So was the intention right from the beginning that it would then be about working with a group from a school?
HO: Well I think it was open, we had the idea that I’d have this open research question and then there’d be a moment where it would intersect with the schools and teachers’ programme, what was really nice was that we got to decide that. So, for example, if you look at some of the other artists working (on the project), someone like Anna Lucas ended up making a film about the conservators at the Tate store conserving film. The film was just recording a conserver cleaning an old projector. She never actually worked with a group. The idea was that this film could be, somehow, a resource, and that was true to her process. I chose, specifically, to work with a group, a school group.
HW: Because that’s not unfamiliar to what you do anyway?
HO: Exactly. I was really interested in this idea of how specific audiences, which I’m really interested in, like teachers and school groups having worked with them before, how they would engage with specific material related to performance. So that was really nice. There was this idea that it would intersect, which is good because otherwise it would be too esoteric. And then what was really nice was that once I’d said that, Alice and Leanne went away and came back with the suggestion of working with you. I’m not sure what your relationship was, because you’d worked with them before?
HW: I can’t remember when I first worked at the Tate. I think I originally started working with the schools and teachers’ programme at Tate Modern, probably about eight or nine years ago, with Helen Charman, I think, the then schools and teachers’ leader there. And then Kelly Worwood replaced her and I got on very well with Kelly and did a lot of work with them. I remember this specific day where we had a teachers’ day, I usually went to do talks to teachers and educators at the Tate, either using the Tate as a resource or talking about my own practice, talking about my work, and I had a day where they asked me to lead a group which began at the Tate Modern and then at the end of the morning we took the boat to Tate Britain and did something else in the afternoon. Then that seemed to be a symbolic shift, because I didn’t do anything at Tate Modern again for a while and it all ended up being for Tate Britain. It’s weird; this separation of the two institutions. And I hadn’t done anything with the Tate for, maybe, two years and they rang me up out of the blue and asked if I’d be interested? We were trying to revisit things and look at how things work, so I jumped at it and was really excited about working with them again. They said we’ve got this artist called Harold Offeh, and of course your name rang a bell immediately because we’d been in an exhibition together, unknowingly, thirteen years ago and our works had been just round the corner from one another, your video (“Smile”) with its wonderful piece of music on a loop that drove me insane when I was invigilating, sitting under it all day, thinking this piece of music is going to drive me mad. So I was familiar with your work and thought, actually this sounds perfect. I’d used your work as a teacher as well and had students who were making things that were inspired by what you were doing, so it just seemed to be a perfect fit.
HO: I think it was from my point of view as well, because I think the Tate had an awareness of your practice and, you know, the idea of thinking about us working as a collective group wouldn’t just be about working with the students. More an idea of us engaging as a multi-faceted group.
HW: I think its one of those things that’s really difficult with this kind of project; thinking specifically about modes of practice or models of practice. I know we had a conversation before with Alice and Leanne about why the project had been so successful and this idea of, almost, trying to unpick like a recipe and say if you put this bit, this bit and this bit together you’ll have a successful project, and of course, actually that’s not possible. Part of the reason I think this project was successful, was because you were doing it and I was doing it and that particular group of students were doing it, and it sort of fitted at that point, and it is all those wonderfully unpredictable elements that come together. I think we were talking previously about the trust element and I think one of the most exciting things has been the trust, it’s been being trusted by the gallery to come up with something, us trusting one another with things, us trusting the students, the students trusting us, these interactions, and then, you know, little bits of fortune, like our names ending up on the Tanks programme and suddenly we were trusted to do something there, and how those things occur. I think what you said at the beginning was important, about the Tate finally recognising a new way of working with artists. I know before you’ve said there is a kind of irony that a gallery is, by its nature, an educational institution and yet there are divisions in the way its experienced. I think one of the most exciting things about this project is the way those divisions just disappeared. It operated in a space in which we could do that.
Could we go back a little? How did you generate the initial triggers for the project? Where did those come from? You talked about going into the archive so what things were you looking at, what made you think I want to work in this way?
