Cornford and Cross
The picture as index of lived experience




Cornford & Cross are presently artists in residence at the London School of Economics (concurrently with artist Cleo Broda). We met them to find out what it was like to work as artists in that environment and to ask why such an institution would want artists working within it. We didn't learn the answer to these questions, but the conversation was interesting, as was their work. The following is an extract from our conversation:

David Cross: A common thread in our work is the production of an object or a physical element added to a space. While that is genuinely the aim, we co-opt the process of realising the object or intervention into the project itself, so that what would otherwise be seen as practical or everyday activities gain a degree of symbolic significance.

We've often been surprised by the extent to which people are willing to take part. 'Jerusalem', our project for East and riverside in 1999, was in some way a calculated affront, like an aggressive move on a chessboard. Although we only once met the headmaster of this typically hierarchical public school, we had a number of meetings with the School artmaster. As part of our involvement we gave a talk about the project and our practice to the boys of the upper fifth and lower sixth forms. When we finished the talk, there was complete silence. Finally the artmaster pointed to one of the boys and said 'come on, question'. The pupil duly responded by asking us, 'Where do you get your money'? We explained that we earn some money through lecturing, commission fees, sponsorship, and occasionally sales, but neither of us is wealthy. Once they could place us economically, the boys seemed able to interact with us more openly, and the questions flowed.

4.28: So the artist was just this unknown thing in an upper class boys school?

David: Yeah, exactly. The artist as an unknown quantity. It was this system that we were engaging with, about how power is exercised, and how certain people are prepared through education for exercising power in later life.

4.28: How did you finance this particular project?

Matthew Cornford:
Oh, that was a mixture: the Norwich gallery, our commissioners, had money for a modest fee and production budget from the Henry Moore Foundation. We added to our allocation with university research funding as we both lecture at universities. As research-active members of staff we apply to the committees there for support funding. Once we've got that under way we quite often use the status and the publicity attached to the project to attract sponsorship from the businesses we interact with. So it's a kind of three way formula: partly education, partly the art sector and partly business.

4.28: How about at the have this big residency at the London School of Economics...

David: Yeah, enormous...(laugh)

Matthew: It has been interesting, though quite difficult to know what we were going to do - partly because our previous projects have been quite critical of the 'host' institution. But here, the more we find out about the LSE, the more time we spend here, the better it is. It's a very innovative, liberal environment.

David: The diversity impressed us enormously as much with the buildings, as the activities going on inside.

4.28: So how do you propose to respond?

David: In our proposal for the LSE, one aim is to stage a public spectacle or display. I'm interested in how representations of mountains and climbing may speak to the individualist, whether lone hero venture capitalist, or principled risk-taker. Sometimes climbers work on oil rigs or in the construction industry, sometimes climbing is a leisure pursuit. And then there is another category of climber, the transgressor making a demonstration, maybe against the World Trade Organisation or a multinational corporation. So climbing has something both aspirational and transgressive about it. The language and imagery of climbing are often used in business and economics, perhaps suggesting the idea of a company reaching the peaks of success, or competing on an upward slope.

When you look at the graphic representation of stock market activity, there is an echo, if you like, of a mountain range. We The picture as index of lived experience thought it would be interesting within the timeframe of the Year of the Artist to take a graph of the UK share index and to render it as a fantasy mountain landscape. We like the idea of a frieze on the face of the building, a large scale gesture, which would feature mountains on the side of a building owned by the London School of Economics.

4.28: So your project for the LSE is pretty much developed then?

Matthew: We are coming to the stage where we present our thinking to various committees. We're looking at ways of creating a spectacle as well as leaving a semi-permanent piece of work, but also - as we do always - we would document this photographically, which will then be presented as something with a very 'clean' sort of distance.

David: The relation of photographic realism to 'reality' is central to the concept in this project. In our past works we have produced installations by imposing static objects on particular spaces. We plan each installation from the outset in terms of the photographic possibilities, so the final image is as much a construction as our physical intervention in the scene it depicts. Matthew: Actually, I don't think 'document' is the right word; it evokes a notion of photographic truth, whereas we set up a situation in order to make photographs. We recently showed a large colour photograph of 'Jerusalem' in a touring show of politically engaged art practice. We hope that on reading our text accompanying the image, people would be aware of the narratives which led to the construction of the statue.

4.28: You are focusing on the photography, which represents the object in an art context, and you wouldn't describe it only as documentation. Are you setting all that up to just get the photograph? Or let's start the other way round. Would you say that the statue or even the photography is a sort of a leftover of the work, or where actually do you locate the work'

David: Very interesting; your question calls to mind Robert Smithson's Displacements, which opened up the problem of site and non-site... Often the physical elements of our work dissipate after the project is over, we return the materials to the people who provided them. So in a way the works are temporary cultural articulations of economic material. And all that remains is the photograph, like a conceptual document in that sense. So did the work only exist in that moment or does it exist as the photograph which we planned from the outset? In the news media it's clear that the presence of cameramen or photographers influences the course of events. Whether these involve terrorists or environmentalist protesters or whoever, the behaviour changes. There is no position of a neutral event separate from the mediation of it. This relationship between representation and the flow of events is what we consciously engage with.

4.28: Would it make a difference then to say: you are staging an action to get these photos, or would it make a difference, if the landscape in the photo would not be the school in Norwich? Just any meadow, a building and a statue, just made for the photo?

Both: Yeah, it would make a difference.

Matthew: There are several differences. We could have made a similar image, with a fake statue made of fibreglass instead of spent bullet lead on a plinth of stone from Caen in Normandy. Or, more easily still, most of our projects could be done digitally, in the way that Jeff Wall or Andreas Gursky work. But the social engagement would be completely absent from the work.

David: We trade on the notion of a documentary image, which relies on the concept of an indexical relationship between the image and some kind of lived experience. We want to say: we were there, we did that. Partly because we enjoy getting involved with those places, institutions and people, but also partly because the resulting image is imbued with a different kind of significance.

Matthew: We live in an age where so much of what you see is digital 'perfection'. We aim for perfection and fall short.

David: It's not simply accepting the imperfection of the image, it is about embracing the risk of the event. In a way, it's about an interplay of order and chaos.