Cornford & Cross
Article for journal edited by John Roberts and
Third Text, special issue on collaboration
vol. 18, issue 6, November 2004,
Third Text: we would like you to write on the nature of collaboration in relation to the institution; with particular attention being paid to the ‘pressures’ you yourself place on institutions in formulating your projects.
How institutions operate under the demands of artists is, therefore, crucial to this. Hence we would like something on the ‘limits’ of collaboration, given the unfulfilled nature of many of your proposals. As such reflection on the tolerances and intolerances of institutions in the wake of the museum’s incorporation of post-conceptual practice would be helpful.
How does your work, for instance, bear on the prevailing counter-hegemonic model of institutional critique, as exemplified by Hans Haacke’s work? We do not want any generalized discussion about how difficult/intractable collaboration is. This is to be taken for granted. In a sense we want a discussion about how collaboration is produced in and through the institution and your part in this.
Matthew Cornford: Until recently, the institution was often thought of and seen in terms of its material presence – its physical structure and the space it occupies. Institutions such as The Bank of England, The British Museum and Buckingham Palace have heavy imposing architecture, which appears to confirm their permanence.
David Cross: I’m less comfortable with the idea of ‘the institution’ as set in stone than as a term for a diverse range of adaptable organizations. I like to think of institutions as being disinterestedly involved in public discourse and positively related to civil society. Also, we have never worked with an institution in isolation, but in connection with a variety of commercial organizations and professional people.
Cornford: Given this diversity perhaps we should define certain institutions as what used to be called the Establishment - public bodies funded through taxation working for some notion of public good. The title feels too grand but I guess our collaborative practice Cornford & Cross is an organization. Several commentators have suggested that using our two surnames may suggest a certain professional outlook.
Cross: I work at the University of the Arts, London, and Matthew works at the University of Wolverhampton. So in our case, to convey an image of a small art practice tackling the big institution would be misleading.
Cornford: Yes, the ‘David and Goliath’ model of the independent artist working outside and against the established institution is far too simplistic a model to have currency now. I don’t know of a visible art practice that’s remained independent of all institutional support – would that be possible? There may also be an assumption that ‘pressure’ is somehow unwelcome or forced upon us; we have consciously accepted a degree of pressure in return for the security of tenure and leverage of holding institutional positions.
Cross: When thinking of the pressures we place on institutions in formulating our projects, we should also look at the pressures that institutions place on us. As with many academic posts, our employment contracts harness our commitment to making art to an obligation to produce ‘research outcomes’ in the public domain. I am not struggling to be free of such obligations; they are part of a deal with a system I still largely believe in.
I don’t think we are in a position to place much pressure on institutions: our projects can only move forward if someone within an institution chooses to stretch their job description. We make it clear that our work is in no way separate from the economic or political spheres, so by deciding to work with us, our institutional supporters accept the implicit challenge of engaging in a critical and self-reflexive examination of their role. Perhaps the incentive for taking this risk is the chance for a release of pressure.
Cornford: Maybe people work with us because they think it will be a laugh!
Cross: We have proposed that a key function of contemporary art is to test concepts, assumptions and boundaries. In our practice, the choice of boundaries, and how they are tested depends on the particular context of each project. As a creative partnership we do have agreed aims, but we don’t have a set method or approach. What unites all our projects is that they are developed through prolonged, intense and often adversarial discussion and debate.
Cornford: I don’t feel limited by our conversational/argumentative methodology, rather the reverse.
Cross: While examining and testing ideas, our positions in the debate can shift until we each end up defending the view that we previously attacked. At this point, an idea may be ready to be written up as a proposal.
Cornford: Or dropped.
Cross: Hopefully not. I think it helps to be able to see these situations from more than one viewpoint — while its image may be strikingly clear, the identity of every institution we have worked with has been contradictory. The social division of labour is different in every institution, but we have yet to encounter one that did not stratify responsibility, status and economic reward, while also containing differences such as of ethnicity, gender and class. Institutions are characterised by the tensions between continuity and change, because they embody shifting power relations enacted in relation to changing events outside.
The (in)tolerances which interest me are evidenced, rather than articulated — which is partly why I engage through art practice. If the aim of collaborating with an institution is to test its tolerance, then it may be necessary to seek out an edge or breaking point. But lately, I’ve become less convinced. What interests me more is the exceptional interaction between individuals and their organisations that occur through making art happen, because this can bring about transformation. The risk is that I may find more in common with an institution than would suit a more flattering self-image of the artist as uncompromising idealist.
