Squaring the Circle used a range of methods to measure a select group’s responses to questions regarding the legacy of the Arts Lab and, using the example of the Arts Lab as a template, the wider cultural value of experimental arts practices.
Through the course of the project, four subjects were ultimately identified as key to the consideration of cultural value, its presentation and its preservation:
Experimentation engenders risks of different types and levels, and there was an ongoing discussion with practitioners and those who engage with experimental practices about the need to build risk into metrics as a requisite condition for experimentation, with a scale sliding between ‘success’ and ‘failure’.
Certainly definitions of risk were critical to these conversations – examples from the Arts Lab were regularly cited and evaluated. It became clear that defining risk was key,
“I think there’s a difference between setting out to do something that is risky and courting failure deliberately; and risk that occurs through the process of doing something – whether on your own or with other people – where in a sense you discover that you are having to make a choice as to whether you’re going to do this or that – where one represents something risky. So it’s something that grows out of a working process rather than an attitude that you go in with.”
Many examples of practices that outwardly appear ‘risky’ were in fact re-assessed and found to be borne of the former part of the definition: those works or actions that are deliberately constructed to imbed risk rather than those that inherently contain risk within their parameters. This difference in artistic intention was viewed as critical by many, with inherent, or organic, risk identified as containing more substance and a less superficial approach.
Suggestions included defining levels of risk, though there were, necessarily, discussions about how this might be accomplished,
“One of the difficulties is that there are degrees of failure. There’s outright, complete, utter, abject failure and then there’s something which didn’t quite work. It depends obviously. And then there’s deferred success.”
This notion of ‘deferred success’ was evidenced many times looking through the archives of the Arts Lab: projects that received little critical attention in 1967 were later revived and re-presented as pivotal moments in the art production of the 1960s, as with Roelof Louw’s Soul City (Pyramid of Oranges), originally developed in response to the artist’s experiences around Drury Lane as he devised new works for his first solo exhibition at the Arts Lab and, two years later, re-staged at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford, and most recently shown in 2014 at Modern Art Oxford as part of their build up to a 50th anniversary in 2016.
The confined parameters of risk assessment were hotly debated throughout the life of the project – there was an awareness from contemporary arts practitioners of the risks associated with admitting there were risks, which did not appear to have been as difficult to navigate in the late 1960s and early 1970s,
“It was possible for the arts councils and RFOs [Regularly Funded Organisations] to still be running and taking funding and not feel compromised. Now with the NPO, because it’s assessed literally by algorithms, whether human robots or robot robots, the idea of risk is being completely – you know, you can be risky within their risk parameters. And if you’re too risky, you become high risk and you get cut.”
It was also acknowledged that while risk-taking is often addressed as an important aspect of art practice within the annals of art history, this may be more of a nostalgic backward glance than a reality – certainly the experiences of many contemporary artists suggested that projects with ambiguous outputs were less well evidenced than those which were deemed ‘successful’ by arts organisations, sponsors and funding bodies.
The relationship between money and value, particularly cultural value, was one that the project studied at all stages – from Jim Haynes’ assertion that regular funding from the Arts Council would have allowed the Arts Lab to continue at Drury Lane, to contemporary artist collectives discussing the need to own their own workspaces, there was a clear sentiment that, however vicariously, gifting funds was a signifier of, if not cultural value, at least valuing culture.
“From our perspective, it’s important for us that you actually own your own building. So we’re looking at [withheld], which just bought their building after a big social media campaign fundraiser. I think if you own your own building, a lot of that stress just falls away. Our landlord at the moment is actually very good – we went to him and said that we’d [had our funding] cut slightly and he cut the rent to match…he sees us being part of the regeneration of his neighbourhood…But he’s in his 70s, his health isn’t great and we know what kind of eyes are on the property we’re in. So that’s our longer-term goal: buying our building.”
