The Hut Project: New Contemporaries

In 2006, The Hut Project (artists Chris Bird, Ian Evans and Alec Steadman) submitted an entry to Bloomberg’s New Contemporaries, the UK artist graduate competition that, according to its own publicity, ‘allows applicants a democratic chance for the work itself to shine through’. The Hut Project’s entry consisted of a list containing the 478 names of all the artists who had been included in the Bloomberg New Contemporaries exhibitions since 1989 (when the competition rebranded). That year’s competition selectors - Angus Fairhurst, Paul Noble and Alison Wilding- would then pick out artists names from the list whose work they did not know. These unknown artists would then be interviewed by The Hut Project and their interviews screened inside the New Contemporaries exhibition space.

Overtly research based and collaborative in both process and outcome, this proposal was critical, self aware and interrogative of the production of art. It used Bloomberg New Contemporaries as a mechanism to produce a negative conceptual map of the last twenty years of the competition’s ‘winning’ exhibitors. The archive of the unknown New Contemporaries winners – unknown, that is, to the very institution that marked them for special attention – would question the competition as an arbiter of emerging artistic talent, whilst highlighting the pitfalls, trends and motivations in art school pedagogy and the attendant UK art scene. The Hut Project felt confident about their proposal: secure in the knowledge that it was an intriguing relational investigation, unique in the context of a primarily object-based New Contemporaries. But The Hut Project was not selected for the 2006 exhibition.

Two years later and The Hut Project: New Contemporaries remains a viable artistic project – one that is growing in agency, scope and collaboration. Its parameters have changed slightly since its rejection from the competition in 2006. Now, The Hut Project is asking the 488 exhibiting artists themselves to choose those whom, out of their fellow winners, they do not recognise. And instead of conducting the interviews themselves, The Hut Project is recruiting potential New Contemporaries applicants to carry out the work for them – artists who fit the competition’s criteria: current UK students, or graduates who completed their course in the last year. The resulting video archive will be housed at the British Library and LUX in London and at the Anthology Film Archives in New York.

The work stems from a failed relationship – The Hut Project’s failure to be selected by New Contemporaries. Inevitably, the fact of the competition – its structure, remit and authority – is in these artists’ critical sights, and shapes their investigation. But the continuing currency of The Hut Project: New Contemporaries goes beyond performing the simplistic binary of success and failure, whether it is defined against selection for New Contemporaries or recognition afterwards. In centering their project on the (subjective) anonymity of the winners, and what they have or have not ‘won’, The Hut Project: New Contemporaries’ primary focus is the much more fertile ground of what is at stake in being selected for exhibition at all. The resulting archive of interviews will map the grey areas of the UK emerging arts scene and analyse the potential trajectories of artistic practice, including those that aren’t as ‘democratic’ or pure as New Contemporaries tries to be. What happens to artists who don’t turn into The Next Big Thing? What kinds of professional, financial and personal networks shape an artistic career?

These questions will be answered when all the artists who exhibited with New Contemporaries between 1989 and 2006 enter into the collaboration with the forthcoming interviews – when they become equal partners in this excavation of their own status and practice. But although The Hut Project: New Contemporaries is in an early form, with the interviews not even yet begun, it is tempting to speculate on the results of its investigation. What stopped Barnaby O’Rourke (1992) becoming a household name? Has Melanie Titmuss (2000) fallen into obscurity because of gaps in the UK commercial gallery and bienniale scene? Does the respective anonymity of Tom Freeston (1989) and Lois Rowe (2006) represent the changes in UK arts funding and education between 1989 and 2006?

Perhaps a more pertinent question is, how honest would you be, if asked to select your own ‘unknown New Contemporaries? The Hut Project predicts that, ultimately, all 488 artists will be interviewed – for everyone included, there will be someone who claims not to know their name. Would you pretend not to know Damien Hirst (19 89) if you do not find his work significant? Would you really own up to not being familiar with James Ireland (2000), if you thought saying so would make you look ignorant? In this sense, selection speaks about the conditions of the art world – the financial, institutional and personal relationships that make it work. And it speaks equally about the selector – her knowledge, prejudices, ambitions and networks – as it does about the selected. Alongside the skewed and possibly arbitrary criterion of having a memorable name, the selectors themselves can make their own choices as to how and why to represent their peers.

