Cornford & Cross
‘Where is the Work’ chapter for book
Transmission: Speaking and Listening, pp 48 - 56
Kivland and Sanderson (eds)
Published by Site Gallery and Sheffield Hallam University, 2002
Some time after the presentation by Cornford & Cross organised by Site Gallery and Sheffield Hallam University, the sound recording was mistakenly erased. All that remained was a single question from an unidentified member of the audience, scribbled in Sharon Kivland’s notebook, while chairing the discussion. (This was later identified as a question asked by Steve Dutton. Ed.) The question was, ‘Where is the work?’
For us, this question of location and effort induced a mild anxiety: what do we have to show for over ten years of art practice? In many art schools, galleries and magazines, there remains a tendency to view ‘the work’ as an object, and the purpose of being an artist as producing such objects for cultural and economic consumption, while in universities and art schools the focus is increasingly on ‘deliverable research outcomes’. Our collaborative practice is apparently focussed on producing objects and images, yet this focus belies the range of interactions which make up the greater part of our work. As we approached the question, a progressive inquiry opened into our position, which we decided to focus by ‘locating’ three of our projects in terms of their interventionist, representational and critical tendencies.
To begin, we might understand ‘the work’ to mean the activity of working, which in our joint practice is based on discussion, but also includes drawing, photographing, writing and administering the projects. We each earn a living through academic work in Higher Education, partly because our art practice does not regularly deliver commodities, and partly because the principles underlying our practice are currently more closely aligned with education than business. Although the studio is seen as the most appropriate site of production for the professional artist, we have so far operated without one. While this decision was originally made for financial and practical reasons, over time it has come to inform our operations in more profound ways. Because our work might take place anywhere, we could in principle work in any medium and at any scale. As a result, we are more able to make a specific response to particular sites - these have been urban and suburban spaces: physically delimited by their boundaries, and defined by their relationship to the surrounding buildings or infrastructure. Yet our interest in the ‘sculptural matters’ of form and void is inseparable from a critical engagement with the context, which we understand in terms of economics, geography, history and politics.
If we take ‘the work’ to mean a single project, each one begins with an invitation or selection, and goes through several phases from initial conception and research, through planning and negotiation to the physical realisation and subsequent dispersal of the materials used.
In 1996 we were selected from open submission to take part in ‘City Limits’, a group show organised by Staffordshire University. The show consisted of an exhibition in the university galleries and several new commissions around the five towns which make up the city of Stoke-on-Trent. On our first visit from London, we became interested in Albion Square, which is distinct yet typical of many other British cities: a poorly planned intersection between vehicle traffic and people walking. Although the site marks the entrance to Hanley town centre, it is defined only by three irregularly shaped patches of trampled grass, flanked with anti-pedestrian brickwork and cut off by traffic on either side. Rather than using an art project to superficially enhance such a place, we decided to produce a site-specific installation which would engage with issues of ownership and control of public space.
In one sense, our project, titled ‘Camelot’ after the National Lottery, was a literal interpretation of the ‘City Limits’ theme, as it aimed to provoke reflection and debate on some of the physical and social boundaries which determine the patterns of city life. We used 120 metres of 3-metre high steel palisade security fencing to deny people access to these small, neglected fragments of public urban land. By reinforcing the boundaries of these grass verges with this excessive display of authority, we raised the status of the land through its enclosure.
While on site physically constructing the work we found ourselves answerable to inquisitive, critical and even hostile local people who demanded explanation for our ‘artistic’ intrusion into their space. In our discussions with many of these people, it became clear that the neglect of this site was seen as a symptom of the lack of communication between the citizens and their representatives on the town council. The work of Camelot expanded to include the interaction between ourselves as artists and the public, some of which took place in the street, some in the local press, television and radio. One result of the radio discussions was that the Head Teacher of a local primary school telephoned to ask that we donate the fencing for their playground, so we arranged for this to happen as a charitable way of dispersing the art work after the exhibition ended. Although our installation had been realised according to plan, we recognised through taking part in various debates with the public that the work had also become a live intervention into a social context.
