Thursday, June 26, 2008

On 'We Need to See Evidence of This'



This is a text written to accompany the art exhibition We Need to See Evidence of This by Roxanne Chappell and Donna Snell, showing in The Space at Portsmouth School of Art, Design And Media, University of Portsmouth , 27 June -9 July 2008. The Preview, to which all are invited, is Friday 27 June 5-7pm. and features a performance by the poet Tim Evans.

The exhibition comprises a large installation replica of a benefits office, complete with threatening instructions and posters, plus two films - Do You Want Some featuring Tim Evans and Because you're on Benefits, showing a CSA interview with a young single parent.


Two things make “We Need to See Evidence of This” by Roxanne Chappell and Donna Snell a significant work of art. The first is that it gives powerful visual expression to an area of social experience that is very widespread but has hitherto remained unrepresented in art, and barely represented or, rather, largely misrepresented, in the wider culture. The experience is that of the benefits claimant.

The claimant is, of course, a familiar figure in our society. At any one time millions of people are claimants, and in the course of their lives most working class people experience being claimants at some point. Yet in the public culture and the official (and to some extent the unofficial) discourse the claimant is a thoroughly negative figure – stereotyped, stigmatised and, above all, an object not a subject. The claimant is commented on, discussed, investigated, assessed, threatened, diagnosed, condemned and, occasionally, sympathised with, but the claimant’s voice is not heard.

When politicians and the media discuss the ‘issue’ of the so-called ’benefit culture’ the public are addressed as ‘taxpayers’ and claimants are positioned as their adversaries. [In reality claimants are taxpayers too – think about it – but this is never acknowledged] ‘We Need to See Evidence of This’ reverses this. It makes the claimant the subject and the benefit system and its culture the object of scrutiny.

Many works of art position the viewer. When we view Velasquez’ Las Meninas we are positioned as the sitter, the King of Spain.. When we look at Manet’s Olympia or Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon we are positioned, like it or not, as the prostitutes’ client. When we visit this art installation, indeed from the moment we received our summons to attend, we are positioned as the claimant. And it is not at all accidental that this work grows directly out of the artists’ personal experience., especially that of Chappell who herself underwent an interview like that shown in the film. ‘We Need to See Evidence of This’ speaks for every claimant but in the first place it speaks for Chappell herself – this is what gives it its toughness, its anger, its edge.

In so far as this area of experience has been culturally presented before it has been in literature, film and television drama (e.g. Walter Greenwood’s novel Love on the Dole in 1933, the Jim Allen TV Play for Today The Spongers in 1978, and the Ken Loach film Ladybird, Ladybird in 1994) but not in fine art, which,of the major art forms, has stood at the furthest remove from the lives of the working class and the poor. However this bringing into art and making art out of new social and physical material, material previously regarded as non-artistic, has been one of the hallmarks of the advanced artist. It is what Courbet did in The Stone Breakers and Burial at Ornans; what Seurat did in The Bathers and what Emin has done with the experience of working class girls

The second significant feature of ‘We Need to See Evidence of This’ is that it stands at the forefront of current formal developments in art.

For some years now, the ideas of the French curator and art writer Nicholas Bourriaud on ‘relational aesthetics’ have been gaining influence and followers among up and coming artists. Bourriaud coined the term ‘relational art’ to describe work he had been curating by artists such as Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Carsten Holler, in which the participation of the audience becomes part of the work of art. He defined ‘relational aesthetics’ as:

judging artworks on the basis of the inter-human relations which they represent, produce or prompt.

and ‘relational art’ as:

A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.

In general works produced under this rubric, such as Carsten Holler inviting visitors to use his slides at the Tate Modern or Tiravanija asking them to join in making a Thai curry, or Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre’s Skill Exchange, focus on inducing audience participation in social relations that are convivial and collaborative, perhaps prefigurative of a harmonious society. As such they may be vulnerable to the charge of blandness, of indulging an easy liberalism and of ‘utopianism’, in the sense in which Engels critiqued the utopian socialism of St.Simon and Fourier.

‘We Need to See Evidence of This’ is relational art but it moves beyond this, ‘depasses’ it in dialectical jargon by inducing people to participate in social relations that are oppressive, alienated and conflictual, and through their participation, to critique those relations.[There is an echo of Brecht here]. It is thus an example of what I would call critical relational art.

This combination of new content (subject matter, attitude, material) and formal innovation is striking, indeed it is extraordinary in what is virtually an artistic debut, but in another way it should not surprise. Having something new and urgent to say has ever been one of the main drivers of advances in artistic form. After all the unity of form and content is what good art is all about

John Molyneux

14 June 2008

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