Pushing the Envelope

The Packet Agency

For as long as there has existed a concept of the ‘white cube’ art gallery as a neutral zone for contemplation, there has been a proportionate struggle to re-activate it. The question of how art might transcend this neutrality which was generated for it is rife with stumbling blocks. The crucial aspect of ‘The Packet Agency’s’ extension of this struggle lay in its relaxed approach, its understanding of the gallery not as a site to be rejected and reconfigured so much as activated.

Rather than an exhibition with a beginning and an end, ‘The Packet Agency’ was more of a convergence over distances, something akin to an avian migration pattern. In each instance of the project, twenty artists from different parts of the world were asked to produce an artwork which would fit into a modest envelope, and send it to the gallery by a specified date. At the opening, the envelopes were placed on a table in the centre of the room and those in attendance were asked to open them and install the work.

Each artwork, once conceived of, made and packaged, followed a geographical trajectory via truck, ship, plane, foot; a series of curves, lines, acute and obtuse angles, brakings and accelerations. Once in the space, the works followed a different sort of path, of decision and actualisation, culminating in arrangement, placement, contemplation and discussion by those who installed them and those who came later. With works coming from Japan, the United States, England, Kenya, Germany, Italy, Australia and Canada, the ideas, though diverse, were all conceived with a knowledge that they would travel around the globe to be arranged and presented by strangers in a largely unknown context. The nature of this bringing together generated a nebulous collective, which though trans-national, was not angling for the dominance or prowess of a globalist approach.

The processes which led to the arrival of the work could be seen as an elaborate leadup to the establishment of a ‘convivial zone’1 in the gallery, but the weight of content and form, coupled with the humble candidness of the atmosphere, extended and tangled this relational notion into something which seemed, dare I say, more open. This project allowed the attendees to take on a role which was neither artist nor viewer, sidestepping the often problematic premise that extending the artist’s role necessarily provides new levels of engagement for the viewer, henceforth reconfiguring the social dynamic of the gallery. In turn, ‘The Packet Agency’ avoided co-option into the microtopic framework which serves the dubious double role as both a basis for Nicholas Bourriaud’s conception of relational aesthetics and for contemporary models of economic dominance, insofar as it attempts to dissolve distinctions between public and private space and fall into step with the idea that this conflation is a form of progression. ‘The Packet Agency’ used rather than co-opted the sites in which it took place, investing them with productivity whilst divesting them of the install-present-remove archetype.

‘The Packet Agency’ instigated a mode of working to which instruction was implicit. The artists’ dependency on others to realise the work translated into an open-endedness, not necessarily an ambiguity so much as a conceptual hitching-point, a site for contribution and growth. On the way to their destinations, some works collected evidence of their movements through rigorous customs and quarantine processes. Robert Niven’s work—an octopus made from drinking straws and a wasps’ nest, that was to sit on a pallet made from paint stirrers whilst dripping ink from its tentacles—was damaged during transit. The envelope and all its contents were covered in black ink, and were accompanied by documents detailing a substantial quarantine examination (whether this occurred before or after the breakage is unknown). As a result, the display of Niven’s work was altered from its original conception to incorporate a sodden record of its own demise. I heard tell that another work which was sent to Melbourne from Iran, and contained some sort of white powder, never turned up.

The necessity of assembly and modularity implicit to this exhibition was echoed by a compulsion within individual works to ‘piece together’. Brian Lye sent a large drawing of a donkey executed on sheets of coarse writing paper, accompanied by a friendly letter. Another work included a small sewing kit, which Annie used to re-attach a button to Kain’s jacket during the TCB opening. A book of lushly printed, spacey collages populated with oceanic creatures was accompanied by a note saying ‘please look after this—it’s my only copy’. White tyvek painters’ suits hung on the wall donning fluorescent badges. They bore universal social sentiments like ‘I love you’ and ‘I love Fridays’, and were given out during the opening at TCB.

There is a certain strength which emerges when a set of unknowns is established as a condition for a group project. Complexities present themselves which could not have been conceived of consciously. When Radford and Birch instigated ‘The Packet Agency’, they incorporated a healthy share of unknowns into the project’s structure. Its curatorial premise, loose and generous with possibility, brought together works which were diverse in material and content—and which, with the decisions and influences leading to their coexistence in one space, encompassed an impression of things greater than the sum of its parts.

‘The Packet Agency’ captured, quite naturally, the complexities we are faced with when considering an idea of the individual within a community; perceptions coagulating on so many levels, contradicting and supplementing one another. Disparate grades of emotional sentiment, language and concept intersected: one work might be placed alongside another for reasons of formal complement, though conceptually they sit at diagonals, or on different planes altogether. A large, flimsy paper banner high on the wall exhorted that ‘Everybody Dance’ (complemented by a small, broken CD player banging out pop music). Below it hovered a quiet but densely informative display about the vernacular and policies surrounding the logging industry in British Columbia. Refreshingly, there was never a blanket pretence of conceptual unity drawn over the show.

Many people at the Melbourne opening had never previously been to TCB, and turned out to be friends of people who had sent work. In this way ‘The Packet Agency’ became the facilitator of a one-off convergence, the physical objects and their environmental influences as its analogue carrier. It was an unusually gentle deployment of localisation via globalisation, a pathway which is usually trodden by more aggressive cohorts in a presently paranoid and hostile global climate. It is a nice proposition for a role artist-run spaces can perform, existing as little pockets of ideologically open ground in a global context, freer than the clumpy European ideal of institutions as disinterested containers (which seems to take no account of the forces of bureaucratic agenda).

‘The Packet Agency’ invested its sites with the feeling of workshops, productive spaces, rather than display-rooms.

notes: 

1. Beshty, Walead, ‘Neo Avant-Garde and Service Industry: Notes on the Brave New World of Relational Aesthetics’, Texte Zur Kunst no.59, September, 2005.