HO: I think it was just an awareness, experiencing contemporary practice. Having been aware of looking at people like Marina Abramovich, who came up with this manifesto using ‘re-performance’ to examine, partly her own egotistical, you could argue, anxiety, about the historical status of performance; what she felt was a kind of disrespect for performance in terms of it not being properly historicised. She developed this manifesto, the idea of using ‘re-performance’ to allow audiences to experience live work, as opposed to documentation. So all these questions about documentation, live performance, which were, are, really current in terms of presentation of performance work. But also going around the Tate and seeing a Joseph Beuys piece and, it’s a very particular work, but the idea of these remnants are like artefacts, the evidence of something, but that the activity that generated these things, you’re just left with these relics…..
HW: Almost a question of ‘where is the art?’
HO: Yes, exactly
HW: Because there’s that odd thing with remnants, that’s a really nice word, where reading around what happened, or listening to what happened or even just knowing what happened and seeing the remnants, does conjure up an element or a suggestion of the experience, but actually it’s not the experience of the performance. So as an audience, retrospectively, you’re filling in lots of gaps, you’re not actually experiencing the performance. So this idea of re-enactment is really interesting because you’re not actually seeing the performance but perhaps it is more real? I don’t know it’s an exciting area to be exploring…
HO: Yes definitely and I think, maybe this is something that comes through in my practice, but one of the ways I’ve tried to get an understanding of performance work is by trying to work them out for myself by doing them. While that’s not an exact facsimile of the original you get a very different understanding just through the dynamics of having the experience of something….
HO: You get a very different understanding, a more removed…..
HW: Being the audience?
HO: I don’t, necessarily, want to privilege one over the other but it’s just different.
HW: So do you think, because one of the interesting things at the very beginning of the project that you talked to the group about was Acconci, and about being interested in his work and also showed them examples of your own practice and talked about his influence, but then took us all into the gallery and had some ideas about ways that we could ‘re-enact’. I think, one of the first activities we did were based on the Erwin Wurm “One Minute Sculptures”, and that idea of getting them to experience those performance pieces. Obviously there is a difference from Acconci, in that Wurm actively encourages other people to do these things, but that engagement immediately with a physical enactment, the enactment of things. I think what you did, very early on, was you gave the students the confidence to make suggestions. Coupled with the fact that, even before we’d come to the Tate, you’d come to school and heard them talk about their work, I think there was such a lovely level playing field where they were very open to you saying ‘let’s try this’, then within half an hour of doing that, they were saying ‘could we go and do this then?’ This is an idea which I know we’ll probably talk more about, that out of the dialogue and conversation, that has run all the way through this, not just in the manifestation of the performances themselves, but in all the discussions, where the students have said ‘Harold can we go and do this? Now we’ve done it here, why don’t we go and do it over there?’
I think you would say, that’s interesting now let’s do it this way, that way of building up, so things felt like they were generated in a very natural organic way. And I think in the most exciting way, if all of us as participants, had sat down at the beginning and written down what we thought the outcome would be, I don’t think anybody would have got it right. It makes this a really interesting process, and makes it, if you take it back to what you were saying at the beginning about an artist engaging, through the schools and teachers’ programme with the Tate as an institution in a different way; a learning project in its truest form for everybody. It’s just been fantastic.
So we did these initial things, but I wonder what were your thoughts were at the beginning, because you had a structure for that first session planned out and we already had the visit to the archive planned, so in your recollection how did things develop from there? What were you thinking at the time?
HO: I think really I had some underlying objectives. One was to set an initial framework to engage with you all, and also this notion to have some kind of structure that was open and wasn’t just a mess. But I was aware that one of the things that I wanted to do, was just to facilitate a process that would allow us to, in a way, familiarise ourselves with the institution or reframe the institution; our relationship with the institution. It’s that thing of getting past ‘it’s the Tate, oh my God!’ I really wanted to engender a sense of it being a space, a museum a public space that we’re all invested in, what can we do with it? In the same way that we might think of lots of other spaces, and for me the idea of those activities was about opening that up really.
HW: Do you think there was an intention to be almost deviant or subversive? Because I think you’re right, it’s this kind of religious space, people come in and worship art in there and, for the students in particular, this is the “Tate Gallery” we’re going to, so it’s quite a big deal and how we behave within those spaces is ingrained. You don’t ‘run’ through the Tate, which is why when Martin Creed did his piece in the Duveen galleries or the Tino Segal which obviously crossed over with us at the Tate Modern, it had a shocking element. If someone runs past you in a gallery that feels wrong, so we have an accepted group of behaviours that have been subliminally hammered into us. So did you set out with an intention that it needed to be subverted?
