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Famous artist exploits the vulnerable


ImageI was very intrigued when I first heard about the Piccadilly Community Centre. To someone who works in community centres, knows what value they provide to individuals and communities, often fights to keep them open and despairs at how many are now closing, the opening of a new community centre in central London was very exciting.

When visiting it on opening day it was obvious that money had been spent on the project. For example the signage outside the building was brand new and gleaming, there were about six new computers for use, there were free teas, coffees and biscuits provided, there was specialist equipment throughout the building together making for a good facility. As I made my way around I asked who is paying for this. I was hoping the answers would provide a strategy for keeping other community centres open. But I couldn’t find any written information about the background to the project, who was running it or how it was funded. Everyone I spoke to was evasive. I left puzzled.

Imagine my surprise when I opened the Evening Standard newspaper some days later to find, ‘The Piccadilly Community Centre’ reviewed as an art project by Christoph Buchel and run by Hauser and Wirth, the art gallery who own the building in Piccadilly. Reviews called the project a “Sardonic take on the Big Society” (2, June 2011). On further investigation I found several more reviews of this art project including one calling the centre a “pop up”, (http://londonist.com/2011/05/preview-pop-up-community-centre-at-piccadil... ) all agreed that the project was making some negative comment about The Big Society. (See also Adrian Searle, Guardian, 30 May, 2011 and Georgina Adam, FT, June 10, 2011)

What explains the lack of notice to the public about the true nature of the “community centre”? Perhaps fear by the artist that if there were a notice then the public would know the rules of the game and might choose not to play. Instead, the public is not informed, and hence, become pawns in Hauser and Wirth and Christoph Buchel game of “community centre” as art. Is this really what artists think of the public? Are they of so little importance that they can be used by ‘the artist’ for their own purposes? Anyone falling for the ruse feels conned, disappointed and resentful of their time wasted. While there were many fun and interesting classes, events and activities in the building during this installation, the underlying reality and primary premise of this ‘community centre’ was a lie.

ImageWhen I rang Sara Harrison, UK Director of Hauser and Wirth, to ask why there were no signs telling people the true nature of the project she said this is what the artist wanted. When I pointed out that this was a misrepresentation of what was happening in the building and exploitation of the participants for the artist’s own ends, she said she did not agree with this but some people had said that. When I asked if they would put up a sign at the building telling people the real situations she said the artist would not agree to this but she would ask the people working there to tell people the truth if they asked directly.

Returning to the reviews, this project is neither a “pop up” nor a sardonic take on Cameron’s Big Society. This project was incredibly well funded and long planned down to the smallest detail and included putting a new floor into the Grade 1 listed building. Hardly “pop up”. Further, this project, rather than be a sardonic take, is an actual example of Cameron’s Big Society Britain. It cons those who need and hope for a well maintained community centre. In so doing, it is a sardonic take on the poor, homeless, young, old, vulnerable who are being conned. That is, it uses those who need and hope for a well equipped community centre, the poor, vulnerable and homeless.

The insult of not being told the “community centre” was an art project was compounded throughout the life of the project by more deception. For example, a memorial appeared at different times outside the gallery (see photo 1). St James Church, the neighbour of Hauser and Wirth, objected the first time this appeared and it was removed but they put it there again during the last week of the project. Of course passersby thought it was for the death of some loved person. When asked, the staff they replied “who do you think it is for? Maybe it’s not for a person…” smirking at the cleverness of “art” confounding the public.

Using established key visual indicators in an expected context but not for the shared known purpose makes no comment. It only deceives. It devalues established practices because the meaning of the spectacle is not there. Our emotional reaction to the memorial is being used for someone else’s purpose. We are being used. More than this next time someone sees a memorial, after finding out that one was just for show, will feel some hesitance about whether to take it seriously. Hence not only does this memorial deceive it devalues the notion of memorials and social interactions. It pushes us further from each other and diminishes trust and a sense of community. Far from adding anything these activities makes the world a lesser place.

Nor was this project a ‘community centre’. A community centre is created with community money, accountable to the community and staffed by people who work in community centres. While the people who ran the individual classes at this building were people who run community classes, all the infra structure, the staff that were there all the time, were people who were employed by Hauser and Wirth as ‘invigilators’.. They were young people employed to hand you a glass of wine and a price list at an art exhibition. They found themselves having to cope with difficulties that one invigilator told me “we are not equipped to deal with”.

Art, if it means anything, has to add something extra to life; perhaps creativity, beauty, skill or even colour. Something. What did this project add to the world? It co-opted a lot of good ideas from others who used the space to run their classes, while Hauser and Wirth, and Christoph Buchel claimed the credit. This project is not art. It is exploitation. Not only does it use people for its own needs it also debases the whole notion of art as a separate category.

All this deception, deceit, lessening of the concepts of art, and attacks on community events are in aid of what? The real interests served here are that of Buchel and Hauser and Wirth who will make their reputation in the art world and eventually more money.

It is all these issues that forced me to take action. I chose to be the public notification that should have been displayed somewhere on the project. I walked up and down outside the building for three days wearing a sandwich board saying ‘This is NOT a community centre’ on one side, and ‘This is an art installation ‘ on the other. Hauser and Wirth, and Christoph Buchel must make up in some way for misleading and exploiting the public. I would ask you to contact them (details below) asking them to pledge any monies made from this project, now and in the future, through all mediums to CRISIS, a charity supporting homelessness and squatting, both disdainfully misrepresented in this art installation. Hauser and Wirth and Christoph Buchel have made their reputations on the backs of vulnerable peoples in our society.

It is time for reality to bite back.

Please contact
Sara Harrison, Hauser and Wirth, Director UK
23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET Tel: 0207 255 8987 Fax: 0207 287 6600

Email: london@hauserwirth.com

Topics: Culture