BY Michael Bracewell in Frieze | 01 JAN 03
Featured in
Issue 72

Postcards From the Edge

'Extra Art: a Survey of Artists' Ephemera 1960-1999'

BY Michael Bracewell in Frieze | 01 JAN 03

When the Pop Group released their second LP - the snappily titled For How Much Longer Must We Tolerate Mass Murder? - back in the autumn of 1979, each copy of the record came complete with a series of posters on cheap newsprint relating to abuses of human rights or the dangers of capitalism. At their best the band played a melodramatic, razor-edged funk which drove Mark Stewart's hoarse screams - 'I admit my crime, I'm a thief of fire' - across pitch-black chasms of stretched, bouncing bass and eerily scratching percussion. The group took their politics very personally - one pundit on the music press even recalled, somewhat fancifully, seeing the Pop Group walking up Ladbroke Grove 'holding pictures of the Third World, with tears in their eyes' - and for a little while, in the still, grey months of the post-Punk winter, it seemed as though the musical avant-garde had all the romance of a noble cause.

I excuse this lengthy preamble on the grounds that it seems the best way to introduce a broader subject: the importance of cultural by-products - those gifts and trinkets, posters and announcements which emerge as a consequence of the main event. In the case of the Pop Group, the free posters in their albums and the sequence of little black badges - 'We Are All Prostitutes', 'Everyone Has Their Price' - were as much a part of your experience of the group as their music: these street accessories and domestic ornaments added to your image of yourself within the tribe; they gave concrete form to a sensory relationship.

Curator Steven Leiber's touring exhibition 'Extra Art: A Survey of Artists' Ephemera 1960-1999' (originated by the California College of Art & Crafts and recently at the ICA, London) seems to pick up on the tradition for cultural by-products in a way that keeps step with popular culture's love of significant souvenirs. (A Beatles wig wouldn't look out of place in the exhibition, any more than the small plastic bag containing a piece of orange peel that Bob Last, the visionary founder of the Human League's debut label, Fast Products, put out as his first release in 1977.)

'Extra Art' describes the ways in which the by-products of contemporary visual artistic practice (you could call it the artist's 'unofficial art') constitute an intervention beyond the gallery, raising questions within the broader sweep of contemporary culture. Pop, you could argue, has always dealt in terms of what post-Structuralists would call its 'epiphenomena' - the ancillary stuff created by its impact, which might include everything from the fans themselves to the posters to the increasingly complex molecular chain of richly coded items that now comprise the lineage of Pop ephemera. This lineage intersects directly with artists' ephemera by sharing a whole array of items in an eclectic range of media, thus raising issues relating to the economics, location, materials, politics and media of cultural production.

The evolving movements of contemporary art were ideal containers for playing with notions of cultural status and intent. Artists' ephemera could sit with ease within Minimalism and Pop, for example, while performance or body art, Fluxus and mail art could conceive their whole point as being to create documentary evidence of transitory or unique events.

With this in mind, you could perceive current culture as having become pronouncedly archival: one central strand of current Rock and Pop is the relatively new market in reissues, allowing for both nostalgia and connoisseurship; similarly, the by-products of modern lifestyle have achieved their own aesthetic status: art bookshops now sell collections of the in-flight safety cards used on commercial airlines, or histories of flyers for dance clubs. A sense of the archival is now able to attach cultural significance to almost anything, and is always in search of new seams of arcane cultural history to mine: found collections of yearbook photographs, someone's snaps of their girlfriend, cheesy Christmas cards. What used to be a side-show is becoming the main event.

As discussed in 'Extra Art', ephemera plays havoc above all else with notions of value, utilizing advertising space or low-budget production techniques, for example, in the face of the usually elevated economics of fine art. But these devices also expand the remit of an artist's practice. When Roy Lichtenstein decided to make work in the medium of cheap, disposable paper plates, published by On First Inc. in New York in 1969, he was souping up his commitment to Pop art by returning directly to the industrial processes of mass production.

Another way of looking at Lichtenstein's paper plates would be as an early example of art gentrifying typically artisan culture. In his essay 'Chester Gould versus Roy Lichtenstein', first published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1976, Tom Wolfe argues that the designer technicians of artisan culture - Chester Gould drew the original Dick Tracy comics - were more sophisticated and innovative, artistically, than the Pop artists who sourced from their work, and that Pop art was a form of dandyfied tourism in the workshops and shopping malls of the real world.

While this is Wolfe being typically contrary, we might see a reversed version of his pronouncement both in the goods on sale in a contemporary gallery shop, and in the contemporary relationship between art, ephemera and popular culture. Are the Fluxus kitchen aprons and the Gilbert & George sticky tape examples of artists' ephemera having their traditionally low-fi, quirky, intimate status returned to the elevated world of bourgeois lifestyle shopping?

Perhaps the originating politics that gave rise to the phenomenon, confounding value and foregrounding democracy, are now being replaced by the same economic formula of commodification that leads haute couture designers to license ranges of perfumes, so that for a hundredth of the price of a designer jacket you can purchase the designer's aura as a scent.

Ultimately, it would seem we are living through a transitional stage in the life of ephemera. In an age defined by marketing people as one of 'mass individualism' it becomes harder for either artists or musicians to achieve the impact of, say, Dan Graham's Homes for America magazine project (December 1966-January 1967), the 'some product' plastic bag wrapped around the first Buzzcocks LP (1977) or the sticker screaming 'Baby I'm Bored' that was inserted into every copy of Jon Savage and Jon Wozencroft's one-off magazine Vagabond (1992). (One of the latter found its way on to the guitar of Nicky from the Manic Street Preachers when the band played on Top Of The Pops.) To that extent the relationship between the ephemera of the margins and the rhetoric of the mainstream has never been less resolved, and more open to ambiguity.

Michael Bracewell is a writer based in the UK. His most recent book, The Space Between: Selected Writings on Art, is published by Ridinghouse, London.