Commissioning Art History

Celebrating 20 years of unparalleled new and innovative work, Artangel shows not only new works at 2011’s Manchester International Festival but a retrospective too.

On 30 June Manchester International Festival will open its third programme of specially commissioned events across the city. The world’s first festival of original, new work, MIF 2011 includes works of performance, visual arts, popular culture and comedy with artists including Björk, Marina Abramović and the Halle Orchestra. Having collaborated with the Festival since its inception in 2007, Michael Morris and James Lingwood of Artangel (one of the world’s foremost commissioning agencies) are this year presenting two new commissions, and new additions to the Artangel repertoire, with 1395 Days Without Red by Šejla Kamerić and Anri Sala, in collaboration with Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, and Audio Obscura by Lavinia Greenlaw.

Celebrating 20 years of commissioning new works, Artangel has a firmly established role at the forefront of contemporary art today. With a stringent ethos to allow the realisation of an artist’s vision without institutional interference, Lingwood stresses the importance of maintaining an open brief in the commissioning process: “Every new Artangel commission begins with questions, not answers.”

Artangel’s commissions have created some of the most important, ambitious and notorious works of the last two decades, including Rachel Whiteread’s House (1993), Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave (2001), Penny Woolcock’s Exodus (2006-2007), and Michael Landy’s Break Down (2001), and have become an exciting element in contemporary British art: “It’s a journey into uncharted territory. We don’t point artists in a particular direction, nor dictate the speed of travel, and we often find ourselves somewhere quite different from where we might have expected.”

In the early 1990s the agency engaged with the predominant debate primarily focused on the YBAs of the time – is it art? – with Rachel Whiteread’s House sparking an unprecedented amount of press and debate not only over the question of art, but also its role in highlighting our own dilapidation, the place of history in our landscape, and the myriad arguments of social inequality and the solutions offered up through social housing (an issue due to be revisited by the Artangel commission of 2008, High Wire by Catherine Yass, recording a spectacular, and failed, attempt of a high wire walker crossing between two towers of Glasgow’s Red Road estate – one of the most notorious areas of concrete social housing and due for destruction – and the subsequent re-location of its inhabitants).

Identifying the last remaining house of a row of terraces, Whiteread inadvertently made Grove Road in London’s East End the site of one of the most important public sculptures in the UK. Heavily bombed in World War II, as with many of the streets around it, the Victorian terrace houses of Grove Road were gradually demolished to be replaced by social housing elsewhere and a new park where the terraces once stood. Finding her plot in 1993 Whiteread cast the interior of the one remaining house (due for demolition) in concrete, creating a hulking sculpture that represented not only the resilience of the East End, but also the minutiae of its private spaces and private lives. Each door knob and light switch was cast as an inversion of its former self, the fireplaces of the once homely space protruding stoically out from upper stories reminding passers-by of the lives once lived within. House attracted an unprecedented level of press attention, and national defences for its protection against Bow Council’s demolition plans. In 1994 the sculpture was demolished by the council, who proclaimed: “We will be brave enough to ignore the fusillade of froth from the arts lobby and remove the monstrosity as soon as the contract allows.” The loss of House is much debated, and it is this type of public debate that the agency encourages, bringing art out of the gallery and onto the street.

In a similar engagement with London’s continued issues over housing, 2008 saw Roger Hiorns find a soon-to-be-demolished, mid-century, concrete block of social housing in South-East London, and transform it into an ethereal, glowing, almost aquatic lair called Seizure (2008-2010). Pumping 75,000 litres of copper sulphate solution into the barren, dilapidated and unloved dwelling, Hiorns encouraged the growth of vast swathes of beautiful, glowing, yet sharply menacing shards of blue crystal. The small interior, only accessible to four visitors simultaneously, was nevertheless a hugely significant event for the area, visited by thousands before its destruction, and awarded inexhaustible praise by the press. This was an example of the transformative power of art, to create, in the midst of something so prosaic, an otherworldly place, a small den of glowing beauty and darkened, romantic corners. But in spite of its aesthetic beauty, to be inside and experiencing Seizure was to be in a somewhat menacing moment, as remnants of human life emerged affixed with sharp, jagged protrusions, and the claustrophobic den resembled some sort of bizarre natural takeover of such an industrialised, impersonal dwelling – the name referencing its implicit violence over which the space that it has taken hold of has no control.

Through works such as these, and dozens of others, Artangel has remained at the forefront of the commissioning process and has chosen Manchester International Festival as a collaborative partner for its first retrospective. Sharing the ethos of open commissions with the Festival, Morris states that, “MIF’s focus on the commissioning and production process of new ideas by some of the world’s leading artists unquestionably makes it a unique fixture on the festival circuit,” and so this year will see Projections visit the Whitworth Gallery, as a way of summarising Artangel’s own commissioning activities over the last 20 years. Selected by Maria Balshaw and Mary Griffiths from the Whitworth, Projections: Works from the Artangel Collection will comprise a series of films on projects passed, including Francis Alÿs’ The Nightwatch (2004), Catherine Yass’ High Wire (2008), and Atom Egoyan’s Steenbeckett (2002), while Tony Oursler’s all-encompassing and menacing work The Influence Machine (2000) will be re-created in Whitworth Park.