HO: Yes. I think that I just really wanted all of us to have a real sense of ownership of the space and to really think about what we might do within it. In a way, to challenge certain orthodoxies about a learning project and where it should exist and where the parameters of it lie. I often have a problem with this idea that because it’s so participant focused and process led, that somehow the dissemination of, or display and presentation of that becomes irrelevant. So I really wanted to do things that were visible, outside of the context of being in a learning space. Just the idea of getting into the gallery spaces and trying things out. I loved the idea, I’m not sure who it was from – Ben or Becky, it might have been a day you weren’t there actually, but rolling….
HW: When you rolled down the slope?
HO: Yes. It wasn’t my suggestion but we were on the balcony and we were watching some French kids sliding down into the Turbine Hall with a bit of envy and we thought why don’t we do that? Why don’t we just play a game? And this was before the Tino Segal, which is really interesting
HO: Looking retrospectively, we were just literally running up and down that space…
HW: That’s really interesting because that’s the poetry of this project, in a way. By the time we got to the second enactment, Tino Segal was in there, and what people were expecting of that space had fundamentally shifted from what they were expecting of the space before and how performance sat in it in a different context, in a way. I think this whole idea of subversion of space is really interesting because I think it was a real trigger for the students having, very early on, the confidence to ‘follow people’. It was one of my favourite things, the whole following thing and I can’t quite remember where that came from, maybe of those lovely conversations where we said, why don’t we get taken to works by….
HO: Well the initial impetus was looking at an Acconci piece, but then I think it came out of a conversation of unpicking that and somebody saying, well why don’t we just follow on. Follow one person to a work, just wait, then follow someone from that work to the next….
HW: Yes and I remember the lovely feedback from people talking about getting stuck in front of the most boring works that no one else wanted to see and that they might get left there forever. It’s such an interesting way to negotiate a gallery space because, of course, the students hadn’t necessarily been to the gallery that often, but if you have been many times you tend to do the same thing, go to the same places and see the same work, even walk round the gallery in the same order and actually there’s something rather wonderful about being taken to something you wouldn’t normally see.
HO: I’ve used that piece now with my students. So I did a gallery visit up in Leeds and I asked them to do that. Again I think it’s a really interesting and fantastic articulation, actually, thinking about space. But it’s actually really interesting as a tool so something like that is great because it allows you to unpick what you do in a gallery.
HW: Going back to more conventional ways of schools and teachers programmes negotiating the spaces for their students, this was a really innovative way to do exactly that kind of thing. Just thinking about these ideas about the potential conflicts within the institution itself, what were your feelings about the first performance “The Birthday Party”? All sorts of things had led up to it, but once we knew we were going to be doing it, there was a, I don’t know if tension is too strong a word, but there was a sense of, as a group we’d made our minds up that this was a work of art we were performing, and it felt like at that point, that the schools and teachers programme started to back away and worry about what have we had created. Because they had, as is evident all the time, very particular parameters within which to operate, and I remember there being a discussion about whether there was going to be a sign telling everyone that this was a schools and teachers’ event. There was even a conversation about it being signposted just in case members of the public thought they were looking at something else in the gallery, which I think was the most wonderful moment of this kind of nonsense of the differentiation between the different things. I don’t know if you want to say anything about that?
HO: I think this is, in a way, where institutional structure can get in the way of people’s understanding and experience of things. I mean, without going off into one, ultimately that just comes down to, essentially, egotism, and in this demarcation of what exhibition curators do and what learning curators do and the hierarchy that is set up within institutions and the frameworks where the museum is charged with creating the canon and exhibition curators take on this responsibility, they’re like gatekeepers, who are we letting in? We’re deciding the value of cultural history. They feel charge and empowered by that role and things they feel sit outside of that, or that they feel compromise their decision-making process they see as a challenge to their authority. My argument is that learning, actually if it has a role, one of its roles should be to challenge that and to undermine it, and I think for me that makes it, potentially, more interesting.
