Culture Wars: But is it art?
The 'Leeds 13' take stock of the 'scandal' with which they duped the media this time last year
For an end-of-year show in May 1998, our entire year group at Leeds University decided to collaborate on a project that we called 'Going Places'. We invited our guests to attend East Street Studios on the opening night, where they found only an apparently empty gallery decorated with a bowl of sangria and a hostess, Spanish guitar music in the background. Our hostess packed everybody on to a bus, destination 'Going Places', heading for Leeds and Bradford Airport. In the arrivals lounge our bemused guests met us, tanned and hauling our luggage. We told them we had spent the week on holiday in Malaga, courtesy of a grant given to us by the Students' Union for the purposes of putting on an art show. We stuck to our stories and even provided evidence in the form of souvenirs, tickets and photographs apparently showing us having a great time on the Costa del Sol.
Our story snowballed and the media feasted on the scandalous misuse of funds and flagrant cheek of this group of students who had the tenacity to call this event - shock, horror! - 'art'. Most of the headlines and newsreader blurb we generated seemed to revolve around the question 'but is it art?' and moral judgements on using 'taxpayers' money' to fund a hedonistic sojourn to the south of Spain. Finally, we revealed on Radio 4's Today programme that we had produced only a simulation of an event, and that we had never gone any further than the Scarborough coast we used for some of our holiday snaps.
Our simulated holiday provoked an unprecedented response, first when we maintained that we had squandered the money, and then when we revealed the deception and had managed to dupe large sections of the press.
A year on, the dust has settled and we are finally able to take stock. For us, 'Going Places' can only be considered a success. We felt that we had produced an interesting response to the requirements of a fine art degree that encouraged us to evolve a critical approach to art practice. Underlying our intentions was an acute awareness that art should not necessarily continue to take on the form that has preceded it. This gave us some freedom to engage with questions in a form that was best suited to us, and not a form that historical precedent defines art to be.
One of the most enduring themes of the project, aside from the truism that we should not believe everything we hear (or see), is the notion of group collaboration. Apart from the 'misuse of money', it was the very presence of the group as authors of the project that provoked most criticism and controversy. It may be a symptom of an individualistic culture, but for whatever reason there was, and still is, a widespread belief that a group could not cooperate without leadership.
Working as such a large group, ideas come from all directions and are formed and shaped only by laborious discussion. Any input made, once it is verbalised, becomes group property. Once it is stamped with the group identity and pulled around in conversation, it is transformed. This means having to put egos aside and having the patience to listen to all points of view, debating concepts to the nth degree. Often this may not seem to us to be the most economical way of dealing with difficult situations or ideas, but it is the only way we feel we can come to any solution that is acceptable to each group member.
Our 'misrepresentation' in the media was inevitable, and became an interesting element of the project itself. With this in mind, we gave ourselves up to interpretation from all sides. The media is in some ways a mediated grapevine, in that any representation of our project and our own statements were filtered through the subjective responses of reporters and editors. This was particularly frustrating when, for example, we presented ourselves on gender-equal terms only to find that the media still prioritised the male voice.
Now the final degree show approaches, which begs the question - how do we follow that? We continue working as a group because there are many issues raised by this which are still pertinent for us. Art evaluation tends to regard artistic output as stemming from individual sensibility, especially when marking artwork in an academic context. This is based on the presumption that art is a result of individual sensibility and experience which cannot be applied to the context of a group identity. It becomes more difficult to 'place' and explain by the artist's personality, and the cult of the individual is eroded somewhat by collective authorship.
Our interest in producing counter-hegemonic art is founded on the notion that we must disaffirm existing forms or systems in order actively to question them. Whether we have achieved what we intended, or whether such a thing is at all possible, is debatable. But we see this as no excuse not to try. Indeed, it becomes ever more apparent that in order to be seen or heard we must engage with the framework in which the art world sits in order to critique it. In the end, perhaps, any subversive work must at first seem to belong to the dominant structure, to act as a spanner in the churning machine.
The success and failure of this year's project will not be gauged by column inches or by the class of degree given, but by how successfully it represents the discussions it was born out of. This will be impossible to tell until it is delivered, but it will not be for the lack of trying.
Some of the 'Leeds 13' 'on holiday'
Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999