Rory Macbeth and Kafka

Originally composed July 2009, edited May 2010

Review by Louise Marchal 2010

Recent Appointments: Rory Macbeth
Leeds Metropolitan University, 6 – 26th June 2009

Visiting the Recent Appointments show at Leeds Metropolitan University last year I made a wrong turn and inadvertently stumbled into an office where they were marking degree shows. Anyone who has been to art school will know the seriousness of my faux pas; NO ENTRY MARKING IN PROGRESS had a disproportionate effect upon my nerves. For a second I was fooled before guessing that the prohibitive sign was a device, the negative is a challenging address for Rory Macbeth’s assessment room aka

“Rory Macbeth’s translation of a Kafka novel from German into English without a dictionary or any knowledge of German”.

This is definitely not as billed. Or is it? I think it is more.

Having once recovered my usual heartbeat and colour I ventured to trespass further into what felt like enemy territory or at least a kind of no man’s land where you might be shelled from any direction. The room was so completely normal that I forgive myself my foolish disorientation: typical furniture, ring binders, wastepaper basket, it was a perfect representation of an art school office. (Is it usually an office? I’m unfamiliar with the geography of Leeds Met.). In the middle of the room on the tables were two large ring binders each filled to a height of about 8cm with A4 sheets of typed guidelines and marking criteria for the purpose of assessment. The spectator was casually invited to peruse these edifices of evaluation, to mark the installation within these criteria on the supplied assessment sheets, and pin these on the large notice board.

Reading the criteria was like trying to digest prefabricated concrete, yet the notice board was already strewn with comments. Some were thoughtful and quite serious; others I suspect were from Macbeth’s students. None, I imagine had fully read the criteria.

I picked up a pen but I could not write. Even though I could sense some deep and reflective brilliance in the whole thing, I could not begin to write a why or wherefore on the spot. I imagine that the installation evades some or all of the standards figured in the marking criteria. Quality frequently eludes measure, and Art often transcends prescriptive theories. Those who have struggled to reconcile themselves with bland exhibitions or events that apparently meet all the funding criteria, or have noticed the killing effect that an Arts Council application form has on the inspiration will recognize this problem. To meet the criteria and tick the boxes can become the overriding purpose. With such disheartening bureaucracy we nod to Kafka.

Theories surrounding Relational Aesthetics and Institutional Critique are tantalisingly close to jumping into these paragraphs. In 1970 Hans Haacke made the MOMA poll which was a critique upon the political circumstances surrounding MOMA at the time. Consider the participatory address utilised by Tino Sehgal whose famed security guards at the 2005 Venice Biennale cajoled visitors to join in the song and dance that was “This is so Contemporary, contemporary, contemporary” and at the Guggenheim 50th Anniversary celebrations where,

“a visitor is no longer only a passive spectator, but one who bears a responsibility to shape and even to contribute to the actual realization of the piece. The work may ask visitors what they think, but, more importantly, it underscores an individual’s own agency in the museum environment.”

The assessment room retains the notion of audience (as in Haacke’s piece) as Discerning Tax Payer, even though they are temporarily posited as Art School Staff. That audience feed back has become such an integral part of governance within arts funding would make Assessment Room a tragic piece were it not for the tremendous air of humour, mischief and ridicule that prevails. The art is gone. The artist is gone. The absence of any physical artistic quality is taken over by the overbearing presence of enforced democratic equality in an arena associated with speciality, and this raises some very uncomfortable questions.

The assessment criteria and the feedback sheets contain the only images within the piece: words, syntax, signifiers that here paint a portrait of the art school institution and how we are being trained by various institutions to think (or not to think). The most dominant comment is: “Rory is cocky during class discussion”.

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