Guest post by Teresa Albor
Jeremy Deller said last month that art is useless. He said this in front of an audience of artists and no one batted an eyelash, no one objected, no one was offended. The event was an all day/all night performance piece, involving dozens of artists led by Bob and Roberta Smith, who gathered at the rundown seaside resort of Scarborough on the east coast of England. “The Art Party” brought a spot of bright colour to the grey landscape, and approached the serious issue of cuts to government spending on the arts in a way only artists would: by breaking rules, being witty and irreverent. Perhaps, because it wasn’t seeking to be “useful” the event was thought-provoking sans the righteousness of more serious affairs.
Having spent October in the village of Toffia working on a piece called “Everything simple is false,” Bob and Roberta Smith’s project resonated. My month in Italy occurred at the end of three years in Chicago and before a move back to London. Although the village became home and the Association that sponsored me an instant community, I was very much an outsider, embedded for all too short a time to make a piece of art for/with an essentially captive audience. Arriving in Toffia was surprisingly reminiscent of my arrival to do development work as a US Peace Corps Volunteer on a tiny Philippine island thirty years ago. One big difference: This time there was no intention of “doing good”. This time I was not concerned with the “usefulness” of my work.
When working in a process-based way, the intention can be to confer agency to people, but if this doesn’t happen it’s no big deal. And without going down the rabbit hole of trying to ascertain the criteria by which one critiques a relational project (if this is what this type of work might be called), my experience, at the very least, reinforced the importance of avoiding the pitfalls of trying to “do good ” and its close corollary, to “be useful.”
It also served to shed more light on other aspects/limitations of this way of working: that all relational work is political because it involves people; the tensions between maintaining the integrity of a piece when provocation ensues; the fact that you leave and others stay behind; and feeling as if you are inflicting your work on an audience that hasn’t asked for it.
What happened was expected and unexpected at the same time.
The title of the piece is a reference to “Bonini’s paradox”: when complex systems are simplified so we can understand them, they become less true. A completely accurate map, for example, would need to be 1:1 to capture the detail of the territory it is meant to represent, but would be completely impractical. So we simplify it, modify it to suit our needs, until it becomes false, but perhaps, useful. (The London Tube Map is a good example.) This project was about discovering the complexity of a seemingly idyllic hill top village outside of Rome, to understand the “more true” version vs. an outsider’s perception of its picture postcard perfectness. The idea was to listen to the people who lived there and reflect back to them what they were saying about themselves. Beyond that, the strategy was left to evolve based on living and working in the community.
This was not intended as a piece of political art. But in this case, as the village was in the process of selecting candidates for next year’s mayoral elections, everything that impacted the daily lives of the village was perceived as political. And as the artist Tanya Bruguera has said, art is not political art, unless it has consequences. Using the low-tech bulletin board system of the village, flyers with quotes gathered though interviews with several villagers were posted. The first called for affinity despite the perfections and imperfections of the village. A local SMS number was displayed along with the phrase: “What do you think?” Forms were also distributed after cultural events and we used the Associations’ Facebook page to solicit content, which, interestingly, generated the most direct comments. The second flyer said: “Toffia is divided. Toffia is united. What do you think?” By now the posters were the talk of the town, some were torn down, and it was rumored the mayor’s office didn’t want any more posters to go up.
One woman said: “You’ve put your finger in a wound.” She was, as were most people, quietly supportive. The consensus seemed to be that this “outsider” was saying what no one else would say, that only an ‘outsider’ would say. In fact, all of the words, phrases, quotes came from people living in the village. Clearly, the work was going to be provocative, but what was unexpected was how easy it would be to provoke. Meanwhile, the Association was being put under pressure. It has taken years of hard work for the group to set up and operate a cultural programme on a tiny budget. To their credit they engaged in nuanced discussions about how to proceed—essentially encouraging and supporting the project. It was left to me to decide how far to push, knowing that if I pushed too hard, I could damage the very organization sponsoring me.
My methodology afforded me an observer’s vantage point. At least six international artists a year stay in this village, and many of us do relational pieces. Wanting to avoid directly approaching too many of the residents here was, in part, to avoid what a fellow artist described as treating the audience like a “vending machine” for “responses to art projects”. Locating so much experimentation in such a small place has its limitations.
In the end, responses—including those that were flattering as well as those that were provocative—were collated into a book with black and white line drawing illustrations of the village, alluding to one’s ability to layer their own perceptions over a neutral reality. One hundred copies were given away for free on market day. The following day, an event/open studio was held and the Association led discussions of the work. To my surprise, the aspect of the poster campaign that was considered political was the phrase: “What do you think?” and several people at the event proposed continuing with more editions of a free periodical called: “What do you think?” Whether this initiative takes off or not, at least the possibility of taking action, always there, sometimes acted upon, was considered.
As an artist assessing my own work, the strength of this project was the attempt to engage vs. entertain an audience and an openness to many different outcomes. It would not have been possible to achieve this if the work had as its intention an overt usefulness. And whilst flawed, and imperfect, too short, too simplistic, this project is certainly one that was worth doing and from which more, and better projects will emerge.
In a critical Robinsonian sense of utility or usefulness – that utility is a circular concept in that an entity’s utility is what makes it desirable, whilst the fact that individuals desire something shows that it has utility—art could be considered both useless and useful, in a world where we accept that art provides a deeper quality of life, even strongly desire art to be part of our lives. However, as artists, by accepting that what we make or do does not necessarily align itself with conventional definitions of usefulness we are enabled to move even further away from the trap of “production” within a capitalist social economy. This represents real freedom (and a good starting point for another essay).
Teresa Albor is a multidisciplinary artist currently based in London and interested in site specific projects and working with/within communities. Current investigations revolve around what art is, who it is for, how and where it is made, and where it is shown. A Midwesterner, with an MFA from the University of Arts London and an undergraduate degree from the University of Wisconsin, she recently spent three years in Chicago.
 Joan Robinson, 1962. Economic Philosophy. Harmondsworth, Middlesex, UK: Penguin Books Ltd. “Utility is the quality in commodities that makes individuals want to buy them, and the fact that individuals want to buy commodities shows that they have utility”. I like the fact that Amartya Sen described her as “totally brilliant but vigorously intolerant” and another of her students, Joseph Stiglitz, described his relationship with her as “tumultuous”.