Another way of locating our work is in relation to representational practice, at which point our use of photography and text becomes central. By travelling to meet with people, and communicating from a distance in writing and through photography, we aim to secure official permission, obtain financial support and elicit critical responses to each project.
Our installations have been temporary, and they have taken place in different locations over a number of years. Because of this, they are perhaps more often ‘seen’ through our images and texts than encountered on location, so our varying uses of photography continually engage us with the relationship between presentation of a work in situ, and representation of it to people elsewhere and at other times.
Although we wouldn’t describe our photographs simply as ‘documents’, we do trade with the notion of an indexical relationship between the image and lived experience. A semblance of our photographs could be made with digital technology, at a fraction of the effort and cost. But we choose to make actual interventions in particular places, and to photograph them ourselves.
Initial site visits are focussed on making or researching photographic reference material. Once we have hit upon an idea we use this material to develop and communicate our thinking. Much of our preparatory work is aimed at ensuring that the proposed physical installation can be represented photographically.
If the proposal goes ahead, we photograph the work in progress, which includes our journeys, meetings and research visits as well as the material production of an installation. Our public talks, conference contributions and submissions for open exhibitions are still based on our 35mm slides.
Once an installation has been completed, we use a medium format camera to photograph it in a carefully staged tableau. The resulting transparencies are scanned and output as pigment prints on a variety of substrates with museum grade archival stability. These images have been framed for gallery exhibition, along with our texts and selected research material.
In 1999 we were selected for ‘EAST International and riverside’, organised by the Norwich Gallery, who decided to commission a series of site-specific outdoor works along the pathway beside the River Wensum, Norwich. When walking around looking for a site, we visited the Cathedral gift shop, and were drawn to a greetings card with a photograph of cricketers on a playing field, and the spire of Norwich Cathedral in the background. We went to see the point of view where the photograph was taken, and later learned from Lynda Morris, Director of the Gallery, that the photograph showed the playing field of a public school, the King Edward School for Boys.(When referring to schools in England, ‘public’ means private.)
We had it in mind to install a sculptural work that would invite ridicule for its conservative form. Our discussion focussed on the cliché of conduct on the playing field as preparation for the battlefield while also thinking about English history, Christianity, education and social privilege. We titled the project, ‘Jerusalem’ after William Blake’s poem, which originally offered a visionary critique of militarism and empire building, yet when later set to music it acquired very different meaning as a patriotic anthem.
Jerusalem was somewhere between the miniature scale of a toy soldier and the grandeur of a war memorial. The actual installation consisted of a life-sized statue of a military cadet based on a Norwich schoolboy, standing to attention and bearing an SA80 assault rifle. We paid a local artisan to cast the statue using lead from spent bullets, which we had gathered from the shooting galleries of the National Rifle Association in Surrey.
The statue was displayed on a plinth of solid stone, which we had shipped from Caen in Normandy. Norwich Cathedral is built of Caen stone, which is imbued with historic significance from the feudal period in English history, to D-Day and the liberation of France in the Second World War. The monumental mason of the Cathedral inscribed the plinth with the single word ‘Jerusalem’; we learned later that ‘Jerusalem’ is the hymn of the King Edward School. The sculpture faced away from the public, but towards the setting sun, the School and Cathedral. Our project, Jerusalem was conceived in response to a specific place, and especially to that place understood as a scene, a photographic image which in turn referred to the traditions of landscape painting for connotations of a particular social order. If this order offers ‘a place for everyone, and everyone in it’, then the sculpture stands properly within the boundary, a well-tended beech hedge between the public school and the public footpath around its perimeter. On the other hand, our staged photograph appropriated the visual field, which included the cricketers, the mature trees and the cathedral spire, and to present this tableau elsewhere and afterwards for critical consideration.
