Talk with a constructed world
Might Be Good, Issue 88, May 18, 2007

In a studio visit that took place over ten days, from April 28 and May 9, freelance curator Pelin Uran talked to Jacqueline Riva and Geoff Lowe, who began collaborating under the name A Constructed World in 1993. Since then their practice has taken a variety forms, including photography, video, performance, printed matter and workshops. Their work has been included in exhibitions such as the Emergency Biennale (2005-6), Tirana Biennale (2003) and Saõ Paulo Bienal (1998). In 2003 and again in 2006, they were invited to participate in forums by the Guggenheim Museums in New York and Bilbao. They inaugurated the artists-in-residence program at the Serpentine Gallery London in 2002. In this studio visit Pelin and A Constructed world talk about their collaborative projects.

Pelin Uran: Can you talk briefly about your individual work before you began collaborating? How did you decide to collaborate?

A Constructed World (ACW): The first project we did together was Artfan magazine in 1993, where we published reviews by people who-said-they-didn't-know-about-art alongside “professionals.” It started in Melbourne and the last issue, the tenth, was produced with the Serpentine Gallery in London in 2002. Geoffrey trained as a painter; I studied photography, video and film. When we started working together, I was largely doing the painting and Geoffrey the videos, which was a kind of identification with not-knowing that continues in our research.

Working together means you can do a lot more. We make exhibitions, publications, events, lectures and we have also made many collaborative workshops. Collaboration as a model takes notice of the fact that we create and influence each other. For us it has also been finding a way, as artists, to let how others think and respond. This plays a role in what we were making.

PU: There are at least two themes I have followed in your work. One is bringing people into art as opposed to bringing art to people. Another is the concept of not-knowing as a shared place. Were these ideas born out of Artfan? Can you say more about the models you work with?

ACW: Yes. Rather than taking art from the institution to the people, we tend to bring the audience, be that in groups or one-on-one, into the institution. Artfan magazine, with its non-professional writers, invited people who didn't know about contemporary art to go to galleries and write about it. We did many workshops with non-artists and amateurs along with artists, writers and curators and showed those works in our commercial galleries and museums. Often we work with people who define themselves by saying I don't-know-about-art, I-can't-sing etc... We are always looking for platforms to represent that.

PU: Although most contemporary art is produced collectively, we have a tendency to believe in the individual creators. However, in much of your work your collaboration extends to a variety of people, especially amateurs and non-art specialists. Is this a crucial aspect of your work? How will it, if at all, effect the presentation of your work at your first museum exhibition at the Australian Center for Contemporary Art (ACCA) in Melbourne?

ACW: It's not a crucial aspect of our work. The show at ACCA will mainly present works that just the two of us have made: video installations, paintings, drawings and events. There will be a few works made in collaborative workshops, and there will also be works that require audience interaction. When we do collaborate with other people we are looking towards “not-knowing as a shared space.” Most artists say they don't really know what their work is about when they are making it, so we invite the audience to inhabit the same space rather than inhabiting the previous cultural construct. It's partly a question of how we can update our interface with the audience rather than telling people what to think. This current period looks to contemporary art for a kind of leadership but it often feels like we have less ways of saying than we did previously.

The ACCA show is not a retrospective but a reanimation of some of the projects we have made over the last six years. Some of them will become very different to previous versions. The title of the show is Increase Your Uncertainty. Our country is deeply into what they call "dog whistle politics," where the speaker leaves an absence to suggest something else. We are interested to see what we can introduce into that.

We have some trouble with the way our work has been perceived here, the frames that have been put on our work: "community art," "relational aesthetics," etc. Like in Italy, everyone lives and talks in an international framework but when it comes to writing it down, the demand is always for an acutely localized context. In Italy, nearly every show is about "Young Italian Artists," while in Australia the debate between geometric abstraction and figuration has sustained. Relational aesthetics arrived as an official discourse to conferences in Australia in 2004, and you can't help but feel there is something disingenuous about the way the institutions seem to have lagged behind.

PU: And in relation to the previous question, how important is the decentralization of authorship in your work?

ACW: Given that the mainstream art-world functions on the need for authorship, signature and spectatorship, I think even working as two people in collaboration we present a challenge. Many people ask us who painted what, who edits the videos, who thought of that idea, it seems in order to work out who is the most creative or skilled of the two of us. Working with the collaborative groups sometimes raises the question of authenticity, especially considering non-artists and non-professionals are often involved in those projects.

