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Nine Trades of Dundee. Courtesy Exhibitions Department, University of Dundee

In July this year, the Visual Research Centre at Dundee Contemporary Arts hosted the culmination of the Nine Trades of Dundee project organised by the exhibitions department at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design. Running over the course of a year, Nine Trades of Dundee took its title from the incorporation of the city’s medieval trade guilds and centred on a programme of residencies either in, or related to, artists’ ‘second jobs’. Despite finding its eponym in a medieval precursor, the project does not chime with the widespread, somewhat compromised revival of interest in artisan practice, manifest in a 21st century interest in 20th century style, prescriptive home-making—on television for example, the fantastically nauseating and disingenuous ‘Brigadoon’ of Kirstie Allsop’s Homemade Home, to Monty Don’s BBC2 series Mastercrafts, and in visual art work such as Conrad Shawcross’s humourless articulations. Nor does it chime with the discernable interest in ‘medievalism’ derived from an idea of ‘carnival’, often admitted as some kind of theatrical grotsequerie or pidgin turn of phrase. Rather, in locating nine artists in situations—residencies—allied to their remunerative employment, or trades, the project acknowledges a reality when it tacitly acknowledges the incremental, piecemeal career trajectory of many artists seeking to establish themselves as ‘professional’.

Nine Trades of Dundee is unusual in determining the social setting for the residencies by the pre-existing lived experience of the artists involved, and it is this that exposes a common career truth as it simultaneously builds on the artist’s non-strategic (previous) appreciation of the trade’s form and function, its dog legs and cul-de-sacs, its potential for incidental humour as well as dehumanising routine. Thus, Alan Grieve, who worked as a hairdresser for 25 years before attending art school, was given a residency in his place of work during which he produced posters based on ‘comments of the week’; Pippa Koszerek, who has, since 2002, supported her studies and art career by temping, worked with administrative staff around the city to produce a tour based on the views from their desks; Ben Robinson, a customer service adviser at an HBOS call centre in the city, established a printmaking group with his colleagues with the aim of turning notepad scribbles into ‘something more monumental’. Far from casting the artist as ‘outsider’, focused on embedded attitudes and trades practice, the Nine Trades of Dundee project presents art as a means by which to shift perception, interrupt habits and reconfigure relationships, however temporarily.

Nine Trades of Dundee initially invites comparisons with the work of the Artist Placement Group, established in 1966, and a conception of the artist as
Incidental Person placed within industrial, administrative and governmental contexts. For the APG, ‘context was at least half the point’ [1]—it tasked itself with expanding the boundaries of what an artist might be and be seen to do through ‘context’, bringing the artist into general employment from a marginalised position. The APG’s Incidental Person was a creative troubleshooter or lateral thinker, (a term introduced by the management guru, Edward de Bono, almost concurrently to the establishment of the APG). The Incidental Person developed an ‘Open Brief’ in response to the immediate context and followed that by the production of a ‘Feasibility Study’ (subject to the approval of the host). In the mid-1970s, John Latham, founder member of the APG, undertook a placement at the Scottish Office, developing plans for the preservation and development of coal bings [2] adjunct to the Urban Renewal, Derelict Land and Graphics Group. In as much as, contributions to—and reflections on—the business of the context were made at a managerial level; most of the Nine Trades of Dundee projects, conditioned by lived experience, site the artist at a lower point in the workplace. With the benefit of hindsight, its easy to see the correlations and sympathies between the APG’s undertaking and de Bono style entrepreneurial thinking which grew up in time-lagged parallel: the APG’s projects were largely predicated on creativity rather than critique, symptomatic of capitalism’s increasingly adaptive behaviour. In The New Spirit of Capitalism, 2007, Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello analyse and contrast the language of (French) management literature produced in the 1960s and 1990s in order to mark the ways in which capitalism has become adaptive in the intervening decades. By the 1990s, the emphasis routinely reflects the values of ‘autonomy, spontaneity, rhizomorphous capacity, multi-tasking, conviviality and openness… taken directly from the repertoire of 1968’.

In aiming to bring the artist in from a marginalised position, the APG were refuting a conceit central to the conception of the modernist artist in which authentic expression is evidenced by autonomous production, bought at the price of struggle and social marginality. It is widely taken for granted that the legacy of postmodern studio and theoretical practice since the 1960s is apparent in the erosion of this archetype, but if artists can refute it—claiming that their practice is contingent as well as reflexive—the operative and ideological roles it played in demarcating art as a sphere of privileged (dignified) activity or in exemplifying art’s authenticity as ‘heroic’ (born of gift or struggle) have not so much been eroded as transferred elsewhere, to spheres in which authenticity might be seen to be lived rather than created. We can see the modernist artist-archetype partially remaindered today in the heroic figures presented in ‘The Deadliest Catch’ or ‘Trawlermen’—deep sea fisherman, rooted in tradition and risk, battling with the elements, existentially rolling on the deep. The authentic life, with its authentic habits, figures as heavily in the provenance of organic, seasonal, local food (including fish) as it once did in art. Indeed, the lived authentic (emphasis on process), also permeates the residual modernism of the relational artist: Nicolas Bourriaud sees relational practice as creating ‘social interstices’ which are ‘a realm apart’ and retain modernity’s goal of ‘improvement’, albeit in lower case.