Cornford: In our experience a growing sense of unease emerges about what a project reveals and amplifies. I wouldn’t say we hid the possibility and direction of critique from the institutions we work in, it is more a case of the critique revealing itself as the project develops, like a weed growing up between the paving stones. Given that half of our projects have not been realized, I don’t think that our work has been fully co-opted by the incorporation of so-called post-conceptual practice into the museum. Though Paul Woods’s observations on Hans Haacke’s career of ‘institutional critique’ are useful.
‘It is an open question whether this renders Haacke’s practice an appropriately modernised form of enlightened Brechtian political criticism or a particularly astute way of having your cake and eating it. It is undeniable that the works mentioned here have now become canonical, residing in the collections of major museums. In the introductory material to his joint exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 2001, Haacke is quite unproblematically described (by the very institutions he unmasks), as “one of the most distinguished conceptual artists worldwide”. Bearing Ian Burn’s comment in mind, one might reflect on there being no failure like complete success.’
Paul Wood, Conceptual Art, Tate Publishing 2002. p. 71
Cross: As a citizen I support Haacke’s courageous opposition to oppression and injustice, and I am still inspired by his earlier works focussing on ecological systems and the relationships between corporate public relations and the culture industry. Yet as an artist I have come to feel that his direct, confrontational approach achieves impact at the expense not only of subtlety and elegance, but also of transformative potential. I no longer enjoy an untroubled admiration of Haacke’s work, as I no longer view any artist as free from inner contradiction and free from involvement in, much less complicity with the systems (s)he critiques. There is traffic between activism and the status quo. Parallels exist between the image of the critical artist as seeker of truth, and the image of the corporate executive as leader of change: both figures co-exist within the same paradigm of contest for supremacy, and both manipulate codes, signs and information in exchange for social status and material reward. I love the idea of resistance, but I am troubled by how effectively dissent is contained — or recruited as a spectacle of opposition.
Cornford: Is it then a condition of success that you become part of the Establishment?
Cross: I wonder — which is the price you charge, and which the price you pay? Lynda Morris once challenged us to move away from the complicity associated with institutional funding. But I am fascinated by the transaction: why should working with institutional support mean that we lose our radical impulse, or that they gain it? (Richard Prince re-prints a joke: ‘Man walking out of a house of questionable repute, muttered to himself ‘‘Man, that’s what I call a business… you got it, you sell it, and you still got it.”’) Although giving money can be a show of strength or exercise of power, it can also reveal an aperture or fissure. Matthew looks for opportunities, I seek out the flaws.
Cornford: To an extent we have curated our own practice. When invited to contribute to an exhibition, we have looked on it as a situation to make new work, or to work in a new situation. We have not made art objects in a studio to be seen and evaluated by a curator before being shown to the public. Instead, our proposals act as starting points for negotiation with the curator or commissioner. These two conditions have ensured so far that our practice has remained free of any artistic signature style.
Cross: Mostly, we have taken it upon ourselves to find opportunities to make and show work; to gain official permission and raise money; and to conduct debate with the different groups of people who make up our audience. This may suggest we have led a feral existence, but we have also been given key opportunities by Steven Bode, Director of Film and Video Umbrella; Lynda Morris, Director of the Norwich gallery; and by curators Nigel Prince and Gavin Wade.
Cornford: Working in this way is not without problems. In 2003 we were invited to undertake a photographic commission in response to an historic photographic archive for an exhibition at the Norwich Castle Museum. Our project titled, ‘A Month in the Country’ questioned the corporate ownership and control of images by directly engaging with Corbis, the largest stock photographic agency in the world. A number of the Museum staff became increasingly nervous. In fact before allowing our work to be shown in the Museum gallery, they wrote and asked us to sign a letter agreeing to accept full liability should any legal action be taken by Corbis.
Cross: Our art practice draws on almost every skill and ability I have. ‘A Month in the Country’ was one of several projects that have tested my limits, and the tolerances of our collaboration. But if this never happened, I suppose I would find something else to do, because it is through collaborative interaction that I form my sense of self.
Cornford: There’s an assumption that artistic collaboration is always a good thing. It’s not true! It can be - but artists working together are in themselves no indication of original, critical work being done. Equally, to collaborate with an institution is no guarantee of interesting work being made. The endlessly dull and banal work produced under the banners of ‘Public Art’ and ‘Art and Architecture’ should act as a warning of what happens when everyone plays nicely together. Our practice is to collaborate with institutions not in the sense of generating ideas with them, more of generating (critical) ideas out of them.
Cross: In the UK under New Labour, state patronage seems to require that art in public places should be part of social and economic regeneration. Some administrators of public art programmes have seen this as a requirement not just for consultation with, but direct involvement of ‘the public’ in the creative process itself.