PU: In 2001, you worked on two different collaborative workshop projects in the States. Art Crew, in New York City, was a collaboration with Lower East Side high-school teenagers that formed part of the Artists Space education program; and Wild Kingdom in Philadelphia, by contrast, was a collaboration with a group of investment managers at the company’s invitation. Can you compare these two workshops?

ACW: It would be very difficult to compare these two groups. One was a group of challenged teenagers who lived in an environment where most of the adults they came into contact with thought they were useless. The other comprised very well-educated, privileged successful people with bright futures and the capacity to make lots of money.

The teens were from a failing school and were considered to have no futures. We asked two young artists, Ester Partegas and Octavius Neveaux, to work with us, hoping also that it would bridge the age gap between us all. After a few sessions together we found that the thing we all had in common was that we had either seen someone be killed or seen a body just after death, be that a murder or an auto accident. This became one of the main themes of the works we made together. The scenes were acted out in a series of tableaux titled Chaotic War Spills.

We were invited to teach the investment managers about contemporary art. In that company, there’s a contemporary art collection hanging around the work space, which many employees were complaining about. Of course we didn't teach them about contemporary art; we just listened to what they didn't like about the works. With sixteen people discussing a work, you get sixteen competing voices, and you also realize that everybody knows, so you don't have to teach them anything. It was a great group of people willing to take risks and to travel somewhere together. If there is a comparison, the teens had already taken more risks than most of these people would take in their lifetime.

PU: You state that one of the most important concerns of your art is bringing people into art as opposed to bringing art to people. Furthermore, you usually work with art institutions to show your work. Do you think that your work escapes the contradiction that is true of relational aesthetics inasmuch as it engages with certain communities who are already within the art world? If so, how does it do this?

ACW: The people involved in the collaborative workshops come from different backgrounds, different levels of engagement with art, and include non-artists and people who never go to galleries. It's taken from the model of psychoanalysis where the analyst “doesn't-know” and the analysand eventually realizes that. So in this sense we don't teach or tell the audience what we know; we bring them into the same situation we are in and find a place for their gestures and comments. Rather than taking the knowledge outside to where-the-people-are, we mainly do work together in galleries, ARI's and institutions. There is really no place outside of where we are together.

PU: I can see three major influences in your work. Firstly, surrealist magazines that published articles by professionals as well as non-professionals; secondly, the Situationists, for whom the concept of a constructed situation was intended to replace artistic representation through the experimental realization of artistic energy in everyday environments; and thirdly Allan Kaprow, who emphasized the integration of art and real life as well as artist-spectator involvement. How much have they influenced your artistic practice?

ACW: Working with other people has sometimes been the bigger influence. I learned to take more risks because that was something that non-artists could do. In some ways the audience takes more risks than the artist, especially when they don't know. Contemporary art can be quite a repressive figure, particularly the way it’s taught in schools and presented in museums; everything is questioned and doubted over and over. Then one figure is chosen from the many and promoted very hard. It's not really a culture because everyone doubts and questions each other and relies on the only one who succeeds in fulfilling their desire. Still you're right, contemporary art also has a long history of restless identification with not knowing.

PU: Plausible Artworlds, the project you are involved in at Basekamp, Philadelphia, will take place in September. This re-imagines complex cultural systems which are understood to define both the limits and potentials of contemporary art. What kind of alternative art-worlds do you have in mind? Is the project also process-oriented?

ACW: For us Artfan presents an alternative art-world, or a plausible art-world if you like. It encourages competing voices, different levels of experience and specialization and includes people who say they know nothing about contemporary art. It’s on the side of the question; it doesn't look for the answer, and it attempts to keep the question open. There’s already a large audience that works in an exchange system that's not about buying or investing in artworks, but it remains a struggle to represent this. The project at Basekamp asks not so much what will we do, but rather how can we represent what's already happening?

PU: Since your art engages with the art system in general rather than the social and political concerns of the world at large, do you see it as limiting or liberating?

ACW: It's an appropriate question. We left Australia partly to escape the horrible politics, but as an effect of globalism those ideas have followed us to every country we have lived in. As assets and resources are sold we have less public ownership; and as countries have less together it’s hard to see how we can be citizens at all. The figure ground relation is constantly changing. I really have no idea why the wider public has so decisively renounced the ideas of the left so totally. If you look at a project like the www.isloartcenter.org, on many levels it has failed for the last seven years. Yet as art, it remains satisfying and inspiring; it fails better.