An interesting, and roughly contemporaneous, fictional counterpart to the APG’s Incidental Person that likewise interrupts the heroic modernist is Muriel Spark’s ‘man of vision’. In The Ballad of Peckham Rye, 1960, Spark introduces the malevolent upsetter that is Dougal Douglas. Douglas finds employment in ‘human research’ at the textile firm of Meadows, Meade and Grindley:

‘We feel there’s a place for an Arts man to bring vision into the lives of the workers. Wonderful people . But they need vision, we feel.’

‘I shall have to do research’, Dougal mused ‘into their inner lives.’

Mr Druce betrayed little emotion ‘But not lectures on Art’, he said pulling himself together. ‘We’ve tried them. They didn’t quite come off.’

Douglas, using this human research to ghost write an autobiography for a Miss Cheeseman, disrupts the fabric of everyday life without apparent motive or directed intention—his mischievous, indolent agitating is enough to scratch the gloss of civility off the lives of those he meets, revealing their fatal flaws. If Douglas can be construed as an Incidental Person, in as much as he is an Arts Man with a self-determined brief, he does not come to the role in order to observe and improve (however obliquely): he demonstrates the modernist’s Sadeian (liberatory) flip side. At Flat Time House, the gallery that was John Latham’s home, (in, appropriately enough, Peckham), John Hill organised a series of events in 2009 with the title Industry and the Arts must walk hand in hand, a quote from Spark’s novel. Tellingly, it is a manager of Meadows, Meade & Grindley, Mr Druce, who makes the statement, not Douglas or any of the factory’s workers. A stranger to the residents of Peckham Rye, separated from them by education, nationality and attitude, Douglas is nevertheless affectively, personally involved with them. They variously appreciate and detest his sense of humour, his lack of convention. A transgressive, ambiguous presence, Douglas is not geared towards building consensus any more than he is concerned to serve industry: more than this, his revelatory (artistic) power is his capacity to antagonise.

Douglas could be seen to be a lodestar in developing a reappraisal of relational practice, at least in terms of taking forward the idea that the balance of productivity in art rests with the viewer. In a contentious essay, ‘Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics’  [3], Claire Bishop tries to assert the place of antagonism in relational art, using Santiago Sierra and Thomas Hirschhorn as exemplars in opposition to ‘convivial’ (Bourriaudian) representatives Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick. She is as concerned with the form of human relations as Bourriaud is, but, in following a line of Adornian ‘radical aesthetes’, wants this form to be antagonistic rather than convivial. Antagonism, ‘Conflict, division and instability’  [4] is necessary, she argues, with reference to Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe [ 5], in order to secure a more ‘democratic’ art, because activating the viewer within consensus (assumed by conviviality) is not intrinsically democratic, it is a fait accompli . For Bishop, ‘unease and discomfort’ in front of work by Sierra or Hirschhorn, exposes the fiction of unified subjectivity just as conviviality (she argues) assumes and establishes it. However, Bishop is insistent on the supremacy of the artwork (as ‘thing’ presented) which she believes ‘determine(s) in advance the depth of participation a viewer may have with it’ rather than devolving its critical potential to the viewer, who is didactically expected to be no more than ‘thoughtful and reflective’. She views with suspicion the historical avant-garde’s desire to collapse art into ‘life’— she is distrustful of the ‘interactivity’ assured by Bourriaud (because it seems to accept consensus). She locates antagonism largely and literally within the artwork, glossing over the potential for experiential mismatch between viewer and artwork, denying the viewer a self-determined ability to become aware of, exercise and reformulate their own subjectivity.

The Nine Trades of Dundee project was not set up to engender antagonism, but its emphasis on the non-instrumentally acquired, extra-curricular, lived experience of the artists involved, on the blurring of determined roles between artist and employee does not preclude friction within an expanded notion of what it means to be a viewer, a productive agent in the realisation of art, of mismatches in experience.

Fiona Jardine is a PhD researcher at the University of Wolverhampton

End Notes:
[1] Requoted by David Harding in ‘Memories and Vagaries’ at
[2] See ‘Incidental Person’, Craig Richardson, Map #11, Summer 2007
[3] October 110, Fall 2004, pp 51 – 79
[4] Rosalyn Deutsche, Evictions and Spatial Politics, 1996
[5] Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Demoncratic Politics, 1985