What art have I seen?

Posted in CF Writing, Exhibitions by chrisfremantle on November 6, 2009

C Words: carbon, climate, capital, culture, How did you get here and where are we going?
Arnolfini, Bristol

The collaborative practice PLATFORM articulate their work as research, campaigning, education and art. As a result of their long-term project Unravelling the Carbon Web (2000-) PLATFORM have been quoted in the financial and environmental sections of newspapers on subjects including hydrocarbon legislation in Iraq, and Shell’s role in the execution of Ken Saro-Wiwa. At the same time their opera And While London Burns… (2007) was widely reviewed and they are currently the subject (perhaps) of a major retrospective at the Arnolfini.

But this is not a solo show.  PLATFORM have, in microcosm, demonstrated the Movement of Movements: simultaneously inhabiting the Arnolfini (at their invitation) are Ackroyd & Harvey, African Writers Abroad, Hollington & Kyprianou with Spinwatch, the Institute for the Art & Practice of Dissent at Home, the Laboratory of Insurrectionary Imagination, the Trapese Collective, and Virtual Migrants.  Plus Amelia’s Magazine, Art Not Oil, Carbon Trade Watch, The Corner House, Feral Trade, FERN, Greenpeace, Live Art Development Agency, new economics foundation & Clare Patey, Sustrans – Art & the Travelling Landscape, Ultimate Holding Company and others.  In parallel Ursula Biemann’s Black Sea Files, Peter Fend and Barbara Steveni are also exhibiting.

The PLATFORM aspect touches on several key points in 25 years of work – the walls have been lined with recycled timber and this frames a tent, a boat, a quadicycle, an image of a strategy game on a burning world stage, and a discussion.  There are a lot of words in the Arnolfini at the moment, but this is an exhibition, not just a pile of documentation.  This is activism brought into the gallery, but it is as animated as activism.  There are events going on regularly, and between the many different contributors and the team of co-realizers, I don’t think you can just walk into the gallery, walk around and say “Seen it” without someone engaging you.  It fights against being objectified, whilst still acknowledging the need for something aesthetic to engage with.

At the Friday afternoon Critical Tea Party there was an interesting discussion about combative art.  Is this exhibition trying to tell you what to think?  Is it propaganda for a leftist agenda? It certainly wants to say: you are complicit in all of this.  Do you the world to be like this?  Just because you are comfortable, is it ok that everything goes to hell and damnation?  Is this what you call justice?

Underlying PLATFORM’s work is a deep understanding of radical educational theory.  Yes, shock tactics are applied, but to the end of making each of us think for ourselves.  Propaganda is about one truth, and there isn’t one truth here.  Here there is one question: what future?

But we can also ask the question “Where is the art?”  For me, I can’t answer this by saying that the installation of the boat, with the chairs placed next to it like a bow wave, is the art, though that has formal aesthetic elegance (and I do like a bit of formal aesthetic elegance).  Of course the art has been taking place in public over the past 25 years, and this is a gallery.  The danger is that all you can put in the gallery is the evidence of something that happened somewhere else. So, for me, it is important that what is in the gallery is something which is present, here and now.

And is this a PLATFORM show?  Or a group show?  Are PLATFORM curators?  Is their work the most important?

And what about the education, research and campaigning?  To discount them from the aesthetic of the practice is to fail to understand its roots in the work of Joseph Beuys.  His idea of social sculpture is central here.

Or to put it another way, Hal Foster says that there is a fault line travelling through the term ‘art history’ because he says that art is judged on its own terms, not, as with history, enmeshed in the world.  If we accept that art is only judged on its own terms (some strange connoisseur’s estimation of PLATFORM vs Beuys vs Kaprow vs APG)  then we dismiss the world.  Whereas PLATFORM want us to understand that life can be art and art life.

So we are left with more questions, but they are in sharp focus.

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