Running alongside this retrospective will be the first of two newly commissioned works for Artangel, 1395 Days without Red, a film from Šejla Kamerić and Anri Sala revisiting the siege on Sarajevo from 1992 to 1996. The intense emotive work follows an anonymous woman during the siege and her chase around the dense, claustrophobic city. 1395 Days refers to the number of days over which the siege occurred and Lingwood states that the piece is “a fiction which would not have been made without the history.” In incorporating the collective memory of the city and its citizens 1395 Days explicitly references fact, while pertaining to be a method of fiction. Only the protagonist is an actor, with all the film’s extras being from Sarajevo, many of whom lived through the siege themselves. They appear “making the several crossings – waiting, watching and running alongside the woman,” and are of vital importance to the concept itself – “the storyboard of the film drew on the script of their daily lives during the siege.” With a score by the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra, including extracts of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique, the soundtrack plays a vital role in conjuring the atmosphere, urgency and fear of the work: “It appears as if the actress is making her journey to join the musicians. The tempo of her movements, her stopping and waiting, and walking, relate to the tempos of the music. Ari Benjamin Meyers [conductor of the score] not only worked very closely with Anri and Šejla on many passages in the film, he also conducted both the musicians rehearsing and the actress moving through the city.”

Taking on one of Manchester’s most-used urban spaces, Piccadilly train station, the second Artangel commission, from Lavinia Greenlaw, explores the urban environment, public faces and private reality. In creating the work in a station, Greenlaw engages with contemporary debates on the urban space. In the “constantly shifting populations – waiting and watching, leaving and arriving, greeting one another and bidding goodbye” Morris sees an opportunity to immerse oneself in a “place of transition with all of the underlying emotional states that this implies.”

Audio Obscura is a participatory work and situates the viewer/participant in the busy space of Piccadilly station, irreversibly one of a crowd but also inherently isolated in his or her own world. The work is described as “an aural version of the camera obscura; a framed and heightened reflection of the passing world” whereby participants listen to snatches of the conversation of 12 strangers while wandering the public spaces amidst the crowds of the station. The work creates isolation conducive to a heightened opportunity for reflection, and Morris comments that “no matter how crowded or noisy a station concourse might seem, many of its multitudes are alone with their thoughts. Audio Obscura is concerned with internal dialogues rather than the hubbub of what we say to one another.” The voices range from a lost child to a dying man, and each narrative is fractured and unrelated to the last. Through their immersion, and personal involvement in the work however, the participant strives to create links between the stories and with their own surroundings – you find yourself studying fellow members of the public, wondering what their role is in the voices, arguments and questions you hear in your head

Greenlaw recorded extensive amounts of narrative, which was then “gradually pared away to its essence to become an evocation or suggestion of narrative and drama, hopefully allowing space for the participant’s capacity to make imaginative leaps.” Although the recordings were taken with permission, there’s still a voyeuristic sense to the piece, as if you have become an invasive element in the narrators’ lives in spite of the public space, making it an uneasy experience of participation.

And while the piece is interactive in one way, in another it offers an acute sense of remoteness – it is a strange feeling to be so involved in a space on the one hand and yet to be so separate from the experiences of other participants on the other. In contrast to blasting music from your headphones while strolling through the station, Audio Obscura enters a new realm because, not only do you lack a destination and a purpose, but you also engage with something outside of your own choosing in your head, and involve yourself in the space around you by pondering more deeply the people in it. This isolation was paramount to Greenlaw’s method, because of its immersive potential: “Audio Obscura is intended to isolate the listener so that they allow themselves to engage more freely. You are cut off by the very thing that’s making you look more deeply into the people around you. I’m aiming to create the sense of withdrawal offered by the dark room of the camera obscura. It concentrates the senses and encourages us to forget about ourselves and to hand ourselves over to the experience. It sensitises us to the boundaries we forget we have, and don’t realise we break.”

Audio Obscura is symptomatic of how much more involved people expect to be with contemporary art today, something that Artangel champions. “People seem increasingly open and prepared to become more actively involved in the ways that different works of art can be experienced.” By involving yourself in the work, each piece of art is unique to each person, rather than establishing a canon, this only encourages the huge multiplicity of artistic practice that we now witness: “Audiences no longer simply listen nor do spectators merely watch. Perhaps what makes the experience richer lies in what the participant brings to bear on what the artist offers.”

Manchester International Festival ran from 30 June until 17 July 2011. and

Ruby Beesley