London Calling

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Over the past few years it's become a widely-held principle that the internet-related art communities of New York and Berlin commingle with each other far more fluently and regularly than either do with that of London. Why, you may ask? Though the answer remains to seen, one could gather that the cost of living in London far surpasses that of Berlin or the more affordable boroughs of New York City, which are clearly more friendly to artists who make no money from their work; or that importantly, the American social networking platforms acting as a catalyst to internet related art communities only recently gained traction in London, though they've been long popular with New Yorkers and ex-pat Berliners. Regardless of these conjectures, this perceived lack of communication with Londoners in such a globalized phenomenon was enough of an impetus to pull me down from a vacation in Glasgow to scope out the city's scene.

Greeting me upon my arrival was the venerable Ben Vickers, a colleague and friend I met on my last trip to London, at his warehouse in Manor House, perhaps the Bushwick equivalent of North London. I'd been in touch with Vickers since he curated an exhibition with some internet art “usual suspects” for a gallery in Peckham—Jon Rafman, Parker Ito, etc. —which, at the time, seemed an anomalous locale for these buzz names. Although I've written previously about Vickers' work with the now-defunct duo Sopping Granite, it feels strange to write about him now. Not only has he become more of a friend than a professional contact, but I wonder how much he would even care that I write about him, or how useful it would be to him, or if he would consider this as a flag in the journey of his burgeoning practice, as most artists likely would. This is all indicative of Vickers' “practice,” if you could call it that. For a moment I wondered if he was even still “making art,” via the web-based photoshop collages or performances that I'd become familiar with. It was only after a week into my trip to London I realized that his daily behavior—which generally consists of “social engineering,” as he likes to call it, or IRL social networking mimicking and displacing the functionality of Facebook, suggesting two people should formally meet because of convergent interests, almost like a political and net art Yente—is a practice in itself. While Vickers prefers to work through the construction of conditions rather than the creation of images or objects when viewed through a contemporary art context this can be seen through the lineage of critical art practice, otherwise, it could be seen as a sort of political activism. Although Ben is certainly an indispensable peer to his friends and colleagues for this reason, he claims to have an “uninstrumental” approach to art world, perhaps working similarly to a behind-the-scenes administrator or a critical, non-commercial artist who could never get over the icky feeling of participating in the international contemporary art world's luxury economy.

Corin Sworn, Still from Endless Renovation (2010.)

The evening of my arrival I buzzed out of Manor House to the Tate Summer Party to celebrate Canadian-born, Glasgow-based artist Corin Sworn and her inclusion in the Tate Modern's collection. Installed in the depths of the museum is her project “Endless Renovations” (2010), which comprises a slide projector perched upon mirrored commercial shelving, a spot-lit floral bouquet, and curtains cordoning off the space. Admittedly, I approach any artistic project utilizing obsolete technology with the greatest skepticism because it always seems to beget retro-aesthetic posturing (“doesn't this polaroid portrait of myself look so cool?!”), though here Sworn's usage of a slide projector is completely warranted. The artist found an extremely unique if mystifying collection of slides in a skip (British English for “dumpster”) outside her apartment. Her presentation begins with the assertion that the first slide of the found collection—an inadvertent image of a moonlike lamp and a sliver of ceiling—was likely a mistake, though anomalously it wasn't thrown out. This anomaly characterizes the other slides by what they are not: The majority comprise indexical images of flowers, industrial machinery, origami, empty domestic interiors, painterly bleeding images of cars, and strange clocks. Through the succession of slides Sworn projects narratives onto the images, at times deconstructing them through historical precedents in literature and theory or bringing anecdotes from pop culture, such a scene in Dazed and Confused. Her ability to control one's mind and emotions through oration are nothing short of masterful. Toward the end of the carousel, she states that the first, accidentally-taken image of the lamp was actually a copy, in which she apologies later and says, “I had the slide copied because of all the slides in the collection I felt that I could have taken it, and in copying it, I sort of have. So I misled you when I said that I found all these slides in a skip. I did not. I made this one myself. But a counterfeit is only of value if it can mislead someone.” All the while the artist reminds the viewer that all explanations of the slides are counterfeit, a projection, and only exist in imaginary interstices. If I had any doubts of whether or not nostalgia and the projected narratives that usually pair with this feeling is of any use to current issues in contemporary art—such as authenticity and the readymade—I'm made to feel asinine for even thinking these could be taboo.

Through Ben Vickers and just about everyone else I'd met in London I learned later in the week there was an exhibition being mounted in a South London parking complex by the much-talked-about young London gallerist Hannah Barry. Titled “Bold Tendencies” (what a name!), the exhibition proved largely unremarkable but touted an almost un-get-to-able Campari bar, and perhaps more importantly, and after party hosted by the highly enigmatic Peckham-based artist group LuckyPDF. Through this absolutely insane, tween-infused party and an introduction via Vickers (who does their web design) I met the four men comprising LuckyPDF. At my bequest, we rendezvoused in a meeting room within Swiss artist Christoph Büchel's Piccadilly Community Centre, aka Hauser and Wirth Gallery, in Central London.

My impetus to meet with LuckyPDF stemmed from the realization that although their influence upon and presence within the South London art community is clearly ubiquitous; and that they're gaining institutional recognition, with projects recently commissioned by the Barbican and now the Frieze Art Fair, no one could give me a straight answer about what LuckyPDF actually is or does, what their name means, etc. The one agreed-upon fact their peers could tell me was that it primarily comprised a motley crew of young men: Ollie Hogan, James Early, John Hill, and Yuri Pattison. They're all born in 1986 and attended (all different) art schools in South London.

Although I was warned I may not receive any straight answers from the LuckyPDF crew, I was greeted by an only open and affable response. I learned that the four met through the South London art scene grapevine so to speak, and that LuckyPDF in its initial manifestation was actually a roving project gallery space in Peckham organized between the four members. (The Japanese-infused “Lucky,” as it were, could be understood as a hat tip toward the multicultural neighborhood they inhabited.) Understanding LuckyPDF as an artist group growing out of an exhibition space is probably most exacting: while the foursome primarily takes an administrative role in commissioning and producing works from artists in their social network, autonomously or collaboratively, it wasn't until they were accidentally billed as an artist's project that they began to consider themselves as both artists and producers. This realization commenced with the publication of “LuckyPages,” LuckyPDF's directory of all of their email and Facebook contacts, still on sale for a mere 249.99 GBP. And why wouldn't they consider themselves to be an “artist group” or “producers” just as much as “administrators”?

One of the more interesting and unexpected turns in our conversation at the Community Centre crystallized a moment of honesty and perspicacity: one could consider the hayday of the superstar curator-as-auteur to coincide when Early, Hogan, Hill, and Pattison attended undergrad, from 2004-2008, (and no other city housed a curator with a bigger reputation than London with Hans Ulrich Obrist at the Serpentine) LuckyPDF decided to charge itself with the task of “outsourcing the outsourcers,” or essentially take on the role as (partial) financier, curator/commissioner, as well as that of collaborator.

Although its impossible to attribute overarching narratives and themes to a city you've spent nary a couple weeks in, what I can remark on is how (albeit white-male dominated) the artists and “cultural producers” I met in London are largely more overtly politically-oriented and forward-thinking about their interganglment in network systems—the art market, web 2.0 social networking, etc.—than their counterparts in either Berlin or New York.