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Artangel, the City and site-based art


Illustration by Bronte Allan, 2020.

Artangel is a London-based art production organisation, formed in 1985 and led since 1991 by Michael Morris and James Lingwood. The organisation specialises in the delivery of art projects which are not situated in galleries and are often temporary in nature – they first came to prominence with projects such as House by Rachel Whiteread (1993-4) and The Battle of Orgreave by Jeremy Deller (2001).

This dissertation focuses on two subsequent projects – Seizure (2008) by Roger Hiorns and An Occupation of Loss (2018) by Taryn Simon. Both were presented in London, although each had a complicating factor which made them interesting subjects for study. In the case of Seizure - which involved flooding a flat in a disused public housing complex in South London with copper sulphate solution and allowing it to crystallise - the work was subsequently relocated to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. An Occupation of Loss - which involved simultaneous performances by professional mourners from all over the world - had previously been presented at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, and the lack of a similar venue in London posed challenges for Artangel’s production expertise.

I situated Artangel’s practice within theoretical frameworks for non-gallery art based primarily on the role of the site [1], the role of the audience as a participant [2] with these two aspects working together [3]. I then used interviews with key people involved in the projects (the co-directors of Artangel, the artist of Seizure, the Artangel project managers and key staff, an independent commissioner of public art) to trace their development, delivery and influence. These accounts were triangulated with critical reaction to the works, both in academic literature and the media.


In both projects, Artangel’s practice served to realise the artists’ aims through their experience in combining an artist’s idea and an appropriate site. Seizure brought together an unearthly crystalline room with a stereotypically run-down urban location in South London to raise questions about how life could be lived in such surroundings. An Occupation of Loss combined a moving performance in an appropriate and striking space with an exposure to the audience of the bureaucratic processes involved in bringing the performers to London.


In neither case was the project realised in the way it was originally envisaged – each was reshaped by the requirements of successful and safe delivery and by the characteristics of the site which was ultimately selected. Throughout, there was continuous interchange between the Artangel project team and the artist, with no suggestion either that Artangel mechanically facilitated the artist’s intentions or that the project was taken out of the artist’s hands and realised independently by the production team. Artangel had a high level of control over documentation and strong influence over media coverage. Seizure, in particular, attracted a wide public audience and both critical and academic attention. The impact of An Occupation of Loss was more limited due to its short run and the capacity of the venue, but nevertheless the 4,000 tickets sold out quickly and it received considerable press coverage.


Although these were seen as successful projects, both raise questions about Artangel’s future practice.


First, the relocation of Seizure to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park raises issues concerning Artangel’s practice of developing work which is primarily temporary, preserved through various forms of documentation and lying outside the traditional world of gallery and art market. The way the status of such objects changes through their relocation also has implications for the way in which audiences and critics engage with them – a decontextualized blue room in a rural sculpture park is not the same thing as a blue room in condemned public housing in South London, even if the title remains the same.


An Occupation of Loss sold out its limited run very quickly, and this raises a second question, relating to Artangel’s ability to broaden and diversify the audience for the projects it presents. Although the project was international in nature and situated in one of the most cosmopolitan boroughs in London, Marina Doritis from Artangel’s production team conceded that:


‘Because Artangel is nomadic and because we don’t have a site…I think that is to our detriment in terms of really connecting to the local audiences and being able to connect with communities’. [4]


This problem is compounded by a third issue – Artangel’s opportunistic use of temporary sites in the city, which are often available because of redevelopment and for limited periods. The use to which a site is put is not a politically or socially neutral act. This is particularly the case in a city such as London, where redevelopment is a powerful economic stimulant and its consequences for existing populations highly contested. Artangel doesn’t undertake work which has been directly commissioned by developers, local authorities or central government, but they still find it difficult to avoid being connected with these agendas where projects are sited in places such bodies are transforming.


The ways of working which have served Artangel so well in the past – opportunism regarding the site; short runs in temporary locations; flexible and independent finance provided by supporters in return for privileged access – could also be the factors which will prevent them from developing their approach in the future. Continuing to pursue this approach in London, particularly in the period following the COVID-19 pandemic, will be increasingly influenced by wider economic and social developments. This will present challenges for the organisation and will be worthy of continued academic attention.

[1] Malcolm Miles, Art, Space and the City: Public Art and Urban Futures (London, 1997)

Nick Kaye. Site-Specific Art: Performance, Place and Documentation (London, 2000)

Fiona Wilkie, Mapping the Terrain: A Survey of Site-Specific Performance in Britain (Cambridge, New Theatre Quarterly, Vol.18, No.2)

[2] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (Dijon, 2002)

Claire Bishop, Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship (London, 2012)

Claire Bishop, Installation Art: A Critical History (London, 2005)

[3] Jane Rendell, Art and Architecture: A Place Between (London, 2006)

[4] Telephone interview with Marina Doritis, 31/07/2020.






Copyright of image: © Bronte Allan

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