The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966-79

Raven Row, London, 27 September – 16 December 2012

By Sean Ashton

When Barbara Steveni and John Latham founded Artist Placement Group in Britain in 1966, they foresaw a new kind of patronage. As the catalogue for this show states, artists would ‘relocate their practices from the studio to the industrial workplace’. They would have a completely open brief and be ‘paid a wage by the host organisation regardless of the material output’.

The feasibility studies that preceded each placement were a vital part of that output, chronicling the often antagonistic relationship between artist and host. During a 1976 placement with the UK’s Department of Health and Social Security, for example, Ian Breakwell explored the deleterious effect of institutional architecture on psychiatric care. At Rampton high-security psychiatric hospital he photographed the view from a locked cell, seeing things from an inmate’s perspective, in preparation for a slideshow at a ‘Special Hospitals Internal Seminar’. That slideshow isn’t included here – presumably due to the Official Secrets Act Breakwell had to sign as a condition of his placement – so the feasibility study is the only record of its existence.

These chunky ring-binders of reports and correspondence are forbidding documents, but they repay scrutiny, especially when – as with Breakwell – they speak for an absent visual component. Only occasionally in this show, however, is the visual intended to speak for itself. Seven monitors play David Hall’s TV Interruptions (7 TV Pieces) (1971), originally broadcast alongside commercial breaks during his placement with Scottish Television. The most effective, Tap Piece, shows water pouring from a tap into a glass tank, filmed side-on so that the TV looks like it’s filling up. Normally we stare through the screen, into ‘TV world’; here our gaze rests on its surface, as a traditionally fast-paced medium is retarded, its obsession with speedy communication blithely mocked.

Garth Evans’s 1969 placement at British Steel Corporation is represented by a silent film showing objects found at a fabrication works, functionless constructions made by welding apprentices that Evans documents as ‘readymade sculptures’. You learn this only by donning headphones and listening to an audio interview with British Steel publicist Christopher Patey, the contextualisation coming from an industry-insider rather than from the artist.

Not all placements were this harmonious, and the general impression is of artists actively seeking friction. George Levantis got plenty on the three ships (an ocean liner, a tanker and a cargo ship) he boarded in 1974 during a placement with Ocean Fleets Ltd. His refusal to give art classes on one voyage ‘upset the captain a great deal’; on another, installations made from scavenged materials were thrown overboard by his disgruntled shipmates. At one point, when acting as an informal counsellor for the crew, he makes himself a mock naval uniform; a fitting metaphor for APG, whose aim was to challenge received notions of the artist as bohemian outsider without forsaking art’s sense of vocational alterity.