The Turner Prize, Britain’s prestigious contemporary art prize, is known for championing the most experimental and conceptual art. Among the four 2015 finalists is an architects collective, nominated for their social project Granby Four Streets, in Liverpool.
UPDATE: The Turner Prize was awarded to the architecture collective Assemble on December 7, a historical first for the prestigious British contemporary art prize. Under the headline “Power to the People,” The Guardian comments their “welcome and vital work in the great battle against the social divide”. Makery already smelled something in the air when it went to meet this collective, which promotes collaboration.
Glasgow, special report
Is the Turner Prize getting a makeover? First, and for the first time, the British contemporary art prize has left its classy HQ at the Tate Britain in London for the (no less classy) Tramway art center in south Glasgow, Scotland. But more especially, after decades of provocation and ultra conceptual art, the jury is considering DIY and collaborative projects. The nomination of Assemble, a collective of 18 British architects and designers, symbolizes this turning point.
In the UK, the Turner Prize is an institution, and one that people love to bitch about. Since 1984, the jury, an office of four contemporary art figures that changes every year, takes a wicked pleasure in giving contemporary art an abstract resonance—to the point where in 2002, the British Culture minister himself qualified the prize as “conceptual bullshit”. Big name winners include Anish Kapoor (1991) and Damien Hirst (1995), whose Mother and Child Divided features four tanks filled with formalin containing the bodies of a cow and a calf, cut in half as if ready to be dissected.
This year is not quite an exception. At Tramway, the labyrinthine Turner Prize Exhibition 2015 finalists also presents: fur coats sewn to the backs of chairs (Infrastruktur, by Nicole Wermers) as a (supposed) allegory of reappropriated urban environment; an arty performance by a black-clad sextet (which became a trio the day we visited) and their conductor (Doug, by Janice Kerbel); an interesting archive room collecting lectures and videos to explore “consensual reality” (The Military Industrial Complex, by Bonnie Camplin).
And here we discover the work of Assemble, a mishmash of doorknobs, stools, tiles, lighting and chimney. “You can touch the objects,” advises the exhibition staff. And now for something a little different…
On the phone from his studio in London, Lewis Jones, one of Assemble’s 18 members, confesses that art is “not how we describe our work”. In fact, when their nomination was announced in May, “It came as a total utter surprise. It seems almost like a joke.” But then, why are they there? “I think there are a lot of similarities between the way we work and socially engaged artistic practice,” he attempts to explain, referring to their “holistic” approach.
Or perhaps their approach is more provocative than it seems—political, even. The project that was recognized by the Turner Prize jury is Granby Four Streets, or the renovation of a multicultural neighborhood in Liverpool with a glorious past, hit by the industrial crisis of the 1970s—the neighboring pier was shut down, unemployment is rampant, and the neighborhood is abandoned amid disastrous urbanism projects and social tensions.
“[The area] has been gradually bought over and demolished over the last 20-30 years,” says Lewis. Where Victorian houses once stood, they have built giant blocks “so poorly designed and managed, and so alien to Liverpool’s traditional open door street life (…) that they were demolished within 10 or 20 years of completion,” writes the urbanist Jonathan Brown in the catalogue published by Assemble. They also cite one of the most fervent opponents of the demolition, Dorothy Kuya: “What has happened here is a scandal. It is not only decent homes that have been destroyed, it is a whole community.”
In 2010, all that remains of the Granby neighborhood is four streets, full of abandoned houses, and the always current prospective of demolishing them. “Residents started to do things for themselves, working collectively in the streets to clean them (the council stopped collecting rubbish), to paint empty houses so they have something better to look at, to put plants in the street and make a really welcoming and cared for place,” Lewis continues. “That is the real transformational moment. It meant that it became much more believable for other people and the council that the area didn’t have to be demolished and could be a great place to live.”
It’s in this context that Assemble came in to boost renovation. For one of the most decrepit houses, they imagined a winter garden, for the one with a fallen second floor, they designed a house high up under the rooftop. For the rest, they renovated ruins—the infamous doorknobs, chimney and lighting, presented at the Turner Prize.
Handmade objects are at the center of their latest masterpiece. After renovating the housing, it’s time to reintroduce life and shops to the main arteries. This is Granby Workshop, which employs around ten local artists, designers and makers.
“Tateshots”, Assemble’s project for Turner Prize 2015:
On their website, which also processes orders (from £8 to 325 depending on the object, or 11 to 454 €), the collective describes the fabrication process “so that people have a great understanding of where things come from and how they get to the state they’re in. We want to be very open about information—if someone likes the product but can’t afford it, they can try to make it themselves.”
Assemble will have to wait till December 7 to know if they’ve won the £25,000 (€35,000) prize. But already, the experience has been even more positive than surprising: “I hope it encourages people to think about the way both our surroundings in the city and our objects are made off and of alternative ways of developing and making those things.” Or the art of using reality to serve concept.