Odds and sods

Heard the one about the artist, the bookie and the Methodist priest? Adrian Searle tells all
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This weekend, the usually cautious Barbican Art Gallery in London will be hosting an action-packed, fun filled, interactive extravaganza devised by the performance artist Annie Griffin. Exploring the relationship between art, gambling and the National Lottery, The Art Casino will bring together artists, film-makers and performers with gamblers, punters, racing buffs, bookies, card-sharps, croupiers, psychologists, sociologists and a Methodist priest. All this with the aim of analysing gambling's big drawand, more pertinently, what the connections might be between having a flutter and making art.

Aiming to become a successful artist, as killjoy careers advisers will tell you, is a bad bet with long odds - it's a mug's game. To prove the point, Griffin has asked contributing artists to provide, not their art- world biographies for the catalogue, but their financial histories. They make terrifying reading.

Meanwhile, across the river in deepest Stockwell, artist Martin Maloney will be propping open the front door to his flat, turning his repossession- bargain des-res into a poverty-chic gallery called Lost in Space. The title of his inaugural show, Neo-Naive, is a provocative self-deprecation which sets the mood. There's a furry mat that might be art in the bathroom, a spare bedroom stuffed with paper bags, art in the living room, in the kitchen and on the stairs. A mural of two love birds peeks out from a rip in the wallpaper, on the far side of Maloney's unmade bed. Even the spelling in the catalogue is awry.

Both these maverick ventures pit themselves against the white-walled decorum of the gallery and the so-called autonomy of the art object. Griffin has turfed the Barbican's floors and transformed the gallery into a gaming room where the public can, among other diversions, play Laura Ford's one- armed bandits, risk worthless chips at the tables and enjoy Mark Wallinger's film about his unsuccessful race-horse, A Real Work of Art. Martin Maloney, who aside from being a cut-price curator, is a contributor to FlashArt and the Burlington Magazine, wants his audience to see the work in his flat in a domestic situation which somehow challenges the neutrality of the art gallery.

But galleries are never neutral spaces. Their pristine walls, polished hardwood floors and sub-zero emotional climate are a recent phenomenon. Once, not so very long ago, men in frock coats padded about on oriental rugs, guiding clients and enthusiasts to commodious sofas and arranging their artistic wares above sculpted dados and on ornate pedestals.

Many artists have viewed the modern white-cell approach with suspicion. This is neither new, nor is it surprising. They see the gallery as arrogant and elitist, and the art they make is fuelled by an implicit antagonism to the system which supports them.

The anaemic virtues of the gallery - within which the art supposedly speaks for itself, unencumbered by its environment - might be regarded as a defence against the messiness at its door, a denial of the confusions and inequalities of life on the street outside. "Challenging" the gallery space and the institution by way of audience-participation, game-show exhibitions like curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist's recent Take Me (I'm Yours) at the Serpentine Gallery in London often turn out to be give-away, throw- away, please-go-away exercises in curatorial stage management. A recent venture called This Is the Show and the Show Is Many Things, at a museum in Ghent, Belgium, began with the premise that the most exciting part of any exhibition is its behind-the-scenes installation: so let's open the exhibition first and install it later, in the full gaze of the curious public! Aiming for a de-mystifying, democratic collaboration between all its participants, the exhibition was an unmitigated disaster. One artist, the American grunge-sculptor Jason Roades, finally put all his work in a cage appended with a note reading "this is the show and the show is over".

In the late 1980s, young British artists attempted to circumvent the gallery system from which they were excluded, by taking advantage of the vast acreage of unoccupied, recession-hit property. These warehouse shows, beginning with Freeze in Docklands (in which Damien Hirst first surfaced) started as relaxed, ad hoc enterprises, but soon, with their glossy catalogues and dramatic design, they began to ape the pomp and portentousness of the big museum show. In their wake, a subsequent generation of young artists has begun to explore more ingenious ways not only of presenting art, but of making it too.

Works have emerged that are apparently more relaxed, comical, trivial and personal. Art which doesn't even care whether it is art, based on autobiographical incidents, ephemeral encounters with everyday life, tabloid headlines and private fantasies are becoming the norm. A rapid turnover of ideas - the sudden inspiration, the joke and the prank are seen as more vital than quality; amusing one's peer group is deemed more valuable than a place in history. Theory is out, spontaneous low-budget ideas are in. There's something brave in all this, whether it turns up as a vending machine in a bar - dispensing cigarette lighters disguised as art-works - or a cutting-edge collaboration between artists and patients in Hackney Hospital, a bedsit show in Camden or, as in Sarah Staton's travelling art boutique, a show disguised as an art-work bargain basement, currently at Middlesbrough Art Gallery, Cleveland.

The quickfire multiples Staton sells (some have been bought by the Arts Council, and are on display as part of the Royal Festival Hall's Multiples) often wouldn't look out of place at a car boot-sale, yet their plangent impoverishment often has a wit, accessibility and endearing stupidity which points up the muscle-bound pretensions of bigger schemes.

If younger artists don't seem to be risking much, it is because they haven't got much to begin with, and even less to lose. The stakes are still high, but they've changed the game, and nobody knows the rules yet.

n Barbican: The Art Casino, until 21 May; Royal Festival Hall: Multiples, until 11 June; Middlesbrough Art Gallery: Sarah Staton Supastore until 27 May (01642 247445); Lost in Space (0171- 978 9107): Neo Naive, until 28 May