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OF SHEEP, WOLVES

& THE SOCIAL

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the limit of the individual determines the emergence of the community.

Jean-Luc Nancy, The Inoperative Community, 1994)


behind the lemming revolt of collective cliff- diving there is an individual waiting on the collective's shoulders to make their mark. 

(me, The Visual Artists’ News Sheet, 2011)



I'm crawling on hands and knees under a timber platform in the gallery of Dublin’s Project Arts Centre. I’m expecting to come across something more than the photographs found outside in the gallery: an object, a film, a breadcrumb, a clue to unravel what is a brute construction of plywood, concrete and water slotted into one side of the gallery. But there's nothing down here. Not really. Just a small silver box containing handwritten notes on throwaway paper that was perhaps left here by the three artists – Tom Watt, Andreas von Knobloch, Tanad Williams – who collaborated to form this construction (or even better, the box was left by a crawling visiter like me). 


No matter whom left this silver box it does make you think that you could leave or do something nasty down here, hidden from the invigilator's gaze. Artist Vito Acconci masturbated under the floorboards of a gallery in New York in the 1970s. Come to think of it, Piero Manzoni put a piece of his own shit in a similar sized box in the '60s (I think the box was gold rather than silver though...).


But that's art history and I don't believe that these three artists are nodding to the past; and to immediately prop an experience of contemporary art on the visceral exploits of another artist tells me that there is something lacking in what I experienced at Project on Wednesday. Sure, I could wax lyrical on hands and knees about this failed watering hole for a failed urbanity which, in the current climate of literary tenderness surrounding art someone will probably do. But I think there are more critical questions to ask about the all-grown-up original Basic Space generation; Watt and von Knobloch being part of that same generation that emerged from the dirt and smoke in a vacant warehouse across the road from the National College of Art & Design in 2011. 


You also cannot ignore the current hotbed of activity in Dublin involving the mitosis and fertilisation of old and new Basic Spacers: Daniel Tuomey and Hannah Fitz fertilise work together at NCAD Gallery (their Basic Space roots they make a point of stating in the press release); Daniel Birmingham, Lee Welch, Paul Hallahan, Suzanne Walsh, Joanne Reid and Linda Quinlan all coalesce at Eight Gallery to represent the more fluid next generation of a less-anchored-to-a-space Basic Space: space invaders you might call them.


But this is not an overview of Basic Space’s exploits over the last five years. The spur is the current exhibitions in Dublin, in particular ‘Brute Clues’ at Project and ‘Bored with a Hole’ at NCAD. In both exhibitions we see the splitting and joining of four Basic Spacers; two exhibitions that I find myself critical of – at least in relative terms to their exploits as individual artists. From this critical stance I am interested in how individualism generally fares in the collaborative stakes of art-making and exhibition-making. Do we need the art group? Can we be critical of the art group? When and where is it time to disband the art group? 






Peter Schjeldahl once proclaimed in an art school auditorium that the best way to make it in the art world was to form a group in art school. What he was talking about was the influence and strength and will of the pack in recruiting resources, such as space, materials, an audience, an identity, a brand, and most importantly, an ego. All the above is an easier task with your in-the-same-boat peers than on your ownio. What Schjeldahl was also saying is that you have to become a sheep before you can become a wolf. 


That's not to suggest that groups of artists are a bunch of sheep bumping into electric fences like some wooly brain storm. Some of the most important exhibitions in recent years have been created by groups, such as the original Basic Space Dublin. Participating in groups also helps to define for an individual who they are as an artist. But in the end we all want to be lone wolves, and for the sake of art and criticism we need lone wolves. 


But I am just wondering here how much collective and collaborative art-making and exhibition-making is at the expense of the individual? What is sacrificed and gained in the exchange between the individual and the supportive peer-group? I would say a lot is gained considering the individual artists that have emerged from Basic Space. But there has to be loss too.


Feelings of doubt and fear and isolation are often times missing in the collective, curated and collaborative art exhibition, which naturally places an emphasis on the socialisation of art above the critical isolation of the individual artist. I wrote in 2011 that art now revolves around "existing in collective scenarios wherein the production of the art object (or emergence of an individual artist for that matter) has been sacrificed for an experiential group encounter or process".


