Storm the Citadel

I feel a certain Schadenfreude at Assemble’s success in winning the Turner prize for contemporary art. It’s the furore that it has caused in the contemporary arts establishment that fires me up. The decision tells me that others out there feel, like we here at Threshold do, that art took a wrong turn around the time of the YBA/Britpop hype. It also proves the notion that most of the supporters of that cohort were actually establishment figures masquerading as avant-garde radicals who were only out to shake things up in the world of art to secure their own place amongst its hierarchy. How quickly the key proponents and players of that movement hoiked up the ladder behind them and converted their veneer of radical iconoclasm into cold hard cash and social position. How greedily they snaffled up the trappings of success and the mantle of guardianship to their precious gated community. And how eager we all were to fall for the Saatchi YBA story. We here in the UK missed out. The real revolution in the arts passed us by, largely unnoticed, while we were climbing aboard Saatchi’s Thatcherite vision of the arts as a ticketed commodity, or art as a rare, exclusive status symbol for the investment fund or the super rich.

Meanwhile, in mainland Europe, a bunch of artists who didn’t fit neatly into a marketable category were doing strange and wonderful things. Much of it without feeling the need to market a unique and valuable tangible object. French curator Nicholas Bourriaud defined it as Relational Aesthetics: A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space. We’ve seen that thread at work here in the UK too. Jeremy Deller’s work with the Orgreave re-enactment for instance. This is where Ellie Harrison sits, where Furtherfield sits, where Assemble sits – art with a social conscience, art with an interest in human networks and their interactions, and where we sit: art with a Social Change agenda.

So, for us, Assemble represents a sea change in the ideological battle currently being waged for the arts; a rejection of the Capitalist notions of Art FOR everyone who can afford a ticket to the show, art as a rare and expensive investment option and an exclusive practice reserved for their chosen missionaries, in favour of making the tools of art available to all. Art that champions the intangible, the non-commercial, arts with a social agenda, art that rejects the modernist idea of the single authorial voice and celebrates new voices, multiple voices, raw voices. We need to stop seeing Participatory and Community as second-class citizens in the art world and bring them back into the centre of arts discourse. Art is a language everyone has the right to speak; and we should be listening more to those who are not yet so eloquent as the institutionally trained and cultivated plastic radicals.

Threshold welcome a new name for an all-encompassing movement with no finite definition – a name as a banner of association rather than a dogmatic manifesto – more of a guide than a rule – Social Activism. A movement where the question as to who is the artist is less defined, a more fluid space, where the action to set the stage to enable the emergence of other voices is the art, or is a significant part of the art. A space where the importance of the transactional nature of the exchange between artist providing experience and audience providing veneration and validation is less important than the transformational experience of actions that welcome collaboration even with the most raw of voices, actions that champion a communal approach. This is an arena in which participatory projects are no longer second tier educational experiences but recognised as a legitimate attempt to empower voices who have an authority of experience and important things to say but not the years of specialist tuition to speak with eloquence.

We are and have always been about empowering the unheard voices, of opening the arts debate to those who have not yet been invited. We celebrate the unrefined voice, the poorly resourced expression, we celebrate the choir not the soloist, and we cheer on the mob converging on the citadel.

This is where Threshold sits and has always sat. We just didn’t have a name for it before. This is Great Art BY everyone.

Barry Hale

In a revolutionary mood – downtown Caracas – Venezuela