This may spring from a hope that public art can counterbalance both the private gallery and the shopping mall. So public art is presented as connected to participatory democracy, and rooted in an ideal of the individual as a cultured citizen. Interwoven with this position is a favouring of forms of practice descended from the era of ‘happenings’, performances and some conceptual works which challenged the primacy of the autonomous individual artist, and posited artistic practice as a socially inclusive, cathartic or healing activity.
But in this time of public and private sector partnerships, the opportunities to produce art for public spaces are often predetermined by property developers, architects, local government and public funding bodies, long before artists get involved. So the artist working in these situations has to navigate between public relations and public accountability, while maintaining the conceptual and formal integrity of the artwork. We set out with a proposal, which we fully intend to realise, but once we begin a project, it isn’t simply a case of delivering exactly to a plan — we also have to respond to what we find.
Cornford: Though it’s important for us not to get lost in the indeterminate fog of process for process’ sake. Collaboration is awarded good marks for challenging the Modernist myth of the artist as solitary creative genius working in a studio. Of course plenty of double acts and groups have been successful in building their own creative myths, just as many individual artists have developed post-studio, non-object based practices.
Cross: But how does collaboration relate to a political position? If the work is formulated through discussion, and completed through affecting the thoughts and opinions of different audiences, it is essentially social. I channel my own discontent into expressing more or less incompatible opinions, which draws me into debate, and obliges me to order my thoughts and make choices based on explicit values. That is why, for all their weaknesses and contingencies, my favourite institutions are those that support democracy.
Cornford: Yes but we might then judge the quality of the discussion, which is impossible unless you are there (our arguments and discussions are far shorter and somewhat more polite when in public) — so I guess it’s back to the work again.
We aim to make work that is interesting, critical and hopefully inevitable. Of course, in realizing a project pressures often come to bear both on the institution and on us— or rather between the individuals who work in it and ourselves. These pressures exist around the limitations of funding, space, regulations, and deadlines. However, I sometimes suspect that these apparently straightforward limitations can conceal other unspoken objections.
An instance of our work going over the limit might be ‘The Ambassadors’ a proposal developed for the 2002 Liverpool Biennial. One of the selectors had asked us for a ‘controversial’ project. So we proposed to fly the flags of the three nations with which the United Kingdom did not have any diplomatic relations. The proposal was turned down flat and no explanation ever given.
In 2002 we exhibited this and six other ‘unrealized’ projects in the form of texts, drawings, photographs and an architectural model at Nylon, a private art gallery in London. The exhibition was extensively reviewed and the public colloquium organised by us and held in the gallery to discuss the issues raised was well attended. So perhaps a project doesn’t necessarily have to be realized in an actual site and specific context for it to be visible and active as idea.
Cross: I don’t see how one could find a limit in some general or abstract sense – in any case, it is the particular that excites my curiosity. (‘Knock knock!’ ‘Who’s there?’) How will this institution respond to this call? Who will come forward and open the door — or keep it closed? This approach means that I have to acknowledge my own identity and role in the situation: how far am I prepared to go to get the result? In return sometimes, the apparently fixed limits of collaboration can move in our favour, and that gives me a disproportionate, even irrational optimism.
Cornford: This always surprises me — people with no vested interest in our career, and often very little interest in the cultural systems we work in, will go far out of their way to help us. Many projects would not have happened without this exceptional generosity.
Cross: Absolutely. Why should the credit go either to the individual, or to the social conditions that permit the gesture to be made? Having said that, a key boundary around our collaboration is delimited by authorship: each project is conceived, visualised, articulated and documented by us. The form of a project may develop through negotiation with the limits imposed by an institution, but we keep intact its core proposition, which exists most clearly in language. Before approaching an institution, we produce a single page of text for each project, which makes explicit our agreed aims. Each text can have several different functions in our transactions with an institution: initially it may suggest public relations opportunities, perhaps later it may serve as a promissory note, and it may form the basis of an agreement or contract of sorts. Once a project is ‘realised’, the text helps to condense the cluster of ideas we have explored, and anchor the key meanings.
Cornford: Yes — although we each interpret the texts differently, and they are up for revision long after a project has been exhibited. I am increasingly interested in the differences between how we individually talk and think about our joint projects. We certainly don’t speak with one voice or have a clear party line. Our collaboration is located across a number of overlapping institutions, discourses and art worlds, all of which involve degrees of social interaction.
Cross: The art world is a subset of the world. Whether or not it involves collaboration, all artistic activity is a form of social practice, insofar as it relates to cultural production, ideology and lived experience. And social practice isn’t necessarily harmonious or polite: the more I see of the narrow rationality and reductive moralising that are used to justify so much instrumental and tendentious thinking, the more I want to throw a spanner in the works.