Counter to the group encounter and process are the rare solo exhibitions by individual Basic Spacers over the last five years. I was at a loss for words when I first experienced Daniel Tuomey's awkward articulations on paper, timber and film at Dublin’s Talbot Gallery & Studios in 2013. There was a coyness and struggle to it all that felt honest and unique, as if Tuomey was trying to grapple with the world with no voice, no hands, no feet. It was pure philosophy as image. More words, I thought, would only spoil the silence of this struggle. 


Tom Watt's struggle has always been individualistic, standing out from his Basic Space peers as someone concerned with escaping the institution of art space rather than commandeering it, like Andreas von Knobloch brilliantly did at Mermaid Arts Centre this year. In 2013 Watt escaped his shared flat on Dublin's north side in a video installation that saw Watt and von Knobloch exit their accommodation through the roof, make their way along the slated valleys and gutters, and then climb down a wooden-rung rope-ladder into a neighbouring vacant and derelict Georgian townhouse. (read my full review here). 


More recently von Knobloch and Fitz have come into their own as individual artists: Fitz in a short-lived solo in Studio 6 of Dublin's Temple Bar Gallery & Studios, what was a colourfully topsy-turvy-threatening display; and von Knobloch in a similarly colourful and dynamic unlocking of the architectonic nightmare that is Mermaid Arts Centre (read my full review here).


But after crawling on all fours at Project and lounging uncomfortably at NCAD I have to question why I did not experience the unlocking or activation of space or the imagination. At NCAD there is one too many voices; at Project the voices seemed submerged in the abyss of the institution of Project if not the shallow pool of their architecture. You wonder also how you divide and judge the contributions of Watt, Williams and von Knobloch at Project; Fritz and Tuomey at NCAD? Collaboration is not a democracy. 


Five years ago I wrote an article for Visual Artists' News Sheet that confronted what I saw as a burgeoning collectivism in the Dublin art scene, and how this 'New Collectivism' could change how art is made and curated and critiqued, for better or worse. Today you could say the concrete collectivism of yesteryear has been replaced by the virtual socialisation of art online.


We see the smiling face of this socialisation of art in the opening-night photo albums, tagged and shared, liked and loved on Facebook; we read it in the critically premature "looking forward to" and "excited to see" statuses; we advocate it in the work-in-progress documentation that we validate on Instagram; we join it in the ubiquitous empty cheers and default responses of "great" and "amazing" we have towards art (towards the images of art online to be more precise). Whilst crawling at Project and lounging at NCAD I could not exorcise the empty validation I viewed online in the lead-up to both ‘Brute Clues’ at Project and ‘Bored with a Hole’ at NCAD, not to mention the spew of images of the two opening nights and culture night. 


However, even if you were washing your hair on the night of the art opening (my excuse, always) you go to exhibitions with the injunctions "great" and "amazing" and a scuttery-suited Michael Stipe bouncing around in your brain. Collaboration and collectivism in an art context and online context brings in the cheering crowds  – we automatically judge art differently in its collaborative and collective mask. But perhaps “great” and “amazing” is all a choir can give? How can we judge in a choir anyway?


Recently an artist I respect said to me that art is fundamentally about socialising. He was half-serious, I hoped. I disagreed, absolutely. But standing unexpectedly outside a closed mother's tankstation Ltd. on Wednesday, emailing the gallery to make an appointment to see the exhibition on some other Wednesday in October, I started to think that perhaps art is becoming more weekender than mid-week. That the activation of space and imagination I did not personally experience at Project or NCAD actually happened for the collective audience on the opening nights. That the half-serious artist was actually being serious.


[James Merrigan]



Notes


[1] But criticism tends to find a way to ooze out some place, some time, unconsciously or not. On Twitter and Facebook for instance, when the characteristic language of an individual uncharacteristically changes its tone. Like when an individual's characteristically overused 'excited' and 'great' turns uncharacteristically to the more critically nuanced, 'interesting'. It's 'amazing' (appropriate usage!) how much you can tell about a person's opinion on Facebook or Twitter just by the characteristic vs. uncharacteristic changes in vernacular, from emoji-apathetic to emotionally defensive. I find all this online behaviourism 'interesting' and entertaining until it becomes so predictable that I start to believe in petty vigilantism.