The sculpture remained in situ until July 2002, when we destroyed the lead statue and donated the Caen stone plinth to the School art department. We may yet melt down the lead to produce an editioned multiple of toy soldiers.
In returning to the original question, ‘the work’ may be extended to include the discursive aspect of our practice, which underlies the collaboration between ourselves and the people we work with. Our projects rely on funds from public agencies, which require advocacy and explanation, and their production calls for communication with people who often have little affinity with contemporary arts practice. Because our practice critically engages with the paradoxes of contemporary society, we are in constant dialogue.
Our practice is based on the assumption that a key function of contemporary art is to test concepts, definitions and boundaries. This will be reasserted when we exhibit in a private gallery a number of our proposals which were officially rejected. Although we do not know why these proposals were rejected, we think some of them may have been vetoed. The issues raised by the exhibition will be explored in a public colloquium in the gallery. We hope that although once consigned to obscurity the proposals will return to critical attention, and that at least one of them may yet be realised.
In February 2002 we were invited to submit a proposal for the Imperial War Museum Commission on the aftermath of 11 September and War in Afghanistan. Our project, ‘The Treason of Images’, proposed a site-specific sculptural installation, the social process of work towards its realisation, and visual
documentation including plans, maps, photographs and video recordings.
We proposed to install a short section of oil pipeline in Afghanistan, somewhere along one of the intended routes linking the oil fields of Central Asia with the Arabian Sea. The social process of this project would encompass the advocacy and negotiation we would undertake to gain approval and realise the physical part of the work. It would also include the talks and presentations we would give afterwards to a wide range of audiences.The help of Afghan people and international aid agencies, as well as the military and oil pipeline designers would be necessary for the project to bring together all the groups involved. As the installation can only be realised through practice legitimated as art, and within territory protected by military force, it would exist as a function of both influence and control.
Consumer culture has a problematic and contradictory relationship to other cultures, and to the natural environment. As finite resources become increasingly scarce, competition for them is likely to become more intense. The scale of this competition will be affected by patterns of consumption, while its nature will be influenced by a range of factors including corporate communications, diplomacy and military conflict.
Art historical precedent for the proposed work may be found in some of the American Land Art projects of the 1960's, including Nancy Holt’s 'Sun Tunnels' and Robert Smithson’s 'Site/Nonsite' displacements. Our proposed spatial and temporal project would share with these and other conceptual works a more permanent visibility through documentation, especially text and photography.
‘The Treason of Images’ (1929) is the title of René Magritte’s seminal painting of a pipe and the words ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’. The work spans surrealist and conceptual art, and highlights the
contingent nature of the relationship between language and image, between perceptions of the world and representations of it.
Whether realised or not, our projects intervene into particular circumstances by making lateral connections. They are often satirical or polemic in nature, and involve an element of uncertainty and risk. As well as the visible artwork, we are increasingly aware that the outcomes include exchanged attitudes between ourselves as artists, our collaborators, and the people who respond as our audience. This means that although each installation is grounded in one place, the project takes place through a series of encounters, actions and debates.
The location of our work understood as a practice is hopefully even less stable, moving between positions and opening possibilities for new points of view. If the meaning of our work is never simply produced and communicated, but transacted between ourselves and others, then perhaps the question, ‘where is the work?’ might be answered with another question — where is the viewer?
Among the many writers and artists who have influenced our thinking, the following are key in terms of this text:
Victor Burgin’s work combines writing and photography and locates both within the wider context of ‘representational practice’, which he shows can be politically engaged without being reducible to propaganda.
Hans Haacke’s notion of ‘institutional critique’ has informed our approach to making context-specific art work, in terms of engaging with the groups of people who occupy or influence a particular space.
Fredric Jameson’s ‘Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’ has been a landmark for us in terms of connecting the political and cultural spheres. We have been particularly influenced by his concept of ‘cognitive mapping’ (an art practice which enables subjects to orient themselves in relation to the social system), and by his refusal to surrender to totalising theories.