ICA: Trouble at Mall

The ICA’s director is stepping down amid reports of resignations and staff revolt. But is this crisis just a symptom of the sickness of the avant-garde?

David Lister
Tuesday 28 September 2010 00:00 BST

When the director of the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Ekow Eshun, announced recently that he was stepping down, it was no great surprise. The ICA has been in crisis for some time. Staff had already held a secret ballot on whether they had confidence in the director; this followed redundancies, £1m of cuts, and the resignation of the director of exhibitions, reportedly saying that he would only stay if Mr Eshun went.

But the ICA’s woes should not be put entirely at Mr Eshun’s door. The crisis has been long simmering – and it revolves around the institution’s very identity. Founded in 1946, the ICA’s purpose was to establish a space where artists, writers and scientists could debate, exhibit and perform outside the traditional confines of the Royal Academy. In the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies, the Grade 1-listed facade of its London home became synonymous with the intellectual and artistic avant-garde – from the Independent Group of artists in the Fifties with its early explorations of advertising and Pop Art, via the film-maker and situationist Guy Debord being chased across the rooftops by an audience appalled at his film, to the wonderfully named Cosey Fanni Tutti’s 1976 show Prostitution, which explored pornography and left nothing to the imagination.

For decades, this august building on the north side of The Mall, designed by John Nash and a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, was where one went to delight in or protest at the contrast of the most experimental, risqué and often ridiculous cutting-edge art and performance in the stucco-fronted heart of the establishment. When Norman Rosenthal ran the ICA in the Seventies he was physically attacked by opponents. His blood was preserved, put under glass and itself became an artwork titled Norman’s Blood.

But in recent years, with the experimental and cutting edge commonplace, with the growth in fringe theatre, contemporary dance, art house film and, of course, the Tate’s Turner Prize offering the weirdest the art world has to offer (the ICA’s own imitation, the Beck’s Futures Prize, had a short life as most people preferred the real thing), people began asking: what exactly is the point of the ICA? The institution that was a byword for the avant-garde had lost its identity.

That remains a huge problem for it. My own suggestion is that it should concentrate on breaking talent. Principally, it could become the gallery for unknowns: the next generation of artists, film-makers, etc. It could be the gallery that spots talent and creates stars, rather than chasing the same “names” as everyone else. That would give it a selling point. It should also develop something it does do well, its talks programme. Talks and discussions about, say, fundamentalist Islam and the effect it is having on the arts – the fear of staging plays, making films or writing novels that offend. Discussing that and perhaps putting on work that has been taken off elsewhere after fundamentalist protest is an area where few if any other arts institutions would dare trespass. Discussing the undiscussable is as daring as one can get in culture today. The ICA has made some brave inroads into this. It should do more.

But the crisis at the ICA underlines a much wider and much more intriguing question. In an age where everyone wants to be cutting edge and experimental, where there is virtually no censorship and the power to shock is all but gone, is there any longer such a thing as the avant-garde? The answer, I believe, is yes, but not as we know it, or are accustomed to think of it.

Take, for example, the observation made by the playwright David Hare in The Independent last week. Delighting in the Proms season that has just finished, he said: “Just look at the Proms! Roger Wright [director of the Proms] proved with the extraordinary season this summer that people will listen to avant-garde music. He’s moved the centre of gravity in British music from the 19th to the 20th century. The programme was crammed with figures who were supposed to be unpopular, yet audiences were huge.”

Contemporary classical music: still the most unloved of art forms, as cutting edge and challenging now as it was back in the ICA’s heyday. The proms did indeed showcase a good deal of this. Alongside Beethoven and Wagner were Cage, Stockhausen, Schoenberg & Co. In fact, 50 of the 76 concerts had 20th and 21st century composers, with an array of unusual sound worlds. A piece by John Cage used eight anvils and four car brake drums. But the venue and the occasion are also significant. The avant-garde in classical music was experienced at the world’s biggest and most famous music festival and in the Royal Albert Hall. The music is avant-garde, the event is mainstream. The fringe no longer has a monopoly on the experimental.

Indeed, the greatest change in how we perceive the avant-garde is that the venue is now often an integral part of the power of the presentation. In theatre, the use of the many sprawling rooms at Battersea Arts Centre by Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death to lead audiences on a macabre promenade performance of mystery, murder and burlesque changed the nature of going to the theatre, as did this year’s production of a Chekhov play in a disused department store at the Brighton festival, another promenade performance in which the audience peeked through a window at a Chekhovian afternoon garden tea and then went upstairs to a floor back in its department store shape to be given by a sales pitch, interrupted by a tramp lying down on one of the beds and having to be evicted. In an atmospheric blending of performance, film and installation created by performers, architects’ model-makers and art designers, performance and venue merged into a sensory experience which bore little relation to conventional theatre but lingered disturbingly in the memory. And, as an essential ingredient of contemporary avant-garde theatre, the audience becomes part of the performance.

The radical use of venue is apparent in contemporary dance, as shown in recent performances by troupes in art galleries such as Tate Modern. And film too is coming out of the cinema, be it for a movie projected on to the National Theatre’s fly tower, or last week’s screening of Taxi Driver in a Soho car park. It is the dual experience of art and venue adding a new dimension to a classic work that can justifiably be called an avant-garde approach. But in film, of all art forms, one looks too for what one might paradoxically call the more traditional avant-garde.

