The Factory Residency

The Art in Manufacturing programme draws on a history of artists working in factories to bridge the gap between the workplaces and art in Britain's industrial towns.

For many artists, funded placements and residencies are a larger part of their practice than exhibiting or selling work. Often providing the only time and space for rigorous research and concentrated development outside of the art school environment, the catch-all term ‘residency’ refers to a wide range of propositions, frequently offering no fee or expenses. According to the Livelihoods of Visual Artists Report from 2018, on average UK artists earn around the equivalent of a minimum wage salary, with just one third of that coming from their art practice. In recent years artists and their advocates have sought to challenge this embedded culture of non- or underpayment. Examples include A-N’s Paying Artists campaign, and the Artists Union England, both of which launched in 2014.

From within this context, the early work of the Artist Placement Group seems preposterous, even though their methods – embedding artists in environments other than the studio or gallery, and valuing art based on its ability to command attention – have been highly influential. The APG was first conceived of by Barbara Steveni (1928-2020) in 1965. Whilst out collecting industrial detritus for the Fluxus artists that she was hosting with her then partner John Latham, she was struck by the idea that artists could be more ‘socially useful’ by working inside factories.

The main activity of the APG was to broker and organise temporary placements for artists within industry and government, where they were paid the equivalent of a managerial wage by a range of private companies and public bodies, from Esso to the Department of Health and Social Security. There was an initial feasibility study carried out towards each partnership, for which the artists were also paid, and they were subject to an ‘open brief’, meaning that there could be any outcome or none at all. The APG wanted to change society and subvert ‘the profit motive’, at a point when the notion of artworks as commodifiable objects was being actively and purposefully undermined.

John Latham was an intrinsic part of this tendency in the UK, famously taking apart and literally chewing up a copy of Clement Greenberg’s Art and Culture (1961) with a group of his students in 1966. Redefining the artist as an ‘Incidental Person’ in 1975, an appellation that has lasted into the present with the still active ‘Incidental Unit’. Latham described artistic activity in society as “ambivalent, ambiguous – it may be incidentally positive or it may be a waste of time’”.

Similarly, Steveni disavowed the idea that the artists placed by the APG were supposed to “have a positive, humanising effect”. This ambivalence was a point of contention for some. Stuart Brisley had undertaken several APG placements before coming to the position that “the artist raising the ‘level of attention’ in this field, while at the same time accepting the conditions which create the polarity, merely enforces the status quo.” Brisley’s contention here is familiar, with consciousness-raising campaigns in the present often amounting to little more than distraction and moderation.

In 1971 Peter Fuller dismissed Latham’s anti-capitalist but non-socialist ideology as ‘wooly-headed and idealist’ in a scathing review of the APG’s exhibition Inno 70, purportedly the worst attended in the history of The Hayward Gallery.

Concerns that the APG were ‘more concerned with social engineering than with straight art’ had been raised by Arts Council officials prior to their withdrawal of funding for the organisation in 1979. Of course, social engineering and ‘straight art’ now seem inseparable, at least in terms of the publicly funded practices whereby impact and success must be demonstrated in terms of quantified attention. It is through these metrics that Arts Council England arrived at the conclusion that towns like Blackburn have particularly low arts engagement, which has in turn catalyzed the creation of projects like Art in Manufacturing, which bear a marked resemblance to the original APG placements.

While the idea of artists working with science and industry to produce work or develop techniques isn’t solely attributable to the the APG, the method of arranging for an artist to spend time in and be influenced by an industrial environment clearly draws on their theories. And yet, this contemporary industrial residency programme is operating on a different scale and in a far different context to the APG in the 1960’s and 70’s – and as their saying goes; the context is half the work. In the context of an economically deprived and somewhat denigrated urban area with low cultural engagement, but a high proportion of people employed in industrial manufacturing, what purpose does this kind of industrial residency serve, and what kind of work, both relational and physical is produced?

Art in Manufacturing folds Blackburn’s manufacturing prowess and heritage into a cultural offer as part of an ongoing placemaking process. This can also be identified as part of a tendency towards ‘embedded’ arts organisations in the region, particularly in areas where regularly visiting the nearest big city is unfeasible for many. The conversation around art, work, making and manufacture now has different points of accord and tension than when the the APG were brokering their placements fifty-odd years ago. As paid placements that offer a broad, if not ‘open’ brief, the Art in Manufacturing residencies create an opportunity for reflection and curiosity in both artist and host. As Elena Jackson, a curator of the project, describes: “where a company had no experience of working with artists they are generally surprised by the level of interest we all have in what they do.”

A pertinent example is the ongoing creative relationship between Manchester-based artist Nicola Ellis, and Ritherdon, the Darwen-based manufacturers of electrical enclosures. Ellis had been commissioned for an Art in Manufacturing residency in 2018, working at Ritherdon over a number of weeks producing new work to be shown at that year’s National Festival of Making; this consisted of a series of striking powder-coated ‘paintings’ amongst other works in sculpture and film. Ellis’s large sculptural work, often making use of industrial materials and environmental themes, was well suited to the factory with its cyclical process of turning flat sheets of steel into glossy, hard wearing boxes.

After completing her initial residency the mutually fruitful relationship between Ellis and Ritherdon endured, and the artist has since gained Arts Council funding to continue with her material and social investigations. Ellis is also currently a part of the Incidental Unit, an artistic research group dedicated to bringing the work and ideas of the the APG to bear on socially engaged practice now, currently discussing how to arrange placements without recourse to public funds. Ellis commented that while the Managing Director sees her presence as valuable towards documentation, for the shop floor workers, it’s simply something that breaks up the day. Ellis spoke about how her powder coated paintings had continued to be a successful avenue of enquiry, but that more and more she had also been creating soundworks to be played within the factory, for the workers. An obvious parallel here is with Garth Evans’ Inno70 installation, whereby an 8 hour soundtrack of steel making processes from Ebbw Vale was described as unendurable by critics.

There is clearly value here, for the artist, the company, and the individual workers, even if it only amounts to ‘breaking up the day’. In fact, within current funding and reporting structures, this phrase offers a refreshingly straightforward assessment that circumvents the requirement for overblown claims of life-changing cultural experiences. While metrics of attention are deployed to justify addressing low cultural engagement in places like Blackburn, how we might measure the ‘cultural impact’ on workers who’ve been collaborating the artists commissioned by Art in Manufacturing remains appropriately ambiguous.