Katie Edrich

Fine Art Department, Liverpool John Moores University, Wednesday

20 March 2002

“It should be obvious that an adventurous journey is most unlikely in the shallow waters of a bath-tub. But the illusion of that possibility persists and is exemplified by art that never sails beyond the gallery.”

This quote by George Wyllie (‘twenty year voyage beyond the bath-tub’) is on the first page of Alan Dunn’s website. It is something that he has been questioning and addressing for about ten years through billboard art works and more recently TV. Before I had a chance glance across Earle St. in October last year, the site for one of a series of 3 billboard posters, it was an issue that I had never really thought about.

The poster that I saw was digitally altered composite photograph of that exact space, comprising of the billboard itself, and the surrounding roads and buildings. The billboard, in the poster, shows a Noland stripe painting rotated 90 degrees so that the stripes echo the windows of the building above. It is peculiarly empty. The few figures in the poster are rigid even in movement. There was a silence and a stillness that stopped me in my tracks. A blurry man walked across the road glancing out at me. I could have been there too. A few cars and vans had been digitally erased and the normally busy road was empty. The photos used to build up a collage were taken on different days. A duller day for the dark alley and a brighter day for the left hand side of the work.

The billboard itself was curiously curved (one of the features that attracted Alan Dunn in the first place) and the use of the altered Noland painting affirmed this. At the bottom was a website address which I didn’t notice at the time. There was no other text and I couldn’t work out what it was about. In fact I only found out that it was, in fact, art through finding a rather cryptic leaflet at Jump Ship Rat. At the time I had just finished doing some work with billboards. Ripping them up and arranging them on the ceiling of my studio (which seems a bit of a strange paradox now). At the time I didn’t really connect the two until I started thinking about this essay.

Unbeknown to me, art outside the gallery context has got quite a long history. In 1968 Joseph Kosuth presented a billboard artwork in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The Guerrilla Girls started angrily fly-postering for feminism in 1985. However, that afternoon was the first time that I really encountered an artwork like that instead of just reading about it in a book. More than other forms of art, billboard poster works are integral to the environment around them. Without the context of the work; maybe run down houses or graffiti; a busy road or a station platform …. the work doesn’t really make sense. It is the fact that the work is on a billboard that takes it out of the bathtub. Photos in books don’t tell half the story.

This is particularly true of these three works by Alan Dunn because they are so site specific, given that were depicting those actual spaces. It was actually a bizarre experience to be bumming along the street. Mind in a million different places. And do a double take at the sight of a poster of the exact scene I was looking at. It created a double space. A space within a space. Like a mirror reflecting a mirror. For a second I thought I was a bit la la. It disrupted my notions of what should be there. When I chatted to Alan Dunn he said that mind games weren’t his intention. But so much advertising is about playing mind games, influencing desires and even thought patterns … I wonder whether that is one of the disabling factors about putting work in advertising territory.

It comes as part and parcel of that space. Like we are used to looking at billboards in one frame of mind. They are trying to sell. And cos advertising is got more and more complex, (a far cry from the 1950s “Brill pads clean brilliantly” type) with the use of teaser campaigns and the obscure, perverse and political, the line between art and advertising has got more and more ambiguous. Artists like Alan Dunn who aren’t trying to sell anything but instead put art in a different space have to tread carefully. Advertisers exploit culture and art as a means to an end. Some artists (YBAs for example) are confident manipulators of media, advertising their selves as part and parcel of their product. At least the famous ones.

The audience of course has got more sophisticated. But are we sophisticated enough to not buy? No. Inversely, there is potential to critique the sales pitch in the place we least expect it, to challenge advertising and a load of other notions of fashion, taste and acceptability. I find that paradox one of the most exciting aspects of billboard art. The potential to be subversive is huge. From what he said to me I don’t think that is Alan Dunn’s aim. I think to aim to be subversive is a bit difficult. It easily falls flat on its face. I feel that his work is, but it comes out of different aims. He talked about being sensitive to the surroundings and having a more ethical approach, for example, not placing adverts for the latest cars in the poorest parts of Liverpool. (Which seems a rather cruel way of wasting money on the advertisers part.)

