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‘Space’, (Tesco) Eva Merz, light jet print mounted on aluminium 200 x 400cm, 2005

What with all the ‘nons’, ‘nees’ and ‘no ways’ over European referenda, it is conspicuous that many EU citizens are voicing general dissatisfaction with the political class as much as they are relaying scepticism about the detail of constitutional proposals. This frustration has been demonstrated recently by the electoral rejection of the treaty, by the French and Dutch, or in the case of the Great British, by the dogged double negative which is a loud public ‘no’ to not having a referendum on these European matters. The unpopularity of Jan Peter Balkenend contributed in large part to the Dutch ‘no’. The French people’s distrust of Chirac saw his worry realised—the vote being used as a blunt instrument to bloody the government’s nose. This discontent with the operations and actors of public office superseding the political issue in question, crucially now seems to inform the zeitgeist.

Ex-Oxford don David Marquand taps into this spirit of doubt in his book Decline of the Public, 2004. Powerfully bemoaning the demise of a public domain of unrestrained democratic discourse, he makes clear that the public domain is not the same as the public sector: a country could have an extensive and influential public domain and at the same time have a small public sector. ‘The public domain should not be seen as a “sector” at all,’ he writes. ‘It is symbiotically linked to the notion of a public interest, in principle distinct from private interests; central to it are the values of citizenship, equity and service.’ In such a realm the equal rights of each and every citizen transcend the aspirations of the marketplace. Quoting the Darhendorf Commission’s 1995 report into Wealth Creation and Social Cohesion in a Free Society, Marquand underlines his explanation: ‘In the public domain people act neither out of the kindness of their hearts, nor in response to incentives, monetary or otherwise, but because they have a sense of serving the community.’

It might seem that denying the public a referendum on EU matters, especially when neighbours are given the opportunity, is yet more evidence of not just a lack of equity but also, following Kelly-gate and Iraq, an inevitable absence in presidential-style government, of a trustworthy service ethic. Marquand observes, with special focus on Iraq, that certain credible debates are being excluded from our public sphere because of private market-orientated interests, and worryingly, that certain debates are excluded from Cabinet because of clandestine interests held by senior politicians and their advisers. As a measure of the status quo, Marquand points out that even though Thatcher’s Cabinet was populated by trembling sycophants, she did consult it en masse over crucial issues more regularly than does New Labour’s ruling executive of private appointees.

'Magic', (Marketmuir) Eva Merz, light jet print, mounted on aluminium, 200 x 400cm, 2005 
‘Magic’, (Marketmuir) Eva Merz, light jet print, mounted on aluminium, 200 x 400cm, 2005

The existence of this diminished public faith gives succour to so-called ‘relational’ art projects. If presidential politics limits civic engagement in the political process beyond the occasional revenge vote, a social contract of sorts might instead be found by the disaffected individual in the experiencing of art. By actively offering opportunities to engage with important political matters, relational art practice, as rebranded by Nicolas Bourriaud, can exist to serve a community when an ought-to-be-relational public domain fails to do just that.

If this ‘new’ role for art sounds liberal, noble and innocuous, beware, for there is much more to be said about the dangers involved in devolving ‘things that matter’ to community groups and organisations as part of a government project which controls what can be critiqued. But setting that caution to one side, what is certain is that increasing numbers of artists are working in an overtly relational manner, attempting to reclaim through their projects, a space for democratic engagement with issues which might otherwise be kept from public scrutiny. One artist who successfully navigates this precarious terrain is Aberdeen-based Eva Merz of the artists’ collective The New Social Art School.

Fresh from completing ‘ASS Showing Off’, a film sponsored by Peacock Visual Arts in which she establishes common ground between Aberdeen Street Skaters and Aberdeen City Council, Merz has been exploring Tesco’s bid to build on a playing field in the northern market town of Huntly in Space/Retail/Magic . Employing David Hockney’s exhaustive technique of collaging photographs, and applying her interest in the dynamics of community, Merz displayed for Huntly townsfolk, three huge digital photo-collages which intensely illuminate this familiar conflict of private and public. The first collage, ‘Space’, pictures an abandoned Tesco in Inverurie; the second, ‘Retail’, shows a newly-built Tesco in Elgin (erected around the corner from an abandoned one); and the third, ‘Magic’, focuses in on the Market Muir in Huntly, a prospective site for another outpost of the Tesco enterprise.

