Some paradoxes and parameters

Lisa Le Feuvre

4 Dec 2008
The difficult double role of being a thorn in the side of the establishment while being a clearly identified institution has continued to define the ICA.

At the heart of the Institute of Contemporary Arts is a paradox that has been embraced since its inception some sixty years ago. The ICA came into being in 1947, imagined by its founders – Herbert Read, Roland Penrose, ELT Mesens and Peter Watson – as a discursive site that would operate as a laboratory rather than a museum.1 The organisation deliberately positioned itself as both generative of and responsive to the present, existing as a hub of potential with an orthodoxy of disagreement and counter-argument. Naming itself, in an apparently contradictory way, as both an 'institution' and as 'contemporary', the ICA set out to be an alternative to what was deemed the dominant culture – at that time conceived largely as the Tate Gallery, the British Council and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. The difficult double role of being a thorn in the side of the establishment while being a clearly identified institution has continued to define the ICA.

Initially the ICA used temporary venues for its activities, striving to challenge the conventions of art display – the first exhibition, 40 Years of Modern Art: A Selection from British Collections, was held in the basement of the Academy Cinema on Oxford Street. In 1950 a building in Mayfair's Dover Street provided the organisation with its first permanent home, including offices, a library, meeting spaces and a small exhibition venue, while films and concerts continued to be staged offsite. During the 1950s the Independent Group were at the centre of the ICA's activities, coming together in 1952 as a result of debate over the organisation's visiting lecture programme.2 This self-defined 'young group' – which included Richard Hamilton, Nigel Henderson, Eduardo Paolozzi, Alison and Peter Smithson and William Turnbull – started to invite writers and thinkers from a diversity of disciplines to develop questions, rather than answers, about contemporary culture in its broader context.

The exhibition This is Tomorrow, held at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in 1956, retrospectively drew together the Independent Group's concerns, and in the catalogue Lawrence Alloway boldly made the claim that the aim of the exhibition was to oppose the specialisation of the arts . . . An exhibition like this . . . is a lesson in spectatorship, which cuts across the learned responses of conventional reception.3 Their intention was to break institutional conventions and challenge visitors' expectations, in order to redefine a sense of the present. The group's experiments at the ICA – for example the 1953 exhibition Parallel of Life and Art, which displayed over a hundred uncaptioned images culled from heterogeneous sources – have now become historicised, but have continued to assert their influence on subsequent versions of the contemporary.

In 1968 the ICA moved to its current premises in Nash House, still holding strong to the laboratorial impulse, and courting failure, instability and the unknown in an attempt to define the contemporary. Can, though, an institution really be contemporary? An institution is a collection of conventions, assumptions and behaviours that follows a preordained set of values, and institutions are famously slow moving and mired with bureaucracy. There is an irony in associating the phrase 'nought to sixty' with an institution: it is generally used as a comparison for accelerative power, operating as a standard measurement of time for a vehicle to move from standing still to 60 miles per hour. The Ford Escort, for example, apparently takes 6.5 seconds and the Mini Cooper 8.9 seconds. Not necessarily an accurate tool, the phrase has slipped into vernacular in spite of inherent contradictions: the circumstances under which the measurement is taken will be rarely, if ever, replicated with normal driving. The 0-60 test has no interest in what happens before the countdown; the condition of the car after the experiment is irrelevant and the exhilaration of the driver and spectators merely a symptom.

How fast does one have to go to reach the contemporary? Once captured in language the present is, tautologically, no longer contemporary – while the past is a dynamic concept constantly redefined through the present. As John Cage stated: People still ask for definitions, but it's quite clear now that nothing can be defined. Let alone art, its purpose etc. We're not even sure of carrots (whether they're what we think they are, how poisonous they are, who grew them and under what circumstances).4 Describing the present, or the contemporary, is an impossible task that involves a translation of individual experience, via language, to enable another to experience a moment in time indirectly. Such a communication will always be unsatisfactory.

Gertrude Stein speaks of the continuous present, suggesting that the world, and our knowledge of it, can only possibly exist in the present. Rather than creating constancy, this makes every experience unique and extended into space and time. Cage was a great admirer of Stein, and through his own extension of musical structures he created work that had no beginning, middle or end; instead he would initiate fields of sonic activity within which the listener would be called on to play an active role – in other words, a constant existence in the present. In a 0-60 test where does the present lie? It surely cannot be at zero, as this is a moment of standing still, of certainty. Neither can it be at the moment where the mythical '60' is reached, as this is another predictable end point. The ambiguous present lies somewhere between the two poles, yet the present has no need to be defined in terms of progress – indeed in our contemporary present a celebration of progress seems obsolete.