There was also a clear sentiment that those most in need of money, often emerging practitioners on the periphery of fashionable and heavily commodified visual arts practices, were the least likely to be gifted funds either to make work or sustain a practice. There was widespread agreement that emerging contemporary artists are not receiving a baseline of financial support that they would have reasonably expected twenty years ago and that this situation would create a lack of credibly experimental artistic practice as this generation reaches maturity, ‘mellows’ artistically and becomes more easily absorbed into the mainstream gallery context.
Several responses to such a bleak scenario were presented, in which it became clear that many artists, arts professionals and academics believe taking ownership of the facts and figures, the data, of contemporary experimental art practices is critical,
“…one of the concerns I have is, as a community, we’re very opposed to measurement. Of course, we’re opposed to measurement for all the right reasons: because it’s constricting, etc. But unless we reorganise the terms of measurement ourselves and take it on board…actually, we have to do it pragmatically anyway…one of the things I’ve been trying to do is raise money to fund data analysis of the primary art market in order to feed it into discussions about how [we publicly fund work]…I think we need to get much more organised about controlling the data…So if we’re going to talk about money properly, we need to not reject the concept of measurement in our terms and be able to say, ‘these are the terms of measurement we want to use.’…I think we need to be able to construct and articulate measurements of value.”
Parallels between business and the arts were suggested early on in the project, and Richard Kirk addressed some of the issues he faces as an entrepreneur accepting external investment,
“You become risk averse and the very investors who were trying to invest in a business…are answering to their own stakeholders and all of a sudden the money’s got so many conditions that the very nature of the risky venture and innovative approach has gone…so the conditionality of the money can spoil the very thing – I think if Jim [Haynes] had received lots and lots of funding from various people, it wouldn’t actually have assisted what he was trying to do.”
The issue of receiving funds that fall short of the minimum required was discussed – was it ethical to accept money knowing that it wasn’t enough to make the work for which it was intended? Likewise, was it reasonable for the funding body to make such an offer, particularly if these were public funds? One symposium participant related,
“I remember [withheld] saying that he once sent his grant back to the Arts Council because he was so pissed off that they’d only offered him half of what he’d asked for – ‘I can’t do the project with this amount!’”
Evidence gathered during research and interviews regarding the Arts Lab points to a dichotomy – while Jim Haynes regularly maintained that the organisation was non-hierarchical and collective in its decision-making, he also suggested that he shouldered tremendous responsibility for the management and financing of the organisation.
Many contributors to the project have offered their own views about leadership, particularly leadership that enables the freedom of experimentation without placing pressure on artists,
“I thought Jim…took on the burden of the rent, the space, fighting with the Council…He had to take the Council to court at one point…He took the burden and everyone else got on with whatever they were doing, oblivious almost…That’s been my experience with good managers, with good leaders of organisations that they kind of act as a sort of umbrella for all the crap, to allow everyone to just get on with their actual jobs.”
The question of who claims the title ‘leader’ was mooted several times, particularly in response to issues of free agency – where an existing system fails to meet the artist or organisation’s requirements, who has the authority to question the system?
“…you can actually take up that leadership rein if you want to, but if not, it stays with the institution.”
It was evident that many of the people who participated in Squaring the Circle felt empowered to act as leaders of small, informal groups of practitioners,
“…we absorb the potential fallout or even the ideological learning and political positioning of our project…in order for [a] different kind of work to take place. It couldn’t happen if we weren’t there and weren’t in this leadership role. Sometimes, saying ‘No’ for good reason in order to free up many more ‘Yesses’.”
The Arts Lab’s Yes policy took on a mythical status over the course of the project. Researchers were regularly told that Arts Lab organisers had said ‘Yes’ to every proposal that came to them, but the reality of the situation at Drury Lane from 1967-69 may have been quite different. Certainly, there is the example of Haynes’ ‘protection’ of the organisation: taking on the practical tasks of keeping the space open and financed, however meagerly, might have meant making decisions about programming that involved multiple issues,
“…it’s not as if Arts Lab was a money-free zone. If seven out of ten gigs didn’t make money actually what would have happened?”