HO: More exciting because it is questioning this authority. And what becomes really interesting, and our project and some of the projects they’re starting to commission and instigate, are beginning to challenge that authority. You could see it again in the second iteration in the Turbine Hall, where it was probably more evident then I think. Particularly knowing the performance curator who was quite nervous around …
HW: Well it was wonderful I think, because there are two things that stuck in my mind. The negotiating about whether we were allowed to have vinyl text on the wall and the idea that this couldn’t possibly be organised through the Tate. So we did it, and they were very nervous about it; who’s going to put it up? We put it up ourselves and we took it down ourselves, and it looked like anything else does in the Tate. But it changed the way the space operated. And then the cards which we’d already sent to the printers, prompted this panicky email saying it must clearly say on the card that this is part of the schools and teachers’ programme, otherwise it might look like it’s ‘Tate’ and that means ‘art’ and it can’t say that. So we did. But because what we created did, of course, look like art, because it was, once we’d got onto the Tanks programme there was this huge engine of institution making sure that everything fitted within that context. So there was the lighting and the AV guys making sure we had mics and there was the sound check, and all these things occurred. Everything was very slick and ran the way it should run because it was now in this recognised frame. But actually what we were doing was no different. I think the difference between those two manifestations of our work actually illustrated a huge problem for institutions like the Tate, completely understandable problems. You’re right to say it’s about egotism but it’s also about money…
HW: Because going back to the very first session where we went to look at the Acconci room and the irony of looking at a performance artist who’s work was predominantly about that and looking at his notes about performances that had then been framed… I remember us talking to the students, you talking to the students about the fact that these were now archived works and that there was a difference between what was in the archive and what was ‘work’. What was in the frames was similar to what might be in the archive but because it was now in frames and on the wall it was now a ‘work’ and had a monetary significance. I remember the students being, as they would be, interested in what that monetary value was. And I think you found out…
HO: 80 something thousand each frame…
HW: Nobody could believe it. This idea that because of Acconci’s status, it becomes valuable. Going back to what you were saying about the curators who have this power and what they will or won’t show, in the short journey between ‘Birthday Party’ and the Tanks performances we stepped closer to curators being happy with it being accepted as a piece of art, and you can imagine those steps going further, to a point where they would happily accept ‘Birthday Party’ retrospectively as a work of art even though they wouldn’t have wanted it there in the first place. It’s an interesting thing. One of my favourite anecdotes from that first performance was leaving the Tate and having one of the students say, “can I now call myself an artist?”. The idea being, we’ve just done this, so now we are ‘artists’. The Tate validated it on that level as art, which is a bizarre power.
HO: Well that was one of the things I was thinking about, the idea that on all their CVs they have shown multiple times at the Tate. Absolutely.
HW: Which is amazing!
HO: Yes, but I think that a museum that claims that it is trying to do all the things it is claiming it’s trying to do, should allow for that sort of activity and embrace that.
HW: Well I suppose that we mustn’t come across as disingenuous because they did. And we did. And it was quite radical and will hopefully open the doors to more of these things happening in the future. Do you think it will?
HO: I hope so. I mean they did allow it to happen but it was very new and was deemed as problematic. I know in terms of some of the peripheral conversations, it was a challenge, you know. On one level it seems almost banal, but for people who should be immersed in contemporary culture, contemporary practice, to ask….I heard that some members of the exhibition curation team were asking why members of the learning curation team were working with artists. Asking why they would need to work alongside an artist?
HW: That’s incredible!
HO: And we’re talking senior curators here.
HW: That’s incredible, no wonder the learning team were nervous, when we were running around inviting people to come and see what we were doing. That’s terrible though. What’s so ironic about that is, I think, the value in this project was huge. Everyone involved in it, not just those involved, but people who came to see it, people who’ve talked about it since. Hugely valuable, and yet if, I don’t know, if a really big name artist that the Tate would bow down to, said I want to do this as a work of art they’d just accept it. Which is just ludicrous isn’t it? A ludicrous thing, but I suppose, endemic in culture full-stop. It’s the way it works.
HO: Yeah, yeah.
HW: So what do you think, how do you think, going back, let’s talk a little bit about how we got to that first performance. Can you say from your perspective; how do you think things ended up with the ‘Birthday Party’? We started with the sessions, visited the archive, established the group who was going to be involved and then we did some performances based on Acconci and how did we end up performing in the way that we performed?