If the 'C' for contemporary is impossible to define, can the 'I' for institute be discussed with any more certainty? In 1971 the artist Robert Morris developed a solo exhibition at the Tate Gallery that is a curious case study of the relation between these two concepts. The exhibition consisted of two parts – one an anthology of existing works and the other a series of objects for use that were not primarily for looking at but for pulling and pushing, balancing on and climbing over, through or up.5 After five days 1,964 people had seen the exhibition, only for it to be closed as a result of overzealous participation – it subsequently reopened as a standard retrospective. Reflecting on this incident, the director of the Tate Gallery, Norman Reid, mused on whether Morris' experiment with objects was indeed too contemporary for the museum, suggesting the [Tate] Gallery must adapt its methods, techniques and ways of dealing with the artist to the demands that the art raises, so long as it remains compatible in some degree with the purpose for which the Gallery exists.6

The stock characteristic of an institution is bureaucracy. The power of bureaucracy is in its emphasis on the how rather than the what of production, as encapsulated by the pair of copy clerks in Gustave Flaubert's 1881 novel Bouvard and Pécuchet. Following the inheritance of a fortune the pair set out to increase their knowledge and, taking up residence in the countryside armed with an expanding library, they try their hand at experiments that include farming, medicine, museology, love, garden design and distilling alcohol – each one costing more than it should, and ultimately ending in complete failure as they swallow reference books whole, refusing to analyse information or synthesise conflicting positions. Eventually their thirst for knowledge settles on the task of copying and cataloguing everything that comes into their possession, with no desire or use for any engagement with the content. (The emphasis on the 'how' can also be disruptive, of course – take, for example, the title character in Herman Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener (1853), who responds to his institutional demands with variations of the phrase I would prefer not to, in an incessant passive resistance to required and prescribed behaviours.)

An institution can be defined as a set of behaviours that have become normalised and accepted over time, and such conduct is often symbolised by a building-based organisation – a museum, school or hospital, for instance. The artist Andrea Fraser has described how "the institution is inside of us" – whereby the 'us' will always include the individual perceiving or producing the work of art.7 Through habit and repetition certain beliefs come to be perceived as facts, and are oftentimes left unchallenged. However, if the institution cannot be avoided, it does not necessarily follow that to operate within a symbolic institution means a loss of urgency or agency. If the institution is to be considered an attitude, or set of attitudes, then it is imperative that ideas are constantly challenged. Flaubert's scribes take comfort in replicating institutional behaviour, and fail as a result. Could it be, though, that conditions of conduct have shifted to a place where an institution can be generative and responsive, where parameters are simply a point zero and agency is encouraged? The question today is less 'how can the institution of art be avoided?' and more 'how can it be shifted to something more productive beyond its own ends?'

At the time of writing Nought to Sixty is still largely unknown other than by its basic parameters. It is a season across time as well as space, stretching from May to November 2008 and presenting solo projects by sixty artists based in Great Britain and Ireland. There will be exhibitions, events and interruptions – all demanding the attention of potential visitors for six months, and including events on every Monday night within this period. It is a programme claiming to be a partial and subjective reading of the contemporary rather than a definitive measure, with announcements about participants made only a month in advance. The selected artists may contest, celebrate, annoy, extend, comply, make difficult, return elsewhere, disappear, replay conventions and create replacement conventions.

This experiment at times may not work, and may leave an audience standing around feeling a little embarrassed before rushing off to the bar. Some of the Monday night events may just have three people in attendance (although future historical anecdotes may tell a different story); others will have a line of impatient visitors snaking down the Mall trying to gain access. Visitors may get bored of their Mondays being booked up, and declare that there is nothing new to be seen. The programme may confirm what people think they already know, or generate something quite unexpected. All that is known now is a set of institutional parameters, within which potentially anything can occur. So begins this subjective narrative of what the contemporary present might be.

Lisa Le Feuvre


1See Tate Archives, which holds the archive of the ICA from 1947 to 1987.
2 See Anne Massey, The Independent Group, Manchester University Press, 1995.
3 Cited by Lynne Cooke, The Independent Group: British and American Pop Art, A "Palimpcestous" Legacy in Modern Art in Popular Culture. M. Greenberg. New York, Museum of Modern Art, 1990 P192-216.
4 John Cage, Diary: How to improve the World (You will only Make Matters Worse), Aspen number 4, 1966.
5 Press release for the exhibition, Tate Archives.
6 Barbara Reise, A Tale of Two Exhibitions: the aborted Hans Haacke and Robert Morris shows, Studio International 1971: 30-39.
7 Andrea Fraser, From the Critique on Institutions to an Institution of Critique, Artforum September 2005.

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