"APG’s [Artist Placement Group] slogan was ‘the context is half the work’, an idea in tune with the post-studio tendencies of art in the later 1960s, and indebted to earlier works such as Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings of 1951 (a series of glossy monochrome canvases that reflect shadows and light in the gallery) and to John Cage’s 4′33′′ (1952, a ‘silent’ performance in which peripheral sound becomes the composition’s content). However, instead of pulling the audience into the work, as Rauschenberg and Cage had done, APG operated on the inverse principle of pushing the artist out into society. The idea of artists working with business and industry was a familiar tendency during the late ’60s. Early APG documents reference examples in Europe as comparative models: in France, the Groupe Recherche d’Art Visuel (GRAV, discussed in Chapter 3), who were sponsored by industrialists interested in the exploitation of techniques and visual phenomena; in Holland, the Philips electricity company worked directly with an artist to make robot art; in Italy, competitions were sponsored by Esso and Pirelli; while in Britain, various sculptors were working in new materials that demanded close collaboration with steelworks (Eduardo Paolozzi), nickel laboratories (John Hosking) and glass fibre manufacturers (Phillip King). In the US, Experiments in Art and Technology (EAT), set up in 1966 by the Bell Labs scientist Billy Klüver in collaboration with Robert Rauschenberg, aimed to bring science to the service of artistic innovation, while on the West coast in the same year, curator Maurice Tuchman established the Art and Technology programme at LACMA. APG differed from all of these models in its heavily theorised underpinnings, and in not basing the placements around sponsorship or using collaboration as a way to gain access to new technology. Science and industry were not at the service of art, but rather, the two domains were to confront each other ideologically. From today’s perspective, it is tempting to suggest that the tacit agenda for each placement was for art to have a positive, humanising effect upon industry through the inherent creativity of artists and their relative ignorance of business conventions, but Steveni maintains that this was not the case. Outcomes were not determined in advance, and entirely depended on the individual artist in a given context; this was what APG called the ‘open brief’. Nevertheless, some artists were clearly more politicised than others, and this was reflected in their decisions to work either on the shop floor or in the management of a given company. Latham himself claimed to be beyond party politics, which he derided as a ‘form of sectional interest civil war’.
First-hand immersion in an industrial workplace could nevertheless have the effect of strengthening artists’ existing political commitments. Stuart Brisley, who chose to work on the shop floor of Hille Furniture factory, proceeded with his placement in a manner that will sound familiar to any artist working site-responsively today: the main task was social (earning trust) rather than realising a sculptural object. Going to the factory three to four days a week while also holding down a teaching job, Brisley chose to focus on the department with the most onerous work, the metal-polishing room. Workers were initially suspicious of an artist foisted upon them by the management, and it took time to gain their confidence. Brisley initially began by asking questions about how the production line could be improved. Unsurprisingly, the answer was a sceptical ‘why?’, since the workers habitually felt that no one was interested in or listened to them, even though they had many questions and criticisms, which Brisley in turn began to relay to the management. As an outsider this left him feeling empowered, since he could begin to initiate change. One of his contributions was painting the polishing machinery in the colours of football teams chosen by the workers; another was to introduce large mobile noticeboards which could be pushed around the factory floor, so that workers could exchange information and communicate with each other. He also made a sculpture using 212 Robin Day chairs, which when stacked formed a complete circle, ‘a syndromic sign of the factory line itself’.
Brisley felt that the machinery painting project had begun to confuse his identity as an artist, since ‘one was actually moving away from art more into a kind of potentially collective situation’, while the information board incident led him to feel caught in a ‘permanent conflict’ between ‘factory and management’. Despite the modesty of these interventions, Brisley argues that the placement at Hille went on to inform his work in setting up an Artists’ Union (1972 onwards), and impacted upon his protest-based performances of the 1970s. It also had the effect of distancing Brisley politically from APG’s efforts, which he felt to be too enamoured with management (rather than workers), and whose structure he perceived to be ‘a tightly knit, highly autocratic family business, with a poor record of human relations’."
—Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells
—Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells