The art group BANK (principally comprising John Russell, Simon Bedwell, Milly Thompson and Andrew Williamson, with Dave Burrows and Dinos Demosthenous early on) was one of the best things in the London art scene of the 1990s. This spiky, sociable, politically sharp and extremely funny band of artists flared brightly throughout the middle of that decade, until divisions and departures reduced the group to a duo (Bedwell and Thompson), who finally called it a day in 2003. A decade later, MOT International’s revisiting of BANK’s work is timely, given the group’s significant intervention in the strange concatenation of zero-budget adversity and YBA commercial hubris that was 1990s London. BANK’s mix of punk humour, leftist political critique, art theory pisstaking, populist vulgarity and avant-gardist bloody-mindedness reminds the current, supersleek, professionalised artworld of a moment when artists invented their own cultural context and had the guts to mock the conditions of an official system they saw as driven by liberal, careerist hypocrites.
Most of BANK’s work, cheaply made and hard to store, ended up in the skip. What is left are a few works and an archive of the publications and print ephemera, here presented in a long row of display cases, alongside a framed selection of their notorious Fax-Baks, some paintings and a sculpture from their 1998 show Stop shortchanging us. Popular culture is for idiots. We believe in ART, and a few other works. The vitrines lay out the chronology of BANK’s critical reworking of the DIY ethos of the time, as the group invented ever more parodic, histrionic and utopian versions of the artworld’s usual functioning: BANK made artworks, ran their own gallery and curated their own shows – but significantly the group saw these activities as interchangeable, opposed to the professional division of labour that handed power to curators and gallerists. BANK-curated shows were artworks as well as containing the artworks of others (such as the seminal Zombie Golf!, where visitors rubbed shoulders with mannequin zombies, staring blankly at the artworks); BANK’s gallery (BANKspace, renamed DOG, then Gallerie Poo Poo) messed with the institutional form of the gallery space, eventually staging a gallery-within-a-gallery programme, punningly titled White3. Everything the ‘proper’ artworld shied away from – vulgarity, sensuality, bad taste, idealism, embarrassing sincerity and talking openly about power – BANK threw back in its face.
Most vivid here are the samples of their own tabloid-style newspaper – The BANK – and the Fax-Baks, press releases sent to them from prestigious galleries to which the group added critical annotations, mostly disparaging, which would then be ‘faxed back’ (with marks out of ten) to bewildered and usually incensed gallerists. And The BANK, with its lurid ‘shock’ headlines about artworld personalities and politics (‘Galleries “all owned by rich people” shock!’, ‘Ad Man you’re a bad man! – Saatchi slammed by young girl’, ‘ICA complete pile of bollocks shocker!’) turned the artworld’s insiderish gossip into satirical backchat. This was relational aesthetics and institutional critique without the intellectual cuteness and politically correct selfregard. Everybody hated it. Today, power has arguably drained even further away from artists, in an artworld now run on a global scale by cultural bureaucrats, monster gallerists and auteur curators. And while it’s good that groups like BANK are feted, bought into museum collections and given their due, it’s time artists took inspiration from their example: because in the end, there’s art, and artists, and the rest are just parasites.
This article was first published in the April 2013 issue.