If one is looking for the kind of radical experiment that characterised the 1920 cinema of Vertov, Eisenstein & Co in Russia or the Surrealists in France, one is unlikely to find it. But there is experimental work still being made. In the US, directors like Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas and even the younger Harmony Korine are sometimes described as avant-garde. Similar arguments can be made too for Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze. Jonze’s Being John Malkovich went on a tour inside Malkovich’s head. The film was scripted by Charlie Kaufman, who consistently tests the boundaries of plot and dialogue.

Dogme in Denmark, also in the Nineties, can be seen as avant-garde even if the films weren’t always that adventurous in form. The directors all signed a 10-part Vow of Chastity akin to avant-garde manifestos of past. They were self consciously part of a movement defining itself against Hollywood and mainstream European production.

But the real avant-garde film work of the moment is the probably unprecedented move of visual artists to cinema. Steve McQueen’s film at the Venice Biennale is just one recent example. His elegiac, two-screen work showed the gardens hosting the Biennale in winter, derelict and unloved; rain dripping; wild dogs scavenging for scraps. Visual artists crossing over to become directors offers intriguing scope to change the medium.

The visual arts themselves are where one often looks for the avant-garde. The problem here is there is no shortage of it. Indeed, in the age of conceptualism and video art, it is harder to find art that is not experimental and what one traditionally thinks of as avant-garde. Every day of the week publicity comes across my desk for a new show that would have delighted ICA programmers decades ago. Here’s one from the Max Wigram Gallery: “Pavel Buchler (winner of the Northern Art Prize 2010) will be installing 75 horn speakers across the expanse of the Gallery wall, and they’ll all be emitting an eerie interpretation of painter, sculptor and poet Kurt Schwitters’ epic sound poem, The Ursonate. This ‘primal sonata’ has been fed through a digital speech programme that radically changes its content, mashing up its classical structure, to spew out an unintelligible, otherworldly language.”

Another day, another avant-garde art show. The seemingly eternal quest for the cutting edge in the visual arts makes the term seem redundant. One dictionary definition of avant-garde is: “a group of people who create or apply new ideas and techniques in any field especially the arts; also such a group that is extremist, bizarre, or arty and affected”. All those epithets can be found in the visual arts’ studied determination to be avant-garde. But that is a cause for celebration, not contempt. As experimentation with materials such as Photoshop, email, mobile phone photography, and every possible form of conceptualism, even public destruction of one’s own art, succeed each other with frightening speed, it is hard to decide whether all art is now avant-garde, or none of it.

The avant-garde in pop and rock has been dormant for some time, though the experimental work of musicians like Janelle Monáe in America is a sign that there are stirrings again. CD art, rather than the music, is probably where one would find the more obvious signs of experimentation, in the stark imagery on albums by Franz Ferdinand and new band Everything Everything.

What is decidedly avant-garde is conceptualism in a quite different art form – literature. Visit Shandy Hall in Yorkshire, where Laurence Sterne wrote his experimental novel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, and one will encounter the first exhibition in Britain of conceptual writing. Conceptual writers sometimes steal from other writers, reordering their text and jumbling it up. Bringing together conceptual art and language, this movement has led to fierce attacks from conventional authors. Influenced by Sterne himself (who plagiarised and rearranged passages) and writers like James Joyce, one leading figure in the movement says conceptual writing “seeks to ask what would a non-expressive poetry look like? A poetry of intellect rather than emotion.” Conceptual writing determinedly makes no claim on originality. It includes a transcription of a year’s weather reports and, in the case of one conceptual writer, the simple repetition of the sentence “I will not make anymore boring art.” It’s fitting that the house where one of the world’s most famous experimental novels was written is in the forefront of avant-garde literature.

One looks more forlornly to television for signs of the avant-garde. Indeed, after praising the Proms, David Hare added: “Sadly, there is no such enlightened patronage for the avant-garde in television.” His view is that “these days there is some good mainstream work, but very little radical work. If you ask the BBC, what is the cutting edge, then the cutting edge seems incredibly blunt. People aren’t pushing at the boundaries, and those who would are not being supported.”

It is hard to disagree. In a visual sense one really, and slightly bizarrely, has to look back to the eighties and the late Kenny Everett, whose comedy show experimented with the medium, spinning the picture round, and of course to the seventies and Terry Gilliam’s graphics in Monty Python. TV directors are rarely interested in experimenting with form today. In terms of content too, there is little experimentation in drama or film. Indeed, one could wryly comment that a season of classic drama now would be such a radical breakthrough it could almost be avant-garde.

But if television is obstinately and fearfully non-experimental, other art forms continue to give the lie to the death of experimentation. The avant-garde, like nostalgia, is not what it was. But it certainly exists. It is just to be found in locations that we might not expect; it is experimenting in ways that we might not expect; and it has moved to art forms where we might not expect to find it. But it is alive, reasonably healthy and in numerous places. If that is bad news for the ICA, it is exciting news for the rest of us. Institutions sometimes stand still. Culture rarely does.

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