The email came through on 20 April: ‘Thousands of Teenagers to Flood Sleaford in New Artwork’. It was an evocative subject heading. I pictured the good people of that town unlocking the gun-rooms, issuing short arms to their womenfolk as the youngsters closed in.
I clicked and read on. The invasion, commissioned by Beacon Art Project, conceived by Kelly Large and entitled Our Name is Legion, was scheduled for an undisclosed date later that month. The plan was to film it ‘from a small non-rigid airship positioned high above the moving and densely packed mass’, the teenagers (wearing high-visibility vests to distinguish them from other citizens) appearing to the airborne camera as a ‘volcanic lava flow of adolescents moving through the grey streets of Sleaford’s town centre’. The film was to be screened at the Hub National Centre for Craft and Design on 19 June. Beacon had invited Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, and broadcaster and naturalist Sir David Attenborough to attend the premiere. It was unlikely that we would see these public figures on the red carpet, but the invitation at least jerked the project into critical focus, emphasising both political and animal aspects of adolescent group behaviour.
Travelling up through Lincolnshire on the day of the invasion, I began to ponder the choice of demographic. I recalled Alun Rowlands’ and Matt Williams’ 2005 group show Growing Up Absurd, which explored the notion that adolescence is not merely a ‘passing phase’ but ‘an Arcadian field of introspection’ that artists continue to draw on, knowingly or unknowingly, throughout their lives. If we had to choose a single phase of existence as an analogy for art practice, then adolescence, with its rude awakenings, its steady farce of pungent epiphanies, is surely the only appropriate one.
It is especially appropriate since modernism, which gave us the concept of the avant-garde, was conceived. The avant-garde artist and the adolescent resemble one another, not only in their need to venture beyond the pale and report back their findings to a sometimes incredulous audience, but in their preoccupation with timing: both repudiate the idea of waiting for the right time to act, both need to act now, and both enter ‘forbidden’ zones. The adolescent enacts adulthood before attaining it, while the avant-garde artist enacts the future of art before it has arrived. In his 1956 book Growing Up Absurd, Paul Goodman identifies a subtle characteristic of adolescent transgression. The notions of ‘attacking the forbidding authority, ultimately the oedipal father’, and the ‘teasing of the authority to win his personal attention’ are the most familiar characteristics.
‘I should like’, writes Goodman, ‘to suggest still a third fundamental attraction in doing the forbidden: the animal need to transgress the limit in order to finish the situation.’ Elsewhere Goodman speaks of the adolescent’s ‘spontaneous acceleration to the goal.’ The avant-garde has a similarly eschatological drive, offering a projected idea of art, rather than asserting the ‘truth value’ of an existing idea of art.
The exhibition Growing Up Absurd consisted of works that were about adolescence; Kelly Large was proposing to use actual adolescents as artistic material. During a residency at Kesteven and Sleaford High School for girls, the artist became fascinated by the large gatherings that took place daily in the market square after school. Here, pupils from the three local schools would congregate before going home on foot and by bus. Large’s project evolved from observing this process of assembly and dispersal.
She encouraged the girls from Kesteven and Sleaford High to ask pupils from the two other schools (St Georges College of Technology and Carre’s Grammar School) to participate in a heightened version of this quotidian event. The girls warmed to the task, effectively ‘hosting’ the work, liaising with their counterparts through Facebook until, eventually, some 1600 high-visibility vests had been distributed. (The headmaster of St Georges, Paul Watson, chose not to participate in the project due to misgivings about its cultural value and logistical viability, but many of his pupils participated anyway.)
I arrived in Sleaford just before home-time. Unfortunately, explained John Plowman and Nicola Streeten (directors of Beacon Art Project), the barrage balloon could not be launched due to a combination of high winds and a funeral that had taken place earlier. A camera had been erected on a pole to compensate for the grounded blimp, accompanied by another stationed on the parapet of St Denys’ Church overlooking the market place and several others positioned at strategic points along the pupils’ anticipated routes. I left them to it, disappearing into the side streets, keen to witness the precise moment at which isolated scatterings of pupils would coalesce into a full-blown municipal anomaly.
Ten minutes passed; the only people in high visibility vests I could see were builders, bin-men, maintenance guys. When the first teenagers appeared, in twos and threes, they looked strangely out of context, like birds blown off their migration course. I was reminded of May Day marches, when friends meet at remote underground stations carrying, but not yet wearing, the livery of their protest. Several girls had stuffed their vests into handbags; others clutched them in their hands, unsure whether to put them on but wanting to be seen to participate. I saw one girl go into a bookshop to change into hers, and another take hers off, as though awaiting some signal to join in. The diffidence was palpable, and for a minute I thought we were in for an anticlimax, that the youngsters would snub Kelly’s call-to-arms as another bland directive issuing from an adult world.
