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The Useful Turn (initial ramble)

About ten months ago I was sitting at GI Festival’s Hub desk. I think it was an early Sunday morning and we were quiet. This was a voluntary gig so I figured I could peek at the copy of Frieze on the desk to fill half an hour. Sam Thorne’s ‘What’s the Use?’ has been pacing my minds-mind since that day. And perhaps now, more than ever.

Art. Use. (?)
Use Art. (!..?)


Thorne surrounds his article on the work of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera. Works such as placing a replica of Fountain in a functioning bathroom and an art academy in her home, are mentioned. It is said that she wants to create art that does not point at a thing, but that is itself a thing. In theory these words are refreshing. They break down the white cube, diminish the inaccessible plinth, and open up the gilded frame. But, but.

But art is a manifestation of ideas, with a contextual platform. Art as a thing, would surely just be a thing. Depending on what a thing is. An object?

Things are entities of vibrant agency and include, but cannot be reduced to, intentions designed by humans, or semiotic description. Things are actors and causation happens when actors affect each other in a larger network of connections. Jane Bennett’s theories on Thing Power abandon the distinction between people and objects. Both are leveled to ‘things’ in what is deemed a post-humanist perspective. Rather than dealing with relations between the object and subject, Bennett explains that things are reciprocal and fluid. An object is described as the way a thing appears to a subject. Bennett uses the theory of Spinoza to argue that things strive to preserve their own being beyond objectification.[1]

So, a thing is more than an object. Thing Power indicates the agentic possibility of objects. But, art always was more than an object. Does Bruguera want art to fulfil its indication of things/ideas, while also holding attributes of object function? Or is the intention pure function?
If the intention is pure function, then surely an object will suffice. And we can do away with this ‘art thing’ and achieve full use. But this ‘art thing’ is what got us here, to this questioning.

The answer is contradictory. Art cannot be solely a functioning object. This itself, the functionality, becomes concept, becomes thing, within object. White cube theories of contextualisation stretch beyond the physical walls. We need them to, for framing. Open framing is good, it’s good to get out of the gallery, but contextualisation is still a necessary bind.

Deveron Arts boasts the accolade of being a functioning arts organisation complete with archives, a successful residency programme and collection of artefacts, without having a fixed gallery space. The Town is the Venue allows artefacts from artists’ projects to be displayed by Deveron Arts, scattered throughout the town of Huntly. The Town Collection greatly interests me and provokes many questions.

  • Are the artefacts art?
  • Are they relics from a process-based art?
  • Are they one aspect in a wider assemblage of the artwork/project?
  • Socially engaged art has a use and is involving, are the objects mere representation of a past event?

Useful art. Socially-engaged, involving, durational and functioning art. Art, no less. We still need physical objects to demonstrate to us. Although they can never demonstrate the entirety of a project.

This weekend past, I was shown a piece of work made by artist Neil Scott. Balgay Gift offered me comfort after a hectic train journey from Huntly to Dundee and the shocking buzz of city Saturday, having spent three weeks in a town.
I think if it had just been a swing I wouldn’t have appreciated its use as much. It was an art. But I don’t know if I would have seen it as such if my companion hadn’t enlightened me to this framing. I would have fully enjoyed its use. This is not a criticism, but a point of interest and something to explore.

Balgay Gift is an example of Useful Art. The swing that one might stumble upon while strolling through Balgay is a useful object, however. Two different things.
Whir Whir. Time to switch off for now.



[1] Bennett cites, “Spinoza ascribes to bodies a peculiar vitality: “Each thing, as far as it can by its own power, strives to persevere in its own being.” (8)

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