Early this summer, when rumours that Christoph Büchel was opening a community centre in Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly space began to circulate, one might have expected another instance of social practice or socially engaged art – that hybrid form of activism exemplified in artist Tania Bruguera’s immigrant community centre, initiated this spring in Queens, New York, by Creative Time. But a series of factors, not least Büchel’s poor activist credentials and the fact that his project was built on a site where property is estimated at £3,000 per square foot, made ‘Piccadilly Community Centre’ seem too good to be true – or rather, too truthful to be any good. Transforming Hauser & Wirth‘s wood-panelled Edward Lutyens building, the installation began with un-designed signage, an empty ‘cheques cashed’ clerk’s window, and continued to the worn-down floors and outmoded fixtures, with a dirty bar in the basement. This expensive mirage so convincingly mimicked an underfunded community centre that someone in the charity shop upstairs was overheard exclaiming, ‘It even smells like a real charity shop!’
And it did. But was it? A number of structural inconsistencies threw this into doubt. Though I saw visitors buying hand-me-downs ostensibly sold to benefit the blind, the cashier would not allow me to contribute to the Conservative Party by buying one of the beautiful mugs displayed alongside their pamphlets on a fold-out table in the same room. But such was the joke of the Piccadilly Community Centre. A frightening send-up of David Cameron’s Big Society, it was a meticulous stage-set that intentionally slipped to reveal deep-rooted contradictions. For instance, the super-ego of the crowded message board downstairs (offering, amongst other things, ‘Lunchtime Laughter Sessions’) was undermined by the dark id of what appeared to be a squat in the attic. Meanwhile the second-floor office, where Naomi Klein’s No Logo (2000) and Kurt Campbell and Michael O‘Hanlon‘s hawkish Hard Power (2006) sat comfortably together on a bookshelf, bore witness to the détournement of leftist strategies for right-wing ends.
Though the publicity material’s portentous claims – positioning the project as a ‘voluntarily run community centre […] not reliant on grants or outside funding […] self-sustained through the kind and dedicated work of our volunteers and supporters’ – seem already to have predicted this outcome, as a social project, the Piccadilly Community Centre was a hellish failure. Rather than a feeling of community, what emerged was instead a feeling of anxiety, one complicated further by encounters with the regular visitors to the centre (conspicuously not fixtures of the gallery’s usual programme), whom the gallery has recruited from other non-profit centres. On the day of my visit, a tour group of well-dressed Tate patrons were ushered into the shabby cafeteria to hear one of the gallery directors talk. As they took their places around the sturdy tables, they were careful not to disturb an elderly lady in comfort sandals unwrapping her lunch. In his speech, a gallery director announced, with pride, that the community members were real people. Feeling queasy, I left the room and asked another ‘member’ sitting outside of the reflexology room what exactly she was doing here. Looking around her for the source of my disbelieving expression, she replied, ‘I’m waiting for a reflexology session,’ and began to speak nervously about its benefits.
In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), hapless Billy Pilgrim is kidnapped by aliens who, by replicating a human habitat and giving him a porn-star for a girlfriend, make a fascinating exhibit of him. Though Büchel’s scandals past – for example, the sex club he opened under the Secession in Vienna last year or his highly public court battle with MASS MoCA in 2007 – made this human safari seem banally plausible, disregarding spectrums of sincerity and parody, there was no doubt that the artist had built a space where not all participants were equal, and furthermore, hallway windows conveniently offered views of the subjects in their ‘natural’ environs.
Participatory art in the 20th century emerged from the same egalitarian impulses that gave birth to our progressive social movements. Renouncing the glory of authorship and dispersing its benefits, much like the community centre, the political gesture of class-consciousness, however temporary or illusory this might prove to be.
But at the Piccadilly Community Centre, no such vision could be found. Upon entering, one was forced to decide: am I a visitor or am I a member of the community centre? Am I here to see another immersive installation, or am I here for my 4pm computer literacy course? The rhetorical question, already answered before you arrive, can feel difficult for those of us seeking to reconcile the pursuits of the art spectator with the less-thrilling necessities of social service. Like the work of Santiago Serra, whose antagonistic interventions in the 2003 Venice Biennale were credited by Claire Bishop with making the class-lines of the art world painfully obvious, Büchel’s project was a theatre of cruelty in which a two-tiered social form cleaved the (purportedly) earnest community members from those art-viewers who came looking for a punch-line. As both a parody of the right’s miserly social solutions and an example of Relational Aesthetics gone wrong, did the Piccadilly Community Centre shoot down Big Society and social practice with one cynical bullet? Whatever the answer may be, Büchel seems to allow that neither can solve class differences, only suppress them.
Presaging the social unrest in London this August, Büchel’s vision of a world where statutory services are replaced by inept charities resounded earlier this year in the popular and business press. Such coverage beyond the art sphere can only make his critique more potent or, at the least, lend currency to those voices raising doubts, as one recent commentator on the riots expressed them, ‘that small-state Britain can be run […] by good-hearted, if underfunded, volunteers’.