Making a timely and substantial counter to the myriad recent exhibitions and symposia exploring the impact of our supposed age of immaterial production on contemporary artistic practices, ‘The Individual and the Organisation: Artist Placement Group 1966–79’ returned us to the far more material industrial world of the 1960s. When the Artist Placement Group (APG) was founded in London in 1966, by Barbara Steveni in collaboration with her then partner John Latham, it wasn’t the question of labour’s immateriality, but Conceptualism’s radical critique of the materiality of the art object that framed their experimental investigation into the potential for new relationships between art and industry. Soon joined by other artists – including Anna Ridley, Barry Flanagan, David Hall and Jeffrey Shaw – APG appeared part-consultancy firm, part-think-tank, part-artist collective (they operated under this title until 1989). By placing artists within public and private industries – from the National Coal Board to Esso – and later in governmental departments for months to years, not as ‘artists in residence’, and without the ultimate goal of producing anything artistic, Steveni and Latham believed they could offer radical insights into social problems. These would be offered via proposals made at the end of the placements, which, if taken up, could have a transformative impact upon the world of work. At the same time as finding themselves socially useful in very real ways, artists would develop new ways of working as a result of their experiences.
Yet, if the point was not to produce any art at all, one might well ask, how is it possible to curate an exhibition – and in this case, a substantial exhibition over Raven Row’s three floors – on the ‘work’ of APG? Luckily, alongside the extensive paperwork and correspondence accumulated in the process of applying (mostly unsuccessfully) to corporations to initiate artists’ placements, the material forms of APG’s activities are fairly diverse. Indeed, many of the 63 members listed in 1968 did end up taking photographs, making films, videos, sound recordings, photomontages, appropriating found objects, documenting their time and writing reports. Alongside this largely archival mass – featuring the work of core artists associated with APG, including Latham, Stuart Brisley, Garth Evans, Ian Breakwell and Leonard Hessing – curated with meticulous attention to detail by Antony Hudek and Alex Sainsbury, we also gained access to the group’s other activities in magazines, exhibitions and symposia. In the early 1970s, for example, APG was associated with Studio International, then edited by Peter Townsend, which published a series of the group’s interventions as cryptic inserts.
Major APG exhibitions included ‘Art & Economics’ at the Hayward Gallery in 1971, which was met with much hostility at the time. The documentation at Raven Row – of an exhibition of work supposed to be about anything but art in an exhibition mostly filled with anything but art – revealed some of the paradoxes and tensions at the heart of APG. At the Hayward, Latham exhibited X-rays relating to his Clare Hall Hospital placement, while Evans covered a gallery floor with steel parts borrowed from British Steel, accompanied by sounds recorded from the shop-floor of a Welsh steelworks. Such aesthetic experiences and material manifestations appeared even more tokenistic today, failing to deliver on the radical or Utopian proposals of the group. But they also suggest an internal instability; a lack of consensus on exactly how artistic practice could or should be transformed through its industrial apprenticeship. Indeed the exhibition provoked considerable tensions within the group at the time. In contrast, it was those works intended and conceived visually in the first place (thus entirely short-circuiting APG’s intentions), such as Hall’s seven shorts (‘TV Interruptions’, 1971) – originally aired on Scottish Television in the place of commercials – which continue to produce the most engaging gallery experience, and arguably back then augured the greatest social effects.
But Evans’ steel installation also makes clear the confusing politics of APG. Despite defined political intentions, their industrial engagements were radical as conceptual, social and artistic gestures, and arguably the more successful problematized the art object and institution far more convincingly than the mainstream gallery-intended works of Conceptualism. But they often seemed removed from the politics of industry at the time. In 1966, for example, Harold Wilson’s newly elected Labour government had campaigned under the mandate to renationalize the steel industry, and the renegotiation of relations with trade unions emerged as key for both parties. British industry was also shifting towards a service-based economy and the domination of city finance. (Tellingly, the year APG were founded was also the year the first British credit card was introduced.) Yet critical interrogations of such transformations were rejected in favour of the kind of abstract explorations into time and event championed by Latham. Or else, issues which were indisputably political, like inner-city deprivation – the focus of Roger Coward’s documentary project of 1975 during a placement at the Department of the Environment – were abstracted or obscured by the group’s curiously bureaucratic theories such as ‘The Incidental Person Approach to Government’. In fact, in many ways, as the curators themselves suggest, APG’s emphasis on the immaterial, despite the heavily material worlds it engaged, could appear as a strange precursor to management consultancy. In this context, a comparison with the Conceptual work of artists associated with the San Diego Group such as Allan Sekula and Fred Lonidier is telling – the success of the latter being their politicized criticality toward the world of labour, alongside the complexity and visuality of their artistic works.
However, the exhibition – the first substantial APG show in decades – opened up a crucial chapter in the history of British Conceptualism, and the Utopian goals as well as the failures of the group are as interesting as the vast amount of documentation is sometimes disinteresting. APG’s attempt to recast the artist as a kind of worker makes for a fascinating period that links the historical avant-garde and the practices of contemporary figures such as Harun Farocki, Ursula Biemann, Carey Young, Santiago Sierra and Hito Steyerl who all, in very different ways, attempt to intervene in the worlds of labour and industry under late-capitalist globalization. In contrast to the artistic placements organized by Steveni, artists like Steyerl favour the concept of ‘artistic labour’, and the ways in which art might rebuild, wreck or occupy capitalism’s forms of representation. Perhaps that is because capitalism has become so aestheticized and conceptual that the social work of art has to be defined as operating against it.
This dense show made clear the importance of returning to APG’s archive, not least because their project to reformulate art’s relations to industry needs to be located as an extremely significant attempt to move art beyond the gallery. It offers a crucial counter to Conceptualism’s relation to the mass produced and bureaucratic, and contemporary art’s often cynical and self-reflexive critiques of capitalism – both of which tend to operate well and truly within the art world’s limited reaches.