Just prior to the exhibition in Stewart’s Hall, protests from the residents convinced the council and corporation to find a different home for the development. The display then invited a celebration of this local lobby and encouraged a general consideration of the ‘cost’ of building these massive supermarkets. More efficacious than the dutiful efforts of a Round Table chairperson, Merz’s work itself ‘convenes’ and enlivens the public space—the structure of ‘Retail’ triggers a sense of nausea over the inflation of consumer spaces and shame for the destructive car-capsule lifestyle it engenders. The result is a very rare and healthy balance between deserving calls-for-attention from the artefact, and the political matter of fact. With reference to the Charles Esche phrase, Space/Retail/Magic evidenced the potential of relational art projects to achieve an ‘engaged autonomy’.

Also generated and curated by Claudia Zeiske’s Deveron Arts, Dalziel & Scullion’s current venture breath taking presents an image of wind farm windmills on billboards around the UK, aiming to make visible elements of the complex agendas surrounding eco-energy. Although there is no reason to doubt the artists’ sense of service ethic, and the selected image is significant by being cleverly located, this grand series points as much to a difficulty with relational art as it does to energy technologies.

'breath taking', Dalziel + Scullion, 2005, Installing the billboard at Cabrach 
‘breath taking’, Dalziel + Scullion, 2005, Installing the billboard at Cabrach

Bourriaud’s theorising offers a useful term by which to approach the double-edged nature of breath taking . Many contemporary artworks, he notes, are trailers, works which herald forthcoming events, or indeed events which never occur. Such trailers offer a perverse and symptomatic variation on Robert Smithson’s concept of the non-site. That so many of us, but not Merz, are satisfied with the beguiling trailer, is indicative of the foolhardy relegation of final output.

In Marquand’s terms, the actual substance of politics is too often deferred—indefinitely delayed by the prologue. In formal politics, he implies, sticking to manifesto-style pronouncements at the expense of conclusive debate, as too many of our politicians do, frustrates serious democratic discourse. Or, persist with non-sites and in time you can eschew responsibility for actual sites.

It could be that despite the relational ambitions of these billboard images, Dalziel + Scullion have this time offered us spectacular trailers; never-sites of deferred discourse. This deferral happens chiefly because presentational strategy overtakes the matter in hand, the inverse of Space/Retail/Magic, and a trap for much relational practice. There is a conceptual rationale to the siting of the wind farm image—adjacent to, for example, Aberdeen’s oil-centred harbour and Glasgow Central’s diesel engines—but the billboard, although effective in heralding an art project to the art world, will always struggle to establish a credible public platform. This is because, tediously, within our image saturated public spaces, the billboard is simply a mundane spectacle. It is also, within the presentational practices of the art world, the general-arts graduate, arriviste cousin of Victor Burgin’s fly-poster. The political theme of breath taking risks not being complemented by a body politic—save for the seminar on energy which launched the work in May.

Relational art such as this sees the artist anxiously downplay direct communication and sidestep conclusion to avoid being hanged for pontificating. Notwithstanding Merz’s success, it is this anxiety which exposes the application of Esche’s ‘engaged autonomy’. It does describe work such as Merz’s which maintains an autonomous presence as art while offering an instrumental effect. But the phrase too often legitimises art which gestures towards topics from the ‘things that matter’ file without being either particularly clear in its message or innovative in its structure and delivery. It might be said, then, that the art of good relational public art lies in the offering of a discursive conclusion by way of an inventive and engaging product. There is an art to the presentation of a public thing which boldly reveals its socio-political import while remaining magically strange.

And is it not this sense of the strange, as much as political awareness, which encourages each of us to maintain an involvement in, and a critical distance from, what goes on around? Irrespective of political issue, the artwork itself can embody a powerful distinctness and lead by example. As Marquand tells us in related terms, that quality of involved distinctness is one which is vital to the preservation of a public domain which might have the strength to resist the homogenising strategies of market forces.

Ken Neil is an artist, critic and director of the MFA course at Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen