I have been receiving cards in the post for some time now. Over a period of several years they have arrived regularly, possibly as often as one a month, each following a consistent format: single sided, B5 size, monochrome, predominantly text only. Their layout is equally consistent, rarely deviating from the simple presentation of text spaced evenly across the surface of the card in sans serif font. They are desirable objects, if you have a thing for stark design and clean typefaces. They are sharply attuned to the cool logic of the private view invitation card.
The text on these cards has become increasingly hectoring although the voice in which they address me has remained familiar. It is explanatory and assertive, filled with the precise authority of communication ‘en masse’ . Over the last year, however, a conspicuous realignment in this voice’s tone and intent has occurred; the disappearance of a previous air of purposeful instruction and its substitution for the repetitive whine of the edifying sermon.
Alongside myself, these cards have been sent to numerous others by Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock (JCHP). The moniker is the result of the amalgamation of two galleries—Jeffrey Charles Gallery and Henry Peacock Gallery—which formed in 2005. At the root of the individual galleries and the resulting collaboration are artists Kev Rice, Dave Smith and Thom Winterburn. The cards sent to their mailing list are not preludes to exhibitions in a physical space; the point of merger between the two organisations also marked the announcement of their disavowal of artwork as it exists within the confines of a gallery. To quote from the first card distributed by the newly formed collective:
The gallery will initiate an alternative approach to the dissemination and reception of artworks. Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock (JCHP) is not interested in unconditionally accepting the prescribed criteria for running an art gallery.
The gallery’s exhibitions will be received in the form of editions and be distributed free of any purchase price.
The gallery dissociates itself from the defined interior of a room. By organising dispersed exhibitions the gallery will avoid the habitual limitations that any designated building imposes on its visitor.
From 2005 to 2008 the distributed cards functioned as announcements for the existence of ‘exhibitions’, available to be consumed through a clear process of exchange. By sending your postal address to a PO Box during the allocated dates of the exhibition you would in turn receive the artwork, the nature of which was defined in each case by JCHP and the individual artist with whom they were working. In instances that departed from this system of distribution, the card’s text would describe an act of dissemination already undertaken by the gallery, or outline a more active set of terms the recipient would need to follow in order to experience the content of the exhibition.
This is how everyone should consume art
In as much as the text on each announcement card conveyed clear information about the individual project and its rules of engagement, the reformation of Jeffrey Charles and Henry Peacock could be considered to have been a critical conceit straight from the realm of ‘curator-as-creator’; a progressive attempt to redefine an arena for exhibition-making, with its roots in conceptual art practices of instruction and nomination.
Within the laying out of terms between the ‘gallery’ and its ‘audience’ there was a strong sense of curatorial authorship. Both the clear branding of JCHP and the emphasis on ‘front-end’ interaction (ie the process of engagement via the postal service that was required in order to fully encounter the exhibition) tended to overshadow the actual content of each editioned artwork.
But equally the manner of address adopted by the cards wrong-footed any clear emergence of a simple critique of gallery-based presentation. Instead, as the body of projects grew, the narrative that appeared was that of a moral imperative. The voice serving the role of exhibition announcer was prone to periodic and declarative statements as to the ‘correct’ way to consume art and to lead our lives, and underpinning these assertions was the educative and essayistic nature of some of the distributed projects themselves.
While the basic starting point for JCHP’s collaboration with an artist was the dissemination of their work for free, those ‘exhibitions’ that emanated solely from the gallery (without additional authorship) were marked by their attempt to assert forms of social transaction beyond the context of art, and through more direct means of gifting.
From June and July 2006, the announcement card described the exhibition as the total budget for the project divided into 100 numbered equal denominations. The exhibition could be received by the usual means of application to the given PO Box address. A subsequent exhibition (date unspecified) was announced in northern dialect phonetics, detailing the decision to counteract the fact that ‘Wor context is made up bi whoivver knaws summat abaht t’rules o’ t’game’ by distributing the exhibition to 100 people living in a village in the countryside in Northern England (the nature of this exhibition was not described). In July and August 2007, the exhibition titled Essai sur le don was outlined as an entire quotation of The Gift: the Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies by Marcel Mauss, distributed to 18 designated recipients, the names of whom were listed on the card without any explanation as to the reasoning behind their selection.
Beyond the simplistic anti-commercial stance taken through the dissemination of artworks without financial recompense, these projects functioned as object lessons. They were provocations towards a wider understanding and engagement with the obligations inherent in the acts of giving and receiving. The distribution of the Marcel Mauss essay to a select few (and the notification of those not selected as to what they were missing out on) can be clearly seen within the logic defined in the text itself; The Gift is a study of the role of gift-giving in various pre-modern societies, that emphasises the moral code that obligates reciprocity, while also outlining the competitive and strategic basis for such a cycle of transaction.This is still a prompt…verging on a demand
In October 2008 a sea change occurred in the constitution of the announcement cards. This shift was abrupt, as if a point of critical mass had occurred through the accumulation of previous projects and had forced the hand of JCHP. September 2008 saw the distribution of a blank grey card, a marked hiatus in the schedule of distribution that seemed to constitute a pause for breath (the politician’s pause, mid-sentence, in order that no-one is able to interject comfortably).
The subsequent card was headed with the number (1). It was both a reflection on the first card distributed by JCHP in November 2005, which outlined their initial modus operandi, and a fusion of the informational, educative and dogmatic tones of the gallery’s previous output reconstituted into a fresh declaration:
Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock began producing and distributing exhibitions in 2005 and will continue as a collaborative and collaborating group. Admittedly our practice thus far has produced a surfeit of supply and a dearth of demand. We aim to relocate away from peripheral relations of distribution—curatorial conceits etc—towards a primarily authorial means of production and distribution.
The recipient of a work (by post or in a gallery or wherever) will enter into relations with its production and reproduction by preparing a later return. We mean to treat the audience as potential collaborators. Contributing towards future output, somehow. This is a prompt.
The text goes on in the style of an artist’s statement cum- essay that, in theoretical terms, lays out a practice based on production—one where the direct distribution of the results of this production is centred on the logic of gift-giving, the enacting of a moral bond between producer and recipient. It is an aspirational text, ambiguous in its terms and implied methodologies, yet it also makes clear the desire to relocate the site of the JCHP practice. Where previously the announcement card served as the primary point of interaction around which an exhibitive gesture would be made manifest, the emphasis is shifted towards an unexplained ‘production’ situated elsewhere with an equally unexplained reciprocity from the JCHP audience.
Over the past year I have received 15 subsequent numbered cards. But rather than reverting to a practical explanation of the terms under which this new practice would operate (the means by which the recipient of the card could further engage with the implied product), the cards have doggedly pursued a multi-part declaration in the form of a very public rumination as to the expectations and intentions of JCHP as an artistic practice. The tone of these statements is assured, the voice of edifying reason. Yet equally, across the total density of multiple and long-winded texts, key points of principle are repeated and reframed. It is as if the voice addressing its audience is attempting to locate a single phrasing that would achieve ultimate communication and its desired response.
Gradually the cards accumulatively depict an ‘authorial means of production and distribution’, reformed under moral conditions that demand a dislocation from the ‘usurious’ intentions of the culture industry. Veiled beneath the spew of circumlocutory statements and their departures into archaic, ritualistic and biblical references, there is the indication that the collaborative enterprise of JCHP is engaged in an austere process of creation. Described both as ‘penitent’ and born from ‘a desire to formulate a state of mutual disappointment between ourselves and an audience’, this process would seem to centre on the drawn or painted reproduction of ‘pre-existent images’—a laborious, mechanical action undertaken in the ‘evenings and dark hours’. It is clear that these ‘artworks’ are not intended to hold meaning in and of themselves, but rather the enacting of repeated labour serves to create an object of ‘merchandise’ to be used as a tool or device within the wider practice.
The notion of such an ‘arbitrary and procedural’ work, the form of which however implies a final state of framed, conventional display, raises questions as to the means of distribution (or exhibition) that JCHP intends such work to be made visible through. In pursuing the stated intention to give the works away, to operate within the terms laid out by Marcel Mauss (of gift-giving as engendering an obligation to reciprocate), the emphasis is on individual social interactions. The act of faith from JCHP (or the belligerent proposal) lies in the premise that the total practice is founded on the reciprocal processes that occur from this transaction—that in the absence of an intended meaning within the object itself, the engagement from an audience is relocated away from a ‘consumer reflex’, towards the complications and obligations inherent in the relations between production and reception.
But does this process achieve the realisation of the moral responsibility that pulses throughout the text of the announcement cards, simply through the avoidance of the economic conventions of exchange under which contemporary art operates? The answer perhaps lies in the experience I have outlined in this text: of being directly addressed by the voice of JCHP on a monthly basis for four years, of being harangued and lectured and prompted. This is an experience that a delineated number of people will share, a familiarity with a dense and highly elegant language prone to the most telling of analogies, and recourse to fire and brimstone dogma.
The innumerable pragmatic and theoretical questions raised by the practice are likely also to be shared by others. Who exactly are the works (the paintings and drawings) being given to? Would these objects succeed in nullifying any interpretation if they were experienced in isolation? What is the appropriate response to the prompts to ‘prepare a later return’? How as an audience can we contribute to ‘future output’?For what we are about to receive, may you be…
To be bludgeoned into such a relationship with a practice—both that which is considered to be artistic, and that which is more generally social—is undoubtedly a disruptive experience. It is perhaps best described through JCHP’s own reference to the Brechtian device of Verfremdungseffekt, the ‘distancing effect’. This theatrical device is defined as a means to prevent the audience from losing itself passively in characterisation (also described as ‘making strange’), the intention being to enable the audience as a consciously critical participant in the production. Such an effect is experienced by the JCHP audience in the temporal and ideological elongation of the practice; in the provocations, implications and invitations that circumvent the production of artworks.
From the utterances of recent announcement cards it would seem that JCHP are preparing a form of public interaction between the various constituent parts of their practice and their audience. This ‘event’ will begin in London, in the National Gallery’s Room A, a basement space that is open to the public once a week, where works from the National collection are hung in a state of transition. These are ‘lesser’ works, those that were previously attributed to a master but have now been repudiated by the establishment, and those not deemed of enough importance to be displayed with the formality and interpretive framing of the upper rooms. This room, where artistic production is severed from the overbearing hand of attributed value, is a talismanic starting point for JCHP. If we are to encounter the fruits of the collective’s own production through the course of this event, it will surely be an experience that leads to further states of complexity and obligation.
Richard Birkett is assistant curator at the ICA, London Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock cards may be viewed at www.jc-hp.co.uk