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Call this art?

The Artist Placement Group brought artistic practice to British workplaces in the 1960s and 1970s. Janna Graham reviews a new exhibition of their work

December 10, 2012
4 min read

The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966–79, a new exhibition at Raven Row in east London, is a collection of documents, videos and objects related to the UK arts organisation the Artist Placement Group (APG). Founded in 1966 by a group of artists including Barbara Stevini, John Latham, Anna Ridley, Barry Flannagan, David Hall and Jeffrey Shaw, the APG placed artists into companies and social service agencies for two decades.

The APG sought to promote the production of art in the spaces of everyday life, where it could make an impact. Its stated aim – as outlined in a pamphlet created in 1969 and displayed in the main gallery of the exhibition – was to ‘persuade industrialists to take [artists] into their organisations and pay them as licensed opposition to currency dictatorship’.

Taking the notion of everyday life beyond the space of the street and collaborations with industry beyond simply support with the fabrication of their work, the APG promoted ‘interchange’ – conversations between artists, managers and workers.

We are told by an unnamed industrialist in the video Artists in the Works (1970), made for the APG by Paul Overy and located at the show’s entrance, that the British Steel Corporation has engaged in artist commissioning to open up ‘new capabilities’, to bring a ‘proper living artist in touch with the men’ and to ‘pioneer new innovations’.

Across the various documents pinned onto archive boards and punched into binders, the APG characterises the role of the artist as outsider and often neglected innovator, mediator and sage. As opposed to the industrialists, the group emphasises the importance of artists’ freedom in the face of corporate interests. Class polarities resonate throughout the first floor of the exhibition through letters and videos in which the APG attempts to gain entry to the corporations, and when it does, to seek out positive recommendations to open new doors and prove its effects to the Arts Council. The latter is a trope all too familiar to arts groups today.

Whether the projects proposed are attractive to industry (one letter from British European Airways suggests that the artist David Hall ‘would make a unique contribution’ to their image overseas) or dismissed entirely, as with George Levantis’s gesture of throwing his work overboard the ship upon which he was placed, the APG’s commitments to working in industry are varied and come across as extremely individualised.

Pandering to capitalists

Wary of co-option, however, and in response to critiques from social organisations that it was pandering to the desires of capitalists, in the 1970s the APG turned much of its attention to working with social service organisations. Documents and remnants pertaining to this work are seen on the second floor of Raven Row and mark two divergent strategies in the group.

In a room dedicated to Ian Breakwell’s placement in the Department of Health and Social Security, visitors can peruse proposals for a ‘reminiscence aid’ in which sounds and slides created by artists are used to trigger the memories of people with dementia.

Another room, in which the artist Roger Coward works with the Department of Environment to conduct an inner area study of Birmingham, takes a different approach in working with residents, young people and others to create video documents of the impossibilities of accessing public services and instigating neighbourhood improvements. Echoing movements for popular education, militant research and other bottom-up approaches from the time, these documents were, first, for the use of residents to reflect and analyse their environment and formulate demands and, second, presented to officials at the ministry to instigate concrete change.

This archive seems like an appropriate and important point on which to end the exhibition, replacing the autonomy of the singular artist with that of the artists working in solidarity with others. It illuminates a possible path for the claims that artists might make against their marginalisation in cuts to cultural funding. Artistic autonomy without strong social alignments ends up supporting the very thing it seeks to resist.

The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79 is on at Raven Row, London E1, until 16 December

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