A few minutes later, the bulk of the pupils sluiced on to the main drag and everything went yellow. We were in business.
I followed the hordes back to the square to photograph the main gathering—and immediately got into an altercation with a Community Support Officer. I remarked— jocularly, I thought—that her vest happened to be the same yellow as the pupils’. The suggestion that her visibility, and by implication her authority, was compromised did not go down well. She demanded to know why I’d photographed her, what I was doing in Sleaford. I said I was covering the event for MAP (no, she had not heard of it). As she rebuked me for carrying no official press credentials, it became clear that visiting a place in order to witness something unusual is not a valid reason for being there. She was angered and confused by the spectacle. Those high-visibility vests, ordinarily used to denote sanctioned authority, had been transformed into emblems of moral ambivalence: you could not decide, as you walked among the teenagers and noted the racist and homophobic graffiti that a few had marker-penned on their bibs, whether something unruly was being brought to heel or whether something orderly was beginning to unravel.
The phrase ‘our name is legion’ evokes menacing solidarity, the synonymity of individual and multitude. The border between the individual and the multitude is never so porous as in adolescence, which entails the constant measuring of the self against a peer average. In late adolescence this ‘collaborative’ self, this hydra of peer-influences, must be set against another average, that of society, which is to human culture as zoos are to the animal kingdom: a series of pragmatic enclosures designed to accommodate behavioural difference. And finally, as young adults, we reject altogether the notion of the self as a collaborative project, tailoring a more fixed, independent subjectivity to what we imagine is a stable society. But society is of course far from being a finished product, and our collusion in its rhetorical stability is simply a way of curbing our own sociality.
For we cannot espouse pure, solipsistic sociality and expect to prosper in society. Co-existence requires the enforcement of commonality: the self we ultimately become is the result of a bargain struck between our instinctive sociality (the behaviour developed in youth to negotiate group situations) and a prescriptive society (the name given to the most accepted or ‘common’ forms of behaviour).
Our Name is Legion offered an implicit critique of the state apparatuses that mediate between adolescent sociality and adult society. Louis Althusser categorised state apparatuses as Repressive State Apparatuses (the government, police, military) and Ideological State Apparatuses (family, religion, school, culture). For Althusser, ‘an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices. This existence is material’. Althusser’s preoccupation is thus with how state ideology is materialised as action. Large’s intervention materialised a release from ideology, or more accurately materialised the point at which the pupils were released from one ideology (school) to be propelled into another (the home). And yet the stigmatising way in which this was done—with high-visibility vests, the garb of the steward, the sanctioned maintainer of order—was borrowed from a repressive lexicon. The curious result being that ‘home-time’, that locus of adolescent euphoria, was given the feel of another state apparatus.
There is a converse reading: the event also resembled a demonstration. What were those teenagers demanding, bystanders might have asked themselves, as they backed into doorways to let them pass: suffrage, lower ages of consent? They seemed to signify something far more ineffable. They seemed, in their fluorescent ubiquity, to distil Goodman’s ‘spontaneous acceleration to the goal’ into an essence.
The problem with socially engaged art is that it often presupposes the existence of a malleable public, patiently awaiting artistic direction and cultural emancipation. In her enlisting of a specific demographic, Kelly Large avoided the bland inclusivity that bedevils the more familiar socially engaged projects. Visit the website of Spencer Tunick and you see that everyone is invited to participate in his naked get-togethers. To do so you must click on a swatch of ‘skin tone’ colours, so that Spencer can add you to his Huxleyian ranks of chromatically graded humans. In Tunick’s work, everyone is included, but only in order to utter the same scripted platitude: ‘we are all naked beneath our clothes’. Tunick is socially engaged art at its worst: art that uses the public as undifferentiated material to ‘reach’ the public—and thereby remind the public of its homogenous condition as the public.
Our Name is Legion did the opposite, dividing the public into ‘us’ and ‘them’. It reminded me of Julie Henry’s 2005 work ‘Going Down’, in which two cameras are trained on opposing sets of football fans and the results projected alongside one another. We are not shown the game itself, just its effect on the spectators: a goal brings elation to one set of fans and despair to the other. There is greater scope for artists in exploring conflicts of interest, schisms and discontinuities in the social realm than in trying to bring people together. True, Large’s tactics of division and stigmatisation are risky, but they acknowledge the fact we are not together, the public, not by any means, even when—perhaps especially when—we inhabit the same spaces.
Sean Ashton is a writer based in London
Kelly Large’s Our Name is Legion on www.beaconartproject.org