To make another example, the other day, I saw an advertisement for the BBC sitcom ‘Teachers’ on Smithdown Road. It simply stated ‘Teachers - Disruptive Influences’ (surely not what the kids in that area need to think). Instead, Alan Dunn is simply placing something that he wanted to see in a space we don’t normally have any influence over. It is about not accepting what we are fed. Recently, he has helped elderly tenants start their own TV station. Helping them to have a more proactive role in the things that they see. So maybe, mass media isn’t an unapproachable monster. There are more options than I thought. It is not just about making something that goes in a wall in a gallery…. unless you want it to be.

I guess what I found so fascinating was this direct challenge to me. Once some of the implications of that work filtered slowly through…. it raised all sorts of questions. I feel a secret frustration about the castrated nature of the art gallery. But I could never really put my finger on it. Maybe a spill over from a teenage rebellion of challenging the notion of acceptability of school uniform, but not the apparatus of the institution that placed stupid rules there. Tackling the fruit but not the root. And never really getting anywhere in the long term… I started to think a little about art in the public space. In the 1960s critics such as Lucy Lippard felt that conceptual art would prove to be the demise of the ‘Museum’ and ‘Gallery’. This has not been the case.

“It seemed in 1969 … that no one, not even a public greedy for novelty would actually pay money, or much of it, for a Xerox sheet referring to a past event or never directly perceived, a group of photographs documenting an ephemeral situation or condition, a project for work never to be completed, words spoken but not recorded; it seemed that these artists would therefore be forcibly freed from the tyranny of a commodity status and market-orientation. Three years later, the major conceptualists are selling earlier work for substantial sums…” [Lucy Lippard]

There is a human desire to name, to appoint value and to own. Art that artists make is not about status. Art that people collect is. Buying, selling, collecting, the kudos that isn’t about real people that live, breathe and fart, but about myth and legend. Artists are not geniuses. I don’t think geniuses exist in that mythical sense. Picasso didn’t get everything right. Art, like Artist, actually is normal, ordinary and everyday. Special too, but not in the extraterrestrial sense. A billboard artwork can escape this. It is not there forever, it is only for a time and then it will be pasted over. Afterwards, it can exist only in memory.

The elements will get it, people will fly poster on top of it or add their tag. It is part of the real world around us not a separate autonomy. It doesn’t go to the conservation specialists. When I was walking down the road I wasn’t on hallowed ground. No special lights, floors, or white walls to indicate that I was having some sort of holy aesthetic experience on a different and separate plane. Yet, I had more challenging encounter with a work of art than I am yet to experience in a gallery. This type of art can’t fit inside a gallery. Unless you want to transplant a bit of the city there. And even then the result would be impotent in comparison. However, just as Andy Goldsworthy can sell photos of his outdoor temporary work… there is a potential to be ‘Art Object’ in the billboard poster too. It is a necessary potential for the art industry, which is all about buying and selling. Art school is also geared to that type of production. I mean let’s face it. There are bills to be paid… so lets go along with it. ?

I do visit galleries. In fact I really enjoy visiting galleries. It is the only way that I can see what famous or important artwork looks like. I would rather Van Gogh was in an art gallery than in a bank vault. But one day I would like to take a Van Gogh home and live with it on my bedroom wall for a bit. Only a certain audience ever enters a gallery or museum, but there are no restrictions ( not even psychological ones) on walking down the road. So the audience is more representative. The middleman is cut out. It is a more direct form of interaction between the artist and audience through the work. Sometimes galleries are necessarily as Max Kosloff argues in order to actually create the work - to separate assemblage especially, from the rubbish on the doorstep or the broken pane of glass at the bus stop.

Playing with the sacred quality of a gallery space can be very interesting. But there is a whole world of possibilities outside of that. I didn’t realise that before. Cindy Sherman said it simply and eloquently, “I got more and more annoyed by the attitude that art has to be so terribly religious or sacred, and I wanted to create something people could relate to without having read a book about it beforehand.” Maybe the best way to communicate something, and that is what art is all about, is to start on common ground, and that is not always, or even often, in a gallery.