Not place but context

If you start with the sentence “My practice is focused by place,” then the next sentence that logical follows is “I’ve been working in … Ireland, Palestine, Siberia.” Whereas if you start with the sentence “My practice is focused by context,” then the next logical sentence can be any one of a very large number of things, a few of which I’ll highlight as we are going along.

Of course place emerged as an important concern in the arts, and Lucy Lippard is a key figure here, as a means to articulate the actual heterogeneity of the public realm, and to enable a multiplicity of voices and concerns, beyond adornment or memorialisation.

But place has become so trite and overused, not least because it is more digestible in relation to ‘regeneration’ and the economics of development. We hear a lot of artists talking about place, and a lot of consultants badging themselves as place-makers.

The reality of ‘place’ can be the complete destruction of social and cultural structures embedded in tightly knit economic structures. And I’d be the first one to admit that I’ve been educated to see beauty in industrial desolation, but all that is left of the Glengarnock Steelworks is piles of bricks and villages with massive unemployment and memories supposedly represented by crappy bits of sculpture.

‘Context’ is a tougher terminology. Nicholas Bourriaud argues in his essay introducing the Altermodern, the recent Tate Triennial, an exhibition unfortunately full of artists exploring ‘place’, that ‘context’ is what we are left with on the collapse of the Modernist project, driven as it was by grand narratives. Once the scripts of progress, of humans being able to build a better society through science, technology and architecture, finally collapsed, he argues that we have been left with ‘context’.

Barbara Steveni and John Latham, who jointly founded the Artist Placement Group, coined the phrase ‘context is half the work’ and I find this construction very useful, so I am going to explore it. They wanted to open up what it might mean to be an artist and they did this by carefully structuring placements first in industry and then in Government – remember this started in the second half of the sixties and carried on throughout the 70s. The core of this idea might be described as asking both the artist and the host workplace to suspend disbelief and to explore what being an artist or working with an artist might add up to, rather than the artist going, what can I do (from my repertoire) here?

The shift from place to context is a shift from one dimension to many dimensions. Context is prima facie about many overlaid things, about complexity, about systems and about power relations. When I say the “context for this work is climate change”, then the context is not passive. If I say the context of this work is the social and environmental consequences of our oil dependency as played out in the gas flaring, bunkering, kidnapping and pollution of the Niger Delta, then the context is half the work, and how do you make a work of art about something so complex, how do you make people in London aware that they are implicated in something so removed from their daily experience.

So the context is half the work must be read as acknowledging conflict. Setting aside conflict in the Niger Delta, there is a more fundamental conflict. Context might be in conflict with the content. The context demands that the artist pays attention, drawing them away from an obsession with making the perfect work.

Hal Foster maybe makes the same point when he argues that a fault line runs through the term ‘art history’. He asks how we can talk about art, which assumes itself to be autonomous and measures itself in its own terms; and history, which is perhaps the opposite, precisely about the specificity of circumstances, even of context.

Thinking about context also helps us to move from place as spatial concept to think about public time as well, picking up on a point made by Liam Gillick. The whole obsession with place is usually structured in terms of how to turn spaces into places, but perhaps our dominant experience is of time, or waiting, of boredom, of stress. And here I do think that Grove, the Art & Architecture collaboration for the New Stobhill Hospital, actually addresses this issue. Thomas Clark and Andy Law talk about the Hospital and everything done in it as one artwork, and I think that they have attempted to think about composing space through a serious concern with the experience of time.

If we accept that the context is half the work, then we acknowledge the tension this creates, the changes it may stimulate, but we also need to recognise the requirement to learn about context. It’s not a given and it doesn’t immediately reveal itself by walking around. For me it’s manifest in my peripheral knowledge of landscape and agricultural history in the North East of Scotland, or industrial development and collapse in Glengarnock and Kilbirnie, or the impact of global warming on the coastline of Britain, or infection control in Glasgow’s hospitals, or the resource curse as it is manifest in Nigeria, or the iterations of cultural policy in in the UK over 50 years.

I/we interviewed a lot of people for the research part of The Artist as Leader, including Philip Schlesinger Director of the Centre for Cultural Policy Research. He talked about the ‘cost of entry’, and this is the time and effort required to take the context seriously and understand its complexity. He said artists need to understand the underlying conditions within which they are practising. Not purely the aesthetic and material ones, but the political, economic and broadly cultural ones.

Thanks to Anne Douglas for her helpful comments.

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  1. […] If you start with the sentence “My practice is focused by place,” then the next sentence that logical follows is “I’ve been working in … Ireland, Palestine, Siberia.” Whereas if you start with the sentence “My practice is focused by context,” then the next logical sentence can be any one of a very large number of things… [more] […]

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