A form of social experiment, which emerges from the traditions of Dada and Situationism, 15/1, is an experimental collaborative installation, which I devised in 1992 and have curated and participated in three times to date. In each case, the results can be read as the signature of a particular collective cultural moment – London in 1992 and 2004 and Copenhagen in 2005. Questioning the role of both artist and curator, “15/1 conveys a sense of infinite possibility – there is none of the sense of closure associated with conventional exhibitions” (Emma Dexter, 100 Reviews Backwards, Alberta, Press 2004).
The main premise of this installation is that fifteen artists are each given two days to work in and respond to the existing conditions within the gallery space, free to alter and change or respond to anything done by the preceding artists. The only ‘rule’ is that the work of other artists cannot be removed from the gallery. Specific artwork is not curated; artists are instead asked to participate in a process, which takes a total of one month, after which the installation is opened to the public.
Like some of my previous conceptual investigations, 15/1 involves a search for new relationships between materials as well catalysing events and situations in order to manifest ideas about individuality, community and identity. The gallery is transformed into a cultural laboratory, mobilising the imagination of both participate and viewer.
The original 15/1, in 1992, was in a project space called the Malania Basarab Gallery, in my South London council flat. Although, spread out over three rooms, this installation had a clear sense of resolution; although it was easy to identify the contributions of individual artists by their characteristic styles, the overall result was a sense of collective development. It was described by Sarah Kent in Time Out as “a delightful piece of creative interweaving”.
Sally O’Reilly’s Art Monthly review of 15/1(2) in 2004 cites such historical references as Rauschenberg’s Erased De Kooning, noting that “such a profound overlapping of work by different artists is still taboo”, and describing the installation’s process of perpetual negation and arrival and its attempt to redefine authorship and objecthood in art. She goes on to say, “the result looked like the contents of a whole studio block swept up by a twister and dumped in Kansas … an indigestible scrubland of incoherent fragments”.
Through its emphasis on process, 15/1 leaves it up to the individual artist to choose their own approach to the experiment: in the case of the second London installation, 15/1(2), it took on a Dadaist anti-aesthetic, a collective strategy of negation and aggression in which “the outcome seemed more like a battle of wills than an exploration of possibilities” (O’Reilly). The overall feeling was one of brechtian alienation, as though the artists had subconsciously adopted as subtext a slogan from british writer Stuart Home’s Smile magazine from 1985: “Choose Alienation”.
In contrast, 15/1(3), at Copenhagen’s Institute of Contemporary Art in 2005, acted like a binding agent for individuals from disparate art communities in the city, resulting in a kind of co-operative partnership. Alliance between artists in the Denmark has a long and sustained history, most notably evident in Cobra, a coalition of artists from Copenhagen, brussels and Amsterdam, and in the Danish Situationist International. In May 1957 the legendary collaboration between Guy Debord and Asger Jorn took place: Fin de Copenhagen (End of Copenhagen) consisted of a 33-page limited edition volume of experimental writing which could be “read in any direction, and [in which] the reciprocal relationships between phrases are invariably incomplete” (Andrew Hussey, The Game of War, The Life and Death of Guy Debord).
One interesting divergence between 15/1(2) and 15/1(3) is that several artists in the Copenhagen show took it upon themselves to clean up after others or to bring together what they saw as incongruent aesthetic aspects of the installation as it progressed, while in London this was not the case. Claus Carstensen, Nikolaj Recke and Soren Behncke all said they spent considerable time “cleaning up” or attempting to achieve some form of harmonious communication from disparate elements. By contrast, the artist Fergal Stapleton in 15/1(2) said “he wanted to be in the middle of the process because that way I didn’t have to take too much responsibility – I could ‘pass the buck’, so to speak.”
The site- and situation-specific process involved in making 15/1 brings out issues of social responsibility versus individualistic conflict: on one level it seems that only two alternatives were available to the artists, either a rallying cry of ‘ alienation and degeneration or empathic coalition and affirmation. The artist Al Masson in Copenhagen told me that he sees a need for this type of process within the art world right now in order to “combat individualism”. On the other hand, the “indigestible scrubland of incoherent fragments” of 15/1(2) could also be seen as a critique of the urbane façade of the petit-bourgeois art world where conflict is swept under the carpet and there is seldom any real dialogue. How do we compare the results of the apparently more openly dialogic relationship and aesthetic consensus of the Danish artists to those of the collision of individual visions and aesthetic conflicts characteristic of the second London exhibition?
Both as curator and artist, my interest is in the relationship between social engagement in creative practice, whether between artists, between artist and subject or between artist and audience. 15/1 constructs a framework through with to explore notions of collaboration and competition, conflict and dialogue, and to question accepted definitions of success and failure, process and closure. As Nicolas Bourriaud states in his book Relational Aesthetics, “the role of artworks today is no longer to form imaginary and utopian realties, but to actually be ways of living and models of action within the existing real world.”