Of equal importance to the artists and organisations we interviewed was the philosophy at the root of the Yes policy – had it enabled experimental production at the expense of artistic rigour? How was it enforced? Were there points at which saying ‘No’ was braver than agreeing?
One of the participants in the original Arts Lab, who went on to establish a regional Arts Lab, shared his experiences of instituting a sustainable Yes policy,
“You can’t say ‘Yes’ and ignore the resources that are available. You say ‘Yes’ and talk about the resources and how to distribute them. So it’s a kind of ‘Yes with lots of constraints’.”
It may be that, had the Arts Lab existed for a longer period, more concessions to programming that weren’t in keeping with the Yes policy might need to have been made. Contemporary practitioners who are supportive of the aims of such a policy explained some of their hesitation,
“…we have a real awareness of setting up a group, an organisation, a physical space naturally excludes, despite itself. You can’t include everybody, just by its very nature, it’s a group so you become a clique. How is it possible to be inclusive and open to everyone all the time? There are these notions of quality control. Saying ‘Yes’ to everything questions values of taste, judgment and what you deem to be good art or bad art.”
For some, recognising the totality of a community of practitioners and placing trust in their ability to carry out peer reviews, proved a practicable model:
“There do need to be networks of lots of smaller things, but they do become self-regulating, because it’s people with shared interests who work well together. I would never have worried about having more of an open door policy, because I do think you don’t have to have strong curatorial system. It just kind of happens, if you’re interested in that, somebody else is interested in that, those kind of groups work together and people who aren’t that interested in what you do, don’t want to work with you.”
However, the project’s research and discussions suggest this experimental model, inherited by contemporary practitioners as an ideal, may be too risky to manifest in our current risk-averse climate. There remain serious questions about whether such a policy can be diluted and still be effectively ‘fit for purpose’.
“…if you have a natural instinct to say ‘Yes’, you will go a lot farther and I think that’s what Jim has done. But I think he made lots of ‘Nos’ – he had to…I think it’s a myth, and we all create our own myths. You know, we do it in our daily lives and that’s part of the natural function…It’s quite nice and it’s got value. But it’s got to be treated as a philosophy rather than an actuality; a very good philosophy.”
The Arts Lab’s value to contemporary artists, academics and arts professionals as an experimental test site has, without question, been mythologised. A folkloric tendency has been observed in many of the testimonies of those who organised and attended the first Arts Lab. A key aspect of Squaring the Circle has been the recording of Arts Lab participants’ testimonies and critical analysis of their content in order to reduce the amount of nostalgic ‘static’ in favour of a more rigorous approach that denies the provocation that its work was philosophical rather than actual. It was both.
 Risk transcript, p. 2, recorded May 2014; see appendix vii: Group Transcripts
 Risk transcript, p. 6, recorded May 2014; see appendix vii: Group Transcripts
 http://www.modernartoxford.org.uk/whats-on/roelof-louw/about/, first accessed April 2014
 Money transcript, pp. 7-8, recorded May 2014; see appendix vii: Group Transcripts
 Money transcript, pp. 12-13, recorded May 2014; see appendix vii: Group Transcripts
 Money transcript, p. 9, recorded May 2014; see appendix vii: Group Transcripts
 Richard Kirk interview, p. 7, recorded June 2014
 Money transcript, p. 8, recorded May 2014
 Leadership transcript, p. 2, recorded May 2014
 Leadership transcript, p. 8, recorded May 2014
 Leadership transcript, p. 10, recorded May 2014
 Risk transcript, p. 5, recorded May 2014
 Yes transcript, p. 1, recorded May 2014
 Yes transcript, p. 2, recorded May 2014
 Yes transcript, p. 2, recorded May 2014
 Richard Kirk interview, p. 12, recorded June 2014