HO: What was really nice for me, was that from those initial sessions it became really clearly identifiable that the young people engaged in the project were incredibly articulate, incredibly well-versed and they had a really wonderful relationship with you and with Becky, in a way that it meant it was a very full conversation and an open dialogue really. So one of the things I was conscious about, was through my relationship with Leanne and Alice, they would be asking me, what are you going to be doing and how are you setting things up, and actually it didn’t feel that I really needed to impose or structure things too much because the initial phase had been about establishing a mutual conversation, and then from that point onwards it felt like this collective conversation ran itself. I think I was very conscious about letting that happen really. I had a meeting with them where I felt like, in my own paranoid way, maybe this sounds to them like I am not really doing much. But I think that’s maybe the point.
HO: I shouldn’t be doing much.
HO: Just a sense that maybe they had expectations of me.
HW: Do you think that is about the idea that the accepted model for an artist working for a gallery with a group from a school, is that the artist says ‘right we’re going to do this?’ I would argue that there’s a tremendous similarity between the way an artist is expected to work with a gallery and the way a teacher, particularly under the current administration, is expected to teach, in that the model of a ‘good lesson’ is that, before the lesson even starts, the teacher will say ‘at the end of this lesson the students will have done this.’ But actually that’s not a good lesson at all. That’s boring. Surely a really good lesson is ‘we’re going to begin with this and we’ll see what happens’. That’s proper education. But an accepted model of artists working with galleries is that we are going to get this group in and by the end of the session, the end of the day, the end of the workshop; they’ll all have done this. This is great for the gallery because it can guarantee them photos of what they know is going to happen. They get ‘outcomes’. And I am not dismissing this as having no value, but I remember going to see an exhibition at the National Gallery a number of years ago where they had brought some primary children in and they had made work inspired by Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’. The artist who had worked with them knew exactly what those kids were going to have made by the end of the session; a contemporary version of ‘The Ambassadors’. Of course the kids will have got a lot out of it, but any possibility of it going off at a tangent was already curtailed by saying ‘this is what you are going to do by the end of this project’. I think that the people operating in the schools and teachers programmes in galleries are expected to say that to their bosses, to say it’s ok, at the end of this project we’ll have this outcome. But having meetings where they’re having to say, we don’t know, we’ve had these conversations, must have been exciting but at the same time terrifying. What if it doesn’t work? This was one of the lovely things about this project. There was always this slight fear; what happens if it doesn’t work? I remember the first performance when we opened the doors and there was a fairly substantial group of people expecting something, and the alarm clock didn’t go off and there was that awful pause for about a minute and a half, and it did cross my mind, is this not going to happen, and then of course it did. That risk was so important. Had we got everything ready and finished, and then gone away..well that’s easy. Perhaps this goes to the heart of what’s exciting about this in the first place? Performative practice is risky and does create spaces in which something might happen that you hadn’t expected and you’ve got to respond to it, particularly unscripted, as we were doing. The more I think about the first performance, and the fact it was two hours, the more ridiculous it seems that we did that! Two hours, live, trying to come up with things to say, and we managed it.
HO: Yes, for definite, I whole-heartedly agree. I think that the notion of not pre-determining, not prescribing is really important. One of the things I loved about it, because I talked to Leanne and Alice about this a lot, is how actually they should see the process of working with artists as being as much about artists’ learning and facilitating artists’ learning, as it is about the other way around. It’s important not to have this inbuilt hierarchy. So one of the things for me was just by not having this responsibility to determine and control everything I could be fully engaged and discover stuff. It was really liberating.
HW: It felt like that. It did feel like that. So was it like that for you then? Because all the way through, the students felt totally empowered, I felt totally empowered, Becky felt totally empowered, Nicky felt totally empowered. It didn’t feel like there was this hierarchy, it felt like we were collectively responsible and collectively irresponsible at times, and that was really nice. I think it felt like you were enjoying that process and I think that is why it worked so well. We didn’t really know where we were going, the first performance went really well and we were all on a big high, and then when it was suggested that we re-enact it, certainly from a personal perspective I was thinking are we taking this too far because it worked, but will it work when we do it again?
