In 1965, Fluxus artists Robert Filliou and George Brecht asked artists to ‘refrain from their tiresome spirit of competition’, with Filliou later stating in 1973 that ‘the concept of the avant-garde is obsolete… I suggest that considering each artist as part of an Eternal Network is a much more useful concept’. This Network includes the multitude of mail art activities that spurred a fundamental, albeit largely forgotten, re-evaluation of artistic production. This aesthetic basis for interconnection, collaboration and communication is integral to the work of Pete Horobin and the project DATA: Daily Action Time Archive, which had its first partial public viewing in December 2006. Dundee was the centre of this spiderweb in a project which ran from 1 January 1980 to 31 December 1989, and with that, the life of Pete Horobin—as an artist—ended, in myth and in truth. Art is subject to continuous evolutionary processes, however, as the avant-garde is never historically effective in its initial moments.
In the 1970s, having recently defected from the painting department in Dundee’s art school, Horobin freed himself from all institutional constraints and looked to Europe as a source of creative nourishment. He decided that his life and its daily routines would become not only the subject of his art, but merged with his art practice —daily actions were collated into a monthly loose-leaf magazine and posted to selected individuals, such as Peter Below and Al Ackerman, the former introducing him to Neoism. From contacts made through correspondence, artists would be invited to the DATA Attic where they often made installations, one example being Mark Pawson’s ‘Xeroxed room’ undertaken in January 1986. ‘Chair of Chairs’, a Horobin-initiated mail art project covered in Xerox art was also on show here. The DATA Attic, therefore, is a laboratory, a gallery and an accumulating archive, but one visited by active artists rather than the public. As well as including DATA, the journals of freelance journalist and curator Marshall Anderson from 1990 to 2000 reside there, as does HIBERNIA—the ongoing research into naïve art in Scotland and Ireland by Peter Haining, who assumed curatorial responsibility for the DATA Archive in 2006. The latter was on hand as a living and performing aspect of this current exhibition, giving live commentary and interpretation on various aspects of the archive, and providing sustenance from an authentic and slightly bashed 1980s DATA teapot.
The installation in Belfast, ‘DATA Controlled Access DATA ’, comprises of 82 archive boxes handmade from recycled cartons—these contain exchanged ephemera in the form of illustrated letters, small publications, rubberstamped and lavishly decorated envelopes, postcards and cassettes as well as small three-dimentional objects, collected over ten years and including such artists as Robin Crozier, Rod Summers, Stefan Szczelkun, Mark Pawson and Andrej Dudek-Durer. These were all presented and labelled on industrial shelving units that you could select to peruse, enquire about and discuss, if appropriate. Also on show is the gold-painted ‘Pram’, used in a series of rambles in the designated Year of Freedom, 1984, one of which saw Horobin walk across Scotland from Dysart in Fife to Mallaig on the other coast, pushing the pram which contained all his living and studio needs, and re-evoking those images of the Scottish hobo often seen on remote B roads, an image both of exclusion and economy of living. His excursions in the late 1980s into the Scottish landscape, and his Year of the Tent, 1989, during which time he lived in one, have much to offer as a demonstrative, living critique of how our natural heritage has been divided into specialist areas, leaving many resident Scots unable to roam freely or participate in the tourist industry of their own country. One of the many issues of Smile, which he produced, looked at the reality of life on ‘the dole’ and includes the description of the activities of several artists during the course of one day—a fascinating read. Also on show are the postcards from A3 artworks Horobin produced. These well-crafted portraits use words from correspondence to shape remarkable likenesses of his collaborators, who would be mailed the work, thus playing on the medium and processes of mail art.
Although not included in this presentation, but relevant to the positioning of the DATA Archive, are the many hours of video and S8 film material, documentation of actions and interviews with all artists who visited the Attic—a veritable digest of avant-gardists, musicians, mail artists, poets, ranters and Neoists. The latter, according to writer Stewart Home, who has recorded aspects of Horobin’s practice in a number of articles and books, ‘rank among the most likely candidates for future canonisation as part of the tradition that stretches from Futurism and Dada to the Situationists and Fluxus’. This is a partial but informed overview of cultural currents in the 1980s, from a Scottish international vantage point, and is therefore a goldmine for potential repackaging to a major gallery or museum, where it can be properly appreciated in the context of present day art practice. Fluxus and its attributed outgrowth of mail art and other collaborative activities resist easy definition, but understanding them is just the start of fully comprehending the DATA project. Predating the web, mail art was (and is) a medium in which the artist can choose his or her audience, who are also collaborators. This marks it out from the peer approved networks indexed to gallery stables, and because mail art is given away and exchanged, it differentiates itself from the prevalent system of art production and exchange, and to ideas of artistic distribution and reception.
As experimental as these were, two attempts in 1990 to assimilate the DATA Project into the conventional gallery space or context (Transmission on the one hand, and Edge 90 with its theme of Art and Life in the Nineties on the other) were resisted by an intransigent Horobin. According to Haining, he was last heard of in Patagonia making a route for Antarctica. But as Charlie Gere said: ‘A spectre is always a revenant; it begins by coming back.’
Malcolm Dickson is Director of Street Level