Above image: House, Rachel Whiteread, 1993. An Artangel commission. Photo by Edward Woodman.
For over thirty years, Artangel has occupied a central and unique position in the art world, far removed from the restrictive confines of white-walled museums and galleries. Instead, deserted buildings, whole islands, disused factories or former prisons become the unconventional temporary home for artists’ most ambitious dreams and audacious concepts.
Originally founded in 1985 by Roger Took, the organisation has been under the aegis of co-directors James Lingwood and Michael Morris since 1991. Together they have surprised audiences time and again with their extraordinary, wondrous and unusual projects. Working with a range of world-famous as well as emerging national and international artists, across sculpture, installation, sound, performance, film, theatre and dance, they initiate a dialogue between the made and found in which installations are intrinsically bound to their setting. By embracing the contingency of a space, its history, imperfections, atmosphere and mutability, their projects are amplified by the setting and vice-versa.
Early success came with Rachel Whiteread’s Turner Prize-winning House (1993), John Berger’s collaborative sound piece The Vertical Line with Simon McBurney at the disused Strand tube station (1999), and Jeremy Deller’s re-enactment of the 1984 miner’s strike, The Battle of Orgreave (2001). Amid the many projects that stand out in their long oeuvre, Morris and Lingwood are committed to continual innovation and discovery, whether seeking out hidden or forgotten spaces, working at the forefront of technology or uncovering new talent. Their latest project, Everything that Happened and Would Happen, by German composer Heiner Goebbels, a three-hour immersive installation in Manchester’s evocative former railway depot, explored the theme of Europe since the outbreak of World War I through live music, performance and film.
Finn Blythe: Your latest project is not the first time you’ve worked with composers, or indeed with Heiner Goebbals. You’ve previously worked with Brian Eno and Ryoji Ikeda among others and I’m just curious as to how the commissioning process differs from working with a visual artist?
Michael Morris: It doesn’t matter what kind of artist; composer, choreographer, filmmaker, sculptor, it doesn’t make any difference. The ideas and the form of expression are going to change but the way that you work with artists, for James and I, doesn’t. They’re all different, but you apply the same sort of open framework to the discussions that precede production. All of our projects have a long period of genesis and development, I mean sometimes years before you actually schedule something that you could call production.
FB: And so does that process require that you really get to know the artist perhaps more intimately than if you were a head curator at a major gallery?
MM: Sure.You spend four to five years in different stages of process with each artist, and the whole thing is founded on trust, which means you absolutely need to know each other very well. You need to know when it’s helpful to intervene in a thought process and when it’s helpful to intervene in a logistical process, those moments are very different for each project. That is why when we begin a project from the ground up, we begin with a sense of knowing nothing because you can’t take the lessons you’ve learned from one project to the next because it’s completely different. I think that’s how we’ve been able to do this work for several decades, because each project feels like a new beginning. It is a new beginning.
“In the most successful of our projects, the space and the idea are so merged, it’s almost impossible to imagine [the project] taking place anywhere else but there”
FB: Jumping back considerably to your time at the ICA, I just wondered how running the performance arts programme there informed the direction you decided to take with Artangel?
MM: My last couple of years there, I suppose ’86 and ’87, were spent being frustrated with the actual theatre space. I found myself programming things elsewhere in London, in different spaces, some found spaces and some larger-scale, more conventional spaces, and so it was a sort of natural move into thinking, “Actually, there are so many spaces in London, why not use a different space for each project?” So the ICA was a formative time, I was more interested in the performing arts then, I’m much less interested in the performing arts now and my commitment is not to one particular art form, it’s to an idea. If an idea is good, I don’t mind what you call it, whether it’s theatre, art or film, whatever label you put on it. We’ve tried to avoid labelling things, I mean what is Jeremy Deller’s Battle of Orgreave? What was Taryn Simon’s Occupation of Loss? You could say loosely it’s a performance, but it’s more than that. Michael Landy’s Breakdown is a performance of a kind, but the breakdown of describing it is Michael Landy’s breakdown [laughs]. I don’t think audiences actually mind what something is labelled, because audiences can move freely between borders and increasingly do.
FB: Have you found audiences to be more receptive, how has public interaction changed?
MM: We’ve always found audiences incredibly open and adventurous. I think audiences in general no longer want to be passive spectators, they want to be more engaged, they want to know about process. Social media obviously has changed a lot and we’ve had quite a lot of debates because we’ve been very protective of the process behind each of our commissions, we’ve had quite a lot of pressure to say, “Well, there’s followers out there that want to know what’s going on behind closed doors”. It’s been quite an interesting challenge to think, how far do we go? We need to protect the volatility of the production process because things change right up to the last minute and beyond, but we are also conscious there are a lot of people out there online who have an appetite for a way in…we don’t know. Actually, it would be interesting for me to ask you this question: do you think the amount of activity around the arts on social media actually results in more people going to things?
FB: Yes. Without a shadow of a doubt it does, but whether that gets people to attend something for the right reasons is another question.
MM: Well, I’m not sure there’s a right reason to attend something.
FB: But take something like the [Yayoi] Kusama show in London a few years ago. It claimed to be the most Instagramed show ever or something, and the question is, are people going out of an interest and curiosity in the work or is it just to be seen in the room on social media?
MM: Ah, yes I see, it’s the kind of restaurant culture now where the first thing people seem to do is Instagram the plate of food that’s put in front of them, which encourages restaurants to be more and more decorative. So I see what you mean by that and I think if a work’s powerful enough it will speak to anybody regardless of why they come.
“I think that’s how we’ve been able to do this work for several decades, because each project feels like a new beginning. It is a new beginning.”
FB: I totally agree. So do you have a standard process of selecting a location?
MM: Well very rarely does a location come first. There are exceptions to that, the project in Reading Prison [Inside, 2016], the prison came first and we then thought about how to reflect and animate its qualities. But mostly the location comes during the process where we narrow down the kind of place we’re thinking of, we go through many, many site visits until we find the place where the work can really be integrated.
FB: And is the artist involved in that?
MM: Yeah. One of the things we try not to do is show artists really great spaces that we can’t get [laughs], because that’s usually a disaster. We narrow them down and we then may show an artist four or five spaces as opposed to thirty-five. I think in the most successful of our projects, the space and the idea are so merged – it’s almost impossible to imagine the Taryn Simon [An Occupation of Loss] taking place anywhere else but there, it was so right. And I hope that to a greater or lesser extent with all our projects, you can’t disentangle the space from the idea. That’s what we aim for and that’s why it takes so long, because there has to be a very immediate conjunction between what you want to present and where it’s presented.
FB: Do you find that increasingly difficult?
MM: Yes. Partly because it’s a more crowded field now, I mean in the 90s when we were cutting our teeth with this work, it was unusual to do projects in unusual spaces, now it’s pretty much mainstream. Everyone is doing things in unusual spaces all the time, so that makes it more difficult to identify and secure places that people don’t know about. We always try to never work in the same place twice because, well it’s obvious, but each place is chosen for its absolute compatibility with the project. So it’s difficult from all points of view, but after a couple of decades we’ve worked in a lot of spaces in London and whenever we see a new space, we’re made aware that another art group might have seen it the week before or someone will be seeing it later on. It’s great that there are so many art and theater groups doing work in relation to found space but it definitely makes it more difficult for us to secure locations.