HW: And of course it was very different. But it did work again, in a different way. I think that, and now with the forthcoming film, where might that now go? It’s also going to be something interesting, but something different. It is a really interesting way of working. What you said about it being about the artist learning is interesting. The RAQs Media Collective said, “learning to be an artist is exactly the same as being an artist”, which I think is a really important way of thinking about things. It is not that there is a period of training before you become an artist, and then suddenly you’re ‘it’ and you’re doing it. It’s the same all the way through, and that’s not true of all practices, but it is very true of art. You can be 92 years of age, called Picasso, and drawing, and you’re still doing the same thing you were doing as a 10 year old. There’s no difference, and I think recognising that, and then for galleries to recognise that and then allow the artist to work with groups of people in that way is important. Rather than the artist being the font of all knowledge who is coming in and saying ‘I am going to give of myself’ and the other participants being empty cups waiting to be served, but actually it being a dialogue and that is really important.
HW: You hinted that the schools and teachers’ programme had some problems with the project. How do you think it might change what they do? Do you think they’re not ready to push this further?
HO: No, I think having been engaged with this quite long process, a two-year process I think, it was really important for them to be charged with changing the culture at the Tate. It’s really important for them to bring artists along on the journey. Last night I went to something called ‘Project Visible’ at Tate Modern, where they talked about the various learning spaces with these outcomes and manifestations from artists working with the schools and teachers’ programme and what was really nice, was that it was just like a show. It was like a group show. It was like a private view at a group show, people looking around. And that really felt like a legacy of some of the stuff that we’d done in terms of articulating that, this idea that an audience coming in will just engage with that. I think it is an incremental thing, and hopefully with the new extension, these new learning suites and new learning galleries that they want to build….
HW: Yes I was going to mention that, because that it quite interesting isn’t it? The Tate are in the process of legitimising these things through investment in architecture. Architecture is a hugely powerful tool for this kind of thing. If you think about what we’ve already referred to, of the Tate being like this cathedral where you worship at the alter of art, then if they invest capital in the creation of spaces that have this educational purpose, then they validate it. They’re saying ‘this is important’. It is important enough for them to dedicate two years to building an extension to create spaces for this purpose. It has tremendous power. That is one of the things that is really exciting about what we did, we put something right in the heart of the Tate, next to the established canon, and we did not differentiate and as a result it was accepted, because it will be accepted. Once Duchamp broke the ice, a hundred years ago… that’s the problem, isn’t it? Anything can be art. Anything can be accepted as art. I’m reading an interesting collection of interviews with Duchamp at the moment (it’s called “The Afternoon Interviews”), and in it he talks, with some regret, about ‘The Readymades”, that it was necessary, but once he’d done it, then it opened the door to lazy art, and that there’s lots of rubbish as a result of what he did. Of course there is, but what is really interesting about that breaking through, is that it gives galleries enormous power, because once they agree to something being in the gallery they’re rubber stamping it. They’re saying ‘this is important’. The reticence to allow things into that space can then be damaging because it’s like saying the reverse; ‘this isn’t important’. So when we succeeded in getting an education-based project into that space it was a hugely significant thing, because the idea that people will go into the space looking for it, knowing it is educational, is fine. But the idea that people were walking around that space and just came across it, just something in the Tate -this is really important. It levels the playing field. The more we can operate like this, the better. But it does open up huge issues for institutions like the Tate, coming back to money again, for things like funding. Because if you display work of, in the institutions eye’s, non-artists alongside that of artists, how you justify the 80,000 pounds spent on some notes and drawings by Acconci, when a 16 year old comes in and does something equally interesting and doesn’t cost anything? So I think it is a real dilemma for the institution I suppose…
HO: Yeah. But I think, for me, that is not irreconcilable. You know if you think just in terms of the market then it is a problem, but I think, particularly with a publically-funded gallery, that it should have a multi-faceted relationship. If that means putting the 16 year old next to a Hirst or something, then that’s good.
HW: I agree.
HO: It creates interesting questions about cultural legitimacy. What is culturally valuable?