The result is a complex web of motives and desire. As a collaborative project, The Hut Project: New Contemporaries nevertheless has a latent concentration on authorship – pinning status to the recognition of an artist’s name. Representing a system of interlocking networks, The Hut Project: New Contemporaries will nevertheless be made manifest in a formal archive – both the veins of the artworld and the microcosm of the project’s own anatomy will be distilled and stored at the British Library, at the Centre pour l’Image Contemporain in Geneva, at LUX and at the Anthology Film Archives. And, while it deconstructs the pedagogy of the UK art scene – New Contemporaries claims to be independent from art schools, but its exhibitions routinely show a bias to certain schools and teachers – The Hut Project: New Contemporaries nevertheless constructs a pedagogy of its own: the project’s recruitment of young artists to interview for them suggests an aspirational relationship to power that echoes the flawed system inscribed in the competition itself.

In other words, The Hut Project: New Contemporaries is full of contradictions. Far from a cool exploration of the systems that nurture and support art and artists (or that claim to), this is a piece of work that wallows in the complexity and paradoxes of ‘the artworld’. At one of their artist recruitment drives at Middlesex University, one of The Hut Projects’ former tutors called the work ‘an act of oedipal aggression’, noticing that it attempts to reject its subject (the artworld) and craves acceptance from it at the same time. According to The Hut Project, in 2006 they hoped to suggest a ‘new type of practice’ to the competition organisers, and to the object-based dominance they saw in the UK scene as a whole. At the same time, of course, this reflective, relational project is just the sort of intricate, intelligent and overtly self aware process that has bolstered artworld reputations and establishment elites for twenty years or more.

In this labyrinth of contaminated relationships, the Hut Project is clearly holding a mirror to the artworld. It is a mirror that, amongst other things, reflects the group itself, and its concerns as an emerging artistic collaboration. It is even framed, myopically, by their own career trajectory – the project stops at 2006 because that was the last year The Hut Project was eligible to apply to New Contemporaries. But will only those who take an interest in this world see a reflection? (Is this text simply another reflective surface with which The Hut Project can gaze upon itself?) On the contrary, just as the work exceeds the competition structure that inspires it, The Hut Project’s process has implications beyond the artworld itself.

The way in which the structure, methodology and subject matter for The Hut Project: New Contemporaries fold into one another can be seen as a contemporary kind of intellectual endeavour, one that goes beyond a disingenuous search for truth, clarity or simple self promotion. By wallowing in their environment, and by recognising it in themselves, The Hut Project enacts a mode of criticality as artistic practice. It is not through oppositionality, doctrine or a priori opinion that these artists can examine the machinations of artistic competitions, the institutional conditions of art colleges, the pressures of the commercial market and the courses chosen by individuals who attempt to navigate their way through. Instead, it is by adopting an embedded, speculative relationship with all these things that The Hut Project comes to terms with its existence at all. This is a project that addresses ‘art’ itself as a discipline, and the structures that support art (the market, the media, the education and the audience) as necessary tools. As such, its implications reach further than artistic institutions and into ‘art’ as a way of understanding the world.

The self reflexive nature of the project stems from an acute awareness of the paradoxical role of an artist – removed at a critical distance and yet wholly bound to her object of study. And in its current state of speculation, The Hut Project: New Contemporaries is a long way from the solid ground and assuredness of a critique, institutional or otherwise. It remains to be seen if the end product of The Hut Project: New Contemporaries – the video archive – lives up to this critical and productive potentiality.

Being critical involves conjecture and risk; it requires an act of faith to bring it about. Ultimately, in The Hut Project: New Contemporaries the Arts Council of England is the main speculator. But before ACE makes its bet, The Hut Project needs all the Bloomberg New Contemporaries artists on board by January 2009.

Written by Mary Paterson and Rachel Lois Clapham, Directors of Open Dialogues.