Exploring Ethics, Performance & Authenticity

Featuring: Paweł Althamer / Nowolipie Group, Phil Collins, Dora García, Donelle Woolford, Christoph Schlingensief, Barbara Visser, Artur Zmijewski

Can you trust the artist? Moreover can you really believe that what you see is what you get? Authenticity, reality and truth are often taken at face value, but what happens when artists use other people to communicate their message? Double Agent, the latest group show to be produced from curators Mark Salden (Director of Exhibitions at ICA) and Claire Bishop (Assistant Professor of History of Art at Warwick University) opened this February at the ICA, London.

Double Agent is a group exhibition featuring seven artists who use other people as a medium. All of the works raise questions of performance and authorship, and in particular the issues that arise when the artist is no longer the central agent in his or her own work, but operates through a range of individuals, communities and surrogates. The show contains works in a variety of media, including video and live performance, works that are often slippery in meaning or disquieting in effect.

A number of the works in Double Agent explore the ethics of performance and representation, including the power relations involved in the use of non-professional subjects. Co-curator, Claire Bishop says, “Double Agent is a research-led exhibition, it comes out of a book that I’m writing, which is about changes that have happened in art since the 1990s, specifically this orientation towards the social. The artist wants to work with or collaborate with specific individuals or social communities in some way. There are different mechanisms for collaborating with people so that it is no longer the singular authorial figure in charge of the work, but something that’s more varied, unpredictable or risky, emerges from these new structures. I would like to chart the change that has taken place from artists being the central figure in their work doing the performance or using their own bodies, for example Maria Abramovich and Chris Burden, where the artist is the centre of the work. Instead, since the early 1990s, we have seen artists outsourcing or delegating these acts of performance to other people. What is at stake in this exhibition are the aesthetics and politics of employing other people to do the work of the performer. In the exhibition, ‘performance’ is interpreted in a broad sense. It’s not about a body performing in the space, but instead through film, video, photography and sculpture, as way of seeing this operation of displacement and delegation in action.”

Artist, filmmaker and theatre director Christoph Schlingensief is represented by a video installation, one that uses footage that the artist gathered in 2005 as part of his project The African Twin Towers — the story of a megalomaniac theatre director attempting to stage the 9/11 story in Namibia, shot on location with a cast of locals as well as Schlingensief’s regular “family” of performers.

Another artist to explore the ethics of representation is Artur Zmijewski. In his video Them (2007) the artist contrives a series of confrontations between Christians, Jews, Young Socialists, and Polish nationalists; the tensions build between the groups and culminate in an explosive impasse. Phil Collins shows images from you’ll never work in this town again (2004-ongoing), a series of photographic portraits of curators, critics and others in the art world — photographed on the understanding that their image would be taken immediately after he had slapped them.

Other works were made by, or feature, figures that operate as extensions for the artist. The works of Paweł Althamer are frequently based on his identification with marginal subjects. For many years he has led a ceramics class for an organisation in Warsaw called the Nowolipie Group, for adults with multiple sclerosis, and the exhibition includes a display of their works. Barbara Visser shows the video installation Last Lecture (2007), a multi-layered work that draws on footage of lectures in which actresses have been presented as Barbara Visser, sometimes receiving instructions from the artist through an earpiece.

A final pair of contributions brings a live component into the exhibition. Dora García exhibits Instant Narrative (IN) (2006-2008), which involves an observer positioned within the exhibition space, making clandestine notes on visitors to the exhibition — notes that are revealed to members of the public during the course of their visit. As his contribution to the exhibition, Joe Scanlan presents the up-and-coming artist, Donelle Woolford who, at set times, is using one of the ICA’s upper galleries as a studio to construct her own sculptures.

Mark Sladen comments, “Claire and I were keen to contribute to the debate in the art world about a few topics. One is the notion of collaboration. Double Agent looks at ethical complications around collaboration, it is assumed that collaboration is ethically pure, a number of the projects in this exhibition demonstrate that collaboration is more of a complex issue. What does it mean when an artist collaborates with other people, when they are non-professional, how does their contribution relate to that of the professional instigator? Another part of the art debate is around performance, a lot of artists are using performative modes in recent years, there has been a revival in this area, but sometimes it seems that the way of analysing performance hasn’t moved on much from its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s. It was an area that we were keen to update in the debate.”

As Double Agent moves from venue to venue, there will be some site-specific changes, which provide opportunities for the curators at Mead Gallery and BALTIC to help shape the exhibition. For instance, a contribution by Paweł Althamer. At the ICA the collaboration is represented by groups of ceramic objects while at BALTIC there will be a workshop staged with Paweł Althamer, which echoes this strand in his project. At Mead Gallery a new commission by Phil Collins, using a ghostwriter to write on his behalf will transpire. In September, an interdisciplinary conference focusing on the issues of delegated performance explored through the exhibition will be held at the ICA.

Double Agent remained at the ICA until 6 April 2008, then moved to Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre from 26 April — 28 June 2008, and it’s final location was at the BALTIC Centre for Centre for Contemporary Art from 21 May until 17 August 2008.

Cherie Federico