HW: To a certain extent, as well, it celebrates the notion of meritocracy doesn’t it? If you think about the way our culture is going. The idea, only ten years ago, if you wanted someone to listen to your music, apart from live, you had to get a record deal. But that’s gone out the window if you post enough stuff on the internet, and it’s good, and enough people listen to it. The same is happening with publishing. I think there’s a breaking-down, culturally, in creative practice about how these things are shared. The idea that, maybe, that can happen in a gallery space, I think that’s really exciting. I don’t think there would be resistance to galleries still spending large sums on particular artefacts because of their cultural significance, alongside other things, because, of course, it is about engagement, it is about opening up dialogue. With this project, that was what was interesting about it. With the second performance we had a written response from an MA student about the way in which she had interacted with the performance. Of course the gallery had validated it by allowing us to be there, but it was just about providing an audience and it’s about stuff being interesting. And that’s ultimately what it should be about.
HO: Yes and I think one of the things that is often lost, and one of the things that learning really embodies and facilitates is live contemporary culture. It creates this residual space that is constantly about audience, participants, artists, live culture, as it is now. I’ve been involved in projects, as an artist, where I’ve been commissioned to do something in a museum, and it is generally quite problematic to do something like a live thing, even if it’s a group show, because it’s still incredibly negotiated. Actually the articulation of learning, and the ideas about learning, are more free. It allows you more possibilities, and allows the institution to engage more fully in current cultural practices, in a different way to the way a curator flies around the world and selects different artists, brings them into the space. Something like that has maybe more control.
HW: Do you think that’s because one of the issues with curation, perhaps, is that you’re often under pressure to select your ingredients for an exhibition from a pre-agreed, I’ll continue the food metaphor here, a pre-agreed larder. Everyone has already agreed what is in the larder, you go in, pick the ingredients and make your meal. Possibly what we are talking about is things that aren’t in the larder yet, or may never get there? That’s what makes it a bit more interesting. I think there’s an interesting, I don’t know if you would call it a ‘trend’ within curation, where there are multi-faceted exhibitions cropping up that don’t seem to have selected their ingredients from the larder. So I went to The Alternative Guide to the Universe exhibition at the Hayward Gallery on Sunday and, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, it’s not even billing itself as ‘outsider artists’, it’s almost saying these people are ‘outside outsider art’. And it’s an absolutely fantastic exhibition, it’s just interesting things; so you’ve got a homeless woman from Chicago who took self-portraits dressed as film stars and embellished them with a red biro, alongside a robot designed by a Chinese farmer that was walking around the space, and a physicist who is so far left-field that other physicists don’t recognise him as a physicist so he has nothing to define him by. So he’s in this exhibition. I think this idea that maybe it is just about looking at the things we do. I think, going back to this project, as a participant, it was amazing. It was such an exciting thing to do. I learnt so much, and I could see that the students were learning. There was a sense, every time we discussed anything, every time we got together, that new things were generated, and that’s a tremendously rewarding experience. That’s all it needed. Maybe it just needed to be explored. But then there was something about performing, and talking to people who’s only experience was as the audience, they also got something from it, and surely that is validation enough, that this is of worth. Regardless of any label or moniker that this is a piece of art. That’s dangerous stuff to be dealing with. Because, what does it say? But that’s what so exciting. It is what people like Duchamp and then people like Acconci were doing, making stuff which is not easily contained within a gallery, which is not within a frame, it is something else. It’s not a product. It’s not consumable in that way. I think that is still quite an exciting and subversive thing to be thinking about in relation to art.
HO: Definitely. It is increasingly a really important question in terms of challenging orthodoxies. I think there are still a lot of lazy assumptions made about practices and methodologies, particularly within institutions. One thing I would say, to the Tate’s credit, is that I think it is ahead of the game, if you look at comparable international institutions…
HW: Without a doubt…
HO: I was in New York in January looking at MOMA’s education programme and thinking, really, are you guys doing this? So I think there is some way to go but there is a strategic imperative to enable these things, which doesn’t seem to be happening in other places…
HW: I think you’re absolutely right, maybe as a nation we’re a little bit guilty of self-flagellation all the time and it’s not bad, on lots of levels. We talked earlier about architecture and you look at how quickly the Tate are turning around an extension, and how quickly Tate Britain are re-building and then you have the Stedlijck Museum in Amsterdam that has just re-opened after 10 years of re-building. It’s insane. So I think we do ourselves a dis-service. But it is still important to push it further. If nothing else, this project, and the fact that the Tate did sanction it, whether there were times when things happened accidently, it was sanctioned. It did happen. It was a bit ‘out there’ in terms of educational projects but it will have stretched things. The Tate allowed it to happen, and that’s fantastic. I don’t know whether you’ve come across people taking about it but I’ve had one or two occasions since we did it, where I’ve been in other situations and someone has said, ‘I read about that’, ‘I heard about that’, ‘I spoke to someone about that’, and I think the idea’s great that there’s a little ripple. People saying that it’s interesting…
HO: I think that is why I am so keen about the archive, and why I think it is important that it goes into the archive. Having been in the archive, I think it’s really good that the dissemination of something like this is made accessible. What I think is really interesting going into the archive is discovering things that, at the time were incidental. They weren’t the big works, you know, maybe the Tate invited a weird video artist to do one thing on one night, not many people came along to, but actually it’s like ‘wow’! So it’s really important making this history that we’ve generated, accessible, because without sounding overly egotistical, there is a sense that you don’t always know the cultural value of the things that you do, and it is important that these things are there…
HW: I totally agree…
HO: On top of it’s value to us as individuals.
HW: I totally agree, because I think one of the things, the really interesting things, about the archive and it’s relationship to this project is, we both talked about it and the students talked about it, is the experience of seeing Turner’s paint box, and of course Turner’s paint box is not a work of art. It is the tools he used to make his art. We can go into the Clore galleries and look at dozens and dozens of Turners that they have in there, but none are as moving as picking up the paint box. But Turner didn’t see the paint box as art, it was just something he owned. Now it’s in the archive and that gives it this special power, and in a way the archive is the ultimate validation of what we have done because it says, actually this may be of value later. Maybe it is about an expression of faith. This project generated something that is of worth. It gets put in a box on a shelf, and it might sit there for ten years with nobody taking it off. But it will be of value when somebody does.
HO: Yes and I think it is important to push them as an institution, to really have that conversation. Even today, there was discussion about this idea of what belongs to the artist, what belongs to the learning team, how do we catagorise?
HW: Fascinating, the conversation we had today, over the use of the facsimiles of the Acconci documents that are in the Tate archive. I would assume that means they own them? That they have some rights over their use?
HO: I think so yes.
HW: And yet there is a query over whether they can use them in a film that they’re commissioning! The same institution! That is just insanity. That’s a kind of… where you still have weird barriers between one part of the institution and another. Where you have a film for the education team, so they’re not sure they can allow the use of archive material? I suppose it’s the next battle?
HO: Yeah. It feels like those questions are really important to generate.
HW: I think so. Maybe this summarises things in a way. For whatever reason this project did break down some barriers in the way in which it manifested itself in the spaces at Tate Modern. The next stage is the validation by inclusion in the archive, then the next wall is knocked down and that’s important.
HO: Yeah. Definitely. I was thinking today, really, because one of the questions I had is the status of things in the archive or the store. I was thinking, what’s in the box, is it work? Because if it is it should be in the store, but if it is documentation or ephemera related to the art then it should be in the archive. So that’s another question?
HW: Well that comes almost full circle, back to that first day…going into the Acconici display. Would Acconci see those notes and diagrams as works?
HO: Well he sold them as works.
HW: But he didn’t make them as works? Did he? Did he make them as works? Or did he make them in order to make a work, then afterwards thought, hey if I frame these then…?
HO: I think this is a really interesting thing for me, particularly in relation to performance work from that period, retrospectively the work being mediated for the market. So the cultural perspective at the time was this idea of dematerialisation, wanting to escape the market, use text, performance, sound, that can’t be sold. Then we get this retrospective, and Abramovich is the same, you know, this whole idea of how do I make money from all this shit I’ve done? In some ways you could argue it is a betrayal of that ethos but…
HW: But you’ve got to eat?
HO: Exactly. You know I’m not objecting to him making money from it. I just think it is a conversation that I would prefer to be honest. So I made it because of this, then I needed money and was able to sell this. That’s fine. But the fact that it’s never discussed…
HW: No that’s weird. Because when we saw that and then we went to the archive and actually handled things he’d written, and it’s kind of the same thing? As you say, there is this strange hierarchy about what is in one box and what is in another. It’s similar to us talking about education and art within an institution like the Tate. What we did was art and education. What you see, very often in the Tate, is art and education, but one thing is in one box and one in another.